Feb 132013

As some of my readers know, I’ve been a reader for some time of philosopher Ken Wilber. While the level of detail in Wilber’s system can be annoying, I find it’s always good to check any new ideas against his criteria, because if you don’t – you’ve usually missed something.

One of the key components in Ken Wilber’s philosophy is the notion of quadrants, and what it says is this: Most things can be looked at in four different ways. They can be looked at either from an inner perspective or an outer perspective, and they can be looked at as individuals or as members of a group or system – giving four perspectives. Like this:

The left-hand side is the interior perspective, the right-hand side is the exterior perspective. The upper half is individual, the lower half is collective.

The easiest example of these perspectives is a human being. We can look at a human being and study him from the outside (upper right) and study his brain structure, his biology and its underlying chemistry. This will give us a great deal of insight into him. We can also study his environment and how his organism interacts with the atmosphere, the food supply, the traffic flow, etc. (the lower right). We now have a different set of insights, equally important.

But this leaves out an entire half of the picture. What is it like to be this person from the INSIDE? What are his thoughts and feelings? What meanings does he attach to things? What does he feel? These questions are all in the upper left quadrant. Finally, what is his relationship to other people, seem from within the group? What are the values and beliefs of his family, his community or his social group?

Our tendency as modern people is to focus on only one quadrant (often the upper right) to the exclusion of or devaluing of everything else. All quadrants are important, and none should be reduced or folded into another or important insight is lost.

Ok, after this overly-long introduction, how do we apply these principles to spirituality? Let’s analyze first the case of the fundamentalist. This person may believe that he or she is deriving all of their truth from the Bible or the Koran. But in fact, they are focused almost entirely in the bottom left quadrant – the inner social group. They are relying – not on the Bible, but on the meanings and values attached to the Bible by their group. The idea that another group can attach entirely different meanings to the same Bible is confusing to them.

They are also unwilling to actually examine the Bible externally in the right-hand quadrants. Objective examination of the texts would show evidence of copy errors, redactions and multiple sources. Objectively comparing the text with history and science would show evidence of historical and scientific errors or ignorance. These objective incongruities are all ignored or pushed aside in favor of the values and beliefs of the group.

Certain kinds of skeptics, on the other hand, privilege the other quadrants. They assume that the ONLY value the Bible can possess is objective factual value. That it can be a useful source of poetry, mysticism, meaning and value is ignored. That it can be a basis for community interaction,  and social solidarity – providing a literary and mythic vocabulary is likewise unimportant. Their focus is entirely on the right-hand quadrants, particularly the upper right.

Those of us attempting to live spiritually in a modern world had best be able to live in all the quadrants at once. We must be open to the mystical, the poetic and the metaphorical, and value inner spirituality. We must be aware of the prejudices and preconceptions our group mentality may lead us into. We must be willing to accept the insights of objective insights of history, science and textual scholarship without blindness. But we must also be aware of the potential blindness of those who try to live only in the upper-right quadrant of the individual externals.

Jul 092010

spiritual Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World – by Ken Wilber. I’ve read this book several times now, and need to return to it periodically to incorporate more of it’s insights into my thinking. I’ve previously explained that Ken Wilber is probably the most comprehensive thinker around. His writings lay out a system (a continually evolving system) that integrates science, psychology, spirituality and all the major streams of thought from all disciplines. If you think you have some great new insight or philosophical system you want to unleash on the world, read some Ken Wilber first, because he probably got there before you.

While many of the chapters in the book review material that Wilber has already written about, there are some important additions to his system. One of these is the post-modern insight that ALL of our truths are dependent on our cultural context and perspective. There is also new material on the lost “spiritual” line of development in our culture, and why it was lost. And don’t skip the appendixes to this book, because they contain critical material on “post-metaphysical spirituality”, which is a shocking but liberating concept.

