Introduction by Andrew Cohen
As my good friend Ken Wilber has always made clear, there is an enormous difference between the experience of a higher state of consciousness and the actual attainment of a higher stage of development. Indeed, higher states, which we can find access to through spiritual practice and spiritual experience, are usually temporary. As miraculous and profound as they can be, they do not guarantee a permanent transformation, an actual shift to what could be called a new stage of development.
This has been a central theme of the dialogues in this series since they began almost five years ago. For me, the relationship between states and stages is a matter of great importance, because I’ve dedicated my life to trying to catalyze the emergence of a higher stage of development, in real time, with real people. Periodically in these pages, I have spoken about the evolution of my own understanding through my work with my students, beginning with a discussion with Ken soon after July 30, 2001, the date that marks what I have called “the birth of Evolutionary Enlightenment.” Since that first significant emergence, this potential has revealed itself through a series of powerful eruptions of collective enlightened or nondual awareness among different groups of my students. A deeper or higher state of consciousness that transcends ego would miraculously engulf many individuals simultaneously in such a way that suddenly the very ground of relatedness, or intersubjective awareness, would become enlightenment itself.
What these individuals were coming together in, as has been described in previous dialogues, was an intoxicating and profound shared state experience in which many were meeting in what I call the Authentic Self for longer and longer periods of time. In November 2005, this state was sustained for literally weeks on end, and it spread like wildfire throughout my entire international student body in gatherings large and small, and even on global conference calls of up to a hundred men and women at a time. Since then, all of my attention has been devoted to stabilizing this eruption of higher consciousness. I’m convinced that if enough individuals can hold the perspective they are finding in the higher state, it could perhaps provide a foundation for nothing less than a higher stage of development.
In the dialogue that follows, Ken and I discuss these events and endeavor to put them in perspective.
Ken Wilber: So how is the work with your students going? Is that recent shift you told me about continuing to stick?
Andrew Cohen: Yes, definitely. Very exciting things are continuing to happen. But the main thing, of course, is a deepening level of individual commitment, which is what makes all things possible.
Wilber: And are you still continuing to do some of this on phone bridges?
Cohen: Yes. Because my students live all over the world, we use conference calls a lot, and as of late we’ve found them to be a surprisingly powerful vehicle for the emergence of egoless consciousness beyond the individual.
Wilber: That is so great. I just think it’s so exciting, and I know it’s authentic.
Cohen: I think eventually the results of this experiment are going to become solid enough to catalyze some thing that I hope will be of benefit far beyond those individuals who are directly involved.
Wilber: How would you see that happening? What is it you would be offering to the world at that point?
Cohen: Well, what people are coming together in is what I call the Authentic Self, which we’ve spoken about many times. It’s the evolutionary impulse, experienced at the level of consciousness as an ecstatic surge beyond ego that compels one and all toward the future. As you know, my students have had this experience before in powerful spontaneous eruptions, but what I’m trying to build now is a stable structure that’s going to be able to hold this and simultaneously facilitate its further development. I’m still not exactly sure where it lines up on the map, but we’re doing everything we can to make it more than just a state experience.
What’s been happening lately is that large groups of my students have been entering into an enlightened state together without needing to do any technique in order to get there. But the most exciting thing is that because they are beginning to realize that it is only a state, and not necessarily a higher stage, they are attempting to cognitively understand or deconstruct their own experience while they’re in the state together. The idea is not to get lost in the ecstasy and the lightness of being. Too often when human beings experience transcendental states of consciousness, they have a tendency to falsely assume, “Oh, now I’m enlightened,” and mysteriously forget that it’s not usually quite that easy.
Wilber: That’s for sure! (Laughs) So how big are the groups you are doing this work with?
