Seems I haven't written here in a few months. My how time flies. Sorry for the abrupt departure. It wasn't intentional, I just got caught up in work and many things, and as noted before, my attitude towards blogging is a little ambiguous to begin with. Last week I decided to start again, but wasn't sure what topic to start with. I'd like to write on the non-dual material I've been reading a lot of lately, but there's no easy way to segue into that. Then, while reading some forums, I came across a recent Ken Wilber posting, a reaction to his critics, that got me thinking a little about that particular “integral” path, and realized I needed to post something about it. So a long post will follow this one shortly discussing Wilber, his AQAL map, and how it relates, and doesn't relate, to non-dual reality (or is that simply redundant?). Also included will be my thoughts on developmental approaches altogether, including Adi Da's seven stages theory.
Ken Wilber's Grand Developmental Theory and Non-Dual Realization
Recently I came across Ken Wilber's website and his recent counter-attack on his critics, linked to here:
There's actually several posts, the first being “What we are, that we see”, and several follow-ups.
Apparently Wilber is upset at a long series of attacks on his work, and even on him personally, by critics he feels are undeserving of any serious response, and so he lets loose with a frustrated outburst punctuated by admonitions such as “suck my dick”. I've never read Wilber in any serious way over the years, and I have no idea what his critics' views are, so I can't really respond to either of them. Wilber only mentions that many of his critics seem to object to his “theory of everything” basically being a developmental theory, and this of course got me thinking about why it is that I don't feel interested in Wilber's line of thinking, even though he seems to share so much in common with me – a wide interest in just about any topic of interest, and inclusive approach to things, and a spirituality that runs from the rudimentary to the purest forms of non-dualism. It also got me thinking about what seems off with Wilber's whole approach, and so, I end up writing this post.
Let me say first off that I have nothing personally against Wilber. I can fully understand mouthing off against one's critics, especially internet bloggers and forumites. I've been there, done that, and probably will again. I have to say also that I share a lot of faults with Wilber. I too am proud, arrogant, cutting, condescending, ambitious, and feel that I usually am more self-aware than anyone else I'm talking too, that I know their criticism before they say it, that I've applied it to myself already, and so why the fuck don't they realize that and just shut up? Reading Wilber's reactions sounds like hearing a tape of myself from not too long ago. So it's funny, sad, and a little wearisome, but also instructive. Is that how I sound? No wonder people always ragged on me more than I thought I deserved. Apparently I actually deserved it.
Anyway, what I really want to comment on isn't Wilber's personal problems with his fans, his critics, the integral psychology movement, all that. I'm not a part of that world, and I doubt I ever will be. I'm not even qualified to make serious scholarly arguments about Wilber's work, his models, his whole theory. I don't know enough about it, and I probably never will. So if any Wilber students ever read this, don't expect anything approaching a serious critique of Wilber overall. I'm going to confine myself to just two basic areas. The first is Wilber's use of a developmental theory that includes non-dual understanding within its map, and the second is the fallaciousness of using a linear, developmental theory rather than a cyclical theory of change which includes not only development to higher levels, but regression to lower levels, including death, the dissolution of levels and changes.
I was going to begin with the first point, because that's how I got started thinking about this, but I think I'll mention the second point first. After reading Wilber's posts, I went through some of his more recent writings posted on his website, just to refresh my self on Wilber's current theories. Basically, it's an attempt to be as inclusive as possible of all of human knowledge and experience, and to organize it in a manner that makes practical sense. So far, hat's off for trying. When I first encountered Wilber back in the mid 1970's, when I was a teen-aged student of Bubba Free John (Adi Da), my basic reaction was, thank God someone's doing this kind of thing, now I don't have to. I had, over the years, flirted with the notion of doing just what Wilber was doing, immersing myself in all the fields of knowledge and art, and becoming an uber-cultural critic, including of course the full range of spiritual traditions, including the non-dual traditions of enlightenment. Not having to do that was a relief, so I have to thank Wilber for taking on a task that someone probably had to do, and thank God it wasn't me.
