Ken Wilber, Speaking of Everything
Excerpts from an Enlightenment.Com Interview

 

 

Ken Wilber is the most widely published academic writer in the world today. His unmatched integration of science and spirituality has earned him comparisons to Hegel, Einstein, and William James. On April 16, 2001, Wilber sat down for an interview with Enlightenment.com in which he discussed everything from his spiritual and philosophical ideas to how he gets through the day. The resulting interview, Ken Wilber, Speaking of Everything, is the first recorded interview Wilber has allowed to be released and can be purchased as a two-CD set at Enlightenment.com. For those unfamiliar with Wilber's works, the audio interview provides an excellent introduction and an alternative to Wilber's somewhat intimidating prose; for those already familiar with Wilber's work, the audio medium reveals a surprisingly funny, warm, and humane man of exceptional intellectual brilliance and insight. Excerpts appear below.
 
For esoteric terms and proper names found in this excerpt, a complete on-line glossary can be found on Enlightenment.com. The following terms, which are found throughout Wilber's current work, bear reviewing now:

  • Meme: A term coined by Richard Dawkins, it refers to an information virus (similar to a gene, but informational rather than genetic) or a unit of cultural evolution.

  • Spiral Dynamics: A model of psychosocial development proposed by Don Beck and Christopher Cowan and based on the pioneering work of Clare Graves which describes individual, organizational, national, and cultural development and evolution. The theory lays out a number of arbitrarily color-designated "value memes" (or vMemes) grouped together in different "tiers." In the first tier, individuals, organizations, and cultures pass through the following stages: Beige Meme: SurvivalSense, Instinctive, small survival bands; Purple Meme: Animistic, Kindred Spirits, superstitious tribes; Red Meme: Power-Gods, Egocentric, empires bent on conquest and impulsive gratification; Blue Meme: TruthForce, Authority, groups concerned with rules, traditions, and obedience; Orange Meme: StriveDrive, Strategic, corporations seeking wealth and status; Green Meme: HumanBond, Consensus, cultures sharing egalitarian feelings. The "second tier" starts with Yellow Meme (FlexFlow, Ecological), and then Turquoise Meme (WholeView, Holistic). Even higher "third tier" vMemes are said to exist. 

Why Ken Wilber Isn't Better Known and Loved

 

Enlightenment.com: I’d like to talk to you about a problem that I have had with respect to you for a long time: Why it is that more people don't acknowledge the grandeur, beauty, immensity, and magnificence of your theoretical system? It is completely and absolutely obvious to me that you've done a better job of what you've set out to do than anyone else ever has. Comparisons -- well, I don't know about comparisons to Hegel and Kant, but certainly to William James -- seem to me to be totally appropriate at this point. Your marriage of science and mysticism, your bringing together Western development psychology and Eastern spirituality, your ability to bring so many, many theorists into rough alignment through your "orienting generalizations" and fantastic organizational skills -- it's all unsurpassed.

So, what I'd like to know is, given that, why is it that so many people -- it's not just that people end up getting pissed off at you, but why is it more people aren't willing to read and acknowledge you?

Ken Wilber: Let me say that there might be a couple of correct reasons that people are put off.

A lot of what I'm saying could be wrong. We have to acknowledge that a lot of what I'm saying could be wrong, and people look at it and go "No, no, wrong, wrong, no, just wrong."

Second item, of course, is that some people, at least on three books out of twenty books, there were some footnotes that were polemical, and some people have objected to those. I think that that's a red herring myself, but I think it has to be acknowledged that it made it difficult for some people to get into the argument because they were put off by this aspect in three of these books.

That said, then, I would go to reasons in my favor, of why I believe some people have trouble with it. And, obviously, these are self-serving reasons.

The first that I've found is that if I just look at the people that respond to my work versus those that don't, there's a general pattern. The people who respond to my work are those that have read just about as much as I have. They know what's out there, and they're very familiar with a large number of the things that I'm bringing together. And so they realize the importance of including all of these various types of approaches and systems and ideas, and trying to bring them under one umbrella.

E.com: You are providing a better map than anybody else has.

KW: That kind of thing. People like Michael Murphy, who himself has done comparable kind of work. Someone like that will just look at it and get every single sentence from beginning to end. He just completely groks the whole thing and adds stuff to it along the way.

