For many years I have felt a tension within my body. I have begun this blog in an attempt to honor the wisdom of that tension by inquiring deeply into the seeming paradox at its root. I find within my person a commitment to the maturation of indigenous ways of knowing right alongside the equally important commitment to a speculative philosophy that honors the assertion of an evolution of consciousness. My first introduction to such a speculative endeavor was through the neo-perennialism of Ken Wilber. While enlightening in a variety of important ways, Wilber’s system quickly lead to the tension mentioned above. Rather than sitting zazen or practicing Dzogchen, I found myself learning how to cultivate relationships with elemental spirits and ancestors. Within Wilber’s model these indigenous ways of knowing were relegated to a lower rung of his evolutionary theory than I felt comfortable with. This dissertation is an attempt to honor both my speculative philosophical proclivities and the ongoing recognition of my own indigenous ways of knowing. To this end I have turned to the work of Jorge Ferrer (2002), whose first book was entitled, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality. I will return in a moment to Ferrer’s “revisioning” and his emphasis on participation, but first I would like to look at the beginnings of the transpersonal movement.
As early as 1905-6 William James used the word “transpersonal” (Vich 1988) in a lecture given to a class at Harvard. The first issue of the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology was published in 1969, and the Association of Transpersonal Psychology (ATP) was founded in 1972. There are many important figures, like Stanislav Grof and Abraham Maslow, that played key roles within the early days of transpersonal studies, but this is not the place to give an exhaustive account of this movement. There are a handful of essays and texts that I have found helpful in coming to understand the development of this field (Caplan et al. 2007; Grof 2008; Kasprow 1999; Khalsa 2008; Ruzek 2004; Scotton 1996; Walsh 1993; Vich 1990), but for this project I am particularly interested in the works of Wilber. His writings first drew me to this field, as well as to the California Institute of Integral Studies.
Wilber’s first book, The Spectrum of Consciousness, was published in 1977, and hailed as one of the most comprehensive studies on consciousness since the work of William James by the then president of the ATP, James Fadiman (Visser 2003). Wilber proceeded to publish a series of books and articles over the next two decades within the field. In the early 1990’s Wilber (1991) is referenced in his own book as the leading theorist in the burgeoning field of transpersonal studies. Two years later Wilber (1993) writes about the integrative possibilities of transpersonal psychology and its “transpersonal vision,” while in 1995 Wilber places what he terms an “integral psychology” within the larger field of transpersonal psychology. But in 1999 Wilber declared the transpersonal movement dead, seeking to replace it with his own integral psychology. Reference is made to the letter he sent to the European Transpersonal Association (Eurotas) to this effect in this association’s March 2000 and April 2001 newsletters. A full account of Wilber’s integral turn can be found on his Shambhala hosted website, where Wilber suggests that he had stopped using the term “transpersonal psychologist” to refer to himself as early as 1983.
Sean Kelly and Donald Rothberg’s edited volume, Ken Wilber in Dialogue: Conversations with Leading Transpersonal Thinkers, was published in 1998. This collection of essays was taken from earlier issues of the journal ReVision in which attempts had been made to create a dialogue between Wilber and some of his critics. One critique of Wilber’s work was that he had aligned his work with a kind of naïve neo-perennialism. Ferrer (2000) published a critique of perennialism in The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, and then applied the critique to Wilber’s work in 2002 as his first book was published. Wilber (2002) rather brusquely dismissed Ferrer’s in an article entitled “Participatory Samsara: The Green-meme Approach to the Mystery of the Divine.” Being associated with the green-meme is not a good thing within the context of Wilber’s framework. He consistently uses this terminology in as strong a language as possible to indicate extreme forms of contextualism and vulgar relativism. Wilber finds such views dangerous and ultimately damaging to his “integral” project. He places Ferrer’s work squarely within this “mean green-meme.”
I would eventually come to understand Ferrer’s critique of Wilber’s work as a form of neo-perennialism, and to see through Wilber’s green-meme caricature of Ferrer’s work. This process was mediated through my meetings with another person important to the transpersonal movement, a man named Michael Harner. In 2003 I met Harner in a rather synchronistic fashion, not long after I had been handed one of Wilber’s books (2001) by a regular customer of mine in the bar where I worked. I did not go looking for it, but within the year I would be firmly on my path towards what I will call within these pages an indigenous way of knowing.
In The Way of the Shaman, Harner (1990) characterizes the industrial psyche as being both ethnocentric and cognicentric. My own life experience before meeting Harner led me to question my own sanity, much in the way Stanislav Grof (2000) suggests would happen to a person of my particular spiritual proclivities in a Western psychological context. In contrast, my mentorship with Harner led me to understand these experiences in a very different light than the pervasive Western model that tended to label these same experiences as pointing to psychosis.
In an essay on the history of the transpersonal movement Grof (2008) takes up Harner’s categories, and suggests several reasons why transpersonal psychology is relevant for cross-cultural studies. In his assessment of Western psychology and materialistic science, Grof asserts that the ethno-cognicentrism of these ways of knowing marginalizes normative states of consciousness encouraged in other cultural milieus. He posits that transpersonal psychology, among other nascent fields, is especially well suited to taking seriously and honoring the normative states of consciousness from other cultures, which Western psychology has labeled “altered.”
Both Wilber and Ferrer make note of this disenchanted tendency in contemporary Western thought, and make attempts to accommodate an understanding that does not fall into what Wilber terms the flatland of modernity. Wilber (2000) emphasizes an evolution of consciousness to answer the issue of the disenchantment of modern life, placing the disenchanted nature of much of contemporary academia within his orange-rational meme. Ferrer looks to pragmatism and the critical postmodern pluralism of contemporary academia to attempt to honor such diverse ways of knowing as Wilber’s (1999) “One Taste” and Harner’s “way of the shaman.” Using his evolutionary theory Wilber claims to have found a way out of the reductionistic tendencies both Grof and Harner are critical of, but in doing so he has also placed the work of Grof and Harner on a lower rung of the evolutionary spiral than say various Advaita Vedanta or Buddhist traditions. This is obviously problematic if, like myself, you find yourself wanting to honor an evolutionary theory while also honoring various indigenous elders who are teaching you to interact with these supposedly less evolved states of consciousness.
Here we find the source of the original tension in my body. I continued my work with Harner, and have stayed true to this path that has found me, one of uncovering my own indigenous ways of knowing. All the while I am deeply moved by an evolutionary theory of consciousness that is clearly distinct, but not wholly unlike Wilber’s own evolutionary theories. By way of walking between indigenous and evolutionary epistemologies I have turned to Ferrer’s participatory turn as a way of honoring the impulse to involve multiple ways of knowing within one person and without marginalizing one for the sake of another. In these pages I will attempt to flesh out Ferrer’s participatory turn in such a way that it can accommodate my own evolutionary impulse, without marginalizing my indigenous voice in the way that Wilber’s work has done. This is the middle way I intend to nurture, a path of metaphysical practice and speculative philosophy beholden to the critical value of pluralism, in the service of communication across seemingly disparate worldviews and epistemologies.
[iii] It must be noted that I do not mean to conflate Harner’s work with indigenous ways of knowing. Technically his work might be called a form of neo-shamanism, and might also be considered a form of perennialism, somewhat different from the one espoused by Wilber.