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Women, Enlightenment, and the Evolution of Culture

Andrew Cohen & Ken Wilber in dialogue

ANDREW COHEN: In this issue we’re trying to bite into the tough nut of women’s liberation.

KEN WILBER: Oh dear!

Cohen: And I’m sure it’s very politically incorrect for two intellectual tough guys like you and me to get together and talk about women’s liberation! But who cares . . .

Wilber: I hear you. It used to be that only gays could discuss gays and only blacks could discuss blacks and only women could discuss women. But I hope that as our culture gets over the politically correct, hypersensitive stance that has limited so much discussion of these topics in the past, other types, like us, will be able to have humanly profound discussions about different types. While the politically correct stance may have been important in a certain sense, it’s been pushed too far, and that has had an extremely damaging effect on the humanities in general, because it fragments and it splinters and it sends everybody right back down to ethnocentric altitudes of development. It’s regressive. And so I think it’s perfectly okay that we respect differences, but it’s also okay for a couple of white guys to discuss women’s liberation and have something to say about it.


Cohen: Absolutely. You know, one thing that is interesting, which I only just realized recently, is that most women I meet have difficulty authentically relating to the concept of women’s liberation as something that is relevant to them. The fact is that most women from our generation or our generation’s children are already free. They have freedoms that women have never known or experienced throughout history. They can choose to do just about anything they want. They have sexual freedom, freedom of education, equal opportunity . . .

Wilber: Right. Precisely in some way because of the women’s liberation movement of the sixties, now that very notion has no meaning to young women.

Cohen: Yes. Political, social, and personal freedoms have courageously been won. So a lot of women who grew up in this context can’t really relate to the idea of not being free. But in a spiritual and evolutionary context, which is what my work is all about, I’ve come to understand that women’s liberation—a new women’s liberation—is of the utmost importance if we are ever going to truly effect a profound change in our own consciousness and culture at the leading edge.

So this is a topic that I have been extremely interested in for probably about twelve years. I have so much to say about it, I’m not really sure where to start. Maybe I should just go ahead and give a brief overview of my experience and thoughts on the subject and let you do the same, and then we can get into a discussion about it.

Wilber: Sounds good. I have a lot to say about it as well!

Discovering Primal Self-Structures

Cohen: So the reason that this subject is important to me is that I’m interested in the relationship between spiritual development and the evolution of culture. When I started teaching, I wasn’t particularly interested in women’s liberation or men’s liberation—I was only speaking about enlightenment itself. But quite early on, my focus shifted from the enlightenment of the individual to the enlightenment of the collective. Rather than emphasizing the personal experience of a higher state of consciousness, I became interested in what it would mean to engage with others in an enlightenment context—which means to come together in a higher consciousness beyond ego, beyond the personal sphere, beyond narcissistic self-concern. But when I began to encourage my students to explore this potential, I soon realized that men and women responded very differently to the challenge of meeting beyond the personal. The men found it relatively easy to at least taste this potential. But from my women students I experienced what I called a “visceral no,” a preconscious refusal, when I would speak to them about how important it was for them to come together with each other in this extraordinary way. And I soon realized it wasn’t a personal thing, and it wasn’t any particular individual. It seemed to be an impersonal, conditioned response to my asking them to look into what it would mean to come together in an egoless context.

So that was really my introduction to the fact that men and women face different challenges on the path to evolution beyond ego. When I started digging into this, I began to see that there are all kinds of obstacles that women particularly face that have to do with biological and cultural conditioning. There are, for example, many very primal reasons that women compete, consciously and unconsciously, that make it difficult for them to trust each other enough to let go of ego and just be together in a context that is not personal. Of course, women by nature are very relational—they can take care of their family, support their friends, and they do, it seems, hold the world together for us all—but if they are asked to come together and just be, they often experience a profound sense of panic.

