Trickle-Down Spirituality


Joseph Dillard


In this chapter from a forthcoming book, “Integral Ethics,” trickle-down spirituality is explained using an analogy to trickle-down economics, to delineate common forces within spiritual elites that unintentionally generate inequality and injustice. If these processes are not understood and addressed, even the best spiritual elites, including Integral, eventually collapse. 

What does trickle-down economics have to do with spirituality? First, we need a bit of background regarding what trickle-down economics is. Trickle-down economics is an economic theory that advocates reducing taxes on businesses and the wealthy in society as a means to stimulate business investment in the short term and benefit society at large in the long term. In general, it is a form of laissez-faire capitalism, and more specifically supply side-economics. Whereas general supply-side theory favors lowering taxes overall, trickle-down theory more specifically targets taxes on the upper end of the economic spectrum.  “Trickle-down” is a pejorative term created by humorist Will Rogers as a vivid description of opposing economic philosophies:

This election was lost four and six years ago, not this year. They [Republicans] didn’t start thinking of the old common fellow till just as they started out on the election tour. The money was all appropriated for the top in the hopes that it would trickle down to the needy. Mr. Hoover was an engineer. He knew that water trickles down. Put it uphill and let it go and it will reach the driest little spot. But he didn’t know that money trickled up. Give it to the people at the bottom and the people at the top will have it before night, anyhow. But it will at least have passed through the poor fellows hands. They saved the big banks, but the little ones went up the flue.[1]

However, the concept dates back to at least William Jennings Bryant and his famous “Cross of Gold” speech of 1896:

There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.

Multiple studies have found a correlation between trickle-down economics and reduced growth,[2],[3],[4]  while its opposite, tax cuts for the poor and middle classes with high tax rates for the wealthy, have been shown to stimulate economies. In the 1992 election campaign, independent candidate Ross Perot called trickle-down “political voodoo.”[5] In the 2011 election in New Zealand, candidate Damien O’Conner called trickle down, “the rich pissing on the poor.”

Associated with “Reaganomics,” which lowered the maximum tax rate from 70% to 28%, the phrase “trickle-down” is often used today to criticize economic policies which favor elites, while being framed as good for the average citizen. A 2012 study by the Tax Justice Network indicates that wealth of the super-rich does not trickle down to improve the economy, but tends to be amassed and sheltered in tax havens with a negative effect on the tax bases of the home economy.[6] In 2013, Pope Francis referred to trickle-down theories:

Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.[7]

A 2015 paper by researchers for the International Monetary Fund argues that there is no trickle-down effect as the rich get richer:

[I]f the income share of the top 20 percent (the rich) increases, then GDP growth actually declines over the medium term, suggesting that the benefits do not trickle down. In contrast, an increase in the income share of the bottom 20 percent (the poor) is associated with higher GDP growth.[8]

In the 2016 U.S. presidential candidates’ debate, Hillary Clinton accused Donald Trump of supporting the “most extreme” version of trickle-down economics with his tax plan, calling it “trumped-up trickle-down.”[9] Trickle-down economics is still alive and well in 2018, as witnessed by the passage of Donald Trump’s tax legislation, which many analysts have concluded largely favor the wealthiest at the expense of the middle and lower classes.

How Integral and spirituality in general inadvertently supports trickle-down spirituality

Trickle-down spirituality emphasizes interior quadrant spirituality, intention, values, world view and consciousness as a means to stimulate the growth of exterior quadrant systems, relationships, behavior, society, moral action, and justice. For example, a world view of cognitive multi-perspectivalism, a LL perspective, creates the framing in which all elements of AQAL are cognitively apprehended. The strength of transpersonal experiences of transformative oneness easily leave us convinced that reality is consciousness and consciousness is reality. After such experiences, it is difficult not to agree with Plotinus, that all reality emanates from the One. The self or Self, the climber of the ladder, an UL perspective, creates the locus of both perception and reality from which all others and all events are perceived and evaluated. All three of these assumptions prejudice the interior quadrants, not only for integral, but for all “new thought,” “cultural creative,” “evolutionary,” and “spiritual” elites.

Trickle-down spirituality also views interior quadrant spirituality, intention, values, and consciousness as a means of creating a societal revolution through a paradigm shift in national and global consciousness. The idea is, “If you adopt my consciousness, and its benefits will trickle down to you. You and your world will be transformed.” Spiritual elites typically make this assumption.

Trickle-down spirituality typically assumes that the stimulation of growth in some world view will transform the consciousness of the world, “lifting all boats.” That world view may be the cognitive multi-perspectivalism of Ken Wilber’s, AQAL, the positive thinking of some New Age guru, like Ernest Holmes, Napoleon Hill, Dale Carnegie, Maxwell Maltz, or Og Mandino, Tony Robbins, or Oprah Winfrey. It could be the quantum spirituality of people like Deepak Chopra or the descensionist spirituality of Stanislov Grof and Michael Washburn, or the scientific spirituality of people like Fritjof Capra or your favorite school of chakra-infused energy medicine. It could be the “oneness” ideologies of the Eckhardt Tolles of the world, or it could manifest as psychotherapeutic spirituality like “The Forum.” Then again, trickle-down spirituality can manifest as the enlightened guruism of your favorite teacher of Tibetan Dzogchen, Zen satori, or Theravadin mindfulness. All of these are forms of trickle-down spiritualism because they favor interior quadrants over exterior ones, consciousness over behavior, transformation over balance, elitism over equality, and dogma over justice.

