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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Brad ReynoldsBrad Reynolds did graduate work at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) before leaving to study under Ken Wilber for a decade, and published two books reviewing Wilber's work: Embracing Reality: The Integral Vision of Ken Wilber (Tarcher, 2004), Where's Wilber At?: Ken Wilber's Integral Vision in the New Millennium (Paragon House, 2006) and God's Great Tradition of Global Wisdom: Guru Yoga-Satsang in the Integral Age (Bright Alliance, 2021). Visit:


The Spirituality of Tomorrow

Transcending (Yet Including) Religions

Why “Wilber's Way” Might Not Work

Brad Reynolds

Indeed, Wilber seems to suggest his integral philosophy is adequate to the task of gaining Enlightenment, but it is not.

In his new masterpiece, The Religion of Tomorrow (2017, Shambhala Publications), the integral philosopher-psychologist Ken Wilber seems to suggest the only hope for the “Great Traditions” of the world's religions is to follow “Wilber's Way,” as I like to call it. Wilber, of course, calls it the “Integral Approach,” for he intends to help the premodern religions, especially their exoteric or “mythic” side, become more inclusive by including, in his words, “a fair number of [the] modern and premodern facts that I am about to summarize for you.” (6) Hence, he also suggests they need to access their own esoteric or “inner” core teachings more deeply, for that is the true heart of all religions. (3) With that latter sentiment, I couldn't agree more. Indeed, any religion-oriented person would gain a lot by reading Wilber's considerations, since he introduces them in a very detailed and eloquent way to the deeper esoteric meanings of the “higher” states and structures of consciousness, which most traditional religions and practitioners are not aware of.

Granted, this is a noble gesture, for today's religions, many of them crippled by mythic thinking and cultism, are misleading our emerging global humanity from genuine (and esoteric) spirituality, the real purpose of true religion. Thus, most popular religions are an anathema to an authentic spirituality and Divine Awakening, ultimately known as Enlightenment, and so have become a burden in helping us find an effective world peace and cooperative global order. This is why many of us claim to be “spiritual but not religious,” as Wilber notes (and to whom he directs much of his argument). (6) Yet, the evidence of how ill-equipped traditional religions are in the modern world is most clearly shown by the intolerance practiced by many believers to people outside their faith, especially with Western religions. Religious fundamentalism, for one, is a disease inherited from a cultic attachment, rooted in the past, that needs to be dispensed with — or transcended — as soon as possible. This is, in large part, what Wilber's Way hopes to correct … but I'm afraid it's doomed to not be as effective as he wants.

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

Some scholars (and Sages) have noticed, for instance, that traditional paths are basically “difference making,” when in fact there are no differences down deep. True “religion,” or actually, real spirituality finds no differences since it's grounded in the prior unity of the Divine.[1] As Avatar Adi Da Samraj has pointed out, the most mature form of any religious path is one of tolerance and understanding, which naturally leads a person (when sufficiently matured) to see the universals in all religions and spiritual paths.[2] Adi Da's “Seven Stages of Life” Model, which Wilber largely followed when initially formulating his theories on the higher stages in the late 1970s, helps show how all paths, depending on their degree of understanding and Realization, leads us through “stages” (combined with “state-stages” ) to Divine Enlightenment or God-Realization.[3] These “stages” (or basic structures) of consciousness development, along with the various “states” (or “peeks” into higher awareness), is a major theme that Wilber explores in his new book, so there's much to recommend it.

In other words, perhaps a truly integral approach, based on a developmental understanding of the human psyche, would be better off to suggest that the “religion of tomorrow” might best be no religions at all. Perhaps the best approach is to only champion the practices and attitude of a genuine spirituality grounded in higher consciousness, and, ultimately, in God-Realization (or Divine Enlightenment). But Wilber believes his Integral Way will save religions because some practitioners of certain religions have already become more tolerant, and have gained a wider perspective, by adapting his integral approach. Thus he argues our only hope is to incorporate his point of view or Wilber's Way. Nonetheless, since world religions have been around for thousands of years, in many cases, it's foolhardy to think they should evaporate; thus it would be wiser to transform them as platforms for higher meditative growth into the Higher Stages of Life. Yet it should also be made clear that the evolution of consciousness is not dependent on institutional religions, but rather, on spiritual practice and consciousness transformation.

