Ken Wilber Revisited: From Wilber I to Wilber V – Wilber Phase II

by editor

This is the second part of a series of posts on Ken Wilber’s five phases of Integral theory. While our previous post in the series weighed the pros and cons of Wilber’s Phase I (or, as it is called, Wilber I), the current post will explore Wilber’s Phase II, especially his famous The Atman Project. Why should there be a Phase II in the first case? How is it so phenomenally different from Phase I and what made Wilber shift his attention in a new direction, embarking on a Wilber-II journey? This post will answer all questions that may arise in the reader’s mind pertaining to Phase II and how distinct it is from Phase I.

Wilber-II or Wilber’s Phase II: While the Phase I of Wilber was more “Romantic-Jungian”, Phase II is more evolutionary-developmental. To quote a scholar, it presents a “growth to goodness” model with an elaborate series on psycho-development from pre-personal to trans-personal stages. Phase II presents a cycle that involves the concepts of involution and evolution, leading to mystical attainment. It integrates Western Psychology with Eastern Mysticism (especially that of Sri Aurobindo, Mahayana Buddhism and others) to promote a theory that says that human consciousness evolves from the Pleromatic stage of the Gnostics to the Absolute Reality (Ultimate) state of the Advaitins after passing through the rational-ego state.

Wilber draws inspiration for his Phase II from Tibetan Buddhism and the Life Divine of Sri Aurobindo. Phase II can be said to have started with the publication of the The Atman Project in 1980, followed by the publication of books like Up From Eden (1981), A Sociable God (1983) and Eye to Eye (1983). Wilber makes a complete break from his previous psycho-cosmological structure of the Spectrum of Consciousness and delves into an evolutionary cycle that involves developmental stages, like those mentioned by Freud or Rudolph Steiner. Before diving into the Wilber-II in detail, we need to analyze why Wilber wanted to divulge from Phase I.

Why did Wilber deny Phase I? As already mentioned in our post on Wilber – I, Wilber himself denies scholars analyzing his Phase I. He says it is not the right stage to start with and suggests them to start with Wilber – II. But, our question is, why? Wilber opines that in his “Romantic-Jungian” or Phase I, he proposes a theory that believes the pre-personal and trans-personal states to be the same. That is, like all Jungian theories, Phase I preaches that human consciousness returns back to the collective unconscious after passing through the ego and attaining Godhead. This is fundamentally wrong. This is inspired from Carl Jung, who equaled the Pleroma with that of the collective racial unconscious. This idea is totally absurd as a return to the state of primal abyss or what is called the “materia prima” cannot be compared to the attainment of oceanic bliss or enlightenment.

Though many scholars have pointed out the differences between the Pre- and Trans- states of consciousness, Wilber is the first one to have illustrated it with examples and citations. He draws help from the great Indian mystic, Sri Aurobindo and from the ideologies of Mahayana Buddhism to prove the difference between Pre-personal and Trans-personal states.

Pre/Trans Fallacy: Wilber terms the confusion between the Pre-personal and Trans-personal states as Pre/Trans Fallacy. It is wrong to term spirituality as a return to the collective unconscious as it is an evolutionary process which grows from pre-consciousness to enlightenment or Godhead through ego-transcendence. Jung, owing to his belief in the collective unconscious, felt that there is no Pre/Trans state and that all that remains is one – collective unconscious. So, according to Jung and Wilber-I, the pre-mature human mind undergoes changes, splits into dualities from the Ground of Being (like Ground of Being – Self; Organism – Environment; Ego – Body and Persona – Shadow) and finally returns or regresses into the Ground of Being, which is nothing but the collective unconscious. This is indeed a Pre/Trans Fallacy which is not how consciousness grows/evolves. Wilber in Wilber-II opines that there is a process of involution and evolution through which the Self identifies it is different from its environment, develops an individual ego and then, later transcends that ego to merge with Absolute Reality.

Pre/Trans Cycle of Involution and Evolution: Alan Kazlev puts it beautifully on his website Kheper.net: “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 civilization – begins in a state of undifferentiated unconscious universalism. From there it passes through stages of increasing individualization and ego-development (outward arc) whereby it is able to recognize 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).” Though these stages of Wilber are somewhat similar to the Anthroposophic stages of Rudolph Steiner and the Theory of Process of Arthur M. Young, Wilber has culled out a lot of Eastern and Western references to integrate and synthesize all evolutionary theories into one like no other.

