FRANK VISSER, CLIMBING THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN
Reflections on Ken Wilber's The Religion of Tomorrow
I: The Involution/Evolution Cosmology | II: From Atom to Atman | III: A More Adequate Spectrum of Colors? | IV: What Is It Like to Be A Super-Nova? | V: Rational Reasons to Believe in Spirit? | VI: Is Darwin Really 'On Our Side'? | VII: Climbing the Stairway to Heaven - DOWNLOAD AS PDF
INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
Since 1990 Gary Stogsdill has been a faculty member at Prescott College where he currently teaches courses in humanistic mathematics, science appreciation, and wisdom studies. He has a blog called "Pursuing Wisdom Now", which features articles on contemporary spirituality.
Belonging to the World We Live In
Feeling wonder and awe in the face of life's mysteries requires first that we realize mysteries do in fact exist and will always exist.
This is the final essay in a series of three that began with “A Critique of Perennialism: Problems with Enlightenment, Gurus, and Meditation,” which highlighted substantial problems with the spiritual path of the second half of the 20th century, followed by “Perennialism and the Myth of Narcissus: Falling in Love with Mind,” which identified a possible underlying cause of these problems: the falling in love with our own disembodied mind. This current essay explores implications of the first two essays regarding a healthy expression of spirituality.
By spirituality I mean how we humans attempt to fulfill and express our inner need for deeper meaning and purpose. According to this definition, spirituality is something that would likely accompany religion but can also flourish in the absence of religion.
Who Needs Deeper Meaning and Purpose?
At this point some readers may be thinking that they don't have a need for deeper meaning and purpose because they are fine living life at face value without anything added beyond the established realities of science, logic, and survival. “No foo-foo stuff for me!” Fair enough, but the history of humankind reveals a species that has needed deeper meaning and purpose almost from the beginning, with evidence suggesting that humans engaged in religious activity at least 100,000 years ago and possibly much earlier in the Middle Paleolithic period.
More recently, virtually all ancient indigenous societies cultivated a rich cultural legacy of myths and creation stories that gave meaning and purpose to individual lives. The fact that approximately 84% of the world's population continues to identify with a specific religion suggests that the need to cultivate deeper meaning and purpose is alive and well in the 21st century. The continued allure of perennialist paths suggests the same.
This need for deeper meaning and purpose is what drew me to a perennialist path 42 years ago, and it's what kept me devoted to that path for 24 years in search of enlightenment. I believe the appeal of the perennialist path is largely the same as the appeal of religion: a ready-made road map to salvation or enlightenment. However, this essay will argue that a healthy expression of spirituality may be completely distinct from any road map that our intellect can conjure up.
If the problems with perennialism are due, at least in part, to falling in love with our own disembodied mind, then healthy spirituality would focus not on mind but on life as the sacred mystery at the core of spirituality. This would rescue spirituality from the tyranny of intellect, which loves to create road maps to enlightenment and endless conceptualizations about spirituality (for example, Ken Wilber's integral theory) and also from the tyranny of meditation and altered states of consciousness (for example, the conflating of enlightenment with a specific altered state or with so many hours and years of meditation), and it would place spirituality in the immediate and felt sense of embodied aliveness. This is what I mean by connected spirituality.
Let me clarify that I don't want to unfairly criticize either intellect or meditation. I deeply value intellect and teach college courses in humanistic mathematics, science appreciation, and wisdom studies precisely because of the powerful contributions of these intellectual creations. It's just that intellect is impotent when it comes to connected spirituality. I also believe that meditation, when practiced in moderation, can benefit us in areas such as relaxation, stress relief, and introspective insight. However, as discussed in my first two essays, I have found no evidence that meditation is a reliable way to relate to deeper reality, and my experience is that meditation can easily lead us into narcissistic beliefs about our own relationship with deeper reality.
Connected spirituality, as I said, is about a felt sense of embodied aliveness. What we feel is almost always more powerful than what we think. For example, hearing or reading a well-reasoned argument against a specific form of prejudice may do nothing to change that felt sense of prejudice, and a person who feels prejudice will effortlessly adopt thought processes that justify the prejudice. For a different kind of example, spiritual pandits can create elaborate intellectual systems, such as Wilber's integral theory, but these endeavors are not spirituality itself and may do little to change who we are at the deeper, felt sense of being that guides our behavior.
Connected spirituality is about feeling wonder and awe in the face of life's mysteries; caring for the well-being of others, human and nonhuman; unfolding our full human potential while wanting others to also realize their potential; and being the best, most ethical version of human that we can be. Ways to cultivate these aspects of connected spirituality are as many and varied as there are individuals. The last three of these aspects comprise the simple everyday act of trying to live our lives well, and these have been written about at length. Here I want to focus on the first aspect of connected spirituality.
