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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".
Frank Visser founded IntegralWorld.net in 1997 (back then under the name of "The World of Ken Wilber"). He is the author of the first monograph on Ken Wilber and his work: "Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion
" (SUNY Press, 2003), which has been translated into 7 languages, and of many essays on this website. He currently is Service Desk Manager at the Dutch divison of the global online marketing agency LBi.
THE PASSION OF KEN WILBER
A visit to Ken Wilber, January 1997
For many years, Ken Wilber (born 31/1/1949) is regarded
as one of the most important thinkers of transpersonal psychology, one
of the few psychological schools which take spiritual experiences seriously.
Within the alternative world he has always been somewhat of a strange fellow,
not to say a nasty one.
Many run away with Jung -- Wilber doesn't. Many look down
on Freud -- Wilber doesn't. Many see holism as the new gospel -- Wilber
doesn't. Many consider the intellect to be the culprit -- Wilber doesn't.
What is the vision of this man, who for twenty years now
has written difficult, and sometimes not so difficult, but always highly
original books on spiritual psychology and its wider implications? Frank
Visser from Holland went to Boulder to meet him in person.
As Wilber-watcher of the first hour I have followed his
publications since the early eighties. Many years I have tried to make
contact with him, in vain. Reading The Atman Project during my study years
(I graduated in 1987 as a psychologist of religion), I knew at once Wilber
was able to accomplish what I was looking for at that time: a truly scientific
approach to human spirituality. I tried to promote Wilber at my university,
but met with polite interest or indifference. I translated the book, got
it published, although commercially this was not feasible, and kept writing
to Wilber letters with comments -- with no results. In the meantime I had
learnt that he lived and worked as a hermit, did not answer his mail, and
communicated with his colleagues mostly through his published work -- at
least according to legend.
When in the middle of the eighties, and ten books further,
nothing was heard from him for years, as his wife became seriously ill
and he dropped writing completely -- about this period he was to write
later the book Grace and Grit -- the chances to meet him in person seemed
close to zero. But then in 1995 an incredibly massive book of his appeared,
with the strange title Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, and I was in the USA
that year to attend the annual congress of the International Transpersonal
Association. On that occasion I heard about another book: A Brief History
of Everything. I hardly could wait with the translation of that one! On
my way back I visited the Theosophical Publishing House at Wheaton (I am
a theosophist myself), the publisher of The Atman Project, and had such
an inspired conversation with its senior editor about Wilber, that when
I was about to leave she gave me his secret fax number on a scrap of paper.
Back home I tried my luck at once, and faxed to Wilber
my impressions of the transpersonal congress -- and the questions I had
collected over the years. I did not have to wait long for an answer. Already
the next day there was a fax by Wilber, with a long answer. This was to
be the beginning of an intense exchange of thoughts, which has continued
to this day, all trough the fax -- one could almost speak of a friendly
When at the end of last year I found an announcement on
the Internet of a Wilber-conference in San Francisco in January, it started
to itch. Would a meeting with Wilber still be possible after all? The conference
was the follow-up of a conversation which had been staged in three successive
issues of the magazine ReVision, originally co-founded by Wilber, but since
many years on a different course. In these issues, his main opponents --
such as Stanislav Grof, Michael Washburn and a few others -- had written
long articles and Wilber had answered these points of criticism one by
one, so that for the first time something of a true dialogue on transpersonal
matters was taking shape.
The fact that Wilber would not be present at the conference
was no surprise to me, for this had been his policy during the last twenty
years. But wouldn't he be curious about what was said there about his person
and his work? I took the risk and suggested I could visit him right after
the conference, at his home in Boulder, to report on the proceedings and
say hello to eachother.
RIGHT AT HOME
But alas, he was on a retreat at that time, he said, would
give lectures at the Naropa Institute afterwards, and then had to get back
to working hard on the sequel to Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. But the next
day another fax came through: because of the Wilber conference his publisher,
Shambhala, had decided to bring out his new book The Eye of Spirit -- parts
of which consisted of a long response to the conference material -- a few
months earlier. He had to be in San Francisco for this, where the conference
was held, and after the conference he would meet with a few good friends
at parties, to which I was kindly invited. But maybe he would be right
at home in Boulder...
