“THE GREATEST OF ALL THE ACCOMPLISHMENTS OF 20TH-CENTURY SCIENCE has been the discovery of human ignorance.” Lewis Thomas, Lives of a Cell. “OUR IGNORANCE, OF COURSE, HAS ALWAYS BEEN WITH US, AND ALWAYS WILL BE. What is new is our awareness of it, our awakening to its fathomless dimensions, and it is this, more than anything else, that marks the coming of age of our species.” Timothy Ferris, Coming of Age in the Milky Way.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Brief History of Ken Wilber


           In 2003, I sent this enthusiastic e-mail to everyone on the FSU Humanities list:
Ken Wilber gets my neurons sparking and fizzing like electric Alka-Seltzer. It is now
apparent to me that no modern scholar can be up-to-date in the world of anthropology, history, sociology, psychology, religion, economics, politics, humanities, science and mysticism without becoming at least familiar with the comprehensive synthesis of ALL these fields managed with profound insight by this American genius. I predict with great confidence that Wilber (he’s only 55 years old) is going to be studied for centuries to come. We have the opportunity to explore his ideas as his contemporaries. I am not idolizing Wilber, so don’t misunderstand my enthusiasm. Nonetheless, I would say that his partial take on the truth is a vaster, richer parcel than I have seen in my many years of being interested in comparative philosophy, mythology and religion.
            Ken Wilber grew up as an Air Force brat, moving every few years. He attended four high schools, where in each he was known as “the Brain.” Straight ‘A’s. Class President. Valedictorian. Pre-medical science scholarship to Duke.
            But as soon as he arrived at Duke University, he immediately realized that he no longer wanted to pursue science, because it was not going to give him the answers he sought. The first year in college, his grades went to mush and he dropped out of classes and began voraciously reading philosophy, psychology and metaphysics. He returned to Lincoln, Nebraska where his parents were stationed. There, he earned a double bachelor’s degree at the University of Nebraska, one in biology and the other in chemistry. He cruised through the undergrad science courses, while devoting eight to ten hours a day to reading Eastern philosophy and religion, Western psychology and metaphysics. He did well enough to receive a scholarship in biophysics, but in grad school, he continued with the same personal research program—getting through the science classes on cruise control, while studying and taking notes on psychology, philosophy and mysticism. “The names in my notebooks were not Krebs, Miller, Watson, or Crick, but Guadapada, Hui Neng, Padmasambhava, and Eckhart” (Ibid. 22). Wilber earned a master’s degree and was all-but-dissertation in the field of biochemistry when he wrote his first book, The Spectrum of Consciousness. After being rejected by thirty publishers, Theosophical Publishing House picked it up, and at age 23, Wilber became something of an instant celebrity within the small world of transpersonal psychology.[1]
            “This research of the psychological and spiritual and religious literature was far more than an intellectual quest—for Ken it seemed to be a matter of life or death.” I personally related to this, because all through my teens and twenties, my own spiritual search was characterized by tremendous pressure and drive, as if I were a drowning man seeking my next breath. Many spiritual traditions teach that it is the intensity of one’s longing that opens the spiritual world. I believe this is true. But you can’t fake it, and there is no way to instill that longing in others; it is either undeniably real or it does not exist. (“Zen cannot be passed from father to son.”)
            In an interview with his biographer, Wilber explained his zeal, “I had to read ‘everything’ because I was trying mentally and emotionally to put together in a comprehensive framework that which I felt was necessary for my own salvation. I was particularly drawn to Perls, Jung, Boss, and the existentialists; Norman O. Brown, Krishnamurti, Zen, Vedanta and Eckhart; the traditionalists, Coomaraswamy, Guenon and Schuon, but also Freud, Ferenczi, Rank, and Klein—a more motley group you could not imagine” (Ibid. 23).
            Early on in his exploration of spiritual literature, Wilber came across the opening passage of the Tao Teh Ching:
            The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
            The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
            The Nameless is the eternally real.
            Naming is the origin of ten thousand things.
            Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
            Caught in desire, you see only manifestations.
            Yet mystery and manifestations arise from the same source.
            This source is called darkness.
            Darkness within darkness.
            The gateway to all understanding. (Stephen Mitchell, trans.
            This passage provoked in 20-year-old Wilber a deep conversion. “It was as if I were being exposed, for the very first time, to an entirely new and drastically different world—a world beyond the sensical, a world outside of science, and therefore a world quite beyond myself. The result was that those ancient words of Lao Tzu took me quite by surprise; worse, the surprise refused to wear off, and my entire world outlook began a subtle but dramatic shift. Within a period of a few months—months, spent in introductory readings of Taoism and Buddhism—the meaning of my life, as I had known it, simply began to disappear” (Ibid. 21).
            Around this time Wilber was tutoring students for money and he ended up marrying one of his pupils, Amy Wagner. Wagner worked at a bookstore while Wilber studied all day, then bused tables and washed dishes at night. The marriage lasted only two years, but Wilber kept his job washing dishes for the next nine years. “The only real job I’ve ever had is dishwashing. The only thing I’m qualified to do is wash dishes!” (Ibid. 23).
            Wilber greatly admired the lucid prose of Alan Watts and he taught himself to write using Watts as a model. “I took all thirteen or fourteen of his books and copied every one of them, literally sentence by sentence. I still have the notebooks downstairs. I wrote the books out, so that I could know the style of writing. Just getting a sense of being able to write clearly, and study syntax, seeing how you put paragraphs together” (Ibid. 19).
            Wilber’s writing career took off with reviewers enthusing over his first book, and he began a work pattern that more or less has continued. First, he studies for nine or ten months. He devours two or three books a day by speed-reading the material. If the book is important, he slows down and takes notes. If the book really moves him, he reads it three or four times. Then he wakes up one morning and says “Book!” and he begins to write furiously. He completes an original book in two or three months. In the case of editing anthologies, he has pulled books together in one or two days. He says a work arrives full-blown in his brain, and he writes fifteen hours a day to get it down. (For his first book, The Spectrum of Consciousness, he slept on a couch with his typewriter on a coffee table beside him. Each day, he parked a gallon of milk next to the typewriter and wrote around the clock, taking time out only for sleeping and bathroom breaks.)
            In regard to his own work, Wilber likes to take a Zen stance: that his writings are the dust that one should shake from one’s sandals on the way. [2]“All of my books are lies. They are simply maps of a territory, shadows of a reality, gray symbols dragging their bellies across the dead page, suffocated signs full of muffled sound and signifying absolutely nothing. And it is the nothing, the Mystery, the Emptiness alone that needs to be realized; no known but felt, no thought but breathed, not an object but an atmostphere, not a lesson but a life” (Ibid. xv).
            Even a brief paper on Ken Wilber, the man, needs to tell about his ordeal with the death of his second wife, Treya Killam. He proposed to her two weeks after they had met, and they were soon married. His wife found out just before their honeymoon that she had breast cancer. After a number of treatments, including a radical mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation, Treya Killam died about six years after the diagnosis. She asked her husband to write a book about their experience and to publish her journal. This became the book, Grace and Grit, which I read about ten years ago. (If this book doesn’t make you cry, you’ve got a heart of granite.)
            I intended this paper to reflect on Wilber as a person. I plan to review his ideas in the papers that will follow. Nonetheless, I should mention that reading this overview of Wilber was a pleasure in that it often confirmed several of my own ideas that are uncommon in alternative circles. An important example is Wilber’s honoring of the ego and his criticism of the notion that the ego is bad and must be annihilated.[3] His model of psychological and spiritual development endorses the need for a healthy ego. (Transcending ego, yes; destroying ego, no way.) He also critiques the naiveté and magical thinking of the New Age movement in strong terms. This has made some folks angry; there may be Wiccans casting evil spells on the guy. He objects to the irrationally tinged caricature of spirituality that one too often finds in New Age circles, which conflate spirituality with narcissism and “spiritual materialism.”[4] On the other hand, he is also fiercely critical of Western dogmas (humanism and scientism) that insist that reason is our highest possible human attainment. One could say that his mission is to find ways to re-introduce authentic mystic spirituality into Western culture, to rehabilitate the spirit and the individual in an academically sound manner.
