Expanding on Ken Wilber and Jorge Ferrer

This article aims to introduce our perspective on a neo-wilberian, participatory 21, century practice in leading a non-segmented, harmonious and responsible life, while I aim to clarify that the filter through which these practices are selected should not be influenced by considering a spiritual tradition or practice superior to any other, but by understanding the common core of what it means to be human with all its multiple dimensions – more particularly, what it means to be human in the era/country/city/family/society/gender identity that one lives in or identifies with). This article is oriented mostly towards inhabitants or connoisseurs of the modern West who possess a certain degree of familiarity with integral theory and practice, due to the complexity of the issue, the diversity of developmental stages in today’s world and the limitations of a short article such as this one. This issue will be a research subject for the following years, since it touches the leading edge of integral development and practice and prepares the ground for a next step in this field.

Having said that this is a topic that requires background research and acquaintance with the presented authors and fields, I will start by presenting a perspective which aims to unify the apparently incompatible sides in transpersonal theory – namely, perennialism and the participatory perspective.

Although many academic scholars have transformed the practice of avoiding to start an argument from a certain premise (since all premises can fall into the uncertain metaphysical ground of axioms), I propose that there is a common core on what it means to be human, a premise that is based on the observable commonality which unites us all as living and breathing beings, in search for happiness and well-being. I do agree that the cultural background (with its spiritual metaphysical dimensions) does influence our perception of reality and skews certain aspects either in favor of one’s root culture or, in some cases who seek insight elsewhere, in favor of another culture or tradition, but I firmly believe that, if observed from an archetypal perspective, one would be able to spot similarities amongst the different cultures and traditions, and that these similarities can be backrooted to what it means to be human – a living and breathing being. 

To expand this idea, let us think about what it means to be human in the most general terms, before thinking about society, gender, nationality. As presented in integral theory, there are several dimensions of being human described as the multiple lines of intelligence (also called lines of development): verbal/linguistic, logical/mathematical, naturalist, visual/spatial, existentialist/spiritual, interpersonal, intrapersonal, bodily/kinesthetic, musical/rhythmic, sexual, cognitive, moral. From the participatory perspective, they are formulated more concisely – body, vital, heart, mind, and consciousness – and this is the first bridge I draw between Wilber and Ferrer.

I will take Wilber and Ferrer as being representatives of these not yet reconciled fields,  the neo-perennialist integral model and the participatory turn, respectively. 

The participatory perspective aims to be a next step in transpersonalism, and, chronologically, I agree that it is. However, I wouldn’t view it as a next holon in the development of this field (namely, transcending and including the previous models while fixing their problems), but rather as a much needed completion to Wilber’s integral model.

 

I will propose the reconciliation of these two sides, since I believe that, in fact, they do not contradict each other, but, on the contrary, I argue that they complement each other while respecting this common core of what it means to be human.

I believe that the most important apparent difference lies in their different approach to hierarchy and universality (Wilber’s appraisal of a hierarchical model of development, and Ferrer’s sensible approach to the importance of each step in development an uniqueness of each culture). However, I propose that this argument lies on an illusory ground, and throughout the next paragraphs I will expand in this direction.

An important key lies in how we understand perennialism and its approach to the common ‘source’. It is easy to fall into the trap of our own limited language: if we try to *name* that which goes beyond language, there will certainly be misconceptions and contradictions. I believe that this misunderstanding comes from the nature of our language and way of thinking, which, at least in the least in the past few centuries and at least in the modern West, have been subject to a strong bias towards logic and cognicentrism and this has lead us to first and foremost understand concepts as chronological structures, rather than deeper processes which go beyond the concept of time. Thus, although Ferrer rightfully argues for fighting against the West’s bias towards cognicentrism, he might just suffer from the same problem he is trying to fight against. 

Through this, I do not wish to criticise Ferrer’s work. On the contrary, I believe it is an important addition to and clarification of several aspects form integral theory. But what I want to point at through this remark is the complexity of the issue and the impossibility to avoid falling into blind spots and missing out on aspects on our path to understand the ever unfolding reality. 

Perennialists agree that in the above schematic, the common ground is referred to as Brahma, Sunyata, Dao, God, Allah or Non-Duality by the different traditions, and while they appear as different from an exoteric point of view, they point, in fact, to the same common ground reality. However, I believe that most critics of this theory have been mislead by the limitations of language and linear, chronological thinking mentioned above, and remained blind to the important fact that the common point in the diagram points towards something which is impossible to point at. 

