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The New Enlightenment

Enlightenment for the Twenty-First Century
by Andrew Cohen

Although most people don't know it yet, the age of personal or merely individual enlightenment is over. In the twenty-first century, the context for deep, authentic, serious spirituality—which means transformational spirituality—is evolution, evolution not only of the individual but beyond the individual.

It's only relatively recently that we've discovered that we are part of a vast fourteen-billion-year developmental process that's unfolding, right now, as ourselves. The awakening to this evolutionary context shatters the deeply conditioned notion that we are separate individuated entities that somehow exist independent of the conditions in which we find ourselves. The postmodern ego is nothing less than a master magician, creating the ultimate illusion: individuality! And for our postmodern selves, the painful experience of psychological and spiritual alienation has reached its historical apex. In our pursuit of personal, social, philosophical, and spiritual freedom, many of us have abandoned our great spiritual traditions and, as a result, have lost touch with our own individual and collective soul, unexpectedly ending up quite alone on the desert island of our own ego. For those of us who desperately want to move forward, who can't go back to the way things were before we had seen through the limitations of familial, tribal, religious, and nationalistic notions of self—where are we to look?

Those of us who have begun to see through the apparent solidity of these established structures feel we can no longer carry on in the old way. And if we are spiritually inclined, but can no longer tread the beaten path, we find ourselves compelled to seek for a higher and deeper consciousness. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, for those human beings at the leading edge, the passionate pursuit and defense of individualization has reached a dead end. And because of that, the very movement toward higher development now calls for a leap beyond the personal sphere in a way that has simply never happened before. The pursuit of holiness, the pursuit of enlightened consciousness, has traditionally been the path of the heroic and extraordinary individual—the holy One, the enlightened One. But now the evolutionary imperative of our time seems to be compelling us to develop beyond what we could call personal realization to something else altogether: a profound awakening that transcends the individual.

One night, when I was in my mid-teens, I spontaneously experienced what's been traditionally called “cosmic consciousness.” For a brief time, I knew without any doubt that I was simultaneously the whole universe and its witness. To know the immensity of the love that is this duality is physically overwhelming. In my early twenties I became a dedicated seeker, and when I was thirty I found what I was looking for. Soon after I began to teach, I made an intriguing observation: the spiritual experiences that those who had gathered around me were sharing together seemed to be of greater significance than any experience of higher consciousness they had had individually—no matter how powerful it may have been.

“We were literally sucked into a field of consciousness so powerful and radically different that the experience was of being gently yet completely destroyed, one's identity disappearing, and then finding oneself literally in a new world.”

It took me a few years to understand what was happening and to be able to put it into context. But soon it became obvious that a mutation was occurring. I was bearing witness to the fact that the mind of enlightenment seemed to be taking a leap beyond the individual.

“The words that were spoken had infinite depth and meaning and resonated with a timeless presence. As soon as we acknowledged this, the presence between us seemed to amplify in strength and started to look through our eyes with the keenest interest in its own expression.”

“This new consciousness that emerged between us is so powerful that I experienced it as almost uncontainable. I trembled inside. At first there was so much fear of this overwhelming force, but it demanded a response and it felt completely impossible to say no to it. The mind expanded rapidly in all directions, leaving no room for any self-reference or boundaries between us. A sense of self emerged that was literally indefinable; it did not seem to have a beginning or end.”

Evolutionary biologists tell us that it is stress that causes development, compelling the emergence of new and more complex forms of life. Evolutionary psychologists tell us that it is changing life-conditions that miraculously catalyze higher manifestations of emotional, psychological, and spiritual potential in the human being. As the feature article in this issue of What Is Enlightenment? suggests, at the frontiers of human development, consciousness itself seems to be leaping beyond the confines of individuation, dramatically revealing new, thrilling, and unimagined possibilities of higher integration. In spite of the overwhelming dangers that lie ahead, I can't think of a more thrilling time to be alive.


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This article is from
Our Collective Intelligence Issue


May–July 2004