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Phase 2 - The Pre-Trans Cycle of Being (1980-1982)

The Life Cycle

Inspired by Tibetan Buddhism and Sri Aurobindo, Ken Wilber makes a radical break from his original psycho-cosmology of Spectrum of Consciousness, and in The Atman Project (1980), Up From Eden (1981), A Sociable God (1983) and Eye To Eye (1983) proposes a paradigm of the Cycle of consciousness and psychological development, from totally pre-personal to completely transpersonal. Instead of the ego lifting its repression of the unconscious, Wilber focused primarily upon the Great Chain of Being with an unveiling an evolutionary pantheism in which each successive stage follows upon and includes the capacities of those that preceeded it, while transcending their weaknesses (this is to be a standard theme throughout Wilber's later formulations). Unfortunately, he misunderstood Sri Aurobindo, and his experience then, as now, was based on a more monistic Advaitin realisation. He also still retains the Jungian and Freudian concept of a primordial psychic unity right at the beginning; there is no real conception of an original Absolute, despite the apparent emphasise on involution and evolution.

Wilber's Critique of the Romantic-Jungian position.

In 'The Atman Project' Wilber points out that the Jungian and Jungian-based concept of the pre-rational and pre-natal collective unconscious being identical with the transpersonal Absolute of the mystics is actually a confusion of two different realities. Here he makes a good point - I remember how shocked and surprised I was (when in my early twenties) for example to learn that Jung considers the Pleroma of the Gnostics as the same as the depth of the collective or racial unconscious. Since the 19th century, Westerners have tried to explain away the eastern concept of Liberation or Enlightenment, and the "oceanic" mystical experience, as a sort of return to the experience of the womb, or - in the Jungian paradigm, a more primitive strata of consciousness. And Wilber was the first western thinker to critically reject this assumption (rather than just intuitive saying - as I did - what a lot of crap), by distinguishing between what he called prepersonal states which exist prior to the formation of the individual ego, and transpersonal states in which the individual ego has been transcended. The confusion of the two he calls the pre/trans fallacy. He would elsewhere describe this as "the confusing of pre-rational states and trans-rational states simply because both are non-rational." Spiritual growth is now seen as an evolutionary-developmental process from preconsciousness through mature ego to ego-transcendence and self-enlightenment.

The outward arc and the inward arc

outward and inward arc

Wilber's central thesis is the "pre-trans" cycle of involution and evolution (or the outward arc and the inward arc as he terms it).  This is the idea that in it's development the psyche - whether a newborn human infant or a prehistoric hominid evolving greater intelligence, or the beginnings of myth and civilisation - begins in a state of undifferentiated unconscious universalism.  From there it passes through stages of increasing individualisation and ego-development (outward arc) whereby it is able to recognise itself as a separate entity.  Only after having attained this state is one able to progress on the mystical path and transcend the ego in order to consciously return to the undifferentiated One (inward arc).

Although presented as an objective analysis, his thesis is actually rather a reinterpretation of the myth of cosmological cycles.  Indeed there are some fascinating parallels between his own stages and those of Rudolph Steiner.

Interestingly, there is also a strong parallel with Arthur M Young's Theory of Process, although that is not surprising as Young was in part inspired by (among many other things) theosophical ideas (although not to the same degree as Steiner)

Wilber's cyclic sequence is described in the following stages:

His follow-up to The Atman Project - a book called Up From Eden - in which he presented a historical linearisation of his sequence of planes of consciousness -  was a disappointment.  I found it presented a very simplistic and rigid view of the evolution of consciousness, albeit no worse than the clockwork cosmologies of Blavatsky, Leadbeater, Steiner, and Meher Baba. It is certainly easier to simply categorise planes of consciousness then to describe the organic evolution and transformation of that consciousness though the various planes.

