Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

Source: Dashh: A Day In The Integral Life, June 14th, 2007.
Reposted with permission.

The Wilber Effect?

Shawn Heath / Anonymous

I received an Anonymous comment on my last blog post regarding Scott Parker's excellent essay Winning the Integral Game? which is posted on Integral World. This comment struck a cord with me and has me reflecting a lot on my experiences with Ken Wilber and his work. I have more to say soon, especially regarding where I was in my life when I got into Wilber's work. (Oddly enough I can answer "yes" to every question the Anon poster asks regarding when people got into Wilber's work. Very interesting indeed.) More later as I continue to reflect...

Comment from Anon:

Dash [Shawn Heath] wrote:

I was once a giddy fan of Wilber myself and when I took the first Integral theory course I was very excited to be able to actually ask Wilber a question on a conference call. Being drunk with integral, as Matt Dallman puts it, is a very powerful thing.

It is very interesting that so many persons describe their early encounter with Wilberian Integralism as if it were an intoxicant—they use terms like 'giddy' 'drunk' 'fired up'

Scott Parker also mentions something else—the sense of superiority he felt.

Years ago, I read something by a person who wrote that science fiction, at least that from certain authors, can have a mood altering effect.

It's worth asking whether Wilber's material, or at least some of his more famous books have a mood altering effect.

"It's worth asking whether Wilber's material, or at least some of his more famous books have a mood altering effect."

Wilber may not consciously intend to write mood enhancing, intoxicating material, but some books,written by persons with powerful unconscious agendas, may have a fascinating impact, because the authors, pressed by unconscious material, insert all kinds of unconscious derivatives that speak powerfully and subliminally to readers who unknowingly have issues similar to the issues that unconsciously drove the author's act of creation—and drive that author's public career.

A text of this kind is like a waking dream, with conscious and unconscious material that set up a vibe.

The fascination produced by such a text comes because it speaks to something unconscious in us. But a text of this kind can tease us but it cannot wake us up. Once we wake up, the text remains interesting but loses its fascination factor.

The process of science and philosophy requires a state of mind that is alert and interested but not in this state of intoxicated, enthralled fascination.

***One reason why the language of academia is so calm and mannered is to ensure that people stay awake and lucid and AVOID the kind of verbal intoxciation that is incompatible with creating science and philosophy.

I remember getting very interested by General Systems Theory when in graduate school. It gave me a comprehensive understanding of things. But I don't recall feeling that my appreciation for GTS made me superior to those who preferred other frameworks. It was a tool that fit my hand. A carpenter doesn't think he or she is superior because a particular tool works best.

In grad school we discussed the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) in very great detail, and other models of psychological development. But never at any time did the instructors encourage us to get 'fired up' or go into states of partisan loyalty concerning this material.

The instructors were appeciative and interested, but they did not act like 'fans' and never encouraged us to act that way.

I learned that science is a matter of interest, comraderie and good craftsmanship, but never included animosity, fan mentality or the slightist hint of elitism.

A sense of intoxication and a feeling of mastery, a feeling of belonging, shared with others who believe in 'The System', an urge to proslytize, a sense of superiority in relation to those who don't share one's beliefs that The System is salvation:

all this is characteristic of conversion to a mass movement, rather than the emotions felt by scientists or philosophers who are pleased to have found a helpful new set of tools.

Dash [Shawn Heath] and Scott describe the deep discomfort they both felt when they eventually came to question Wilberism and feared the loss of the comfort they'd gained from the Wilberian material.

It might be helpful for those who feel puzzled why they became drawn to, even fascinated by Wilberian material to do the following:

Be a detective and look carefully and curiously at what your life was like and what your state of mind and emotion were in just before and at the time you got fascinated with the Wilber material.

Were you in a painful state of depression or anxiety? Were you isolated, with people who didnt quite share your aspirations? Were you overwhelmed by the complexity of information taught at the university level and desperately seeking mastery?

(I remember that one very painful thing in either the freshman year or first year of graduate school is finding yourself surrounded for the first time by persons as intelligent as yourself and suddenly fearing you may not have what it takes—a painful state of mind, and one where one becomes desperate to regain some kind of stability—ASAP.)

In such a state of mind, where we crave stablity, long for a sense of mastery, Wilberian material, which may, through its author's search for mastery, may contain unconscious derivatives that trigger a sense of mastery in those readers most yearning to feel that way.

IMO, power and mastery, and suppression of vulnerability may be unconscious but very important elements in Wilber's life and that he has unconsciously created writings which evoke feelings of power, mastery and supression of vulnerabilty, makign them appealing to anyone who wishs to feel that way—and that means these will appeal to a lot of people.

There may be an unintegrated strand of youthfulness in Wilber, what Jung termed 'Puer Aeternus' that may also make Ken and his output unconsciously intoxicating to young persons, especially those who are full of fire and who fear that traditional religious and academic communities are forcing them to stifle their fiery, angry energy.

