Open Book

Mystic Gunslinger

Ken Wilber may be obnoxious, but he wants us to know it all

Magazine Issue
May/June 2007
Mystic Gunslinger

Integral Spirituality
By Ken Wilber
Integral Books. 313 pp. ISBN: 1-590-30346-6

A Brief History of Everything
By Ken Wilber
Shambala. 339 pp. ISBN: 1-570-62187-X

The Essential Ken Wilber: An Introductory Reader
Shambala. 199 pp. ISBN: 1-570-62379-1

When you pick up the books of Ken Wilber, his bald, shining head and intense gaze in the cover photo suggests he doesn’t take himself lightly, nor does he think we should. He resembles a hip academic, who wears a T-shirt under his tweed sports coat. His well-muscled neck and broad shoulders tell us he’s a jock. Here’s the man, with brains and brawn to burn, whom some have called “the Einstein of consciousness.”

He’s a cult figure for many readers of his more than 20 books. But his reputation is contradictory. A class valedictorian and a self-described “geek,” he left graduate school in biochemistry to write his first book, The Spectrum of Consciousness, at the tender age of 23. He’s a practicing Buddhist and mystic who wants to combine the best of Western science and Eastern spirituality. Yet despite all the praise—the veneration, even—he receives, he isn’t really academically respectable. He rarely publishes in peer-reviewed journals. You’ll never see him in The New York Review of Books. But he’s a one-man publishing industry, who’s written dozens of articles, book chapters, journals, blogs, and whatnot along with his books, mostly directed toward his project of constructing a grand synthesis of human knowledge—spirituality, science, philosophy, transpersonal psychology, business, politics, ecology.

On a personal level, he’s an odd blend of noisy recluse and exhibitionist. He spends almost all his time at his house outside of Boulder, where he meditates, lifts weights, reads, and writes in a disciplined, even obsessive manner. Only rarely does he submit to personal interviews—it takes months to get an audience, if you’re lucky. But his written interviews appear frequently on the web and in magazines. In his blog, he gives way to a good old fashion rant at his critics, mixing fancy philosophical terms with adolescent insults and curses. He has many critics, and when he fights back, he becomes a new American archetype: mystic as gunslinger.

How can he be so prolific? Isaiah Berlin, the great historian of ideas, tells us (echoing Leo Tolstoy) that there are two types of writers: the hedgehog and the fox. The hedgehog has one big idea and the fox has many. Simply put, Wilber is a hedgehog on steroids. He always writes the same book, trying over and over again to get everything into it. Or more precisely, he writes several kinds of books within his one big volume. What’s apparent from even a brief visit to any of his books is that he always has the last word on anything. He fits all knowledge into his schema, sometimes in excruciating, convoluted ways. He’s kind of a mad classifier. He wants to sort all of existence into neat categories—create what he calls a “periodic table of consciousness.” But nobody must classify him! He’s a master at being one up on everybody else’s writing and thought. Anyone reading him might think he’s is an egomaniac, a genius, a madman, or a little of each.

Fortunately, Wilber is sometimes capable of writing for a general audience in simple, one-thing-at-a-time exposition. A Brief History of Everything, in spite of its grandiose title, is the best way to get a fix on him in his own words. He’s written it as an interview with himself (Norman Mailer, possessed of another giant ego, is fond of this self-interrogation technique). The book is meant as a primer, is conversational in tone, and is accessible, in contrast to some of his more densely written books, like Integral Spirituality, which is replete with difficult locutions like, “If I continue to deny my anger, it can be completely dissociated or repressed into a 3rd-person occasion, which means I am no longer on speaking terms with it. . . . My own ïI’-anger has become a disowned ïit,’ haunting the hall of my own interiors, the host of the machine in my contracted self.”

To give the devil his due, there’s an appealingly human side to him. He can write lyric prose with mystical, exuberant touches. The best anthology of this poetic writing is The Essential Ken Wilber: An Introductory Reader. It demonstrates that the hyperclassifier can write like an enthralled, Zenlike lover: “Emptiness empties itself of emptiness, and thus becomes Full, pregnant with all the world, a fruition of the infinite impulse to play, hidden in the heart of your own deepest Self. . . . Out of pure Emptiness that is your deepest suchness, all worlds arise. . . . Just this, and nothing more, just this.”

He can write about himself in a self-critical, intensely confessional style. In Grit and Grace, he tells the story of his marriage to Treya Killam, whom he nursed after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The strain was enormous, and he admits to becoming suicidally depressed and consumed with anger and resentment. The couple went into therapy to save their marriage, and according to him, were more in love than ever when she died in 1988.

