This piece compares two teachings in the integral spiritual world: The Authentic Self (from Andrew Cohen) and The Unique Self (from Marc Gafni). As I was in the midst of writing and editing this piece and preparing it for publication, news broke of another controversy surrounding Gafni. I’ve already posted my views on that subject on Beams. See also the excellent comments thread to that piece. So I’m not going to rehash that conversation here. Anyone interested in conversation on that point is encouraged to add their voice to that post where it rightly belongs.
As I said in the previous piece that I just linked to, whatever one’s views on Marc as a person and his actions, I believe the teaching of The Unique Self is extremely important. I think it’s bigger than any single person. This site is dedicated to holding multiple perspectives and in this piece I’m endeavoring to do precisely that thing. While I said earlier that I think the teaching of The Unique Self is extremely important, this piece fleshes out how I understand that statement.
Something similar (though by no means identical) can be said for the teaching of The Authentic Self. Simply mentioning Andrew Cohen raises protest from certain quarters—some of which we have experienced here at the site. But again I think the teaching can be examined without having to focus exclusively on the teacher and one's views of him/her. Br. Bergen is a student of Andrew’s and has interview with him on the site. Juma has mentioned both his support and critiques of evolutionary spirituality in this piece. Here I add my voice to that conversation. There is no monopoly of thought on this point among the Beams crew.
The basic stance I take in this context is at the core of the embodiment of integral theory: unless someone takes up the practice and checks the data of spiritual experience and enters the interpretive framework of a teaching, they are in no place to really be able to speak in any legitimate way to the teachings.
I’ve left the original piece largely untouched from its original state--it is published here as Part I. Part II, an experiential guide into some of the terrain is a later addition. Please Note: This is an in-depth heavy-duty exploration of a rather subtle topic. With all that said, onto the piece itself.
Pt I: The Argument
One of the most important contributions of an Integral or post-postmodern spirituality is the understanding of how an individual expresses and manifests an awakened life in the world. As but one example, a pressing need of our age is to relate Eastern and Western forms of spirituality in a global age. With the introduction of Western economics into the Eastern world—i.e. globalization—and the entrance of Eastern forms of spirituality into the West, the question of an integration of these two streams is supremely important as both cultures increasingly influence one another.
To speak very simplistically, the Eastern traditions argue for identification with the Absolute—called Consciousness, Emptiness, The One, The Ground, The Divine, etc. In contrast, the Western tradition has emphasized the autonomy of the individual and the importance of the development of the material world: history, society, psychology, technology, etc. Moreover the Western spiritual tradition has also tended to emphasize a strong sense of vocation and calling, that is divinely inspired work in the world.
In the last few years, a number of teachings that seek to respond to this situation have come forward. In this piece I’m going to focus on two of them, perhaps the two best known: The Authentic Self and The Unique Self.
The Authentic Self teaching comes from Andrew Cohen; The Unique Self from Marc Gafni, with help from Ken Wilber, Diane Hamilton, and Sally Kempton. While there are precedents for these teachings, they have been shaped and embodied in a contemporary fashion by these teachers.
As both teachings describe a kind of Self, either Authentic or Unique, I would like to focus on the question of personality (or lack thereof) in the spiritual path. This issue lies at the heart of the debate between the two about their respective teachings.
In this context, we might consider questions like: Does Enlightenment erase personality? Does it enhance personality? Is Enlightenment totally unrelated to personality? These are extremely important questions as our responses to these questions strongly shape the spiritual path we take and how that path shows up in the world.
The teachings on The Authentic Self and The Unique Self take very different stances in relation to the question of Spiritual Awakening and personality. The Authentic Self teaching, as we will see holds that the ultimate truth is impersonal in nature while The Unique Self teaching is best thought of as transpersonal, that is it transcends the personality yet includes the personality as well.
First I’ll give a brief overview of each teaching, starting with The Authentic Self, and then I’ll offer some thoughts about a possible reconciliation or integration of these two teachings.
