By Swati Chopra
The next step in our evolutionary journey calls for our conscious participation in it
Andrew Cohen is a rare spiritual master who speaks about evolutionary enlightenment, as opposed to enlightenment for oneself, an ‘impersonal enlightenment for the sake of the whole’. In an exclusive interview conducted on email, he spoke to Life Positive about a new paradigm of spiritual realization, ‘post-modern enlightenment’, that links individual spiritual practice to a larger goal of evolution, the reason why ‘our conscious participation in the evolutionary process has literally become essential to the creative unfolding of the cosmos’.
As you know, we are trying to explore the need for, and the implications of, the engagement of spirituality in social, political, economic spheres (the ‘mundane’ world, so to speak) in this special issue of Life Positive magazine. You have constantly emphasized the engagement of the spiritually enlightened perspective in these matters that are normally thought to be outside the pale of the spiritual life. Would you agree?
Yes. I’ve emphasized from the very beginning of my teaching career, now almost 20 years ago, that the only way to determine the level of inner transformation or enlightenment is by its expression in the world. And enlightenment is expressed not only through the power of Presence, but even more importantly through the spontaneous demonstration of a fiery and fearless passion to uplift, transform, and evolve the human capacity for consciousness at all levels. The enlightened heart lives not for itself but only for the transformation of the world, which means the evolution of consciousness.
The world that we’re living in will evolve as quickly as the individuals and institutions that govern it do. It’s all one process. God does not live beyond the world but is the very energy and intelligence that created it, and that is now just beginning to awaken to itself through the evolving human. As individuals develop, so will our capacity to govern ourselves with infinitely greater wisdom, compassion and the awakened understanding that we are all One.
Enlightenment is the discovery of that consciousness which is the formless ground of all things. And the Self that recognizes this Mystery is that same Self that chose to create the cosmos so it could know itself through form. So yes, the enlightened Self cares passionately about the world, because it is his or her own creation!
You have spoken of evolutionary enlightenment and the ‘next step’ in human evolution. What, according to you, would this be, and what effort would it require from us? Will this spiritualize all aspects of life? And how would it impact the way things are, for instance, greed, corruption, violence, and so on?
In the traditional model, enlightenment is attained through the experience of the Ground of Being, the void from which we have all come. If we go very deeply into a state of meditation – beyond the mind, beyond the body, beyond the world, beyond time – we experience pure consciousness, all-pervading, formless Being. No thing exists in that pristine emptiness, and yet it is the very ground from which the whole universe emerged, and is still emerging right now, including you and me. This experience is profoundly liberating, because in that no place we discover the deepest part of our own self, the Self Absolute, which has never entered into the stream of time. In pure consciousness, the burden of existence dissolves completely – there are no conflicts to resolve, no problems to overcome, no goals to attain. It’s the experience of ultimate relief. So enlightenment, in the traditional, pre-modern sense, is about discovering unconditional freedom through awakening to this empty ground of limitless being, this eternal self, and abiding there constantly. And ultimately, it’s not so different from the Western religious model, in which eternal salvation is found in a beatific heavenly realm beyond the world. In both traditional Eastern wisdom and Western religious faith, the ultimate goal is a final state – a transcendent state of consciousness or a heavenly abode – that promises release from this world.
But in the pre-modern era, when the great teachings of enlightenment came into being, there was no understanding of the evolutionary context that human beings have emerged within. Indeed, it was believed that time moved in cycles, and so the goal of pre-modern enlightenment was to escape from the process of cyclical existence and the law of karma, and rest in Being itself, never having to return to this world.
Post-modern enlightenment, or Evolutionary Enlightenment, is based upon the discovery that time does not move in cycles. Now we know that the cosmos is part and parcel of a deep-time developmental process – which means it is in a constant state of becoming – from nothing to energy to matter to life to you and I being able to have this conversation! it’s taken a very long time – 14 billion years, according to current science – for this conversation to be possible. In light of this, it simply no longer makes sense to see the ultimate spiritual goal as transcendence of this world. God would have to be a cruel trickster to force us to endure 14 billion years of painful and excruciating development only to realize that the point of the journey was escape from the process that gave us the capacity for that realization!
So the discovery of an evolutionary context radically reorients our understanding of the spiritual life. And the capacity to look at life in this way is a very new development. It was literally only yesterday in the hundred thousand or so years of the evolution of culture that a few of us human beings began to poke our heads above pre-modern mythical world views and see human emergence in a truly evolutionary context, unencumbered by irrational religious dogma. This discovery of a deep-time developmental context in which matter, as life, has only just gained the capacity for Self-consciousness, is the most spiritually significant event of all.