Because time was short and I had to book my flights, I
urged for an answer. This came in the form of a hand written fax note:
"You can stay at my house for one night. I have a room for visitors. Come
on Monday, leave on Thuesday." Fifteen years of patience had finally turned
out to be worthwhile...
With some luck I was able to purchase a ticket to Denver
from San Francisco, although United Airlines had almost sabotaged the whole project
by asking 1250 dollar for a return trip. Happily I could get a cheaper
one at an obscure Aziatic travel agency for a flight with a Denver based
company. Full of expectations I flew to Denver, where a bus would take
me to Boulder. In Boulder I met him in the lounge of a hotel called Boulderado,
as he had suggested. Recognizing Ken Wilber in a crowded hotel lounge is
not too difficult, because of his bald head and huge stature, he towers
above everyone else. He walks towards me with a big smile and takes me
to his jeep, which waits outside.
From that moment on, a friendly conversation starts that
covers everything from the conference of the past weekend, the overpowering
beauty of the nature of Colorado, the outrageous prices of air companies
and things that are on his mind at the moment. After a ride through the
mountains we reach his home -- he lives on high altitudes in some kind
of chalet, attached to the Rocky Mountains rising from the plains below,
and that provides a panoramic view.
We enter the house, sit down in the kitchen of his living
room --- me on a bar chair, he next to the sink, leaning back against a
cupboard -- and start a conversation that is to last for nine-and-a-half
hours at a stretch. It is four o'clock in the afternoon and till around
half past one in the night we talk and talk uninteruptedly about the most
profound (and the most profane) subjects. He is intense in everything he
does, can talk passionately, or listen quietly. He expresses himself subtly
or very forcefully. And has an incredible sense of humor. Above all he
is very kind and concerned about my well-being ("Are you comfortable, Frank?").
Wilbers appearance is remarkable. His bald head is something
one has to get used to. His expressiveness is a second striking characteristic.
He underlines what he talks about with big gestures. Living at this altitude
in the sunny climate has given him a tanned skin, and makes him look healty
for the reclusive hermit he is. Clothed in jeans and a much to wide skirt
he answers to the image that has formed around him: he lives for his work,
in seclusion, and does not bother much about how he looks.
Why he had not come to the conference devoted to his work
was one of the first questioned I asked him. The articles in ReVision had
not convinced him of the usefulness of his presence there, he explained.
He was disappointed by the mediocre quality of most of the contributions.
And although he could follow the criticism from feminist, ecological or
depth psychological quarters, he felt all this was set in a regressive
framework, which did not value the qualities of modernity enough.
As the hours go by it becomes crytal clear to me why he
always has expressed in his writings so many reservations about most of
the alternative and transpersonal world. As anyone familiar with his work
will know, Wilber considers most, if not all, so-called New Age or New
Science models of human development regressive or reductionistic, howsoever
much they present themselves as promising syntheses between science and
In his massive work Sex, Ecology, Spirituality he has
expressed, for the first time openly, his sharp criticism at these dubious
trends in contemporary "spirituality" -- which has won him a few more enemies.
In fact, at the conference the main point of many contributions was that
he, as a spiritual authority, should know his responsibility and show more
compassion and respect towards other views. Criticizing as he had done
was considered to be unspiritual...
When I confront him with this, he suddenly becomes sharp
and very concentrated. In his opinion, the depth of the spiritual traditions
is lost almost completely in the popular views of spirituality, from the
Aquarian Conspiracy to the Celestine Prophecy.
To point out in what way his view differs from all this,
he explains these views often contain a highly dualistic worldview (contrary
to their holistic pretentions). They talk of only two poles: ego and Self
(Jung), ego and Ground (Washburn), ego and essence (Hameed Ali), ego and
body (Lowen), etcetera. (Interestingly, Wilber does the same in his first
two books, Spectrum of Consciousness and No Boundary, where he writes about
ego and Mind, FV.)
The general type of reasoning with these authors then
is: at the start of his/her development a human being is in a state of
union with the Self, although unconsciously. During the process of growing
up this transcendent reality is repressed, and the ego develops. This ego
not only loses contact with the body, but also with the spiritual dimension.
To become spiritual as an adult again, we therefore have to undo this repression,
so that the ego can recontact the Self, but now consciously. The middle
phase of ego and mind gets a negative quality in this way, and spiritual
development is conceptualized as a process of regression. We have to return
to something we have lost.
