This article aims to introduce our perspective on neo-wilberian, participatory, 21st century practices in leading an integrative, harmonious and responsible life, grounded in a view upon spirituality which is influenced by the great traditions, yet also by today’s globalized opportunities. We are researching an integral (integrative) practice that goes beyond considering one spiritual tradition or framework superior to any other. Rather, such a practice is undertaken by exploring the diverse experiences of what it feels like to be human through all our multiple dimensions and cultural/spiritual expressions. What does it mean to be human in the era/geo-political location/family/social class/gender identity/sexual orientation/religious views/spiritual orientations that you live in or identify with? How do you interact or feel towards other people with different combinations of these criteria?
This article assumes a certain degree of familiarity with integral theory and practice (specifically, Ken Wilber’s and Jorge Ferrer’s work), due to the complexity of the issue, the diversity of developmental stages in today’s world and the limitations of a short article such as this one. This issue will be a research subject for the following years, since it touches the leading edge of integral development and practice and prepares the ground for a next step in this field.
Having said this, I start by presenting a perspective which aims to unify the apparently incompatible sides in transpersonal theory – namely, perennialism and the participatory perspective. In short, perennialism is the view that there are many different paths, but all of them are on the same mountain, leading to the same peak (view explored by Wilber). The participatory perspective holds that in fact, there are multiple mountains, with multiple paths, leading to multiple peaks (view explored by Ferrer).
Although many academic scholars have transformed the practice of avoiding to start an argument from a certain premise (since all premises can fall into the uncertain metaphysical ground of axioms), I propose that there is a common core on what it means to be human, a premise that is based on the observable commonality which unites us all as living and breathing beings having evolved from fetuses and having been born as mortal beings, at least physically. The cultural background that we possess influences our perception of reality. People embark on a journey where they fluctuate from being at peace with one’s root culture to seeking knowledge and belongingness elsewhere, in another culture or tradition. However, if observed from an archetypal perspective, one would be able to spot similarities amongst the different cultures and traditions, and amongst our human struggles and joys. Arguably, these similarities could be extrapolated to the essence of being human – a living and breathing being. However, in order to grasp this idea, one must go beyond the intellect, as such an understanding is experiential, embodied, and immanent. Perhaps that by walking the participatory path and exploring one’s unique dimensions and heritage (Ferrer), we actually experience the One Taste (Wilber)?
To expand this idea, let us think about what it means to be human before thinking about class, gender, nationality, and other such categories. As presented in integral theory, there are several dimensions of being human described as the multiple lines of intelligence (also called lines of development): verbal/linguistic, logical/mathematical, naturalist, visual/spatial, existentialist/spiritual, interpersonal, intrapersonal, bodily/kinesthetic, musical/rhythmic, sexual, cognitive, and moral. From the participatory perspective, they are formulated more concisely – body, vital, heart, mind, and consciousness – and this is the first bridge I draw between Wilber and Ferrer. Wilber’s lines can be understood and experienced through Ferrer’s elements, and vice-versa.
The participatory perspective aims to be a next step in transpersonalism, and, chronologically, I agree that it is. However, I wouldn’t view it as a next holon in the development of this field (i.e., transcending and including the previous models while fixing their problems), but rather as a much needed complementary perspective to Wilber’s integral model.
I hold that a reconciliation of these two sides is possible, since I believe that, in fact, they do not contradict each other, but, on the contrary, I argue that they complement each other while being grounded in this common core of human experience.
I believe that the most important apparent difference lies in their different approach to hierarchy and universality. Wilber follows a hierarchical model of development, and Ferrer pursues sensible approach to the importance of each step in development without imposing a hierarchy between the different steps. However, I propose that this difference lies on an illusory ground.
An important key lies in how we understand perennialism and its approach to the common ‘source’. It is easy to fall into the trap of our own limited language: if we try to *name* that which goes beyond language, there will certainly be misconceptions and contradictions. I believe that this misunderstanding comes from the nature of our linguistic way of thinking and interacting with one another based on logical mental structures and categories. The development of our prefrontal cortex, the development of our language, culture, and science has created a strong yet difficult to spot bias towards mental tools of knowing. This is known as cognicentrism. This has lead us to primarily grasp concepts as chronological structures and hierarchical categories, rather than deeper, emotional and embodied experiences. Thus, although Ferrer rightfully argues against the Western bias towards cognicentrism, he might actually perpetuating the same problem he is trying mend.
