Aug 02 2013

A Fall from Grace

Published by at 9:26 pm under Consciousness,newage

This is what I don’t talk about.

After an experience that turned my life inside out in terms of how I perceived the nature of reality, and after exhausting the potential explanations offered by every alternative I could find, I embarked on a 5 year academic research project into the nature of consciousness .  I enrolled in a Master’s program in Consciousness Studies.  It was a multi-disciplinary approach to the ultimate philosophical questions – why are we here? What/where is here? How does it all work?

The program brought in divergent disciplines – philosophy, biology, psychology, spiritual/religious studies, and more.  As I proceeded through the program, I found that it was gradually morphing into something else.  At first, it seemed to be overrun with “Integral Theory” and related conceptual frameworks developed by Ken Wilber.

I was asked to read a number of books by Wilber, and I did.  Wilber is an entertaining writer, and puts forth a number of very seductive ideas.  The problem is, if you start looking under the hood, you find that Wilber’s take on things has a number of flaws. These are too lengthy to go into here, but I will say that when I asked the questions his works naturally brought up for me, answers ranged from “Oh, you need to read his unpublished stuff” or “Oh, you need to read this other book of his,” or remarks that I just wasn’t “advanced” enough to fully grasp what he was saying.  Occasionally, there would be a quiet concession that I had a point, but this was usually brushed aside, as it was embarrassing to point out the flaws in the ideas of “one of the most important philosophers of our time.”

So, I did the only thing I could do.  I ignored Wilber. I would give him occasional lip-service in papers (yes, we were required to use the Integral Model a number of times in our papers) and then move on to what I felt was important. It seemed to me that the purpose of graduate school was to formulate our own ideas; our own theories. Instead, the program became a degree in showing how versatile Integral Theory was at explaining everything.  We were on the “cutting edge” of philosophical inquiry. We were infiltrated by faculty who had close dealings with Wilber and his various organizations. This was not what I signed up for.

After a while, Wilber faded into the background a bit (maybe coincidentally around the same time the university’s accreditation was under review), and more sinister forces began to work their way into things.

My field of study – an area that held deep, personal meaning for me, became a degree in feeling good about oneself.

The term “Transformative Studies” now took root in our program’s name. The program became less about understanding and delving into the nature of reality and consciousness, and more about uncovering all the ways we’d been wounded in life, sharing them with each other, and “healing” these wounds through a variety of techniques.

I will be the first to admit that I had some powerful experiences during these exercises. However, I am not so bold as to claim any sudden magickal shamanic powers simply from taking a class.

Unfortunately, I know too many people who do.

Many of my classmates and instructors are very bright, intelligent people. Many of them, I respect very highly. Frankly, it breaks my heart to see so many of them forget simple critical thinking, or be led into believing that critical thinking involves wholesale rejection of dominant paradigm culture.

I have seen the likes of Descartes, Freud, and Newton be summarily dismissed, if not outright maligned and trashed by people who have never read any of them. They were blamed for all that is wrong in the world. Dualism. Mechanism. Subject/object.  All of these things inevitably lead to war, homophobia, racism, sexism, destruction of the environment, and more. These men (and their “masculine” ways of thinking) are each responsible for every conceivable ill.  We need to return to more “feminine” ways of thinking, or embrace Buddhist non-dualism, or both of these things and more, all within a holistic Integral framework to heal and transform the consciousness of our planet.

Or something.

At one point, I realized I don’t even know what the fuck that means.

As 2012 approached, the noise surrounding the “impending Shift™” became almost deafening. To be fair, I graduated in 2008, but circumstances kept me employed at the university for a few years afterwards. I was privy to a lot of conversations. A lot.

2012 has come and gone, and I’ve noticed an equally deafening silence on why nothing has changed.

Things continued to go downhill.  My graduating class had three of us writing theses.  Mine was 300+ pages long. I am proud of that. I chose to do that. I did it to prove to myself that it could be done. Meanwhile, most of my classmates were being discouraged from writing a thesis. Instead, they were told to opt for a “final project,” which in some instances, the best I can tell, involved making a collage.

Really.

And we all got the same M.A.

I went above and beyond the requirements of my degree, and I went above and beyond the requirements of my individual classes, because I needed to make this my own.  And I did.

I do not mean to make it sound like I am disparaging the very sincere work done by my classmates. I am not. I know that a number of them went through very intense personal upheavals throughout the course of the program.

My problem is, that is not what the program was or should have been about.

