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The cult of Ken Wilber

Michel Bauwens

What has gone wrong with Ken Wilber?

I used to be a great fan of Ken Wilber and his Integral Theory. As I was searching for a more integrated and inclusive understanding of personal and world processes in my twenties, and confused by all the different competing theories and techniques, the first book I read by Ken, Amazon com Spectrum of Consciousness, was truly illuminating to me. What if all these western psychologists, with their various theories on the ego and how to care for it, where in fact complementary to each other? And in addition, what if the eastern theorists of paths beyond the ego, where themselves complementary to each other and to the Western points of view? What was needed was to find to right context in which to recognize the relative truth of each perspective, and to pursue truth as a combination of such partial perspectives. Thus, I've found Wilber's developmental structuralism to be very convincing, and not only that, emancipatory, since it not only offered a path for personal development, but based on his hypothesis that psychogeny equals sociogeny (the development of individuals is reflected in the development of society and vice-versa), it held out great hope for future developments. As a consequence, I read pretty much all he published over the years, at least 90% if not 100% of the thousands of pages that comprise his eight volumes of Collected Works.

But then, I'm not sure at which exact moment, I started to feel uneasy. First, it was the Da Free John case. Da Free John aka Franklin Jones was a very literate spiritual master, whom Wilber claimed to be the avatar for our age, someone who incarnate his own theories in the practice of a realized and enlightened Being, adapted to our own age. And I must admit that I found Da Free John's early books amazing.

This being said, I had developed my own spiritual discernement by then, by having followed and tried a variety of eastern and western paths, but especially also a criminalized 'scumbag guru' (a term I found on the web), in my case Rajneesh, which is of course an intense learning experience, as one usually learns more from painful mistakes. So when I approached Da Free John I immediately realized it had already taken on the workings of an exploitative cult, a fact that was confirmed by many former devotees and their exposees and tales of sexual exploitation, financial greed, and deceit. But as the madness of Da Free John started to gather huge proportions, Wilber could not and would not bring himself to any clear denunciation, he wrote what were in my opinion convoluted letters and only in a third letter did he acknowledged clearly that it was better to stay away from the communes. The letter however still implies that Da Free John is a "realized being", but that it somehow co-exists with features that are not so healthy for his devotees. Wilber is of course entitled to such opinion, but what disturbed me is the whole tone of defensiveness about it, this huge difficulty of saying, "I misjudged". It is mostly that which set made me worry.

This is puzzling, not only what concerns Da Free John, but more importantly Wilber. If you praise someone as the purest expression of your own theoretical system, and that experience then fails, and you fail to clearly analyse this or even recognize it, then somehow to me, Wilber's theories started to look more like a ideological construct. Just as a Marxist had to take stock, but not necessarily abandon all his premises after the ultimate failure of the Soviet experiment, you would expect that Wilberism would have to take stock after such an event, but it did not happen. Wilber does change and evolve, as he himself now recognizes five phases, but it only in a expansionary form of an ever greater Edifice of thought.

The second incident was the writing style and tone of Sex, Ecology and Spirituality, the start of a trilogy that has to become his 'Summum Opus'. While I found the book very interesting, I started to see a disturbing trend in his writing. First of all it was in places very aggressive and denunciatory, often it seemed to set up straw men out of his opponents, in order to more easily bring them down, and many writers taken up in that book, did not feel adequately represented. Wilber's claims (as external link Jack Crittenden explains) to use orienting generalizations of the disciplines he covers, but that seems an overstatement, because if you then dig in them, you find that in fact, these disciplines are riven by disagreements, and there is no consensus on the many things he claims are a consensus. They are thus his own interpretations, valuable, which may in many cases be correct, but not based on a general scientific consensus. I was also privy, since I was in regular email contact back then, to Wilber's private denunciations of institutes like the California Institute of Integral Studies and the Naropa Institute, schools that I had monitored, visited, and have many highly qualitative teachers and researchers. It's not that he said that they were imperfect, no, they were 'cesspools' and one would have to stay at all cost away from them. This aggressiveness I personally found disturbing. I started to notice how easily Ken praised works that favorably use his work, he did it with my own magazine Wave, which he highly praised in a note even though he could not possibly read the Dutch-language it was written in, while being so aggressive with those who disagree.

