After recently re-posting the sequence of articles about Jenny Wade’s theory of the levels of consciousness, I finally got round to reading a book by Ken Wilber that has been lurking on my shelves for 10 years at least, I suspect. It is modestly titled A Theory of Everything: an integral vision for business, politics, science and spirituality.
This is the last of three posts attempting to capture some of the key points which excite me the most about it.
The first post tackled the basic four quadrant model, its concept of holarchy and the possible levels of consciousness development.
The second looked at some of the insights derived from this model, which give it its value.
This final post examines another way the model enriches our understanding of current problems and also outlines what we can do as individuals to lift our own level of consciousness.
The Mean Green Meme
It is important to emphasise once more that Wilber regards the levels of culture he describes as unavoidable stepping stones towards our reaching our full potential as a global civilisation. Each has its value and purpose at the appropriate stage and needs to develop onwards at its own externally unforced pace if unacceptable costs are to be avoided. However, the dominant liberal culture contains a version of the world-centric perspective that does not quite see it that way (page 123):
The blue meme (by whatever name) is an absolutely crucial, unavoidable, necessary building block of the higher stages (including green), and yet green does virtually everything in his power to destroy blue wherever it finds it.
For Wilber (page 124) it is only ‘on a sturdy blue and then orange foundation, green ideals can be built.” He summarises: ‘No blue and orange, no green. Thus green’s attack on blue and orange is profoundly suicidal.’
His next point is a subtle but important one (ibid.):
Not only that, but when the highly developed, postformal green wave champions any and every “multicultural” movement, it acts to encourage other memes not to grow into green. The more green succeeds, the more it destroys itself.
Instead of this flatland pluralism, which uncritically celebrates diversity regardless of the consequences, Wilber advocates what for Bahá’ís is a very familiar solution. We need to move towards (page 126):
. . . . a universalism of “commonalities,” which means that, in addition to recognising and honouring the many important differences between cultures, we also tend to cherish those things that we have in common as human beings living on a very small planet, . . . (what I also call unity in diversity . . . . ).
This would allow a pluralist to forthrightly condemn as totally unacceptable female genital mutilation, rather than dither about whether it is some kind of legitimate cultural variation.
The situation is complex though. He is also very aware that green pluralism cannot be imposed on people. One of the examples that he gives is of China (page 122) ‘where a blue ancient nation is ratcheting in fits and starts toward an orange modern state.’ He explains further:
Generally speaking, this development is not helped by making green human rights the main issue. Blue nations intuitively (and correctly) understand that green human rights will corrosively dissolve blue structure, and that spells disaster for China.
He quotes, instead, Samuel P. Huntington’s respectful gradualism as the ideal (ibid.):
. . . . if human beings are ever to develop a universal civilisation, it will emerge gradually through the exploration and expansion of these commonalities. Thus…, peoples in all civilisations should search for and attempt to expand the values, institutions, and practices they have in common with peoples of other civilisations.
So, what can I do?
At the very end of the book is a short chapter describing what he feels we can each do as individuals to lift our level of consciousness and its attendant practice. He opens with a beautiful quotation from Einstein (page 136):
A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us… Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole nature in its beauty.
Wilber has suggestions about how we could go about creating ‘an integral life, a life that finds room for body, mind, soul, and spirit as they all unfold in self, culture, and nature. He calls his recipe for this (page 138) integral transformative practice (ITP). I do find his jargon generating tendencies more than a little irritating at times, but the value of what he is really saying behind the abstractions outweighs the disadvantages by far.
He recommends that we start with the self, and use physical, emotional, mental and spiritual exercises, and by the latter he means meditation and contemplative prayer. I take it he is here making a distinction between this and petitionary prayer, a more frequent and less valuable practice, perhaps.