Most of the criticism that I get comes from people that I think haven't done enough homework to realize why some of these things need to be included. The amount of research, for example, on the developmental aspects of the psyche cross-culturally -- there's been an enormous amount of research on that -- most of it tends to be just tossed out by people.

I have a general rule which gets into the second problem with why people have difficulty with my work, which is my general rule is that everybody is right. And so I have a very different approach to bringing together different philosophies and different psychologies, which is that every single system ever offered has some degree of truth in it. As I sometimes put it, no mind can produce 100 percent error. Unfortunately, most of my contemporaries approach philosophy in this fashion: I've got a particular idea and everybody else is wrong.

E.com: Right. It's either/or. Period.

KW: Yes, basically, that's the approach. Everybody is right. Even the materialists and the reductionists. They have very important things that need to be included. So I ask more a meta-question, which is "What system or pattern can honor the most number of truths from the most number of disciplines?"

E.com: So you never met a question you didn't like?

KW: Just like Will Rogers. And that's actually the truth. So people find behaviorism to Marxism to atomism -- there's some parts of all of that that I try to, in a very loose sense, based on orienting generalizations, say, you know, let's just skip all the details right now ... generally speaking, these people are right about this general thing. Let's just make room for that. Let's put that over here. And the Buddhists -- they're right, let's put that over here. And all those physicists, OK, let's put them over here.

Once you do that, you get this sort of composite map, and clearly nobody wants to confuse the map with the territory, but just as well you don't want a f***ed up incomplete map.

E.com: You want the best map you can get.

KW: Right, which is what most people give you. So, unfortunately, it therefore takes a lot of homework to be able to relate to what I'm doing. People have to see the importance of honoring every known truth. If they don't have that impulse, they'll settle for a lesser, partial truth, because it's easier on them. It's not hard. They say, "Well, I'm a Buddhist, and everybody else is wrong," and that's the way it is. Well, I don't know about everybody else, but I'm not going to get into it with them. So, I understand that impulse, but it's not the impulse behind my work.

The third thing I would say in my self-serving defense is that the research pretty clearly indicates that you have to be at second tier before these problems will even exist for you. Blue and Orange and Green [memes] aren't interested in integral, comprehensive maps. That doesn't make sense to them. There's something very dramatic that happens when people move into second tier, into Yellow and Turquoise. All of a sudden big pictures are the only things that satisfy. Because there's a comprehensiveness, there's a fullness, there's a drive to integrate and to honor and to include all these various approaches, and systems, and truths.

E.com: Once you've left the farm and seen these other things, you can't just ...

KW: You can't go back.

The Two Truths Doctrine

E.com: Here's a question from an Enlightenment.com reader:

The issue I circle around most frequently and find increasing difficult to reconcile concerns the relationship between the nature of philosophical and intellectual inquiry and the Buddha mind, prior mind, or the true nature of the mind spoke of as the point of realization in many of the non-dual traditions, including particularly Dzogchen. Namkhai Norbu, probably the world's most renowned Dzogchen teacher, states that although philosophies come and go and intellectual answers rise and fall, they are transient, distracting and do not lead to any kind of satisfactory or worthwhile understanding. Rather, genuine knowledge and its resulting liberation arises from simply observing the mind and body, and the energy of which they are composed, to identify the “mirror” condition beneath. How, then, might this be reconciled with both the direction and purpose of your developmental model (if at all), and what are the consequences in your view if these perspectives do not, in fact, coincide? Many thanks and much love to you, Jon Sillis.

KW: [Laughter.] Excellent points. The only way we can answer this is to again rely on the two truths doctrine: the notion that there is a relative truth, or relative truths in the world of Maya and manifestation, but underlying all of that there is an absolute or ultimate or non-dual truth. When Namkhai Norbu is talking about the nature of the mind, he is talking about absolute truth, ultimate non-dual truth, which is the truth of one's ever-present awareness, moment to moment. That can be investigated quite regardless of what your philosophy is, or your psychology is, and so on.

E.com: Just shut up and look.

KW: Shut up and look. That's the basic, fundamental instruction for the non-dual schools. It's just shut the f*** up and look. [Laughter.]

E.com: The injunction that you can test.

KW: It is a little bit more specific. The ultimate injunction for the non-dual realization is not that you can get to a state where you have a non-dual awareness, but that there is something about your state right now that is already one hundred percent aware of it.

