Ken Wilber is a visionary thinker, philosopher, and modern-day mystic who is perhaps best known for developing an integral “theory of everything” that synthesizes the major truths from all human knowledge and experience, including both the spiritual and scientific worlds. Wilber is fairly well suited for such a daunting task, considering he has a strong academic background in the study of science and has logged decades of serious Zen practice. It’s no wonder he’s been called the “Einstein of consciousness studies.” Here, he talks with Unity Magazine editor Katy Koontz about where humanity has been and where we’re heading now.
Katy Koontz: What inspired you to pursue your integral “theory of everything”?
Ken Wilber: What drove me was the desire for wholeness. Most of my academic training is in the sciences, which made me very aware of how partial the study of science actually is. Physics, for example, deals with just a certain amount of reality, its so-called material aspect, and even then just the smallest aspects of that. And of course, all of science doesn’t very much like all of the humanities, so I was always looking for some way to bring science together with the humanities, either sociology or psychology, or even philosophy.
Another big part was my involvement with Buddhism. I studied Zen Buddhism for about 15 years and then Tibetan Buddhism for another 30 or so. In the second to third year of my Zen practice, I had a fairly strong satori or awakening experience. When that happens, you don’t see the mountain; you are the mountain. You don’t walk on the earth; you are the earth. You’re not aware of the sun; you are the sun. It’s a oneness with every single thing in existence. That’s the real purpose of Zen, and I think having that type of mystical experience is the main driver behind most of the world’s really great religions.
Satori carries with it the feeling that you’re truly getting in touch with reality. Many traditions call this the two truths doctrine, referring to relative truth and ultimate truth. The study of science gives you relative truth, but satori gives you an ultimate truth. That became part of my inspiration to tie these things together and find an approach that used both truths. I wanted to take relative truth, like psychotherapy, and fit it together with an ultimate truth, like Zen Buddhism or Tibetan Buddhism or Christian mysticism or any of those approaches that had some sort of genuinely mystical experience at their core. It struck me that science and mysticism were essentially trying to do the same thing—change your state of consciousness.
Western psychotherapy mostly tries to unite the persona (the small, fractured self) with the shadow (the material that the person is repressing) to create a whole and healthy sense of self. Humanistic or existential psychotherapy claims that the real self is the union of that whole mind with the body. Zen attempts to take the entire body-mind and unite it with the entire universe so you can achieve a cosmic consciousness.
KK:No small feat.
KW:Right, so what I’m after is the biggest consciousness or wholeness a human being can rightly claim to reach. The fact that we had three very real but very different approaches to what our fullest and largest self could be was a breakthrough for me.
KK:But satori is temporary, though, isn’t it? It’s not a permanent state.
KW: Recent polls have shown that more than 60 percent of Americans have had an experience that they describe as being one with everything. It’s usually a onetime, spontaneous experience that lasts for an hour or two—a day if you’re lucky—but it profoundly changes people because it shows them this state is reality. Ninety percent of them describe it as the most real experience they’ve ever had.
When you practice the type of meditation that specifically gets you into these unity states for 10, 20, 30 years, you’re going to be in those states quite a bit. You can be in the satori state in some central way most of the time. That’s true in my case, and it’s certainly true for all the teachers I’ve ever had.
Almost every single major religion has some access to this mystical version of their own teachings. Even Christianity has a large number of genuine mystics, but religion itself kind of dropped off with the Western enlightenment.
KK:I’ve heard you say that when science threw out the Church, it threw out the baby with the bathwater. Can you elaborate?
KW:In Western psychology, developmental psychologists have discovered that human beings have a great capacity to learn a tremendous amount of material, and in doing so, they go through a series of six to eight major stages of development, each one building on the one before it. Every human being alive goes through those same stages, although not everybody goes through all of them. And if you study historical development, you’ll see that not only do individuals go through these stages, but human society as a whole goes through them as well: archaic to magic to mythic to rational to pluralistic to integral.
Most of the great religions got their start during the mythic stage, which is why almost all of them have some sort of magic or mythic core. But starting around 1600 to 1700 C.E., the Age of Reason started to emerge. All the modern sciences—chemistry, physics, biology, astronomy—came into existence during this rational stage.
Human beings had been on this planet for 300,000 years by that point, yet it was only about 300 years ago that we figured out rationality—and, by the way, our moral sense as well. When humans figured out rationality, it was a universal understanding. So they didn’t have Hindu chemistry versus Protestant chemistry. It was just chemistry. When humanity entered the stage of rationality, starting with the Western Enlightenment, it started to let go of its mythic beliefs.
The next stage is the pluralistic or the relativistic stage, and it’s only been with us since the 1960s. The baby boomers, my generation, were the first generation that grew up with this structure. In 1959, the percentage of the population at this pluralistic stage was 3 percent. By 1972, it had moved to 15 percent. Today, it’s around 23 percent.
KK: Yet it seems that we’re now valuing mysticism more—how does that fit in?
KW:I certainly thought for a long time that there would be a really strong movement to do that, and in the ’60s, the boomers brought back a fair amount of these mystical approaches, in part because they were the first generation that grew up on psychedelics. There was an acceptance, or at least a fairly widespread opening, of the more mystical forms of religion. But in truth, it’s fairly involved. I mean, if you’re going to really get into Zen, you’ve got a pretty much full-time job for at least several years. Two to three years of really strong Zen meditation is required for the average person to have their first satori. So it sounds attractive, but the actual practice of it is fairly hard, except if you take psychedelics, of course, and I just never got into that.