Cyclic Sequence of Atman Project or Pre/Trans Thesis: The cyclic sequence represented by Wilber goes through more than 12 states, starting from the Pleromatic and ending in the Ultimate or Absolute Reality state. We will have a glimpse on all the 12 states here:

1. Pleromatic Stage: This is the primal stage. The consciousness is yet to be formed or properly developed. There is no sense of time, no sense of desire or choice. The self identifies itself with things around and mode of self is what Wilber calls as “oceanic, protoplasmic, materia prima”. Ken Wilber himself describes this in his Atman Project: “The self is “pleromatic”, as the alchemists and gnostics would put it, which essentially means that the self and the material cosmos are undifferentiated. The self is embedded in the materia prima, which is both the primal chaos of physical matter and the maternal matrix or Prakriti from whence all creation was fashioned.” The self is engaged in material union with the physical environment, “the lowest unity of all” with nothing metaphysically high about it. There is no subject/object differentiation. Though this is similar to the Trans- stages, both the Pre and Trans stages are world apart from each other.

2. Uroboric Stage: There is some cognition happening and the self tries to make the first subject-object differentiation. But this is momentary and as Kazlev puts it, the cognitive style is “acausality, prototaxic mode with momentary states of subject/object differentiation”. There is a primordial fear of things/atmosphere around. There is primitive urge for survival and primordial hunger is the only physiological aspect. No sense of time or place. The mode of self is generally termed as “archaic, pre-personal, reptilian, reflex, alimentary.”

3. Axial and Pranic Stage: This is just-after-birth stage where in the chronological age of the child is from 4 to 6 months to 15 to 18 months. There is cognition of things – sensorimotor feelings, perception of axial images (objects different from the physical body) and a presence of elementary emotions of greed, fear, rage, pleasure etc. No specific sense of time except that it is passing, momentary and present. Only the presence of the axial body is recognized as the self, which is often narcissistic. There is a also a immanent need for survival and pleasure.

4. Image Body Self – Late Body Ego Stage:
The cognitive style is what is called “Parataxic” – that is, there are different experiences but none of them is connected. Things just happen and there is no sense of distinction between things, multivalent images nor clear demarcation between subject/object. Rudimentary desires dominate the self which is non-reflexive, with no sense of time except the extended present. Children from 15 to 18 months to 2 years experience this stage.

5. Verbal – Membership Stage: The cognitive style of this stage is what Alan Kazlev calls, “autistic language; paleologic and mythic thinking; membership cognition”. Temporal desires, likes/dislikes surface in the mind.  There is sense of the past, present and future and the self is indeed time-binding. Wilber terms the mode of self as “verbal, tensed-membership” self. There is also sense of belongingness, willpower and sense of autonomy/autocracy.

6. Mental Egoic Stage: This is almost the most advanced stage of the ego. The self is rational, egoic and rooted in its ideologies. There is a clear, linear sense of time and the self is able to perceive the historical, present and extended past and future. Cognitive style, as Kazlev puts it, represents “syntaxical-membership; secondary process; verbal dialogue thinking; concrete and formal operational thinking.” The self is egoistic, is in dialogue-thinking mode, comprises of various personae and has a good conception of itself. There is an advanced sense of willpower, self-control, self-esteem etc.

7. Biosocial Stage: This is an intermediate between the mature ego and the trans stages. The cognitive style is one of intuition, though there is perception of conceptual/formal knowledge. There is a sense of spontaneity, impulsive expression and positive approach. The present becomes all-important and the mind is centered in the present though it is able to perceive in linear mode, the past and the future. The self is “individualistic, autonomous and separate from roles” the body/persona plays. As Wilber himself describes it, the Biosocial Self is a transitional stage between the mature ego and the centaur -  “The general dividing line between the mature and socially-adapted ego and the authentic centaur (using that italicized term as existentialists do) – is what I call the ‘Biosocial Bands’. ‘Bio-’ denotes ‘body’ and ’social’ denotes ‘membership’ and ‘membership concepts’.”

8.  Centaur Stage: This is the first of the trans-stages and involves a higher cognitive style than the ones in verbal-ego stages. “Trans-verbal, vision-image, trans-consensual” cognition dominate the mental picture. Supersenory elements, spontaneity and impulsive expression are the affective elements of the stage. Self-actualization, creative wish and exercise of spontaneous will, autonomy are factors that influence the self. Sense of time is present, but there is awareness about time in the linear mode too. Mode of self, as Alan Kazlev puts it, is “integrated, autonomous, trans-biosocial, total body-mind being.” The centaur stage has been described as an exceptional, first trans stage wherein, the mind understands that all things are related. One should read through Wilber’s descriptions of the stage to get a better understanding: “One contacts and stabilizes on the centaur level, the elements of the gross personality- the body, the ego, the persona, the shadow, the lower chakras- tend to fall into harmony of themselves. For the individual is beginning to transcend them, and thus he ceases to compulsively manipulate and exploit them….This is the stage describes as one of autonomy, of integration, of authenticity, or of self-actualization…The centaur, the integrated and total self, above and prior to body, mind persona and shadow, but embracing as it were all of them as experiences.”

