Monday, June 26, 2006

Wilber's Non-dual Misconceptions

I listened to some Wilber video clips form his website, such as this one, and got a better sense of where Wilber is at with non-dualism. I see big problems withhis understanding of non-dualism, but they are fairly common misunderstandings, and not very hard to spot. Basically, Wilber seems to approach non-dualism as if it is just one aspect of a larger dualistic reality. He sees reality as composed of two realms, the dual, and the non-dual. The problem is, by seeing things this way, he's acknowledging that he is basically a dualist, because only a dualist could see reality as composed of two sides or aspects. So he's reduced non-dualism to one aspect of a larger dualism. And this is where his “integral” approach runs away with it all. He wants to transcend and include everything, so naturally he wants to include non-dualism in dualism, and dualism in non-dualism. The problem is, by doing so, all he ends up with is dualism.

He doesn't think that's the case, naturally. He thinks he is doing what the Mahayana and Vajrayana adepts were doing (or at leat what he thinks they were doing), in other words, finding a non-dual realization that is compatible with dualistic life, that is compassionate and practical. He thinks of non-dualism as a kind of “blank” experience in which there is no capacity to function. He sees “nirvikalpa”, or the formless non-dual samadhi, as a kind of trance state. And there's some basis for thinking that way. There certainly are trance-like nirvikalpa samadhi, in which attention is drawn into ascended conditions of formlessness. But these are not non-dual realization, they are just strong intuitions of the non-dual that may arise in the course of practice. True non-dualism is “formless”, or nirvikalpa, but is not a trance. In non-dual realization, it's true, no objects arise, but that doesn't mean that what we would otherwise call “experience” doesn't arise. It's only that the non-dual realizer doesn't perceive any objects in the midst of experience. There is no sense of being separate from what dualists would perceive as the field of arising objects. So the non-dualist realizer can seem to “do” all the things we thinnk we do in the world of objects, and yet not perceive a single object in any of this. This is not hard or contradictory to the non-dual realizer, it is simply the way reality is. What we perceive as objects and experience, the non-dualist know as himself, non-separate, formless, and objectless.

But prior to realization, it's true that we perceive everything through the mind, which is the seat of dualism. Perception itself is a dualistic means for knowing. Even our intuitions of non-dual reality are processed in the mind, and we thus somewhat naturally see even non-dualism as a dualistic phenomena to be integrated with dualism. We may go into trances where we get a glimpse of the non-dual, and then afterwards wonder how we can “integrate” this with our dualistic experience. This seems to be Wilber's project. But the hitch here is that it's impossible, and not even desirable, to accomplish this. Non-dualism can't be made into dualism's bitch. It won't compromise. It won't teach us how to be better dualists, or how to make nice with dualism. The conflict between dualism and non-dualism is intrinsic to the dualistic mind, and the dualistic mind will ALWAYS find a way to domesticate non-dualism, to make it behave, to make it conform to the dualistic mind's understanding of things. And this seems to me to be what Wilber is doing. He is trying to conform non-dualism to his (very bright) dualistic mind. He is finding a “problem” in non-dualism (it's aloof or insensitive, uncaring attitude towards dualistic suffering, as he sees it), and thus suggesting that pure non-dualism is actually a mistake, a taking of one side of things to an extreme, and he proposes the “solution” of balancing non-dualism with dualism, creating a compassionate attitude that feels and loves suffering separate beings even while transcending their separateness. This is a noble aim at least, but unfortunately a misguided one.

Adi Da wrote about this kind of thing extensively, and I don't know if Wilber was influenced by Da's writings on the subject, but it would be just like Wilber not to acknowledge the debt if it were owed. Da called this the “dual sensitivity” of spiritual practice, in which as the devotee matures they become increasingly sensitive to both the transcendental nature of reality and the suffering of conditional existence, one's own and everyone's state. This isn't a wrong observation in my view. It was actually one of Da's better insights, and he expressed it much better than Wilber. But if the implication Wilber is trying to make is that this dual sensitivity somehow implies that non-dualism is “lacking” something on the order of “compassion” for suffering beings, he's wrong. The problem is that Wilber conceives of “compassion” in dualistic terms, as a form of identification with the sufferings of another, the Clintonian “I feel your pain” approach. This is how dualists see compassion. Non-dualists see compassion quite differently, as identifying with the Divine Nature of every being, regardless of whether they are aware of their Divine Nature or not. So when a non-dualist sees someone suffering, their compassion is not to go up to them, cry as Wilber suggests, and tell them “I feel your pain”. Rather, it is to go up to them and tell them that they feel their Divinity. The non-dualist sees no suffering, only Divinity, even in those who are convinced they are suffering.

Wilber's view is rather Christianized. The Christian notion of compassion, exemplified by the image of Christ absorbing the world's sins on the cross, is a mythical form of dualistic apologetics. It is NOT a non-dual view, not even a mix of non-dualism with dualism. It's got incredible sentimental power in the dualistic mind, however, which I think explains that kind of Christianity's mass appeal. Wilber seems to have been influenced by Huston Smith, an esoteric Christian academic who I think may have some relationship with Wilber, who sees compassion as this crying, weeping empathy for the sufferings of others. Wilber is right that non-dualism does not empathize with the feelings of suffering that people have, but heis wrong that it shows no empathy. As said, the non-dualist empathizes with everyone's Divinity, not with their suffering. The non-dualist can't empathize with suffering, because the non-dualist feels none. Oh, sure, the non-dualist feels pain which he is pinched, he feels emotions of sadness and loss at the death of loved ones, but there is no suffering associated with it for him. Those emotions, those physical sensations of pain, are naturally produced in the body-mind, but the non-dualist is not identified with the body-mind. So his body may feel the emotion, and the physical pain, and it may naturally express it, but the realizer remains aware that he and everything are one Divine Nature, even the pain and sorrow that are occasionally felt.

