Salon Interviews Ken Wilber
- NHNE Wavemaker News List
Current Members: 384
Monthly Supporters: 75
Subscribe / unsubscribe / important links at the bottom of this message.
YOU ARE THE RIVER: AN INTERVIEW WITH KEN WILBER
By Steve Paulson
April 28, 2008
The integral philosopher explains the difference between religion, New Age
fads and the ultimate reality that traditional science can't touch.
Ken Wilber may be the most important living philosopher you've never heard
of. He's written dozens of books but you'd be hard-pressed to find his name
in a mainstream magazine. Still, Wilber has a passionate -- almost cultlike
-- following in certain circles, as well as some famous fans. Bill Clinton
and Al Gore have praised Wilber's books. Deepak Chopra calls him "one of the
most important pioneers in the field of consciousness." And the Wachowski
brothers asked Wilber, along with Cornel West, to record the commentary for
the DVDs of their "Matrix" movies.
A remarkable autodidact, Wilber's books range across entire fields of
knowledge, from quantum physics to developmental psychology to the history
of religion. He's steeped in the world's esoteric traditions, such as
Mahayana Buddhism, Vedantic Hinduism, Sufism and Christian mysticism. Wilber
also practices what he preaches, sometimes meditating for hours at a
stretch. His "integral philosophy," along with the Integral Institute he's
founded, hold out the promise that we can understand mystical experience
without lapsing into New Age mush.
Though he's often described as a New Age thinker, Wilber ridicules the
notion that our minds can shape physical reality, and he's dismissive of New
Age books and films like "The Tao of Physics" and "What the Bleep Do We
Know." But he's also out to show that "trans-rational" states of
consciousness are real, and he's dubbed the scientific materialists who
doubt it "flatlanders."
Wilber's hierarchy of spiritual development -- and the not-so-subtle
suggestion that he himself has reached advanced stages of enlightenment --
has also sparked a backlash. Some critics consider him an arrogant
know-it-all, too smart for his own good. His dense style of writing, which
is often laced with charts and diagrams, can come across as bloodless and
When I reached Wilber by phone at his home in Denver, I found him to be
chatty and amiable, even laughing when he described his own recent brush
with death. He's a fast talker who leaps from one big idea to the next. And
they are big ideas -- God and "Big Self" and why science can only tell us so
much about what's real.
Paulson: You've written that there's a philosophical cold war between
science and religion. Do you see them as fundamentally in conflict?
Wilber: Personally, I don't. But it depends on what you mean by science and
what you mean by religion. There are at least two main types of religion.
One is dependent upon a belief in a mythic or magic dogma. That is certainly
what most people mean by religion. Science has pretty thoroughly dismantled
the mythic religions. But virtually all the great religions themselves
recognize the difference between "exoteric" or outer religion, and
"esoteric" or inner religion. Inner religion tends to be more contemplative
and mystical and experiential, and less cognitive and conceptual. Science is
actually sympathetic with the contemplative traditions in terms of its
Paulson: When you refer to mythic religions, are you talking about the kinds
of stories we read in the Bible?
Wilber: Or any of the world's great religions. Laotzu was 900 years old when
he was born. According to the Hindus, the earth is resting on a serpent,
which is resting on an elephant, which is resting on a turtle. Those kinds
of mythic approaches aren't wrong. They're just a stage of development. Look
at [Swiss philosopher] Jean Gebser's structural stages of development. They
go from archaic to magic to mythic to rational to pluralistic to integral
and higher. Magic and mythic are actual stages. They're not wrong any more
than saying "5 years old" is wrong. It's just 5 years old. We expect there
to be higher stages. There was a time when the magic and mythic approaches
years ago were evolution's leading edge of development. So we can't belittle
Paulson: Where do you think the scientific worldview falls short when
dealing with religion?
Wilber: Conventional science has correctly dismantled the pre-rational myths
but it goes too far in dismantling the trans-rational. The mythic and magic
approaches tend to be pre-rational and pre-verbal, but the meditative or
contemplative practices tend to be trans-rational. They completely accept
rationality and science. But they point out that there are deeper modes of
awareness, which are scientific in their own way.