Fortunately, this new volume seems to make Wilber's arguments without the exaggerated hype presented in his two previous books on the subject, i.e., Integral Spirituality (2006) and Integral Meditation (2016), where he claims, for example, his views are “unlike any other yet devised.”[4] In The Religion of Tomorrow (2017) Wilber's tone is more reserved and adequately presented, for I find his recent exaggerated style hard to take seriously (and I'm a long-time student). Yet, there are still many topics about advanced spiritual development that Wilber doesn't seem to touch upon. For example, nowhere have I yet found him review the importance, and necessity (according to all esoteric religious traditions), of training under an accomplished Spiritual Master or genuine Guru and Lama, one who has already evolved into the higher stages (not just states) of consciousness development. Nonetheless, the wealth of information presented in his book is enlightening in nature, since it so adequately explains the higher states of spirituality and Enlightenment, so that any person, religious or not, should benefit deeply.

Nevertheless, unlike Wilber suggests, I sincerely doubt if the religions of the past, all born within a limited historical worldview, are truly capable of leading humanity out of our current malaise, even if they become more modern and postmodern. Perhaps, I suggest, the people of the future need to find and practice spirituality more than they need to rescue their ancestors' religious traditions. Granted, there is much value in the collective inheritance of our Great Wisdom Traditions — more accurately called “The Great Tradition of Humankind” (as Adi Da suggests) — for they do preserve our cultural and historical differences and so should be honored as being part of the tapestry of human diversity. But their ethnocentric limitations, their cultural parochialisms, their tendency to religious provincialism, may be more easily overcome by transcending, or going beyond, their historical rituals and exoteric (and unenlightened) teachings, instead of trying to fix them with some type of integral remedy.

Human beings, in the end, do not need religions per se — as many moralistic atheists and modern scientists prove — for they actually need genuine spirituality or real mysticism and authentic Awakening. This means people need to learn how to transcend the ego-I or their separate self-sense and rediscover their inherent Divine Nature. This is part of the reason, no doubt, for the popularity of many alternatives to the religions of the past; yet, these too often slip into cultism and unenlightened views (usually perpetuated by less-than-enlightened teachers). Therefore, I believe a true Integral Philosophy — a global philosophy wishing to unite the entire human race by integrating the wisdom of the East with the knowledge of the West — should be used to help us more properly distinguish between genuine spirituality and mythic religions, to adequately understand the stages in the evolution of consciousness, to recognize the various levels of mind and spiritual-mystical insight, to learn and appreciate the fundamentals of authentic spiritual (and ego-transcending) disciplines. In other words, to overcome the pre/trans fallacy (or confusing prepersonal and transpersonal domains), instead of simply helping old-time religions becomes a “conveyor belt” to “Growing Up,” which is one of Wilber's main theses. Although, yes, such an approach will certainly be useful, since many people are still attached to their religious upbringing, but it is not ultimately the solution to our worldwide crisis and lack of adequate spiritual understanding.

Granted, the world's religions are to be honored as being a living force in many people's lives, not simply outdated relics from the past. This is because all of these ancient religions were initially founded by a charismatic and spiritually powerful Adept, many of them (but not all) who were Enlightened or had direct insight into the Divine Nature of the world and a human being's consciousness. However, most of these religious traditions have been corrupted over time, to one degree or another, by the institutions created by ordinary human egos surrounding them. This too must be taken into account, and is one of the principal responsibilities of any true integral philosophy dedicated to the “tradition” of Enlightenment (or full human development), which Wilber addresses to some degree. Ultimately, we don't need our old-time religions in order to become spiritual or be awakened to the Truth of Reality and our True Self.

As the Sages have long warned, even brilliant pandits or philosophers do not necessarily know the Way.