It became an exercise in cult-like group therapy at times; not an inquiry into the nature of consciousness.

Two examples come to mind.

First, a class called “Effective Communication A” should probably be how to clearly formulate and express ideas. We were dealing with admittedly esoteric areas, and one would think this would be a class on how to present them to the outside world.

Instead, it became a weekly confessional.

Each week, we were supposed to grab a random partner in the class and confess our deepest “core wound” of shame, guilt, fear, powerlessness, etc.  Then, after 20 minutes, switch. Then, after some wrap-up discussion involving Buddhist  concepts of non-attachment, go home.

It became a pissing competition. Who could slit their wrists and bleed the furthest? Additionally, having NO training as a therapist, and NO tools provided by the instructor, I had to listen each week to someone pour their hearts and souls out to me about how they’d been inappropriately touched by a relative,  raped, almost committed suicide, etc.  Afterwards, there was barely a “see you next week!” before we left for the evening. My classmates mostly seemed to feel tremendously relieved and refreshed at another “powerful” session and grateful for the “sacred safe space” that was provided for them to purge themselves of these dark secrets.  I felt like shit for 48 hours afterwards.

Another class I took was on Alchemy. No, we didn’t try to turn lead into gold, but what was for the most part a rather fascinating historical and philosophical (and psychological) foray into Alchemy also tended to take weird detours into over-sharing. Again, at some point, we were split up into small groups where we needed to share painful experiences with each other.

I now know (for reasons unfathomable to me) that one of my classmates who once told me that she wanted to meet Ken Wilber so she could “feel his energy” used to be a bit of a sex maniac.  I also know another classmate used to have problems achieving orgasm when he was having sex with other men. Why did I need to know this? Why did I need to find this out in a class about Alchemy?

Oversharing deeply personal information was not just relegated to classmates. We were supposed to write about it regularly in our papers, as well. “Experiential” learning was another big component. Don’t just read about something, think about something, write about something – do it, live it, embody it (whatever that means).

On a side note, I should also mention that practically nobody assigned primary texts. Why read Jung, when you can read a book about Jung? Primary texts are hard. Take our word for it. Descartes, Newton, Freud – they’re bad people who’ve caused immeasurable suffering and wounding. Don’t read their writings – we (or Ken Wilber) have already done that, so you don’t have to.

Finally, there are two other reasons why the whole experience has left a sour taste in my mouth.

First, as much as the program claimed to be “open” about people exploring spiritual “paths,” if it wasn’t Buddhism or some bastardized version of Hinduism, forget it. Sufism was tolerated, Christianity was tolerated if it was couched in mysticism, Judaism was ignored, and Indigenous traditions kept at a respectful distance.  It was okay to “appropriate” eastern spiritual practices, and suddenly declare your name to be “Vipassana” (I only hope there’s a woman in India calling herself “Dualism”), but don’t you touch that native tradition, unless it’s part of your cultural heritage!

This heavy emphasis on Buddhist principles (and, really, I don’t ultimately have a problem with Buddhism, it’s more about the hypocrisy of the program), led to a lot of people taking on learned helplessness. Too many times, I heard “I just have to accept that this is what is…” or “The universe is presenting this to me for a reason…” or some such.  I subscribed to these things, too, for a while. As a result, I let myself get sucked further and further into an abusive relationship with a mentally disordered woman. I figured I was to blame. I wasn’t “listening.” She was being a “teacher” to me. “I just needed to accept that this is what is…”

I almost walked in front of a train.

Really.

Second, as much as the program claimed to be “holistic,” anything that involved Western philosophy, Western science, or Western medicine was immediately suspect.  It was all responsible for the ills in the world! This is why there’s war! Environmental crises! Hatred! Newtonian mechanism doesn’t explain the whole, only the parts! Western medicine doesn’t cure the whole, only deals with symptoms!  Bad! Bad! Leper! Outcast! Unclean!

Fortunately, a few years after the abovementioned abusive relationship, I met my wife.

We have a son.

One would think that we would be all about having the natural childbirth at home with the chanting and the incense, and the Tibetan singing bowls, etc.  Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, there were complications in the pregnancy.

My wife and son almost died.

More than once.

Is this Western medicine’s fault?

Actually, no.  Western medicine saved their lives, which is more than a home birth would have allowed for. No amount of herbs, chimes, and candles could have saved their lives.

And we were not about to just “accept it for what it was.”

So, I have a healthy respect for these things now. Is the system perfect? Probably not. But for anyone thinking that “the old ways were better and more natural,” I challenge you to research historic infant mortality rates.

