Evolutionary EnlightenmentQ: What is the vision that inspires your work? What are you trying to do?
an Interview with Andrew Cohen
A: Change the world. It's a bold thing to say, but it's true. My work is dedicated to nothing less than a total revolution in human consciousness - a revolution that has to happen for all of our sake. Because if something fundamental doesn't change - and change fast - we're faced with a calamitous future. There are too many of us on the planet and its resources are being tragically overused. Humans have the power to create and destroy life in a way that up until recently only gods were capable of, and yet our moral, ethical, and spiritual development is lagging way behind. This is the context in which I'm trying to help people to see their own experience because then the whole business of spiritual and evolutionary development becomes very relevant - indeed, it becomes urgent. When you begin to let in how big this context really is, you will recognize that the extraordinary potential of your own personal transformation and its need to be actualized is absolutely non-separate from the predicament that we're in as a race. Ultimately, this world crisis is spiritual. It's a crisis of consciousness.
Q: Why do you say the world's predicament is a spiritual crisis?
A: Well, because it's obvious that no individual or group consciously chose to pollute or overpopulate the world. But simply because of a lack of awareness, a small-minded and self-centered perspective on the part of individuals and entire cultures, we have created the crisis that we are in. And it's not that we don't have the practical means to address the problems that we face, but we're still looking at these problems from that same old perspective that created them. So there is a leap that desperately needs to be taken by a significant minority - a leap in consciousness, a moral leap, a spiritual leap. We need to evolve our consciousness beyond this lower level of development, this small-minded and self-centered perspective, to a much higher and more all-embracing view.
Q: If it depends on individuals, how can this kind of shift happen on a scale that will really make a difference?
A: Those at the leading edge are going to have to take this leap and chart the way to the future. And that means you and me, right here, right now. You see, if you're even thinking about these questions, that means that you are part of a privileged minority. Most people on this planet do not have the freedom to even begin to think about these philosophical and spiritual issues because they have to devote all of their time and energy to simply surviving. The small minority of us who do have the time and circumstances for introspection are in a very fortunate position and could make a real difference. But what is crazy about this picture is that we won't do it. Why? Because we're too busy worrying about ourselves. The tragic irony of the postmodern mess that we're in is that so many of the most highly evolved and privileged people on the planet are lost in an emotional and psychological relationship to life that's very primitive - a swamp of narcissism and self-concern.
So this is our evolutionary challenge. We need to find the heart to see our own spiritual yearnings in the biggest possible context, in such a way that is going to compel us to lift ourselves up out of narcissism and self-concern. We need to find the courage to come together and face the challenges before us. And to do this, we need a new spirituality. We need a new enlightenment.
Q: Why do we need a new spirituality?
A: Because we're living in the twenty-first century. We're not in ancient India, or in biblical Israel, or even, dare I say it, in the sixties, anymore. And we need to find out what spirituality, and its ultimate goal, enlightenment, means for our time. You see, many of us postmoderns grew up in a time of great transition, which left us devoid of any kind of spiritual, philosophical, moral, or ethical context or direction for our own lives. We became too sophisticated to believe in the myths of our own traditions, and moved beyond them. But the problem is that we haven't found anything to replace them. And this has left us spiritually adrift. We have had to find our own way and most of us haven't done very well. In the sixties, some of us turned to the East in search of the answers we couldn't find at home and we discovered the enlightenment traditions and their wealth of ancient wisdom. But as many of us are beginning to find out, the fact is that traditional approaches - East and West - are in many ways inadequate to meet the needs of the evolving human at the time in which we are living.
Q: What's the problem with traditional approaches?