Paulson: What do you mean by trans-rational?
Wilber: People at these higher stages of spiritual development report a
"nondual awareness," a type of awareness that transcends the dichotomy
between subject and object. The mystical state is often beyond words. It is
trans-rational because you have access to rationality but it's temporarily
suspended. A 6-month-old infant, for instance, is in a pre-rational state,
whereas the mystic is in a trans-rational state. Unfortunately, "pre" and
"trans" get confused. So some theorists say the infant is in a mystical
Paulson: Are you saying people with a rationalist orientation can't make
Wilber: I'm saying that when people look at mystical states, they often
confuse them with pre-rational states. People like Sigmund Freud take
trans-rational, oceanic states of oneness and reduce them to infantile
states of unity.
Paulson: Why has the scientific worldview dismissed this trans-personal
dimension? For most intellectuals around the world, the secular scientific
paradigm has triumphed.
Wilber: It's understandable. Historically, if you look at these broad
stages, the magical era tended to be 50,000 years ago, the mythic era
emerged around 5,000 B.C., and the rational era -- secular humanism --
emerged in the Renaissance and Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was an
attempt to liberate myth and base truth claims on evidence, not just dogma.
But when science threw out the church, they threw out the baby with the bath
You can't prove a higher stage to someone who's not at it. If you go to
somebody at the mythic stage and try to prove to them something from the
rational, scientific stage, it won't work. You go to a fundamentalist who
doesn't believe in evolution, who believes the earth was created in six
days, and you say, "What about the fossil record"? "Oh yes, the fossil
record; God created that on the fifth day." You can't use any of the
evidence from a higher stage and prove it to a lower stage. So someone who's
at the rational stage has a very hard time seeing these trans-rational,
trans-personal stages. The rational scientist looks at all the pre-rational
stuff as nonsense -- fairies and ghosts and goblins -- and lumps it together
with the trans-rational stuff and says, "That's nonrational. I don't want
anything to do with it."
Paulson: So where does God fit into this picture? Do you believe in God?
Wilber: God is a perfect example of how these two types of religion treat
ultimate reality. You asked, "Do you believe in God?" In exoteric religion,
it's a matter of belief. Do you believe in the kind of God who rewards and
punishes and will sit with you in some eternal heaven? But in the esoteric
form of religion, God is a direct experience. Most contemplatives would call
it "godhead." It's so different from the mythic conceptions of God -- the
old man in the sky with a gray beard. The word "God" is much more misleading
than it is accurate. So there's a whole series of terms that are used
instead by the esoteric traditions -- super-consciousness, Big Mind, Big
Self. This ultimate reality is a direct union that is felt or recognized in
a state of enlightenment or liberation. It's what the Sufis call the
"supreme identity," the identity of the interior soul with the ultimate
ground of being in a direct experiential state.
Paulson: It does raise the question of whether God -- or ultimate reality --
has some independent existence, or whether this is just a mental state that
our minds can conjure up.
Wilber: That's right. One way we try to find out is by doing cross-cultural
studies of individuals who've had the experience of the supreme identity and
see if it shows similar characteristics. The most similar characteristic is
it doesn't have characteristics. It's radically undefinable, radically free,
radically empty. This formless ground of being is found in virtually all
esoteric religions around the world. For the final test, take scientists
with a Ph.D. who are studying brain patterns and put them in a contemplative
state of the supreme identity and ask them whether they think that state is
real or just a brain state. Nine out of 10 will say they think it's real.
They think this experience discloses a reality that's independent of the
Paulson: Do you see this ultimate reality as some sort of being or
intelligence out there?
Wilber: Well, if you look cross-culturally, what you'll find is that spirit
or godhead can be looked at either through first-person, second-person or
third-person perspectives. The third-person perspective is to see spirit as
a grand "it." In other words, a vast web of life. Gaia in this third person
is the sum total of everything that exists. A second-person way of looking
sees spirit as a "thou," as an actual intelligence that is present and is
something you can, in a sense, have a conversation with, keeping in mind the
ultimately unknowable nature of godhead. Many of the contemplative
traditions go further and say you can approach spirit as a first person. So
that spirit is "I." Or that would be Big Self.
