Andrew Cohen & Ken Wilber in dialogue
Integral Post-Metaphysics and the Myth of the Given
Andrew Cohen: So today we’re going to speak about your wonderful new masterpiece Integral Spirituality, which I’ve just finished reading. You open the book with the assertion that the metaphysics of the great spiritual traditions have been “trashed” not only by the usual suspects—the modern scientific materialists—but even more so by the postmodern revolution, because of the traditions’ inability to stand up to the challenge presented by the insights of postmodernity’s great philosophers. And as you boldly put it, “[T]here has as yet arisen nothing compelling to take their place.” This is the fundamental theme of the book—explaining, in the most illuminating way, why the traditions have consistently failed to stand up to a postmodern critique and simultaneously re-envisioning religion and spirituality in such a way as to avoid the pitfalls of outdated metaphysics. This, of course, has been a central topic of most of our discussions over the past few years, but reading Integral Spirituality has had an enormous impact on me, and as a result I have seen much more deeply into the nature of our spiritual predicament.
Ken Wilber: Yes. I think it is the great catastrophe of the modern and postmodern world that spirituality, higher spirituality, was killed, as you mentioned, not just by nasty science and the Newtonian/Cartesian paradigm but by the humanities themselves. All of mystical spirituality got thrown out by the humanities because it was caught in outdated metaphysical systems. And most importantly, because mystical spirituality was monological—it didn’t understand what postmodernists call “the myth of the given.”
Cohen: I found your explanation of the myth of the given extremely powerful and clarifying. Maybe we could begin our discussion today by speaking about what it is.
Wilber: The myth of the given is one of the book’s primary topics. It is the belief that the world as it appears in my consciousness, as it is given to me, is somehow fundamentally real, foundationally real, and that therefore I can base my worldview upon whatever presents itself to my consciousness. For example, I might see a rock in front of me; I take that as real. I have an experience of anger; I take that as real. But the whole point is that what our awareness delivers to us is set in cultural contexts and many other kinds of contexts that cause an interpretation and a construction of our perceptions before they even reach our awareness. So what we call real or what we think of as given is actually constructed—it’s part of a worldview.
Cohen: The fact that our world is more constructed by us than existing as an objectively real static entity is an ever-new revelation. It’s the most challenging insight: that there is very little that is actually given and that the way we perceive everything is a creative and co-creative process. As you have made so clear in Integral Spirituality, these deep perceptual structures are created intersubjectively in consciousness, slowly, over thousands and thousands of years. It’s both thrilling and frightening when one begins to see how deeply conditioned the interpretive process actually is. It powerfully awakens one to the operating mechanism of one’s own self-system, and in so doing, it can make that process an object in awareness rather than an unconscious subjective experience. Even though I thought I already understood this, my experience was one of having the rug pulled out from under me, over and over again, simply because of the deeply ingrained habit of assuming “givens” that define so much of our experience. I can’t tell you how many times, when I was reading the manuscript, I found myself spinning, feeling simultaneously exhilarated, off-balance, and deeply inspired.
Wilber: I think what’s interesting is that one can have an enlightened awareness and still have a satori by understanding this simple point— that, as Immanuel Kant and so many of the modern to postmodern theorists pointed out, our perceptions are conceptions— what we actually see is constructed to some degree. It’s not just a social construction, a fabrication of our cultural consciousness—that conclusion is too extreme, and sadly, too many postmodernists take it that far. But virtually all serious modern to postmodern philosophers agree that what we see is in part a construction.
When it comes to spiritual experience, we can see this very clearly. If you look, for example, at the spiritual experiences of the Western enlightened saints and sages, you find many accounts of angelic beings, or beings of light or luminosity, but you’ll never find any saint or sage in the West describing an entity that has ten thousand arms. And yet that experience seems to be very common in Tibet. Tibetans might see the goddess Avalokitesvara with ten thousand arms appearing in their dreams all the time and think that is the actual form of God. It is the form of God in Tibet, but not in Germany.
Cohen: Unless the German is a dedicated student of Tibetan Buddhism!