All this comes together in a chapter on the “conveyer belt”. Wilber explains that only the major religions are equipped to become the vehicles that move the world into a higher level of consciousness, because religions own the great mythologies that speak to 70% of the world’s consciousness. Because of this, they can become the conveyors that usher humanity through difficult passages of transition.

Many people would find this book a bit complex, but for me, it’s going to become one of the most essential books in my library.

Jan 072010

The Simple Feeling of Being is a unique anthology selected from the works of Ken Wilber. Ken is, in my opinion, the most comprehensive and enlightened philosopher of the modern age. His evolving system of integral philosophy takes in more truth and makes sense of more facts than anything else out there. If you haven’t read Ken Wilber, then I can absolutely guarantee that something is missing from your worldview.

That being said, the very comprehensiveness of Ken Wilber’s philosophy can be a bit daunting. Some of his more scholarly works in particular (such as Sex, Ecology and Spiritualtiy) can be a bit tough to wade through. Hence the purpose of this anthology.

The Simple Feeling of Being is a collection of the more “inspirational” of Ken’s writings, extracted from many of his major works. They include poetical passages, stories, illustrations and uplifting explanations. It is a book that you can keep at the bedside or in your back and open up when you simply need some spiritual rejuvenation. If you’ve ever read any of Ken Wilber and run across a passage in one of his books that sank into your heart and woke you up to the world of Spirit – it’s probably in this book. A few examples would probably serve well to illustrate.

“The world arises quietly this morning, shimmering on a radiant sea of transparent Emptiness. There is only this, vast, open, empty, clear, nakedly luminous. All questions dissolve in this single Answer, all doubts resolve in this single Shout, all worries are a ripple on this Sea of equanimity”.

“It is this primal resistance to unity consciousness that we must approach, not unity consciousness itself. For until you see precisely how you resist unity consciousness, all your efforts to ‘achieve’ it will be in vain, because what you are trying to achieve is also what you are unconsciously resisting and trying to prevent.”

“Since all things are already Spirit, there is no way to reach Spirit. There is only Spirit in all directions, and so one simply rests in the spontaneous nature of the mind itself, effortlessly embracing all that arises as ornaments of your own primordial experience. The unmanifest and the manifest, or emptiness and form, unite in the pure non-dual play of your own awareness – generally regarded as the ultimate state that is no state in particular.”

Some of the excerpts are only a few sentences, and non take more than a few minutes to read, so this book is perfect for contemplative reading – a lecto divino from a modern master.

Nov 132009

Ken_WilberI owe a lot to Ken Wilber. Ken was recommended to me at a stage in my journey when I was quite dogmatic and narrow minded.  I went to the library and checked out “Up From Eden” – one of his earlier works. It was completely transformative.  Over the course of a month as I read the book, Ken Wilber systematically knocked all the walls out of my personal philosophy and opened me up to the beautiful scenery waiting outside my previously cramped spiritual quarters.

It’s difficult to know where best to classify Ken on this page. While his “base” is probably in trans-personal psychology, the whole point of Wilber’s life-work is an approach he calls “integral”, or “AQUAL” (All-Quadrant, All-Levels). The idea is that reality consists of several different perspectives. In early philosophy, these were called the “Good”, the “True” and the “Beautiful”.  Wilber has expanded them somewhat into four: the individual outside, the individual inside, the collective outside and the collective inside.

As the simplest example, take a human being. A behaviorist  or biologist might examine that human being in terms of his individual external aspects, examining behavior, cellular mechanics, blood chemistry, height, weight, etc.  This is the individual outside. But if we engage in this person in dialogue, as a psychotherapist, religious counselor or meditation teacher might, we get an entirely different set of information from the individual INSIDE.  Then we can look at the person’s collective outside with a systems theorist, and note such things as housing, transportation systems, communication infrastructure – physical things that make up the system of which this person is a part. Finally, with anthropologists, ethicists  and other students of the collective INSIDE, we look at the cultural groups of which the person is a part. We look at the interactions on a mental and spiritual level with other human beings.

