Ken Wilber's take on saving the world through cross-cultural communication
Philosopher Ken Wilber says that to solve the world’s problems, we need to take a more integral approach by changing the way we communicate our message across cultures.
Jurriaan Kamp | April 2009 issue
Ken Wilber, philosopher.
Photo: Julie Harris
Ken Wilber’s mission is simple: to make sense of our times—to explain what we need to do to eradicate poverty and save the environment, to name the two most crucial issues. These things have long been dear to me too, so I bought my first Wilber book about 20 years ago. Over the years, I turned the pages of most of his books but somehow never connected with them. Despite the obvious alignment of interests and missions, I had a hard time understanding and relating to Wilber’s message.
So when a trusted friend recently described Wilber as “one of the most important philosophers of our time” and suggested I interview him, my reaction was, well, not immediately favorable. But then I thought I should give it one more try. So I ordered some more books by Wilber. When I paged through the first one, I quickly came to my old conclusion. Then one early Sunday morning, I opened A Theory of Everything. An hour later I was surprised to discover I was still reading, immersed in Wilber’s brilliant analysis of the challenges of our times.
It may have taken 20 years, but my eyes, ears and heart had opened. Wilber convinced me that there are certain recognizable patterns in the development of people and cultures and that, by understanding these patterns, we can come to “a theory of everything”—an integral vision that brings together the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual worlds and invites us to be a little more whole, a little less fragmented in our work, our societies and our lives. And that’s how, in early February, I found myself standing in front of the building that houses Ken Wilber’s loft, overlooking the mile-high city of Denver, Colorado, with snowcapped mountains in the background. The temperature was 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius)—this is early February in Denver?!—which raised questions about global warming, one of the topics I was hoping to discuss with him.
Wilber’s apartment reflects the integral approach that is the theme of his books. Modern technology and sleekly designed furniture seamlessly blend with images and artifacts of ancient Asian spirituality. Even Wilber’s appearance expresses his thinking. His tall, strong body isn’t the body of a philosopher who sits around reading and writing books all day. It’s clear that his brain isn’t the only thing Wilber, 60, exercises. His integral philosophy is more than an intellectual exercise, too. It’s an urgent answer to stubborn, practical problems.
Wilber started looking for answers almost immediately after he graduated from college as a biochemist. By then, he’d realized that the humanities provided a much more interesting field of study for him. “The Sixties had brought a huge influx of Eastern traditions, such as humanistic and transpersonal psychologies,” he recalls. “We were looking at Eastern schools and attempting to integrate these philosophies into Western schools. I was much taken by these incredibly important ideas that we had a chance of discovering.”
Wilber explored this marriage of philosophies in his first book, The Spectrum of Consciousness, published in 1973. “At first, the two approaches seemed to fit perfectly together,” Wilber says. “The Western model went about two-thirds of the way [toward an integral philosophy] and that’s where the Eastern model appeared to pick up.” But there was a problem. “The new merged model seemed to imply that to get to the Eastern spiritual experience, you had to go through all the stages of the Western developmental model. And we just knew that was not right. Meditation state experiences can happen at every stage of the Western developmental model. The full course of human growth is going through both of these developmental sequences at the same time.”
This integrated approach has been at the center of Wilber’s work ever since. And over the years, he’s found he’s not alone. Dozens of studies, he writes, have shown “a remarkably consistent story of the evolution of consciousness.” There’s disagreement about the details, but the general message is that humanity evolves through a series of unfolding stages, beginning with simple survival and moving into an enlightened spiritual experience, not unlike the pyramid of needs devised by the 20th-century American psychologist Abraham Maslow. The flow is from “me” to “us” to “all of us.” Along the way, people and cultures move through distinct stages with distinct values.
“That is not an excuse for pigeonholing people and cultures, but a useful tool to understand at which altitude they are flying so that we can communicate with them,” says Wilber. He points out that each stage “transcends and includes”; the new level goes beyond the preceding one, yet still includes and embraces its values. Wilber compares the process to a cell that transcends but includes molecules, which in turn transcend but include atoms. “To say that molecules go beyond atoms is not to say that molecules hate atoms,” he writes, “but that they love them: They embrace them in their own makeup.”