The task of including all knowledge and experience in a single model seems both exciting and a little quaint. There's a kind of charming 19th century naivete in it, a sort of Newtonian dream of understanding everything just so. There's also a great deal of hubris in it, but so what, give it a try. That's my superficial attitude, at least. Deeper down, I have to say: watch out, Icarus. Don't fly too high. And then I read on and on in his intro to AQAL, and I have to say it starts to get depressingly cheery, like a Tony Robbins infomercial for the End Times. See, we have all these answers right here, we have the technology that will allow you to break through any problems you might have, and become the awesome Master of the Universe you always knew you could be! But these are just tonal impressions. The real criticism I have is in the use of a developmental model itself.
What's wrong with a developmental model? I would agree with Wilber that on the face of it, nothing. Everything in the universe goes through a developmental process of some kind. Everything can be broken down into pieces and parts, levels, types, categories, and placed into various conceptual slots. Wilber has tried to map out all these levels, types, quadrants, processes, categories, etc., with great attention and common sense. In fact, if I were to categorize academics in general, I'd say there at two types. The first, are ones who try to challenge common sense by introduce theories which defy our accepted way of doing things. The second, are those who try to reign in the challengers by reapplying common sense, throwing out the nonsensical theories, and grounding what was useful in the challengers in a modified form of common sense. Wilber is of the second variety, and I admire him for it. The world needs common sense, especially now, which I think explains Wilber's popularity. But it's important to realize that he's not a revolutionary thinker at all, he's not a truly innovative genius, as some would like to posit, he's a second order thinker, a common-sense thinker, who is trying to systemitize and organize a lot of very weird material in an orderly and common-sensical way. That's a good thing, but not a great thing. A common response to Wilber's work is similar to my own, “I could have done that, if I'd wanted to.” Whereas, I'd never think to myself that I could have come up with Einstein's Theory of Relativity on my own, if only I'd been doing physics around the turn of the century. The reason why I think I, or any other really smart guy, could have done what Wilber has been doing is simply because he really is just applying good, common sense to a lot of material that has been lacking common sense for a very long time. Reading what is good in Wilber involves a lot of “yes, of course” kind of responses, which I think is why I find it uninteresting. I'm not much interested in reading affirmations of what I already know, or systemitizations of such things, I want to read things that I don't already know. Others I'm sure differ, and maybe I'm just not recognizing Wilber's originality, but I think he's purely a derivative thinker. His originality, if one could call it that, is in trying to be a comprehensive, all-inclusive derivative thinker.
Okay, maybe I'm being a bit condescending myself. I warned you, didn't I? Doesn't that make it okay? Don't get me wrong, I think Wilber is brilliant, and really, I couldn't have done things the way he's done them, not only because I wouldn't have wanted to, but because I don't have the gifts he has. And yet try as he might, Wilber himself doesn't have the gifts he really needs. He doesn't have the genius of an original viewpoint, only the ambition to have one, and the idea that by incorporating everyone else theories into one grand theory, that will constitute an original theory. Sorry, it doesn't. Wilber will never make the top ranks of world geniuses, and he will undoubtedly shed a few tears over that. I can understand. When I realized I wasn't even going to play big-league baseball, it came down hard on me too. Some people like that become sportswriters, and some become systemitizers, but it's not the same thing.
So that's part of the problem with creating a developmental system, the system part. Systems just don't cut it. They are second-level orders of understanding. They are useful to a degree, they are even important to a degree, but they aren't core, they have no heart, they can never be central to a truly meaningful life. Wilber's model reads too much like an L. Ron Hubbard sales pitch, it tries too hard to win you over, it promises too much. Real understanding doesn't promise anything; it already is what it promises. It doesn't have to aspire to be meaningful, it is meaningful, already. Systemization is so bourgeois. It's what people settle for when they can't really make the big bucks, and it's based on the same fear of losing what little wisdom one has. The idea is, if one systematizes it, one doesn't lose the wisdom, one can retain it better. This is useful in mechanical processes, but life is not a mechanical process.
