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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Scott F. Parker is a writer and editor whose books include Coffee - Philosophy for Everyone: Grounds for Debate and Running After Prefontaine: A Memoir. He has contributed chapters to Ultimate Lost and Philosophy, Football and Philosophy, Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy, Golf and Philosophy, and iPod and Philosophy. He is a regular contributor to Rain Taxi Review of Books. His writing has also appeared in Philosophy Now, Sport Literate, Fiction Writers Review, Epiphany, The Ink-Filled Page, and Oregon Humanities. In 2010 he published the print edition of Jeff Meyerhoff's Bald Ambition: A Critique of Ken Wilber's Theory of Everything. For more information, visit https://www.scottfparker.com.
ON BURNING A NOTEBOOK
Scott F. Parker
The question I'm asking myself now is why I felt the need to circle back to keep winning (in my mind at least) the same fight year after year.
If I had read Joan Didion before twenty-six I might have taken her advice to keep on nodding terms with the person I used to be. Indeed, for years it had been my unconscious yet devout practice to do precisely that. Beginning in adolescence with my travels no matter how modest, then also during periods of personal upheaval, and eventually throughout even my most mundane days, I kept a notebook. No one who knows me would disagree that from my earliest years I have belonged to that breed of private notebook keepers Didion describes as “lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.”
I simultaneously knew and did not know that I was writing in a desperate attempt to hold myself together, convinced as I was, consciously and not, that I was falling apart. And so I wrote: what happened to me, what I read, what I thought, what I saw, and what I felt. “How it felt to me,” Didion writes, “that is getting closer to the truth about a notebook. . . . Remember what it was to be: that is always the point.”
And how the notebooks stacked up, each one a reminder to myself that I had existed, each one a liferaft I had thrown to myself. Until all of a sudden I felt—I felt—finally as if I no longer needed to struggle to stay afloat. The urge to remind myself who I was, that I was, lessened. But that only tells you why I stopped keeping a notebook; it doesn't tell you why I burned the ones I had kept. To explain that I need to bring up Ken Wilber.
I had been introduced to Wilber's writing a decade before when my father gave me a copy of A Brief History of Everything containing a nice inscription about the call of philosophy. I knew already that Wilber held a privileged place in my father's pantheon of thinkers, and since I ached for my father's love I soon recognized the same genius in Wilber that he did.
Then—it took several years, but eventually it happened—I developed some reservations about Wilber's project. When I did, the pedestal I had put him on crumbled quickly. In a matter of a year or two I went from being something like a disciple of Wilber's to something more like an apostate among his followers. It was that turn as much as anything that led me to the fireplace with my stack of notebooks, notebooks that told the story of how I became a person I no longer was. I wanted now a complete disjunction between who I had been and who I might become. The raft of notebooks had taken me across the river. Now there was no need for them. What was more, I could travel more efficiently without them. A lot of my past went up in flames that night.
This should be the end of a simple story. But it goes on. For the next twelve years (this record is public and not susceptible to any firestarter in me) I published a series of articles and experimental essays about Wilber, some of which are resoundingly critical. The question I'm asking myself now is why I felt the need to circle back to keep winning (in my mind at least) the same fight year after year. Why not just move on?
In the final chapter of his book Bald Ambition, Jeff Meyerhoff employs psychobiography to make sense of various idiosyncrasies in Wilber's project. One of these is Wilber's repetitiveness, which Meyerhoff speculates may be due to “an unacknowledged doubt that his argument is conclusive." Could my example be as simple, as transparent, as Wilber's? Thou doth criticize too much? And, if so, what does it mean that I am having a hard time now summoning any of the antipathy I once held for Wilber?
I have not abandoned the criticisms I have either developed or been persuaded of by Meyerhoff and others. Yet, despite what I consider its shortcomings, I am largely sympathetic once again to Wilber's project. What's more, I am deeply sympathetic to the author of that project. So, what, again, is going on here? And, what, if I still had them, would those early notebooks tell me?
In their absence, I can attempt this psychoautobiography only speculatively. I cannot promise, therefore, that what follows is historically accurate, but I can say that it feels true and that feeling true is the only epistemology I have to go on.
What did Wilber offer me, then? Exactly what I sought. I belonged to history, to evolution, to the Kosmos.
When I reflect on the psychic difficulties of my life, what stands out is an abiding fear that there is no place for me in the world, that I do not belong, that I am undeserving of love and acceptance. What did Wilber offer me, then? Exactly what I sought. I belonged to history, to evolution, to the Kosmos. My place was simultaneously one of mystical union with all that is and easily locatable at a respectably high level on a chart. Wilber told me who and what and where and why I was. And it sounded good, too good not to be true. He was giving me the world, which would have been enough, but at the same time he was also giving me my father.
Internalizing Wilber's worldview put me into closer relationship with my father than I ever had been before. We shared between us the secrets of the universe. And for the first time I was—I felt—loved and accepted. This relief was metaphysical, but even more profoundly it was psychological. I finally belonged. I was at home in Wilber's worldview, more at home than I ever had been before. And to be given a worldview I never thought I would find—one in which my place mattered—only to give it up when the cracks started to show: it should have been too much to bear.
And yet. I did it swiftly without any appreciable sense of loss. I cut myself off from Wilber and to a significant degree from my father as well. I had no choice and no reason to hesitate. That much was clear to me, so clear that I didn't even need to explain it to myself; I needed only to do it. And I did. I placed the notebooks in the fireplace and lit the match.
It is only now with the benefit of hindsight that I can ask how I knew what was required of me. And I think I do know. In my years under Wilber's influence I had unintentionally discovered something more valuable to me than a worldview: namely, a practice. Unlike a worldview, a practice is dynamic. It gave me a way of being in the world. My place was simply wherever I happened to carry out my practice. I had been relying on Wilber as a reason to keep still, but what I needed was to keep moving. The place his work offered me, for a long time it fit me well, but I outgrew it, and the only home I could finally live in was the one I built for myself. Built and kept building.
When I burned those notebooks nothing was lost. The notebooks weren't the ink on the paper. The notebooks were the hours of writing. They presented me with a way of engaging the world that granted me access not only to the world but also to myself. A notebook, like an essay, is an opportunity to raise questions, think things true, try out new ideas and new styles in the hope of finding some that fit, It is a recursive process of creating and discovering the self. Even now I write about my past only as a means of trying to understand it. If I had this all figured out I wouldn't ask you to read it, nor would I bother to write it. Once upon a time, I composed a new self. And the process continues.
But the particular questions remain for me to write my way through. Why my renewed affection for Wilber? Why, simultaneously, a newfound sense of ease around my father? At his least dogmatic, Wilber is an essayist in the tradition I am outlining here. His system has evolved through phase after phase after phase. It may not always change to my satisfaction, but why should it? Seen this way, Wilber is doing precisely what I am recommending: responding, adapting, practicing. So is my father. His writing and thinking are largely private, but I will attest to his commitment to perpetually refine his views and to keep up an enduring contemplative practice.
For a long time I felt the need to attack the weaknesses in these men's work. Now I find myself content to acknowledge my differences with them while also admiring their virtues: their curiosity, their open-mindedness, their independence, their ambition, their generosity, their optimism.
I'm not the same person I was at twenty-three, but neither anymore am I his antithesis. What I was and what I later attempted to negate, both of these are in me. I have nothing to gain by venerating Wilber and my father. Neither have I anything to gain by disparaging them. I have plenty to gain still, but I will gain it the way I always have: by keeping a notebook and being ready to burn it. What matters is keeping a notebook, not reading one.