10. Heraclitus is perhaps the earliest Western thinker to have a clear grasp of circular
understanding and the bi-directional nature of all dynamic processes. Not surprisingly
he exercised a considerable influence on the great philosopher Hegel who is perhaps
the most comprehensive proponent of such understanding.
Interestingly, Ken Wilber entitles one of the Chapters in SES on the famous phrase
from Heraclitus "The way up is the way down". It is also commonly translated as "The
way up and the way down are one and the same". This indeed is an emphatic
statement of the nature of bi-directional (circular) understanding.
However having read this Chapter on numerous occasions, I can find no clear
evidence of appropriate dynamic understanding in Ken's interpretation.
Indeed on P.337 in discussing the system of Plotinus he refers directly to this quote
when he says "The Path of Ascent or Reflux thus traces, in reverse order, The Path of
Creation or Descent or efflux, for as Heraclitus had pointed out, "The way up is the
way down, the way down is the way up".
However though this may seem to indicate that Ken indeed adopts true circular
understanding, when we examine closely we find that this impression is mistaken.
In fact Ken, in maintaining that the Path of Descent traces in reverse order the Path of
Ascent is using unambiguous linear understanding. And this is not at all what
Nor is this just an isolated instance. For example in the way that he deals with
regression in development (which is so essential to an understanding of Underhill's
stages), Ken repeatedly provides a linear - rather than a dynamic circular -
For example in "Integral Psychology" p. 142, in criticising the Romantic notion that
the deeper ground or potential that is lost through development of the analytic ego can
be regained through enlightenment he says
"This ground is said to be the same ground one regains in enlightenment, but if so,
why would anyone ever abandon it? If this ground is regained, why does this system
do something it does in no other system, namely start running backwards? Would a
chicken regress to an egg in order to find itself".
Now if we need a statement to show how foreign true circular understanding is to Ken's actual mode of thinking we have it here.
His stance is totally at variance with that of Heraclitus whose central insight was that
all developmental processes run in opposite directions. It is also totally at variance
with the approach of Underhill who adopts a very strong bi-directional approach in
her interpretation of mystical development.
Because of the importance of this issue I will attempt to properly clarify what
Heraclitus really means with his famous statement.
Imagine two people who meet at a point along a straight road say in a desert. Now if
they are to obtain an unambiguous notion of direction they have to arbitrarily fix their
frame of reference. So if pointing in one direction they agree to designate that as "up"
then the opposite direction will be unambiguously "down" the same road.
However they could equally have pointed in the other direction initially designating it
as "up" the road in which case the opposite direction would be now "down". So
therefore what is "up" in terms of the first reference frame is "down" in terms of the
second; equally what is "down" in terms of the first is "up" in terms of the second
The vital point here for development, is that relationships are fundamentally based on
opposite poles e.g. interior and exterior, whole and part, form and emptiness,
progression and regression etc.
Now, because in dynamic terms these opposite poles are always interdependent, we
can only attempt to understand these relationships in analytic terms by arbitrarily
fixing the reference frame with just one pole. For example, with popular science the
reference frame is commonly taken as the exterior pole, so that the world is typically
investigated as if it were independent of the observing self.
However going back to our simple road example illustrating Heraclitus, we are
always entitled in such situations to fix our reference frame with the opposite pole,
which will give us an equally valid alternative interpretation for the same dynamic
Once again the implications here are truly enormous for they apply to all
developmental relationships (which are necessarily conditioned by opposite poles).
If Ken properly appreciated both the nature and importance of circular bi-directional
understanding, then he would readily appreciate - as Underhill does - why in
development that running forwards necessarily entails running backwards.