Participation, Metaphysics, and Enlightenment: Reflections on Ken Wilber’s Recent Work Jorge N. Ferrer



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Transpersonal Psychology Review, 14(2), 3-24, 2011


Participation, Metaphysics, and Enlightenment: Reflections on Ken Wilber’s Recent Work

Jorge N. Ferrer

In memory of David Fontana (1934–2010),

pioneer of British transpersonalism

This paper discusses a number of key issues raised in the recent dialogue on the work of Ken Wilber between John Rowan and Michael Daniels, mediated by David Fontana and chaired by Malcolm Walley (Rowan, Daniels, Fontana, & Walley, 2009). First, it responds to Rowan’s defense of Wilber’s work in the wake of the participatory critique. Second, it addresses the question of the cultural versus universal nature of Wilber’s Kosmic habits in dialogue with Daniels’s contribution. Third, it offers a critique of Wilber’s integral post-metaphysics and contrasts this with participatory spirituality. Fourth, it discusses the nature of enlightenment, as well as meditation, integral practice, and spiritual individuation. The paper concludes with some concrete directions in which to move the dialogue forward.

I am grateful to the editors of Transpersonal Psychology Review for the opportunity to clarify and develop aspects of my participatory perspective in view of the recently published dialogue on Ken Wilber’s latest contributions to transpersonal psychology (Rowan, Daniels, Fontana, & Walley, 2009). For the sake of focus, I limit my discussion to four key issues raised in the dialogue: (a) the participatory critique of Wilber’s work, (b) the cultural versus universal nature of Wilber’s Kosmic habits, (c) the question of (post-)metaphysics in spiritual discourse, and (d) the nature of enlightenment.



The participatory critique of Wilber’s work: Response to Rowan

After an account of his spiritual journey, Rowan defends Wilber’s model against critics who detect an Eastern bias in its allegedly universal spiritual map. To this end, Rowan offers a list of Western sources considered in Wilber’s work; in addition, he endorses Wilber’s claim that Underhill’s stages of the Christian mystical path conform with Wilber’s scheme.

This reply is unconvincing. With regard to Rowan’s first defense, it should be obvious that the mere inclusion of Western sources does not warrant their ‘fair use,’ so to speak. The issue is not that Wilber ignores Western (or indigenous) traditions, but that he regards their goals as ‘lower’ spiritual expressions in a single developmental sequence culminating in a monistically-based integral nondual realization. As I elaborate elsewhere (Ferrer, 2002), there is nothing new about this move. A legion of religious figures—from Ramanuja to Kukai, Vivekananda to Zaehner to the Dalai Lama—situate their favored (and remarkably different) spiritual choices at the zenith of a hierarchy of spiritual insights whose lower steps are linked to rival traditions or schools.1 In any event, since the nondual realization of the ultimate identity between the self and the divine (and/or the Kosmos) is the explicit goal of certain Eastern schools (e.g., Advaita Vedanta), it is understandable that scholars find an Eastern bias in Wilber’s scheme.2

As for Rowan’s second statement, though both Underhill (1955) and Wilber (1995, 2006) offer universal maps of spiritual development — a highly discredited notion in contemporary scholarship — their final stages are far from equivalent. Wilber erroneously equates Underhill’s ‘divine mysticism’ with his own ‘states of nondual union’. Underhill’s ‘unitive life,’ however, is characterized not by the nondual realization of one’s deepest self as the divine, but by a process of ‘deification’ (theosis) resulting from the ongoing ‘spiritual marriage’ between God and the soul. In Christian mysticism, even for Pseudo-Dionysius, deification or ‘being as much as possible like and in union with God’ (McGinn & McGinn, 2003, p.186) is a gift bestowed by God based on the soul’s participation in (vs. identity with) divine nature that should not be mistaken with monistic nondual claims (McGinn & McGinn, 2003). In fact, Underhill explicitly rejects monistic interpretations holding that ‘extreme mystics preach the annihilation of the self and regard themselves as co-equal with the Deity’ (Underhill, 1955, p.419) and insists that ‘the great mystics are anxious above all things to establish and force on us the truth that by deification they intend no arrogant claim to identification with God’ (Ibid. p.420).3 Even if a marginal number of Christian mystics might have reported states of nondual union with God — a view that Underhill did not support — those are arguably different from Wilber’s nonduality.4 Further, not only nonduality but also mystical union fails to typify the dominant trends of the Christian mystical tradition, which are more adequately described as cultivating the ‘direct presence of God,’ as McGinn (1994a, p.xvii) stated in the introduction to his authoritative multivolume history of Western Christian mysticism. Even if one cites the work of Marion (2000) or other modern Christian authors influenced by Wilber’s model, doing so does not change two thousand years of documented history. In any event, since a variety of nondual states have been reported across traditions, I suggest that instead of an ‘Eastern bias,’ it may be more accurate to talk about a ‘monistic nondual bias’ in Wilber’s approach (see also Ferrer, 2002, pp.89-90).

