"Bodhisattvas are going to have to become politicians"

Interview with Ken Wilber by Frank Visser
15 July 1995


Text-only version of this article

Q: What is, in your opinion, the state-of-the-art in transpersonal studies at the moment? Has the field matured? Is it going somewhere? Is it stagnating?

KW:The transpersonal field has indeed matured, although it's still a relatively young discipline. But I must confess that I thought it was definitely stagnating for a decade or so. There was some very good work being done, and some quite excellent theorists doing superb studies, but there was nothing really new or exciting on the horizon, or so it seemed to me. The problem I believe, was that the field was still looking for a way to make transpersonal psychology relevant to larger issues and concerns. Transpersonal psychology was still in the process of expanding into transpersonal studies.

This is very tricky, you know, because "transpersonal psychology" is almost a contradiction in terms. It's like saying "transpersonal personal" or "trans-psychology psychology." In the wisdom traditions, a distinction has always been made between psyche -- the individual mind or self -- and pneuma -- the trans-individual spirit. And transpersonal psychology has always been in the delicate position of being a psyche-logical study of what in fact includes pneuma-ology, if you see what I mean.

So many of us began to feel that the real core of transpersonal psychology moved beyond anything that could comfortably be called psychology, and pointed more towards such disciplines as spiritual philosophy, ontology, epistemology -- all those "metaphysical" words, that are now so despised by people who call themselves professional philosophers.

Q: So that was a force that was pushing transpersonal psychology to expand into a broader field of transpersonal studies.

KW: Yes, that's right. Another force or pressure was this: the study of psychology inevitably leads to sociology, which inevitably leads to anthropology, which leads to philosophy. And then strangely, bizarrely, that leads to politics.

It works like this: an important branch of psychology is psychotherapy. All versions of psychotherapy begin with the fact that people are unhappy. Psychotherapy attempts to locate the cause of this unhappiness in the human mind (or human behavior). Somebody who has a "mental illness" or a "neurosis" or a "maladaptive learned behavior" -- by whatever name -- that person is "not well adjusted" to reality. Everybody agrees on that.

But what is reality? As the comedienne Lily Tomlin put it, "What is reality? Nothing but a collective hunch." In other words, isn't what we call "reality" in large measure socially constructed? How can we possibly say somebody is not well adjusted without knowing what they are supposed to be adjusted to? What if you are "not adjusted" to living in a Nazi society? Isn't that a sign of mental health, not illness?

And thus, all of a sudden, if you want to define "mental illness" you have to define what a "healthy" society is. There is no other way to determine what is actually maladaptive! Maladaptive compared to what? "Sick" compared to what definition of health?

So then, as a theorist, you must start looking at different societies and cultures, in an attempt to understand how human beings in different times and places have defined "health" or "normality" or even "reality." And this leads you very quickly into anthropology, or the study of the development of the human species at large.

So back you go into history and prehistory, trying to make sense of it all, trying to find what it means to be "normal," because otherwise you have no way to define what it means to be "abnormal" or "sick;" and therefore -- if you are honest -- you have precisely nothing you can actually recommend to your patients. How can you "cure" them if you can't even define "health"?

And -- I hate to divulge the inside secret of anthropology, but, there are no answers in anthropology. All you find is that human beings start to show up, say, 400,000 years ago. And then a bewildering variety of cultures and societies start to flourish, and thousands of different norms and rules and beliefs and practices and ideas and arts and everything else imaginable, simply explode on the scene.

So very soon you realize that you can't even begin to make sense of all that without some sort of mental categories that will help you sort and classify and organize this differentiated mess. What is useful and not useful? What is good and bad? What is worthy and unworthy? What is true and false? And suddenly, you are a philosopher.

Oh no! You cannot even begin to make sense of the human condition without looking deeply into philosophical issues. Even those who totally reject the importance or the validity of philosophy -- they give philosophical reasons for the rejection! In other words, whether you like it or not, to be human is to be a philosopher, and your only choice is whether to be a good one or a bad one.

