Ken Wilber needs little introduction. A genius recognized in his own time, this prolific author is widely acclaimed for his innovative and critical synthesis of philosophies East and West, and has been hailed by many as one of the brightest lights of the modern spiritual world. With an ever growing influence, his ideas claim adherents from an enormous diversity of ideological camps—while he, a practicing Buddhist, remains fiercely independent, aligned only to the force of his own inquiry. Not afraid to take the risk of being controversial, he has been harshly criticized for his outspoken and fearless questioning of many of the most cherished ideas of the modern progressive status quo.
Yet it is this very quality in him, his unrelenting passion for genuine inquiry—a quality all too rare in the modern spiritual arena—that we find so refreshing. In the following original essay Ken Wilber shouts from his heart, imploring each of us to take up the challenge of embracing "a spirituality that transforms."
Hal Blacker, a contributing editor for What Is Enlightenment?
, has described the topic of this special issue of the magazine in the following way (although this repeats statements made elsewhere in this issue, it is nonetheless worth quoting at length, simply because of its eloquence, straightforwardness, and unerring good sense):
We intend to explore a sensitive question, but one which needs to be addressed—the superficiality that pervades so much of the current spiritual exploration and discourse in the West, particularly in the United States. All too often, in the translation of the mystical traditions from the East (and elsewhere) into the American idiom, their profound depth is flattened out, their radical demand is diluted, and their potential for revolutionary transformation is squelched. How this occurs often seems to be subtle, since the words of the teachings are often the same. Yet through an apparent sleight of hand involving, perhaps, their context and therefore ultimately their meaning, the message of the greatest teachings often seems to become transmuted from the roar of the fire of liberation into something more closely resembling the soothing burble of a California hot tub. While there are exceptions, the radical implications of the greatest teachings are thereby often lost. We wish to investigate this dilution of spirituality in the West and inquire into its causes and consequences.
I would like to take that statement and unpack its basic points, commenting on them as best I can, because taken together, those points highlight the very heart and soul of a crisis in American spirituality.
TRANSLATION VS. TRANSFORMATION
In a series of books (e.g., A Sociable God, Up from Eden,
and The Eye of Spirit)
, I have tried to show that religion itself has always performed two very important, but very different, functions. One, it acts as a way of creating meaning
for the separate self: it offers myths and stories and tales and narratives and rituals and revivals that, taken together, help the separate self make sense of, and endure, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. This function of religion does not usually or necessarily change the level of consciousness in a person; it does not deliver radical transformation. Nor does it deliver a shattering liberation from the separate self altogether. Rather, it consoles the self, fortifies the self, defends the self, promotes the self. As long as the separate self believes the myths, performs the rituals, mouths the prayers, or embraces the dogma, then the self, it is fervently believed, will be "saved"—either now in the glory of being God-saved or Goddess-favored, or in an afterlife that insures eternal wonderment.
But two, religion has also served—in a usually very, very small minority—the function of radical transformation and liberation. This function of religion does not fortify the separate self, but utterly shatters it—not consolation but devastation, not entrenchment but emptiness, not complacency but explosion, not comfort but revolution—in short, not a conventional bolstering of consciousness but a radical transmutation and transformation at the deepest seat of consciousness itself.
There are several different ways that we can state these two important functions of religion. The first function—that of creating meaning for the self—is a type of horizontal
movement; the second function—that of transcending the self—is a type of vertical
movement (higher or deeper, depending on your metaphor). The first I have named "translation," the second, "transformation."
With translation, the self is simply given a new way to think or feel about reality. The self is given a new belief—perhaps holistic instead of atomistic, perhaps forgiveness instead of blame, perhaps relational instead of analytic. The self then learns to translate its world and its being in the terms of this new belief or new language or new paradigm, and this new and enchanting translation acts, at least temporarily, to alleviate or diminish the terror inherent in the heart of the separate self.
But with transformation, the very process of translation itself is challenged, witnessed, undermined and eventually dismantled. With typical translation
, the self (or subject) is given a new way to think about the world (or objects); but with radical transformation
, the self itself is inquired into, looked into, grabbed by its throat and literally throttled to death.