The participatory perspective, being a next step (Epoch Three) in Transpersonal Theory (click here to read our article on this topic), has defined itself, amongst others, by trying to build upon the problems that occurred during Epoch Two of transpersonalism – namely the neo-perennialism predominated by Wilber’s work . As eloquently presented by Ferrer (2017) in his work “Participation and the Mystery”, it stresses the importance of the collaborative participation of all human attributes – body, vital energy, heart, mind, and consciousness in a healthy, non-segmented unfolding of the human life.

Trying to avoid the hierarchization of the different spiritual traditions and cultures, the participatory turn stresses more on the inherent value of all cultures and traditions and their role in the cocreation and unfolding of the “generative power” or “mystery”.

As far as I have observed from my reading and practice, and as the chronological unfolding of the turns in transpersonal theory point out, the participatory turn has been formed, amongst others, as a reply to the possible problems of neo-perennialism – for example cognicentrism, which can lead to the biased selection of spiritual practices and traditions done by the limited ego, which is in the modern West so famously attached to the mind and intellect, while so often systemically neglecting the other dimensions of the human being.

Building on this, I propose a next step in the transpersonal narrative, namely the reconciliation of two epochs. I believe that this is possible, if one manages to include the participatory perspective in Wilber’s transpersonal theory.

For this, however, one must have acquired a certain level of experience and be engaged for some time in integral spiritual practice, since the complexity of the issue can be overwhelming in the beginning. So, I propose the following:

Before judging and labeling Wilber’s work as limited due to the cognicentrically biased, let us first contemplate on the time in history when it has been written and acknowledge the still very young age of transpersonalism (which, according to Lahood (2008) started with the pre-transpersonal movement during the psychedelic revolution of the 60s and 70s). We must realize the fact that, although the pioneers of this field may have been, at least with a part of their being, at the highest developmental level that they have been describing in their model, society (from which the readers and critics are part of) is, most likely, not having the final answer and is being influenced by this work and models. It takes time to understand and reach one’s highest potential, which is, as far as we know, an ongoing process. Thus, I firmly believe that the critics of Ken Wilber have forgotten to take into account the curse, which follows most pioneer researchers – namely being very much ahead of their time.

I will use the case of Wilber as an example for what happens in the case of new theories and developmental models, but focus on the particularities of his specific case due to this article’s theme.

Amongst others, Wilber proposed an integral development model – the AQAL model (see his work for a complete understanding), and the structure-state model.

He describes the structural development model as being ‘holon-like’, meaning that each structure transcends and includes the previous one. This implies a hierarchical relationship amongst the different structures, since just as an atom is contained in a molecule, a molecule is not contained in an atom.

He present the following structures: Starting from Archaic, and evolving towards Integral and beyond, as briefly explained in the following infographic (Wilber, 2014) presented below.

He presents these structures as being present both in society (first infographic) and in ourselves (second infographic).

It is important to note the fact that we are not studying a historical artifact here. This is an ongoing process, and we are part of its unfolding.

While evolving from structure to structure, since our society is so segmented and we do not agree upon a holistic educational system yet, we remain with what is the so-called ‘shadow’ – an unavoidable process in the development of our being. Most of the time, at least until it’s actively approached and re-owned through different techniques, this shadow is not visible to us and we do not recognize that we suffer from a problem or bias for or against something, For example, someone who hasn’t undergone thorough self-discovery practices and practices for re-owning the shadow and identifies with the values described at the pluralistic structure of development most likely suffers from shadow at the lower structures, with which one disidentifies with and so some severe pathologies, both personal and collective, can be formed, which affect the way society acts and decides.

A good representation of this could be Germany’s approach to dealing with the issue of the immigrants – from a pluralistic perspective, the decision to let everyone in was the only one viable, but since the leaders and the population still had shadow at the rational structure, they didn’t want to put conditions or restrictions for the incoming people (the rational structure could be characterized by losing compassion for profit and efficiency – read this explanation on structures for more examples). However, even if the decision to let them in and offer them asylum and refuge was the most compassionate, there are consequences when two different cultures with different ideals start to suddenly live together, but I will not further this argument here and leave it as a thought exercise.

With this in mind, let us think about Wilber’s model of structural development from a cultural point of view (first info graphic). The beginning of a structure has been defined when approximately 5-10% of the population is believed to have reached this stage of development, or at least has the capacity to agree with the described values. Thus, although the pluralistic level of development only started 50 years ago, it does not mean that those values are the norm in that society (for more on this, read DiPerna’s work “Streams of Wisdom”, in which he explains how structures, states and vantage point interrelate in a complex matrix).