And so, once you decide that you want to try to be a good philosopher, then this tends to happen: if, as a philosopher, you ever allow yourself to decide that you have some actual conclusions -- about the nature of reality, the nature of human beings, of spirit, of the good and the true and the beautiful -- than you very quickly realize that it is absolutely mandatory to try to make society a place in which the greatest number of people are free to pursue the good and the true and the beautiful. That becomes a burning categorical imperative, and it eats into your soul with its unrelenting moral demand.

As Foucault pointed out, one of the many great things about Kant is that he was the first modern philosopher to ask the crucial question, What does it mean for a society to be enlightened (in Kant's essay, "What is Enlightenment?")? In other words, not just "enlightenment" for you or me, but for society at large! Or Karl Marx: philosophers in the past have merely tried to understand reality, whereas the real task is to change it. To be socially committed!And so, as a modern philosopher, you are suddenly in the broad field of political theory. You realize that Bodhisattvas are going to have to become politicians, as weird as that might initially sound.

Q: And that is happening with transpersonal psychology?

KW: Yes, transpersonal psychology has gone through all of those phases. It started with Abraham Maslow and Anthony Sutich and a handful of what were, for the most part, professionally trained psychologists. From this sturdy and solid foundation, it quickly branched into numerous sub-fields, as Roger Walsh and Frances Vaughan (in Paths Beyond Ego) have pointed out: transpersonal sociology, transpersonal anthropology, transpersonal ecology, transpersonal ethics, transpersonal work, transpersonal philosophy, transpersonal politics, transpersonal transformation (as in Michael Murphy's monumental The Future of the Body) -- to name just a few. And all of this, as Michael Washburn has helpfully pointed out, is now referred to as transpersonal studies.

And this is very, very exciting. As a point of reference, remember that psychoanalysis had much of its greatest impact in fields that were also outside of psychology. It was a major and profound influence in literature, in literary theory, in political theory and discourse (the enormously influential Frankfurt school of Critical Theory -- Horkheimer, Adorno, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, Jürgen Habermas -- was a direct attempt to integrate the concerns of Marx and Freud), in art and in theories of art, even in artistic practice (the Surrealists, for example), and in education and educational theories and practices. Because psychoanalysis was in fact plugged into some very important (if limited) truths, it proved itself by completely exploding out of the narrow confines of psychology and having an extraordinary impact on other fields.

And I think we are now on the verge of something similar happening with transpersonal studies, perhaps not as widespread, but at least quite similar. Its impact is moving rapidly beyond the field of psychology. And many of us have been working on this much more expanded field of transpersonal studies, and this also includes my own recent work.

Q: How would you characterize your work? How would you characterize your particular approach to the transpersonal?

KW: Well, my approach has also gone through that basic pattern, from psychology to sociology and anthropology, to philosophy, to political theory. You can actually see this in my books: The Spectrum of Consciousness, No Boundary, and The Atman Project were my first three books, and they are all recognizable as psychology books, in a broad sense. Then Up from Eden and A Sociable God, which are anthropology and sociology. Then Eye to Eye, a very philosophical work. And then my most recent works, which are, well, hard to describe, because they sort of cover everything.

Q: Everything?

A: Well, I am now in the process of writing a three-volume series called Kosmos, which at least attempts to address all the major fields of human knowledge. The first volume has now been published in English, called Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: the Spirit of Evolution. It's an extremely long book (over 800 pages), which limits its translations, but a popular version -- called A Brief History of Everything -- is being translated into Dutch, German, French, Italian and other European languages, so you can at least see what I've been up to.

Q: But does "everything" really mean everything?

