On Ken Wilber’s Integral Institute: An Experiential Analysis
Elliot Benjamin, Ph.D.
This article addresses concerns regarding possible cultic dangers of philosopher Ken Wilber and his Integral Institute. These concerns have been prompted by Wilber’s increasingly harsh comments toward scholars who disagree with his philosophical theories and opinions. To evaluate these concerns, the author utilizes three cult danger scales, with a dominant focus upon Isaac Bonewits’ Cult Danger Evaluation Frame, and the author’s personal experiences with Wilber and as a member and published author of Integral Institute. The author concludes that the cult danger concerns regarding Integral Institute are relatively mild in comparison to other groups that the author has studied.
Because my tri-perspective analysis is based primarily upon my own experiences, a crucial component in applying this analysis to the Integral Institute is my private encounter with Ken Wilber in his Denver apartment in November 2003. Having read a number of his books and having felt tremendous impact and inspiration from his writings (cf. endnote 6), I decided to fly out to Denver to meet personally with Wilber. My interests in applying my pure mathematics knowledge to his Integral Theory of shifts in levels of consciousness (cf. endnote 7) gained me this invitation. I spent 5 or 6 hours with Wilber in his apartment, including 2 hours of private conversation. I was amazed by his openness, friendliness, and graciousness, the intellectual stimulation of our discussion, and the respect he showed me, especially since at that time I had not published any of my writings on spirituality and cults or for that matter anything aside from mathematics or mathematics education. I left my visit with Wilber feeling both privileged and “high,” determined to develop myself as a philosopher in my own right, get my philosophical articles on spirituality and cults published, and become involved with the Integral Institute.
The main purpose of the Integral Institute is to engage people in incorporating the “four quadrants” of individual/subjective, individual/objective, inter-subjective (cultural), and inter-objective (social) components in all academic endeavors, including psychology, sociology, religion, politics, education, medicine, law, philosophy, anthropology, and so on (cf. endnote 8). At that time there was also a strong interplay between Integral Theory and Spiral Dynamics Theory (cf. endnote 9) to describe the levels of consciousness of both the individual and society, and an emphasis upon people becoming “second tier” thinkers, which essentially means to be able to take the viewpoints of all different levels of consciousness. Although recently Wilber has become much more detached from Spiral Dynamics as a comprehensive descriptive Integral Theory model (see Integral Spirituality, endnote 8), at the time I met him I was deeply aware of an Us. vs. Them dichotomy regarding the “highest” levels of consciousness of the truly Integral thinkers. However, I must admit that I was so taken with all the Ken Wilber books I had read and with my meeting with Wilber that I did not pay much conscious attention to this preliminary note of personal warning.
Soon after I met with Wilber, I visited with one of the higher-ups in the Integral Institute in New Jersey and became even more “high” because this person was extremely complimentary of my ideas and self-published books. This person led me to believe there was a place for me in the upper echelons of the Integral Institute. My “Group Theory/ Consciousness” article was accepted for Allan Combs’ Integral Consciousness domain on the Integral Institute Website (cf. endnote 7), and after a while I worked through the complications and challenges to have my “Integral Mathematics” article accepted for publication in the Integral Institute’s prestigious Internet journal, AQAL: Journal of Integral Theory and Practice (cf. endnote 10). (AQUAL stands for All Quadrants All Levels, the crux of Integral Theory.) This process included a long phone/editing conversation with Ken Wilber and his close associates. Ken even made arrangements to send me his Integral Spirituality manuscript (cf. endnote 8) before it was officially published. Needless to say, I was quite honored.