Paulson: This means "I am God."
Wilber: That's right. This first-person perspective is an experience of pure
"I-am-ness," behind your relative ego. Discovering your Big Self comes
directly in the contemplative state of non-dual awareness. This means
subject and object are one. It's not that you're looking at the mountain
when you're going on a nature walk. You are the mountain. You're not
listening to the river anymore. You are the river.
Paulson: You are a longtime meditator. You've written about having sustained
experiences of this nondual awareness. What does it feel like?
Wilber: [Laughs] It's very simple. It's something that's already present in
one's awareness but it's so simple and so obvious that it's not noticed. Zen
refers to it as the "such-ness" of reality. [The Christian mystic] Meister
Eckhart called it "thus-ness." These states of consciousness are temporary,
peak experiences. There's no bliss. Rather, it's an absence of any
constriction, including feelings of bliss. The feeling is vast openness and
freedom and lightness. You don't have a sense that I'm in here and the world
is out there.
Paulson: You were a budding scientist at one point, a graduate student in
biochemistry. Why did you give up the scientific track to study these
Wilber: I had a scientific orientation. I think I was a born scientist. In
fact, I was one of those kids with the early science labs -- all the frogs
you cut up, the explosions in the basement. I went to Duke University in the
medical track. And then I decided I wanted to do something more creative, so
I switched to biochemistry at Nebraska. But as I moved into young adulthood,
mere rationality didn't really seem to be answering the questions that were
arising in that stage of my life: Why am I here? What's it all about? What's
the nature of reality?
Paulson: What changed for you?
Wilber: I realized that exterior science wasn't working. So I turned to Zen
Buddhism. To me it was very scientific. It's a practice, an actual
experiment. If you do this experiment, you'll have some sort of experience,
and you'll get some data. William James defined data as an experience. Then
you check your direct experience with other people to make sure you didn't
goof up. Some sort of consensual evidence is required. There are several
schools of thinking about how to evaluate scientific evidence. One of the
most famous is Karl Popper's, where you try to disprove it. So this process
is exactly what I was doing in Zen Buddhism. You have to train your mind.
And frankly, this mind training was more difficult than anything I did in
Paulson: What about Karl Popper's objection: If you can't disprove
something, then it's not science. Can you disprove the effects of
meditation? How far can you take this scientific analogy when you're talking
about a contemplative practice?
Wilber: Pretty far, I think. These meditative disciplines have been passed
down for hundreds of years, sometimes thousands of years. Much like judo,
there are actual techniques that you can learn and pass on. In Zen, you have
the practice of zazen. You have to sit and count your breath for up to an
hour and concentrate on an object for at least five minutes without losing
track. The average American adult can do it for 18 seconds. Then you have
the data, what's called satori. Once you train your mind and look into your
interior, you investigate the actual nature and structure of your interior
consciousness. If you do this intensely enough, you'll get a profound aha
experience, a profound awakening. And that satori is then checked with
others who've done this practice.
Paulson: But I doubt many scientists would accept this as proof of science
because, ultimately, people are left to describe their own experiences. You
can't measure this with any conventional scientific instruments.
Wilber: You move in the realm of phenomenology. And you either accept
phenomenology or you don't. This also applies to psychoanalysis. You get the
same complaints that it's not real science, that you can't prove it. Well,
fine, but then you can't prove any interior experience you're having. You
can't prove you're loving your wife, you can't prove you're happy. Forget
all of that, it's not real. If that's the mind-set you have, nobody's going
to convince you otherwise. It really comes down to whether there are
interior sciences. These interior sciences use the same principles as the
exterior sciences. If you define science as based on sensory experience,
then these interior endeavors are not science. But if you define science as
based on experience, then these interior ones are.
