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An Open Letter to Ken Wilber

Author: Clay Stinson
Publisher: The NEURAL SURFER
Publication date: August 1997

E-mail David Christopher Lane directly at dlane@weber.ucsd.edu

I want to go back to the home base now.

From: "Clay Stinson" 
Subject: A SPIRITUALITY THAT TRANSFORMS????? -- An Open Letter to Ken Wilber
Date: Wed, 20 Aug 1997 02:26:08 -0500

A SPIRITUALITY THAT TRANSFORMS????? -- An Open Letter to Ken Wilber

Ken, I have just finished reading your most recent statement on The Ken
Wilber Forum entitled "A Spirituality That Transforms" at:
http://www.shambhala.com/wilber/html/enlight.html. This latest public
statement by you on Spirituality, Adi Da, Chogyam Trungpa (et al.),
elicited many and variegated thoughts and feelings from my reflections upon
it.  My commentary on some of the key passages and ideas in your latest
statement follows below.

(1) << …religion itself has always performed two very important, but very
different, functions. One, it acts as a way of creating meaning for the
separate self: it offers myths and stories and tales and narratives and
rituals and revivals that, taken together, help the separate self make
sense of, and endure, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. This
function of religion does not usually or necessarily change the level of
consciousness in a person; it does not deliver radical transformation. Nor
does it deliver a shattering liberation from the separate self altogether.
Rather, it consoles the self, fortifies the self, defends the self,
promotes the self.>> 

Commentary:  What do you mean by "a change of consciousness" and "a
shattering liberation" Ken??? These terms are not at all well and clearly
defined -- at least not in any ordinary language and common sense way. 
Turning to the various religious and philosophical "mystical" schools and
traditions for a more precise meaning and phenomenology, we find that there
is no consensus whatsoever regarding these ideas and the nature of these
"liberations". By way of concretely illustrating this point, consider the
following:  What (i) an educated Shankara devotee, an advocate of Advaita
Vedanta, means by these terms and how she interprets any personal mystical
experiences, (ii) an educated Theravada Buddhist means by these terms and
how he interprets any personal mystical experiences, and (iii) an educated
Visistadvaita devotee means by these terms and how she interprets these
mystical experiences are, in all truth, quite different.  Moreover, in many
cases, the content of the beliefs and doctrines, and the interpretations of
any personal mystical experiences, are mutually exclusive & mutually
contradictory.    

(2) <<…religion has also served -- in a usually very, very small
minority--the function of radical transformation and liberation. This
function of religion does not fortify the separate self, but utterly
shatters it--not consolation but devastation, not entrenchment but
emptiness, not complacency but explosion, not comfort but revolution--in
short, not a conventional bolstering of consciousness but a radical
transmutation and transformation at the deepest seat of consciousness
itself.>>

 << But with transformation, the very process of translation itself is
challenged, witnessed, undermined, and eventually dismantled. With typical
translation, the self (or subject) is given a new way to think about the
world (or objects); but with radical transformation, the self itself is
inquired into, looked into, grabbed by its throat and literally throttled
to death.>>

Commentary:  Really???  This is just unverifiable and unfalsifiable
metaphysical verbosity and mystical sloganeering on your part, Ken. 
Reliable data from neuropsychiatry and neuroscience indicates that these
"radical transformations" have a wholly mundane and naturalistic etiology.
 
 (4) << Put it one last way: with horizontal translation--which is by far
the most prevalent, wide-spread, and widely-shared function of
religion--the self is, at least temporarily, made happy in its grasping,
made content in its enslavement, made complacent in the face of the
screaming terror that is in fact its innermost condition. With translation,
the self goes sleepy into the world, stumbles numbed and near-sighted into
the nightmare of samsara, is given a map laced with morphine with which to
face the world. And this, indeed, is the common condition of a religious
humanity, precisely the condition that the radical or transformative
spiritual realizers have come to challenge and to finally undo.>>

Commentary:  Here, Ken, you are simply recommending your version of
monistic metaphysics as a kind of "mystical panacea" for human ills, rather
than a realistic, courageous, dispassionate, and compassionate life in a
very non-magical & non-mystical world.