Rowan proceeds with a three-part defense of Wilber’s work against my participatory critique (Ferrer, 2002). First, he claims to be responding to my challenge of the perennialist idea that mystics are ‘all saying the same thing’ (Rowan et al., 2009, p.10), and without providing supporting evidence, states that ‘it turns out the more precisely the [mystical] experiences are described, the more similar they seem to be’ (Ibid. p.10).5 Without further explanation, he adds that Wilber’s version of the perennial philosophy is more sophisticated than the one I critiqued. However, among the varieties of perennialism discussed in my work — basic, esotericist, perspectival, typological, and structuralist — only the basic type holds that mystics are ‘all saying the same thing’ (Ferrer, 2000b, 2002). I know of nobody today, including Wilber, who holds this view, so I am puzzled as to why Rowan brings it up in this context. As for Rowan’s additional claim, contemporary scholarship reveals exactly the opposite picture: The more precisely mystical states are described, the more disparate they appear to be, such that features that may have initially appeared similar turn out, on closer inspection, to represent significant divergences. As Mommaers and van Bragt (1995) point out, ‘the mystics themselves would be the last ones to concede a single, common essence in mystical awareness’ (p.45). The supporting literature is too voluminous to cite here, but the reader can consult Hollenback’s (1996) meticulous work, which shows the striking differences between the mystical states and understandings of Western, Eastern, and indigenous figures. I am mindful that Wilber’s model can explain these and other differences by appealing to his four mysticism types (psychic, subtle, causal, nondual), their enaction from the perspective of different structures of consciousness (archaic, magic, mythic, rational, pluralistic, integral, and super-integral), and the interpretive impact of each tradition’s language and doctrines. I will return to this below, but let us first look at Rowan’s second point.

Second, Rowan misconstrues my critique of experientialism — targeted at a subtly dualistic and individualist account of spirituality arguably associated with spiritual narcissism and integrative arrestment (Ferrer, 2000a, 2002) — as suggesting the altogether different point that mystics are conformists. In any event, Rowan champions the view that the great mystics are spiritual revolutionaries, mentioning (as usual in these cases) Meister Eckhart as paradigmatic.6 Unfortunately, Eckhart is so well known precisely because of his rather exceptional break with tradition and famous Inquisition trial (McGinn, 2001).7 In other words, heretic mystics are actually the exception to the rule, and most mystics adhere to received doctrines and scriptures (see, e.g., Katz, 1983a, 1983b, 2000). As Harmless (2008) points out, ‘[t]he widespread intertwining of the doctrinal and the mystical is no accident … Mystics often set forth their (or other’s) experiences as the experience of doctrine’ (p.233). The romantic view of the mystic as revolutionary heretic is simply not supported by the historical evidence.8

In addition, I am perplexed by Rowan’s claim that the participatory approach renders mysticism dependent on cultural conditions, since my work explicitly critiques this strong constructivist view (Ferrer, 2002, pp.140-144) and presents participatory spirituality as emerging from the interaction among human multidimensional cognition, historical-cultural background, and the generative power of life, the cosmos, and/or the mystery. Furthermore, whereas past mysticism may be largely conservative, participatory approaches (contra Rowan’s depiction) invite us to undertake not only the revision of traditional religious forms, but also the cocreation of novel spiritual understandings, practices, and even expanded states of freedom.

