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

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Oliver GriebelOliver Griebel M.A., b. 1964, was born in München and has studied translation and philosophy. He lives in Stuttgart. He is the author of Der Ganzheitliche Gott (2014)

the only game in town?

Reflections on the long-due rebalancing of integral thinking

Oliver Griebel

1. Introduction

At least since the late 18th century, every single generation has been thrown into dramatic changes in their life, working conditions and technology, governance and social roles, mentalities, values and views. This has been accelerating with the late 19th century industrialization, the post-WWII rise of the Western middle class, the late 60s, early 70s cultural revolution and leap of modernization, the downfall of the Eastern bloc and the 1990s digitalization. And with the ongoing technological change, the growth and aging of humankind, its fierce inner cultural, social and economic tensions, and the alarming waste and destruction of the natural balance and basis of our civilization, it's a safe bet that in fifty years our children, for better or worse, will live in ways we cannot even imagine today.

We should be able to steer this breathtaking ride other than by merely fixing the worst damages. But due to the pace of change, unfortunately we always seem to interpret the future and even the present with concepts and practices fit for the past … the near past, for even our memory and empathy of how our parents and grandparents were living and thinking, is very limited. We never had the time, or took the time, to really contemplate and integrate the traditional, modern and postmodern parts of our heritage, so that today we live in a mess of socioculturally fragmented groups and mindsets, doomed to operational blindness and actionism. In my view, it's the unease about this disorientation, and the hope to regain a broader vista, which brought into being integral thinking in the late 1990s.

Indeed, this was the idea behind Don Beck's and Christopher Cowan's 1996 book “Spiral Dynamics”, and Beck's international consulting work. Forgive me that I can't and won't describe Spiral Dynamics as a possible alternative to Wilberian nonduality. Spiral Dynamics, by its empirical and practical approach, largely eschews the critique of approaches like Wilber's which speculate about Ultimate Reality. However, the role of the Ultimate, in SD, seems to be taken by the evolutionary Spiral itself and its driving dynamics, the so-called “Prime Directive”. And there seems to be a complementing duality between the Spiral and the beings feeling and fighting their way up the Spiral. For similar reasons, I won't discuss the naturalistic Wilber criticism of IntegralWorld host Frank Visser and others. In their interventions, I miss a concept about how an integral cosmos is supposed to be natural in the narrow sense, that is, without any all-encompassing spirit “behind” or “around” it.

Whatever the different assumptions about Ultimate Reality may be, I think there is consensus in all circles calling themselves “integral” that humankind can't just keep on keeping on forever, struggling with cultural divides and terror, poverty migrations and resource shortages, climate damages and nature degradation, with no means even to understand what is going wrong. So, our life together on this planet is the context in which I'd like this constructive critique of Wilberian nondual hegemony to be seen, not primarily the issue whether the Ultimate Reality is a natural order, some kind of divine spirit, or a nonduality even beyond what can properly called God.

However, I think that the God issue can't be avoided, because so much depends on the answer to the question whether the emergence on Earth of sentient, intelligent beings in search for meaning was a natural tendency likely to be realized, or was even somehow intended to happen. The first great disagreement inside integralism is about this issue. The second argument is about whether the very purpose of evolution and the emergence of humankind is our salvation from being suffering persons (be it in a single afterlife beyond the world, or by dissolving in nonduality after many lives). I would call the first view salvation-by-perfection, the second one salvation-from-oneself. This is the one held by Ken Wilber, most modern spiritual currents and almost all Eastern traditions.

I'd like to propose an alternative to these ideas that the person ought and shall be saved from its life in the world. It's the view that we humans primarily are just destined to live our lives on Earth, destined to be who we choose to be within the background we've been given (and thrown into), destined to be “imperfect” and to suffer from our limits and frailty. In my view, being a person is just as ordinary a part of the natural and divine order of things, as being an animal or plant or stone, albeit with some extra skills, amongst them the skill to relate to Ultimate Reality—whatever it is—in cultural, scientific, meditative, philosophical and other typically human ways.

Similarly, salvation need not be seen as being saved from being a person in the world. Indeed, if eventually, maybe in our time of dying, there is some kind of fusing with an encompassing, “divine” consciousness, this may be a natural process for conscious beings, not a coming home or rescue from “the world below”, or a compensation or repair for something that is not the right place for conscious beings, as Ken Wilber (and many others) are claiming. For him, there is something wrong with identifying ourselves with the person we are and who—supposedly—has forgotten its identity with “God”, who for him is Ultimate Nonduality. We'll have to reconsider this idea too and its origin in Far-Eastern and other spiritualities which practice objectless meditation and aim at meditational experiences of “enlightenment” or “awakening”. So this is a first flavor of the issues that I will certainly not exhaust, but try to put in context with one another, in this essay.

2. Nonplurality

I think that the predominance of Wilber's Aqal approach is something immature, and even pathological.

Lately, in an integral blog, somebody wrote: “In integral discussions it's always: 'Blah blah blah Ken Wilber blah blah'.” I agree that there is something like a Wilber fixation in integralism, with several semi-professional Wilber promoters and Wilber critics, respectively. But whenever an integral discussion is supposed to be a spiritual-philosophical discussion, important integral thinkers just have to be mentioned, and Ken Wilber is one of the most important. What I'd like this paper to contribute to is the kind of dialogue where one day we will be able to say: 'Blah blah blah Beck/Graves blah Ferrer blah Heron blah McIntosh blah Wilber blah blah.' For I think that the predominance of Wilber's all-quadrants-all-levels approach (named Aqal, with its special basis composed of holons, quadrants, personality “lines”, nonduality and other basics) is something immature and even pathological, a bit like Microsoft Windows monopoly (with Spiral Dynamics being Linux?). Although at least since the late 1990s, important ideas on par with Wilber's have been set out in detail, there is no pluralism between these integral big pictures. Such a open discussion would have to get started, before we can even dream of “the” comprehensive integral framework (Unfortunately, I can't take in to account here the more special integral pictures, notably the interesting politico-socio-economical ones, for example the work of John Bunzl (founder of Simpol), Said Dawlabani (“Memenomics”), Jon Freeman (“Reinventing Capitalism”) or Alan Watkins (“Crowdocracy”).)

I wished I could get directly into the relation between Aqal and the related, but basically Non-Wilberian approaches, about their common ground and about their differences. However, first I have engage in a discussion of Wilber's part of responsibility in the current, unwholesome situation. I actually like Ken Wilber. I have always enjoyed the unpretentious demeanor, the easy-going and dare-devil manner he tackles the most delicate coherences and the most staggering cosmic dimensions. I like his casual language just as much as I disapprove the pretentious style of most academic philosophers. “A Brief History of Everything” has inspired me very much (except the funny-not-so-funny beginning), long before Wilber's teachings became, in my view, too unnatural and scholastic, for example his postmetaphysics in “Integral Spirituality”.

But it's no use beating about the bush: As a trained philosopher, trained also in the customs of scientific conduct, I have several times been irritated and even shocked by Wilber's cavalier ways of treating other thinkers, and especially critics. There is his apparently loose reading, interpreting and adapting of all kinds of authors and disciplines. Many if not most of these authors would not be happy about the tiny tessera which their monumental thought sculptures are reduced to inside Wilber's mosaic.

Moreover, Ken Wilber's behavior, at least since the early 2000s, has shown that he was unwilling or unable to see himself as one peer among others inside the community of integral/transpersonal thinkers. There is his legendary 2004 statement “A Suggestion for Reading the Criticisms of My Work on Frank Visser's 'World of Ken Wilber' Site” (the site was later renamed “Integralworld”), where he declares that whoever wants to make a valid criticism of his work, has to be in close dialogue with him (in a setting defined by himself), and has to be familiar with the details and most recent developments of his theory. In effect this means that, a bit paradoxically, only a small part of his strongest supporters would qualify for criticizing him. But hey, what about those who propose an integral alternative to his thinking, maybe just not based on quadrants, lines and nonduality as he understands them?!

Steve McIntosh

Even Steve McIntosh, who was originally part of Wilber's Integral Institute, which he left in good terms in 2002, who lives near Wilber in Colorado, and who in 2007 published the great and influential Wilber-related-but-also-critical book “Integral Consciousness and the Future of Evolution”, has never been acknowledged by Wilber. Certainly not because McIntosh is a secondary integral thinker—he is first-rate!—but probably because he had criticized Wilber's quadrant theory, claiming that a triadic I-We-It-theory does the job. I'll come back to other aspects of McIntosh's work later on. (But unfortunately it is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss the question if quadrants or something similar deserves such a central position in integral thinking as it has in Wilber's philosophy.)