Paulson: What about brain-imaging studies? Various neuroscientists are
hooking up Buddhist monks and Christian nuns to brain-scanning technology,
and they see changes in brain activity during meditation or prayer. But can
they tell us anything fundamental about the nature of consciousness?
Wilber: Yes and no. What's starting to show up are significant and unique
fingerprints of these meditative states on the brain. That's been
demonstrated with people who do a type of meditation that's said to increase
compassion -- imagining someone else who's in pain and breathing in their
pain, creating a feeling of oneness with that person. These people start
showing distinctive gamma wave patterns. These gamma waves show up almost no
place else. But let me tell you what it doesn't prove. The claim that it's a
higher mental state can only be made if you're looking at it from the
inside. We say that waking is more real than dreaming. But brain waves won't
tell you that. The brain waves are just different. You can't say one is more
real than the other.
Paulson: This raises a fundamental question about the whole mind-brain
problem. Virtually all neuroscientists say the mind is nothing more than a
3-pound mass of firing neurons and electrochemical surges in the brain. Why
do you think this view is wrong?
Wilber: It reduces everything. And you can make no distinctions of value.
There's no such thing as love is better than hate, or a moral impulse is
better than an immoral impulse. All those value distinctions are erased.
Paulson: But is that scientific view wrong?
Wilber: At this point, you enter the philosophy of science, and the argument
is endless. Is there nothing but physical stuff in the universe? Or is there
some sort of interiority? We're not talking about ghosts and goblins and
souls and all that kind of stuff. Just: Is there interiority? Is there an
inside to the universe? And if there is interiority, then that is where
consciousness resides. You can't see it, but it's real. This is the claim
that phenomenology makes.
For example, you and I are attempting to reach mutual understanding right
now. And we say, aha, I understand what you're saying. But you can't point
to that understanding. Where does it exist? But if you take a phenomenology
of our interior states, then you look at them as being real in themselves.
And that's where values lie and meaning lies. If you try to reduce those to
matter, you not only lose all those distinctions, but you can't even make
the claim that some are right and some are wrong.
Paulson: But somewhere down the road -- 50 years from now, 500 years from
now -- once neuroscience becomes much more advanced, will scientists be able
to pinpoint where these values and thoughts come from?
Wilber: I'm saying we'll never understand it. The materialists keep issuing
promissory notes. They always promise they're going to do it tomorrow. But
interior and exterior arise together. You can't reduce one to the other.
They're both real. Deal with it.
Paulson: You're saying there's no way we can map what's happening in our
brains -- the neuronal activity, the synaptic connections -- to explain
what's going on in our inner experience.
Wilber: That's right. All you can do is map certain correlations. You can
say that when a person's thinking logically, certain parts of the brain
light up. But you can't determine what the person is thinking. More
important, you can't reproduce the reality of the person thinking because
that's a first-person experience. This first-person reality can't be reduced
to third-person material entities. What that means is that consciousness
can't be reduced to matter. You can't give a material explanation of how the
experience of consciousness arises.
Paulson: Let's talk about evolution. It seems to me that the great religious
traditions don't know what to do with the evolution of the human brain. At
some point in our evolutionary history -- maybe 50,000 or 100,000 years ago
-- the brain developed a new level of complexity that produced language and
conceptual thought, basically, the human beings we are today. Is our
consciousness rooted in the material matter in our brains?
Wilber: An integral approach maintains that an increase in the complexity of
matter is accompanied by an increase in the degree of consciousness. The
greater the one, the greater the other. So if we look at complexity in
evolution, it goes from atoms to molecules to cells to early organisms to
organisms with a reptilian brain stem to organisms with a mammalian limbic
system to organisms with a triune brain. We find major leaps in
consciousness with each of those levels of complexity.
Paulson: But can you even talk about consciousness before you reach a
certain level of evolution? I mean, bacteria don't have consciousness.
Plants don't have consciousness.
Wilber: I don't talk about consciousness. I talk about interiority. What you
see is that as soon as you have a cell, it starts to respond to the
environment in ways that can't be predicted. If you're just looking at
material stuff -- like a planet that doesn't have life on it -- a physicist
can tell you where that planet is going to be, barring other forces, 1,000
years from now. But that physicist can't tell you where my dog is going to
be two seconds from now. There is a degree of non-determined interiority.
