Monday, February 24, 2014

Smiling in the Same Language


A short video based on Huston Smith's "Universal Grammar of Religions." 

(Incidentally, if you recoil from the word "God" used herein, I understand. The term carries a mountain of religious and anti-religious baggage. Feel free to substitute your own term for what is All-Inclusively Whole; then see if most or all of the "universal grammar" still makes intuitive sense to you.)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Energy Initiation

Spiritus is Latin for “Spiritual Power” and also for “breath.” The Greek word with this same dual meaning (both “spirit” and “breath”) is pneuma, the root of the word “numinous” (meaning luminous awareness) and “noumenon” (in Kantian philosophy: a thing as it is in itself, as distinct from a thing as it is knowable by the senses). Similarly, the Sanskrit word prana means both “life-force” and “breath.” As do these words:

      • Chinese: Chi
      • Japanese: Ki
      • Egyptian: Ka
      • Hebrew: Ruach
      • Arabic: Ruh

  • The Spiritual Power (or Cosmic Life-Force) that moves the atoms and the galaxies and drives evolution; the dynamic, radiant force manifesting as this ever-changing world; that Energy which animates us, which actually lives the body and mind—it is all a Single Power—and it is linked with your own breath!

  • In the company of someone who is alive with spiritual power, your own life-force can be spontaneously activated and intensified to an amazing degree. Such initiation can bring about revolution in your life.

  • Accounts of such initiation (“Baptism by Holy Spirit,” “Shaktipat” “Pentecost,” “Direct Transmission from Buddha-Mind to Buddha-Mind,” etc.) feature in every religious tradition.

  • Most traditions describe the process as if it were a transmission of power from teacher to student, but this is misleading. “Spiritual Baptism” is NOT truly a transmission. The initiator does not add one penny to your treasure store! Rather, the awakened person “alerts” you, whole-bodily, and at depth (below the conscious mind) to the wealth of energy that already lies within you. (Using metaphors from kundalini yoga, the life-force is said to lie asleep, coiled at the base of the spine or at the level of the navel, until awakened by an initiator or some other agency or event). All the while, this dormant life-energy is your own power and not radically separate from the totality of cosmic power.

  • When a string vibrating at high frequency is held near dormant strings, they begin, sympathetically, to vibrate at the same pitch. Spiritual baptism (initiation) is an activating resonance of this kind—not an actual transmission (energy does not travel from point A to point B).

  • The “initiator” does not give you one quark of energy that you do not already contain within your being. The “initiator” does not “fill you with spirit” as if she were a brimming pitcher, pouring juice into your empty cup.

  • At the least, this kind of blessing occurs at the vital-emotional level, and is simply a contact high, like hilarity in a comedy club. However, at its most powerful, the blessing can happen at a vastly deeper level than the mere physical body and vital mind. It can move in the subtle body and the deep psyche and open the so-called “unconscious mind” to direct awareness of its own depths. The experience itself might be as subtle as the echo of a dream, or it can be overwhelmingly powerful, more intense than a sexual orgasm.

  • According to Greek myth, Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, gave birth to twin sons: Eros, god of life, and Thanatos: god of death. That which is erotic is lively, is life-arousing, life-pleasuring, life-sustaining and literally life-giving. But we have narrowed and limited our life-force, our aliveness, to the genitals and to the ego. We have gone from polymorphously pleasured infants to genitally mature sexual adults, but at a great loss of eros, of life. The unfolding process of awakened Life-Force in the body-mind is a reversal of the narrowing of pleasure to the genitals. Becoming whole-bodily alive and pervasively erotic again. All the energy centers of the body light up. The whole body is an instrument of energetic pleasure, which includes (but is certainly not limited to) sexual arousal and pleasure.

A Tantric Affirmation

Life is inherently Erotic (in the greater sense of the word). In fact, the Greek word eros means “life” (Eros and Thanatos, "Life" and "Death" were the twin sons of Aphrodite and Ares---the Goddess of Love and the God of War). 

The Cosmos is Always Full with the Energy of Life. Enjoy this ongoing conversation (exchange) of Energy. Enjoy the mutually-dependent arising and communion of all forms. Enjoy the sacred exchange that is ongoing forever between matter-energy and spirit. Know yourself to be this Continuum. Know yourself to be irreducibly Bright and Eternal Love.
            I am forever embracing my Beloved. There is nothing else that I desire. My one and only and total desire is to embrace eternally my Beloved. Why would I bother with anything less than that? That’s the bliss I live for and worship—my singular heart’s desire. In truth, I presently embrace the very one I love-desire from my heart. I embrace forever (without beginning or end) my consort, my goddess, my beloved, Shakti.
Through this meditation I realize that I am Shiva-Shakti.

