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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Julian Walker is a writer, yoga and meditation teacher in Los Angeles. He is interested in a model of spirituality that moves beyond magical thinking and mythic literalism to include existential honesty, psychology inquiry and congruency with science. Julian's work is featured in the book 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics & Practice. A long-time student of Ken Wilber's work, he was featured on Integralnaked.com critiquing pop spirituality phenomenon "The Secret" from an integral perspective. He has also written extensively online about the problems with the guru/disciple model. He is the author of the ebook Devil In the Details: 3 Keys To Thinking More Clearly About Spirituality. His website is: http://julianwalkeryoga.com/
Red Pill 2
"Awakening" in the Time of Covid-19
War is peace,
The secret of theory is that truth does not exist.
One can no more attain enlightenment, than one can attain their own feet.
The Slippery Sovereign
Here's the thing though: Reality exists, Truth matters. The stakes are high.
It is hard to find a more perfect example of what has gone so terribly wrong in the passionate collision between postmodern relativism and new age metaphysics as a way to interact with the real world than the two widely circulated and acclaimed articles about Covid-19, The Coronation and The Conspiracy Myth, by Charles Eisenstein.
In beautifully hypnotic prose, the author instructs the reader on a noble spiritual open-ness to inhabiting all perspectives, realizing that nothing can actually be known, and seeing conspiracy theories as a kind of non-literal mythology which we can reflect on in a perhaps meditative satsang, or sacred gathering.
This strikes a chord with many people who understandably decry an us vs them mentality and feel that surely the reasonable middle ground must lie somewhere in-between any two points of view being vociferously contested.
But beyond mere middle ground, surely a transcendent and unifying truth must hover radiantly just beyond the horizon, revealing to our visionary scribe the higher purpose of this crisis as a pre-destined transformative opportunity.
Eisenstein is the chosen one for that task. After a little pseudoscience flourish about how viruses might (I kid you not) carry “esoteric evolutionary codes” to download into our DNA, he writes:
What is the specific nature and purpose of this initiation? The popular name for the pandemic offers a clue: coronavirus. A corona is a crown. “Novel coronavirus pandemic” means “a new coronation for all.”
Later, I will return to share more from this extraordinary flight of privileged fancy in which our supposed awakening into becoming truly sovereign selves requires rising above fear of the pandemic.
But let’s put fetishized notions of being crowned as spiritual royalty aside.
In the meantime back on planet Earth, the Covid-19 US death-toll has passed 100K.
Armed far-right protestors make a stand against the supposed oppression of quarantine in government buildings and call for the hanging of governors and mayors trying to protect their citizens.
Conspiracy-inspired vandals try to destroy 5G towers and circulate the exact misinformation about evil Bill Gates’ vaccines that Eisenstein (via convenient links in his text) and his colleagues encourage us to reflect mindfully on as carrying illuminating mythic meaning.
Meanwhile as I write this the streets of our country are on fire. Their radiant heat illuminates something else: a collective rage at police brutality in black communities (already harder hit by the pandemic) of the kind that killed George Floyd in Minneapolis, in the wake of racist citizen’s chase-and-execution of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia .
Damning optics of unequal police response to armed mostly-white far-right protestors invading state buildings like the militia they prize, and unarmed mostly-black protestors on urban streets are also on display for the world to see.
Amy Cooper’s almost too on-the-nose not to be staged calling of the police as the white woman being supposedly threatened by a black man in central park as retribution for his asking her to leash her dog, serves up the cultural counterpoint—it all but screams: This is what White privilege looks like!!
Coronation? Not so much.
I am Not The Messiah
It is no secret that the second and third Matrix films were nowhere near as beloved as the first. The brilliant, edge-of-your-seat big reveal of the original movie, along with the freshly minted breath-taking camera tricks that enabled gravity-defying, bullet-dodging, reality-bending magic had already shimmered across our collective virgin-no-more psyches.
A tough act to follow.
But I think there is a deeper reason too. The original Matrix aims right for our mythological sweet spot: A battle between good vs evil, into which a Chosen One fighting on the side of light will arise to save humanity from a dark and soul-less enemy.
Neo’s awakening animates philosophical thought experiments that begin with Rene Descartes’ skepticism. In the 17th century this philosopher, famous for the dictum “cogito, ergo sum” or “I think, therefore I am”—his way of saying that the only thing he could really know for sure is that he exists, because he is aware of his own thoughts as he meditates on the question of knowledge.
Descartes asks himself how it was possible to know for sure he wasn’t being fooled by an evil demon into thinking the world around him was real.
This would later evolve into the brain in a vat problem, in which philosophers ask:
If I were a disembodied brain in a vat with wired-up computer-generated sensory stimuli convincing me I was in a body, having an experience of the outside world, how would I ever know the difference?
