In Dialogue: with Andrew Cohen

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Andrew_podcastAndrew 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?

Andrew Cohen:

...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.

Evo_BookBut 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?

Andrew Cohen:

...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?

Andrew Cohen

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...

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  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Monday, 10 October 2011 19:58 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Just came across this interview with Andrew Cohen in the Santa Barbara Independent. It sounds like it's someone who's fairly new to his work, which I think makes for an interesting interview. Anyway, though I'd add that here. cheers.

  • Comment Link Jeremy Johnson Thursday, 13 October 2011 18:07 posted by Jeremy Johnson

    Hi Bergen, thank you for taking the time to interview Andrew Cohen and offering Beams this podcast.

    I know it's been mentioned before by Philip - I don't think that Beams is challenging its integrity by dialoguing with Cohen, as you guys have reached out to a variety of authors and inspirational thinkers. I'm grateful for that and feel comfortable, despite some discomfort with Cohen & his teachings.

    That being said, even when I'm in disagreement about something I still try to expose myself to it. A friend of mine offered to lend me his copy of E-E, so I have read about 2/3'rds of it so far. I opened up the audio recording and played it again. I'm just going to riff on this subject for a few minutes and you guys can tell me what you think. Maybe you can articulate the differences I am feeling better than I can.

    In some ways I resonate with what Cohen is saying about becoming a vehicle for the intelligence of the universe, the creator, or Godhead to manifest itself in this world. I resonate with that fundamental teaching.

    In many ways, it sounds like Cohen is borrowing most of these ideas from Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, Teilhard and Aurobindo, and presenting them in a simplified teaching and life practice (while the mentioned authors tend to be either scholars or story tellers, not specifically spiritual teachers). Being and Becoming are also two very ancient terms: Shiva is related to "Being." The uncreated and unmanifest Brahman. Shakti is the manifest, dancing, ever-shifting cosmos. The body of the Earth and the ever-shifting forms of samsara. The two, together, express the complete Cosmos: Manifest and Unmanifest Whole. Cohen seems to have re-contextualized Shakti, becoming, in light of evolutionary theory.

    From the void, one emerges, and one splits into two, creating all of the elements and forms of the universe - this is a nearly perennial creation mythology that understands in order to have life on Earth, we must be split up. So many myths begin with the androgynous ancestor being split into male and female (Consider even Eve being created from Adam's rib). Sexuality creates tension, promotes creativity, and accelerates evolution. It's present in ancient myth, though relatively unapplied to modern evolutionary context. This is unfortunate! The parallels between myth and science are deeply illuminating.

    Aurobindo had written that the Indian culture had a particular form of world-denial, while the West had neglected transcendence at price of becoming an entirely materialist and secular culture. But traditional teaching is not always so divisive. Take Mahayana for example. The un-manifest or infinite self is not disconnected; it brings the world into being each moment. The flow of time is generated from the Godhead, or radiant Emptiness. It is the flow, the mother of the Tao that is infinitely creating. The Big-Bang is not just an event in time, it is ever-present, responsible for every moment and experience of our lives. The death and resurrection, the forgetting and remembering of our true nature is perpetually occurring. How often is this emphasized in Andrew's teachings?

    In my own spiritual experiences, I have never felt disconnected from my life and the events of this "incarnation"(if you believe in rebirth). On the contrary, the experiences I have had give birth to this life, bring it into being. It is deeply life affirming. It is also able to encompass the future, the present and past within it. So I don't know...I suppose I am uncomfortable with the directness and simplicity of the EE teaching. They, for me, somehow diminish and flatten the multidimensional human experience of mystical union or transcendence (or immanence!)

    There's nothing wrong with contextualizing mystical experience with the cultural imagination of the time. Heavens we need to. But I do have a gut feeling of apprehension towards the way Cohen does this with his teachings. For instance, "I am the one responsible for the universe"- I know it is not meant to, but this sounds deeply narcissistic.

    Am I alone about these tentative feelings? Anyhow, some food for thought. Might come back a little later with some more careful reflections. Be well Bergen, thank you again.


  • Comment Link Philip Corkill Friday, 14 October 2011 20:19 posted by Philip Corkill

    Hi and thank you Jeremy,

    I'm due to draw out and examine my thorns of contention here as intended. Sunday I will take time for this. For now, no you are not alone, there is overlap to how I relate to this and you help me see more clearly.

    Look forward to any more you have to say...

  • Comment Link Philip Corkill Sunday, 16 October 2011 23:43 posted by Philip Corkill

    Something that's been bugging for a while has surfaced here. I will try to articulate.

    I'm relating Andrews teaching to my own body of experiential understanding of teachings and the Path. There is some discord.

