If you’re a regular reader of What Is Enlightenment? you may already be somewhat familiar with Andrew Cohen, and you may even have heard of EnlightenNext. Cohen is the founder of WIE, and he appears in its pages regularly, both in dialogue with philosopher Ken Wilber in the “Guru and Pandit” feature and in his own column, “Enlightenment for the 21st Century.” What you wouldn’t necessarily know is that WIE is only one of many endeavors Cohen initiated to pursue the goal of developing a new stage of consciousness beyond ego, which is the purpose of his teaching of Evolutionary Enlightenment. As head of EnlightenNext, he is the spiritual leader to a community of students worldwide who seek to transform their individual and collective lives in order to create a new template for human culture. Intrinsic to this vision is the exploration and creation of a new women’s liberation. For twelve years, Cohen has worked closely with his female students to discover how true autonomy, authentic communion, and spiritual freedom can be achieved and stabilized by a group of women.
As one student herself explained: “We’re experiencing a higher way to be together, free from the structures of competition and mistrust, simply because we’re each independently interested in a shared goal: communion beyond ego. It’s as though all the edges and parameters and restrictions, all the codes of behavior and inherent self-limitations that come from our deep sense of what a woman should be and how she should act, are being transcended. And in their place is a sense of surging joy. It’s as though we’re liberating the Self and freeing our souls from the identity of Woman.”
Throughout the history of the world’s great religions, there have been individual women and groups of women, in both the East and West, who have traveled the path of enlightenment or sought communion with God, carving out important roles for themselves within their respective traditions—even if those roles often fell short of real equality with men. Perhaps what distinguishes the women’s group at EnlightenNext is that their work seems to bridge this age-old tradition of women seeking enlightened consciousness and the feminist movements of the last half-century, with their focus on the social and psychological structures that women must overcome to achieve equality and freedom. In addition, the EnlightenNext women emphasize looking to the future for new answers and solutions, which is notable given that the zeitgeist of women’s spirituality is more about past conceptions of women as feminine nurturers, caretakers, goddesses, or divine mothers.
The women at EnlightenNext have histories spanning different continents, cultures, and even decades. Alka Arora, Andrew Cohen’s wife of twenty-one years, was born and raised in India and has been a spiritual practitioner for twenty-nine years. Ellen Daly, who has been involved with EnlightenNext for eleven years, is a book consultant and writer. Rosalind Bennett, formerly a stage and screen actress in Great Britain, now manages the production of EnlightenNext’s audio-visual materials, and is also currently developing seminars and programs, along with Katherine Miller, on the new women’s liberation. Miller, who has been a student of Cohen’s for sixteen years, is a senior instructor of Evolutionary Enlightenment courses and is also a gourmet vegetarian chef. These four, along with other committed women, have become self-described sisters, bound together by the intensity of their endeavor to “create a new culture among us,” as Daly told me, “a culture where women are autonomous individuals, and also unified with one another in a sisterhood. Each of us believes that this is what’s needed if women are going to be equal partners with men in creating the future.” And it continues to be a radical experiment, in part because each of the women involved has willingly chosen to make her own life the ultimate testament to its success. In other words, they’re not looking to simply publish a report in a couple of years and then move on; in fact, they don’t really believe there’s an end in sight.
“The way I see it,” says Miller, “it takes work to transcend the old and build the new, and once women reach a new stage, there’s going to be another one to work toward. I no longer think of evolving women’s consciousness in terms of a fixed goal. I see it as a noble adventure, but we don’t know where or when it will conclude.”
The journey has frequently been a challenging one, both for Cohen as a spiritual teacher working to motivate his female students to attain new heights of spiritual liberation as a group, and for the students themselves. In the interview that follows, these four resolute women speak of the formidable fear they experienced as they sought to give up the old to make way for the new. “For us to be successful in our attempt to establish egolessness and communion among us,” Arora told me, “and not just to experience these things as fleeting states but to really establish a new ground for women to stand on, has been an ordeal. It’s taken a very long time. I think it speaks to how deeply ingrained the structures of women’s conditioning are. It speaks to the immensity of this task.”
These difficulties may also speak to the fact that there is little historical precedent for their efforts. In 1986, the eminent historian Gerda Lerner published The Creation of Patriarchy, which proposes that women must give up their search for empowerment in a matriarchal past and recognize that, on the whole, they have little to no experience as conscious shapers of history. “If recording, defining, and interpreting the past marks man’s entry into history,” she writes, “this occurred for males in the third millennium BC. It occurred for women (and only some of them) with a few notable exceptions in the nineteenth century.” Lerner believes that this absence of any tradition whatsoever, from any period of time, that could “reaffirm the independence and autonomy of women” poses the greatest impediment “toward developing group consciousness” for them. “In line with our historic gender-conditioning, women have aimed to please and have sought to avoid disapproval. This is poor preparation for making the leap into the unknown required for those who fashion new systems.”
But if Daly was right when she told me that the women of EnlightenNext are “finally beginning to explore what enlightened, undifferentiated, unified consciousness expressed through a group of women might look like,” is it then possible that a “new system”—the new chapter of women’s history Lerner believed was “the essential ground on which women of vision can stand”—is in the works? Such claims may seem too audacious, even hubristic, but there is something undeniably exciting about taking the possibility seriously. As Lerner herself wrote over two decades ago, “Perhaps the greatest challenge to thinking women is the challenge to move from the desire for safety and approval to the most ‘unfeminine’ quality of all—that of intellectual arrogance, the supreme hubris which asserts to itself the right to reorder the world.”
–Maura R. O’Connor