The Authentic Self
Andrew Cohen describes The Authentic Self as impersonal. Andrew describes The Authentic Self as the urge to consciously evolve:
“When time began, for an unknown reason, something came from nothing. Suddenly, an impulse emerged—the impulse to become, to create, to evolve. One could call it the God impulse. This urge to take form gradually became the whole universe, eventually including you and me as we are right now…And at the highest level, the level of consciousness, we experience it as the spiritual impulse, the mysterious urge to evolve as consciousness itself. This urge to evolve is what I call the authentic self. The movement of the authentic self in each and every one of us is not other than the one evolutionary impulse that is driving the engine of creation. When you feel the irresistible compulsion to develop at the level of consciousness, you are experiencing in your own soul the same impulse that initiated the big bang.”
The Authentic Self is a function of Consciousness. Further, this conscious drive to evolve in the Authentic Self reveals itself especially in regards to moral evolution. In this video Andrew makes a strong, passionate case for moral evolution.
Being a function of Consciousness, The Authentic Self is inherently non-egoic. This non-egoic nature of The Authentic Self creates the possibility for deep communion in a non-egoic/Awakened context. Cohen’s teaching strongly emphasizes and embodies this intersubjective form of nonduality. When Authentic Selves find one another they seek to give expression to this fundamental creative drive of life in the realm of consciousness.
So conscious evolution is the hallmark of The Authentic Self and is described in the fourth tenet of Andrew’s teaching as a process perspective (formerly termed truth of impersonality). The emphasis is on the overall evolutionary process rather than any individual being within that process. This perspective is therefore rightly termed impersonal in nature.
The teaching of The Unique Self, in contrast, will argue that this new identity can be thought of, if not in personal terms, then under the term of Uniqueness.
The Unique Self
The definition of The Unique Self is True Self plus Perspective.
True Self or Awakening means realization of The Ultimate Ground and Essence of all Life. In traditions like Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam this Ultimate is usually called The One. In a tradition like Buddhism it is called Emptiness.
The Unique Self formula states that a person must first realize The Absolute Oneness. On the far side of this realization of Oneness comes perspective. It is the combination of those two, according to Marc Gafni, that reveals The Unique Self.
The key to understanding this definition is to get a sense of how perspective is being used here. This passage helps explain the meaning:
Imagine four people sitting in a room, each looking at each other. All four of these people are "fully" enlightened; that is, as enlightened as a person can be at this point in history. Gazing upon one another, they see the very same Oneness staring back at them, recognizing the effortless awareness behind each set of eyes…Now let's imagine that these four enlightened masters are sitting in a circle, each looking at a globe that sits on a table between them. Although they all share the same direct apprehension of Oneness, they each retain a particular perspective of the globe, and therefore each see the world in a completely different way. There is something markedly unique about each of their experiences, from their physical orientation in time/space to their individual experience of the universal. Within each of them lies a fundamental thread of perspective, stretching all the way to the darkest depths of the Mystery—a bottomless drop of the Heart that is unique to each and every one of us.
It is this combination of Oneness and individuality that gives birth to The Unique Self. The Unique Self teaching then is transpersonal not impersonal. The way Ken Wilber frames it is to say, The Unique Self is “personal plus, not personal minus.” Transpersonal means transcending and yet including the personal domain of life.
Having established that The Unique Self is an individual’s embodied perspective on awakening, Gafni is able to draw out a number of implications. For example, Gafni is working on developing a teaching of Unique Shadow. There are also Unique Gifts, as well as Unique Vows. All of these are simply different facets of the Unique Self.
For Gafni, the recognition and validation of an individual's true Uniquess is what allows for there to be Unique relationship. Gafni has even gone so far as to talk of the Unique Revelation of the various traditions, along with their core essentials in terms of Awakening. This is a profoundly important point that would sidetrack us from the main thread of this piece, but I highly recommend this article.
Gafni spends a great deal of time arguing (in my view correctly) that Uniqueness should not be confused with separation or the separate self sense of the ego. The Unique Self is neither the contraction of the separate self-sense nor is it the Undifferentiated Oneness of the Absolute Self. It is a third reality: a trans-personalone.