Finally, there was a personal incident. In short, I had sent Ken, whom I considered a friend by then, since I had visited him and interviewed him for four hours, a draft of an essay on the new world of work, which clearly stated that it was inspired by his work, specifically mentioned a series of consultants working in his spirit, then went on to describe the four quadrants, and apply them creatively to my own domain, with notes and references and all. I got back a letter which threatened me with 'exclusion from the network' and even legal consequences for 'intellectual theft'. But how could that be, how could an essay mentioning him, using his method, of which I had send him a draft!!, be constructed as theft, and deserve threats of legal action??? I was deeply hurt, baffled, and entered into an email conversation which did not solve anything fundamentally. Though I got some kind of excuse in the end, he said that he was under pressure and that his 'advisers' had told him to react in that way, he also managed to say that "I didn't understand all his theory". Note that this has become Ken's standard argument against everybody. Only a close circle, who seemingly work in secret around him and do not publish their papers yet, are said to fully understand him. It has been promised that these will be published by the Integral Institute for its online university project.

Now what's the big deal? That Ken is just human after all, surely that is not a crime. Hurting the feelings of Michel Bauwens? However, you must remember, this is in the period that Ken wrote the Amazon com One Taste diary, in which he claims that he is in the process of attaining longer and longer moments of nondual realization. So he is no longer content to claim that he is just a pandit (a 'theoretician' if you like), but a spiritual realiser himself (though he stresses he will never want to be a master himself). He even makes the explicit claim that the different phases of his work (four at that time) represents phases of spiritual maturation as well.

It is during these years that Ken's great enemy started to be the Narcissism of the baby boom generation, that he started saying that the key problem of the world, is not the greed for profit and the ecological destruction, the unsustainable psychology of the new work ethos, or the pauperization of the Third World that results from neoliberalism, no, it is the political correctness of the postmodern academics in the U.S.! Does the bell start to ring? Could it not simply be that my essay's great crime was not to mention him enough?? Could his rage not be explained by wounded narcissism, and would that not shed light on the development of his own theory, and his siding with the neoconservatives in the culture wars? On a little side note, a friend of mine, who was trying to make a synthesis of NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) and Spiral Dynamics, and also asked for advice, received a similar email attack - from Don Beck, about whom we will speak later. But just remember the similarity in style and approach.

You don't have to follow me in this interpretation of the above incident, which may cloud my judgement because it generated such feelings of hurt and disappointment, but what it did to me was to free me from my fixation on Wilber. For years, I had been relying on his interpretations, and had not read enough primary material. So what happened is that I started a process that would lead to further criticisms. But please note that what I had done so far: as I was searching for the 'truth out there', thinking that it wasn't in me, I had often given my spiritual discernement away to others, first spiritual masters, and finally, a theorizer. So in many ways it was liberating because I clearly felt from that moment on, that the locus of spiritual discernment was within myself, and that nobody, has a claim to the absolute truth. I would venture the hypothesis that the attractiveness of the grand Wilberian scheme is that it functions as an ultimate answer, an all-encompassing system, and that I am not the only one who placed my discernement outside of myself, to an external arbiter. It is this that feeds the two-way logic of cultism, of which I will speak later.

First of all, it increasingly seemed to me that Wilber -- and I got this from my own readings as well as John Heron's interpretation, and extended discussion on the postconpol mailing list with Australian anthropologists whose names I have now forgotten - offers a synthesis not of the whole of spirituality, but of a particular Hindu-Buddhist nondual tradition, so it is incomplete, but also rife with the patriarchial, dissociated (against the world, life, the body, and women), and 'class aspects' of the period in which this tradition was forged. To give two examples of what I mean, and how you could forge a critique of traditional forms of religion, see the book Traveller in Space by June Campbell (about her role as sexual consort of Kalu Rinpoche), and The Shadow of the Dalai Lama, by the Trimondi's, about the theocratic ambitions of Tibetan Buddhism (cfr. external link

