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

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Chris Dierkes was a contributor to the now defunct Integral webzine, and to Indistinct Union. He is co-creator of the Beams and Struts blog, of which he is the religion editor.

Reposted with permisson from the blog

The 123 of
Relationship to
Ken Wilber

Part II

Chris Dierkes

Introductory Note: This is the second part in a two part series on this subject. Br. Juma wrote part I. Mine is below. Juma's piece has very quickly struck a chord which has resonated deeply with lots of folks. This was our sense and our hope when we sat down to write these pieces. The response has been overwhelmingly positive and we are very grateful that many folks have found it helpful. Our experience mirrors that of a goodly number of other folk. Nevertheless, this pattern we articulate isn't in any sense normative or the only pattern possible. We encourage folks in the comments to articulate other formations, other perspectives and patterns of relationship and development in regards to what we are speaking about here.

Stage 1: Childhood

The first time I ever heard of Ken Wilber was in 2001. Looking for some article online (I can’t remember what now), I came across a visual depiction of Wilber’s theory and a short summary of his philosophical outlook.

I had an immediate and quite visceral feeling of loathing, disgust, and intense anger, bordering on rage, upon seeing this image. I rolled my eyes at what I saw as the arrogance of someone out to create a ‘theory of everything.’ Now this kind of reaction is not my normal one; I’m a pretty mellow, easygoing guy. So I figured I better look into this—why did I respond so intensely, so negatively to a picture?

I went to the nearby library and took out every book they had by Wilber. They had a decent selection: A Brief History of Everything, A Theory of Everything, The Eye of Spirit, and Integral Psychology.

I approached these books with the rather hubristic intent to dethrone its author. I read them in order to prove the author wrong. I devoured those four texts in a short period of time and to my surprise (and initial horror) found nothing I could disagree with in the books. I discovered no “in” to tear down this philosophical system.

In a number of these books, Ken refers to another text of his as the most developed of his theorizing then to date. That book was Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. So I went to the bookstore, bought a copy of it and sat down to read the thing. It’s pretty mammoth. I became quite engrossed in the book and ended up reading the main text (minus footnotes) over a weekend. I entered a kind of other mind-state. My mind felt profoundly open, natural, and clear. Once again I found nothing to criticize. Quite the opposite—I found myself increasingly inspired by the whole of the text: its ideas, story, tone, and vision.

I finished the book, closed it, and then shut my eyes. I felt transported to somewhere else. This experience is very hard to describe and I’m embarrassed at how weak my words sound. I felt out of the normal sense of time. I felt a sense of the whole, a kind of vision or change of perspective. I felt a sense of The All.

As this experience faded and I returned to my conventional sense of the room and myself in it, one thought entered my mind: Things are different now.

I didn’t understand then (or even now) the full implications of that statement, but I did realize from that moment that my life was now fundamentally different in some sense. I knew in my core that what I was here for was different than I had previously imagined. A new world had opened up and I was now somehow responsible to it, as well as excited to explore it.

Like Juma, I had a sense somehow of Ken speaking the words that somehow resided within me that I couldn’t yet articulate. There was some sense of familiarity, of having found something I had been looking for my entire life.

In Wilber’s terminology what had occurred that day was a transformation from a postmodern identity to a post-postmodern or integral identity. While it was certainly an intellectual awakening, it was also a spiritual, emotional, and ethical one for me as well. It was a very graced experience.

But I immediately felt deeply alone. There was no one around me who I could talk to about this experience—who had a connection to this world. I went into the closet as it were. This inner world became a sort of escape and truth for me as I lost contact with the outer world a bit. My relationships suffered as a result.

I proceeded over the next year or so to read every book of Wilber’s published up to that point.

In this first stage I think it’s fair to say I couldn’t see the world except through this lens. At that point in my life, I worked and existed in a world dominated by postmodern values. Consequently I suffered through a great deal of inner turmoil. I was in what Wilber calls the transcending or negation phase, not yet having reached the inclusion or preservation phase. I was breaking away from my postmodern self and I became very disoriented. My sense of self was largely tied to how I fit in within that postmodern culture. This stage was breaking free of that world and its limitations and as a result I didn’t know how I fit in anymore.

I was in the first stage because this integral thing was the new truth. As I said I was not proselytizing. I was more closeted. My understanding of the nuances of the whole of the theory was still pretty green—by green I mean fresh, young, and not ripened, not postmodern.

It was at this point that Ken released what are now known as the Excerpts and the beginning of so-called Wilber-5 or the post-metaphysical philosophy. I sat for many hours with these texts—I had a hard time taking them in at first. It was a kind of second intellectual death and rebirth Ken was calling forth from me.

During this time I had the privilege of meeting with Ken on a few occasions, including a couple of times he graciously hosted me in his home. He was always very supportive, loving, kind, and full of humor to me.

Ken became a kind of big brother or Uncle or mentor figure to me and to many others I knew. There was a certain child-like magic about it all. This is the hallmark of the first stage, its beauty as well as its flaws. In Ken’s language, its truth as well as its partiality.

