It is an interview from the most recent edition of What is Enlightenment Magazine.
The issue is largely focused on Ken Wilber, a philosopher who delves deeply and systematically into spirituality and science. Though I am only briefly acquainted with his work, my mother, whose opinion I respect and value, has spoken very highly of him and has been immersed in his literature for the past few years.
The magazines website has a great deal more on and from him, so much that its almost overwhelming, but browse on over if it's of interest to you.
The Evolution of Enlightenment
The Guru and the Pandit
Ken Wilber and Andrew Cohen in Dialogue
In this new WIE feature, Andrew Cohen, spiritual teacher and founder of What Is Enlightenment?, and Ken Wilber, the world's most renowned integral philosopher, join together, guru and pandit, heart to heart and mind to mind, to push the limits of their (and our) experience and understanding and to chart the emerging edge of a wholly contemporary spirituality. Now, the word pandit isn't just a strange spelling of punditthose often caustic, overly intellectual, wise-cracking critics who pepper the airwaves. A true pandit is a scholarnot someone just wasting away in an Ivory Tower, but one who is deeply proficient and immersed in spiritual wisdom. So, we're calling upon the ancient Sanskrit meaning of pandit and, for that matter, guru, as the starting point for an interaction that has the potential to transcend and include (to use a distinctly Wilberian expression) the old, and propel us into something radically new.
So while we're reclaiming and transcending ancient spiritual terms, let's take a fresh look at guruwhich in Sanskrit literally means "dispeller of darkness," one who teaches spiritual liberation from his or her own direct experience or realization. In the ever-changing and deepening inquiry of WIE, Andrew Cohen has sought to bring to light the meaning and significance of enlightenment for our time through the thoroughly modern medium of the magazine. And Andrew has fought the tide of anti-authority sentiment in the postmodern world by embracing the traditional demands of the guru principle and championing the student-teacher relationship as a radical partnership for human evolution. Fiercely independent, he is forging out of his experience a new spiritualitywhat he calls "evolutionary enlightenment"arising from the mystical depth known to the Eastern enlightenment traditions and empowered by a Western passion for humanity's individual and collective evolutionary potential.
Ken Wilber often says, "I am a pandit, not a guru." His soaring and searing words have graced the pages of WIE before, bringing a true pandit's wisdom to ignite our hearts and sharpen our minds, compelling us to think deeply about the whole of human life and inspiring us to reach for greater depth and higher potential. By Ken's own definition, "A pandit is a spiritual practitioner who also has a flair for the academic or scholarly or intellectual and so becomes a teacher of the Divine, an articulator and defender of the dharma, an intellectual samurai." A true warrior of the word, he has written more than eighteen volumes (and been translated into more than twenty languages), articulating his constantly evolving "theory of everything." At a time when postmodern fragmentation and relativism bring the contemporary academy perilously close to the edge of nihilism, Ken's independent voice cries for an integral, wholesome, and deeply spiritual synthesis of Eastern models of transcendence and Western philosophy and developmental psychology.
What would happen, we wondered, when these two uncompromising and fearless idealists met to discuss the future of God? What happened, as you will see, is a thrilling example of the alchemy that can take place in the openness of true dialogue. In this debut of a feature that will appear regularly in WIE over the months and years to come, Andrew and Ken, third millennium guru and twenty-first-century pandit, at the edge of past and future, ride the swift currents of a rising spiritual tideexploring the evolution of enlightenment itself.
ANDREW COHEN: I was never especially interested in evolution. Initially, after my awakening in 1986, I was teaching in the same way that I had been taught by my teacher. This was my experience: that everything simply was as it was. There was nowhere to go and there was nothing to do. The whole point, in that teaching, was just to realize that. It was the beginning, the middle, and the end of the story. In fact, at the time I was so sure about this view that I seriously questioned the authenticity of any teaching of enlightenment that implied time, future, or becoming, and also of any teacher who was telling anybody to do anything that implied time, future, or becoming.
After some time, however, I started to notice that in spite of the fact that many of my students were having very powerful awakening experiences, in most cases, they would still at times become lost in narcissism, greed, and neurotic self-obsessionlost in deeply conditioned and small-minded impulses. So I began to put more and more of my attention on the need for the human being to actually transform. To transform him- or herself in order to become a living expression of the emptiness and purity of motive that one discovers in the spiritual experience. So gradually, over a period of time, I began to put a greater emphasis on cultivating the ability to embody and manifest that beauty, perfection, and wholeness as our humanity than on experiencing the bliss of pure Being alone.
So that was the beginning. Then, after a few years, something new started to emerge in my teaching. And the first time I became aware of it was when I started to teach retreats in India. One morning, as I was giving a talk, something just exploded out of me. I didn't know where it came from. An unbridled passion poured out of me spontaneously, calling for this miracle, this mystery beyond time, to become manifest in this very world as ourselves. It shocked and inspired many people, and it shocked and inspired me as well. That was over ten years ago.
And more and more, over time, it has started to dawn on me that this passion is really a passion for more than just enlightenment in the traditional sense or the Eastern sense, which would mean a vertical lift-off, getting off the wheel of becoming, transcending this world absolutely, and leaving no trace. My emphasis has shifted radically. The goal now, as audacious as it sounds, is not merely to transcend the world but to transform the world, to become an agent of the evolutionary impulse itself. Indeed, in surrendering one's ego to that, one literally feels oneself being filled up with a divine and luminous energy and a passion to transform the world and the whole universe for a cause that has nothing to do with oneself.