In any case, after Wilber's 2004 statement, not much dialogue seems to have happened, except with the few chosen by him. Obviously, this conduct does not meet the standards neither of modern science nor of postmodern discourse. And especially in Wilber's relations to his own original field of work, which is Transpersonal Psychology, there have been downright abuses, after some prominent transpersonal thinkers, notably transpersonal doyen John Heron (he just turned 88) and California Institute of Integral Studies professor Jorge Ferrer (with his 48 years almost the young star of transpersonal thinking) refused to align with him in the late 90s, making fundamental criticisms of his work instead.

John Heron
John Heron

Of course, Ken Wilber's gradual alienation from transpersonal theory and the frictions resulting from it, were not abusive in themselves. Just some months ago, I published on this website an essay about the 1999 exchange of articles between Heron and Wilber, which was passionate and harsh from both sides—for example, there is the passage in Heron's response to Wilber's (called “Way out further”), where Heron writes: “Now here I have noted that, in responding to his critics, Wilber is prone not only to be something of a bully, but also a bit of a cheat.” But Wilber and Heron were fighting openly, and proved to be worthy opponents.

And one Wilber article from 2002 on his editor's website, with a quite natural argument against Ferrer's egalitarian position in “Revisioning Transpersonal Theory”, unfortunately later was withdrawn from the website. In this article, Wilber emphasized that it was arguably self-defeating. Indeed, Ferrer claims that no theory is better than others, but also claims that his theory is better than those which claim to be better than others. Ferrer's defense, saying his participatory thinking was indeed better in this respect, but only practically so, not ontologically, has something of an artifice. Logically, for a claim to be general/universal, it doesn't matter if it's an ontological or a practical claim.

But there has also occurred an almost smear campaign against transpersonal theory back then, with Ken Wilber not discussing anymore, but spreading the slogan that transpersonal theory was dead, or letting himself being cited that Ferrer's book “Revisioning Transpersonal Theory” marked the end of the transpersonal movement.

Jorge Ferrer
Jorge Ferrer

And there has been worse. Some years earlier, when Ken Wilber had been discussing in scientific publications and non-Wilber forums, he once even seems to have tried to prevent the publication of one of Ferrer's articles in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. Ferrer relates what followed: “When [the JTP editor] Puhakka naturally refused to comply, Wilber insisted that she should 'print one paper favorable of my perspective for every paper you print that is critical of it.' Once again, Puhakka refused to comply—I trust there is no need to argue that such a request is not only obviously unacceptable but also literally unheard of in the academic world.” (source: “Reflections on Ken Wilber from a Participatory Perspective”) Well, maybe “unheard of” does not mean that these machinations are especially rare or evil-minded, but rather that, in this case, a healthy postmodern fairness and transparency had prevailed over the high-handed ways of someone who believed himself entitled to do whatever deemed suitable to counterbalance what he must have seen as Jorge Ferrer's mean green meanderings.

This being said, let's just take note that the pluralism that should be a matter of course does not function yet in integral thinking, and let's move on to finally change this state of affairs. For a start I will say a little more about some few basic points that I suggest as points of departure for the broad integral discussion that is sorely missing so far. First of all: Why is pluralism so natural and necessary? Second: How can we reconcile traditional, modern and postmodern basic values and mindsets and finally enhance the public impact of integralism, with a view to better confronting our global human and ecological predicament? And third: What is nonduality about, can we pin down what it says about human beings and Ultimate Reality, and the differences and points in common with other integral concepts of Ultimate Reality, however you wish to call it: the Divine, presence, natural order, Emptiness, God, The Mystery, life force, nonduality, or sister- and brotherhood of us all?

During these reflections about a minimal consensus in the integral community, I will introduce what for me are some of the most interesting ideas by some of the most interesting integral and transpersonal thinkers, trying to contrast them with one another in order to better understand all of them. For these different approaches are not foreign and incomparable to each other, but related ways of putting together basic (and basically common) notions like world, human being, nature, mind, spirit, life or God.

3. Why integralism without true pluralism can't help humankind the way it ought to

Actually, diversity, distinction, distancing and division are just what one should expect, given the many kinds of thinkers' and teachers' personalities.

Let's start with plurality itself. Indeed, in philosophy, and any other world view, ideology, life stance or lifestyle context, almost every attitude, opinion, idea and even meaning is controversial. In the history of philosophy, from Laozi and the Presocratics to this day, it is striking how every single thinker has something pretty distinctive to say about the very same notions. Even the disciples of the founders of great schools of thought usually add their own topics, emphases and style.

That's puzzling only as long as you expect philosophers to achieve what almost every one of them pretends he can, namely explain things better than the others. Yet, if that was true, then why are there so many other great doctrines, so different from one another, many of them compelling in their own way, each of them eloquently set out by a very smart and educated person?! Actually, diversity, distinction, distancing and division are just what one should expect, given the many kinds of factors and influences that jointly form and distinguish the thinkers' and teachers' personalities, just as anybody else's: factors like education, training and fields of work, concerns, knowledge and horizons, languages, traditions and epochs, personalities, biographies and milieus, physical constitution, health and vitality and others. Add the human need to compete, to do their own thing and/or to be member of the “right” club, plus the understandable efforts of most spiritually or philosophically creative persons to make a living from their writings, teachings or services.

What you get is a vast panoply of views, probably none of them as far-reaching or even encompassing as they usually claim. That's true of integral thinking just as anywhere else. Therefore, it is wise to keep in mind that what you are reading is a Beck, a Heron, a Wilber, never the definitive or even the “authentic” integral philosophy. Whenever you read a thinker or better hear and see her/him speak, you'll be struck just how much the thinking is influenced by the person. Like in art proper, you can't just put aside the creator. And anyway: philosophy is not about the impersonal complete big picture, but about individual temporary ones, avoiding as many main shortcomings and including as many great insights as a philosopher possibly can, given all his limitations and constraints.

When this is not heeded, one-sided and megalomaniac claims impede an open, fair and brotherly discussion. In contrast, by looking from different perspectives, the one mankind, Earth and God that we are all trying to relate to in a sensible way, can be illuminated far better. And what's more, only such an open discussion, I think, could provide us the attention and respect of a broader public and the “multipliers and deciders” in the modern-postmodern societies most of us live in. For twenty long years, this has not really been happening. And despite all of Ken Wilber's merits I am convinced that the current hegemony of Aqal in integral thinking, often perceived as just a Neo-Buddhist philosophy, together with the speechlessness or dialogue of the deaf between all integral currents, have contributed to this failure. For dogmatism and division are even more damaging and compromising for integralism than for other world views. After all, integralism was made precisely to explain and overcome the traditional divisions between world views.

Thus, if we integralists don't start soon to get across our message of the evolution of mind and world views, values and society, we should not put the blame on the integral idea(s); no, it's ourselves, the messengers, we ought to blame. And it's about time. There's climate change. There's the continuous waste and degradation of nature. There's Islamist terrorism, symptom of a hateful civil war inside the world community of cultures and subcultures, due to their conflicting main stages of values: traditional, modern and postmodern-alternative (Marty Keller: “tri-memetic war”). There is a nation as important, for better or for worse, as the USA, which is torn apart and politically nearly paralyzed by the same culture war.

Wicked and Wise: How to Solve the World's Toughest Problems

And there may well be an integral explanation for this predicament, an explanation which involves all of us, without neat lines between offenders and victims. An integral attitude that may help mankind to find realistic perspectives about changing things, dealing with them, sometimes just learning to live with them. In order to get heard, we need a garden of welcoming and open-minded integral pictures, while often the integral scene appears to me like a dreary patchwork of navel-gazing and dogmatic monocultures. To be fair, Ken Wilber, over the years has said many prudent things about our global problems, for example 2015 in the book “Wicked and Wise: How to Solve the World's Toughest Problems” (with Alan Watkins). Yet, what he can do alone or with the help of his closer entourage is nowhere near the integral “unity-in-diversity” (Heron) we need.

4. The religious and spiritual background of nonduality

When you oppose spirituality and philosophy this way, you create a dualism in the name of nonduality, a weird thing indeed.

Wilber is known for the efforts he made to reconcile not only the stages of individual psychological evolution and the evolution of civilizations, but also the evolution of values and spiritual evolution. In his writings, these are connected in a very special way to his theory of holons and holarchy, his theory about the human mind and person, and his theory about Spirit, spiritual evolution and its supposed final destiny called nonduality. It all boils down to the idea that the human soul, self or person ultimately is identical with an all-encompassing consciousness beyond person, beyond God, ultimately even beyond consciousness.