Trickle-down and laissez-faire

There is nothing wrong with interior quadrants, consciousness, transformation, elite competence, or strong beliefs. Problems only arise when they are chronically favored over opposite qualities required to maintain homeostasis. Trickle-down spirituality is a very popular form of laissez-faire, because it not only does not threaten proponents of trickle-down economics, it supports them by signaling solidarity with elite priorities of status, power, control, and privilege. It does so by adopting and championing basic principles commonly identified with laissez-faire economics. A product of the Enlightenment, laissez-faire capitalism was conceived as the way to unleash human potential through the restoration of a natural economic system. Here are some of its similarities to trickle-down spirituality:

Just as laissez-faire capitalism trumpets non-interference in the marketplace in the name of natural law, so trickle-down spirituality demands adherence to some set of “spiritual” principles, whether called dharma, positive thinking, obedience to “commandments,” scripture, one’s guru, karma, AQAL, or the “developmental spiral.” The core principles requiring adherence include personal responsibility, merit, and development: improve yourself and the whole world will get better.

Just as Adam Smith viewed the economy as a natural system and the market as an organic part of that system, so trickle-down spirituality views consciousness as the fundamental, prevailing reality and human society as its product. The spiritual market place can get away with this generalization because of the multiple ways that it defines “spirituality” and “consciousness,” first referring to UL states, like waking, dreaming, sleeping, and life after death, then to a particular UL state (enlightenment), then an UL stage (subtle or causal), then to some stage of all four quadrants of human holons, including society. This ambiguity renders these terms useless for any conversation in which clarity of meaning is important, but highly useful for those conversations in which ambiguity can be used to create out of thin air the illusion of consensus and emotional solidarity.  For those who value insight over wisdom and catharsis over balance, trickle-down spirituality is a cause worth fighting for.

Smith saw laissez-faire as a moral program and the market as its instrument to ensure men the rights of natural law.[10]  Spiritual elitists are sure of their moral superiority, because they judge morality by their intentions, not by their trustworthiness in the eyes of those whose lives are impacted by both their actions and inaction. This morality trickles down, as the Christian morality of the Spanish, Portugese, English, French, and Belgians did to the inhabitants of the Americas and Africa. Trickle-down spirituality works on the same principle and generates similar results, albeit not of the same intensity. Similarly, the trickle-down spirituality of elites is a moral program; its world view is its instrument for insuring humans the blessings of an expanded, more liberating world view.

By extension, free markets become a reflection of the natural system of liberty. For Smith, laissez-faire was a program for the abolition of laws constraining the market, a program for the restoration of order and for the activation of potential growth.”[11] For elitists, trickle-down spirituality becomes a reflection of divine order in individual life as enlightenment and in society as utopia. Like Smith’s laissez-faire capitalism, spiritual trickle-down is a crusade for the abolition of ethnocentric and non “worldcentric” world views that are “less adequate,” thereby cementing its advocates as elitists of the worst sort: those who punish their intellectual and moral inferiors “for their own good.” This is both bad civilizational parenting and ideological colonialism.

Just as laissez-faire capitalism trumpets the “invisible hand,” so trickle-down spirituality affirms the primacy of the self and its responsibility to itself for itself, in the belief that when we each are on our own path to enlightenment, the consciousness of mankind is uplifted. We can see how well this has worked in Hinduism with the doctrine of karma and the caste system. It worked so well that it had to be outlawed, once the concept of human rights was introduced by the West.

Just as laissez-faire capitalism fights the intervention of government, trickle-down spirituality is an opponent of barriers to individual responsibility, choice, initiative, power, and control. Tony Robbins’ immortal statement of ultimate altruism comes to mind as an interesting example of this fight, direct from one the leaders of the elite community of “opinion makers:” “Success is doing what you want, when you want, where you want, with whom you want, as much as you want.” It is fascinating that many people view this quote as “inspirational” and “motivational” rather than as grandiose, narcissistic, and extraordinarily self-centered. What level of development does Integral AQAL tell us Tony Robbins has probably attained?  How are we to reconcile that with this quote? Are we really supposed to imagine that any rational person will hear this pronouncement as “shadow” of some advanced stage of some highly-evolved individual? Is it wise to excuse such utterances as a small slip in an otherwise illustrious and sterling career of inspiring leadership?

Unlike laissez-faire capitalism, trickle-down spirituality has no problem using government to establish and expand its priorities, at the expense of opposing world views. This is an example of the performative logical fallacy, in that spiritual elites declare a world view of cognitive multi-perspectivalism and spiritual excellence, implying pluralism and egalitarianism. But in declaring their world view superior to all others, in a demonstration of their elitist exceptionalism, they unwittingly contradict themselves. 

Dogmatism and trickle-down spirituality

Is it possible to have a multi-perspectival world view and be a dogmatist, that is, a True Believer, in a prepersonal and pre-rational ideology, at the same time? Most integralists would argue “no.” There is evidence, however, that dogmatism does indeed exist within trickle-down spirituality.

It is dogmatic to believe that the world will be renewed if only a certain percentage of its population adopts a similar, multi-perspectival world view to our own. While this is the position of Wilber’s integral, it is endemic to elitists everywhere. If the rest of the world would only accept American democracy and freedom (as well as exploitation by American multi-national corporations), they would be happy and the world would be at peace. If the people of the world would only accept into their hearts Jesus as their personal savior, all suffering, sin, and pain would vanish from the earth. If people would only practice Tibetan Buddhist Dzogchen, Zen, or Vipassana, they would experience enlightenment and end all suffering. If people would only accept laissez-faire capitalism they would see that the wisdom of markets would raise all ships and bring prosperity to all. If people could have only elected Hillary Clinton, or would only vote for similar progressive Democrats like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren in future elections, and return a Democratic majority to congress, then pluralism and egalitarianism will heal the wounds and set the nation back on the path to prosperity and peace.

