Is Ken Wilber mistaken? Sex, Ecology, Spirituality

ken wilber

Ken Wilber

This is a rather critical book review I wrote for the Buddhist magazine Golden Drum in the 90s. Fans of Wilber, please forgive me!


Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. The Spirit of Evolution, by Ken Wilber, published by Shambhala (Boston and London, 1995).

‘I must create my own system or be enslaved by another man’s,’ wrote William Blake. Ken Wilber has created a grand system of evolutionary connections. Here is yet another book, his fattest yet, expounding it.

There is an X-shaped diagram of Wilber’s system on the end-papers. Levels of consciousness, their individual and collective physical structures, and cultures or shared world-views each have an arm of the X, and evolve in correlation with each other. For example, as conceptual thought became possible in consciousness, new brain mechanisms supported it, and it was reflected in village societies, with magical world-views.

Wilber’s synthesis, with its wealth of fascinating details, is extremely well thought out. If you are a believer in the idea that all spiritual schemes reflect intuitions of the same Great Chain of Being, then you will forgive his long-windedness, repetitiveness, jargon, surfeit of long supporting quotations, and his obsession with reducing every other analysis to its spot on the great X. But what I appreciated most was Wilber’s uncompromising evolutionary vision. We can indeed evolve as individuals and as a human world, and there are pioneers of consciousness who can show us the way.

What I think is Wilber’s biggest mistake stems from the rigidity of his X diagram. To fit the model, evolution must continue in the collective sphere, after the arising of self-awareness. So in general, a later society is likely to reflect a higher average form of consciousness than an earlier society. In recent centuries, he claims, the mental and biological parts of human experience have been differentiated on a large scale for the first time, a step forward allowing rationality to produce all its benefits. (Wilber’s mission is to encourage the next development: the re-integration of mind and nature on a higher level, in a global awareness and a global culture.) But is it really true that most people of today are more rational and independent-minded than most people in India or Greece (say), 2500 years ago? Is it easier to make spiritual progress now, and are we all starting from a higher base?

It would seem that with self-awareness, further evolution focused on the individual. Societies and world-views now only evolve if they are reformed by self-aware individuals, the number of which does not necessarily grow steadily. Cultures are not caught up in Wilber’s grand current of evolution. It is true that science is genuinely cumulative in its discoveries, and this fact may have misled Wilber. The progress that science makes, in extending the scope of models of the physical universe and making more sophisticated technologies possible, cannot be ranked in alignment with advances in consciousness.

Wilber’s method leads him to judge Buddhism on the basis of the type of language used in its writings, though he comes to mistaken conclusions through relying on modern commentators rather than the original sources. His image of evolution is still a Hindu one of consciousness emerging from a Ground of Being (or World Spirit, or Emptiness: terms from diverse traditions are bunched as ‘identical’ by Wilber), and passing through an arc of development until it can reunite with this Ground (from which it has never separated). Statements couched in ‘non-dual’ terms must, Wilber seems to believe, have come from this ultimate state of being, and he implies that he can recognise their authenticity because he has been there himself. Actually, blarney is all you need to pen don-dual paradoxes.

Blarney or not, this language is what he seeks in Buddhism, so he approves of Nagarjuna and Zen, and disapproves of early Buddhism. The Buddha encouraged a radical renunciation of the deluded, cyclical habits of life, because the ‘ground of being’ for Buddhism is ignorance, something to be transcended, and it is frustration that emerges from ignorance, something to be eradicated. So Buddhists have used the ‘dualistic’ language of transcending and developing (‘follow this path to this goal’) more than the language of paradox or of immanence (‘uncover your existing Buddha-Nature’), something that Wilber sees as a limitation.

Similarly, Wilber dismisses the teaching of no-Self, incorrectly seeing it as a dualistic denial of the ‘stable cohesive self’ that one should strengthen to progress psychologically. No, the Buddha was concerned to identify ‘wrong views’ – attitudes which impede the evolution of one’s consciousness by tying one to a limited sense of one’s own identity. ‘No-Self’ is no more, or less, dualistic than ‘no-duality’ (or indeed ‘no-World-Spirit’). The Buddha wasn’t bothered about fitting into a grand system or abiding by a metaphysical taboo against dualism. He was concerned to promote provisional right views which helped people to transcend themselves until they could dwell in ‘no-view’. Later, the increasing sophistications of the deluded mind called for more sophisticated countervailing right views, such as Nagarjuna’s.

Buddhism can be presented in many formats. Wilber’s system may lead you to believe that the later ones must supersede the earlier, and the linguistically non-dual ones must be higher than those that teach a path. On the contrary, an effective path of practice is essential, I would say, and the best way to choose a system of spiritual discipline is not to collect from a warehouse of words teachings that fit our preconceptions, but to meet the people who tread a coherent path. Are they kind? Are they deeply sensible?

Reading Ken Wilber is rather like being drawn to listen to a brilliant, manic and rather tipsy monologue at a party. As we imbibe the system of another man, I think it is worth taking care. Is it liberating, or is it enslaving?