A Community of the Whole

Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution

by Ken Wilber

Shambhala Publications 1995

831 pages, $40 hardcover

Reviewed by Christina Desser

Traditional means of political and social organizing are failing because they are rooted in polarizing us-versus-them paradigms. Anger or anomie seem to characterize public discourse. A new integration of activism, spirit, and philosophical traditions is necessary for effective social change. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, (SES) by Ken Wilber, is a rich and creative resource, both theoretically and practically, that can inform this synthesis.

More than a remarkable synthesis of the evolution of philosophy, psychology, sociology, spirit and science, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, along with the more popularized version, A Brief History of Everything, cogently makes the case that the integration of differentiated realms--notably the ascended and the descended (explained below), science, art, and morality; male and female; ecology, technology and spirituality; I, we, and it--is the central task for this fractured, post-modern time, indeed that evolution and our survival depend on our success.

My work traverses the territory of SES, especially ecology and spirituality. As an environmentalist I have encountered what Wilber calls the "descended," "flatland" mentality of many environmental activists and thinkers. By this he means an insufficient ability to hold contradictions, unify opposites, think in a dialectical and nonlinear fashion, and weave together incompatible notions (this defines a structure of consciousness Wilber calls "vision-logic") in a higher unity or "holon."

As a meditator, I have encountered the "ascended" emphasis of some spiritual and religious practices. The value of the visceral experience of nature and the pleasure or transcendence that can be known from it, or any corporeal experience for that matter, is often demeaned as attachment to sense pleasure or evidence of "the fall" from godliness.

Recently I have been grappling with how to reconcile--or integrate--the "descended" nature of my work with the "ascended" nature of my spiritual practice. I have been frustrated by the inability of many participants in those two realms to understand the importance of the other. While each view is true, it is incomplete, or "partial," to use Wilber's vocabulary. SES concerns the importance of integrating these two paths.

While I am especially interested in the potential for the evolution of consciousness and spirit, I have focused on the environment for two reasons. First, without an ecologically intact planet, there won't be a place from which human consciousness can evolve. Second, because environmental degradation is causing significant harm and suffering to humans and all other life on the planet, I feel compelled to help alleviate that, however modestly.

The evolution of consciousness, or anything else for that matter, depends on ecological sustainability. Sustainability, however can only be achieved if we come to understand the interrelationship and interconnectedness of life on this planet--or, as Wilber might put it, our "whole/partness"--and modify our behavior accordingly. As an activist I am interested in how contexts are created that enable this understanding to arise.

Ecological sustainability requires complexity and biodiversity. The natural world is both evidence of Spirit, or "Nature" and, for many, a way into realizing the presence of Spirit. My own experiences of Spirit have often come through unmediated experiences in nature. This body and this planet provide the means and opportunity for coming to consciousness.

As one way of heightening awareness about the importance of nature to human survival and evolution, I have been developing a project that links communities based upon the migratory species that pass through them. It is a way, perhaps, to foster what Wilber calls the "mode of awareness that will integrate the biosphere and noosphere in a higher and deeper union." The seasonal migrations of many species simply and effectively illustrate the interconnectedness and interdependence of life on this planet--the fact that it is in the nature of all "holons" to be wholes while also being parts of larger systems.

For example, people live within a local ecosystem that is whole and has intrinsic value in and of itself, not only as a functional "strand in the wonderful web." The whales or butterflies or birds that pass through comprise an integral part of that ecosystem. At the same time, however, those creatures are also "parts" of and integral to the other ecosystems along the migratory route. Thus, the "part" nature of a particular ecosystem is also obvious. This understanding can lead to an awareness of the need for the environmental ethics based on rights and relationships that Wilber calls for, because if any place along the route is despoiled, the whole route is imperiled.

In addition to understanding the ecological or "biospheric" importance of a particular species, the project also emphasizes the role of that creature in a larger social context, what Wilber and others call the "noosphere." The project encourages people to investigate and understand the cultural, artistic and social manifestations of a species in the various communities along the route: How does that bird or that butterfly or that fish appear in the art, music, stories and spirituality of a people and a place? How does that creature fit into the local economy?

The project then encourages people to look beyond their own place and ask these questions of the other places along the route. This necessarily involves contact with other people and cultures. The project further seeks to develop the understanding that cultural and spiritual expression arise out of relationship to place.

Thus, this project seeks to develop interiority and depth by helping people understand the multiple contexts in which we exist and by emphasizing the intrinsic value (ecologically, culturally, spiritually) of every place along the route (whole), as well as the extrinsic value of every place to the rest of the route (necessary part). In concept and design it strives to "take monological nature up and into dialogical culture" and, somehow--but this is the hard part to design into activism--to "take both nature and culture up and into translogical Spirit."

At every level this inquiry leads to relationship, and potentially, an understanding of "whole/partness." My hope is that an understanding of commonality along a shared migratory corridor will emerge and give rise to a healing impulse.

The migratory species project seeks to catalyze the awareness necessary to address what Wilber identifies as the real problem, that is, "how to get people to internally transform…to a worldcentric consciousness…that can grasp the global dimensions of the problem…and eagerly embrace global solutions" by encouraging them to understand the comprehensive ramifications of their actions and locate them as whole/parts in a local and a global context. It is a way to help people begin to understand that no place is as important as the place where they live--except every other place--and that all places are evidence of Nature.

Christina Desser, an attorney and organizer, is currently project director for the Migratory Species Project. Previously she was the executive director of Earth Day 1990. She serves on the boards of the Rainforest Action Network, Patagonia and Tricycle Magazine. E-mail: Chris@igc.apc.org