    I'm not a scolar and I'm not debating historically or philosophically but there may be some contenstable points there too. I would love it if someone joined the thread with a learned historical view of things like the Mahayana revolution and so on.

    One part of that discord I feel as a challenge to grow. The divine discomfort of confrontation with a vital urgent message. I love(/hate;-) this. I get the sense that Andrew Cohen has an uncanny capacity and ability to transmit experience of the dimensions of reality that he points to. And move people there. I honour that.

    But another part of my thorn of contention is caused by a certain device in Andrew's presentation that I find tricky and questionable. It's mostly to do with his portrayals of traditional teachings. But since he lays these down as a basis for introducing his own „new“ teaching, there's more to it. It's really about the painting of a compelling picture in the guise of authentic commentry on other teachings. Seen purely as spiritual teaching, designed to awaken you to his experience (not teach you history), it may be a legitimate device. But Cohen is also introduced as a cultural visionary and I think a fairer representation of cultures past is needed here.

    In order to set the scene for his new enlightenment he gives a general overview of the „old“ Enlightenment. We accept this suggested premiss as generally true („right?“) then we can clearly see the distinction of Cohen's teaching. This is a pattern. It works many times. Clear as mud.

    The tricky thing about it is that the suggestion is seductive because of it's partial truthfulness „right?“. You just automatically want to nod your head. There's no falsification involved. But what if we don't swallow the premiss?

    Surprise: I often can't comply with the premis. Even if he states that he is only talking in generalities, these just don't seem representative to me. Not generally true.

    One example is the idea that traditional enlightenment teachings have been focussed on going beyond the world. Beyond mind, time and world. Indeed that „Mysticism east and west“ has generally been about this type of experience „Ok?“

    Well there it is again, OK, but that's only half the story! So before we move on to the the next thing what about the love side of things. What about Kabir:

    „The devout seeker is he who mingles in his heart the double currents of love and detachment, like the mingling of the streams of Ganges and Jumna;“

    A Cohen suggestion is that the „old“ was biased towards transcendence and going beyond. Saying the world is illusion, not real. Only the infinite is real. But the old saying actually goes:

    The world is an illusion, Brahman alone is real, Brahman is the world

    I think that the „art and science of stillness“ has generally only ever been one side of the coin. In Atisha's mind training, point two instructs directly into resting in the timeless, formless, unborn nature of awareness. If that were all it was about then why continue by introducing Tonglen. And why bother with the other six points of the training?
    Having positioned the traditional teachings where he does, Cohen proceeds with the qualities of his „new“ enlightenment that are presented as clearly different. Like the sense that this whole experiment is going somewhere and us being vehicles for this emergence. If that is so new then why would Jesus pray: „Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.“

    Would Rumi utter the following poem if he didn't think the whole project was going somewhere: „Tender words we spoke, to one another, are sealed, in the secret vaults of heaven, One day like rain, they will fall to earth, and grow green, all over the world.“

    So anyway, the ecstatic urgency of Cohen is refreshing and palpable but I just don't see that meeting Bodhidharma, Rumi, Kabir, Jesus or most other old school teachers would have been that much more comfortable or less inspiring, challenging or imbued with meaning and purpose.

    My personal experience sort of echoes Jeremy's. Liberation has always come hand in hand with communion and creativity.

    There's also a lot more in Jeremy's comment that I don't want to repeat less eloquently. The ever presence of the big bang idea reminds me of the four kayas. Reality holds it's apparent past within it's current reality. Going to before the big bang is not going backwards or below. It's right here. And the creative evolutionary impulse is not really going in the other direction, it's the other wing of our flight. Right here, all the way up and all the way down.

    Anyway, to say that the traditional is transcendence and the "new" is evolution is a generality I reject. Uncomfortably, it's the foundation of Cohen's admittedly compelling narrative device.

    Getting tired... rambling...

    homework done;-)

    Good night!

  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Tuesday, 18 October 2011 07:57 posted by Bergen Vermette

    Hi Jeremy and Philip, thanks for coming on and digging in here, glad to dive in with you both.

    It seems like there's lots to discuss here so I'll touch on a few threads I think are interesting and you guys can continue to develop them or take another route.

    Jeremy said:
    Being and Becoming are also two very ancient terms: Shiva is related to "Being."… Cohen seems to have re-contextualized Shakti, becoming, in light of evolutionary theory.

    Yes, I hadn't thought of this (obvious, in retrospect) point, but I think that's exactly what's being done - a re-contextualization of the Shakti, motion, aspect of life and the cosmos. And I like how you connect it to a comparative theology of other religions and creation stories.

    You ask:
    The un-manifest or infinite self is not disconnected; it brings the world into being each moment... How often is this emphasized in Andrew's teachings?