But let's accept Wilber's program for what it is, a system, and not condemn it for that. Systems, while not being the ultimate answer, are certainly necessary to some degree, even inevitable. I know I was certainly attracted by them when I was younger. One of the great attractions of Adi Da's teachings was that it was a systematic approach to the spiritual process that tried to address everything. So what's wrong with creating a developmental system? After all, Adi Da's system was essentially a developmental model also. His “seven stages of life” looked at the spiritual cosmos and tried to create an orderly developmental model for the growth of the human being that started at birth and ended in full enlightenment. Wilber was undoubtedly inspired by Adi Da's example, even if he didn't agree with the model itself, and went off on his own tangent. But they both shared the idea that development and growth were the keys to the spiritual process, and that by understanding all the levels and types and processes involved, one could ensure that one's own spiritual growth was complete, full, and not lacking in any of the fundamentals necessary for spiritual advancement. Da went even further, creating an elaborate model for spiritual advancement itself, based on his own ideas, that involved tremendous examination of every detail of an individual's life, for the purpose of eliminating any obstructions to spiritual growth.
The problem with developmental models is this: they ignore the flip side of development, which is decay and regression. One of the primary faults I could see in Wilber's presentation of his ideas is the claim that any level one achieves cannot be lost. One is expected to glide over that, breezily accepting it as real wisdom, when in fact it is sheer poppycock. Are we really expected to believe that levels are objectively real, and that the attainment of a level is a permanent achievement? Has Wilber never heard of the Buddhist concept of Impermanence? Certainly he has, he's studied Buddhism far more than I have, he knows these things inside and out, supposedly, but what the eff? I understand what he's trying to say, and it makes common sense to be sure. When you become an adolescent, you don't go back to pre-pubescence. We all go through changes in our lives after which there is no going back. And once we start to see things a certain way, we can't return to our old way of seeing things. Except, except for decay and death. In other words, nothing lasts, not even our wisdom. We grow old and die. We lose what we have gained, completely, including all our levels and typologies and understandings. What have we gained in this life that we will take with us into the next life? We might as well ask what we brought with us into this life? Not much. We had to learn most everything all over again. And the same will happen next lifetime. Yes, the developmental model is a good one, for a part of the cycle of life, but only for a part of it, the upward cycle. It fails for the downward cycle.
And that is one of the major faults with Wilber's model. It posits a series of linear developmental processes, moving from the infantile to the Centauric, and beyond that to full non-dual enlightenment. It doesn't acknowledge that life is cyclic in nature, however, that all of this cosmos not only develops, but decays and dies. As Buddha said, life is a great Wheel, everything moves in cycles, nothing moves in straight lines. Progress is meaningful only relative to regression. And that is the meaning of duality – there are two sides to everything. There are no arguments that cannot be countered, no creations that cannot be invalidated by death. Wilber may think he has the tiger by the tail, but no sooner than the next step the tiger may turn around and devour him. As the Hindus say, there is no end to this Maya.
The human potential movement, of which Wilber has seemed to position himself as a leading figure, is not part of the enlightenment tradition that Wilber has the deepest sympathy for. Enlightenment is not potential in human beings. It is either already the case, or it is not at all. This brings us to the second problem I see in Wilber's approach. He has tried to include non-dual wisdom in a developmental model, when non-dualism is not a developmental process. In fact, the very attempt to see non-dualism as a developmental process kills non-dualism, and simply turns it into a dualistic process, while yet mouthing the truths of non-dual reality.
It's clear that Wilber still thinks non-dualism is the ultimate nature of reality. He simply thinks that non-dualism is inclusive of dualism. This is a huge error. Non-dualism is not inclusive. That's why they call it non-dualism. It means, not-dual. Wilber tries to get around this by suggesting that by being inclusive of everything, he's being truly non-dual, that non-dualism is simply about not being attached to only one side of anything, but seeing both sides, including them both, and thus transcending the conflicts of dualism. But this is simply not the case. It is an attempt to turn non-dualism into a philosophical exercise of logic, in this case, the logic of inclusion, rather than see non-dualism as its greatest exponents and realizers have seen it: as an end to all illusions, including the illusion of inclusiveness.