A: To put it very simply, most of the traditions don't embrace the cosmic, evolutionary, time-developmental, forward-moving context of human emergence. And especially in the East, there tends to be an overemphasis on transcendence. For example, in most traditional teachings of enlightenment, the goal is the experience of a state of consciousness that liberates the individual from the world. And in this sense, the spiritual aspirations of many Christians are not all that different - because the whole point is to be able to go to heaven when you die. But as long as the goal of one's spiritual path lies beyond this world - whether we call it nirvana or heaven - one is going to inadvertently end up having an ambiguous relationship to this world. And as we all know, a lot of earnest and sincere spiritually minded people, from Buddhist monks to Catholic priests, often seem to have an ambivalent relationship to the manifest realm. You see, any overemphasis on transcendence invariably makes it difficult to relate to the human experience in a truly whole, integrated, and ultimately life-embracing way. And too often these days, the concept of transcendence is used as a kind of narcotic, as a means to avoid the enormous challenge of coming to terms with the complexity of living a passionate and engaged human life in this crazy world. This is why I'm endeavoring to define a new enlightenment, which is all about embracing life and this world passionately, wholeheartedly, and fearlessly. I call this "evolutionary enlightenment."
Q: Why is this new enlightenment evolutionary?
A: Because evolution is its purpose! The goal is liberation from ego, just as in traditional enlightenment, but no longer as a means of escape from the world. In this new vision of enlightenment, one seeks liberation from the bonds of ego, from narcissistic self-concern, so that one will finally be able to participate wholeheartedly in the unfolding of evolution itself. That's the whole point. You see, whenever we look at the human experience in an evolutionary context, the entire picture begins to change.
Q: What is the "evolutionary context" you're speaking about?
A: Well, it's taken fourteen billion years of evolution for matter to develop to the point where you can even begin to understand and appreciate this very fact. Think about that. We've really only known about evolution for about 150 years. When the great traditions emerged, the fact that we were part of an evolving universe was not yet known. But now we're beginning to understand the extraordinary developmental process that's brought us to this point. And if you let this in, it changes everything. Suddenly your own experience will no longer be seen as a small personal melodrama that you are trapped in, but will be recognized to be a tiny part of an unfolding, infinitely vast symphony of creation. And you will realize that this context demands from you a completely different relationship to life.
Q: Why would an understanding of evolution change the way we live?
A: In the recognition of this vast evolutionary context, we begin to appreciate how fortunate we are to actually be here. And we suddenly awaken to the fact that we have the extraordinary opportunity to choose to give all of our energy to the very evolutionary process we are already a part of. We're already a part of it, but we're not aware of it. Most of us are not conscious of the big context in which our life is occurring. But when we awaken to that context and recognize that in the power of choice itself we can not only free ourselves from narcissism and ignorance but simultaneously become one with the very force of creation, our enlightenment has begun. You see, everything lies in the freedom of choice that we possess as human beings. Our liberation and our bondage. There is no other species that has the power to choose to evolve. In light of this discovery, you have to ask yourself: What am I doing with the gift of choice that is my birthright as a human being? How am I living? Am I fully and wholeheartedly participating in the life process for the sake of the evolution of consciousness itself?
Q: How is it possible that our individual choices can affect evolution?
A: The point is, we already are affecting evolution. You know, a friend of mine, cosmologist Brian Swimme, recently said that at this point in development, the process of natural selection has been superceded by human choice. What does that mean? That means that for the first time in history, the choices that we are making as human beings have become the primary force that is directing our planet's future. And for the most part, these choices are unconscious. As long as we're lost in the unconscious nightmare of narcissism and self-concern, we'll never be able to appreciate what the gift of choice actually means. That's why it's so urgent that we wake up now, that we liberate the power of choice from our compulsive addiction to the fears and desires of the ego.
For the mature human being at the beginning of the twenty-first century, this is the purpose of enlightenment in a nutshell: to liberate the miraculous power of human choice from the tyrannical grip of ego. And it means everything. It means the survival of our species and the evolution of our species. And very practically, it demands that more and more of us be able to recognize the vast evolutionary context in which we find ourselves, and be willing to take responsibility for its implications. We must begin to live the gift of human life and use the gift of human choice for the sake of evolution itself.
Q: What is the path to evolutionary enlightenment and what are the obstacles to it?
