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Elliot BenjaminElliot Benjamin is a philosopher, mathematician, musician, counselor, writer, with Ph.Ds in mathematics and psychology and the author of over 150 published articles in the fields of humanistic and transpersonal psychology, pure mathematics, mathematics education, spirituality & the awareness of cult dangers, art & mental disturbance, and progressive politics. He has also written a number of self-published books, such as: The Creative Artist, Mental Disturbance, and Mental Health. See also:


Wilber and Freud

The Guru Question Continued

Elliot Benjamin

Perhaps what we need here is different terms to describe the various shades, degrees, valences, and aspects of being a guru.

Is Ken Wilber a guru? This is the most recent question explored by Integral World, in the essays by Jos Groot and Frank Visser, and the book chapter by Geoffrey Falk [1]. I appreciate in particular Groot and Visser's analysis of the Wilber guru question along the lines of the guru description given by British psychiatrist Anthony Storr [2]:

Gurus differ from each other in a variety of ways, but most claim the possession of special spiritual insight based on personal revelation. Gurus promise their followers new ways of self-development, new paths to salvation.... Anyone can become a guru if he or she has the hubris to claim special spiritual gifts.

Given this description of a guru, I must agree with Groot and Visser, as well as Falk, that Wilber would fall into the guru category. However, I contend that so would a host of other philosophers, psychologists, and transformational speakers, and it may very well be that Storr's above description of a guru is not the one that makes the most sense to use.

Sigmund Freud, 1921
Sigmund Freud, 1921

To begin with, let's take the example of Sigmund Freud. Perhaps it might sound like stretching things a bit to refer to Freud's world-changing insights in his formation of psychoanalysis as “spiritual,” but if we use the dictionary definitions of spirituality that involve words like “sacred,” “veneration,” and “worship,” then I think it can reasonably be argued that Freud's all-encompassing lifelong devotion to making his psychology of psychoanalysis into the be-all and end-all of psychological life in the first half of the 20th century can be construed under the heading of a “spiritual” endeavor.

My perspective here is actually endorsed by Anthony Storr himself, as can be seen from the following excerpt from his Feet of Clay book, which is where Storr's above description of a guru was taken from by Groot [3]:

Throughout his long life, Freud claimed to be a scientist. He would have indignantly repudiated the title of guru, and dismissed any suggestion that he was promulgating a faith. Yet psychoanalysis is partly based on personal revelation and is neither a science nor merely a method of treatment....

Freud was far more of a guru than his followers have acknowledged....

It is still insufficiently appreciated that some of the most fundamental hypotheses of psychoanalysis had nothing to do with the objective observation of clinical cases. As with the revelations of the gurus whom we have already examined, they had a purely subjective origin, and followed upon a period of mental and physical distress; Freud's “creative illness.”....

Although Freud continued to proclaim that psychoanalysis was a science, psychoanalysis became a movement which more closely resembled a secular religion than a set of scientific theories....

Freud also resembled other gurus in being intolerant of criticism. He treated disagreement as personal hostility....

Even his earliest and most faithful adherents could claim Freud only as Master, not as a friend....

Psychoanalysis became more and more like a religious cult, and Freud himself applied the term heretics to defectors....

Although Freud dismissed religion as an illusion, his conviction that he was right was a matter of faith rather than of reason....

in effect he treated his own theories as if they were a personal revelation granted to him by God and demanded that others should accord to them the reverence which the sacred word usually commands....

Like other gurus, Freud possessed considerable charisma, based upon his certainty that he was right.

However, in all fairness to Freud, Storr claims that Freud was not a “corrupt or disreputable” guru, although it appears to me from Storr's descriptions of Freud, and especially from Frederick Crews' description of Freud (see below), that a determination of just how “corrupt or disreputable” Freud was is more complicated than Storr concludes (cf. [3]):

As we have seen, Freud exhibited a number of the typical features of gurus, but virtually none of their corrupt or disreputable characteristics. He charged high fees to those who could afford them, but was also generous to those in need....

Freud was dogmatically sure of his theories; but, unlike some of the gurus whom we have considered, exhibited no features of psychotic illness like delusions or hallucinations.

