Wilber’s Trump and a Post-Truth World: An Overview and Critique

Cynthia Bourgeault offers a critique on Ken Wilber’s article “Trump and a Post-Truth World: An Evolutionary Self-Correction” as a study guide for contemplatives.


Now that Ken Wilber’s paper on “Trump and a Post-Truth World” is officially posted and making its rounds on the internet, I feel at liberty to share my initial “cliff notes” and comments a bit more widely. My comments below were generated originally (and somewhat hastily) for a group of senior Wisdom students who are already working their way through this tract. It is still to be regarded as primarily a “working draft” for limited circulation, not a formal response to Ken’s thesis.

The first part is a quick overview of the main points of Ken’s argument as I understand it. The second part raises a few points for feedback/critique/further reflection.

I. THE ARGUMENT IN A NUTSHELL

Ken Wilber’s wide-ranging and fundamentally hopeful monograph is an analysis of the recent presidential election from the perspective of levels of consciousness as developed primarily according to his own Integral Evolutionary Theory. The powerful contribution he brings here is to move us beyond the reactivity gripping both sides of the political spectrum and offer a much broader perspective. He proposes that Trump’s upset victory reflects an “evolutionary self-correction” necessitated by the fact that the leading edge of consciousness, the so-called green level, lost its way in a mass of internal self-contradictions and gradually failed to lead. His 90-page paper is a lengthy, often verbose, occasionally brilliant analysis of how this situation came to be and what needs to happen to heal it.

To enter this discussion, one first needs to have some familiarity with the general schematic of levels of consciousness which Wilber has been steadily developing and refining for more than thirty years now (since his Up from Eden, first published in the early 1980s). Wilber summarizes this in an early section of his paper, but here’s the cliff notes version:

Levels of consciousness are “color coded” as follows:

  • Red: egocentric, self-referential, instinctual
  • Amber: (alias “mythic membership”): ethnocentric, authoritarian, pre-modern
  • Orange: world-centric, rational, individualistic, modern
  • Green: world centered, pluralistic, post-modern

Green, the highest evolutionary level consistently attained to date, began to emerge in the 1960s and has gown steadily for the new [following] five decades, to the point that by Wilber’s estimate, some 25% of the population are presently functioning at that level (how does he generate this data?). But along the way, green began to wander off course, increasingly caught in some internal contradictions that were inherent in its worldview from the start; i.e.:

  1. Its inherent tendency to relativism, which progressively morphed into the notion of the claim that there is no such thing as universal truth or universal values.
  2. An inherent “performative contradiction” between its claim that all values are equal and its inner assurance that its value (“that there is no universal truth”) is nonetheless normative and binding.
  3. A failure to distinguish between “dominator hierarchies” (based on oppression) and “growth hierarchies” (based on evolutionarily necessary differentiation), and a general dislike of all hierarchy.
  4. An [increasingly] hyper-sensitive political correctness that consistently stirred the pot of resentment and anger (both within green itself, the so-called “mean green meme,” and certainly against it, among the other levels of consciousness).

This “aperspectival madness,” as Wilber terms it, left the ostensible evolutionary leading edge caught in an increasing cul de sac of “nihilism and narcissism.” Trump was able to successfully fan the smoldering fires of resentment building at all three lower levels — red, amber, and orange — into a roaring blaze of anti-green sentiment — an “anti-green morphogenetic field” that went on to torch the entire green value system. However apparently contradictory and volatile Trump’s agendas may be, Wilber points out, the common denominator is that they are always anti-green.

Without condoning these agendas, Wilber does lay out a scenario through which it is possible to discern a coherence (I’ll stop short of saying a “justification”) behind the otherwise unfathomable upheaval that awaited the world on November 8. Rather than simply further demonizing Hillary’s “basket of deplorables” that put the man in office, or resorting to ominous and paralyzing specters of Hitler and Armageddon, Wilber’s hypothesis offers a way to make sense out of what happened —and to cooperate with evolution in making the necessary adjustments.

