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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
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A Reply to “The Projective Arc”
I advocate dispensing with the focus on knowing Ultimate Reality and focusing instead upon what's more important...
Christopher Lane and Andrea Diem-Lane's short piece, “The Projective Arc,” raises some tricky issues that are obscured by their seemingly reasonable guidance. They contend that it is bad when spiritual aspirants “tether,” i.e. limit or hinder, their spiritual experiences according to the dictates of the teacher or practice or philosophy that they are following. They advocate greater spiritual openness and a pioneering spirit that stays true to the character of aspirants' experiences whether the experiences conform to the dictates of their present teacher or philosophy, or not.
This reasonable-sounding advice presents an interesting contradiction. On the one hand, who but a dogmatist would disagree with being open to new experiences, allowing them to alter one's preconceptions, having one's experiences shape one's beliefs rather than one's beliefs shape one's experiences? But, on the other hand, their eminently reasonable recommendations beg the important questions and dilemmas that we face when we explore experience mystically.
When am I resisting my teacher's superior wisdom or embracing what I know to be the truth? Is my spiritual group a cult or a vanguard, cutting-edge community? Are the ancient texts correct or am I having an authentic mystical experience that contradicts them? Am I knowing God or is that another facet of maya because in my Buddhist practice there is no God? In the language of Lane and Diem-Lane: When am I negatively tethered to my teacher, text or practice and when am I becoming dangerously untethered? Powerful spiritual experiences are just the kinds of experiences that bring us to the edges of reality where it is difficult to know what's what.
As Lane and Diem-Lane would agree, knowledge arises within contexts of meaning that are socially and historically embedded. We don't just adopt any sort of view; this would be the intellectual isolation of the psychotic. The views of those of us who still converse and exchange with our fellows form more or less coherent wholes that overlap in myriad ways with our intellectual and spiritual cohort. Within that context of shared meaning we have disagreements that sometimes require a lot of time and effort to work out. It is these differences that pose the difficult dilemmas.
Georg Feuerstein's book Holy Madness has many examples of the teachings or abuse of “crazy wisdom” teachers such as Da Free John, Gurdjieff and Trungpa Rinpoche. Are the people following these teachers devoted disciples or fools? Is Andrew Cohen a saint, sinner, crazy wisdom teacher, charlatan or some combination?
Lane and Diem-Lane presuppose the idea of an unmediated knowing or experiencing of “reality,” and that we can test our preconceived notions against this ultimate standard. But is there an unmediated knowing? If the Tao, Nirvana, God, Atman are ineffable then we never know if we are knowing them except in our personal certainty. We can't have an experience that feels like “It” without our verbal contexts that allow us to have a meaningful world at all.
When are we tethered and when are we provided with a useful context for the new experience? Who decides?
These are the same mystical/linguistic issues raised in the late 70s by philosophers of mysticism and best known through the collection edited by Steven Katz, Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis. Katz et al.'s view is that there is no mystical experience without that linguistic tethering. Lane and Diem-Lane probably agree (they refer to our “biographical or cultural flavoring”), but this view poses a problem for the taken-for-granted distinction between reality as it is vs. reality as we see it that they need for their argument. When are we tethered and when are we provided with a useful context for the new experience? Who decides? If we are practicing a Buddhist vipassana path and using the stages as described in the Visuddhimagga are we using a useful guide to our unfolding practice or are we being hindered by a tethering that colors our new experiences? A yogi went to a Buddhist teacher and said they had an experience of God. The Buddhist teacher advised the yogi to examine the experience as they would any other and see if it arises and passes away. “No,” the yogi thinks that this was an authentic experience of God and was meaningful in itself and wants to pursue this path to God. Certainly the yogi is free to pursue their path, but it is an illusion according to the Buddhist path and a coming to the most profound of realizations according to a theistic path.
Advocating trueness to one's own experience presupposes a Western, Protestant, liberal, individualism that feels like the height of sensibleness to us, but may seem like the wrong path for more community-oriented, ego-surrendering, traditional philosophies and practices. If we maintain the problematic notion that there is a True Way - a One Reality that we all are seeking - then our Reality can always be judged by another as mere appearance. Each person's new mystical discovery can be regarded by another, or by our future self, as a sad straying from the path.
I advocate dispensing with the focus on knowing Ultimate Reality and focusing instead upon what's more important: Does my mystical or other practice cause me to relieve more suffering for myself and others? Am I becoming a better person? Our focus on mystical knowing should be beholden to whether we are practicing right action. Ethics trumps epistemology. A mystical pragmatism.