Comparing The Two Teachings:
While there are clearly points of difference in the teachings of The Unique and Authentic Selves, I believe it is absolutely crucial to keep in mind the many points held in common between them.
Common points include:
1. There is development beyond Awakening to the Ultimate Self
2. That development includes a desire to evolve/cultivate a new sense of Self--Cohen: Authentic Self, Gafni: Unique Self.
3. Relationships are to be developed in light of this new context--Cohen: Higher We, Gafni: Evolutionary We.
4. There's a strong drive to bring new forms and expressions of Care and Goodness in the world--Cohen: Moral Evolution, Gafni: Nondual Humanism.
5. Creativity lies at the heart of this new reality. Cohen: Creative Impulse, Gafni: Eros.
6. The basic spiritual flow is to first realize The Absolute and then to experience the post-Awakening Identity.
Note that these points constitute a substantial amount of agreement. This puts Andrew and Marc’s respective teachings much closer to each other than to many other forms of spiritual teaching available today which tend to deny creative evolution and don’t advocate for a new identity after traditional awakening.
That being said, the clear distinction that runs throughout however is whether this new identity, culture, creativity, and ethics are Impersonal or Transpersonal in nature.
Integrating The Two Teachings
I’m going to offer a way of viewing the relationship between the two teachings. In doing so I’m going to invoke one of the hallmark principles of integral theory as articulated by Ken Wilber: the first useful principle of nonexclusion. As Ken says, “Everyone is right.” Another way of saying that is: everyone is true and partial.
Seeking to be inclusive, if we assume the teaching of both The Unique Self and The Authentic Self are correct, i.e. that both enlightened transpersonality and impersonality are somehow correct, then the question is: how can we fit them together? What is the third space that includes both?
The upshot of practicing nonexclusion, according to Wilber, is “freedom through limitation.” Teachings and practices are freed to do what they do best by being limited and not having to solve all problems. That is, by being freed various teachings do not have to do what they aren’t in fact designed to do.
But how could impersonality and transpersonality both be correct? If readers think I’m playing a shell game at this point, I invite them to take an “as if” position. What would happen if we approached this topic as if both propositions were true (and partial)?
I’ve discussed this point in more detail elsewhere on the site, but consider the Integral Learning Cycle, from Mark Edwards. A cycle of learning occurs by first undertaking some kind of practice, which gives rise to a world of experiences, which are then framed through an interpretive lens, which then creates a community of the learned who confirm or disconfirm understanding within that world. In the Quadrants, that’s the movement from Upper Right (practice) to Upper Left (experience) to Lower Left (interpretation) to Lower Right (dis/confirmation).
The impersonality and transpersonality debate mostly occurs in the interpretive framing domain (Lower Left). That is, the debate is about how best to understand or interpret and name this post-Awakening spiritual identity.
But both of those interpretive teachings are arising out of various experiences from various and distinct practices. And therein lies the key point.
What if we imagine that both Andrew and Marc are correctly interpreting the respective experiences of their teaching? That would suggest—as I think is actually the case—they are describing related but distinct experiences. They would in other words be talking about related but distinct spiritual identities.
It seems to me that the dialogue to date concerning the two teachings has assumed that they are arguing about basically the same spiritual territory and the only question is one of interpretation: Is this thing we’re both experiencing impersonal or transpersonal in nature?
What if that underlying assumption is flawed? What if Gafni and Cohen aren’t in fact arguing over the exact same territory? What if their respective spiritual practices are each picking up on a distinct dimension or stream? What if they are in fact correctly interpreting the differing experiences they are having—since they are arising from different practices?
If that perspective is right, then what they really should be doing is taking up each other’s practices and seeing what the experiences are like and if the interpretive frameworks being offered by their teachings make the best sense of those experiences, rather than simply debating who’s right and who’s wrong without having taken up each other’s practices.
