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A Vow to Live Forever

Embracing the tension between the finite and the infinite
Ken Wilber & Andrew Cohen in dialogue

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.

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.

Dialogue X

Whether it's heaven, reincarnation, or the fountain of youth, mankind has had a perennial fascination with immortality. But have we ever asked ourselves what it would really be like to live forever? In their tenth dialogue, Cohen and Wilber deconstruct the “immortality projects” of the human ego and in the process reveal a striking new vision of eternal life.

ANDREW COHEN: The twenty-first-century quest for physical immortality is the theme for this issue, so I thought it would be appropriate if we had a discussion about enlightenment and immortality. In fact, the first time I became aware of the possibility of extending our physical lives to a ridiculously long length of time—to hundreds, if not thousands of years—was when I read your book Boomeritis.

KEN WILBER: It really shook me up when I first heard about the possibility of physical immortality—or at least massively extended physical life span, perhaps several hundred thousand years—which is why I used it as a little subplot in Boomeritis. For about three days, I was in a daze, because when you think about that possibility, it seems to change just about everything!

COHEN: Precisely. It scared the heck out of me, too! But I think this is something we all have to begin to consider, because it seems that in the not-too-distant future, for better or worse, these capacities, these potentials, are actually going to be available to us. This fact should compel all thoughtful and sensitive souls to dare to face into some big and ultimately challenging questions. Initially, at a deep existential level, the notion of the mortal self, or ego, being able to carry on for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, just feels absolutely wrong. Intuitively, it seemed to me that if one could infinitely extend the life of the individual, one would be breaking some fundamental law of the universe—tampering with natural structures in the creative process that shouldn't be tampered with. It just seemed deeply chilling and even horrifying. But then it suddenly occurred to me that this is all inevitable—that sooner or later, we will have the ability to prolong our physical life span. And then I wondered: Would the possibility of extending the human experience still feel so deeply wrong if human beings were much more evolved at the level of consciousness? Or might extending our physical life span eventually be a natural expression of our evolutionary development?

WILBER: Well, I think that's a question everybody should ask. Let me give my own quick overview of what we mean by immortality.

COHEN: We're talking about physical immortality.

WILBER: I know, but physical immortality gets confused with other realms. Let me briefly give an overview of what we're talking about in terms of these realms—the body, the soul, and the spirit—and then we can focus on whether we mean physical immortality or the immortality of the soul or the immortality of spirit.

Human beings want immortality in a bodily realm because they intuit something deeper that's not bodily. That's one version of what I call the Atman Project, which is an intuition of infinity applied to the finite realm—when you want the finite realm to be infinite. And that's part of the difficulty. When most people think about immortality, they're thinking about some variation of overcoming time. And in the physical domain you overcome time by living forever. That's the body's idea of immortality. It's simply not physically dying. You're materially going on forever.

Immortality for the soul is usually thought of as reincarnation. The soul is immortal because it never dies. It goes from body to body to body. It's as if the soul takes off one coat and puts on another. That's another version of immortality, a higher-realm version, but ultimately it is also just another version of the Atman Project, because it is a fussing around in the realm of time looking for the timeless. It just fusses around a lot longer.

For the realm of nondual spirit, immortality doesn't mean living forever. It means the experience of timelessness; it means a moment of pure timeless presence, not going on forever in time.

COHEN: An infinite moment of timelessness.

WILBER: Yes, an infinite moment. It basically means without space and without time. Even Wittgenstein got it right. He said, “If we take eternity to mean not everlasting time but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.”

So you can have eternal life by simply and fully being in the timeless present with spirit, now. And whether your body lives for a million years or not, you are still eternal. It doesn't mean you live forever; it means you're not in the stream of time. So all of time arises within the awareness or spaciousness that you are in this timeless present. The “I AMness” that you are is radically without time. So it's eternal in its fullness right now.