KW: Here's what we are faced with: if the transpersonal orientation has any validity, it ought to apply to literally every aspect of human endeavor. It ought to have something interesting to say about all of that, from physics to psychology, from philosophy to politics, from cosmology to consciousness.But you cannot do that as an eclecticism, or a smorgasbord of unrelated observations. There has to be something resembling coherence and integrative capacity. The transpersonal orientation must be able to tie together an enormous number of disciplines into a fairly complete, coherent, plausible, believable vision.

Now obviously, it remains to be seen if this can even be done at all. It might simply be an impossibility, for many reasons. But "fools rush in where angels fear to tread," and this fool rushed in. That is what the Kosmos trilogy attempts to do -- integrate a comprehensive number of knowledge disciplines. Whether it succeeds or not -- well, that definitely remains to be seen. But if nothing else, I think it will help people elevate their own visions to a more comprehensive and inclusive scale.

Q: Have your views evolved over time? What has remained? What has been rejected?

KW: Yes, certainly, my views have evolved, I hope along the lines of that wonderful quote of Erich Jantsch: "Evolution is self-development through self-transcendence." I hope that I have developed, and I pray that I have transcended. In other words, evolved.

But I must say, I am probably the luckiest person alive when it comes to past publications, in that I still am quite comfortable with almost everything I've written. I have very much expanded the field of my writing, but the early works are still, I believe, very solid.

This was brought home to me recently, because by a series of interesting coincidences, three of my early books are being issued in new English editions, and I found myself, in the course of one week, writing Forewords to all three of them. Usually when an author writes a Foreword to a work written a decade or two earlier, the Foreword explains why the author doesn't believe the book anymore: "Oh, I've changed my mind, this was an interesting first attempt, others can learn from my mistakes, I've now modified my view" -- and so on. I was happy to find that I could still sincerely recommend my early books. (NOTE)

So I have, as it were, "transcended and included" my own work. I have retained almost every important early concept. At the time I wrote those early books, I very much believed that their basic ideas were true: and I believe that, with a little fine tuning, they are still very true (they were, after all, basically reflecting the philosophia perennis, so this is not such a grandiose claim on my part). But I have indeed expanded the scope of my work. I am trying -- trying, anyway -- to bring the transpersonal orientation to bear on all fields of human knowledge. I would hope that my work is an example of a genuine "world philosophy," in that it honors and includes East and West, North and South. But that, no doubt, is for others to decide.

Q: Has your work met with any substantial criticism -- from inside the transpersonal field?

KW: Yes, definitely. And this criticism is important, I think, and I take it very seriously. At the same time, I would have to say that I think my position has more evidence. I think my position has what Habermas calls "the unforced force of the better argument." But obviously, this is also for others to decide.

Q: The major alternative approaches to yours seem to be Grof's and Washburn's. Both take a regressive view of spirit: we have to return to that which we have lost (in our personal biography). Any comments?

KW: I respect Stan Grof very much. He is simply an extraordinary individual, and I am glad to call him friend. I have always been impressed with his writing and I have always recommended it very highly. As for Michael Washburn, despite the intense nature of our debate, I have been a fan of his work from the beginning. In fact, when I was Editor-in-Chief of ReVision Journal, I fought especially hard to get his work published. Even though it often disagreed with my own work, I always found his ideas clearly and forcefully articulated. I have always been an advocate of getting his work published, so people can see alternative conceptions and make up their own minds.

Q: But you do think that there are some problems with their approach.

KW: Yes, that said, I definitely think that there are some limitations to their approaches, much along the lines that you yourself suggest: in the final analysis, their approaches are regressive. Two important points need to be mentioned here.

One, I am in no way denying that the earlier stages of development can be repressed, oppressed, distorted, alienated; and that "psychological health" therefore requires that we get in touch with the repressed or alienated aspects of our being. From the time of Freud, modernity has totally accepted that notion, and I accept it as well.

The problem is: we cannot define development in terms of repression. If human development were in fact driven by repression, there is simply no reason it should go forward at all. If you step on a plant, it stops growing, period. Even if it limps along and continues growing, that is exactly the point: it keeps growing.