This hypothesis of mine is based on the possibility that Cohen has picked up on an impersonal dimension of post-Awakening identity and Gafni has picked up on a transpersonal dimension of this identity.
If we look at Cohen’s teaching model of The Authentic Self, there is strong emphasis on conscience, moral evolution, Deep Time orientation, and evolving culture. I would argue those are actually impersonal dimensions. The moral evolutionary side creates an absolute impersonal standard that drives us.
If we look at Gafni’s teaching there is emphasis on Sacred Autobiography, The Gifting and Talents of a Unique Self, meditation on sacred texts, and Shadow practice. These I argue are in the transpersonal domain.
In a post-metaphysical framework, what we meditate on, how we practice, and how we understand what we experience all determine what actually comes to be. These forms of awakening are being co-developed in and through the communities of practice and interpretation. They are each forging their own streams.
This point is an extremely important one, as each stream has its potential upsides as well as downsides.
Gafni’s Unique Self teaching without the insistence on moral evolution could easily cement egotism as people confuse the Uniqueness of The Unique Self for the uniqueness of the ego.
The teaching of the impersonal Authentic Self without the sense from The Unique Self of owning one’s distinct perspective and angle on the whole process could end up confusing a-personality for im-personality. Since both apersonality and transcendental impersonality are non-personal in nature it is quite possible to confuse them. In my experience, there’s a fine line between the two.
The Flavor of Enlightenment
The view I’m advocating holds that there is therefore a third space that embraces these two teachings. Br. Juma long ago coined the term ‘flavor of enlightenment.’ I think that fits here. Another option might be Real Self.
This formulation includes both impersonal and transpersonal elements. My contention is that Uniqueness and Authenticity are both manners of expression or modes of embodiment. Uniqueness and Authenticity point more towards the way in which someone shows up. Flavor I believe is more connected to the state of something or someone’s identity. It speaks more to the reality. Therefore, I think Flavor is wide enough to hold both Uniqueness and Authenticity as modes of its own expression. The Flavor, in other words, shows up both as Authentic and Unique.
Now someone might argue that I’ve just turned this into a giant semantic debate—I mean who really cares whether we call it Authentic, Unique, Flavor whatever? In a certain sense that’s right, it doesn’t ultimately matter what term is decided upon. But what does matter is the context in which that term is held. As I’ve been trying to make clear throughout this piece, what interpretive context we bring to spiritual experience is as important, if not more important, as interpretation has huge implications for how we practice and what virtues we cultivate along the spiritual way as a result.
Let me use a concrete example that relates specifically to The Unique Self and Authentic Self teachings. Marc Gafni wrote a book some years ago entitled Soul Prints. This book was the beginning of his explorations that are now more fully fleshed out as The Unique Self. The metaphor evokes the idea of fingerprints. The Soul is said to have its own set of fingerprints, which would uniquely identify them, as no one has two sets of matching fingerprints.
Soul Prints talks about getting in touch with one’s own Sacred Autobiography. By Sacred Autobiography Marc means an autobiography or narrative of The Unique Self. A Soul Print is not an autobiography of the ego. By calling it Sacred Autobiography, Marc is pointing out that the vast majority of autobiographies are about egoic personalities not Unique Selves. A Soul Print biography must be radically different than a regular biography as its narrative focus and subject are entirely different in nature.
Now the teaching of Sacred Autobiography only makes sense if one thinks that this post-Awakening Identity is transpersonal in nature: transcending and including personality. The Unique Self is Awakening plus Perspective. A Sacred Autobiography would highlight the awakened perspective of the person about whom the autobiography is written. Their awakened life, gifts, service, insights, and relationships would come together to form a sacred narrative of a life.
There is no equivalent practice of Sacred Autobiography in Andrew Cohen’s teaching for the simple reason that it makes no sense in that context. If one holds that the post-Awakening Self is impersonal in nature, there is no reason to write a Unique Sacred Autobiography. To do so would be a contradiction in terms.
