The philospher king of consciousness has a new mission--bridging the gap between science and soul
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.
Whatever apprehension I had about interviewing Wilber dissolved the moment I met him at his home in Boulder, Colorado. Barefoot, friendly, and easygoing, he looks more jocklike in person than in photographs, six-foot-four and muscular from lifting weights ('great for the immune system'), with a clean-shaven head and something Asiatic about the eyes. His house is a spectacular, four-level wood-and-glass structure combining the panoramic drama of a Swiss chalet with the stark beauty of a Japanese bathhouse. The decor is ultramodern: state-of-the-art stereo, five-foot TV (ever tuned to CNN), numerous library rooms with books piled everywhere, indoor hot tub, meditation rooms, leather sofas--a dream house he has recently begun to share with his girlfriend, graduate student Marcia Walters. As he shows me around, I can't help thinking that if you had to be locked up anywhere for years at a time, trying to grock the universe, this would be the place to do it.
In a glass-enclosed patio overlooking the valley, Wilber cracks open a beer and settles in for our talk.
Q | You begin your new book by saying that the relationship between science and religion--what you call the marriage of sense and soul--is the most critical issue facing global societies today; that, in fact, this rift between opposing worldviews is tearing the planet apart.
The conflict is epidemic. When you take into account that 90 percent of the world's population has a religious outlook based on some kind of mythology--God the Father and so on--and that the standard scientific view gives these myths as much credibility as they give the tooth fairy--whether it's the Virgin Birth or Moses parting the Red Sea--you see the problem clearly. There's an enormous split between reason and meaning that must be healed.
Q | How is this possible?
The trick is to find a common core to the world's great religious traditions. Many scholars, from Frithjof Schuon to Ananda Coomaraswamy, have pointed the way by using what's known as the 'perennial philosophy' and its central tenet of the Great Chain of Being, or what I prefer to call the Great Nest of Being, to do away with the idea of some rigid hierarchy or linear, ladderlike system. This Great Nest generally expands from matter to body to mind to spirit, each dimension enveloping and including the previous one. The physical analogy is atom, molecule, cell, organism: Each enfolds its predecessor, without transcending or denying it.
Now, if what we mean by 'science' is materialism, we're in big trouble, since everything can be reduced to dust. But there's an enormous amount of scientific knowledge that's not materialistic--mathematics, for example. Some people think that mathematical knowledge is the purest type of scientific knowledge, but nobody's ever seen the square root of a negative one running around out there in the sensory world. The trouble is that you still have people arguing that the only real entities in our world are those studied by physicists. It's a strange position to hold, since the laws of physics do not explain biology, economics, history, the Oedipal complex, poetry .
Q | Or enlightenment.
Right. The tragedy is that people have confused materialism with science, though they're not the same thing. Where we come to an impasse with 'proving' religious truth, and reconciling religion and science, is around the mythological--or exoteric--forms of practice. These myths are immune to the scientific method because they cannot be confirmed or disproved. However appropriate they may have been at the time that they arose, they just don't stand up to modern tests. When you talk about Moses parting the Red Sea, most scientists (and many of the rest of us) would say, 'Let's see evidence for that,' which is pretty slim, to put it mildly. That's not to rule out occasional miracles, but they are the exception rather than the rule. However, in all the world's great religions there is also a mystical--or esoteric--core, which is concerned not with beliefs, myths, or dogma, but with direct spiritual experience. None of the founders of the world's great religions handed down myths; they had a direct experience: Moses and the burning bush, Christ's 'I and My Father are One,' Buddha under the bodhi tree. The whole point of their religious practices is experiential: 'Do this in remembrance of me,' 'Let this consciousness be in you which is in Christ Jesus,' or 'Repeat the enlightenment of Gautama Buddha by following his injunctions.' And mystical experiences do meet the criteria for the scientific method. The instructions for practicing Zen Buddhism are clear: If you want to test this knowledge, cross your legs, sit like this, and observe the mindstream, much as a mathematician might look at symbols. And as you continue to do zazen for a number of years, certain interior apprehensions, or satori, come to the fore. These experiences are then struck against the combined knowledge of the community (sangha) to determine their veracity. This is exactly what happens in the general scientific approach.
Mystics have always claimed that they were practicing a kind of science that can be reproduced by those who follow the experiment. The fact that these forms of mystical knowledge have been handed down shows that these experiences are reproducible--not private, interior notions that can't be communicated. Science has managed to reproduce itself for two to three hundred years, while mystical science has been doing it for at least two to three thousand years. This is not insignificant.
Q | But just as science needs to allow for its current limitations, so too do those concerned with religion need to distinguish between the outer form of their practice and their inner essence. Otherwise this marriage of sense and soul cannot take place.
