GRACE AND GRIT: Spirituality and Healing in the Life and Death of Treya Killam Wilber

GRACE AND GRIT: Spirituality and Healing in the Life and Death of Treya Killam Wilber

by Ken Wilber
Shambhala Publications, Boston, 1991 ; cloth.

This is an extraordinary book- a mixture of love story, medical drama, spiritual quest, and philosophical/psychological contemplation.

The love story is that of Ken and Treya Killam Wilber, who fell in “love at first touch” in August 1983. At their first meeting, they barely exchanged five words, yet both went home with the feeling that they had been looking for each other for lifetimes. Within two weeks they decided to marry.

The wedding was November 26, 1983, and they planned a honeymoon trip to Hawaii to start two weeks later. But within a few days they learned that Treya had breast cancer, and were plunged into the medical drama.

Grace and Grit alternates between Ken Wilber's narrative, Treya's journal entries, and Ken's philosophical/psychological commentaries on the great wisdom traditions. There are explanations of meditation, the relationship of psychotherapy to spirituality, and the nature of health and healing.

At the outset Wilber advises readers on the structure of the book, inviting them to skip the philosophical and technical sections if all they are interested in is following Treya's story. But these more intellectual “thought” sections in their own way enliven the whole, showing how import ant the “life of the mind” is to the unfolding medical drama. The reader who chooses to skip these sections in order to stay with the drama of the story will be missing much, and may wish to return to the philosophical sections later to think more deeply about the life and death issues that confront us all.

Treya's openness to a multitude of approaches to healing is a major aspect of this book. These include traditional medicine with its chemotherapy, alternative medicine with its massive doses of enzymes and other methods “not approved by the AMA,” and various spiritual and “new age” techniques including meditation, visualization, affirmations, psychic healing, and more.

Counterbalancing what many readers might regard as a great credulity about Treya's pursuit of healing through this plethora of techniques, Wilber describes his own skepticism about much non-traditional healing. In one particularly interesting passage, he describes watching Chris Habib, a psychic healer, at work on Treya:

. . . I didn't doubt that something genuine was going on- she was definitely moving energy- but I believed hardly a word of what she said. I had never heard so many tall tales in my life. She was spinning them out with an ease that would shame the Brothers Grimm. But that was exactly her charm, that was what I found so endearing about her. Like Treya, I found her enormously likable. You just wanted to hang out with her, gel caught up in her magical stories. That, I came to see, was exactly a crucial part of what she was doing. 

Wilber concluded that it is “this charm that is so missing in white man's medicine.” And the net effect of the session with Chris Habib was that both Ken and Treya “felt vitalized, alert, happy. And the constant stream of outrageous tales made both Treya and I hold everything more lightly.. ..”

Also, the book includes an excellent critique of so-called new age ideas, the most pernicious being the not ion that mind alone causes disease, and that we can literally create our own reality. These are what Wilber labels “level two beliefs,” characterizing an infantile and magical worldview including grandiosity, omnipotence, and narcissism. His is not a blanket condemnation of the New Age, though Wilber believes, along with William Irwin Thompson, that about 20 percent of new agers are transpersonal (genuinely mystical), while about 80 percent are prepersonal magical and narcissistic).

The Wilbers' book is no “miracle cure” story; it tells of a real life and death, for Treya does die in the end. After all, she had forty lung tumors, four brain tumors, and liver metastases. Still, she carried on a five-year battle with cancer, and died in a state of what Ken calls “enlightened awareness.” The story is a moving one, and the final pages brought tears to my eyes.

The Wilbers have given a gift to all those who suffer from cancer and those who are support persons to those with cancer. Ultimately this is a story of an unfoldment of “passionate equanimity,” a Buddhist perspective on being (in Treya's words) “fully passionate about all aspects of life, about one's relationship with spirit, to care to the depths of one's being but with no trace of clinging or holding… It feels full, rounded, complete, and challenging.”


Winter 1991