The point is, each of these perspectives gives us different truths, and (most importantly), NONE of these truths is privileged over the others. We live in a time and culture that tends to favor individual external truths – hard science. Proponents of “flatland” as Wilber dubs this perspective, want to collapse everything else in the universe down to physics and chemistry. By doing so, they squash three additional quadrants of equally important truth out of consideration.

Wilber also spends a lot of time discussing developmental levels and states. This was particularly eye-opening to me. Individuals and societies can all be classified along a spectrum of development, and the attitudes and characteristics of individuals and cultures at the various stages of this spectrum are quite predictable. After reading Ken Wilber, you can observe the world around you and recognize that what you thought were differences in opinion among people and cultures are actually different stages of development.

Wilber’s writing is prolific. His goal is no less than creating a system into which all truths can be placed in their proper perspective and relationship. Wilber’s work really IS a “theory of everything”. Once you read Ken Wilber, you will find, when encounter a new idea or worldview, that you are mentally plotting it out on Wilber’s giant map of reality. And it always fits.

Wilbers work puts politics, science, religion, business, education and everything else into a new and interrelated perspective – one that you ignore at your peril. If you need a map to base your view of reality on, there is no better researched map than Ken Wilber.

Wilber has attracted some criticism, which is to be expected considering his system swallows up the truths of so many others. The fans of each piece of his jigsaw puzzle protest that their piece is much more important than Wilber credits – in fact, the  ONLY important piece. There have been some personality clashes at his institute and on some of his projects. The fact that Ken has coined so many new concepts and words tends to make a discussion among wilberians sound like some kind of secret cult language.  And if you don’t like getting into the details,  Ken Wilber isn’t the writer for you.  Someone like Eckhart Tolle or Alan Watts are better at simple profound generalities.

But you really MUST read him. See if you don’t find his concepts immediately useful.  Below is a brief clip of Wilber discussing spirituality in the modern world:

Jul 282006

By Ken Wilber [img_assist|nid=5|title=Ken Wilber|desc=Ken Wilber|link=node|align=right|width=92|height=100]

It is flat-out strange that something – that anything – is happening at all. There was nothing, then a Big Bang, then here we all are. This is extremely weird.

To Schelling’s burning question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?,” there have always been two general answers. The first might be called the philosophy of “oops.” The universe just occurs, there is nothing behind it, it’s all ultimately accidental or random, it just is, it just happens – oops! The philosophy of oops, no matter how sophisticated and adult it may on occasion appear – its modern names and numbers are legion, from positivism to scientific materialism, from linguistic analysis to historical materialism, from naturalism to empiricism – always comes down to the same basic answer, namely, “Don’t ask.”

The question itself (Why is anything at all happening? Why am I here?) – the question itself is said to be confused, pathological, nonsensible, or infantile. To stop asking such silly or confused questions is, they all maintain, the mark of maturity, the sign of growing up in this cosmos.

I don’t think so. I think the “answer” these “modern and mature” disciplines give – namely, oops! (and therefore, “Don’t ask!”) – is about as infantile a response as the human condition could possibly offer.

The other broad answer that has been tendered is that something else is going on: behind the happenstance drama is a deeper or higher or wider pattern, or order, or intelligence. There are, of course, many varieties of this “Deeper Order”: the Tao, God, Geist, Maat, Archetypal Forms, Reason, Li, Mahamaya, Braham, Rigpa. And although these different varieties of the Deeper Order certainly disagree with each other at many points, they all agree on this: the universe is not what it appears. Something else is going on, something quite other than oops….

