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The Interdynamics of Culture and Consciousness

Andrew Cohen & Ken Wilber in dialogue

Andrew Cohen and Ken Wilber have been holding the “Guru-Pandit” dialogues for more than six years. For this inaugural issue of EnlightenNext magazine, they return to some of the foundational principles underlying their many far-ranging conversations.


Cohen: Today we’re going to be talking about our favorite subject: the relationship between the evolution of consciousness and the evolution of culture. This is a topic that you and I have been pursuing from many different angles for the entire time we’ve been having these dialogues. But the evolution of consciousness is a tricky thing to talk about, because consciousness is a tricky thing to talk about! And the reason for that, as you well know, is that consciousness is not an object.


The way most people first discover consciousness is through some form of spiritual experience. I’m talking about the momentous occasion when someone stumbles for the first time upon that miraculous dimension of the self that transcends memory and time, that deepest part of ourselves where there is no cognition, there is only Being. This discovery leaves a permanent mark on our souls. But unless we have this kind of direct experience of what consciousness is—where we recognize that it’s not an object and it’s not imprisoned by time—it will be very difficult for us to discuss the subject of consciousness, or even use the word, without it inevitably conjuring up an image of an object, like a cloud of white mist or something. But if consciousness were a mist, that would mean it is a thing, and therefore it couldn’t be consciousness!

The discovery of consciousness—and its infinite, timeless, formless, immortal nature—is, of course, what enlightenment has traditionally been based on. But today, what I would like us to talk about is the fascinating and complex and infinitely subtle relationship between this discovery of the mystical nondual ground of consciousness and the evolution of culture itself. When I say “culture,” I’m talking about the way we think about and understand our shared experience. Culture is based on shared values. I’m talking about the conceptual and cognitive prism through which we as individuals interpret our shared experience.

You know, you’ve had an enormous influence on me as a teacher and thinker in this regard. And as my own development has progressed, I’ve been awakening to something that you have been pointing to for a long time, which is the way our shared values are most often unconsciously shaped by the culture we grew up in. Except for very rare individuals, our values are not consciously created or chosen as a result of deep introspection. Rather, they have been absorbed for the most part through our cultural conditioning. And of course, that’s not necessarily bad or wrong. That’s just the way it is.

In my work as a spiritual teacher, I’ve observed an interesting predicament: People can have a powerful awakening to what consciousness is, and yet the lens through which they see the world, which is made up of their values, or conditioned convictions in general, is not necessarily impacted by that experience at all. This is something that you and I have spoken quite a bit about in the past. And it seems to me that a process of ongoing discussion, dialogue, introspection, and contemplation needs to be undertaken by many of us in order to bring the light of awareness to this complex and important question. For those of us who are interested in the evolution of consciousness and culture, we need to begin to see and understand the culturally created structures that make up our individual and collective selves. We really have to learn how to “unpack” and make conscious what our own values are. It seems that this process is as important a part of spiritual evolution and transformation, individual and collective, as the experience of consciousness itself—maybe even the most important part.

A theme of many of our discussions has been the recognition that the way in which we interpret our experience really determines how we value it and how we see it. Individuals from different cultures, backgrounds, and levels of development can have similar experiences but interpret them in completely different ways. And the way that we interpret our experience really does determine the way we see reality, the way we see ourselves, the way we perceive the world, and the way we see the relationship between the self and the universe. In my teaching work, I have been putting more emphasis on the necessity of cultivating our ability to see this for ourselves. In other words, if we want to evolve, we need not only to awaken directly to what consciousness is but also to develop our cognitive capacities so that we’ll be able to see our conditioned values as objects in awareness rather than as fixed or inherently real constructions. As you would put it, we need to be able to make subject object.

I’m beginning to see that so much of spiritual development is really about finding ways to creatively compel ourselves, through our own inspired will and intention, to actually evolve. Ideally, I believe, we will get to the point where the experience of enlightenment, which is the direct awakening to consciousness, becomes automatically fused with the experience of a higher level of cognition. Ultimately, it should become one nondual event where these three different aspects of our experience–the Ground of Being, the creative impulse to evolve, and our highly evolved capacity for cognition—all become part of one matrix, one unfolding experience. I’m very much trying to convey this new truly nondual and inherently integral potential to as many people as possible, as well as to illuminate and clarify these subtle and complex relationships and how these different dimensions of the self and the cosmos affect one another.

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This article is from
Welcome to EnlightenNext


December 2008–February 2009