At the roots of this idea there are quite special religious beliefs, obviously formative for Ken Wilber, and which he integrated in his thinking: the primacy of objectless (and supposedly even subjectless, whatever that means) meditation over all other religious or otherwise cosmos- or humanity-centered practices; the superior authority of the Eastern traditions, teachings and holy men, especially Buddhist and Advaita Hindu; and the idea that we are getting spiritually realized and saved by climbing a, say, “stairway to enlightenment”, one day forsaking our personal self for good. These religious convictions, quite independent from the philosophical concepts that Ken Wilber links to them, are very widespread in Western spiritual circles today. So much so that many spiritual people are not able to see that it could be otherwise.

That's why, when you are trying to discuss either the religious or the philosophical concept of nonduality today, most often you get an answer like: This discussion is sign of an excessive rational line. Or: For all purposes of spiritual practice, there's no difference between these options, so no use discussing them. Or else: Though there is a difference between these options, nonduality ultimately encompasses all of them, anyway. These are not arguments in favor of Wilber's teachings, Ken Wilber would never argue that way. These are knockout arguments that cut off any further argument.

I believe that when you oppose spirituality and philosophy like this, you create a dualism in the name of nonduality, a very awkward and weird thing indeed. Whatever this is supposed to achieve, it certainly does not integrate traditional, modern and postmodern mindsets. Whoever wants to make nonduality the integral view about Ultimate Reality should at least deal with what Wilber means by it, what reasons he gives for it and … what other integral options there are .

5. The difference between causal and nondual, and their place in spiritual evolution

Objectless experience in its “Witness” interpretation, according to Wilber himself, is not a nondual experience.

What's the place of nonduality in the garden and, as it were, seasons of human spirituality and spiritual thinking? First of all, nonduality doesn't have to be confused with the domain that Ken Wilber calls “causal” and which is often linked with the notions of “emptiness” or “witness”. Wilber himself warns to strictly distinguish causal from nondual. He thinks that nondual spirituality is still one step upward from causal, that is objectless spirituality. What are these steps?

To give you a feel just how compelling but also tricky the connection between the evolutionary steps of society, values and spirituality is, I will now try to make a not too speculative sketch, using SD color terms, as well as the descriptive terms Steve McIntosh uses in “Integral Consciousness”. I will leave out the level Beige/survival, which in pure form arguably is prehuman, and also leave out the level(s) beyond Turquoise which in my view nobody has properly explained, as yet.

Moreover, I will not presuppose that in order to reach a spiritual level, one first has to pass through each former level (a bit like you can't graduate from school unless you have successfully passed through each grade level). Although each level economically and culturally prepares the ground and opens up niches for the subsequent one(s), some levels are quite foreign and conflictual towards one another, and the mere coexistence, the fields of forces and tensions, the hostilities and reconciliation work are a never-ending story.

Now let's try and loosely associate the social levels with the religious-spiritual ones:

  1. Purple / tribal / magical-animistic
  2. Red/warrior / mythical-polytheistic
  3. Blue/traditional / churchly-revelatory-monotheistic
  4. Orange / modern / naturalistic-atheistic
  5. Green / postmodern / humane-esoteric-ecomystical-meditative
  6. Yellow / early-integral / integration of traditional, modern and postmodern / global-systemic: stop living against Earth, save civilization by evolving it
  7. Turquoise / peak-integral / either being Emptiness (causal-objectless), or being in and with the Divine (participatory, panentheistic, holistic), or being the Divine and beyond it (nondual)

The experience called “causal” is connected to objectless meditation which claims to transcend all content of experience, and all the veils of relative views on the divine and the human self, to transcend the spiritual experience of the divine as supernatural spirit(s), transcendent creator or order of things (like the Tao) and at the same time to transcend all psychological experience of oneself as a mind, soul or self of it's own. The causal experience is said to reduce these experiences to their core, the pure experience of the one primal subject (“Emptiness”, “the Witness”) which by a kind of dreaming, imagining or seeming identification brings forth all individual things, beings and persons.

As I said earlier, objectless experience in its causal (“Witness”) interpretation, according to Ken Wilber himself is not a nondual experience. It can't be, because it states one ultimate duality, namely the basic difference between the real divine subject and all the objects imagined by the Divine, duality between Emptiness and form(s)—which cannot be an ultimate nonduality at the same time. If you want to transcend this last illusionary dualism, Wilber writes, you have to admit that the Ultimate is neither Subject nor objects, neither Emptiness nor form(s).

6. Nondual spirituality: experiencing a Spirit that is beyond experience and spirit?

But how could a person like you or me possibly spiritually experience such a nonduality? After all, it also ought to be beyond the difference between spirit and matter, beyond the spiritual and the mundane, beyond meditating and being unaware. That's strange indeed. And I think that actually is a very problematic point. Doesn't there have to be some basic difference between nondually awakened people and those who, just yet, spiritually can't find their way, like very egocentric, strayed, materialistic, tense, evil or despaired persons? I understand that people who are just living in the flow of being and interbeing, are not able or willing anymore to see those who are not (often not at all) like them. But that doesn't make the fact go away.

For example, I feel that Jesus' way of being was pretty much beyond our usual inner and outer strife and in that sense was nondual. Is there a way in which Jesus can be seen as equally nondual as, say, Adolf Hitler? That is grotesque. So whatever nondual experience is supposed to be, there have to be different nondual experiences, a plurality of ways to mix it with other, “lesser” aspects of spirituality and life altogether.

What's more, even two nondually quite awake persons will keep on living different lives, each one experiencing another part or perspective of being and interbeing. It can't be true, for example, that Jesus and Buddha experienced the world from the same perspective, or from no perspective at all. Actually, Ken Wilber, as often, recognizes the problem and subtly tries to solve it. In an “Aqal Integral Map” I found on, the ego development stage 3rd tier is described as having the “capacity to simultaneously be aware of ego identifications throughout the spiral without identifying with them exclusively”.

But that doesn't solve the problem that I (for example) am not aware of what nondual consciousness felt like to, say, Laozi when he nondually “let go”. He may have been “aware of his ego identifications throughout the spiral without identification”, but he certainly wasn't aware of mine, was he? So however close to one another the nondual experiences are, maybe all of them sharing the “one taste”, they stay parts or perspectives of … actually what? Shouldn't there be the whole nonduality too? Admittedly that would create a new duality—and plurality. And I have to confess I think this is just what we need.

7. Ultimate Duality (the Many-One, the Whole Multitude, beings inside Being) instead of Nonduality

What is this alternative, more precisely? First of all, I think that everybody in integralism agrees that there has to be some ultimate frame or background or medium for everything that lives and happens. All agree that this Ultimate Reality has to be all-encompassing, and therefore cannot be part of a further duality transcending it. In this sense, the Ultimate has to be nondual, I think. But that doesn't mean that this Ultimate One can't be a dual-plural in itself, can't be the Many-One (as John Heron calls it), that is, the duality between the multitude/variety of things and their all-encompassing unity. Is there anything wrong with this kind of “dialectic/dualistic monism” (to use a related philosophical term)?

For many there is. There is an almost commonplace in Eastern spiritual thinking as well as in modern and postmodern thinking, that I'd like to call “transcendentalism”. Immanuel Kant, who coined the notion of “transcendental”, claimed that the “thing in itself” is beyond all reason, and it's impossible to know how it “affects” us. Why should that be? Basically, according to Kant, because the concepts of our mind structure what is “given” to it by our senses, because we can't know how right or wrong our concepts are, and because especially the Last Things like world, soul and God are too big for our minds to grasp: Whenever we try to, we become enmeshed in paradoxes.

In a similar vein, 1.500 years earlier, Buddhist thinker Nagarjuna expressed his doubts if questions about the Ultimate made sense, like two or many, formless or structured, essential or accidental, necessary or random, subject or object—arguing that the answer would have to be: both and neither of them.

The common “nondual believer” would probably opt for neither of them, arguing that since the Ultimate can't be both, it has to be neither. But why not precisely both, why not a polar duality where the poles are entangled, intertwined, interdependent, complementing each other? Mind you, this kind of ultimate duality (the Many-One) is not at all what one calls a dualism, that is, a pair of incompatible opposites. The Many-One is dual, but it's not dualistic.

8. Living in nonduality anyway, how can we experience it spiritually?

What I see is not a formless void but an ultimately intelligent and caring order of things.

In the last section, I will say some more about what a dual-holistic ultimate reality might be like. But first I will try and talk about spiritual practice, not only because I can relate some first hand experience about it, but also to give you one more example about how individual every spiritual biography is. What could it mean to experience the Many-One, compared with what Ken Wilber says about experiencing nonduality? I suspect it's basically the same experience. Yet, what I am talking about does not build upon objectless, “causal” meditation in the way Ken Wilber and others seem to suppose that nondual experience does.