Jul 282006

by Ken Wilber

The witnessing of awareness can persist through waking, dreaming and deep sleep. The Witness is fully available in any state, including your own present state of awareness right now. So I’m going to talk you into this state, or try to, using what are known in Buddhism as “pointing out instructions.” I am not going to try to get you into a different state of consciousness, or an altered state of consciousness, or a non-ordinary state. I am going to simply point out something that is already occurring in your own present, ordinary, natural state. So let’s start by just being aware of the world around us. Look out there at the sky, and just relax your mind; let your mind and the sky mingle. Notice the clouds floating by. Notice that this takes no effort on your part. Your present awareness, in which these clouds are floating, is very simple, very easy, effortless, spontaneous. You simply notice that there is an effortless awareness of the clouds. The same is true of those trees, and those birds, and those rocks. You simply and effortlessly witness them. Look now at the sensations in your own body. You can be aware of whatever bodily feelings are present-perhaps pressure where you are sitting, perhaps warmth in your tummy, maybe tightness in your neck. But even if these feelings are tight and tense, you can easily be aware of them. These feelings arise in your present awareness, and that awareness is very simple, easy, effortless, spontaneous. You simply and effortlessly witness them. Look at the thoughts arising in your mind. You might notice various images, symbols, concepts, desires, hopes and fears, all spontaneously arising in your awareness. They arise, stay a bit, and pass. These thoughts and feelings arise in your present awareness, and that awareness is very simple, effortless, spontaneous. You simply and effortlessly witness them. So notice: you can see the clouds float by because you are not those clouds-you are the witness of those clouds. You can feel bodily feelings because you are not those feelings-you are the witness of those feelings. You can see thoughts float by because you are not those thoughts-you are the witness of those thoughts. Spontaneously and naturally, these things all arise, on their own, in your present, effortless awareness. So who are you? You are not objects out there, you are not feelings, you are not thoughts-you are effortlessly aware of all those, so you are not those. Who or what are you? Say it this way to yourself: I have feelings, but I am not those feelings. Who am I? I have thoughts, but I am not those thoughts. Who am I? I have desires, but I am not those desires. Who am I? So you push back into the source of your own awareness. You push back into the Witness, and you rest in the Witness. I am not objects, not feelings, not desires, not thoughts. But then people usually make a big mistake. They think that if they rest in the Witness, they are going to see something or feel something-something really neat and special. But you won’t see anything. If you see something, that is just another object-another feeling, another thought, another sensation, another image. But those are all objects; those are what you are not. No, as you rest in the Witness-realizing, I am not objects, I am not feelings, I am not thoughts-all you will notice is a sense of freedom, a sense of liberation, a sense of release-release from the terrible constriction of identifying with these puny little finite objects, your little body and little mind and little ego, all of which are objects that can be seen, and thus are not the true Seer, the real Self, the pure Witness, which is what you really are. So you won’t see anything in particular. Whatever is arising is fine. Clouds float by in the sky, feelings float by in the body, thoughts float by in the mind-and you can effortlessly witness all of them. They all spontaneously arise in your own present, easy, effortless awareness. And this witnessing awareness is not itself anything specific you can see. It is just a vast, background sense of freedom-or pure emptiness-and in that pure emptiness, which you are, the entire manifest world arises. You are that freedom, openness, emptiness-and not any itty bitty thing that arises in it. Resting in that empty, free, easy, effortless witnessing, notice that the clouds are arising in the vast space of your awareness. The clouds are arising within you-so much so, you can taste the clouds, you are one with the clouds. It is as if they are on this side of your skin, they are so close. The sky and your awareness have become one, and all things in the sky are floating effortlessly through your own awareness. You can kiss the sun, swallow the mountain, they are that close. Zen says “Swallow the Pacific Ocean in a single gulp,” and that’s the easiest thing in the world, when inside and outside are no longer two, when subject and object are nondual, when the looker and looked at are One Taste. You see?

– Ken Wilber

Jul 272006

From “A Theory of Everything” by Ken Wilber

“M-Theory has certainly got intellectuals thinking; that is, thinking differently. What would it mean if there were a theory that explained EVERYTHING? And just what does “everything” actually mean, anyway? Would this new theory in physics explain, say, the meaning of human poetry? Or how economics works? Or the stages of psycho-sexual development? Can this new physics explain the currents of ecosystems, of the dynamics of history, or why human wars are so terribly common?

