"Criticism has spiritual value"
- a visit with Ken Wilber, January 1997
by Frank Visser
As Wilber-watcher of the first hour I have followed his publications since the early eighties. For many years I have tried to make contact with him, in vain. Reading The Atman Project during my study years (I graduated in 1987 as a psychologist of religion), I knew at once Wilber was able to accomplish what I was looking for at that time: a truly scientific approach to human spirituality. I tried to promote Wilber at my university, but met with polite interest or indifference. I translated the book, got it published, although commercially this was not feasible, and kept writing Wilber letters with comments -- with no results.
In the meantime I had learned that he lived and worked as a hermit, did not answer his mail, and communicated with his colleagues mostly through his published work -- at least according to legend. In the middle of the eighties, and ten books further, nothing was heard from him for years, as his wife became seriously ill and he dropped writing completely (about this period he was to write later the book Grace and Grit ) -- the chances to meet him in person seemed close to zero.
But then in 1995 an incredibly massive book of his appeared, with the strange title Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, and I was in the USA that year to attend the annual congress of the International Transpersonal Association. On that occasion I heard about another book: A Brief History of Everything. I hardly could wait with the translation of that one! On my way back I visited the Theosophical Publishing House at Wheaton, the publisher of The Atman Project (I am a theosophist myself), and had such an inspired conversation with its senior editor about Wilber, that as I was about to leave she gave me his secret fax number on a scrap of paper.
Back home I tried my luck at once, and faxed to Wilber my impressions of the transpersonal congress -- and the questions I had collected over the years. I did not have to wait long for an answer. Already the next day there was a fax by Wilber, with a long reply. This was to be the beginning of an intense exchange of thoughts, which has continued to this day, all through the fax -- one could almost speak of a friendly fax relationship.
When at the end of last year I found an announcement on the internet of a Wilber-conference in San Francisco in January, the itch to meet him in person returned. Would a meeting with Wilber still be possible after all? The conference was the follow-up of a conversation which had been staged in three successive issues of the magazine ReVision, originally co-founded by Wilber. In these issues, his main opponents -- such as Stanislav Grof, Michael Washburn and a few others -- had written long articles and Wilber had answered these points of criticism one by one, so that for the first time something of a true dialogue on transpersonal matters was taking shape. The fact that Wilber would not be present at the conference was no surprise to me, for this had been his policy during the last twenty years. But wouldn't he be curious about what was said there about his person and his work? I took the risk and suggested I could visit him right after the conference, at his home in Boulder, to report on the proceedings and say hello to each other.
Right at Home
But alas, he was on a retreat at that time, he said, would give lectures at the Naropa Institute afterwards, and then had to get back to working hard on the sequel to Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. But the next day another fax came through: because of the Wilber conference, his publisher, Shambhala, had decided to bring out his new book The Eye of Spirit -- parts of which consisted of a long response to the conference material -- a few months earlier. He had to be in San Francisco for this, where the conference was held, and after the conference he would meet with a few good friends at parties, to which I was kindly invited. But maybe he would be right at home in Boulder... Because time was short and I had to book my flights, I urged for an answer. This came in the form of a hand written fax note: "You can stay at my house for one night. I have a room for visitors. Come on Monday, leave on Thuesday." Fifteen years of patience had finally turned out to be worthwhile.
With some luck I was able to purchase a ticket to Denver from SF, although United Airlines almost sabotaged the whole project by asking 1250 dollar for a return trip. Happily I could get a cheaper one at an obscure Aziatic travel agency for a flight with a Denver based company. Full of expectations I flew to Denver, where a bus would take me to Boulder.
In Boulder I met him in the lounge of a hotel called Boulderado, as he had suggested. Recognizing Ken Wilber in a crowded hotel lounge is not too difficult, because of his bald head and huge stature, he towers above everyone else. He walks towards me with a big smile and takes me to his jeep, which waits outside. From that moment on, a friendly conversation starts that covers everything from the conference of the past weekend, the overpowering natural beauty of Colorado, the outrageous prices of air companies and things that are on his mind at the moment. After a ride through the mountains we reach his home -- he lives at a high altitude in some kind of chalet that provides a panoramic view, in the Rocky Mountains rising from the plains below.
