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Laying the Tracks for a Moving Train

Revelation, Right View, and the Challenge of Conscious Evolution
Ken Wilber & Andrew Cohen in dialogue

What creates authentic—and sustained—transformation in human beings? In their eleventh dialogue, Wilber and Cohen pursue this elusive and complex question from the depths of mystical experience through the frameworks of developmental theory to the creative frontier, where temporary glimpses of higher potential become the permanent contours of a new stage in human evolution.

ANDREW COHEN: When speaking about enlightenment, or the highest stages of human development, which you would call third tier, it's become absolutely clear to me that until one becomes firmly established at those higher levels oneself, access to them seems to be almost always dependent upon the experience of higher states of consciousness. What's often frustrating for me as a teacher is that it seems to be very difficult for most people to sustain the perspective that reveals itself during the experience of those higher states. We've spoken about this together many times, and it continues to be a ceaseless inquiry for me: What is the relationship between temporary states of consciousness and permanent stages of development, and what are the most effective ways to work with individuals to help them actually evolve?

For example, I often find that when I lead retreats, something miraculous occurs that has nothing to do with anyone making any effort. Suddenly we find ourselves swimming in a powerful fourth-dimension state that envelops us all simply because we showed up for this event. What happens in that supercharged atmosphere of awakened consciousness is that instantaneously, many individuals take quite a leap. They have a sustained experience of being awake to what you would call a causal level of depth, in an open-eyed nondual context, for many days at a time. Without making any effort, they get a taste of heaven. But I always insist that heaven is not enough. So once I get them there, I ask them to begin to think about their own humanity and the meaning of life in the context of the living depth that they have discovered. I have found that this kind of inquiry reveals a potential for conscious evolution like nothing else. Indeed, looking into the reality of the human experience from a higher state of consciousness dramatically deepens one's conviction in the possibility of a truly radical transformation. Of course, what the individual needs to do then is to use an important event like that as a source of inspiration. They need to begin to make the noble effort to see directly how conditioned and unconscious they usually are. Under their own steam, they need to face how profound is their own lack of freedom.

KEN WILBER: As always! And as they do that work, all their junk and all the shadow stuff comes up. But you know, the radiant graceful immersion in that causal, or nondual, dimension is something you can't get for effort or money. It's something that happens only in very rare circumstances; in this particular instance, it is a gift of satsang [audience with a guru]. The way it works is that there are these ever-present states, or dimensions, that we're just not plugged in to most of the time. We can plug in to them sometimes by grace, sometimes by skillful means, sometimes by sadhana [spiritual practice] and sometimes by satsang—whichever way we do it, these dimensions are right there, and when we relax into them or open to them or when they're energized in some sense, they just come pouring through in a certain radiant stillness. And of course, our development through stages tends to get accelerated in that atmosphere. But then we've still got to go back and do the goddamn work. And that's where you lose people, isn't it?

COHEN: Exactly. Because when it comes down to it, who really wants to change that much? That's precisely why, more and more, when I'm teaching, I bend over backwards to empower people with a perspective that ideally will enable them to sustain transformation beyond the experience of higher states. What that means, specifically, is that I strive to help people to gain a very clear understanding of the different dimensions of their own self in the context of an enlightened top-down, or third-tier, perspective. I want people, first of all, to have their own experiential recognition of the primordial emptiness that is the Ground of Being, the Self Absolute beyond time. Then secondly, I want them to experience what I call the authentic self, which is the evolutionary impulse, the creative spark behind the cosmos, becoming conscious of itself in the awakening human. Thirdly, and maybe most important of all, I want them to have the rare experience of being able to see the ego, or separate self-sense, from a truly objective vantage point. So my retreats are basically designed to expose people to these different dimensions of their own selves and to constantly bring them back to seeing the distinctions between them while they're in an expanded state of consciousness.

It's very powerful to see people who are completely new to the territory suddenly begin to speak with authority and conviction about these quite profound distinctions, based on their very own experience. Of course, they usually can't hold it on their own, but my job is to give them the direct experience of the territory and the perspective to understand what it means, so that they can begin to see for themselves what the Path is.

The X-Factor

WILBER: It's just so fascinating. The ground of all being, the ground of experience, isn't itself an experience—you just sort of get plunged into a recognition of its already-full nature. But I'm constantly struck by what happens when people come out of that state and lose it. As I've said before, what I want to do at some point is some really good psychometric research—set up a whole battery of tests before, during, and after a retreat and see who holds it and who doesn't. The scientist in me is just curious as hell to do that.

COHEN: The thing is, what you're talking about is what I would call the mysterious x-factor in human transformation. There's a part of this process that is always completely unpredictable—perhaps it has to do with karmic tendencies and other strange variables that are impossible to understand, things we just can't explain based on what we can see occurring in a single lifetime.

WILBER: Some people say that the universe contains “dark matter,” and who the heck knows what is going on down there . . . Maybe that's what you're working against!

COHEN: Sometimes it sure feels that way! Believe me, if I could only identify this x-factor, I would give everything that I own . . .

WILBER: I'm with you. I mean, this is the only thing that we have been talking about—in a sense we've been having this conversation for almost ten years now. Our dialogues are just variations on a theme, a single question: “If there is only God, how come people don't get it?” However you want to phrase it, that's the one discussion we've been having—variations on this same mono-theme of all mono-themes.

COHEN: With my own students, the real sticking point is that I want them to take responsibility, for the highest reasons, for that which they have already experienced. That's where all the reticence and ambivalence and the profound and intense resistance usually comes to the surface. A lot of people want to have higher-state experiences—they want to taste the ecstasy of eternity and the promise of the future in their own being. But I always say, “Now you have to own the implications of what it means to taste eternity, and you have to own the implications of what it means to become the evolutionary impulse as yourself, beyond ego.” And that's when a lot of people start to backpedal—suddenly they seem to lose their memories; they start stuttering; they forget how they ended up in such a predicament.

WILBER: (Laughs) Indeed!

COHEN: The ego is always profoundly ambivalent about truly evolving—unless it thinks it can be king or queen of the universe!

WILBER: Oh man, God bless the ego. We'd both be out of a job without it!

COHEN: (Laughs) It can be the toughest job in the world, though. There are individual and collective dimensions of ego, and in the work I'm doing, I'm digging into these structures in a way that includes but always transcends the individual. And that definitely makes it a lot more challenging for the individuals involved—including myself.

WILBER: But what an extraordinary adventure to be on, sort of riding right at the edge of this process, and watching it all unfold. It's a fascinating view, to put it mildly.

Right View

WILBER: I'm constantly reminded again and again of something you said in one of our recent dialogues, and I quote you on this all the time: that the interpretation of the spiritual experience is more important than the experience itself.

COHEN: Absolutely.

WILBER: It's how you hold it, how you own it. Getting dunked in it is easy, but now let me see you carry it, and let me see you carry it for the right reasons.

[ continue ]


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