In the final section of his paper, Wilber does exactly that. He lays out several steps (some theoretical, others quite practical) whereby green could help heal itself and get back on track. In the end, however, Ken’s conviction becomes increasingly transparent — and finally explicit — that the basic performative contradictions inherent in “green-think” are so deep as to be unsalvageable, and that the only long-term and truly satisfying solution will come only from a robust emergence of the next level of consciousness: Integral (color-coded turquoise or teal), which is truly “second tier” (i.e., transitioning to the non-dual), capable of integrating and including all perspectives, unafraid of healthy hierarchy, and hence truly able to lead. It is from this level, he believes, that the ultimate evolutionary resolution will emerge — once a “tipping point” of about 10% of the population functioning at that level is stabilized.

If it takes the Trump election to create this evolutionary jolt, so be it; the important thing is not to miss the window of opportunity now that it has so dramatically opened.

 

 

 

II. Comments and Critique

1. The greatest contribution of this paper is that it gets the scale right: it “nails” the arena in which events are actually playing out and offers a plausible hypothesis as to the underlying causes, a hypothesis which restores both coherence and an empowerment. Virtually every other analysis I have seen — political, sociological, Biblical — is working from too narrow and limited a perspective (that’s the nature of intellectual discourse in the post-modern era; you either get rigor or breadth, rarely both). While I do not share all of Ken’s conclusions, I am totally in agreement that the evolutionary frame offers our best shot at a coherent explanation and a mature and skillful resolution.

2. And as Teilhard discovered a generation before, it is at the evolutionary scale — i.e., over deep time — that “deep hope” becomes possible. I am gratified that Ken seems to agree with Teilhard that evolution is intrinsically purposeful (and in much the same terms as Teilhard sees it: moving toward greater “complexification/consciousness” — not specifically so-named — and an ever-fuller manifestation of Love (or “Eros,” in Wilber languaging). I wish Teilhard were more generally cited in Wilber’s work; it would certainly draw the dual streams of Teilhardian and Integral Evolutionary Theory into a more creative and ultimately illumining dialogue.

3. I continue to suspect that Wilber often conflates “levels of consciousness” with “stages of growth.” The two are not identical, at least according to the criteria I have gleaned from my own Christian contemplative heritage. I remain to be convinced that orange and green are actually different levels; to me they look more like simply progressive stages of the same level. Orange may be individualistic while green is pluralistic, but both are relying on the mental egoic operating system (“perception through differentiation”) to run their program; green’s “groups”, therefore, are merely “individuals writ large,” (which “co-exist,” not a new holonic unity [which “coalesces”]). Or another way of saying it: green is simply orange looking through a post-modern filter.

This, incidentally, I believe to be another fatal “performative contradiction” undetected by Wilber; greens think FOR oneness but FROM “perception through differentiation;” how crazy-making is that? It’s a pretty significant developmental gap to navigate, causing their minds always to be out ahead of what their psyches can actually maintain. Hence the anger, the arrogance, and the hypocrisy.           

4. I’m no political historian, but I think Wilber takes some pretty large leapfrogs through the history of the political parties in the US. I’d be highly skeptical that he can make his assertion stick that Democrats by and large function in a higher level of consciousness (green/orange) than Republicans (orange/amber). This may be true of the past few decades, but given that prior to its infiltration by the Religious right, the Republican party was more often the standard bearer for the leading edge of consciousness, case in point: Abraham Lincoln), while the Democratic party was the home to most ethnicities and nearly all of the South. Thus, it’s difficult to see how it would be without its share of well-entrenched ethnocentric (amber) perspectives.