And in regard to the cult-like characteristics of psychoanalysis as a quasi-religious movement, Storr says the following (cf. [3]):

But the fact that Freud became elevated into a guru and that psychoanalysis became a way of life has had a number of undesirable consequences from which we have not fully recovered. In the 1930s and well into the 1950s, psychoanalysts considered themselves, by virtue of their training, to have acquired a unique insight into human nature from which those who had not been analyzed must always be excluded. Psychoanalytic training offered membership of an elite circle claiming superior knowledge and status. Those who questioned psychoanalytic theory or practice were said to be insufficiently analyzed. As an inevitable consequence of faith combined with intolerance, psychoanalytic societies and institutes, on both sides of the Atlantic, became divided into splinter groups and warring factions, each claiming possession of “the truth,” exactly as happens in religious movements. Freud was more of a messianic figure than many people realize; but some of his disciples became deluded fanatics....

One of the regrettable aspects of becoming a psychoanalyst was, and maybe still is, a tendency to become more and more isolated from the ordinary world. Janet Malcolm, describing a New York émigré analyst, wrote: “Her entire life was taken up with psychoanalytic concerns: during the day she saw patients, at night she went to meetings at the Institute, and when she and her husband went out to dinner or entertained at home it was always with analysts. Other people fall away, she explained. There is less and less to talk about with people on the 'outside' who don't look at things the way analysts do.”

Storr concludes his description of Freud as guru by saying “Freud ostensibly rejected the role of guru, but in fact exemplified it” (cf. [3]). To give a reinforcement of Storr's description of Freud as guru, the following excerpts from a discussion of the similar views by University of California at Berkeley English professor Frederick Crews to that of Storr is something I find particularly revealing [4]:

“In Freud's presence, people felt there was this penetrating power,” claims Frederick Crews, professor emeritus of English at University of California at Berkeley....

Though Freud presented himself as a scientist, Crews argues that he operated more like a guru, convincing people of the superb rightness of his ideas through the sheer force of his personality rather than through their objective validity....

Crews thinks there was a dark side to Freud's charisma. “People were afraid of Freud, and would do anything to avoid his disapproval. They became abject in his presence, and this abjectness was itself indoctrinating. If you give up your intellectual independence in somebody's presence, that person becomes all-consuming. The message Freud gave his followers was that he personified psychoanalysis. He was psychoanalysis.... much like the gurus described by British psychiatrist Anthony Storr, Freud resisted any criticism. He called these attacks manifestations of unconscious resistance, and claimed that critics needed to be analyzed to understand psychoanalysis properly....

What Freud is saying to the world is, If you disagree with me it's because you're not an initiate.... You have not had the experience that creates true belief.” Once psychoanalysis had been evangelized by Freud, he attracted priests for his new religion. “[In 1912] Ernest Jones and Salvador Ferenczi, two of Freud's most loyal disciples, came to him with the idea that they should have a secret central committee of psychoanalysis,” Crews says. “They would monopolize the psychoanalytic channels, and plant negative stories about defectors. Freud was so thrilled with this idea that he went out and had rings made for the members of the committee; he then held a private ceremony in which members acquired their rings and swore loyalty.” Crews sees this as a cult-like experience of having the master metaphorically lay hands on his disciples through personal psychoanalysis.
Now I think the similarities to the above descriptions of Freud as guru... and of Wilber as guru are painfully obvious.

Now I think the similarities to the above descriptions of Freud as guru given by Storr and Crews, and the descriptions of Wilber as guru given by Groot, Wilber, and Falk, are painfully obvious (cf. [1]). Groot raises concerns over Wilber being “mildly guru-like” and a “commercial guru” through his pervasive development of Integral Institute and Integral Life, as well as his “unintelligibility and inflation (using many words without saying much)” (cf. [1]). Visser once again forcefully points out Wilber's lack of scientific and evolutionary knowledge in a number of his (i.e. Wilber's) overconfident claims, and summarizes Wilber's recent two-hour “Integral Living Room” talk by saying: “The religious overtones of this session are all too obvious here. Wilber's system has all the characteristics of a religious philosophy” (cf. [1]). And Falk characteristically uses his penetrating wit to continue to extensively denounce Wilber in no uncertain terms, incorporating the concerns and criticisms of both Groot and Visser, as well as Integral World Wilber critics Jeff Meyerhoff and David Lane and others, after initially giving the following revealing quote by Wilber (cf. [1]):

In short, it's just ridiculous to say that I try to hide form this criticism, I love it!.... This is what second tier does automatically anyway, it takes new truths wherever it finds them and weaves them into large tapestries. It can't help doing so! If I find one, I am ecstatic! So mark this well: Only a first-tier mentality would even think that one would run away from good criticism.