Life is consciousness and all forms of life, to differing degrees, have consciousness. But only human beings have the miraculous capacity to be aware of consciousness itself. This capacity for self-reflective awareness or Self-consciousness, in the context of 14 billion years of development, is a very recent emergence. Now, the First Cause, the creative principle, the evolutionary impulse, the god-impulse is just beginning to become aware of itself directly, as consciousness itself. Indeed, the energy and intelligence that created the universe is only able to know itself directly through the awakening human. This is why it no longer makes sense to seek escape – the universe needs us to be here! The mythical god has fallen out of the sky and is re-emerging in the human self as the light of consciousness, as the creative impulse or the urge to become.
Enlightenment redefined in an evolutionary context expresses the dawning revelation that from now on, our conscious participation in the evolutionary process has literally become essential to the creative unfolding of the cosmos. As we awaken, we realize that the continuation of this process is entirely dependent on the choices we make here and now. This kind of knowledge is too much for most people to bear. But I believe our future depends upon more of us being willing to bear the overwhelming implications of this realization and take responsibility for it. This is what I see as the next step in our evolution – the moral, ethical and spiritual leap that desperately needs to be taken by a significant minority of us. What effort will this require? Everything we’ve got – and then some. And yes, this realization spiritualizes every aspect of life, because now we know who we are and why we are here, and that changes everything.
Would you say that traditional models of spiritual seeking, by cloistering the spiritual path and making it out to be exclusive, secluded, even secret territory, obstruct the insights gained on the spiritual path from informing and impacting the broader ground of life and society? Then, do we need a new form of this old spirituality, for we really do need the enlightened perspective to become available to dealing with the larger problems of world and society? What can this new spirituality be?
I think the problem with traditional models is that they are still too often based on adherence to dogmatic principles and superstitious beliefs which many of us educated, sophisticated, post-modern men and women find hard to reconcile with our own level of development and with what science has taught us about the world. Many of us at the leading edge of development today find that we can no longer look to the traditions to help us make sense of the human experience, because they no longer seem relevant to our time. Indeed, in our pursuit of personal, social, philosophical, and spiritual freedom, many of us have abandoned our spiritual traditions altogether, but we have found nothing to replace them, and as a result have found ourselves spiritually adrift. So I feel that the traditions themselves need to evolve, to find their own post-modern expressions, so that their wisdom is preserved without holding people in the past. And I even believe we need to create together a new form of religion for our time – a rational mysticism for the 21st century.
The end of an era, and the beginning of a new one, is literally forcing us to find a new context, a new way to orient ourselves to the experience of being alive. We need to come up with what American philosopher Ken Wilber calls a ‘post-metaphysical spirituality’ – a way of pursuing the evolution of consciousness without having to believe in any metaphysical assumptions. There’s an ultimately rational science to the nature of consciousness that we can discover directly in our own experience, and I think this needs to be the basis of a new spirituality.
You have mentioned the dilemma of ‘How shall I live?’ to be central to the spiritual life. This is a fundamental question that one needs to grapple with as one walks on the spiritual path, and it is often difficult to bring one’s personal practice in conjunction with one’s daily life and the choices one makes as a citizen, member of society, of the human race. So, how shall we live? How do we integrate our inner journeys with our external, social selves?
I’ve always believed that the lives we choose to live should be based upon our deepest moral, ethical, philosophical and spiritual insights about the nature of Life itself. It’s never made sense to me that a spiritual practice is something that we would ‘fit into’ a life that was fundamentally devoid of those higher principles. The problem for many of us now, in the West, and I think increasingly in the East also, is that a materialist world view in which scientism has become the only acceptable belief system is making it difficult for individuals who have outgrown the pre-modern religious belief systems to know how to express their spiritual impulses. So the question, ‘How shall I live?’ is something we all have to grapple with for ourselves. I feel it must be a truly heroic response to a very challenging predicament. We must boldly embrace the spiritual impulse and our aspiration to evolve so wholeheartedly and unselfconsciously that our life becomes a fearless expression of our deepest and most heartfelt realisation. Most of us really don’t want to change that much. We just don’t want to rock the boat.
When any of us truly embraces an independent passion for evolution, the status quo starts shaking. The more we awaken, the faster things change, and the implications get much bigger than we could have imagined. At a certain point, if we really want to go all the way, we have to let go, we have to abandon all our rigid, deeply conditioned ways of seeing things. And that takes courage, it takes heart, it takes conviction. We have to stop holding on to the familiar. This is just the science of how evolution works: the old has to make way for the new. And when the old is forced to make way for the new, it always resists, often violently. So it’s important to understand that these are the forces at work within us and between us, individually and collectively, as we attempt to evolve and awaken.
