We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts,
With our thoughts we make the world.
THE BUDDHA, The Dhammapada
I have thought long and hard about how to begin this review and have been concerned about appearing hyperbolic. However, I have decided to risk that and to simply say that I suspect Ken Wilber’s writings are works of genius and that we are privileged to witness the emergence of one of the great thinkers of our time. I say this because Wilber’s books and papers provide syntheses and integrations of unprecedented scope among diverse schools and disciplines of psychology, philosophy, religion, and sociology and display a combination of breadth and depth of knowledge that I have seen evidenced nowhere else.
I suspect that most of us believed, and all of us hoped, that some type of broad-ranging integration among the psychologies of East and West was possible and that psychology and religion might eventually nourish each other. Each year there seems to be another school, another novel therapy or religious practice. In general, most people have favored one or a very few approaches, and much heat has been generated arguing that this or that approach was the only true way. Though many of us may have believed that integrations were possible, there has until recently been very little evidence of them.
This lack is hardly surprising, since the demands of a good synthetic and integrative system are awesome. To begin with, anyone attempting such a task would have to have a good knowledge of not one, but multiple systems, be relatively unattached to any one viewpoint, be able to resist the pulls of reductionism and oversimplification, and be able to step back far enough to see the ways in which not just lines, but whole networks of concepts could be linked. This latter requirement demands not just a linear logic, but so-called “vision logic” or network logic. Small wonder, then, that with rare exceptions such as Stan Grof almost no one has proposed a truly integrative system.
Ken Wilber certainly seems to meet the requirements for a good synthesizer. He is familiar with all the major schools of Western psychology, being equally at home with psychoanalytic, existential, humanistic, transpersonal, gestalt and transactional approaches and he is just as knowledgeable about the major non-Western schools of Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism and Taoism.
How then does he see these systems fitting together? In his books The Spectrum of Consciousness and a more simplified version, No Boundary, he suggests that human consciousness can display a spectrum of states, that these can be related to corresponding structures of the unconscious, and that different psychologies and religions address different levels of this spectrum. The different approaches are therefore seen, not as necessarily contradictory and antagonistic, but as partially true and complementary.
He divides psychologies and their corresponding therapies into three major levels: pathology reduction, existential, and Mind or transpersonal levels. He sees optimal therapeutic gains occurring when the choice of therapy is matched appropriately to the level of conflict which the client is confronting. The Spectrum of Consciousness contains such a wealth of information and integrations, spanning most of the major theories and therapies of East and West, that I cannot hope to do full justice to it, or actually to any of his books, in the small space available here. Rather, I must content myself with sketching general outlines.
In his next book, The Atman Project, he turned his attention to developing an integrative developmental psychology. Here he traces development from infancy through adolescence, comparing and integrating among the major Western schools and thinkers such as Freud, Jung, Piaget, and Loevinger, among many others. This in itself would be a major feat. But what is quite unprecedented is that he then suggests that there are further levels of development which traditional Western psychology does not tap and then proceeds to employ the major non-Western schools to trace development through these levels up to and including the several levels of enlightenment.
One might expect that the result of collating so many apparently diverse and conflicting systems would be a vast jumble of largely unrelated data. But one of Wilber’s crucial contributions here is to suggest a developmental schema in which similar processes can be identified at each developmental stage, all the way from the pre-egoic through the egoic and ultimately on to the trans-egoic stages.
Since the egoic level has been viewed as the acme of human development by most Western psychologies, a recurrent trap has been to dismiss or pathologize the trans-egoic realms. Indeed, since many trans-egoic experiences, such as the dissolution of traditional ego boundaries, bear a superficial, but only superficial, resemblance to certain primitive pre-egoic conditions, there has been a tendency to equate the two. Thus, mystical experiences have sometimes been interpreted as “neurotic regressions to union with the breast,” ecstatic states viewed as “narcissistic neurosis,” enlightenment dismissed as “regression to intrauterine stages,” and meditation seen as “self-induced catatonia.” This is the trap of what Wilber calls “the pre-trans fallacy,” and in his paper of the same title, he catalogs the conceptual and informational inadequacies which have produced this fallacy and allowed it to survive for so long.
Having developed schemas for comparative and developmental psychologies, he next turned his attention to anthropology and applied the developmental schema from The Atman Project to human evolution. In Up From Eden, he traces the evolution of human consciousness, identity, culture and religion, and their dynamic interplay from the period of the first hominids up until the current time. He suggests that different stages of evolution have been marked by different predominant states of consciousness, and these have been reflected in the predominant forms of culture and religion. The general trend has been one of a progressive development and freeing of consciousness, first from identification with the body and then from various aspects of mind, a process which is recapitulated to some extent during ontogeny (individual maturation).
What he is essentially doing here is taking the perennial philosophy which lies at the heart of all the great religions and then viewing anthropological evidence of human evolution from this perspective. Wilber suggests that evolution is no mere random selection of genetic forces, but rather an expression of a vast cosmological game of hide-and-seek in which, as the esoteric core of the great religions indicates, consciousness creates matter and matter evolves through successive biological, mental and consciousness (spiritual) levels back to self-recognition.
