An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

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Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, SUNY 2003Frank Visser, a psychologist of religion, founded in 1997 (back then under the name of “The World of Ken Wilber”). He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. 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.


Reflections on
"Subtle energy"

Frank Visser

Is it possible to make sense of the concept of "subtle energy" within a post-metaphysical framework? This seems to be almost a contradiction in terms. In "Toward A Comprehensive Theory of Subtle Energies"[1] Wilber argues very emphatically for an affirmative answer to that question:

I am not going to make a long drawn-out argument for this, but simply state my own opinion in the strongest way: any premodern spirituality that does not come to terms with both modernity and postmodernity has no chance of survival in tomorrow's world.

This is quite a strong statement. If "coming to terms with modernity" means, giving up any notion of ontological depth and surrendering to a flatland view of reality, and if "coming to terms with postmodernity" means seeing that supposedly universal metaphysical truths often turn out to be cultural conditionings, then it might be asked what integral philosophy has to offer to (post)modernity that is not already within its horizon. Its like saying: any belief in life after death that does not come to terms with both modernity and postmodernity has no chance of survival in tomorrow's world. More often then not, such a view would hold that, since there is no "real" heavenworld and no "real" life after death, heaven is really a state of mind to be reached in life. This purely immanent view of human experience is indeed very modern, a psychological reinterpretation of what the ancient mistakenly believed to be metaphysical realities. Likewise, what is left of the concept of subtle energy when viewed within a post-metaphysical framework, is something like this: subtle energy fields emerge around biological organsms and can, in part, be detected by physical means:

... the fact that these subtle energies are postulated as real, concrete, detectable, often measurable—if subtler—energies, stops the whole conception from spinning off into the vaporware of pure metaphysics.

In the essay mentioned above, Wilber makes use freely of traditional esoteric concepts such as "etheric", "astral", "psychic", "energy fields", "chacras", etc., but he seems to reframe these concepts into quasi-physical entities, which can be located in the Upper Right quadrant. In one of the steps "from the Great Chain of Being to Postmodernism" this physical level of description is given much more prominence than the ancient could give it, because

In the manifest world, "matter" is not the lowest rung in the great spectrum of existence, but the exterior form of every rung in that spectrum. Matter is not lower with consiousness higher, but matter and consiousness are the exterior and interior of every occasion.

And again:

Thus, what the premodern sages took to be META-physical realities are in many cases INTRA-physical realities: they are not above matter, nor beyond nature, nor meta-physical, nor super-natural: they are not above nature but within nature, not beyond matter but interior to it.

It is only natural, Wilber points out, that the premodern saints, in their deep meditations, thought of the soul as something wholly metaphysical, they simply did not and could not know about the modern-day findings of neurochemistry. While not denying the metaphysical dimension as such, Wilber contends that "a great deal of what premodernity took to be meta-physical is in fact intra-physical, not above nature but within nature."

A Mere Change of Metaphor

Having written both on Wilber and on the esoteric worldview[2], I found Wilbers online paper highly stimulating, but also in need of clarification. Some aspects were disturbing to me: "has the fiercest critic of flatland now fallen under its spell?" I found myself asking. Since when do modernity and postmodernity have a final say on what an integral philosophy has to offer to the world?. Instead of spelling out the higher levels of being and knowing, as he did in his earlier works, Wilber now seems bent on demonstrating that the integral view is in tune with the findings of science, orthodox and unorthodox.


Seeing the physical dimension not as the lowest rung of a metaphysical ladder, but as the exterior form of every interior consciousness, seems to me a mere change of metaphor. It does not clarify the ontological status of this "interiority" in the least—it avoids the issue althogether. Whatever our thoughts and feelings turn out to be, they are surely not to be found "inside" our skulls. They point to a reality that—for some mysterious reason—exists "inside" us, but fails to be detected by physical means. Even a thorougly this-worldly integral view of man as a psycho-physical being has to anwer the question as to the status of this non-bodily component.

