I have been a teacher of enlightenment for almost twenty-five years.
When I first began to teach, I used to think enlightenment was simply a profound and transformative spiritual experience. But I soon found out that, for most of us, that is not enough. The experiences we have—even the most profound moments of ecstatic revelation—are not necessarily what liberate us, transform us, or even bring us wisdom. While soothing for the soul and liberating for the spirit, they simply do not clarify the overarching developmental context in which they are occurring, and therefore do not necessarily dislodge the deeply embedded ways of thinking that keep us trapped in ego. This is why we continue to get lost again and again in the ego’s limited perspective, even though we may have transcended it—seen and felt and known beyond it—many, many times. So I have come to understand that what matters far more is the context—the inner context in which these experiences occur and the perspective from which we interpret their significance. If we truly aspire for radical transformation, context is everything.
When I speak about context, I’m referring to the way in which we orient ourselves and define what our experience is, moment to moment—the emotional, psychological, philosophical, ethical framework, conscious or unconscious, within which we interpret everything that happens to us. All human beings are interpreting their experience in some kind of context, giving it meaning in relationship to the larger world. But often, we’re just doing it mechanically, blindly, driven by habit or conditioning, and so the context remains profoundly limited. If the context in which we see our life is limited, then no matter what moments of grace descend upon us, they will slip through our fingers.
In the past, human beings found a higher context in the structures of the family, the tribe, the nation, or the religious traditions. But many of us at the leading edge of development today find that we can no longer look to these cultural structures to help us make sense of the human experience. We are products of a secular culture, born out of the revolutions of the sixties, in which we broke free from the strictures of tradition and cast off the moral, ethical, philosophical, and spiritual principles that no longer seemed relevant to our time. But we’ve found nothing to replace them. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Western culture seems to have come adrift morally, ethically, philosophically, and definitely spiritually.
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. More and more people today are becoming interested in the spiritual dimension of life. But as we begin to think about higher potentials and seek for the experience of deeper states of consciousness, we need to first and foremost reflect on the question: What is the context for my life? What is the biggest perspective from which I can see my own presence on this planet? The context for the spiritual path in our time is more challenging than it has ever been because these days it would seem almost impossible for anyone with an awakening heart and mind to avoid the simultaneously thrilling and terrifying reality of our agitated world. Those of us who actually care about what is happening but just don’t know what to do about it need a new ethical, philosophical, and spiritual context that is big enough to embrace this reality and help us to begin to come to terms with the ever-greater complexity that we are living in. Before we can seek solutions to the overwhelming crises our planet faces, we need to ask ourselves: How vast and inclusive is the level of consciousness from which we are looking at the problems? The effectiveness of the solutions that we come up with is entirely dependent upon the level of consciousness that they come from.
There is a direct relationship between the context in which we see our experience and our level of development, as individuals and cultures. The lower our level of development, the smaller and the less inclusive our context or perspective is going to be. As our consciousness and culture evolves and develops, our perspective gets bigger and becomes more inclusive.
At the lowest levels of development, human consciousness can be defined as egocentric, and at this level, the sense of self sees no context beyond itself. As consciousness develops, it becomes ethnocentric—expanding the context to the family, the tribe, the nation, or the great spiritual traditions. Many of the problems we face in the world today stem from this level of consciousness—from the inability of one nation or religion to see beyond itself. This is why there is a tremendous urgency for more and more human beings to evolve beyond ethnocentric consciousness to what we could call worldcentric consciousness, in which we see ourselves primarily as citizens of this planet, rather than members of a particular tribe or nation or religion. Worldcentric consciousness is a very new emergence. Up until very recently in history, we lived in our separate enclaves, barely aware of the fact that we were part of one global system. But now that fact is becoming almost impossible to avoid. The problems we are faced with affect all of us, because we’re part of one global context. And so many of these problems could be solved if we as human beings were able to see ourselves as part of a global system, citizens of one world.
There is also a level beyond worldcentric consciousness, which we could call cosmoscentric, and that is a context in which we see and recognize ourselves to be citizens of the universe, citizens of the cosmos itself, before we are members of this global civilization, or a particular nation, tribe, or family. We see our own lives in light of the fourteen billion years of cosmic evolution. This is what I am really trying to awaken people to in my teaching work, by redefining spiritual transformation and its perennial goal of enlightenment in an evolutionary context. I am convinced that understanding the evolutionary context of our own emergence is the most important factor in awakening to a new spirituality, which can help us to define the new moral and ethical framework that is so desperately needed in our time.
Andrew Cohen is a spiritual teacher and founder of the award-winning EnlightenNext magazine. Click to learn more about his new book Evolutionary Enlightenment: A New Path to Spiritual Awakening.