In other words, the prior and most important principle is that of growth, or self-actualization, or development, or evolution. That is primary. And then, no doubt about it, during the course of that growth and evolution, certain capacities and potentials can be repressed. But that is not the mechanism of development: that is something that can go wrong with it. Washburn, in particular, misunderstands this simplest of notions.

And for Stan, he is much more careful and sophisticated, and he would never say that spirit is simply a recapturing of something lost in the human lifetime. But you see, at many times he definitely sounds like he is saying exactly that. I get that sense from his writings, and the way you worded your question, you also get that same sense. So if nothing else, let's you and I together suggest that Stan address this issue more clearly.

Q: Is there any sense to this notion of "losing spirit"? And thus of human beings "returning to spirit"?

KW: Oh, of course. Definitely. But it's not something that was lost at age one or two or three! The wisdom traditions universally speak of the creation of the universe as a "falling away" from Spirit or Godhead or Geist -- whatever term you prefer. This "falling away" or "emptying" (for example, Hegel's Abfall, or the Christian mystics' kenosis -- there are so many examples!) is not itself "bad" -- rather, it is Spirit's superabundance, Spirit's plenitude, Spirit's manner and mode of creation. But we humans -- through our own fault -- get caught up in the phenomenal display so intensely that we take it for real. We believe in phenomena, we do not believe in noumena. And therefore we suffer. Therefore we are introduced to the mathematics of pain and the mechanism of torture called "self."

But that "fall" does not happen during the biological birth process, or during the first year of life, or some such. It occurs with the Big Bang, samsara comes into existence, as a wonderful expression of Spirit's joyous creation, but a creation that must be seen through, to its source, transparently. And the infant is most definitely not alive to the Source. This is a rather horribly confused notion.

Rather, the infant must grow and develop -- just like the rest of evolution -- from pre-personal to personal to trans-personal, from subconscious to self-conscious, to superconscious, from instinct to ego to spirit -- therein to rediscover its supreme identity. But, you see, this has nothing to do with birth from biological mommy.

Q: A recent article about you in the American magazine New Age stated: "However warm and sympathetic he may be on the personal level, Wilber is a samurai warrior who takes no prisoners." Any comments?

KW: All of us in the transpersonal field -- I don't have to tell you this -- we are looked upon by conventional theorists as being totally flaky, wacko, off the wall, crazy. We are sort of looked on as the phrenologists of the universe. Well-intentioned but totally nuts.

So I have tried to be, in my writing, very critical, very discriminating, very sharp, very intense. If you want to call that "samurai" or "warrior," that's up to you. I don't mind. But the point is simply that, you can indeed present a very mystical and transpersonal viewpoint that is not at all flaky. Kierkegaard pointed out that truth is only revealed if you go at it with an insane intensity -- take no prisoners! -- and I belong to that tradition.

I do regret, however, that some people are upset with this passionate approach and style. Emotionally, I really am not comfortable with confrontational issues -- I really want everybody to like everybody. But, alas, the quest for truth makes enemies. And maybe I am totally wrong in my opinions, or maybe I am right. But either way, it makes enemies, and I have had to learn to come to terms with that.

The funny thing is that, when New Age used that phrase -- "a Samurai warrior" -- almost everybody in American transpersonal circles is in favor of "warriorship." People have written tons of books on the topic -- everybody in America wants to be a "warrior"; everybody wants to eulogize the warrior; everybody wants to applaud the warrior. But almost nobody, it seems, wants to actually meet one. When they do, they get rather upset.

Am I actually a warrior? I have no idea. I certainly don't think of myself that way. I'm afraid you will have to decide. I simply think of myself as passionately committed to the transpersonal cause, and because of that intense commitment, I find it necessary to attack on occasion. I wish it were otherwise.

Q: What projects do you have in progress at the moment? And how do you foresee your writing career in the future?