It seems as if Wilber has projected into the perennial philosophy a view of reality in which consciousness is "divorced" from material reality, to give more credibility to his integral alternative, in which matter and consciousness are intimately tied together:

Thus, instead of interpreting higher levels as being essentially divorced from gross matter or gross form, the complexification of gross form is the vehicle of manifestation for both subtler energies and greater consciousness

Listen to what a "modern" representative of the perennial traditions had to say about this issue of how the visible world relates to the higher worlds. It is worth to be quoted at length, both for the attitude towards metaphysical issues and its almost scientific atmosphere:

In our literature these different realms of nature are frequently spoken of as planes, because in our study it is sometimes convenient to image them as one above another, according to the different degrees of density of the matter of which they are composed. ... It must be very carefully borne in mind that this arrangement is merely adopted for convenience and as a symbol, and that it in no way represents the actual relations of these various planes. They must not be imagined as lying above one another like the shelves of a book case, but rather as filling the same space and interpenetrating one another. ... All these different realms of nature are not in any way separated in space, but are all existing around us and about us here and now, so that to see them and to investigate them it is not necessary to make any movement in space, but only to open within ourselves the senses by means of which they can be perceived. (italics added) [3]

In this truly Kosmic worldview, man has in fact several bodies, each attuned to its own plane—physical, astral, mental, spiritual—and each of these "subtle bodies" can be awakened as a means of getting impressions from it's corresponding world, or even of being the vehicle in which man can move around in that world, pretty much as we mortals move around in the physical world by means of our physical body. Seen from "below" these subtle bodies taken together form the "human aura", which can never be seen by physical means, but can be perceived by clairvoyant sight, adequate to respond to the reality of the subtle worlds. As we see physical phenomena because our physical senses are adequate to the physical world, so subtle phenomena can be registered whenever the subtle senses have been accustomed to their reality. Just as we only see each other as physical bodies because our senses IN these bodies are limited to this part of reality, a clairvoyant sees MORE of his fellow human beings, viz. more bodies, because his/her senses belonging to these higher bodies have been awakened. It's the same logic, the same existential situation, and it offers the same opportunity for careful research.

But never will subtle realities proper be detected with the help of physical means. (Or conversely, whatever can be detected with the help of physical means is by definition not subtle, but semi-physical, and has to be interpretated as the physical correlates of subtle phenomena—much like brainwave patters correlate with thought processess—but never as these phenomena themselves.

A wider view of nature

In Wilbers "naturalistic" account of subtle energies, these energies are anchored to the physical organism and its evolutionary history. They are not "radically meta-physical", he proceeds, for if they were,

then all of these fields (because they would not in any way be bound to physical objects) could and would be surrounding all physical objects, whereas in fact, these fields only emerge with (and surround) material objects of a corresponding degree of complexity. A rock does not have an emotional field; a worm does not have a mental field, and so on. [4]

I really think the term "metaphysical" is in dire need of clarification here. Taking a wider view of nature, or phusis, these higher planes or realms are not super-natural but only super-physical, since the physical world is only the lowest and most dense of the planes of Nature.

This is the biggest contrast between exoteric and esoteric religious views of the higher worlds. In mythic religion heaven is seen as something wholly supernatural, and as a consequence, something altogether out of reach of mortal believers, who have to rely on the dogmatic assertions made by priests and preachers. Heaven is someting to believe in, to hope for, or—in modern and postmodern times—to turn into some kind of this-worldly psychology. In stark contrast, in the esoteric conception of heaven, this is a higher level of Nature, as much part of reality as the visible, physical world, but hidden from view because our senses are not adequate to it. Likewise, our transition to the heavenworld is not a miraculous transformation that defies understanding, but a gradual process that can be described and understood. The heavenworld may be closer to the Absolute, it is still very much a relative reality, where the human mind can do it's work of understanding and clarification.

So while the subtle bodies/energies are not "radically metaphysical", they are also not physical, but somewhere in between. They are stricly speaking only "super-physical", and this effectively means: (1) out of the reach of physical instruments BUT (2) part of a reality that lends itself to exploration and empirical study given the proper means or senses. It is very much true that rocks have no emotional field (because they know no feelings or emotions) and a worm does not have a mental field (because it does not harbour any thoughts)—I have no quarrel with that evolutionary perspective—but it is equally questionable to suggest that beyond the physical boundary, things get blurry and the notion of location loses all meaning.

It is often said that heaven is not a place but a state of mind. An immediate question would be: where does this "state of mind" live and how can it interact with fellow heavenly creatures other then in a body of some sort? Careful clairvoyant research exactly shows the reality of the notion that mind is never without it's body. This means that wherever we are, in whatever realm of existence, the four quadrants will always apply, as long as embodied beings interact with eachother. In the physical world, we live as physically embodied beings, seeing eachother as exactly that: physical bodies. In the astral world, we live in our astral bodies, and will see eachother as exactly that: astral bodies! The rule is that the lowest body we have is indeed the outermost vehicle for our inner consciousness—in whatever world we live—and our window to the outside world. Likewise, our "inner" life is always composed of our innermost self PLUS all but our lowest bodies, in whatever sphere we live.

