Ken Wilber is one of the world’s leading-edge thinkers, authors and philosophers; the 72-year-old has been referred to as the “Einstein of consciousness studies.” Born in Oklahoma City, he moved to Boulder in 1989 and has lived in Denver since 2001.
Wilber’s 25 books, which have been translated into thirty languages, include A Brief History of Everything; Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution; and Trump and a Post-Truth World.
He’s the co-founder of IntegralLife.com and founder of the Integral Institute, a think tank that seeks to “gather and attempt to integrate the various viewpoints found in a number of major fields of knowledge,” according to its website. The Institute exists as a brick-and-mortar facility in several locations around the world — the Boulder Integral Center operated from 2007 to 2019 — as well as across cyberspace.
Wilber’s “Integral Theory” — built on the foundation of anthropology, biology, psychology and other scientific models and finding its way into medicine, business, ecology, sports and art — identifies stages of adult psychological development. Your level of consciousness influences your values and perspectives, according to the theory, and the clash between those at different levels has led to the nation’s fragmented political landscape and “culture wars.”
In a recent interview (edited here for length and clarity), Wilber spoke about this country’s societal dysfunction and how we might address it, both personally and collectively.
Westword: Much of your work deals with stages of human consciousness. Could you describe some of these stages and how you see them playing out in our current era of extreme polarization?
Ken Wilber: What we do in Integral Theory is we take a lot of different aspects of human beings that most people aren’t aware of but that are crucial to understanding our opinions, our worldviews, our values, our choices. You can’t take somebody at birth and then three months later have them be a concert pianist or a doctor or mathematician. We grow and develop.
And one of the things that’s happened in the past hundred years is that an enormous number of researchers have looked at the stages of our growth that we go through, and these have been tested in over forty different cultures. In a book called Integral Psychology, I looked at over a hundred different developmental models, the similarities between them, and what they were all saying.
And it’s important because these show that each developmental stage that we go through has a different worldview. It looks at things differently, it has a different value system, it constructs different types of meanings. And some of these are better and some of them are worse, but it helps us to get a sense of what the very basic raw stages are.
If you put a ball — colored green on one side and red on the other — between you and a child and you turn it several times, and then you place the ball so that the red side is facing them and the green side is facing you, and you ask them, “What color are you seeing?,” they’ll correctly say, “Red.” And then you say, “What color am I seeing?,” and they’ll say, “Red.” In other words, they can’t even take your perspective; they don’t realize that there are other types of viewpoints going on out there. These are usually called “egocentric” stages, and they go on to around five, six, seven — and at that point they start to learn to take the role of “other.”
And so their identities expand from just themselves to a clan or a tribe or a group of people. And this introduces care, because you actually start to care for other people than just yourself. This general stage is also called “ethnocentric,” because you’re identified with a particular ethnic group. You can’t go from identifying with just yourself to identifying with everybody on the planet.
But the ethnocentric stage is also a stage of traditional values, where people predominantly believe in God, country, family, traditions. And those are very strong values, and they come out to play very strongly in political situations. Republicans traditionally want to conserve the traditions that they’re in, and so that’s why they’re often called conservatives. But “ethnocentric” also does have some negative meanings. If you’re ethnocentric, it also means you’re open to racism or sexism or misogyny or homophobia or xenophobia.
The next major stage of development — and in the West, this occurred with the emergence of the Western Enlightenment — is the emergence out of more “mythic” modes of thinking to “rational” modes. And with the emergence of the rational levels, we got almost all of the modern sciences: modern physics, modern geology, modern chemistry, modern biology, modern astronomy and so on. It was moving to a rational stage, which focused on all humans — not just “I’m identified with this group of humans,” but that all humans should be treated fairly regardless of race, color, sex or creed. These are universal, rational approaches, and philosophers of the Enlightenment started writing things with titles like “The Universal Rights of Man.”
For the hundreds of thousands of years that human beings have been evolving, we had slavery 99 percent of that time. But what happened when we got emergence of the rational, universal levels is that all of a sudden one person owning another person became incredibly immoral. So we see morals are also evolving up these stages that are getting more and more inclusive as you go, and so slavery was outlawed in every rational, scientific country on the face of the planet in about a hundred-year period, from around 1770 till around 1870.
We can see that there are advantages to continuing growth, that each higher stage also has its own problems, but they’re also encouraging, on balance, a greater amount of good. And this is coming from the fact that human identity is learning to expand and get greater and greater.
