The Monism of Ken Wilber

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The Monism of Ken Wilber

I am indebted to Ken Wilber for his investigations of spiritual growth, but there is one strain in his thinking that needs to be pointed out as a cautionary tale, and that is his tendency towards monism. Theological monism is an idea that only spirit is real; matter is not real, but illusory. The experience and practice that grounds monist theory is to be disconnected from one’s body. The monist lives in his neo-cortex and has very tenuous connection with the limbic cortex and the brain stem. He is dissociated.

As we enter an age when more and more people are meditating, leaving one’s body becomes a serious problem. Dissociation from bodily states is a permanent issue in the pursuit of interiority because of the body’s rich capacity to store the painful results of traumatic child-rearing practices.

I first noticed Wilber’s monism when I read his book No Boundary some years ago, and then I discovered an extensive discussion of the matter on the web page of Professor David C. Lane of Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, California.29

In a more recent work, The Marriage of Sense and Soul (NY, Random House, 1998), Wilber appears to have recanted his monism of earlier days, but his youthful excursions into dissociative practices is still a valuable lesson for anyone pursuing interiority.

In Wilber’s earlier work he came under the influence of the neo-Hindu monist Franklin Jones, who is also known as Bubba Free John and Adi Da, and has authored books under both of those names. Jones was born in Jamaica, Long Island, New York in 1939 and showed an early predisposition for meditative disciplines. He studied in India under Swami Muktananda in 1968, and opened his own teaching establishment in Hollywood in 1972. His writings impressed many spiritual seekers of the time, including Wilber. At one point Wilber called Da Free John “the greatest spiritual master of all time”, and his book The Dawn Horse Testament “the greatest spiritual tome of all time”. He also said that John’s The Paradox of Instruction “is, in its scope, its eloquence, its simplicity, and its ecstatic fund of transcendent insight, probably unparalleled in the entire field of spiritual literature.”

But commentators also noted that Jones’s personal practices were often bizarre and exploitative, and his teaching career has led him to reside presently on an island in the Pacific Ocean once owned by the actor Raymond Burr. It has been my experience that spiritual teachers who do get separated from their bodies inevitably become involved in bizarre social and interpersonal situations.

The basic problem is that the body is the storehouse of emotional pain, and when introspective devotees start spending considerable amounts of time meditating, they can experience extremely attractive and extremely remarkable out-of-body states. In the eleventh century in France, the Albigensians’ ability not to experience pain when Simon de Montfort’s troops burned them at the stake scared the Christian crusaders out of their wits and only made them more zealous in stamping out the heresy. The whole Gnostic strain in the history of Christianity is a continuation of this dissociative experience. On the emotional level it is dissociative, and on the intellectual level it is “monist”. That is, it says that only spirit is real. Matter is some form of illusion. In terms of behavior, once one gets addicted to these out-of-body states, a pattern of narcissistic delusion inevitably follows. One critic of Wilber’s indebtedness to Adi Da makes this comment:

My neurological research reveals that this so-called “very small minority” of individuals “ready” for “The Path” is constituted of persons who already have and/or self-induce neurological damage and neurological dysfunction — or are neuropsychiatrically ill ab initio. Indeed, and once again, these so-called mystics, meditators, and spiritual “Masters” with the “big realizations” are suffering from various species of (i) brain damage, (ii) epilepsy, (iii) psychosis, (iv) schizophrenia, and (v) debilitating depersonalization disorder, or (vi) some combination of these five.
In my case, I was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy as a youth and years later delusively believed myself to be making “spiritual” and meditative “progress” when all my weird “mystical” experiences started (as a result of intensive and protracted meditation practice).
In the case of Bernadette Roberts (author of The Experience of No-Self), she talks about her own personal experiences of “bodilessness”, profound “mystical unknowing” + experience of “Oneness” or “nonduality”, “subtle energies”, and a “dismantling of the continuum of time”. Do such experiences constitute profound “mystical realizations” and “enlightenment”??? I say no!!! What her symptoms do actually indicate is a fairly complicated mix of profound neurological disorders, neurological damage, and neurological dysfunction — a literal reversal, in many ways, of millions of years of the neurological evolutionary biology of the brain and nervous system. Specifically, and to wit, her experience(s) of: (i) “Bodilessness” results from total proprioceptive failure. (ii) “Mystical Unknowing” and the experience of “Oneness” or “nonduality” is little more than a convoluted mix of semantic aphasia + visual aphasia + auditory agnosia + optic agnosia + visual object agnosia. (iii) “Subtle Energies” are, in reality, nothing more than a combination of somatosensory seizures and partial complex seizures which have their roots in temporal lobe and limbic epilepsy and extreme cortex disinhibition. (iv) Her inability to experience time as having a continuum can be accounted for by a blend of time agnosia with a concomitant and serious impairment of memory vivacity. Highly similar states and conditions such as we have here in this third case are well known to medical and mental health practitioners who deal with amnesiacs, Alzheimer’s sufferers, and so forth.
“Transfigurative” mystical experiences have their origin in neuro-epileptic disorders, various psychoses and species of schizophrenia, Near Death Experiences, brain damage that can result from, for instance, untreated Lyme’s Disease, and so on. One would reasonably expect that the population of meditators and spiritual “masters” who are “authentically enlightened” and have had “transfigurative” mystical experiences would reflect the relative rarity of these conditions (i.e., neurological and/or neuropsychiatric conditions and disorders) in America and throughout the world.30

As a practical matter, we just need to make a note of all this. In any meditative practice there is a tendency to want to leave the body because the repressed pain of the unconscious is actually stored somatically. The correct strategy is to relax in the presence of pain and thus engage the unconscious, rather than continue to suppress it, as we noted above in our comment about Jelaluddin Rumi. There are many schools of spiritual learning that understand this and that always return to the body either informally or formally. The whole collection of psychotherapy schools that are working with trauma have developed “inner body sensation” as the core of their healing technique. These would include the work of Eugene Gendlin (his technique is called “focussing”), Peter Levine (See Waking the Tiger, 1997), the workshops of Emilie Conrad, and the Hakomi Integrative Somatics team of Boulder, Colorado.

There is in fact an important convergence today between “healing” modalities and “spiritual” disciplines. I think this is extremely warranted and the wave of the future. I note in Chapter 9 that a careful look at the history of Christianity shows clearly that religion is therapy. That is, the effort to experience the ultimate conditions of human existence necessitates developing techniques to work with the emotions, especially the unconscious emotions that are the result of traumatic child-rearing practices. The objective of religious “ministry” has after all always been to produce “loving” people, that is, emotionally mature persons who are capable of generosity and compassion. Behaviorally, the “bottom line” of religion has always been “therapeutic”. And, when we get to the absolute core event of Christianity — the resurrection of Jesus — I think we find a remarkable wake-up call to full somatic awareness of the essence of the human condition. We live to a large extent inside space and time, but not entirely.

The fact that the Christianity of the Augustinian Arrangement (See Chap. 9) made its main investment in technologies that put people to sleep was merely an adaptation to the needs of the time. There is nothing in the central event of Christian “revelation” that requires falling asleep. I would suggest that quite the contrary is true. Once we get that, then I think the door is open to a fully non-sectarian discipline of human wholeness, beyond creed, beyond code, beyond cult, beyond identity. The human project as such.

Holiness is wholeness. Wholeness is holiness. Wholeness is all there is.