Monday, January 9, 2012

12 Tenets of Holons

Ken Wilber’s concept of “holons,” an idea he credits to Arthur Koestler, could rightly be called the key building block of his evolutionary model of the Kosmos. Wilber defines holons as wholes that are parts of other wholes, indefinitely. Each whole is simultaneously a part, a whole/part, a holon. Therefore, the Kosmos “is not composed of wholes nor does it have any parts.” Such holonic composition is the case with atoms, cells, symbols, cultures—the totality of phenomena. The elements of life can be understood neither as things nor processes, neither as wholes nor parts, but only as simultaneous whole/parts. Therefore, Wilber regards both the conventional “atomistic” and “wholistic” conceptions of reality as mistaken. “There is nothing that isn’t a holon, upwardly and downwardly, forever” (Wilber, 33). Wilber’s magnum opus, Sex, Ecology and Spirituality, can be analyzed as a complex elaboration of the principles by which a nested holarchy (i.e., hierarchy of holons) has created and developed the Kosmos through great stages of matter, life, mind and spirit. This detailed model follows upon an introductory outline of twelve tenets that describe the nature and function of holons. This essay will briefly examine those tenets.
In an earlier paper, I objected to Wilber’s definition of holons as neither things nor processes, for it appeared to me that holons are certainly processes. Wilber counters this criticism in the following way: “To say that holons are processes instead of things is in some ways true, but misses the essential point that processes themselves exist only within other processes. There are no things or processes, only holons” (ibid. 35) Elsewhere, he expands upon this idea:

Before an atom is an atom, it is a holon. Before a cell is a cell, it is a holon. Before an idea is an idea, it is a holon. All of them are wholes that exist in other wholes, and thus they are all whole/parts, or holons, first and foremost (long before any particular characteristics are sorted out by us).
Likewise, reality might indeed be composed of processes and not things, but all processes are only processes within other processes—that is, they are first and foremost holons. Trying to decide whether the fundamental units of reality are things or processes is utterly beside the point, because either way they are all holons, and centering on one or the other misses the central issue. Clearly some things exist, and some processes exist, but they are each and all holons (ibid. 34).

            Now I get it. Wilber views holons as the overarching or primary definition of the basic units of the Kosmos. It is not that there are no such things as quarks (things) or photosynthesis (processes), but he believes all things and processes are viewed more accurately and completely as whole/parts—holons. This holonic world view becomes crucial (not mere semantics) when one seeks to find common “laws” or “patterns” or “habits” among diverse domains of existence, such as the objective realms of the material universe, science and society, and the subjective realms of psychology, spirituality and culture—which is precisely what Wilber has attempted, and to a very impressive degree, accomplished.

To say that the universe is composed primarily of quarks is already to privilege a particular domain. Likewise, at the other end of the spectrum, to say that the universe is composed primarily of our symbols, since they are all we really know—that, too, is to privilege a particular domain. But to say that the universe is composed of holons neither privileges a domain no implies special fundamentalness for any level. Literature, for example, is not composed of subatomic particles; but both literature and subatomic particles are composed of holons (ibid. 34).

            Having defined a useful new way of seeing the building blocks of Kosmos, Wilber attempts to discern what all holons have in common. He introduces his list of tenets of holons by cautioning that there is nothing special about the number twelve; indeed he admits some of the tenets might not hold up, and others can be added.[1] I add my own caveat: Wilber introduces these tenets in a 46-page chapter and then enlarges upon the ideas for the remaining 700 pages of the book. Here, I must skim the surface of the tenets. Therefore, any apparent gaps and shortcomings should be construed as necessitated by my own brevity and not by Wilber’s lack of thoroughness.

1. The first tenet has been stated: Reality is not composed of things or processes, but of holons. “Thus holons within holons within holons means that the world is without foundation in either wholes or parts (and as for any sort of ‘absolute reality’ in the spiritual sense, we will see that it is neither a whole nor part, neither one nor many, but pure groundless Emptiness, or radically nondual Spirit)” (ibid. 35). He later adds, “There is a system, but the system is sliding. It is unendingly, dizzifyingly holarchic” (ibid. 39).

            2. Holons display four fundamental capacities: self-preservation, self-adaptation, self-transcendence, and self-dissolution .

a.                          All holons display some tendency to preserve their own individuality or autonomy. Even a hydrogen atom tends to maintain its identity over time. A living cell displays a more advanced capacity for pattern-preservation, and a human ego even more capacity. “In short, holons are defined, not by the stuff of which they are made (there is no stuff), nor by the context in which they live (though they are inseparable from that), but by the relatively autonomous and coherent pattern they display, and the capacity to preserve that pattern is one characteristic of a holon” (ibid. 41).

b.                          In its capacity as a part of a larger whole, every holon must adapt or accommodate itself to other holons. Even electrons register and react to other electrons in their orbital shell. “As a whole, it remains itself; as a part, it must fit in—and those are tenets 2a and 3b. We can just as well think of these two opposed tendencies as a holon’s agency and communion. Its agency—its self-asserting, self-preserving, assimilating tendencies—expresses its wholeness, its relative autonomy; whereas its communion—its participatory, bonding, joining tendencies—expresses its partness, its relationship to something larger” (ibid. 41). Later in the book, Wilber explores how an imbalance of either of these tendencies in any system becomes pathology.

c.                           Different wholes come together to form new and dissimilar wholes. For example, two hydrogen atoms joining with an oxygen atom to form a molecule of water. This is self-transcendence, not just assimilation or adaptation, but a transformation that results in something novel and emergent. “This introduces a vertical dimension… In self-transcendence, agency and communion do not just interact; rather, new forms of agency and communion emerge through symmetry breaks, through the introduction of new and creative twists in the evolutionary stream” (ibid. 44). This generates the sudden leaps and apparent discontinuities often observed in evolution of any kind.

d.                           Holons that are built up can also break down. This is self-dissolution. When holons disintegrate, they do so along the vertical sequence in which they were assembled (emerged). The above four forces are in constant dynamic tension, whether one is referring to atoms and cells, or teen-agers and parents, or individuals and societies, etc.

3.  Holons emerge. First quarks, then atoms, molecules, proteins, cells, and so on, right up to writers and readers and beyond. The properties of emergent holons cannot be deduced from their subholons, nor can any holon be reduced to its components. (A human person is more than a collection of organ systems.)