This shift of emphasis, many years ago, was also one of the reasons that I parted ways with my teacher. Whenever he would hear me speaking about there being anything to do except get off the wheel of becoming and BE, he felt that I was corrupting and distorting his teaching. So at a certain point I started to conclude that there must be different kinds of enlightenment, different kinds of awakening that actually have different results.
Eventually, I started to call this teaching "evolutionary enlightenment" or "impersonal evolutionary enlightenment." In this teaching, there is an emphasis not only on the realization of emptiness and pure Being but also on the need to become a radically and profoundly transformed human being who is going to be able to manifest our higher evolutionary potential in the world. I'd never really come across anything like this before. It was only recently, when I came upon the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and Teilhard de Chardin in our research for the magazine, that I started to hear echoes of my own passiona passion for evolutionary enlightenment, for awakening to the truth of who we are, and then daring to allow ourselves to experience the urgency to make it manifest in this world with all of our being.
So what I wanted to speak to you about first was this whole question of what enlightenment ultimately is. I think it's an important question because many, many people are interested in spiritual matters these days. And I think, interestingly enough, that the traditional definition of enlightenment may not actually be able to meet the needs of the evolving world in the time in which we are living.
KEN WILBER: I basically agree with everything you said and I would obviously have just a few different perspectives on it. You went through a number of very important concepts. Maybe we could start with the one you mentioned last, which was different types of enlightenment. At first that sounds kind of funny because enlightenment ostensibly is all-inclusive, timeless, all-embracing, unchanging, eternal, and so on. So it's hard to imagine having two different types of any of those things. But in fact, even in the traditions, you find at least two major, very different conceptions of enlightenment. One was prevalent during the Axial period, starting at around 2000 B.C.E. up until roughly 100 A.D. And that was probably best expressed in the early Buddhist tradition, the Theravadan tradition, in the concept of nirvana or nirvikalpa, which basically means immersion in a formless realm, where there is no manifestation and no objects are arising. It is a state of consciousness utterly free of change, utterly free of time and space and self and turmoil. The classic analogy, for those who haven't had that experience, is that it's something like deep, dreamless sleep. You enter a state of formless consciousness. That state of nirvana was held to be the highest state of realization and was thought to be completely divorced from samsara. The world of emptiness was completely divorced from the world of form. Emptiness was transcendent and timeless; form was temporalsuffering, pain, illusion, and so on. And the goal, no question, was to get out of samsara, "off the wheel," and into nirvana.
I think the real revolution in spirituality occurred about that time, starting particularly with the genius Nagarjuna in the East and Plotinus in the West. That was the breakthrough to what could be called nondual enlightenment or the nondual realization, which is a profound understanding of nirvana, or emptiness or the timeless or the transcendent, but it's also a union because it's a realization wedded with the entire world of form, with the world of samsara. So the whole notion of the nondual traditions was not that you got into a state that was formless, unmanifest cessation, but that that formlessness or that emptiness was one with all forms that were arising moment to moment. And that nondual state, or sahaj, was, in a sense, both the basis of the bodhisattva vow and the beginning of the tantric traditions. The idea was that somehow the world of samsara and the world of nirvana had to go hand in hand or you didn't really have a full, complete, or, if you will, integral being.
So on the one hand, it's still true that the dharmakaya or emptiness or the perfectly formless realm doesn't enter the stream of time. But on the other hand, that's only half the picture. The other half is that there is a stream of time, there is development, there is unfolding, there is evolution, there is transformation. And the real key to this discussion, I think, is when you understand that the only way you can permanently and fully realize emptiness is if you transform, evolve, or develop your vehicle in the world of form. The vehicles that are going to realize emptiness have to be up to the task. That means they have to be developed; they have to be transformed and aligned with spiritual realization. That means that the transcendent and the immanent have to, in a sense, flavor each other.
AC: In the vehicle?
AC: So you're saying that the vehicle has to become perfected.
KW: Yes. Sometimes what happens is that people get kind of dunked into emptiness. They have a radical realization of this infinite, boundless consciousness that they are. And then, as you were describing, the realization fades. They're back in the same egoic vehicle. They're the same contracted self, and they don't know what happened. But they don't want to get involved in actual practice or transformative endeavors that would make their vehicle capable of holding that realization in a fuller, more enduring fashion. So that's unfortunate because then, as you say, they are cutting themselves off from the world of time, from getting involved in that world, and from what's necessary to do in order to become a transparent vehicle of the timeless.
The best of a nondual or integral realization is that we have to basically work on both. We have to polish our capacity, in a sense, to fully realize emptiness, moment to moment. But it's the emptiness of all forms arising moment to moment. So we have to have a radical embrace of the world of samsara as the vehicle and expression of nirvana itself. Unfortunately, I think you're also right that a lot of the nondual schools don't live up to it.
People tend to err on one side or the other of the equation. They either immerse themselves in samsara or the sensory-motor domainnature is spirit, any manifest object is taken to be spirit, and so onor they get immersed in the formless realm of cessation. And I think what we are interested in, certainly what you and I are talking about, is a realization that encompasses both emptiness and form. And let me just add, evolution occurs in the world of form, not in the world of emptiness. But that means that evolution is half of the equation. And so unless you get involved in ways to carry evolution forward, you are not going to be fully realizing the emptiness that you are.
AC: That's great. Now I want to pursue this further. Because in your description of the nondual view where this distinction between nirvana and samsara disappears, in that interpretation of enlightenment, at least as far as I can see, the idea is still to be released from this worldbasically, to get the heck out of here.
KW: I understand that.