However, while all this excitement, upward mobility, and the potential for me to progress within the Integral Institute was happening, some simultaneous contradictory events were going on that had begun to trouble me. For one, Wilber’s seminars, which began in 2004, were extremely expensive, even surpassing the costs of the Avatar workshop, about which I had previously written my serious concerns regarding its cultish characteristics (cf. endnotes 5, 11). I had in fact initially agreed to attend Wilbur’s seminar in Colorado but had changed my mind after I took stock of my finances and discussed the matter with an old friend who had participated with me in an evening event in New York City to discuss the work of both Ken Wilber and controversial guru Andrew Cohen (cf. endnote 12). But even more troubling to me than the cost of his seminars was my knowledge that Wilber had had some kind of disciple relationship with a far more controversial guru. I am speaking of Adi Da, originally known as Free John, amongst other names (cf. endnotes 13, 14). I had no doubt Adi Da was extremely dangerous to his followers, and in our private meeting in Denver I had broached the issue of Wilber’s involvement with Adi Da. Wilber had explained that his involvement with Adi Da was minimal, and that he broke away when Adi Da became more bizarre and suspicious (cf. endnote 14). However, from both my meeting with Wilber and his writings in the book Spiritual Choices (cf. endnote 15) (which he personally recommended that I read), and from his exuberant previous praise of Adi Da (cf. endnotes 13, 14), I did not think he had a real understanding of the cult dangers of certain new-age spiritual organizations, especially Scientology.
Still, all these were relatively minor incidents to me until I attended the 2004 ICSA (International Cultic Studies Association) (cf. endnote 16) conference in Edmonton, Canada. At various times during this conference, I found myself talking openly about the wonderful spiritual development possible in the Integral Institute, without any cult dangers, but some of the responses I got from other people were less than enthusiastic and in fact rather disconcerting. In addition, as I found myself raving about Ken Wilber to my personal friends and acquaintances, I could see that people were taking me with a grain of salt, looking at me as if I were following a “guru.” I was gradually becoming aware that both Ken Wilber and the Integral Institute held strong viewpoints that I did not completely agree with, including Wilber’s openness to gurus; his appreciation of diverse and contradictory political stances; his condescending attack on the new-age sensitivity people, which he rather viscously referred to as the “Mean Green Meme” (cf. endnote 17); and the extremely complicated and abstruse development of his four quadrants. As outlined in the Integral Spirituality manuscript that I had been privileged to read (cf. endnote 8), the four quadrants are subdivided into eight “zones,” in which each quadrant has an inner and outer “perspective.” Wilber also included more of his Integral Mathematics symbolism in this manuscript (cf. endnote 8). Although I managed to incorporate enough of this symbolism in my “Integral Mathematics” article (cf. endnote 10) to satisfy Wilber and his AQAL journal editors, I knew that my heart was not really in it. His new theories seemed too abstract and contorted to me to be effectively applied in practical situations.
But I was not yet ready to get off the Integral bandwagon. Allan Combs, in his own right a prominent author on consciousness (cf. endnote 18), a close colleague of Wilber, and one of the leaders in the Integral Institute, had submitted my article “Art and Mental Disturbance” (cf. endnote 19) to the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, where it subsequently has been accepted for publication. Although Combs’ Integral Consciousness domain on the Integral Institute Website had not materialized, and I was doubting that my “Group Theory/ Consciousness” article was ever going to appear on the Integral Institute Website, I considered my positive association with Allan Combs to be an indication that Ken Wilber and the Integral Institute were still safe and legitimate for me. However, as my direct contacts with the higher-ups at the Integral Institute became more brief and increasingly less frequent, my disillusionment began to increase. Approximately one year ago I was contacted by someone who had read my “Spirituality & Cults Experiential Analysis” article on the Integral Science Website (separate from the Integral Institute; cf. endnote 20). This person conveyed to me the serious concerns many other people were having about the cult dangers of Ken Wilber and the Integral Institute, and suggested that I apply my experiential analysis to the Integral Institute. I was not ready to do so at the time. But this same person contacted me again a year later indicating the concerns were continuing to escalate (cf. endnote 1); with this communication and two recent experiences of my own, the timing was right for me to proceed with the analysis.