Third, Rowan claims that my critique does not apply to Wilber’s current views and that, as I indicated in Revisioning Transpersonal Theory (Ferrer, 2002), the majority of transpersonal writers ‘still do adhere to a more sophisticated view of the perennial philosophy’ (Rowan et al., 2009, p.10). I am not sure what to make of Rowan’s last remark, but what I wrote almost ten years ago is no longer applicable in a transpersonal community that has mostly broken free from Wilber’s stranglehold. It goes without saying that even if a majority would still support perennialism, this has nothing to do with its validity. Turning to Rowan’s more substantive point, it is true that in my early work, due to the vagaries of publishing that Rowan generously acknowledges,9 I could not address Wilber-4 (2000); however, I argue that the core of the critique holds for not only Wilber-4 but also Wilber-5 (2006).

Despite Wilber’s (2006) significant revisions (e.g., letting go of ‘involutionary givens’ in transpersonal stages), his current model holds that (1) spiritual development and evolution follow a sequence of (now evolutionarily laid down) states and stages (psychic/subtle/causal/nondual); (2) this sequence is universal, paradigmatic, and mandatory for all human beings regardless of culture, tradition, or spiritual orientation; (3) nondual realization is the single ultimate summit of spiritual growth; and (4) spiritual traditions are geared to the cultivation of particular states and stages. To be sure, the Wilber-Combs lattice complicates this account further by allowing that practitioners from any tradition and at any developmental stage can, in theory, access all transpersonal states (though the states would be interpreted from those corresponding perspectives). Wilber’s current formulation, however, retains a core problem and adds a new one. On the one hand, some traditions still rank lower than others since they aim at supposedly less advanced spiritual states and stages (e.g., theistic traditions rank lower than nondual ones, shamanic ones lower than theistic, etc.).10 On the other hand, the new grace offered to rival traditions is a Faustian bargain: theistic and shamanic practitioners are told that they too can reach the most advanced spiritual stage, but only if they sacrifice the integrity of their own tradition’s self-understanding by accepting Wilber’s spiritual itinerary and nondual endpoint.11 Though different traditions obviously focus on the enacting of particular mystical states and goals (#4 above), I strongly dispute the plausibility and legitimacy of Wilber’s hierarchical rankings (#1–3 above).

Because the participatory approach has been pigeon-holed as relativist and self-contradictory (Wilber, 2002), I should stress here that though my work does not privilege any tradition or type of spirituality over others on objectivist or ontological grounds (i.e., saying that theism, monism, or nondualism corresponds to the nature of ultimate reality and/or is intrinsically superior), it does offer criteria for making qualitative distinctions among spiritual systems on pragmatic and transformational grounds. Specifically, I have suggested two basic guidelines: the egocentrism test, which assesses the extent to which spiritual traditions, teachings, and practices free practitioners from gross and subtle forms of narcissism and self-centeredness; and the dissociation test, which evaluates the extent to which spiritual traditions, teachings, and practices foster the integrated blossoming of all dimensions of the person (Ferrer, 2002, 2008a, 2008b, 2010). Since it is likely that most religious traditions would not rank too highly in the dissociation test (see Ferrer, 2008a), it should be obvious that the participatory approach also leads to a strong ranking of spiritual orientations.

The crucial difference is that the participatory rankings are not ideologically based on a priori ontological doctrines or putative correspondence to a single nondual Spiritual Reality, but instead ground critical discernment in the practical values of selflessness, embodiment, and integration. I stand by these values, not because I think they are ‘universal’ (they are not), but because I firmly believe that their cultivation can effectively reduce personal, relational, social, and planetary suffering. To be sure, this distinction can be problematized since the specificities of the various spiritual transformational goals often derive from ontological views about the nature of reality or the divine. As I elaborate below, however, the participatory ranking is not itself precipitated by the privileging of a single spiritual goal, but rather explodes into a plurality of potentially holistic spiritual realizations that can take place within and outside traditions. Furthermore, most traditions are today reconstructing themselves in precisely these embodied and holistic directions.