AC: Okay, so I'm approaching the question of what enlightenment is in relationship to the world of time and becoming. And what I'm trying to isolate here is what I call "the evolutionary impulse." As I described before, it's a mysterious ecstatic compulsion to transform the world. Now, this compulsion is different, I believe, from what is traditionally spoken about in the bodhisattva vow, because at least my understanding of the bodhisattva vow is that one wants to stick around long enough to liberate all sentient beings from this world. In other words, to help them get the heck out of here. But in the ecstatic evolutionary impulse that I'm talking about, liberation is actually found through surrendering to this imperative to evolve in the world.
KW: Not getting out of it.
AC: Right. In this interpretation of enlightenment, all of one's consciousness and energy is used in the service of creation itselfbeyond ego. In other words, one's vehicle is to be used for this great and all-demanding purpose. And one's enlightenment, one's ongoing daily ecstatic liberation, would be found and directly, consciously experienced through utter and perfect surrender to that purpose alone. So at least in the ideal case, if such a thing is possible, there would be no egoic motive left and one would be constantly burning up for a cause that one could grasp only partially, shall we say, because its culmination always exists in the future.
KW: Okay, yes, I agree with the general thrust of what you are saying. Let me reframe it in this way. As I said before, there was a major shift from the early Axial religions, which emphasized mere ascent, mere transcendence, mere cessation. That shiftto the nondual traditionswas epochal because it was no longer emptiness divorced from form, but a realization that emptiness is not other than form, form is not other than emptiness, as the Heart Sutra puts it. Now that shift, which led to Mahayana and eventually Vajrayana Buddhism, was important because it signaled a profound understanding that was different from the previous main types of religion that we saw. The earliest of these held that the world of samsara is spirit. That's basically the immersion in mere manifestation or mere nature. And then came the Axial period, which said, "No, the transcendent is the only spiritual reality-the merely ascending, merely timeless is the only thing that's real." And the nondual said, "Wait a minute, you're both right. And what we have to do is work out a way to do that."
Now, the original bodhisattva vow was, "I vow to gain enlightenment as quickly as possible for the benefit of all others," because, as Kalu Rinpoche used to point out, "If you put off your enlightenment, how can you save anybody, you idiot?" That matured into the tantric view and what both of them had in common, at least implicitly, was the notion that nirvana and samsara, emptiness and form, the timeless and the world of time, being and becoming, were both parts of an integral realization. And both of those parts have to be embraced. Now, I think you're right that, in a certain sense, the traditions have not always lived up to that. And also, I think there's another meaning or a deepening understanding of nondual realization as involving an evolutionary impulse in the world of evolving form.
AC: Yes, that's what I'm talking about!
KW: And I think the reason that that's the case can be found in just what we've been saying: A sage, let's say a thousand years ago, could have a profound realization of dharmakaya or pure emptinessa profound realization of nirvikalpa samadhiand then also have a profound realization of a union with all form. So this sage would have a realization of both emptiness and the world of form and would realize that they are intrinsically each other. They arise moment to moment as the emptiness of all forms that are arising ecstatically. Now, nonetheless, that almost perfectly enlightened sage, in the sahaj sense, the nondual sense, can still only be one with the world of form that is present at his or her time. And that world of form is not going to have the types of knowledge that we now have about the world of form.
AC: You mean about evolution?
KW: About evolution in particularthe exact nature of it, what it actually means, what is going on in the world of form. In the world of form, we are seeing an unmistakable drift toward increasing levels of differentiation and integration and complexity and unification. And that's a profound understanding because it means that our vehicle in the world of form is becoming more transparent to the processes that are in the world of form. That changes everything. It doesn't matter how deeply enlightened somebody was a thousand years ago, the world of form did not include that understanding. So that wasn't part of their realization, even though their realization of emptiness was exactly as great as ours can be today because emptiness is emptiness, it doesn't change, it has no moving parts, and so on. So we're not taking anything away from the sage who lived a thousand years ago. We have one thing on that sage, howeverwe're alive now. And a thousand years from now, people will look back at our world of form and laugh hysterically over what idiots we were. But in the meantime, we have to get on with embodying this world of form with radical emptiness, and the result is, yes, a type of evolutionary emptiness. Or "evolutionary enlightenment," sure.
AC: And in this evolutionary enlightenment, the significant element, as I understand it anyway, is the surrender to the movement of an awakened compulsion to participate wholeheartedly in the evolutionary process forthe sake of evolution itself. That's what evolutionary enlightenment is all about, not merely the attainment of one's personal liberation from or transcendence of this world.
KW: Yes, I agree.
AC: And it's that shift in emphasis that I'm really pointing tothat's what's significant, I think, in terms of ultimately how to define enlightenment for our time. Because as more and more people do become interested in what enlightenment is and what it means, I would say ninety percent of the time at least, if not more, all they hear about is transcendence, personal transcendence. And while that is usually accompanied by a plea for selflessness and compassion, it's rarely, if ever, the unbridled revolutionary passion for the total transformation of the world that surges up from the spiritual heart when it is truly liberated from the world. I mean, more often than not it's a kind of tepid, strange brewancient concepts of enlightenment all mixed up with "new age" emotionally based ideas about compassionand the fire of liberation itself is definitely not where it's coming from.
KW: We still have a very strange mixture of these three basic spiritual orientations that are available. One is pagan immersion in samsara. One is idealistic, transcendental escape into the world of unmanifest cessation. And one is some form of nondual that embraces them both. And the form of nondual realization in today's world is, of necessity, evolutionary nonduality. People sometimes get put off by the notion of evolution. Either they think, "Well, all this stages crap, I don't believe thatthat's ranking, that's marginalizing. I don't like that." Or, if they are on the spiritual side, they think what your teacher thought, which is that any discussion of the world of time shows that you haven't really grasped Being, or grasped the timeless. So in a strange way, your own nondual realization is taken to be a lesser realization than one of these fractured states.
