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From the Many to the One

Enlightenment for the Twenty-First Century
by Andrew Cohen

"I think the sages are the growing tip of the secret impulse of evolution," writes Ken Wilber in his book A Brief History of Everything. "I think they are the leading edge of the self-transcending drive that always goes beyond what went before. . . . They embody the very drive of the Kosmos toward greater depth and expanding consciousness. . . . They are riding the edge of a light beam racing toward a rendezvous with God."

What is the leading edge of spirituality going to look like in the twenty-first century? In these ever-more challenging times in which we are living, it seems that time itself is speeding up or, as some people say, the rate of change is changing faster than it ever has. For those at the leading edge, it's getting harder and harder to hold on to old forms and ideas. The end of an era, and the beginning of a new one, is literally forcing us to find a new path, a new way to philosophically and spiritually orient ourselves to the experience of being alive. The context for the spiritual path in our time is different 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. So now, when the changing life conditions are forcing us to find a new way, what are we going to do? Where are we going to turn? And who are we going to turn to?

It was only very recently, at the beginning of the postmodern era, that large numbers of us began to look beyond our own religious traditions for spiritual sustenance. We did so because the traditions no longer seemed capable of meeting the needs of our highly educated and pluralistic mindset. Products of our own time and culture, we knew too much to carry on in the old way. And so some brave pathfinders went forth to find the answer they couldn't find at home—and discovered enlightenment. They found it in the East and brought it back so that the rest of us could partake in the great feast of liberating wisdom and higher consciousness beyond ego. And we did. But then we stumbled. We stumbled because our Eastern masters, in spite of their extraordinary knowledge of higher states, turned out to be deeply embedded in a much older world than the one we were trying to escape from. As a result, their ability to help us was limited and, when we found that out, we rejected them. We rejected them because we realized that, in spite of their knowledge of higher states, they didn't truly know themselves. And so in time, we reasonably concluded that we knew more than they did. We moved forward and boldly forged a new path, marrying East and West. We made a new and more complete map of the entire terrain of human development, from early psychological growth all the way to the furthest reaches of higher consciousness. Evolution had, indeed, occurred and history had been made.

But evolution is never that simple. In order to move forward, it was necessary for us to challenge the position, power, and authority that were part and parcel of the masters' worldview. We, at the leading edge, had to do this because we had discovered that even though our perspective may not have been as high as the masters', it was definitely more broad. We had a bigger picture, a larger view, a more inclusive perspective that undoubtedly embraced a much greater spectrum of the human experience. And we knew it. But nothing is free in life, and we have paid a price for our ingenuity. We have now become experts in our own right. The Eastern masters have been replaced by Western teachers. But as educated Westerners, children of the postmodern era, our enlightenment may be stunted by the very broadness of our view. It may be that our perspective has become so inclusive that we have unknowingly negated the awesome, transformative power of the very thing that we were so attracted to in the first place—enlightenment itself. Why? Because the always overwhelming and infinitely challenging truth of enlightenment is the mind-shattering and ego-destroying recognition that the many must be replaced by the ONE. So we are in a difficult predicament. How do we retain the broadness of our view without sacrificing the radical simplicity of the enlightened mind? How do we transcend the ego while simultaneously and wholeheartedly embracing the complexity of our unsettled world?

We may have to let go in a deeper way. Indeed, at this juncture, in order to continue to move forward, our attachment to the broadness of our hard-won perspective may need to be given up. To push the edge of our own evolution, we may have to take that leap that only masters take. But in our own case, in order to take that same leap, we have to be willing to go beyond not only the ego but also the very knowing mind and inclusive worldview that has become our cherished "new paradigm." For those at the leading edge, the way to the future has to take us beyond where we have come to—as significant as it is. What this means is that our perspective has to shift gears, so to speak, so that we will be able to see the many through the eyes of the One. It was this irreducible mind-transcending vision that was unknowingly sacrificed when our broad perspective became more important to us than the height of our spiritual attainment. We began to see the One through the eyes of the many, without even knowing it. When we rejected the masters, this was the inevitable result, although it was a necessary and unavoidable step in our own bold move forward to a broader understanding of the human experience.

So now, when the urgency for awakening is greater than it has ever been, will more of us take that same leap that all true masters have had to take—from the many to the One? Let's never forget that the enlightened position, the seat of a true master, is "the leading edge of the self-transcending drive that always goes beyond what went before." And that self-transcending drive is what needs to be unleashed in more and more of us so that our collective consciousness will begin to feel the gentle tug of a higher, deeper, and more profound calling. I think that our salvation may depend on it.


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