Through this, I do not wish to criticise Ferrer’s work. On the contrary, I believe it is an important addition to and clarification of several aspects from integral theory. Nevertheless, where there is language and where there are different sides, there are blind sports and conflicts in the process of understand the ever unfolding reality.
Perennialists agree that in the below schematic, the common ground (intersection of all lines) is referred to as Brahma, Sunyata, Dao, God, Allah or Non-Duality by the different traditions. While they may appear as different from an exoteric point of view, they point, in fact, to the same common ground reality. However, I believe that most critics of this theory have been mislead by the limitations of language and linear, chronological thinking mentioned above, and remained blind to the important fact that the common point in the diagram points towards something which is impossible to point at.
The participatory perspective, being a next step (Epoch Three) in Transpersonal Theory, has defined itself, amongst others, by trying to build upon the problems that occurred during Epoch Two of transpersonalism – namely the neo-perennialism predominated by Wilber’s work. As eloquently presented by Ferrer (2017) in his work “Participation and the Mystery”, it stresses the importance of the collaborative participation of all human attributes – body, vital energy, heart, mind, and consciousness.
Trying to avoid the hierarchization of the different spiritual traditions and cultures, the participatory turn stresses the inherent value of all cultures and traditions and their role in the cocreation and unfolding of the “generative power” or “mystery”.
As far as I have observed from my reading and practice, and as the chronological unfolding of the turns in transpersonal theory point out, the participatory turn has been formed, amongst others, as a reply to the possible problems of neo-perennialist epoch before – for example cognicentrism, which can lead to the biased selection of spiritual practices and traditions done by the limited ego. The ego is in the modern West famously correlated to the mind and intellect, usually neglecting the other dimensions of the human being.
Building on this, I propose a next step in the transpersonal narrative, namely the reconciliation of two epochs.
Before criticizing Wilber’s work as as cognicentric and hierarchical, let us first contemplate on the time in history when he developed this work, and acknowledge the still very young age of transpersonalism (which, according to Lahood (2008) started with the pre-transpersonal movement during the psychedelic revolution of the 60s and 70s). The pioneers of this field may have been, at least with a part of their being, at the highest developmental level that they have been describing in their model. However, if we look at the mean in our society, most people are at a mythic structure, while education is undertaken at a rational level, with the highest forms of education embracing pluralistic values. It takes time to understand and reach one’s highest potential as an individual, and it takes even longer as a society. Thus, I firmly believe that the critics of Ken Wilber have forgotten to take into account the curse following most pioneer researchers – namely being very much ahead of their time. Perhaps it is because we engaged our mental spheres and cognition that our society developed the technology and resources able sustain our embodied experience and healing.
Wilber proposed an integral development model – the AQAL model and the structure-state model.
He describes the structural development model as being ‘holon-like’, meaning that each structure transcends and includes the previous one. This implies a hierarchical relationship amongst the different structures, since just as an atom is contained in a molecule, a molecule is not contained in an atom.
While evolving from structure to structure, since our society is still segmented and we do not agree upon a holistic educational system yet, we remain with what is the so-called ‘shadow’ – the parts left behind during our development process, which remained not integrated and which act on the unconscious level until they are embraced and integrated. Most of the time, at least until the shadow is actively approached and re-owned through different techniques, it is not visible to us. For example, someone who hasn’t undergone thorough self-discovery practices and practices for re-owning the shadow and identifies with the values described at the pluralistic structure of development most likely has shadow at the lower structures, with which one disidentifies with. This created inner and collective conflict, which perpetuated separation and suffering.
A good representation of this could be the immigration issue (for example, in Europe) – from a pluralistic perspective, the decision to let immigrants in was the only one viable, and in terms of morality, it has the better argument, even if idealistic. The Mythic structure in this case might have enforced some stricter conditions, which could arguably be regarded as abusive from the pluralistic level, for example, enforcing a commitment to local religion and traditions (which has been done in the past a lot). However, even if the pluralistic approach is the better one, since many people are still at a mythic level of development, there are consequences when two different cultures with different ideals start living together.