AC: Oh, definitely.
KW: Which is really bizarre! But in any event, it's understandable that people get a little bit put off by the notion of stages or evolutionary unfolding, or things having to get higher and higher.
AC: Because, God forbid, maybe they have further to go, maybe there's something to do here!
KW: Now of course, I would never say something nasty like that. But yes, that certainly is one of the reasons that people are put off by it. However, when we really get into a fine-tuned discussion of what the difference is between states of consciousness and stages of consciousness, I think we can get a better handle on some of these issues.
AC: Is that because, as you say, gradual evolution to higher stages of consciousness development is essential in order to be able to sustain and accurately interpret the experience of higher states of consciousness?
KW: Yes, exactly. One of the reasons that people do have trouble with stages or evolutionary unfolding is that they have, themselves, experienced very profound states of consciousness that sometimes are of a nondual nature. And so they are distrustful of the notion that you have to somehow evolutionarily progress through stages in order to have access to the nondual. But that's not what we're saying. The nondual or pure emptiness itself is the ever-present state of every single stage of development. It's completely present in atoms, carrots, dogs, infants, adults, you name it. Even very young children can have a temporary altered state of a subtle, causal, or nondual nature, for the simple reason that all human beings wake, dream, have deep sleep. You see, the three great states of consciousness (waking, dreaming, sleeping) correspond with the three great realms of being (gross, subtle, causal). In the waking state you are aware of the gross realm, while dreaming you are aware of the subtle, and in deep sleep you are aware of the causal. The nondual is that ever-present witness that is there throughout all changing states. So all human beings have gross, subtle, and causal states available to them twenty-four hours a day, and there is the nondual, ever-present ground, which is also present to them twenty-four hours a day. So anybody at any stage of development can have an altered state of gross, subtle, causal, or nondual realities. But in order for those temporary states to become permanent traits, you have to evolve through the stages of purifying the vehicle, in the realm of form, so that it can ecstatically, permanently, continuously embrace these higher states.
AC: That's where people have the problem. Because as you eloquently pointed out in Boomeritis, the ego, the narcissistic self, wants to be left alone, violently wants to be left alone, and aggressively resists the idea of not already being perfect and of having to change.
KW: Exactly. And the simple answer to those people is, "That's fine. If you really think you're already enlightened, I'm happy for you. If you don't want to go through evolutionary transformations to perfect your vehicle because you are already ecstatically one with the divine twenty-four hours a day, I'm happy for you. But if you're not that, get with the picture!"
AC: And you would agree that with the purification of the vehicle, there would be a gradual emergence of, shall we say, a profound sense of obligation or an ecstatic compulsion to give all of our heart and energy to the evolutionary process so that the liberated glory of our own absolute nature will emerge as ourselves, in this world.
KW: Absolutely. It can be said very simply; obviously it's very hard to embody. But the basic rule is: resting as emptiness, embrace the entire world of form. And the world of form is unfolding. It is evolving. It is developing. And therefore resting as blissful emptiness, you ecstatically embrace and push against the world of form as a duty.
AC: Right, push against it. That's the important part.
KW: Yes, absolutely.
AC: Because in relationship to the question of what enlightenment means, the notion of pushing against the world of form, or the inertia of the world, in order to enlighten it is something a lot of people find challenging and even antithetical to what "spirituality" is supposed to be all about.
KW: Again, I can understand some of the hesitancies and problems with it. But I think we just need to take a much more considered look at the evidence. Look at the various types of states we have available to us, and particularly look at the past thirty years, when so many experiments have been made by this generation in terms of various paths and practices, and see what the actual results are. I think we're getting to a point now where we realize that a kind of integral practicea practice that emphasizes both the immanence of spirit in terms of present manifestation and, simultaneously, the transcendent nature of spiritis necessary. One that is, in some sense, their mysterious unionthe nondual. And it is mysteriousit's a love affair. It's a love affair between Shiva and Shakti. Like all love affairs, you'll never figure it out, but your heart is plunged in the mystery of it. The mystery is that you are radically the only thing that exists in the entire universe and yet all these forms are arising within you. And in a sense, the denser forms are just your slow left foot. But you have to push against your own density in the manifest world in order to penetrate it with the awareness that you eternally are. It's that "pushing against" partif people can't really engage with that, then I'm afraid they do just get caught in states of mere quietude or cessation, or mere immersion in sensory manifestation.
AC: Don't you think that's ultimately why we're hereto liberate ourselves from a merely relative identity, and any binding attachment to an unenlightened perspective, so that we can engage with the life process as perfectly as we're able to?
KW: Exactly, I agree entirely, and, as you know, the only expression that we individually have is through this particular individual vehicle that we have. Which is why you want to polish that sucker up!
AC: That's trueand the exciting part is, as I often tell people, that once one realizes this, there is an ecstatic revelation. One discovers that being exactly who one already isnot only as the timeless, unborn self but also as an incarnated, individuated personality with whatever historical and cultural background one hasis the perfect vehicle for that total engagement. And in that recognition one experiences an ecstatic release from all the old neurotic self-concern.
KW: I think that's exactly right. One of the reasons that some spiritual teachers seem perhaps not to understand what it means to push against the world is that that pushing comes on the other side of the great release. There is already that radical freedom with the realization of the emptiness that is pervading all form. So you're not pushing against the world out of a sense of lack; you're pushing against the world out of a sense of duty.