A: There is only one obstacle to enlightenment: ego. If we want to be free, if we want to be enlightened, we have to pay the price, and that price is the same as it was five thousand years ago - ego death. In evolutionary enlightenment it is no different: if evolution is actually going to unfold through us, then our attachment to ego has to be transcended. And that is what the path is all about.
Q: Can you explain what you mean by ego?
A: The word "ego" is defined in different ways. In the psychological definition, ego is the self-organizing principle in the psyche. And obviously, this is not the ego we want to transcend, or we're going to be in big trouble! But in the spiritual sense, ego can be simply defined as narcissism, a deeply compulsive fascination with one's own image and sense of oneself as a unique individual. This translates into an unwholesome emotional and psychological enslavement to a profoundly self-centered relationship to life. Narcissism is the postmodern disease, and as long as we are lost in it we will be unavailable, unable to truly respond to the spiritual impulse and its imperative to evolve. Indeed, we are so concerned with the image that we have of ourselves in the mirror of our own awareness that it makes it difficult to have any authentic relationship with the vast and extraordinary life-process we all are a part of. Because of this, too many of us end up spending most of our lives just treading water, not evolving at all. So you see, in this vast context, ego is seen in a very different light than it usually appears: as literally an anti-evolutionary force. And if we have recognized how important our own liberated participation in this whole process is, then we see how essential it is to wrestle this part of our self to the ground and keep it very much under our own control. Why? So that it won't in any way inhibit our availability to participate wholeheartedly in the evolutionary process.
Q: What is the self beyond ego?
A: Well, there are different levels of who you are, of what the self is. The deepest part of you is the Self Absolute, which abides in and as the unmanifest realm beyond time and form. It can be consciously experienced in meditation and in moments of spontaneous peace and ecstasy. When you experience the Self Absolute, you experience the part of yourself that has never been born and will never die. It is the Ground of Being itself, the empty void out of which this whole evolving mass of energy, matter, and consciousness emerged. But this ground, while it is the source of ultimate peace, bliss, and fullness, is not involved in the life process, because it has never become anything, including you.
Then there is what I call the Authentic Self, which abides between the Ground of Being and the Ego. The Authentic Self is the manifestation and expression of the first cause, or the creative principle, in the awakening human. It is the part of your manifest self that is already free from ego. It's the most wholesome, life-embracing dimension of who you are as an incarnated human being. And as I said, it is already free! This Authentic Self doesn't need therapy or spiritual practice to enable it to let go of unwholesome conditioning. It's a part of the self that has never been hurt, wounded, or traumatized. Why? Because it emanates from a more subtle level of manifestation, a level that can be seen in this world but is not of this world. It cares passionately about life and truth and evolution. And its manifestation is always spontaneous. While the ego is an expression of the personal and historical dimension of the self, the Authentic Self is an expression of the evolutionary impulse in consciousness, which is always impersonal and universal. When awareness, due to ignorance, is trapped in the gross realm by the ego's fears and desires, it is impossible to experience the peace, bliss, and fullness of the Self Absolute or the ecstatic life-affirming passion of the Authentic Self.
Q: So how do we go beyond ego?
A: Through the experiential discovery of the Authentic Self. Most people never awaken to the Authentic Self and therefore they don't even understand why ego is such a problem. It's only through the experience of the Authentic Self that you can begin to see what an obstruction ego actually is and find the all-important strength and inspiration to transcend it. When you taste that part of yourself in which ego has never existed, and experience the untainted love of life and unbounded passion for its evolution, you will want, at times even desperately, to free your self-sense from any attachment to ego and its endless distractions. So the only way to go beyond ego is to want to go beyond ego more than anything else.
What's so important about the awakening of the Authentic Self is that through it you spontaneously experience an emotional connection with the vast evolutionary context that we've been speaking about. And in this, you discover what could be called a moral imperative in relationship to the need to evolve. It arises from the depths of your own soul - I must evolve for the sake of evolution itself. Consciousness can only evolve through me, and it won't happen unless I wholeheartedly and unconditionally give myself to that process. And what's significant here is that this is not imposed on you from anywhere outside yourself; you actually awaken to it. When the awakening human discovers this moral imperative to evolve, then a new path has been found. Why? Because one has literally discovered within oneself the very reason for being a human being.