But you can’t stay a kid forever…or you become a fundamentalist with this stuff. Like parents, the mentors eventually reveal their flaws—they can never be the idealized figures we make them out to be as children. The infant has to grow up and assert him/herself. They must find their own way. Things get confusing.

Welcome to adolescence.

Stage 2: Adolescence

Adolescence is rebellion.

I’ll frame my thoughts in my integral adolescence under three categories: intellectual (theory itself), marketing, and dialogue.

I’ll start with the intellectual theory side. Readers not as interested in this side of things, feel free to skip to the next section.


I was drawn from the beginning by Ken’s injunction: Everyone is right. If that is true, the question then is how to find a way to hold all the rights in the best way. I also resonated strongly with Ken’s insistence that integral was a broader set of theories and people than his version of integral. His own radical and profound re-creation of his theory in his work on perspectives already started me on this trajectory.

I started reading other integral thinkers and became more open to other perspectives. The ones who I connected with the most however were those who saw themselves as aligned in essentials with Wilber (and integral more broadly) but offered nuances, modifications, additions, clarifications, expansions, friendly critiques, and so forth.

Names like Mark Edwards, Katie Heikennen, Zak Stein, Terri O’Fallon, Jeff Salzman, Sean Hargens, and Tim Winton. Beams and Struts is part of this larger group as well, including voices like Bonnitta Roy, Gail Hochachka, Daniel O’Connor, Olen Gunnlaugson, and Steve McIntosh.

Meanwhile a lot of ink is spilled against Wilber, which seems to me to miss the main point that integral theory has developed well beyond Ken, though it is deeply influenced by him of course. I think the development of integral theory as a whole is a wonderful thing. But there is still a strong tendency (both pro and anti) to equate integral theory with Ken’s writings.

Lack of Dialogue and Integration of Postmodernism

Nevertheless, the theory does have enormous concrete effects.

For example, I think it’s been a major mistake to use the word ‘integral’ to cover both the theory and the hypothesized next stage of human consciousness. What that dual use of the word did is allow people to think once they knew the theory they were automatically more structurally advanced in terms of human consciousness. This conflation has led to a great deal of arrogance and hype in the integral world. At Beams we’ve always preferred the term post-postmodern to refer to the next cultural rising. Our site is a collective inquiry into that cultural formation. And we see integral as a profound tool to help navigate in this new world.

Another example. Mark Edwards argued (correctly in my view), that Ken’s description of 2nd person perspective is flawed. Ken tends to equate 2 person perspective (“I and You”) with 1st person plural (“Us”).

Now this may seem like some rather arcane and minor point in integral philosophical esoterica. But actually it has major practical implications. If a person or group predominantly treats the 2nd person perspective as 1st person plural, then the tendency will be only to talk with people who are already within one’s relational world. The 2nd person perspective is the space of dialog and relationship. Only some people really truly ever enter into a 1 person plural space with you and I and become an Us. Often—perhaps more often—we experience a 2nd person or persons, that is someone with whom we are relating but with whom neither person would claim they are in a full ‘we’ space.

One of the hallmarks of the postmodern world is a sense of deep respect for The Other—for the 2 person who is not in our “We” field but who nevertheless deserves respect. A 2nd person relationship according to the great postmodern philosopher Emannuel Levinas is one characterized by hospitality and friendship, rather than romantic love (1st person plural) or efficiency or “use” to me (3rd person).

The sub-culture that formed around Ken too often become an insulated, self-referential one. It was practicing 1st person plural (We/Us) over 2nd person modes of being. Like any insulated, self-referential sub-group, the use of sub-culture insider jargon proliferated. In the integral world this became the magic secret decoder ring language of colors. I felt then and continue to feel that using a color system to label intellectual opponents and their ideas is not a helpful way of entering into the hermeneutic circle. As Ken himself points out the biting rhetoric aimed at postmodern relativism in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality was meant to stir up the pot. It was a rhetorical move. It had some pluses. It had some definite minuses. Too many folks with modernist perspectives came into integral and then exploited Ken’s post-postmodern critiques of postmodernism to tear down postmodernism—having themselves not actually developed into postmodern forms of being. Thereby these folks have reduced integral to an exclusively modernist progress-oriented, self-esteem, individualist perspective.

Which leads to the question of marketing and who is the audience for integral.


I became really turned off by the increasing marketization of Integral (with a capital I) as a brand and a series of products. I should say I’m not against making money. I do think there should be a stronger sense of open-source (wherever possible) in the integral world and less energy spent on trademarks. That’s not a hard and fast rule by the way. I mean there’s an appropriate place for some intellectual property rights, but loosely held. As a positive counterexample, our friends at Buddhist Geeks have a monetization platform I find very congruent with their purpose done in what I find to be a tasteful manner.

But by and large the marketization of integral as Integral and its branding has left me rather disgusted.

