To be clear from the outset, this post is intended to be critical and to provide a discriminating perspective from which to read Wilber and Integral Life material. It is very much oriented towards the student of Integral Theory.
I discovered Ken Wilber about 12 years ago and slowly became intrigued and excited by his ideas. I say slowly because many of his ideas and much of his writing is pretty dense and involved. Until you ease into it, the ideas are slippery and easily misinterpreted. But over that period of time Wilber’s ideas, largely developed from Spiral Dyanimics, have clarified a lot of things for me and have provided an interesting and productive way of interpreting events in the world. I don’t want to go into the specifics of the theory here as that would be time consuming and redundant (a it appears elsewhere in the blog and is easily found in summary articles on the Internet.)
Two of the things that came out of Integral Theory is the Integral Life website and Integral Life Practice, “A 21st Century blueprint for physical health, Emotional Balance, Mental Clarity and Spiritual Awakening.” Through these media, Wilber and the Integral Team are trying to take the abstract theory and turn it into a practical method of self development. It’s admirable and prevents the theory from being purely idealistic philosophy. I found the Life Practice and many of the articles very practical and helpful. Even Strength for Life, by Shawn Phillips, and Integral approach to fitness and weight lifting is a useful and practical book. I don’t have a problem with the site, book and all the related appendages from trying to be commercially successful, however I have two criticisms.
The first is that when the commercial message supersedes the philosophical message, (as is often the case with Tony Robbins for example, who oddly is featured on the Integral Life Site) then you are on thin ice. When I log into my account at Integral Life, for which I pay an annual fee, I expect to have access to resources about Integral Theory. Instead, in more recent times, an alarm bell goes off in my head when I see what is increasingly displayed. More and more the Integral Life site is becoming an infomercial about all of the other products that you can buy for an additional fee. (To be fair, there is still a significant amount of resource material accessible, -enough to make me not cancel my subscription.) Not only that, but many of these other products seem to be loosely vetted, with everything from Integral Christianity to Integral Buddhism to Integral Art to biographical material about Ken Wilber. It has become a New Age cornucopia to the point that I’m reluctant to recommend the site to friends that I want to introduce to Integral Theory.
Take for example the newest web enterprise, “Your Superhuman Potential”. While I don’t necessarily object to most of the specific points that are made, the overall presentation is tacky and elitist. Just the use of the term “superhuman” presents the whole thing in an unsavory light, promising to make you better than the average person. It asks you to sign up for a free conference video from Wilber, who will undoubtedly use the opportunity to reiterate Integral Theory, as he does in every speaking engagement, and then will offer a program which reportedly is going to cost close to $1 000. And there is no guarantee that this course is not just a repackaging of old interviews and videos, as was the case with the old Integral Operating System course.
Everyone needs to be able to turn their ideas into financially successful offerings. People have to make a living. I don’t mind paying for courses like these if I am sure that I will receive the promised value. But my experience over the past few years is that a lot of the time the people promising to deliver that value fall short. I think it is the Tony Robbins method of doing business. Have a free or inexpensive introductory lecture which amounts to little more than an infomercial, hook your customers and tie them into a commercial model that insures financial success, all done with a slickness that is reminiscent of David Icke. (Susan Cain in her recent book, Quiet, does an excellent analysis of this.) From an Integral Theory point of view it is a very Orange, perhaps even mean Orange, way of doing it.
The second criticism is that most of the new material on the Integral Life website is related to spirituality. Now, again, I understand that Integral Theory has a very important contribution to make on religious and spiritual questions. I even understand that the overall concept of evolutionary development probably requires a spiritual component. However, in recent years Wilber seems to have put all of his energy into this field, and that is reflected in the website. When I want to introduce a friend to Integral Theory, it is most often the psychological, pedagogical, political and economic parts of it that I want to share. These are more down to Earth and accessible. The spiritual stuff, though, is what often comes up in Google searches and which is often emphasized on the website. Not only is it much more inaccessible, but it also is less clearly defined and in a state of deliberation.
Integral Spirituality, and the brand of Buddhism which is often pushed by Wilber, has many interesting and exciting features. I love the work done by Michael Dowd bridging religion into Modern and Post-Modern models. I love the work on Big Mind and Zen Buddhism. However, I can’t help but wonder if a current preoccupation with Integral Spirituality may be at the cost of development in the more down to Earth Integral areas, and whether the emphasis may actually be scaring away people wary of New Age fluff.
The bottom line, I think, is to not accept Integral Theory and Ken Wilber as a doctrine or scripture, but to realize that it is a model that is undergoing changes, and is, unfortunately, turning into an enterprise which may need to shed light on itself. Is Integral Life and it’s associate ventures at a Red, Amber, Orange, Green or Second Tier stage? Ideally it should be at all of them. And that perhaps is what is happening with the Tony Robbins marketing model. But something seems askew and I’ve had to shake my head occasionally when dealing with Integral Theory. I think it may need to shake its own head a little, too.