Q: Why have you formed a spiritual community?
A: The actual emergence of a new level of consciousness is unlikely to occur outside of a very focused environment. Indeed, whenever an individual or group of individuals has seriously tried to reach a higher stage of development, the odds have always been stacked against them. Success in such a bold, demanding, and infinitely delicate endeavor, if it has any chance at all, will only occur in and through a committed group of mature human beings who are willing to pay the price and make the nothing-less-than-heroic effort necessary.
My own experience has convinced me that the enlightenment of the future is not going to be an individual event, as it has been in the past, but rather will be a collective or what could be called intersubjective emergence. This is really the core of what I'm trying to accomplish - the birth of a new level of consciousness in which the enlightened mind emerges through a collective. I started having intuitions about this possibility early on in my teaching career, and then a few years ago it suddenly started to reveal itself, in brief flashes, when groups of committed students would come together.
Q: How can enlightenment emerge through a collective?
A: When a group of committed individuals come together beyond ego for this purpose alone, then what has traditionally been called the enlightened mind can emerge between them. Because they meet in the Authentic Self, the difference between the one and the many disappears, and the enlightened mind becomes the one voice speaking to itself. In this profoundly awakened context where higher consciousness has emerged as the intersubjective ground, a truly revolutionary potential reveals itself. And I really believe that it is here that we can find our individual and collective salvation. It's a window into a completely new order of human relationship in which we not only awaken to this higher level of consciousness together but, even more importantly, begin to engage with it in order to find out how to create the future.
Q: If enlightenment is becoming a collective matter, do we still need gurus?
A: Well, at this point, I'd say yes. Having a guru/teacher/mentor/guide is essential if we truly aspire to evolve to a higher level of development. Without the kind of positive evolutionary tension created by an authentic living example of a higher level, transformation is unlikely to happen, because most of us simply don't want to change that much. With my own students, so far, these powerful surges of evolutionary enlightenment have only occurred as a result of my putting a lot of pressure on the individuals involved, continuously exerting a living demand to evolve now. Without this kind of demand most human beings simply won't remain awake to the evolutionary context for very long. It's just not in our nature to consistently push the edge of our own individual and collective potential. So at this point I see the role of the teacher as an essential part of the movement of evolution itself. But eventually, I believe we will get to a point where that role would no longer be necessary. If enough individuals reach a level of maturity where they're able to consistently remain beyond ego as the Authentic Self, this higher consciousness or enlightened mind will actually emerge as the foundation of their relationships. When such a point is reached, then the role of the individual teacher is going to become a thing of the past. When this new potential becomes stable, I feel that the traditional function of the guru is going to work through the collective in a miraculous way that has never happened before. But until that point, having a living teacher is essential.
Q: What about all the corruption so prevalent in spiritual authority today?
A: Well, obviously integrity in the spiritual teacher is absolutely crucial. But we've got to face the fact that unfortunately, the failure of so many gurus, priests, lamas, and monks over the last thirty or forty years may have become an easy excuse for us all to let ourselves off the hook. They have made it all too easy for us to become cynical, to arrogantly conclude that we know better and don't require any help from anyone. You see, the problem is that when we lost our faith, we also lost our humility.
It's also important to understand that the main reason that the concept of a guru is such a tough one in our culture is that we postmodern narcissists just hate hierarchy. We don't like anyone to be higher than us! It's often hard for even very intelligent people to admit that higher levels of development actually exist. Why? Because if they do exist, then that could mean that we may have some evolving to do ourselves, and that we may have something to learn, God forbid, from people who've actually reached those levels. So if a spiritual revolution is to happen, I think the biggest challenge is for us to cultivate humility - enough humility to enable us to recognize those who have genuinely reached a higher stage of development, and enough courage to aspire to meet them where they are. You see, if a teacher is authentic they will never finally be satisfied until the student either equals or surpasses them. A true teacher is someone who doesn't want followers, but rather wants authentic partners in this great task of evolutionary transformation.