It's simply there. You can't dismiss it.
Paulson: What do you think of the New Age writers who see a link between
mysticism and the weirdness of quantum physics? There have been popular
books, like "The Tao of Physics" and "The Dancing Wu Li Masters," as well as
the hit film "What the Bleep Do We Know." They point out that reality at the
quantum level is inherently probabilistic. And they say that the act of
observing a quantum phenomenon plays a critical role in actually creating
that phenomenon. The lesson they draw is that consciousness itself can shape
Wilber: They are confused. Even people like Deepak Chopra say this. These
are good people; I know them. But when they say consciousness can act to
create matter, whose consciousness? Yours or mine? They never get to that.
It's a very narcissistic view.
But the real problem is what's called "the measurement problem." And 95
percent of scientists do not think the measurement problem involves
consciousness. It simply involves the fact that you can't tell where an
electron is until you measure it. It's very different from saying it doesn't
exist until you measure it. That's entirely different from saying human
consciousness causes matter to come into existence. We have abundant
evidence that the entire material universe existed before human beings
evolved. So the whole notion that human consciousness is required -- it
retroactively creates the universe -- is a much harder myth to believe than
myths about God being a white-haired gentleman pulling strings up in the
Paulson: But you seem to have a dualistic view of how to look at reality.
There's the material stuff and then there's this interior stuff, and the two
have nothing to do with each other.
Wilber: Well, that's simply a metaphorical way that I talk about it. Spirit
is not some other item sitting over here, separate from the material world.
It's the actual reality of each and every thing that's arising. The ocean
and its waves are typically used as an example to describe this. The ocean
is not something different from the waves. It's the wetness of all waves. So
it's not a dualistic stance at all.
Paulson: You've written that many of the great 20th century physicists --
Einstein, Bohr, Planck, Heisenberg -- were actually mystics, even though
none of them thought science had any connection to religion.
Wilber: I wouldn't say it quite that strongly. What happened is they
investigated the physical realm so intensely in looking for answers, and
when they didn't find these answers, they became metaphysical. I collected
the writings of the 13 major founders of quantum mechanics. They were saying
physics has been used since time immemorial to both prove and disprove God.
Both views are fundamentally misguided. These physicists became deep mystics
not because of physics, but because of the limitations of physics.
Paulson: So understanding that physics can only go so far -- that there are
many things it can't explain -- is ultimately a mystical position?
Wilber: That's correct. These are brilliant writings. They're really quite
extraordinary. Not many people realize that Erwin Schrödinger, the founder
of quantum mechanics, had a deep satori experience. He found that the
position that most matched his own was Vedantic Hinduism -- that pure
awareness is aware of all objects but cannot itself become an object. It's
the way into the door of realizing ultimate reality. Werner Heisenberg had
similar experiences. And Sir Arthur Eddington was probably the most eloquent
of the lot. All of them basically said that science neither proves nor
Paulson: You've said Buddhism is probably the esoteric tradition that's
influenced you the most. But you also criticize what you call "Boomeritis
Buddhism." What's that?
Wilber: What we found in the '60s was that there was an overinfluence of
feelings. Anti-intellectualism was rampant, and it continues to be rampant
in a lot of meditative and alternative spiritualities. There's a tendency to
explain the trans-rational states in terms that are pre-verbal. So instead
of a Big Self, you're just experiencing a big ego. For heaven's sake, this
generation was known as the "me generation."
Paulson: So the irony is that Buddhism is supposed to be a practice where
you get rid of your self, but it sometimes becomes all about yourself.
Wilber: Exactly. If you're caught in Boomeritis, you pay attention only to
sensory experience. Mental experience is thrown out the door, and so is
spiritual experience. It ends up being, inadvertently, all about yourself
and your own feelings.
Paulson: There's an assumption that master contemplatives, people who can
reach exalted states of enlightenment, are wonderful human beings, that
goodness radiates from them. Do you think that's true?