Then, as that new stage emerged, for about two or three hundred years, the political systems in the West were generally divided between these two different groups. One was the conservative, traditional, conformist types that wanted to hold on to society the way it was. They believed in the mythic religion that was offered; they supported the king and monarchy. But then there was this new group that developed into rational, scientific, universal modes of thinking, and they were generally called progressives because they were alive to the evolutionary unfolding of human beings. They wanted to look at society as it was existing and make changes that would improve it.
It just so happened that in the French Parliament, all of the conservative traditionalists sat on the right side of the king. And all of these newfangled — they called themselves liberals from the French “liberté,” because they wanted freedom — they sat on the left side of the king, and those two terms stuck; we call them the left and the right political parties. And so those to the left and the right were at each other’s throats but managed to get along until the 1960s. And there we saw the emergence of yet another major stage of development.
We often name these stages different colors. So we call this “Green,” and often “pluralistic” or “multicultural,” and what it did is it looked at all these universal systems that the previous stage had produced (universal systems of science and physics and astronomy), and they reflected on those and started to differentiate them — because each stage of development is marked by a differentiation, and then an integration, and then differentiation, then an integration. Just like if you watch a zygote grow, it starts out as just a single cell, and that divides into two cells, and those divide into four, and those divide into eight, and those divide into sixteen. But as they’re differentiated, they’re integrated into higher systems. So you end up with nervous systems and digestive systems, and all of those are the product of the integrations of these differentiations.
This new “Green” stage started to emerge and reflect on all these universal systems. They would say, “You can’t just say there’s one chemistry for everybody, because even if there is, there are other types of truths that are important, and you’re overlooking those. And each culture has its own contribution to these other kinds of truth. And so you have to include that in your universal systems.”
The values of this “Green” stage included multiculturalism, diversity, inclusivity, equality — and those, of course, are a lot of terms that people are familiar with from the culture wars. Because what started happening is, exactly when we got the emergence of that new value system, it didn’t agree very much with the previous value system. And this is reflected in politically correct language and identity politics. You had to choose an identity, and that became the most important thing about you. You were a woman, or you were Black, or you were an LGBTQ person, or you were trans.
So they left behind the old Democrats, who were still under rational, universal systems. And that included the United States Constitution, which emphasized individual rights: freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of congregation, freedom of religion. “Green” didn’t agree with those values, and started attacking free speech, and they would say things like, “Hate speech is not free speech.”
A lot of people, particularly at the previous two stages — the universal, rational stage and the traditional, conformist stage — were quite sick of political correctness. And you can still find that is a hot topic of debate online in the culture wars. But if 23 percent of the population is doing that politically correct identity politics, then that means 80 percent isn’t.
So when Donald Trump came forward, almost every word out of his mouth was anti-political correctness. And because of that, he was able to attract a large percentage of the population that otherwise wouldn’t have gone for him. Fifty-three percent of educated college women voted for Trump. An astonishing 81 percent of evangelicals voted for Trump. Those were the values driving the Trump popularity, if that’s the right word to call it.
How have these stages of consciousness played out in the media?
Polls have shown that only 4 to 7 percent of journalists are Republican. So the political class, the academic class and the entertainment class — the main spokespeople of our culture — they went nuts on anti-Trump.
In journalism, you’d see it start out with something like the New York Times writing standard, semi-objective front-page news accounts, then on the editorial page it was, “Trump is horrible,” “Trump is a Nazi,” “Trump is Hitler.” But what started to happen was, because Trump would keep baiting them and keep pushing them, they started to let their editorial feelings seep into their objective news accounts. And pretty soon every article on the front page of the New York Times read like its editorial page.
Because this “Green” stage was still the leading edge of culture, I think that had a horrible impact on the country, because people just got more and more polarized, and what’s worse, they didn’t mind stating their polarization. That was like permission for that bad-mouthing polarization to just be put out there.
Do you have high hopes for Joe Biden’s presidency?
I don’t personally think Biden has a lot of really strong personal qualities. And it is hard to miss the fact that he is undergoing some fairly serious cognitive decline. What I think he does have is a fairly generalized understanding of Washington, D.C. He’s been there fifty years, and so he does have that capacity to reach out and befriend a large number of people. But I think the major impact that Biden is going to have is simply that he’s not Trump.
What Trump brought to light was this underground division between these levels of development and their political stances. And Biden won’t be able to touch those, because he’s not even aware that they exist, not as developmental stages. So I don’t think he’ll really be able to help that much.