E.com: Right.

KW: So all we're going to do is keep pointing to it until you see it. We're not going to bring anything into existence that isn't already here one hundred percent. If you hear my voice, and see the table, and you're noticing sounds that are going on, that is the enlightened mind. That is one hundred percent of the enlightened mind.

Now, the reason that you don't go "Wow, I see it" is that you are too distracted by the objects that are occurring in that mind moment to moment. You focus on the objects passing by and you forget who the actual seer is or the witness of these objects, and so that appears that it is not present, but in fact it is ever present.

[…] At what point can you start to convert it into permanent realization? I believe the evidence suggests a minimum requirement is second-tier [or advanced] psychological development to convert a passing state into a permanent trait of realization. That's an empirical question for us to find out … that's what we're going to actually try to get some evidence on so we can help people move down this path as fast as they possibly can.

It's pretty clear that low levels of development cannot permanently realize satori. This is where all of a sudden we can't just dismiss the relative realm, we can't just dismiss psychological stages, because it appears they are going to have an important role to play in how well we can realize this non-dual nature of the mind. That's one part about it.

The second part is that even if somebody has a very powerful and permanent realization of the non-dual ever-present mind, they still have to manifest and express that through their conventional personality and their conventional philosophy. The more balanced and integral and full-bodied their philosophy, the more adequate they are going to be in conveying it and helping to make sense of the world. It doesn't really help a whole lot to have a great understanding of the nature of the mind if you can't convert that into educational policies, or policies for business or politics or for the real-world where real human beings live.

So, in addition to having an understanding of and an awakening to the absolute, non-dual nature of the mind, you want to have an expression that is as integral and comprehensive as possible because it is going to be more effective in the real world. In the best of all possible worlds, we want to combine both, the relative and the non-dual, to give a more comprehensive approach to the topic.

Tackling the Difficult, Liberating Issues

E.Com: One reader asked, "Why have you only really focused on the interior contemplative spiritual practices when many other spiritual traditions – the sacramental traditions, the collective traditions of social service, the behavioral traditions of devotion, hatha yoga, sacramental family life, the artistic spiritual traditions of calligraphy, music, etc. -- can be so beautifully and easily explained and presented within the collective and behavioral domains of your model?" He thinks that the exoteric traditions should get more play with you.

KW: Yes, I think he is exactly right, and he is himself doing writings that are addressing that lack. And I think from what I've seen that he is doing a very good job of it. One of the reasons, one of the things that I tend to focus on, are the hard theoretical issues that there aren't a lot of good -- I tend to focus on some of the hard theoretical issues that need attention, let's say. Difficult issues. Once I come up with something that at least appears to be a solution, or a first approximation, then I tend not to be as interested. I tend to move on to the other tough issues.

E.com: Here's another question: The traditional goal of Eastern religion and esotericism is moksha, freedom from rebirth, in the form of samadhi and nirvana. Are these types of goals relevant for modern humans? Can they be restated in forms that are consistent with the modern and dominant scientific world view?

KW: Yes, I think any time you have a state that offers liberation from life's suffering, it's relevant. I don't think anybody would want to forgo a capacity for great liberation, including somebody in the modern world. The difficulty, of course, is how then do you bring that into the everyday world in a way that has some sort of relevance. I think that's where the general notion of the bodhisattva tends to make a great deal of sense. Which is namely, you, after thoroughly realizing the formless state of nirvana, bring that realization to bear on every form that arises. The impulse that accompanies that is something known as compassion. So the driving force becomes, "I have been fortunate enough to find some kind of liberation, freedom, fullness in my own being. How can I communicate that to others in a way that benefits them?"

It's not very different than if somebody came along to you and gave you a billion dollars. Most people's initial impulse is, "I'm going to share that with some other people that need it." It's the same thing if you get a really profound awakening experience. It's not, "Oh, I'm going to get away from the world," it's "Oh, somebody gave me a billion dollars. I'm going to go out and share it." And that's generally what happens with people who have that kind of realization. They are moved, in a very, very profound way, to share the wealth. And that's what happens.

So the pressing concern right now is something we talked about a little bit earlier. Yes, once you've found the nature of the mind, once you've found nirvana, once you've found this formless ever-present state, what do you do in the relative realm? And what you do is you try to go in with as integral approach as possible and start to have an impact on the educational system, on the political system, the business system, and so on, so that those systems become conducive to states of realization and liberation. Obviously, it's a tall order, but that's no reason not to engage it.

