Reading the article reminded me of one of the great books on Hollywood, Adventures in the Screen Trade, by William Goldman, one of the best screenwriters of the 1960's and 70's, the writer of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All The President's Men, among many other great movies, both of which he won Academy Awards for. In his book he returns time and time again to the single, insurmountable truth he describes as the core of the entire movie industry, which all must bow to or face humiliation - "Nobody knows anything". By which he meant, nobody in the entire movie industry knows what will make a movie successful, and what will not. Instead, the industry is run by people who try to pretend that they know what they are doing, who spend a lot of time trying to convince people that they know what they are doing, who build up resumes and sales pitches and sure-fire ideas about how to make successful movies, but in the end, none of them actually know what they are doing. And that is why Hollywood's business side is often even funnier than it's comedies - the entire industry is a charade, a pastiche, a wild shot in the dark.
One could say the same thing about popular religion, and especially popular modern movements in non-traditional religion. Nobody knows why, of all the crazy religious cults around the Roman world, it was Christianity that emerged to dominate the western world. Why not Mithraism? Why not Apollonious of Tyana? Okay, Christians will certainly give a solid answer - it's because Jesus was the one and only true Son of God, that's why. But not everyone quite buys that explanation. Likewise, why did this tiny desert religion of Mohammed come out of nowhere and become so powerful and widespread? Why, of all the crazy 19th century religious cults, did Mormonism become so successful? Why is Scientology so much bigger than most of its competitors? Well, one can always come up with historical explanations after the fact, but that's like explaining why Star Wars was such a huge success. Having the benefit of knowing that it was a indeed a huge success, one can easily explain why it was inevitable. And yet, it certainly didn't look that way when it was first made. No one thought it was anything but a silly idea from a young director that was worth throwing some money at, because who knows? That's how Hollywood works: nobody knows anything, so they're willing to try just about anything. If something clicks, we call the people who did it "geniuses", and we think they know what they are doing. But soon enogh they make some clunker that shows they didn't really know much of anything at all. And so the industry rises and fall by retrospective appreciation.
And the same is true of Ken Wilber's "Integral Movement", or any other novel, non-traditional religious or philosophical set of ideas. The real problem with the Integral Movement is the same as everything else in the non-traditional world of yet-to-be established religion and philosophy, which like a low-rent Hollywood, is filled with endless ranks of people trying to convince other people that they know what they are talking about, all to hide the simple and obvious core truth that "nobody knows anything".
It's one of the ironies of Wilber's movement that he has tried to be the ultimate "knower", the smartest smart-ass kid on the block who's read every book in the universe and evolved theories to contain them all in a single narrative - and all for nought, because in the business he's chosen to go into, no one knows anything, including him. I know Wilber might feel insulted by this, or perhaps if you catch him on a good day amused, but it's simply true - he doesn't know what will make a movement "successful" any more than anyone else, any more than the producers of Ishtar knew any less than George Lucas in Star Wars (if anyone doubts this, I invite them to watch, if they dare, any of the last three movies in the Star Wars sextet). I know Wilber has spent a lot of time working with hugely successful self-help dudes like Tony Robbins, who has made centamillions at least from his own dubious "movement", but frankly, he might as well hang out with Mormons. He's not going to learn how to make his "Integral Movement" into an actual movement by trying to package it into someone else's model. Nor is there any guarantee that if he does it his own way it's going to succeed in any larger sense either.
The truth is, no one really knows why some religious or philosophical movements succeed, except through Monday Morning Quarterbacking. We have to simply point out the obvious - some people just get lucky. Of course, it helps if you're a great self-promoter, like Tony Robbins, who could probably have mass-marketed the Hale-Bopp cult on late-night infomercials if he'd been so inclined. But even Tony Robbins happened to come along at the right time with the right set of ideas that just happened to take off - and even then, it's not as if the world is converting to "The Giant Within" any time soon. He found a niche market, exploited it, and made a killing. Many others with equal talent and equally good or bad ideas have tried to do the same, and failed. There were thousands of prophets in the Middle East at the time of Jesus, and we like to think that Jesus succeeded because he was the best of the lot, but there's no guarantee of that at all.
