Introduction: The following piece began with a conversation between Chris and Juma about both their personal relationship to the work of Ken Wilber and their observations about how others seem to travel through broadly similar phases of relationship to both the work and the man. Juma’s piece is below. Chris’ can be found here.
1st Stage: Romance
The first Ken Wilber book I picked up was The Marriage of Sense and Soul. I was in the middle of a five week Taoist yoga retreat, receptive, alert, purged of toxins and ready for something with meaning, having rejected the conventions and expectations of my post-University options.
While admittedly a two-dimensional work compared to his other books, it was precisely what I needed at the time and I loved it. Every word rang true. The framework was new to me, but the concepts were somehow familiar, even obvious. It felt like a burden, in an instant, was removed from my shoulders. And a tidal wave of mental and emotional tensions that had been accumulating, pent up and undifferentiated, released, and with this came possibility, illumination, the quality of my life, different, the future again open. Everything in an instant had changed.
Ken’s work has this effect especially on young men. There is a clarity, an authority, and an integrity to his written words that is irresistible. Words at once attractive, muscular, firm and compassionate. With guidance, direction; archetypal; primordial; father.
The idea that everyone is right, that all perspectives are true but partial holds great appeal for those hungry for a developmental context. As does the promise that the fire of liberation is always already available for those with the courage to face into it.
I bought more books. Read them. Felt myself grow in certainty with each completed chapter. He gets IT. Up From Eden. Emergence. The Atman Project. Integration. Grace and Grit. The Heart. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. Canon.
I talked about him constantly, read him and only him. The world, this life, MY LIFE, makes sense to me. I meditated more, witnessed more, noticed how the particulars of the world came into sharper focus. When I wasn’t talking or reading, I was listening to Integral Naked.
And then I decided to take things seriously.
After buying a copy of What is Enlightenment? magazine and reading the first published dialogue between Ken and teacher Andrew Cohen, I decided to drop whatever I was doing and attend one of Andrew’s retreats. For those who have never attended one of these retreats, it can be life-changing. I found, in contrast to his critics, most of whom lack direct experience and therefore credibility, that Andrew’s public retreats set a context for growth and development that is intuitive, accessible and confronting.
Making such spontaneous pivotal decisions isn’t all that out of box for me. I live and die by my gut. Badly educated, a high school dropout, a trouble-maker in my youth, it took a psychedelic experience at 20-years old on top of a crushing heartbreak to send me hurtling down a different path, towards the Beats, Bob Dylan, Alan Watts, that whole holy lineage of contemporary American intellectual outlaws.
I live by my gut and allow myself to be shaped by the consequences. The Andrew Cohen retreat took all the energy, enthusiasm and insight gained from Ken’s work, and focussed it. Before I knew it I was living in an intentional community, sitting in Ken’s living room one afternoon, Andrew’s on another, building a website for Spiral Dynamics theorist Don Beck, meeting an onslaught of people drawn to the same light, driven by a similar purpose. Every conversation was about looking deeper, accessing more, reaching higher, opening further. I was bent, stretched, tenderized and touched. I had moments, sometimes days, of total clarity. I know what it is to be awake!
This is the first stage of relationship to Ken Wilber. The romance of awe, followed by gratitude, and then lust for adventure. He’s twelve feet tall at this stage, taking you into his arms, making it all make sense. What’s not to love?
Lots, as it turns out.
2nd Stage: Rebellion
Ken Wilber has a lot of detractors. At first most of them, especially through the lens I was looking, appeared petty. Lesser mortals throwing low blows. Specialists in one area offended that their life’s work wasn’t being elevated to primary authority when the gavel of truth came crashing down. Ken spoke in broader strokes, had read all those works, and had placed them appropriately in a grand framework through which the world, simply and practically, just made sense. I recall thinking that I didn’t need to read all those books. Ken had read them (I’d been in his library, seen the notes in the margins), and I trusted his judgement.
And then a funny thing happened. I asked a simple question to myself. If, as is the maxim, everyone is ‘true but partial’, what if Ken himself were true but partial? Not only was it possible, by way of logic, it must be true. To that point I’d been treating him as a final authority. But what if he wasn’t? What was he leaving out?
A few experiences pushed this inquiry along. Andrew’s teaching, among its many lights, and various faults, and which I was largely orienting to, primarily serves to strengthen the will, to embolden a commitment, unwavering and absolute. His core students are representative of this. Uncompromising in their dedication to the teaching, they are expressions of what is an Enlightenment teaching in the historical embodiment of that lineage. The people drawn to Ken’s work and the extended community, many of them kids, full of piss, vinegar, were not inclined to that level of commitment. Rather, theirs was a head trip, and the community that began to form a culture representative of Ken’s work started to look painfully inadequate, self-centred, self-important and ego-infused.
Hype and hyperbole replaced sound judgement. Teenagers were put in positions of authority for the much ballyhooed Integral University. Celebrity became a strategy for exposure and while not bad unto itself, took absurd forms. Musicians that read Ken’s books and liked them were automatically ‘integral’. Stories of people shunned from the community suddenly cast as ‘not integral’. Absurdist, juvenile, playground shit.
My kind words about Andrew Cohen aside, I started having real difficulties with that community too. I grew bored and agitated by the cultish presumption of superiority. People who were clearly on no particular edge boldly placing themselves at evolution’s very edge! Heavens! Don’t fall off, you might bruise a knee.
And besides, talking in colours is stupid.
(Which is in no way to say that underneath this language are no important truths. It is simply to say that talking in colours is stupid)(and to fuel potential charges of cognitive dissonance, I still speak in colours...sometimes).
