The Rise and Fall of Ken Wilber
Ken Wilber is the smartest man you’ve never heard of. He’s a philosopher and mystic whose work attempts to integrate all fields of study into one single model or framework of understanding.
When I say, “all fields of study,” I mean that literally. Wilber believes that every field of knowledge contains at least one aspect of truth, no matter how small, and that reconciling disparate disciplines is a matter of integrating what’s right about them rather than discounting them for being partially wrong. As Wilber often puts it: “No one is smart enough to be wrong 100% of the time,” and therefore we should focus on what’s right and leave out the rest.
Neurobiology, Jungian archetypes, horticultural societies, hermeneutics, Hegelian dialectics, systems theory, Zen koans, post-structuralism, Vedantan Hinduism, capitalist economic systems, transpersonal states of consciousness, neo-Platonic forms — the list goes on and on — all explained and fit together neatly in one map of reality, what he semi-ironically calls, “A Theory of Everything.” Above all, he manages to explain it all in lucid and brilliant prose. You literally feel yourself getting smarter as you read him.
A intellectual prodigy as a child, Wilber was a Doctoral student at Duke University in biology when he quit his program in order to, as he put it, “sit in a room by myself and stare at a wall for five years.” He then went on a binge of studying eastern spirituality, religion, and psychology.
Here’s a video of him stopping and starting his brain waves using different forms of meditation:
I discovered Wilber when I was 19. That same year I read all of his books, all 15 of them. They were dense, but it was a watershed moment in my intellectual and personal growth. Discovering him was truly conscious-expanding. After understanding his model, the rest of the world felt simpler. Also, I had a very powerful spiritual experience when I was a teenager, but could never reconcile any sort of spiritual practice or belief with scientific knowledge and rigor. Wilber did that for me. He’s been one of the most influential thinkers, if not the most influential thinker in my life.
There’s not nearly enough room on this blog to do Wilber’s theory justice. But if you’ve got time and are up for an intellectual exercise, you can find a summary of his integrated psychological model here, a brief overview of his AQAL model here, and a long-form critique of his work here.
Of course, the best way to learn about his material is to go to the man himself. I recommend everyone begin with A Brief History of Everything followed by Integral Psychology and his masterpiece Sex, Ecology, Spirituality.
Instead of attempting to explain his work, I’ll instead outline a few of the most important ways that he’s influenced my own thinking:
- Nothing is 100% right or wrong, they merely vary in their degree of incompleteness and dysfunction. No one or nothing is 100% good or evil, they just vary in their degree of ignorance and disconnection. All knowledge is a work in progress.
- Leaps in evolution usually occur in a manner of “transcending and including,” not by wiping out what came before. For instance, the evolution to the developmental level of a single-cell organism did not wipe out molecules, but included them into a greater order of complexity. Wilber asserts that this pattern of evolution occurs with all phenomena. Rational thought did not eliminate emotion, but included it into a greater developmental level of consciousness. Industrial societies did not wipe out agriculture, but transcended agriculture into greater levels of efficiency and prosperity. If we’re going to truly evolve, we do so by including and integrating what came before into something greater, not by wiping it out.
- Related to Point #2: the goal of spirituality is to transcend the ego, not to demolish it or repress it. Many spiritual leaders who claimed to have rid themselves of ego, it turns out, merely repress it. The results are horrible and sometimes tragic.
- Wilber has a concept called the “Pre/Trans Fallacy” which states that people often mistake what’s pre-conventional (earlier phase of development) for being post-conventional (later stage of development) because neither are conventional. One example he uses is the New Age spiritual movements which glorify a return to an infantile state of acting purely on emotion and desire. They mistake these earlier, narcissistic emotional whims for spiritual experiences, since both emotional revelry and spiritual experiences are non-rational experiences. Since their emotional revelry is non-rational, and spiritual experiences are non-rational, they confuse the two. This concept can be applied in many areas of personal and social development.
- Perception contains interior and exterior modalities, or Wilber’s solution to the Mind-Body Problem in philosophy. You can cut open someone’s brain, track the neurons firing when they think about a cat, but which is real, the neurons firing or the thought about the cat? It depends who you ask. The problem arises when one assumes that our thoughts and behavior are controlled by the physical assortment of neurons firing, it implies that our minds are not autonomous and that we lack free will. Wilber states that both the interior and exterior modes of consciousness are not only equally real, but reflections of one another. Indeed, research into neuro-plasticity (the ability to change the physical configuration of your brain through changing thought patterns and behavior) is beginning to back up this conclusion.
- Hierarchies exist, but don’t necessarily mean moral superiority. There are higher levels of development and complexity, people of greater skills and talents, but that does not mean they are morally superior or more complete expressions of reality or that lower levels on the hierarchy should not be honored. For instance, nuclear science is a higher form of human understanding than voodoo magic or religious dogma, but Wilber argues that that does not mean one should be imposed onto the other. Each has its uses depending on where a person’s level of consciousness is.