Some of the very greatest realizers are never known at all. They live in jungles and are only spotted on rare occasions. Papaji often said that he met only two fully enlightened people in his life - one was Ramana Maharshi, who has of course become famous the world over, and the other was a wild man who stepped out of the jungles of south India one day while Papaji happened to be walking by, wandered around for a few minutes, and then disappeared just as quickly, never to be seen again. One can perhaps only describe the difference in their outward "success" as a simple matter of karma. As Ramana often said, unless something is destined to happen, it won't matter how hard you try to make it happen, it never will happen. Likewise, if something is destined to happen, you can't stop it from happening no matter how hard you try. We of course don't know what is destined and what is not, but one has to recognize that something like the Integral Movement is probably just not destined to amount to much more than it already has, no matter how hard its dedicated followers try to make it "go mainstream".
Of course, I don't know anything either, and yet even though none of us know anything about this whole religion business, we can at least try our best to evaluate the "talent", and see what has the best prospects for success, and what seems unlikely to prosper. One thing we can't count on is quality, of course. Just as in Hollywood, quality films tend, if anything, to underperform, and usually have a fairly low ceiling for success, past which they rarely go. Citizen Kane was a commercial flop, and the atrocious late Star Wars sequels were huge money makers. Even Ramana Maharshi is a flop compared to the likes of Joseph Smith.
Even in the world of psychology and philosophy, what catches on and what fades away is hard to predict. Freud's theories took the world by storm, and revolutionized not just psychology, but almost every aspect of social thought. And yet, today, his psychoanalytic movement is virtually dead, and viewed as a failure even within psychology. Certainly some of his basic ideas have endured and proved immensely influential, but not in the form he originally conceived of them. He played a starring role in the evolution of 20th century thought, not just among scholastics, but in the mainstream culture itself, and the effects of the waves he unleashed are still washing over us. In large part, that was because of the timing of his ideas - they happened to coincide with a great awakening of the culture itself to sexuality and self-awareness. Others have had similar ideas before, but they did not catch on because the time was simply not right. And likewise, when the time passed by, Freud was cast aside like the seaweed from last night's high tide.
So the question is, do Wilber's ideas, and those of the "Integral Movement", really capture the mood and needs of our time? Well, they have certainly tried to do that. But this is perhaps the biggest problem with the Integral Movement. It is so self-consciously obsessed with trying to catch the mood and needs of the times, that it's like an overproduced pop-song, created by someone more concerned with engineering a hit than with plumbing its author's own emotional depths. At it's worst, it resembles the latest boy band, stepping through all the "right" hip-hop moves, but trying hard as can be to achieve "cutting edge" status, and simply falling flat from the vanity of the effort. The desperate, cloying quality of the Integral Movement in all its failing iterations resembles nothing so much as all those wannabe American Idol contestants trying to hit the notes, trying to fulfill their dream, trying so hard to please, striking all the right poses, but simply lacking the chops to sing a real song.
When the Integral Movement, and Wilber, do sing well, it's not necessarily the kind of music people want to hear. One can get bitter and nasty about that, blaming the public for not appreciating just how brilliant its ideas are, feeling unappreciated and unloved, and somehow trying to figure out a way to make people like them, but this just doesn't work. You can't make people appreciate something they don't want. The fact is, Wilber's Integral Movement is probably never going to catch on beyond the rather small sub-culture that has already developed around it. Most "movements" are lucky to get even that far, so one has to credit Wilber for at least that much. But if these folks are going to get upset because he isn't recognized as the Second Coming (or anything remotely similar) they are in for a lifetime of disappointment.
Let's face it, first off, the Integral Movement is predominantly an elitist intellectual movement that is destined to remain unattractive and uninteresting to anyone who is not specifically geared towards exactly this kind of thing. It requires a huge investment of intellectual time and energy to become even remotely conversant in its ideas, and even then, one could hardly begin to explain what those ideas are. Wilber himself dismisses critics who haven't spent years and years carefully reading every line of his works, and following its development step by step through countless iterations. Whether that's a valid defense against criticism, it's an insurmountable barrier to common appreciation. Who can possibly adopt a viewpoint, even casually, that is so inscrutably obscure?