Cohen: We come together in different-sized groups, for which we’ve borrowed the term “holon,” as each group is a whole that is a part of the larger whole. What I’ve just been describing has been taking place in what we’ve been calling a “superholon,” which would be a fairly large group of people—twenty, thirty, forty, or more. In this context, a higher mind emerges, and together, individuals are able to deconstruct their own experience so that the shared state can become an object in individual and collective awareness. Usually, as far as I know, only rare and inspired individuals engage in this kind of contemplation within the confines of their own personal practice. I’ve never heard of a situation where a collective would enter into higher states of consciousness together and then make the effort to deconstruct their own experience in this way.
Wilber: Yes, that sounds pretty unique!
Cohen: Also, if this thing gets really strong, the nonlocal repercussions are going to increase. For example, some of my senior students who are doing teaching work themselves have repeatedly had the experience that when they are alone in a foreign city leading a group or a seminar, during a period when the superholon is coming together elsewhere in this extraordinary way, they’ll know that the event they are leading will be very powerful, almost automatically. Whereas at other times, without that “nonlocal support,” they would have to work very hard to achieve the same effect. So as this consciousness becomes more stable, my students are experiencing a kind of exhilaration and self-confidence that they’ve never known before. And that’s fueling an even deeper commitment, which of course is the foundation of this whole thing.
It’s the intention and commitment of the individuals involved that gets the whole train to start moving. And it’s getting that train moving, rather than the experience of any particular individual, that I’m interested in. As you might put it, that which transcends and includes every individual and is greater than all of them starts moving the entire thing. And then we get into a whole different kind of spiritual physics. So that’s basically in a nutshell what it’s all about.
Wilber: Well, I’m a theoretician, and partly because of what I do, I’m probably more acutely aware of how you don’t want theories to substitute for reality—you want to try to push reality to conform to theories!
Cohen: Well, I like both—theories and reality! (Laughs) That’s why we’re friends.
Wilber: But from a theoretician’s point of view, I’m just going to say that what it sounds like to me is that you’re creating a stable plateau state or plateau experience, which means that it’s a state that could be extended pretty much indefinitely and that you have more or less permanent access to, and some individuals are experiencing it permanently. It’s an awareness, and although some of the actual energetics may come and go, the awareness itself is stabilized as a plateau and not a peak experience.
Wilber: But then the questions are, number one, in manifestation, how do you see it, interpret it, live it. And number two, at any given time in history, what stage of development do you have to be at in order for this plateau experience to actually stick and not just be a hysterical phenomenon?
Cohen: Exactly. That’s what I’m working on.
Wilber: And this nonlocal thing you described is really strange, but that is how morphic fields* work. You must have heard the stories about, for example, one laboratory trying to crystallize a complex molecule for years and years and years, and then as soon as they succeed, a dozen other labs do it in the next month without even knowing about one another! It’s like once somebody punches through into a new potential, it does become more and more likely, and then it becomes more and more likely nonlocally. That’s true for almost anything.
So I think you’ve created, at the very least, a plateau state that has its own stable pattern and that you’re gaining access to more and more quickly. And then, like you say, almost anybody can come in off the street and walk into that field. So that’s what you’re working on: how that thing is going to stick—and not just in an individual, as you say, but in a kind of superholon.
*An idea developed by biologist Rupert Sheldrake, morphic fields are subtle energy-patterns of habit or memory that guide the structure and development of all phenomena, whether physical, biological, mental, social, or spiritual.
A Deeper Structure
Cohen: I think a crucial element in this has to do with the individual and his or her own fundamental level of integrity or moral development. If the individuals who make up the superholon are living in alignment with their own deepest and highest philosophical principles and engaging with life with a significant degree of moral integrity, honesty, and authenticity, in a developmental context, a new kind of intersubjective structure is created between them. It’s a deeper structure in consciousness itself, which makes possible something else altogether. When this occurs, the experience is that suddenly, for the individual and the collective, everything seems to miraculously line up. Everything seems to make perfect sense—who one is, why one is here, including every aspect of one’s personal history leading up to the present moment and pointing ecstatically into the unknown future.
