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Ken Wilber's Call to Grow Up, Clean Up, Wake Up, and Show Up

An interview about age with integral philosopher Ken Wilber.

Key points

  • Aging is an opportunity for emotional and spiritual growth.
  • Aging is also an opportunity to give back and serve the common good.
  • Mortality awareness creates an urgency for life completion.

I met Ken Wilber in the 1980's, decades before he launched Integral Institute, which would soon catch fire around the world. Standing next to him in a wooden A-frame house in Mendocino, California, hours north of San Francisco, I felt dwarfed, quite literally. At 5 feet 1 inch, I had to crane my neck up to meet his eye, standing over 6 feet tall. At the time, I was avidly reading everything he wrote and reviewing it in the science newsletter Brain/Mind Bulletin. During the years that passed, Ken's writings grew more complex and more inclusive, embracing all aspects of life in a grand “theory of everything.” And my respect grew more profound.

Tim Mansfield/Flickr, used under creative commons license.
Ken Wilber
Source: Tim Mansfield/Flickr, used under creative commons license.

Several of his key concepts led to deep, lasting insights for me: states of awareness becoming stages, evolution through transcending and including earlier stages, separate lines of development, spiritual bypass, the Atman project. I feel deep gratitude to Ken.

When I reached out for an interview recently, he was right there, as if no time had passed, despite a demanding writing and teaching schedule. I opened with this question: “Are you feeling old yet?”

“Parts of me feel old, other parts don’t relate to my experience that way. I feel better than ever.”

How was he using the aging process? “Growing old is an opportunity to reset our priorities, a continuing chance to drop things that aren’t important. If we continue to do that, then we will have left the world more whole than we found it. If every human could make that statement truthfully, then the planet would see a slow and consistent increase in those values.”

Is his mortality affecting his choices? “There’s an urgency now, no excuses. As the wisdom holders, we need to help people find what’s important—to Grow Up by moving through the early stages of emotional maturing, Clean Up by doing shadow-up, Wake Up by doing spiritual practice, and Show Up by serving humanity in the world. Amidst the pain and the doctor’s visits, these priorities give clarity to age. It’s like an extended period of sesshin, or spiritual practice: We sit with the wisdom of a lifetime, the knowledge of what works and what doesn’t, and reflect on how to help humanity.”

Ken told me that his 2017 book, The Religion of Tomorrow, was like his last will and testament. “I’ve been studying the ingredients of self-improvement for 50 years. This book embodies the insights that made an impact on me for the future.”

Did he have any message for my readers of The Inner Work of Age? “Aging is a natural movement of the self if we let go again and again and move into higher and higher stages and an expanded sense of morality. In this way, we become a resource to others to bring deeper values and ideals into the world.”

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