Ken Wilber

The man who, for many years, has been acknowledged by colleagues as the leading theoretician of consciousness and transpersonal psychology, Ken Wilber, was born in 1948 in Oklahoma City, to two devoted parents. Wilber’s intellect has been hailed as truly extraordinary in its penetrating, synthesizing, and discriminative capacities. His knowledge of psychology, philosophy, sociology, comparative religion, mysticism, anthropology, and even “hard” sciences such as biochemistry and physics is virtually encyclopedic, but, most importantly, he has personal experience with the states and levels of consciousness about which he writes.

Although he certainly should not be viewed as only an intellectual, his affinity for the mental and spiritual realms, as opposed to the bodily and emotional realms, is clear. Likewise, although his passion is greater for transpersonal than prepersonal and personal stages of development, he has nonetheless consistently emphasized the dire need to recognize and embrace a full-spectrum view of consciousness and humanity’s place therein.

Life and Major Works

Wilber grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska. His father was an air force officer. As a youth, he was absorbed in the world of natural sciences, biology, chemistry and mathematics. Referring to his late high-school and early college days, Wilber notes, “My mental youth was an idyll of precision and accuracy, a fortress of the clear and evident.” (Wilber 58) His encounter with the Tao-te-Ching changed everything: “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.” (Wilber 58)

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From here on, the investigation of the world beyond the personal self yet accessible to human consciousness became a passion that involved not just Wilber’s intellect but his entire being. Beginning in his early twenties and continuing to this day, he has taken up training in various contemplative practices such as Zen and Dzogchen (a form of Tibetan Buddhism) that would enable him to walk the terrain he charts in his writings.

Wilber dropped out of graduate studies in biochemistry to devote himself fulltime to the pursuit of his research and writing about consciousness. His first major book, The Spectrum of Consciousness written in 1977, was a synthesis of Western psychological theories and therapies with Eastern spiritual disciplines. From this time onward, Wilber supported himself by his own writings, living outside of institutional affiliations and commitments, free to develop and express his own ideas, free to live a lifestyle of contemplation and writing. To balance mental and spiritual work with embodied living, he at times engaged in manual labor, such as working in gas stations (Wilber 88).

Several books and over a hundred journal articles soon appeared. The Atman Project 1980 set forth a vastly expanded framework for human development from infancy to adulthood and beyond into transpersonal stages described by diverse contemplative disciplines. Up from Eden (1981b) presented a detailed map of the evolution of the human mind and consciousness within this framework. The popular No Boundary (1981a), explains Wilber’s early ideas in a highly readable style, while some of his more technical works such as Eye to Eye: The Questfor the New Paradigm for the New Paradigm (1990a) discuss the epistemological bases of knowing in the various sciences and how these could be expanded to accommodate the fun spectrum of consciousness.

Wilber’s ideas, larger than life and expressed through a powerful and often sharply critical writing style, have left few readers neutral or indifferent. Over the years he has engaged in lively debates with people who have taken issue with his controversial ideas, including other prominent theorists in transpersonal psychology. Most of these debates were carried on in the pages of journals and in his most recent books. Few of his colleagues in transpersonal and consciousness studies have met him in person. To their chagrin, Wilber guards his privacy carefully and rarely makes an appearance in public.

He initially accepted invitations to teach, lecture, and give interviews but then quickly pulled back from such activity, as he felt thrown off center by the attention and admiration from his audiences. Regarding this experience, Wilber said in an interview, “What you get are a lot of people telling you how great you are. Within a short time, you start believing them, and then you’re headed for disaster. I simply did not feel competent to appear in public as a teacher” (Schwartz 186). Getting Wilber to agree even to an interview is not easy. Yet when he does give his time, he gives generously, and to his small circle of close friends. Wilber is known as a devoted friend who can be warm, charming, and funny (Schwartz 204).

Wilber’s first marriage to his best friend Amy Wagner in 1972 lasted for nine years, after which they parted ways amicably. Two years later Wilber met and married Treya Killam. One week after the wedding, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The next five years were spent battling a relentless cancer that eventually claimed her life. During those five years Wilber set aside most of his writing and devoted himself full-time to nurturing Treya and, eventually, to helping her to die. Grace and Grit (1991), which appeared two years after her death, provides a moving account of the emotional and spiritual struggles and transformations in both Wilber and Treya during those trying years.