AC: Exactly! And ecstasy and love and compulsion.
KW: Absolutely. They would think that if somebody says the kind of thing you've been saying, then you are coming out of a state of lack, you haven't quite realized
AC: or maybe I'm not accepting things enough the way they aremaybe I have some kind of personal agenda.
KW: Or maybe they have not yet pushed through radically to incarnational nonduality.
AC: Incarnational nondualitythat's it. That's exactly what evolutionary enlightenment is all about!
KW: When it comes down to actual practice, and you know this as well as anybody, it's not a kind of "one-step, two-step" affair. In reality, it's a very messy, sloppy business. Sometimes you're dunked into pagan immersion in samsara; sometimes you're whisked into transcendental Theravadan nonexistence. And then other times you miraculously, mysteriously find your cells in love with emptiness and form simultaneously. Whether you develop on the way up or on the way down, so to speak, either way is fine.
AC: As long as one does. And you're right, the ecstatic emergence is a messy and often painful business.
KW: Yes, very much so.
AC: That's what even material evolution, organic evolution is like, you know. It's all very messy, and so is spiritual evolution. Even though it's ultimately an ecstatic event.
AC: There is one other aspect to all of this that I wanted to go into. Several months ago, an extraordinary event occurred a number of times among a group of my students. They witnessed and directly experienced the spontaneous descent of a cosmic powera powerful conscious presence within and without that was instantly enlightening. In other words, each individual experienced, in their own consciousness, inherent liberationand the unlimited potential that the liberated heart and mind feels as the living universe calls for our unconditional participation in the process of its own unfolding. These are excerpts from some of the letters they wrote to me describing the event.
"Last night we literally reached a critical mass and exploded. Revelation after revelation as a living understanding of the sweetest perfection is being unraveled in front of our eyes. The emerging presence is a mystery that can never be knownall it recognizes is One, and it's on a seek-and-destroy mission against all separation. We were on our knees before this miraculous phenomenon: impersonal enlightenment. None of us has any idea where we are going, but we are being consumed in the white heat of perfect communion."
"I finally understood that this is actually enlightenment manifesting between us. It is unheard of that a group of unenlightened people, who are willing to leave self-concern behind, start to experience the enlightened vision and BE it. It is amazing how easy it felt, really like a natural state ... I see now why you call it Evolution!"
"This tremendous explosion has unalterably shifted our attention to a vast and unfathomable presenceit is as if this new cosmic Being speaks as us, through us, manifesting the bigger view that It alone perceives."It seems that it was both the collective nature of the event and the willingness of the participating individuals to bear witness to what was unfolding that made the emergence of this consciousness possible. This thing has happened a few times, among different groups of my students, and I realized that this expression of enlightenment beyond the personal was really the target that my teaching has been heading toward for the past sixteen years. I had never heard of anything else that sounded similar until I read about Sri Aurobindo's descent of the "supermind,"* which sounded very much like what my students were experiencing. I was wondering if it sounded similar to you?
KW: Well, yes. I wasn't present for the phenomenon you were describing, but I think I get a pretty good sense of it. And it does really tie in to what we were saying earlier. In a sense, the nondual realization, which at least became a historical realization for a fair number of people right around the turn of the century, including Sri Aurobindo, is still unfolding. I mean, the world of form keeps unfolding, keeps evolvingspirit's own self-expression keeps unfoldingand it happens, as far as we can tell, to build on what it did yesterday, which is why evolution is indeed an unfolding event in the world of form. So as this incarnational nonduality, this ultimately ecstatic tantric nonduality itself, began to unfold, and its forms of manifestation began to unfold, you find that by the time you get to people like Sri Aurobindo, there's such a full-bodied understanding of this process. Even though some of the earlier sages were ultimately enlightened for their time, there's a richness, an unfolding, a resonance of spirit's own incarnational understanding in some of these recent sages that just gives you goose bumps.
AC: Wow. So you're talking about the evolution of enlightenment itself.
KW: Yes. If we talk about enlightenment as the union of emptiness and form, the pure emptiness doesn't change because it doesn't enter the stream of time, but the form does change, and the two of those are inextricably united. And therefore, there is, in that sense, an evolution of enlightenment. And what we find in some of these sages, particularly in the modern era when evolution itself was understoodwhich is to say when evolution became part of the consciousness of spirit's manifestationis an increasing transparency of enlightenment manifesting in the world of form. Under those circumstances, the type of descent that Sri Aurobindo was talking about, the descent of the supermind, is something that he certainly thought would be increasing in frequency as evolution continued. And I do think that's the case. The phenomenon you described certainly sounds like it would be kind of a miniature example of just that.
The notion of, in a sense, higher states coming down and grabbing people where they are and lifting them up is itself an old notion. And I think there are many examples of lesser states, in a sense, descending upon people. You can be in the egoic state and have a descent of a subtle reality, for example. But I think that because the world has already been opened to nondual incarnational realization, we are going to see these things increasing in depth and profundity as time unfolds.
AC: For Aurobindo, though, wasn't the supermind still a theoretical ideal? I mean, as far as I know, he didn't succeed in bringing it down in the way that he wanted tomaking it manifest in the world.
KW: Yes. That's correct. And that's why I say it's hard to know exactly what was going on with your group without everybody kind of having a look-see.
AC: Sure. Of course. But I think the important thing was that there was a very powerful meeting beyond the personal. There was the awareness that "I am going beyond the personal together with many others." In other words, there was a simultaneous realization of the nondifference between the One and the many, supported by the ecstatic realization that this is everything. And at the same time, there was the awareness of an overwhelming compulsion in the individual and the collective to give all of oneself to the greatest possibility that there is.
