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Following the Grain of the Kosmos

The Guru and the Pandit
Ken Wilber and Andrew Cohen in Dialogue

Andrew Cohen: GURU. Evolutionary thinker and spiritual pathfinder. Self-described “idealist with revolutionary inclinations.” Cohen, founder of What Is Enlightenment? magazine, is a spiritual teacher and acclaimed author widely recognized as a defining voice in the emerging field of evolutionary spirituality. Over the last decade in the pages of WIE, Cohen has brought together leading thinkers from East and West—mystics and materialists, philosophers and psychologists—to explore the significance of a new spirituality for the new millennium. His books include Embracing Heaven & Earth and Living Enlightenment.

Ken Wilber: PANDIT. A scholar who is deeply proficient and immersed in spiritual wisdom. Self-described “defender of the dharma; intellectual samurai.” Hailed as “the Einstein of consciousness,” Wilber is one of the most highly regarded philosophers alive today, and his work offers a comprehensive and original synthesis of the world's great psychological, philosophical, and spiritual traditions. Author of numerous books, including Sex, Ecology, Spirituality and A Brief History of Everything, Wilber is the founder of Integral Institute and a regular contributor to WIE.


States, Stages, Selves, and the Directionality of Development

Who are we and how do we evolve? In this dialogue, guru and pandit explore the transformative power of what Cohen calls the Authentic Self, illuminating the dynamics by which we move up (and down) the developmental trajectory, and the miraculous collective potentials that lie on the horizon of consciousness.


Cohen: I wanted to speak about something we've discussed before, which is what I call the Authentic Self. In the development of my work in the field of evolutionary spirituality, I've come to the conclusion that awakening to this Authentic Self is a pivotal factor in the transformational process. And I think that a lot of people who are interested in enlightenment, including myself for a long time, have unintentionally been failing to make the important distinction between the Self Absolute, the Authentic Self, and the ego. As I have come to understand it, the Authentic Self is the deepest part of our humanity beyond ego, or the awakened spiritual conscience. The great twentieth-century sage Sri Aurobindo referred to it as the “psychic being,” and some might call it the soul.

A couple of years ago, when we did a piece on Sri Aurobindo for the magazine, we spoke to one of his oldest living disciples, Amal Kiran, a very famous poet in India. He spoke passionately about the psychic being, saying that the cultivation of this part of ourselves is the most important aspect of the spiritual path. He told us:

What Sri Aurobindo called the psychic being, or soul, is the innermost being that is encountered in the heart center. It is that consciousness that is in touch with and identical to man's highest possibility. The psychic being is aspiring all the time. Its very nature is to go higher and higher and higher. And in order for transformation to occur, that being, in all its qualities, has to come forth, come into the open. If you go through your psychic being, you are bound to reach the highest, ultimately. After speaking with him, we talked a lot about it, and we realized that Aurobindo's psychic being seemed to clearly define something that I'd intuited and been trying to cultivate in my students for many years. Now I simply call it the Authentic Self. And this recognition was very helpful to me, because for a long time the traditional enlightenment model, which only seemed to describe the path from the ego to the Self Absolute, had not been meeting my own evolving understanding of what radical realization is all about when one is no longer merely trying to transcend the world but is simultaneously aspiring to transform it.

Wilber: Yes. The traditional model goes from ego to absolute, and that's it. And now you're emphasizing the Authentic Self as an important ingredient in this whole equation.

Cohen: It is so important. The Authentic Self is a completely different dimension of the self than either the Self Absolute or the ego. It is that part of ourselves that is already whole. It has never been hurt, wounded, traumatized, or victimized. It is already whole and complete, and yet it can and does develop. For the Authentic Self, the point of departure in the developmental process is wholeness itself. This is the part of ourselves that cares passionately about evolution for its own sake, already. When individuals awaken to the Authentic Self—even if it's only temporarily—suddenly they become aware of a living evolutionary context and experience a passion and concern about the necessity for development itself. I identify the Authentic Self as synonymous with what we could call the first cause, the creative impulse, and its expression in the awakening human. The Authentic Self doesn't abide in the gross realm; it abides in what you would call the subtle realm. It's aware of everything that is happening here, cares passionately about and can act in response to everything that's happening here, but is always free from everything that's happening here.

Wilber: Right.

Cohen: The ego, or what you would call the frontal self, exists only in this world. And that's why, of course, when people fall back into the ego and the world of the personal self in the gross realm, after having experienced the ecstatic evolutionary passion of the Authentic Self in the subtle realm, they lose touch with that passion in an instant.

Now, what is called the Self Absolute or the unmanifest ground of being is that deepest part of human consciousness that, because it abides beyond time and space, beyond creation itself, does not care at all about what's happening here in the realm of manifestation. It's always free from anything that's ever happened here and always is at rest. Infinite peace is its nature. So whatever does happen in our world, in the manifest realm, has no effect on that deepest part of our self. Birth or death, Big Bang or no Big Bang—

Wilber:—not a problem.

Cohen: Right. But the Authentic Self cares passionately, cares desperately about everything—

Wilber: Yes. It's like the seat of morality.

Cohen: Exactly. And this is so important, especially for us Westerners, because in the new definition of enlightenment, which we've talked so much about, evolution is the context, rather than transcendence. And when people start to directly experience for themselves what the Authentic Self is, they literally begin to light up with awakened understanding—suddenly life, being alive, being a human being, begins to make perfect sense. They exclaim, “Oh, this is the part of me that cares about the life process, the world system, about infinite becoming itself!” And that's so important, because if we can awaken to this Self and recognize what it is, it can help us to make this extraordinary transformation. If we can identify with the Authentic Self—and through doing so, release our attachment to the ego and its fears and desires—that can be the catalyst for evolutionary enlightenment.