The long hiatus in Wilber’s writing ended in 1995 with the publication of the first volume of a planned three-volume series, Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution (SES) (1995b). This 800 page volume was soon followed by two shorter companion works, A Guide to Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995a) and A Brief History of Everything (1996). A new chapter had just begun in Wilber’s writing career. Up to this point, the emphasis had been largely on the upward movement of evolution, but in SES the upward movement is balanced by the movement downward: Spirit ascending to higher unities is at the same time Spirit descending to embrace and integrate the manifold of phenomena. By Wilber’s own estimation SES is his first mature work. It offers an integral vision that encompasses practically everything humans have ever sought to know or be.

Wilber’s Ideas

Transpersonal Theory

Ken Wilber has been the most influential theorist in transpersonal psychology. Wilber’s developmental model in The Atman Project has the advantage of meshing with developmental psychology and extending it to transpersonal growth. Wilber says that people move through three life stages: pre-personal, personal, and transpersonal growth. The pre-personal stage begins at birth, before a personality is developed.

From birth to adolescence the task is to build a personality. In the personal stage the individual’s task is to use the personality in work, relationships, and mature life in the world. In the transpersonal stage, usually beginning in adult life, the person begins to move beyond the external world and explore the inner reaches of the self and spiritual realities. The ultimate purpose is to attain the state of oneness or unity with the consciousness of the universe. Wilber contends that the growth toward these levels of being is a natural movement of the self, an inward arc in contrast to the outward arc that relates to the external world.

The Spectrum of Development

Development, for Wilber, extends from inanimate matter and primitive life forms through the developmental stages of human consciousness to its farthest reaches as manifested by the mystics and sages of various Eastern and Western spiritual traditions. The stages leading to mature adulthood are familiar enough. They have been charted by theorists such as Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, Lawrence Kohlberg, and various psychoanalysts. Wilber draws especially from Piaget for the un-foldment of the cognitive and mental capacities and integrates these with the dynamic theories of object-relations psychoanalysis.

Wilber identifies four transpersonal stages beyond mature adulthood: psychic, subtle, causal, and ultimate. Through these stages the sense of self or identity becomes more and more flexible and inclusive as self-centrism or narcissism continues to decrease, until at the highest stages of transpersonal development even the subtlest and most inclusive self-structurations are transcended in a sense of identity and connectedness that embraces all.

At each stage things can go wrong, and so there is a spectrum of pathology corresponding to the spectrum of development all the way up to the highest transpersonal stages. Wilber discusses treatment modalities for each pathology and calls attention to the importance of correctly discerning levels of pathology for example pre-personal or transpersonal so that appropriate treatment can be chosen. For example, he argues that meditation may not be suitable for borderline and other pre-personal pathologies, whereas for an existential depression or “dark night of the soul” that may occur in the lower transpersonal stages meditation may be a successful method of treatment.

The charting of transpersonal development is undoubtedly Wilber’s most controversial project. It implies that human development is open ended and that some individuals are “farther along” in development than other people, or that at any given time some people, and perhaps some cultures, have a more encompassing sense of self and a greater capacity for integrating the spectrum of consciousness than others. A number of cultural anthropologists, feminists, and ecophilosophers have criticized Wilber’s theory in this regard. Certainly, the idea of development beyond “the average well-adjusted” is not new; it was celebrated in Maslow’s notion of the self-actualizer. But in proposing developmental stages beyond self-actualization, Wilber is venturing into ever more rarified realms of human experience where the stakes are set high yet evidence is hard to come by.

Nevertheless, it seems fair to say that Wilber’s transpersonal stages have opened up the horizon far beyond anything conceived in Western scientific psychology. This horizon had been there all along, of course, and through the centuries it was explored by the mystics and seers whose anecdotal accounts, couched in religious symbolism and interpretations, only helped to shroud it in impenetrable mystery. For consciousness researchers, Wilber offers a greatly expanded paradigm of scientific inquiry. For those on a spiritual quest, he provides a map for the road.

The Three Eyes of Knowing

The paradigm of consciousness research has been too narrowly modeled after the empirical sciences, argues Wilber. It can be significantly expanded once we realize that the eye of flesh, that is, our senses aided by laboratory instruments, is just one of the possible ways in which knowledge is gathered. We also have the eye of reason that understands the meaning of text, cultural symbols, and mathematical equations as well as the meaning of the data the eye of flesh observes. Beyond reason, says Wilber, there is the eye of contemplation that intuits directly the nature of reality and of the meanings deciphered by the eye of reason.