Another great insight William Goldman offered in his book was the notion that if you couldn't describe the central point of your screenplay in twenty-five words or less, it was never going to work. The mechanics of human story-telling require a concentrated, easily understandable core message, and if that core is not there, it won't be communicated. Likewise, Goldman thought, if the writer doesn't have enough of a grasp of his story to summarize it that succinctly, he won't be able to write the story. He will ramble on endlessly, never quite getting to the point. (Sound familiar?) Wilber of course suffers from that very problem. He writes endlessly on countless topics, but he doesn't have a core message that can be easily explained in a single terse sentence. He's a fox, not a hedgehog, and foxes are simply incapable of achieving popular, mainstream acceptance, because they don't fully know what their point is to begin with. They have a million ideas about a million topics, the are brilliant in their ability to synthesize and correlate ideas, but they cannot for the life of the create a coherent message. The hedgehog, on the other hand, has just one great idea, and all he does is repeat this same idea, looking at it from every angle, but always keeping that one idea in view. In that way, he hammers away at that core insight until it hits home, and if it finds a receptive audience, it takes off like wildfire.
Wilber simply cannot do that. It's not his character or his destiny. And for that reason, the "Integral Movement" isn't actually a movement, because it has no center, and no core message, and it isn't going anywhere. It has graphs and charts and bullet points and tons of footnotes, but it hasn't got a central gospel. AQAL is not a message. At best, it's a map that is supposed to get you to the core of things, but one never actually gets there, and so the core message never materializes.
Goldman used Christianity as his best historical example of how to tell a story simply and concisely, because the authors of the Gospels knew precisely what their message was. Their twenty-five word summation of Christianity is the essential Creed of the Apostles, found in John 3:16.
"God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but gain everlasting life."Twenty-four simple words, and yet the whole of Christianity is contained in that brief message. Everything that has come before and since points back to this simple Gospel, and if anything can intelligently be said about why Christianity succeeded so well over the centuries it is because of this internal coherence in its message.
Can Wilber or the Integral Movement be said to contain so powerful and precise a message for anyone to hear? I don't think so. Perhaps I'm not familiar enough with the movement, but on the other hand, that shouldn't make a difference. If there were a core message to it, wouldn't it be obvious even to those outside its confines, especially to those people? I'd suggest there is no core message. Instead, there is a wide array of many messages, many viewpoints, many interesting things to think about or consider, all of which can serve to stimulate one's thinking, but none of which leads to any single answer or direction. Which is all fine and good to some degree, but it's not how movements, large or small, gain traction. A movement has to have a specific vector of force, otherwise it simply falls to the ground and is stepped over by those who have a real goal in mind.
The Integral Movement as it now stands is primarily a critical appreciation of a large set of ideas, rather than a focused concentration upon any one idea. In fact, it seems philosophically opposed to the very idea of concentrating on any one idea, for fear that this would create an imbalance of some kind. It has a map it points to , the AQAL, but this is neither a simple message or even a single narrative. It's a complex pattern of ideas that has no actual core to it, merely a way of categorizing and balancing different ideas, each of which could go off in any number of directions. One can say that's useful, or not, but one can't pretend that one can make an actual movement out of it. So instead the Integral Movement tends to default to personalities, primarily that of Wilber himself. He doesn't like this, and tries time and again to focus on AQAL, but this is essentially hopeless. No one can focus on AQAL, because it isn't a single idea, it isn't even a coherent set of ideas, it's merely a way of saying "don't focus on anything", which is self-defeating if your goal is to create a wide cultural and intellectual movement. People need to focus on something if they are going to create a movement. If there's no specific goal to focus on, they turn to the personality of the leader, and focus on that. Which is why the Integral Movement always seems to come back to Wilber himself and his own personality. It's inevitable given the nature of his ideas, which have no real direction, except to revolve around himself. And thus his followers allow their attention to revolve around Wilber himself, rather than on his ideas, which isn't the case in a real intellectual "movement".