Historical religions, in other words, do not have the final say on what is God or Enlightenment — only Enlightened Sages or Awakened Adepts do! Yet, again, I find Wilber fails miserably in addressing this important topic, i.e., cultivating a spiritual relationship with an Adept-Realizer to help guide us on the way to Enlightenment. Indeed, Wilber seems to suggest his integral philosophy is adequate to the task of gaining Enlightenment, but it is not. As the Sages have long warned,[5] even brilliant pandits or philosophers do not necessarily know the Way, even if they appreciate it (like Wilber does); so even though they may support it (as Wilber does), we are still best served by listening to and following the Wisdom Teachings of the Adepts themselves. Such Adept-Realizers, or “Spiritual Masters” and genuine Gurus, don't simply provide a philosophy or “map” of reality, but they show us the way to transcend our ego-I so we may actually know or realize that Reality for ourselves. This is, ultimately, an esoteric process best activated by a Spiritual Baptism, or an energetic transmission and descent of spiritual force into the body-mind, a truth of genuine spirituality that goes beyond any philosophical argument or complex model or map of reality (such as Ken Wilber's AQAL Matrix).

Nor does Wilber emphasize the disciplines necessary for the psycho-physical ascent of kundalini to awaken consciousness to genuine spiritual subtle states; he acts as if subtle visions are as easy to generate as dreaming at night. But the fact is subtle “states” (or experiences of ascended kundalini) are extremely rare (for a person may only have a few, at best, in an entire lifetime). Yet, a relationship with a true Sat-Guru will initiate a person with spiritual force (shakti) beyond any mere philosophy or pointing-out instructions. Unfortunately, I have yet to find in these nearly 800-pages where Wilber adequately addresses these vital matters. It's as if he'd prefer we all “self-guru” ourselves (such as using Wilber's Way); granted, this is a popular notion in these postmodern times, but one inadequate to fulfill real spiritual living and Awakening.

Consequently, I believe, we simply don't need the Integral Approach to save our archaic religions. Perhaps we need newer and more authentic spiritual visions, better and more effective practices and disciplines for Waking us UP to the truth of higher spirituality (and mysticism) and to the Divine Condition of our universe and consciousness. Perhaps we need to also expand our awareness about the true function of real Awakened Masters, outside of the failures of so many modern and false cultic “gurus.” Perhaps new and global Adepts will appear (or have already appeared) in recent (and upcoming) generations who will point us to a better Way than simply trying to fix what's broken. I would suggest, for example, Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Paramahansa Yogananda, Ramana Maharishi, Meher Baba, Krishnamurti, Chögyam Trungpa, and Adi Da Samraj, among others, as being tradition-transcending Awakened Adepts who can serve humankind's spiritual (and thus, religious) needs.

Without a doubt, we must definitely learn to distinguish between true Gurus and self-proclaimed cultic leaders. Integral Philosophy can serve us in this important task too, such as with its distinction in evaluating between “legitimate” (or horizontal translation) and “authentic” (or vertical transformation) processes in the evolution of consciousness. Yet, first, we must learn to speak in adequate appreciation of our leading-edge spiritual Teachers and Gurus, something I find sorely lacking in The Religion of Tomorrow — indeed, without them there will only be the same old cultic religions, even if more “integral,” not methods of true spirituality. In the meantime, the fact remains that most religions and their mythic (or earlier era and structural) tendencies, have been, and continue to be, a major part of humanity's problem and delusion, i.e., addiction to our parochial and inherited religious traditions. For these traditional worldviews end up generating a form of “tribalism” or ethnocentric socio-cultural identity blinding us to the inherent unity of the human race and our prior Divine Condition. Hence, they must be transcended in a genuine spiritual awareness.