When I was about seventeen year of age, I hit upon a yoga book left by my mother, whom it hadn't been able to help, ten years earlier. Now, it was to help her son a great deal. For the first time in my life, I came to rest in this great stillness, peace and tenderness. Since then, I have never felt any spiritual doubt. There is an Ultimate Reality, and it is ultimate sense, care, meaning, coherence, awareness. And still objectless meditation is worthwhile, healthy and beneficial. There's no problem with it as long—that's my point—as long as it is not considered to be the crest of all meditation or even all spirituality.

For when you open your eyes again and get up from meditation, you have to live your life again, live with the personality, the background, the environment and the historical era you have been given and thrown into. Meditation improves your general wellness, your nerves and your intuition, but it won't just make your problems go away. You have to face them.

And in my life, there has been a second, related but also quite different spiritual experience, that helped and helps me to do that. It has been “revealed” to me by the book Tao Te Ching, attributed to a Chinese sage named Laozi living in the 6th century B.C.. In this book, Laozi recommends the practice of wu wei, which literally means not doing, not acting.

For me, it means to not resist the natural way things go, but to abandon and devote myself to “it”. This might seem like an invitation to passivity, lethargy, indulgence, submission, but in fact it isn't. It doesn't mean avoiding things, but accepting and facing them, and quite often withstand and fight what for you are unnatural ways, fancies and pretensions, by others as well as your own ones. A second, just as important sense of wu wei, for me, is concentrating on what there really is just now, resisting what my own urges and fears, imaginings and schemes often make me want and do, whenever I don't live my present moment.

This seems to “open up” an intuition or insight that I don't cause or control, and not-acting (wu wei) means also this opening up in just one's own way. Indeed, I feel that this intuition is not a voice coming from within, but an opening up, noticing and resonating with how things work, what they do to me, and how I can contribute to them. I realize that I am part and parcel of it, that the world is about me, even me personally, but not as much and in the way my “ego” would like it to be. Here is a point where I feel the Divine, the One, the Spirit, the Whole, God—or the Way (Tao), as Laozi calls it. For what I see (when I am open to it) enables me to let go my egocentrism, to let things be as they naturally tend to be and ought to be, what I see is not a formless void which somehow in itself is bare of understanding and feeling, but an ultimately intelligent and caring order of things.

I believe that the ultimate spirit, meaning of life and intelligence is transcending our limited being, it's not something our minds and egos are making up. Instead it's something the world as a whole possesses, has built into us, shares with us. Here, I think, is one solution to the subject-object problem, a bit different from Wilber's and other nondualists': There is no world of dead matter and objects opposed to us limited subjects, nor a world of imagined objects opposed to the one real divine subject. Quite the converse, the world is aware and sensible in itself (though often not the way we'd like it to be), it's a world where the parts (things, beings and persons) and the whole are complementing each other, working together. (The “co-creation” and “participation” Jorge Ferrer and John Heron are writing about.)

Experiencing this, I have never felt myself (my self) in any way disappear, which seems to be the nondual (dis)solution for any duality. I have never felt myself dissolving or fusing into some formless nondual whole, instead I always felt myself and all of us “being meant”, taken care of and needed by the world as a whole. For me, indeed, Ultimate Reality is this most intricate and intimate relation between us all, parts of the world, and the world as a whole.

9. Kosmic holarchy vs cosmic holism

Since mainstream nondual thinking can't “heal” its dualisms, by transforming them into complementing dualities, these dualisms keep haunting it.

By the way, this is very similar to how Wilber describes the essence and experience of nonduality—if it were not for the “dissolution of the self”, and some of his further views about holons / quadrants / holarchy, about the human mind and its relation to the world as a whole (cosmos). These are difficult questions impossible to discuss in depth in a 30-page essay. But I am confident that one fundamental difference between Wilber's holon/holarchy picture and integral holism proper can be made clear without blatantly distorting things. Holism says things don't exist on their own, but are defined by the whole they are part of and depend on. Is holon theory a holism? Let's see what Wilber tells us about holarchy, the evolutionary sequence and nesting of holons.

He gives us the metaphor that the Ultimate or Spirit is (1) the highest rung of the holarchy ladder, but (2) also is the wood it is made of. The holist in me doesn't like the first part (which also amazes me, coming from Wilber), for it seems to blur the crucial difference between the whole and its parts, implying that eventually (if rarely) beings in the world will become nonduality itself. Figures like Jesus or Buddha? Whatever one thinks about the possibility of a person in the cosmos incarnating the whole of it, this contradicts the second (wood) part, that I don't like either, for other reasons.

Indeed, in my view, if a holistic cosmos should be compared to a ladder at all, the Ultimate should not be the wood, but simply the whole ladder. That's a thing that Wilber, in turn, wouldn't like, because for him, the transcendent Spirit and the human mind/spirit, which ultimately for him are identical, have to stay outside the manifest holarchy. That's why in the metaphor, the Ultimate can be wood, rung and climber of the ladder—but not simply the ladder altogether. I think that's why he also conceives the holarchy as neither having an elementary (lowest) level, nor an overarching (highest) level. And that's why he thinks every single of the infinite levels, even atoms and particles and lower, must have consciousness—since “the climber” passes through all of them.

I disagree with this view of the Ultimate's spiritual ascent, and I see cosmic holism differently. In my view, the evolutionary order of the cosmos shouldn't be compared to something to be climbed at all, suggesting an outside climber who eventually, arriving at the highest step, will step off the ladder, just to realize he has been the wood all along. There are other, less transcendentalist, forms of holism and Ultimate Reality. The holistic metaphor I prefer is the cosmos as divine organism, with cells and specialized tissues. If we want to include the evolutionary aspect, we could imagine, mutatis mutandis, a bulb (like that of a tulip or onion) developing layer upon layer, each one building upon and including all the older ones. By the way, the organic metaphor was the one used by the Ancient Greeks, who invented the word “kosmos” (literally: the beautiful one).

One last critical remark on the idea of an infinite holarchy. Although the infinity of the Ultimate is almost a commonplace, there are severe problems with it, for it implies that compared to the Ultimate, the individuals in the world are infinitely small, like structureless points. Yet, as individual as most things are, in many respects they have a very typical structure, given to them by the natural, mental, cultural and spiritual order of the cosmos. So there must be something wrong about the dualism of the infinite Ultimate vs the finite things. The ancient Greeks too had a problem with radical infinity, for them, everything had to have its measure compared to human measure, even the cosmos as a whole. (By the way, infinitism is also a major problem of modern cosmology and particle physics. As physical sciences, they have to use the finite mathematics of measuring, and therefore cannot really deal with the infinitely big or small.)

I believe in complementing dualities, so I would plead for a middle path with some infinity and some finitude. Indeed, I think the relation of the cosmos and its parts has—partly—to be thought of as a definite and finite relation, making the Ultimate itself—again partly—definite and finite. Totally infinite would mean arbitrary, and the cosmos, as a framework for everything, can't be arbitrary, neither in itself nor in relation to the individuals living in it. Partly infinite, in contrast, means that inside the cosmic framework, there still is an open potential for the individuals to be random, to play, create and choose.

This partly freedom I think is fundamental, not “God-dreamt”, all relative, only seeming. The way holistically-minded people like John Heron describe Ultimate Reality focuses on the relation between the one whole world and the multitude of its parts. I can't speak for John Heron, but I see it as follows: Both poles of the Whole-Multitude (or Many-One) depend on each other, but neither of them can be reduced to the other. For while the whole is itself a quite definite and defining overarching system, which gives its parts meaning and coherence, much of their origins, basic elements they are composed of, basic steps of emergence and evolution, and limits in structure, space and time—yet at the same time it leaves to its parts a great deal of freedom.

The opposition between infinitism and finitism is just one example out of several where I believe that a dualism/opposition, here: infinity versus finitude—ought to be given up in favor of a duality/polarity, here: infinity entangled with finitude. And since mainstream nondual thinking can't “heal” its own hidden dualisms by transforming them into complementing dualities, these dualisms keeps haunting it: the nondual-vs-dual dualism itself, the absolute-vs-relative dualism, the Spirit-in-action-vs-Spirit-in-itself dualism, the intelligible-vs-unspeakable dualism, and infinite-vs-finite dualism.