(5) << Still, the number of individuals who are ready for such a path is,
always has been, and likely always will be, a very small minority. For most
people, any sort of religious belief will fall instead into the category of
consolation: it will be a new horizontal translation that fashions some
sort of meaning in the midst of the monstrous world. And religion has
always served, for the most part, this first function, and served it
well.>>

Commentary:  There is a grain of truth in what you say, but it's not at all
what you think Ken.  My neurological research reveals that this so-called
"very small minority" of individuals "ready" for "The Path" is constituted
of persons who already have and/or self-induce neurological damage and
neurological dysfunction -- or are neuropsychiatrically ill ab initio. 
Indeed, and once again, these so-called mystics, meditators, and spiritual
"Masters" with the "big realizations" are suffering from various species of
(i) brain damage, (ii) epilepsy, (iii) psychosis, (iv) schizophrenia, and
(v) debilitating depersonalization disorder, or (vi) some combination of
these five.  

In my case, I was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy as a youth and
years later delusively believed myself to be making "spiritual" and
meditative "progress" when all my weird "mystical" experiences started (as
a result of intensive and protracted meditation practice).  To this very
day, these experiences are always with me, in varying degrees and forms,
and never cease.  I do wish, however, that they would stop, forever, and
never plague me again.

In the case of a good friend of mine (a highly religious and committed
priest) who has had some of these "realizations" and mystical experiences,
he, too, was diagnosed with epilepsy when he was younger.  

In the case of Bernadette Roberts (author of "The Experience of No-Self"),
she talks about her own personal experiences of  "bodilessness", profound
"mystical unknowing" + experience of "Oneness" or "nonduality", "subtle
energies", and a "dismantling of the continuum of time".  Do such
experiences constitute profound "mystical realizations" and
"enlightenment"???  I say no!!! What her symptoms do actually indicate is a
fairly complicated mix of profound neurological disorders, neurological
damage, and neurological dysfunction -- a literal reversal, in many ways,
of millions of years of the neurological evolutionary biology of the brain
and nervous system.  Specifically, and to wit, her experience(s) of:

(i) "Bodilessness" results from total proprioceptive failure.
(ii) "Mystical Unknowing" and the experience of "Oneness" or "nonduality"
is little more than a convoluted mix of semantic aphasia + visual aphasia +
auditory agnosia + optic agnosia + visual object agnosia.
(iii) "Subtle Energies" are, in reality, nothing more than a combination of
somatosensory seizures and partial complex seizures which have their roots
in temporal lobe and limbic epilepsy and extreme cortex disinhibition.  
(iv)  Her inability to experience time as having a continuum can be
accounted for by a blend of time agnosia with a concomitant and serious
impairment of memory vivacity.  Highly similar states and conditions such
as we have here in this third case are well known to medical and mental
health practitioners who deal with amnesiacs, Alzheimer's sufferers, and so
forth.

(6) << This function of religion to provide a legitimacy for the self and
its beliefs--no matter how temporary, relative, nontransformative, or
illusory--has nonetheless been the single greatest and most important
function of the world's religious traditions. >>

Commentary:  Ken, your allusion and intimation that the world is "illusory"
is just your highly oblique and needlessly mystifying way of "smuggling in"
your preferred metaphysics for the interpretation of the data of human
experience.  Put differently, this philosophic sleight-of-hand of yours,
Ken, is just your mystical-mystery-mongering and inveterate hierophantic
tendencies in action manifested time and time again.  It all really boils
down to a decree and stipulative definition, by you, that the standard for
the Real is as follows:  "That alone is Real which exists by itself,
reveals itself by itself, and is infinite and eternal."  In other words,
all that which is not permanent, not timeless, not absolutely
all-inclusive, not absolutely integrated, and not absolutely infinite, is
relegated by you, Ken Wilber, to the status of the "illusory" and the
"unreal".  Even the Absolute Idealist and monist F.H. Bradley would be
disgusted with you because of the shoddy way you do philosophy --
conflating and confusing as you do (i) the radical contextualist/pragmatist
Philosophy of the Present with its *antirealist* views of past and future
and *realist* views of the present, with (ii) Whitehead's and Hartshorne's
*realist* views of past and present and *antirealist* views of the future,
with (iii) the temporally spatializing Eternalistic Theory of Time (i.e.,
the tenseless theory of time) with its wholly *realist* view of past,
present, and future (i.e., past, present, and future have equal ontological
status and are fully real and fully determinate).

