Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution
Ken Wilber
Shambhala: Boston & London, 1995.
831 pp., $40.00 (cloth).

Ken Wilber has written a big book. Although different from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, this book is also designed to help us sober up. Wilber wants us to sober up from the reductionistic, shortsighted, antisacred, antispiritual, greedy, materialistic way of thinking that has ruled Western culture for the last two or three thousand years. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality is the first of three volumes.

A summary can hardly do justice to the richness of Wilber’s thinking, which, organized by twenty tenets and twelve guiding principles (all unified on a grid, a wonderfully outrageous intellectual mandala, that appears inside the front and back covers of the book), ranges across the full spectrum of Eastern and Western thought. There are long discussions of the Ascenders (religious thinkers and spirit chasers who want to deny this world) and the Descenders (reductionistic scientists and materialists of all sorts who want to flatten and abuse it) and their constant conflicts in Western thought. He discusses, in great depth and detail, the need for the integration of these two splinters of the soul. He wants the return, like many modern thinkers, of an integration of the “I” (responsibility and freedom), the “We” (community), and the “It” (ethics, beauty, and truth). There is a way in which Wilber gets carried away with his idealizations that seems both delightful—a kind of Mae West too­much-of-a-good-thing thinking—and somewhat sloppy. And while I found certain aspects of his righteousness tiring at times, it was hard not to applaud his challenge to writers and thinkers who don’t know the history of their own ideas.

Ken Wilber
Ken Wilber

For all its great, ambitious comprehensiveness, however, Wilber’s approach is still something akin to the old Sufi story about the hundred blind men and the elephant.   In that story, each man defines the elephant only in terms of the part he is touching. Of course, in that old story the elephant is defined only by men. After sweeping aside all ecofeminists and goddess worshipers (whom he deems misinformed “flatlanders” and romantic “partialists”), Wilber assures us that a complete discussion of women’s thinking will be offered in volume II. There is a bit of a Coyote trickster figure present here in Wilber’s approach He seems genuine when he calls for the development of a more gender-inclusive and flexible way of thinking. But while Wilber includes St. Theresa’s work, and a brief, important discussion of Harriet Taylor, Mary Wollstonecraft, and the beginning of feminist thinking at Seneca Falls, male thinkers dominate the book.

In fact, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality seems written entirely from a male way of thinking, which almost defeats Wilber’s own purposes. When Wilber addresses his critics (“partialists” of all sorts), there is that sweep-them-aside, take-no­prisoners, wily male center to his thinking, unpleasantly reminiscent of the usual way men have had over the centuries of telling women what and how to think.

One aspect of Wilber’s presentation is particularly troublesome: it is male in a way that seems deliberately exclusionary. He wants us to begin to develop what he calls a Centaur-like vision­logic as the guiding principle or integration. “’Centaur,’” he explains, “is the mythic beast, half human and half horse, which I (and others such as Hubert Benoit and Erik Erikson) have taken as a symbol of the integration of body and mind, or biosphere and noosphere.” I don’t know when Ken Wilber last looked at an image of a Centaur, but it is hardly half human, unless you consider only half of the human race. It is a profoundly male image, not very inclusive—or integrative—for the world’s 2.9 billion women. It seems oddly counterproductive for a writer who wants to demonstrate awareness of women’s thinking to use an image that is so antithetical to that awareness.

As provocative as much of Wilber’s thought is, much of it merely continues a theistic way of thinking. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his attempt to blend Buddhism with theistic ideas. In a subtle set of shifts in an otherwise brilliant explanatory note, he tries to connect the philosophy of the 2nd-century Buddhist thinker Nagarjuna to his Ascender/Descender schemata. All of a sudden, it looks as if Nagarjuna anticipated Wilber and affirms and even shares Wilber’s ideas. Wilber even suggests that Plotinus and Nagarjuna, who lived around the same time, were both tapped on the shoulder by a World Soul. He writes, “And it is my strongest conviction that the Descent of the all­pervading World Soul is facilitated, or hindered, to precisely the degree that we unpack its intuition adequately. . . And thus, let us oh-so-carefully unpack this precious Gift of spiritual intuition.” It hardly seems reasonable for Wilber to unpack a feast of theistic cakes at a Buddhist table and expect us to eat them, too.

Furthermore, Nagarjuna would have completely dismantled any notion of a World Soul. In Nagarjuna’s Madhyamika philosophy, the ultimate reality is sunyata: vast, completely empty space, without ascension or descencion , and certainly without a World Soul or Oversoul. The nondual, then—at least according to Buddhism—is not a “source,” as Wilber suggests. It is not locatable or describable as a soul because it is so open, vast, and all-pervasive. Wilber seems to be on the right track in so much of what he writes about the nondual, but when he begins to turn Buddhism into Wilberism, he’d do better without taking Nagarjuna on board. Nagarjuna would simply take the wind out of Wilber’s sail, as he did to so many thinkers in his own day.

I’m not ever sure why Ken Wilber needs a World Soul to support his vision. Along with the conflicts he provokes on gender issues, I think it diminishes his own vast vision. With World Souls tapping people on the shoulders, the work begins to sound like UFO theory. Still, I’m grateful to this book for its wide key-ring full of ideas that demand and push the edges of our understanding.

Jeffrey Mcintyre is a co-director of Cogswell Associates and teaches for Harvard Medical School at the Cambridge Hospital. He has written and taught extensively on the subject of treating substance abuse.

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