4.  Holons emerge holarchically. That is, hierarchically, as a series of increasing whole/parts. “Organisms contain cells, but not vice versa; cells contain molecules, but not vice versa; molecules contain atoms, but not vice versa. And it is that not vice versa, at each stage, that constitutes unavoidable asymmetry and hierarchy (holarchy)” (Ibid. 49).

5.  Each emergent holon transcends but includes its predecessors. While adding its own new form and qualities, it preserves the previous holons themselves, but negates their isolatedness. “All of the lower is in the higher, but not all of the higher is in the lower. For example, hydrogen atoms are in a water molecule, but the water molecule is not in the atoms.” Therefore, at a given level of the holarchy, a particular system is internal to the systems above it and external to the systems below it. (ibid. 51). This concept later plays strongly into Wilber’s apologia for the ego structure remaining after enlightenment.

6. The lower sets the possibilities of the higher; the higher sets the probabilities of the lower. Even though a newly emergent level transcends the lower level, it does not violate the laws of the lower level. “My body follows the laws of gravity; my mind follows other laws, such as those of symbolic communication and linguistic syntax; bit if my body falls off a cliff, my mind goes with it… Nothing in the laws governing physical particles can predict the emergence of a wristwatch, but nothing in the wristwatch violates the laws of physics” (ibid. 54). The second part of this tenet, that higher-order systems influence the probabilities of their subholons is thoroughly explored by Rupert Sheldrake in his morphogenic field theory, which Wilber discusses later in the book. Here, I would say that the smooth operation of a well-made wristwatch could help determine that the spring, ratchets and worm-gears inside that watch will arrive at a particular church at a particular time every Sunday morning.

7. The number of levels which a hierarchy comprises determines whether it is “shallow” or “deep”; and the number of holons on any given level we shall call  its “span.” Atoms, for example, have a shallow depth (they are composed of at least two lower levels), but a vast span, filling the universe. Then molecules appeared, at a greater depth (composed of atoms), but with less span (there are a zillion times fewer molecules atoms in the universe).

8. Each successive level of evolution produces greater depth and less span. “The greater the depth of a holon, the more precarious its existence, since its existence depends also on the existence of a whole series of other holons internal to it” (ibid. 56). The greater the depth of a holon, the greater its degree of consciousness. Indeed, evolution is properly viewed as a spectrum of consciousness. “One can perhaps begin to see that a spiritual dimension is built into the very fabric, the very depth, of the Kosmos” (ibid. 57).

9. Destroy any type of holon and you will destroy all of the holons above it and none of the holons below it. Destroying all molecules would wipe out all cells, but the atoms and subatomic particles would survive intact. Therefore, the less depth of a holon, the more fundamental it is to the Kosmos, because so many higher orders depend on it. On the other hand, the greater a holon’s depth, the more significant it is. A human being is not very fundamental. We could all evaporate tomorrow and most other species would breathe a collective sigh of relief. But as high-level organisms (greater depth), we include and embody more of the Kosmos—we embrace, reflect and signify more of the Kosmos than a kudzu vine because we are comprised of countless more holons.

10. Holarchies coevolve. Holons do not emerge (evolve) alone, because there are no loner holons, but only fields within fields within fields. Gregory Bateson called this principle coevolution. This means that the unit of evolution is not an isolated holon, but the whole ecosystem. Wilber puts it thus: “All agency is always agency-in-communion” (ibid. 64).

11. The micro is in relational exchange with the macro at all levels of its depth. Each holon preserves itself through relational exchanges with holons at the same depth in its environment. Wilber gives the example of a human being, who for reasons of simplification, can be said to consist of just the levels of matter, life and mind. The physical body depends on physical laws and on food production and consumption, and on sexual reproduction, which depend upon labor organized in an economy for basic material exchanges riding on a local and even global network of social and ecosystems. These exchanges occur at the level (depth) of the physiosphere and biosphere. Human beings also reproduce themselves mentally through exchanges at the level of culture and within symbolic environments, which Wilber calls the noosphere. For short, he dubs this tenet, “same-level relational exchange.”

12. Evolution has directionality. Holons evolve in the direction of:

a) increasing complexity. This is simultaneously a new simplicity, because the emergent whole, as a new single system is simpler than its many components.

b) Increasing differentiation/integration. Wilber explains this by quoting Alfred Whitehead: “The many [differentiation] become one [integration] and are increased by one [the new holon].”

c) Increasing organization/structuration. Evolution moves to ever-more complex systems and to ever-higher levels of organization.

d) Increasing relative autonomy. Holons become better able to adapt and survive in the midst of environmental changes (physical, social, cultural). We humans made it through the Ice Ages. Wooly Mammoths died out when the weather grew too warm. “By the time we reach the noosphere, in humans, relative autonomy is of such a high degree that it can produce not just differentiation from the environment, which is necessary, but dissociation  from the environment, which is disastrous—an expression of pathological agency that, among many other things, lands it squarely in ecological hell” (ibid. 71). Autonomy is always only relative because there are no independent wholes, only whole/parts. As Wilber puts it, the president gets our country into war, and now we are all included in that war, whether we like it or not! “Thus, autonomy, like all aspects of a holon, is sliding” (ibid. 71).

e) Increasing Telos. “An acorn’s code (its DNA) has oak written all over it,” Wilber says. Indeed, the entire universe has a wonderful goal embedded in its “code,” unfolding through eons of evolution. If this sounds like the theologies of Paul Tillich, Teilhard de Chardin and Sri Aurobindo, it is because Wilber has been influenced by their writings (especially Aurobindo’s The Life Divine). “A final Omega Point? That would imply a final Whole, and there is no such holon anywhere in existence.” Wilber writes. “But perhaps we can interpret it differently. Who knows, perhaps Telos, perhaps Eros, moves the entire Kosmos, and God may indeed be an all-embracing chaotic Attractor, acting, as Whitehead said, throughout the world by gentle persuasion toward love” (ibid. 78).