But I think the fact that he won’t be Trump will help journalists calm down and get back into just reporting the news, and not having to prove that the originator of the news is “Hitler.” And because it has such a far outreach into all areas of society, I think it will help calm down the polarization that we’ve seen between so many American citizens.
What are your thoughts on the social justice movement?
The positive aspect is that most “social justice warriors” have been demonstrated by actual tests of their development to be at the “Green” identity stage of development. And so, through the lens of identity politics, it looked at various groups of people that weren’t finishing the race at the same time as some other groups were, and then it advocated for a justice for those people. And that’s all very positive when it’s done in a healthy, balanced fashion. But what happens when you start to get real absolutist about an approach, well....
Clare Graves, who was a genius pioneer in developmental studies, called the “Amber,” ethnocentric, traditional, conformist stage of development by the term “absolutistic,” because it believed that all of its truths were absolutistically true. So it would tend to embrace the Bible, and when it did so, it believed that the Bible was 100 percent the word of God.
The next stage up — the rational, universal, scientific stage — he called “multiplistic,” because it understood that you can take multiple perspectives on things. And part of the taking multiple perspectives on things helped the modern sciences emerge.
And then the “Green” level, Graves called “relativistic,” because it couldn’t bring these different systems that they had differentiated together into a harmoniously unified and integrated world system. So it just focused on the individual cultures and individual ethnicities in those cultures and came up with identity politics.
But it adopted these views so intensely that it just thought that it had absolute truth. And so much so that on college campuses, the “woke” crowd feels it’s even unnecessary to talk to their opponents. And so if an opponent comes and gives a talk on campus, the “woke” people show up and shout them down. No “Orange” rational system of fairness would ever do that; they would maintain that you have to have an open discussion among all parties. But “Green” became so absolutistic in its extremes that it shut down all competition; it just didn’t have to even listen to it.
Well, when you latch onto any idea in an absolutistic fashion, you tend to actually regress to the absolutistic stage; that’s where you actually feel comfortable. But down on the absolutistic stage, remember, is also the ethnocentric stage. And identity politics, as such, is ethnocentric. It says, you’re just Black. You’re just a woman. You’re just gay.
And, by the way, social commentators who don’t have an understanding of the developmental stages still intuit that they are regressing. And so a phrase has been developed for them called “the regressive left,” and that’s exactly what they’re doing.
The problem is, down on the ethnocentric level, they meet real ethnocentric opponents. They meet real neo-Nazis. They meet real KKK. They meet real white supremacists, because that’s the ethnocentric stage that they’re all coming out of. And so that’s why they end up overblowing, because all they see are these ethnocentric groups around them.
And that’s why a lot of these extreme culture warriors are claiming to have started a new religion. And it actually is a new fundamentalist religion. All fundamentalist religions stem from the ethnocentric stage of development, because they all believe they have absolute truth. They all believe that their way is the one and only way, they all have heretics, they all have blasphemers. That’s exactly what the regressive left has. It has its very strict dogma. It has its heretics and blasphemers, and if you break the rules then, essentially, you’ve committed Original Sin.
And that’s the true underside of that social justice movement. And we really have to watch out for it because it really is problematic — whereas if it gets back to its healthy forms, that would be good.
How can you talk to people who see the very concept of “levels of consciousness” as one more power-driven hierarchy?
Part of the difficulty with hierarchies is, first of all, there are two very different kinds of hierarchies. One is “dominator hierarchies.” And the higher you go in a dominator hierarchy, the more people you can oppress, the nastier it is. It’s all the bad things that “Green” says about hierarchy.
You find them in chimps, for example, and other animals can have that, and certainly in human society. At some point, the growth hierarchy doesn’t want to just be a whole that’s part of a larger whole: It wants to be a whole in itself. And so it becomes tyrannical, and it becomes driven by power. And it is true that you can have some hierarchies that have corrupt people in them that are abusing power.
Unfortunately, the far left takes that as the example of all hierarchies, says they’re all made of power and they ought to all be killed. So you want people to look for — leftists, in particular — places of corruption and hierarchies that are driven by power, and work to get those out.
But the other type of hierarchy is called a “growth hierarchy.” And what happens there is each higher stage gets more inclusive. And so that’s just a simple atoms to molecules to cells to organisms to multicellular organisms. Molecules don’t hate atoms. If anything, they love them, they embrace them, they encircle them.