(7) << For those few individuals who are ready--that is, sick with the
suffering of the separate self, and no longer able to embrace the
legitimate worldview--then a transformative opening to true authenticity,
true enlightenment, true liberation, calls more and more insistently. And,
depending upon your capacity for suffering, you will sooner or later answer
the call of authenticity, of transformation, of liberation on the lost
horizon of infinity.>>

Commentary:  Ken, you know as well as I do that mystical experiences have
been used to corroborate every ontology on the planet ranging from (i) the
Eternalistic Monism of guys like Shankara, Plotinus, and F.H. Bradley, to
(ii) the Qualified Nondualism of Ramanuja, to (iii) the Extreme Dualism
like that of Patanjali and Samkhya Yoga, to (iv) the extreme
process-pluralism of Theravada Buddhism.  Here, you at least implicitly
assert and decree that your version of timeless monism is the "correct"
worldview and all "authentic" spiritual realizers come to such a
"realization" in the end.

(8) << … the actual percentage of the Eastern population that is engaged in
authentic transformative spirituality is, and always has been, pitifully
small. I once asked Katigiri Roshi … how many truly great Ch'an and Zen
masters there have historically been. Without hesitating, he said "Maybe
one thousand altogether." I asked another Zen master how many truly
enlightened--deeply enlightened--Japanese Zen masters there were alive
today, and he said "Not more than a dozen.">> 

Commentary I:  Note that the implicit assumption in this case is that
Katigiri Roshi is qualified to discern the "deeply mystically enlightened"
with you, Ken Wilber, being among such luminously resplendent and
preeminent contemplative company.  Such utterances as these that you quote
from Katigiri Roshi would, if true, make him one of the most "enlightened"
of them all!!! -- no??  Otherwise, how could he discern the difference
between the "deeply enlightened" from the "moderately enlightened" from the
"mildly enlightened" from the "unenlightened"???  Once again, we see that
old mystical and cosmic self-promotion and cosmic conceit in action again. 
How predictable.

Commentary II:  Ken, there is a bit of truth in what you say about the very
small numbers of the "authentically enlightened".  However, the grain of
truth such as you have discerned here is so infected with your religious
and mystical mythology that you can't see it clearly and for what it is. 
Since mystical experiences have their origin in neuro-epileptic disorders,
various psychoses and species of schizophrenia, Near Death Experiences,
brain damage that can result from, for instance, untreated Lyme's Disease,
and so on, one would reasonably expect that the population of mediators and
spiritual "masters" who are "authentically enlightened" and have had
"transfigurative" mystical experiences would reflect the relative rarity of
these conditions (i.e., neurological and/or neuropsychiatric conditions and
disorders) in America and throughout the world.  For instance, it is a
well-known fact that epilepsy affects roughly one percent of Americans. 
Now out of all those epileptics, precisely how many will be involved in
meditative spirituality?  Precious few.  And of those precious few involved
in meditative spirituality, precisely how many are going to do, literally,
hours of meditative practice per day for many years in order to have all
those alleged "authentic mystical realizations"?  Even fewer -- due to
mundane realities such as supporting one's family, putting food on the
table, just living life, and so on.  Similar considerations apply to those
who have brain damage and various species of psychosis and schizophrenia. 
No wonder, then, that the big "realizers" and "big mystical experience"
folk are so rare. 

MAIN POINT:  Ken, neurological and/or neuropsychiatric disorders with
attendant "contemplative" and "mystical" experiences hardly constitutes ANY
philosophically and scientifically reasonable kind of basis upon which to
build a whole philosophy and religion of "enlightenment", a mystical
soteriology, and a systematic way of life.  

(9) <>

Commentary I:  Ken, your metamessage is coming through quite loud and very
clearly:  "I, Ken Wilber, have a significant degree of cosmic realization
or enlightenment and am among the mystical elect!  Spirituality devotees,
take serious heed of this, accept my guidance as a cosmic Guru, come follow
me, and for heaven's sake buy my books!!"  

