Ken Wilber and spiritual hierarchy

Jules Evans
11 min readJul 9, 2021

One of the things I’m wrestling with at the moment is hierarchy in spirituality, and the idea of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’.

I’m writing a book that looks at evolutionary spirituality, and its tendency to elitism and authoritarianism. Many leading figures in the New Age of the 1880s to 1930s preached the coming of an evolved spiritual elite which, they sometimes added, deserved to dominate and control the rest of humanity.

This is obviously pretty noxious, and led to some bad outcomes, from abusive cults, to totalitarian politics like the Nazi party.

Right now, western society is in a historical moment of trying to address the injustices and oppressions in western society, by exposing patriarchy or white supremacy — including in spirituality.

But there is a risk in this reaction as well. It can end up in a constant pulling down of ideological statues and exposure of the sins of the past, an endless deconstruction and decolonisation of mainstream traditions, and a promotion of the marginalized, oppressed and deviant.

Apart from the loss of aspiration towards any sort of universalism, there’s also the loss of the idea of ‘higher’ in spirituality, or any other human endeavour, because hierarchy can be seen as elitist and authoritarian. The only sort of ‘higher’ allowed is higher in diversity.

What is the right balance between a horizontal emphasis on inclusivity, fairness, equality and diversity, and a vertical aspiration to excellence, progress and spiritual development?

Ken Wilber and the map of spirituality

As I grapple with this, I have been reflecting on the life and work of Ken Wilber. I haven’t written about him before, but he’s a figure that looms large in spirituality, especially in its ‘bookish / nerdy / transpersonal psychology’ wing.

Wilber in his younger days

Ever since he burst onto the scene aged 23 with his first book, Spectrum of Consciousness, Wilber has been one of the principle map-builders within the world of spirituality — appropriately enough, as he is the descendant of Meriwether Lewis, who first mapped the American North-West.

Wilber is an awesome synthesist and theorist, awesome in the sense of ‘inducing awe and a reluctance to approach’, because his books are so damn long. Either you’re indifferent to him, or you’re a complete Wilber nut, you fit everything into a Wilberian map of reality, and you become kind of a bore.

But I think he’s an important figure, if you care about spirituality and the evolution of religion and meaning-making. He deserves our respect, and can tell us some useful stuff.

What does he have to teach us?

Wilber is often at his best as a critic of New Age spirituality. But what’s refreshing is, unlike contemporary critics like the Conspirituality podcast, he doesn’t just criticize — he suggests what he thinks is a better model.

He says New Age spirituality has focused too much on ‘waking up’ — on awakening spiritual experiences — and not enough on ‘cleaning up’ (dealing with one’s psychological problems) and ‘growing up’ (trying to mature into an adult).

Alongside awakening experiences, we need to clean up.

He has pointed out the dark side of spirituality for some years — its tendency to narcissism, spiritual inflation and other ‘shadow’ aspects (shadow in the Jungian sense of unrecognized behaviour patterns that can possess us).

It’s extremely dispiriting when spiritual teachers who have dedicated many decades to meditative practice end up being exposed for behaving like abusive, controlling, infantile dicks.

It has happened so often, and not just in spirituality, but in all the religious traditions as well. Why?

Wilber points out there are multiple dimensions of growth — cognitive, emotional, psycho-sexual, somatic, spiritual. A guru could be quite advanced in terms of spiritual experiences, but a big baby in their emotional or psycho-sexual development.

He notes that, until the end of the 19th century, we had very little understanding of psychotherapy, and so religious traditions had few tools to deal with some of the psychological pathologies that can arise on the spiritual path. They would just double down and say ‘meditate more’.

But if there are aspects of your self that are unrecognized and unowned, then meditation could make it worse, by encouraging you to dissociate from them. You need to own your shit before you can advance spiritually.

Second, we need to grow up.

Wilber’s integral theory incorporates models from developmental psychology and cultural evolution into his system, from thinkers like Piaget and Jean Gebser.

He suggests individuals and societies follow a cultural evolution along stages, as in this map.

Wilberites can get a bit obsessed with this map, and with categorizing every human phenomenon into one of these stages, or one of Wilber’s ‘four quadrants’ (one of their favourite mantras is AQAL — all quadrants, all levels).

Still, the Wilber map offers at least two interesting ideas.

The first is the ‘pre / trans fallacy’. He says New Age spirituality often rejects the tyranny of scientific rationality in the modern era. But instead of trying to integrate and transcend it into a trans-rational model, they revert and regress to pre-rationality, embracing magic, animism, ‘indigenous wisdom’ and potentially dangerous forms of irrationalism and primitivism.

