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

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In closing, three directions may be particularly productive in moving this dialogue forward. First, it may be important for Wilber to unpack more explicitly the ontological implications of his integral post-metaphysics. In particular, I wonder whether he truly means to relegate spiritual realities to the individual’s interiors, or whether this is an unintended upshot of his seeking to avoid the pitfalls of classical metaphysical systems. In addition, it is not clear whether he believes that all spiritual realities and entities are human cocreations or whether he is leaving room for the possibility that some may (co-)exist autonomously.

Second, I issue a plea to the transpersonal community to scrutinize the neo-Kantian assumptions lying beneath agnosticism toward the extra-physical and extra-psychological ontological status of spiritual realities. I believe it is fundamental to be aware that such a stance, far from warranting neutrality or impartiality, is the fruit of a modern, Western, and dualistic epistemological ethos that automatically renders suspect mystical claims about the nature of knowledge and reality. In their noble attempts to promote the scientific legitimacy of the field, some transpersonal psychologists — from Washburn (1995) to Friedman (2002) to Daniels, M. (2001, 2005) — may have prematurely committed to a neo-Kantian dualistic epistemology that is in fact ideologically tied to a naturalistic, and often materialistic, metaphysics. Whether such a naturalistic worldview will ultimately be cogent is unknown, but transpersonal scholars should be able recognize and make explicit the metaphysical presuppositions implicit in such methodological agnosticism; in this way, we can avoid assuming or defending its purportedly scientific, metaphysically neutral status and thereby falling prey to one of science’s most prevalent ideologies (see van Fraassen, 2002).

Finally, I firmly believe that both the scholarly credibility and future relevance of transpersonal psychology will be enhanced by a more thorough discernment of the merits and shortcomings of our past spiritual endeavors, a discontinuation of the common transpersonal practice of mystifying the mystics, and the undertaking of a critical exploration of the types of spiritual understandings and practices that may be most appropriate for our contemporary global situation.


I want to thank William Barnard, Michael Daniels, Charles Flores, Ann Gleig, Glenn Hartelius, Sean Kelly, Brian L. Lancaster, Kenneth Ring, and Jacob Sherman for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

Author’s Note

Jorge N. Ferrer, PhD, is chair of the department of East-West Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco. He is the author of Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality (Albany: SUNY Press, 2002) and coeditor (with Jacob Sherman) of The Participatory Turn: Spirituality, Mysticism, Religious Studies (Albany: SUNY Press, 2008). A leading scholar on ‘Transformative Practices’ and ‘Integral Epistemology’ at the Esalen Center for Theory and Research, California, he received the Fetzer Institute’s 2000 Presidential Award for his seminal work on consciousness studies. In 2009, he became an advisor to the organization Religions for Peace at the United Nations on a research project aimed at solving global inter-religious conflict. Prof. Ferrer offers talks and workshops on transpersonal studies, participatory spirituality, and integral education both nationally and internationally. He was born in Barcelona, Spain.


Correspondence regarding this article should be directed to the author at


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1 See Stoeber (1994) for a contemporary argument of the superiority of theistic dual states over monistic nondual ones. Similarly, Buber (1961) regarded the I/Thou relationship with God as spiritually higher than the monistic experience of nonduality, and Zaehner (1957) argued that the monistic ideal is transcended in theistic mysticism, considering Sankara’s monistic liberation (moksa) a primitive stage in the process of deification. More recently, Wilber’s (1995) ranking of nondual mysticism over theism and other contemplative paths has been critiqued and rebutted by Helminiak (1998, pp.213-92), Adams (2002), and, perhaps most effectively, by Schlamm (2001), who uses Rawlinson’s (1997, 2000) typology of mystical orientations to show the arbitrariness and doctrinal nature of such rankings.

2 Both Wilber’s account of nondual realization — built upon monistic belief in the ultimate identity between one’s true Self and the divine — and his stage model draw heavily from the writings of Franklin Jones (aka Adi Da), a Western adept of Hinduism (see Daniels, B., 2005). Elsewhere, I argue for the importance of distinguishing between different forms of nonduality usually conflated by Wilber; for example, the Hindu Atman-Brahman nonduality and the Buddhist nonduality of emptiness (sunyata) are conceptually, experientially, and ontologically distinct (Ferrer, 2002; cf. Fenton, 1995). Considering the Soto Zen founder Dogen’s nonduality, Harmless (2008) writes that though ‘he pointed to the radically nondual, it cannot be presumed he is speaking of a oneness within ultimate reality that is anything like what Christians or Muslism speak of, much less what Hindus mean when they speak of a deeper monism’ (p.253).

3 This type of move — unfortunately frequent in Wilber’s work — partly explains why Wilber is mostly ignored in the field of religious studies. Although Wilber cannot be unaware that Underhill’s ‘unitive life’ has nothing to do with his own ‘nondual realization,’ he nonetheless equates them to defend the universal validity of his model. Even if Underhill’s map would fit Wilber’s, her overall characterization of Christian mysticism in terms of ‘mystical union’ is today recognized as a historical distortion (Harmless, 2008, pp.251-253; McGinn, 1994a). Historically, the Christian mystical path had many goals (e.g., spiritual marriage, the birth of the Word in the soul, the vision of God, deification,

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