What is enlightenment for the twenty-first century? In the following dialogue spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen and integral philosopher Ken Wilber trace the contours of cultural development and explore how the evolving forms of human worldviews affect the very experience and expression of the timeless spiritual revelation.
ANDREW COHEN: I’d like to talk about the relationship between enlightenment and the evolution of culture. My ongoing inquiry has been based upon both my own awakening to the eternal or timeless ground of being and the recognition that the world that we are living in is constantly changing. The world we’re living in is a very different world from the one that existed two thousand years ago, one thousand years ago, or even five hundred years ago. And our needs as evolving human beings in the postmodern context in the twenty-first century are dramatically different from those of individuals in the past.
In my earlier days, when I was a seeker, I took very much to heart everything my teachers said. Eventually, when I became a teacher myself, I found through my own experience that many of the things I had been told were not necessarily true. I was also aware that many Eastern teachers were having trouble addressing some of the needs of Western seekers because it seemed that they were seeing things through the filter of their own premodern worldview. That was why I started asking a lot of questions. My inquiry was then, and continues to be to this day: What does the postmodern expression of enlightenment look like? How can the revelation of emptiness or nonduality help me make sense out of the human experience in the twenty-first century? That’s how my inquiry began, and that’s how I’ve approached all the important questions.
In my own development, what has replaced the excitement of experiencing new insights and ideas is the powerful urge to actually create a new context—a new cultural context, an enlightened culture. So what I wanted to speak to you about is the relationship between the experience of awakening and the emergence of a compulsion to create that which is new based on the revelation that one has experienced, based on the higher unmanifest potentials that one has actually glimpsed. What’s most important to me, and I believe to you, is evolutionary spirituality, evolutionary enlightenment—spiritual transformation in an evolutionary, developmental context. And it’s the creative component in relationship to awakening itself that is so compelling, so interesting, and so fascinating. Most significantly, it’s the nondifference between the enlightened perspective, directly seen, known, and felt, and the arising of a spontaneous compulsion to create, to make manifest that which is being seen. Ultimately one becomes more compelled by what actually happens as a result of awakening than by the awakening itself. And it’s the ecstatic compulsion to transform the world that really becomes the focus of one’s attention instead of merely one’s own personal development or personal liberation.
KEN WILBER: Well, let me suggest that the post-awakening impulse to create—which might be experienced by somebody having an awakening two thousand years ago, or one thousand years ago or five hundred years ago—the very felt sense of that impulse changes because the world of form has changed. So if you were alive two thousand years ago, and had the identical experience you have had during your lifetime now—if you had this nondual, awakening experience that was, to put it academically, a union of emptiness and form, a union of heaven and earth, a union of nirvana and samsara—I don’t think you’d experience it as evolutionary spirituality. You’re not merely resting in nirvana and emptiness, nor are you merely embracing pagan arising and impulsiveness moment to moment. You’ve had an awakening that sees they are both part of this ground of being, and that this emptiness is manifesting as form, and you have a creative, spontaneous, ecstatic, felt urge to express creativity. But two thousand years ago, that awakening would have had no place to go in terms of an evolutionary understanding. You wouldn’t have felt that. Maybe you would have felt that you could express that realization through art, and you would have been a painter. Or you would have been compelled to express it in music, and you would have become a musician.
COHEN: That’s because the understanding of time in those days was cyclical and not based in a deep-time developmental perspective.
WILBER: Exactly. And this relates to the question of enlightenment and culture because when culture changes, the form of enlightenment changes. Now when I use the word “form,” I mean that strictly. The formal aspects of enlightenment, the manifest forms of enlightenment, are different. And it’s only in the modern and postmodern world that we can conceive of evolutionary spirituality and therefore feel that as the form of our awakening.
COHEN: This is why in most of the talks I’m giving now, I provide a basic understanding of premodern enlightenment, explaining how the ultimate goal in those days was to not have to return back to this world, to not have to take form again. And then I give everybody a very brief deep-time developmental perspective, explaining how long it’s taken—fourteen billion years—for matter to gain the capacity to become conscious of itself. And I point out that if this is true, it wouldn’t make any sense that the whole point of awakening, or enlightenment, would be to escape from the whole process at the very instant that the universe is beginning to awaken to itself.
From a developmental perspective, the universe, as far as we know, is only just beginning to become conscious of itself, through us. That’s why the ultimate point and purpose of the whole ordeal of evolution, and finally of enlightenment itself, could not be merely the transcendence of or escape from the world, but rather the active transformation or enlightenment of the world.
WILBER: I agree with you entirely about what you’re saying, vis-à-vis the early forms of ascending religion—yogic and Theravadin—the aim of which was to get out of samsara entirely and into nirvikalpa or nirodh or unconditional emptiness.
COHEN: And this was true even with the Western traditions, at least in Christianity. If you live a virtuous life and you’re a good boy or a good girl, you get to go to heaven when you die.
WILBER: Right. And after the Mahayana revolution in Buddhism, there was a whole movement that understood that emptiness is not other than form and form is not other than emptiness, that there is a nondual, sahaj, open-eyes realization. In other words, a thousand years ago you could have had a “one-taste,” nondual awakened realization. But you still wouldn’t have the form of evolutionary spirituality because there was no form like that in your mind or in the culture’s mind at large. If there had been, you would read about it in the sutras and the tantras, but you don’t.
WILBER: But what happened about three hundred years ago is that the world of form, which is Spirit’s own formal manifestation—Spirit is awakening to itself in the formal realm as well—started producing an understanding of the evolutionary forms of its own unfolding. And at that point, this understanding entered the mental realms, so to speak, and became available not only to the average educated person but to anybody who was being brought up in that atmosphere. So an understanding of evolution seeps into the whole world now. And what happens is that the very form of manifestation is becoming awakened to itself. So if you have that “one-taste” experience in today’s world—just for argument’s sake, let’s say it’s the same nondual realization today as a thousand years ago—it’s going to expand into an evolutionary spirituality, because that is a more adequate form through which to express that realization.
COHEN: Yes. And yet I think that even today, when people have nondual or enlightenment experiences, how those experiences are interpreted is going to depend on how free or informed one is, cognitively or intellectually. Even in our postmodern culture, enlightenment experiences are still often interpreted in a way that tends to overemphasize transcendence, which reflects a premodern worldview. And more often than not, the result is that this inadvertently opposes the evolutionary perspective.
On September 28th (3pm ET & 8pm ET), Ken Wilber and Jean Houston will interview Andrew Cohen about his new book Evolutionary Enlightenment: A New Path to Spiritual Awakening, exploring its unique insights into the nature and relevance of spiritual enlightenment in today’s world. Click here to register for free!