Here's the problem Wilber faces. The great exponents of non-dualism argue, and quite persuasively I might add, that the entire cosmos is a dream, an illusion of mind, manufactured out of fear and desire, and nothing more. They do not advocate a developmental process within the dream that ends up at enlightenment. They advocate immediate awakening. They do not tell people to go about a long developmental process, looking at all their developmental shortcomings as part of a process of balancing themselves, becoming Centauric, and then moving up through the great ladder of being to the top. They tell people to jump off the ladder, that if they jump from the developmental cycle of birth and death, grace with catch them and enlighten them, but only if they jump off. They don't say, climb a little further, come to a nice clearing, make a nice little house, then jump off the ladder. They say jump off now, right away, don't waste another moment. They point out that trying to climb the ladder further before jump will just enmesh you in more karmas, more attachments, more attainments, all of which simply lead to death and decay over time. Some people are going up the ladder, they acknowledge, but they also point that some people are going down, and whatever goes up, must also go down some day. That's the law of karmic gravity. Duality always has two sides that alternate one after the other. One can grow for only so long before things fall apart and die. Growth does not lead to enlightenment, it leads to death. The human potential movement is an attempt to stave off death, but that is all it leads to, as does every other human enterprise. The action of birth eventually leads to the action of death, that is karma. Getting off the wheel doesn't mean finding a way to grow past all death, it means literally getting of the wheel. And that is what the non-dual traditions point to.
If one looks at the non-dual realizers, from Buddha and Shankara to Ramana and Nisargadatta, they seem fairly unanimous in their advice: don't go down the developmental path, it's a trap that only deludes you further. They certainly didn't take that path. They didn't bother developing themselves in any exceptional ways. Many of them were very ordinary people with unexceptional talents. Some were criminals, degenerates, murders, etc. They didn't begin a process of trying to clean themselves up, develop themselves into better, fuller, more integral human beings, and then take the non-dual message seriously. They started off taking it seriously, and that's what made it work for them.
What I find objectionable about Wilber's use of non-dualism in his model and his overall philosophy and teachings, is that it doesn't actually take non-dualism seriously. It can't, because to do so would be to negate his whole system. It would require him to throw it all out, to get off the developmental path, to get out of the systematizing business, and really just drop out altogether. That's of course why very few people take non-dualism seriously. It costs everything. It negates everything that we do, every motive we have, every desire and fear we respond to. Wilber doesn't want to give that up. But he still really digs non-dualism, and so he feels he has to incorporate it into his model. I'm not sure how he rationalizes it, but I am sure it is a rationalization, because non-dualism simply can't be put on the shelf, even the top shelf, of any system or developmental process. Reality is not the goal, it's the root of all things. The only way in which anything can be seen in reality, is to realize reality as its base, its root, its source, which is ourselves. Our Self. Without that, nothing is real, no experience is real, no system is real, no life is real, no attainment is real. All passes, except That which was already here, That which cannot pass.
I have mixed feelings about Wilber's use of non-dualism. On the positive side, I think its good that he's introducing non-dual teachings to many people who might not have heard of them. It's also good that he's acknowledging that enlightenment is the true and ultimate purpose of life. But in so doing, he's also introducing a lot of misunderstandings about enlightenment, particularly that it is the result of a developmental process. It's a common misperception of course, not one that is unique to Wilber, he's just more professional than most in propagating it. But that's why he's due for some serious criticism. He's one of the biggest voices out there talking about non-dual truths, and he's spreading some serious misunderstandings about it simply because he wants to have his cake and eat it.
Wibler can talk the non-dual talk reasonably well. He gives a quick talk-through of the basics, as if talking through the basics means much of anything. He makes it sound as if getting a basic intellectual grounding in the non-dual truth of “I Am” is enough, now let's move on to developing your ordinary character and personality. This is now a non-dual teaching, it's a betrayal of it. It would be better if Wilber would just sever non-dualism from his presentation, because it's not what his model is about. His model is about developing the conditional self into a better, more advanced conditional self. That's not a bad thing at all. I'm all for it, up to a point. I don't look down on that kind of thing. I may snicker at Oprah, but I still think she does good things for people. And Wilber is sort of a more scholarly, intellectually sophisticated version of Oprah, or of his friend Tony Robbins. These aren't bad people at all. I'm sure Wilber is a great guy personally. And I'm sure that if anyone really wants to be a great guy, they can do it, and Wilber and Robbins and Oprah can help. But enlightenment isn't about becoming a great guy. It's about getting off that whole train. It shouldn't be associated with the whole great guy program. It's not like becoming the ultimate great guy. Non-dualism is for people who are disenchanted with that.