The beauty of integrating ALL fields of knowledge into a single model is that that model has wide implications on EVERY field of study. Once you understand Wilber’s conclusions, it becomes apparent how his model and ideas could benefit everything from politics to science to psychology to spirituality.
A Movement Is Born
In 1999, coming off the success of his monster 1,000-page magnum opus Sex, Ecology, Spirituality and the model of consciousness and development it presented, Wilber started Integral Institute, a think-tank and academic institution to set the foundation to disseminate Wilber’s ideas to the world.
World famous leaders and thinkers such as Al Gore, Tony Robbins, Nathaniel Branden, Alex Grey, David Deida and Tony Schwartz gave ringing endorsements. Seminars and websites were created, conferences convened, it seemed a legitimate spiritually-infused intellectual movement was taking form and was soon to uproot conventional “non-integral” forms of thinking in science, academia, politics, and society in general.
Among Wilberites, there was a bursting enthusiasm. For his entire career, Wilber had been an intellectual recluse, turning down every interview and refusing to prescribe any sort of action or application of his model to the world around him. He spent more than 20 years in radio silence. But that was about to change. At the time, Wilber talked about the birth of a new integral zeitgeist which he believed would sweep through conventional thought and change how the world perceived itself. And we believed him. Wilber’s work had changed our lives, so naturally we couldn’t wait to see what the actual application of his model could do for society at large.
In early 2005, I excitedly attended an Integral Intensive weekend in Boston. Not only did I want to engage with other “second-tier” thinkers, but I wanted to somehow get involved and help promote Wilber’s ideas. As a lowly university student, I scrounged up almost of all of the money I had in order to go (to this day, it is the only self help seminar I’ve ever attended).
But upon arrival, my idealism took a punch to the gut. And although the weekend was an enjoyable experience and in some ways powerful, by the time I left, something didn’t sit right.
Great Light Casts A Great Shadow
At the weekend seminar, I couldn’t shake the feeling that what we were participating in was thinly-veiled self indulgence and little more. In hindsight, I think this was as much a branding problem (from a business perspective) as an organizational problem (social perspective). Integral Institute built their movement in order to influence academia, governmental policy, to get books and journals published, to infuse these ideas into the world at large. Yet, here we were, spending money to sit in a room performing various forms of meditation and yoga, having group therapy sessions, art performances, and generally going on and on about how “integral” we were and how important we were to the world without seemingly doing anything on a larger scale about it.
If you want to be a self-development seminar and motivate people, then be a self-development seminar and motivate people. If you want to be a formal institute and have serious effects on policy and academia, then do that. Don’t half-ass both and muddy them with gratuitous talks and performances. The irony in all of this was that Wilber’s integral framework applied to organizations and business and should have accounted for these branding issues, but didn’t. The ironies would soon continue to mount.
Following Wilber online, the conversation seemed to only become more and more insular. With an onslaught of problems in the world crying out for an integral perspective and solution — terrorism, the Iraq War, climate change, world hunger, financial crises — the silence coming from the Integral crowd was deafening. Major global and social issues were often only referred to in passing as descriptors for a certain level of consciousness development with the overarching implication being that “they” are not as highly developed as “we” are.
We’re “second-tier” thinkers. We’re going to change the world… as soon as we’re done talking about how awesome and “second-tier” we are.
Instead, most conversations involved esoteric spiritual topics, impulsive self-expressionism, and re-explaining the integral model in 4,102 different ways. For a philosophy based on including and integrating as much as possible, its followers sure expressed it by forming a nicely-sealed bubble around themselves.
Evidence of this came when Wilber’s critics popped up. Experts in many of the fields Wilber claimed to have “integrated” questioned or picked apart some of his assumptions. In Wilber’s model, he uses what he refers to as “orienting generalizations,” ways of summarizing entire fields of study in order to fit them together with other forms of knowledge. Wilber admits in his work that he’s generalizing large topics and that there is not consensus in many fields, but that he’s constructed these generalizations to reflect the basic and agreed-upon principles of each field of study.
Well, a number of experts began questioning Wilber’s choice of sources, and claimed that what he portrayed as consensus in some fields such as developmental psychology or sociology, it turned out there was still quite a bit of debate and uncertainty around some of Wilber’s “basic” conclusions. Often, what Wilber portrayed as the “consensus” of a certain field actually amounted to an obscure or minority position.
Critics also picked apart Wilber’s model itself, showing minor contradictions in it. And a number of people caught on to his shockingly meek understanding of evolutionary biology and his puzzling insinuations of intelligent design.
Wilber’s eventual response to many of these critics was nothing short of childish — a dozen-or-so page (albeit extremely well-written) verbal shit-storm that clarified nothing, justified nothing, personally attacked everyone, and straw-manned the shit out of his critics’ claims.
