The Enlightenment Conundrum
Ken Wilber continues to astound me. After reading his first dozen or so books, and feeling as though I had leaped a great chasm of mystery, I turned my attention to other writers and other ideas and other ways of looking at the world. Almost always, however, I studied the different theories of the mind and consciousness. Most recently, I’d been reading Daniel C. Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter, Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins—all “materialists” who see the universe from an evolutionary point of view and regard consciousness as an effect of physical-biological events. I had just reached a point in my semi-understanding where I was comfortable with the idea that consciousness could be described as complex patterns of neuronal activity, and it was getting more and more difficult for me to relate all that to Wilber’s Spectrum of Consciousness, something that had supported my conceptual cosmology for a decade. I wondered if perhaps I had outgrown Wilber. And then a friend told me about his recent book, Integral Spirituality. It’s been sitting in my stack of “to be read” books for some months. After slogging through the introductory chapters and reviewing concepts I hadn’t thought of for a couple of years, I began to sense something important.
Wilber, some years ago, made a point of dividing his
major ideas, represented by his prolific catalog of books, into stages of his theories: Wilber I, Wilber II, Wilber III, etc. I had
read all his books, although not in the order he had written them, so I had
encountered some frustrating confusion about “okay, what is he really
saying now?” And then, as I would catch up with him, he seemed to complicate
his whole theoretical system again with subtle new additions. When he finally
published The Complete Works of Ken Wilber, I thought that at least I could,
with some effort, get a handle on “Reality According to Ken Wilber.” I
bought the only two volumes of his Works
that contained pieces I didn’t already own.
Many writers begin their public careers with a blockbuster book, their Major Opus, in which their contribution to the wisdom of the world is spelled out in full. Following that “big one,” their work seems to thin out, perhaps being derivative of their initial contribution. One might have thought that about Ken Wilber thirty years ago, after he published his Spectrum of Consciousness. He went on to publish, in the next four years, three more books that applied more detail to his theories of transpersonal psychology. Then his thinking began to evolve. Contributions of other people in his field and in related fields were incorporated into his writing. (I’m sure he would say that these influences, at least those in existence as he wrote, were duly acknowledged and critiqued at the time, for he is a prolific reader.) Wilber’s most outstanding characteristic is as a synthesizer—or as he has expressed it, an integrator. Integration is his announced forte.
I had just finished reading Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon when I began Wilber’s Integral Spirituality. Dennett had “settled” the debate between religion and science, asserting that religion, as a phenomenon of human activity, must be considered a topic in which scientific inquiry has a legitimate role to play. Religion, being a meme (that is, a cultural cluster of replicators, similar in function to genes in biology), can be studied like any political or sociological or economic phenomena. Not all serious thinkers agree, but never mind, he insisted; it must be.
Wilber doesn’t disagree (although he did call the concept of memes “discredited” in his book). The difference is that Wilber approaches religion as an expression of Spirit rather than a collection of neuronal patterns. Both Dennett, et al, and Wilber dismiss the duality of mind and matter. The materialists consider mind to be “simply” an arrangement of neuronal patterns; Wilber sees the entire Kosmos (the cosmos being but a part of it) as Spirit, the Ground of All Being, manifesting itself. There’s a great gulf between these points of view, but I can imagine, at least, a way of thinking about them that is not contradictory or even mutually exclusive. Still, I wondered if I was overlooking something.
One of the things that had been bothering me is the fact that, with all our technology, we still cannot know what is in a person’s mind without their telling us. We can examine patterns of electrical activity in the brain, but that tells us absolutely nothing of what the person is actually experiencing. How then, can we subject those experiences to any kind of scientific analysis? If I report that an apple in my hand is red, and you agree, how do we know that “red” means the same thing to both of us? If a Zen student reports a spiritual experience, how does his teacher know it is “real?” Most importantly, how can a scientist compare such subjective experiences?
Gradually, evidence is being accumulated linking interior mental states with exterior observations, in various fields of investigation. Observing patterns of electrical activity in the brain is but one way; psychologists and other scientists are developing more and more subtle tools for determining how one mind compares with another. For example, “intelligence,” which used to refer to a very limited measurement of mental capability, is now applied to a wide range of developmental scales, giving us what might be called “emotional intelligence,” “cognitive intelligence,” “moral intelligence,” and so on. One such scale could even be called “spiritual intelligence.” A person might be at one level in one scale but an entirely different level in another. The Zen master can apply standards based upon years of personal experience with students to evaluate the degree of “enlightenment” attained by his pupil, but this point of view may have nothing at all to do with the scales of psychological growth put forth by developmental psychologists.
According to Wilber, these differences are not necessarily at odds with each other. He recommends that one who is currently in a meditation practice continue with the practice; only that he or she should also consider the development of these other lines—these other “intelligences.” Otherwise, spiritual growth can stall at a lower state of enlightenment.
Ten years ago, I felt I had stumbled upon a new country, a new way to look at life and the universe. Ken Wilber gave me a way to move through the fog of my lack of understanding. Today, after wondering if perhaps I was moving on past his vision, I find that he is still there, offering me wisdom that I have never found anywhere else.
Donald Skiff August 2, 2007