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Good Old-Fashioned Virtues for a New World

by Andrew Cohen

I can well remember the scene: I was sitting in a hotel coffee shop in Vancouver having an intimate conversation with a fellow spiritual teacher whom I was meeting for the first time. He was telling me in excruciating detail how, after ingesting a powerful psychotropic substance, he had, over a period of many months, repeatedly gone in and out of psychotic states, turning his life into a living nightmare that ultimately led to the dissolution of his community. Unselfconsciously, he went on to describe how his world had almost completely unraveled, how much of the time he had held on to his own sanity by only a thread, and how angry and disillusioned many of his students had become. After he finished his harrowing tale, he looked up from his coffee cup, smiled, and then said, “So, Andrew, now tell me about your shadow . . .”

In the East, if someone is purported to be enlightened, it is traditionally assumed that they no longer have an ego. But if, in spite of a profound awakening, the enlightened one realizes that the ego is still alive and kicking, he or she usually pretends that it's not. In the West, we have come to understand that in all but the rarest cases, the ego, in fact, does not die. Despite the sustained experience of higher states of consciousness, the narcissistic separate self-sense seems to almost always survive in the end. Many of us have recognized this and have also seen what happens when someone tries to feign a level of development beyond ego they have not authentically attained. The result is a personality that expresses an even greater level of pretense than it did before it became “enlightened.”

Slowly but surely, most Western spiritual teachers, masters, and gurus have concluded not only that it's not really possible to transcend ego but also, even more significantly, that any serious aspiration to do so is foolhardy, outmoded, and misguided. The once-noble intention to truly rise up and transcend the petty, self-serving, and often destructive impulses of the ego has been replaced by a more “mature” acceptance of ourselves, “warts and all.” Indeed, it seems that self-acceptance has become the new face of higher development. And in the spiritual mentor, this can be demonstrated as astounding displays of brutal honesty regarding personal faults, shortcomings, and humiliating self-indulgence. This often startling willingness to “bare one's soul” is considered to be more a hallmark of spiritual evolution today than the good old-fashioned virtues of courage, honor, dignity, self-respect, purposefulness, and excellence.

There is a striking lack of a vertical dimension, or upward pull, in our postmodern spiritual-but-not-religious culture. That culture's pervading belief structures are unknowingly preventing the kind of evolutionary, or spiritual, development that it claims to champion. Many have experienced states of consciousness that have revealed glimpses of higher levels of development that dramatically transcend the insidious narcissism and endless self-referencing of our powerful egos. But the ethos of the cultural context in which these experiences are occurring inhibits a natural desire or impulse to rise up, to stretch, to consciously strive to reach those higher stages that revealed themselves in the ecstasy of spiritual revelation. So, in the end, nothing actually changes.

Without even knowing it, we have become deeply cynical about our own potential to truly evolve in real time. Even the way we speak with each other reveals our cynicism. Another spiritual teacher I know has a favorite phrase: “Everybody's crazy.” Once, in a friendly conversation with him, I found myself in the difficult position of being unwilling to include myself with “everybody” else. The truth is, I don't think I am crazy. But these days, that's a politically incorrect thing to say and that's why I was so uncomfortable.

The role of the spiritual mentor in an evolutionary context, as I see it, is to represent our higher and deeper potentials. We are here to create tension, a life-positive, evolutionary tension that powerfully compels others to meet us at that higher and deeper level. But we will never be able to serve that function effectively as long as we feel we need to be apologists for our own foibles. Unless our awakened passion for evolution, enlightenment, and the promise of a new world is unfailingly more powerful than our ego's endless needs and unfulfilled desires, then maybe we shouldn't be teaching.

The problem with our spiritual-but-not-religious culture is that we have no enlightened philosophical context, no ethical or moral code, no higher spiritual principles that we feel obliged to uphold. That is, unless we feel like it. I believe that we need to create a new post-traditional religious context for the human experience, one that is based upon a consciously acknowledged aspiration and obligation to evolve. The very nature of such a living, vibrant, intersubjective spiritual context implicitly expects, if not explicitly demands, a higher order of human engagement, one that is based upon good old-fashioned virtues such as honor, dignity, respect, propriety, and loyalty to the best part of ourselves—loyalty and obligation to that which is truly sacred, to that alone which gives life meaning.


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December 2005–February 2006