There’s a catch though. To work together, cells and molecules and atoms must speak the same language. The same applies to people and cultures. Wilber observes that while globalization is turning the planet into a village, the world is rapidly disintegrating. In the past, most people were born and raised, married, had children and died in the same culture. Their lives developed within the same value system and those were largely the same as those of their ancestors. Now, thanks to globalization, many different value systems have been brought together. People travel, and their ideas and convictions travel with them. That often results in a failure to communicate. Some cultures speak the language of “me”; some speak the language of “us’”; some speak the language of “all of us.”
Wilber’s integral model is a kind of universal translator for this cultural cacophony, an ambitious attempt to integrate all the languages into a single theory of everything. According to Wilber, value structures fall into four major classes, which he calls “I” (self and consciousness), “We” (culture and world view), “It” (brain and organism), and “Its” (social system and environment).
“Why do we have all these theories?” Wilber asks. “Because they work. The problem arises when we try to make one theory the only approach. That does not work because it is a partial approach. The world needs to come to terms with different value systems. Development goes in stages and there is nothing we can do about that. We need to create social organizational structures that take [these stages] into account. Otherwise, we will have more social violence and more disintegration.” The challenge in addressing global problems is to address these different value systems in their own languages.
Take global warming, which Wilber describes as “the first issue that affects everybody everywhere on the planet. [Former U.S. Vice-President] Al Gore is saying that the entire world needs to change its behavior. But he says so in a language that is perhaps understood by 20 percent of the world population. Gore assumes that people will respond from rational self-interest based on sound science, but that’s the least of the motivations of the majority of the population of the planet.”
Other cultures, Wilber argues, may respond to the threat of global warming from different values. African cultures are dominated by feudal clans, he says, so they may adopt environmental and energy policies when these are phrased in a language that relates to how they may benefit their clans. Similarly, Hindus may change their behavior to honor Gaia rather than in response to rational self-interest. “Al Gore has to ‘language’ his message in at least four different value structures to get, say, 80 percent of the world behind him,” Wilber says. “Anything less than that will simply not work.”
According to Wilber, politics, too, could benefit from an integral approach. Take the classic conflict between conservatives and liberals over welfare. Liberals argue that people are poor because of lack of government support; conservatives argue that people are poor because of lack of family values and work ethic. In Wilber’s vision, both are right. It isn’t “either/or” but “both/and.” His ideal government approach: “‘We will do everything to help you but at the same time we want you to do everything to help yourselves.’ We need to find the way to reach out to touch all dimensions, interior capacity and external capacity. We need to recognize where you can help yourselves and where you need help.”
Multiculturalism is another issue ripe for an integral approach, Wilber says. He sees the Netherlands, a small, relatively homogeneous culture with a large immigrant population, as an important test case. “You cannot insist on one value system,” he says. “That leads to civil war. The Netherlands is the most evolved country with a single culture in Europe that has dealt with the issue of immigration longer than others. It has grown to a level that’s most conducive to an integral approach.”
Wilber cites integrative medicine, which unites Western therapies and ancient Eastern methods, as a clear example of how an integral approach can work successfully. He also describes how groups like UNICEF get results by casting development aid projects in the context of local value systems.
At the 2006 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, former U.S. President Bill Clinton described Wilber’s ideas as crucial to successful development programs. “I worry about all these grand ideas that we all promote here working to benefit ordinary people,” Clinton said. “If ordinary people don’t perceive that our grand ideas are working in their lives then they can’t develop the higher level of consciousness ... to use a term that candid American philosopher Ken Wilber wrote a whole book about. He said, you know, the problem is the world needs to be more integrated, but it requires a consciousness that’s way up here, and an ability to see beyond the differences among us.” Says Wilber, “It is easier to build artifacts than to build consciousness, so we continue to build artifacts but not enough of the consciousness behind those.”
So is more consciousness what the world needs now? “Take a wide view,” says Wilber, as he stares at the mountains from the windows of his loft. “Why are human beings here? Not just for greed and ambition. Try to expand what you think we are doing here. What are you doing with your life? How can you refresh your own vision? Look inside, and hopefully you are not disappointed about what you find.”
Jurriaan Kamp, who only speaks English, Dutch, French and German, is the editor-in-chief of Ode.