If you and I will only accept some world view that someone is selling, then we too will be elitists; we will join the exceptionalists; we will be sheep, not goats, the elect, not the damned. This is a very, very ancient game. It is impressive that so many people who pride themselves on being 2nd Tier are still under its spell.[12]

It is dogmatic to believe that a more inclusive, transcendent world view is equivalent to a higher level of development. We can all name transpersonal adepts who were moral lizards, yet we still want to not only believe in our favorite sources of enlightenment but make excuses for all sorts of obviously stupid, selfish, or unethical behavior. The definition of stupidity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. The belief that my particular version of snake oil will cure your ills is a very ancient tradition. Examine all world views, and particularly those which promise you some elitist status. If you go for the worm you will not see the hook. If you bite, you surrender both your autonomy and credibility in the eyes of the global commons.

It is dogmatic to believe that a more inclusive, transcendent world view is intrinsically better. Beavers do not build better dams if they adopt a more inclusive, transcendent world view. People are not more effective, loving, empathetic, or moral if they adopt a more inclusive, transcendent world view. You can and will find people at tribal and ethnocentric world views who are as capable in all these qualities as you are. Some will be more so. The correlation between developmental stages, which are very real, and advancement in these qualities, which is implied, is assumed, not demonstrated. The global commons does not judge trustworthiness or respect by scientific developmental standards, such as those painstakingly compiled by Wilber in the back of Integral Psychology. Those are developmental processes associated with maturation; morality and empathy are determinations that do not rely on developmental level, but rather on the objective assessment of others who do not care what our developmental level is. What they care about is whether we are trustworthy, skillful, competent, enjoyable, and demonstrate respect. These competencies are largely independent of ideology, level of development, exceptionalism, and elitism. They exist or are absent on all levels, equally. You are as apt to find them equally within packs of wolves as within Dzogchen masters, when each group and individual is evaluated within its own context. There is nothing intrinsically elitist about any of the core attributes by which we determine who to respect and trust.

It is dogmatic to believe that people who profess an inclusive, transcendent world view are more moral (or helpful) than those who do not. This is a common mistake of democratic progressives. They confuse ideology with effectiveness, a point that is summarized by the following test: If you want to find out if a student is university material, give him or her a can and a can opener. Those who can’t open the can are university material. While this is indeed cynical, unfair, and untrue, by exaggeration it makes the point that there are many areas in life where ideology or level of development may not have any bearing at all or which might even have a negative bearing. If you want to survive in the wilderness, do you want someone at 2nd Tier or someone with wilderness survival skills? If you answer, “I prefer someone with both,” you avoid the uncomfortable obvious answer because it does not fit your variety of dogmatism. This is also an explanation for why, in a contest between Pepsi and Coke, Donald Trump got elected. A lot of people didn’t care that Hillary met elitist standards of a higher level of development because they didn’t trust her. Enough people gambled on something else – anything else – over prevailing ideology, to tip the scales.  In a contest between Pepsi and Coke, where you know your only choice is bad health and wasted money, ideology or world view is not going to determine what wins out.

Inequality and social injustice are increasing

Inequality is increasing, and most people will agree that some forms of inequality, like access to employment, education, and health care, not only matter, but describe states of injustice. The poor are getting poorer while money is pooling at the top 1%. Only eight people, including Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Bill Gates of Microsoft, and investor Warren Buffet, together have as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population – some 4 billion people. The world’s 10 biggest corporations together have revenue greater than the 180 poorest countries combined.[13] On economic, health, and moral grounds, poverty matters. The wealthy are both more powerful and happier than the poor in significant ways. 1.5 million school children in the US do not have a home to live in, and are going to school each day from shelters or from the homes of friends or relatives who have taken them in because they’ve lost their homes. This, in the richest country in the world, home of the greatest collective gathering of spiritual, eduational, technological, economic, and financial elites in the world. In 2016, over 40 million of 320 million Americans were classed as food insecure, meaning they did not have enough food for an active and healthy life. Again, this is in the richest country in the world with the greatest collection of elites. Could there possibly be a correlation? The US is also one of the few developed countries in the world where college is not free or virtually free to all those who are admitted. Instead, we have college graduates or people who have had to drop out of college who hold a total of $1.48 trillion in outstanding college loan debt, much of it carrying extortionate interest rates of 6% or more.

The World Happiness Report states that “The USA is a story of reduced happiness. In 2007, the USA ranked 3rd among the OECD countries; in 2016 it came 19th. The reasons are declining social support and increased corruption…and it is these same factors that explain why the Nordic countries do so much better…(the) US showed less social support, less sense of personal freedom, lower donations, and more perceived corruption of government and business.”[14] Overall well-being among U.S. adults has declined substantially in 2017.[15] The “Happy Planet Index,” which is an index of human well-being and environmental impact gives higher scores to countries with lower ecological footprints. The US scores among the worst. Why? Although it is completely blind to this reality and vehemently denies reality, the ideology of spiritual elites is either neutral or supportive toward exploitative trickle-down capitalism. Either actively, in its desire to win adherents and prosper, or passively, by not actively resisting, spiritual elites continue to be in collusion with plutocrats in advocacy of an exploitative world view.

Most people would not only cite the dismal and worsening state of well-being in the US as evidence that trickle-down economics has been a cruel fraud, but that beyond that, it is evidence we support a system that inflicts massive economic injustice. However, most of us accept this situation. For example, we continue to believe that voting for “progressive Democrats” will actually improve government and reduce plutocracy. We refuse to recognize how our elitist world view supports an exploitative plutocracy that destroys equality and strangles social opportunity. To understand the psychology of such irrational acceptance, we have to take a deep look into trickle-down spirituality, a deeper, more profound form of delusion than trickle-down economics.