For many, that was the day the intellectual giant fell, the evolution stopped, the so-called “Einstein of consciousness” took his ball and went home.
From there, the integral movement began to sputter. Rabbi Marc Gafni, a spiritual leader whom Wilber aligned himself and even co-sponsored seminars with, was later indicted in Israel for child molestation. Despite this, Wilber and his movement refused to distance themselves or repudiate him. In fact, the whole integral scene doubled down, claiming that its critics were “first-tier thinkers,” and were coming up with lies in order to attack a greater, higher level of consciousness that it didn’t understand.
The seminars slowed to a crawl. Wilber’s health deteriorated greatly (he was diagnosed with a rare disease that keeps him bed-ridden). He stopped writing. Ten years on, despite developing some fans in academia (some in high places) Wilber’s work had yet to be tested or peer-reviewed in a serious journal. Much of his posting online devolved into bizarre spiritual claims (such as this one about an “enlightened teacher” who can make crops grow twice as fast by “blessing them”).
The brilliant scientist-turned-monk-turned-recluse-turned-New-Age-celebrity, whose ideas changed everything for so many people (myself included), devolved into the butt of another New Age joke. How the mighty have fallen.
A Cautionary Tale
Although flawed, Wilber’s integral perspective continues to be an inspiration in my life. I do believe he will be written about decades or centuries from now, and will be seen as one of the most brilliant minds of our generation. But as with most brilliant thinkers, his influence and ideas will be carried on by others in ways which he did not anticipate or plan.
Wilber’s story is a cautionary tale. His intellectual understanding was immense, as much as I’ve ever come across in a single person. He also tapped into some of the farthest reaches of consciousness, spiritual or not, that humans have self-reported. I do believe that. But ultimately, he was done in by his pride, his need for control and, well, ironically his ego.
The point is, if Wilber can succumb to it, any of us can. No one is immune. No matter how brilliant and how “enlightened,” we’re all animals.
Wilber was a baby boomer in the US through the 60’s and 70’s. He came up through many of that generation’s eastern spiritual movements. These movements were started by eastern teachers and subscribed to a dogma that an enlightened awareness could develop someone into a flawless individual, an immutable authority. Despite Wilber’s massive understanding of human psychology and consciousness, he never seemed to shake this dogma. It followed Wilber through his career and eventually manifested itself in himself. When he was younger, he notoriously followed Adi Da, a spiritual leader who was later found to be sexually abusing female followers. Yet he stood by him. Later in his career, he also aligned with Andrew Cohen, a spiritual leader who was found to be physically and emotionally abusing his followers. And again, he stood by him. Why? Because Wilber maintained they had genuinely reached the farthest limits of human awareness and understanding.
What Wilber taught me is that no depth of spiritual experience can negate our physical and primal drives for power, lust and validation. As primates, we’re wired to seek someone to look up to as well as to be looked up to by others. And that’s true whether we’re experiencing Godhead or bodhisattva or not. It’s inescapable.
Wilber also showed me that a brilliant mind does not necessarily make a brilliant leader. Wilber bragged in an interview that he never planned anything at Integral Institute, because planning would not represent a “second-tier” leadership. Despite massive funding, enthusiasm, brain power and demand, Integral Institute found a way to fail.
The grand irony here is that Wilber’s model itself, the Integral framework, accounts for and describes everything I said in the paragraphs above. Wilber failed in the exact ways his own model predicted. His model champions the idea of transcending the ego, not negating it. It calls for crowd-sourced intellectual rigor and peer-review. It goes on, at length, about the shadow self and how our unconscious desires sabotage our greater goals. It covers our primal and biological nature and how our lower impulses must be accepted and kept in check.
Yet he still succumbed to the same faults he warned us about.
David Foster Wallace states in his speech “This Is Water” that we all choose something to worship, whether we realize it or not. Wilber would say what we choose to worship is dependent on the stage or level of consciousness we’ve developed to. And he would be right.
But what he seems to have missed is that worshipping consciousness development itself, Wilber’s so-called “second-tier” thinking, leads to the same disastrous repercussions Wallace warned of: vanity, power, guilt, obsession.
No one is immune.
As humans, we have a tendency to cling to ideologies. Any positive set of beliefs can quickly turn malevolent once treated as ideology and not an honest intellectual or experiential pursuit of greater truth. Ideology does in entire economic systems and countries, causes religions to massacre thousands, turns human rights movements into authoritarian sects and makes fools out of humanity’s most brilliant minds. Einstein famously wasted the second half of his career trying to calculate a cosmological constant that didn’t exist because “God doesn’t play dice.”
Wilber’s brilliance will always be a part of me. But what he really taught me is this: There is no ideology. There is no guru. There is only us, and this, and the silence.
First published at markmanson.net