Q | This rapprochement has barely begun. Contrary to the New Age belief that we're on the brink of major global breakthroughs in consciousness, you tend to be skeptical about the progress we're making.
We baby boomers have to be on guard against the belief that we're the only ones who ever got anything right. As if we're about to bring in 'a new paradigm'--whatever that means--that will heal the earth and lead to the greatest transformation on the face of the planet. As if everybody before us got it wrong. We have to be careful about the 'Aquarian conspiracy,' the 'greening of America,' and the 'coming of the New Age.' The truth is that we're just another group of nutcases coming down the pike. If you actually look at the data on individual development, it's a fairly bleak picture. In many ways it's improved in the past several hundred years. For the first time in history, we can actually conceive of global issues and global concerns, and that's good, but the number of people who are at an interior level of development that's world-centered, or 'post-conventional,' as I call it, is 10 percent at best. When it comes to higher stages--to say nothing of transpersonal, or mystical, stages--the number drops to .05 percent of the human population. This is nothing to write home about. The fact is that you can master a theoretical 'new paradigm,' with its quantum mechanics, systems theory, ecological thinking, or whatever, without necessarily changing your consciousness. But you cannot master Zen without having satori or transforming. Even if we have a new paradigm that fits everything together theoretically, the question remains: What about spiritual growth? That requires spiritual practice, not just mental thinking--and that takes many years to come to fruition. That's not a very popular message at a weekend seminar where people want to hear about how earthshakingly important they are.
Q | That brings us to what you've called the spectrum of consciousness. In book after book, you've emphasized the fact that each of us contains numerous levels of being, from the physical to the transcendent, and that integral practice demands that we address these different parts of ourselves using different tools.
This is important. Brilliant as the ancient wisdom traditions were, those masters had minimal understanding of psychology as we know it through Freud, Adler, Jung, and others, and few techniques for dealing with the lower levels of the spectrum. Thirty years ago, when Buddhism first came into this country, for example, the common belief among practitioners was that this was a complete path. You simply got on it and everything you needed for your inner development would be contained there. The idea of putting Buddha and Freud together was thought to be horrible, because it implied that the Buddhist path wasn't complete in itself. Those of us trying to write about integrating various schools were not very popular. Today, of course, many major American Buddhist teachers have done some sort of psychotherapy, because even though Buddhism covers an extraordinary range of experience leading right up to enlightenment, it doesn't cover the early childhood development stages very well.
A more integral path would combine psychotherapeutic understanding with a meditative practice. But this integral approach is still in its infancy, so you have to mix and match. You might take a Hindu practice, a Christian contemplative practice, or a Buddhist meditation practice and combine it with some form of strenuous physical exercise, such as weight lifting or jogging. And those can be combined with some sort of personal psychotherapy practice--keeping a dream journal, going to a psychotherapist--and with a form of community service--working in a hospice, helping the homeless. The idea is to work all these various dimensions in yourself, and not to just pick one and exercise it to the neglect of the others.
Q | In other words, we should think of enlightenment as plural rather than singular.
That's a great way to look at it.
Q | In The Marriage of Sense and Soul, you're critical of people who cast a sentimental eye backwards in history, as if we should chuck what we've learned and go back to the primordial garden. You call them riders on the 'regress express' who are so disenchanted with our times that the past looks better than the future. And yet, as you point out, the modern age has brought us dignity as well as disaster.
When you ask many people what made the modern West different from other cultures around the world, most of the answers are terribly negative: the disenchantment of the world, the destabilization of the earth, the death of God, the death of the Goddess, nightmare after nightmare. These naysayers tend to overlook the 40 years of life extension that the West has given us, the wonders of modern physics, modern medicine, the abolition of slavery, the rise of democracies, the rise of feminism, and so on. Until we honor both the good and bad news of modernity, we're not going to see our situation clearly.
The dignity of the West stems from what scholars from Max Weber to Jurgen Habermas call the 'differentiation of the cultural value spheres,' namely, morals, science, and art. Prior to the modern West, these three spheres were recognized as different but they tended to be fused, so that they couldn't pursue their own truths. The traditional example is Galileo, who wasn't free to pursue science because it disagreed with the morals of the Church. Likewise, Michelangelo was constantly at odds with the pope over what he was allowed to paint because art was still fused with Church dogma. If you painted certain types of things, you could be killed. But starting with the Renaissance, these three spheres--which you can think of as the good, the true, and the beautiful--began to be differentiated so that they could pursue their own truths. If you wanted to look through Galileo's telescope without being fried, you could. If you wanted to paint nudes, you could. If you wanted to work out a moral system, like Kant's, that didn't depend on the Bible (or that disagreed with it), you were able to without the Inquisition raking you over the coals.