Ramana Maharshi had just one thing to say, and he said it over and over again to almost everyone who came to him: "Ask yourself, 'who am I?'" He elaborated a bit on this, but essentially all his elaborations came back to the same point, this inspection of the "I". You can say that this isn't the kind of message that most people are going to appreciate, but it has the virtue of being incredibly simple and to the point, and hence, at least within the world of esoteric spirituality, his ideas have real staying power, and the ability to generate a "movement" of some kind. Whether that ever grows into a mainstream movement is hard to say, and was certainly neither his concern nor his intention. He only cared whether the person he was speaking to got the point. He wasn't trying to create a religion, or a movement, or a business. He had no seminars to give, no lectures to prepare, not practices to monitor, just this simple directive. And that's why it holds together and succeeds, regardless of the numbers of people who start thinking this way.
With Wilber, there is simply no equivalent to the messages of Christianity or Ramana Maharshi. There is simply a call to be intellectually critical and strive for some kind of "integrated" goal, but this goal is never defined, never described, and never actually realized by anyone. It's just a process for thinking critically, and that's not the kind of thing a movement can ever be based on. Perhaps, if one thinks critically long enough, one might come up with a central truth that has real force to it, but this simply hasn't happened yet in the Integral Movement, and if it hasn't happened yet, it likely never will. That's what the Buddha did. He sat under the Bodhi tree, and he thought critically about everything in his experience, until he achieved enlightenment. Once he did that, he didn't go around merely telling people to think critically, he told them what he'd discovered in the process of thinking critically. He told them about nirvana, and the Four Noble truths, which are simple enough that all four can be summarized in less than twenty five words: "Life is Suffering, suffering has a cause, the cause is craving, and there's a way to end this craving, the Noble-Eightfold Path." That prescription is about as simple as can be, and it explains why so many people have become Buddhists over the years.
Part of the problem, of course, is that the Integral Movement hasn't even figured out what it's supposed to be, much less what its core message is. Is it a religion? Is it a philosophy? Is it an educational process? Is it a self-help course? Is it a spiritual path? Is it a way to enlightenment? Is it a formula for solving problems? What? You can't say all of these, you have to choose something that actually defines it, if you want it to spread. But it doesn't want to do that, because it seems not to want to define itself. It likes staying vague and general and doesn't want to make any actual promises. But unless it defines itself, it will never gain much movement or appeal, except to people who are themselves not well defined.
The biggest problem of course is this central concern and motive that the Integral Movement must somehow move, grow, expand, gain mainstream cred, etc. Why should anyone care about these, even those who practice it? Why should Wilber care? It reveals a kind of deep insecurity in one's ideas, that one would need large numbers of people to accept them in order to feel good about it all. It's not as if having these ideas has made some huge difference in anyone's life. There are no enlightened Integralists out there, no stunning examples of human or spiritual giants who have emerged from the Integral Movement. After all, that's how these things tend to grow - by creating human role models for people to emulate.
One can hardly emulate Wilber, after all, nor would most people want to. Most people can't spend their life in a room full of books, nor would they wish to. Nor would that even be a good idea. It's not even clear that it's been a good idea for Wilbur. Very few people want to follow the ideas developed by a guy who has spent his lifetime in rooms full of books. It's not terribly appealing, and it doesn't even make a lot of sense. Wilber is useful for people who like books, and like critically appreciating books, but don't have time to read them all. Wilber's even said that he reads all these books so his friends don't have to. But the very idea that one is going to get great wisdom from reading books is simply foolishness written in scholastic hubris.