Works Cited
Wilber, Ken. Sex, Ecology and Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. Boston: Shambhala,

[1] Contrast this attitude with the stance of the Kashmiri Shaivites, Kabbalists, et al. who take their numbers as absolutes. “No, not twenty-five tattvas, you bloody fool! Thirty-six!” Wilber addresses this attachment to numerical exactitude: “The number of levels in any holon has an element of arbitrariness to it, simply because there is no upper or lower limit to a manifest hierarchy and therefore no absolute referent” (SES, 55). 

Ken Wilber's Magnum Opus

A Brief History of Everything
Sex, Ecology and Spirituality

Ken Wilber wrote Sex, Ecology and Spirituality in 1995 and followed the next year with a condensed and more accessible version of the same ideas in A Brief History of Everything. Weighing in at seven pounds and more than 800 pages, SES is his scholarly magnum opus, replete with extensive quotations, attributions and about 200 pages of endnotes.[1] BHE, on the other hand, is 340 pages, written in an almost breezy, conversational style, employing the dialogic of the author’s questions and answers with himself, a device as old as Plato. 
There is much—tremendously much—food for thought in these books, and I am greatly impressed with Wilber’s accomplishment. He has consumed a vast amount of information and synthesized it into a developmental map of the grand process of cosmic, biological, human and spiritual evolution. Based on my own moderately wide reading in psychology, philosophy, spirituality and the natural sciences, I am prone to regard Wilber as the best mapmaker who has ever walked the planet.[2] But beyond his scholarly work of divine cartography, Wilber (according to his own accounts and to his biographer, Frank Visser) appears to be a genuine mystic who has experienced the highest stages of the vast spectrum of consciousness which he so thoroughly describes and illustrates.
Where shall we begin to cover the main points of a system that took Wilber himself a few hundred pages to summarize? Let us start with a key term in Wilber’s model, holons—a concept he borrowed from Arthur Koestler (Visser, 182). Wilber defines holons as “wholes that are parts of other wholes, indefinitely. Whole atoms are parts of molecules; whole molecules are parts of cells; whole cells are parts of organisms, and so on. Each whole is simultaneously a part, a whole/part, a holon. And reality is composed, not of things nor processes nor wholes nor parts, but of whole/parts, of holons” (Wilber, SES, viii.)
First off, I have trouble with this definition of holons (“reality is composed, not of things nor processes”). It appears to me that holons are, in fact, processes. As I see it, movement (change) is built into every holon and no holon is static. For example, sub-atomic particles are in ever-changing motion and atoms are moving also, both vibrating individually and flowing collectively in random “Brownian motion.” Since all atoms are composed of ever-moving subatomic particles (which can leap their energy shells, throw off nuclear radiation as neutrinos, gamma and beta particles, etc.), and these vibrating, ever-changing atoms comprise the material universe, how can it not be supposed that the total universe is composed of vibration, motion, flow—process? In this light, it would seem more accurate to say that the Kosmos[3] is a holonic processa seamless continuum of holons that are forever dynamic and that are distributed in a nested holarchy (a hierarchy of holons) that is truly a spectrum (featuring all the unbroken gradations of levels which the word “spectrum” implies).[4]
Anyway, back to Wilber. The backbone of his model is that reality is layered in a Great Chain of Being, and that existence can be envisioned as a nested holarchy of “spheres” or “levels” ranging from matter to life to mind to soul to God.[5] Human development ascends through the spheres of the holarchy, both individually (psychologically) and collectively (socio-culturally). In fact, Wilber applies the same model of evolutionary stages to four quadrants of development: the growth of 1) individuals 2) cultures 3) societies and 4) the physical realm of nature. He goes into considerable detail showing how each of the stages in these quadrants corresponds to analogous stages in the other three quadrants. (This is Gregory Bateson’s theme of “the pattern that connects” forged into a supreme vision.) If Wilber’s system had succeeded only in bringing together into a sensible ordering the aloof cousins of psychology and spirituality, this would have been a remarkable and important achievement. But he manages to chart into one comprehensive model of corresponding levels nothing less than the whole Kosmos, starting with atoms! That is, his system takes an in-depth accounting of the specialized fields of anthropology, history, physics, biology, psychology, philosophy and spirituality—and makes unified sense out of the whole shebang.
The spectrum of consciousness is made up of four major links, to which Wilber gives the same terminology as Huston Smith: body, mind, soul and spirit. These divisions apply not only to levels of experience, but to ontologically real dimensions (levels of reality). Additionally, these levels, although present as structural potential in all human beings, represent a series of increasing improbability of actual living experience (Visser, 243). In light of this multi-dimensional view of reality and human consciousness, Wilber strongly criticizes the prevailing Western mindset of scientific materialism which dismisses anything that cannot be measured empirically and thus remains blind to spiritual worlds beyond “simple location.” Related to this, Wilber regards it is a mistake to try to collapse spiritual experience and knowledge into physics, by using quantum physics and systems theory to explain the psychic and higher realms.[6] Yet unlike most New Age enthusiasts, Wilber does not toss out the baby with the bathwater: He is a biochemist by training and an excellent interpreter of scientific facts. Indeed, he dismisses New Age superstition and gullibility with the same passion that he criticizes the “flatland” view of scientific materialism.