Wilber: Indeed! The point is that these are authentic spiritual experiences, but they are culturally molded. And if somebody’s taking their spiritual experience and saying, “This is universally true,” they’re lying. It’s culturally created and molded, yet it doesn’t look like that to the person having the experience. So they’re caught in one version of the myth of the given. A scientist is caught in the same thing. If a scientific materialist says, “Anything I can see in the sensori-motor world is real because that’s what’s really given,” he or she is also caught. It isn’t given; it’s constructed. Anytime we take a state or a stage or a structure or a level of our own consciousness and assume that what’s given to it is real, we’re caught in the myth of the given.
Cohen: Interestingly enough, the reason I started What Is Enlightenment? magazine, the forum for the very discussion we’re having right now, was because in my early years as a teacher I found myself running into what I now see were many forms of the myth of the given that were creating a tremendous amount of confusion for me personally. I was a young Jewish American teaching Eastern enlightenment in a postmodern Western context, which put me in an unusual and challenging position. So many Westerners, I observed, who had turned to Eastern paths, seemed to be unquestioningly adopting premodern superstitious beliefs and metaphysical baggage that no longer made sense in a postmodern context. Indeed, I found that many of the “absolute truths” asserted by my own Eastern teachers were revealed to be merely interpretations from an earlier time and culture.
Wilber: Exactly. The Tibetan yogi sitting in his cave thinks he is contemplating timeless truths, truths that hold for everybody, whereas a good number of them are actually just Tibetan fashions.
Cohen: This dawning recognition is what compelled me to start asking the question “What is enlightenment?” At first, this began with questioning traditional interpretations of the spiritual experience, and over time it has developed into an ongoing inquiry into what, to use your language, a post-traditional, post-metaphysical interpretation of the deepest spiritual insights would be. What would a religion of the future be based on?
What I have continually found is that while the essence or foundation of enlightened understanding is the profound experience of emptiness, or the ground of being, which we discover in higher states of consciousness, we human beings, it seems, are profoundly terrified of that groundless ground itself. And as much as we may believe that we are actually interested in emptiness or that zero point, more often than not, what gives us a sense of security is clinging to the cultural constructs or metaphysical frameworks that hold that revelation.
Cohen: A good example of this was an experience I had last year when I visited a wonderful Indian swami in Denmark—a beautiful older man, surrounded by many loving and devoted students. We gave a teaching together, and afterward I had a conversation with one of his close disciples about the nature of God. I explained that when seen in an evolutionary context, who and what God is can no longer be taken as fixed—that from a developmental perspective, God is also evolving, just as we are. And it was quite a moment because this man had initially had a very loving, angelic expression, but as I was speaking, I literally saw his face drop—he became frightened, terrified, even a little angry. Abruptly, he got up and walked away. Now this was an individual who had obviously experienced higher states of consciousness and as a result had deep confidence in the absolute dimension of life. Yet he was threatened at the deepest existential level by the suggestion that his fixed notion of God maybe wasn’t a given at all.
Wilber: That’s a very common problem. It stems from the fact that the great metaphysical traditions, East and West—Sufi, Buddhist, neo-Confucian, Christian, Taoist—were all created at a time when the average stage of development was what we call mythic or premodern. And so those metaphysical mythic systems were used to interpret higher states of consciousness. Now we know that those systems are outdated. They were good interpretations at the time, but they’re bad interpretations for those authentic spiritual states in today’s modern and postmodern world.
Cohen: Because we now know so much more about how to interpret our experience.
Wilber: Exactly. The world of form has changed, and the world of modernity and postmodernity has brought crucial breakthroughs in how we understand the world of form. So the challenge for young men and women today is to get involved in the creation of a post-metaphysical spirituality that understands the myth of the given and that understands the demands of modernity and postmodernity.
Cohen: It’s very exciting—and it is indeed a challenge. Because I think it’s one thing to be able to grasp the notion of the myth of the given at a cognitive level, but to be able to come to terms with its profound implications—emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually—requires a significant measure of authentic freedom or enlightened awareness. One just can’t be clinging too tightly to any fundamental notions about the nature or structure of reality.
Your ideas about a post-metaphysical spirituality have had a powerful impact on me and how I conceive what it is that I’m doing as a teacher of enlightenment at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Specifically, I am endlessly compelled by the notion that higher stages or levels do not preexist, that is, they are not “given” but are literally created by brave individuals who actually venture into new, uncharted territory, laying down “Kosmic grooves” that others follow, which eventually become actual new structures or stages. The fact that the future, even at the most subtle metaphysical levels, literally does not yet exist challenges our most fundamental spiritual/religious notions in every possible way, but if we’re ready for it, it can be the source of enormous inspiration and promise.
