A half-century ago, Aldous Huxley described the domain of human consciousness as a vast and variegated province, "with regions in it exceedingly strange, regions which most of us, at most times don't penetrate at all." He lamented the sad state of psychology which, in his view, had only just begun to survey the terrain. While it had made some headway in mapping the realms of memory, fantasy, imagination and, in Jung's case, the symbols and archetypes that appear to be common to all human beings, it nevertheless ignored even outright dismissed the world of non-ordinary and transcendent consciousness. How could it be, Huxley wondered, that modern psychology has turned its back on metaphysical realities upon which entire contemplative traditions have been built?
In recent years, few thinkers and scholars have done as much to remedy that oversight to bridge contemporary psychology and the mystic traditions of both East and West as Ken Wilber. In a series of books written over the past two decades, Wilber has established himself as one of the most astute and comprehensive theorists of human consciousness, a penetrating thinker with a rare gift for absorbing, synthesizing, and categorizing ideas.
Almost completely self-educated, Wilber spends most of his time reading and writing at his home in Boulder, Colorado. His reluctance to teach, lecture, attend conferences, give interviews, or otherwise discuss his ideas in public, has led to considerable speculation about his personal life. While the mystique no doubt owes a thing or two to his publishers for example, Random House got a lot of mileage out of the recent announcement that both Bill Clinton and Al Gore have been absorbed by his book, The Marriage of Sense and Soul it seems only natural for readers to wonder about the man himself.
One Taste presents itself as a response to that interest. It's billed on the fly-leaf as "a diary of a year in the life of Ken Wilber" and an "unprecedented entree into his private world." What Wilber sets out to do, in effect, is offer a guided tour of his thoughts, ideas, and major works on the one hand, and to describe his day-to-day life on the other. The result is a curious melange not quite a spiritual diary, not quite an annotated reader, not quite a philosophical journal, but something of all three.
The book works best as a series of trenchant reflections on American popular culture and, more broadly, our postmodern predicament at century's end. It also offers a unique angle on what Wilber sees as the emergence of an integral worldview or outlook in American society, one that revolves around the enduring truths of the perennial philosophy that is, the transcendent unity at the core of the world's great wisdom traditions. Wilber estimates that as many as one percent of all Americans are now actively engaged in transformative spiritual practices, for example, and an even greater number are helping to define what he describes a new person-centered civil religion.
While these developments hold promise for the future, Wilber is disturbed by the "rampant anti-intellectualism" that prevails in many spiritual and countercultural circles today. He deplores the "regressive" impulse behind much of what passes for spirituality, especially the blossoming interest in nature mysticism, magic, ritual, and even mythology. Myths may have an important role to play in fostering an integral worldview, he says, but they are not transformative in the true sense of the word. As he puts it, we need to "stop confusing mythological stories with direct and immediate transpersonal awareness."
Wilber insists that we must always distinguish between the idea of transcendence and the actual experience of it. Much of the interest in spirituality today is based on symbols and ideas rather than actual practices. In his formulation, it promises "translation" by redefining the world and conferring a sense of legitimacy but not "transformation." Transformative spirituality is revolutionary, he asserts. "It does not legitimate the world, it breaks the world; it does not console the world, it shatters it. And it does not render the self content, it renders it undone."
While Wilber's philosophical and intellectual peregrinations are, almost without exception, provocative and illuminating, his accounts of his day-to-day life are less satisfying. We learn that he has a "sweet" and "adorable" girlfriend, but little about what gives the relationship depth or significance. We learn a thing or two about his daily routines (he typically gets up around 4 a.m., meditates for an hour, works non-stop until mid-afternoon, lifts weights, watches television, etc.) but little about the feelings and frustrations, the doubts and complications that give substance to his days. Friends and acquaintances come and go but rarely do we get any insight into how they are important to him. He discusses his meditations, his lucid dreams, his heightened moments of awareness, but always with a kind of uninspired matter-of-factness. If it's true that authentic transformation shatters the self and renders it undone, where is the evidence in his life?
Someone once observed that there are at bottom two kinds of writers, those who write what they know and those who write in order to know. Wilber clearly belongs to the former camp. His instincts are always explanatory rather than exploratory. His goal is always to reveal rather than discover. As such, his writing simply doesn't lend itself to compelling autobiography.
In fact, as a spiritual diary, the book has few of the qualities associated with the great works of the genre. Unlike Rousseau's Confessions or Montaigne's Essays, for example, it never reveals its author in undress. Unlike Baudelaire's Journaux Intimes, it offers no glimpses of obsession or brooding darkness. Unlike Krishnamurti's notebooks and here the comparison is apt, for Wilber not only acknowledges a debt of gratitude to the great teacher but also aims in like fashion to bridge the worlds of philosophy and religion there are no seamless transitions from the ordinary to the extraordinary, from the sight of birds or the sound to two lovers quarrelling to a spontaneous meditation on the human condition. In short, Wilber writes well about transcendence in the abstract, but not as a visceral reality.
Frithjof Schuon, another great expositor of the perennial philosophy, once remarked that "acuteness of intelligence is only a blessing when it is compensated by greatness and sweetness of the soul." While the acuteness of Ken Wilber's intelligence is evident on almost every page of One Taste, the book offers few if any insights into the quality of his soul. In view of his current stature as America's premier philosopher of consciousness, that is no minor shortcoming.
This review appeared in the Spring 2000 issue of Parabola magazine.
Copyright 2000 by Scott London. All rights reserved.