But it's not as if realizers go around crying and weeping all the time over the death and suffering of things. There are billions of living beings dying every second all around us! The non-dual realizer is not going to mourn each passing amoeba, even though to him they are each as alive and filled with Divinity as anyone one of us. Nor do spiritual practitioners generally go around in a state of agony and sorrow about their suffering. Wilber, I suspect, has developed some kind of weird idea about his own chronic health problems, which leads him to think that the immense pain he experiences on a regular basis (he has a metabolic condition that causes him to feel a lot of physical pain as a consequence) is some kind of “spiritual advancement” into this “dual sensitvity”. Could it be that Wilber is making more of this kind of thing than he would if he enjoyed good health like most of the rest of us? Is he merely trying to glamorize his own unenviable health problems into some kind of spiritual advancement? After all, there's no reports among most spiritual realizers of having experienced great pain like this during their sadhana. Most have been healthy and relatively happy people. But dualists have a kind of love affair with pain and martyrdom, because they think that bliss is the other side of pain, and so that both must go together. And this is true of conditional pleasure and bliss, it really does go hand in hand with pain and suffering. But non-dual bliss is not the opposite of pain or suffering. It's wrong to even call it “bliss”, because it gives the impression of being a polar opposite to suffering. It isn't. From all accounts it is simply unspeakable happiness that cannot be countered or contradicted or undone. Yes, it is “unaffected” by both pleasure and pain, but not because it is insensitive, but because it sees all as bliss, even pleasure and pain.

The problem with so much of Wilber's program is that it is really about Wilber himself, and not about the universal truths he professes to be trying to discern. One gets the impression that if Wilber were in good health, he'd say that spiritual life is about being in great health, not about feeling pain and misery. I sense that Wilber's whole system is designed not really as a universal one, but as a description of his own mental state, his own aspirations, and the aspirations of the milieu of people he has surrounded himself with. I'll get into some of that later, in discussing his pre/trans theory, but for now I'll confine myself to the non-dual issues.

Listening to Wilber, I can't help but wonder, if he thinks so highly of the non-dual traditions, why he hasn't tried to incorporate more of them into his system? But then I guess he leans more towards the forms of Buddhism that seem to support his view, at least superficially. And yet when I listened to his “non-dual intro rap”, it was clearly Advaitic in nature. Why doesn't he take more seriously the clear teachings of these non-dualist Adepts, who clearly don't support his ideas? The problem with Wilber seems to be that he is basically a dualist, yet a very ambitious dualist, one who can't help but see the non-dualist teachings as being the closest to the “ultimate” truth, and therefore he feels he has to incorporate them into his map and overall philosophy. But why doesn't he look at the models used by real Adepts for doing so? Advaita has such teachings, Ramana and Nisargadatta have such teachings, and they could have been used by Wilber to make his own system less contradictory and more realistic. But the problem is, they wouldn't be Wilber's system anymore. They'd be an Advaitic system, or a Buddhist system, and that's not really what Wilber wants, even if it would be truer. I'm sure he would be insulted by that statement, but I think it's simply true, and humblingly so. Of course, the other problem he has probably encountered is that the traditional systems don't support his developmental, “integral” model that well. But the biggest problem is that they don't see the non-dual as having the kind of relationship with the dual that he would like it to have. They understand that the non-dual isn't just some aspect of reality that has to come into balance with the dual. They understand that the non-dual is reality, and that the dual is not. Wilber simply cannot let go of dualism, he likes it so much he wants to take it along into the non-dual, and teach the non-dual how to “live with” the dual. The traditions would regard this as amateurish folly, and I can't help but agree. It's a folly that's characteristic of the times we live in, however, especially among our cultural milieu of cosmopolitan spiritualists.

Da's problems arose from similar ambitions to combine the dual and the non-dual in a supposedly “unprecedented” seventh stage realization. Da went way overboard with that, and Wilber has been much more modest in his work, but seems to be heading down that road anyway, if at a much slower and safer pace. He's even making out like he's a Guru now, or some integral hybrid of that archetype. It's a little sad. He clearly isn't qualified to be a Guru, but that doesn't seem to stop almost anyone these days. I was kind of hoping Wilber would have more integrity than that, but it must be hard for him seeing all these doofuses out there teaching, and he has to be satisfied with being a mere pundit. So some of that is bleeding in. It's too bad. As a pundit, Wilber isn't bad, if far from perfect. As a Guru he's just an example of the Peter Principle in the spiritual world: too many people rise to the level of their incompetence. As a pundit, Wilber is at least competent to debate, to stimulate conversation, to put forth ideas, etc. As a Guru, he's woefully inadequate to the task, but I guess in the world of spiritual teachers these days, who's going to notice? The loss is to Wiber's integrity, and even if he doesn't yet feel the loss, the day will soon come. I don't see Wilber crashing like Da, or getting insanely megalomaniacal, but the fate of charismatic figures is not a pretty one, and Wilber is, indeed, the leader of a charismatic movement, and less and less of an intellectually honest one. Well, lessons don't come cheap in this lifetime, so more power to him, however it comes out.

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