Put it one last way: with horizontal translation—which is by far the most prevalent, widespread and widely shared function of religion—the self is, at least temporarily, made happy in its grasping, made content in its enslavement, made complacent in the face of the screaming terror that is in fact its innermost condition. With translation, the self goes sleepy into the world, stumbles numbed and nearsighted into the nightmare of samsara, is given a map laced with morphine with which to face the world. And this, indeed, is the common condition of a religious humanity, precisely the condition that the radical or transformative spiritual realizers have come to challenge and to finally undo.
For authentic transformation is not a matter of belief but of the death of the believer; not a matter of translating the world but of transforming the world; not a matter of finding solace but of finding infinity on the other side of death. The self is not made content; the self is made toast.
Now, although I have obviously been favoring transformation and belittling translation, the fact is that, on the whole, both of these functions are incredibly important and altogether indispensable. Individuals are not, for the most part, born enlightened. They are born in a world of sin and suffering, hope and fear, desire and despair. They are born as a self ready and eager to contract; a self rife with hunger, thirst, tears and terror. And they begin, quite early on, to learn various ways to translate their world, to make sense of it, to give meaning to it, and to defend themselves against the terror and the torture never lurking far beneath the happy surface of the separate self.
And as much as we, as you and I, might wish to transcend mere translation and find an authentic transformation, nonetheless translation itself is an absolutely necessary and crucial function for the greater part of our lives. Those who cannot translate adequately, with a fair amount of integrity and accuracy, fall quickly into severe neurosis or even psychosis: the world ceases to make sense
—the boundaries between the self and the world are not transcended but instead begin to crumble. This is not breakthrough but breakdown; not transcendence, but disaster.
But at some point in our maturation process, translation itself, no matter how adequate or confident, simply ceases to console. No new beliefs, no new paradigm, no new myths, no new ideas, will staunch the encroaching anguish. Not a new belief for the self, but the transcendence of the self altogether, is the only path that avails.
Still, the number of individuals who are ready for such a path is, always has been, and likely always will be, a very small minority. For most people, any sort of religious belief will fall instead into the category of consolation: it will be a new horizontal translation that fashions some sort of meaning in the midst of the monstrous world. And religion has always served, for the most part, this first function, and served it well.
I therefore also use the word "legitimacy" to describe this first function (the horizontal translation and creation of meaning for the separate self). And much of religion's important service is to provide legitimacy
to the self—legitimacy to its beliefs, its paradigms, its worldviews and its way in the world. This function of religion to provide a legitimacy for the self and its beliefs—no matter how temporary, relative, nontransformative, or illusory—has nonetheless been the single greatest and most important function of the world's religious traditions. The capacity of a religion to provide horizontal meaning, legitimacy and sanction for the self and its beliefs—that function of religion has historically been the single greatest "social glue" that any culture has.
And one does not tamper easily, or lightly, with the basic glue that holds societies together. Because more often than not, when that glue dissolves—when that translation dissolves—the result, as we were saying, is not breakthrough but breakdown, not liberation but social chaos. (We will return to this crucial point in a moment.)
Where translative religion offers legitimacy
, transformative religion offers authenticity
. For those few individuals who are ready—that is, sick with the suffering of the separate self, and no longer able to embrace the legitimate worldview—a transformative opening to true authenticity, true enlightenment, true liberation, calls more and more insistently. And, depending upon your capacity for suffering, you will sooner or later answer the call of authenticity, of transformation, of liberation on the lost horizon of infinity.
Transformative spirituality does not seek to bolster or legitimate any present worldview at all, but rather to provide true authenticity by shattering what the world takes as legitimate. Legitimate consciousness is sanctioned by the consensus, adopted by the herd mentality, embraced by the culture and the counterculture both, promoted by the separate self as the
way to make sense of this world. But authentic consciousness quickly shakes all of that off its back, and settles instead into a glance that sees only a radiant infinity in the heart of all souls and breathes into its lungs only the atmosphere of an eternity too simple to believe.
Transformative spirituality, authentic spirituality, is therefore revolutionary. It does not legitimate the world, it breaks the world; it does not console the world, it shatters it. And it does not render the self content, it renders it undone.
And those facts lead to several conclusions.