No wonder the science writer John Horgan, in his excellent book, Rational Mysticism, tells of meeting a paradoxical Ken Wilber, whom he calls “the Weightlifting Bodhisattva.” He found Wilber to be both self-deprecating and self-important, full of jibs and grand pronouncements. Horgan reminds us that Wilber, in one of his books (One Taste), claims to have achieved the highest state of consciousness, “non-dual awareness.” He brags to Horgan that even the Dalai Lama hadn’t reached this.

What do you do with a man who claims to have become enlightened and achieved a state of consciousness more exalted than that of the Dalai Lama, but who still has such a thin skin for criticism that he regularly skewers his critics in book appendixes, articles, and on his blog? Humility before the cosmos isn’t one of his traits. What his version of non-dual awareness sounds like sometimes is pure male ego, White House style. A Jungian might call it “inflation,” an ego enlarged beyond itself, leading to arrogance and fantasies of mastery.

His view of consciousness tries to unite, by his own admission, the ideas of the Buddha with those of Sigmund Freud, Max Weber, Sri Aurobindo, Jean Piaget, you name it. He divides consciousness into four quadrants: inner, outer, the collective, and the individual. He takes an idea from the Middle Ages, the Great Chain of Being, borrows a word from writer Arthur Koestler—holon—and tells us that consciousness is a continuum, a spectrum of holons, states of being in which a lower state absorbs and goes beyond a previous one in an evolutionary progression. “Include and transcend” is Wilber’s mantra.

But this view has its complications. He may say these holons comprise what he calls a “Great Nest of Being,” but these petals of being don’t fit quite so readily into each other. It’s as if the Great Nest had uneven folds that spill out all over its edges, mucking up the beauty of the metaphor. The Great Nest of Being can appear like a nest that we human raccoons are always messing up.

He knows this; he even makes the messiness central to his idea of therapy and the human project of self-fulfillment. But as a classifier, mystic, and poet, he can’t give up the figure of speech. Holons are supposed to incorporate states that precede them. But people’s raw psyches are always leaking out everywhere. Yes, if you’re integrated, the holons fit nicely. If you’re like the rest of us, striving and imperfect, then you get stuck at one level while only a part of you ascends or “transcends” to another. In his view, it’s therapy’s job to bring a certain alignment to the mind. A yogi would talk in terms of freeing up energies so they travel smoothly up their pathways. To add a more Western metaphor to the mix, you could say he believes in a spiritual chiropractie—it’s the job of therapy to adjust our mental spines and get us walking again.

Here’s where Wilber is of the greatest interest to the therapeutic community. Unlike assorted other gurus, shamans, and transcendental wisdom junkies of our time, he admits that having a higher consciousness isn’t always a guarantee of good mental health or ethical behavior. He tells us that a person may be spiritually enlightened and the psychological equivalent of a wounded, whimpering child. He recognizes that people often get stuck while ascending the ladder of consciousness—they break off parts of themselves and leave them on lower rungs of the ladder. As many a good therapist would say, we aren’t one self, but many, all noisily competing for attention. All this is going on while we appear to the world as mature, spiritually advanced adults.

He’s a big fan of therapy: he understands that even the most advanced yogis may need counseling. All talking therapy, he says in A Brief History of Everything strives for “a more adequate interpretation of one’s interior depth.” It’s a way to find meaning in your dreams, symptoms, being, life. Thus, for him, therapy isn’t just treatment but a branch of philosophy: self-knowledge.

He knows he sounds like an ass himself when he acts like a know-it-all. He’s perfectly aware that he can appear to be the world’s biggest narcissist; he even labels one page of his blog (which includes photos of him) “narcissism central.” The trouble is he’s wonderfully knowledgeable, a guy who takes delight in the robustness of his own capacious intelligence. It’s almost as if he were saying: “I can’t help it if I just know so much! I’m curious, I’m driven, I read and write all the time (while I pump a lot of iron).”

So, he may be the little boy braggart who just can’t stop showing off (and who’s aware of that himself). But with such a guy—and a friend to the therapeutic project—we just may need to cut him a little slack, despite our annoyance. Should he be more modest? Sure. But when you’re Ken Wilber, you know this in spite of yourself. Worrying about hubris can wait. He’s got more books, blogs, and articles to write.

Richard Handler

Richard Handler is a radio producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto, Canada.