The Religion of Tomorrow – A Book Review

Last night I finished a rather thick and dense book by Ken Wilber called The Religion of Tomorrow. All 806 pages. I dove in two months ago upon a recommendation from my friend Bodhi. I’ve been generally interested in Ken Wilber’s teaching and work around Integral philosophy, spirituality, psychology, etc.… the Integral Center used to be a thriving institution in Boulder. However, I sadly missed participating much during its prime years as I lived in Thailand. The Authentic Relating movement that I am now more intimately connected with had its roots here… as did many other beautiful offerings.

Part of my logic of tackling such an academic project was to combat the expected and very real chemo-brain that comes with extended chemotherapy treatment. Netflix series would not be the solution! Chemo-brain is a catch-all for a variety of brain-relating malfunctions such as:

  • Difficulty concentrating on a single task
  • Problems with short-term memory; forgetting details of recent events
  • Feeling mentally “slower” than usual
  • Confusing dates and appointments
  • Misplacing objects
  • Fumbling for the right word or phrase

And yes, if you ask anyone who has spent time with me the past three months, these factors have been present in various degrees. Similar to avoiding issues with old age, an antidote to such malfunctions is exercising the brain: crosswords, reading, playing games, etc. Hence this book…

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It made my hair fall out

The premise of The Religion of Tomorrow is that the great religions of the world are at a crossroads. First, Wilber commends the major paths for helping countless individuals awake to the astonishing reality of the true nature of themselves and the universe. Then he explains how, through centuries of cultural accretion and focus on myth and ritual as ends in themselves, this core insight has become obscured, and religions risk disappearing along with their powerful awakening potential for individuals.

Wilber argues that for the great religions to survive into the future while remaining faithful to that original spiritual vision, they must incorporate the extraordinary number of scientific truths learned about human nature in just the past hundred years–for example, about the mind and brain, emotions, and the growth of consciousness. The original practitioners of the great religions were simply unaware of and thus were unable to include in their meditative systems.

What got me very excited about the book was that Wilber declares in the beginning that he would take Buddhism as an example, partly because it is the main religion that he has studied and practiced over the years, and also because in many ways, it is poised to take what he calls ‘a fourth turning’.  The third turning he argues happened almost 1000 years ago. Buddhism is also the religion I have studied the most formally myself.

Wilber demonstrates how his comprehensive Integral Approach–which is already being applied to several world religions by some of their adherents, can avert a cultural disaster of unparalleled proportions: the utter neglect of the glorious upper reaches of human potential by the materialistic postmodern worldview. Additionally, he shows how we can apply this approach to our personal spiritual practice.

For those who have studied Integral before, much of this book will be repetitive. Wilber has a very circular way of writing which is great for learning but he does chew up a lot of pages to reiterate certain points. He spends most of his time reviewing States and Stages (hundreds of pages). Wilber writes that states and structures of consciousness are two of the most important psycho-spiritual elements that humans possess, each having their own development spectrum. States, states of consciousness, or spiritual experience are those that the religions have explored for thousands of years. Wilber refers to these as the WAKING UP process.

Stages or stages and structures of consciousness is what Wilber considers spiritual intelligence and necessary for GROWING UP. 

Oversimplifying greatly here, Wilber argues that the great traditions are not taking into account the modern developments in structures of consciousness that humanity and individuals have developed over the past hundreds of years. And because of this, a spiritual master may have achieved the highest state of nondual consciousness possible, but be stuck in a lower stage of development and manifest that nondual spiritual religion through an ethnocentric or mythic worldview. Wilber refers many times to the challenges and problems that arose as many highly state developed East Asian Buddhist teachers began integrating with a western society that was more evolved from a stage perspective (views on race, sex, etc.) and the confusion and pain this often created.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed this book – for me it served as in introduction to Integral teachings: quadrants, levels, lines, states, etc. I also appreciated how Wilber can quickly move between very academic and scholarly language and then suddenly be guiding a meditation on nonduality. I had some inspirational moments of reading this in the middle of the night in chemo and steroid-induced mental states.

I also appreciate gaining a new understanding of the stages of consciousness and their relationship to spiritual development. Wilber shed light on a number of confusing situations I have experienced where highly realized (states) teachers were manifesting their teachings and actions from a lower vantage point (stage) of realization. It helps remind me of the criticality of taking a more holistic approach to development in life in general (cognitive, interpersonal, moral, spiritual, emotional, somatic, etc.). High states are not enough.

Finally – Wilber tangentially dives into teachings on chakras, subtle and causal bodies, shadow work, culture wars, state and stage dysfunctions, and a number of other areas that are definitely worth a read.

One of my main disappointments of this book is that Wilber never actually reaches the point of discussing how the fourth turning of Buddhism will manifest – after addressing this in the introduction and promising that he will use Buddhism as an example, he simply never returns to it. My hunch is that after 800 pages he decided it warranted another book, which I just discovered has been written (The Fourth Turning), somehow in the years before The Religion of Tomorrow

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