Sign Up for Our Bi-Weekly Email

Expand your perspective with thought-provoking insights, quotes, and videos hand-picked by our editors—along with the occasional update about the world of EnlightenNext.

Privacy statement

Your email address is kept confidential, and will never be published, sold or given away without your explicit consent. Thank you for joining our mailing list!


"I CAN" vs. "I AM": What Is the Relationship Between Self-Mastery and Enlightenment?

Introduction to this issue
by Andrew Cohen


Andrew Cohen

Extraordinary human beings like the peak performance coach Anthony Robbins and the eighty-four-years-young fitness guru Jack LaLanne have something special. What do they have? They have unshakable CONFIDENCE. They have explosive ENERGY. They have powerful CHARISMA. They express unusual CLARITY. And . . . they manifest infectious POSITIVITY! Who are these remarkable individuals? We call them the "SELF MASTERS." Why? Because they have supreme control over their minds, their emotions and their bodies, and they passionately speak about the experience of dynamic freedom. They also tirelessly work day and night for the physical, psychological, emotional and, yes, spiritual upliftment of their fellow men and women. Why did we want to speak to them? Because the qualities they embody seem remarkably similar to many of those demonstrated by individuals who are supposed to be ENLIGHTENED.

"Wait a minute! What's going on here? Anthony Robbins of late-night infomercial fame—enlightened? Are you kidding?! Jack LaLanne, the guy in the skintight jumpsuit who in the '50s and '60s led our mothers through exercise routines on daytime television—spiritual?" Well, yes, maybe . . .

That's why these Self Masters began to attract our attention. They raised some interesting questions. For example, Self Master Dan Millman of Way of the Peaceful Warrior fame said to us, "I know people who are seriously, earnestly working on the Eastern [enlightenment] solution, which is going inside, meditating, doing spiritual practices. Their brows are knitted, they're working, so one day, maybe in this lifetime or in another lifetime, they might achieve that state. Meanwhile, they're not paying attention to their kids, their finances are down the toilet and they're not functioning very well in life." Good point! The more we looked into it, the more apparent it became that these Self Masters were raising very important questions for anybody who is interested in transforming their life. Questions that definitely challenge our relationship to the physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual arenas of life in ways that are immediate and PRACTICAL, ways that strictly "spiritual" disciplines often do not. When the foremost transpersonal thinkers of our time, like Michael Murphy of Golf in the Kingdom and The Future of the Body fame, are passionately pointing out the limitations of a spirituality that does not include the integrated development of the whole being—the body, mind, emotions and spirit—we couldn't help but take notice of the astonishing accomplishments of the Self Masters, these dynamic men and women who, while not overtly declaring the glory of the spiritual dimension of life, seem to be manifesting many qualities that "spiritual" seekers might do well to consider. For example, how positive and straightforward is our relationship to our bodies, our thoughts, our emotions, to money, sex and, believe it or not, ETHICS? What? Yes, ethics. These Self Masters seem to be refreshingly straightforward: Integrity is the bottom line if you want to change your life, they insist. No mincing words here.

"The only thing that Jack LaLanne has got going for him is telling the truth. I've got nothing else going for me; that's it, that's the whole thing. I would never miss a workout, and I would never eat anything that I don't believe in. I'd be cheating! That's self-mastery; that's control, that's discipline, that's pride. And that's what we need more than anything else—pride and discipline." In the world of the Self Masters, the message and the messenger do seem to be one and the same. And that raises provocative questions about the modern-day spiritual marketplace where even the very notion that the message and the messenger should be synonymous is often met with cynicism and even self-righteous indignation.

The world of the Self Masters is free from the confusing complexity of the spiritual world in its character-challenging simplicity. And while it may indeed lack the thrilling and intoxicating depth that the Enlightenment Masters speak of, the Self Masters' message calls upon us to face our fear and insecurity with a fierce yet compassionate confidence that challenges all but those who must already be liberated! No time here for "navel gazing" or the endless journey of self-discovery on the therapist's couch. "JUST DO IT!" the Self Masters boldly exhort us all. "Just do it, now!" Just do what? "Change! Transform! Realize your potential!" Contemplation and meditation take a backseat to ACTION, ACTION, ACTION. If we don't DO IT, then nothing is going to change, they passionately remind us over and over again. Contemplation and meditation only go so far, they say; it is only through action that any real transformation will occur. "Take MASSIVE ACTION!" is Anthony Robbins's mantra to the multitudes who pay a lot of money to experience his relentless outpouring of energetic positivity.

Is it possible that all this talk in spiritual circles about "acceptance" may be unknowingly dulling our spiritual edge? The Self Masters constantly speak about measurable results and about the need to continually strive, not only to maintain a high standard but to always keep expanding one's horizons, never to accept less than the best from oneself. The intriguing distinction here is that in the spiritual world, any talk of measurement and standards is seen as inherently destructive. "How can the expression of God in human form be measured?" spiritually minded people ask. "And who, after all, is going to be the one to set the standard?" Dangerous questions indeed!

The message of the Enlightenment Masters is, of course, the very opposite of that of the Self Masters. The Enlightenment Masters tell us that in order to experience enlightenment, we have to stop doing and just BE. They tell us to stop all this striving to become and just allow. SURRENDER to the will of God, to the Tao, to Being itself, they say to us, and you will know who you really ARE. The Enlightenment Masters also speak of extraordinary transformation: of spiritual death and rebirth. And although both the Enlightenment Masters and the Self Masters speak about extraordinary transformation—the transformation they speak of is not the same.

The Self Masters encourage the strengthening and building up of the self. The Enlightenment Masters encourage its destruction and describe the liberating bliss that is its death.

Simply put, the Self Masters help us to liberate the "I CAN"; the Enlightenment Masters show us the way to experience the "I AM."

And yet, the Self Masters and the Enlightenment Masters seem to share so many of the same qualities. So the big question is this: Is it possible that the Self Masters have more to offer the spiritual seeker today than the Enlightenment Masters? Do the Self Masters have more to offer than the Enlightenment Masters when it gets down to the brass tacks of actual human transformation? That's what we were curious to find out. And so we approached eight extraordinary individuals—four Self Masters, two philosophers and two spiritual warriors—in order to find the answer to the fascinating question: What is the relationship between self-mastery and enlightenment? What is the relationship between "I CAN" and "I AM"?


Subscribe to What Is Enlightenment? magazine today and get 40% off the cover price.

Subscribe Give a gift Renew

This article is from
Our Self-Mastery Issue