We have to be ready and willing to accept the consequences of our own awakening. The separate ego is never prepared for this kind of radical transformation. It’s far too big. It literally rocks the world. The ground begins to shake, both within and around us. The inner status quo is destroyed, and then the effects of that begin to reverberate in all directions and other people begin to feel those effects. And in the culture in which we live, the vertical, unconstrained, ceaselessly changing nature of evolutionary spiritual development is antithetical to the status quo of the collective mind and ego. So a passionate, conscious engagement with the evolutionary dimension of life will always be inherently threatening to the way things have been. But that’s just how it works. As long as we’re more worried about what other people may think than about the Truth itself, our personal spiritual practice will never have much impact on this world that’s in such desperate need of change.
I have heard some contemporary teachers of Buddhism use the term ‘passionate enlightenment’, wherein spiritual realization is seen as not taking one away from the world to some heavenly space, as is commonly believed, but makes us passionately engaged with the world because we can now relate with it sans expectations or attachment. What do you think?
‘Passionate enlightenment’, as I understand it, means that the path to freedom is found not through withdrawing from the world, from life, and from the senses as the way to freedom, but through a Tantric embrace of the life process. At least in theory, the idea is that through the contemplation of the ultimately empty nature of all phenomenal experience, while one is ‘passionately’ engaged in it, one eventually realizes primordial freedom or enlightenment.
My personal view on this is that first we have to be free from the life process before we can passionately engage in this way, otherwise, no matter how noble our intentions, we will almost inevitably end up getting trapped in it. But even more importantly, I think that passionate engagement as a Tantric vehicle for liberation is no longer enough, considering the time that we’re living in. A passionate embrace of the life process, which to me means a committed engagement with the life process, is an absolute necessity for all of us who are truly serious if we are going to save ourselves from our own gnorance and stupidity. But the context for that passionate embrace, I feel, needs to be the evolution of consciousness itself, rather than our own personal liberation.
To continue on Buddhism, the Mahayana and Vajrayana streams talk of the bodhisattva who is a ‘deferrer’ of nirvana in order to serve the beings that suffer in samsara. It is also said that there actually can be no true nirvana until everyone is freed of suffering, so closely interconnected all of us are to one another. What are your views on this?
The bodhisattva is a heroic figure because, for everyone else’s sake, he or she is willing to remain in the world of time and space, in the manifest realm, for eternity. Traditionally, the bodhisattva declares, ‘I vow to liberate all sentient beings before myself. I refuse to enter into nirvana until all other sentient beings have entered before me.’ But this concept, like the traditional definition of enlightenment, is based on an understanding of the life process as an endlessly recurring cycle that the bodhisattva selflessly helps others to escape from.
The definition of the bodhisattva vow also needs to be updated so that it is in alignment with the emerging cosmic perspective I described before. The universe needs heroic enlightened souls more than ever because the future literally depends upon those sentient beings who are awakening to the evolutionary process as themselves. The yearning for heaven, nirvana, or final release is being replaced by a call from the Self to the awakening human for an unconditional willingness to be here, to help shepherd the universe into a glorious future. Enlightenment has always pointed toward a state of consciousness beyond ego. And true post-modern bodhisattvas are those shepherd-warriors who courageously die to themselves so that they will be able to bear the enormous burden of facing directly into the infinite future for us all.
I have come across your idea of ‘impersonal enlightenment for the sake of the whole’, which also seems to play on the idea of interconnectedness. According to you, what is the nature of this interconnectedness? Can one person’s spiritual practice truly impact the whole? Does this not place tremendous responsibility on all of us, for if our positive actions can have an impact, so can our negative ones?
Well, the truth is that all our actions do have an impact at gross and subtle levels all around us in more ways than most of us would dare to consider. A friend of mine, cosmologist Brian Swimme, recently said that at this point in development, the process of natural selection has been superseded 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.
The ego creates the deadening illusion that we are separate entities, islands unto ourselves that literally have no connection to the world around us. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The ultimate spiritual realization has always been that All Is One. The more profound our realization of that absolute fact the more significant will be the positive impact that we will have upon this world that we are all creating together. The more we realize how big an impact we are actually having, whether we’re conscious of it or not, the more our conscience – our spiritual conscience – will be awakened. The realization that All Is One is the essence of enlightenment, and the actual experience of that realization is the recognition at the level of consciousness that there literally is no other. If there is no other then there is only you. That means you are that one unified creative impulse that chose to initiate the evolutionary process 14 billion years ago. As you become more conscious of that fact, you realize that it’s up to you to drive that process forward in this very moment. The awakening of spiritual conscience means that the future literally depends upon you – not metaphorically or theoretically but actually. I’m talking about a living realization – that’s what radical, impersonal, evolutionary enlightenment is all about!
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