This means that individuals at the pluralistic level of development have existed also more than 50 years ago, it’s just that there are fewer and fewer as we go back in time.

The same case applied for the integral structure, but this structure differs from the others by managing to re-own its disidentification with the other structures, realizing that it has evolved form them and thus has been like them at one point in their development.

Since our society can’t yet agree even upon pluralistic ideals (we still have important shadow at mythic and rational – look at the vast majority of most countries’ citizens, the ‘mean’), and Wilber putting so much emphasis on the Integral structure, and on the development of all lines of intelligence, his work is indeed ahead of its time, since the people aren’t yet at that level of development with enough shadow cleared as to understand without feeling patronized due to their shadow’s defense mechanisms kicking in.

A person who has not put in work to actively progress on all lines of intelligence (intellectual, emotional, somatic, spiritual, intrapersonal, interpersonal, and so on) won’t be able to understand the entire depth of a person who has.

And although I agree that we can find issues in Wilber’s personal attitude towards certain aspects, and that he could have been more sensible, amongst others (look for articles on critiques on Ken Wilber), I propose that his work should be read as a meta-theory, and his personality personal issues shouldn’t be mixed with integral theory, although they sometimes reflect in his work.

Thus, I do not fully agree with Lahood’s categorization of transpersonalist epochs, since I would say that the participatory turn is not a next ‘turn’, but the very elaboration of pluralism. We can agree that Wilber openly admits to having a problem with some pluralists (in his words, the “mean green meme”), but I think that instead of pointing fingers at him, we should try to understand the conflict.

As explained in this article, each structure has been developed as a counter-attack to the mistakes of the previous one. Thus, being part of the first pioneers in the integral age, Wilber has developed his structure by ‘fighting’ against the shortcomings of the previous stage – namely, the pluralists. Wilber critiques their lack of hierarchical thinking and hyper-sensibility which affects responsible decision-making, and the pluralists critique Wilber for his hierarchical thinking which some call patronizing, insensitive, objectifying, masculinist, and commercializing spirituality (Thompson, 1998; Gelfer, 2010 & 2011).

Although this is an argument worth of much vaster expanding, as stated at the beginning, this article is meant as an introduction. I believe that there is just one more argument to be urgently highlighted regarding this topic, and that is the participatory argument against perennialism. I believe that this argument makes sense if we resume the terms ‘non-duality’, or ‘God’, or ‘Brahma’, or ‘the One’ as being something which can be pointed at. As stated somewhere else is this article, we shouldn’t let the pitfalls of dualistic language contain incomprehensive, infinite aspects. Universality can not be pointed at, or counted. I think a great danger of our times is forgetting the dimension of simplicity, and focusing just on the complexity. The ‘One’ is not here, or there, it is a principle which can be understood by simply recalling that we are on this ‘one’ planet, which is in this ‘one’ solar system, in this ‘one’ galaxy, in this ‘one’ universe and so on.

References:

 

DiPerna, D. (2014). Streams of wisdom. Integral Publishing House

Ferrer, J.N. (2002). Revisioning Transpersonal Theory – A Participatory vision of Human Spirituality.  Albany: State University of New York Press.

Ferrer, J.N. (2017). Participation and the Mystery: Transpersonal Essays in Psychology, Education, and Religion Hardcover – May 1, 2017

Gelfer, J. Chapter 5 (Integral or muscular spirituality?) in Numen, Old Men: Contemporary Masculine Spiritualities and the Problem of Patriarchy, 2009: ISBN 978-1-84553-419-6

Gelfer, J. LOHAS and the Indigo Dollar: Growing the Spiritual Economy Archived 2011-01-04 at the Wayback Machine, New Proposals: Journal of Marxism and Interdisciplinary Inquiry (4.1, 2010: 46–60)

Hartelius, G. (2013). Lecture 6: critiques of Ken Wilber. Retrieved 1st February, 2019 from the World Wide Web: https://player.vimeo.com/video/112436845

Lahood, G. (2008), Paradise Bound: A Perennial Tradition or an Unseen Process of Cosmological Hybridization?  Anthropology of Consciousness, 19: 155–189. doi: 10.1111/j.1556-3537.2008.00008.x

Thompson, Coming into Being: Artifacts and Texts in the Evolution of Consciousness pp. 12–13

Wilber, K. (2017). The religion of tomorrow. Boston: Shambhala.

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