Despite the claims of nondualism it is a path with a heavy bias towards pure transcendence, and a disregard for immanence. This critique is also related to what I consider to be my own maturation. I was certainly dissociated (i.e. the flesh and the spirit) in my youth, which is why I began the quest in the first place. I noticed that during the process of self work, of re-integrating the body, awareness and investment in concrete relationships, the emotions, the Shadow etc.. in a better integrated personality structure, my yearning for wholly other experiences, for ecstasies, started to look increasingly compensatory, in fact a quest for 'spiritual materialism' (as Chogyam Trungpa would have it). Life itself, started to be experienced as full by itself, through the relations with friends and loved ones, and the creative endeavour in society, pregnant with permanent possibilities for betterment, 'here and now', 'step by step'. The desire for radical change, for radical otherness, which is so often coupled by impotency, started to be replaced by concrete engagement, by a love for 'immanence'. And once you take that step, you start seeing many other flaws in the Wilberian system, which have been noticed by others in the collection of critical essay that you can find on external link . Wilber has a total bias for the individual who looks within himself for growth, while the collective, and cooperative action, seems totally derivative. This is why, according to Mark Edwards, Wilber's right hand quadrants, which cover material objects and systems, are considered 'flat', they lack the developmental depth he accords to the interior quadrants. Once you start realizing how much corruption, authoritarianism, etc.. there is amongst the spiritual masters of the East, not only when they move to the West but in their own countries, you realize that an emancipation that would rest on the requirement that more of us become like them, is a very tenuous hypothesis. These states are in no way a guarantee for a better society. As Heron concludes, Wilber's system is at best descriptive of a certain trend in spirituality, but is in no way, prescriptive as to what the future state of human consciousness would be, because that would be denying co-creative process of spiritual communities yet to come. More importantly, Wilber's misreads the functioning of traditional spiritual groups by claiming that it is a form of 'interiorist' science. Wrong, each sect has it own biases in which you are socialized, and different experiences and interpretations are invalidated. They are particular paths, initiated by the founders, which have been hardened in rituals and practices, it is not an open process at all. This means that any map produced in such a manner, while it can be of interest, can in no way be used as a map for future spiritual experiences and meaning-making. This is not the mean that they are value less, and Wilber has done a masterly job of synthesing the nondual Hindu-Buddhist paths, but, they have no universal value.

But let me continue the conjoined story of what I see as the evolution of the 'Wilber' movement, and my own increasing dissatisfaction with it. At one point I was working for the company founded by Joe Firmage, a successful internet billionaire, who had, despite Wilber's disdain for UFO believers, been a Wilber fan and promised substantial amounts of money to create an Integral Institute. This coincided with a kind of merger between one half of the Spiral Dynamics movement (i.e. external link Don Beck, against the explicit wishes of external link Chris Cowan), and Ken Wilber's integralism. Both have had in my view very unfortunate results.

The specter of money, before it would go up in smoke due to the internet crash, attracted a lot of people to the Wilber camp, people who, in my own personal experience, had been deriding him, and vice versa (I received emails from both camps). The free flow of information, hitherto a characteristic of the movement, started to become very restricted. I believe the reason is that he started attracting a lot of for-profit consultants, who have proprietary views about knowledge. For example, while before, I had always exchanged powerpoint slides, I had made some of my own, it became just impossible to get anything from a network as I-I Business. I'm perhaps generalizing on my personal experience, but it just seems to me that, compared to my experiences on the internet, and especially with free software and open sources, it is very ackward and in my opinion, regressive. The only exception was the work in the I-I politics group, which remained open throughout, but then, it was filled with people who were mostly critical of these developments.

Now, if the attempted institutionalizing of the work of Wilber may be a normal and familiar development, the 'merger' with Spiral Dynamics had even more unfortunate consequences. As a reminder for non-initiates, SD is a kind of summary of Integral Theory (but indepentendly developed by the psychologist external link Clare Graves and later adapted by Don Beck and Chris Cowan), geared to practical change in organizations, using 'constellations of values', in a developmental scheme. Wilber's schemata became hardened and 'simplified' into the SD Vmemes, and it had an absolutely detrimental effect on internal debate. If you did not follow Wilber and Beck, you were immediately branded 'green' (backward if compared to 'yellow'), if worse, you were afflicted by the Mean Green Meme, but in any case, guilty of first-tier thinking. And what direction Wilber and Beck have been taking us lately!! For Wilber, who for me in this respect has not overcome a really provincial aspect of his thinking, an integral political synthesis goes no further than American liberalism (already on the right of the political spectrum to European eyes) and conservatism (akin to our extreme right in Europe), and he announced that Tony Blair was the most integral leader around, this of course at the time of the wise decision of invading Iraq. This while I have never heard any good word for the global justice movement. For Beck, the ride goes further: 'Bush is a good leader' and 'has been chosen by the spiral' (these are literal quotes, one in a personal conversation, another in an email). An integral theory that is being bent in that political direction, in the current political configuration, seems to have lost any emancipatory power. I think this has to be stated with force, that it becomes doubtful that anything positive may emerge from a movement, which is going in that direction. Again, with the current disaster unfolding, I have not yet seen any reassment of these disastrous interpretations.