We enter the house, sit down in the kitchen -- me on a bar chair, he next to the sink, leaning back against a cupboard -- and start a conversation that is to last for nine-and a half hours at a stretch. It is four o'clock in the afternoon and till around half past one that night we talk and talk uninteruptedly about the most profound (and the most profane) subjects. He is intense in everything he does, can talk passionately, or listen quietly. He expresses himself subtly or very forcefully, and has an incredible sense of humor. Above all he is very kind and concerned about my well-being ("Are you comfortable, Frank?").
Wilber's appearance is remarkable. His bald head is something one has to get used to. His expressiveness is a second striking characteristic. He underlines what he talks about with big gestures. Living at this altitude in the sunny climate has given him a tanned skin, and makes him look healty for the reclusive hermit he is. Clothed in jeans and a much too wide skirt he answers to the image that has formed around him: he lives for his work, in seclusion, and does not bother much about how he looks.
Why he had not come to the conference devoted to his work was one of the first questioned I asked him. The articles in ReVision had not convinced him of the usefulness of his presence there, he explained. He was disappointed by the mediocre quality of most of the contributions. And although he could follow the criticism from feminist, ecological or depth psychological quarters, he felt all this was set in a regressive framework, which did not value the qualities of modernity enough.
As the hours go by it becomes crystal clear to me why he has always expressed in his writings so many reservations about most of the alternative and transpersonal world. As anyone familiar with his work will know, Wilber considers most, if not all, so-called New Age or New Science models of human development regressive or reductionistic, regardless of how much they present themselves as promising syntheses between science and spirituality. In his massive work Sex, Ecology, Spirituality he has openly expressed for the first time his sharp criticism of these dubious trends in contemporary "spirituality" -- which has won him a few more enemies. In fact, at the conference the main point of many contributions was that he, as a spiritual authority, should know his responsibility and show more compassion and respect towards other views. Criticizing as he had done was considered to be unspiritual...
When I confront him with this, he suddenly becomes sharp and very concentrated. In his opinion, the depth of the spiritual traditions is lost almost completely in the popular views of spirituality, from the Aquarian Conspiracy to the Celestine Prophecy. To point out in what way his view differs from all this, he explains these views often contain a highly dualistic worldview (contrary to their holistic pretentions). They talk of only two poles: ego and Self (Jung), ego and Ground (Washburn), ego and essence (Hameed Ali), ego and body (Lowen). (Interestingly, Wilber does the same in his first two books, Spectrum of Consciousness and No Boundary, where he writes about ego and Mind, FV.)
The general type of reasoning with these authors then is: at the start of his/her development a human being is in a state of union with the Self, although unconsciously. During the process of growing up this transcendent reality is repressed, and the ego develops. This ego not only loses contact with the body, but also with the spiritual dimension. To become spiritual as an adult again, we therefore have to undo this repression, so that the ego can recontact the Self, but now consciously. The middle phase of ego and mind gets a negative quality in this way, and spiritual development is conceptualized as a process of regression. We have to return to something we have lost. Often, only two categories are recognized: a "good" one and a "bad" one. "Good" means: nature, the body, holism, oneness, linking, primitive cultures, the feminine, quantum physics. "Bad" means: culture, mind, atomism, division, ranking, modernity, the masculine, classical physics.
Wilber criticizes this dualistic view with an unprecedented vehemence. So-called New Science -- a mixture of systems theory, holography, quantum physics, chaos theory, or any other new scientific fad showing up -- is for Wilber as materialistic as the much despised Old Science of Descartes and Newton (who presented very holistics views of reality in fact). Both atomism and holism are flatland ideologies, while we ought to pioneer into the depth dimension of human consciousness. Unity is not more spiritual than division, he adds rapidly, for there are immature forms of unity, as there are mature and spiritual forms of making divisions. Both are needed for a healthy development.
Many consider nature to be more spiritual (for it is cosmic), than culture (which is "only" a human invention). For Wilber, it is precisely the other way round. Nature is divine, true enough, but in the world of culture the human mind is expressed, which is more spiritual than unconscious nature. So-called primitive cultures are not automatically more spiritual than so-called secularized Western culture. They can be very dogmatic, cultivate a group mentality, and prevent individual growth.