A Critique of Ken Wilber's Pre-Trans thesis

Although Ken Wilber's map of consciousness contains many fine and profound elements, there are also points of weakness too, which arise when his theory is accepted as a literal description of the evolution of consciousness.  Just to list a few (you can find more here):

  1. The Pre-Trans theory means that children are unable to have genuine mystical experiences (that is only possible he claims after the development of the adult ego).  But there is plenty of evidence that children can and do have mystical (transpersonal) experiences no different from those of adults.  (I read an interesting paper that points this out, giving examples, unfortunately I don't have it at hand - when I dig it up I'll put the reference on this page)
  2. again, it is assumed that because infants cannot talk they exist in an amorphous state of undifferentiated unity with their environment (a fallacy that dates back to Freud).
  3. the same assumption is made regarding animals.
  4. it is also assumed that human evolution and civilisation proceeds from magical-animistic to mythical to rational-scientific (an old Victorian chestnut, with embellishments by Julian Jaynes The Bicameral Mind)
  5. it is further assumed that "magical" thinking is considered inferior (pre-) to rational thinking, rather than understood as mentation pertaining to a different strata of existence.

In short, whereas Ken Wilber's powerful intellect and wide grasp of facts are not disputed, his actual conclusions are both simplistic and unpersuasive. Worse, they are not amenable to disproof as they ignore all facts that contradict them. According to the Pre-Trans paradigm it is not possible for a child to have genuine mystical experiences, because they are still at the "Pre" stage, and have not yet developed a full ego and then graduated to "trans". However, T. Armstrong, (1984) "Transpersonal experience in childhood" the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 16(2), 207-230 and more recently Jayne Gackenbach external link Childhood Experiences of Higher States of Consciousness: Literature Review and Theoretical Integration both refer to transpersonal mystical experiences among children. confirms this in more detail. All this makes Wilber's methodology seem very dubious

The point is that Wilber's theories constitute a popular paradigm in of the Wikipedia link Transpersonal Psychology and New Paradigm movements.  Moreover, as a myth, his theory with its various stages is extremely interesting, and may refer to actual phenomena regarding the evolution of consciousness on subtle (etheric and/or psychic) planes.  Wilber's pre- stages mimic those of Rudolf Steiner, except Steiner gives his stages a literal objective cosmological relevance, whereas Wilber understands them as psychological.  The fact that there are such parallels indicates that Wilber is certainly onto something.  It's just that his observations have no more, and no less, relevance than those of Steiner, Edgar Cayce, and others.  Personally I think what all these individuals are describing are transformations within the subtle physical of the Earth, which is  a really interesting and profound topic.  Only, because we are dealing with metaphysical, rather than physical, realities, things are hard to pin down and hence are interpreted differently according to where the propounder is coming from.  Steiner uses a theosophical mythology, Cayce a quasi-Christian mythology, and Jung, Jaynes, and Wilber a quasi scientistic mythology.

internal linkThe Atman Fiasco - a detailed critique of the Atman Project, by Arvan Harvat

internal linkTowards an Occult Interpretation and synthesis of Steiner's Cosmology and Wilber's psychology

internal linkArthur M. Young's Theory of Process - another arc-based cosmology

Bibliography - 1980-1982:

The Atman Project : A Transpersonal View of Human Development

by Ken Wilber

Represents a complete metaphysical turnaround from the Spectrum of Consciousness. However the central thesis rests on very dubious foundations.

Up from Eden : A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution

by Ken Wilber

applies the thesis of Atman Project to the evolution of humanity, of consciousness, and the development of culture and civilization. The approach draws heavily from Julian Jaynes (The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind). Personally I don't believe in it, but there are interesting parallels with Rudolph Steiner's theory of the development of human consciousness

Up from Eden: A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution, 1981

The Holographic Paradigm and Other Paradoxes: Exploring the Leading Edge of Science, 1982

document/essay Perspectives in Transpersonal Theory by Gerry Goddard - Dr Stan Grof's work reveals that the prenatal one is a profoundly mystical one, as opposed to Wilber's rejection of this position. This on-line essay provides a detailed coverage, and an attempt at synthesis.

web page Ken Wilber and Sri Aurobindo: A Critical Perspective - by Rod Hemsell - explains in detail how in formulating his Involution-Evolution philosophy, Wilber consistently mis-quotes and misunderstands Sri Aurobindo, and how Sri Aurobindo's evolutionary-transformative paradigm differs from Wilber's cyclic Buddist-inspired approach - mirror


Biography and Ideas
Phase 1 - The Romantic Period
Phase 2 - The Pre-Trans Cycle of Being
Phase 3 - Multiple Development - Holographic Mind
Phase 4 - All Quadrants All Levels
Phase 5: Post-Metaphysical

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includes material from two other pages uploaded 4 October and 16 December 1999; page uploaded in this format 15 June 2004, last modified 9 April 2006