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One Taste: Daily Reflections on Integral Spirituality by Ken Wilber

One Taste: Daily Reflections on Integral Spirituality by Ken Wilber.  Shambhala 2000.  356 pages.

I have so much to say about this book–and Ken Wilber–I put off doing this review for as long as possible.  I decided in the end there was in fact too much to say, and so I will do the book review proper, and then in my “Whatever…” section will publish a separate, more in depth essay, addressing some of my deeper concerns about what KW has to say in this book.  So…on with the review.

Anyone familiar with recent literature on the spiritual life will have heard of Ken Wilber.  The so-called “Einstein of consciousness” (the title ascribed to him, quite self-servingly, by his then literary agent), is one of the few people in his field who can actually make a living on book sales alone.  With some two dozen tomes to his name–the first written at the tender age of twenty-four (and still in print)–he is pretty much the name in consciousness studies, maps of reality, and anything having to do with the so-called Perennial Philosophy.  One Taste is his only book organized in a day-to-day, journal format.

Wilber says in the intro that “as someone who has written extensively about the interior life, it seemed appropriate…to share mine” (p. vii).  But he goes on to say that the book’s contents will be “a philosophical more than personal journal…”  The text pretty much lives up to Wilber’s billing: it’s a mix of personal and philosophical reflections, perhaps one third the former and two-thirds the latter, organized by the passing months and days. The year covered is 1997, from January 2, until New Year’s day of ’98.   And, as you would expect from a Ken Wilber book, it is nothing if not stimulating.

Wilber’s essential thesis, not only for this book but characterizing his work in general, is found in a summary given on pages 14ff, originally written by Jack Crittenden in a forward to Wilber’s The Eye of Spirit.  Crittenden notes Wilber’s attempt to discover “orienting generalizations”–truths that can be agreed upon as fundamental by multiple worldviews–and which Wilber then uses to build into a unified system, the goal being to incorporate as many of these “truths” as possible.  The purpose of this system, this “integral vision” as KW would call it, is to describe the full spectrum of human spiritual and material consciousness.

It is a massively ambitious and bold undertaking, and for the newbie to Wilber’s world, One Taste represents an excellent starting point.  Following are a few of the subjects KW tackles, to varying depths, during the course of the book:

  • Christopher Isherwood’s role in introducing Eastern religion to Westerners;
  • the journey to publication of his book The Marriage of Sense and Soul (1999);
  • translative vs. transformational spirituality;
  • the Great Chain of Being;
  • feedback on his book Grace and Grit (1991);
  • discussions on One Taste, enlightenment, cosmic consciousness, etc;
  • the pre/trans fallacy;
  • his four quadrant “theory of everything”;
  • the cultural and developmental rise of consciousness, from sensory motor to mystical “nondual”;
  • UFO abductions and astrology;
  • sex and spirituality;
  • the kitchen sink.

In other words, quite a lot!

You have to remember though that this is in no way an attempt at a systematic discussion of any of these subjects; Wilber might go on for five pages on a single topic, then veer off on something totally unrelated.  Still, he almost always gives you enough to chew on so there’s really no excuse for any reader to go away feeling unsatisfied (meaning unstimulated), though this is not to say anyone is going to agree with everything he says.

Nor is it to say that KW, for all his prolificness, is always the best of writers.  At times I was tempted to choke or laugh outloud at his linguistic excesses.  Consider the following:

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 [Wilber loves this word] 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… (p. 35)

Like it?  Want more?

Even the smallest glimmer of One Taste and you will never be the same.  You will inhale galaxies with every breath and sleep as the stars all night.  Suns and moons nd glorious novas will rush and rumble through your veins, your heart will pulse and beat in time with the entire loving universe.  And you will never move at all in this radiant display of your very own Self, for you will long ago have disappeared into the fullness of the night.

Friday, December 12

Tomorrow Marci gives her thesis presentation and defense.  Then there is a big celebration for the graduates.  This is the start of the party season (p. 320).

Indeed.

Wilber’s at times bombastic, magniloquent, ostentatious, aureate flights of rhetoric–for they are that, and full of ideological certainty–are (I suspect) symptomatic of an underlying narcissism, a narcisissism most painfully displayed in a letter to his  friend, Huston Smith (pp. 22ff).  This passage made me cringe.  Here the great theorist was, writing a letter to a cancer-afflicted friend, and yet somehow the letter became more about KW than about his friend.  Embarrassing!

What I’m trying to get at here is at the heart of the problem I have with Ken Wilber.  It’s not that I don’t applaud his endeavor–his project is worth every minute he’s poured into it–but ultimately a thought system can only be as good as its thinker.  And when you are trying to describe the summum bonum of the spiritual quest, Enlightenment–well, you better be a pretty damn good thinker.  You better know the terrain pretty well, and know it by experience.  Wilber seems to think he does–he goes on at length about his meditation experiences, and yet there is no sense of how these have changed him as a human being.  How have they made him better?  His humanity is strangely absent from the book’s pages; ideas abound, but what about the man himself?  We don’t get much that isn’t self-advertising, even self-congratulatory.

There is also a criticism I have as regards his understanding of Buddhism, which is very definitely prejudiced in favor of the Mahayana and Vajrayana, and against the Theravada.  But I do not get the sense he is acquainted with, much less understands, the Pali Suttas.  He talks about the historical Buddha, but in Wilber’s scheme the Theravadan teachings (the closest we can get to the Master himself) are identified with “formless mysticism,” or the “causal” as KW refers to it.  He even equates nirvana with nirvikalpa samadhi, a totally unjustifiable assessment, and a clear example of distorting the data to fit your theory–the classic fallacy of the pundit who has overreached himself.  This is an issue I wish to take up in greater detail, but a book review is not the place for it.

In the end, I can only say that Ken Wilber–and One Taste–is an exuberant, even over-abundant offering of ideas.  He/it is certainly worth the time and the frustration, the ah-hah moments and the gnashing of teeth.  You will get your money’s worth here, and certainly more.  As a final note, I highly recommend Scott London’s review of One Taste, published in the pages of Parabola in 2000.  You can read it here.  Mr. London has picked up on some of the same issues I have.

My Amazon rating: 4 stars

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