In my view, this nondual-dualistic mindset is the deeper reason why Wilber conceives the nested levels of holonic whole-part-relations as never-beginning and never-ending, each holon level including ever lower levels, and being included in ever higher levels, ad infinitum, without ever reaching any grounding elements or an encompassing whole. The partly-finite-partly-infinite option removes this dualism and allows us to take the Ultimate or Spirit or Divine as the whole and order of things, without reducing individuals to it in any more or less subtle way.

10. Bringing down to earth meditation-based traditions, the authority of their teachers and holy men, and their idea of salvation

Of course, such a rehabilitation of the individual and its self raises questions about the supreme rank in mankind's spiritual evolution that so many spiritual people attribute to of causal meditation and the Emptiness or Witness it experiences. One problem is that it's not true that its leaders and spokesmen all tell us the same thing about Ultimate Reality, and the kind of practice or experience by which we best get in contact with it—as Jorge Ferrer points out. Someone like the Dalai Lama will readily tell you how his own variety of Buddhism will save you, and how Zen, Hindu Yoga or other kinds of meditation won't really do.

Don't get me wrong: I like all these good and devoted people. But how for God's sake could they know so much about the world as a whole, that is everything there is and can be? Doesn't a balanced world view require any of the fundamental natural, evolutionary and philosophical knowledge—positive as well as critical—that modernity gave us; a knowledge that the past masters and teachers of objectless meditation obviously couldn't possess, given the limits of their personalities, time, backgrounds and available information? And are they exempt from the postmodern insight about the power-exerting and to a large extent arbitrary character of traditional be-all and end-all world views? What can they teach us about emancipating and integrating traditional, modern and postmodern spiritualities, when in their day they could not have understood what this integralism was about?

Let me give you one especially important example. To the ancient founders of causal meditation and their contemporary followers, the world seemed and seems to be something like a chaotic dream, often bad dream. To them, what they perceived as a random, confused and painful dream action, could consequently not be God's own sensible and caring action. Today, with all the insights of natural and social sciences, humanities and educated common sense, we more and more come to see just how intricately and sensibly things fit together, embedded in one coherent cosmos, which in turn depends on our often random, confused and painful actions.

Therefore I believe that nondual or participatory letting-go can't be what objectless meditation, for so many people, is supposed to achieve: a way out of this co-creative tension, which is the world. For me, spirituality isn't meant to save us from the world, it can't deliver us from our place in the world as human beings. And meditation, such a precious spiritual “tool” that can help us overcome many spiritual problems, like occultism, superstition, dogmatism, materialism, fanaticism, the fear of demons and hell or spiritual despair, should not be used to flee from the world, supposedly fleeing to God, when the world is God's and our own world.

Like any spiritual person who has sensed the grace and power of persons like Buddha or Jesus, for many years I have had a hard time doubting their supreme authority and complete knowledge about the meaning of life, and the place of mankind in the world. Still I think we have reasons to doubt it, simply because today we know plenty of fundamental things they did not and could not know. It's also true that spiritual-philosophical masters like Laozi, Nicholas of Cusa or Carl Gustav Jung were so much ahead or their time, and yet they lacked important insights just not available in their day. The steep peaks of spiritual vanguard and revolution don't contradict the overall smoothly rising landscapes of global progress and evolution.

11. Spiritual progress without clear-cut hierarchies

Can there be a spiritual progress that is not hierarchical, prescriptive or competitive, thus baneful from a postmodern point of view?

That is why I think there just is no neatly nested holarchy or other including-transcending “career path” of spiritual levels, linked to civilizational levels like traditional, modern and postmodern, while there definitively has been progress in our views about what is Spirit beyond human mind. Today we understand that Spirit simply is more than tribal animism, warrior pantheons like the Greek or the Norse, the traditional Lord, modern natural laws, or postmodern whatever-feels-good-to-you spirituality. Compared to all of them, a polar-plural view of all-of-us-together-in-God is more integral and in that respect more evolved. How do I know? Well, integral thinking is the only one that tries to integrate or at least do justice to all past and contemporary views of the Ultimate. And that's an important criterion indeed.

The most difficult step, I think, in this integration is the step beyond a radical postmodern thinking which, instead of including and transcending traditional and modern values, is fighting them tooth and claw, scenting their dominating and exploiting appetites everywhere. Can there be a spiritual progress that is not hierarchical, prescriptive or competitive, and therefore baneful from a postmodern point of view?

Indeed, Jorge Ferrer, who goes at great lengths for a view of the Divine (which he calls “the Mystery”) acceptable for postmodernists, proposes three criteria for testing the maturity of a spirituality: “the egocentrism test, which assesses the extent to which spiritual traditions, teachings, and practices free practitioners from gross and subtle forms of narcissism and self-centeredness; and the dissociation test, which evaluates the extent to which the same foster the integrated blossoming of all dimensions of the person. ... Given the many abuses and oppressions perpetuated in the name of religion, it may be sensible to add an eco-social-political test, which assesses the extent to which spiritual systems foster ecological balance, social and economic justice, religious and political freedom, class and gender equality, and other fundamental human rights ...”.

I think this is a great summary of the humane and social insights and values which are part of any progressive spirituality. And their emergence, refinement, spreading and growing influence inside of mankind and its groups and individuals mark a slow, but real natural tendency to identify with ever more encompassing values. Great example of a humane and at the same time spiritual evolution. But while I am convinced these are conditions and signs of a spiritual progress we all should agree upon, I wonder if they are sufficient. After all, many good anarchist-atheist people would agree too. Indeed I believe that there are many deeply spiritual people who do not know they are and would vehemently deny it, given the often traditional anti-concept of God and spirituality they have in mind. So maybe we should talk all the people moved by any kind of celebration or worshiping, idealism or engagement, meditation and other practices to get in touch with what Jorge Ferrer calls “the creative energy or source of reality, the cosmos, life and consciousness”—however on may call or feel it. Are all of these people moved by spirit? Yes. Are they all equally trying to transcend limits of care, interest and consciousness toward the whole of humankind and the cosmos?

If I say “no”, does that mean I am spiritually sorting and ranking people? Does it mean I claim that there is an ultimate spiritual level (like Wilber's nondual awareness)? No doubt, it is a great postmodern ideal that all traditional hierarchy and modern competition should to be overcome. But does that mean, as Jorger Ferrer believes, that “there is no final, privileged or more encompassing spiritual viewpoint” (Revisioning p. 167).

Participation and the mystery: Transpersonal essays in psychology, education, and religion

At this point, however, once again, one philosophical standard question has to be asked: Isn't this self-defeating? Isn't Ferrer himself taking his own participatory viewpoint for at least a more encompassing one? Aren't his own tests for egocentrism, dissociation and eco-social-political ethics themselves ranking worldviews and spiritualities? After all, fascist law-and-order religion or devil-worshiping certainly are low-ranking, failing the Ferrer tests. Of course they are, and he admits it. When I sent him a first draft of this essay, Ferrer wrote me: “My claim that 'there is no [single] final, privileged or more encompassing spiritual viewpoint' does not mean that I reject spiritual evolution or progress; rather, it means that I see spiritual evolution, not as heading into any single final point … but branching out (as a tree) on a rich variety creative, participatory directions ...” So the difference between spiritually more and less progressive people is not a problem, he concedes, as long the progressive camp “explodes into a plurality of potentially holistic spiritual realizations” (Postscript to “Participation and the mystery: Transpersonal essays in psychology, education, and religion” (forthcoming), p. 5). What Jorge Ferrer is emphatically fighting against is the privileging of one single spiritual destination for all mankind. And that was precisely what he and John Heron accused Ken Wilber of doing: claiming that a special form of causal-nondual experience was the aim and end of the spiritual ascent.

12. Integrally deconstructing postmodernism—and building upon it

A natural science of the subtle would certainly rule out most of what people believe are supernatural phenomena, as illusion, fiction or superstition.

Which brings us back to the historical dynamics in which he and I and most of the readers grew up. Postmodernism, for me, should be taken in a very general sense, meaning the subculture and counterculture risen in the mid-1960s, and whose subsequent evolution and dialectical exchange with more traditional and modernist currents in Western societies is the story of my life. So, I am not talking only about the famous socialist and atheist Parisian thinkers (notably Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze and Lyotard) with whom the term of postmodernism is still associated and who are incredibly influential—to an European observer—in US-American philosophical discourse. But while postmodernism, for me, primarily is the next broad cultural step beyond modernism, I will certainly have to talk about the “Parisian postmodernists'“ criticism of almost all traditional and modern values, because Jorge Ferrer and many other intellectuals still are heavily influenced by them. Too much so?