All of these various factors—as well as others like scandals—led to a certain alienation for me in relation to integral. Alienation is a hallmark experience of adolescence. In that sense, I think it was good to go through all this. I tasted personal defeat and self-criticism. Individuation and separation occurred.

But it all came at a high cost. People I knew got burned out, others became cynical (including me at points). People I admired and respected fell.

The second stage is marked by ambiguity. And I certainly felt that way towards integral for a long time. Parts of me still do.

Stage 3: Mature Sweetness

Stage 3 does not mean the rejection of all of Stage 2. I still have my intense distaste for the branding and self-help marketing of too much in the integral world. I’m turned off by excessive egotism. There have been serious scandals to rock the community which I feel still have not really sunk in for a number of folks. I think the integral world (so-called) doesn’t think about how it is perceived by those on the outside. People I know and care about have been hurt. Nobody is without blame. Including me.

When I talk about sweetness I mean it in the sense of Paul Ricoeur’s second naivete. The first naivete is being naďve, that is stage 1 in our three stage model. Then comes the critical phase of stage 2. In stage 2, the initial naivete is broken. There’s more realism and yet more a certain edge. Ricoeur used the term “suspicion” to characterize the 2nd stage.

Stage 3 is the second naivete—or better second simplicity. A simplicity, a certain kind of sweetness. The sweetness is in a sense putting down’s one arms and dropping the suspicion. It is becoming suspicious of the suspicious mindset. There’s a coming home feeling.

This response in relation to integral has a great deal to do with the state of Ken’s health. It’s heartbreaking to watch someone I love dearly suffer so greatly.

I think back to experiences and insights he shared with me. I remember how as a young (and full of myself) 25 year old, I went on a Dzogchen Tibetan Buddhist retreat. It was at that retreat that I was graced with an awakening. I came back from this retreat, blissed out on Consciousness, and wrote a long flowing email to a circle of friends and family. It was a paean to the merits of Enlightenment and the Perfect Nature of all arising reality. I had originally meant to send the note to friends and family first and then separately and individually to Ken. But somehow I ended up sending it to Ken as well. Ken then hit ‘reply all‘ and wrote very simply:

“Nice letter. Nice experience. Now get on with your life.”

He had sent that to everyone :).

I got a note from this friend of mine who had read some of Ken’s books (and actually held Ken in some awe): “Dude, why is Ken Wilber sending me an email about you?

Ken later wrote a follow up to me personally to tell me I was ‘stinking of Zen.’ I was still massively full of ego (still am actually). Now things were actually a little worse since I thought I was enlightened. In one moment, he burst the bubble of my supposed enlightened self. He pointed out to me that I would “come back to earth”—which is precisely what happened. I ended up in an extremely painful place in my life.

I would send Ken notes every so often updating him on what was going on. He always graciously replied with things I needed to hear.

My deep love for Ken and gratitude for all he has given me has helped steer me to where I am now. As I said no one is perfect, Ken included. I don’t defend everything he’s ever said or done. My experience of him is a human being—not Ken Wilber the media image. As a loving, kinda out there, wonderful human. A human being full of light (en-lightened and en-lightening).

So while my personal connection with Ken has played a major role in this 3rd stage unfolding, other influences have as well.

The founding of Beams and Struts has also helped move into this third stage. I remember the precise moment Trevor shared the idea with me and asked me to join—it was at Br. Scott’s wedding (now Scott has a child!). Because of Beams, rather than sitting on the sidelines grousing about what others are doing wrong, I’m helping contribute. I’m making my stand here with the founders and the ever-growing family. The 2nd stage is about deconstruction. The 3rd stage is about (re)construction.

In the last year I’ve been forming strong bonds with groups like C-Cam and The Integral Living and Leadership Institute crew. We are working the creation of what friend of Beams Michael Richardson calls, ‘second wave’ integral. Second generation integral. Those who have grown up through adolescence and early adulthood with these teachings and whose life purpose is to manifest it in the world. But those of us who ride this second wave would never be where we are if not for our ancestors and that is especially true of Ken. To mix my metaphors, Ken has set the beat to the tune, the rest of us need to dance.

In the 1st stage we load our mentors with the burden of having to save us. In the 2nd stage we blame them for not doing so—an impossible task to begin with that they never asked us to place upon them. Interestingly, in the 3rd stage there is a kind of salvation. There is deep healing and liberation, but it is not the way we imagined it would occur from the perspective of the 1st stage. In the 1st stage we project authority onto an external figure and make them The All-Knowing, Perfect Savior.

In the 3rd stage we realize that all of us come from The Ultimate Savior which is so far beyond yet most intimately embraces all. It is The Ultimate Mystery of the Divine, within which we arise, that saves. Within that arising, all of us have to play our parts. Each of us has a role to play in this Divine Drama. I believe Ken to be one of the most profound vessels of that blessed reality. He, of all people, has had a most Unique Self and Role in this crazed and wonderful unfolding. For that we may all be grateful.

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