Integral assumptions that inadvertently support trickle-down spirituality

We know that trickle-down spirituality is not a straw man logical fallacy because it is baked into various forms of spiritual elitism. For example, integral AQAL assumes that higher levels of development, say 2nd Tier, are intrinsically superior to lower ones, say, late prepersonal, as if an oak tree is better than an acorn or an adult is better than a child. Just because higher levels transcend and include lower ones does not mean that a lower level is not only adequate for a condition; it may be superior. If you want to build a termite colony, it is far better to be a termite than a human. Clearly, what is superior for any stage of development is balance within that stage; a transcendent, more inclusive stage can be totally irrelevant, useless, or unhelpful for where you are in your development. An excellent example of this is how much adult knowledge is not only irrelevant to the needs of children but can be positively counter-productive or even harmful, like porn and exposure to violence. Another is how unusual it is for those who have near death or mystical experiences to integrate them in ways that positively impact their lives in lasting ways. Experiences that are far beyond the pale are notoriously difficult to integrate into our ongoing sense of self, yet spiritual elites continue to build both reality and the salvation of the world around them.

The irrelevance of issues important for higher levels of development, such as meditative objectivity, to the growth priorities of lower levels, such as learning to share, is one reason why it is nonsense to compare animal and human intelligence. Instead, we need to compare adaptability within environmental contexts. For example, a dolphin’s intelligence is much superior to a human’s intelligence for life in a marine environment without technological assistance. A human’s intelligence is much superior to a dolphin’s intelligence for life in a terrestrial environment, even without technological assistance. The idea that higher levels are superior to lower is elitist; it is an important assumption of trickle-down spirituality and is one of its sustaining structural elements. What we can say is that higher levels on any developmental line have adaptive advantages, but these are lost if core lines, like empathy and morality are ignored or fixated. What does it matter if you are a Zen monk practicing non-dual meditation for twenty years if you kill for the emperor because you believe it is ethical and just? What does it matter if you have practiced Tibetan Dzogchen non-dual meditation for decades if you see no problem with having your lifestyle supported by indentured slaves in a feudal theocracy? Just how “enlightened” are you? Just how empathetic are you?

Another core elitist concept is responsibility. For New Age positivity in particular, responsibility is a core competency. It can become so central as to be grandiose, as if our thoughts create what others think and do. Responsibility is not always a superior position. For example, the idea that we create our reality is found to be absurd, when evaluated with even the slightest amount of objectivity. To say that children who suffer cancer somehow are responsible for their disease is so immoral as to be criminal. To say that human behavior creates sun spots and flares is breathtakingly grandiose, as if human consciousness and its stupidity were more important to the sun than maintaining its own homeostasis. The idea of karma, in which we created our current circumstances by our choices in past lives, is another example of a vast abuse of the concept of responsibility. We might call such beliefs the “mythology of responsibility.”

A primary LR purpose of this mythology is social control. If I can make you believe that you are where you are because you chose it, you will passively and compliantly accept whatever injustice I generate. Indeed, you may even view that injustice as a form of grace, of your courage and devotion as displayed by your acceptance of sudra, or outcast status, for yourself and your family. Similarly, when we take responsibility for the mistakes or failures of others, as parents often do for their children, we are taking on the role of rescuer within the Drama Triangle, helping neither them nor ourselves.

Consequently, the doctrine of personal responsibility can be, and often is, used as a tool by spiritual elites to generate trickle-down spirituality. When I teach you to take responsibility for everything, What I do as an elitist becomes your responsibility, not mine. My responsibility trickles down to you and what trickles up to me is license. You make me free to abuse you and make yourself free to accept your inferior status in an unjust system.

We have seen that a fundamental assumption for trickle-down spirituality is that higher development in the form of enlightenment is the cure to human suffering. If you become enlightened, the benefits of enlightened consciousness will trickle down to bestow grace upon others in the world. But enlightenment did not keep Buddhism from being exterminated in India and Tibet. Why not? Non-dual meditation did not keep Japanese Zen monks from taking up weapons and becoming passionate supporters of imperial fascism. Why not? The assumption of relative enlightenment did not prevent 100 stellar “evolutionaries,” that is, contemporary “thought leaders” across multiple fields, from supporting the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Why not?[16] Where is the evidence that higher levels of development, personal responsibility, and enlightenment “trickle down” and lift up the entire world?

Further problems with trickle-down spirituality

Trickle-down spirituality emphasizes a privileged, exceptionalist world view over collective measurements of the quality of relationships, such as trustworthiness and respect. While these are interior collective values, their measurement is not. The consequence is that trickle-down spirituality is elitist; it doesn’t hold itself accountable to the global collective, but only to its own world view.

Trickle-down spirituality, again like trickle-down economics, is self-centered. Because it places the expansion of individual consciousness, personal enlightenment and individual development before collective support, group improvement, and collective quality of life, it alienates itself from the collective to which it wants to appeal. It says, “I love and support you” while in practice it demands the collective adopt its world view and priorities as its own. It says, “Think like I do, believe what I do, and you will be happy and enlightened.” The vast majority suspect this as deceitful and manipulative, and consequently, does not trust the motivations of spiritual elites. This is not difficult to understand. All one has to do is compare standards of living of those following some brand of trickle-down spirituality and those who do not. Use the global happiness scale, for instance, which compares countries on a number of components of satisfaction. If spiritual trickle-down were indeed superior, we would see those benefits demonstrated in measurable improvements in exterior quadrant criteria, since the claim is that interior spiritual transformations “trickle down” and out to behavior and the world as a whole. What we find instead is that those countries that are “thought leaders” in trickle-down spirituality, particularly the United States, from which sprang all varieties of New Thought, New Age, Integral AQAL, and many forms of energy-quantum wonderfulness are in the crapper in terms of measurements of global happiness. Why is that?

