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

Post-metaphysical versus participatory spirituality

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Post-metaphysical versus participatory spirituality

In his recent work, Wilber (2006) introduces an integral post-metaphysics that conceives spiritual worlds not as pre-existing ontological levels but as co-created structures of human consciousness. As we have seen, once evolutionarily laid down, Wilber believes that these structures become Kosmic habits or ‘actually existing structures in the Kosmos’ (Wilber, 2006, p.247), though by this he means that they exist within the inner realms of the individual. In his own words:

The claim of Integral Post-Metaphysics is that the invaluable and profound truths of the premodern traditions can be salvaged by realizing that what they are saying and showing applies basically to the Upper-Left quadrant [i.e., the interior of the individual]. (Ibid. p.46)

I have often been asked what I think about Wilber’s post-metaphysical spirituality. My answer: It is not only unoriginal, but also arguably reductionist. I fail to see novelty in it because many contemplative traditions — such as Yogacara (Mind-Only) Buddhism or most Tibetan Buddhist schools — explicitly account for spiritual realms in terms of subtle dimensions of consciousness, not as external metaphysical levels of reality. Wilber seems to be reacting against a special brand of Neo-Platonic metaphysics (the Great Chain of Being), but his post-metaphysical formulation does not add anything to the way some other traditions have understood spiritual realities for centuries. I am somehow surprised each time Wilber borrows age-old notions and presents them as not only the newest spiritual vision, but one that supersedes all previous visions.19

Before explaining why Wilber’s post-metaphysics may be reductionist, let me distinguish between two related but independent meanings of the term metaphysics. On the one hand, the notion of metaphysics in Western philosophy is generally based on the distinction between appearance and reality, with a metaphysical statement being one claiming to portray that ‘Reality’ presumably lying behind the realm of appearances (van Inwagen, 1998, p.12ff). In addition to this use, on the other hand, many religious traditions also use ‘metaphysical worlds’ to refer to levels or dimensions of reality existing beyond the sensible world or within the subtle ontological depths of human consciousness. The first usage is the main target of Derrida’s (1976) attack on the metaphysics of presence. On a strong reading, this critique leads to the a priori denial of the ontological status of any transcendent or metaphysical reality; the weaker reading simply requires a declaration of metaphysical agnosticism.20

Several years before Wilber articulated his integral post-metaphysics, the participatory approach eschewed the dualism of appearance and reality, as well as endorsed modern and postmodern critiques of traditional metaphysics of presence (Ferrer, 2002). In contrast to Wilber, however, I believe that it is entirely possible to consistently drop the mentalist dualism of appearance and reality, and simultaneously entertain the plausibility of a deep and ample multidimensional cosmos in which the sensible world does not exhaust the possibilities of the Real.

In this light, a major problem with Wilber’s formulation becomes apparent: It creates a false dichotomy between pregiven ontological levels and his post-metaphysical account of spiritual worlds within the interior realms of the individual. This dichotomy is fallacious because, among other possibilities, it overlooks the possible presence of subtle dimensions of reality coexisting with our own and potentially housing spiritual worlds and indwelling nonphysical entities.21 As anyone who has engaged systematically in entheogenic inquiry knows, for example, subtle realities and ostensibly autonomous spiritual entities can be encountered not only within one’s inner visionary landscapes (e.g., Strassman, 2001), but also in front of one’s open eyes in the world ‘out there’ (Shanon, 2002) — and these external visions can sometimes be intersubjectively shared (Ferrer, in preparation-b).22

This discussion raises the thorny issue of the ontological nature of subtle or nonphysical entities. Are they cocreated, fully independent, or paradoxically both? I do not have a definitive answer to this question, but I offer three remarks. First, I see no conflict between maintaining that entities such as angels or dakinis may have been historically cocreated and that they can also have autonomy and agency independent from human experience. In my view, these beings (as well as other cocreated spiritual phenomena) are not necessarily reducible to human byproducts, but emerge from subtle, complex, and probably collectively maintained enactive interactions between human multidimensional cognition (not reducible to the mind), cultural memes, and the creative power of life, reality, and/or the spirit. Second, if one accepts the possibility of an afterlife scenario in which personal identity is somehow maintained, it becomes possible to contemplate the feasibility of human encounters with noncocreated entities such as deceased saints, bodhisattvas, ascended masters, and the like23 (I leave open the possibility that what we call angels or dakinis may be evolved incarnations of these deceased personhoods in other dimensions of the cosmos). Finally, as many traditions maintain, we could also entertain the possibility of parallel realms or dimensions of reality inhabited by fully autonomous entities endowed with self-awareness and volition. In the case of angels, dakinis, and the like, however, I confess that their cultural specificity (forms, qualities, etc.) makes me wonder about their cocreated nature.