KW: Yes. I can tell you what I think that is, quite apart from whether it's a specific instance of Aurobindo's supermind. In my personal opinion, what was happening there was basically a perfect example of an all-quadrant nondual occasion. And as you know, the quadrants in my model represent I, We, and It [see diagram]. And the general idea, in my own view, is that these aspects of experience are inextricably interconnected whether we realize it or not. So sometimes people can just give emphasis to the "I," but there's always the "we" and the "it" in the background, whether they're aware of it or not. And my basic beliefI've stated it in theoretical books, but I also believe it should be practicedis that an integral spirituality would be all-quadrant, all levels. And all levels means, of course, that we're spanning the entire spectrum. We're not stopping at immersion in nature, we're not stopping at ascent into heaven, or mere nirvana, but we're embracing the nondual as well, so that we span the entire spectrum of consciousness. And then, that is manifest simultaneously, fully, and transparently in all four quadrants, or in the "I," the "we," and the "it" simultaneously. I think the fact that you have a sangha, a small community, that can work on this together for a long time has allowed, in the instance you described, a four-quadrant manifestation of that nondual realization. So that would be the good news. The bad news with all these things is, of course, that it's a messy process. And every time something great like that happens, there's all the shadow stuff that comes with it, and the recoil that comes with it, and the aftereffects.
AC: Absolutely. There's the egoic withdrawal, the rebellion against the sacred nature of what was revealed, and the profound terror of what it demanded.
KW: That's always difficult. It's where discriminating wisdom is so important. And the incredibly difficult thing is that, in some sense, we're all pioneers in this.It's a relatively new type of occasionthe modern and the postmodern form of incarnational nonduality. And because there are so few precedents, discriminating wisdom is harder to come by.
AC: Yes, I know, because it's all so new.
KW: That's right. It's all new, and therefore you can't exactly draw on old compass points. So nobody can really be sure that they're absolutely right, although a part of these nondual states is that they always carry a certain type of unshakable certainty. I mean that's just their natureyou're introduced to what is, and what is, is. Period. There's no questioning that. But its actual manifestation gets very dicey. It's really hard to tease apart the aspects of this that are truly certain and the aspects of this where I'm just being lazy, misinformed, egoic, fearful, idiotic, those kinds of things.
AC: Isn't that always true when one's on the edge? Or pushing the edge, shall we say?
KW: It is. But the difference is that if you're in a tradition where the pioneers figured this out and then handed on the tradition, like in Zen Buddhism, for example, you've got tradition and lineage to fall back on. They have looked at pretty much all the pitfalls of that particular realization, and in that sense, I think traditions and lineages are very good things. But every time new types of realization come into beingand that means, again, whenever the world of form has so evolved and changed that you need a different type of evolutionary enlightenment or incarnational nonduality you've got to rewrite the instruction manual. And we all f that up!
AC: The thing is, that as you've been saying, the traditions can and do establish a standard, but, at the same time, in terms of evolution itself, at least in relationship to what we've been speaking about, they can actually prevent evolution from occurring.
KW: Oh, absolutely. I mean that's an old story. And whatever form we come up with today, we will prevent the new emergence later. We'll make the same mistake ourselves. But that need not stop us from being critical now.
KW: I can give you a very specific example in the field that I work in a lot, which is the effort to integrate some of the discoveries of Western psychology with some of the traditions that have a really sterling understanding of emptiness and nonduality within their own world of form. The Vajrayana, for example, is a wonderfully complete systemfor feudal Tibet. That's not to say that the levels they describe aren't here. They are still here. Their realization of emptiness is probably unsurpassed. But the world of form has changed. And either you get on that trainthe spirit's evolutionary trainor you become that which prevents evolution. And that's one of the real difficulties.
At that point, as you say, the tradition, which helped stabilize an important understanding, becomes that which prevents a new unfolding. And that's very dicey, of course, because then you have to be really careful about what you're doing here. So many of the problems faced by contemplative orders in this countryand I mean Buddhist and I mean Christian and I mean Vedantancould be helped enormously by a simple infusion, in the world of form, of the understandings from developmental psychology. But they don't want to do it because it seems to imply their tradition is not complete, their tradition isn't a whole path, there's something wrong with their tradition, and so on. And we're really not saying there's anything wrong with their realization; we're just saying that we can help with the vehicle, with the world of form, by telling them things that we have discovered in the world of form that weren't known a thousand years ago. And if they're not going to incorporate that into their own understanding, then their nondual realization will be inadequate because they're not living up to the world of form.
AC: It seems now that so much is changing so fast in the world, a lot of the traditions are going to have a lot of trouble. The world of form we are living in is changing so quickly and so radically. With new forms of communication, the world is becoming so much smaller, and I wonder if the traditions are going to be able to keep up with the evolving needs of spiritually hungry people without holding them back in many ways. But there are very few people who really want to push the edge of human potential anyway, so maybe it's ultimately not that important.
KW: Well, it is a disturbing question to those six people doing so, Andrew! Again, part of this very delicate balancing act is that the traditions have a fund of absolutely invaluable, incredibly precious knowledge and tools for transformation. And, again, I myself am not saying that any of those are wrong. I'm just saying that there are other tools today that need to be added to that. And when you do that, you do get a different picture. And the picture is not only, "Here are some tools for transformation that can help your other tools," but it also gives you an even fuller type of incarnational nonduality, which, in a senseand I think this is what you were sayingjettisons the lingering perfume of escapism, or mere transcendentalism, or get-off-the-wheel-ism that does tend to pervade some of the traditions.