Wilber’s biographer Frank Visser writes:

As far as Wilber could see, an increasing number of people were now under the sway of a romantic and regressive ideology, which regarded spirituality as a return to a state once known that had since been lost — to the carefree world of the child, or the paradisiacal state of primitive man…In Wilber’s view, many of those who advocate a spiritual way of life have completely misinterpreted the real spiritual significance of modern culture and its achievements. Instead they focus purely on the past in the belief that in the past people were more spiritual.

I agree with this. The New Age fetishization of indigenous wisdom and shamanism seems to me hopelessly romantic. There is much to learn from Amazon shamanism. But the future of humanity is not in some ‘archaic revival’.

How dare a white man criticize indigenous wisdom! With all the suffering western white male imperialism has inflicted on the world!

This takes us to the second useful point that emerges from his development map, which is his critique of the green stage of cultural relativism and political correctness.

There are extremely good things about this stage of thinking — its aspiration to fairness, equality and diversity, its desire to give a voice to the oppressed and the marginalized, its criticism of dominator hierarchies like patriarchy and white supremacy.

But Wilber spotted way back in the 1990s that there were limits to green-stage post-modernist thinking.

First, in rejecting all hierarchies, knowledge structures and power structures as oppressive, it can end up with nowhere to go but the ‘authentic self’ with its feelings — whatever feels right and true to ME.

Relativism leads to narcissism and the enthronement of ME and my feelings. There is nothing higher than ME. We become experts in ‘lived experience’, ie experts in ME.

Second, ‘green-stage thinking’ is supposedly anti-elitist, anti-hierarchical and pro-tolerance and diversity. But it is itself elitist (only college-educated people understand it), and aggressively intolerant of other forms of thinking.

It’s not really anti-hierarchical, it’s got its own intersectional hierarchy — female trumps male, black trumps white (and all other ethnicities), queer trumps straight, trans trumps cisgender, neuro-diverse trumps neuro-normative, non-western trumps western and so on.

It criticizes western civilization for its historical abuses — fair enough. But try having power rather than criticizing it from the moral purity of victimhood. See how progressive your anarchist utopia ends up. See how radical liberationist alternatives worked out in Russia or China or Cuba. Power is dirty, I’m afraid. Yes, we should recognize the stains of the west’s historical abuses. But no power is entirely clean.

In the present culture war, Wilber sees a clash between opposing stages — green and orange (Hillary Clinton) versus amber and red (Donald Trump), for example.

Each stage is utterly convinced they are right and the other stages are demonic.

Only the 2% of humanity that are higher-stage integral thinkers see the whole picture. Everyone is right, only partially right. But integral theorists are the most right.

What needs to happen is for the human race to shift along Wilber’s stages of development — to become more rational, first, and then to become transrational, so that at least 10–20% of the human race are integral, as opposed to 2% like now.

The evolution of spirituality

Wilber has an evolutionary model of spirituality, in which individuals and cultures ascend from lower to higher, with each stage integrated and transcended in the stage above.

In this he is similar to previous thinkers like Sri Aurobindo (founder of Integral Yoga), Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley (founders of Integrated Education), and German idealists like Hegel and Schelling.

I don’t think many biologists would accept his theory of evolution.

To me, it’s not an advanced theory but rather a nostalgic view. It looks back to the idea of the ‘Great Chain of Being’, which was central to western thought from Plato until Darwin.

The Great Chain of Being presents a view of reality as a series of steps, which advance from matter to God, with plants, animals, humans and angels in between. Everything has its place, and all is good.

German idealists like Schelling and Hegel gave the Great Chain a historical twist — the perfect plan of God is unfolding in time, the World Soul is slowly manifesting in history.

The revolution of Darwinism was to challenge any concept of teleology in nature, or any idea of progress towards ‘higher’ forms.

There are simply species that are more adapted to circumstances for a while. Nature really doesn’t care if it produces a Shakespeare or a mollusc, according to standard Darwinian theory. Either could be ‘fittest’ for a certain circumstance. ‘Avoid using terms like ‘higher’’, Darwin told himself.

Wilber rejects this anti-teleological aspect of Darwinism and reintroduces the idea of ‘higher’ and ‘more advanced’ into evolution and into culture.

He returns to the 18th-century idea of stadial development — ie the idea that societies evolve through stages like hunter-gatherer, rural, industrial and post-industrial.

He extends this idea to religions, suggesting an advance from archaic shamanism to fundamentalist tribal religions to non-dual, global and integral forms of the perennial philosophy. A similar idea was suggested by thinkers like Aldous Huxley and HG Wells in the 1930s.