Ken you are simply engaging in that mystical and spiritual self-promotion
that we all know and have come to love so well.  Indeed, Ken, you are
destined for mystical godhood!

Commentary II:  Ken, your so-called "break through" experience(s) probably
involves at least one or more of the following phenomena labeled as
"mystical" and/or "Satori" experiences which I draw from my own 15+ years
of personal experience with these sorts of things:

(i) all kinds of "inner lights", "profound internal silences", profound
diminution of internal imagery and internal dialogue, 
(ii) feeling all types of "flows of energy" throughout the body with
pressure experienced in the middle of the forehead and at the top of the
head,
(iii) global bodily "vibrations"
(iv) being forced down a luminous tunnel at tremendous speed with the
experience of a "breakthrough" when one reaches the end of it, 
(v) the quintessential "enlightenment" experience of having the world
"shatter" into a trillion pieces, 
(vi) the luminous and limpid clarity of the so-called "Space-like Mind", 
(vii) the brilliant, field-of-vision-engulfing,  "white light" experience, 

And so on, ad nauseam. 
 
Ken, I too have had these experiences and come to  far different
conclusions than yourself regarding the same.  These phenomena are NOT
anything "supernaturally mystical", intimations of SELF or MIND, a timeless
and unmediated intuition of the Bradleyan Absolute, or anything of the
sort.  From what I can gather from my neurological research, ALL these
phenomena have a wholly mundane neurobiological etiology.  For instance,
the sustained "white light" experience, or "entering into the light"
through meditation, is a form of what neuroscientists call cortex
disinhibition -- the random firing of neurons in the brain.  This random
firing, in turn, stimulates the visual cortex producing these lights and
luminosity's fanatical mystics and zealous meditators talk about. 
Moreover, the greater the number of neurons firing, the greater is the
intensity of the white light.  Quantitatively put, with few neurons
randomly firing, all one sees during meditation is a small circle of white,
to bluish-white, light.  With a moderate number of neurons randomly firing,
one sees, during meditation, a moderately large circle of light.  With all
or most of the neurons randomly firing, one sees a circle of light so
large, brilliant, and luminous that it literally engulfs the field of
vision during the meditation session.   The mistake, here, of mystics,
meditators, spiritual "masters", and Near Death Experiencers is to identify
the "neural noise" or "white light experience" for God, Self, Mind,
"mystical realization", satori, etc.

Other so-called "mystical" and/or "satori" experiences have explanations
just as non-magical, non-mystical, prosaic, materialistic, and
neurologically-based.

(9) << When Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a great (though controversial)
Tibetan master, first came to this country, he was renown for always
saying, when asked the meaning of Vajrayana, "There is only Ati." In other
words, there is only the enlightened mind wherever you look. The ego,
samsara, maya and illusion--all of them do not have to be gotten rid of,
because none of them actually exist: There is only Ati, there is only
Spirit, there is only God, there is only nondual Consciousness anywhere in
existence.>>

Commentary:  Trungpa is a "great (though controversial)" Tibetan master??? 
There is only "Ati"???  Well Ken, this specious bit of mystical and cosmic
nonsense was used by Trungpa, time and again, to defraud people of precious
time, precious money, and precious personal resources.  Worse, is the fact
that Trungpa used his "Ati" philosophy in far more disturbing ways than
just fraud.  Specifically and bizarrely, he was a notoriously abusive drunk
who regularly had sex with his devotees at the Naropa Institute (et al.)
and ordered people stripped naked by hired thugs -- all so that he might
better communicate the Tibetan Buddhist "Tantric Teachings".  Yeah Ken,
what a cosmic sage Trungpa was!!!!

(10) <<…Adi Da, another influential (and equally controversial) adept>>

Commentary:  Politically astute Ken Wilber protects his worldly financial
and worldly spiritual status with the devotees of mystical superstitions
and Spirituality book purchasers by failing to publicly admit that he was
taken in by two Mystical Con Men, viz., Adi Da and Chogyam Trungpa --
especially Adi Da.  

I suspect that you will do anything so that your cash cow of
mystical/spiritual book and future mystical Scripture writing, along with
your position as Pope of the New Age Obfuscation, is unaffected -- eh
Ken???