This nightmare is very similar to what Neo discovers is true in the first film—which was a clue for us that the Wachowski's, who wrote and directed the franchise, have a deep familiarity with philosophy.
In the sequel, The Matrix Reloaded, it is however precisely a subversive turn into a deeper layer of skepticism that disappointed many viewers.
Early on, the always smiling and smoking Oracle affirms Neo’s hunch that (spoiler alert!) he is in fact not really The One.
As the familiar mythic structure which cast Morpheus as the prophetic baptizer and Neo as the savior figure gets dissolved, the movie alternates between stunning action sequences and a series of sit-down philosophical dialogs.
Characters discuss destiny vs free will, determinism vs choice, freedom vs control and whether or not even the act of rebelling against the matrix is itself an endlessly repeating narrative already programmed inescapably into it’s iconic flickering green code.
In the climactic reveal, a dizzying display of TV monitors show his multiple previous incarnations as it is explained to Neo via the clipped and condescending tones of The Architect that his quest, his awakening, his story, even his identity, is but the latest version of a scripted simulation already played out multiple times within the matrix.
Instead of spoon-feeding us, these scenes invite the audience into a difficult questioning of religious structures, and expose the perhaps immature fantasy of a uniquely awakened savior hero chosen to overthrow the evil empire.
We generally don’t like that too much, and our cheering for Neo’s sexy spiritual combat tricks in the first film dies down into troubling existential uncertainty as the sequel unfolds.
Perhaps the Wachowski’s dropped the ball and disappointed us, but I think something else is true: They dared to make thought-provoking art.
The Eye Gazing World Champion from Venice Beach
I will never forget the first time I sat in front of someone who claimed to be enlightened. It was 1995. He went by the unlikely Indian name Yudishtara, but looked like your friend’s Mediterranean uncle.
Probably in his mid-sixties, the anointed one sat gazing serenely at the front of the meeting room in the back of the Bodhi Tree new age bookstore in West Hollywood.
We, the curious and the brave, gradually settled into the rows of lightweight folding chairs lined up to face his perch on an only slightly elevated podium, in an of course much nicer chair.
The audience of seekers was a mixed bag of Beverly Hills housewives, thin-gold-chained Persian dudes who looked like they owned yachts, expensive chunky-jewelry adorned psychotherapists, and skinny Venice Beach neo-hippie yogi seekers like myself.
I was just back from a 3-month trip to India and brimming with the kind of blissed-out seductive aren’t-I-so-egoless prolonged eye contact I believed conveyed what we all sought to project: I am in the know, about that which cannot be known.
Nothing could be more important.
He was unassuming, this Yudishtara. No hint of the sparkly-eyed charisma that characterized later, more popular and longer-lasting spiritual mini-celebrities of the 90’s satsang scene in LA.
During his talk he confirmed what my at this time deeply psychedelically-informed immersion in meditation and yoga had revealed to me: that our true nature can only be directly experienced. It cannot be talked about with any clarity—words and thoughts are simply too dualistic.
Where language divides and separates the world into subject and object, pairs of conflicting opposites, and conceptual constructs that represent, but never can be, reality itself, non-dual awakening instead apprehends the wholeness; the oneness that is always already the case.
Our true nature is an ever-present consciousness that pervades, and indeed precedes the material universe as we understand it. Consciousness is everywhere, and everything—a bit like the matrix, really.
“Call off the search!” Yudishtara’s teacher Ramana Maharshi is quoted as saying.
In the non-dualism of his Advaita Vedanta it is the very act of seeking enlightenment that already reveals having been fooled by the illusion of a lacking and separate self.
As the Buddha said, one can no more attain enlightenment, than one can attain their own feet.
As we in the audience talked amongst ourselves after listening to Yudishtara, the spontaneously enacted ritual of prolonged deep eye contact ensued.
If this movie had subtitles, they would read:
I get it, do you?
Oh yes, I get it, but it's deeper and more authentic do you see?
Yes I see, are you really seeing though?
Meanwhile, like relatively normal people, we were mundanely talking about how we came to be there, which books we had read, what yoga classes we attended, where in India we had made our pilgrimages, and what parts of town we now inhabited.
Rest assured, my 24 year-old long-haired, blissed out and unflappably disconnected superior ass was world champion of the I-am-pure-consciousness-and-so-are-you unofficially mandatory eye gazing contest.
Later, I would come to realize that precisely this disorienting giddiness created by sophisticated-sounding spiritual doublespeak is a necessary (but not sufficient) ingredient in the recipe for cult susceptibility.
There’s this special kind of knowledge. It is beyond all other kinds of knowledge, so much so that it cannot even be put into words. If you follow me, you too can have this special knowledge. It is the answer to all questions, the solution for all problems, and the medicine for all suffering.
