Author: David Christopher Lane Publisher: MSAC Philosophy Group Publication date: 1996
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THE SOUND OF THREE BOOKS CLAPPING: Ken Wilber and the Under-reading of Shabd Yoga [Part Four in a Ten Part Series] --------- Wilber has been hailed as a pioneer in transpersonal studies because he has tried to make the subject of mysticism worthy of serious consideration. In his books he comes off as widely read and as an authority on the realms beyond the intellect. Yet, as we have already seen in the previous three parts to this series, Wilber has a precocious habit of exaggerating and not being accurate. This hyper-inflationary quality [If this seems a bit harsh, just read his endorsements of Da] to his work naturally makes it difficult for more skeptically minded readers to accept his speculations, especially when he travels into regions of the psychic, subtle, and causal. In part one we saw how Wilber grossly over-estimated the power and status of Da Free John (oops, Franklin Jones, now Adi Da). Just recently, after about 10 years of keeping relatively silent on the subject, Wilber has gone public on the World Wide Web and attempted to soften his endorsement of the Big Boy from Fiji. It is a rather lame retraction at that, since Wilber does not acknowledge or admit the extent to which Da is a real "fuck-up" (Wilber's words, not mine). Indeed, Wilber just doesn't seem to "get it" about why so many of his readers are turned off by his praise of the one-time California guru from New York. When it comes to guru appraisements, Wilber is just plain naive. He is as gullible as the rest of us and given his track record with Da perhaps more so. What is perhaps so worrisome about all of this, of course, is that Wilber does not show the kind of level-headed discrimination that is necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff. It would be one thing to admit to a bit of "greenness" (e.g., "Hey, I am a sucker when it comes to Perfect Masters"), but it is quite another to pose like you are a seasoned veteran of the guru wars. One illustrative example of Wilber's naivety is found in his "under-reading" of shabd yoga. As his readers know, Wilber likes to repeatedly write about the higher planes of consciousness which comprise his spectrum psychology: from psychic to subtle to causal to the Transcendental. Depending on the book, these realms can be basic structures or subdivided into small compartments. In each case, however, Wilber points to the "pioneer" or "master" of that respective realm. But who Wilber considers a "Master" is so arbitrary and contrived that his final choices in this regard are nothing more than subjective guesses--guesses, by the way, which are not based upon deep structural insight into the realm in question, but upon his own discursive reading of what literature is available at the time. Okay, prime example time: Ken Wilber talks in almost all of his books about the "subtle" realms, where the meditator encounters inner lights and inner sounds (nad and shabd). In one published essay in THE JOURNAL OF HUMANISTIC PSYCHOLOGY in the early 1980s, wherein he provides a biographical narrative, Wilber states that 'KIRPAL SINGH IS THE UNSURPASSED MASTER OF THE SUBTLE REALM' [paraphrase] Now no doubt Kirpal Singh devotees may agree with this appraisement, but Ken Wilber does not know this to be true. Indeed, he has no idea whatsoever if he is even close to being right. Why? Because in order to make such a categorical statement one would have to draw upon a complete field in which to make such a comparative judgment. He "knows" it not by direct observation (Wilber never met Kirpal Singh or the hundreds of gurus claiming to be shabd yoga masters in India and elsewhere) but because Wilber happened to have read about three or four books by Kirpal Singh, a guru who also happened to have a better distributor than most other shabd yoga gurus. I like Kirpal Singh's books too (especially his biography of Jaimal Singh), but just because I like them and find them illustrative does not then extend directly into: "unsurpassed" master. Geez, given that type of criterion--whatever book I happened to have read recently means that the author is the "supreme" authority--could lead to some pretty funny results: Ray Monk as the greatest book reviewer (I just read his nice pieces on the latest Wittgenstein's studies). Let's focus this a bit more: How many different shabd yoga gurus are there in the world? Answer: we don't know. But if we had to estimate those with followings over 1000 the number is easily over 100 (and that is a very conservative estimate) in India alone! How many of these gurus has Wilber met? How many practitioners of shabd yoga are there? Answer: we don't know. But if we had to give an estimate of just Radhasoami followers the number tends to be over 2 million plus (again a low ball figure). How many of these people has Wilber met? How many shabd yoga texts or articles are there? Answer: we don't know. But according to Faqir Chand, his guru Maharishi Shiv Brat Lal wrote over 3,000 articles and texts himself. One can only guess that the number is in the multiple thousands. How many has Wilber read? Well, more to the point, how many does Wilber cite and list in his own books? On this we have an answer: anywhere from 1 to 4. And guess what? They are all by the same author: Kirpal Singh (remember we are not talking about shaktipat or kundalini). I have read over a 1000 books on the subject myself, been to India 8 times, and done an M.A. and Ph.D. on the subject, but I really don't know who is the "unsurpassed" master of shabd yoga. I may believe many things and say many things (by the way, I am MORE guilty than Wilber of inflationary hype--just read some of my more "puffy" pieces on gurus in the 1980s), but even in my own little field of expertise which I have concentrated on does not, indeed cannot, lead to me to say univocally that so and so is the "Best" or the "Greatest." All I could say is that I have read such and such books and this one I think is best, or I have met such and such guru and I think this guy is tops. That's it. Yet, Wilber who is not an expert on shabd yoga pontificates in a rhetorical fashion as if he "really" knew. It this kind of unmitigated hype which is so pernicious in Wilber's writings and it shows up in lots of places. Wilber lacks the nuance and the attention to the odd fact and the limitations of scholarship to convince both skeptics and those who know their area better than he. On one level this may sound quite nit-picky on my part since we all exaggerate to some degree when writing. However, the reason it is important to call Wilber's exaggerations into scrutiny is because he represents much of why transpersonal psychology is dismissed and why it has as a field more or less floundered. It flounders because even one of its most heralded theoreticians is liable to over-generalize and make sweeping generalizations that are not only inaccurate but downright untrue. It is one thing for a community of physicists who know the field to say Einstein is a great physicist, quite another to have someone who has cited 1 to 4 books on the subject (and never met working physicists) to say "Einstein is the Unsurpassed Physicist!" And I am giving Kirpal Singh the benefit of the doubt in this comparison, since in India there are quite a few shabd yoga gurus who have had bigger followings or who have written more books or who have had a larger impact. Why does this one little episode matter in the larger mosaic of Wilber's work? Because if each patch of Wilber's work is as weak as this one link (shabd yoga), then the whole system is filled with major, not minor, loopholes. Precision and accuracy is what transpersonal psychology needs, not grandiose statements about who's on first or second or third. A little more "unknowingness" and a little less hubris and then maybe a little more progress in the discipline. Next episode: Ken Wilber and "New Age" Science
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