All holons have an inside and an outside and also an individual and a collective aspect. Therefore, holons can be analyzed in terms of Four Quadrants: interior-individual, exterior-individual, interior-collective and exterior-collective. For example, psychology and spirituality fall within the interior-individual quadrant. Culture occupies the interior-collective quadrant, and society lies within the exterior-collective quadrant. Material science runs through both the exterior-individual and exterior-collective quadrants. Each of these quadrants has dozens of levels of holons. For example, the exterior-individual quadrant charts this progression of stages: atoms to molecules, prokaryotes, neuronal organisms, neural cord, reptilian brain stem, limbic system, neocortex (triune brain), complex neocortex, etc. These evolutionary stages correspond with the interior-individual levels of prehension (atoms and molecules), irritability (prokayotes and eukaryotes), sensation (neuronal organisms), perception (neural cord), impulse (reptilian brain stem) and so on, through emotion, symbol use, concepts, concrete operations, formal operations, vision-logic, and into the transpersonal realms of psychic (nature mysticism), subtle (deity mysticism), causal (formless mysticism) and non-dual (non-dual mysticism).[7] My next paper on Wilber will focus exclusively on his twenty tenets that describe the emergent, evolutionary path of holons.
It is to Wilber’s credit that he invites criticism of his work in journals and online forums, and he publishes monographs responding to his critics. More significantly, he critiques and revises his own work. A good example is his change of view after the publication of his first two books, The Spectrum of Consciousness and No Boundaries. In these early work, Wilber subscribed to the vision of depth psychology as originated by Carl Jung. The Swiss psychologist’s model of human development can be summarized thus: The newborn is fused with the Self, the Great Mother, and by a heroic process of individuation, slowly extricates itself from the overarching presence of the all-absorbing oceanic Self. Once the ego has been firmly established (usually in the second half of life), the ego can then confront and reunify with the Self, only this time, the union will be “mature” and conscious. The worldview of this path goes along with the archetypal motif of “the Great Return.” This was Wilber’s own view when he began writing in his early twenties, a phase he now labels Wilber 1 (he’s now up to Wilber 4).
However, Wilber’s current vision is diametrically opposed to Jung’s. In Wilber’s model, the newborn is fused with the physical body and material world, not with the Self, for at this stage the Self exists only as pure potential. The ego then develops through various stages of growth and via this evolutionary progression, the Self awakens at last. Wilber emphatically makes the point that one does not awaken to the Self by retracing one’s journey back to the pre-personal (pre-rational, pre-ego), but by continuing advance beyond the personal to the trans-personal (trans-rational, trans-ego).
These two models can be contrasted in this way: the Great Return model (of depth psychology) says that we move from the Self to the ego, and eventually return to the Self. The path describes a loop, and the rise of ego is seen as a step away from the true Self. Wilber’s model (which he has called “height psychology”) says that we move from the pre-personal through the ego and onward to the Self. The Self is not behind us, waiting for our return; it is ahead of us, waiting for our evolutionary advance.
Is this just a semantic play of no real importance? Actually, it makes a big deal of difference, Wilber insists. In the context of depth psychology (Jung, deep ecology, eco-feminism, etc.), the fact that the ego (its archetype is the masculine Hero) has separated itself from nature (the Great Mother, the Feminine) is seen as the cause of environmental destruction and every other modern evil. Since in this view nature contains (or is) the Self, we must go back to nature and the feminine. Accordingly, this vision (which Wilber calls the “pre/trans fallacy”) feeds strongly into the popular rejection of anything having to do with intellect and science. It is the source of much sentimental, romantic and regressive anti-rationalism[8] (Visser, 265-7). Wilber specifically criticizes both neo-Jungians and New Age enthusiasts (Wiccans, etc.) as trying to “get back to” the Self—of confusing experiences prior to the development of the rational ego with consciousness of the Self.[9]
Wilber welcomes the fact that the ego has differentiated itself from nature. Hooray for the rational mind! With the advent of ego (in spite of its inherently grave dangers), Wilber says we are one evolutionary step closer to the Self. In Wilber’s view, the feminine is no more spiritual than the masculine (although he concedes that the spiritual paths of men and women may emphasize different parts of the total picture). “Men and women both have to undergo the difficult process of development from pre-personal, body-bound consciousness via personal ego-consciousness to the transpersonal, spiritual consciousness of the Self” (Visser, 274). [10]
In conclusion, it should be clear that Wilber (like Plotinus, Aurobindo and others before him)[11] is a mystic, an intellectual, a scholar, a scientist and a grand synthesizer, who has deep faith in the capacity of the human mind and soul. [12] He opposes movements that denounce the rational mind and ego under the guise of spirituality and seek salvation in the romanticism of returning to the magic and myth of the pre-rational, pre-scientific past. It is not the rational mind and science that need to be renounced, Wilber argues, but materialism, “which reduces the multi-dimensional Kosmos made up of matter, life, soul and Spirit, to the uni-dimensional cosmos of visible matter” (Visser 284). Wilber deftly argues that materialism is itself a metaphysical point of view that in the modern West has taken on the qualities of a fundamentalist religion. Wilber’s view of reality is fundamentally optimistic, like the Dzogchen view of the Great Natural Perfection. It provides a wonderful antidote not only to New Age nonsense, but to the post-modern nihilism, narcissism and scientific materialism that poses as truth at virtually every hall of academia in the Western world.

