January 19, 2006

An integral yogi who philosophises

THE PERENNIAL QUEST FOR A PSYCHOLOGY WITH A SOUL Joseph Vrinte Motilal Banarsidass, 2002, Reviewed by Julian Candy
Two Integral Visions: Both Ken Wilber and Sri Aurobindo use the term 'integral' to describe an essential feature of their work and teachings.
  • But do they intend the same meaning by the word?
  • Might it be that the two worldviews could themselves be integrated into something yet more comprehensive?

These are the sort of questions this thorough, painstaking and sometimes stimulating book attempts to unravel.

  • In part 1 Vrinte sets the context with an analysis of the significant features of psychotherapy, metaphysical psychology and transpersonal psychology. His detailed and thoughtful approach is already very evident. It was pleasing to read a good section on transpersonal psychiatry, which makes reference to 'borderliners', so well-characterised by Peter Chadwick (SMN); and an extensive section on Nelson's "impressive approach to the transcendental Spirit [p 72]" in his book Healing the Split.
  • Part 2 is made up of separate descriptions of the work of Ken Wilber and Aurobindo, while
  • part 3 is an attempt to develop a dialogue between Ken Wilber's integral views and Aurobindo's metaphysical vision.
  • Vrinte's own conclusions are drawn together in an epilogue.

Ken Wilber has been widely regarded at least until recently as a leader of the transpersonal psychology movement and as a philosopher, albeit often a controversial one. He describes himself as a pandit (teacher), not a guru, though his writings, which often place side by side theory and personal experience, reveal that he is an experienced Buddhist practitioner. This book lays out in considerable detail Wilber's evolving conceptions, all the way from Wilber I (The Spectrum of Consciousness) to Wilber IV (Integral Psychology and A Theory of Everything). Wilber is inclined to accuse of inaccuracy or misrepresentation many of those who attempt to summarise or criticise his work. Vrinte's careful and sympathetic depiction of the development and present status of Wilber's thought is surely less vulnerable than most to such attack, and itself might well be taken as a useful 90 page encapsulation of the essential Wilber:

  • holons, 'transcend and include', levels, quadrants, streams, spiral dynamics, boomeritis; all these elements and more are exhibited in their proper place within Wilber's remarkable and impressively coherent world model.

Sri Aurobindo is of an earlier generation than Wilber (he died in 1950), was a visionary and guru rather than just a teacher, and set out for his followers a path (sadhana) realised through integral yoga "that brings the seeker in contact with the extraordinary complexity of one's own being" (p 303), and leads onward through many obstacles to an awareness of the Divine within and thus to the further evolution of man and his consciousness. Like Wilber he wrote extensively and expressively. Vrinte describes this vision in similar detail, emphasising particularly the difficulties that face the aspirant, who must find his or her own unique path through the thicket of first acknowledgment, then acceptance and finally the letting go of impulse and desire, among many other tasks.

Following Aurobindo, he analyses carefully the relationship between psychotherapy and spiritual guidance, concluding rightly no doubt that in the West the former is often employed when the latter is what is needed. After these lengthy though essential preliminaries, we reach the climax of the work: a dialogue, in its way an attempt at an integration, between these two impressive figures. Drawing on the material already presented, Vrinte first finds parallels between transpersonal psychology and integral sadhana ('the instrument for the attainment of perfection… the healing of the division between theory and practice'), then uses Wilber's own analysis of Aurobindo's work to assist in an evaluation of integral yoga.

He goes on to note and comment on various references to Aurobindo in Wilber's writings, at different stages in the development of Wilber's thought. Finally, he deals with Aurobindo's metaphysical psychology and compares it with Wilber's treatment of psychopathology. Vrinte adds a brief description of Auroville, the City of Human Unity in India where he has lived for a number of years. Rather than attempt any sort of summary of the comprehensive material provided, let us take a more detailed look at the section entitled A Critical Assessed Estimate of Ken Wilber, which comes towards the end of the book. Vrinte notes that Wilber when discussing his integral practice makes no mention of Aurobindo spiritual methods: "aspiration for and faith in the divine, self-opening, equality and Grace or the paths of karma and bhakti" [p 455].