Inherent delusions of trickle-down spirituality

Trickle-down spirituality views consciousness as the fundamental, prevailing reality and human society as a product of it. Holons are centered on the self as ontological singular identities. Holonic development is not centered on societal holons – manifestly real, present, and extraordinarily powerful determiners of individual and social success and happiness, but on consciousness holons. However, societal holons, organized around collectives and largely exterior to our control, are as real and arguably more important and powerful to the everyday lives of all species, including humans, as are interior, individual, consciousness holons organized around the self. There is no doubt, as Wilber has pointed out in Integral Spirituality, that level of socio-cultural civilizational development, that is, LR holons, frame, limit, define, and determine the developmental possibilities of individual members. Subsets do not transcend the sets of which they are members; Jesus, born into a socio-cultural world view that viewed disease as caused by demons, obviously shared that world view, and no amount of contemporary exegesis is going to make him something other than a product of his socio-cultural context, just as are you and I. But trickle-down spirituality does not give contextual social holons equal billing, much less superior billing, in those domains in which their influence predominates, such as economic security, human relations, control and power relationships. The result is both imbalance and spiritual elitism that complements economic elitism.

Trickle-down spirituality is not only inherently self-centered; it is grandiose. It says, “I know your truth.” What could be more elitist? Most forms of religion, spirituality, and new age positive thinking, teach that if you embrace some particular version of trickle-down spirituality, declared to be “True,” that good things will happen to you. Good will trickle down. These benefits may include good health and economic prosperity due to your positive thinking.

There is an important difference between eliminating cognitive distortions and positive thinking. For example, thinking, “Everything is crap,” is a cognitive distortion because you don’t know everything. Therefore, it is an irrational, pre-rational, emotionally-based exaggeration. What may indeed be true is to say or think, “I feel like everything is crap.” That may be an authentic expression of how you feel. But notice that there is nothing positive about this thought, even though it is not a cognitive distortion. This is the difference between eliminating cognitive distortions and positive thinking. To eliminate cognitive distortions is not necessarily positive, but it is realistic. However, positive thinking, as a form of spiritual elitist trickle-down, imposes no requirement of realism. Positive thinkers can and often do live in states of self-created delusion and want you to validate their waking dream.

Psychic ability and the burning of karma have long been promised trickle-down benefits of Hinduism. Just meditate and follow this or that bhakti, raja, karma, or hatha marga, and grace, good fortune, and spiritual powers will “trickle-down” as blessings from above. Buddhism promises the extinguishing of all suffering will trickle down if you just follow the Eightfold Noble Path. The Old Testament cites various blessings of God that will trickle down if you are obedient. Jews, Christians, and Moslems generally accept the truth of this version of trickle-down spirituality. The New Testament cites salvation, grace, and protection from evil as trickle down benefits for believers. There is even the implication, based on the miraculous healings of Jesus, that believers in spiritual trickle-down will be physically healed. Indeed, this belief was codified as Mary Baker Eddy’s “Christian Science” in 1879. Confession in the Catholic Church provides a form of trickle down that leads to the forgiveness of sins by God, the entering into a state of grace, and the prospect of heaven after death. The attainment of inner peace, whether through meditation or the attainment of high mystical states, is widely assumed to “trickle down” into a blessed life.

While one can believe in any or all of these things and experience multiple benefits, it does not follow that any of these world views are better or are more likely to generate happiness. It does not follow that the benefits come from the belief in spiritual trickle-down, any more than someone landing a job at McDonald’s is a product of economic trickle-down. Happiness is most predictably a product of balance within one’s life circumstances, whatever they may be, rather than the following of this or that system of belief, whether it is Integral AQAL or snake-handling evangelicals. If you have graduate degrees and live in Boston, you are no more likely to be happy than someone who is a farmer in Equador. In fact, it can be argued that it is more difficult to be happy with graduate degrees in Boston, because you have a great deal more factors to bring into balance in order to be happy.

Spiritual elitism, a form of exceptionalism, is no guarantee of happiness. Paths that promise happiness via their exclusivity can actually make it less likely that you will find the life balance required for happiness. For example, in integral AQAL, the higher you go the more likely you will have core lines out of balance. This is a direct contradiction to the basic premise of trickle-down spirituality, because it declares that happiness does not come from anything trickling down, but from bringing into balance who you are today, where you are.

Your lines of cognition and “spiritual excellence” can easily outrun your moral and empathic lines. The result will be a reduced chance that you will find happiness, and a greater chance that you will have a “legitimation crisis” and experience “evolutionary self-correction.” This is a reason why the higher you climb the less likely you are to be happy. It is why genius in any field is inherently subject to imbalance. You increase the likelihood that you are out of balance the higher you climb on any line, because you are most likely ignoring your lagging or fixated lines. This is normal; we are reinforced for developing our strengths and are reminded of our failings when we deal with our weakest areas. Because this is aversive, we cultivate our strengths and ignore our weaknesses, throwing ourselves out of balance. We build our lives on our strengths, on this or that variety of inauthentic elitism.

Integral AQAL has its own version of spiritual trickle-down. If enough people will meditate, learn AQAL, and attain a multi-perspectival world view, a “tipping point” will be reached, and society as a whole will be transformed, bringing an age of relative peace, stability, and happiness. Therefore, a basic teaching of Integral is to encourage you to aspire to a higher developmental level, like “teal,” to a broader, clearer, more inclusive consciousness. These continue to be basic themes of Wilber’s most recent writings, to be found in both his Trump and a Post-Truth World: An Evolutionary Self-Correction, and The Religion of Tomorrow. The problem is that this is trickle-down spirituality: if you will only climb higher, we will tip the scales and bring manna from heaven and create heaven on earth. Our consciousness will “trickle-down” and lift everybody up.

“Legimitation crises” disclose trickle-down spirituality

Trickle-down spirituality is easy to advocate and maintain as long as the spread of a belief system, such as integral AQAL, is accompanied by a general improvement of social well-being. However, when socio-cultural realities turn south, religious, spiritual, and integral elites need ways to explain these uncomfortable setbacks. Similarly, when our belief in our own cherished version of trickle-down spirituality is attacked, we can be as determined in our defense as any plutocrat whose belief in trickle-down economics is threatened.