To summarize, even after Wilber’s ad hoc modifications, his model still privileges nondual, monistic, and formless spiritualities over theistic and visionary ones,12 even as it seeks to confine the multiplicity of spiritual expressions to a single, unilinear sequence of spiritual development. Insofar as Wilber’s model retains this sequence and associated doctrinal rankings of spiritual states, stages, and traditions, the essence of the participatory critique is both applicable and effective. However, although I consider the critique justifiable, I do not think of it as a definitive refutation of Wilber’s model (though its claimed universality is refutable by evidence). My sense is that both the participatory and Wilberian visions can accommodate spiritual diversity in different ways. In the same way that alternative and even logically incompatible theories can fit all possible evidence—as the Duhem-Quine principle of ‘underdetermination of theory by evidence, shows (Duhem, 1953; Quine, 1953) — it is likely that these alternative, integral meta-theories can fit all possible spiritual data. In contrast to Wilber’s theory, however, I submit that participatory integralism meets this challenge (a) without distorting traditions’ self-understanding;13 (b) by engendering more harmonious inter-religious relations (Ferrer, 2010); and (c) by emancipating individual spiritual inquiry and growth from the constraints of an evolutionarily laid-down, pregiven sequence of transpersonal stages (Ferrer, 2002; Heron, 1998). In addition, I contend that the participatory approach is more aligned with the seemingly inexhaustible creativity of the mystery and more parsimonious in its accounting for the same spiritual evidence. Notably, it is unclear whether the ever-increasing conceptual proliferation of Wilber’s integral theory is truly necessary, or whether it may suggest the exhaustion of the model’s explanatory effectiveness and the possible degeneration of his research program.



Kosmic Habits: Cultural or universal?

It should come as no surprise to readers familiar with my work that I concur with virtually everything Daniels says in the dialogue (e.g., about the ideological nature of Wilber’s map; its distortion of the God of the Semitic traditions, etc.). Since Daniels’s perspective is so germane to mine, I will not spend time re-affirming our many areas of convergence and instead focus my efforts on clarifying my view of participatory cocreation and reflecting on the related question of the cultural versus universal nature of Wilber’s Kosmic habits.

As a preliminary aside, I was relieved to finally see in print what has been in the mind of so many in transpersonal and integral circles for years: Wilber-5 is, in part, a ‘participatory revision of Wilber-4.’14 As Daniels notes, the cocreated nature of the spiritual path, the language of participation, and the use of the myth of the given in spiritual critical discourse are central features of the participatory approach introduced in my early work (Ferrer, 2000a, 2000b, 2001, 2002). This participatory reform is startling, especially given Wilber’s (2002) dismissive account of Revisioning Transpersonal Theory as expressing ‘a green-meme approach to spirituality, a kind of participatory samsara equated with nirvana.’15 As Daniels points out, Wilber often displays the disturbing scholarly habit of incorporating into his theorizing critical points made by others about his work — at times points he previously dismissed as misinformed or conveying less evolved levels of spiritual discernment — and presenting them as autonomous developments of his thinking. In this case, Wilber has assimilated aspects of the participatory approach into his integral vision; from a participatory perspective, however, many problems remain.

Daniels writes that, whereas in my view the different ‘cocreated [spiritual] realities are cultural constructions’ (Rowan et al., 2009, p.21), for Wilber ‘these cocreated structures … become parts of the Kosmos … ontological realities that everybody has to negotiate’ (Ibid. p.21). Stated this way, however, Daniels’s account might mislead readers to associate the participatory approach with cultural constructivism, which I explicitly critique as operating under the spell of what Popper (1994) calls the ‘myth of the framework’ (Ferrer, 2002, p.141). In the present context, this myth suggests that mystics and religious practitioners are prisoners of their cultures and conceptual frameworks, and that spiritual knowledge must always be shaped by or screened through such frameworks. In contrast, participatory approaches conceive mystical phenomena as cocreated events emerging not only from culture, but also from the interaction of human multidimensional cognition and a nondetermined mystery or creative power of life, the cosmos, and/or spirit (Ferrer, 2002; Ferrer, 2008a; Ferrer & Sherman, 2008a, 2008b). In other words, participatory spirituality embraces the role of language and culture in religious phenomena while simultaneously recognizing the importance, and at times the centrality, of nonlinguistic (somatic, energetic, imaginal, archetypal, etc.) and transcultural factors (the creative power of life and/or the spirit) in shaping religious experiences. As we put it in the introduction to The Participatory Turn:

