Religion and Philosophy

Becoming One

Each new book by Ken Wilber follows his own developmental schema whereby higher stages transcend and include what has gone before. The Eye of Spirit reflects on his previous work, updating his ideas where necessary, responding comprehensively and with devastating acumen to his critics, and applying his views to new areas such as art and literature. His starting point here is to ask if we can keep the conservative strength with its embrace of spirituality while jettisoning its cultural tyranny at the same time as keeping the liberal strength of individual freedom while rejecting its anti-soul polemic. To this end Wilber proposes an integral vision, where the word means 'integrative, inclusive, comprehensive, balances', applying it to various fields of human knowledge.

He begins by reiterating his theory of the four quadrants involving individual and collective, subjective and objective approaches before moving on to demonstrate the internal inconsistency of modern constructivism and relativism. This clears the ground for an all-quadrant all-level programme that honours the entire spectrum of consciousness. He sees the central claim of perennial philosophy that (his italics) 'men and women can grow and develop (or evolve) all the way up to Spirit itself, therein to realize a 'supreme identity' with Godhead'. Spirit in this sense is defined, as in A Brief History of Everything as the summit of being, the highest rung on the ladder as well as the ladder itself: the goal of evolution and the ground of being. I find this definition profoundly satisfying as it embraces the immanent and transcendent aspects of existence without violating either. What Wilber calls the Atman Project is the evolutionary path back to the Source and Ground. The error we make is in not realizing that Truth is radically formless, spaceless and timeless: it cannot be exhaustively expressed in discursive thought and language, but can only be shown or experienced by the eye of contemplation. This is a point admirably made in the writings of Fritjhof Schuon, a writer who is surprisingly not referenced by Wilber.

I found his excursus into modern art and literary theory particularly illuminating. He shows how deconstruction inevitably leads to nihilism and how art is necessarily context-dependent. These contexts apply equally to the artist, the work of art and the connoisseur who tries to discern its meaning. He argues that art is thoroughly holonic 'in its nature, its locus, its structure, its meaning and its interpretation', and that each context will confer a different meaning on the artwork. Theories of art make the same partial error as in other fields by claiming that their partial view (e.g. unconscious intentionality) explains the whole. Wilber rightly condemns such inadequate formulations while proposing his own integral view that situates the positive elements of these theories in the widest context by means of what he calls 'orienting generalizations': no context is omitted, and each finds its place in the larger picture.

The next few chapters are technical in parts, and address various criticisms of his work as well as offering Wilber's own critique of other theorists. The main people involved here are Michael Washburn, Stan Grof, Carol Gilligan and Jenny Wade. Washburn's criticisms are made to look ill-informed, while Wilber's views on Stan Grof and Jenny Wade pinpoint fallacies in their approaches which he had in some instances committed himself at an earlier stage. Grof is shown to be using a dual definition of the word perinatal which he equates existential death-rebirth phenomena with the birth experience; this, according to Huston Smith, confuses chronological regression with ontological modes of being. Jenny Wade is taken to task for using Bohm's terminology of explicate and implicate orders to establish a two level hierarchy when the categories can arguably be used all the way up and down the Chain of Being. This leads on to a very interesting discussion about whether spirituality is to be understood as a separate line or stream of development, or else the higher stages or wave of different lines. Wilber proposes that both definitions are valid, provided that one is specific about one's usage.

A chapter on the effects of meditation as an accelerator of spiritual development is followed by an exposition of Wilber's integral theory of consciousness, recently the subject of an article in the Journal of Consciousness Studies. I was glad to see him engage with some of the leading scientific and philosophical theorists in the field. Much of the most interesting discussion takes place in the footnotes, especially with respect to the so-called 'hard problem' enunciated by David Chalmers about the relationship between brain states and subjective experience. The impassable gulf referred to by Chalmers is another name for the subject-object dualism that is a hallmark of all manifestation and is unresolvable except at a higher, more all-inclusive state of consciousness: the discursive mind cannot resolve paradoxes that disappear only when a state of non-dual awareness is reached. This amounts to the necessity for researchers to investigate their own consciousness rather than write about that of other people!

All this is finely and allusively described in the last chapter, which expresses as much of the mystery as can be put into words. The separate self is 'at bottom, simply a sensation of seeking'. And what is the Search? 'Simply the final impulse which prevents the present realization of Spirit (because) the Great Search presumes the loss of God'. Thus the Great Search is the enemy of what is, a symptom of self-contraction. And the answer? Ever-present awareness: 'Spirit is not an object. Spirit cannot be grasped or reached or sought or seen: it is the ever-present Seer. To search for the Seer is to miss the point I am the eye of Spirit'. Enough words: should I recommend you to buy this book or practise the message? Maybe both!