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Transcend and Include

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 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.


How does significant change occur? Must the old and familiar be completely rejected for a new possibility to be born? In their seventh dialogue, Wilber and Cohen explore what it means to actualize our far-reaching human potential while embracing the multidimensional complexity of the evolutionary process itself.

ANDREW COHEN: I just got back from the Parliament of the World's Religions in Barcelona where I had a really wonderful experience. It was a transformative event for me personally. I met many spiritual teachers, religious leaders, social activists, and university professors—inspired, passionate, caring, open-hearted individuals—from just about every different background you could imagine. The feeling of goodwill was infectious and it created an atmosphere that was quite uplifting. At the airport in Boston, on our way there, I met a woman who described her experience at the previous Parliament in Cape Town six years ago as “my first experience of heaven.” While I wouldn't go quite that far, the fact that so many different people from so many different backgrounds, cultures, faiths, beliefs, and even, dare I say, levels of development could come together in such a spirit of sharing and inquiry is remarkable.

The most enlightening conversation I had there was with Dirk Ficca, the executive director of the Parliament. When we were speaking about the gathering there and what it was that he was trying to accomplish, he stated unequivocally that his principal interest in creating the Parliament was to influence “the mainstream.” He divided the spiritual/religious world into three categories: fundamentalists, mainstream, and progressives. He said that the fundamentalists, no matter what tradition they come from, are never going to be interested in either coming together with others or moving forward. Then he said that the progressives—people like us, who are in the minority—are already doing both those things but that we, relatively speaking, exist in our own bubble. He made clear that it is only in reaching the mainstream—those in the traditions who are neither fundamentalists nor progressives—that significant change in the world religious body could occur. That made a big impression on me because, as you know, in my own work, I have mainly been focused on pushing the very edge of our spiritual potential. I have always been convinced that pushing the edge will, in its own way, affect the whole in the long run. And while that may be true, the fact is, as Dirk made clear, that unless that middle group begins to move forward, no matter how much progress a few of us pushing into the frontiers may make, we are all going to go down with the ship!

KEN WILBER: Definitely. And you can look at it in a very straightforward way. That is, once you introduce a developmental context to our understanding, it's both very encouraging and very pessimistic at the same time. Because seventy percent of the world's population is at an ethnocentric level of development or lower. And that means what Spiral Dynamics would call the blue meme, or magic and mythic, or lower. And that's where the fundamentalists and the traditionalists basically are. So that's number one. What he means by “mainstream” tends to be very similar actually to the orange meme, or rational-scientific. Because what the mainstream often represents is an attempt to take the fundamentalist magic and mythic dogmas and modernize them—put them into a modern framework. And the modern mainstream churches tend to be an expression of that.

COHEN: And if we can get the mainstream moving, it doesn't matter how slowly, as long as they're moving forward, it means that as a whole we can move forward together in the most important way.

WILBER: And Dirk is quite right, I think, that the mainstream is an extremely pivotal factor and faction in getting that ethnocentric, preconventional, scary kind of fundamentalist religion to move into the modern and postmodern world. Now, the progressives are pluralistic or integral or higher, but that's less than two or three percent of the world population. But if we can't get to the mainstream in religion, then there's about seventy percent of the world that's going to continue to be a real problem. And I think that's why things like the Parliament of the World's Religions are very important. But at best, that is a pluralistic, postmodern, green-meme organization. So in terms of where the mainstream action is, I think he is pretty accurate. But it is not integral. I would say that it is mainstream indeed, but integral is the leading edge, that cutting two or three percent.

COHEN: Certainly. But you know, while I was there, in spite of how bad things so often seem these days, the sense of camaraderie and brotherhood fueled a kind of passionate excitement about what's possible—and that's mainly what my attention was drawn to. In any case, all we can do is everything that we honestly can do—and if we're doing the right thing, we'll experience the ecstatic glory underlying the entire process, no matter what happens in the end.

WILBER: Definitely!

COHEN: As I said before, most of my own attention has been devoted to pushing the edge of consciousness development, focused mainly on that two or three percent that you are referring to (which in my own work is probably a lot less than a half percent!). And I've not really been all that engaged with those dimensions that didn't directly relate to that edge. This is why going to the Parliament was such a transformative event for me. I rediscovered, in a deeper way, that we're all part of a vast developmental process that is inherently whole. And it's become obvious to me that any avoidance or denial of that wholeness inevitably and profoundly inhibits our ability to see clearly and therefore to respond in the most beneficial way possible.

In your own work as an integral philosopher, you've always emphasized that, as we evolve and develop from one level to another, it's necessary to transcend and also to include what has come before. And in my work as a spiritual teacher, I have very clearly made a distinction between your statement—“transcend and include”—and my own version, which is that, as we evolve and develop from one level to another, we must “transcend and exclude” what has come before so that we will be free to reconfigure ourselves at a higher level. I'm still convinced that's true, but as a result of my recent experience, I must admit that my view on this is changing and maturing. I realize that it's possible to embrace a wide variety of worldviews, opinions, and spiritual perspectives without compromising one's own evolving edge.

WILBER: Yes, they're really not mutually exclusive at all.

COHEN: Indeed, and the living significance of what “transcend and include” is all about became part of my ongoing experience at the Parliament. I met so many wonderful, big-hearted, compassionate people who care so deeply about the evolution and development of our world and of our consciousness. That awakened me to the fact that being focused only on the edge of human potential itself is an approach that is less than whole. I had never met so many different kinds of people who I felt I was able to relate to with the best part of my own humanity, at a real heart level and also at the level of mind. I think it was a maturing experience for me because, as I said, I realized I didn't in any way have to compromise my own position in the process of engaging with and learning from so many others who were also trying to uplift the consciousness of this same world.

WILBER: That's great. I think that's profound. It's a process of maturing. Richness always continues to unfold.

COHEN: And at the same time, as we aspire to evolve to higher and higher levels of development, we go through this continuous process of dissolution and reintegration. In this process of evolution and transcendence, we constantly need to be willing to let go of, or exclude, old ways of seeing and thinking: our fixed philosophical positions, worldviews, self-concepts, etc. And in my own work with people, it's one of the most challenging aspects of actual development because it's the ultimate threat to the ego. The only thing that actually enables real evolutionary, which means vertical, development is that courageous willingness to let go at the deepest level of our sense of who we are.

WILBER: It's always called a death. Every tradition calls it a death and it's not a metaphor.

COHEN: That's the absolutely terrifying, completely exhilarating truth of evolution at the level of consciousness in real time!

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This article is from...


October–December 2004