What does it really mean to wake up? What is the illusion one realizes is false upon waking up? What is the hidden truth that is revealed?
Pills That Float
In my article, The Red Pill Overlap, I discussed how in the first Matrix film the red pill that wakes Neo up is a metaphor that in our current world has become a kind of postmodern floating signifier—a symbol with fluid meanings that can slide, or float back and forth between ideologies depending on who is looking.
What does it really mean to wake up? What is the illusion one realizes is false upon waking up? What is the hidden truth that is revealed?
Religious fundamentalists, New Age seekers, gun-totin’ right wingers and woke lefties all have different answers to those questions.
But during this period of quarantine both far right Trumpians, and back-to-nature New Agers frame taking the red pill as awakening to any number of conspiracy perspectives that deviate from those dubbed the untrustworthy “mainstream narrative.”
This is where that Venn-diagram overlaps.
Post-Truth “Alternative Facts”
There is another Venn-diagram that is relevant to our time which has been profoundly disorienting to liberals now caught up in conspiracy ideas.
The right-wing circle has been inhabited by the shameless spin-doctoring since at least the Karl Rove/Bush Jr. era, in concert with the Fox News propaganda machine.
This has only intensified with the Kelly-Anne Conway’s “alternative facts,” Steve Bannon’s crypto-fascist influence, Trump’s non-stop self-contradictory outrageous lying, and the reflexive labelling any unflattering facts as fake news.
The left-wing circle in this diagram contains a more complicated and self-defeating affinity for the extreme relativism that comes out of the postmodern take-over of academia in the 90's.
Where these two circles overlap is in what I have called “freshman skepticism”—which starts from a deep and at times appropriate suspicion about potentially distorted truth claims, facts, evidence, media, science, and power.
The problem is that it stops there, and fails to apply and demand the rigorous standards of evidence and logic that characterize the truly skeptical endeavor of separating fact from fiction.
Freshman skepticism languishes instead in the intoxicating conviction that all truths are suspect, all narratives are corrupt, and perhaps the only reliable measure is one’s own revelatory sense of intuitive knowing.
The aspects of postmodernism that have seeped into liberal New Age culture do so via our earnest desire to overcome oppression and prejudice.
It is based in the hope that if we embrace an oversimplified extreme relativism which repeats the inviolable mantra that all perspectives are equally valid— then perhaps we can limit bias that privileges those in power.
The problem though is that this well-meaning blurring of the lines between true and false, constructed narrative and evidence-based explanation, relative perspectives and objective facts, in the end creates more confusion than clarity.
It fetishizes disorientation, uncertainty, and a rejection of objective knowledge as valuable, or even possible as anything other than a tool of dominator hierarchy.
For the liberal spiritual seeker any claim of objective fact is a relic of separation (even colonialism!) best transcended in an enlightened leap into egalitarian, non-dual, inclusive, radical open-mindedness.
There is no truth, only perspectives. The previous statement though is somehow absolutely true, not just a perspective.
This way of thinking about epistemology; or how we discover, define, and think about knowledge, is key to what I mean by my term freshman skepticism.
In this worldview, nothing can ever really be known. Except of course that nothing can ever be known, right? We know THAT.
Facts, evidence, and logical reasoning are merely tools for one subjective narrative constructed to perpetuate a particular perspective for suspect reasons.
Fake news! Lame-stream media! Official narrative!
In the time of Covid-19, the relativist mantra that all perspectives are equally valid plays out as meaning that alternative facts, un-evidenced claims, pseudoscience, and arguments that do not have good internal logic should be seen as equally plausible as the “mainstream narrative.”
But they aren’t.
There are a few more pieces here:
The New Age adoption of a usually oversimplified Eastern philosophy means that the above type of unhinged relativism can seem, erroneously, to sound a lot like descriptions of enlightenment.
Let go of all attachments and fixed opinions or identifications, right?
This relativism also sounds a lot like the necessary open-ness to the feelings and perceptions of your partner in couples therapy.
Surely, if it is virtuous (as it absolutely is) to move beyond egocentric resistance to hearing and understanding the feelings of your lover or spouse, into an empathy that transcends defensiveness—then it is good to also see other types of beliefs and ideas you disagree with as opportunities to move beyond egoic insistence on truth or falsity.
But your spouse’s feelings about you not doing the dishes or spending enough quality time together are in a quite different category than, say, the claim that 5G causes Covid-19 symptoms or cancer.
Factual questions are different than relational, emotional ones. We can become more fluent in both areas, without losing either.
If the venerated claim from meditative traditions is that in the experience of enlightenment, conceptual language-based pairs of opposites and even separation between the subject and object are transcended, so that we can see non-dual reality as it truly is— then surely we should across the board recognize the inherent emptiness and deeply relative nature of concepts like true vs false, healthy vs sick, and factual vs fabricated, and reject any limiting claim of objectivity.
