Check out my review of Ken Wilber's latest book Finding Radical Wholeness

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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Nicholas MacDonald Nicholas MacDonald is a financial planner and writer on diverse topics who lives in Minneapolis, MN and Shanghai, China.



Reposted from Amazon, May 30, 2018, with permission of the author

The Integral Candle Sputters...

But has not yet gone out

Nicholas MacDonald

Ken Wilber is the most frustrating philosopher I've ever encountered. So much brilliance, and so much baggage.

Ken Wilber is the most frustrating philosopher I've ever encountered. So much brilliance, and so much baggage. The most expansive view of any intellectual in history—yet an increasing failure to engage with the great discussions going on outside an increasingly self-referential circle of “Integralists”. Endlessly self-critical, yet strangely unable to take criticism from outside. Obsessed with rooting out shadow and pathologies, yet blind to his own (and those of the “problematic” teachers that he continues to promote and double down on).

His strengths are so great I can't quit him. But his weaknesses are so clear I can't take his work as uncritically as I may have when I first encountered his work almost two decades ago.

The Religion of Tomorrow is the first sweeping doorstop-sized presentation of Integral Theory Wilber has written since he gave it a name with his still-epochal 1995 work Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution, Second Edition. Unfortunately, while TRoT has some valuable new content in it, it's not another SES, or even a further volume in Wilber's long-delayed Kosmos Trilogy (though the book references his pending second volume in several places), and exhibits both Wilber's strengths and his worst tendencies.

Like SES, TRoT is badly named, and hard to summarize. The book has fairly little to do with anything that can really be considered to be religious in Western terms. Mystical and psychological, certainly. But the main issues that concern religion in the West in the 21st century are largely absent, or reduced to paragraphs or asides. Wilber, in truth, isn't really that interested in the matters which concern most Christian or Jewish clergy, or in meaningfully addressing the western encounter with Islam. Where he does he's at his most glib, mainly reducing these matters as clashes between mythic-literal “amber” and rational “orange” developmental structures. He does nothing to preach to those who aren't already converted, and insisting that “orange”-level skeptics like John Shelby Spong and Sam Harris have an equally authentic and “fuller” approach to their traditions than less critical believers might isn't exactly going to win friends. Further, he even admits that the primary focus of the book is on Buddhism, and not really even targeted at traditionally Buddhist populations, but the scant handful of Buddhist practitioners in the West; a rounding error compared to Christianity and Islam, and one already focused primarily on the psychological and mystical sides of “religion” that Wilber hammers away at. Wilber's vision may ultimately be the Religion of Tomorrow- but he has little to say with regards to the Religion of Today.

Ken Wilber, The Religion of Tomorrow
Hardcover, Shambhala, 2017, 806 pages.

So in that case, what is this book really about? The meat of the book is an extended exploration of Wilber's “Wilber-V” post-metaphysical model of life, the universe and everything, which to date had not been adequately explored following his late-90s flurry of SES-driven Wilber-IV works (which are not made obsolete by Wilber-V, but clarified and expanded). To those who might be relatively new to Wilber, the fundamental difference between Wilber-IV and Wilber-V can be that Wilber-IV did not adequately distinguish between post-rational stages of development and nonordinary states of consciousness; beyond Vision-Logic lied the Psychic, Subtle, Causal and Nondual fulcrums, which could be “peak experienced” as states or developed into as stages. Which always made me wonder if someone at Mythic could “peak experience” Rational or Vision-Logic in the same way. The answer that Wilber-V provides to my query is a firm no. Instead, the upper developmental stages are replaced with stages that have a strong correlate to certain states of consciousness, the latter of which can be experienced and unpacked at almost any stage. Beyond Vision-Logic now lies Vision, Paramind, Overmind and Supermind, which correspond to the state experiences of Gross (which replaces Psychic, a word Wilber, who is moderately skeptical of paranormal claims but open to their existence, probably found unnecessarily provocative), Subtle, Causal and Nondual states of consciousness. This was first explored in Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World as the Wilber-Combs lattice. When first exposed to this model over a decade ago I found myself rather unimpressed, but the elegance of it grew on me, and this exploration is where TRoT really, really excels.

His strengths are so great I can't quit him. But his weaknesses are so clear I can't take his work as uncritically as I may have when I first encountered his work almost two decades ago.

From Chapter 7 onward, the meat of this book is devoted to an exploration of the various spectrum-stages (including the new higher stages), states, and the shadow side and pathologies of them all. Here's the Wilber I know and love, back at the height of his powers, taking us on a grand tour of consciousness. No longer tied to the limitations of Spiral Dynamics, and empowered by the Wilber-Combs lattice, Wilber explores every stage and state one by one, discussing it's phenomenology, pathology, and relationships to other states and stages. Want to know about the shadow phenomena behind eating disorders, alcoholism, borderline personality disorder or depression? It's all here. What are the higher stages of development like? Wilber sketches us what seems a best guess- as he points out, these are all just beginning to emerge and the “upper left hand” experience of them is limited by the lack of “right-hand” physical developmental correlates. Over the last 20 years, Wilber has become more open to the idea that the full unfolding of these higher reaches may await a physical augmentation of our cognitive resources, and has cautiously embraced transhumanism (being far less dismissive than he was of it in his 2002 novel Boomeritis: A Novel That Will Set You Free! ). On the other side, though, he's also become less dismissive of the possibility of post-Enlightenment states, which he dismissed as mere Magic-level holdovers in his 2004 interview series Kosmic Consciousness; while he does not quote the work directly, I wonder if he was influenced by Francis Tiso's exploration of the Rainbow Body phenomenon in Rainbow Body and Resurrection: Spiritual Attainment, the Dissolution of the Material Body, and the Case of Khenpo A Chö. (Given Rev. Dr. Tiso is a direct student of Wilber's friend and endorsed teacher Bro. David Steindl-Rast, this seems likely.) Wilber's journeys into higher consciousness are his passion, and it shows- and this is where Wilber is at his best, and why this book is well worth reading for the moderate or dedicated Wilber fan.

