Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Post-Modern World

Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Post-Modern World

By Ken Wilber
 Boston MA: Integral Books, 2006.
Hardback, 313 pages.

Each new book by Ken Wilber carves out new and insightful views and interpretations of the human situation. In an attempt to give his books a "stand alone" quality, he often summarizes prior publications that provide a context in which a more meaningful reading can occur. This leads to repetition that some find off-putting, but others appreciate since much of his work is so intricate and complex that a reminding often leads to further clarification and understanding.

Wilber acknowledges the help of the hundreds of staff members of the Integral Institute (I-I) in the writing of Integral Spirituality. He founded this Institute in 1997 with the help of others. The significance, value, and popularity of the Institute is indicated by the fact that it already has tens of thousands of members who benefit from, among other things, occasional conferences, publications, and several web sites that disseminate integral views. As used by Wilber and I-I, integral means "more balanced, comprehensive, interconnected and whole." It is an approach to such fields and disciplines as business, medicine, law, politics, education, psychology, spirituality, et al that is without precedence.

Building on AQAL (an anagram meaning “all quadrants, all lines, all levels, all states, all types"), the foundational principle of the integral approach which insists on the irreducibility and mutual interconnectedness of the individual and the communal in both an interior and exterior way, Wilber calls for the necessity of eight different but mutually supportive disciplines in the comprehensive task of understanding the cosmos and human experience. He calls this Integral Methodological Pluralism, which endeavours to see/study/understand the inside and the outside of each quadrant. These disciplines span the full range of human experience and the many ways of investigating it. The sciences and the humanities, including religion, are often thought to be in conflict, but Wilber demonstrates that they can be reconciled and, in fact, are crucial to each other in the on-going attempt to devise a "theory of everything."

The individual/interior quadrant, among other things, represents what a person becomes aware of during times of meditation. These state (of consciousness) realizations range from gross to subtle to causal to non-dual, the last being so extraordinary that it can only be hinted at with language. Wilber shows convincingly that a person can be at a relative low level of overall stage development and still have lofty, deliberative meditative or even spontaneous state experiences. For example, a person can be at a mediocre level of moral development and nonetheless have high inner realizations. Such a person may, for example, operate with circumscribed and low level conventional moral, i.e., moralistic, standards. Wilber insists that no matter how often lofty meditative experiences occur or how genuine and intense they are, they alone will have no or minimal effect on moral development. With this discovery, Wilber is able to throw light on a common and seemingly intractable problem that arises with some spiritual teachers, namely those who misuse their power and influence over students by violating them sexually and/or their basic human rights. In other words, what happens in temporary states of awareness says nothing about one's overall development or, to be more precise, one's maturity in the cognitive, interpersonal, values, or worldviews lines of stage unfoldment.

Problems such as this can be identified by means of AQAL, the Integral Psychograph, which maps the relative advancement or "altitude" of the various lines of development, and especially the “Wilber-Combs Lattice," a scale that coordinates structure-stage development with meditative realization. This kind of empirical research and analysis leads to the conclusion that temporary peak experiences of gross, subtle, causal, or nondual states can occur at any stage of development. Further, these peak experiences will be interpreted according to the stage of development, e.g., someone at the mythic stage will interpret a subtle state experience as proof of the existence of the deities, angels, or spirit beings upheld by the myth, while someone at a more rational- pluralistic-integral stage will see such experiences as the working of their own psychospiritual nature. This kind of discovery leads to several worthy conclusions: (1) it shows the inevitability of the great diversity found in religious belief systems, (2) it reveals the futility of arguing for the truth of one religious stance over another, and (3) it discloses the impossibility of ever arriving at a strictly "rational" solution to and reconciliation of the discrepancies and contradictions found in the world's religious traditions.

Because Wilber is a first-rate theoretician, a great deal of his writing is analytical and intricate. The abstract nature of his writing is amply balanced by the passion with which he writes-one comprehensive study of his corpus carries the subtitle, Thought as Passion-and his emphasis on actual practice. Throughout nearly all his writing career, Wilber has insisted that disciplined practice is crucial to both high meditative realization and to accurate understanding in any discipline. All "good knowledge," he argues, is based on three strands: (1) one must commit to the required conditions and develop the necessary skills, (2) one must gain the intended experience that will lead to the desired understanding, and (3) one must check with others who have fulfilled the first two strands for confirmation or rejection. Whether one hopes to become a physician or to realize non-duality, these three requirements prevail. Without meeting these demands, one is merely spouting opinion. With this understanding, one immediately spots the uselessness of a secular scientist making pronouncements on spiritual realities, or religious authorities without scientific training pontificating on science, specifically, for example, on the issue of evolution or so-called intelligent design. Practice receives its fullest attention in the last chapter of the book which is devoted to Integral Life Practice, a program actively promoted by I-I that calls for disciplined, experiential work in four areas: body, mind, spirit, and shadow, as well as in such auxiliary areas as ethics, sex, work, emotions, and relationships.

A common occurrence today is for those whose consciousness has reached the pluralistic stage and beyond to make a sharp distinction between organized religion and spirituality, favoring the latter and denigrating the former. In a chapter titled "The Conveyor Belt," Wilber specifically addresses the subtitle of the book by contending that "religion alone, of all of humanity's endeavours, can serve as a great conveyor belt for humanity and its stages of growth." This is the case because the world's religions commonly contain in one form or another both magical and mythic dimensions and therefore, "they control the legitimacy conferred on those beliefs," beliefs that parallel the actual stages in the childhood development of every human (ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny). Wilber continues: "Because of that, they are the onlysources of authority that can sanction the orange [rational] and higher stages of spiritual intelligence in their own traditions. He concludes: "... while honoring myths, one must move from myth to reason to trans-reason in order to plumb the depths of spiritual realities."

A common theme that informs much of the book concerns the values and limitations of the premodern, modern, and postmodern ages. Wilber is particularly adept at extracting the abiding values of each age and incorporating them into what he calls Integral Post-Metaphysics. In prior writings, Wilber reveals the importance of the transcend-and-include principle, i.e., rising to more inclusive ways of being and thinking by jettisoning the shortcomings of prior stages while incorporating their lasting values in the unfolding new outlook. By working with such postmodern insights and principles as "the myth of the given," "perspective is perception," the constructive function of consciousness, and the crucial role of intersubjectivity, Wilber fashions an interpretation of religion and spirituality that is proving itself attractive to many thinking people today. It is, of course, risky to predict, but if the perspectives of this book and other of Wilber's writings, coupled with the work of I-I, catch on widely in the intellectual, scientific, and religio-spiritual worlds, they will constitute a watershed equal to or greater than any that has so far occurred.

It seems that Wilber outdoes himself with each new book. To adequately convey the content of Integral Spirituality would be to produce a work of nearly comparable size and intensity. It covers many vital topics beyond those indicated here. The book is not so much to be read as to be studied, pondered, and put into practice,


May/June 2007