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.


Explorations in
Integral Speak

Brief Comments on the
"Spirit, Evolution, Shadow" video

Frank Visser

Wilber and Cohen are really the last persons in the world to teach us on the subjects of evolution and shadow, respectively.

Having watched the recent 2 hours and 30 minutes Integral Life video (shot at the Boulder Integral Center) featuring Ken Wilber and Andrew Cohen—a real one, not this one—I am left with a puzzling feeling. The title of the video is "Spirit, Evolution, Shadow" and it is now for sale here as part of the online "Guru and Pandit Media Collection", since the magazine EnlightenNext that contained an installment of this dialogue series in each of its issues has folded. It is also available for Premium Members of Integral Life (non-members can view the first two minutes).

Now on the face of it, and leaving Spirit aside for the moment, and considering the debates on Integral World on these subjects, Wilber and Cohen are really the last persons in the world to teach us on the subjects of evolution and shadow, respectively—or Marc Gafni on the subject of love, for that matter—given their track record, whatever valuable things they might be able to say on these topics.


As for Andrew Cohen, many authors on Integral World (Scofield, Yenner, Lane, Mavrides, Benjamin) have expressed their concerns about his shadowy side regarding his followers. Lane, for example, expressed as his opinion that "I personally think Andrew Cohen is in deep need of long term therapy."

Cohen, however, takes these things rather lightly. In this video he often expresses doubts about the effectiveness of shadow-work. It could take ages and ages to be completed—if at all—it only concerns the psychological dimension which is not his primary interest. He is focussed in his work on the spiritual dimension, and even more so, on the moral dimension—"perhaps because I am a Jew", he says somewhere. For Cohen, there is no separation between the two. For him, the whole meaning of the nondual spiritual realization is that one becomes a better, more moral person.

This contrasts rather strongly with Wilber's explanations expressed in this video that it has been discovered recently (of course by himself) that morality and spirituality are rather independent. So the fact that some spiritual Masters have abused their followers does not surprise Wilber in the least, because in his integral model one can be highly advanced in the spiritual dimension, but lagging behind in the moral line of development.

And Wilber advocates shadow-work, because otherwise "the transformative process tends not to stick." as Jean Adeler quoted from Integral Life Practice. So we have Cohen downplaying the importance of shadow-work, where in fact he would be the first to benefit from it, and identifying spirituality with morality on the one hand, and Wilber advocating the relevance of shadow-work, and separating spirituality and morality as two different dimensions of growth—which can then or course only be integrated in an integral or "evolutionary" framework.

The stark difference in opinion is not noticed in the video, neither by the two speakers, nor by the audience, as far as I could tell (I did not sit through all the 2,5 hours).


Then we have the thorny subject of evolution.

Wilber has been challenged on many occasions on this website (Lane, Chamberlain, Erdmann, Rogers, Visser) for his astonishing lack of understanding of at least the biological process of evolution. For those interested in this field of science these links will suffice. Of course, for Wilber "evolution" means something else: the Kosmic process "from dirt to Divinity" which is pushed onwards and upwards by his hypothetical Eros or Spirit-in-action.

Cohen eagerly consents to this view, because it allows the individual seeker to align himself with a cosmic process "which is going somewhere", even if the details of this "somewhere" are as of yet unclear. He also seems to derive courage from the cosmological and biological process of evolution understood in this way: if these processes have taken place and psychological and cultural (and spiritual) evolution are part of the same overall process, the latter are more likely to occur.

Both use the qualification "evolutionary" to introduce a form of spirituality which is different, both from the classical, dualistic and world-denying forms and the later, nondualistic and world-affirming forms of spirituality, in that it understands and agrees with the modern discovery that the world in itself is dynamic and lineair, not static and circular, as the traditions of old thought. So evolutionary spirituality is really the next, next thing!

Now, many valuable things are said in this video, this is not the point I am trying to make. Shadow-work has value, no doubt. And yes, one can expect to much of it, for sure. But in the past, more often than not, shadow-work has been advocated to deflect criticism. Based on the dubious assumption that since the integral teachings or theories are flawless, any criticism must have a subjective origin!

And tying spirituality to one of modernity's treasured theories of evolution is an interesting endeavour. As is feeling connected to the larger process of Nature. But one would expect from these luminaries some self-disclosure about how they have struggled with their own shadows, and also, how this "new" understanding of evolution ties in with more scientific conceptions.


Now that would be a new spirituality indeed! Is this totally irrelevant? Or are they trying to hold up a façade of perfection and expertise to an eager audience of followers? Cohen makes the telling comment that "perfection is not of this world"—so there are no "Perfect Masters", including himself? That would be a change of tone indeed. But should we therefore just accept imperfection on the part of the Guru, or challenge it?

Cohen sometimes hints at this personal dimension in a non-committal way when he says, when discussing shadow-work, that "he's crazy" or "we all can relate to that", but never really follows up on it. Given his track record mentioned above that, for me, is a moral issue.

And Wilber, on the other hand, doesn't even hint at problems with his conception of evolution. For him, evolution just means a process that goes from Hydrogen to Humanity in a way that no scientist can understand without the help of some spiritual hypothesis. An inspiring message, for sure—but true?

It is remarkable how little Wilber's ideas have been challenged over the years from within the integral community. Wouldn't it be great to see the Guru and the Pandit discuss exactly these issues in a video? Demonstrating the values of honesty, transparancy and competence. I would certainly buy that video (and not the rather hagiographic Wilber Tribute video, which was offerend today in my mailbox).

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