Often, only two categories are recognized: a "good" one
and a "bad" one. "Good" means: nature, the body, holism, oneness, linking,
primitive cultures, the feminine, quantum physics, etcetera. "Bad" means:
culture, mind, atomism, division, ranking, modernity, the masculine, classical
Wilber criticizes this dualistic view with an unprecedented
vehemence. So-called New Science -- a mixture of systems theory, holography,
quantum physics, chaos theory, or any other new scientific fad showing
up -- is for Wilber as materialistic as the much despised Old Science of
Descartes and Newton (who presented very holistics views of reality in
fact). Both atomism and holism are flatland ideologies, while we ought
to pioneer into the depth dimension of human consciousness.
Unity is not more spiritual than division, he adds rapidly,
for there are immature forms of unity, as there are mature and spiritual
forms of making divisions. Both are needed for a healthy development. Many
consider nature to be more spiritual (for it is cosmic), than culture (which
is "only" a human invention). For Wilber, it is precisely the other way
round. Nature is divine, true enough, but in the world of culture the human
mind is expressed, which is more spiritual than unconscious nature. So-called
primitive cultures are not automatically more spiritual than so-called
secularized Western culture. They can be very dogmatic, cultivate a group
mentality, and prevent individual growth.
The body is seen in some circles as the home of spirituality,
for it is supposed to be more real and energetic than the ghostly ego:
we should not live in our heads to much, but come down to our senses, something
is real only when it is experienced through the body, etcetera. In sharp
contrast, Wilber sees the human power to transcend the body as a sign of
development, and therefore as a step towards spirituality.
And finally, the feminine is not automatically more spiritual
than the masculine, he states, although this is the impression one gets
from much ecological and feminist literature. Men are depicted as stupid
creatures who wage war and oppress women, while women are supposed to be
more spiritual because they know how to be in relation and are good at
linking. For Wilber, men and women are equally spiritual or unspiritual,
for both have to go through a difficult process of development from the
prepersonal to the personal to the transpersonal. Men will do this in their
way, stressing agency, women will do it in their way, stressing communion,
but none of them is essentially more spiritual than the other.
For this reason, Wilber proposes a threefold developmental
model: the stages go from prepersonal to personal to transpersonal. One
might think here of analogous threefold divisions such as: body, soul,
spirit; instinct, intellect, intuition; mythic, mental, mystic; animal,
human, divine, etcetera. And here comes the point: the first stage, which
is considered "good" in the twofold model, is now the most primitive phase.
And the second stage, considered "bad" in the twofold model -- the ego,
mind, Western culture -- is now a real step forward, in the direction of
In short: in our development, individually and culturally,
we don't go from good to bad, but from good to better to best. The ego
now no longer is the enemy of spirit, but its best friend, because it takes
us out of unconscious nature. Typically modern values such as rationality
and individuality are valued very differently in these two models.
One can recognize these two views easily by the way ego
and mind are evaluated. Which contemporary spiritual path encourages comparative
study and intense intellectual work, for example? Working with the body
and emotions is seen by many as more spiritual than using one's mind --
and this is what Wilber calls the regressive tendency. If you get this
point, you don't need to read all his fifteen books, it crosses my mind.
ROMANTICISM vs. IDEALISM
We start to eat a warmed up sandwich, but let it become
cold again. Wilber explains that his point can be found in the history
of Western philosophy. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century two movements
reacted to the dominant rationalist culture of the Enlightenment. Romanticism
turned its back on reason and declared nature, the body and the emotions
to be sacred, and argued for a return to divine nature.
In contrast, idealism considers nature to be divine also,
but it was a slumbering divinity, while God starts to awaken in human beings.
We can see God easily in nature nowadays, but do we see him at work in
culture -- in modern accomplishments such as democracy, the abolition of
slavery, human rights, liberation movements, rationality, tolerance, etcetera?