Feeling Wonder and Awe in the Face of Life's Mysteries
Feeling wonder and awe in the face of life's mysteries requires first that we realize mysteries do in fact exist and will always exist. The human agenda to explain everything rationally, as exemplified by science, is helpful only to a certain extent. I'm a big fan of science and deeply appreciate the discoveries of science that reveal the wonders of the universe and that allow us to live better lives. However, for all its virtues science cannot explain everything.
To take a current example, cosmologists admit that they do not know what 96% of the universe actually is; everything we can see or otherwise detect in the amazing universe we live in is only 4% of what's there. The mysterious 96% is labeled dark energy and dark matter by cosmologists, but those labels tend to mask the fact that we have no clue what they are. Imagine if you scored 4% on a test. How well would you know the subject? Almost all of our universe is a mystery to science.
Of course, scientists and many others confidently assert that science will eventually figure everything out given enough time. I don't agree and for the simple reason that some things are beyond the scope of intellect. One example is the ultimate mystery of the existence of our universe: Why is there something instead of nothing? The widely accepted Big Bang theory describes how our universe could have developed from a tiny “singularity” and expanded into its current awe-inspiring reality. But the word singularity is just an impressive way of saying, “We don't know how to explain this.” In other words, there must be something more all-encompassing than the Big Bang, but we have no idea how to even to think about it. That doesn't stop some scientists from postulating very creative ideas about what could give rise to a Big Bang, but all of these ideas lead ultimately back to an original unexplainable singularity.
That also doesn't stop some scientists from saying with a straight face that in fact something can come from nothing. Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss wrote an entire book, A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing, skillfully attempting to explain how everything could have come from nothing. Because Krauss wields a brilliant intellect, many readers of this book assume that he actually answered the question when he did nothing of the sort. Krauss claims to have provided not one but three answers to the question. First, he observes that since quantum physics reveals empty space to be “endowed with energy,” then empty space can “create everything we see” (p. 152). Even Krauss himself acknowledges that this does not really answer the question since empty space is not nothing but rather part of the universe created in the Big Bang.
Second, Krauss claims to have answered the question by invoking the god of quantum gravity: “Quantum gravity not only appears to allow universes to be created from nothingmeaning in this case, and I emphasize, the absence of space and timeit may require them” (p. 170). But all Krauss has done is lead us in a circle back to the original question in slightly different words: Why is there quantum gravity instead of nothing?
Third, Krauss gives us this jaw-dropping answer: “There is something simply because if there were nothing, we wouldn't find ourselves living there” (p. 177). This statement does nothing to explain how something could arise from nothing; it merely affirms that there is indeed something. After these three answers that answer nothing, Krauss asserts, “Philosophy and theology are ultimately incapable of addressing by themselves the truly fundamental questions that perplex us about our existence” (p. 178). I agree, but Krauss's book also reveals that even the most brilliant scientific intellect is incapable of addressing such fundamental questions.
Perhaps this is just what we should expect. Nowhere is it decreed that just because humans have developed an intellect, it should therefore be able to figure everything out. Humans have developed a strong body, but there are clear limits to how much weight we can lift. Humans have developed skillful movement, but there are clear limits to how fast we can run. We have also developed an effective intellect, and surely we should expect definite limits to what this intellect can do.
A similar example of things beyond the scope of intellect may be the mystery of the existence of life, which also presents itself as a singularity. Even though some scientists try very hard to convince us that life could somehow spontaneously arise from matter and energy, a process called abiogenesis, the time to take seriously such a claim would be when science is actually able to create life. Only then would life not be one of the ultimate mysteries like the existence of our universe, mysteries that are beyond the scope of intellect.
Both of the above ultimate mysteries suggest “behind the scenes” realities that science and intellect are helpless to understand. Connected spirituality would 1) recognize these mysteries; 2) feel wonder and awe in the face of these mysteries; 3) feel a sense of belonging right here on planet earth because a deeper reality has brought forth the universe and life, and therefore us; and 4) attempt to relate to this deeper reality. The rest of this essay focuses on how we might fruitfully attempt to relate to whatever deeper reality is.
Relating to Deeper Reality
My story suggests that we may live in a participatory world where humans are not isolated accidents in a mechanistic universe.
As mentioned toward the beginning of this essay, all human cultures have created ways of relating to deeper reality in order to cultivate meaning and purpose; it appears to be a fundamental human need. Here I want to briefly discuss two ways that have worked well for me: prayer and synchronicity.
Prayer is surely the most common and natural way for us to relate to deeper reality. Prayer does not need to be religious, and it does not require that we know what we are praying to beyond something greater than self. The act of prayer is an exercise in humility, awe, and connection all at the same time. Prayer tends to arise spontaneously when we recognize how fragile and small our human lives are, yet how connected we must be to a deeper reality by virtue of being alive in a miraculous universe. Most of us probably think of prayer in the context of needing help, but prayer is also well suited for a variety of other needs including a daily expression of gratitude for the awesome gift of life. Even a prayer for help can be more creative than simply asking, as the following story illustrates.