The states of consciousness we can explore via inner contemplative experience simply don’t transfer directly over into how we think about scientific and logical questions.
What about quantum physics?! Because electrons behave both as particles and waves, therefore the absolute subjectivity of individual observers is what determines which reality comes into being in our everyday world via our expectations and beliefs.
But that is simply wrong.
The above shows how foundational confusions lead to a really bad mental framework of the sort now struggling to deal with conspiracy theories, racial politics, and the real world in general.
Three Card Monte
I promised to return to Charles Eisenstein’s The Coronation and The Conspiracy Myth.
Beautifully written about the current crisis roughly two weeks into quarantine, the coronation, as he frames it, is a momentous and climactic waking up out of fear, separation, and the illusion that normalcy is sustainable.
We are invited to embrace the possibility of choosing love and a radical non-dual embrace of viruses as key to our evolution which can allow us to transform into the glorious possibility of being truly sovereign.
Who indeed does not want THAT!?
In the first essay, Eisenstein spends the bulk of his time calling into question all quarantine measures as potential ominous steps toward endless tyranny (the apparently hidden goal of all dehumanizing science and technology), before listing several variations of the at that time emerging conspiracy theories as all neither provable nor falsifiable.
After all, how can we ever really know anything, right?
Next, in a grand and poetic culmination, he goes so far as to speculate on a prophetic spiritual re-interpretation of the meaning of coronavirus, like this:
Now the question arises: Initiation into what? What is the specific nature and purpose of this initiation? The popular name for the pandemic offers a clue: coronavirus. A corona is a crown. “Novel coronavirus pandemic” means “a new coronation for all.”
(*For brevity, I paraphrased Eisenstein slightly above. Search The Coronation and read the final section for yourself if you like.)
It sounds so lovely, I almost swallow it. But then I realize his piece links to multiple articles and videos supportive of the conspiracy theories.
I see that he has actually listed NINE bullet-pointed conspiracy ideas—and then asserted that they cannot be proved or disproved.
Then I remember he is closely aligned with Sayer Ji and Kelly Brogan.
Then I remember he says this:
Novel RNA codes are spreading from human to human, imbuing us with new genetic information; at the same time, we are receiving other, esoteric, “codes” that ride the back of the biological ones, disrupting our narratives and systems in the same way that an illness disrupts bodily physiology.
Look, I don’t wanna be to hard on the guy—but that’s a lot of toxic bathwater around whatever beautiful baby his appreciators will no doubt tell me I am abandoning.
Maybe he is more eloquent idealist than slippery sovereign. Perhaps he just got some of this deeply wrong from too early on in a rapidly escalating and uncertain situation. Maybe he will correct these writings later. I hope so. He does seem brilliant and earnest.
Here's the thing though: Reality exists, Truth matters. The stakes are high. The way we think about reality, truth, and how to enact healthy skepticism alongside our aspirational values and ideals has huge consequences right now.
This is not a coronation. It is a pandemic. Might there be learning opportunities in the midst of crisis? Almost certainly. But that doesn’t warrant the kind of spiritual bypass, denial, half-veiled conspiracy enabling, and privileged visionary grandiosity at play.
The antidote to right-wing fake news is not grandiose delusion of any political stripe.
The antidote to factually false conspiracy theories circulated as literally true is not to interpret them as a kind of sacred mythology containing deeper wisdom.
The antidote to corrupted science is only ever more rigorously enacted scientific method—not a regression back to our default confirmation bias of believing what feels intuitively right, and fanning the flames of fears on the wrong side of the actual scientific consensus.
The opposite of dogmatic and oppressive fundamentalism is not extreme relativism, it is reason, good moral arguments, and healthy critical thinking.
The concept of awakening can too easily becomes code for becoming converted to an array of cultish metaphysical beliefs, unreasonable and poorly evidenced conspiracy theories, a rejection of scientific method, and a conviction that there are no objective facts of life.
It can also be used by any ideology as a floating signifier for only vaguely articulated ideals and higher truths that avoid standing up to scrutiny by always being expressed in doublespeak.
It’s a kind of hijacking or our core longing for profundity, meaning and purpose. (See the Deepak Chopra Random Quote Generator for a satire of this pseudo-profundity.)
To heal and evolve our individual and collective hearts and minds we need to be grounded in honest inquiry about what is actually true, and possessed of the authentic humility to change our beliefs based on what we find.
There is plenty of room in that approach for inner work, embodied and emotional healing, contemplative wonder and mythopoetic artistic awe—but bounded, supported and kept real by their more skeptical kissing cousins: reason, logic, and scientific method.