I’ve thought a lot about where this seemingly irrational fear comes from. I’ve tried to imagine what it would be like, for example, to become aware, at a very young age, of the fact that half of your own species has the power to physically overwhelm you at any moment. What would it be like to feel that vulnerable? That’s an experience that a man almost never has. On an almost preconscious level, women experience a state of visceral biological vulnerability that is just not part of the male experience. When I started to really contemplate this, it became apparent to me that once a woman had realized that she was physically so vulnerable, she would just have to come up with a way to protect herself that wasn’t physical. So I realized—and of course I’m making generalizations here—that the ego structure or the self-structure in women, even more so than in men, is used as a defense mechanism—a means to self-protect, to manipulate, and to control.

This structure, which once served an important function, now inhibits, in a very fundamental way, women’s capacity for authenticity. A lot of this isn’t completely conscious, but women learn early on how to keep themselves emotionally and psychologically safe. For example, they seem to have an inner place they can retreat to when they want to protect themselves, where they just cannot be reached. And I can imagine this is a capacity that probably developed in women’s consciousness a long time ago so that even if she could be physically overwhelmed at any time, even if they could have her body, they could never have her soul. All women still have this place of retreat, which for most men I know just isn’t available. Another result of these primal defense structures is that women are often shape-shifters; they’re constantly changing their position and morphing to fit into the different situations they find themselves in, never quite willing to put all their cards on the table. Women create a world of appearances and manipulate their environment and other people in order to have their way and to get through life. It’s a completely different way to operate than the way men usually do. Men, in this sense, are more straightforward—it’s much easier to know who you’re dealing with. When you ask women to be straight and simple and nonmanipulative, they find it very difficult. And I don’t believe it’s because they’re cognitively incapable of being straight or that this shape-shifting is inherently part of their nature. I think it’s part of a defense structure in the self.

So when it comes to evolving beyond ego, the fact that the self-structure has these built-in defense mechanisms, which were originally born out of biological necessity, is something that women have to reckon with. When facing into the whole notion of enlightenment or emptiness of self, I think women are asked to give up a lot more than men. Of course, men are also terrified of transcending their own pride, narcissism, and arrogant self-importance—they also experience an existential fear of ego death or ego transcendence—but they don’t feel, on a visceral level, that “if I let go of my ego I’m physically going to die.” But I’ve realized that because of the survival-driven roots of the female ego structure, women often do feel—and this is not necessarily conscious—that “if I transcend my ego, I’ll have no way to protect myself,” which on a very deep emotional level translates as “I’m physically going to die.”

Wilber: So women would have to give up shape-shifting in order to discover emptiness, and that’s more threatening to them.

Cohen: And to discover authenticity. Emptiness as a state of being and authenticity as a self-sense.

Wilber: Understood.

Cohen: Another deep structure in women’s consciousness that is quite an obstacle to liberation beyond ego has to do with the relationship between sexuality and power. Again, I’ve tried to imagine what it would be like to be a girl who, when she reaches puberty, suddenly realizes that when she comes into a room, simply by raising her eyebrow or moving her shoulders, she can cause a wave to pass over men. What would it be like to know that you have that kind of capacity to manipulate others? What would it be like to suddenly feel this tremendous power over the other half of the race?

Wilber: The Eagles song has that line, “Pretty girls just seem to find out early how to open doors with just a smile.”

Cohen: Men have physical strength. Women have sexual power. What do men want? Men want sex. When a woman realizes that, she finds her own power. And that’s a lot of power to have in this world. Now, the sexual impulse is not a problem in and of itself, but it can become problematic in an enlightenment context, because to whatever degree the ego overidentifies with any particular aspect of ourself, in this case our sexual identity, the personality always distorts. If enlightenment is a natural state or a more authentic way of expressing our humanity, then the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question is: What would be the most natural, most unselfconscious, most authentic way to relate to every aspect of life, including the sexual impulse? In order to find the answer, we certainly have to be willing to transcend compulsive identification with that dimension of our own nature. So for a woman to go beyond ego in an enlightenment context, her ego would have to cease to identify with her sexual power. That doesn’t mean she’d have to give up her sexuality or her sexual nature, but in order for her to find a completely different way to be herself, her ego, or narcissistic self-sense, would have to give up its attachment to that particular part of her self as a source of power.