The Pre/Trans Fallacy

Another important concept of Wilber’s that helps clear up misunderstandings regarding the transpersonal domain is what he calls the “pre/trans fallacy.” This is the failure to distinguish between primitive phenomena of early developmental stages, on the one hand, and insights and experiences that transcend the egoic mode of rational consciousness, on the other. Both types of phenomena are, in their own ways, “nonrational” and “nonegoic,” and this is why they can appear similar or even identical. But phenomena of the first type are “prerational” or “preegoic,” whereas phenomena of the second type are “transrational” or “transegoic.”

The pre/trans fallacy can occur in two ways. In the first, “trans” is reduced to “pre.” Freud’s interpretation of the “oceanic feeling” associated with mystical experience as an irrational, regressive urge to return to the womb is a classic example of such a reduction. In general, the dismissal of all spiritual insights as regressive exemplifies the reductionist form of the pre/trans fallacy. In the second form of the fallacy, “pre” is elevated to “trans.” The elevationist form of the pre/trans fallacy is evident in the various ways in which prerational experience and modes of expression are promoted in the name of higher personal growth.

Wilber’s discussion of the pre/trans fallacy may well be one of his most useful practical contributions to the growing numbers of people searching for a spiritual path or engaging in some form of contemplative practice (Schwartz 260). Often the spiritual search masks primitive longings rooted in early developmental deprivations. On the other hand, sometimes an apparent psychotic break signals a major spiritual breakthrough. An insight into the pre/trans fallacy helps spiritual questers as well as therapists to be more discerning of the nature of the beast they are dealing with.

Holism: Restoring Connectedness in the World

In his more recent writings, Wilber has articulated his philosophy of holism. To be truly holistic, the vision of a whole must include everything, including itself. But more important, it must integrate and connect all that it embraces. So the issue is not holism versus atomism, but fractured ness versus connectedness. Furthermore, the solution cannot be a matter of articulating the best and most holistic position, for this still leaves out the person proposing or accepting the position. Rather, what is required is a transformation of consciousness within the person, within all of us that shifts the viewpoint from the exterior increasingly to the interior and on to a superior view that is ever more inclusive and connected.

Wilber has sounded a powerful call for us to awaken to the evolutionary process taking place within us, within the universe, not in some distant future but right now (Puhakka 152). This evolution is fundamentally open and creative and therefore, at every turn, incomplete and uncertain. We live in systems within systems, contexts within contexts, of indefinitely expanding structures of experiences, meanings, and relationships. These systems are constantly sliding and the contexts shifting, says Wilber.

The vision of an open universe unfolding and enfolded upwards and downwards without end effectively removes all bases for certainty and completeness. For many people, the postmodern quicksand world spells despair and a sense of being lost in the ever-shifting contexts that claim power of determination over meaning and values and render human lives pointless and empty.

The absolutizing of context is an unfortunate, even if unintended, legacy of much of postmodern thought. Wilber sees the emphasis on context as being appropriate but not going deep enough: We must recognize that the contexts themselves are shifting and evolving, along with everything else. The evolution, we are a part of excludes nothing, not even the contexts that bound our understanding and awareness. Evolution is the journey of the universe toward self-awareness, now through human consciousness that is becoming increasingly aware of its own contexts.

Conclusion

Ken Wilber is a controversial figure among the late-twentieth-century thinkers on culture and consciousness. The evolution of consciousness is Wilber’s main concern. He finds all of the major sciences, philosophies, and spiritual traditions, both Eastern and Western, relevant to this concern, for they exemplify the process of evolution even as they shed light on it. The light is always partial, however, and how to fit the partial truths together is, for Wilber, the supreme puzzle. A superb synthesizer with ability to absorb and integrate large amounts of information across various disciplines, he sketches the contours of a panoramic vision of evolution as an unfolding of Spirit through matter, life, and mind.

Works Cited

Engler J. Therapeutic aims in psychotherapy and meditation: Developmental stages in the representation of self. Boston: Shambhala, 1986.

Puhakka K. Restoring connectedness in the Kosmos: A healing tale of a deeper order. Humanistic Psychologist, 23 (1995): 373-391.

Schwartz T. The full spectrum: Common Boundary. Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1995.

Wilber K. The spectrum of consciousness. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1977.

Wilber K. The Atman project. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books. 1980.

Wilber K. No boundary. Boston: Shambhala, 1981.

Wilber K. Odyssey. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 22(1) (1982): 57-90.

Wilber K. A sociable God. New York: New Press, 1983.

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