In any event, if we accept the plausibility of a multidimensional cosmos — as many shamanic, esoteric, and contemplative traditions affirm — Wilber’s integral post-metaphysics is reductionist in its relegation of all spiritual realities to the inner depths of the individual. If he is also suggesting that all spiritual realities and entities are human cocreations, his proposal could also be charged with anthropocentrism.

A participatory understanding, in contrast, allows a bold affirmation of spiritual realities without falling into a reified metaphysics of presence, nor into any of today’s fashionable post-metaphysical reductionisms (whether biological, cultural, or Wilberian-integral). On the one hand, a participatory account of religious worlds overcomes the static and purportedly universal metaphysical structures of the past because it holds that culturally mediated human variables have a formative role in the constitution of such worlds. Whereas the openness of religious worlds to the ongoing visionary creativity of humankind entails their necessary dynamism, the contextual and embodied character of such creative urges requires their plurality. On the other hand, the participatory embrace of the human’s constitutive role in religious matters need not force us to reduce all spiritual realities to mere products of a culturally shaped human subjectivity, nor to confine them necessarily to the interior worlds of the individual.

The question of enlightenment

I close this essay with some reflections on the nature of enlightenment (see also Ferrer, 2002, pp.174-178). Although Daniels suggests more pluralistic possibilities, I was struck by the generalized assumption in the dialogue regarding the unity of enlightenment or the belief that there is a single kind of ultimate spiritual realization. In what follows, I question such an assumption and provide a participatory account of spiritual individuation that allows and supports multiple forms of more holistic spiritual awakenings, which nonetheless can share qualities such as selflessness and embodied integration.

Let me begin by considering Wilber’s definition: ‘Enlightenment is the realization of oneness with all states and structures that are in existence at any given time’ (2006, p.95). To clarify what he means, Wilber proposes a ‘sliding scale of Enlightenment’ according to its ‘Emptiness’ and ‘Form’ aspects. Since the structures of consciousness unfold evolutionarily in the world of Form, one can realize the same Emptiness at any point of history, but later practitioners can embrace Form in fuller ways: ‘A person’s realization today is not Freer than Buddha’s (Emptiness is Emptiness), but it is Fuller than Buddha’s (and will be even fuller down the road)’ (Ibid. p.248).

Wilber’s approach has three important shortcomings. First, it reduces the rich diversity of spiritual soteriologies and goals (deification, kaivalyam, devekut, nirvana, fana, visionary service, unio mystica, etc.) to a rather peculiar hybrid of Buddhist emptiness and Advaita/Zen nondual embrace of the phenomenal world. I critique this reductionism elsewhere (Ferrer, 2000b, 2002) so I will not press the issue again here, but readers can consult the works by Heim (1995), Hollenback (1996), and Kaplan (2002), among many others, for detailed accounts of a variety of remarkably different spiritual goals and realizations. Even a single tradition usually houses different goals and corresponding liberated states. Consider Buddhism, in the words of the Dalai Lama (1988):

Questioner: So, if one is a follower of Vedanta, and one reaches the state of satcitananda, would this not be considered ultimate liberation?

His Holiness: Again, it depends upon how you interpret the words, ‘ultimate liberation.’ The moksa which is described in the Buddhist religion is achieved only through the practice of emptiness. And this kind of nirvana or liberation, as I have defined it above, cannot be achieved even by Svatantrika Madhyamikas, by Cittamatras, Sautrantikas or Vaibhasikas. The follower of these schools, though Buddhists, do not understand the actual doctrine of emptiness. Because they cannot realize emptiness, or reality, they cannot accomplish the kind of liberation I defined previously. (pp.23-24)

Like the Dalai Lama, Wilber may retort that many traditions are not aimed at (what he considers to be) ultimate liberation.24 Such a response, however, begs the question by assuming the validity of the very framework being challenged: Wilber’s ranking of spiritual states/stages and account of final liberation. We are back to square one.