Since our society can’t yet agree even upon pluralistic ideals and is a lot of work to be done regarding the shadow from other levels, and Wilber putting so much emphasis on the Integral structure, and on the development of all lines of intelligence, his work is indeed ahead of its time, since the people aren’t yet at that level of development with enough shadow cleared as to understand without feeling patronized due to their shadow’s defense mechanisms kicking in.
A person who has not put in work to actively progress on all lines of intelligence (intellectual, emotional, somatic, spiritual, intrapersonal, interpersonal, and so on) won’t be able to understand the entire depth of a person who has.
And although I agree that we can find issues in Wilber’s personal attitude towards certain aspects, and that he could have been more sensible, amongst others (look for articles on critiques on Ken Wilber), I propose that his work should be read as a meta-theory, and his personality personal issues shouldn’t be mixed with integral theory, although they sometimes reflect in his work.
Thus, I do not fully agree with Lahood’s categorization of transpersonalist epochs, since I would say that the participatory turn is not necessarily a next ‘turn’, but the very elaboration of pluralism towards integral. Wilber’s work fulfilled the purpose of creating maps, and combining existing maps, preparing the ground for the integral age. Since our society is far from being an integral society (most people are at a mythic structure), his work had no choice but to be theoretical and cognicentric, because in order for us to organize ourselves at a systemic level, we need cognition, theory, and models.
As explained in this article, each structure develops as a reaction to the previous one, displaying a critical attitude to the structures before. Thus, being part of the first pioneers in the integral age, Wilber has developed his structure by ‘fighting’ against the shortcomings of the previous stage – namely, the pluralists. Wilber critiques their lack of hierarchical thinking and hyper-sensibility which affects responsible decision-making, and the pluralists critique Wilber for his hierarchical thinking which some accuse of being patronizing, insensitive, objectifying, masculinist, and commercializing spirituality (Thompson, 1998; Gelfer, 2010 & 2011).
Thus, through the participatory insights, we can start doing the work of integrating the insights and shadows from all structures, consciously engaging the mind, heart, body, emotions and intuition, while being aware of the theoretical frameworks provided by the integral model.
Although this is an argument worth of much vaster expanding, as stated at the beginning, this article is meant as an introduction. I believe that there is just one more argument to be urgently highlighted regarding this topic, and that is the participatory argument against perennialism. I believe that this argument makes sense if we resume the terms ‘non-duality’, or ‘God’, or ‘Brahma’, or ‘the One’ as being something which can be pointed at. As stated somewhere else is this article, we shouldn’t let the pitfalls of dualistic language contain incomprehensive, infinite aspects. Universality can not be pointed at, or counted. I think a great danger of our times is forgetting the dimension of simplicity, and focusing just on the complexity. The ‘One’ is not here, or there, it is a principle which can be understood by simply recalling that we are on this ‘one’ planet, which is in this ‘one’ solar system, in this ‘one’ galaxy, in this ‘one’ universe and so on.
DiPerna, D. (2014). Streams of wisdom. Integral Publishing House
Ferrer, J.N. (2002). Revisioning Transpersonal Theory – A Participatory vision of Human Spirituality. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Ferrer, J.N. (2017). Participation and the Mystery: Transpersonal Essays in Psychology, Education, and Religion Hardcover – May 1, 2017
Gelfer, J. Chapter 5 (Integral or muscular spirituality?) in Numen, Old Men: Contemporary Masculine Spiritualities and the Problem of Patriarchy, 2009: ISBN 978-1-84553-419-6
Gelfer, J. LOHAS and the Indigo Dollar: Growing the Spiritual Economy Archived 2011-01-04 at the Wayback Machine, New Proposals: Journal of Marxism and Interdisciplinary Inquiry (4.1, 2010: 46–60)
Hartelius, G. (2013). Lecture 6: critiques of Ken Wilber. Retrieved 1st February, 2019 from the World Wide Web: https://player.vimeo.com/video/112436845
Lahood, G. (2008), Paradise Bound: A Perennial Tradition or an Unseen Process of Cosmological Hybridization? Anthropology of Consciousness, 19: 155–189. doi: 10.1111/j.1556-3537.2008.00008.x
Thompson, Coming into Being: Artifacts and Texts in the Evolution of Consciousness pp. 12–13
Wilber, K. (2017). The religion of tomorrow. Boston: Shambhala.