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John Heron on Wilber's tangled lines

Michel Bauwens

How can spiritual development, defined as the result of a meditative/contemplative individual journey through states of consciousness -- psychic-subtle-causal-nondual in Wilber's description -- lead to abusive individuals such as Da Free John and Andrew Cohen, which Wilber has consistently promoted. I had concluded my own study of many years of Wilber, and of mystical traditions generally, enriched by various personal experimentation, by concluding that it was nothing else than a technical ability, and no guarantee by itself of any truly human moral development. In my view, Wilber's own edifice crumbles entirely, when the individuals he chooses to exemplify the highest achievements, turn out to be spiritual abusers. Spirituality must therefore be located elsewhere, not in individual pursuit of technical states of consciouness, but in co-evolving interpersonal relationships, where we can demonstrate our spiritual maturity through our ability to express love. This view is much better explained in John Heron's critique of Wilber's tangled lines of development.

A tangle of lines and levels: a critique of Wilber's integral psychology

John Heron

October 2003, updated March 2005

"Wilber has given an account of human spirituality in terms of lines and levels of development (Wilber: 2000a, 2000b, 2002). The lines are relatively independent kinds of human development, and the levels are stages of development through which the lines proceed. So the different lines all go through the same levels. Wilber defines spirituality in five different ways, but two of them are key ones in his system: spirituality as the highest levels of any line, and spirituality as a separate line itself. He thinks these two definitions are mutually compatible components of his integral psychology.

But in the way that he deploys them, they lead to very serious difficulties. Wilber needs spirituality as a separate line, to explain how it is that people can be spiritually lop-sided. The various human lines he mentions include psychosexuality, socio-emotional capacity, communicative competence, creativity - and many more. The independent spiritual line is primarily contemplative/meditative. Wilber acknowledges that someone can be highly developed on this line, that is, competent at subtle, causal and nondual awareness and still be spiritually undeveloped in other crucial lines of development, including 'psychosexual, emotional or interpersonal skills'. This imbalance he characterizes as 'One Taste sufficiency that leaves schmucks as it finds them' (One Taste refers to the nondual state).

Wilber evaluates the nondual state as 'the highest estate imaginable'. Yet at the same he believes it can co-exist with a complete absence of spirituality at the top end of the interpersonal line, and of other lines absolutely central to human development. This admission immediately dethrones the nondual state from the supremacy he claims for it, and makes it appear as dissociated and quasi-pathological. This dethroning also means that the highest estate imaginable is really the integration of all the different facets of human spirituality to be found at the top end of all the relatively independent lines. Furthermore, it cannot be the business of just one of those independent lines to define in advance by what stages all the other lines will reach their top ends. But Wilber tries to promote just that kind of business.

In his system, the separate contemplative line, which can become so dissociated from the development of other lines, is at the same time the sole source for deriving the higher transpersonal levels (psychic, subtle, causal, nondual) through which all the other lines must proceed. But how can a contemplative line, which by definition is independent of the other lines, be a valid source for categories which prescribe the higher levels of these lines in which it has no competence? Indeed the relative independence, or dissociation, of the contemplative line calls in question the validity of the levels it claims to establish, and whether indeed the levels are spiritual, when they are the product of such a non-integral, separate line. The claims this line makes improperly and prematurely assume that the nature of the spiritual can finally be determined by the exercise of the skills of separatist contemplation, when the potential for developing spiritual skills on other relatively independent lines has not so far been fully explored by the human race.

Thus Wilber tries to argue that the basic categories for integrating all the lines in higher unfoldment have been uncovered on a single line that has no experience whatsoever of such multi-line integration. The way out of this tangle is gently to propose that the contemplative line is not a spirituality line, that spirituality is not about states, however remarkable and extraordinary, that people get into by a lifetime of individual meditation.

A more convincing account of spirituality is that it is about multi-line integral development explored by persons in relation. This is because many basic developmental lines - e.g. those to do with gender, psychosexuality, emotional and interpersonal skills, communicative competence, morality, to name but a few - unfold through engagement with other people. A person cannot develop these lines on their own, but through mutual co-inquiry. The spirituality that is the highest development of these lines can only be achieved through relational forms of practice that unveil the spirituality implicit in them.

In short, the spirituality of persons is developed and revealed primarily in the spirituality of their relations with other persons. If you regard spirituality primarily as the fruit of individual meditative attainment, then you can have the gross anomaly of a "spiritual" person who is an interpersonal oppressor, and the possibility of "spiritual" traditions that are oppression-prone (Heron, 1998; Kramer and Alstad, 1993; Trimondi and Trimondi, 2003) .

Certainly there are important individualistic developmental lines that do not necessarily directly involve engagement with other people, such as contemplative development, and physical fitness. But these are secondary and supportive of those that do, and are in turn enhanced by co-inquiry with others.

On this overall view, spirituality is located in the interpersonal heart of the human condition where people co-operate to explore meaning, build relationship and manifest creativity through collaborative action inquiry into multi-line integration and consummation. Such collegial applied spirituality has at least six distinguishing characteristics. (1) It is holistic, involving diverse major lines of human development, in which prime value is put on relational lines, supported by the individualistic; (2) it is focussed on worthwhile practical purposes; (3) it embraces peer-to-peer relations and participatory forms of decision-making; (4) it includes many ways of knowing; (5) it honours the gradual emergence of developmental form; and (6) it acknowledges the role of both initiating and spontaneously surfacing hierarchy in such emergence.

It is notable that Wilber's account of levels (also called waves, and, by co-option from the work of Beck and Cowan, "memes") has no clear place for relational forms of spiritual practice. The green meme bypasses the depths of the sacred realm of the Between and superficially reduces the relational self to the worldview of pluralistic relativism (Ferrer, 2002: 223-5). The second-tier thinking of the yellow and turquoise memes is strong on systemic and holistic rhetoric about the interweaving of multiple levels, but is curiously devoid of any sense of interpersonal or political reality - at any rate in Wilber's account (2000a: 52). Once human rights have been relegated to the inferior green meme, and second-tier thinking affirms 'natural degrees of excellence' and 'knowledge and competency'superseding lesser claims, one wonders whether philosopher-kings are being invited to stroll onto the world stage in their yellow and turquoise robes.


Ferrer, J. N. (2002) Revisioning Transpersonal Psychology: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality, Albany: State University of New York Press.

Heron, J. (1998) Sacred Science: Person-centred Inquiry into the Spiritual and the Subtle, Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books.

Kramer, J. and Alstad, D. (1993) The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, Berkeley: Frog Ltd.

Trimondi, V. and Trimondi, V. (2003) The Shadow of the Dalai Lama: Sexuality, Magic and Politics in Tibetan Buddhism, <http://www.trimondi.de>

Wilber, K. (2000a) Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy, Boston: Shambhala.

Wilber, K. (2000b) One Taste: Daily Reflections on Integral Spirituality, Boston: Shambhala.

Wilber, K. (2002) "An outline of integral psychology", Shambhala website.



From P/I: Pluralities/Integration no.63 (A newsletter about participation in multiple worlds, multiple visions, but one humanity ; a monitor of P2P developments; compiled by Michel Bauwens.


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content by John Heron and Michel Bauwens; page compiled by M.Alan Kazlev
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