For the idealists, a third stage followed on this, in
which Spirit becomes conscious of Itself. Spirituality has to do with this
third phase only, according to Wilber, and not with an anti-rationalistic
romantization of nature. This romantization in effect blocks spiritual
growth, and to sell this as spirituality, this is cruel -- Wilber adds
passionately -- for it prolongs suffering, instead of ending it. Because
in many views he sees "depth take a vacation" he had decided to speak out
and criticize these views openly. "Criticism has spiritual value," he concludes
At a certain hour he says it's time to go to bed for him,
and he leaves me with a Dutch beer in the room, looking out on Denver by
night. It has been rather dizzifying, and I try to absorb the past few
hours. The New Age looking for a slumbering God? Rationality as step towards
spirituality? Secularizaton as an act of God? At least highly original
Because sleep doesn't come easily that night -- who can
sleep when being under the same roof with his idol? -- I roam through the
lower floor of his three level house. The thousands of books he is said
to read are really there, neatly grouped by topic. The many translations
of his books -- there are 15 books now in 16 translations -- are displayed
on shelves. There are many German, Spanish and Portuguese translations,
but also Chinese and Japanese. To have a Chinese translation of No Boundary
in your hands is a strange experience indeed! The middle floor has a kitchen
and a living room, which has a large color tv, which is permanently showing
his favorite channel, Travel Channel, advertising trips to Europe. In the
upper level he works and sleeps, and here too many books are stacked.
The next morning he shows me -- not without some pride
-- a video which has been made of him while meditating attached to an EEG
equipment. This machine registers beta waves (ordinary waking), alpha waves
(relaxed waking), theta waves (dreaming) and delta waves (deep sleep).
He is able to enter a state in four seconds in which all activity drops
to zero, except a slight delta activity. "This is nirvana," Wilber says
casually, "nirvikalpa samadhi". I hold my breath. Is it that easy? Or not
so easy, for Wilber has practised zen for twenty years.
This brings him to one of his favorite topics: right up
to the highest state of consciousness it is possible to measure physiological
processes in the brain, although this measurement says nothing about the
subjective side of this experience. Exact scientific research forms an
integral part of his approach.
We take the jeep and drive up the mountains, to enjoy
the wonderful sights on the Denver plains. A deer crosses the road. Although
he would very much like to live in San Francisco -- he is a city man, he
confides -- the quiet atmosphere in Boulder is ideal for him to write.
We descend towards Boulder, a university town which harbours not only the
University of Colorado, but also the Naropa Institute, founded by Chogyam
Trungpa. When we sit down at a coffee shop -- we have only half an hour
before the shuttle takes me back to Denver Airport -- there is not much
left to talk about for the moment, and I let a citizin of Boulder take
a picture of the two of us. This trophy I want to take home!
Visser and Wilber in a Boulder coffeeshop, 1997
A funny dialogue starts between Ken and the coffee shop
owner, who apparently cannot figure us out:
"How do you know eachother?"
"He is translator of my books in Holland"
"So what do you write about then?"
"About East-West things, psychology, philosophy, that
kind of stuff."
"One of my last books is called A Brief History of Everything.
Its in the book shops. You can recognize it easily, for it has my ugly
face on the cover."
"Well, I have to read it then, for I have to know what
my customers are doing."
Even in his hometown a world-famous author can be unknown!
For the present generation of students he does not speak to their imagionation
as much as for the older students, he explains. He can go to a cafe or
go to a movie without being recognized every second. In Boulder too, the
times they are a' changing.
When the moment has come to say goodbye Wilber says half
joking: "I am an American, so we have to hug." Now, I am a Dutchman, but
here we are of like minds: two men, both possessed by the project to explain
spirituality scientifically, slightly uneasy in physical contact, but with
deep sympathy for eachother. With one big gesture he embraces me and presses
me against his chest. And then he is gone, with his jeep into the mountains.
When I arrive in Denver, the airport is surrounded by
a thick layer of fog. The next four hours the airport is shut down for
all flights. Wilber had written in one of the ReVisions which were devoted
to his work:
"Many see all too clearly the sad shape our field is in.
They are truly alarmed by the reactionary, antiprogressive and regressive
fog thickly creeping over the entire field." (vol. 19, nr. 2, pp. 30-31)
It is as if nature wants to underline this to us once
Frank Visser (1958) has translated The Atman Project and
A Brief History of Everyting into Dutch, and is working on an introductory
book on Wilber at the moment. His main interest is in competing paradigms
within transpersonal psychology, and the interface of transpersonal psychology
with esoteric thought. About this last subject he has written a book called
Seven Spheres (1995).