KW: There is the Kosmos trilogy that I mentioned, and its summary, A Brief History of Everything. And strange as it might sound, I have thought very much about moving into writing novels.

Q: Why?

KW: Well, first of all, novels don't have footnotes. Every now and then you simply get tired of having to prove every sentence you utter. I think I've earned the right -- after a dozen books -- to simply suggest a world without having to prove it!

But more than that, narrative is an extremely powerful form of communication. Look at what simple works of "fiction" have actually accomplished: Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin almost singlehandedly ended slavery in the States. We have Rousseau's Emile, Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther, Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks. The worldwide environmental movement was almost totally started by Rachel Carson's Silent Spring -- it's not really a novel, but it reads like one, and it does point up the power of narrative. For that matter, Freud himself only received one important award in his life, and that was the Goethe award for literature!

And I think it is no surprise that one of the most respected politicians of our time (and one of my heroes), Vaclav Havel, is basically a literary man. This is well and good. It's a very noble form of communication, and it's interesting to me.

Q: Anything else to say?

KW: I wish I were living in Amsterdam. I'm serious. America has no great tradition of transcendental work, William James, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Josiah Royce, and that's about it. Otherwise, Americans are cowboy pragmatists, which is very disheartening. And when Americans do get interested in "transpersonal concerns," it is almost always quite crazy and regressive.

But I'd also like to suggest that we all remember the importance of transpersonal practice. Our practice might be meditation, or yoga, or contemplation, or vision quest, or satsang, or spiritual work, or any work done with equanimity.

But seriously, we must practice. Not many people understand that Thomas Kuhn's extremely influential notion of "paradigm" does not mean a new conceptual idea; it means a new practice, which Kuhn renamed "exemplar." And the practice, the paradigm, the exemplar of transpersonal studies is: meditation or contemplation, by whatever name.

And so, please practice! Please let that be your guide. And I believe that you will find, if your practice matures, that Spirit will reach down and bless your every word and deed, and you will be taken quite beyond yourself, and the Divine will blaze with the light of a thousand suns, and glories upon glories will be given unto you, and you will in every way be home. And then, despite all your excuses and all your objections, you will find the obligation to communicate your vision. And precisely because of that, you and I will find each other. And that will be the real return of Spirit to itself.

You and I will find each other. And in our dialogue, and our mutual recognition, and our friendship, and our respect for one another -- soon even our love for each other! -- we will embody the very Spirit of the Kosmos, and honor that vision mightily. The sublime Ralph Waldo Emerson: "The common heart of all sincere conversation is worship." And the beautiful, beautiful Holderlin: "... we calmly smiled, sensed our own God amidst intimate conversation, in one song of our souls."

In one song of our souls.

Thank you for talking to me.



Frank Visser is a member of the editorial board of Panta, the magazine of the Dutch Section of the ITA. This interview appeared in the Spring 1996 issue of Panta. It also appears in the Spring 1997 issue of Eurotas, the journal of the European ITA.

NOTE: Since the date of this interview, Summer 1995, Wilber has compiled a book of theoretical essays, in part addressing his differences with Grof, Washburn and other transpersonal authorities, called The Eye of Spirit. In this book, he analyzes his own intellectual development into four phases, called Wilber-I to Wilber-IV. Around 1979, he passed through an intellectual crisis and rejected the more or less romantic-Jungian view of his first two books, Spectrum of Consciousness and No Boundary as no longer tenable. He reframed his spectrum-model of consciousness in the sense that its extremes were no longer the personal (shadow) and the transpersonal (Mind), but the prepersonal (body) and the transpersonal (spirit). The personal dimension now occupies the middle ground. The prepersonal dimension as such is recognized for what it is. In the earlier books, this was not yet understood correctly. In this interview, Wilber seems to overlook this fact (FV).

Posted with the author's permission. Frank Visser: servire@pi.net


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