Additionally, as someone who consults professionally on the subject, Ken’s leadership leaves much to be desired, which again is not in and of itself fatal, but as he insisted on putting himself in the line of fire as a leader, the scrutiny is deserved. Instead of writing books, he was trying to construct and steer an organization. And while much of import has been accomplished (I’m not sure who else could have carved out these initial structures) with organizing comes chaos, conflict and tough decisions. People, perspectives and agendas collide and I don’t believe Ken has the sleight of hand to navigate these contours deftly. Nothing in his history suggests he would.
Things were disorganized, haphazard and arbitrary (I had plenty of first-hand insider accounts from credible sources to confirm this). Outbursts, scorn, sudden changes in direction reflecting poor strategy and planning. And those that didn’t or couldn’t toe the line were often ostracized or worse. This is not leadership, not the leadership that was needed at any rate (and I don’t want to hear any malarkey about this leadership operating at a level I can’t quite fathom).
The community also started putting far too much emphasis on being cool. As if that matters a lick. It became a major draw: join the cool kids, be cool like us. Tales of aloofness, public events with the in-group dancing up on stage, the rest left to ogle, pine, hope. Head tripping, colour-coded, jigsaw nonsense.
With the plot getting hopelessly lost, I dropped out, having never really been in.
The essential quality of the 2nd stage in relationship to Ken Wilber is differentiation, rebellion and even outright rejection.
3rd Stage: Appreciation
Dropping out meant returning to friendships that I’d pressed pause on while chasing awakening. It then meant moving to the other end of the world, a little beaten, a little lost. I’d met so many good people, caught a glimpse of a life lived alert to reality itself. I shut it down. Spent a year living in a shoebox in Korea, working by day, returning by night to think, sometimes drink, read, meditate,
make my own mind up. It was a great year. Slowly, surely, something began to shift.
I began reading those books. Plato, Plotinus, Hegel, Aurobindo. I returned to the literary, my roots. Blake, W.C. Williams, Huxley, Hemingway. Found truth, beauty, goodness shrouded in so many forms, packaged as only reality can truly be, through metaphor. A different sort of maturity started to take hold, self-knowledge, acceptance; pain and confusion worked on me, disarmed the intellect, started to chip away at the barriers to communion, humility, availability.
And then I went back to Ken’s work. Re-read Up From Eden, what a gift! Met a woman, gave her Grace & Grit, she loved it, we fell in love around it, we married, she became pregnant, a new life began.
My shadow around the Integral community began to soften some. I recalled the gravitational pull of my early years, the sense of being saved. How could that not cause hysteria when seeded to a bunch of young truth-seekers? And in truth, much of my criticism was simply my own projection.
I believe today that Ken Wilber has, in his life’s work, and even in his choice to engage publicly, delivered a profound service to us all. The clarity and grounding of his work has served literally millions of people and continues to build momentum. The explanatory power for my own work as a business consultant is profound, especially when utilized as a background operating system, though using it explicity is also effective. The true potency of what Ken has contributed has not nearly been realized.
Is he hopelessly New Age as some critics level? Perhaps, but I don’t believe it. Is he a bully? I’m sure, but I haven’t personally seen it. Are there issues with the way the material is presented and marketed? I think so, but these are the broken eggs of organizing.
All I have now is gratitude. My life would not be what it is today without the work of Ken Wilber. He taught me better than any teacher I’ve had how to be at once sincere and critical, open and discerning, and maybe even, someday, wise.
And yet, it is coming time for a torch to pass, not just from Ken, but from his generation to the next, and from the structures that he helped erect to those that are just now emerging.
For several years, I’ve been bantering around with friends about how a second generation, or Second Wave, integral would look. Meaning, reports from the field from those who are considering, embodying and integrating the work, and who have grown up with it in their bones.
And suddenly we have a group emerging explicitly calling themselves Second Wave. And certainly that is the thrust of our efforts here at Beams and Struts. Creating platforms for emergence. Opening spaces for collective intelligence. Inviting people to lean in towards genuine liberation.
Ken Wilber won’t be with us in person forever. When he passes, much will pass with him. No more words will be written. He won’t be an orienting force any longer. Those passionate about this work will truly have to grow all the way up to be available for its next iteration of service.
But for as long as we are blessed to have him with us, he will continue to grandfather the emerging consciousness he has laid down his life to articulate. And that consciousness is taking shape in the culture, slowly, surely. Driven, not by a person or an organization, but by the same impulse that compelled all those books.
Second Wave integral to me has nothing to do with the map and everything to do with the territory. And that territory has a long lineage in all four quadrants: social, philosophical, existential, animal. The idea that an integral community needs a leadership construction is as absurd to me as the idea that a university could have been organized around a theory. The leadership will come from within, self-organizing, dynamic and appropriate to the time.
These concepts have not been created and imposed on the direction of the future. They are a way of understanding and being available for the future in its unspeakable complexity, its immediate beauty and its imminent destruction, resurrection. These new leaders, writers, thinkers and organizations will take the work a step further, maybe several steps. And this is a good thing, because a single life can only do so much, and Ken Wilber’s has done far more than mine, and I’d be a foolish egotistical bastard to believe otherwise. And for that I love him, not just his work, him.
When Ken Wilber passes, his own request should be honoured that on his tombstone it will read ‘he was true, but partial.’
And thus the defining characteristics of the 3rd stage in relationship to Ken Wilber: appreciation, sobriety, and responsibility.