I guess I see it that way now, after having gone through a lot of infatuations with developmentalism myself. I was never a Wilberite, but I was a devotee of Adi Da for almost 30 years, and I followed that developmental path until it fell apart for me. A lot of that of course had more to do with the corruptions of the path and the teacher and the sangha in Adidam, and I've written about that here and elsewhere quite extensively. But another aspect to my leaving Adidam had to do with falling out of sympathy with the developmental approach altogether. Reading about Wilber's path coincides with a process I've been going through and thinking about for several years now, of how I not only don't buy anymore the details of Adi Da's developmental stages and levels, I even disagree with the whole approach. I feel a much greater sympathy with the approach the non-dualists take, the modern Advaitics particularly, which is a direct approach, rather than a developmental approach.
Self-enquiry as taught by Ramana and his devotees is not a developmental process at all. It's a way of letting all that go, and simply and directly examining the core feeling of self, of being, of I-ness, using raw attention, and allowing that to purify and strengthen oneself. In some sense, by letting oneself go, one also allows oneself to develop freely. It's not as if the approach is anti-developmental. It's just that whatever development occurs is incidental to putting one's attention on what does not develop, what is always the case, what is prior to all development, the ground of reality itself, pure awareness, consciousness itself. And that's the essence of the problem with developmental approaches. They require you to put attention on things that are not yourself, that are simply part of the dream-world of the body-mind, the false self. In doing so your identification with them increases, as does your fixation on your desires and fears and their objects. It's only by taking attention away from such things, and allowing attention to settle into its source and root, that one becomes free. Attention is of course the key, and attention has great and miraculous power. If you put attention on the self-root, simple development of the human person does occur, not in any intentional way, but it happens all the same. Realizers are by and large smart and capable people. But they didn't try to be that way, it's just a natural result of not giving all of that any thought at all, but instead being absorbed in the Self.
The conflict of trying to have one's cake and eat it too is not new to the spiritual scene. It's an age-old problem. Wilber isn't the first to suffer it, and suffer the consequences of it, and he's far from being the worst offender. The charges of cultism and elitism he gets seem in part justified, but that's just the natural result of doing things in this compromised way. Da had the same problem in spades, and if Wilber is trying to create actual institutions around his system, and make it into a religion-type business, there's simply no way he can avoid it. He can minimize it by being more honest about it, but Wilber strikes me as being genuinely conflicted, like Da, to such a degree that I don't think he really can minimize it. Wilber really does dig non-dualism, and he really digs the developmental model, and all that he thinks it can do for them. He probably can't even allow himself to see how completely incompatible the two are. If he did, he'd be forced to drop one of them, and if he did that, where would he be? Caught between a rock and a hard place. The truth is, Wilber has already made the decision, he probably just doesn't like to admit it to himself. He's chosen the developmental process. The karmic process. He's going to see how far up the ladder he can get before he jumps off. Which isn't really such a bad thing. I recall Papaji saying that rather than trying to forcefully give up one's desires, one might as well fulfill them. Either way, one has to be free of desire. There's no end to desire, even the desire to be integral, until one sees that they never end, and they never get fulfilled ultimately. So Wilber has a few more desires left in him.
He might pay attention to the cycles of decay that set in among spiritual types like himself. As with Da, there is often a degeneration into narcissism and cultism. Some of what is coming out in these wars with his critics is his own degeneration, even in the midst of his developmental efforts. This is not his fault really, it's just a sign of dualism reasserting its ugly head. He should take it as a sign that there's no such thing as a free lunch, that for every step up the integral ladder one takes, there's also a falling down the other side. Narcissistic cultism is just the other side of the coin he's on, and it will become the side he's on one day, if he continues trying to climb the ladder, because it's really a circular ladder, it just always seems that one is always going up. Even the people going down are just turned upside down. They think they are growing and developing also. Such observations should be taken as a sign of grace, that one should get off the ladder altogether, and not waste any more of one's time on the futile task of trying to get to the top of a circular ladder.