And here is Falk's response:

Wilber, however, does run away from competent, thorough criticism like vampires flee from the sun. Mark that well. You do not need to be first-, second-, or nth-tier to see that; all you need to be able to do is to recognize competent research when you see it, and then note kw's derogatory response.

Falk makes use of the following excerpt from an anonymous blogger (cf. [1]):

The herd mentality that Wilber should concern himself with is the herd mentality he encourages in his young followers, the groupthink, the in-group versus out-group dynamic, the loading of the language with jargon and psychobabble, the arrogance, narcissism, and grandiosity.

In Falk's inimitable style of critique he adds the following after quoting a Wikipedia description of narcissism:

That, of course, matches Wilber's behaviors point-by-point. From his childish bloggings, to his misjudging his most cogent critics as “morons” compared to his own “brilliance,” to his know-it-all nature, to his insensitive “forgiving” of others (and simultaneous failure to ask for forgiveness himself) when he is clearly the one who is wrong. And more, to his haughtiness and arrogance, to his paranoid (i.e. disproportionate to reality) feeling of being loathed and condemned, to his obvious need for underserved unconditional admiration. And from his certainty, from his own misinterpreted experiences, that paranormal phenomena and mystical winds exist— implying the magical ability of his thoughts to influence the world around him. And finally to his unconscionable manipulation and exploitation of others to ensure his own “greatness”....

If you can love a raging narcissist, who by all believable reports will “love” you back only so long as you are useful to him, more power to you.

Well based upon what I have described above in regard to the perspective of viewing both Freud and Wilber as gurus, one may wonder what problem I could possibly have with the guru determination of either one of them. The problem I have is essentially that the categorization is too inclusive. Let me explain.

Barbara Marx Hubbard
Barbara Marx Hubbard

As an example, let's look at conscious evolutionary Barbara Marx Hubbard, whom earlier this year I did a large-scale internet workshop with through the Shift network [5]. 83-year-old Hubbard is passionate about her conscious evolutionary ideas, and has thousands of devoted students, as she promotes her ideas to widespread audiences through her courses, speaking engagements, and her internet site [6]. I can personally testify that being a student of Hubbard may very well involve life-changing experiences, and that her philosophy is very consistent with how Visser described Wilber's “Living Room Talk” in which he (Wilber) explains to his students that “we” are at the pedestal of what evolution has come up with after billions of years. So is Barbara Marx Hubbard a guru? Well according to Storr's description of a guru we must include Hubbard as guru.

I could go on and on here—describing various psychologists, philosophers, and transformational speakers inclusive of Deepak Chopra, Carl Jung, John Kabat Zinn, Marianne Williamson, Carl Rogers, Steve Hayes, Lisa Nichols, Cyndi Dale, etc. [7], and one by one put them in Storr's guru category (as Storr himself did for Jung; cf. [2]). But Storr's division into corrupting and non-corrupting gurus, as described by Groot (cf. [1]), is of paramount importance. For it is necessary to distinguish the repugnant “hitting, punching, and buckets of paint poured over heads” scenario of the Andrew Cohen type of guru, and the totalistic life control, indoctrination, and manipulation scenario of the founder of Scientology L. Ron Hubbard type of guru [8]. However, it is also necessary to distinguish even more gruesome kinds of gurus—such as the horrific mass suicide and murder cult guru Jim Jones [9]. So what definition might it make sense to use for a guru, and is Wilber a guru in this definition?