Wilber: I agree with what you're saying. Let me give you the way integral psychology, my own view, tends to look at this.

Cohen: Great.


Wilber: First I'll scope out the big picture, and then we'll come back to some of the finer details. One of the important distinctions we make, and we've talked about this from various angles, is the difference between states of consciousness and stages of consciousness. For this discussion we can use a fairly simplified developmental scheme—we can just say egocentric, ethnocentric, worldcentric, and then we sometimes add something like Kosmocentric. Those stages represent one's identity, moving from an identification merely with “me” (egocentric) to an identification with “us” (ethnocentric) to an identification with “all of us” (worldcentric) to an identification with the All (Kosmocentric). As permanent realizations, those are stages; they develop and unfold. States, on the other hand, can mean states of consciousness like waking, dreaming, deep sleep, and so on. You can usually experience these states at any stage—even an infant wakes, dreams, and sleeps. As professor and consciousness researcher Allan Combs says, states are free; stages have to be earned.

In any event, peak experiences or altered states tend to be temporary, transient—they come and go. They can be very important and very profound; it's just that they don't last. For example, an initial state experience of satori can be very important before it becomes a permanent or stage realization.

Cohen: Yes.

Wilber: But in relationship to what we are speaking about, if you look at the type of self or selves that a person can have in terms of states, in addition to stages, then it gets very interesting. For ordinary people in the waking state, the self they have is the ego. In the subtle or dream state, it's the soul or what you're calling the Authentic Self, which I refer to as the deeper psychic. And in the deep-sleep formless state, it's the Absolute Self. Now if we describe those three as nirmanakaya, sambogakaya, dharmakaya, or gross, subtle, causal, then those are the three major, or basic, selves that every human being possesses. We have a gross self, or ego, a subtle self, or soul or deeper psychic, and a causal, formless absolute or atman Self, capital S, a transcendental witness. So even an infant has a soul. They're not necessarily awakened to it, they're not necessarily alive to it, but it's there, yes. And they also obviously have an atman Self, even though they're not awake or realized as that transcendental Self or witness. States are free; stages are earned.

So the interesting thing is that you can now do what we call a lattice or a matrix, where you can plot stages of development and then look at the selves or the states that are occurring. The essential point, as we were saying, is that a person at any stage can have a temporary experience of almost any state—so you can have an egocentric experience of gross, subtle, and causal; an ethnocentric experience of gross, subtle, and causal; a worldcentric experience of gross, subtle, and causal, and so on. We have an enormous amount of evidence that all of those occur.

On occasion, then, almost anybody at any stage can get a glimpse of the deeper psychic, or the soul. They can have that state experience, but it usually slips and fades away. It is merely a passing state and not a permanent trait, not yet a permanent stage realization. Now, what I think happens, and the way it ties together with what you're talking about, is that at some point in actual development, between the worldcentric and Kosmocentric stages, the deeper psychic can awaken to itself, not as a temporary altered state but as a permanent realization or stage accomplishment.

Cohen: Right. And that's a very significant moment.

Wilber: So at that point you are awakening to this self in the subtle dimension. It's actually becoming alive to itself, even though in a sense it's been there all along, even though it had this kind of wholeness all along. It's been developing itself, because these stages have been developing as the vehicle through which it can express itself. But you have to be at least at a worldcentric stage of development or it's not going to stick. You can awaken the deeper psychic, or the soul, and get a taste of it, but it fades. But at some point, as we were saying, between worldcentric and Kosmocentric, it can be awakened, and there's a kind of flip. And then you hang everything off of your soul.

Cohen: Right, exactly!

Wilber: Does that make sense?

Cohen: Yes, perfectly.

Wilber: So theoretically that's pretty good.


Wilber: Of course, we've talked about what happens when people at lower levels of development have a temporary state experience of the subtle soul, or causal Self, and then they revert next week or the week after that, and then they usually feel pretty cranky about what's gone on—

Cohen: Very cranky. Even more than cranky. You see, I'm starting to see that when people really awaken to the Authentic Self, they begin to see the world in a completely new way; they discover a new morality. Suddenly they discover a completely different relationship to mind, to emotions, to the purpose and meaning and direction of life. But when they fall out of that perspective, because maybe they didn't want to face whatever they had to face in themselves—then what they do is fall back into the level of development that they were in before they had that realization. So suddenly they're not seeing things in the new way anymore, and they embrace the psychology and worldview that they had before, and then they see the experience that they had in a higher state from the perspective of the lower stage. So of course, now it's seen in a completely distorted way.

Wilber: Unfortunately that happens all the time. [Laughing] Happened to me just this morning at breakfast.

Cohen: [Laughing] It's a very weird experience to watch this happen to people.

Wilber: Well, again, you're looking at states and stages in what you're just describing. And the thing is, stages can't be skipped. For example, take atoms, molecules, cells, organisms. An atom can't have an experience of a cell and bypass being a molecule. It just doesn't work like that. So a person can be plunged into an authentic experience of a higher state—even of the nondual—at virtually any stage that they're at. They can have that temporary state experience—but then what also happens is that if the person is ready to move to the next stage of development, that experience will help dislodge their identification with their current stage, and they will then start to actually move to that next stage, in addition to having the state experience of the nondual.

Cohen: Right!

[ continue ]


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