Andrew Cohen is a spiritual teacher, cultural visionary, and founder of the global nonprofit EnlightenNext. He was also the founder and editor in chief of the award-winning publication, EnlightenNext magazine (which was discontinued earlier this year after nineteen years in print). In 2011, Cohen celebrates 25-years of teaching, as well as the release of a new book, Evolutionary Enlightenment: A New Path to Spiritual Awakening. He's currently fielding a flurry of interviews (including this one) and will soon be setting off on a US book tour for October, 2011. With so much going on, we were grateful to have him here at Beams and hope his voice will add another important layer to the larger, ongoing discussion around the site.
Prior to this interview, I had read about Cohen's work through his magazine, EnlightenNext (formerly What is Enlightenment?), and met him for the first time in 2007 on one of his weekend retreats. I've remained a student of his work because of its attempt to explore the meaning of the cosmos while remaining true to the spiritual insights of the Great Traditions. I've found his work to be subtle yet direct, and rewarding in its challenge. The short interview below is a nice introduction to his ideas and should serve as a jump-off for those interested in a spiritual teaching developed in (and for) the modern era.
The interview runs about 30mins total and is broken-up into two parts. The questions have been transcribed below, along with short quotes from Cohen's responses. Or if you'd prefer, click here to listen to the entire conversation at once. (right click to download)
Part I: Traditional Enlightenment & New Enlightenment (run time: 23 mins)
Beams and Struts:
In the past, teachings of enlightenment, or ego-transcendence, have been for a particular individual to "get of the wheel" and liberate him or herself. Then the person might try to liberate others or serve as an example of peace and equanimity. But in your new book you say that the reason for being enlightened today is to participate in evolution. What does that mean exactly?
...When we enter into an experience of primordial depth, what we experience is unconditional freedom.
It's unconditional freedom from the mind, from thought, from memory, from fear, and from desire. And it's also the experience of the unconditional freedom from identification with anything that has ever happened in time. When we enter into these every deep meditative states, the reason that we experience joy and freedom is because we are literally awakening to a dimension of ourself that has never been hurt, wounded, traumatized, or touched by anything that has ever happened in time.
In the traditional mysticism, or traditional enlightenment, it's the discovery of this deepest dimension of the self that has perennially been the source of spiritual freedom and spiritual liberation. This was true 2,500 years ago and it's still true today.
But the new enlightenment is based upon the recognition that the evolutionary impulse - the creative impulse - is the impulse that gave rise to the material universe and all of manifestation. It's what caused the big bang to happen… And we recognize that there's something very dramatic occurring that is very meaningful. As human beings recognizing this we awaken to our own deepest origins. Our historical sense of identity breaks through our local, personal and cultural identity to one that embraces our cosmic origins...
Part II: Experiencing the Evolutionary Impulse (run time: 12 mins)
Beams and Struts:
I can cognitively imagine that I'm part of the creative process. And that's a mind-stopping experience. But there's still a disconnect I feel between that imaginative trick and actually feeling I'm the process, and actually feeling like I should live differently because of it. How does one go from imagining they are the cosmos, to actually living, breathing, and acting like they are?
...We need to have an experience of what I'm talking about… We need to awaken to - have a direct experience of - the non-dual nature of the evolutionary impulse. And how that happens is through actually having the experience of awakening to that impulse at the level where we experience the ecstatic urgency which is the nature of that impulse. When we experience that ecstatic urgency we instantaneously enter into a higher state of consciousness and what happens instantaneously is that the fears and desires of the psychological self fall into the background. The culturally-conditioned materialism of modernism, and the relativism and nihilism of postmodernism, also fall away into the background. We find ourselves flooded with a powerful experience of inspiration to live, to make a difference, and to give rise to that which is new. Which is quite overwhelming. But the experience of that ecstatic urgency is instantaneously self-liberating… It's a sense that all things are possible and that nothing is in the way...
Beams and Struts:
Does meditation have anything to do with feeling and experiencing one's self as the creative impulse, as you describe above?
On one hand the answer is yes, but it's not that simple…
...If we develop a level of mastery in the art and science of stillness - the practice of meditation - it will afford us a measure of freedom. But in order to awaken to the evolutionary impulse and to learn how to identify with it, that comes from embracing the significance of an evolutionary worldview. We have to embrace the philosophical significance and, more importantly, the spiritual and moral implications of an evolutionary worldview…
I think that that is a different order, a different kind, a different sphere, of spiritual practice than the traditional practice of meditation or standing beyond the mind. Of course the practice of standing beyond the mind can and will always be a very deep and profound support for spiritual development. And as you well know I encourage all my students to spend a lot of time doing that. But we don't want to confuse these two different dimensions of non-dual reality. They're going in two very different directions.
We have to remember that non-dual spirit moves in two directions simultaneously. One is back towards before the beginning… back, back , back, down, down, down, to the deepest dimension of the self… At the same time the evolutionary impulse - as we've been speaking about - as non-dual spirit is going in the completely opposite direction...