Jorge Ferrer, another influential figure in transpersonal psychology, criticizes Wilber’s version of the perennial philosophy from a green-stage perspective — the perennial philosophy is hierarchical, in that it ranks religions as better and worse according to how non-dual they are. How dare Wilber rank religions!

This is true, and Wilber probably wouldn’t deny it. He does rank religions and sees non-dual perspectives as the most advanced. But he also says one could attain an integral non-dual perspective within any religion.

You could criticize Ferrer’s ‘participatory pluralism’ from an integral perspective — it’s a form of cultural relativism, which abandons any idea of an ultimate spiritual reality while still reifying its own liberal social justice values ( I made that point in this Aeon article on the perennial philosophy).

Wrestling with hierarchy

I come back to my wrestling with the problem of hierarchy.

My problem is this — as soon as you make a hierarchy of human development and put yourself at the top of that hierarchy, you open yourself up to elitism, narcissism, spiritual pride and toxic dominator hierarchies.

Wilber tears into green-stage baby-boomers for their narcissism. But what does it do to your disciples if you constantly tell them they are in the top 2–5% of the human population, they are the next stage in evolution, they are ‘superhuman’? Wilber now teaches an online course, which has this pitch:

A small percentage of the human population, around 5%, is now undergoing a “quantum leap” to this emerging stage of evolution. These rare individuals, from every corner of the globe, are now blazing a new evolutionary trail for all of us, and breaking through to new levels of consciousness and capabilities, beyond anything that human beings have ever experienced before.

You can see how this could easily lead to inflation, narcissism and (potentially) toxic dominator hierarchies. It has in the past, repeatedly.

Wilber insists that his hierarchy is more inclusive than previous hierarchies, because integral theory recognize earlier, lower stages as necessary in human development.

Sure…but they’re still lower. They’re still primitive and stupid compared to the Olympian ‘second-tier thinkers’ of integral theory.

Mark Manson wrote a wonderful account of his disillusionment with Wilber, which starts when he signs up to attend a weekend at the Integral Institute, and finds it’s just a self-regarding talking shop:

We’re “second-tier” thinkers. We’re going to change the world… as soon as we’re done talking about how awesome and “second-tier” we are.

It’s tricky. One follows a particular religious, philosophical or spiritual path, which one thinks is better than other paths (otherwise why would you follow it). You try to become more advanced along that path. You try to find teachers who can help you be more advanced along that path.

All of this requires some notion of hierarchy, of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’, ‘better’ and ‘worse’. How does one stop this leading to elitism, narcissism, spiritual inflation and contempt for alternative paths? How do you balance an aspiration to excellence with a commitment to fairness, diversity etc?

I think you recognize, firstly, that your teacher is advanced in one particular skill (like meditation or yoga) but that doesn’t mean they are advanced in all dimensions. Don’t expect them to be perfect. Don’t hand over your autonomy.

Second, recognize that your grand sense-making map of the universe is not GoogleMaps, let alone a cosmic map. It’s a few streets sketched on the back of a napkin.

The Mystery is endless and bottomless, you can never comprehend it or capture it in a quadrant.

Build a palace for it, and it appears in a manger.

Any theory misses something out, and probably puts some people and cultures down unfairly —thereby missing an important aspect of the Divine. In that sense, diversity helps us get closer to God.

But Diversity is not God itself. It’s an aspect of God, but God is beyond qualities.

God is not Integral either. God is beyond all theories. There is a risk of making a God of integral theory (or any other religion or philosophy).

Aquinas: ‘All that I have written seems like so much straw’

I think of Thomas Aquinas, another great mapper and synthesizer of religion, who at the end of his life had a spiritual experience, and decided his entire intellectual system was ‘so much straw’.

Maps are extremely useful — and Wilber has done us an incredible service in the map he has built.

But he himself reminds us that the map is not the territory, and you have to balance theory with practice. Part of that practice must be love and service to others.

Narcissism is one of, if not the, great enemy on the spiritual path. We must do everything we can to protect ourselves against it.

Above all, we can remind myself that, in the words of St Paul, you may be ‘tier-two’ in all quadrants, but if you have not love, then you’re just a PowerPoint.

I should mention Hanzi Frenacht’s writing on spiritual hierarchies as well — I’m not 100% convinced by their solution, which seems to suffer from the same risk of elitism and inflation as Wilber’s solution, but they’re certainly grappling with the same problem, as in this piece.

Also, there is a lot I haven’t mentioned in this piece, about Wilber’s support for dodgy gurus like Marc Gafni and Adi Da, or his own tendency to authoritarian guru behaviour — but more on that can be found on Frank Visser’s website.