What I’m describing to you has begun to emerge among the core group of my students. Of course, it hasn’t always been stable—
Wilber: But it will be.
Cohen: It will, yes. As we’ve previously discussed, these structures don’t preexist out there in the ether; they are created by real people. And I feel like a big part of my work has to do with finding out what it means to actually do this consciously. I don’t know where this is all ultimately leading, but I do know for sure that the stability of the new structure is completely dependent upon the actual level of integrity and authenticity of the individuals who are creating it.
Wilber: Yes. In terms of laying down a structure, we have to be a little bit careful semantically. “Structure” can apply to any number of things; all it means is a stable pattern. But I tend more often to use the word structure when we’re talking about structures of consciousness, like the Spiral Dynamics memes, or Jane Loevinger’s stages, or Bob Kegan’s orders of consciousness, or Jean Piaget’s stages, or any of those developmental systems. And since they tend to unfold in stages, we call them “structure-stages,” or often we just call them stages. States, on the other hand, don’t necessarily unfold in stages—except if you train them, and then you have “state-stages.” So it’s a little bit of a semantic issue, but if a state becomes stable, you can call it a pattern or a structure.
What is happening here, from what I can tell, is obviously occurring in several quadrants. But I think that the state phenomenon is one of the most fascinating things about it. It does seem to be a very strong plateau pattern. Keep in mind that you always have a stage of consciousness, as well as a state of consciousness, and there are several relationships between them. As we’ve often discussed, you interpret the state you’re in through the stage you happen to be at. And at the same time, a stage is always occurring in a particular state.
What strikes me is that when there is real access to this plateau of nonduality, it’s from that state that you’re reviewing whatever stages and structures happen to be there. And that’s an important thing to remember, because a lot of people tend to forget and say, “I must be at turquoise,” or “I must be at indigo” or ultraviolet or amber or orange. And while all that may be true, you’re also always in a state.
Cohen: Of course.
Wilber: To take an example, let’s say that somebody walks in off the street, somebody who seriously wants to engage in your work, and in terms of their stage of development, they are healthy orange. But the intent is there, the devotion is there, the love is there, and they are ready to grow. So they come in, and they pop into this plateau of nonduality. Now that’s theoretically possible in my view, because you can be at any stage and have this state experience. Even if you are at orange, you’re going to be able to look at your own life from a nondual state. And so then, whatever structure-stage you’re at, if you’re frequently induced into this plateau state, it’s going to mightily accelerate stage development, structure-stage development, from orange to green to teal to turquoise to indigo and so on. And so, I think that’s part of what’s happening. I think there are other things happening as well, and they certainly could also involve stages, but I think this plateau state is the actual space of consciousness in which you’re then looking at your personal life.
Cohen: That’s true—the state experience is certainly a big part of what’s occurring. And a state is something that, if it’s available, is easy to just get swept up into like a tornado. But what I think is unusual about what I’m doing is that I’m trying to get the self—whoever and whatever the self ultimately is—at the deepest level, to be responsible for the higher perspective that has been revealed in the state experience. In other words, I’m trying to get the perspective of the authentic self to become the individual’s primary locus of identification. And so, what I’m saying is, if I can get a significant number of people to do that, then what’s being held is—yes, it is a state, without a doubt, but there’s something else, it’s the evolutionary impulse itself. And when that impulse is being held consistently by many people simultaneously, not just as a state experience but as a fundamental sense of self, the beginning of what at least feels like a stable structure emerges.
Now in order to do that, as I’ve been saying, an unusual level of integrity is required. That means the individual has to really want to wake up and cut the crap, so to speak, in relationship to Life. And that doesn’t just mean this particular life—it’s like cutting the crap in relationship to eternity! The individual finally says, “Okay, I’m going to stop playing games. I’m going to stop pretending. I’m going to do this for real, no matter what it takes. This is IT, for eternity, and I’m going to do whatever I have to do to evolve.”