E.com: No. It might be the purpose of being here.

KW: [Laughter.] Somebody might say that, yes.

Taking the Magic out of Mysticism?

E.com: The other piece of this is that you better than anyone, perhaps, have championed the inner realms, your left side, subjectivity, the interior dimensions. Although you've fought like hell to bring it back into legitimate discourse, the very act of producing a logical system of the magnitude and beauty of your system, for some people, ends up taking the mystical, interior, sparkly, magical, chaotic, divine nature right out of it. Somehow, for them, your logic sucks the mystery and beauty right out of reality. It's almost as if the Apollinian cancels out the Dionysian and I don't think there's a way you can win on that.

KW: [Laughter.]

E.com: And it's not your fault ...

KW: No, I understand. Here's what ...

E.com: And it puts them off. They go, "Hey, he's not got like this radiant, luminous ..." But it's all there, obviously you do, but they don't read it and get excited the way they do about authors whose names we won't mention who write stuff that is not even close.

KW: First of all, if that's all that I did, or if I actually thought that this rational reconstruction of the trans-rational was a be-all and end-all in itself, then these people would be completely right. Logic does suck the life out of any of the trans-rational realms. And so, obviously, you don't want to do that. But at the same time, you don't want to just ignore, oppress, marginalize rationality and logical analysis. That's also an important part of manifestation. So what you want to do basically is have an integral approach that includes all of those aspects.

And if you take -- one of the things that we're going to do for example, I think people are going through it now -- if you just take the poetic pointing-out instructions from my books, and you just put those all together in one volume, then there's no quadrants, there's no levels, there's no lines, there's no development, there's none of that. There's just pointing to this ever-present awareness, that you are, and that you have been eternally, and at how you can actually awaken and realize that and have that manifest throughout your life. And if you just read those sections, then it's entirely different. Then it's nothing but Dionsysian sort of ecstasy, basically. There's no logic, there's no stages, or realms, or any of that kind of stuff.

E.com: Just like reading Grace & Grit [Wilber's best-selling memoir of the death of his wife, Treya]. It's a totally different ...

KW: A totally different experience.

E.com: ... take on who you are.

KW: Exactly. But part of what you want to do, at some point is, if you're trying to make room in the conventional realm for any sort of dharma, or any form of trans-rational awareness, and since rational professors, so to speak, take all of that as being completely hallucinatory nonsense, then somebody has to go in and sort of have it out with these guys on the rational level. And say look, hey, there's abundant reason to acknowledge these higher trans-rational states.

But of course I have to be rational to do that part of the argument. And that's what I do. And it's fine. We'll do Derrida. We'll do Foucault. And we'll do Heidegger. And we'll do Russell, and you know, whatever game you want to play. And when you've done all of that you'll see that it doesn't exhaust reality.

Something else is going on here. There are trans-rational states and stages of which we have an extraordinary amount of evidence, and by cutting yourself off from that you are cutting yourself off from your real nature. Now, somebody has to do it; it's an ugly job. I've decided to step in and do my best on that part. But it doesn't mean that I think that that's the only thing you have to do. And frankly, it's hard. I'll be glad when I don't have to do that any more. It sucks. I just want to write mindless poetry and bad novels. [Laughter.] And I can too.

E.com: Yes, I know.

KW: [Laughter.] I can write as bad a novel as the next guy.

The Burden of Fame

E.com:
Well, that's a nice segue here for me to ask you just a few personal questions. The first is, "Why you?" Comparisons to Hegel, the "Einstein of Consciousness"-- even if they are only half right, how do you feel about the fact that you are the world's most influential and popular psycho-spiritual theorist? How's it feel to have so many people reading and absorbing your words? Is it heady? Do you just think of yourself kind of like as a normal guy with a dog that snores or do you ... is it hard not to get inflated?

KW: Yes. It's one of those things ... I tend not to think about it. It's like people who have an overnight success. It's one thing if you're like a rock band, and you're together for a week and then you have a hit single, and then on the next day you're the cover of Time magazine or something. That must be very unbalancing. But most of the bands, like the Beatles or something, they were out there ten years, day in and day out.