They may be attracted to Ken because he has created a social scene where you get to have your cake and eat it too—feel spiritual and highly developed, yet have permission to blast off and use foul, abusive language and claim that only inferior persons would be offended.

It may be that part of the pain of questioning Wilber's system is losing that sense of verbally induced certainty/mastery, losing that verbally induced feeling of power and instead, returning to a state of emotional vulnerablity that you were in before encountering the Wilber material—and that the mood enhancing nature of the Wiilber material temporarily suppressed that vulnerabilty.

Finally, (personal hunch) there seems to be something about Wilber's public personality and the narrative he has crafted and gives to the public about his own life that may be a part of the fascination.

Hard Core Wilberians have become just as invested in Wilber's version of his life story and in Wilber's personality as they are in his system. In this, he resembles Carlos Castaneda, another person who wrote intoxicating material with elements filched from academic sources then used in an anti-scientific manner.

No other scientific concept or philosophy has required that we get invested in the personality of the scientist or philosopher in question.

Wilber has not been content to create a body of writing. He has also encouraged and created an entire social scene around himself, not just an intellectual system—via the internet.

No scientific theory or philosophy that has academic recognition has ever required that we belong to a social scene.

But that social scene may be part of the appeal—it gives a sense of belonging, and that can be very hard to give up. But one loses kinship to the Wilber tribe as soon as one dares to become adult and autonomous in relation to his system and its social taboos.

IMO, Wilber's actual fascination is not with ideas or spirituality but with power. He may also have some kind of unconscious fascination with power and distaste for human vulnerablity.

For it is very interesting that, despite his avid interest in science, Ken Wilber never made use of the findings of social psychologists such as Stanley Milgram (Obedience to Authority experiment) or Philip Zimbardo (The Stanford Prison Experiment) in his own study of cult leaders.[1]

Wilber only seems interested in science when he can appropriate elements from it to support his fantasy of personal development into an invulnerable super-person, impervious to temptation.

What may make social psychology useless for Wilberian purposes is that findings from social psychology demonstrate that no matter how intelligent we are, we remain vulernable to social influence and can be corrupted by power imbalance. Even Stanford University students regressed into ghastly cruelty and abject submission to cruelty, when isolated (Zimbardo's Prison Experiment)

Wilber seems unable to see the relevance of Zimbardo's findings to his own work, despite having partipated in a seminar with Zimbardo in the 1980s, material from which was published in the book, Spiritual Choices, The Problem of Recognizing Authentic Paths to Inner Transformation, edited by Dick Anthony, Bruce Ecker and Ken Wilber, Paragon House, 1987. (Dr Zimbardo is listed on page 27 in footnote #9 as one of the participants.)

Yet despite his being listed in that one footnote as a seminar participant, Philip Zimbardo's Prison Experiment findings were never discussed in the book—a very puzzling omission, for the purpose of that seminar was to assemble a team of top experts to discuss and find ways to distinguish between helpful tranformative new religious movements and potentially hazardous new religious movements.

It's as if one were to discuss Brothers Karamazov and omit any mention of hating one's father.

By contrast, a conscious and alert scientist not in thrall to an unconscious personal agenda would see the relevance of Zimbardo's findings and discuss them.

My hunch is that Wilber and possibly the other two editors could not face the relevance of Zimbardo's work because the outcome of the Prison Experiment findings demonstrated that even intelligent educated students, were vulnerable to social isolation, power imbalance and human vulnerability.

The Prison Experiment is probably painfully subversive for anyone who cherishes dreams of a grand system and set of spiritual exercises that would supposedly create super-evolved color coded persons who would be impervious to temptation.

Zimbardo's Prison Experiment warns that Ken's hopes of becoming highly evolved, superhuman and invulnerable are a dead end dream.

Zimbardo's Prison Experiment warns that Ken's hopes of becoming highly evolved, superhuman and invulnerable are a dead end dream, and that his grand project of becoming an invulnerable human being is futile—sad news, indeed.

I suspect that because Wilber remains mostly unconscious, his work, though fascinating and cognitively stimulating, may keep his fans unconscious in relation to their own power issues because Wilber remains unconscous about his own power issues. And this may affect why Wilber keeps associating with teachers who reportedly have had difficulty using power responsibly. (eg Andrew Cohen)

IMO, Ken Wilber has loyalists because he has found a way to write about science and philosophy in a way that makes people get high and hopeful and then get addicted to him because he has made them feel good.

True science and philosophy cannot be practiced when one is clinging to hope, inspiration—one can only create true science and philosophy by NOT being in the state of mind that Wilber and his followers prize.


[1] Cf. Geoffrey Falk's discussion of this topic in his ebook Stripping the Gurus, Chapter 28, "Spiritual Choices" (note added by Integral World).

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