Up close and transpersonal: Ken Wilber

The philospher king of consciousness has a new mission--bridging the gap between science and soul

| July/August 1998

Ken Wilber is no talking head. Despite his reputation as the 'Einstein of consciousness research,' he's far more down to earth than his crown of glory suggests. Mischief-making, laid back, hip, he's really a fun-loving kind of guy--just like you and me, except that he's a genius.

This contrast surprised me. Like legions of readers around the world, I'd been jolted awake by Wilber's mind. I still remember the moment 10 years ago when I opened No Boundary (a condensed follow-up to his debut classic, The Spectrum of Consciousness). The book had such an impact on me I kept it close at hand for years, re-reading it so many times that I needed rubber bands to hold the covers together. What Wilber had done was synthesize the work of dozens of Western psychologists and Eastern mystics to create a model of human development from infancy to enlightenment that made perfect sense to my skeptical mind. This achievement was more than headwork; it was the fruit of a personal wisdom quest by someone with rare gifts, including, as Tony Schwartz writes in his book What Really Matters: In Search of Wisdom in America(Simon & Schuster, 1996), 'an extraordinarily penetrating, synthetic, and discriminating intellect; a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of psychology, philosophy, mysticism, anthropology, sociology, religion, and even physics; and vast personal experience with the states of consciousness that can be accessed through meditation.' Wilber's 'maps of the route to wisdom cover more of the observable territory,' Schwartz concludes, 'than [those of] any other theoretician.'

As a thinker, Wilber emerged from left field. Born in 1949, the only child of an Air Force officer and a housewife, he spent his boyhood moving to a different town nearly every year. At once an intensely intellectual loner and a party-loving athlete, Wilber holed up in his basement constructing chemistry labs (science was always a passion) when he wasn't drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, making trouble, captaining the football team, or serving as student body president. After graduating from high school in Lincoln, Nebraska, he went off to Duke University with the intention of becoming a doctor but soon changed his mind. 'I knew what science had to offer,' he told Schwartz, 'and it didn't interest me anymore. I wanted knowledge about interior questions.'

Stumbling onto the work of Chinese sage Lao Tzu, Wilber found the beginnings of what he was looking for and began to read voraciously in the mystical literature, as well as the works of Western psychology. Quitting med school, he moved back home, enrolled as a graduate student in biochemistry at the University of Nebraska (largely to placate his parents), got married, entered therapy, and began to practice Zen. The more he learned of these divergent disciplines, however, the more conflicted he became. Science wasn't wrong, he concluded, but 'brutally limited and narrow in scope.' While it was relatively well equipped to deal with the physical side of human life, it had only a sketchy understanding of the mind, and denied the existence of soul and spirit altogether.

'Most of these thinkers were trying to disprove what everyone else had to say,' he has said. 'The Freud people hated the Zen Buddhists, the Zens hated Freud, Fritz Perls hated them all, and each of them claimed to have the ultimate truth. My problem was that I felt that they were all saying something true, but that none of them had it entirely figured out. It slowly dawned on me that these people weren't all addressing the same level of consciousness. The question was no longer who is right and who is wrong, but how do all these truths fit together.'

Wilber's revelation came when he was 23. One day while he was cutting the eyes out of a cow skull in a biology lab, something clicked, and that night he told his wife he was quitting school to write a book (the couple divorced in 1982). Over the next three months, writing in longhand 12 hours a day, Wilber wrote The Spectrum of Consciousness. 'Two paragraphs into the writing,' he says, 'I knew I had come home, found myself, found my purpose, found my God. I have since never doubted it once.' Although the book was rejected by 20 publishers over three years, it was hailed upon its publication by Quest Books in 1977 as 'the most sensible and comprehensive book about consciousness since William James' and established the unknown Wilber as a visionary maverick. Over the next 10 years, supporting himself by washing dishes in restaurants and other odd jobs, Wilber produced an average of one book a year, each building on some aspect of his central theme. In 1983 this prolific period was interrupted when Wilber's new bride, Treya Killam, was diagnosed with breast cancer 10 days after their wedding. For the next six years, he gave up his routine of writing and meditation to nurse her, and when she died in 1989, he told her story in an intimate memoir, Grace and Grit. After a two-year period of mourning, he embarked on his most ambitious project to date, a three-volume work covering virtually every major field of human knowledge. The first volume, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, appeared in 1995 and was followed by A Brief History of Everything and The Eye of Spirit. Wilber's latest work, The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion, was published by Random House in April, and later this year he will release One Taste, a sample of his journals over a 12-month period that promises to explode Wilber's egghead public persona forever.

Throughout his career, Wilber has remained as invisible as possible. Although in recent years he has grown into an international phenomenon, he is still ambivalent about his public profile. He doesn't attend conferences and rarely gives interviews. Quoting Garry Trudeau, Wilber says he's 'trying to develop a lifestyle that does not require my presence.' This has led critics to characterize him as arrogant (Trudeau again: 'Only in America could the failure to promote oneself be widely regarded as arrogance') and has contributed enormously to his mystique. Though he's far from unsociable, Wilber scrupulously guards his privacy because, he has discovered, the more attention he draws to himself, the less time he has to write his books. As he told me during our on-and-off negotiations for this interview (the first he's granted in a long time), he wakes at 3 a.m., meditates for two hours, then works for 12 to 15 hours, 365 days a year.

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