Second, serious questions can be raised about Wilber’s claim that the Buddha achieved complete freedom. In contrast to later articulations of emptiness (sunyata), the Buddha’s nirvana is described in the Buddhist canon as an utterly disembodied state of blissful consciousness in which all personality factors — including sensations, desires, feelings, and thoughts — have been totally extinguished (Harvey, 1995). This should not come as a surprise: Most traditions spawned in India regarded embodied life as illusory or a source of suffering, thus seeking liberation in its transcendence. The dominant view in the Indian tradition is to consider spiritual freedom (moksa, mukti) as the release from the cycle of transmigratory experience (samsara), the body as bound and even created by karma and ignorance, and bodiless liberation (at death) as superior to living embodied liberation (Ford, 1998). Immersed in this cultural-religious matrix, the Buddha also believed that the body and sexuality (and aspects of the heart, such as certain passions) were hindrances to spiritual flourishing (Faure, 1998), and early Buddhism pictured the body as a repulsive source of suffering, nirvana as extinction of bodily senses and desires, and ‘final nirvana’ (parinirvana) as attainable only after death (Collins, 1998). Though some exceptions may be found, this trend generally led the various Buddhist schools and vehicles to the repression, regulation, and/or transmutation of body and sexuality at the service of the ‘higher’ goal of the liberation of consciousness.

So, was the historical Buddha entirely ‘Free,’ as Wilber believes? My answer: Only if you understand spiritual freedom in the disembodied, and arguably dissociative, way pursued by early Buddhism.25 Despite his downplaying the spiritual import of sexuality and the vital world, Sri Aurobindo (2001) was correct when he pointed out that a liberation of consciousness in consciousness should not be confused with an integral transformation that entails the spiritual alignment of all human dimensions (pp.942ff). With this in mind, I have proposed an integral bodhisattva vow in which the conscious mind renounces full liberation until the body, the heart, and the primary world can be free as well from the alienating tendencies that prevent them from sharing freely in the unfolding life of the mystery here on earth (Ferrer, 2008b, 2011). Since the conscious mind is the seat of most individuals’ sense of identity, an exclusive liberation of consciousness can be extremely deceptive insofar as one can believe that one is fully free when, in fact, essential dimensions of the self are underdeveloped, alienated, or in bondage — as the numerous sexual, emotional, and relational difficulties of traditionally ‘enlightened’ teachers attest (Feuerstein, 2006; Forsthoefel & Humes, 2005; Kripal, 1999; Storr, 1996).

Third, despite Wilber’s (1995) plea for the integration of ascending and descending spiritual trends, his account of spiritual freedom in terms of Buddhist emptiness reveals an ascending and ‘monopolar’ bias. Since the ascending bias has been already discussed (Daniels, M., 2005, 2009), I focus here on the monopolar charge. As Heron (1998, 2006) explains, in addition to spiritualities that blatantly devalue body and world, monopolar spirituality is a more subtle type of disembodied orientation that sees spiritual life as emerging from the interaction of our immediate present experience with the structures or levels of transcendent consciousness (cf. Ferrer, 2008b; Ferrer, Albareda, & Romero, 2004; Romero & Albareda, 2001).26 The shortcoming of this monopolar understanding is that it ignores the existence of a second spiritual pole — immanent spiritual life or energy — that is intimately connected to the vital world and arguably stores the most generative power of the mystery (Ferrer, 2003; Ferrer & Sherman, 2008b). Wilber’s account is monopolar insofar as it conceives enlightenment in terms of a realization in consciousness that overlooks the crucial role of immanent life for genuinely integral spiritual growth and creative spiritual breakthroughs.

Wilber’s proposed logic of ‘transcend and include’ as the formula of spiritual development gives the game away. When the mind emerges, it is said to transcend and include the body, vital energy, and emotions; when the witness consciousness emerges, it is said to transcend and include the mind; when higher structures of consciousness emerge, they are said to transcend and include the witness; and so forth.27 Wilber regards the body and sexuality as sacred in the sense of having spiritual ‘ground value’ (i.e., they are expressions of absolute Spirit, emptiness, or God) and in that they can be sacralized in the nondual integral embrace; however, this account is very different from recognizing the centrality of intrinsically spiritual, immanent sources for holistic transpersonal development. When both consciousness and energy (and matter) are understood as equally fundamental spiritual players, integral spiritual development unfolds in a dialectical interaction with both transcendent and immanent spiritual sources that the logic of ‘transcend and include’ fails to capture (see Ferrer, 2003; Ferrer, Albareda, & Romero, 2004; Heron, 1998, 2006). A fully embodied spirituality, I suggest, emerges from the creative interplay of both immanent and transcendent spiritual energies in individuals who embrace the fullness of human experience while remaining firmly grounded in body and earth (Ferrer, 2008b). Openness to immanent spiritual life naturally engenders a richer plurality of creative spiritual realizations — often connected with transformative personal life choices — that cannot be reduced to the homogenous ‘one taste’ of Wilber’s nondual realization.