Works Cited
Visser, Frank. Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion. Albany, NY: SUNY Press. 2003.
Wilber, Ken. Sex, Ecology and Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. Boston: Shambhala
               Publications, 1995.
--- A Brief History of Everything. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1996. 

[1] It is the first book in a planned “Kosmos Trilogy.” I read online that he has just finished the third book. He has not yet begun the second book in the series.

[2] Of course, a map is only a map; it’s not the territory itself. I recently met with a small group of Wilber aficionados. One of them had read every Wilber book and taken an extensive online course offered by his Integral Institute. It was clear to me that she had memorized his map in detail—and that this abstract knowledge was somehow satisfying to her. (Who needs the tofu? Just eat the menu!) The difference between her and Wilber is that he says when he was seeking spiritual reality his quest felt for him like a matter of life and death. Such longing can never be fulfilled by a map, no matter how comprehensive and accurate.

[3] Wilber employs the Greek spelling to indicate the multidimensional Kosmos, in contrast to materialist notions of a one-dimensional (nature-only) cosmos.

[4] According to kinetic molecular theory, “heat” can be described in terms of molecular motion. The more energetic the motion of molecules in any substance, the higher is its temperature. At a theoretical chill called “Absolute Zero” (zero on the Kelvin scale), all molecular motion would cease. The frozen universe would become a perfectly still sea, devoid of temperature and all energy—what scientists call “heat death.” Today’s most popular cosmological theory is that the universe will come to its end in exactly this way! All energy will run down via entropy (Second Law of Thermodynamics) and the world will end, “not with a bang, but with a whimper.” The Goddess has reassured me personally that this will never happen, because She doesn’t intend to sit still for an instant, let alone cool down and die. However, this intuition is a bit difficult to translate into scientific jargon.

[5] Obviously, this is not a new idea (cf. Trika Shaivism, Jacob’s Ladder, Sri Aurobindo, etc.). However, the analytical detail, depth and order brought to far-reaching fields of specialized knowledge has not been seen before Wilber.

[6] Wilber is no fan of books such as The Tao of Physics and The Dancing Wu-Li Masters. A friend of mine labels such attempts to make the spiritual realms more acceptable to hard science, “physics envy.”

[7] Alas, the reader suffers here for lack of a visual chart.

[8] Peruse the Rainbow Connection store for a grand tour of New Age pseudo-science and the romanticizing of ancient or indigenous cultures.

[9] Interestingly, one of the few points that Jung and Wilber agree on is the importance of a strongly developed ego.

[10] This resonates with the evolutionary models of Plotinus, Sri Aurobindo, Da Avabhasa, Andrew Cohen, Theosophy, etc.

[11] This list includes Wilber’s brilliant contemporary, Lex Hixon, who died of cancer at age 53.

[12] Wilber has written 25 books in the past 20 years, even though he spent four years without writing while he cared for his dying wife, Treya. He made up for it by publishing four books the year after she died! He manages to carry out his prolific research and writing while suffering from a chronic viral illness called RNase Syndrone that robs him of energy (it is similar to “chronic fatigue” syndrome). The disease lays him out in bed for six months out of the year and occasionally sends him to the hospital.

Thought as Passion

To give you an idea of the jolt I’ve gotten from Frank Visser’s book, Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, I’ll begin this reflection paper with the e-mail I sent around yesterday to the entire FSU Humanities graduate student list:

Hi, it’s Mark Canter, your fellow hardworking grad student paving the way to a multicultural future. (I’m only half kidding.) I need to gush here about a new intellectual discovery that has my neurons sparking and fizzing like electric Alka-Seltzer: Ken Wilber.

Yeah, I know that most of you have never heard of him, but the universities of Pennsylvania, Indiana and several others now offer courses in his work, called “integral psychology.” I predict that many more universities will follow.

I’m a doing a D.I.S. this summer on the works of Wilber, and I am so impressed with this passionate thinker that I’m shouting my endorsement from the e-mail mountaintop. It is now apparent to me that no modern scholar can be up-to-date in the world of anthropology, history, sociology, psychology, religion, economics, politics, humanities, science and mysticism without becoming at least familiar with the comprehensive synthesis of ALL these fields managed with profound insight by this American genius. I predict with great confidence that Wilber (he’s only 55 years old) is going to be studied for centuries to come. We have the opportunity to explore his ideas as his contemporaries.

I am not idolizing Wilber, so don’t misunderstand my enthusiasm. Nonetheless, I would say that his partial take on the truth is a vaster, richer parcel than I have seen in many years of being interested in comparative philosophy, mythology and religion.

Of course, most of you are too busy with your own studies and lives to make time to read extra books, so just keep Wilber's name in mind. I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about him throughout your academic and intellectual careers.