There are, at the very least, three types of “immortality.” There's the immortality of living forever in time—whether physically living forever or having the soul go on forever—and then there's the immortality or eternity of the timeless present as spirit's Presence. And you can have immortality and eternity in the timeless present, right now, with no further requirements whatsoever. But immortality through time, ultimately it just can't be done, not for any finite body and not for the soul, either, not really. You can make it live for a million years, but to go on for a million years in time looking for the timeless is simply to miss the point for a million years. So there's only one kind of actual immortality, and that's the immortality of the timeless ever-present clarity of spirit.

COHEN: Yes. The whole notion of physical immortality is strictly about the domain of the body and of the egoic self, which is inherently finite. When people speak about immortality in this way, it has nothing to do with the immortal nature of the spirit. Making these distinctions is very important. And one significant issue is that if we begin to experiment with extending our capacity or ability to live in the physical domain but are not more evolved spiritually, philosophically, and ethically, the picture becomes inherently problematic.

In the physical domain of the universe, there's a constant process of creation and destruction that's occurring in every moment at all levels. It's unbroken. It's never static. In fact, that appears to be the very nature of the manifest domain. And at some level it feels like attaining physical immortality would be interfering with that process. If we suddenly gained the capacity to live beyond what is currently considered our natural life span, it seems like we would be crossing over into a kind of ungodly realm of the “undead.”

WILBER: I understand. It violates nature's laws.

COHEN: Yes. Ironically enough, I imagine that if we do succeed in extending our capacity to live for hundreds or thousands of years, it just might create more fear and attachment than we're already burdened with. For example, I've noticed that people who have a lot of money tend to be more worried and concerned about it than people who have a lot less. In the same way, if I knew I was going to live for 5,000 years, I would probably take fewer risks than I do now. In fact, maybe I'd never want to get on an airplane or go bungee jumping, because if anything happened, I'd lose my chance to live for 5,000 years! Just as people who are very rich become more attached to money—it doesn't free them; it imprisons them—the gift of immortality could create a hellish life.

WILBER: You'd never go outdoors, would you?

COHEN: Precisely. It could be ironic and horrible.

WILBER: Otto Rank was one of Freud's initial five inner disciples and he was a brilliant man. He was one of the first to use the term “neurosis,” but he had an existential meaning for it, which is still quite extraordinary: a neurotic, he said, was somebody whose fear of death caused them to fear life. I drew a lot on his work when I was writing The Atman Project, which is basically about the fear of death, the ego's fear of death. The ego intuits that its True Self is spirit and is infinite and eternal. But it applies that intuition of eternity to its own finite body or self and then wants its finite body or self to be eternal.

It's that intuition of infinity applied to the finite realm that makes human beings such a peculiar mixture—both completely human and completely divine simultaneously, and constantly prone to confusing those spheres! When we confuse these two spheres, all hell breaks out, literally. That's why Rank defined neurosis as when somebody's fear of death makes them especially fearful of life, which is a beautiful understanding of neurosis and not at all what you get from standard psychoanalysis. So that's what you're talking about, and yes, if we actually extended our life span to 1,000, 5,000, or 10,000 years, you'd feel like an idiot if on your thirtieth birthday you got run over by a truck.

COHEN: You'd hate it.

WILBER: Oh, man, what a bummer!

COHEN: But what's interesting is that the people in our culture who are pushing this whole potential are, of course, those who have reached the scientific/rational worldview and have what you might call a scientific Atman project: they intuit their infinite Selves but want to scientifically make their finite selves go on forever!

WILBER: Absolutely. And the latest twist is that they want to download consciousness into computers. But then you always have to say, “What level of consciousness are you talking about? There are a dozen levels and basically all you want to do is download the egoic rational level. I mean, why?” They say, “We're going to live 5,000 years or 10,000 years—won't that be great!” I say, “Why would you want Hitler to live 10,000 years? Why do you want Saddam Hussein to live 10,000 years? What exactly are you talking about when you say that this is necessarily a good thing?”

[ continue ]


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This article is from
Our Immortality Issue


September–November 2005