Wilber: Absolutely. I agree that moving into this post-metaphysical world of spirituality is the great, great thrilling adventure that we have in front of us.
Cohen: I think potentially what’s the most thrilling for the postmodern self is the discovery that we are literally creating the future, which in a post-metaphysical worldview means we are not separate from the creative principle or God-impulse itself—God is evolving as we evolve.
Wilber: I do believe that’s right.
Cohen: As I told the disciple of the Danish swami, God is not already fully formed, sitting on a cloud waiting for us to maybe catch up with Him (or Her) one day!
Cohen: And this moment itself, assuming that one is leaning into it with all of one’s being, reaching for the future, is potentially the very edge of the possible—with nothing beyond it yet except maybe an inherent tendency to lean in a certain direction.
Wilber: Albert Einstein is said to have performed the following thought experiment when he was contemplating relativity. He asked himself a question: If you were literally riding on the edge of a light beam and you held a mirror in front of you, could you see yourself? And the answer is no. If nothing travels faster than light, light can’t get to the mirror to reflect your reflection, so you would see nothing. That’s another good image for the edge of evolution. There’s nothing in the future to see. We’re creating it as we go out there. And it’s pretty scary to look in the mirror and not see anything—
Cohen: —and completely, ultimately thrilling.
States and Stages
Cohen: In Integral Spirituality, you explain in an incredibly clear way how recognizing the difference between states of consciousness and stages of development helps us to learn how to interpret what it means to be enlightened and what it truly means to consciously evolve—and you define, for what I think is the first time, what you call two different kinds of enlightenment.
Wilber: Yes. I feel that the relationship between states and stages is perhaps the single most important key to understanding the nature of our spiritual experiences. Let me briefly lay out the basic ideas. We’ve just been discussing the idea that we construct or co-create the worlds that we view, that structures of consciousness are involved in the creation of the realities they perceive. So what this means is that there are different worldviews—human beings can exist at different levels of consciousness, and there are actually different worlds that come into being at those levels or structures of consciousness. And those structures unfold in stages; they’re permanent developmental milestones through which all individuals and cultures pass. We have different terms for them: tribal, traditional, modern, postmodern, integral; or archaic, magic, mythic, rational, pluralistic, integral; and there are higher stages such as super-integral, or what we call third-tier stages.
Now these stages, which we also call structures or levels, show up in all human beings, so we have to take them into account. One of the real problems is that you can have a spiritual experience—a profound taste of emptiness, or pure nonduality, or absolute oneness, or radiant, luminous absolute bliss/love—and when you come out of that experience or even while you’re in it, you’ll interpret it according to the level or stage you’re at. The evidence for this is now just overwhelming.
So understanding stages is the first piece of the puzzle. The second piece is states of consciousness. States of consciousness generally tend to come and go; they are temporary. The natural/meditative ones are waking (gross), dreaming (subtle), deep sleep (causal), witnessing, and nondual. And then there are non-ordinary states, such as drunken states and stoned states. And you can have any of these state experiences at virtually any level or stage you’re at. You can be at any level and have a waking, dreaming, or deep sleep state. You can be at any level and experience a meditative state. You can be at any level and actually go through Zen training. What’s so astonishing is that a Nazi can complete Zen training. That’s the point—states can be experienced at any stage you’re at.
When we understand the difference between states and stages, we can understand that there are two different types of enlightenment. One is enlightenment as being one with—which means transcending and including—all of the stages that are in existence at any time in history. We can call that “vertical enlightenment.” So right now, that would mean being at an integral or super-integral stage, somewhere between the turquoise and indigo altitudes in the color scheme I use. You can’t have vertical enlightenment nowadays if you’re at a mythic level of development, or a rational level or a pluralistic level, because you can’t say you’re one with everything in the universe if there are two or three or four levels or structures that are simply over your head.
So we have vertical enlightenment, which is being one with all of the stages available, and then we have horizontal enlightenment, which is being one with all of the states that are available. Once again, you can awaken to those states at virtually any stage or structure you’re at. And you’ll interpret those states through that stage, as is shown in what we call the Wilber-Combs Lattice.