The adoption of an enactive paradigm of cognition in the study of religion, however, frees us from the myth of the framework … by holding that human multidimensional cognition cocreatively participates in the emergence of a number of plausible enactions of reality. Participatory enaction, in other words, is epistemologically constructivist and metaphysically realist. (Ferrer & Sherman, 2008b, p.35)

As Gleig and Boeving (2009) write in their essay review of the book: ‘Ontological veracity … is not inherently at odds with a contextualist sensibility. To acknowledge that humans do not only discover but also shape and co-create spiritual landscapes does not annul the metaphysical reality of such mystical worlds’ (p.66).16

I suspect that the source of Daniels’s apparent misapprehension of my view may be largely semantic. In particular, I wonder whether it emerges from the implicit equation of ‘Kosmic’ (or ‘ontological’) with ‘universal’ in the dialogue. After all, Daniels writes:

I don’t deny that groups of people can cocreate … morphogenetic fields — or habits of working, or patterns of working … What I am denying is that they become Kosmic habits — that they become realities that are given in the Kosmos, and are fixed, and everyone has to go through them. (Rowan et al., 2009, p.35)

I concur. Daniels immediately adds, however, that I view cocreated spiritual realities as ‘cultural habits… not Kosmic habits’ (Ibid. p.36). To which I respond that yes, they are cultural but not merely cultural; they are also morphogenetic fields of energy and consciousness, which, though not universal or mandatory, can become more available as we explore new shores of the Kosmos. The key point is that we do not need to conflate ‘Kosmic’ and ‘universal’ if we consider the Kosmos a plural cornucopia creatively advancing in multiple ontological directions. Wilber wants to confine such ontological multiplicity to his unilinear evolutionary sequence, but I believe it is both more accurate and more generous to envision cosmic and spiritual evolution as branching out in many different but potentially intermingled directions (or as an omnicentered rhizome propagating through offshoots and thickenings of its nodes; Deleuze & Guattari, 1987). If we accept this view, we can affirm the ontological nature of a plurality of Kosmic habits free from Wilberian dogmatic constraints.

There may also be deeper philosophical issues behind Daniels’s reluctance to grant an ontological status to Wilber’s Kosmic habits. Following Jung, Daniels (2001) proposes that transpersonal psychology should remain metaphysically agnostic toward any ontological reality beyond the physical and psychological (cf. Friedman, 2002) and should focus on the phenomenological study of human experience. This apparently prudent stance, however, is rooted in an implicit allegiance to neo-Kantian frameworks that either bracket or deny the existence of supernatural and metaphysical realities. At its heart rests the Kantian belief that innate or deeply seated epistemic constraints in human cognition render impossible or illicit any knowledge claim about such metaphysical realities. In other words, metaphysical realities may exist, but the only thing we can access is our situated phenomenal awareness of them. The legitimacy of metaphysical agnosticism is thus contingent on the validity of a neo-Kantian dualistic metaphysics, which, although not necessarily wrong (based on its metaphysical status, that is), nonetheless undermines the professed neutrality of metaphysical agnosticism (cf. King, 1999, pp.169-186; Lancaster, 2002). Indeed, as Northcote (2004) persuasively argues, the methodological suspension of the validity of supernormal claims (e.g., about metaphysical entities or levels of reality), far from warranting objectivism or scholarly neutrality in the study of religion, may actually constitute a bias against ‘the possibility that people’s thinking and behaviour are indeed based on various supernormal forces … a bracketing approach will falsely attribute mundane sociological explanations to behaviour that is in actuality shaped by supernatural forces’ (p.89). Accordingly, Northcote issues a call for dialogue between Western naturalist and alternative perspectives in the appraisal of supernormal claims.

The point here is that unless one subscribes ideologically to a naturalistic metaphysics,17 it may be prudent — and heuristically fertile — not to reject a priori the possibility of effective causation from the various metaphysical sources described in religious utterances. In addition, Western epistemologies (such as the neo-Kantianism prevalent in modern academia) may not be the last arbiters in the assessment of religious knowledge claims, and in particular of those emerging from long-term contemplative practice.18 As King (1999) states:

My point is not that Western scholars should necessarily accept the emic [epistemological] perspectives over which they are claiming the authority to speak, but rather that they at least entertain the possibility that such perspectives are a legitimate stance to adopt and engage them in constructive debate. (p.183)

