As I reflected back on the works of Ken Wilber recently, a thought occurred to me: man, that guy must have done a lot of drugs.
I don’t recall Wilber ever saying anything about drugs in his work one way or the other. Given that he wrote most of his work under the restrictive régime of the late-20th-century US, that shouldn’t be a surprise; caution is valuable. Yet he is an American baby boomer deeply interested in spirituality and mysticism; that is the sort of profile that leads one to expect significant experimentation with psychoactive substances.
But more importantly than his demographic: Wilber’s philosophy is very much the sort of philosophy one would expect from someone who had had profound drug-induced mystical experiences. A theme throughout Wilber’s work is the importance of experience to knowledge, a view that Wilber’s late work comes to call “radical empiricism”. He claims throughout his work that the essentials of premodern wisdom traditions – Platonism, Buddhism, Christianity – are to be found in mystical experiences, and in replicable practices that lead up to those. Some years ago I wrote an article debunking this claim: I don’t think that a reasonable historian can look at the evidence we have of Confucius or Moses or Jesus or Zhiyi (Chih-i) and still say that the essentials of their teachings come from replicable experiences. (We could reasonably say that Moses at the burning bush was having a mystical experience, but it was not in any way replicable.)
But why would one make the claim that the core of the traditions was replicable experience, in the first place? Well, if you had one of the more profound experiences of your life after taking a significant quantity of psilocybin or ayahuasca, that would give you some first grounds for imagining that others would have done the same. That experience is deeply replicable: it is open to all who “try the experiment“, as Wilber puts it, as long as they can get access to the substance in question. If your best access to the insights of premodern traditions had come through drug experimentation, it would make sense to you to say that those traditions’ insights can be accessed through repeatable experiment. (You just have to ignore those, like Candrakīrti and Rāmānuja, who say they can’t.)
And what particular insights would you likely have drawn? Well, you might well have come to think that ultimate reality is ultimately nondual, since – we see from Roland Griffiths’s research – a high dose of psilocybin is likely to give one an experience of a unified, nondual reality that one has merged with. (The same appears true of other substances like 5-MeO-DMT.) And sure enough, when Wilber in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality gives a typology of mystical experiences that he sorts into a hierarchy, the nondual takes its place at the top.
I don’t know Wilber’s personal life beyond his writings, which, again, disclose no drug experiences as far as I know. So I could be totally wrong about this. I’m just looking at the preponderance of the evidence: if there was a baby boomer who decided that the truest essence of the world’s wisdom traditions was a nondualism that one could reach through replicable experiment, it would be weird to find that that boomer hadn’t done a lot of drugs.
I’m not saying any of this to discredit Wilber. If anything, it’s the opposite. I’ve moved away from my early enthusiasm for Wilber’s project because, as my article argued, his project fails at its goal of trying to integrate everything: it is just not the case that every tradition is based on replicable experiences. But replicable experiences may well play some role in various traditions, and psychedelics may well be the most replicable route that we have to mystical experiences – and Wilber’s work may turn out to be genuinely helpful in understanding what’s involved in those.
Maybe having a certain kind of psilocybin experience does provide a correct insight into the nature of reality; that’s an idea I have begun seriously entertaining in recent years. And such a view would work well with the approach Mark Schmanko articulated a decade ago in response to my article. In Schmanko’s approach, we recognize that it is a relatively recent modern view to treat replicable mystical experience as central to an aspect of life that we might call religious or spiritual – and consider that modern view to be progress, an improvement on other views. As I noted to Schmanko at the time, what such an approach doesn’t do is incorporate all traditions into a grand synthesis, the way Wilber claims to be doing. What Confucius and Moses are on about is something very different. But moderns like Wilber who insist on the importance of replicable mystical experience might yet be on to something.