Subtle energy thus naturally falls into the category of the Upper Right quadrant, but emphaticallly not when this is understood as a physical affair. In a real sense, each level/realm has its four quadrants, as suggested above, and thus has an Upper Right quadrant. Astral bodies/energies belong to the astral Upper Right quadrant, mental bodies/energies belong to the mental Upper Right quadrant, and physical/vital energies belong to the physical Upper Right quadrants. But it makes no sense to allocate all types of subtle energies to the Upper Right quadrant as we experience this on the physical plane. There seems to be some optical illusion involved here: because the corresponding Upper Right quadrants of the various planes "cover" eachother, it might look like all types of subtle energy are in "the" Upper Right quadrant, period, whereas there are many different levels involved here.

The feelings of a worm

Wilber makes some rather strong statements about metaphysics being "unnecessary". In a particularly graphic passage he argues that the ancient view of reality as a hierarchy of worlds would make us believe that

the feelings of a worm are on a higher level of reality then the human brain. [to which he adds] Something is clearly not quite right with that scheme. [5]

Elsewhere, Wilber has expressed the issue as follows, making fun of it:

This was an odd conception. Since the Great Chain was physical matter, life force or feelings, mental ideas, soul, and spirit; and since the neocortex is clearly a physical organ, then the feelings of a worm are on a higher ontological level then the neocortex of a human. Something is clearly goofy about that scheme.[6]

But is this really so ridiculous? If complexity were enough to merit a higher ontological level, then a Pentium 4 processor with it's 42 million transistors on a square inch would really be well under way to that status. As everyone knows, this is not the case. Contrasting "high" material complexity to "low" emotional simplicity is a bit disingenuous here. Material simplicity goes along with emotional simplicity, as in the case of a worm; material complexity goes hand in hand with emotional complexity. But no amount of material complexity can rival the simple feeling of a living organism. This has been exactly the stumbling block of Artificial Intelligence for the past decades: cognitive perfomance might be possible for computers, but the simplest of feelings (called "qualia" in the philosophy of mind) are still out of reach.

Verticality and complexity are independent dimensions. A small brain goes with a small mind; a bigger brain goes with a bigger mind—but it makes no sense to compare a small mind to a bigger brain, and suggest the smaller mind (of the worm) can't be "higher" (than the human brain):


human feelings

feelings of a worm
  human brain
brain of a worm
Feelings of a worm compared to the human brain.

It does not seem necessary at all to take the physical level out of the scheme of spheres and to place it alongside all inner levels, to account for the deep interconnectedness between all levels. Another perennialist author, well versed in both esotericism and evolutionary psychology, wrote extensively about this topic, and simply stated as her conviction:

The planes have meeting points everywhere.... We are on all planes at all times. [7]

If mind trancends body, it is by definition meta-physical (or as we should say now: super-physical) and we need to give it a place in the Kosmological scheme of integral philosophy. Introducing interiority is introducing the metaphysical. Describing the mind-side of the mind-brain equation[8] is introducing the metaphysical. That is, if you take the trouble to think it through philosophically. Of course, we can allways "do" integral philosophy, ignoring the ontological issues for the moment. As a psychologist, Wilber can avoid metaphysics, as any psychologist has done since psychology disconnected itself from its philosophical background centuries ago.

Psychological theories are ontologically "neutral"—they don't tell us what thoughts and feelings "really" are. But as a philosopher, all the more so as an integral one, Wilber cannot avoid the issue of the ontological status of interiority, or consciousness.


[1] "Toward A Comprehensive Theory of Subtle Energies", Excerpt G,

[2] Frank Visser, Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, SUNY Press, 2003 and Seven Spheres: Theosophy as Context for Psychology and Religion (1995, Dutch edition only).

[3] C.W. Leadbeater, Man: Visible and Invisible, 1902.

[4] "Toward A Comprehensive Theory of Subtle Energies", Excerpt G,

[5] "Toward A Comprehensive Theory of Subtle Energies", Excerpt G,

[6] "Sidebar I: Kosmic Karma: The Inheritance of the Past",

[7] A. Besant, A Study in Consciousness: A Contribution to the Science of Psychology, 1904.

[8] K. Wilber, Waves, Streams, States and Self: A Summary of my Psychological Model,

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