Q: Over the years you've gained quite a reputation for being outspoken and uncompromising, and as a result you've found some very prominent supporters - and some very vocal critics. Why do you think people have such extreme reactions to you?
A: Because I'm trying to create something new - something that has never happened before. And this provokes tremendous resistance. This is how evolution works - the old always resists the new. And the people who meet the most resistance are those who step out ahead in pursuit of a vision of that which has not yet emerged. So my entire history since I started teaching has been this heaven-and-hell experience where I've been constantly riding on the edge of this evolutionary emergence, while simultaneously facing violent opposition both from the spiritual world and even from my own students - people who I had been very close to.
As I've been saying for many years: "Everybody wants to get enlightened but nobody wants to change." It's a strange paradox: more and more people these days are awakening to the spiritual impulse, but very few people want to actually become a different human being. I'm asking people to change in a very specific way - to go beyond ego. And I've found out the hard way that no one wants to do that. It can intellectually make sense to people, and they say yes. But when push comes to shove, the emotional challenge simply proves to be too demanding for most. So because I actually take on the ego, I am, in a sense, calling the dragon out of the cave and doing battle with it. It's not that I don't warn people - I speak a great deal about the fact that going beyond ego is the hardest thing anyone could ever do besides face their own physical death. But nevertheless, people are always surprised when they come to the limits of their own willingness to let go of the ego, and too often they suddenly decide, even after they're already very deeply engaged in the process, that it's all too much.
You see, when someone says yes to this evolutionary calling, they're saying yes to the best part of themselves. And that's a very sacred moment. Because in the profound discovery of the evolutionary context, suddenly one's own conscience awakens to an obligation to transform, to evolve, to actually become worthy of one's own deepest experience of revelation. But saying yes is just where the journey begins, and one's sincerity will be tested. And if one recoils from that which one has said yes to, one is actually saying no to one's own deepest self. And most people don't have the humility to bear that fact. As ridiculous as it sounds, the ego is humiliated by its own failure to transcend itself, and so in order for the person to feel better about themselves, too often they have to turn against that which they had held most sacred.
Q: Don't you think you'd have more success and upset fewer people if you took a less black and white approach, one that gave more consideration to the differing needs of each individual?
A: Well, no, because the essence of what I'm teaching is black and white. The issue doesn't really have to do with the particular individuals, it has to do with the enormity of the task at hand. And the only thing that makes a difference is how much people actually want to do this. Now, everybody is divided about this, especially at first. When we realize how big it is, we always find that actually we don't want it as much as we thought we did. So then we have to face the fact that there's a part of us that wants this and there's a part that doesn't. The part that wants this is the Authentic Self, the part that doesn't is the ego. And we realize: if I want to be free, I have to let go of the ego in order to metamorphose into the Authentic Self. It's a simple picture, and in the end it always is black and white. This is really all anyone needs to know about the Path. Because then the question we all have to answer for ourselves is, How much do we really care about evolution? Do we have the heart to follow through, no matter what? I have found that in the end, it's a matter of conscience, of where we are at on a soul level. And this is something we can never know for sure until we are tested.
Q: So what is it that makes the difference? What is the key to evolutionary enlightenment?
A: That's simple. In the end, the key always lies in the choice of the individual. At first, I try to give everyone who comes to me an experience of how they can be, and what the world could be like, if they and those around them were abiding beyond ego in the bliss, clarity, and sincerity of the Authentic Self. You see, when the Authentic Self in one person recognizes the Authentic Self in another, a new world is born. We discover heaven on earth. And when we experience the ecstasy and purity of this awakened human context, we know that this is everything, that we have truly discovered that which is sacred: the end of the road, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the yonder shore. And then each one of us is left with the simple choice: Are you willing to let go of the part of yourself that wants to resist, so that a new world can become manifest in this one, as you?