Conversely, there is something deeply profound about sitting in a contemplation of the entire Kosmic journey and being the developmental Kosmic process aware of itself. There is a way that this contemplation obliterates egoic attachment—if only for a period of time. There is a deep freedom and creativity unleashed from entering into a space (especially with others) contemplating the entire process and seeing ourselves from that perspective. Only in such a space, it seems to me, is it really possible to experience how deeply the egoic rejection of serving the entire process really goes.
The Vase and Face: An Analogy
Another piece of evidence that supports my contention that the teachings of The Unique and Authentic Selves can be brought together is that Ken Wilber has been instrumental in the articulation of both teachings. He is not himself the teacher or primary driver of either teaching, but he has offered profound aid to both Marc and Andrew in the formulation of their respective teachings.
As I said the decision we make as to whether the way is transpersonal or impersonal has major implications for the way in which we practice. That is my deeper point, much more important than specific arguments about what things should be named. The names work as signifiers that point to significant areas of interpretation and embodiment.
If that’s the case, what if these two teachings are more like this famous Gestalt painting? The image is two images interwoven, but a person can only see one at a time. Either we see the vase or the two faces. We never see both at the same time.
I hold it’s the same with the question of impersonality or transpersonality in the debate surrounding The Authentic and Unique Selves. The Authentic Self is something like the vase in the painting—alone, a vessel or container for another truth. The Unique Self is more like the two faces.
Held in this perspective, the tension around The Unique and Authentic Selves is now a creative tension. Their solution is not found in choosing one side or the other, but rather in holding them together in paradox.
How this paradoxical view shakes out in spiritual practice is that it frees up a community to practice both teachings. Each teaching will need to be done on its own—just as we can only ever see either the faces of the vase at one time. But having embodied something of both teachings, one can then start to feel when it is appropriate to be more one and when the other—when to put our attention more to the Vase-like dimensions of the spiritual path (Authenticity) and when to the Faces (Uniqueness).
The whole painting, in this analogy, is The Flavor that includes both.
If valid, this perspective I’m offering would be able to incorporate the strengths of both The Unique and Authentic Selves, while balancing out their potential blind spots. In the space of The Flavor, The Unique and Authentic Selves become polarities. We seek to embrace both polarities and flow between them rather than choose one over the other. In so doing I believe we could create a healthier, deeper, and wider spiritual expression.
Part II: Practicing What We Preach
We've spent a great deal of time assessing various teachings, but without an experiential grounding of them both these ideas will remain rather abstract. What follows are some pointing out instructions/guided meditations in order to get a taste of The Unique and The Authentic Selves. Returning to the article in light of those experiences will allow for deeper engagement and for the reader to get a sense of whether s/he agrees with my perspective (this again is the Learning Cycle).
As mentioned both teachings start with The Absolute (aka The Ground of Being) as the foundation of their teachings.
So Practice #1 is to enter into The Source.
Begin by letting your attention relax. Notice that given the opportunity it wants to relax of itself. Notice the deep Peace underlying every moment. It's a kind of space between everything. You may find it helpful to repeat (internally or softly aloud) Stillness.
There is a Current in which nothing is happening. The experience is one of a calm lake, utterly still and perfectly at ease. There are no dilemmas, no troubles, no past pains or future concerns. Just This. Just Now. The Eternal Present.
As that Current begins to wash over you, begin to let this experience Feel from your Heart. It radiates. There is an Unconditional sense of Love in addition to the Peace and Stillness. A Warm Peacefulness. That Warm Peacefulness is who you are, what everything is. It's the Source and Condition of our being.
That's step #1, held in common by both teachings. Now we move into the distinction of the two teachings, starting with The Unique Self.
The Unique Self
Start again with practice #1: Resting in the Loving Ground of Being: a empty space of deep, quiet, Heart Ecstasy.
From within that state, then deeply inquire into: "What is my Purpose?" "How shall I serve this Loving Ground?" "What is my offering?"
An image may flash into your consciousness, a vision of your Self in awakened embodied expression or you might experience some intuitive sense of who you are coming out of this Loving Ground into form.
