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Creative Friction

Community and the Utopian Impulse in a Post-postmodern World

Andrew Cohen & Ken Wilber in dialogue

Andrew Cohen: The theme of this issue is community and what we could call the utopian ideal. Obviously, it’s something we’re both interested in and have a lot of experience with.

Ken Wilber: Yes, that’s true. But as you know, even though I have a fair amount of experience with Integral Institute, and we’re trying to start local Integral Life Practice groups and so on, that’s never been my primary function. My job has primarily been to come up with the theoretical framework. I’m the pandit. You, on the other hand, are the guru, and in addition to doing theoretical work, you are down there in the trenches working to transform people’s karmas. And you do that in a community. You have to—that’s where it’s done. So I don’t mind talking about my somewhat limited experience on the practical side, and of course I have a whole lot of theoretical things to say about it.

Relationship and the Postmodern Predicament

Cohen: The whole issue of relationship and relatedness is a very big deal for those of us in postmodern Western culture. You and I have spoken about this a great deal in the past—how those of us at the leading edge are individuals whose capacity for individuation, for developing ego in the positive sense of what that means, is historically unparalleled. Our highly developed capacity for individuation enables us to objectify our experience to an extraordinary degree, to see ourselves and our own experience in a very big context. There have never been so many human beings alive who have had such a developed capacity to do this. But at the same time, the downside of it is that we’ve become so attached to this separate sense of self, this very capacity for individuation, that it seems to have made it harder and harder for us to sustain our relationships.

Wilber: Yes. And, of course, we have both heard of boomeritis. At the same time, there is a leading edge, and that is what we are going to particularly focus on.

Cohen: And a big part of the postmodern predicament, for so many people, is that we find ourselves very sophisticated, very evolved and developed, but very much alone and experiencing a deep emotional, psychological, and spiritual sense of alienation. We all long for deeper connections, but we are unwilling to give up our attachment to our self-importance in order to be able to experience that connection. One extreme example of this is in Holland, where they have the most liberal society in the entire world. It’s fairly common and socially accepted for couples to have this funny thing called an “alone-together relationship,” which means, “We’re in a relationship, but we live separately so we can each have our own space.” The idea is to hold on, at all costs, to one’s own space, personal freedom, and autonomy. I’ve spent a lot of time in that crazy country and most people are really unhappy.

Wilber: So I’ve heard.

Cohen: It seems that as we’ve evolved and developed, this truly miraculous capacity for individuation has really put us in a very difficult predicament. And so a big part of the evolutionary impulse right now is calling us, compelling us to find a way to connect, not only with our own deepest sense of self but also with other people at a deeper level. I think it’s very difficult to even think about spiritual development today without speaking about how it relates to this desperate urge to connect with others.

Wilber: Right. Relationship seems to be more important than ever and yet more elusive than ever. That’s the real irony of the postmodern situation, that the thing that is probably valued most highly, which is relatedness—everything is contextual, everything is relational—is the thing that people have the least of in any authentic sort of way.


Cohen: Yes. That’s part of the irony and the tragedy of the time we’re living in.

Wilber: The postmoderns or so-called cultural creatives have made community and what they call “heart” sort of their god. And that is a step up from modernity, but it’s still problematic.

Cohen: Well, it was a step up, but because it’s the highly individuated ego’s “heart” they’re talking about, it’s now preventing things from moving forward. I see it as being a kind of arrested development.

Wilber: [Laughs] Well, yes. Because they’ve gotten stuck there, arrested development is a good a way to look at it, technically. In some cases, they’ve also gotten just flat out dysfunctional and even pathological. The thing about the postmoderns is that, as we’ve often discussed, they’re at the stage of development that we call the green altitude or the pluralistic structure, or what Jane Loevinger calls individualistic, or Clare Graves calls relativistic. And this green or multicultural wave of development, which has pretty much defined the postmodern era, puts relationship and contextuality above all other values. But, as you indicated, it has also opened itself up to what we would call red-altitude impulses, which are not just highly individualistic and autonomous but self-centric, egocentric. All of these egocentric red impulses snuck into and have now flooded into postmodern culture and the postmodern experience, expressed as “Nobody tells me what to do.” And this leads to what I often call boomeritis, where you have basically this green/red, pluralistic/egocentric mentality. And so, on the one hand, there’s the ideal of this multicultural, multidimensional relational being—but “only as long as it doesn’t interfere with me and my desires.” And so all of a sudden, we’ve got exactly what you’re talking about in Holland: “Okay, we are going to be together, but only if it doesn’t impinge upon our egos.”

Cohen: Exactly.

Wilber: And then what’s so important in the whole boomeritis or what I also call “pluralitis” game is you have to give it a high-sounding name! You take this frankly somewhat dysfunctional and even pathological thing and you relabel it. So it gets called “empowering” or “finding your own space” or “being true to your own self.”  But in many, many cases, it’s nothing but the ego dressed up and gone to town in postmodern drag.

