I've got to keep my churchless credibility intact. I don't want to sound like I've become a Ken Wilber groupie after speaking favorably about his "Integral Spirituality" in some recent posts – here, here, and here.
So now that I've finished the book, and visited (or re-visited) some web sites that criticize Wilber's Integral "theory of everything," I'll share what I don't like about Wilber's take on reality.
Main objection: his complex theories about how everything in existence fits together strike me as much more reflective of the inside of Ken Wilber's head than of how the universe really works.
That might explain why too much Wilberian reading leaves me with a metaphorical headache. I find his writings hugely interesting and provocative, but taken as a whole they seem disconnected from the living, breathing world.
Given that the Integral Approach purports to have discovered the links between subjective and objective reality, spirituality and science, metaphysics and physics, and other seeming opposites, the discordant feeling I get from his writings is an intuitive clue that something is wrong in Wilberland.
Last night I gave a presentation on Taoism to a community college Comparative Religion class. I read some excerpts from the introduction to Eva Wong's "Lieh-Tzu" (a great book).
She talks about the three main traditional Taoist writings in a fashion that I could never apply to Wilber's prose.
Thus, while the Lao-tzu is the voice of serious wisdom and the Chuang-tzu is the voice of crazy wisdom, the Lieh-tzu is the voice of humorous wisdom.
The philosophy in the Lao-tzu comes from above us; we can admire it and hope to follow it, but it is hard to reach. The philosophy in the Chuang-tzu comes from a world that is very different from our own; we may try to grasp it, but it is too elusive to catch. The philosophy in the Lieh-tzu comes from where we are. It speaks to us at our level and talks about experiences we can relate to and understand.
When I read Wilber, I don't feel like his writing is serious, crazy, or humorous. Nor does it reflect a lofty, elusive, or everyday perspective.
It's abstract, conceptual, intellectual. Even though Wilber tries to mix in attempts at poetic mysticism, inevitably it comes off sounding fake to me. Here's a long-winded example from the final chapter.
Throw the circle as wide as you can, find a view from 50,000 feet, be inclusive using an integral pluralism and not just a pluralism (which soon fractures, fragments, and falls apart, leaving only the ego to rule), extend your compassionate embrace to the men and women doing the extraordinarily wonderful work in all of those fields and disciplines (covered by the 8 methodologies), reach out and bring their phenomenal worlds into the map of your own world, stretch your mind until it touches infinity and begins to radiate with the brilliance of the overmind, expand the beating of your heart to unleash its inherent desire to love every single thing and person and event in the entire Kosmos, so that you love all the way to infinity and all the way back, smiling when you actually, finally, amazingly see the radiant Face of God in the 2nd –person (or the ultimate Thou as infinite love, arising then as the ultimate We), even as your own Original Face is God in the 1st -person (or the ultimate I-I as this moment's pure nondual Witnessing-Emptiness), knowing too that the entire manifest universe – the Great Holarchy of beings all the way up, all the way down – is God in the 3rd –Person (or the ultimate It as the entire Kosmos): I and Thou and We and It, all brought together in the radiant contours of the simple Suchness of this and every moment, as you feel into the texture of the Kosmos and find your very Self in every warp and woof of a universe now arising as the radiance of the Spirit that can never be denied, any more than you can deny the awareness of this page, knowing, too, that Spirit and the awareness of this page are one and the same, and certainly not-two, so that you realize – with the great sages East and West, Lao Tzu to Asanga to Shankara to Paul to Augustine to Parmenides to Plotinus to Descartes to Schelling to Teresa and Lady Tsogyal – the ultimate secret of the spiritual world, namely, that fully enlightened and ever-present divine awareness is not hard to attain but impossible to avoid.
Whew. Wilber's editor should be ashamed of letting that single sentence into the book. Stream of consciousness writing is a poor substitute for a genuinely elevated vision.
Or at least, a vision that sounds elevated to me. Such as Lao Tzu's considerably briefer description of ultimate reality.