A variation on this is to ask to speak to The Unique Self that has you [e.g. I would say The Unique Self that has Chris.] Slightly shift your bodily posture to signify that you given such permission and are now standing in the position/perspective of The Unique Self that has you. Experience the world of The Unique Self that you are. If you have a dialogue partner, have the partner ask you questions such as (or you can ask the questions to yourself):
"What is it like to be you? What does it feel like? What do you experience?"
"What are you here to do?" "What is your purpose?"
If working with a partner, each person takes a turn asking questions and responding as The Unique Self. It is very important to speak to The Unique Self that has you rather than "my Unique Self". Framing it as "my Unique Self" can cause a person to understand the the uniqueness to be internal to the ego ("my unique self") rather than The Unique Self which transcends and includes ("has") your frontal personality.
You will know immediately you have located The Unique Self for things will start to light up. You'll have a sense of "sitting in your seat."
The Authentic Self
Once again return to practice #1 of resting in the Ground. And from there follow this guided meditation from Andrew Cohen:
"If you pay close attention to your own experience you will begin to realize that there is more to nothingness than meets the eye. The nothingness is not nothing. Nothing is happening there, and yet it is deeply compelling. If you get into a deep state of meditation it's absolutely enthralling. There is somethingin the nothingness that, once discovered, is absolutely absorbing.
In that unmanifest domain nothing has happened, nothing has happened yet...but everything is possible. Everything came from that no-place! So even in the absolute nothingness prior to the big bang the potential for everything must have existed. That is what captivates your attention as you rest in that empty stillness--the sense of infinite potential. It is experienced as a suspended state of absolute awakeness, a quiet tension that exists in consciousness because everything is possible.
Everything is possible, but nothing has yet occurred--that is the vibration in the ground of Being, dancing just below the surface. That's what you begin to feel when you put your attention on the moment when the universe was born...This is the revelation that liberates: that in your very own experience you can find the same vibration, the same energy, the creative tension that initiated the entire process at the very beginning."
--Evolutionary Enlightenment, pp. 26-27 (italics in original).
The Flavor of Embodied Enlightenment
So we begin to see that these two identities are related but distinct. They are awakened by different practices--that's the key part.
Cohen led us to contemplate the entire Universe, connect with the creative energy behind it, and then find that energy surge through us, as us. In that state one experiences the overall Process as the important thing. Cohen is right--from this state--it is Impersonal. That is the Authentic Self.
The Unique Self practice does also lead to an experience of the Creative Urge pulsing within and through each of us. But the practice leads to a more acute awareness of one's specific role and expression as that process.
Now, one final practice, a practice to include and transcend the two.
We're going to use the Voice Dialogue Process once more for this one.
Imagine the voice of The Authentic Self as one side of a triangle and The Unique Self as the other side. Now imagine the top of the triangle. We will call that voice The Apex.
Give yourself permission to speak to the voice of The Apex (that which includes both The Unique and The Authentic Self). Shift bodily to signify this identity-shift.
You are The Apex.
What it is like to be you? What is your experience?
If you follow this voice, you will notice that you can feel both The Authentic Self and The Unique Self within you. You have choice to flow between the two--in Part I I called this shifting perspectivese from the Vase to the Faces in the famous gestalt painting.
My contention is that The Apex of The Unique and Authentic Selves is The Flavor of Enlightenment that expresses itself through your being. In this way we are able to include the best of both The Unique and Authentic Selves.
The Unique Self is the distinct angle on enlightenment of an individual. The Authentic Self is the impersonal, unyielding energetic function of Consciousness that is intimately grasps the whole Process of Creation.
The Flavor of Enlightenment is, I believe, much more a state of our Essence. The Flavor has two fundamental perspectives: one that is exclusive one (The Unique Self) and one that is that of the entire Process (The Authentic Self).
If the interpretation I've offered is valid, it leaves open a rich vein of inquiry into the nature of The Flavor of Enlightenment of any being, by incorporating both of those perspectives: Uniqueness and Authenticity.