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An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

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Integral Theory

A. Shiva


Out of curiosity, I recently reviewed philosopher Ken Wilber's integral theory. At first, I was seduced by his sleek assimilation of spiritual history into a holistic theory with a mission to propel human spiritual evolution. His intentions seemed right, but when I played it against common sense, the eventual outcome came out all wrong.

Here are my humble thoughts. I'm not a writer or guru by any means, just a concerned fellow spiritual traveler, so please consider these ideas raw and feel free to critique constructively.

I'm innately skeptical of any system that labels, divides, categorizes, or intellectualizes spirituality, especially those from often self-serving academics and philosophers. To categorize and assimilate knowledge is part of humanity, but not part of universal spirituality. Although Wilber's observations and classifications on the limitations of self, science, religion, culture, and modernity are obvious and true, that doesn't make his model anything more than another human perspective on an infinite and ungraspable reality. His theory is paradoxically doomed to fail as a victim of its own device.

The benefit of Wilber's system is that is may be the “map” to get people to see the fallacies of their own mind and belief systems. The greater danger is that it may become a mind-trap in itself, were the followers form a group-mentality and defend the philosophy at all costs without ever escaping it's own constructs. I couldn't help to feel the irony when Wilber talked about the limitations of people viewing the world from their personal and social tiers, when he himself is filtering the world through his own wordy and cold mash-up of theories and beliefs, no matter how far his realizations seem to span.

Spirituality is an internal, personal quest. Yes, it can be skewed through culture, religion, society, but it's up to the individual to see the limitations of those systems, any system, and reject them for the sake of truth. Any attempt to rationalize it is merely a trick of the ego that spiritual teachers warn us about, and we should treat it with care.

I personally don't want to live in a world where everyone is forced into the same view of reality, be it fascism, fundamentalism, communism, capitalism, or new age philosophy. Culture is good, diversity is good, and it's all a natural part of human evolution and social Darwinism. Yes, most of human suffering comes from ignorance, greed, religious distortion, and ethnocentric views. But the fallacy of a system like Wilber's is it's bound by same rules as those man-made systems, ultimately it will not be able to bear the flux of human spiritual evolution. One can already sense the militancy and polarizing terminology in many of Wilber's words and followers. Wilber's dividing stereotypes about world societies, religions, and mysticism seems to be very “first tier” (using his own words). Who are we to judge how advanced spiritually any human is, just because s/he lives under a classifiable system?

In the scope of natural history, human spirituality has developed quickly, yet we still have a far way to go. Like any true transformation, it can not be done by force. It seems to me all the great religions started as a mash-up of the greatest humanistic ideals at the time, with a vision to catalyst humans beyond their worse tendencies. But look how religion has played out. How are Wilber's ideas immune from the same fate?

Human spiritual evolution is liquid, organic, and yielding, like a big river. The stream of human development flows naturally, and is ultimately uncontainable. Ken's theory is like a cup, it can be used to get a taste of the water from the river, but it can not hold the sheer force of the whole river. Any religion or system is merely a cup to hold the morals of the time, to make our spiritual ideals drinkable for the current age. If we dip the cup in the river too long, the cup fills, the water spills out, and any attempt to contain it in the same cup only leads to aggression and useless exertion of energy.

I have a feeling the real Wilber may already understand everything I've talked about, and he may be trying to gain control of his own Frankenstein and simplify his message and reject his constructs for the good of humanity. But it may also be out of control. Too many minds that cling to ideas like his in desperation have caught on, leading to an unexpected and possibly non-virtuous outcome.

Without getting overly wordy my self, all social devices can only be transcended by personal effort, not institutionalization and indoctrination through an all-encompassing theory. Human culture will progress as Wilber sees it, but at a personal one-to-one level over many generations, not by force. Any attempt by a large group to tell other humans how to live is going to be met with opposition. But if we help people reach the conclusions by themselves, one by one, no matter how long it takes, it will lead to lasting freedom.

There are many benefits to ancient cultures that modernized civilizations lack, and vise-versa. Ancient culture and tradition is often encoded with valuable wisdom that one can decipher if understood in the right context. If we teach anything to the next generation to better humanity, it should be the ability to question reality at all levels, which should filter out the noise and distortions of culture and society, and leave behind only the golden nuggets that are needed to propel one's spiritual journey at a personal level.

True visionaries like Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad may have cultural and historical ties, but overall they shine a message of simplicity, compassion, and personal journey, and reject form at all levels, even the form that their own teachings and human body take. Personally in my own journey, every time I think I know something, I learn that there is so much more I don't know. I've had my share of spiritual amnesia, survivalist emotions, and modern materialism, but I always try to remember to stop and question myself and mind's constructs. I've met and read many spiritual viewpoints, many constrained by their own traditions, but the radiant messages underneath it all is that we must not cling to anything that the mind creates if we are to transcend it. It's very simple and beautiful at the same time. The quality spiritual quest seems to have this requirement. With enough sensitivity and questioning, you can sense those who speak the truth, and those who are still grasping to mind formations, even when it's yourself.

So what are we to do then? A seemingly obvious solution to the problem of compassion through institutionalization, like Wilber's Integral Institute, is to redesign it with built in self-destructing safe-guards. To chew the gum for its sweet reward, but discard the form, the ideas, the framework and the theories, before it gets too bitter. But as we have recently seen with American democracy, even the best checks and balances can fail under the weight of under-developed humanity, corruption, and time. Maybe we need to build the foundation of a new humanity upon the destruction of all mind-constructed philosophies. Maybe this was the true teaching of the great spiritual visionaries, one that we to easily forget. Perhaps we shouldn't build any system at all, and just have patience and trust the evolutionary dance of the universe will play out.

Love is personal, it communicates by feeling as all true things do. The same it true with music, poetry, imagery, and most importantly spirituality. Ideas, theories, models, systems, products and institutions, no matter how well-marketed, cannot ultimately get you “there.” Only you can.

P.S. - May my opinions today on this subject self-destruct as well!

Originally posted on Zaadz, 06.21.2006

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