At the acme of this evolutionary process, at least as far as we know it, are said to be the great mystic sages, the founders and prototypic true saints of the great religions. These he regards as evolutionary forerunners who point the way to the further stages of liberation of consciousness which are potential within us all and may represent humankind’s destiny and omega point. Such people identify with the entire universe and the universal consciousness which they once pretended to be separate from. This is the source of the statements common to the truly great sages, that “The Father and I are one,” “The kingdom of heaven is within you” [Christ], “Look within, thou art the Buddha” [Buddhism], “Atman (individual consciousness) and Brahman (universal consciousness) are one” [Hinduism], “God dwells within you as you” [Sidda Yoga], “He who knows himself knows his Lord” [Mohammed], “He who knows himself knows God” [Saint Christopher], “By understanding the Self all this universe is known” [the Upanishads), and so on. As a culture, we struggle with various levels of ego development, and are largely unaware of our further possibilities, even though our collective survival may depend upon realizing them.
Wilber’s next excursion was into sociology, and in A Sociable God he provides what he calls “a brief introduction to a transcendental sociology.” His aim is to provide, for the first time, a sociological framework which is capable of including transpersonal experiences and practices.
To do this, he takes the model of psychological maturation that he postulated in The Atman Project and uses it as a developmental framework against which the various levels of social interaction can be assessed. This model provides a corrective addition to current methods of sociological analysis such as hermeneutics (interpretation of meaning) which have lacked criteria for differentiating between different levels of social interaction. It also provides a means for avoiding the trap of taking one level of social interaction and pathology and making it paradigmatic for all, e. g., the physical level for Marx and the emotional for Freud. Marx interpreted all behavior in terms of economics and Freud in terms of sexuality. Art, philosophy, religion and all “higher” activities were then seen exclusively as expressions of economic oppression or sexual repression respectively.
After delineating these general schema, Wilber then applies them to specific religious issues confronting sociology today by interpreting the evolution of religion against his developmental framework. For example, our current progression away from mythic beliefs towards increasing rationalization has been widely interpreted as evidence of an anti- or post-religious evolution. But Wilber reframes this whole movement by noting that this type of progression is an appropriate phase-specific shift as the prerational yields to the rational on its way to the transrational (transpersonal, trans-egoic). From this evolutionary perspective, our current phase is seen as antireligious only if religion is equated, as it often is, with the prerational rather than with any of several levels on the prerational–rational–transrational developmental hierarchy. This perspective also allows a method of determining what Wilber calls the “authenticity” of a religion: the degree to which it fosters development to the transrational levels. This he differentiates from “legitimacy,” which he defines as the degree to which a religion fills the psychological and social needs of a population at its present developmental level.
The current religious ferment and the new religions can thus be examined in light of their responses to the current developmental phase of increasing rationality. Wilber suggests that three major types of responses are occurring. The first is an attempt to cling to the now outmoded mythic levels, and is exemplified by certain fundamentalists and regressive cults. The second embraces the ongoing rationalsecularization process, e.g., the liberal intelligentsia. The third response occurs only in a minority of cases and involves the attempt at actual transrational transformation, not by denying rationality, but by embracing it and going beyond it via intensive contemplative/yogic practices. It is this latter group which Wilber suggests may provide catalysts for a broader scale advance to these levels, if indeed such is to occur.
The importance of widespread maturation to full development of the rational level and then beyond is difficult to overestimate. Our willingness and ability to correct the vast amounts of worldwide suffering from preventable causes such as malnutrition, poverty, overpopulation, sociogenic psychopathology and oppression, as well as to avoid massive if not total nuclear suicide, may depend upon it. The importance of Ken Wilber’s contribution of a testable, critical, comprehensive sociological model capable of examining these evolutionary shifts without pathologizing the transrational level is likewise not to be underestimated.
In Eye to Eye, Wilber examines the philosophical background and underpinnings of his system. One of the key issues that he grapples with here is the problem of proof: how, if at all, does one provide proof of transcendental experience, especially proof which is acceptable to a culture fixated on science to such a degree that it often slips into scientism? Scientism is the belief that science is the best, or even the only means to true knowledge, and it is often accompanied by beliefs that what cannot be determined via sensory/physical data lies beyond the boundaries of true knowledge. Science certainly does seem to be the best means to some forms of knowledge, but not all forms.
Wilber takes a centuries-old thesis of Saint Bonaventure and argues that there are three distinct “eyes of knowledge” or epistemological modes: namely, the sensory, the intellectual (or symbolic) and the contemplative. Each of these modes, he suggests, has its own unique data and facts, and each realm of knowledge only partially overlaps others. To confuse these realms, such as by believing that all contemplative knowledge must be accessible and reducible to intellectual understanding, is to commit what Wilber terms a category error and to lose the unique qualities of each domain.
