Thursday, April 05, 2007

A Review of Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality by Ken Wilber

I wrote this review several years ago for a bunch of my fellow initiates in The Third Road. I brought the book up in discussion in another forum, and thought it might be useful to post the review here as well.

I finished slogging my way through Ken Wilber's 1995 book, Sex, Ecology and Spirituality (hereafter, SES), a couple months ago and have been thinking about its relationship and relevance to our spiritual tradition.

SES, mired as it is in the my-metaphorical-penis-is-bigger-than-your-metaphorical-penis academic pissing contest prose that makes a morgue out of Western Philosophy, invites a kind of critique that points out every fault and fallacy that the reviewer comes across as he or she makes her way through the material. I shall try to avoid doing so as I write this review.

Wilber has a handful or so really good ideas buried in the 800+ pages of this book. The book would be more accurately titled "Holistic Philosophy" although I'm sure he's sold many more copies having the word "Sex" in the title. (Even the title invites criticism since he largely means "gender" instead of "sex". He talks a lot about gender bias and inequality, and his only real mention of sex itself is to dismiss Western Culture as sex-obsessed.)

The first of his really good ideas is shift of paradigm from the reductionist idea of "things" to the idea of whole/parts or "holons". The idea is that the Universe contains no isolated parts and no isolated wholes. The Universe, instead, consists of whole/parts or holons potentially nested within other whole/parts potentially nested within other whole/parts ad (according to Wilber, at least) infinitum. This is best understood with examples of which he provides many, and here's one: atoms are contained in molecules are contained in proteins are contained in cells are contained in tissues are contained in organs, etc. The more inclusive and dependent a holon is (like say, a human body) the more significant that holon is. The more basic and depended upon a holon is (like atoms), the more fundamental that holon is. Anything which threatens more fundamental holons is also a threat to the more significant holons which depend on them (but not vice-versa: eliminate all humans and you’d still have their atoms). Wilber outlines roughly "twenty tenets" which define the minimal properties of all holons.

The second of Wilbers really good ideas is a map of holons called "The Four Quadrants" (see here for a pretty diagram a bit down on the page). The lefthand side of the map contains the holons of interiority, that is, those whole/parts which are necessary to experience the Universe as a subject. Conversely, the righthand side contains the holons of exteriority, that is, those whole/parts which constitute the Universe perceived as a collection of objects. The top half of the map explores individual holons and the bottom half collections or groups of holons. The triumph and tragedy of the Enlightenment in the West was, according to Wilber, a belief, a mistaken-but-incredibly-useful belief, that everything could be reduced to the upper-right quadrant of the map. That is, to understand the Universe we just need to know how all the individual pieces perceived as objects work. Sound familiar? It's called Science.

More recently Science has begun to see the fundamental importance of the lower-right quadrant in such fields as Systems Science and Ecology. However, the right-hand side by itself remains an incomplete picture of the Universe that Wilber labels the "flatland".

On the other hand (so to speak), it is the left-hand side, particularly, the lower-left-hand side of the map there we find many of the things that interest us as witches: magic, myth, rationality, and "centaur-vision" (whatever that is). Wilber levels a sharp criticism against post-modern movements (of which Neo-paganism is most definitely included) because of his understanding of the lower-left quadrant. It is fairly clear, he argues, that in the Post-modern era we have reached the limits of what rationality can accomplish. Furthermore, the limits of rationality appear to be potentially fatal both physically in terms of various possible ecological catastrophes and spiritually in terms of the god-is-dead consequence of everything being reduced to the materialistic upper-right-hand quadrant of flatland. Therefore, the call-to-battle for post-modern movements is "no more rationality". That is, in an attempt to go beyond rationality in our collective consciousness, we have often been tempted to regress and embrace pre-rational, more fundamental but less significant holons like magic and myth as the "solution" to the problems of rationality.

WIlber believes it is a mistake to long for cultures which were dominated by these more fundamental structures. Mythic-dominant cultures were often the most prejudiced and gender-unequal societies, and tribal, magic-dominant cultures, while possibly more matrifocal prior to the development of the plow, were perfectly capable creating of their own more-limited ecological crises. He believes that we have to transcend rationality rather than regress from rationality in order to address the problems of modernism.

And so what is beyond rationality? SES outlines at least three stages of collective consciousness beyond rationality: centaur-vision, non-dual and causal. Apparently, these stages can only be understood and communicated between people who have experienced them, but the theory is that there are people who have experienced them and techniques for achieving them. And so, if my understanding is correct, centaur-vision is experiencing a one-ness with nature (hence, the centaur: a union of man and animal). Non-duality is experiencing a consciousness beyond all forms, and casual is an experience of the whole matrix of reality and its cohesive evolution. Should we say Goddess? Perhaps.

A third really good idea is, strictly speaking, not Wilber's but Plato's which was expanded by Plotinus. Our consciousness is capable of assent through these levels of cognitive development to touch and unite if briefly with Godhood. At the same time, God's consciousness descends into nature and pours out through it via all of the holons in all four quadrants. Our conscious is a channel of the Spirit, and the more we develop our consciousness the more of that Spirit that can pour through us. We can achieve Enlightenment and, in fact, states beyond Enlightenment (ascent), but, ultimately, must return to live in this world as it is (descent).

Wilber dismisses magic as infantile and myth as childish, and so it's easy to feel defensive as a witch when reading SES. Furthermore, since his chains of holons are portrayed as monolithic and linear in each of the quadrants and because he presents meditative techniques like those developed in Zen and Yoga as the only routes to non-dual and causual consciousness, it is easy to feel that the Craft has no hope of achieving the transrational states he values as being of greater significance than rationality, myth and magic.

Actually, I think the Third Road training is a valid path of ascent and descent as delineated in SES. Wilber points out that often when a new stage of collective cognitive development is achieved, the previous stages are initially denied. Thus, mythic cultures (like Christianity) have repressed and denied the validity of magic, and then modern rational cultures denied myth (God is dead). Ultimately, however, these earlier ways of seeing the world are more fundamental, and so they must be integrated rather than repressed if the new level of development is to stabilize. Faerie Trad, in general, seems to have a good map to the integration of magic and myth into rational consciousness and, I believe, beyond. We do not, for instance, hold any one myth over all others as being the literal truth, nor we believe that magic is a way of instant wish-fulfillment without consequences. Myth and magic are the instrumentality of consciousness. We use them along with our rational mind consciously to achieve interior transformations that we know will have exterior consequences as well.

Do we achieve transrational states in our practices? I think we fairly consistency achieve oneness with Nature and her various Spirits. I think we do peak beyond that state occasionally, but such states seem so vaguely defined (at least to me) that it’s hard to agree or disagree with Wilber as to what's out there.

If nothing else, SES provides an interesting set of vocabulary for talking about holistic philosophy. I found myself disagreeing with the details of virtually everything he presents in the book, but, as I say, that seems to be a consequence of his presenting his ideas in the competitive framework of academic prose. (He spends thirty pages in one end-note, for Goddess sake, setting up straw men and then knocking them down one by one to make a point that no one but a small coterie of obscure professors could possibly even care about.) In general, I liked the big ideas contained in SES, and while I'd hardly suggest that this book is a must-read or a can't-put-it-down classic, it does provide an interesting integration of a broad range material.