We then need to move to exercising in nature and in our culture as well. In terms of culture, this includes the obvious, i.e. in Bahá’í terminology ‘acts of service’ as well as something less obvious, ‘mutually respectful dialogue,’ in Bahá’í terms ‘consultation.’ ‘Getting actively involved in respect for nature’ for him includes recycling, environmental protection, and nature celebration. This not only ‘honours nature, it promotes our own capacity to care.’
He summarises his recommendations (page 139):
In short, integral transformative practice attempts to exercise all the basic waves of human beings – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual – in self, culture, and nature.
He feels that meditation is a key component of this process (ibid.):
. . . . what meditation can do is to help people disidentify with whatever stage they are at, and thus move to the next stage. And, in fact, we have considerable evidence that meditation does exactly that. It has been shown, for example, meditation increases the percentage of the population who are at second tier from less than 2% to an astonishing 38%.
In this he may be acknowledging, contrary to Medina’s criticism cited in the previous post, that people within first tier cultures can leap to the second tier and potentially in sufficient numbers to take the culture along with them.
In the explanation of his integral transformative practice I picked on a couple of places where what he says maps very closely on Bahá’í practice. At a somewhat more abstract level there are also close parallels.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Paris Talks makes clear that for Bahá’ís there is a physical as well as the spiritual domain and they are connected, not least through our brain and body (page 86):
It is, therefore, clear that the spirit in the soul of man can function through the physical body by using the organs of the ordinary senses, and that it is able also to live and act without their aid in the world of vision.
This does not denigrate the brain and body, nor suggest that they need not be studied. In the same talk he states ‘outer circumstances are communicated to the soul by the eyes, ears, and brain of a man.’
The power and reality of culture is also acknowledged by Bahá’ís. For example (Century of Light – page 134):
Globalization itself is an intrinsic feature of the evolution of human society. It has brought into existence a socio-economic culture that, at the practical level, constitutes the world in which the aspirations of the human race will be pursued in the century now opening.
And it is not just the aspirations that are crucial. Human experiences and desires are shaped and influenced by social structures which the Faith also factors into its models. Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, makes this clear in his book The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh:
The enormous energy dissipated and wasted on war, whether economic or political, will [once Bahá’u’lláh’s vision becomes reality] be consecrated to such ends as will extend the range of human inventions and technical development, to the increase of the productivity of mankind, to the extermination of disease, to the extension of scientific research, to the raising of the standard of physical health, to the sharpening and refinement of the human brain, to the exploitation of the unused and unsuspected resources of the planet, to the prolongation of human life, and to the furtherance of any other agency that can stimulate the intellectual, the moral, and spiritual life of the entire human race.
My final feeling?
There are, as I have hinted, certain areas of unease to which I will be returning in later posts. Also his model is expressed in a specially created jargon which obscures rather than facilitates accurate understanding. His exposition is mostly theoretical rather than experiential. These possible flaws are things that clearly irritate Michelle Mairesse:
W. B. Yeats told a friend that he had dreamed of George Bernard Shaw as a smiling sewing machine. I believe that Wilber would be a more effective writer if he were less intent on neat sewing-machine logic and more intent on the smile of the Buddha.
I can’t help but accept that Wilber squeezes spirituality so hard into his systematic framework that I fear its essence drains away all too often. Also a far stronger and more detailed sense of what we can do to change ourselves and our communities would have enhanced his message in this book, which was obviously written for a wider audience than some of his heavier tomes.
However, Wilber’s book remains valuable for a number of interconnected reasons.
As a social scientist I deeply appreciate the rigour with which he pulls in evidence to support his thesis. As someone who grew up in the shadow of totalitarianism and war I resonate strongly to the breadth of his analysis of extremism and violence. As someone who became disillusioned with so-called progressive politics, his exploration of the deficiencies of partisan perspectives has enriched my understanding of my own dissatisfaction. And finally, last but very much not least, a great deal of what he says in his Theory of Everything maps surprisingly closely onto the description of reality the Bahá’í Faith describes.