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Ken Wilber and death denial

Mr Ebert is right to point out the death denial driving Wilber’s project. You can even see it in tragic form in the book he wrote about his wife dying of Cancer. In that book, he goes out of his way to deny any kind of emotional bond transcending death, dismissing it as superstition. The whole book is about him and his wife struggling between fighting the cancer and accepting her meaningless death.  He cannot fathom any meaningful soulful context to her disease and death, so, as Ebert points out is characteristic of our culture, his only option is denial because no one can accept meaninglessness.  Something Mr. Ebert passes over quickly is this difference between death denial and death transcendence—something crucial to Wilber’s confusion and the confusion of so many people these days.  Previous societies, whether they focused on this life or the next, had a way of framing life as meaningful. Whether their beliefs transcended or accepted death, life had meaning beyond just living for its own sake.  Wilber’s Buddhism, shorne as it is of any supernatural or religious aspects, leaves life with no meaning other than a process of transcending all that context and content of culture, a process that leads not into an afterlife or soul life, but into nothingness.  And so he oscillates between the two truths of Shankara that Aurobindo deconstructed with his Integral philosophy in the Life Divine. 

There is no soul in Wilber’s model, no third term, nothing to bridge the gap but another iteration of the dialectic impasse on level after level. The soul is just another level in the hierarchy for him. This allows his nihilistic Buddhist model to seem to integrate the soul, so central to Christian and Western esoteric models.  But for the West and for Aurobindo, the soul is not just a level of consciousness but a real and lasting individual.  For Wilber, the soul is a deeper ego structure, an illusion to be transcended. And so he is haunted by the death anxiety, that, rather than driving him into transcendence, (which for us in the West demands a soulful spirituality), instead launches him into his own ironic atman project, a scientistic attempt at capturing the spirit with abstraction.

On a related note, he likes to differentiate between superstitious religion and mystical (read scientific) religion, which is why he has similar structures in the lower and higher levels of the system. He is very proud of this distinction, calling out Jung and others for committing the pre/trans fallacy. For Wilber, the early magic and mythic structures are superstitious, yet they are created by great sages at the authentic “trans” levels and transcribed into the lower structures for ordinary people at whatever stage of culture they are at. Like so many aspects of his theory he misses the whole point because he doesn’t get the context.  Unlike Gebser, he assumes only his heroic sages are authentic and everyone else is dumb literalists.  But belief only becomes inauthentic when that context is lost, as it often is in our era.  To the authentic magical man, the context is there and the meaning real.  Wilber can only find meaning in the abstract, but he knows deep down this is another kind of inauthentic belief, lacking context—basically the scientism of our era that drives a whole culture of death denial.