And so when they condemn hierarchies in general — and most of the hierarchies in nature are growth hierarchies — they’re shooting themselves in the foot. They’re destroying the very path that would give them their own values.
Is there a way that we, as individuals, can start moving beyond this cultural and political polarization that’s tearing the country apart?
One of the main tenets of Integral Theory is that we have stages of what we call “growing up.” And what happens with all of these stages of development is that each stage “transcends and includes” its predecessor.
Now, this is something we find that happens in all of evolution. From quarks to atoms to molecules to cells to organisms, that’s a direct unfolding of evolutionary tendencies. And what happens is that the quarks are brought together into atoms, the atoms transcend the quarks, and they’re a larger unit that has new qualities that the quarks don’t have. But it includes them; it actually physically enfolds or enwraps them.
And then atoms come together and are transcended and included in molecules. So all molecules include atoms, but they also go beyond them; they transcend them. They have more characteristics and more chores and jobs that they can perform.
And then in one of the huge evolutionary leaps, large chains of atoms came together, a cell wall dropped around them, and you got living life forms, a living cell. And the cell transcended but included the molecules. So it had all the molecules inside it, enwrapped and included, but it transcended them because it did something the molecules couldn’t: It was alive.
And then cells came together in multi-cellular organisms, and those organisms transcended and included cells. So they could walk around, for example, or if they were trees, they could create photosynthesis.
The same is true of these human stages of development. Each higher stage builds on and includes the fundamental capacities of the previous level, but then it transcends it or goes beyond it to add its own newness or freshness.
When we work with somebody at “Green” who hates all of the earlier stages of development, we educate them on the fact that, if you’re at a “Green” stage of development, you’re standing on previous stages of development, and they’re like rungs in a ladder. If you’re standing on the seventh rung in the ladder and you think you can just shoot out and get rid of two rungs under you, you’re going to collapse yourself.
Just this sort of cognitive opening to the necessity of the different values and structures that came before doesn’t mean that they’re going to embrace just those values, but they can open themselves to seeing it. And if I want to live my “Green” values in a healthy way — not an extremist, absolutistic, broken “Green” fashion — that builds upon the fairness that the previous stage introduced where all people worldwide are treated fairly regardless of race, color, sex or creed. I accept that viewpoint, and then I say, “Now, let’s look at where that is happening or where it isn’t happening, and let’s make sure that all people are treated fairly.”
In Integral Theory, we have at least five ingredients that we include to help people understand the fullness of their being. And we do that by mostly pointing out aspects or capacities or qualities that they have in themselves but they didn’t know it. Like people are all at some stage of “growing up,” but most of us are completely unaware of that fact.
We have other areas that we include called “waking up,” which is like a practice of meditation to gain enlightenment, or feeling of waking up, and feeling that you’re one with everything.
We have “opening up” — which is, we have multiple intelligences, maybe a dozen of them. Most people are unaware of those, so we just point them out so you can expand into adopting as many of your multiple intelligences as you can.
One of those multiple intelligences is a line of defense mechanisms, which means that we have actual levels of psychopathology. And so we want to get in and work with those levels of development that have gone pathologic or gone sick or gone diseased, and we call that process “cleaning up.”
And then we have something called “showing up,” which is including all the various fundamental dimensions of our existence that we have available to us. This is sometimes summarized as “the good, the true, and the beautiful.”
So “the beautiful” is the beauty in the eye of the beholder, the “I” space. “Goodness” is how you and I treat each other — the second person — in an acceptable, fair and moral way. And then the third person, “the true,” generally refers to an objective statement. It covers facts, but not values.
But you want to include values in your life. I mean, every scientist values science, even though he can’t give you an account of why he values it. So “showing up” is important because we can include all of these areas of knowledge. And all of them have very respectable means of creating knowledge and verifying it. They’re all very real.
Unfortunately, we live generally in the world of scientific materialism, which takes just third-person “true” and maintains that that’s the only truth there is. It leaves out “beauty” and “goodness.”
If somebody says, “Okay, what can Integral do for my whole life?,” we’d say, well, you can “wake up”; you can undertake systems of training that will actually continue to expand your identity until it expands to the entire universe. Literally. You feel that you are one with everything.
And by the way, as a specific peak experience, that’s a fairly common experience. Polls show that over 60 percent of Americans have had at least one experience of cosmic dissolution, of dissolving as a separate self and finding they’re one with absolutely everything. They feel an incredible peace and understanding, and it’s just really extraordinary.
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