Having read Wilber’s Integral Spirituality manuscript, I decided to attempt to assimilate his current ideas about his eight zones and perspectives into my “Spirituality and Cults” article. My intention was that the article would progress from the Integral Institute-approved designation of being “Integrally Informed” to official acceptance in the AQAL journal because my “Integral Mathematics” article had successfully gone this route. I must admit that one intention for my current effort was the prospect of having another phone conversation with Ken Wilber, which would be the last step of the editing process to have an article accepted in AQAL. I knew deep down that what I was trying to do was rather staged and artificial because I did not truly believe in or appreciate the usefulness of Wilber’s new ideas that I was trying to incorporate into my article. Sure enough, my article was not received well by the AQAL journal editor. I was invited to rework the article for the purpose of making it “Integrally Informed” because it was far removed from AQAL standards. Of course I was not enthused at this invitation, and my response was lukewarm. I left further revisions as a vague possibility in the distant future. This experience reminded me of the dictionary of Integral Institute terms that the AQAL journal editor had sent to me six months ago to prepare me for my phone conversation with Wilber about my “Integral Mathematics” article. I remembered how, when I did talk to Wilber, he had not been too happy about my less than thorough understanding of the distinction between “quadrant” and “quadrivium” (cf. endnote 8). Yes—I felt somewhat like I was “in school,” trying to learn the “right way” as an apprentice of the great philosopher. In my deepest self, I knew that this apprenticeship was no longer right for me; the Integral philosophy was not what I meant by the description I gave to my own philosophy of life: Natural Dimension.
But the final break for me has occurred this past week because I returned to Denver, not to meet again with Wilber (my request to do so was not taken seriously by the higher-ups in the organization), but to lead a panel workshop entitled “Coming Back to Religion and Spirituality after Spiritual Abuse” at the 2006 ICSA conference. I took the leap and finally decided to enter the public arena, promoting my Modern Religions book and talking openly about Scientology. In the same breath, I found myself quite naturally talking about my recent involvement with Ken Wilber and the Integral Institute. Yes—I was starting to think about the possibility of cult dangers in the organization.
This brings me finally to my tri-perspective experiential analysis of Integral Institute. I won’t go through the details of all three scales I have used, although the interested reader can find this information in my related article and book (cf. endnote 5). Instead, I will give a brief generic description of the first two scales. The first scale is the Anthony Typology (cf. endnote 15), which includes three categories: multilevel/unilevel, technical/charismatic, and monistic/dualistic. Multilevel refers to authentic spiritual experience; unilevel refers to more mundane psychological or material gain. Technical refers to processes or techniques; charismatic refers to the mystique and charisma of a guru figure. Monistic refers to nonjudgmental spiritual openness to all people; dualistic refers to a spiritual selection process often accompanied by a social Us vs. Them elitist dichotomy. Suffice it to say that although the Anthony Typology has been helpful to me in understanding the cult dangers (or beneficial qualities) of a number of what I have referred to as new-age spiritual organizations (cf. endnote 5), this classification system has not been tremendously helpful to my evaluation of the Integral Institute. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what categories in the Anthony Typology in which to place the Integral Institute. Ken Wilber’s writings are enormously complex and brilliant, full of ideas as well as recommended techniques and practices. But there is also the tremendously high-impact and forceful presence and mystique of Ken Wilber himself, in his full 6-foot, 6-inch, bald, rather intimidating, and grand stature. Integral Institute is certainly open to all people who are interested, but the “right” way most definitely exists for being fully integral, second tier (or third tier), highest level of consciousness, and so on. Perhaps the most I can say with confidence in terms of the Anthony Typology is that the Integral Institute is in the Multilevel category, in that it represents an organization that offers an authentic potential for spiritual experience.
In regard to the second scale, which I referred to as the Wilber Integral Model (cf. endnote 5), I would place the Integral Institute on the scale between the rational and trans-rational segments of the continuum, which I have described as a continuum from pre-rational to pseudo-rational to rational to trans-rational, along the lines of Wilber’s previous writings (cf. endnotes 5, 6, 8). However, using this model, one can start to see some alarms in terms of the Integral Institute because it has little historical continuity with religious traditions, and Wilber’s emphasis is upon a modern assimilation of all spiritual and religious viewpoints. In addition, Ken Wilber most definitely runs the Integral Institute in what I consider to be a benevolent authoritarian manner, somewhat similar to the way in which Neale Donald Walsch runs his Conversations with God organization (cf. endnotes 5, 20, 21). I do not see any phasing out of Wilber’s leadership during his lifetime. Thus, the lack of both historical continuity and phasing out of leadership are red flags to me for the Integral Institute in the context of Ken Wilber’s own Integral model.