AC: It seems that when one has made a serious emotional investment in a particular spiritual path, one's faith that that path can lead one to perfect liberation is usually based on the conviction that the path itself is perfect and completely whole. And when it dawns on one that maybe one's chosen path or tradition doesn't in fact have all the answers to every question, especially for this evolving world that we're living in, it can be a disturbing moment of reckoning for the practitioner.
* In Sri Aurobindo's philosophy, "Supermind" refers to a dynamic force and plane of consciousness superior to mind that perceives the Absolute Unity of all existence within the realm of diversity, and that unleashes a profound transformative potential when it descends into the manifest world.
KW: One time I did an interview with a major Buddhist magazine, and the interviewer had looked at A Brief History of Everything. He saw the four quadrants, and he saw that Buddha was in the upper left quadrant and not the other ones. So I was in trouble already. He asked me, "Well, are you saying that Buddhism isn't complete? What can you do that Buddha couldn't?" And I said, "I can drive a jeep!" It was a flippant point, but it was a point. I mean, you can't find anything about heart surgery in the Tantras or the Sutras, for example. So we really have to adapt to the world of form, and part of the present-day world of form is that we live in an evolutionary universe. That's part of our own self-knowledge. And we have all this extraordinary information and research gained from Western psychology. Even if we're living in the world of samsara, we understand the world of samsara much better than somebody who's meditating in a cave. So why not combine both of these?
AC: In terms of spiritual development and evolution, I've noticed, and I think it's been proven to be true, that for most human beings our natural tendency is toward homeostasis. In other words, it seems to be the human tendency to want to resist change, to want to create the illusion of security in an insecure universe, and, above all, to avoid at all costs having to face into the awesome and unlimited nature of life itself. But the fact is that in this world we're living in, in this evolving universe, everything is changing all the time. And so in order to be able to respond to this ever-changing world in a way that expresses the freedom of enlightened consciousness in time, in order to be truly at one with the evolving universe, so to speak, one would definitely have to free oneself from the natural inclination toward homeostasis. What that represents for most of us is the ego's blind attachment to false security in this insecure world. Now, in the enlightened state, as I understand it, one is resting in the unborn, unmanifest ground of being. And if one is truly free, if one is truly abiding there and never moving from that ground, then in the world of time and form, in the most ideal case, one would be free from the ego's attachment to that which is false, and the expression of that liberation should be that one was liberated from a static relationship to time. In other words, one might have certain routines, like drinking coffee every day or always preferring rice to noodles, but one's fundamental relationship to time and the changing world would ideally be a consistent expression of dynamic freedom and creativity in the world. So again, to be free in an evolving universe, one would definitely need to free oneself from this natural inclination toward homeostasis.
KW: Well, I think that's right. And I think, again, what you're talking about is the paradox of incarnational nondualitybecause it is a paradox. And that's what's so astonishing. On the one hand, there is a realization that you literally are the infinite unborn in every single moment of existencetwenty-four hours a day, in every realm of the universe. That's unshakable, unmoving, unmistakable, undeniable. And you are this embodied individual, one slice of manifestation looking out on the rest of manifestation. Both of those are true. And in the world of form, which is indeed unfolding, evolving, constantly in dynamic process, how your individuality then bumps up against the rest of your manifestation becomes very interesting. Because that's where this great mysterious process occurs, where on the one hand, you are radically liberated in all moments, and on the other hand, you have a duty, an obligation to push against those parts of the world that don't share your freedom and fullness.
So, as you've been saying, there's almost a kind of divine obsession with tinkering with your own manifestation. That's the paradox. And holding both of those in mind is difficult for anybody who has a type of nondual realization. It's very much as if you create this extraordinarily beautiful model and then you get a hammer and start bashing it because you don't like parts of it. We manifest this extraordinary universe and then we bitch about parts of it and try to fix it. But that's the game. That's the extraordinary paradox of this thing. And I do think that one of the first things you do have to do is get that individual vehicle aligned with the rest of the process of manifestation, and that means a dynamic constant changing. And to the extent that you hold back from that, or you recoil from that, you're not standing in the Self, capital S. You're standing in the ego, afraid of this and afraid of that.
AC: Exactly. Precisely. Truly standing in the Self would be a human life where one was fully embracing the life-process, ultimately, completely.
KW: Certainly on a good day!
AC: Indeed. Being a teacher, it's interesting for me to consistently observe, in my students, that the natural inclination of most individuals, and even more so of a collective, is homeostasis. I mean, it's one thing to get an individual to let go of that which is inhibiting their ability to begin to embrace life with the kind of totality that you were just speaking about. But it's another thing altogether, and infinitely more complex, to get a collective to do the same thing. In fact, it's almost impossible, but I hope not completely.
KW: One of the ways that I would slightly reframe what you're saying is that homeostasis is a strong drive in individuals, but there's also another drive that's equally strong, and that's Eros, or even Agapethe drive that takes you beyond yourself in one way or another. And what I hear you saying is that oftentimes, you get the expansive drive and then it's like, "Okay, I've done enough of that. Whoa! Time to contract. Get away from me!"
AC: Exactly. Time to rest in self-satisfaction.
KW: "Hey, I expanded two inches, get the f away from me now."
AC: Right. "I've done it. I've done it." You know, it's hard for people to understand that the truth is that we will never have done it. It will never happennot if we are really doing it!
KW: Well, the whole spiritual process, as you know, is designed to leave stretch marks all over the ego. That's rather the point. And it's about as pleasant as childbirth too.