I strongly suspect that this one-sidedness is behind Wilber’s (2006) elevation of meditation as the royal path to spiritual growth. He writes:

No other single practice or technique — no therapy, not breathwork, not transformative workshops, not role-taking, not hatha yoga—has been empirically demonstrated to do this. (…) the reason meditation does so is simple enough. When you meditate, you are in effect witnessing the mind, thus turning subject into object — which is exactly the core mechanism of development. (Wilber, 2006, p.198)

As Daniels (2009) indicates, however, meditation is, at least historically, an ascending spiritual practice.28 Further, remember that the particular meditative techniques favored by Wilber originated in religious systems seeking to liberate human beings from the suffering and/or illusory nature of both body and world through identification with the Self, the achievement of nirvana, and so forth. It may be countered that all contemplative traditions privilege one or another type of ascending meditation practice, to which I would respond that this is likely to be so because most past religious traditions were strongly patriarchal and leaned toward disembodiment and dissociation — see Ferrer (2008b) for documentation of this claim. Consistent with his spiritual rankings, Wilber’s enthroning of meditation as the spiritual practice par excellence privileges contemplative traditions over alternative visionary, wisdom, devotional, and socially engaged ones. In his concluding comment, Fontana gets to the heart of the matter when, in light of the four yogas of Hinduism — karma (yoga of action), bhakti (yoga of devotion), jnana (yoga of wisdom), and raja (yoga of meditation) — he suggests that meditation may be the path only for raja yogis (Rowan, et al., 2009, pp.58-59).

I am not questioning the value of meditation. I practiced Buddhist meditation (Zen and vipassana) regularly for about fifteen years, studied with meditation teachers, and attended many meditation retreats. Though I no longer practice daily, I sit sometimes and many features of meditation (e.g., mindfulness, inquiry) are central to the way I relate to my life and the world. In my experience, Buddhist meditation is extremely helpful to (a) become clearly aware of, learn to relate more adequately to, and free oneself from conditioning habits and plainly neurotic loops of the mind; (b) become more accepting, peaceful, and equanimous with one’s own and others’ experiences and reactions; and (c) enact and participate in a Buddhist engagement of the world marked by an awareness of impermanence, no-self, emptiness, and the interrelatedness of all phenomena that can lead to the emergence of beautiful spiritual qualities such as compassion and sympathetic joy. Though potentially deeply beneficial and transformative, however, traditional Buddhist meditation training has obvious limitations in fostering a truly integral spiritual development. This is evident, for example, in the control of body posture and potential repression of somatic intelligence (cf. Ray, 2008), the strict regulation of sexual behavior and prohibition of the creative exploration of sensual desire (Faure, 1998; Loy, 2008), the individualist focus and lack of relational and collective practices (Rothberg, 2008), the aversion toward the expression of strong emotions such as anger (Masters, 2000), and the overall lack of discrimination between attachment and passions.

Perhaps aware of these limitations, Wilber currently recommends an Integral Life Practice (ILP) in which practitioners select ready-made practices from different modules corresponding to trainable human capacities, such as body, mind, spirit, sex, and relationships (see Wilber, 2006; Wilber, Patten, Leonard, & Morelli, 2008). As Wilber (2006) writes, ‘[t]he basic rule is simple: pick one practice for each module and exercise them concurrently’ (p.202). Wilber (2006) and his associates particularly recommend what they consider ‘gold star practices,’ many of which involve acceptance and instruction in Wilber’s system. For example, the ‘gold star practice’ for the mind is the ‘Integral (AQAL) Framework’ (or the ‘downloading’ in the practitioner’s mind of the ‘Integral Operating System’); for spirit, starred practices include ‘Integral Inquiry’ (i.e., a Wilberian synthesis of selected meditative practices) and ‘The 1-2-3 of God’ (Ibid. p.203). In addition to important doctrinal elements embedded in the system, Wilber’s ILP can easily turn into a ‘mentally’ devised integral training in which the practitioner’s mind decides what are the best practices or techniques to develop his or her body, sexuality, heart, and consciousness. The problem here is that insofar as they are always mentally or externally guided, these human dimensions cannot mature autonomously, and thus the need for their mental or external direction becomes permanently justified. What is needed to break this deeply-seated feedback loop, I believe, is to create spaces in which these human dimensions can mature according to their own developmental principles and dynamics, not according to the ones the mind considers most adequate (see Ferrer, 2003; Ferrer, Romero, & Albareda, 2005; Romero & Albareda, 2001).