In the interior of quarks, it is said, there are vibrating strings, and these strings are the fundamental units of everything. Well, if so, it is a strange everything, pale and anemic and alien to the richness of the world that daily presents itself to you and me. Clearly strings are an important PART of a larger world, fundamental to it, but not that significant, it seems. You and I already know that strings, should they exist, are only a tiny part of the picture, and we know this every time we look around, listen to Bach, make love, are caught transfixed at the sharp crack of thunder, sit rapturous at sunset, contemplate a radiant world that seems made of something so much more than microscopic, one-dimensional, tiny rubber bands…

The Greeks had a beautiful word, Kosmos, which means the patterned Whole of all existence, including the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual realms. Ultimate reality was not merely the cosmos, or the physical dimension, but the Kosmos, or the physical and emotional and mental and spiritual dimensions altogether. Not just matter, lifeless and insentient, but the living Totality of matter, body, mind, soul and spirit. The Kosmos! – now there is a real theory of everything! But us poor moderns have reduced the Kosmos to the cosmos. we have reduced matter and body and mind and soul and spirit to nothing but matter alone, and in this drab and dreary world of scientific materialism, we are lulled into the notion that a theory uniting the PHYSICAL dimension is actually a theory of EVERYTHING…

Jul 272006

While thinking about the issue of Gnosticism and the problem of evil, I suddenly had what was (to me at least) a very powerful “ah ha” moment. Of course, once written down and shared, it will probably seem mundane or even stupidly obvious. But at the time it was like a bolt of lightening from heaven.

The insight was this: Whatever the literal truth or falsehood – Gnosticism is actually a very perceptive metaphor on the problem of pain and evil. It hit me as I was reading something in a Gnostic text and realized it was very similar to something both Robert Pirsig and Ken Wilber had said. Both these writers point out a particular hierarchy of being – one I think we would all agree with. You can divide it up in more than one way – but it goes something like this:

The Hierarchy of Being

The foundational structures of the cosmos are physical – in the sense of being governed by chemistry and physics. Then there are biological structures built from the physical. Then there are social structures built from the biological. Then there are the mental structures of ideas that are built from social dialogue. You can add a layer of spiritual structures, but since that will be an item of dispute, let’s just lump it in with mental for the moment. Each of these structures is built on the preceding ones. Biological systems use physical systems. Social systems use biological systems (people) and physical systems (technologies). Mental systems use social systems (communal dialogue), biological systems (our brains) and physical systems (the neurochemistry of the brain).

Contrary Purposes

Now for a critical observation – each of these levels have entirely different – even contradictory – purposes, laws and goals. For example, entropy (The tendency for all matter and energy in the universe to devolve into a state of inert uniformity and disorder) is a fundamental principle of the physical cosmos. But biology is in a state of war with entropy. Biology is a system for increasing the order and energy in the small local pocket of it’s own system. Biology has its own laws and goals – which center on the survival of the individual organism and its reproduction at the expense of all else. But at the social level, these biological goals – unchecked, become evils. Societies may choose to sacrifice their own individual members for the good of the society – if they threaten the social stability, for example. Then from these societies and their interactions, systems of ideas arise. And what a society may see as “good” for its survival and prosperity (slavery for example) the arising system of ideas may see as evil. In the West, we have a developed a system of ideas which demands that we tolerate (for the sake of the IDEA of liberty) the existence of certain things which may pose a danger to the social order – reformers or crackpots as the case may be.