If you want to suggest to me that we should “emulate Edo period Japan, because they knew how to live sustainably with minimal waste,” I invite you to read the history of the period further, and understand the brutal dictatorship of the Shogunate and understand why people had to be less wasteful (hint: food shortages).  Seriously.  This is like saying “those people in Soweto in the 80s sure were good recyclers! We can learn from them!”

Approximately 2000 words later, all of this can be boiled down to a few things, I suppose.

  • My program lost the plot. Am I bitter? Yes.  Should I care? Probably not. Do I? Yes. Why? Because I still think and firmly believe that the study of this field is important, and necessary.
  • I don’t like hypocrisy.
  • It breaks my heart to see smart people blindly accept things without figuring out answers for themselves (Again – should I care? Probably Not. Do I? Yes.)

Finally, I want to end with some points to anyone from my program (and related programs) whom I haven’t alienated to ponder these questions:

Should going through intensive, well-intentioned, but poorly executed therapy be rewarded with a graduate school degree?

If it is assumed that you are “wounded” and need “saving” from the ills of the dominant paradigm, how is this different from the Christian conception of “Original Sin”?

In short – I am grateful for the knowledge I gained in my program. I am grateful for the experience. I now know what to do, and what not to do in terms of how to further research my areas of interest. What this program does not do, and should not do, is claim to prepare you for the beautiful (and oftentimes tragic) complexity of life.  To claim that embracing the Integral paradigm or whatever philosophy is the flavor of the year will immediately solve all of your problems and cure all the ills of the world is narcissistic, misguided, and inappropriate at best, and seriously harmful at worst.

Meet the new boss – same as the old boss.

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One response so far

One Response to “A Fall from Grace”

  1. Sethon 03 Aug 2013 at 9:07 am

    Hey Kevin,

    This totally made me laugh/cringe–thanks for putting your perspective out there. I really want the program to be able to step up to the difficulty required to really get into the study of consciousness in a way that honors (through FRIKKING HARD WORK) the complexity of the topic.

    I really don’t want it to go all new-agey… that’s not going to service anyone (and can even be quite problematic), plus it makes me kind of want to vomit a little — and you know I’m totally into esoteric stuff. I kind of see it as a recursive situation: the program needs to create the kind of environment that attracts students who are involved in making the kind of cultural shifts that lead to the kind of students who make the program better. But this recursion can spiral forward in (at least) two ways that I think are off-target: either more towards the ‘new-agey’ kind of stuff you clearly cited, and of which I experienced my fair share, or more towards the models that completely lack the needed sensitivity to what I would call the esoteric nature of the program (more on that in a second).

    We have to not only maintain, but _strengthen_ our “Western” consciousness — our critical, discerning, dividing, analyzing consciousness. And at the same time we must also bring a non-hypocritical integral holism that is strong enough to not only not dissolve in the face of that kind of harsh consciousness, but which is so powerful and full of warmth that it can work directly with “Western” consciousness (have to put in quotes) as a partner instead of an adversary.

    This kind of holism is, to me, esoteric in nature, because it literally requires self-transformation in the same kind of ways that esoteric development requires in traditions the world over, in order to actually occur. Lip service will never do it. So much of what happened at JFKU ended up being towards the lip service side because it seemed to skirt around the very important contexts that would allow it to move beyond either ‘just a class’ or ‘lip service’ attitudes — i.e. the esoteric contexts.

    I see the program as falling too easily into hypocrisy in that having classes ABOUT transformation and consciousness is completely different than offering classes that actually facilitate and hygienically develop contexts for the ACTUAL experiences of transformation and exploration of consciousness. To be fair, this is a problem that almost every other program doesn’t have, but it seems central to the particular field in which the MA is ostensibly offered, and thus the bar is higher in this respect than elsewhere, and I don’t think it is being clearly addressed.

    It’s not that I have a solution per se, but that I feel your words and they resonate with me, and at the very least I can sense the same issues. I’d never be happy at a university that only studied consciousness as an object, but I’d also not be happy at a place that couldn’t take that kind of studying seriously. I was lucky enough, like you, to have the resources to follow my own path and interests throughout the program, and thus got a lot out of it because of what I put in.

    I wonder how you might address this issue — the skirting the lines of the ‘esoteric contexts’, and the desire of the program to produce what comes down to results that would otherwise be achieved only through long years of esoteric development without really owning up to that fact.

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