He criticises Wilber (as others have done) for a simplistic formulation of Aurobindo's model, one which ignores the context in which it originated, and which leaves aside those parts of the model which do not serve his own ideas. He goes on: "Could it be that the difference between Ken Wilber, an intellectual thinker who mysticises, and Sri Aurobindo, an integral yogi who philosophises, lies in the fact that Sri Aurobindo starts from his realisations which he tries to express in the inadequate language of the mind, whereas Ken Wilber starts from his mental abstractions of his vision-logic realisations and tries to reach the essential truths in flashes of mystical vision?" [p 459]

And in the same vein: "Purely mental analysis and interpretation, even on a higher integrated vision-logic level, is not enough to understand Sri Aurobindo's writings. Only through a meditative reading of his works... is the reader able to understand Sri Aurobindo more deeply." [p 458] But Vrinte is nothing if not even-handed, at least in appearance. In the following chapter he takes Aurobindo to task for failing fully to understand Freud and underemphasising physiological mechanisms in psychopathology, mistakes not made by Wilber. "Could it be [a favourite phrase of Vrinte's] that [Aurobindo's] vision lacks some of modern psychology's explorations in such areas as childhood development, differential diagnosis and intrapsychic conflicts?" [p 468]

Not unexpectedly and quite properly, no final conclusions are reached on these and the many other questions raised by this penetrating discussion. In his epilogue, Vrinte notes that Wilber has recently disassociated himself from all the current factions within transpersonal psychology, claiming that although the integral school incorporates the essentials of all the others that is exactly what is sharply disputed by all of them. He makes a mild and conciliatory contribution to the controversy surrounding Wilber's supposedly at times abrasive and polemical style, going on to comment that Wilber often draws material from Aurobindo and others without specific citation. (It is daunting to contemplate the yet more extensive notes that Wilber's more academic works would require were he to respond comprehensively to this point.) To be fair to Wilber, his overall evaluation of Aurobindo is strongly favourable: "… India's greatest modern philosopher-sage, …the magnitude of [whose] achievements it is hard to convey convincingly….

He covered much of the scope of India's vast spiritual heritage and lineages, and brought many of them together into a powerful synthesis." [Integral Psychology, p 83] Vrinte's final position is shortly summed up when he writes, "It may be necessary that the integral views Sri Aurobindo once held have to be modified by his followers in the field of present-day knowledge. Ken Wilber's current integral views may likewise soon be seen as naive. That's why further revision of both integral approaches is necessary for future application to each seeker's unique life and circumstances." [p 544]

But a book of this length and depth cannot be summarised in three sentences, even though they are the author's. His conscientious, and as far as I can judge, largely successful attempt to deal comprehensively with the thinking and writings of these two great men, is admirable. Whatever else, the book is a rich source of material both for the scholar and the general reader. One caveat: Vrinte specifically excludes Wilber's Grace and Grit from his consideration, although this book, published following the death of his wife from cancer, includes some of his most sustainedly humane yet rigorously experiential writing, incompatible with any attempt to dismiss his work as a mere intellectual construction leavened by flashes of mystical insight -- a position Vrinte seems at times to be edging towards.

Maybe this is a reflection of Vrinte's stance: an Aurobindian first, subsequently a student and admirer of Wilber. While exceptionally thorough and generally easy to read, the book moves at a slow, even stately, pace. At times some may wish for a crisper and -- dare I say it -- more polemical style, dealing as it does with issues more central to our future as a species than most of us are prepared to acknowledge. For me the significance of the word integral springs from its mathematical sense: relating to a whole, wholeness; and rests in the recognition that we err when we regard the one as made up of the many -- unity in multiplicity -- but that we have the truth when we know that the Many are the One in Manifestation -- Multiplicity in Unity. Our survival depends on our working through that truth. Dr. Julian Candy is a psychiatrist now involved in hospice work.

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