Know That which is beyond all beginnings
and you will know everything here and now
Know everything in this moment
and you will know the Eternal Tao
I think this is what Wilber is trying to say. But Lao Tzu shows you can say it simply, not complexly.
There's a lot not to like in Wilber's Integral Vision, as summarized in the run-on sentence above. I've written an essay about what he gets wrong about Plotinus, one of the "sages" he cites as supporting his integral philosophy.
Actually, Plotinus doesn't. Nor does Lao Tzu, in my opinion. Or Teresa, Augustine, Descartes, Parmenides , or almost all of the other people he mentions.
Wilber has a notoriously shallow understanding of the sources he cites in his books.
He implies to the reader that scholars share his take on a certain domain of human knowledge, but this frequently isn't true. So how is it possible to integrate the world's wisdom in many different areas when you don't really understand those separate domains of knowledge?
Again, what rubbed me most the wrong way in "Integral Spirituality" is that Wilber's description of the ideal spiritual practitioner sounds remarkably like…prepare for no big surprise…Ken Wilber.
Often people say that Wilber wants to be a guru, with all that this entails (fawning followers, unquestioning loyalty, and so on). I don't know if that's true, but his book does nothing to dispel that impression.
It's filled with mentions of his other writings, his Integral Institute, his efforts to show how other spiritual leaders/authors lack the all-encompassing vision of How-Things-Really-Are that Wilber possesses.
Now, part of me – maybe all of me – wishes that Ken Wilber possesses the keys to the universe that he believes he has. Because he and I are similar in many ways: long-time meditators, with an intellectual bent. I like his thesis that thinking about the cosmos (or Kosmos) is a significant aspect of spiritual practice, since I do a lot of that.
Indeed, perusing his Integral Life Practice Matrix, it sure seems like I should be enlightened by now. I'm doing a bunch of the core things that Wilber says lead to integral understanding.
Weightlifting. T'ai Chi. Qi Gong. Yoga. Reading & Study. Taking Multiple Perspectives. Centering Prayer. Therapy (well, I'm married to a psychotherapist, so maybe that counts).
But you know, somehow I suspect that I can keep on doing these things for the rest of my life, including studying more Ken Wilber books, and I'm still going to be clueless about the nature of the cosmos.
Though Lao Tzu offers me a bit of hope.
To rule the state, have a known plan
To win a battle, have an unknown plan
To gain the universe, have no plan at all
I enjoyed "Integral Spirituality." There's a lot of food for thought in the 300 or so pages. However, I liked various pieces of the book much more than the whole Integral Vision. That leaves me lukewarm, if not cold.
In this month's issue of Scientific American there's an article about how the accelerating universe is wiping out traces of its own origins. Eventually the big bang is going to be a mystery to future civilizations. The article ends with:
Most important, although we are certainly fortunate to live at a time when the observational pillars of the big bang are all detectable, we can easily envisage that other fundamental aspects of the universe are unobservable today.
What have we already lost? Rather than being self-satisfied, we should feel humble. Perhaps someday we will find that our current careful and apparently complete understanding of the universe is seriously wanting.
Ken Wilber, are you listening?
Here's some Wilber-critiquing web sites that I found today. Some of the ideas in this post were stimulated by the generally thoughtful writings available on these links.
"Ken Wilber is losing it," Michel Bauwens
Integral World (home page)
"Telling the Story As If It Were True," Frank Visser
"The Wild West Wilber Report," Frank Visser
"Critique of Ken Wilber," David Christopher Lane
"Critiques of Ken Wilber"
"The Age of Wilberius," Geoffrey Falk
"Norman Einstein: The Dis-Integration of Ken Wilber," Geoffrey Falk
"A Critique of Ken Wilber's Integral Method," M. Alan Kazlev
" Bald Ambition," Jeff Meyerhoff
"The Intersubjective Meditator," Andrew P. Smith
(Just noticed that all of the critiquers, and Wilber himself, are men. Is believing that you've uncovered the secrets of the spiritual universe, or that you're capable of criticizing the uncoverer, a male thing? Seemingly.)