Now that is a lot to ask. I’ve realized that men don’t necessarily have to pay such a high price when we’re speaking about going beyond ego. For a woman, if her ego has to give up this identification with sexuality as a source of personal power, she’s giving up almost everything she has. That’s like taking away a soldier’s only weapon. If her relationship to life was still fundamentally ego-based, not truly spiritual or soul-based, then she would feel that her source of power was being taken away. And why would a woman want to give that up? But if she’s truly committed to taking that next step into a deeper or higher liberation that sets a foundation for a new potential in the evolution of culture, these outdated defense structures have to be transcended.


So this “new women’s liberation” is a project that I’ve been working very hard on for quite a long time, and I believe that in the last year or so I have achieved a significant victory. I have a group of women I’m working with now who have finally taken that bold leap to come together beyond ego. I cracked this thing, for the first time really, last summer, and since that time, these women have started to simply delight in each other’s company in a way that is not the kind of thing women usually do. It sounds very simple, but it’s actually quite a profound shift. Women can share all kinds of personal places and spaces together, but to simply delight in being together in a profound level of trust and transparency and impersonal care is very rare indeed, as far as I know.

Wilber: What’s the major change? They’re together because they stopped doing what?

Cohen: Well, because a lot of the unconscious competitive structures were dropped. And so they found an empty, egoless space between them.

Wilber: And also, the authentic self of a woman would drop that shape-shifting.

Cohen: Absolutely. Because there’s nothing authentic about shape-shifting. It’s only about protecting the separate self—the manipulating self, the deceiving self, the self that just wants to have its own way and doesn’t give a damn about God or evolution or anything else.

Wilber: And which, I would add as a footnote, is actually appropriate and even healthy at lower levels of development.

Cohen: Of course. That’s how you survive in the jungle.

Wilber: Exactly. But when you get to higher waves of development, and particularly when what you call the authentic self is awakened, then these lower structures have to be dropped. Lower structures are formed really close to biological universals, because that’s the only thing driving you at those levels. So of course—and studies show this consistently—stereotypical qualities like men being macho and women being nesting really define lower stages of development, and they become less and less sharp and rigid the higher you go. You can develop to a point where you start to let go of these lower structures. But having state awakenings to pure self or pure emptiness or your absolute ever-present condition definitely requires dropping these structures. So that’s what, it seems to me, you’re working with: what a woman’s self has to do to get in touch with both the authentic self and the pure emptiness underneath even that.

Cohen: Right. And when that happens, there is literally a sheer delight. There is an ecstatic abandon, a deep and profound self-liberating trust in her relationship with her spiritual sisters. Now, the reason I think this is so important, in terms of the evolution of culture, is because most women still feel, consciously or unconsciously, that they need a man in order to be deeply whole or fulfilled. And usually women are competing against each other, in ways that obviously had to do with biological survival a long time ago. But when a woman finds this new kind of intimacy and trust with other women and discovers a deeper wholeness outside of the sexual dimension of life with all its inherent complexity, it puts her, I think, for the very first time, in an authentic position to begin to consider what it would really mean to be a truly liberated, self-authenticated woman in her relationship with the world, and also with men. Until she is no longer fundamentally needing, consciously or unconsciously, from men, I don’t think a woman is ever going to be in a position of true equality in relationship to men. It’s just not going to be possible because there are so many deep structures in all of us that originate in our biology and our cultural history. I feel that until at least a significant minority of men and women can free themselves from many of these biological imperatives and cultural habits, we’re not going to be in a position to begin to consciously explore what real equality is—if that word even makes sense in this context. Unless we can do this, we’ll never discover a new kind of authentic relationship, where there is an unusual degree of freedom, of informed and conscious choosing, that is determining what it means, in a post-postmodern enlightened context, to be a man, to be a woman, and to relate to each other.

[ continue ]


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