One does not get much more than a few pointers from books. That makes them useful, but insufficient. Even the greatest scriptures can do no more than point one in the right direction. Even a great teacher like Ramana Maharshi can do no more than point, and serve as an inspiring influence. One of my favorite lines in all his books is this very simple directive about the practice of self-enquiry:
That trustworthy vichara [self-enquiry] exists neither in book learning nor in learning from others, but only in one's own sense of "I"The great message of Ramana was that one must find the truth in oneself, by oneself, as oneself. There is no great book that will do it for you, no map of consciousness you can use to find this out, no lectures or seminars or coaching that will do it for you, no magazine subscriptions, no workshops and integral business models that can do it, nothing but the examination of one's own self. As Buddha said, be a light unto yourself, and a refuge unto yourself as well. This is not the grounds for a movement, it is grounds for stillness. In that stillness, all concerns for movement drop away. What develops, will develop. For Buddha, a whole tradition developed, spontaneously, focused on this core practice of still self-examination. But Wilber is no Buddha, no Ramana, and not even a Tony Robbins. Those who are interested in his ideas, in whatever process of integration they can get going, should do just hat, and not be worried about what other people are doing, or whether it catches on or not.
One of the things Walsh mentions in his article is a tendency among Integralists to become egotistical about their level or stage or path, and he argues that they should let these concerns go. Which is good advice. The problem, of course, is that what attracts many people to Wilber's ideas in the first place is the notion of being at the "cutting edge" of religion and philosophy - in other words, being ahead of everyone else. So it's no wonder that it encourages a competitive attitude, a need to constantly improve oneself to stay ahead of others, to move through stages and levels and views to get to the very top of the pack, so as to always remain "on the cutting edge". It's no wonder that those in the movement tend to look down on those not in it, and to think of themselves as superior to the masses, and yet envious of those who do appeal to the masses.
There's a love-hate relationship with the rest of the world, and a desire to convert it in order to relieve the tension of one's own insecurity. This is something I'm very familiar with from my years in Adidam, which if anything was worse than the Integral movement in trying to establish itself as the greatest spiritual movement in the world. It's a common characteristic of most cults, which always position themselves above the rest, as the leading force of spirituality or wisdom or whatever their fantasy might be. And it's one of the things about the Integral Movement which puts it in the cult category, particularly among those most closely involved with the actual institutions it has created. This too becomes an obstacle to its own growth, in that people are quite naturally turned off by cults, except for those rare individuals who see cults as an opportunity to advance themselves in a small pond situation, and once established there, to expand that pond to include the whole world, thus making them one of the leaders of the world, rather than a mere nobody within it.
The mainstream world isn't much interested in cults, or in adopting cults as a guide for living. It usually works the other way around. The mainstream doesn't want to be turned into a cult. Instead, it wants to turn cults into mainstream appendages - in other words, indistinguishable from whatever movement the mainstream is already headed towards. In that sense, the worst thing that can ever happen to a cult is to become mainstream - it loses all its unique features when it becomes mainstream, and instead is merely a servant to the purposes of the mainstream.
This is the perpetual problem with Christianity since the time of Constantine. It has always been, at core, a very private and even individualistic religion, a contemplative relationship between oneself and one's God, and shared with those around one to be sure, but never compromised in the process. Once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, however, it lost that esoteric and highly personal nature, and became a huge institution, a worldly empire, a business, in other worlds. In the process, it lost much of what was precious to it. Jesus never sought such a thing, nor did his followers, but it fell into their lap when Constantine converted, and it's been a disaster ever since.
Why Wilber or the Integral Movement would want to become part of the mainstream is beyond me, except that it may not have any core ideas or principles to begin with, that it would fear losing or compromising. Instead, it wants to become a business model, a money-making enterprise, a Tony Robbins infomercial for the alt-religion crowd, in order to distract itself from its lack of core values, and a core purpose. What is revealed in this "movement" is something very similar to what one finds in Adidam, in other messianic or missionary cults, in almost every "movement" no matter how idealistic - the will to power, to enlarge oneself, to take over neighboring territory, to gain lebensraum, to convert others to one's own viewpoint, to externalize one's own internal sense of self, to make it "real" in the exterior world, through the act of converting others to one's views.
Wilbur's ideas, whatever AQAL might try to suggest, are his own interior personal notions. Sharing them with others is a way to exteriorize them, in order to create the illusion that they are real, that they apply to the world outside his own interior mind. If enough people adopt them, they begin to seem real, rather than just subjective notions of his own. Because the external world is what people are accustomed to thinking of as real, whereas our interior worlds are viewed as unreal, merely subjective, and thus doubted, it is common for people to try to impose their internal ideas onto the external world. Our own internal ideas are a constant source of doubt to us, because we are often not sure they are real until others begin to adopt them and affirm them.