But I believe there is worse, and that there is a danger of cultism arising. If you look at the wonderfully dynamic and critical (in the sense of respectful dialogue) Wilber site which I mentioned above, maintained by Frank Visser, who has also written a very empathic book about Wilber and his evolution, then you must realize that both are considered to be 'full of misunderstandings' and the very worst place to go if you want to understand Wilber (according to the latter). Wilber simply never engages his critics, only to say that they 'misunderstand him'. Then, take a look at the official Shambala site. One piece there is a critique of Jorge Ferrer's The Participative Turn in Transpersonal Psychology: it all amounts to: there are a few good things, but he is wrong in his critique of our master, who has said it so much better. PDF Acrobat format A more recent piece by Brad Reynolds is even worse in its fawning, it is an almost religious hagiography (I was unable to read it through the end). So critical intellectually stimulating material is denounced, but such pieces are published on the official site

What can be a conclusion to all this? That Ken Wilber is an undoubtedly interesting and stimulating author, with an interesting Edifice. But that it is no substitute for reading primary material, other competing interpretations, but most of all, one's own spiritual and intellectual, and moral development. That it is not a fully critical and emancipatory theory, and has increasingly become 'politically reactionary', elitist, and used as a system of instrumental manipulation for the leadership of large organizations (that's how Beck's SD is marketed to corporations and politicians). That it is already now used to justify spiritual oppression (Da Free John), war and occupation (Bush), stifling internal debate, and creating an environment of cultic adhesion. These are not trivial matters!

Can anything be salvaged? I must admit I personally still use the four quadrant system, as it is a comprehensive system for a phenomenology of the world. I believe it is of interest to grapple with Wilber's interpretations, even the wrong ones. In this, he functions as a 'great author', despite the lack of acceptance in academia. Most of all, I believe that the integrative impulse is a worthy enterprise. In a world of such diversity to look at structure and developmental processes (which are a feature of the natural , social and personal worlds) is necessary. But the integrative, integral impulse does not belong in any way to Mr. Ken Wilber; it is a general feature of contemporary consciousness (one trend battling the fragmentation of postmodernity), with many different pioneers and alternatives to Wilber.

Thus a first thing to do is to liberate yourself to a univocal adhesion to Wilber's form of it.

Furthermore, such impulse has to be seriously balanced with a recognition of irreducible diversity. That some things, like differences in a marriage, are just 'different', and have to be respected as such, while seeking commonality in action. It has to be balanced with serious attention to immanence, to the processes within, rather than to the static forms sought out by nondual mystics. It has to be balanced by serious attention to the participative nature of the universe, to the co-creation of it by human beings and our partners in the natural world. And that this requires participative, dialogic, co-creative processes.

And politically, we need attention to the concrete suffering and injustices of the many, which requires action and our own moral development, aided or not, by meditation or other spiritual practices. This practice is best undertaken by a group of peers, as described by John Heron in his Sacred Science, not in a traditional authoritarian religion, and I would venture, be even more wary of the charismatic lone leader who does not even have a tradition to balance him. We must really guard ourselves of the very bad habits developed in the integral, but especially SD milieus, to brand everyone with colored epiteths, corresponding to their purported lack of cognitive development. If divorced from the particular interpretations of Ken Wilber, the broad integral four-quadrant scheme has still some usefulness as a broad scheme to develop a understanding of the world, at least it does for me, it is a very useful heuristic tool in my own work. Wilberism is a particular world perspective grown out of the humanistic and transpersonal psychology movements, which was an important moment of intellectual and human history, but it is time to move on. My own way to move on is to be on the lookout for the participative, egalitatarian impulse, which is getting a new lease of life today, as described in my own essay on peer to peer, which I'll gladly send to anyone who requests it. It is one man's attempt to go 'beyond Wilber'.

- See external link a similar and well-written critique about the closing of the previously open intellectual atmosphere around Ken Wilber, by David Peckingpaugh

See also: A Critique of Wilber and Beck's SD-Integral; The Cult of Ken Wilber revisited

From P/I: Pluralities/Integration no.15 (A newsletter about participation in multiple worlds, multiple visions, but one humanity ; a monitor of P2P developments; compiled by Michel Bauwens.

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page uploaded 3 May 2005, last modified 17 June 2006