The point is, at each point in the hierarchy of being, the “good” and “evil” of the lower rungs on the ladder may be (and often ARE) very contrary to the “good” and “evil” of the higher rungs. Let’s take a bad genetic illness like Harlequin Baby Syndrome. From our point of view in the social and particularly mental spheres of being, this seems quite obviously evil. It is hideous and causes great physical and emotional suffering. On the other hand, from the point of view of biology, it’s not bad at all. Genetic variability is what drives the whole process. If we didn’t have a thousand mutations or genetic combinations that resulted in death and pain, we wouldn’t have the one that turned proved to be useful in some particular way. Suffering and death are simply failed experiments that weed out unfit genetic combinations.

The higher levels cannot normally disregard the rules and laws of the lower levels. They simply find ways to work around them or compromise with them to achieve their purposes.

Spiritual Metaphors

Let’s return to the Gnostic metaphor, then. The Gnostics saw the god of creation, the demiurge or “half-maker” as a somewhat ignorant figure, full of arrogance, petty jealousy and capriciousness. From the ideas above, we could say that the demiurge represents the physical/biological systems, as seen from the point of view of the mental/spiritual systems. It’s interesting that as gnosticism developed from its earlier roots, the demiurge was increasingly seen as not just immature and ignorant, but positively EVIL, along with the material world he organized. Orthodox Christianity has been more reluctant to condemn the material world, but still tries to insist that God governs the whole cosmos in accordance with the higher (mental/spiritual) notions of “good”. The idea that “good” changes from one level to the next would probably rub the wrong way and be seen as making morality “situational”.

A Symbolic Example

This idea of good and evil changing from one level to the next has an interesting illustration in world symbology – specifically the symbol of the snake. Ken Wilber points out that serpents can be seen as symbols of good OR evil in many different religions – including Christianity. For example, the serpent represents Satan in the garden on the one hand, but when Moses raises up a serpent on a pole to heal the Israelites, it is taken to be a symbol of Jesus.

In Hindu/Buddhist symbolism, the snake represents Kundalini energy – the basic life/god force of the cosmos, which works it’s way up the energy centers or “chakras” of the human body as it spiritually progresses. It’s starts at the base of the spine, at a center representing the physical systems, and works it’s way up to above the crown of the head, representing the highest spiritual centers. Wilber points out that when the snake symbol is used as representing “evil” it is seen at the lower levels of the body (the typhonic gods, for example, or the goat-god baphomet), and at the higher levels of the body, it represents “good” (Buddah and other deities are seen with cobras shading the crown of their heads). It is not that the physical levels are “bad” – they are only seen as bad when we fixate on or descend to the lower physical/biological or social levels as the expense of the mental/spiritual levels.

More Refinements

The categories I have been using, by the way, need not be divided so broadly. Within each level of being, there may be many sub-levels. For example, there are many types and classifications of social and mental systems. A new and higher social or mental system may find its notions of “good” and “evil” quite different from an earlier one.


How do we view the problem of evil from this hierarchical perspective? What looks to us humans as “unnecessary suffering” from our perspective is usually the “good” of a lower order interposing itself in our own “good”. Theoretically, of course, it could always be the good of a higher order interposing itself in our own “good”. For example, our programs of selective breeding produce species that, while they serve our purposes nicely – are actually LESS fit for survival. If biology had an independent mind and could speak, it might accuse us of corrupting things. Which brings up another point. A lower level is utterly incapable of reacting according to the “good” of a higher level. If there are levels of being above our own – we might be quite unequipped to understand “good” and “evil” with respect to them – until we reach that level ourselves. In fact, if the system I have mapped out here has any predictive value, it would probably say that at the next level, the “goods” and “evils” of our MENTAL or philosophical/religious systems are quite incidental to a much greater spiritual good. The angels or higher beings may be as unconcerned about the truths of our philosophies and dogmas as we are unconcerned with “corrupting” natural selection by breeding prize milk cows.

If we look at God as being present at every level of this hierarchy, working within it – we are simply faced with the fact that there are different ideals of “good” at different levels of being.

“Evil” is simply the interplay of different levels of “good”.

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