So the common solution to our internal insecurity and sense of unreality is to convert others to think as we do. If others around us think as we do, it makes us feel better about ourselves. It makes us feel real. The ego needs this kind of external affirmation, because all it has are thoughts, ideas, notions, subjective feelings, and these seem deeply insubstantial to us until they externalized. So we feel a deep need not only to express ourselves to others, but to have other people express the same thoughts and feelings to us. This is called the human condition, and we all suffer from it to one degree or another. I, too, in my small way writing on this blog am motivated by these insecurities. I try to remain aware of that and keep some perspective about myself. But we are all vulnerable to these doubts and impulses, so long as we protect the subjective world of our own ego. It's best, therefore, if we simply understand this about ourselves, and minimize the degree to which we try to make our own ideas seem real.
I'd suggest that the Integral Movement do the same. Keep it small and personal, in other words. Don't try to expand and externalize one's insecurities on a global scale, trying to get the mainstream to reflect back to you your own inner thoughts in order to make them real to you, to make yourself seem real to you. Use such things as a way to actually inspect that inner insecurity and take it apart, rather than build it into a mass movement of some kind. Don't make it into a business, make it into a very personal matter within your own lives. If it works on the personal level for you, fine, others may begin to notice and it will catch on. If it doesn't, that's fine too.
The problem, of course, comes in when you've actually staked your livelihood on creating a "movement" of some kind out of these externalized insecurities. Then we have people who not only need widespread acceptance for psychological and egoic reasons, they also need it for monetary reasons, to pay the rent and eat. Then you get the kinds of complicated corrupting forces that combine both conceptual insecurity and material greed, and that's a recipe for disaster. It doesn't matter at that point how strongly one tries to maintain one's integrity, it is bound to fail. One just may not know it. And those around you who are committed to and trapped within the same dynamic will also not know it, and they won't tell you what has happened. This is how movements become deranged and derailed, and end up cults without intending to, even trying hard to avoid that fate.
As mentioned long ago in an earlier series of posts about Adidam, Papaji used to say, when asked about abusive Gurus, "This is the Kali Yuga, everyone gets the Guru they deserve". The same could be said about any kind of teacher or movement. We all get the teachings we deserve, what our karmas have laid out for us. Some get Ken Wilber, or some other integral movement teacher. If large numbers of people began to adopt AQAL and Wilber's ideas, it wouldn't mean that it had succeeded, it would only mean that this is how their karmas got played out. There will always be something the mainstream of the world latches onto, and there's not much difference in any of them, so long as we are driven by these internal insecurities that demand that we make them seem real by exteriorization. In the end, that project always fails, and the internal insecurity brings whatever we've created down. Every movement ends up failing for this reason. This cycle just goes round and round in this world, with no signs of stopping, unless we address the interior insecurity at the heart of it. That insecurity is the ego itself, which deep down knows that it is unreal, and thus is constantly insecure and driven to try to create the illusion of its own existence in the exterior world, so that it will feel real.
Until we face down our own egos, this will never end. It really makes no difference if the exterior form created is in the image of Jesus or AQAL or Wilber or Adi Da, it's no use to us at all to have everyone around us adopting our viewpoint, it's only of use for keeping our own illusions alive and thriving. And that isn't something we should aspire to. It's something we should inspect and see the error of our ways in, and repent from.
To be clear, I'm not suggesting that no one should write or talk about their ideas and views. I have no objection to Wilber writing books and making a healthy living doing so. But to make that into a business, a movement, with an agenda and a whole money-making institutional culture behind it, is a big mistake. In my view, Wilber should simply end this entire Integral Institute and every associated enterprise, and just do what he does best, which is read books and write about them and have lots of friends who do the same. Anything real that comes out of his writings is simply going to occur organically, and naturally, and on the strictly personal level. not according to some business plan. Real human cultures and cultural movements don't occur by design. They happen spontaneously and unexpectedly. Any social movement that happens by design is just boring and conventional and as meaningless as a corporate logo.