Actually, I’ve been hearing and reading about Wilber and keeping up with his interviews and online essays for decades now. I felt impressed by what I had encountered and I knew that one day I’d have to focus my attention on studying Wilber’s ouevre—hence this summer’s D.I.S. toward that goal. I began with Visser’s overview, because not only did I want to start with a wide-angle look at Wilber’s intellectual landscapes, I very much wanted to get a glimpse of Wilber's personality prior to studying his philosophy. Wilber insists that he is “a pandit, not a guru.” Fine, whatever. As for me, I can approach any author in any mood if I don’t expect to encounter anything new or influential, but I assume a deliberately guarded stance toward those whom I suspect might be able to actually have an effect on me. (Thank you, Da Free John, for making me so cautious. Once burned, once learned.)
Frank Visser, a citizen of the Netherlands, has translated two of Wilber’s books into Dutch. He studied the psychology of religion at the Catholic University of Nijmegen and now works as an internet specialist. Visser spent some time interviewing Wilber in preparation for this book, which was fun to read.
So what is Ken Wilber like as a person? Visser provides some interesting biographical details. For example, here is a Wilber’s typical daily schedule:

Wake up: 3 to 5 a.m.
Meditate (Vajrayana practices)[1]: one or two hours.
Work (mostly reading and taking notes): until 2 p.m.
Lift weights: until 3 p.m.[2]
Run errands: until 5.
Eat a vegetarian meal. (One meal a day!)
Visit friends.
Handle correspondence.
Read a light book for entertainment, or go out to a movie, or watch a video at home (Wilber owns a huge video collection.)
Go to bed at 10 p.m.

Ken Wilber grew up as an Air Force brat, moving every few years. He attended four high schools, where in each he was known as “the Brain.” Straight As. Class President. Valedictorian. Pre-medical science scholarship to Duke.
But as soon as he arrived at Duke University, he immediately realized that he no longer wanted to pursue science, because it was not going to give him the answers he sought. The first year in college, his grades went to mush and he dropped out of classes and began voraciously reading philosophy, psychology and metaphysics. He returned to Lincoln, Nebraska where his parents were stationed. There, he earned a double bachelor’s degree at the University of Nebraska, one in biology and the other in chemistry. He cruised through the undergrad science courses, while devoting eight to ten hours a day to reading Eastern philosophy and religion, Western psychology and metaphysics. He did well enough to receive a scholarship in biophysics, but in grad school, he continued with the same personal research program—getting through the science classes on cruise control, while studying and taking notes on psychology, philosophy and mysticism. “The names in my notebooks were not Krebs, Miller, Watson, or Crick. But Guadapada, Hui Neng, Padmasambhava, and Eckhart” (Ibid. 22). Wilber earned a master’s degree and was all-but-dissertation in the field of biochemistry when he wrote his first book, The Spectrum of Consciousness. After being rejected by thirty publishers, Theosophical Publishing House picked it up, and at age 23, Wilber became something of an instant celebrity within the small world of transpersonal psychology.[3]
One of Visser’s lines that struck me is: “This research of the psychological and spiritual and religious literature was far more than an intellectual quest—for Ken it seemed to be a matter of life or death.” I personally related to this, because all through my teens and twenties, my own spiritual search was characterized by tremendous pressure and drive, as if I were a drowning man seeking my next breath. Many spiritual traditions teach that it is the intensity of one’s longing that opens the spiritual world. I believe this is true. But you can’t fake it, and there is no way to instill that longing in others; it is either undeniably real or it does not exist. (“Zen cannot be passed from father to son.”)
In an interview with Visser, Wilber explained his zeal, “I had to read ‘everything’ because I was trying mentally and emotionally to put together in a comprehensive framework that which I felt was necessary for my own salvation. I was particularly drawn to Perls, Jung, Boss, and the existentialists; Norman O. Brown, Krishnamurti, Zen, Vedanta and Eckhart; the traditionalists, Coomaraswamy, Guenon and Schuon, but also Freud, Ferenczi, Rank, and Klein—a more motley group you could not imagine” (Ibid. 23).
Early on in his exploration of spiritual literature, Wilber came across the opening passage of the Tao Teh Ching:
                        The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
                        The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
                        The Nameless is the eternally real.
                        Naming is the origin of ten thousand things.

                        Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
                        Caught in desire, you see only manifestations.
                        Yet mystery and manifestations arise from the same source.
                        This source is called darkness.
                        Darkness within darkness.
                        The gateway to all understanding. (Stephen Mitchell, trans.)