Wilber: Nothing's ever quite that simple. There are different kinds of
intelligence, and they develop at different rates. If your moral development
reaches up into the trans-personal levels, then you tend to be St. Teresa.
But some, like Picasso, have their cognitive development very high but their
moral development is in the bloody basement. We think someone is enlightened
in every aspect of their lives, but that's rarely the case.
Paulson: You have many admirers. You also have critics. One objection is
that you are too full of yourself. The science writer John Horgan, in his
book "Rational Mysticism," said the vibe he got from you was, "I'm
enlightened. You're not." How do you respond to this charge of arrogance,
the sense that you've unlocked the secrets of the universe and no one else
Wilber: A lot of people see me as much more humble. I continue to change
because I'm open to new ideas and I'm very open to criticism. Basically,
I've taken the answers that have been given by the great sages, saints and
philosophers and have worked them into this integral framework. If that vibe
comes across as arrogant, then John would get that feeling. Of course, he
was trying to do the same thing, so I would have brushed up against his own
egoistic projections. But some people do agree with him and feel that my
support for this integral framework comes across as arrogant.
All I've done is provide a map. We're always updating it, always revising
it, based on criticism and feedback and new evidence. You see those maps
that Columbus and the early explorers drew of North and South America, where
Florida is the size of Greenland? That's how our maps are. What's surprising
to me is the number of savvy people who've expressed support for my work.
Paulson: About a year ago, you nearly died from a grand mal seizure, which
triggered more seizures. From what I heard, you were on life support
systems. You almost bit off your tongue. Weren't you unconscious for several
Wilber: I did have 12 grand mal seizures in one evening. I was rushed to the
E.R. comatose. I was in a coma for four days. During that time, I had
electric paddles put on my heart three times. I was on dialysis because my
kidneys had failed. I developed pneumonia. Ken Wilber was unconscious but
Big Mind was conscious. Ken Wilber came to on the fourth day.
Paulson: Are you saying some part of you was aware of what was going on,
even though you were unconscious?
Wilber: Yes. This is a very common experience of longtime meditators. There
is an awareness during waking, dreaming and deep sleep states.
Paulson: I'm having trouble understanding this. Some part of you was aware
of the people moving around you?
Wilber: There was a dim awareness of the room. It did include people moving
in and out of the room and people sitting by the table. It did include
certain procedures being done. But there wasn't a Ken Wilber as a subject
relating to things that were happening. There was no separate self. Ken
Wilber, if he were conscious, presumably would be upset or would be happy
when the heart started beating again. But there were none of those reactions
because there was just this Big Mind awareness, this nondual awareness.
Paulson: The way you talk about this, it doesn't sound like such a bad
experience! I would've thought this would be horrible.
Wilber: [Laughs] Exactly. When you listen to more conventional near-death
experiences, they don't sound so bad either. In any event, I was told that I
would take quite a while to recover. But I walked out of the hospital two
days later, with everything normal. So I put that down in part to my own
spiritual practice and the rejuvenating capacity that this awareness has.
Paulson: Does the prospect of dying frighten you?
Wilber: Not really. What comes up is just thoughts of how much work in the
world there is still to do. And with this recent experience -- letting me
know that Big Mind is what there is -- that fundamental fear of dying has
basically left. Still, when someone asks if I have a fear of dying, I find
myself hesitating. What goes through my mind is positive stuff -- friends
that I would lose and work that needs to be done.
Ken Wilber's Website:
Ken Wilber's Journal RSS News Feed:
Holons (Integral News):
NHNE Ken Wilber Resource Page:
NHNE Wavemaker News List:
Send Some Green Love To NHNE:
To subscribe, send a message to:
To unsubscribe, send a message to:
To review current posts:
Visit NHNE's Mother Ship:
Visit NHNE's Online Community:
Visit Integral NHNE:
Published by David Sunfellow
Phone: (928) 257-3200
Fax: (815) 642-0117
P.O. Box 2242
Sedona, AZ 86339