Jorge Ferrer wrote me how he sees it: “I don't consider myself a postmodern thinker, but a post-postmodern (or metamodern)—one who takes to heart certain postmodern insights but seeks to move discourse beyond them (e.g., embracing the legitimacy of ontological and metaphysical claims; the feasibility of a multiverse composed of a variety of subtle worlds, etc.) while integrating aspects of premodern, modern, and postmodern thinking.” Ontological claims? Subtle worlds? I will try to tell you what Ferrer means, why his insights globally are very deep and helpful, but why I think that the concessions that Ferrer makes in order to temper postmodern -isms, are not enough to reach the dualities which I think a holistic view would require. The relevant -isms that postmodern thinking is attacking are:

  • essentialism: the idea that every individual has an eternal core of existence and individuality
  • universalism: the idea that everything (most often: everyone) is subject to certain timeless general values, rules or traits
  • objectivism: the idea that things are just there independently of how they appear to conscious beings
  • naturalism: the idea that there is a coherent natural order of things that doesn't need nor allows for any supernatural intervention or spirits (which does not exclude that some “supernatural” phenomena and spirits might be events and beings natural in a way we just don't understand).

Of course, I won't be able summarize or replace the specialized journals and libraries filled with articles and books about these topics. I will try however to sketch in broad strokes how a many-one view of God and the world includes and transcends these -isms, as well as the further counter-isms that postmodern thinking Parisian kind sets against them.

Ferrer states a moderate essentialism when he says that “although reality does not have a fixed essence, it presents us with identifiable qualities, tendencies and restrictions” which “impose limitations on the human creative participation and expression of spiritual truths” (both quotes from “Revisioning” p. 167). The important point here is that Ultimate Reality's essence is not to make and enforce detailed rules for every thing, being and person, but rather to set them a necessary, natural frame limiting what finite beings can possibly do. So in a many-one worldview the essence of a thing could be thought of as the part the thing plays inside the world-as-a-whole, a part that leaves plenty room to co-”enact” and co-create the world.

Consequently, the postmodern emphasis on the value of individual realization and self-invention is crucial, but must not be exaggerated. It just is not true that we invent all of what helps us survive, grow up, live with each other (instead of against), nurture humanity, save civilization. I am convinced that there is a timeless essence of reality, which is emerging step by step as an ever more complex framework of natural and geo-ecological, socio-economical and cultural, value and world view basic relations which set the stage for what we as persons make of it—including our spiritual evolution. What kind of stage? Well, for example, a spiritual pioneer needs a social niche, maybe as a priest or monk, a vanguard spiritual subculture needs a milieu, often student or artist, where it can flourish, a new spiritual mainstream may need a major shift in life conditions to set it off.

Besides a moderate essentialism, Ferrer also states a moderate (“relaxed”) universalism. Regarding spiritual progress, evolution or destiny, he has often emphasized that a spiritual practice or experience cannot be “the” universal way towards a supreme or ultimate state of spirituality. I agree with him that progress in spirituality can be found in many kinds of deepened humane and holistic insight, emerging out of religions and spiritual practices so different that there can be no ranking. Here again, seeming opposites—universality and individuality/plurality—in fact complement each other. As we've seen, Ferrer does accept spiritual evolution, when it is seen as an ever-branching and upwards-striving “tree” of personal, social and spiritual maturation, which is still branching out culturally and practically, while as a whole it grows in one direction, towards shared humane values and holistic concepts.

At this point, it would be only one tiny step for Jorge Ferrer towards the duality of the one, whole Ultimate Reality, and the many spiritualities which take part in it. Still, the danger that certain spiritualities (like Wilberian nonduality) might arrogate for themselves the idea of spiritual progress and evolution leads him to step the other way, in order to prevent “the feasibility of promoting one tradition as objectively superior (i.e., holding the most accurate picture of the mystery), excising ontological competitiveness at its root and arguably settling one of the main challenges of religious pluralism” (Postscript p. 5).

And he makes a strong, even bold claim about what exists: He claims a plurality of Ultimate Realities, which obviously is not the Many-One. And he explains his choice: “... it preserves the ontological ultimacy of those enactions (e.g., God, emptiness, Tao, Brahman) in their respective spiritual universes, avoiding the traditionalist and neo-Kantian demotion of those ultimates to penultimate stations.” (Postscript p. 4). Let me put this in less scholarly words: If we distinguish Ultimate Reality from its “enactions”, that means the ways it is experienced and practiced by people through their different spiritualities and Gods, then we artificially separate people's spirituality from their Ultimate, and draw a new distinction between more or less advanced perspectives on the one Ultimate.

However, the price that Ferrer is willing to pay to avoid this is high: If there aren't many spiritual perspectives on the unique Ultimate Reality, then there have to be many “spiritual universes”, each of them occupied by a different Ultimate Reality. These spiritual universes might be what is often called “subtle” “spheres” or “realms” inhabited by less material spirits than we are, or may be universes similarly material and somehow “subtly” connected to ours, all these realms or universes together forming a multiverse with different natural and spiritual orders.

In order to discuss this arguably supernatural approach approach, I have to say something about the modern concepts of natural order and naturalism. Unfortunately I cannot set out here in any detail the whole complex of philosophical positions and oppositions around pragmatism, materialism, objectivism and naturalism. Yet, for a start, to locate myself in this field of concepts, I'd like to stress one thing: Among the great aberrations of modernity is objectivism, the idea that everything that is not tangible doesn't exist, especially subjective or cultural or, for that matter, spiritual experience. But likewise, I claim, postmodernist thinking tends to get lost in an opposite extreme that is no less absurd: constructivism, according to which each person or culture build their own “worlds” or “cosmos's”, with no unique world or cosmos holding them together. Claiming that our multiple spiritual enactions call into being a multiverse consisting of many more or less material or subtle universes, each one with its own Ultimate Reality—that's what I call a fairly constructivist ontology.

Let me give you an example of why I think this pushes—otherwise legitimate—egalitarian (or emancipatory) concerns way too far. I once knew a fine old lady who worshiped Shiva and … Mother Mary. Naive as I was then, I couldn't help asking myself how Shiva and Jesus (Mary's importance being derived from Jesus'), indeed, how Brahman and Shiva were supposed to co-exist as Ultimate Realities together with Jehovah and the Christ ... if they really are what Hindus resp. Christians believe they are!" Of course they can't, but of course my elderly friend couldn't have cared less. If she had been a philosopher or a modern-thinking person, I would have asked her. She wasn't, and I valued her and let her be just the way she was. However, I and Jorge Ferrer are, and I'd like to give three reasons why I can't share his position.

First, he is trying to change the whole of traditional and tribal religions into a pluralism which their believers certainly didn't and don't believe in. (I will be coming back to this point shortly.) Second, Ferrer himself claims that his different and even contradicting spiritual enactions and universes be “equally holistic” (Postscript p. 5). But if Ultimate Reality is holistic, that is, the Ultimate of the whole reality, how can there be a number of different Ultimates? That seems logically absurd, as well as conceptually: Shouldn't the Ultimate of the whole reality not be an all-encompassing coherence, intelligence, consciousness?

And third, I doubt that the idea of multiple spiritual universes can be made integral, in the sense that it includes (and transcends) modern thinking. After all, modern thinking means natural thinking, and a multitude of, say, a Brahman universe, two Jehovah universes (one Jewish and one Christian), a Tao universe, a Buddha Universe, a nondual “Spirit” universe and others, seems to me plainly supernatural. As I said before, I have no problem with a notion of the natural reaching far beyond what scientific naturalism is willing and able to admit, including uncommon and subtle phenomena and beings. But including them, in my view, would mean that they too would have to be subject to (basic as well as special) natural laws, defining their place in the cosmos and their relation to more common beings and phenomena (like us).

Naturalism in this broader sense is about how the cosmos is bringing forth new things, about how they form, how they live from some basic matter and energy, and how they reproduce and evolve over cosmic time spans. Modern natural evidence, research and thinking tell us that it takes the cosmos a long time and quite special natural laws and celestial bodies (like our Earth) to bring forth living beings, and even much more time (roughly another quarter of the universe's age) to bring forth intelligent beings, with a complicated, fragile and transient life and body.

Thus, however such a natural science of the subtle might look positively ( … I for one have no idea how), it certainly would rule out most of what people believe are supernatural phenomena as illusion, fiction or superstition. I am aware that in a way this is a (de)valuation of some spiritual enactions. But I believe that in a modern, rational mindset there is no way round a minimum of this kind of critical relativizing. And frankly, the danger that this makes me or other modern-critical minds forget that we too are only poor little humans, is not such a threat.