It seems to me that all your talk about Spirituality and mysticism as a
search for Absolute Truth is just a manifestation of your inveterate
mystical windbag propensities and desire for undying vicarious cosmic and
mystical renown.  If you were a mystical philosopher back around 2000 years
ago, you would be telling us that grand mal seizures are caused by demon
possession.  In modern context, you make the equally wacky claim(s) that
all these weird and far out "mystical" experiences are really
manifestations, intimations, or direct contact with Mind, Self, Ati, or
what not.  Well, Ken, they're not -- it's all just a result of "spiritual
drug taking" done without drugs, through meditation!!!

In light of all the above, Ken, the suspicion must be that a little (in
your case, a huge amount of)  neuroscientific ignorance and cosmic
superstition goes a very long way.  By propagating your mystical nonsense
and cosmic fairy tales of enlightenment, you mire those in various New Age
movements, groups, and especially deeply problematic mystical Cults, in a
morass of religious and mystical delusions, metaphysical superstitions, and
religious wishful + magical thinking -- all for the sake of that
nonexistent mystical goodie that you call "enlightenment".  
 
Ken, you have spent so very much of your life in books and "in your head"
that you lack even the most basic forms of common sense and knowledge of
how the world really works and how people really are --  otherwise, you
would not still be endorsing abusive and deranged individuals like Trungpa
and Adi Da as cosmically enlightened spiritual masters.

(11)<< And this is truly a terrible burden, a horrible burden, because in
any case there is no room for timidity.>>

Commentary:  "Terrible burden"???  "Horrible burden"???  "No room for
timidity"???  Anyone who knows what you must know about Adi Da and Trungpa
and still endorses both after their deranged and abusive natures and
actions have been well-documented time and again is, at least, an
exceedingly timid person.  Such a specious rallying cry on your part, Ken,
is a most transparent and egregious form of hypocrisy.  This is hardly
appropriate for one whose life and writings supposedly revolve around the
search for Absolute Truth.  What utter and total BS this stuff you write
and say is.

(12)<< Let it start right here, right now, with us--with you and with
me--and with our commitment to breathe into infinity until infinity alone
is the only statement that the world will recognize. Let a radical
realization shine from our faces, and roar from our hearts, and thunder
from our brains--this simple fact, this obvious fact: that you, in the very
immediateness of your present awareness, are in fact the entire world, in
all its frost and fever, in all its glories and its grace, in all its
triumphs and its tears. You do not see the sun, you are the sun; you do not
hear the rain, you are the rain; you do not feel the earth, you are the
earth. And in that simple, clear, unmistakable regard, translation has
ceased in all domains, and you have transformed into the very Heart of the
Kosmos itself--and there, right there, very simply, very quietly, it is all
undone. Wonder and remorse will then be alien to you, and self and others
will be alien to you, and outside and inside will have no meaning at all.
And in at obvious shock of recognition--where my Master is my Self, and
that Self is the Kosmos at large, and the Kosmos is my Soul--you will walk
very gently into the fog of this world, and transform it entirely by doing
nothing at all.>>

Commentary:  This is mystical grandiosity magnified, literally, to
infinity.  The most regrettable thing of all in your case, Ken, is that you
repeatedly and totally fail to understand one simple fact:  It was, and is,
precisely, the LACK OF REMORSE in spiritual psychopaths and sociopaths like
Trungpa, Adi Da, and Muktananda that was, and is, responsible for their
unconscionable, highly abusive, and criminal treatment of others.  
 ---------------------------------------------------------

CONCLUDING REMARKS:

Anthropologists and sociologists of religion say that homo sapiens are
irreducibly religious (thus characterizing humans as "homo religious") and
that the world's religions serves the indispensable function of encoding
(via ritual, symbol, and myth) those socializing behaviors and modes of
thought conducive to social cohesion plus social and individual harmony. 
Religion, according to this view, gives us a sense of, at least, a cosmic
orientation and, more often than not, cosmic purpose and cosmic inspiration
as well.