Trickle-down spirituality is easy to believe when times are good, but in the face of the unrelenting growth of ruthlessness and injustice, cognitive dissonance becomes more difficult to rationalize away. Historically, set-backs, disease, economic distress, and various social catastrophies that threaten our belief in the delusion of trickle-down spirituality have been ascribed to evil or a “lack of faith.” We did not pray or sacrifice enough to the right god, or were disobedient. In China, floods, earthquakes, and invasions happened because people were not aligned with the will of “Heaven.” Bad times were not only the result of our misbehavior, but our punishment for “falling away.”

It is as difficult to show how submission to belief in a broader, more inclusive consciousness creates economic security, provides health care, education, or opportunity as it is to demonstrate that rewarding plutocrats with more wealth will make our lives better. Indeed, if the claims supporting spiritual trickle-down are closely investigated, they are largely found to amount to prepersonal, pre-rational magical thinking in the service of those who benefit from the status quo at our expense. If we just believe in what someone tells us we need to believe, then happiness, wisdom and goodness will trickle down into our lives. It is a little like keeping our eyes glued to the TV set while thieves move our furniture out the back door.

If we examine the data on health, economic security and education levels among those populations which have believed most fervently in spiritual trickle-down, what we find are multitudes who are discriminated against and ask for more abuse. In India, this description fits the untold millions who have lived and died within the lower castes of the Hindu caste system. In pre-1959 Buddhist Tibet, this description fits generations of feudal serfs, tied to the land, generally controlled by monasteries, and laboring without any chance for economic or educational betterment. In Catholicism and indeed, in Christianity in general, we have a history of a predatory, pedophilia priesthood using a combination of fear, groupthink, and magical promises to maintain both control and compliance. This description also fits progressive Democrats and integralists who supported “2nd Tier” Bill Clinton because he read Wilber and thought he was a genius, or corrupt drone assassin Hillary Clinton because she was “green” egalitarian and pluralistic, the “lesser of two evils.” These people keep going back to the same dry well, voting for the next round of progressive Democratic hopefuls because they are fervent believers in trickle-down spirituality. I am not under any illusions that anything I write is going to change their minds, but there are some that are questioning and are waking up; they are wondering why Obama didn’t turn out to be so great after all, or why multiple “Blue Waves” that have returned Congress and the Presidency to Democrats have not reversed the regression of the US to a fascist, totalitarian plutocracy. It’s because trickle-down spirituality is in collusion with trickle-down economics. It is an unsuspecting, useful tool of the plutocracy. It’s past time to wake up.

What we find historically, continuing into the present, is that elites are proficient at getting both other elites and non-elites to accept the upward distribution of wealth, opportunity, and privilege. Spiritual elites today, including Integral AQAL, are in unconscious collusion with this corrupt status quo, to the extent that they advocate for spiritual trickle-down at the expense of social justice trickle-up.  Wilber has repeatedly stated that quick advancement in levels of development follow from the right types and amounts of meditation. Is this true? Where is the evidence?

Challenging these arguments

While we may believe in the perniciousness of trickle-down economics, most of us have very strong defenses that protect us from applying these conclusions to our own cherished world view. This is because our core beliefs define us; we identify with them.  If they are attacked, we take it personally; we feel attacked. First, we use various rationalizations, justifications, obfuscations, redirection tactics and strategies designed to minimize or deny the reality of the threatening arguments. If this fails, we experience cognitive dissonance. This is a sign that we are unable to reconcile our core world view with compelling evidence that won’t go away and leave us alone. As a multi-decade True Believer in Integral AQAL, and before that, in all manner of new age, positive thinking, religious, and spiritual belief systems, this is what happened to me. I am not speaking as an outsider. Here are some of my favorite excuses, rationalizations, and avoidance strategies that I have used at one time or another, to keep me believing in one or another form of trickle-down spirituality:

My spirituality is not trickle-down elitism: How do you know? If it was, would you care? Denial is the strongest defense.

I know the truth. We double down. Because of all the scientific research that supports developmental levels of Integral AQAL and Spiral Dynamics, etc., we lose the forest for the trees. Almost all systems are congruent once we accept their basic premises. For Christ sake, “The Face on Mars” was internally congruent! Pick your favorite conspiracy theory; once you accept its fundamental premises, it all makes sense; therefore, it must be true! Trickle-down spirituality attacks the basic premises of those delusional systems that generate elitism, exceptionalism, and injustice. For example, an adherent of Integral AQAL might toss trickle-down spirituality off with the thought, “He’s just a social justice warrior,” (an ad hominem logical fallacy) or view this critique as a statement of the shadow side of a green or orange world view. This is reductionism. If the premises of one’s world view are being attacked, it is not rational to appeal to the assumptions inherent in that world view as a defense. However, it is an understandable defense. Because a flat worm cannot perceive in three dimensions, it has no choice but to hear and comprehend its experience in terms of two dimensions. Regarding ad hominem attacks, I welcome them. I have been meditating since I was 13 and have had my share of meditative awakenings and mystical experiences. I’ve written a book about near death experiences. I am a fan of transformation and the transpersonal. I’m not out to trash it.

The dog ate my homework: Changing the subject by blaming someone or something else is the next strongest defense. Someone else is to blame for the failings of my world view. It was global capitalism, the Deep State, consumerism, mass media, global conspiracy, space aliens, Donald Trump – anybody and anything but me and the delusional, intrinsically fallacious nature of my world view.

You are distorting Integral AQAL (or a belief system of your choice) in an unfair or malicious way. This is a version of blaming someone else. Our normal response whenever we feel our values, our world view, or our sense of self, is being attacked is to personalize, which is an emotional cognitive distortion. Instead of listening to and applying the arguments, we simply change the subject from ourselves to the other person or those parts of their argument we disagree with. Because we feel victimized, we turn the other party into an attacker, persecutor or abuser and find ways to dismiss their arguments on grounds that are emotional, not objective or rational. Instead of dealing with the implications of the argument on its own merits we dismiss them as distortions. This is an excellent and almost impervious defense. It is almost guaranteed to keep us stuck and stupid.