And so, I wrote my first book when I was 23. And I went through a period of, kind of inflation and unbalance, because so many projections are put on you that you are both demonic -- I'm much more demonic than some people would think I am -- and also there are positive projections going on. And what tends to happen is that some way, sooner or later, you really have to address that. And I don't think I was a particularly fast learner in that regard. But I've had such a long time -- I've had thirty years, basically. So even somebody who is kind of slow, like me, in that area, I'm pretty OK after ...

E.com: It wasn't like all of a sudden you had fifty million dollars ...

KW: Exactly.

E.com: overnight and ...

Working-Day Satori Blues

E.com: So Ken, what do you love most about what you do? People want to know that. They want to know what makes Ken Wilber happy on a day-to-day basis.

KW: Well, a couple of things. One is there is - an analogy I kind of use is it's like a guitar. And there's the string on the guitar, and there's the box behind it that gives resonance to it. And whenever you awaken your own soul or spirit, that's like strumming the strings. That's the actual where the sound comes from. But there's a greater -- that's the ultimate sort of bliss and reward and awareness and understanding and truth and goodness comes when you strike those strings.

There's another kind of satisfaction comes from having the box on the guitar resonate and give depth and expression to the sound from the strings. And what my writing does for me is, after I strike these higher chords, through my own spiritual practice, my writing is the box behind it that can give it a resonance. It can flush it out. It can give it a manifest form that makes the sound even richer. The sound still comes from the strings, still comes from the soul or spirit -- the mind can be the box on the guitar, it can give expression to it. It's very very fulfilling in that sense.

So, I'm not trying to think my way into spirit. I made that very, very clear from the beginning. You have to do spiritual practice to get to the trans-rational. You cannot use the rational to get to the trans-rational. Spiritual practice gets you to the trans-rational. But then you can get a rational expression too. You can also express it in dance, or painting, or poetry as well, and that's very important. But you can also do it ... you can give a rational expression to it.

And I continue to find that even as I say, with enlightened teachers, they benefit from this kind of philosophy because it gives them a bigger box for their guitar. So the strings, when they strike them -- well, there's this little, bitty non-integral box behind the strings. And I continue to be struck by how even really great, realized teachers need an integral philosophy to be the box to express the music of their soul and spirit. Because it doesn't come with the territory. It does not come with the territory. You have to do the work to understand all quadrants, all levels, all lines, and so on. And so what I enjoy doing is giving that kind of form to it, because it allows a more comprehensive expression of spiritual understanding. So that part I like.

The other part I like is that it makes a difference in people's lives, and that's important to me.

E.com: When you're writing, though, on a day-to-day basis, do you have flow states the way Csikszentmihalyi talks about them? Do you disappear into an altered work state ... what John Lilly called it, I think something like your "working-day satori." You go places like that?

KW: Yes.

E.com: You love the actual work of providing the ...

KW: I'm not ... I'm very ambivalent about the actual process because it is very physically painful. I get it in -- in fact I think pretty weird states. I process information at a very, very spooky rate. Most of the books I've written, a lot of people know, it's really only a couple of weeks to write each of these books. And it never takes longer than about three weeks to write these books. They generally are fully formed by the time I sit down and write them. And the actual writing process is uncomfortable because I will go sometimes just around the clock, basically. It's a very very intense process.

E.com: It sounds like a purgative experience, and you don't have any choice but to be the vehicle through which this great writing happens.

KW: It just ... because so much information is there, in order for it to be coherent, I have to stay in that working day satori. I think it's a fine phrase that Lilly has ... was it ... is that what it was?

E.com: Yes.

KW: Working-day satori or working satori or workday satori?

E.com: No, I've got it. It's "professional satori."

KW: Professional satori. What I think is in the non-dual state ... it could be flow, but frankly, I think you can have flow on gross, subtle, causal, and non-dual planes. This is a non-dual flow, there's no question about it. And it's very, very intense. So, it's not a favorite time for me, that part of it.

E.com: Hmm, that's interesting. Everything has its price.

KW: Yes, yes.

For access to the entire interview on two audio CDs, Speaking of Everything can be purchased at Enlightenment.com.

Ken Wilber, Speaking of Everything, the first-ever live audio interview with the world's most widely published spiritual philosopher. Just $24.95 for 2 CDs plus Alex Grey illustrated Glossary pamphlet. Only at Enlightenment.Com.

 

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