5. Finally, and most substantively, the most important corrective the Christian mystical tradition has to bring to current secular or Buddhist-based models of “second tier” (and higher) states of consciousness is the insistence that the leap to this new level of conscious functioning is not simply an extension of the cognitive line but requires “putting the mind in the heart,” not only attitudinally but neurologically. There is a supporting physiology to each tier of consciousness (which is why I think green and orange are still basically at the same level), and that all-important shift from 1st-tier to 2nd-tier will only happen when grounded in an active awakening of the heart.

And this means, basically, it will happen in the domain of devotion — i.e., our heart’s emotional assent and participation in the ultimate “thouness” of the cosmos and the experiential certainty of the divine not simply as “love” but as Lover. That is to say, I believe it happens beyond the gates of secularity, in the intense, holographic particularity of the upper echelons of each sacred tradition. This is for me the profound strength of Teilhard’s model, as over and against Wilber’s more secular model; it unabashedly is able to stir the fires of adoration and spiritual imagination as it “harnesses the energy of love.” Striving to light this same fire with metaphysical matches, Wilber is left essentially “anthropomorphizing” evolution, transforming it into a new version of the classic demiurge, the creative and implementing arm of the logoic omniscience.

I look forward to hearing your comments and feedback. I repeat: this is a groundbreaking and heartening essay, at the right scale, and headed in the right direction. It’s worth taking the time to grapple with.  

24 replies
  1. Nigel Wellings
    Nigel Wellings says:

    Such a relief to hear a wise and compassionate voice in the midst of so much fear – and speaking of fear is it not fear that permeates this whole thing: fear that fuels a refuge in what is ‘orange’ but also fear of letting a known narrative go at the level of ‘green’? I guess it is then fear that ties us all together and it is how we respond to fear that differentiates who we are. In this sense post-Trump I have spent quite a lot of time a warmish kind of colour which is a mix between red and yellow but am looking forward to ‘teal’, (what colour is that exactly?).

    Reply
  2. Ian Spencer
    Ian Spencer says:

    The “teal” colour seems to me to be a useful metaphor for the understanding that any form of progression / evolution needs to include that which went before. Transcendence is so often understood as “leaving behind” what went before, but this is a crucial mistake as it’s dualistic. The fullness of transcendence can only be experienced, and can only be effective, when that which went before is included in that which is now. So the dream of dualism (all the different colours of Wilburs model) is transformed into the concrete reality of non-dualism (or absolute unity) only as it get’s caught up in the process of waking-up. Leaving the “colours” behind, one after the other as we “progress” is in itself, dualistic fantasy and goes nowhere. So I like the “teal” idea very much if it means a transcendence that doesn’t separate itself from what is transcended. Not because its an interesting theory. But because when I consider my life, that’s exactly how it’s been.

    Reply
  3. Amy
    Amy says:

    Wilbur’s levels of consciousness echo of David Hawkins’ work in transcending the levels of consciousness. I wonder if he got some of his ideas from David?
    Do you know where/how he came up with this?

    Reply
  4. Jenny Gillespie
    Jenny Gillespie says:

    I struggle with these intellectual discourses and long for a more poetic heart-centered approach to understanding and embracing our next evolutionary phase. I find myself listening over and over to James Finley in disc 9 of CAC’s ‘Following the Mystics Through the Narrow Gate’ CD collection. The burden of our pain and suffering is so intimately and completely shared, as is the love that is us.

    Reply
  5. Janet Thompson
    Janet Thompson says:

    You write: “Finally, and most substantively, the most important corrective the Christian mystical tradition has to bring to current secular or Buddhist-based models of “second tier” (and higher) states of consciousness is the insistence that the leap to this new level of conscious functioning is not simply an extension of the cognitive line but requires “putting the mind in the heart,” not only attitudinally but neurologically.” Immediately springs to mind a very important buddhist text, “The Heart Sutra”. I have a hunch that it represents devotional buddhism, as in the devotional Christian mystical tradition.