A last point about Wilber’s view of meditation: As the above reflects, I wholeheartedly agree with Fontana that meditation may not be the most effective or appropriate spiritual practice for everybody (for some it can be even counter-indicated; see Treleaven, 2010). I want to add here that to elevate one’s own spiritual choice as the universally superior one is a symptom of what I have called spiritual narcissism, which is unfortunately pandemic in the human approach to religious diversity (Ferrer, 2010, 2011). From a participatory perspective, however, it is no longer a contested issue whether practitioners endorse a theistic, nondual, or naturalistic account of the mystery, or whether their chosen path of spiritual cultivation is meditation, social engagement, conscious parenting, entheogenic shamanism, sacred sexuality, or communion with nature. (Of course, it may be desirable to complement each pathway with practices that cultivate other human potentials — hence the importance of non-mentally guided integral practice). The new spiritual bottom line, in contrast, is the degree to which each spiritual path fosters both an overcoming of self-centeredness and a fully embodied integration that make us not only more sensitive to the needs of others, nature, and the world, but also more effective cultural and planetary transformative agents in whatever contexts and measure life or spirit calls us to be.

An important practical outcome of adopting this participatory approach is that, like members of a healthy family, practitioners can stop attempting to impose their doctrinal beliefs on others and instead possibly become a supportive force for their spiritual individuation. This mutual empowerment of spiritual creativity may lead to the emergence of not only a human community formed by fully differentiated spiritual individuals, but also a rich variety of coherent spiritual perspectives that can potentially be equally aligned to the mystery. I stress ‘potentially’ to suggest that every spiritual tradition — even those traditionally promulgating arguably dissociative (or unilaterally transcendentalist, or disembodied, or world-denying) doctrines and practices — can be creatively (and legitimately, I would argue) re-envisioned from the perspective of more holistic understandings. As mentioned earlier, Whicher’s (1999) integrative, embodied reinterpretation of Patanjali’s dualistic system of classical yoga — whose aim was self-identification with a pure consciousness (purusa) in isolation (kaivalyam) from all possible physical or mental contents (prakrti) — offers an excellent example of such hermeneutic and spiritual possibilities. Therefore, I maintain that the participatory approach allows us to affirm both the uniqueness and potential integrity of each tradition in its own right.

This account of spiritual individuation is, I believe, consistent with Daniels’s intuition that spiritual realization will be different for different people. If we consider human beings to be unique embodiments of the mystery, would it not be natural that as we spiritually individuate, our spiritual realizations might also be distinct even if they are aligned with each other and potentially overlapping in many regards?29 After affirming a participatory account of spirituality that welcomes a multiplicity of paths, Hollick (2006) writes:

It is tempting to suggest that ‘balanced’ spiritual growth would see each of us develop more or less equally along each path … But I don’t think that’s how it works. We are all unique, and carve out our unique combinations of paths towards our unique revelation of Spirit. (p.354)

To conclude, from a participatory perspective, Wilber’s nondual realization can be seen as one among many other spiritual enactions — one that it is not entirely holistic from any contemporary perspective recognizing the equal spiritual import of both consciousness and energy, both transcendent and immanent spiritual sources. I suggest that the cultivation of spiritual individuation — possibly regulated by something like the integral bodhisattva vow to minimize the pitfalls of past spiritualities — may be more effective than traditional paths to enlightenment in promoting not only the fully harmonious development of the person but also holistic spiritual realizations. This may be so because most traditional contemplative paths cultivate a disembodied, and potentially dissociative, spirituality even while providing access to such spiritual heights as classical mystical visions, ecstatic unions, and absorptions. Reasonably, one might ask whether the path of spiritual individuation may render such spiritual heights less likely — perhaps — but I wonder aloud whether our current individual, relational, social, and ecological predicament calls us to sacrifice some ‘height’ for ‘breadth’ (and arguably ‘depth’). Put bluntly, in general it may be preferable today to shift our focus from those spiritual heights in order to ‘horizontalize,’ or pursue spiritual depths in the nitty-gritty of our embodied existence. Even if slowly and making mistakes, I personally choose to walk toward such uncharted integral horizons rather than the ‘road more traveled’ of disembodied spirituality.

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