Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Ken Wilber & Meditation

In his book Grace & Grit and in a beliefnet.com essay posted this year (see link to essay below), philosopher Ken Wilber offers a perennial philosophy diagnosis of the human condition: "we are living in a world of sin, separation, or duality—that is, we are living in a fallen, illusory, or fragmented state." He says that there is a cure, a path to liberation, and throughout his work he prescribes meditation as one of the best medicines.

Wilber tells an interviewer that when in college, he “was very angry, at everything and everyone,” but had difficulty expressing his anger directly, and “it tended to come out in snideness and sarcasm.” Wilber says he went into therapy “to deal with all of that.” His therapist introduced him to Zen and meditation.

“When I first started meditating," Wilber says, "I sat for three to four hours a day. Once a week, I’d take a whole day and sit ten or twelve hours.” He also says that he did many Zen sesshins, which typically entail sitting for ten to twelve hours a day every day for a week.

“I didn’t have a single piece of positive feedback for many months after I first started. I’d try to watch my mind, and I’d get lost. I learned to keep count of my breaths from one to ten, but nothing came of it. Three or four years went by before I got my first real rush. I don’t even know why I continued, except I was absolutely convinced that this was the thing to be doing – that it was the route to my salvation.”

To Freud, dreams were the via regia or royal road to the unconscious, and to Wilber, meditation is the royal road to salvation through making the unconscious conscious. In his model of meditation (presented in essays such as, “Meditation and the Unconscious,” “Odyssey,” and “The Effects of Meditation”), Wilber says that meditation is de-repressive and that “the overall net effect is an intensification of Eros (the Ascent to God) and Agape (the descent of the Goddess).”

I first started meditating in the late 60's when I was in high school, and I was a mindfulness-based stress and pain management course instructor for the integrative medicine program of a large hospital complex through the 90's, but I have never recommended meditation to anyone who was not already interested in it. My view of the psyche is more informed by Jung and post-Jungians like James Hillman and Arnold Mindell than by Freud, and from a Jungian perspective I am disinclined to give primacy to the peaks of experience over the valleys, or to "spirit" over "soul" (as Hillman in particular discusses this distinction, e.g., in his essay "Peaks and Vales").

I do not think that the mental ego or rational mind is in a position to decide which "spiritual" practices are right for the psyche, and I do not think of meditation as a universal panacea or as a universal regia or way, and I do not consider the fall/redemption motif implicit in Wilber's beliefnet.com essay "An Integral Spirituality" to be the most psychologically useful or skillful way to conceive of the human condition. It is one way of looking at things, and it apparently works for some people at some times, but it is not the only or best way of looking at things.

I’ve long had distaste for attempts to legitimize meditation by appeals to the desire for empirically and scientifically measurable results, and I've long had distaste for the McDonaldization of meditation. When I was in high school (Class of '69), after I'd already begun to meditate, a teacher arranged for a presentation on Transcendental Meditation to take place at the school and he invited me to attend. Two men in business suits showed up and proceeded to hype TM as if they were selling real estate or some type of pyramid sales franchise scheme.

In what I imagine was an attempt to make meditation palatable to Western audiences, Swami Vivekananda likened meditation to a "scientific experiment" conducted in the "laboratory" of the body-mind. Wilber's "take up the injunction" essays (in his books Eye to Eye and Eye of Spirit) strike me as having the same general thrust, as if likening taking up the injunction to meditate to the scientific method will persuade skeptical rationalists of the soteriological value of meditation.

In the early days of the transpersonal movement, transpersonalists made attempts to appear empirical and scientific in the eyes of the wider academic and social communities. In Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, Jorge Ferrer writes, "the legitimization of transpersonal studies in the late 1960's and 1970's (and even the 1980's) had to be empirical." But he argues that this approach, "although once indispensable and perhaps even salutary, has become unnecessary, limiting, and counterproductive."

Despite my aversion to appeals to science and reason to legitimize meditation, I appreciate that such appeals have led to openness to "complementary" approaches to wellness on the part of the mainstream medical community. While I remain skeptical about research into the health benefits of meditation (IMO, eagerness to legitimize meditation leads to premature and exaggerated claims about the health benefits of some of the "side effects" of meditation), I think the public attitude toward meditation today is much better than it was in the sixties, when meditation was routinely written off in the mainstream media as "navel gazing" and hippie occultism.

After the psychedelic heyday of the sixties, meditation was, for some, one of a number of "natural" and legal methods used to induce non-ordinary states of consciousness. Integral Institute sponsored an “Integral Training” seminar this summer, which included three guest appearances by Ken Wilber. According to the seminar description at the Integral Institute website, each day began with a “yoga and energy session, followed by a meditation with a delta-wave technology that induces non-ordinary states of consciousness.”

My initial interest in meditation was as a way of inducing non-ordinary states of consciousness, but today I use meditation as a support for moving into greater intimacy with life. I need the form, structure, and discipline that a sitting practice entails. But I can't imagine recommending meditation to anyone who is not already drawn to it, and I can't imagine trying to provide someone with reasonable, rational, or scientific reasons why they should "take up the injunction" to meditate. For those who do feel drawn or called to meditate, I agree with Wilber when he says in Integral Psychology that a qualified teacher is a must.

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