Tuesday, May 23, 2006

More on Ken Wilber, New Age oddness, and the like

I really do have to give kudos it to Tom over at Blogmandu, because this Ken Wilber thing helps me to look at areas where things like Ken Wilber have impinged my life, and examine them.

I wanted to see just where Ken Wilber is the world, metaphorically speaking, and the closest I could come to finding out where someone was metaphorically speaking was to use Google instead. Google News to be exact...and I found first the Gafni scandal bit:

Rabbi Mordechai Gafni, a charismatic but controversial leader of the Jewish renewal movement, was dismissed last week from his position as spiritual leader and lecturer at Bayit Hadash, a Tel Aviv-based prayer and study community, amid allegations of sexual misconduct and exploitation of employee-employer relations.

With the help of sympathetic rabbis, Gafni, co-founder of Bayit Hadash, has been dodging accusations and rumors of sexual wrongdoings both here and in the US for two decades.

But even Gafni's most ardent supporters were forced to backtrack when, on May 9, three women filed a police complaint against him and provided attorney Eitan Maimoni with a sworn statement of his misconduct, and a fourth women, from an institution where Gafni previously worked, gave similar testimony before Bayit Hadash heads...

In a statement to his followers this week, Gafni took blame for his actions and said he was "infinitely saddened and profoundly sorry" for the pain he had caused. He acknowledged that he was "sick," and said he planned to enter a treatment center and leave his "rabbinic teaching capacities."

Gafni left the country last week before Jewish and Israeli news media broke the story. Sources close to Gafni said he stayed first in Boston and then in Boulder, Colorado, with New Age philosopher Ken Wilber.

Wilber issued a statement on his Internet site that "after long conversations with many of the concerned parties," he had concluded "there is substantial truth to some of these allegations." And that there was "grave wrongdoing on Marc's part, and I believe this wrongdoing is due not just to bad judgment on Marc's part, but to a pathology or dysfunction affecting Marc."

"New Age philospher?" Wikipedia may be suspect, but here's what they say:

In 1968 he enrolled as a pre-med student at Duke University, and almost immediately experienced a crisis of disillusionment with what science had to offer. It was not the psychedelics then in vogue which inspired him, rather it was Eastern literature, particularly the Tao Te Ching, which catalyzed his conversion to Buddhism. Academically he lost that first year, and he returned to Nebraska, enrolled in the University of Nebraska, where he completed a bachelor's degree with a double major in chemistry and biology. This he managed to do while spending much of his time pursuing Eastern philosophy and Western psychology. He won a scholarship to do graduate study in biochemistry, but by this time he was thoroughly ensnared by the philosophical and contemplative life, and dropped out.

He describes his academic accomplishments as "a Master's degree in biochemistry, and a Ph.D. minus thesis in biochemistry and biophysics, with specialization in the mechanism of the visual process."[5]

Now I gotta say this: a "Ph.D. minus thesis" is not a Ph.D. simply put, because doing a doctoral thesis in this country at least, and having it approved (a practice that goes back hundreds of years) is a verification that you are able to do original research and have it peer-reviewed, and that peers in the profession find it original and verify that it does indeed illuminate something new. It may be where Wilber's life is, but in no way should he be confused with a Jean Paul Sartre or Jacques Derrida. Say what you want about their philosophy, but they were philosphers, who wrote real theses and real research.

Now in my case, it was Jean Paul Sartre indirectly that "catalyzed my conversion to Buddhism;" the rigorous examination of the nullity of human existence led me to Pascal's conclusion that philosphy "is not worth an hour's trouble," though as an engineer not only did I have to make a living, but also I needed to do it in a way that benefitted myself, society, and the world and yet still produced "elegant things," systems which did something other systems hadn't before because they hadn't been thought of, and when they were considered, there was an underlying beauty to their description and implementation (that perhaps only a mathematically oriented systems engineer could grasp.)

So at the comparative stage in my life, I was dealing with what I would say is a more analytical approach to things.

At the same time, I too had palpable disdain for the New Agey nonsense that was permeating liberal spirituality ever since Fritz Perls and Esalen Institute ceased to be - or perhaps were made manifestly not to be- experimental and truly observational, and entered the realm of the flakey.

And the fruit of all of that is still way strange for me. Ken Wilber's name also pops up in a review of the movie The Celestine Prophecy (ah, to be a fly in the room when that was pitched).