Why do I insist on the ontological (vs. merely cultural) nature of Kosmic habits? As I see it, this is the most plausible explanation for the well-documented transcultural access to apparently ‘given’ spiritual motives and realities (e.g., Grof, 1985, 1988, 1998; Shanon, 2002). The other alternative is to appeal to Jung’s notions of the collective unconscious and universal archetypes, but as Shanon (2002) explains, Jungian explanations fall short. On the one hand, many psychedelic visions are very different from those connected with the Jungian archetypes (e.g., the Hero, the Trickster, the Great Mother); on the other hand, many visions are culture-specific and do not have the universal status of the archetypes, which Jung posited as ‘associated with the common heritage that is shared by all human beings and which may well have evolved throughout the history of the species’ (Ibid. p.391). After a lucid discussion of biological, depth psychological, cognitive, and supernatural interpretations of the related phenomenon of cross-cultural commonalities in ayahuasca visions, Shanon rejects supernatural accounts and leans toward cognitive considerations (Ibid. pp.361-392). His final conclusion, however, is highly attuned to the participatory view of spiritual cocreation:

The cross-personal commonalities exhibited in Ayahuasca visions, the wondrous scenarios revealed by them, and the insights gained through them are perhaps neither just psychological, nor just reflective of other realms, nor are they ‘merely’ a creation of the human mind. Rather, they might be psychological and creative and real. (Ibid. p.401)

The most remarkable feature of the transcultural access to spiritual phenomena is that human beings can enact and understand spiritual insights and cosmologies belonging to specific religious worlds even without previous exposure to them. In Grof’s (1988) words:

In nonordinary states of consciousness, visions of various universal symbols can play a significant role in experiences of individuals who previously had no interest in mysticism or were strongly opposed to anything esoteric. These visions tend to convey instant intuitive understanding of the various levels of meaning of these symbols.

As a result of experiences of this kind, subjects can develop accurate understanding of various complex esoteric teachings. In some instances, persons unfamiliar with the Kabbalah had experiences described in the Zohar and Sepher Yetzirah and obtained surprising insights into Kabbalistic symbols. Others were able to describe the meaning and function of intricate mandalas used in the Tibetan Vajrayana and other tantric systems. (p.139)

Though Grof’s research awaits the more systematic replication necessary to achieve superior scientific status, his data strongly suggest that once particular spiritual realities have been enacted, they become potentially accessible to the entire human species. This account is consistent with Merkur’s (1998) important synthesis of the psychedelic evidence. After indicating that most interpretations of the psychedelic evidence have been biased in favor of the idea of a universal mysticism, Merkur emphasizes that the empirical data have always pointed to a rich diversity of psychedelic spiritual states. More concretely, Merkur distinguishes 24 types of psychedelic unitive states and suggests that some of them may be more representative of certain religious traditions than others. What characterizes the psychedelic state, he tells us, is that it ‘provides access to all’ (p.155). Furthermore, although some of these states can be arranged in terms of increasing complexity, Merkur points out that ‘their development is not unilinear but instead branches outward like a tree of directories and subdirectores on a computer’ (p.98).

As Daniels points out, however, Wilber’s attempt to make such accessibility mandatory for the entire human species is misleading. Once enacted, spiritual realities become more easily accessible, but this does not mean that they are mandatory, predetermined, organized in a transcultural hierarchical fashion, universally sequential in their unfolding, or limited in number, or that new pathways cannot be enacted through cocreative participation:

Like trails cleared in a dense forest, spiritual pathways traveled by others can be more easily crossed, but this does not mean that we cannot open new trails and encounter new wonders (and new pitfalls) in the always inexhaustible Mystery of being. (Ferrer, 2002, p.151)

In my view, then, cocreated spiritual realities (a) can become ontologically ‘given’ in the cosmos; (b) are not fixed but are dynamic and open to human participatory endeavors; (c) are not mandatory; and (d) are always options among other new pathways that can be potentially enacted. Thus, when Fontana cautiously left open ‘for general debate as to whether these Kosmic habits are cultural, or whether they are indeed Kosmic’ (Rowan et al., p.37), participatory scholars might have responded that they are both cultural and Kosmic, but in the open and pluralistic fashion outlined above.



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