The body is seen in some circles as the home of spirituality, for it is supposed to be more real and energetic than the ghostly ego: we should not live in our heads to much, but come down to our senses, something is real only when it is experienced through the body. In sharp contrast, Wilber sees the human power to transcend the body as a sign of development, and therefore as a step towards spirituality.
And finally, the feminine is not automatically more spiritual than the masculine, he states, although this is the impression one gets from much ecological and feminist literature. Men are depicted as stupid creatures who wage war and oppress women, while women are supposed to be more spiritual because they know how to be in relation and are good at linking. For Wilber, men and women are equally spiritual or unspiritual, for both have to go through a difficult process of development from the prepersonal to the personal to the transpersonal. Men will do this in their way, stressing agency, women will do it in their way, stressing communion, but neither of them is essentially more spiritual than the other.
For this reason, Wilber proposes a threefold developmental model: the stages go from prepersonal to personal to transpersonal. One might think here of analogous threefold divisions such as: body, soul, spirit; instinct, intellect, intuition; mythic, mental, mystic; animal, human, divine. And here comes the point: the first stage, which is considered "good" in the twofold model, is now the most primitive phase. And the second stage, considered "bad" in the twofold model - the ego, mind, Western culture -- is now a real step forward, in the direction of the spiritual. In short: in our development, individually and culturally, we don't go from good to bad, but from good to better to best.
The ego is now no longer the enemy of spirit, but its best friend, because it takes us out of unconscious nature. Typically modern values such as rationality and individuality are valued very differently in these two models. One can recognize these two views easily by the way ego and mind are evaluated. Which contemporary spiritual path encourages comparative study and intense intellectual work, for example? Working with the body and emotions is seen by many as more spiritual than using one's mind -- and this is what Wilber calls the regressive tendency. If you get this point, you don't need to read all his fifteen books, it crosses my mind.
We start to eat a warmed up sandwich, but let it become cold again. Wilber explains that his point can be found in the history of Western philosophy. (note) In the eighteenth and nineteenth century two movements reacted to the dominant rationalist culture of the Enlightenment. Romanticism turned its back on reason and declared nature, the body and the emotions to be sacred, and argued for a return to divine nature. In contrast, idealism also considers nature to be divine, but it is a slumbering divinity, while God starts to awaken in human beings. We can see God easily in nature nowadays, but do we see Him at work in culture -- in modern accomplishments such as democracy, the abolition of slavery, human rights, liberation movements, rationality, tolerance? For the idealists, a third stage followed on this, in which Spirit becomes conscious of Itself.
Spirituality has to do with this third phase only, according to Wilber, and not with an anti-rationalistic romanticizing of nature. This romanticizing in effect blocks spiritual growth, and to sell this as spirituality is cruel -- Wilber adds passionately -- for it prolongs suffering, instead of ending it. Because in many views he sees "depth take a vacation" he had decided to speak out and criticize these views openly. Criticism has spiritual value, he concludes his sermon.
At a certain hour he says it's time to go to bed for him, and he leaves me with a Dutch beer, looking out on Denver by night. It has been rather dizzifying, and I try to absorb the past few hours. The New Age looking for a slumbering God? Rationality as step towards spirituality? Secularizaton as an act of God? At least highly original views.
Because sleep doesn't come easily that night -- who can sleep when being under the same roof with his idol? -- I roam through the lower floor of his three level house. The thousands of books he is said to read are really there, neatly grouped by topic. The many translations of his books -- there are 15 books now in 16 translations -- are displayed on shelves. There are many German, Spanish and Portuguese translations, but also Chinese and Japanese. To have a Chinese translation of No Boundary in your hands is a strange experience indeed! The middle floor has a kitchen and a living room, which has a large color tv permanently showing his favorite channel, Travel Channel, advertising trips to Europe. In the upper level he works and sleeps, and here too many books are stacked.
continued in part 2===>>>
note: This paragraph is adapted from Wilber's new manuscript The Integration of Religion and Science.
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