That was the dignity, the good news, about modernity. But differentiation can go too far and become dissociation, which is what happened. By the end of the 18th century, scientists, artists, and moral/cultural theorists were all going off doing different things with very little communication among themselves. This led to fragmentation and alienation. A very aggressive science, coupled with industrialization, was allowed to colonize and dominate the realms of morals and art. With the good and the beautiful removed from science, the only truth was materialism, which led us to our current disaster.
Q | A world of surfaces, with no interior.
Yes--the collapse of the cosmos in which all inner modes of knowing, including the Great Chain, are reduced and flattened to a world of dust. That's what I call 'flatland,' the modern wasteland. While this downside of modernity must be acknowledged, though, we need to hold on to what it is that we've gained and move toward a higher integration, not jump on the regress express, as many retro-Romantics, ecofeminists, and deep ecologists would have us do. People romanticize the past, but while there were some wonderful achievements in foraging, horticultural, and agrarian societies, they weren't exactly plugged into holistic wisdom. If they had been, why was human sacrifice a central ritual, with slavery and barbaric tortures common practices? People seem to think it was a wonderful spiritual nirvana back then. The only problem was that if you disagreed with the tribe's religion, you were toast.
Many critics of modernity think that the differentiation of the spheres is the same as dissociation, which it's not. Differentiation is how you get to higher integration. An integral approach wants not to return to some predifferentiated state where we think that we're one with everything, but to integrate the three spheres into a higher understanding. By doing this, and not getting caught in scientific materialism, we have a chance at ending the war between science and religion.
Q | You admit, too, that our country is desperate for a spiritual orientation in politics. Wouldn't a marriage of sense and soul engender a shift in the political zone?
It would. Liberalism is one of the major contributions of the modern West. It's not that conservatism is bad and liberalism is good--they both have immensely important things to say--but they need to be integrated. In the conservative view, based on rigid social hierarchies, a fundamentalist God looks over the chosen people. You are saved only if you believe in a particular God; universal concerns are beside the point. With the modern Enlightenment, liberalism emerged as a counterforce to proclaim the universal rights of humankind; equality, justice, and freedom were its rallying cries. But the liberal vision has its downside--it can fall into hyperindividualism, which cuts you off from community.
Q | The culture of narcissism.
Too many rights and not enough responsibility. But the general liberal notion is based on a global concern for fairness and justice regardless of race, creed, color, sex, or gender. In such a system, the state is not entitled to legislate morality, or protect any particular vision of 'the good life.' You're free to do what you want as long as you don't hurt other people. That's why a 'new paradigm,' or a new Goddess religion, or a new ecoreligion won't work for world transformation because it would have to be imposed on people. We want both 'enlightenments'--the Enlightenment of the West, which involves political freedom, and the enlightenment of the East, with its spiritual freedom and access to direct mystical experience.
Q | You've called this a 'culture of spirituality, based not on a fundamentalist God or Goddess, but on genuine spirit as groundless ground of all being.' When I read that, I wondered what a culture like that would look like.
It doesn't look like anything!
Q | But it would mean the end of the God ghetto, the current notion of spirituality versus everything else.
Yes. As long as you're defining divinity as a particular state opposed to other possible states, you're always going to have boundaries and wars. Even if you say that spirit is the Goddess embracing all of nature and the biosphere in a holistic embrace, most Goddess worshipers are not going to embrace ozone holes, toxic waste, or industrialization. They don't think that's part of God, so right away you have a dualistic worldview. Whenever someone wants to get us from a 'bad' state to a 'good' state, violence is not far behind. Of course, you want to move from pollution to a clean environment, but don't pretend that God sits on one side and the devil on the other. No matter how peaceful you're trying to be, this split will always lead to aggression. Ultimately, we have to arrive at a notion of spirit as the ground of all that arises, from toxic waste dumps to pristine clear water. And that experience--the Tibetans call it 'one taste'--is not adverse to separate tastes. I can have the experience of 'one taste,' a oneness with everything arising moment to moment, but still prefer vanilla shakes to chocolate shakes. I can prefer clean air over pollution without saying that one is farther removed from spirit than the other, when in fact both are radiant expressions of the divine. Without this awareness, we find ourselves on crusades, whether fundamentalist or ecological. Fanatics are fanatics.
Q | Look at Elizabeth Claire Prophet, the founder of the Great White Brotherhood.
Look at the Unabomber. One's a New Age nut; the other's an ecological nut. On the other hand, we can choose environmental sanctions and impose them because they're just a damn good idea. It doesn't have anything to do with God, or Goddess, or spirit; it's just a fine idea in the relative realm. Don't fuck up your backyard. It takes God to figure that one out?
Q | Is this part of moving from what you call 'hippie' dharma to 'new' dharma?