This passage provoked in 20-year-old Wilber a deep conversion. “It was as if I were being exposed, for the very first time, to an entirely new and drastically different world—a world beyond the sensical, a world outside of science, and therefore a world quite beyond myself. The result was that those ancient words of Lao Tzu took me quite by surprise; worse, the surprise refused to wear off, and my entire world outlook began a subtle but dramatic shift. Within a period of a few months—months, spent in introductory readings of Taoism and Buddhism—the meaning of my life, as I had known it, simply began to disappear” (Ibid. 21).
Around this time Wilber was tutoring students for money and he ended up marrying one of his pupils, Amy Wagner. Wagner worked at a bookstore while Wilber studied all day, then bused tables and washed dishes at night. The marriage lasted only two years, but Wilber kept his job washing dishes for the next nine years. “The only real job I’ve ever had is dishwashing. The only thing I’m qualified to do is wash dishes!” (Ibid. 23).
Wilber greatly admired the lucid prose of Alan Watts and he taught himself to write using Watts as a model. “I took all thirteen or fourteen of his books and copied every one of them, literally sentence by sentence. I still have the notebooks downstairs. I wrote the books out, so that I could know the style of writing. Just getting a sense of being able to write clearly, and study syntax, seeing how you put paragraphs together” (Ibid. 19).
Wilber’s writing career took off with reviewers enthusing over his first book, and he began a work pattern that more or less has continued. First, he studies for nine or ten months. He devours two or three books a day by speed-reading the material. If the book is important, he slows down and takes notes. If the book really moves him, he reads it three or four times. Then he wakes up one morning and says “Book!” and he begins to write furiously. He completes an original book in two or three months. In the case of editing anthologies, he has pulled books together in one or two days. He says a work arrives full-blown in his brain, and he writes fifteen hours a day to get it down. (For his first book, The Spectrum of Consciousness, he slept on a couch with his typewriter on a coffee table beside him. Each day, he parked a gallon of milk next to the typewriter and wrote around the clock, taking time out only for sleeping and bathroom breaks.)
In regard to his own work, Wilber likes to take a Zen stance: that his writings are the dust that one should shake from one’s sandals on the way. [4] “All of my books are lies. They are simply maps of a territory, shadows of a reality, gray symbols dragging their bellies across the dead page, suffocated signs full of muffled sound and signifying absolutely nothing. And it is the nothing, the Mystery, the Emptiness alone that needs to be realized; no known but felt, no thought but breathed, not an object but an atmostphere, not a lesson but a life” (Ibid. xv).
Even a brief paper on Ken Wilber, the man, needs to tell about his ordeal with the death of his second wife, Treya Killam. He proposed to her two weeks after they had met, and they were soon married. His wife found out just before their honeymoon that she had breast cancer. After a number of treatments, including a radical mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation, Treya Killam died about six years after the diagnosis. She asked her husband to write a book about their experience and to publish her journal. This became the book, Grace and Grit, which I read about ten years ago. (If this book doesn’t make you cry, you’ve got a heart of granite.)
I intended this paper to reflect on Wilber as a person. I plan to review his ideas in the papers that will follow. Nonetheless, I should mention that reading this overview of Wilber was a pleasure in that it often confirmed several of my own ideas that are uncommon in alternative circles. An important example is Wilber’s honoring of the ego and his criticism of the notion that the ego is bad and must be annihilated.[5] His model of psychological and spiritual development endorses the need for a healthy ego. (Transcending ego, yes; destroying ego, no way.) He also critiques the naiveté and magical thinking of the New Age movement in strong terms. This has made some folks angry; there may be Wiccans casting evil spells on the guy. He objects to the irrationally tinged caricature of spirituality that one too often finds in New Age circles, which conflate spirituality with narcissism and “spiritual materialism.”[6] On the other hand, he is also fiercely critical of Western dogmas (humanism and scientism) that insist that reason is our highest possible human attainment. One could say that his mission is to find ways to re-introduce authentic mystic spirituality into Western culture, to rehabilitate the spirit and the individual in an academically sound manner.
Many today are extremely taken with Jung—Wilber isn’t. Many have taken up with Freud—Wilber hasn’t. Many place their hope in holism—Wilber doesn’t. Many would see the intellect as the villain of the drama—Wilber won’t. He even dares to openly object to such popular conceptions as “there’s no such thing as chance,” “we create our own reality,” “we cause our own illnesses (and are capable of healing ourselves),” “we need to be less in the mind and more in the body,” statements that have come to acquire the status of religious dogma in the world of the New Age. Wilber sees these notions as twisted interpretations of the profound insights of the spiritual traditions, distortions that urgently need to be corrected.
 Of course, anyone who tries to navigate between the split-apart worlds of academia and esoteric religion is destined to be deemed an outsider and taken seriously by neither. Scientists think Wilber is trying to smuggle religion into science. Religionists are prone to find him too scientific, believing that spirituality should not be subjected to critical examination.[7] It is my own belief that Wilber’s outsider status is changing. In spite of his refusal to give public talks[8] or to attend conferences—even those based on his own work—I think Wilber is bound to wind up in the academy. Last year, in my critical theories class, I read Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Kant, Freud, Jung, Habermas, Adorno, Diderot, Lacan, et al. Not one of these thinkers was able to stand on the mountaintop that is now available to a genius in the 21st century—and not one of them viewed as broad a landscape as Ken Wilber.

Works Cited

Visser, Frank. Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion. Albany, NY: SUNY Press. 2003.

[1] He and his late wife, Treya, were devotees of the late Kalu Rinpoche.

[2] From now on, I’m going to remember Wilber when I drag my lazy bones to the gym to lift weights.

[3] It helps when Jim Fadiman compares you to William James, John White calls you “the long-sought Einstein of consciousness research,” and Jean Houston says, “Wilber might well do for consciousness what Freud did for psychology. (He was only 21 when he wrote the book; it took two years to find a publisher.)

[4] Wilber’s sandal dust has been translated into more than thirty languages, making him the most translated American author of academic books (Visser, 3). Amazingly, every one of Wilber’s books is still in print, and Shambhala Publications has published his collected works, making him the first philosopher in history to have his collected works published while he is still alive.

[5] I wrote an essay, “Zombies Need Not Apply,” that critiques this bogus misunderstanding of Eastern (particularly Buddhist) philosophy—which most practitioners (and not a few gurus) are prone to suffer.

[6] Wilber regards the narcissism of the Boomer generation and the nihilism of postmodern philosophy as two sides of the same coin. (Ibid. 41).

[7] Wilber has written, “I am always surprised at the common perception that I am recommending an intellectual approach to spirituality, when that is the opposite of my view. Just because an author writes, say, a history of dancing, does not mean that the author is advocating that people stop dancing and merely read about it instead.”

[8] After the publication of Spectrum of Consciousness, Wilber toured the consciousness studies circuit, giving public talks and workshops. After a year of this, he realized he could continue talking about what he had already written, which he already saw as incomplete and even flawed, or he could devote himself to new discoveries and new books. He quit giving lectures and he only rarely agrees to be interviewed. He does readily respond to academic criticisms, either online or in journals.