Forty years ago I worked in a large university business office where I encountered the unfortunate situation of an immediate supervisor who for no reason decided that she hated me and therefore treated me horribly, even making false, harmful statements about me to our common supervisor. I was fairly new to my spiritual path, so with the idealism and enthusiasm of that newness I decided to handle the situation spiritually through a creative kind of prayer. Every morning and evening at the end of my meditation period I would visualize this person and make the effort to send her loving energy. This was hard to do, especially in the beginning, but I stayed with it for two weeks when something happened that still stuns me to this day.
I was already present in my work area one morning when I saw this person walk through the array of front office doors. She caught my eye, smiled like she was seeing a long-lost friend, and came running to me. I stood speechless as she said: “Gary, I had the most beautiful dream about you last night. You were leading me through an enchanted meadow teaching me about the wonderful lifeforms we encountered there and about the love that connected everything. I just feel so much love for you now! May I give you a hug?” I don't know how often you've had someone who hates you with a passion suddenly come and say that they feel love for you, but this was my one and only time.
This story leads into a discussion of synchronicity because while the story began with creative prayer, it ended with a deeply meaningful event that cannot be explained by rational processes. This is what I mean by synchronicity. It may be that synchronicities are the singularity of human experience. Like the singularities of life and the universe itself, synchronicities invite us into the awareness of a deeper reality. Of course, a deeply meaningful synchronicity to one person may be dismissed as a random and meaningless coincidence to another. Connected spirituality means choosing to relate to synchronicities as meaningful events that connect us to a deeper reality, instead of as random accidents.
My story suggests that we may live in a participatory world where humans are not isolated accidents in a mechanistic universe, but where life and external reality are connected to something deeper that may allow the world, in some circumstances and to some extent, to respond to us according to how we relate to it. The person who relates to the world around us as though it is mechanistic, dead, and meaningless will likely find just such a world reflected back. The person who relates to the world around us as though it is mysterious, alive, and meaningful will likely find an enchanted world that can respond to us, as the following stories also suggest.
I had the good fortune of growing up next to several square miles of woodland, with no fence between my back yard and the woods, as well as the further good fortune of having parents who let me roam these woods by myself starting at the age of five. Many years of befriending the woods as a young child nurtured a spiritual connection with nature and allowed me to experience the kind of synchronicity called signs and omens.
One example of this synchronicity occurred when I was just eight years old and was visiting my grandparents' farm, as my family did on a regular basis. As I played on the shore of a pond behind the farmhouse, I suddenly became transfixed by the sight of a dead bullfrog. My body tingled and shivered slightly, and I “knew” that my grandfather had just died. I had no rational basis for this knowing, but a few seconds later I heard anguished crying from the nearby farmhouse. My grandfather had in fact died at the precise moment of the dead-frog omen.
As I grew older I began to experiment with this kind of synchronicity by asking for signs. For example, many years ago I was about to enter a relationship and was having mixed feelings. My prospective partner was coming over for dinner that evening, so I asked for a sign that would help me know if this relationship would be the right thing. After dinner we walked out onto the deck to look at stars and talk. Just as we stepped outside, we both had our breath taken away by a stunning meteor that turned blue and lasted for several seconds. Again I felt the tingling sensation that told me this was a sign, and I “knew” the relationship was right. Had I not asked the question, it would have been an omen instead of a sign.
Prayer and synchronicity go together and invite us into a participatory world that is pregnant with meaning and purpose beyond the mundane realities of science, logic, and survival. They provide simple yet powerful ways to do connected spirituality by relating to deeper reality.
We may not be capable of resolving the challenges of the 21st century through creative intellect alone. We certainly need all the creative intellect we can muster, but like the mysteries of life and our universe itself, the essential problems of our time may invite connected spirituality. For example, among our many shared challenges, income inequality and climate change rise to the top for some of us. Human behaviors that contribute to excessive income inequality and destructive climate change are ultimately rooted in the felt sense of how we as humans relate to others and to the world around us. If there is no deeper meaning and purpose to life and the universeno mystery, no deeper reality, no interconnectedness among humans and among all lifethen we may easily feel justified in doing whatever we can get away with to increase privilege or profits for ourselves, for our corporations, or for our countries at the expense of others and without regard for nature or for future generations.
If, on the other hand, we live in a world that is ultimately mysterious because of the existence of life and the universe itself, then a deeper reality is suggested. We are then called to connected spirituality which invites us to feel wonder and awe, to try to relate to that deeper reality, and to feel that we belong to the world we live in. This belonging inspires love, compassion, and ethical behavior because if we are connected to a deeper reality through the sacred mystery of life, then we are also connected to all living beings, human and nonhuman.
Through connected spirituality, we not only nourish an individual need for meaning and purpose, but we also care that all humans may be able to enjoy a decent quality of life, we act respectful of the wellbeing of other life on planet earth, and we act mindful of our obligation to future generations. We belong to the world we live in.