Postmodernism fundamentally misses the crucial function of modern thinking for our worldview and its crucial place in the evolution of human spirit, and it vilifies modernism beyond any reasonable measure. Even Jorge Ferrer argues that “ … since the natural/supernatural distinction is meaningless for most Eastern and Indigenous peoples … , its uncritical use perpetuates the Western cognitive colonialism and imperialism denounced in this book and by other scholars … .” (Postscript p. 8) But don't deceive yourself about where the imperialism can be found! It's true, there is an economical “science” that sells us the interests of big industrialized nations, big corporations and big shareholders as natural laws. There are dubious mathematical constructs sold to us as the foundations of nature. There is a chemistry and surgery medicine that pretends it can control human health and wellbeing. And of course there are many kinds of crime, abuse, violence, exploitation and disregard by early modernized nations, mostly Western ones.

Yet, does this justify in any way the postmodern general suspicion against modernity? The modern achievements in reason and knowledge are of a very different kind. To be sure, we need to re-enchant our modern world with spiritual and subtle, cultural and intellectual wonders. But this cannot mean that we shall not use our modern knowledge about astronomy and geology, palaeontology and human prehistory, ecology and the geography the Earth with is nations and their exchanges. Modern knowledge about the world does not contain this much theory, much of it is plain evidence, there to be looked at. Of course, this knowledge could not be part of any premodern account of the cosmos and Ultimate Reality, and that's the reason why it was meaningless to premodern cultures (and will stay meaningless to them, if they wish). But we Westerners know about it, and postmodernism—I hate to say it—partly is a Western subculture who would rather not face modernity and who projects this problem on idealized non-Western cultures.

Thus patronizing them a bit too, in a new way. For example, the idea of multiple spiritual universes projects the postmodern idea of emancipation and pluralism on ancient religions and cults. We've been talking about the spiritual multiverse containing a Jehovah-and-Christ universe and a Brahman-and-Shiva universe. I think that most Christians or Hindus would rebel against this, claiming existence and universality for their deities in a plain, old-fashioned way. The postmodern pretension lies in its trying to integrate all religions into an esoteric pantheon where they can't do harm, changing them into something they neither are nor want to be.

This longing for peaceful spiritual pluralism is one reason why postmodernism loves so much shamanism with its magic, animism and ancestor worship. At this tribal (“purple”) stage of evolution, the later universal, all-encompassing claim is not palpable yet, which is only emerging on the warrior (“red”) stage is already there: Zeus/Jupiter and Odin/Wotan are conceived as near-omnipotent “All-Fathers”, subject only to fate. But I guess that most indigenous spiritualities too would hold that the other tribes are worshiping the wrong spirits or in the wrong way.

For me, the romanticizing of indigenous cultures is just one example of how postmodern thinking will have to learn to assume its intellectual responsibility, learn to be critical and fair to all stages of human spirituality. It will have to learn to be clear about the limits of what all older forms of religions claim about cosmos and mankind wherever required, that is, not only according the postmodern essentials of pluralism and humanism, but also the modern essentials of coherence and naturalism.

13. Delicate dialectics

Postmodernism needs to face how much we all depend on the cosmos we live in, and not just the “nurturing cosmos”, but also the “educating cosmos”.

What have we learned so far? We have a sound critique of the formless-nondual supremacy in spirituality, and we have sketched a holistic-dual alternative to it. We also have seen the merits and (from my understanding of integral thinking) limits of Jorge Ferrer's pluralistic approach. How do we put all of this together? I am not sure that I have all the pieces necessary to solve the puzzle, but I'll make some suggestions.

There are two further steps. First I will say some more about the field of tension, deadlock, dynamics, antagonism, complementarity that postmodernism forms with traditional and modern culture, thinking and spirituality, introducing Steve McIntosh. I agree with him that the shortcomings of postmodernism must be overcome from within. Postmodernism will have to lead the way towards an integral culture, for neither traditional nor modern culture will be able (or willing) to take on the task. And finally I'll round off this paper with further remarks about what a holistic Ultimate Reality may be, mainly setting out some of John Heron's and my own ideas.

The dysfunctional relationship between traditional, modern and postmodern mindsets is disturbing, and the most recent one, postmodernism, in the already fifty years since it first became a big subculture in the mid-60s, has not reconciled them, instead has managed to make traditional thinking retreat even deeper into its crazy anachronisms, and has not succeeded in reining the mad kamikaze course of modernism.

One integral thinker who is going to great lengths to build bridges between the fighting cultures, bridges of the kind we so desperately need, is Steve McIntosh. He has had several original ideas that put him outside integral mainstream, most of them being not “twonesses” (dualities), but “threenesses” (triads). For instance, he claims there is no need for four quadrants, but only three “thirds”, roughly person, nature and society, a triad closely linked to the Big Three, which are beauty, truth and goodness. McIntosh further claims that a person is not a bunch of essentially independent “lines”, but composed of three superordinate elements, roughly feeling, understanding and acting (“agency”).

The Presence of the Infinite

Lately, in his 2013 book “The Presence of the Infinite”, he also suggests a dialectical view of the Divine that on the one side is trying to loosen some of the tension between the tradition, modernity and postmodernism and their respective views about God and spirit: the traditional transcendent and caring “Lord”, the modern natural order, and the postmodern spiritual plurality-nonduality—but on the other hand is also trying to maintain and bear some of the tension, which for him is the almost paradoxical face of Ultimate Reality we have to live with. However, he is also proposing a constructive face which is best caught by the notion of panentheism: a Divine we all live in and are part of.

McIntosh is emphasizing several points that make it difficult indeed for postmodernists not to ignore or attack him. Just to name a few: There is a certain theistic flavor in his writings, a loving, personal, transcendent God. He is also talking about a personal perfection and an afterlife towards which our existence aims. And politically he thinks a certain amount of global governance will be necessary. Nevertheless, for me few have understood like him the need for integral thinking to dialectically move beyond culture wars, and the need to move beyond what I would call a causal-nondual hybrid view of Ultimate Reality. I feel that his panentheism is very close to a holistic and participatory view of Ultimate Reality.

I am writing this the day of the American presidential elections. That brutally reminds me to add that Steve McIntosh is also one of the strongest advocates and admonishers for a move toward a true political, cultural and social integration of our divided Western nations. Just some months ago, he published a paper about the failure of both Democrats style centrism and Green-Party-style leftism, called “Political Polarization—Toward a ‘Higher Form of Centrism’: Why Centrism Fails and How We Can Better Achieve Political Cooperation”. And together with Jeff Salzman, Carter Phipps and others, with the Institute for Cultural Evolution, he is promoting an political perspective beyond the usual divides, a truly integral perspective. That means also: beyond conventional Green and socialist politics, which ignore traditional family, religion, making-a-living and nation concerns, and which ignore as well modern insights in the practical, technical and psychological obstacles to left-wing utopia. Here once again, McIntosh is outside postmodern mainstream, and we will need thinkers like him to offer, a true alternative for the out-dated, blocked mentalities that made the Trump presidency possible.

The 2016 presidential elections show how dramatically we postmodernists fail, so far, to take along Western civilization towards a sustainable and more peaceful future. I believe we will have not to abandon, but to develop further all of our notions: political, spiritual and other. But how, and in what direction? It's remarkable that Steve McIntosh, in “The Presence of the Infinite”, criticizes postmodern spirituality in its nondual variety, but doesn't mention John Heron's relational-holistic variety at all. And while he gives a short and accurate description of Jorge Ferrer's participatory variety, he doesn't seem to see it as the important step toward a conciliation of pluralism and universalism that it arguably is. One problem, I think, is that both are writing pretty academically, and unlike Ken Wilber haven't succeeded in reaching (or sought to reach) larger “popular” audiences.

Another problem is their fierce anti-authoritarian and autonomous stance, already discussed above, a perspective which I think has to be relativized in order to become more integral. Postmodernism needs to face how much we all depend on the cosmos we live in, and not just the “nurturing cosmos”, but also the “educating cosmos”. The way things fit together and evolve in the cosmos is not as loose as the minimum frame anti-authoritarian parents would set to their children. Instead it is something we better respect and serve, if we don't want to do harm to ourselves and others. This is how I see the traditional, “authoritarian” part in integral thinking. No otherworldly giant perfect person patronizing and oppressing us, but something of a “good Lord” nevertheless.

