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Freedom in the Face of Fear

Andrew Cohen & Ken Wilber discuss the challenge of staying connected with a higher spiritual perspective when humanity’s very survival hangs in the balance.

Andrew Cohen: These days, just about everyone is aware of the fact that we’re in what many consider to be a global crisis. At this particular moment, of course, we’re most aware of the great financial crisis, but this is happening in the context of other looming dangers—the threat of terrorism, climate change, and the destruction of our natural environment, to name just a few. In this issue of EnlightenNext, we feature a number of prominent futurists who offer us their perspectives on what we may face in the coming months, years, and decades. But I thought that you and I could approach this theme from a slightly different perspective and look into the individual’s internal, subjective, existential, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual relationship to crisis.

Dark clouds

I’ve thought quite a lot about this matter, and I have made some interesting observations about myself and other people. I’ve noticed that what happens when human beings become frightened is a profound contraction in the self. When our way of life and our sense of freedom are being threatened, there is not only an emotional contraction but an intellectual, philosophical, and spiritual contraction—a contraction of our capacity to think in big ways.

Ken Wilber: That’s exactly right. Times of crisis tend to aggravate the self-contraction. And this issue is really crucial right now, given the nature of our times.


The Spiritual Impact of Crisis

Cohen: I think this is especially poignant or significant for people who are interested in what we could call a spiritually inspired worldview and perspective. All forms of mystical spirituality are based on a direct experience or apprehension of limitlessness—a primordial freedom, an infinite expanse, an eternal ground of all being. And when we have that kind of experience, when we become aware of no limitation whatsoever, it affects very dramatically the way we think about what it means to be a human being. You and I have spoken quite a bit about the mysterious and miraculous friction that occurs when the inherently limited individual self sense begins to awaken to that dimension of reality that is absolutely without limitation. It’s the friction between the unlimited and the limited that gives rise to spiritual ecstasy and spiritual inspiration and spiritual perspectives.

In evolutionary spirituality, that sense of limitlessness is experienced not only in the primordial Ground of Being, beyond time and form, that the mystical traditions speak of, but also in the world of time and form through the direct awakening to what I call the evolutionary impulse itself. That impulse is none other than the driving force behind all of creation. When we experience that evolutionary drive, we become conscious of a sense of infinite potential that is reaching out, ever expanding into the unknown future. It is calling us to itself, imploring us to respond to it and become one with it in an ecstatic embrace of the life process.

Now, generally speaking, when human beings are threatened at the level of survival—whether by war or disease or global warming or the apocalypse—there tends to be a contraction. When we get concerned with survival, we let go of the spiritually awakened and evolutionarily enlightened perspective and just become concerned with our own welfare. We literally lose touch with the light. And in that, we lose touch not only with the infinite openness and inherent freedom of the Ground of Being but even more importantly, in terms of what I’m interested in, with the awareness of our potential for infinite development, our potential to consciously evolve.

So I thought it would be good for us to speak a little bit about how important it is never to let that happen, no matter what happens to us. I think it is crucial for people to understand that the instinct to survive comes naturally to us, because we have been surviving all kinds of crises for hundreds of thousands of years! But the instinct to evolve, as it’s just beginning to reveal itself—that spontaneous aspiration to become more conscious—is very new. For most human beings it’s a barely emergent awareness. So this new instinct needs to be protected and nurtured, and we mustn’t let it get buried under all the fear that naturally arises when our survival appears to be threatened.

Wilber: I think that’s exactly right. The issues you are raising are really crucial right now, given the sense of lack in our world, the sense of something being missing, the sense of being poverty-stricken.

One helpful way to look at this is through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Abraham Maslow found empirically that people are driven by about a half dozen fundamental needs, which he represented as a pyramid with the more basic needs at the bottom. He observed that when we fulfill the most basic of those needs, the next higher need emerges. When physiological and safety needs are taken care of, belongingness or love needs and esteem needs and eventually self-actualization needs emerge. But what he found that was especially interesting in terms of this discussion is that human needs are divided into two major types of motivation, which he called deficiency needs and being needs. Deficiency needs are needs that are driven by a lack—and the five I just mentioned, from physiological to self-actualization, are all deficiency needs.

But Maslow found that after self-actualization needs are met, an entirely different type of motivation emerges—a motivation that is driven not by lack but by abundance, by overflowing. He called these being needs—and the need for self-transcendence was his example of this. At this point, what has happened is that the person has indeed started to get in touch with the absolute dimension of their being, with a limitless primordial freedom and fullness, a great perfection, an infinite openness, a timeless now, the blissful joy and happiness of the Ground of all Being. When they’re in contact with that, their motivation is one of fullness, of spilling out, of abundance. It’s as if you’re given a billion dollars—the first thing you do is start sharing it with your friends, as opposed to when you have only ten dollars and you’re scrounging.

So the essential point in times of crisis is, as you have been saying, not to let the circumstances aggravate the self-contraction and cause a regression from being needs to deficiency needs. Don’t let that whole dimension of motivation for self-transcendence, and even self-evolution, be lost and driven back down into self-esteem or belongingness or even safety needs.

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This article is from
Envisioning the Future