9. Low Subtle Stage: From the Low Subtle, the trans-stages are in action and everything is trans-personal. Cognitive style, as mentioned by Alan Kazlev, “clairvoyant perception, extra-egoic and extra-sensory”. Since this stage is beyond the centaur, there is “suprasensory” perception and “paranormal and para-psychological drives”. Time sense is trans-axial or trans-physical, with the ability to read worldlines through pre-cognition and post-cognition. The self is “astral-physic”.

10. High Subtle Stage: This is higher than the Low Subtle self and hence the self harbors overwhelming love, gratefulness and compassion and “karuna” for the universe. Wilber takes terms from Aurobindo and describes the mode of self as “Overmind”. Kazlev calls the self as “archetypal-divine and over-self”. There is no sense of physical time and if any, time is trans-temporal, “moving into eternity”.

11. Low Causal Stage: This is the stage of final illumination or what the Advaitins will call the “savikalpa samadhi”. The being is full of “radiance”, of “ananda”. There is an expression of “transcendent love-in-oneness” and sense of time is eternity itself. The self becomes the “Final-God, point-source of all Archetypal Forms”.

12. High Causal Stage: The self is in a state of “nirvikalpha samadhi” or boundless consciousness. Primal radiance and complete ecstasy prevails over the being. The self becomes the “Formless Self-Realization or transcendant Witness” to the “lila” of life.

13. Ultimate Stage: The Absolute Reality – the self is the Absolute Reality. This stage cannot be described and different traditions perceive the Absolute differently. The Sufis, the Hare Krishna school – all term the Absolute as a Personal God. While the Neoplatonists, the Advaitins and Wilber terms the Absolute to be Impersonal. Some like Ramanuja incorporate elements of both the Personal and Impersonal God in the Absolute. But as Aurobindo says, the Absolute is beyond limitations of the Personal and the Impersonal.

Criticism against Wilber’s Atman Project: Every other theory of Wilber (that follows in Wilber III, IV and V stages) are based on Wilber II stage’s The Atman Project. But there is a lot of criticism against Wilber with regard to the Atman and Pre-Trans paradigm. M. Alan Kazlev lists all of them in his essay on Wilber’s Phase II: First, the Pre-Trans thesis denies mystical experiences to children. This is wrong as there have been reports of children having mystical experiences like adults.  Second, the theory makes an assumption that children are in a state of “undifferentiated unity” during the pre-stages. Third, there is an assumption that magical thinking is inferior to pre and rational thinking, in much the same way as there is an assumption that evolution proceeded from “magical-animistic” to “mythical” and then to “rational-scientific”. None of these assumptions have been proved.

Apart from this, Arvan Harvat opines that the entire Pre-Trans theory has a very dubious foundation. In his article, “The Atman Fiasco” he criticizes Wilber for misunderstanding the Mahayana Buddhism and for placing the Hindu Vedanta philosophy and the Mahayana philosophy parallel, without any element of doubt or proof. He considers this “latitudinarian attitude” as a major flaw in the thesis. Rod Hemsell accuses Wilber of misunderstanding Sri Aurobindo’s Life Divine. In his essay, “Ken Wilber and Sri Aurobindo: A Critical Perspective”,  Hemsell says that Wilber has not properly understood Aurobindo’s Involution and Evolution theory and hence makes a confusing reference to the Supermind and Overmind of Aurobindo.

Though so many such accusations have been placed against Wilber, it has to be remembered that Wilber is the foremost philosopher to “integrate” and unify Wester Psychology with Eastern Mysticism and come up with a theory like this. We will look into critique on Wilber’s theories in a separate post.

“Ken Wilber Revisited” is a series of posts on Ken Wilber and the development of his Integral theory. You can know more about Wilber and the criticism of his phases in our posts Wilber I, Wilber II, Wilber III, Wilber IV and Wilber V.

Reference Links:

1. Alan Kazlev’s “Ken Wilber” on his website

2. Alan Kazlev’s Wilber’s Phase II

3. Arvan Harvat: The Atman Fiasco

4.  Michael Bauwens: The Cult of Ken Wilber

5.  What is Integral: Ken Wilber’s Pivotal Contribution to Integralism

6.  Integral Politics: Ken Wilber’s Third Way of Interior and Exterior Development

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