Let's face the adolescent, immature part of postmodernism's authority problem (“Nobody can tell me what to do!”, as Ken Wilber put it.). We all have to grow up, get older, eventually get old and die. Personally, I have experienced and still experience the problems of many of my acquaintances and relatives who were young in the 1970s and tried to stay that way forever. (myself included, alas—can you believe I never wore a suit in my 52 years on Earth?) We are struggling to either arrange ourselves with real life, become more or less square, or become would-be-forever-young dropouts or “freaks”. Just some weeks ago, one of those friends, a very kind person, born 1964 like me, took his own life because this kind of life had become too hard and unreal. The postmodern playfulness, non-commitment, kick seeking and demanding mind set and wishful thinking simply has its sturdy limits. Most often is not enough for a whole lifespan of wellbeing, and even less can serve as a model for all milieus, civilizations or mankind as a whole.

That's why I think the painful coming of age of postmodern culture is not a philosopher's construct, but a very concrete situation we are living and have to deal with right now. And I think it tells us something about what an integral view of God or the Divine or Ultimate Reality can look like, and how to harmonize it with Jorge Ferrer's and John Heron's worthwhile insights about the Ultimate. With regard to the problems they have with a patronizing Eastern-inspired nonduality a la Wilber, it may be only a tiny step for them to accept a spiritual evolution and progress that is each one's individual way of growing up (and maybe lighting up). Plus our collective getting out of the postmodern ghetto, getting beyond our own kind of patronizing, our “deconstructive” lecturing of traditional and modern mindsets, instead of accepting what we have to learn from them if we want to mature, become wholer, so we can begin to have a healthy relationship with the planet on which we live.

14. Poles and aspects of the Divine

John Heron's thinking is very closely related with Jorge Ferrer's, in its emancipatory, humane and healing concerns. After all, they both are part of the transpersonal psychology movement. Albeit, there is also a very important difference: While Ferrer is saying almost nothing about what he deliberately calls the Mystery, Heron has elaborated a impressingly coherent and encompassing “theology”. He does not just postulate the Many-One or Unity-in-Diversity, instead the aspects of his participatory, relational concept of Ultimate Reality, and the place of humankind in it, are set out in an intricate, highly complex and terminologically innovative way. One senses that behind this (co-)creation there is not an average person.

And in fact, there are many interesting things about John Heron, about his personal and spiritual life, his career, and his writings. For example, his spiritual experiences and knowledge from the 1940s onward are incredibly diverse. In the course of his equally many-sided career, he moved from England to Italy, and from there to New Zealand. He published his groundbreaking book “Sacred Science” in 1998, at age 70.

In his classical duel with Ken Wilber on Integralworld and in “Sacred Science” he has shown to be the most passionate fighter against more or less hidden dogmatism, patriarchalism and hostility to life in Eastern and Eastern-inspired spiritual thinking. The Divine as Heron himself sees it, has a certain authority in it too, but of a different, more “parental” kind. At the same time, this view of the Divine is encompassing our personal independence, creativity and responsibility. John Heron seems to have build a view of the Ultimate without the dualisms/reductionisms that haunt philosophy and spiritual thinking so stubbornly. Let me explain about this.

For a start, let him talk for himself. On ancient Eastern traditions: “They represent the pioneer attainments of solitary mystics in tiny subcultures, set within dominant nonspiritual cultures. … what we get is a representation of human spirituality that is culturally relative. It is relative to the general level of the evolutionary emergence of humankind at that time. The primary unaware values incorporated in these ancient accounts include authoritarianism, patriarchy and the denigration of women, denigration of the body, emotional repression, together with no commitment to autonomous mastery of the phenomenal world in terms of science, politics and ethics.” (Sacred Science p. 82) All of this “unfortunately” is true, and Heron points out very clearly how much spiritual progress we have made since those ancient times.

Mainstream nondualists will tell you: of course, relatively, an intelligent and caring God, and partly autonomous persons exist; ultimately, however, not quite.

On causal-nondual experience: “The acme idea … speaks of a … state of immediate participatory experience, of the dissolution of separate subject and object in a unitive field of interdependent subjective-objective awareness, as if it were an all-inclusive final identity with pure being, in which any kind of subject has entirely disappeared [my italics]. But of course you can't identify and own this state without presupposing the subject that is supposed to be annihilated in it. … The mystics who have claimed to be in it [in nondual experience] have never claimed, as far as I am aware, to have equal access, via their participatory field, whether sensory or extrasensory, to remote galaxies as to their immediate local environment.” (Sacred p. 84) That's pretty much the same critique as mine.

And on spiritual evolution and spirit: “The future spiritual stages of humankind involve, perhaps, for we certainly don't know, [italics in the original] the conscious evolutionary and existential emergence of indwelling spirit within communities of persons, who are also simultaneously attuned to the involutional descent of transcendent spirit.” (Sacred p. 83) It's interesting that while Heron does not seem to accept the idea of individual psychological and spiritual evolution (He writes: “It is a category error to include the development of human souls within the concept of evolution.” (Participatory Spirituality, p. 149), at least he hopes that a collective spiritual evolution may happen.

This possible kind of spiritual evolution is described by Heron as the action of “indwelling spirit” and “ transcendent spirit”. Generally he paraphrases these two aspects of Spirit as “immanent life—ground of autonomy—enlivenment” and “transcendent consciousness—source of hierarchy—enlightenment”. We could also call them “Goddess” and “God”, because he calls the immanent life also “the womb”, and because this bipolar spirit comes closest to what most of us would call “God” or “The Divine” (though for Heron the Divine has to be more encompassing, as we will see shortly.)

We all know this kind of divine polarity from tradition as Yin and Yang, Shakti and Shiva, Schelling's existence of God and ground of God, Eros and Agape, the divine “push” and “pull”. The latter we also know from Ken Wilber's Spirit-in-action, which connects Agape with “involution”, the self-outpouring creation of the cosmos by Spirit, and Eros with the subsequent self-transcending evolution of beings/holons back to Spirit. Of course, for Wilber, ultimately, that is on the nondual “level”, there is no duality, thus no tension, dynamics, action of Spirit or otherwise.

And that is precisely the difference with Heron. In his thinking, the pushing immanent life and the pulling transcendent consciousness are not cosmic divine action with us persons as local supporting actors. Instead, for Heron, any divine action is manifesting itself as an interaction with and between persons—what he calls “situational presence—arena of cooperation—engagement”. So whatever a nondual experience may and can be—for John Heron it won't overcome or even transcend the ultimate duality between distinct personal beings and the all-connecting cosmic interbeing: the Many-One.

And that's why for him the One, taken alone, is not the Divine, but only together with the Many. In “Participatory Spirituality” (2006) he puts this point as follows: “The divine—The presence of the totality of what there is in every respect without let or hindrance. An integral Many-One reality including the manifest and the spiritual in all their modes. Note here that the spiritual is included in, but not identical with, the divine, which is a more comprehensive reality. To regard spirit as identical with the divine leads to acosmic monism: the reduction of the Many to the One, and of the manifest to the spiritual.” (p. 24).

Actually, this states very clearly the crucial difference between an Ultimate that is varied duality, and an Ultimate that is formless nonduality (like Ken Wilber's). Nondualists will always tell you that, yes, of course, the cosmos, the variety of beings, God as a intelligent and caring entity, evolution, suffering, partly autonomous persons exist—that is, relatively; however, absolutely and ultimately, not quite. That's the “sleight of hand” about nonduality which thinkers like Heron, McIntosh, Ferrer or myself are objecting to.

Now for one last reflection: I like the way John Heron entangles the personal spirituality of Now and of Us (“situational presence—arena of cooperation”) with what he thinks are the two faces of transpersonal Spirit, that are “immanent life” and “transcendent consciousness”. Indeed, it's a wonder how the cosmos can bear and nurture so many unique, partly arbitrary, free and creative beings, while at the same time it is the one timeless frame, rule and aim for all of them. But even if we may disagree how to make sense of this—we should agree on the Now and the Us, that is, the spiritual practice of really being present and the social practice of really caring. Since we are partly arbitrary, free and creative beings, there always will be plenty of ways to be present and caring.

A universal and maybe common path of salvation, in my view, can only exist (if there is such a thing at all) on the very ultimate level of death or whatever the end of time may be. I believe we should spend some time, but not too much, speculating on this. We can leave it to Ultimate Reality how it will take care of us in the end. For while we're alive on this Earth in this special and critical era, we must not neglect engagement.

Even the meditational “waking up” that many spiritual people value so much, is not something, I think, to be enjoyed and profited from in private. In my view, it has been given to us as a means for growing up as persons, in order to enjoy ourselves, no doubt, but also to be able to assume our everyday responsibility as relatives, friends, neighbors, colleagues, as well as our historical responsibility as humans on this planet.


I wish to thank Jorge Ferrer and Steve McIntosh for their feedback on the first draft of this essay, as well as John Heron for his friendly and encouraging words. Thanks also to Tim Saunders for looking over the text and improving my autodidactic English.

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