    Reply
    • Ian Spencer
      Ian Spencer says:

      Hi Janet – I’m a Christian (Anglican Priest – akin to the Episcopal in the US) and also a practitioner of Zen Buddhism. I chant the Heart Sutra with my sangha each week, it’s an amazing Sutra that has had a profound impact on me. But it’s not devotional and not in the Christian mystical tradition in that way. That said, it is certainly mystical and of course, at the same time, concrete. As Zen is. “Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form” is the theme of its teaching.
      It’s about the realisation of absolute unity (and yet Form makes the character and appearance different). In terms of Trump, it would say, Trump is Trump and you are you, and it would also say yet the “both” are one and the same. No separation. Knowing that, it’s possible to stay conscious and so bring about the arising of compassion as a counter to the wounds being opened up in the U.S. and indeed around the world.

      Reply
  6. JoAnne Kramer
    JoAnne Kramer says:

    Greetings! I have not yet had the opportunity to read Wilbur’s eBook yet, however, I’m thankful to one of my favorite and respected wisdom teachers whose heart&mind I trust to layout intellectual/heart-side perspectives in this evolutionary time of significant change. Buckled into it by faith, observing & trusting, seems like the only safe place to stand. It all belongs.
    Peace/and/grace/and/courage.

    Reply
  7. Lawrence Willson
    Lawrence Willson says:

    Cynthia,

    Let me offer my utmost gratitude for your critical essay on Ken Wilber’s “Trump and a Post-Truth World.” I am sympathetic with your critique respecting points 1, 2, and 4 . . . with the caveat that at 2, Wilber actually speaks well of his evolutionary cohorts, including your Teilhard, in his major metaphysic, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. I am less sympathetic with your point 3—finding in Wilber no conflation between “levels” and “stages;” appreciating his modern/postmodern divide between “orange” and “green” as a heuristic device; and suspecting no quarrel between you and Wilber on the “co-exist v. coalescence” discernment. Respecting your “most substantive” point 5, I would simply offer a poem to bring you two, together,

    The Robe

    I
    On a hook on the back of
    the door to the room where I
    sleep & make poems, there rests
    a black, cotton, terry-cloth
    robe, with two loops for a sash
    that wraps around the waist and
    above pockets on each side.

    The robe was given to me
    by the partner I live with
    so many years ago now
    that neither of us recalls
    precisely when, or just what
    the occasion might have been—
    Christmas . . . a birthday, perhaps.

    The robe hangs at the ready
    for when I need warm cover
    without getting fully dressed.
    I have worn it so often
    it spurs countless memories
    of gathering newspapers
    from the yard, mail from the porch.

    I had on the robe when I
    first read the headlines,
    “Obama Begins ‘a New Era’. ”
    (I still have that newspaper.)
    More often than not, whene’er
    I wear the robe, in my right hand
    will there rest . . . a pencil.

    II
    The robe I often wear when
    I write was made in Turkey
    so it connects me with its
    maker. No matter whether
    we ever know each other,
    the robe forever yokes us
    as surely as one bloodline.

    Nothing special, the robe is
    (just so) a sacred object,
    not in itself but in its
    capacity as a thing
    in awareness to relate
    all things other than itself
    in splendid co-genesis.

    A simple concrete thing bears
    the mark of universal
    kinship, leaving a trace of
    what can only be called love.
    The observer then becomes
    a lover of things all round,
    all the while rising, falling

    afore one’s poet eye in
    such variety of forms,
    each emptying self-being,
    every act in alliance
    with every unique other,
    so every verse in every
    universe ever likely.

    As a sacred thing the robe
    draws respect and reverence
    for its utility, its
    longevity, and the fact
    of its presence hanging on
    a hook back of the door to
    the room where I make poems

    while I soundly roundly sleep.