Ascendency is not bad! Attacking trickle-down spirituality is not an attack on transformation, aspiration, idealism or even ascensionism. These are important and necessary. The problem is imbalance created by a belief in trickle-down dogmas that lead to injustice.

Spirituality embraces communion! It does indeed, and saying that trickle-down spirituality is toxic does not imply that some forms of spirituality do not advocate “trickle-up.” Many do. For example, the social service branches of religions, such as the Islamic Red Crescent and the Christian Salvation Army are valuable, important examples of spiritual trickle-up. Whenever you stand up to injustice, whenever you question elitism and exceptionalism, you are supporting trickle-up. Trickle-down is the problem, and communion is an essential element of any healthy spirituality, as Wilber has repeatedly stated.

Elites are good! Indeed. Elites are good and necessary; the elitism of trickle-down spirituality is destructive and unnecessary.

I’ve known what you’re saying all along. This is the position of universal smugness. It emerges when some bubble breaks and we tell ourselves we knew it was going to break all along. This is an excuse and a rationalization, because whether or not we knew of some possible consequence is irrelevant if that knowledge had no impact on our colluding behavior. If our knowledge did not make us more empathetic, ethical, respectful, and trustworthy, how real was it? How functional or valid was that knowledge? Are we not instead indicting our inaction? However, this rationalization can be healthy. If you are indeed expanding your world view, I will be the first to give you the credit for doing so.

It’s my fault. You just didn’t try hard enough. Your allegiance to the dharma was not sincere; you’re a sinner; you repeated “OM” with your eyes closed when they should have been open; you believed in Buddha when you should have believed in Jesus…yawn. This is a problem rather than a solution focus. We can always postpone focusing on solutions by wrapping ourselves up in the drama of some irrelevant failing. Feeling guilty for your addition to your beliefs and world view won’t change it, so don’t waste time feeling bad about your history of collusion.

I didn’t know. While this is a version of “It’s my fault,” it is so pervasive that it deserves its own category. “I didn’t know” is an excuse, not an explanation. Of course you didn’t know; if you had known the full consequences of your delusion, you would have thought, felt, and acted differently.

What is “social justice trickle-up?”

Just as we have drawn an analogy between economic and spiritual trickle-down, it is important to consider economic trickle-up in order to arrive at a functional understanding of spiritual trickle-up as an alternative to spiritual trickle-down.  Two well-known and proven consequences of trickle-down economics are the off-shoring of jobs and assets. Jobs are off-shored in order to raise profits by paying lower salaries, thereby moving income out of the country, where it benefits other economies other than one’s own. In a larger picture, this is altruistic – to a point. Consider an analogy to giving a pint of blood. That’s altruistic. Giving two gallons of blood, however, is no longer altruistic; it’s suicidal. In the long run it helps no one, because your ability to give any future blood is gone, because you’re dead. Similarly, if you kill an economy by reducing the ability of its citizens to afford to buy the goods it produces, that economy can no longer support the world economy.

The equivalent to the off-shoring of jobs for trickle-down spirituality is the neglect and discounting of the abilities of those viewed as “non-elites.”  Those who are not members of the “elect” are ignored or discounted in one way or another. Perhaps they are considered “deplorables,” self-centered “ethnocentrics,” or not capable of participating in the loving, magnanimous world view of the exceptionalists. As a result, creativity and resources that otherwise could be used to support the common good are externalized and placed out of reach of the masses. That’s unjust. Obviously, just like offshoring, this is a strategy that brings solidarity to spiritual elitists in the short-term but undercuts and impoverishes them and their cause in the long-run.

In trickle-down economics, assets are off-shored for their protection. Instead of being recycled to generate income so consumers can buy their products, financial elites simply hoard, like Scrooge McDuck. This can only be construed as pure greed based on fear.  The equivalent for trickle-down spirituality is the accumulation of wealth, privilege, status, control, and power within the elite in ways that do not benefit the laity or general public, even those who share a general world view, but not the status of the elite. For instance, Rajneesh liked to buy Rolls Royces. To the best of my knowledge, they were for him, not for his students, even though he could only be in one of them at a time. Typically, heads of religious orders do not pay taxes, have their homes and expenses taken care of for them, and are surrounded by luxuries, servants, and playmates of every imaginable sort. Ironically, the public supports these wasted expenditures, because the elites serve as representative status symbols with which they identify. An extreme example is the British royal family, which has absolutely no need for public support, as it is immensely wealthy, yet the public continues to waste tax money on them as if they were pampered poodles. Therefore, we must avoid the conclusion that elitists, spiritual and otherwise, are persecutors and we are victims. Elitists are largely created and maintained by us; neither the plutocrats that steal us blind with trickle-down economics or the “spiritual” elites that disempower us with trickle-down spirituality could exist without our support and consent.

Thomas Piketty, in his Capital in the 21st Century, has made a relevant and related point. He shows that inequality is not an accident, but rather a feature of capitalism. It can only be reversed through state interventionism, because only the state has the authority to put limits on the power of plutocrats. This state intervention is required, because as long as the rate of return on investment exceeds the rate of economic growth of an economy, the income and wealth of the rich will grow faster than income from work. The result will be increased, or widening, inequality in society.

The broader psychological point is that inequality is a feature of elitism of all sorts, not just financial or spiritual elitism. The dynamic is the same. Inequality will increase as long as membership, such as church or temple members or members of Integral, grant exceptional status, privileges, and license to their leaders. The disparity, or inequality between elites and “laity” will grow. This can only be reversed by membership requiring leaders to be subject to at least the same, if not higher, standards of accountability and transparency, if not privilege, as they are. Clearly, people in leadership positions are necessarily granted privileges that others are not, but these need to be justified by their job description (such as free air travel) and not abused. In practice, members, laity, followers, etc. are not inclined to insist on standards of accountability or transparency or even to exercise realistic control over the accumulation of wealth of leaders.