Yet, still, Wilber presents a brilliant consideration and philosophical argument headed in that direction, from what I see; so he should be studied seriously (regardless of his few errors) — for The Religion of Tomorrow is a mature articulation of his entire career. Since scholars (and Wilber himself) tend to subdivide his forty-some-year-long career into different “Phases”[6] (beginning with his first book, The Spectrum of Consciousness, published in 1977), this current tome is the definitive statement of Wilber's “Phase-5” or “integral post-metaphysical” period. Therefore, this complex book has much to offer (far beyond what I will mention here); it truly is a groundbreaking work and deserves many of its high accolades. Yet, it may also be built upon a premise that is itself out of date and doomed to distract us from the real task at hand: cultivating a genuine spirituality that transcends the errors (and cultism) of our previous religious traditions! But this can only be done by engaging the evolution of consciousness into the Higher Stages of Life, in cultivating authentic spiritual awareness by practice and discipline, not by just talking about it and classifying everything into a multi-complex model or map. True, we need a good map to escape from prison, as Wilber notes, but perhaps its better not to go to prison in the first place.

One main thesis, therefore, that Wilber gets exactly right from the outset is stating the only approach that will truly rescue us from our egoic dilemma and the constant stream of violence and war populating human history, is his statement: “Above all, it is to preserve the ultimate Truth disclosed in the process of Waking Up that this [integral] effort is dedicated.” (15) I couldn't agree more! However, Wilber tends to think that this knowledge of the ultimate Truth is diminishing in our times, whereas I think it's on a stronger foundation than ever before, reaching millions of people around the world. This is one reason why I would prefer to encourage a “New Religion,” or better, a “New Spirituality” that is global in nature, grounded in the same Divine Condition (or Consciousness) that every single religion, and every single Adept, is actually pointing to and preaching about.

Therefore, I tend to question whether our traditional religions are the best source for gaining (or recovering) this Truth, even if upgraded to an integral perspective with Wilber's Way. I believe, as many like me also believe, that the religions of yesterday (and today) have been huge failures in accomplishing this Awakening process. Thus, it might be best we move on — or evolve on — and use our innate wisdom anchored in the esoteric anatomy of our human body-mind (grounded, ultimately, in the heart), and further illumined by the Wisdom Teachings of Adepts, to guide us out of our current madness. Thus, there's no real need to depend on traditional religions to be a “conveyor belt” to Enlightened Wisdom, though it would be beneficial if they would do so, which, I believe, is Wilber's hope.

At best, today's religions and practitioners, from professional priests to lay congregations, should not resist true Enlightenment and genuine Gurus, which transcend any particular religious system. Obviously, the One Divine is capable of operating within a diversity of forms, so no one Way needs to claim to be the “Only Way” or the only true integral approach. Once Awakened, or God-Realized, then you are aware we are fundamentally Free of any religion or mental system or institutional authority. Fortunately, that's how simple Enlightenment IS, and what it shows us to be True, Good, and Beautiful as our own bright consciousness is always already Free in God, even now, and forever now … so nothing from the past is needed, but only to Awaken today — or any time tomorrow — but Awaken! And then, with further practice, life will unfold in a more benign and loving — and integral — Way. Then the hope for a genuine world peace will be made available to all, whether religious or not, for, as always, we are already Divine and full of love and bright wisdom.


[1] Debt due to Steven Elliot and the author's conversation.

[2] See: Adi Da Samraj, Not Two Is Peace: The Ordinary People's Way of Global Cooperative Order (2009).

[3] See: Growing In God: Seven Stages of Life from Birth to Enlightenment—An integral Interpretation (forthcoming, Paragon House) by Brad Reynolds.

[4] Ken Wilber, Integral Meditation (2016), p. 1.

[5] “The Blessed One [the Buddha] replied saying, 'Mahamati, the error in these erroneous teachings that are generally held by the philosophers lies in this: they do not recognize that the objective world rises from the mind [Consciousness] itself'.” The Lankavatara Sutra (ca. 400 C.E.), Chapter 2 in The Buddhist Bible (1938, 1970) edited by Dwight Goddard with an Introduction by Huston Smith, p. 283

[6] See: Embracing Reality: The Integral Vision of Ken Wilber (2004) by Brad Reynolds; Ken Wilber: Thought As Passion (2003) by Frank Visser.

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