First off let's look at a simple dictionary definition: “A guru is a teacher in matters of fundamental concern” [10]. Of course this definition is too simplistic and general to be useful, but it does give us an indication that studying under a guru is not necessarily a “bad” thing to be doing. It was actually none other than Integral World Wilber critic and staunch science explanation of the universe advocate David Lane who described in a number of 2013 Integral World essays/videos his youthful appreciation of various saints and gurus in India [11], and perhaps the nicest thing I can say about David's choice of Indian gurus is that I do not recall any of them being featured in Falk's Stripping the Gurus book [12]. I would place humanistic psychology founder Carl Rogers in the “positive” guru context using this short dictionary definition of guru, if we agree to include interpersonal empathy and human growth and development as “matters of fundamental concern.” I would also place Western mindfulness founder John Kabat Zinn in this positive guru context, if we agree to include meditation and self-awareness as “matters of fundamental concern.” And similarly I would place the rest of the people on my above list in the positive guru context based upon this simple dictionary definition.

But the nagging question still remains: in a useful and pragmatic definition of guru that we may adopt, is Ken Wilber a guru?

But the nagging question still remains: in a useful and pragmatic definition of guru that we may adopt, is Ken Wilber a guru? In one of his articles in our Cohen/Wilber Integral World debate essays, Martin Erdmann emphasized that Wilber is as he claims to be: i.e. “Wilber is not a guru. He is a pandit” [13]. And if I go back to my 2006 Integral World essay: "On Ken Wilber's Integral Institute: An Experiential Analysis" [14], I placed Integral Institute in Neutral territory, in between being a favorable/beneficial spiritual/philosophical organization and a dangerous cult. I concluded as follows:

There are definitely things to be cautious and observant about in Integral Institute, not the least of which are Ken Wilber's strong ego and harsh criticisms of many of those who disagree with him....

As far as my present knowledge can determine, if you do not like what you see at Integral Institute then you can disengage without repercussions. Big egos, strong ideas, and harsh criticism of opponents are not the same as cult dangers, and if I ever have anything to add to this appraisal I will not hesitate to do so in the future (cf. [14]).

And as I contemplate the whole guru and cults question for Ken Wilber and Integral Institute, I must say that I have not had any significant reason to change my appraisal, in spite of the valid concerns brought up by Groot, Visser, and Falk in their articles and book chapter (cf. [1]). The kind of repercussions from disengagement with Wilber and Integral Institute that Falks talks about, such as Mathew Dallman being removed from the Integral Institute site after he had been the first to be featured there, as a consequence of him resigning from Integral University, is certainly not a practice that I condone. However, I also must say that it is a far cry from the brutally sadistic and destructive practices that Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard have engaged in to Scientologists who “defect” from Scientology (cf. [8])..

In other words, it is all a matter of degree for me, as I have described in my Modern Religions book (cf. [8]). Undoubtedly the parallels of Freud attributing his critics' lack of understanding of his ideas to not having undergone enough depth in psychoanalysis, and Wilber attributing the analogous situation to his critics being on the lower first-tier level and not being able to understand second- and third-tier thinkers, is palpable for anyone to see. But does this warrant either Wilber or Freud being considered a guru in the same context as L. Ron Hubbard and Jim Jones, or on the other end of the spectrum, the other candidates for gurus I have mentioned above, inclusive of Barbara Marx Hubbard, Jon Kabat Zinn, and Carl Rogers?

I believe the answer is that the term guru now has taken on such extensive meanings that all of these people can legitimately be lumped together into the guru category, inclusive of Wilber and Freud. The Wikipedia description of guru includes the following:

In the United States, the meaning of “guru” has been used to cover anyone who acquires followers, especially by exploiting their naiveté, due to the inflationary use of the term in new religious movements [15].

From the Free Online Dictionary we see the following definitions of guru:

A teacher and guide in spiritual and philosophical matters; a trusted counselor and advisor; a mentor; a recognized leader in a field; an acknowledged and influential advocate, as of a movement or idea [16].

Well this is certainly no help in narrowing down the definition of guru—it is making the situation even more complicated and unworkable. Can anything be done to put closure on this unwieldy problem of coming up with a definition of guru that includes and differentiates between generally agreed upon kind and beneficial guru candidates like humanistic psychology founder Carl Rogers, and the monstrous likes of a Jim Jones?

