Ken Wilbur

The Atman Project: A Transpersonal View of Human Development

Review by Justin C. Maaia, 2002

Wilbur, Ken. The Atman Project: A Transpersonal View of Human Development, 2nd ed. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1996. 240 pp.

The Atman Project is Ken Wilbur’s daring attempt to trace human development from its origins in the womb to its telos.  Wilbur first surveys the extensive body of work documenting human consciousness from its beginnings in the form of a fetus, to its maturation as a developed ego.  This work basically comprises the widely accepted research of Piaget, Vygotsky, and others.  It describes the path that almost all people take in their development into adults, and it is termed the “Outward Arc” by Wilbur.  As amazing as this development is, it is only half of the story–or so Wilbur claims.  What follows is the “Inward Arc,” and this is where the story becomes more interesting and also more unbelievable.

The reason for this disbelief is simply the fact that most people have not experienced the levels of development described by Wilbur.  The first stage of development along the Inward Arc is characterized by many different types of Western thinkers.  It is embodied by the psychological term “self-actualization,” and it is also the stage of development which prompted the existentialist philosophers to write their stories, tales, parables, and philosophies.  After this stage, Wilbur then turns to the wisdom traditions of the East.  With the help of these traditions, as well as some of the Western mystical traditions, Wilbur traces the further development of human consciousness through the “Subtle,” “Causal,” and “Atman” realms.

He shows how human development has taken place, from its beginning, through a process of differentiation, transcendence, and integration.  One can think of the example of a toddler.  He has previously used the technique of crying or fussing in order to get what he desired.  However, as his desires become more particular and varied, his technique becomes less useful for satisfying his desires.  Consequently, he is forced to differentiate himself from his current mode of being.  He gradually begins to transcend his current stage of consciousness by doing what his parents have encouraged him to do–use language.  As he becomes more adept with this tool, he is able to more exactly satisfy his desires.  Before long he has even internalized this language and uses it to further develop into a syntaxical thinking being.  Content to use the tools of this new level of consciousness, he does not, however, discard his old tools.  Instead, he is able to integrate these tools with his current stage of consciousness.  He may still cry and fuss to get certain things, or to lay emphasis on his new verbal requests.  He may also use them in a different way, for example, to express sadness.  This process of differentiation, transcendence, and integration, Wilbur argues, is used not only to attain each level of consciousness on the Outward Arc, but is also used along the Inward Arc.  It is the process used by the mystics of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, by the adepts of Yoga, Buddhism, and Taoism, and also by those who belong to no religion at all, such as those existentialist philosophers, artists, and psychologists who reached the first stage of the inward arc.

Wilbur gives a phenomenology of the various mystical experiences of these traditions.  He then synthesizes these particular experiences into descriptions of distinct, concrete stages of development.  He shows that certain types of practice lead to certain stages of development.  This is the reason why many mystical experiences look the same, and why many also seem to be fundamentally different.  For the individual who succeeds in experiencing the final stage of “Atman Consciousness,” these experiences are but signposts on their developmental journey.  Sometimes a person becomes caught in a particular stage of development–for example the “ego” stage.  Sometimes a mystic becomes attached to his “subtle stage” experiences of light and sound and refuses to recognize that there may be other, higher stages of development.  Sometimes, a person is given a glimpse of a higher stage through artificial means like drugs.  This means affords him the experiences, but not the honing of the tools of differentiation, transcendence, and integration that are so important for reaching the next stage of consciousness or for simply assimilating his current one.  It is for these reasons that most people have given up on their evolutionary path, or see the various wisdom traditions as being at odds, or feel that “alternate” states of consciousness can be reduced to  merely scientific phenomena that can be induced by drugs or surgery.  Only by transcending all of these things can one continue in his development.  To think one is finished evolving is to put one’s evolution to a premature end.

Wilbur makes an articulate, well supported, and valiant effort at explicating this theory of development.  However, by the nature of the subject, it is only through one’s own experience that one can verify Wilbur’s conclusions.  The data and descriptions of the higher stages of evolution can be empirically verified just like that of the lower stages.  The experiments and observations of Piaget and Vygotsky were conducted in such a way as to afford anyone at their level of development–the level of most of the human race–to reenact and verify them.  The data observed regarding the Inward Arc can also be verified by anyone possessing the same level of consciousness as its observers.  However, this data was and is experienced by a relative few people.  Therefore, it is natural for most people to be skeptical of the mystics’ accounts of experience.  It is only by ascending to their heights that we will have the opportunity, indeed the awareness, to verify what it is they have experienced.  This ascension, it is conceded, can be a long path, but it is the only path leading to the fulfillment of human potential.