    Reply
  8. Cynthia
    Cynthia says:

    Hi Cynthia… Thank you for putting so eloquently the obvious. God is not complicated, but simple. As the evolution of mankind continues we will eventually wake up to the truth of all that is. For in truth this is the only way one can truly live or survive. The imagined world of our minds can not be fixed with the same mind frame that created it. It cannot be fixed nor was ever intended too. For in truth, it does not even exist. Only when the death of the ego happens, separation, will mankind be able to enter truth, the ultimate healer. For in truth all illusions slip away. The “imagined” world as we know it will then collapse and a new world, full of balance and harmony will begin. Because that is what truth brings. Unfortunately, this can only happen when all essentially come home. For only truth can enter truth. A perfect design of perfection. It is all that is and ever has been. So perhaps we can all just rest in love and know that this is all for us with love from God! There are no mistakes my friends only blessings. Thank you Cynthia, I sooo love and appreciate your deep revolutionary wisdom.

    With love,

    Cynthia from SaltSpring Island

    Reply
  9. Peter McNally
    Peter McNally says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe Wilber omitted a level of consciousness between amber and orange, namely bronze. Bronze is:
    world-without-America centric, irrational, pluralistic, semi-post-modern. In addition, bronzes think they are greens. Trump was able to fan the fires of resentment of people in all the non-bronze levels of consciousness into a roaring blaze of anti-bronze sentiment. The way things have been going in the media and in Washington DC, it seems that the bronzes, including Wilber, do not realize what happened on November 8th.

    Reply
    • Jon McGee
      Jon McGee says:

      Peter, you’ve given the most astute observation on this page. All the fear and loathing of the left-wing is bizarre enough without bleeding over into some spiritual hocus-pocus and lip service to non-dualism. Certainly if Trump is causing people to block the river of love from their heart than that is the problem needing service.

      Reply
  10. Deborah Foster
    Deborah Foster says:

    Thank you indeed Cynthia. This is a challenging and anxiety inducing time on the Planet. This discussion gives perspective and helps to address why a lot of things seem to be falling apart. These transitional periods are certainly chaotic, and it helps to have some articulation around the “details”. Hope you will continue with your reflections and sharing them. Very helpful as all of us struggle with this phase of evolution, and wondering what the Maker is doin’.

    Reply
  11. Cheryl Truesdale
    Cheryl Truesdale says:

    I believe your overview and critique hit the nail on the head. After I devoured Ken Wilbur’s ebook, I felt both exhilarated and hopeful – finally someone was saying something that made sense to me. During an excited conversation I had with my husband upon reading Ken’s ebook, I both shared my enthusiasm as well as the one missing element I wished had been addressed – the AWAKENING OF THE HEART and it’s necessary contribution to the evolution of consciousness. From your many wonderful teachings I have learned that the best contribution I can make to the unfolding that is taking place is to remember that no act of consciousness is ever waisted. So, for me, it’s through centering prayer and trusting the outcome to God, that I find myself in awe that little ole me has been given the miraculous gift of being part of this beautiful thing called “Life”! I can’t wait to read your newest book!!

    Reply
  12. Bill Ryan
    Bill Ryan says:

    Thank you, Cynthia. This offers some clarity in the intellectual analysis of events and points the way forward. I remain concerned, however, that there is far too much privilege that insulates us, the ones who call ourselves the modern mystics, from the reality of the cruelty and destruction that is visited upon the more vulnerable in our communities. That is an insulation of non-activism and non-involvement that can be non-heartful to the detriment of an evolution of Christ consciousness that Teilhard is pointing towards. Large populations of the sick, the poor, the disabled, the elderly in the United States are slated to receive a death sentence of a short and ultimately fatal life without essential medical care. That is just one aspect of the new reality. We are them, and they are us. Contemplation is not real if not incarnated in action and solidarity with all those at risk.

    Reply
  13. Maria
    Maria says:

    Thank you for unpacking Ken Wilbur’s article on our current political arena, etc. I especially love your summation and really, how the Christian Mystical Tradition impacts the evolution of consciousness, through “the experiential certainty of the divine not simply as “love” but as Lover.” That feels like the game changer. Thank you for sharing your wisdom. Peace be with you.

    Reply

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