As to whether we’re going to see any sort of increase in mystical awareness, I think that in a certain sense we have seen it. When Zen first became known in America, a lot of very well-known theologians would go meet with Zen masters. Father Thomas Keating, for example, got so inspired by Zen meditation that he founded a form of mystical Christian prayer that he called centering prayer, based on original Christian mystical texts. That really caught on, and he ended up creating more than 300 meditation centers worldwide. I knew him quite well, and he was amazing—a genuine living Christian saint. He had had more satoris than I can count.
KK:Science has not exactly embraced mysticism, of course.
KW: No, but there are an awful lot of interpretations by mystically oriented people based on modern science. Take the big bang, for example. I know even nonmystical Christians who hang on to that one because Genesis says God created the universe from nothing, and for a long time that’s exactly what the big bang was thought to be. It really was a big deal when it was first discovered, and many, many theologians since then have pointed to that when asked to give proof for the existence of God.
Another scientific reality that’s used in a similar way is the fine-tuning argument. What we’ve discovered is that if any of the more than 20 constants or fundamental laws of nature had been just a little bit off—by less than 0.00001 percent—there would have been no life in the universe. So we came into existence thanks to a chance mutation or chance happenstance. A fair number of well-known theologians use this to point to the existence of God.
I happen to agree with Nāgārjuna, one of the greatest Buddhist philosophers, that the only proof of an ultimate reality is to have an ultimate reality experience yourself. In other words, if you want to know if God really exists, achieve a satori and find out yourself.
Satori carries with it the feeling that you’re truly getting in touch with reality … The study of science gives you relative truth, but satori gives you an ultimate truth.
KK:Can you comment on your rule that everybody is right because nobody is smart enough to be wrong 100 percent of the time?
KW:Sure. We all have a huge background of common knowledge we get from our culture. Language is an example. So if everybody is thinking and talking in their language, then they’ve got most of that right because no matter how crazy what they say is, we can still understand their words. Also, every system in their body is functioning correctly or they simply wouldn’t be alive. So that’s right too.
So in part, saying everybody’s right and nobody is smart enough to be wrong all the time has a bit of a shock value to it. If nothing else, it helps people understand the need for a certain type of wholeness. In philosophy, for example, pretty much all the schools of thought are right because each has a piece of the pie. They’re all still around because each of them is saying something that’s partially true.
But to follow that up, I usually add that some people are “more right” than others. That’s what modern science does because clearly developmental stages exist in a hierarchy; each stage is higher than the previous stage.
KK: You talk about humanity entering a transformational age. What is this new age, and how does it relate to integral theory?
KW:That comes from my study of the more than 100 models of developmental psychology that have been set forth by hundreds of different researchers and have checked out thousands of times in different cultures. The similarity in all these models is really stunning, and they all head in one direction—we don’t grow backward, only forward. When there is movement from one stage to the next higher stage, developmentalists will generally call that a transformation.
My generation, the boomers, believed we had the new paradigm. This was, after all, the Age of Aquarius. Back when everybody was writing about that, they’d list all the things that the new paradigm had compared to the old one. So it was organic instead of mechanistic, holistic instead of atomistic, unified instead of fragmented, and on and on. But the boomers essentially missed it by at least one generation. What they actually did was move from an average stage of rational development to this postmodern stage of pluralistic development, which means a whole bunch of different views.
Almost everyone in my generation mistook that for being an ultimate or an integral stage, which is the highest stage. That integral stage has a real concept of actual wholeness, and it’s based on a fair amount of reality. That’s why we’re still tracking to see how close we are on average to being at more integral stages of development, because one of the things the pluralistic postmodern stage does is polarize people.
KK:Exactly where we are now.
KW:Right. The pluralistic stage is a higher stage than rationality because it’s smart enough to look at rational universal systems. Like I said, there’s not Hindu chemistry versus Protestant chemistry. There’s just chemistry. Well, they will look at these universal chemical systems and claim that they’re not really universally true because you can find some cultures that don’t have them. So they have a multicultural viewpoint. They’re in favor of diversity. But while the pluralistic stage is smart enough to differentiate those universal systems, it’s not smart enough to integrate those systems. What it’s done is create an enormously polarized America.
KK:So what happens next? How do we solve that?
KW:There are several integral stages next—at least two or three. The first will take the differentiated polarizations and integrate them. Whenever a leading edge becomes approximately 10 percent of the population, there’s a shift, a tipping point. This happens with each stage. What we’re looking for now as a counterbalance to this polarized state is for the first integral stage to hit more than 10 percent of the population. At that point, this unifying force would reach a tipping point and would spread out to the whole society.
KK:What percentage is it at now?
KW:Depending on which model you use, somewhere between 5 and 8 percent. So we’re getting very close to transforming to a truly integral stage of development.
KK:Are you saying this polarization stage is inevitable, but it’s okay because we are headed toward this integral phase?
KW:That’s exactly correct. It’s unfortunate in a certain sense that we’re at this polarized stage, but if you can just hang on, it’s good news because when we get to that integral stage, those ideas will permeate the whole culture. Most people become much more comfortable when they hear those ideas.
KK:How long could it take us to get to that 10 percent?
KW:This might be something we see within a few years, and it’s going to be an extraordinary transformation, not only for our country, but for the world. We’ll have a more global perspective, focusing on holistic, intuitive thinking and on harmony, compassion, and cooperation.
Ken Wilber is a New York Times best-selling author who has written more than 20 books, including Integral Spirituality (Integral Books, 2006) and A Brief History of Everything (Shambhala, 1996). In 2000, Wilber founded Integral Institute, a think tank formed in collaboration with more than 200 scholars and experts. In 2007, he cofounded Integral Life, a social media hub described as the world’s first integral learning community. Visit integrallife.com.
This article appeared in Unity Magazine®.