They're related. Hippie dharma was the basis of the laissez-faire approach many people took in the '60s. For example, a lot of people were initially attracted to the Beat version of Zen, which said, basically, 'Get laid as often as you can, do as many drugs as you can, and call it being beyond good and evil.' The real Zen people came along and said, 'I don't know what you people are doing. Here's what Zen is: Fold your legs, follow your breath, do that for five years, we'll talk about it.' Hippie dharma is all about 'Be here now,' 'Go with the flow,' 'We're all one,' and in an absolute sense that's correct. But it's only correct after you've gone through all the stages of disciplining the body-mind to get to that point. Otherwise, you're just making a lot of prerational noise and calling it transcendence.
Q | Is this part of what you call the pre-trans fallacy?
Right. The pre-trans fallacy states, basically, that development goes from prerational to rational to transrational. But because prerational and transrational are both nonrational, people often equate or confuse them. The pre-trans fallacy can take you in one of two directions; either you tend to reduce genuine, transrational or mystical states to prerational, infantile crap, as Freud did, or you take the New Age approach, which is to take any sort of prerational silliness and elevate it to transcendental glory. In other words, if it's not rational it must be God, which is simply wrong. Half the stuff that's not rational is a real nightmare and keeps people stuck in narcissism and self-absorption. They never move from egocentric to sociocentric into worldcentric, or truly transcendental, states of awareness.
Q | And so-called 'new dharma' integrates the best of the wisdom traditions with the best of what science and Western social advances have to offer?
New dharma is set in the political freedom of the West, which doesn't force itself on people but invites them to transcend themselves through a culture of encouragement and example. Most people are willing to do spiritual practice when they see somebody who has mastered it and witness the effects for themselves. In order for most people to enter a real path, they need to fall in love with a teacher. They look at this individual and say, 'My God!' For a lot of us in the beginning, it was Krishnamurti. You looked at him, you read his stuff and said, 'I'm in love. This is it.' Of course, we grow through both love and disillusionment, but love is especially useful because a fool in love will do anything, and that's usually what it takes to get us to practice. So it's an example that draws us forward, not shoving some new paradigm or mythology down our throats so we can save the planet.
Q | Tell me about your spiritual practice.
I started with Zen in my early 20s and practiced very intensely for about 15 years, as well as trying other things. And then I expanded this practice to include Tibetan Buddhism, because the system is so enormously complex and wonderful. I've done mostly Tibetan practice for the past 15 years. But of course one learns from many sources. I consider myself a student of [Hindu teacher] Ramana Maharshi, as well; he's completely amazing. So I'd say it's a heterogeneous mix.
Q |Your work has earned you a number of enemies.
There's been some animosity toward my work from the beginning. Most of it isn't personal, but some people don't trust what I'm doing. At first, I believed that by taking systems A, B, and C and showing that all three were important in understanding the world, I would get thanks from all three. But the fact is that they hate me because I've shown that theirs is not the only important system in the world. As soon as you do any genuinely holistic work, many people will despise you. Also, I've taken some theorists to task in the past few years. I've wanted to stir things up a bit, rattle the cage, shake the tree. This field has gotten very complacent; it's a kind of mutual admiration society. We need to be more critical.
Q | Particularly when it comes to spirituality. Many otherwise discriminating people I know will fall on their knees in front of anyone who claims to be more 'enlightened' than they are.
I think that's very true. Starving people will eat cardboard, and you have to be very careful about that.
Q | How do you deal with the accolades?
(laughing) Time is a great leveler. At first the applause was a rush, especially since I started so young. When my first book came out, I taught it for about a year and noticed two things: People start telling you how wonderful you are, and you start believing it. Then you're in big trouble. It's like Oscar Levant said to Oscar Hammerstein, 'Oscar, if you had it to do all over again, would you still fall in love with yourself?' That's what happens when you start to believe the praise and, as everyone in this field knows, there are plenty of people willing to do that. But I decided that I couldn't handle it. I needed to grow more, and I certainly didn't want to be portrayed as a guru or a teacher. Though I'd had some profound spiritual experiences that were the core of what I was writing about, I was just a beginner. Also, I decided that I could either teach what I'd written yesterday or write something new.
As my own spiritual practice deepened, my ambition became less of an issue. A real turning point came one day when I was doing zazen. It dawned on me that I was not going to make it all the way in this lifetime--it was just too hard. I was going to die and have to come back and go to the junior prom again and do all the things I despised. Then I had this really bizarre thought that someday, someplace, I'd go into a library and there would be The Spectrum of Consciousness, showing how to put Freud and Buddha together. I'd find that book, somehow, and it would get me started on the path. But then this miniature satori came. I really didn't care who wrote it.
Mark Matousek is the author of Sex Death Enlightenment(Riverhead, 1997). His book Almost Human will be published next spring.