As Piketty argues, unless capitalism is reformed through state intervention, largely by taxing the rich to force the redistribution of income so that it recycles throughout the economy instead of being hoarded in offshore accounts, stock buy-outs, and sunken into largely non-negotiable assets, like property, democracy is threatened. Similarly, unless the elites who benefit from trickle-down spirituality are forced, by membership rules and regulations, to account for and recycle their resources, the disparity between sheep and goats will grow wider until the differences are so obscenely grotesque that the entire enterprise collapses in upon itself.

Applying these concepts to Integral, which sees itself as the cutting edge of creating not only “the religion of tomorrow,” but a future integral social order, Integral will continue to be a top-down, elitist and hierarchical organization until such time as membership, that is, those who have an investment in integral as an organizational structure, require a more democratic structure. This is not to imply that Wilber himself is not open to same. I view his writings as a dissemination of wisdom in a form of healthy trickle-down of competence, knowledge, and ability. This is an example of discrimination between elite competency and elitism. Wilber also stays in touch with the writing in the field and the chatter on internet blogs. He has invited input, participation, and discussion, as for instance, his invitation to integralists to meet with him and discuss the political future of the country. However, these discussions were themselves somewhat limited to integral elitists, in that only those who could afford the admission fee were heard.

There are multiple reasons why trickle-down spirituality is the path of least resistance, just as is trickle-down economics. The profit motive is like crabgrass –it never sleeps; privilege has intrinsic advantages and many of these are actively supported by those who have little, even when doing so is to their own disadvantage. Therefore, while it is easy to slam elitists, we are talking about our own human nature and how difficult it is to generate authentic balance and to reduce inequalities that are often desirable. We call out for justice while supporting injustice. The contradictions in society are not going to go away until we address them within ourselves.

In summary

As a supporter of Integral AQAL since 1985, I am not writing to tear it down but to enhance its credibility, so that it can reach a broader range of people who can benefit from an expanded, more interconnected, world view.  Because Integral AQAL is conceptually sophisticated and built around spirituality and consciousness, it attracts and appeals to similar elites, but less so scientific and economic elites or to the vast majority of humanity which has neither the time or interest in conceptual sophistication. To not devolve into a cult or a historical footnote, integralists have to learn how to differentiate between elite knowledge and ability, on the one hand, and trickle-down spiritual elitism on the other. We need to start calling elitism out in each other when we think we see it, but more importantly, be able and willing to offer solutions built on respect, trustworthiness, and ability.

Assume you are a trickle-down spiritual elitist. I do. Know the warning signs: Adherence to your world view as a dogmatic belief system. If you talk in coded, elitist jargon, that is one clue; a sense of defensiveness or personalization if people question your world view; a dismissal of the relevancy or legitimacy of the arguments of those that do not share your world view or who do not share your understanding of a common word view; a tendency to surround yourself with those who validate your world view; wasting precious time and energy trying to convince others of the legitimacy and wonderfulness of your world view; a failure to call out elitism; a failure to invite others to call out your elitism.

Probably the best antidote to trickle-down spirituality is to 1) stop supporting or feeding its spiritual and economic manifestations, and 2) to find ways, preferably anonymously, to provide more justice to those who are not elites, who have had less opportunity than you, and who do not share your world view. Don’t try to convert them; instead, find out what they need and help them where they are, not where you think they need to be. In other words, cultivate and practice respect, trustworthiness, sharing, and humility. Especially humility.

[1] “Will Rogers on “trickle up” economics”WiredPen. 2015-01-30.

[2] Era Dabla-Norris; Kalpana Kochhar; Nujin Suphaphiphat; Frantisek Ricka; Evridiki Tsounta (June 15, 2015). Causes and Consequences of Income Inequality : A Global Perspective. International Monetary Fund.

[3] Tcherneva, Pavlina (March 2015). “When a Rising Tide Sinks Most Boats: Trends in US Income Inequality”(PDF). Levy Economics Institute. Bard College.

[4] “In the Real World of Work and Wages, Trickle-Down Theories Don’t Hold Up”. The New York Times. April 12, 2007.

[5] “The Living Room Candidate – Commercials – 1992 – Trickle Down”

[6] Heather Stewart (July 21, 2012). “Wealth doesn’t trickle down – it just floods offshore, research reveals”The Guardian. London.

[7] “Evangelii Gaudium : Apostolic Exhortation on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World”

[8] Era Dabla-Norris; Kalpana Kochhar; Nujin Suphaphiphat; Frantisek Ricka; Evridiki Tsounta (June 15, 2015). Causes and Consequences of Income Inequality: A Global Perspective. International Monetary Fund.

[9] Jacob Pramuk (September 26, 2016). “Clinton: Trump would cut taxes for the rich in ‘trumped up’ trickle down economics”CNBC

[10] Gaspard, Toufick. A Political Economy of Lebanon 1948–2002: The Limits of Laissez-faire. Boston: Brill, 2004.

[11] Gaspard, Toufick. A Political Economy of Lebanon 1948–2002: The Limits of Laissez-faire. Boston: Brill, 2004.

[12] For those who are not members of the integral elite, “2nd Tier” refers to people who have developed past late personal egalitarianism and pluralism into a world view that transcends but includes all previous world views, including that of late personal. As such, it is multi-perspectival and associated with a transitional space between the personal and transpersonal, that Wilber calls “vision-logic.”

[13] Gates, Bezos among 8 with same wealth as world’s poorest half.

[14] World Happiness Report


[16] Evolutionaries for Hillary Clinton. Change.Org.

Leave a Comment