When you set out to adapt a best-selling spiritual book into a movie, it's kind of a double-edged sword. You have a built-in audience for your film, but by tailoring your film for that audience, you risk not reaching a wider one. The Celestine Prophecy might please diehard fans of James Redfield's initially self-published, best-selling book, but anyone else is likely to sit there watching in absolute befuddlement as characters prattle on in stilted dialogue about energy fields and insights while assorted baddies -- government soldiers, armed-to-the-teeth rebels AND a Catholic Cardinal -- blow up buses and ancient ruins, shoot and kidnap people, and generally run all amok doing dastardly bad-guy deeds, in an effort to keep people from spreading the word about these ancient "insights". And that's unfortunate, because the message in Redfield's book: slow down, learn to appreciate the coincidences and beauty in life, and learn to touch God directly from within yourself, is a message that a lot of people in our increasingly violent and volatile world could stand to hear. Before I get a bunch of nasty comments from Redfield fans about this review, let me disclaim here: I am a fan of the book (or at least the ideas presented in the book, if not the quality of the writing) and I'd hoped the movie would be really well done. Unfortunately, it just wasn't.

The film suffers on several fronts. First, its New Age-metaphysics wrapped in supposed-thriller format comes across as rather contrived in the book; in the movie, it seems even more absurd. The idea that the Catholic Church and Peruvian government would kill and destroy to suppress the nine scrolls that contain the "prophecy" feels rather ludicrous; there are countless books at my local new-age bookstore that sell many of the same ideas presented in these insights, and last time I checked, there were no armed soldiers or sinister church officials preventing them from being freely available to anyone with a debit card. Redfield was so heavily influenced by various spiritual traditions that there is little in the insights that hasn't already been hashed and rehashed by everyone from Deepak Chopra to Ken Wilber to the Dalai Lama. If the Catholic Church was really going to go all ballistic over the revelatory insight that human conflict and interaction is really about the giving and taking of energy, there are a hell of a lot of people they'd have to kill and suppress.

The whole thing also just seems rather dated.

Look, folks you've got really good texts out there if you look; the Buddhist sutras, Hindu texts, Nagarjuna, first class real philosphers like Lyotard, Barrett, Foucault, There's real Zen masters out there; and you've got folks that straddle the two worlds, so to speak. In the Zen Studies society one of the first people I met was a practicing neurophysiologist. Peter Matthiessen writes very good books; Stephen Mitchell translated Rilke, for chrissakes.

When I first met the Buddhist priest to whose temple I go, and to whose room for sanzen I go, I asked him about what he teaches. He taught nothing, he said. "Then who is the teacher?" I asked. He looked at me with a puzzled look. "Bodhidharma is the teacher," he said and left it at that.

Bodhidharma is the teacher. And he's not saying all that much. You'll have to learn this stuff about life on your own. You'll have to get your on Ph.D. in life and you will be constantly peer-reviewed, and you'll be responsible for however you use whatever feedback you get. And you'll be responsible for peer reviews you will inevitably give others.

Maybe there's a place for Ken Wilber there, maybe not.

Meanwhile, the news reports that a Greek fighter jet has collided with a Turkish fighter jet over the Aegean sea.

Maybe it's an accurate portrayal of Ken Wilber that:

One of Wilber's major theoretical accomplishments has been to create what he calls the neo-perennial philosophy, an integration of traditional mysticism (typified by Aldous Huxley's perennial philosophy) with an account of cosmic evolution that is in many respects compatible with that of the great Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo. He rejects the anti-evolutionary view of history as a regression from past ages or yugas that the Perennial Philosophy traditionally assumes. Instead, he embraces the traditionally Western notion of the Great Chain of Being. As in the work of Jean Gebser, this Great Chain (or "Nest") is ever-present while "relatively" unfolding throughout this material manifestation. As a Buddhist, he believes that reality is ultimately a nondual union of Emptiness and Form, with Form being innately subject to development over time. Wilber's voluminous writings are ultimately attempts to describe how Form undergoes change, and how sentient beings in the world of Form participate in this change until they finally realize their true identity as Emptiness.

There's people fucking starving and bleeding out there. People trying to pick your pocket. People trying to get your kids to die for their bank accounts, or to kill you for yours. Be careful. And taste a real apple, or a real apple pastry made with real ingredients cooked from scratch, not a Hostess pre-packaged thingy.

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