Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1981. $16.95, 372 pp.
by Stanislav Grof
The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 1981, Vol. 13, No. 2
During the four years following the publication of his first book The Spectrum of Consciousness, Ken Wilber has gained the reputation of a leading theoretician in the field of transpersonal psychology. In his new book, Up From Eden, published only a short time after his ground-breaking Atman Project, Wilber offers nothing less than a drastic reformulation of history and anthropology. In discussing human history, Wilber succeeds in avoiding the pitfalls of naïve and anti-evolutionary idealization of the early periods, as well as uncritical glorification of evolution. In this balanced approach, he is able to introduce unusual clarity into the seemingly impenetrable and unmanageable jungle of historical facts and theories by reducing them to a few common denominators. Each of the consecutive historical periods is analyzed in terms of three key questions: 1.) What are the major forms of transcendence available at this time? 2.) What substitutes for transcendence are created when the above fail, in other words--which are the forms of the Atman project, both subjective for the self and objective for the culture, and 3) What are the costs of these substitutes?
The first stage of consciousness evolution can be traced far back to the dawn of the human race. Using Erick Neumann's terminology, Wilber refers to this period as pleromatic-uroboric. It is characterized by lack of real differentiation between inner experience and external reality. At this stage of primal embeddedness in the unconscious, the Atman project is limited to the uroboric drive for unity that focuses on simple instinctual functions, such as food. Wilber postulates that this state of consciousness prevailed among the early hominids. He relates it to mythological stories of Eden, to wide-spread occurrence of snake symbolism, and to the first chakra phenomenology in the Tantric tradition. The following typhonic period is characterized by separation of the individual self from the world of nature. However, the self and the body are not yet clearly differentiated and mental functioning is limited to the primary process and magical thinking. With the first sense of self comes the fear of death and the tendency to deny it; this is directly related to the discovery of time. Wilber postulates that this form of consciousness was characteristic of the average Neanderthal or Cromagnon man and woman. The artistic illustration of this stage is the image of the Sorcerer of Trois Frères and the corresponding mythological representations of the Titans in Greek mythology. Historically, this structure of consciousness operated in the human race approximately 200,000 years ago and onward.
The stage of mythic membership coincides with the development of farming, rise of large settlements and cities, the institution of the great God-Kings, new forms of social control, and the cults of the Great Mother. Consciousness of this type is characterized by control of animal and emotional-sexual impulses, shift to temporal and mental goals, and extensive use of language. A specific new level of exchange is developed that involves mutual recognition and esteem. The Atman project takes here the form of pursuit of agricultural products, money, gold and other possessions; in this context, the God-King can be seen as a concretized expression of the extreme form of the Atman intuition. During this time, murder and sacrifice flourish as a new way of magically avoiding death by offering another being as a substitute. At the same time, war becomes an easily accessible symbol of immortality by providing an opportunity for killing and looting. Consciousness of mythic membership was most fully expressed between 4500 and 1500 B.C. The last stage of consciousness development systematically discussed in the book is the egoic structure of consciousness. Its lower forms started developing in the second millenium B.C. and in its high form, this consciousness structure is characteristic of much of contemporary humanity. It involves final transcendence of nature and body, sanctity of personhood, higher mentality with rational comprehension and operational thinking, self-reflection and a grasp of historical time. The Atman project consists of a variety of substitute goals and hedonistic self-indulgence. The increased emphasis on ego leads to new terrors--great vulnerability, awareness of one's mortality, and fear of death. This results in oppression, slavery, totalitarianism and homicide on a grand scale in the form of mass sacrifice and genocide. Typically, exchanges on all previous levels are distorted and exploited--the material, emotional-sexual, verbal membership, as well as egoic self-esteem maneuvers, are involved. In spite of what might seem to be a rather gloomy picture of our present condition, Up From Eden does not end on a pessimistic note; on the contrary, Wilber predicts further evolution to undreamt of levels of consciousness. He shows that in each stage of consciousness evolution, while most individuals manifest the dominant form of consciousness, a select few attain much higher levels that anticipate future evolution of all of humanity. Thus, during the pleromatic and uroboric stage, a few truly advanced shamans achieve the level of ecstatic trance and psychic abilities of the Nirmanakaya (level 5). During the mythic membership stage while the majority of the population practices various exoteric distortions of the Atman project and indulges in ritual sacrifices, a few saints succeed in connecting with the level of transcendent bliss and subtle oneness with the Great Goddess characterizing the Sambhogakaya (level 6). Similarly, during the egoic-mental period, a few sages representing the avant-gard of consciousness evolution, reach the Dharmakaya (level 7/8). Ken Wilber believes with Plotinus that humanity is poised midway between the beasts and the gods. We have come a long way from the unconscious slumber to our present state and have the potential to move on further to subtle and causal realms and to the Absolute. Deep structures of all the higher levels exist in the ground unconscious ready to unfold. Further evolution represents a real experiential possibility for all of us. Ken Wilber's Up From Eden, an extraordinary book with great conceptual clarity and wealth of information, will undoubtedly serve in the future not only as a most valuable guide, but as a powerful catalyst of this development.