Yet still, Wilber disappoints in many areas. His greatest area of weakness to many of his critics is his continual endorsement of tarnished or outright abusive spiritual teachers without reserve or apology. They're all here—Adi Da, Chogyam Trungpa, Genpo Roshi, Andrew Cohen and Marc Gafni. The first two have the defense of being deceased and being as brilliant as they were pathological, and Genpo's indiscretions were fairly minor, if worthy of defrockment. But there's no legitimate excuse for the psychopathic Cohen and Gafni, and one of my greatest wishes for Wilber is that he would finally come clean and disavow these spiritual con men. There are many fine teachers that Wilber endorses and recommends here—the aforementioned Steindl-Rast, as well as Roger Walsh, B. Alan Wallace, Jun Po Roshi, and Wilber protege Dustin DiPerna, and Wilber's debt to Da and Trungpa is understandable. But there's really no need for him to continue to try to defend the indefensible.

Further, the Kosmopolitan spiritual-intellectual hermit of the 90s has been replaced by a Wilber who is simultaneously more engaged with the world and less engaged. I understand that he's been very ill (even falling into comas on occasion) and looks older than his 69 years, but what's worse is that he's quit engaging with the academic and intellectual mainstream and allowed himself to be enclosed in his “integral bubble”- ironically surrounding himself with yes-men and ignoring all others. One can see this in the degredation of the quality of works he references—rather than referring to categorically defining scholarship as he did in SES and other 90s works, one increasingly finds him referencing integral-friendly works of pop psychology and spirituality, or his own works (or those of people affiliated with Integral Institute). One could argue that he doesn't need to revisit where he's already gone, but really—there's been nothing outside of Integral Institute worth dialoguing with in the last 20 years except Marty Seligman's Positive Psychology? As degraded as our liberal arts and social sciences academia might be, I refuse to believe that nothing worth engaging has come into being outside of the (mostly digital) halls of I-I in the last two decades. And, while Wilber wants to emphasize the progress that Integral and Developmental Studies has made in the past two decades (and spends a fair amount of time on it in the last few chapters of the book), it all feels like self-congratulation regarding marginal victories. In the increasingly vicious debates of our digital town square, developmentalists have quit the field. They are no more accepted in academia than they were in 1995—maybe less so. They're never to be seen in the editorial pages of our major journals of opinion, or the discussions of the comments sections of our most erudite blogs.

Developmentalists and Integralists aren't even in the game.

This is both tragic and disastrous, as integral and developmental studies have a great deal to say to our present predicaments and a great deal of explanatory power, yet are somehow unable to get a word in at any level. And this is the heart of the failure of Wilber's project to date—he has failed to get developmental and integral studies and worldviews a place at the tables of the mainstream, and for all his congratulations regarding high profile devotees, the silence of integral is deafening. In part, this may stem from Wilber's failure to orient Integral Institute and his project in a clear direction in it's early days; as Mark Manson pointed out in his famous blog post regarding Wilber, I-I couldn't seem to decide if it was going to conquer academia or conquer the New Age seminar scene. While it appears that it might have pulled off the latter, it's failed to make a dent in the former (despite the cultivation of a handful of impressive academic allies). This could be for the better—in 2018, the developmental seminar scene might be even more influential on the course of the future than non-STEM academics. But for one who long ago hoped to see Integral become academically respectable and even dominant, it's disappointing- and it's absence is preventing a fragmented academia from reasserting it's relevance in a world where it is increasingly being reduced to narrow career training or overpriced Glass Bead games.

So, after all this... should you read it? If you care about the integral model and integral psychology and spirituality, absolutely. Wilber delivers half a meaty tome here, with the middle sections of the book being comparable to his late 90's work in quality and scope. It's not really for the Wilber beginner, though. (For the absolute beginner, I recommend The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion; if you already have a pretty thorough academic grounding, jump straight into Sex, Ecology, Spirituality—you can skip A Brief History of Everything (20th Anniversary Edition) , which I always found an incoherent edit of SES which didn't do justice to his theory.) It definitely clarifies and expands upon his model in a way that I'd been waiting years to see, and is worthwhile for that alone.

Wilber is one of the most important thinkers of our time, and sadly appears to be dying as well, his Kosmos trilogy not yet complete. I hope that he can complete his work before he leaves us, and can find the spirit that ignited his amazing 90s work once again. It's still there in this book, buried under all the circular and unnecessary verbiage. But it's a flickering candle compared to the bonfire that his mind was twenty years ago.




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