Ken Wilber: Empire of the Integral

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Ken WilberWith at least 25 books to his name, I think the best way to summarize Ken Wilber is with his own words. Here is an excerpt from a forward he wrote:

For those of you unfamiliar with my work, here’s the Reader’s Digest version, in one short paragraph, I promise.

In a series of over a dozen books, I have attempted to create a comprehensive map of human nature (which is a little less grandiose than it sounds). Everybody knows that you don’t want to confuse the map with the territory. But you don’t want a totally screwed-up map, either. So in order to make as few mistakes as possible, I basically took over 100 of the best maps of human nature drawn by various cultures-East and West, premodern and modern and postmodern-and attempted to combine the enduring elements of each, along with whatever new insights I might add. The result is called “integral” because it attempts to be widely inclusive, combining the various truths in a way that is as coherent and comprehensive as possible.

Frankly, I have no interest in Wilber’s maps. I figure if you can’t explain it with over a dozen books, then you may not know what you are talking about, or you’re earning a living from writing. What I am interested in is what he says about the nuts and bolts of solving our fundamental spiritual dis-ease. Here is a taste of his theorizing from an interview with Shambhala Publications:

Shambhala: So volume 3 [of the Kosmos Trilogy] explores all those themes.

KW: Yes, particularly as it applies to the various modes of inquiry that human beings have available to them to enact and explore this co-created AQAL space. It seems to me that what we want to avoid is various types of absolutisms. There is quadrant absolutism, where you insist that only one quadrant or one perspective is valid. For example, scientism grants reality only to the occasions that can be seen by the third-person perspective, and it vehemently denies reality to all first- and second-person phenomena. Postmodern hermeneutics grants reality primarily to the intersubjective field and its second-person occasions; all objective or third-person dimensions of being-in-the-world are vehemently denied existence, and so on.

Likewise, there is wave absolutism, where only the realities, values, and phenomena that can be seen from your wave of consciousness are given any validity. Scientific materialism believes that only the events seen from the orange wave are real. Participatory pluralism believes that only the events seen from the green wave are real, and so on. Likewise there is stream absolutism, state absolutism, and type absolutism, to name a prominent few.

Unfortunately, most fields today are dominated by modernism, on the one hand–which is a quadrant absolutism (third-person only), a wave absolutism (orange only), a state absolutism (waking only), and a type absolutism (male only)–and postmodernism, on the other–which is a quadrant absolutism (second-person only), a wave absolutism (green only), a state absolutism (waking only), and often a type absolutism (female only).

Needless to say, that’s not a nice way to treat a Kosmos. I think those absolutisms are the sort of thing we want to try to avoid in an integral methodological pluralism. Anyway, that’s a large part of what volume 3 is about–utilizing all of the available modes of inquiry to enact and engage all quadrants, all waves, all streams, all states, all types–and not inflict violence on the Kosmos by selecting a narrow range of those and condemning all the others.

Perhaps Wilbur plays a role as defender of the dharma, attempting to apply the techniques of science to the subjective realm as he explains in this 2008 interview:

Q: But I doubt many scientists would accept this as proof of science because, ultimately, people are left to describe their own experiences.

W: You can’t measure this with any conventional scientific instruments. You move in the realm of phenomenology. And you either accept phenomenology or you don’t. This also applies to psychoanalysis. You get the same complaints that it’s not real science, that you can’t prove it. Well, fine, but then you can’t prove any interior experience you’re having. You can’t prove you’re loving your wife, you can’t prove you’re happy. Forget all of that, it’s not real. If that’s the mind-set you have, nobody’s going to convince you otherwise. It really comes down to whether there are interior sciences. These interior sciences use the same principles as the exterior sciences. If you define science as based on sensory experience, then these interior endeavors are not science. But if you define science as based on experience, then these interior ones are.

Ken Wiber likes to refer to himself as a pandit – a scholar of spiritual wisdom – but has many years of spiritual practice as well. His practice is summed up in this writing which originally appeared in the 1997 book The Eye of Spirit: Always Already: The Brilliant Clarity of Ever-Present Awareness. In it, he falls into a common error of the non-dualist mantra – that the “Witness” is not an experience: “When I rest in the pure and simple Witness, I notice that this awareness is not an experience. It is aware of experiences, it is not itself an experience. Experiences come and go.”

In late 2007, Ken Wilber nearly died from a series of seizures and was in a coma for four days. His experience of nondual awareness during the coma, seems to have given him some certainty:

Does the prospect of dying frighten you?
Not really. What comes up is just thoughts of how much work in the world there is still to do. And with this recent experience — letting me know that Big Mind is what there is — that fundamental fear of dying has basically left. Still, when someone asks if I have a fear of dying, I find myself hesitating. What goes through my mind is positive stuff — friends that I would lose and work that needs to be done.

For a full account of his experience with unwavering “Big Mind,” read Meditate & Eat Your Veggies.

I’m sure that Wilber has helped numerous people and you may find some of his books of interest. For that, I award him two stars. Just beware getting caught in the “think-talk” syndrome and endless synthesis of data — simplify! For more Ken Wilber, visit:

2020 Update: It appears the website is no longer the hub for Wilber’s recent work and Integral Life is now the place to be.  There you will find several pundits in addition to Ken Wilber. 

The ridiculously named Integral Naked site crumbled and died.

For an interesting critique of Ken Wilber, visit The Rise and Fall of Ken Wilber.

See the video Anchoring I Amness, which mentions his relationship with controversial Genpo Roshi and Big Mind; revealing all that you need to do to get a realization of Oneness to stick. Finding one’s True Self is merely part of a larger process for Ken Wilber — another reason why I see limited value to him as a teacher — and ironically why he thinks this process is revolutionary:

Lastly, I do recommend Grace and Grit, a deeply personal story of his wife’s battle with cancer.

3 thoughts on “Ken Wilber: Empire of the Integral”

  1. I think we do owe Ken Wiber a debt of gratitude for all the books and time and effort he has put into his philosophy over the past 40 years. That said, I have to agree that at this point the “system” has been explained so many times that one would think that the component parts would be crystal clear to one and all. That, unfortunately, does not seem to be the case. How does even a partial understanding of the Integral Worldview help Joe and Jill Average become a more comfortable and pleasant individual? I don’t think it does. There is a “community” of Integral thinkers who absolutely love this stuff and who can talk about it endlessly. At the end of the day, I just don’t think it will amount to much in the lives of real people. But, I could be wrong. I often am.

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