Some Thoughts on Ken Wilber’s Sex, Ecology, Spirituality

I’ve been re-reading Ken Wilber’s Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, and I wanted to give it a thorough going over.

First of all, if you are not familiar at all with Ken Wilber, he is a contemporary philosopher who attempts to unite all schools of learning, from both East and West, extending back to mankind’s origins. He calls this “integral” philosophy. It’s a fascinating attempt, and of course filled with pitfalls all along the way, but he does a pretty damn good job of it, in my opinion. However, let me state immediately that I am by no means one of those Wilberites who fawns over everything the dude says and subscribe to his websites. I’ve got several issues with his approach, which I will get into in a minute. I do think that he will be–or at least should be–considered a seminal figure in post-post-modern philosophy.

The book which best epitomizes his viewpoint is Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. I definitely commend it for your reading perusal, but only if you can handle reading such abstract ramblings as Gravity’s Rainbow. This isn’t to say that he is opaque or overly wordy. But he tends to write as if he were talking, and thus goes off on tangents and repeats himself endlessly. It can get tedious. And this is my first criticism of his work: he never presents it as completely and beautifully as he could–his writing really doesn’t do much justice to his actual ideas. In SES, I feel like he beats his points to death–I continually am thinking, “Alright! I get it! Move on.” But I don’t like skipping ahead because sometimes he will have a good point embedded in the midst of repetitive polemic. So I just wish he would simply present his points and then move on to the next one. He doesn’t need to keep repeating his ideas in different forms. It makes it appear as if he were insecure or that he doesn’t think his reader is smart enough to understand him.

Obviously, that’s not a criticism of his actual philosophy. It’s just something that I feel really gets in the way of his presentation of said philosophy.

What I would like to state now, before I get into more criticisms, are the things which I feel are of utmost value in SES. 1) He drives the nail in the coffin of all that bullshit relativism of post-modern deconstructivism. 2) He takes spirituality seriously and heroically attempts to integrate spiritual insight with scientific objectivity. 3) He presents the most complete cumulative presentation of the idea of evolution thus far. 4) He takes the ecological, activist movement head-on and presents valid criticisms that need to be integrated into their often overly idealistic approach. 5) He gives solid credence to the idea that the most important change comes from within.

For these things alone, Ken Wilber earns the adulation that his devotees bestow upon him.

When I first read SES (when my friend sent it to me and told me that I must read it), my immediate reaction was one of wanting to dislike it. And let me temper that by adding that I have a tendency to immediately dislike things that I know are going to change my outlook. Like the stubborn part of me is fighting the inevitable. For example, I remember the first time I listened to The Orb. We laid down in the dark and listened to Orbus Terrarum, and it was so trippy, so intricately involved, that it actually made me pissed. But some part of me knew that it was amazing, and I eventually grew to love it. So it was with SES. Some part of me was fighting what I knew was amazing about it, so I was simply trying to find things to shoot it down with the first time I read it.

But I knew that there was something about that book. So the second time around, I’m now clarifying just what it is that is mind altering about it, and also what it is that really does piss me off about it.

Here’s my main issue with Ken Wilber: he seems to me to be overly attached to his diagrams and “AQAL” approach (“All Quadrants, All Levels”: read any one of his books or papers and he will outline the AQAL thing). And in order to understand anything of what he is saying, you basically have to accept his outlined approach to everything. But I really don’t think this AQAL attachment is even necessary. I don’t see why he can’t present his ideas without creating a whole new set of terminologies. The AQAL is a useful demonstration of his ideas. But it certainly does not define all of the universe, as he seems to think that it does. He is so attached to this conception he’s developed that he seems to get bogged down in his own terminology. I understand the necessary separation of the “I”, “we” and “it” realms in order to demonstrate how they are united multi-dimensionally. I just find his continuous insistance on using his own self-created terms a little annoying.

He presents his ideas in such a way that it almost necessarily creates one side of readers who immediately write him off as arrogant, and another side of readers who blindly worship him as some kind of genius deity. Look, he’s a smart guy. But he definitely doesn’t have the whole universe nailed down, and even if he does–well, he needs to learn how to present it better.

Here’s another criticism of Wilber that I have. In SES, he continually references future works of his, Volume 2 and 3 of his series on evolution, and he makes it sound as if Volume 2 is already essentially written. It’s been almost 12 years now, and he’s put out a slew of books, but you don’t see diddly squat on these supposedly forthcoming tomes. Which to me really undercuts the integrity of SES severely, because in that book he keeps assuring the reader that he will go more in depth on certain topics that he only hazily outlines there.

He really just gets too scattered and excited about his own ideas. I like his ideas. I wish he would present them with more integrity.

That said, I think the most revolutionary idea I took from SES is the realization that we are indeed evolving, in a spiritual and mental sense in addition to biologically. Many people, myself included, have a tendency to glorify and idolize the past, such as harkening back upon harmonious agricultural societies and one-with-nature natives, and to completely lambast all of mankind’s advances, such as technological, political, and economic developments. But in a more embracing, integral approach, such as Wilber’s, one sees that perhaps these developments present new aspects of the mind, and despite whatever pathologies they may present, we have the capability of utilizing these developments to take ourselves to a whole new level of consciousness.

More positive reflections and insights from SES will be forthcoming.


Author: manderson

I live in NYC.

6 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Ken Wilber’s Sex, Ecology, Spirituality”

  1. mark-

    those interested in getting some pure bliss and consciousness to the femoral artery should pick up Sri Aurobindo’s “the life divine”. wilber gets a lot of ideas and directed quotes from it and aurobindo’s writing is much more poetic, less repetitious, and quite hard to understand. he was a brilliant man who seemed to miss the “comma” lesson. anyhow, its the best writing i’ve ever come across on spirituality (up there dancing with _one straw revolution_) and i think it’s because aurobindo is writing from *within* the transcendental experience. he’s not describing the trip after he came down, but while he’s still tangled up in blue. so if you hadn’t had the mystical experiences, in vibrant immediacy, that he’s explaining, i imagine it’d be hard to understand.

    and this is why i revere wilber as a genius and servant to mankind. i think the brother could have chosen to present his insight as a poem, as many do (say, rumi). he probably could have done that. or as a simple tract which gently explains the evolution of the universe as consciousness in bliss. he seems capable of that. but i think wilber took on a lot of extra work, research and analysis trying to come up with something acceptable to people wandering excitedly in the temple of rationality. he’s tried to argue something rationally which he explicity says (over and over, as you must) cannot be understood merely by rationality. and of course people are going to argue with it and criticize it because that’s the name of the game and nobody would talk about it otherwise. so i really see it as a public service. of ken wilber making a decision somewhere in colorado that he’s going to stop playing badmintion for the next x years and write this boring book so computer geeks, objectivists, and the supposedly rational public (the educated elite, who see themselves at the foreground of consciousness exploration) can get some sense of perspective.

    i say this because when one mr. cholmes made me read SES as well, i immediately disliked and rejected it. but it won. and, again, it’s aurobindo that presents the message in the unadulterated form. read it and weep (with bliss).

    together, ankur

  2. That’s a good way to look at it, as a public service. I agree, that he simply even opens up all of these things into general discourse is pretty amazing–the fact that he bothered to gather as many different sources as he could and lay it down somewhat coherently obviously took a great deal of effort.
    I’m going to look into this Aurobindo stuff next.

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