An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

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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:



Elliot Benjamin

In philosopher Ken Wilber's 1980 book “The Atman Project” he includes a chapter entitled “Schizophrenia And Mysticism” [1] in which he discusses the relationship of schizophrenic experience and mystical experience. Wilber describes his viewpoint as a more balanced perspective in regard to the radical viewpoint of British psychiatrist R.D. Laing [2], in which what is considered normal in Western society is severely criticized in terms of its natural sanity, and what is considered madness is looked upon in a number of instances as a voyage of self discovery. Wilber describes his view of schizophrenic experience in relation to Laing and his colleagues David Cooper and Aaron Esterson [3] as follows:

“Schizophrenia and mysticism have always been looked upon in a way similar to madness and genius--they seem to be both closely akin and somehow drastically different……I have frequently agreed with, and often argued for, the fact that true regression can and does occur; that some who call themselves mystics are actually caught in some form of regression; and that some true mystics occasionally reactivate regressive complexes on their way to mature unity states……The second general attitude on schizophrenia and mysticism seems a little closer to the truth, but occasionally suffers from being as dogmatic and over encompassing as the first attitude. This group tends to view schizophrenia as being not pathological, but super-healthy…..I would like to end this chapter by pointing to the clinical work of Cooper, Laing, and Esterson, for it seems to me that in their writing as well as in their actual clinical work, they have done an unmatched job of advancing our phenomenological understanding of schizophrenia and its relationship to normality and sanity (the last two are not the same).” (c.f. [1])

In comparison to Wilber's viewpoint we can see the gist of R.D. Laing's philosophy of mental disturbance as follows:

“Given the conditions of contemporary civilization, how can one claim that the 'normal' man is sane? The condition of alienation, of being asleep, of being unconscious, of being out of one's mind, is the condition of the normal man. Society highly values its normal man. It educates children to lose themselves and to become absurd, and thus to be normal. Normal men have killed perhaps 100,000,000 of their fellow men in the last fifty years” (c.f. [2]).

"As for 'sanity' as represented on his diagram, collaborator R.D. Laing puts it thus:True sanity entails in one way or another the dissolution of the normal ego; that false self competently adjusted to our alienated social reality: the emergence of the 'inner' archetypal mediators of divine power, and through this death a rebirth, and the eventual reestablishment of a new kind of ego-functioning, the ego now being the servant of the Divine, no longer its betrayer'” (c.f. [1]).

Laing's viewpoint is consistent with the radical alternative to the medical model of mental illness as described by Thomas Szasz in many books over the past half century, especially in his groundbreaking 1961 book “The Myth Of Mental Illness” [4].

From my own perspective on mental disturbance, I find much that I resonate with in R.D. Laing's perspective of the lack of natural sanity in our concepts of “normal” in our society [5]. But for me, the most extreme examples of the insanity of what is considered to be normal in our society can be seen by our current engagement in war.

For it is “normal” for us to be dropping bombs on civilian populations, referred to as “collateral damage,” and letting young men and women get killed on a daily basis in a war that virtually everyone agrees cannot be won. It is “normal” to read about terrorist suicide bombers killing innocent men, women, and children in Iraq and Palestine every day in the newspapers. The world we live in is completely filled with violence and we see it in all its colorful imagery constantly on our television sets; this is “normal.” Is it any wonder that R.D. Laing therefore asked us what is madness? How can we decide what madness is when war is normal? It was “normal” in Hitler's Nazi Germany to ruthlessly murder millions of Jews simply because they were Jews. Yes--as Wilber himself says--sanity and normality are not the same.

Wilber acknowledges that there may very well be parts of the schizophrenic experience that have genuine higher level spiritual components to it in his more balanced viewpoint, which he describes as in-between Laing's viewpoint and that of the medical model. But in my opinion, the current state of the world and our part in making the world a more dangerous place is cause enough to embrace Laing's perspective far more than Wilber does.

For a different kind of radical perspective on an alternative viewpoint of what I believe is a far more sane and healthy definition of normality than that of our current society, see Michael Lerner's description of what he proposes for a “Spiritual Progressives” political movement, encompassing “love, generosity, kindness, responsibility, respect, gratitude, humility, honesty, awe, and wonder at the grandeur of the universe.” [6]. But I believe it is also cause to embrace a more artistic view of mental disturbance, as I have described in my articles on art and mental disturbance (c.f. [5]).

If God forbid a draft were reinstated in our country, then it would be “normal” for young people to go off to war soon after they finish high school. I firmly believe that the way in which our current president has made our country into an aggressive military nation may be “normal,” but it is also insane, a la R.D. Laing. Growing up in this day and age is like growing up without anything upon which to base one's conception of what is natural and intrinsically ethical in our society. This is actually the crux of what Michael Lerner describes in his book “The Left Hand Of God” to explain how the Republicans have been successful in gaining political power in the United States and promoting their military and economic programs that benefit the wealthy and the large corporations (c.f. [5]).

I believe that what is natural and healthy in our society is to fight against our country's “normal” engagement of militarism and war, to adopt the radical viewpoint of R.D. Laing in regard to what is normal and what is sane, and to explore Ken Wilber's perspective that there may very well be a relationship between mystical experience and schizophrenic experience. For it is only when we have a social climate of normality that is far closer to Michael Lerner's perspective than to our own sadly militaristic one that we can intelligently examine what is sanity and what is madness.


1) Ken Wilber, “The Atman Project” (Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Books, 1980, 1996).

2) R. D. Laing, “The Politics Of Experience” (New York: Ballantine Books, 1968).

3) R.D. Laing & Aaron Esterson, “Sanity, Madness, And The Family” (London: Penguin Books, 1964).

4) Thomas Szasz, “The Myth Of Mental Illness” (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1961, 1984).

5) Elliot Benjamin, “Art And Mental Disturbance” (Journal Of Conscious Evolution;, 2006); Elliot Benjamin, “Integral Psychology And An Artistic View Of Mental Disturbance” (Integral World website;, 2007).

6) Michael Lerner, “The Left Hand Of God” (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2006).

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