Johann Sebastian Bach in his beautiful chorale "Jesu, Joy of Man's
Desiring" captures the quintessential best of religious ritual, religious
symbol, and religious myth utilizing the figure of Jesus: 

Jesu, joy of man's desiring,
Holy wisdom, love most bright;
Drawn by Thee, our souls aspiring…

The lesson to learn from Bach, anthropologists of religion, and
sociologists of religion is that many people need a vision of lofty
passions, sublime wisdom, and unbounded love.  In literature, music,
poetry, and art these supreme values are often embodied.  That onto which
these values are (often) unconsciously projected can attract people to
compassion and love rather than rage, toward hope rather than angst and
despair, toward kindness rather than revenge and torture.

Unfortunately, it is difficult, if not impossible, for some people to live
by principle and the rational evaluation of circumstances alone.  Such
people need stories, parables, rituals, myths, symbols, and much more, in
order to be able to, themselves, embody sublime moral values.  In fact,
having a model (in any sphere) to emulate is one of the most effective
modes of learning.  However, religious ritual, religious symbol, and
religious myth often exacts too high a price.  Such a price as religion
(sacred and profane) exacts can be seen in its variegated forms of
persecution, intolerance, superstition, dogmatism, hatred, and the violence
it engenders in individuals and even whole nations.  Moving closer to home,
concrete examples of the deleterious manifestations of religion can be seen
in religion's various doctrines of Hell, The Heaven's Gate Cult, Adi Da,
Chogyam Trungpa, and Muktananda.  Well-meaning intellectuals and so-called
spiritual masters are by no means immune from the Siren Song of
Superstition, unreason, and common-sense-gone-AWOL of  religion -- whether
exoteric or esoteric.  Once one (a) posits the existence of ANYTHING
supernatural, paranormal, or "mystical", (b) makes one's alleged salvation
contingent upon various belief systems constructed thereon, (c) makes one's
whole meaning in life contingent upon such systems, and so forth, one sets
oneself up for a potential fall down the Slippery Slope of religious
delusions, religious superstitions, endless religio-philosophical
speculation, Cult trauma and abuse, mortal fear of violating the alleged
commandments of God or the gods (e.g., against masturbation, failing to go
to confession) ad infinitum.

Ken, you seem to recognize that highly relative and
socioculturally-conditioned myths and superstitions are heavily operative
at the level of exoteric religion.  However, you utterly fail to ask if
similar myths and superstitions are operative at the esoteric level of
religion.  My argument here is that all ideas and doctrines of mystical
"enlightenment" constitutes a myth just as untenable as are the myths and
superstitions of, for instance, heaven, Hell, levitation, telekinesis, and
salvation by Jesus alone.  In other words, Ken, you totally fail to give
ANY consideration to the very real possibility that ALL mystical doctrines
and doctrines of cosmic enlightenment are just a bunch of fanciful nonsense
with nothing more to back them up than just a welter of weird neurological
experiences had by drug users, epileptics, schizophrenics, psychotics, and
the variously brain damaged. 

FINAL CAVEAT:

One of the greatest dangers of religious ritual, religious symbol, and
religious myth occurs when religious True Believers take them literally. 
However, not to take them literally, at some level, robs them of their
power to move, change, transform, and transfigure -- both for the better
AND for the worse.  This is why naturalistic theologies (e.g., Paul
Tillich, Gordon Kauffman, and Rudolph Bultmann) and naturalistic
philosophies (like that of Tanner Edis at
http://www.public.iastate.edu/%7Eedis/homepage.html) will never replace, in
the minds and "heart of hearts" of the religious, supernaturalistic
religion -- generally speaking.  

But by remaining loyal to a given species of  "the one and only True
religion" one runs the risk of making it some kind of final authority. 
This becomes especially dangerous when True Believers select what they
desire from it or even read into it what they choose, and then treat their
selection as a divinely instituted pattern.  Even the "orthodox" who try to
affirm the "total tradition" end up believing all sorts of wacky and
untenable myths and superstitions.  Whichever way one goes (i.e., the
religious "freelancer" or the systematic "orthodox" believer),  religious
True Believers all too often use such to give a kind of "divine" imprimatur
and nihil obstat to a continuum of values, activities, thoughts, and
behaviors ranging from (i) the most sublimely moral & ethical ones,  to
(ii) the most depraved and debased ones.


Regards, Clay


E-mail The Neural Surfer directly at dlane@weber.ucsd.edu

I want to go back to the home base now.