Cohen: Right. Which makes the problem just get worse.

Wilber: Much worse.

Cohen: Because if the individual hasn’t found a higher and deeper part of themselves, whether through relationships with other people or through the experience of a higher or deeper state of consciousness, there really is no way out.

Wilber: There’s no way out because the cure is actually mistaken for the disease. And so they say “no ranking, no judging, no hierarchies.” All of those things, which are actually the way you grow out of this mess, are condemned as the cause of the mess. And that’s a death spiral.

Cohen: Exactly. The discovery of hierarchy and the inherently hierarchical nature of the evolutionary process is what helps us to begin to see this overblown, overexaggerated sense of self in context—to see what’s come before and what lies ahead—and to realize that not only am I not the center of the universe, but I’m also part of a process that is infinitely greater than I’ll ever be. I’m a small part of it, and also I have a lot of development to do. [Laughs]

Wilber: Well, yes. That’s the pandit’s approach—that’s where you can step back, you can see, you can get a framework. I think an integral framework is one of the best ones out there, but almost any kind of developmental framework will help you stand back and get a little bit of perspective on yourself. That’s kind of the theoria side of the street. But then on the other side, there’s the guru’s approach, which is the praxis, the experience of states of consciousness that take you beyond your ego, literally. They don’t relabel your ego, which is what so many spiritual practices do, unfortunately, but they actually put demands on your ego—demands to make transcendental judgments leading to a truly expansive nondual evolutionary awareness. And that’s a state experience, a very real, not merely theoretical experience. So there are two cures for the postmodern predicament. One is on the relative side, the theoria or pandit side: It’s understanding the integral framework, and it has holarchies* and so on. And on the absolute side, the nondual side, the guru side, is a direct, immediate noncognitive higher-state experience. And guess what? Both of those approaches are condemned.

Cohen: Yes, because they both represent that which is higher than the highly individuated ego. That’s certainly what the guru represents, if he or she is the real thing.

Wilber: Yeah. Both of those authentic forms are condemned as the cause of the postmodern lack of relationship when actually they’re part of the cure. It’s locked us into a death spiral where the cure is called the cause of the disease, and the actual cause of the disease is embraced as the cure. And that makes it so very hard to get a handle on this.

Cohen: Because the ego is in the driver’s seat and it’s masquerading as wanting to actually spiritually evolve, as long as it is in control.

Wilber: That’s the key—as long as it is in control. And that’s the inherent bug in the whole game that goes with this pluralistic level of development. Pluralistic means “Nobody tells me what to do.” And right there, you’ve got the problem. It is so very difficult to help people see a way out once they’ve really bought that initial set of premises. It takes reading eight or nine or twenty books and thinking it through deeply, and then hopefully having some profound nondual experiences that really get you beyond dualism and relativity and egocentricity.

Cohen: And also having some human examples of what it could maybe be like to be a little more evolved.

Wilber: All of those things, exactly.

Cohen: I often point out to people that for a lot of us, while the whole idea of evolution is something we believe in when it comes to cosmological evolution or biological evolution, when we talk about the evolution of consciousness, the evolution of the self, it’s often very hard for us to relate to. The very concept is threatening to our ego because it forces us to consider the possibility that perhaps another human being might be more evolved at the level of the soul than we are.

Wilber: Right. How dare you suggest such a thing?!

Cohen: The minute you say it, there’s this impersonal rage that arises. Speaking about the evolution of consciousness or the self at the deepest level brings out the boomeritis rage in the most extraordinary way. As long as you see evolution as something that’s occurring outside yourself, it’s okay. But the instant you believe in the evolution of consciousness, you have to accept hierarchy at the level of the self, at the level of the soul, and that backs narcissism right into a corner.

Wilber: Well, that’s the point. The great German idealists, and certainly Aurobindo, and virtually any really serious sophisticated enlightened sage today, East or West, have an understanding of evolutionary theory and don’t have any trouble seeing evolution as the manner and mode of God’s creation. But if a person doesn’t believe in holarchy or learning or the unfolding of higher, wider, deeper modes of being, then of course they don’t believe in evolution and the whole thing is just self-contradictory. This is what’s known as the performative contradiction at the heart of so much of postmodernism.

Cohen: Sure.

Wilber: There are some very, very important things in postmodernism: the emphasis on community; the emphasis on relationship; the move to post-formal, which is the recognition that other modes of cognition besides merely rational ones are important; and contextuality, the understanding that all knowledge has a form of interpretation. All of those are important, but they’re not the total story. They have to be woven into an even larger integral framework or they completely self-deconstruct, and that’s what has happened. And so the question we’re asking now is: How do we take those incredibly important truths and weave them all together into a coherent integral framework? It can be done, and better than it has been done so far.

[ continue ]


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