By Ken Wilber
Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2007
Review by Carl McColman
In Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, young Harry encounters the Mirror of Erised, a magical object that reveals the deepest desire of a person’s heart. Harry’s mentor, Albus Dumbledore, points out that “The happiest man on earth would be able to use the Mirror of Erised like a normal mirror, that is, he would look into it and see himself exactly as he is.” But of course, for all the rest of us who have desires that are as yet out of our reach, this magical mirror relentlessly depicts what we want, but do not have — a beguiling vision that could lead to madness.
I’ve begun to suspect that if Ken Wilber were to gaze into the Mirror of Erised, he would see himself as the proud author of a mega-bestseller, a book which once and for all explains the poetic intricacies of his philosophy in a way that millions of people can understand — and accept. Integral theory would rise to the same level as existentialism or postmodernism — a philosophical movement that transcends the confines of the ivory tower to become a truly popular ideology, changing society and culture from the ground up.
I suspect that this is the secret desire of Wilber’s heart because he’s written several books over the past decade or so that purportedly present his theory in an accessible, “everyman” format. First came 1996′s A Brief History of Everything, which distills his magnum opus, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality into a sort of integral catechism. This was followed two years later by an anthology called The Essential Ken Wilber; 2001′s A Theory of Everything promised to summarize the integral approach as a philosophy with practical applications for business, politics, science and spirituality; then came Boomeritis, a truly wretched novel in which Wilber attempted to unpack his ideas in a narrative context. Now we have The Integral Vision, which comes across as yet another attempt to sell Wilberology to the teeming millions who have never really thought about how Buddhism, Neoplatonism, Christian mysticism, Vedanta, and the social sciences can all be pieced together to create a coherent model of human consciousness which promises to integrate science and spirituality into a unified theory for the future of human evolution.
Wow. Yes, it’s an impressive theory, and those of us who got our minds duly blown by such works as Sex, Ecology, Spirituality or Wilber’s ten-CD audiobook Kosmic Consciousness will greet this latest attempt to popularize his thought as doubly frustrating. First (and perhaps most important), it’s maddening to observe Wilber making attempt after attempt to mass-market his theory — while his promised sequels to Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (which was supposed to be volume one of a massive “Kosmos Trilogy” of integral thought) remain missing in action. But I’d be willing to forgive Wilber’s understandable desire to reach a broader audience, if he actually would bring out a book that I could wholeheartedly recommend to the uninitiated. Sadly, the closest he’s come to doing that was A Brief History of Everything — his earliest, and still the best, attempt to popularize his work.
The Integral Vision, as Wilber’s fifth try at making his theory accessible, does in fact have some commendable features. It’s short — a mere 230 pages in a small paperback book, filled with colorful illustrations and pages featuring key concepts presented in a supersized font. It’s a quick read, and for the most part, requires no prior knowledge of Wilber’s work. Consistent with most of his recent work (both in print and online), the emphasis is on the practical: how can integral theory make a real difference in your life, and what can you do to maximize its benefit for you? Thus, it features little mini-exercises to encourage the reader to begin to think integrally and to consider how meditation, strength training, “shadow work” and other practices can be, well, integrated into a cohesive game plan for maximizing one’s potential. All this is very good.
But alas, the book’s strengths are quickly lost when we consider its shortcomings. In this short book, Wilber leads the reader through a careening tour of integral theory, covering his four quadrant model, the difference between stages and states of consciousness, the importance of understanding different lines of intelligence, and so forth, before devoting the final third of the book to practical steps the aspiring integralist can take to, well, become more integral. Because he doesn’t succeed at making a compelling argument as to why this theory can improve an individual’s life in concrete ways, his pitch for integral life practice fails to persuade. Even worse, much of the social and communal dimension of his thought is missing in action: The Integral Vision ignores his “flatland” theory and how it unlocks the philosophical impasse dividing science and religion; also missing is the critique of boomeritis, presumably because this book is aimed not at boomers but at their children (and grandchildren). But all anyone has to do is go hang out in the Wicca section of a new age bookshop to learn that boomeritis doesn’t just afflict people born between 1946 and 1964. Stripped of Wilber’s social critique, what is left is Wilber-lite, a feel-good approach to integral theory that promises maximum benefit but makes very little demands on the reader (aside from the all-too-frequent hawking of Wilber’s website). Finally, the book fails because, despite its claim to be an introductory work, the text includes plenty of Wilber-jargon that is either un- or ill-defined; cutesy terminology like “IOS” (for “integral operating system,” which he keeps referring to being downloaded into the reader’s brain) makes the entire book seem more silly than substantive. The end result: a book that breaks no new ground for Wilber’s existing students and readers, and largely fails as a beginner’s guide. Why, then, was it published?
Wilber seems bent on selling his integral integral theory to the unconverted. Because of this, I can’t help but think that he might benefit from hanging out with some of the best, most cutting-edge thinkers from, of all places, the evangelical Christian world; folks like Ron Martoia and Peter Rollins. Evangelical Christians, after all, are the masters of spiritual salesmanship — and also the unintended masters of turning off those who don’t want to be subjected to a sales pitch. That’s why, in our wild and wacky postmodern world, truly creative evangelicals have begun to look at surprising new ways to go about getting their message across. From Martoia, Wilber would learn that jargon creates “static” that gets in the way of really getting your message across to people. From Rollins he would learn that doubt and uncertainty have a sacred part to play in the cognitive process, and that honoring people’s soulful questing can be much more productive than just trying to stuff them with your own answers.
I know I’m slamming this book, but I hope that readers of this review who are unfamiliar with Wilber will not be dissuaded from exploring his thought. I continue to see Wilber as a singularly important spiritual philosopher whose creative efforts at integrating the hard and social sciences with both eastern and western mysticism are both intellectually respectable and uniquely creative. But, folks, The Integral Vision is not the way to get introduced to Wilber. Start with A Brief History of Everything or Kosmic Consciousness; if you’re brave enough, go ahead and take on Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. The holistic nature of integral theory demands that a student reach a certain intellectual and cognitive maturity before he or she can profitably engage with this work. But this means if you’re clever enough to understand The Integral Vision, you’re probably smart enough for Sex, Ecology, Spirituality — even if it is 800 pages long. And if you can handle the real thing, why settle for the watered-down version?
Oh — and Ken, if you happen to be reading this: tear yourself away from the Mirror of Erised, and please finish the Kosmos Trilogy, okay?
Disclosure: a complimentary copy of the book reviewed in this post was supplied to me by the publisher. If you follow the link of any book mentioned in this post and purchase it or other products from Amazon.com, I receive a small commission from Amazon. Thank you for doing so — it is the easiest way you can support this blog.