AC: Well, I don't think people are interested in ego death these days.
KW: Why, good heavens, no! That would be marginalizing, cruel, nasty, not honoring the plurality of ultimates!
AC: Ken, there's an interesting situation I've become aware of in this emerging exploration of evolution and its relationship to enlightenment. On the one hand, there are a lot of people who are very fired up about evolution these days, and it's great because their passion for evolution is almost always expressed, in one way or another, as an inspired interest in the health and welfare of the evolving world. However, because their interest is not also in the transcendent, in that mystery that abides beyond the world, they often don't seem to be very aware of what I would call the sacred. And then on the other hand, for many of the people in the nondual traditions who are passionate about transcendence, and for whom enlightening one's consciousness is of primary importance, the welfare of the evolving world rarely seems to be a significant matter.
KW: Right. And this is another variation on the theme that we've been developing. Again, it's a simplistic notion, but there is samsara, there is nirvana, and there is their nonduality. And sometimes, ironically, people who have, shall we say, a keen, accurate understanding of samsara, and are nobly motivated within samsara, can do better for the world than those who are merely looking at nirvana, even though, in some sense, that might be a higher state. And it's very strange to see people who aren't in touch with the sacred doing really good work in the world, and to see people who profess to be in touch with the sacred basically ignoring, denouncing, or renouncing the world, and thereby increasing the suffering in the world.
AC: What a crazy world! You know, it's hard to know where we're all finally headed, but when some of the traditions do talk about the highest stages of human evolution, they often see it as involving some kind of absolute transcendence of and control over the physical form. Some call it the attainment of "the light body." The yogic, Tibetan, and Christian traditions all have variations on this concept. Do you believe that it's actually possible, as some believe, through spiritual practice, to attain what's called the "body of light," and through that attainment have such absolute control over the physical realm that one would literally be able to control one's very cells?
KW: Well, I think, as is usually the case with these issues, that there's a grain or several grains of truth in it. And certain fantasies, wishes, hopes, fears, that inevitably get hung on these things. On the one hand, there are certain positive things that are behind the notion of a light body. And you sort of need a complicated esoteric psychology and ontology to go into it. The simplest way to approach it is to say that as the dharmakaya, or emptiness, infuses the rupakaya, or form, with ecstatic, blissful release, that form itself tends to take on a transparent or luminous quality. And this is another variation on the whole idea of nondualitythat basically things that were thought to be "spiritual" and in some other realm, "up there," can in fact be present in this concrete body, and transfigure it. There's a lot of truth to that in many ways, and I think we have to honor that truth. On the other hand, this notion is made-to-order for egoic fantasies of omnipotence. And yogic traditions are not immune to this. I mean part of yoga, indeed, was what you would call a "higher yoga," the realization of the transcendental selfjust as in the martial arts, the highest levels were often infused with a Zen understanding of nonaction, spontaneity, and no-mindedness in the midst of fighting. But a large part of the yogic tradition, the lower part, so to speak, was basically egoic fear and control over natural processes. So the idea there is that if you are totally enlightened, you can totally control samsara. And that doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
AC: You know, when I used to teach in Bodhgaya, India, I met many Tibetans, and, almost without exception, they were convinced that if someone was fully enlightened, not only were they omnipotent and omniscient, but they were also incapable of suffering on any level, including the physical.
KW: There's a strange kind of mixture between the old ideals of the merely ascending path of nirvikalpa or nirvana and the tantric ideals of the nondual. The classic drive in both the Patanjali Sutras and the Theravadan tradition really is to get into that unmanifest cessation. And in that state you can feel no pain. There literally is no pain. Again, it's very similar to the state of deep, dreamless sleep that people are plunged into each night. There's no pain, there's no ego, there's no suffering, and so on. That's very similar to the nirvanic state. And if you can do that consciously, you can do just what some of the monks in Viet Nam didyou can pour gasoline on yourself, set yourself on fire, and not blink once. That's nirvikalpa; it's not nondual. The unfortunate part about nondual realization is that you don't become less sensitive to suffering, but more. Because you cannot escape into nirvikalpa. You are ensconced as the witness under all conditions, and therefore you notice everything arising moment to moment. And that means pain and suffering and hurt, and so on. And, if anything, you can feel it more intensely because there are no filters. There's no egoic protection. There's no way to say, "Okay, time off. Where's the morphine?" So that part is paradoxical as well because the pain arises in a sea of ecstasy, but the pain doesn't go away. So the notion of full enlightenment meaning you can egoically boss your cells around doesn't quite work, I think!
AC: You know, in Sri Aurobindo's tradition of Integral Yoga, which definitely claims to integrate enlightenment and evolution in ways that few nondual paths had previously, they seem to be speaking quite a lot about that kind of thing. They are literally talking about the "enlightenment of the cells" as being the highest expression of spiritual evolution.
KW: I know that. The real "descent of the supermind" is supposed to be a transfiguration into a bodily being of light. Frankly, I think that's a preliminary vision of the stage of incarnational nonduality that is just emerging, and I think a hundred years from now, or a thousand years from now, it will have a completely different form. You know, we might be existing inside fiber optics, our entire consciousness luminous digital bits scattered through all eternity. We don't know what it's going to look like. I think that was just one enlightened vision of what a rupakaya transformed by and infused by dharmakaya would look like. But that's just one possibility, and I think we're going to have a much better understanding as the decades and centuries unfold. I'm not sure it's going to be exactly like Sri Aurobindo thought, but it might be. I'm just saying it's going to be interesting to see what actually unfolds in the world of form.