Perhaps a resolution resides in taking extra precautions to address the extreme controlling, destructive guru context, which I believe is the context that Groot and Visser are referring to when they ask the question if Wilber is a guru. In this context I contend that neither Wilber nor Freud, nor any of the other psychologists, philosophers or transformational speakers I have mentioned above would fall under the “extreme destructive guru” context—and keep in mind that I am talking here in relativistic terms.

Then who would fall under the extreme destructive guru context? Well we can easily comprise quite a long list, headed by the obvious candidates responsible for mass cult murders and suicides, such as Jim Jones. Next we can include the manipulative detrimental control and destructive practices gurus that have stopped short of inducing murder and suicides (as far as I know). I think that Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and our infamous Andrew Cohen would undoubtedly make this “extreme destructive guru” list. But if we decide to extend our guru definition to include the kind of “mildly guru” and “commercial guru” designations that Groot gives for Wilber, while I don't disagree with the essence of what Groot is saying, I do have concerns that we may be complicating and extending the inclusion of the guru term beyond all pragmatic meaning—as one can clearly see from the above Free Online Definitions and Wikipedia guru definitions/description.

Perhaps what we need here is three (or four or five or more) different terms to describe the various shades, degrees, valences, and aspects of being a guru, which would include the benevolent, commercial, destructive, and extreme destructive ramifications. But as I'm not a linguist and have no interest in dedicating the rest of my life to extending and differentiating the definition of the term “guru,” at this point I will conclude by saying that it is all a matter of degree and definition, and that perhaps Groot is on the right track with qualifying that Wilber is a “commercial guru.”


1) See the following Integral World essays by Groot and Wilber, and book chapter by Falk, at Jos Groot, "Is Ken Wilber a Guru?"; Frank Visser, "Tadpoles in Trouble: Ken Wilber on the Process of Regeneration"; Geoffrey Falk, "Bald Narcissism" (note that Falk's book chapter is taken from his book: Norman Einstein: The Dis-Integration of Ken Wilber).

2) See Anthony Storr's 1998 book Feet of Clay; reference given in Groot's article in [1].

3) See

4) See

5) See and Barbara Marx Hubbard (2001), Emergence: The Shift from Ego to Essence: 10 Steps to the Universal Human. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing Company; see also my 2013 Integral World essays: "Andrew Cohen's Notable Supporter: Conscious Evolutionary Barbara Marx Hubbard and My Dilemma", and "New Human Species or Unbounded Egoism or Wishful Thinking?"

6) See

7) See books for all these authors at; Deepak Chopra is a well-known spiritual philosopher; Carl Jung is the founder of analytical psychology; Carl Rogers is one of the key founders of humanistic psychology; Steve Hayes is the originator of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy; Marianne Williamson is a popular spiritual promoter of Course in Miracles material; Cyndi Dale is a subtle energies and afterlife author and workshop presenter; John Kabat Zinn is the founder of mindfulness- based stress reduction; and Lisa Nichols is a personal success and “divine messenger” Shift workshop presenter who became well known through the movie The Secret.

8) See a number of essays, including my own, about the negative aspects of Andrew Cohen as a guru on the Integral World site, and see William Yenner (2009), American Guru: A Story of Love, Betrayal, and Healing—Former Students of Andrew Cohen Speak Out. Rhinebeck, NY: Epigraph Books. There are many books available for critiques of Scientology on, and an experiential critique of Scientology can be found in my 2011 book Modern Religions: An Experiential Analysis and Exposé. Swanville, ME: Natural Dimension Publications (available at Amazon and

9) See

10) See the Merriam-Webster Dictionary

11) See the series of 2013 Integral World essays by David Lane under the generic title The Enchanted Land: A Journey in the Saints of India.

12) See Geoffrey Falk (2003), Stripping the Gurus (

13) See Martin Erdmann's 2013 Integral World essay: "Reply to Benjamin's “What Makes a Guru a Guru?”"

14) See Elliot Benjamin (2006), "On Ken Wilber's Integral Institute: An Experiential Analysis" (

15) See

16) See

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