But last and most critically, what I generally place the most importance on is the 15-item scale I have used and refer to as the Bonewits Cult Danger Scale (cf. endnotes 5, 20, 22). I use the following 15 items, averaging the ratings on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 indicating the highest correlation.
Internal Control: amount of internal political power exercised by leader(s) over members.
Wisdom Claimed: by leader(s); amount of infallibility declared about decisions.
Wisdom Credited: to leader(s) by members; amount of trust in the decisions made by leader(s).
Dogma: rigidity of reality concepts taught, of amount of doctrinal inflexibility.
Recruiting: emphasis put on attracting new members; amount of proselytizing.
Front Groups: number of subsidiary groups that use a different name from that of the main group.
Wealth: amount of money and/or property desired or obtained; emphasis on members’ donations.
Political Power: amount of external political influence desired or obtained.
Sexual Manipulation: of members by leaders(s); amount of control over the lives of members.
Censorship: amount of control over members’ access to outside opinion of group, its doctrines, or its leader(s).
Dropout Control: intensity of efforts directed at preventing or returning dropouts.
Endorsement of Violence: when used by or for the group or leader(s).
Paranoia: amount of fear concerning real or imagined enemies; perceived power of opponents.
Grimness: amount of disapproval concerning jokes about the group, its doctrines, or its leader(s).
Surrender of Will: emphasis on members not having to be responsible for personal decisions.
The number assigned to the above items is based primarily upon my own experience with Ken Wilber and the Integral Institute over the past two and one-half years:
Internal Control: 4
Wisdom Claimed: 9
Wisdom Credited: 6
Front Groups: 1
Political Power: 5
Sexual Manipulation: 1
Dropout Control: 1
Endorsement of Violence: 1
Surrender of Will: 1
Average Score: 3.9 (rounded to one decimal place)
This average score of 3.9 is comparable to the average scores of five new-age spiritual organizations that I have placed in Neutral territory, between Mild Cult Danger and Favorable Spiritual Benefits (cf. endnote 5). Specifically, these average scores on the Bonewits Cult Danger Scale are as follows:
A Course in Miracles: 3.5
Conversations with God: 3.7
Self-Realization Fellowship: 3.7
Tikkun (new-age, primarily Jewish organization): 3.8
Based upon some of my higher ratings in the Bonewits Cult Danger Scale, my ambiguous ratings in the Anthony Typology, and some of my red flags in the Wilber Integral Model, I would say that patterns definitely exist in the Integral Institute to be cautious and observant about, not the least of which is Ken Wilber’s strong ego and harsh criticisms of many of those who disagree with him. However, similar to conclusions I have reached regarding both the Conversations with God and Reiki groups (cf. endnote 5), I will give both Ken Wilber and the Integral Institute the benefit of the doubt and place this organization in Neutral territory regarding cult dangers vs. beneficial spiritual characteristics. From my own experience, the new-age spiritual organizations that I have described as having Mild cult dangers are est, Eckankar, Gurdjieff, and twelve-step support groups (cf. endnote 5). I feel confident that Ken Wilber and the Integral Institute do not belong in this category, and certainly not in the Moderate cult-danger classification in which I have placed Avatar and the Divine Light Mission, or in the High cult-danger classification in which I have placed Scientology and the Unification Church (cf. endnote 5). However, I most definitely do not think that the Integral Institute belongs in the Favorable category, in which I placed my experiences with Neopaganism or the new-age spiritual workshops in which I have participated at the Omega Retreat Center or the Kripalu Yoga Center (cf. endnote 5).