However, what is crucial, he points out, is that each domain does possess valid and appropriate means of assessing the validity of knowledge in its own realm. Thus, traditional scientific approaches are best suited for physical objects, hermeneutics best serves the symbolic realm (e.g., determining the quality of the play Hamlet is best done by hermeneutical dialogue rather than by scientific analysis of the ink) and contemplative understanding is best assayed by intersubjective testing by masters of this realm. This recognition of distinct domains and methods of proof may help reduce claims for exclusive truth which have marred discussions among scientists, philosophers, and contemplatives.
Lest I seem to be viewing Wilber’s thinking through rose-colored glasses, let me point to one of the problems that I personally have with it. My major concern is that in the attempts to integrate across apparently divergent systems, there may be some forcing of equivalences. Thus, for example, I find myself wondering if certain of the Hindu yogic states of consciousness can truly be equated with certain of those in the Buddhist system. Perhaps they can. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough to be sure, and the sad fact is that there are probably very few other people who know enough to be certain either. Hopefully, Wilber’s example will inspire more of us to acquire enough knowledge to make the comparisons that he is making and to either affirm or refine his system.
But although his thought system and worldview may have their limits, they also make immense contributions. Now we know that what we hoped for can in fact be done: It is possible to create broad-ranging syntheses across diverse and apparently even contradictory schools and disciplines. Hopefully, this will reduce sectarianism and the all-too-frequent hostility between adherents of different systems.
In addition, he has helped to make the major non-Western psychologies, which many of us had formerly regarded as esoteric at best or pathological at worst, more comprehensible. The same goes for the perennial philosophical and religious teachings which accompany them, and we can now recognize that at their esoteric core, the world’s great religions are no less than roadmaps to higher states of consciousness, a fact which has often been forgotten at tragic and incalculable cost to humanity. Of course, he is not alone in this; other Western psychologists such as Charles Tart, Stan Grof, Ram Dass and Dan Goleman, to name but a few, have also pointed to these interpretations.
Another of Wilber’s contributions is that he provides a comprehensive psychological and philosophical system supporting a generous and uplifting view of human nature. Gordon Allport remarked that “By their own theories of human nature, psychologists have the power of elevating or degrading that same nature. Debasing assumptions debase human beings; generous assumptions exalt them.” Wilber’s view of humanity journeying back to the universal consciousness or God, which it actually never ceased to be, is elevating indeed.
Lewis Mumford pointed out that the great historic human and social transformations stemmed at least in part from far-reaching transformations of human self-image. These shifts, such as those provided by Plato, Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas, involved three things according to Mumford: a broad-ranging synthesis of knowledge, a perspective of evolution which was teleological and purposive and viewed humanity as moving towards “the good” (Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega point), and finally, a recognition of a hierarchy of existence from matter to human beings to the whole, or “God.” And all of these great thinkers say that the first order of business for humanity is to align ourselves with this evolution and hierarchy. Wilber’s system seems consistent with these criteria.
Wilber’s contributions are prolific, and someone seeking an introduction to his thinking might want to begin with his autobiographical paper “Odyssey” , which is a personal account of the development of his work. Collections of his other papers can be found in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, ReVision, Walsh and Vaughan’s Beyond Ego and Walsh and Shapiro’s Beyond Health and Normality. His simplest book is No Boundary, and the others might best be read in chronological order.
One logical question is “How does he do it?” His own answer to this is “I do my homework.” He certainly does, devouring perhaps a hundred books and many, many papers each year, reading and writing for long stretches each day and, very importantly, being deeply involved in his own meditative practice. As he himself remarks, his understanding of the contemplative traditions, transpersonal experiences and non-Western psychologies would be gravely limited without this practice.
Another logical question is “Whom can he be compared with?” Carl Jung comes to mind by virtue of breadth of scholarship and open-minded interest in the major psychologies of both East and West, and Wilber readily acknowledges his indebtedness to Jung. But whatever comparisons are made, my own sense is that we are privileged to be witnessing the emergence of one of the great thinkers of our time, and one of the great theoretical psychologists of all time.
R. Walsh and D. H. Shapiro (eds) Beyond Health and Nonnality: Explorations of Exceptional Psychological Wellbeing; Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1982.
R. Walsh and F. Vaughan (eds) Beyond Ego: Transpersonal Dimensions in Psychology; Tarcher Press, 1980.
K. Wilber, The Spectrum of Consciousness; Quest, 1977.
—, No Boundary; Shambhala, 1979.
—, The Atman Project; Quest, 1980.
—, The Pre/Trans Fallacy; ReVision 3, 1980.
—, Odyssey: A personal inquiry into humanistic and transpersonal psychology. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 1982 (Winter).
—, Up From Eden: A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution; Doubleday and Shambhala, 1981.
—, A Sociable God: A Brief Introduction to a Transcendental Sociology; McGraw-Hill and Shambhala, 1982.
—, Eye to Eye: Quest for the New Paradigm; Doubleday / Anchor, 1982.