Many today are extremely taken with Jung—Wilber isn’t. Many have taken up with Freud—Wilber hasn’t. Many place their hope in holism—Wilber doesn’t. Many would see the intellect as the villain of the drama—Wilber won’t. He even dares to openly object to such popular conceptions as “there’s no such thing as chance,” “we create our own reality,” “we cause our own illnesses (and are capable of healing ourselves),” “we need to be less in the mind and more in the body,” statements that have come to acquire the status of religious dogma in the world of the New Age. Wilber sees these notions as twisted interpretations of the profound insights of the spiritual traditions, distortions that urgently need to be corrected.
            Of course, anyone who tries to navigate between the split-apart worlds of academia and esoteric religion is destined to be deemed an outsider and taken seriously by neither. Scientists think Wilber is trying to smuggle religion into science. Religionists are prone to
find him too scientific, believing that spirituality should not be subjected to critical examination.[5] It is my own belief that Wilber’s outsider status is changing. In spite of his refusal to give public talks[6] or to attend conferences—even those based on his own work—I think Wilber is bound to wind up in the academy. Last year, in my critical theories class, I read Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Kant, Freud, Jung, Habermas, Adorno, Diderot, Lacan, et al. Not one of these thinkers was able to stand on the mountaintop that is now available to a genius in the 21st century—and not one of them viewed as broad a landscape as Ken Wilber.
 So what is Ken Wilber like as a person? I’ve never met him, but I’ll end this introduction with what Visser claims is Wilber’s typical daily schedule:   
  • Wake up: 3 to 5 a.m.
  • Meditate (Vajrayana practices)[7]: one or two hours.
  • Work (mostly reading and taking notes): until 2 p.m.
  • Lift weights: until 3 p.m.[8]
  • Run errands: until 5.
  • Eat a vegetarian meal. (One meal a day!)
  • Visit friends.
  • Handle correspondence.
  • Read a light book for entertainment, or go out to a movie, or watch a video at home (Wilber owns a huge video collection.)
  • Go to bed at 10 p.m.
[1] It helps when Jim Fadiman compares you to William James, John White calls you “the long-sought Einstein of consciousness research,” and Jean Houston says, “Wilber might well do for consciousness what Freud did for psychology. (He was only 21 when he wrote the book; it took two years to find a publisher.)
[2] Wilber’s sandal dust has been translated into more than thirty languages, making him the most translated American author of academic books (Visser, 3). Amazingly, every one of Wilber’s books is still in print, and Shambhala Publications has published his collected works, making him the first philosopher in history to have his collected works published while he is still alive.
[3] I wrote an essay, “Zombies Need Not Apply,” that critiques this bogus misunderstanding of Eastern (particularly Buddhist) philosophy—which most practitioners (and not a few gurus) are prone to suffer.
[4] Wilber regards the narcissism of the Boomer generation and the nihilism of postmodern philosophy as two ideas of the same coin. (Ibid. 41).
[5] Wilber has written, “I am always surprised at the common perception that I am recommending an intellectual approach to spirituality, when that is the opposite of my view. Just because an author writes, say, a history of dancing, does not mean that the author is advocating that people stop dancing and merely read about it instead.”
[6] After the publication of Spectrum of Consciousness, Wilber toured the consciousness studies circuit, giving public talks and workshops. After a year of this, he realized he could continue talking about what he had already written, which he already saw as incomplete and even flawed, or he could devote himself to new discoveries and new books. He quit giving lectures and he only rarely agrees to be interviewed. He does readily respond to academic criticisms, either online or in journals.
[7] He and his late wife, Treya, were devotees of the late Kalu Rinpoche.
[8] From now on, I’m going to remember Wilber when I drag my lazy bones to the gym to lift weights.

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