    First off, let me say that I'm not a definitive authority on Andrew's teachings. I feel I have a good basic understanding, but he's told me himself that he feels it takes people about 5-years of study to *theoretically* grasp what he's trying to point to, and about 10-years to begin to learn to live it. I've been studying his work for about four years, so we should probably keep that in mind (I may be wrong or confusing something).

    That said, I think there's some commonality here. Cohen frequently stresses that one cannot be an expression of the evolutionary impulse (which embodied he calls, the Authentic Self) unless they are deeply present with their own true Self. I.e. the deeper one's realization of the Ground, the deeper one's freedom in Becoming. And on page 25 of E-E he says:

    "[The Big Bang is] happening right now. Something is coming from nothing every second. You might not be conscious of it but it's true. Your own experience of action and reaction is not broken - there are countless moments of zero between each and every thought, every impulse, and every response. Something is coming from nothing, in and through each of every one of us, constantly. If you slow your experience down, and keep slowing it down, you'll start to see that there's a vast chasm of empty space that is the foundation of everything that is occurring, the ground out of which each impulse arises… When you contemplate the ground of your own Being, you can begin to intuit for yourself what that very moment when something came from nothing must have been like."

    Is that what you meant? It sounds similar.

    You say:
    ...They, for me, somehow diminish and flatten the multidimensional human experience of mystical union or transcendence (or immanence!)

    In reading your work I get a sense that you have a very rich experience of life, culture, and reality. You often include many layers of myth, emotion, thought, and Spirit into quite a rich and flowing tapestry. It's always a pleasure to be taken somewhere when I read what you write. So I think your question stems from your experience of that, and that also may be why I don't fully understand what you mean. Could you say it a different way or explain a bit more? Please say more about the diminishing/flattening.

    You say:
    "I am the one responsible for the universe"- I know it is not meant to, but this sounds deeply narcissistic.

    In this I do know what you mean and I think it's a good point to bring up. If someone said this in a certain way, they'd totally come off sounding like a delusional maniac. And lord knows kings and warlords of the past have had similar inclinations which usually didn't end too well for their neighbours! But all that's true from the perspective of a separate, individualized ego, that's seeking to *control* or to project itself into something much greater than it is. When Cohen speaks in this way he's attempting to demonstrate what it feels like to be identified with the evolutionary/creative impulse, instead of a separate ego.

    From that orientation, one has an experience of non-separation with the entire process of creation. You actually realize that you aren't separate - you're in the middle of a fluid, moving, electric Process of creation, happening every moment since the beginning of time. It hasn't stopped since the beginning and you aren't just *in* it, your *are* it. You couldn't be anything else.

    I've had this experience before (although I'm sure there are deeper and deeper degrees, just like anything) and it's true that in seeing it I felt responsible for creation. I think the responsibility comes from just seeing the truth of it all. Like how those of us who feel and understand that we're not separate from nature, want desperately to protect it from harm. We want the planet to flourish and we feel very responsible for making sure it does. Obviously there are degrees of this, but cultures and nature mystics through the centuries have acted responsibly on this understanding (it seems our western culture's Modern ignorance of non-separation is an exception, not rule - though Diamond's book, Collapse, lists several other ignorant cultures like ours).

    With this in mind I'll take a leap and say that Cohen is calling on us to be Universe mystics, in the lineage of the Nature mystics. Can we be as in tune with the cosmos as they are with the environment? If we expand our sense of self past our planetary boundaries, out to the furthest edge of the evolving, chaotic cosmos, can we hold that as our context? That is, after all what we're walking around in. And while that may seem too big a context to have any relevance to daily life, I think the truth is we just don't know. People like Cohen are exploring it and reporting back that things look different. One feature seems to be that we feel responsible for the whole Show.

    That may not change the way the phrase sounds to you, but I'm sure there's also just personal preferences involved. I don't feel any narcissism in it, but I suppose I'm hearing it in the terms I mention above. And in those terms I actually think it's quite a profound statement. One that comes from a huge perspective filled with care and love for what we're a part of.

    Thanks again for opening up the conversation here. I saw you make a similar comment recently on another website and wanted to jump in, but the thread was a bit hostile :P Glad to have the chance to dig in.

    And heads-up, I'm in the middle of a honours thesis at the moment, and the first part is due in two weeks. I'll happily respond here but it'll probably take me a day or so to get on it.

    PS. Phil, sorry man, my time's up for today, will respond to you tomorrow. Thanks for the comment and sorry to keep you waiting!

  • Comment Link Philip Corkill Monday, 09 January 2012 22:27 posted by Philip Corkill

    Direct Ninja Kick in the pants Berg;-) bearing in mind that I have about 15 urgent pending responses at Beams so not sure I should really be lashing out!

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