In conclusion, for those people concerned about cult dangers related to Ken Wilber and the Integral Institute, I offer the following: Although I have made some critical statements about both Ken Wilber and the Integral Institute, at this point I do not see anything serious enough to be very alarmed about. As far as I can determine from my present knowledge, if you do not like what you see at the Integral Institute, then you can disengage without repercussions. Big egos, strong ideas, and harsh criticism of opponents are not necessarily the same as significant cult dangers; and if I ever have anything to add to this appraisal in the future, I will not hesitate to do so.
Notes and References
1) See www.integralworld.net
2) See www.integralinstitute.org and www.kenwilber.com
3) See Ken Wilber’s books Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (Boston: Shambhala, 1995) and Boomeritis (Boston: Shambhala, 2003).
4) See Donald Rothberg and Sean Kelly (editors), Ken Wilber in Dialogue (Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Books, 1998).
5) See Elliot Benjamin, Modern Religions: An Experiential Analysis and Exposé (Swanville, Maine: Natural Dimension Publications, 2005), available by contacting the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. My tri-perspective analysis is also available online as a long article; see Elliot Benjamin, “Spirituality and the Cults: An Experiential Analysis,” in The Ground of Faith Journal, 2005. (email@example.com).
6) See Elliot Benjamin, “On the Philosophy of Ken Wilber” in Inner Tapestry Journal, Vol. 4, No. 2, 2005 (www.innertapestry.org).
7) See Elliot Benjamin, “A Mathematical Group Theoretical Model of Shifts into Higher Levels of Consciousness in Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory” (www.integralscience.org, 2004).
8) See Ken Wilber, A Theory of Everything (Boston: Shambhala, 2001). More recently, Wilber has extended his four quadrants to eight “zones”; see Ken Wilber, Integral Spirituality (Boston: Shambhala, 2006).
9) See Don Beck and Chris Cowan, Spiral Dynamics: Managing Values, Leadership, and Change (London: Blackwell, 1996).
10) See Elliot Benjamin, “Integral Mathematics” (www.integralworld.net, 2006 and AQAL: Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, www.integralinstitute.org, volume 4, 2007).
11) See Elliot Benjamin, “On Avatar,” in ICSA E-Newsletter, 2005 (http://cultinfobooks.com).
12) See Andrew Cohen, Living Enlightenment (Lenox, MA: Moksha Press, 2002).
13) See Adi Da’s books The Dawn Horse Testament (San Rafael, CA: The Dawn Horse Press, 1985) and Scientific Proof of the Existence of God Will Soon Be Announced by the White House! (Middleton, CA: The Dawn Horse Press, 1980). Note that this last book includes an extremely favorable forward by Ken Wilber.
14) See Geoffrey Falk, “Stripping the Gurus” (www.angelin.com/trek/geoffreyfalk/blog/blog.html, 2005), for a particularly scathing exposé on both Adi Da and Ken Wilber, in addition to many other gurus and spiritual leaders.
15) See Dick Anthony, Bruce Ecker, Ken Wilber (editors), Spiritual Choices (New York: Paragon House, 1987).
16) Note that the ICSA was originally the AFF (American Family Foundation), having changed its name to the ICSA (International Cultic Studies Association) in March, 2005.
17) See Ken Wilber’s books Boomeritis and A Theory of Everything (book information in endnotes 3 and 8).
18) See Alan Combs, The Radiance of Being (New York: Omega Book, 1995).
19) See Elliot Benjamin, “Art and Mental Disturbance” (Journal of Conscious Evolution, www.cejournal.org, 2006, and Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 2008). A shortened version of this article is “The Artistic Theory of Psychology” in Inner Tapestry Journal, 2006 (www.innertapestry.org).
20) See Elliot Benjamin, “Spirituality and Cults: An Integrally Informed Analysis” (www.integralscience.org, 2005).
21) See Elliot Benjamin, “On Conversations With God” in ICSA E-Newsletter, 2004.
22) See the Cult Danger Evaluation Frame rating scale in Isaac Bonewits, Real Magic (York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weisner, 1971).
This article is a somewhat revised version of an article published at http://www.integralworld.net/benjamin.html to whom we are grateful for reprint permission.