Now one problem is that, as you were saying earlier, particularly if you study with Eastern teachers, they often have profound state experiences—they’ve tasted emptiness, they’ve tasted the timeless ground of being—but when they come out of those states, what structure do they interpret them through? Generally, the traditional/mythic/blue meme/amber altitude. That’s a very fixed structure, so they interpret reality as absolutely unchanging. It doesn’t evolve; it doesn’t unfold. There is no development in this worldview, and that indeed is one of the problems with it. Their myth of the given has locked them into a low level of structural development.
Cohen: I noticed this problem years ago when I used to go to Katmandu every year after my retreats in India and visit the Tibetan lamas. I was very curious about some of the great Dzogchen teachers, especially one revered and holy master who was considered to be a living Buddha because, unlike many of his contemporaries, he was said to have become enlightened in this life and was not a tulku. He wasn’t, as they say, “born enlightened,” so it gave him a different kind of authenticity—
Wilber: You mean, he earned it!
Cohen: [Laughs] Yes. And he was tough, irreverent, passionate, fearless—a very impressive and powerful man. I visited him many times. I asked him at one point, “Rinpoche, what’s the difference between someone who is serious about awakening and someone who is not?” And he said, “That’s easy. The people who are serious are all Mahayana Buddhists, and the people who are not are all Hinayana Buddhists.” And he wasn’t kidding. I was backpedaling in my mind, wondering how this extraordinary man could be as enlightened and as fiercely independent as he appeared to be and simultaneously be holding on to such foolish ethnocentric notions. Then, over time, as I became more familiar with the whole medieval structure of Tibetan Buddhism, I saw how in so many ways their relationship to life, to family, to practice, and to the world was surprisingly fixed, rigid, and unchanging. They were unparalleled in their elegant and comprehensive teaching of nonduality, yet their experience of enlightenment was apparently not dislodging some deeply embedded and very primitive tribal notions, nor did it seem to be informing, in any dramatic way, their relationship to the changing world they were living in.
Wilber: Classic mythic structure. What the Tibetans really have got extraordinarily well is what we call horizontal enlightenment—the capacity to completely transcend the world of form and then to come back and embrace all of form as the manifestation of oneness with emptiness that is itself luminosity moment to moment. That’s fantastic. But guess what? The world of form evolves. There are levels to the world of form, and you have to develop through those levels. You have to experience and grow through all of those structures. And these Tibetan sages and siddhas, as enlightened as they can be in terms of states—and they can be one hundred percent horizontally enlightened!—can be at very low levels of structural development. That’s the problem. So we’re trying to say, you have to have both. Of course, some teachers have both, which is rare, but the culture itself is solid amber.
Cohen: But an important question is: Through those traditional vehicles, is it actually possible to embrace the world of form that is evolving right now, way beyond the levels or structures of development from which those traditions originated?
Wilber: Not just using those methods, obviously. As I said, you can go through Zen training and still remain at a mythic/traditional/blue/amber altitude. And completely get transmission. That’s the astonishing thing about it. I asked Genpo Roshi, “What structure were the greatest Zen masters that you knew in Japan?” He replied, “They were amber/blue meme, all of them.” That’s pretty amazing. What happens is that whatever structure you’re coming from when you start these practices, for a very long time, the practice is simply going to leave that structure alone. You’ll have wonderful state experiences, and you’ll continue to interpret them through the structure at which you started.
And it’s a real problem because, as I point out in the book, you can’t see these structures by introspecting. You can look within the mind all you want, you can sit on a meditation cushion for twenty years, and you’ll never see anything that says, “This is an archaic thought, this is a magic thought, this is a mythic thought, and so on.” It won’t happen. You have to use other tools of investigation to see these structures because they’re just not given.
Cohen: Yes. And so as we move further into the twenty-first century, as we consciously endeavor to actually create new, higher stages, the context in which we interpret our spiritual experiences and higher states becomes even more important than ever. I can’t tell you how challenging it has been for me to get many of my own students to reach beyond their deeply embedded cultural conditioning, despite countless experiences of higher states of consciousness and a deep intellectual grasp of what a Kosmocentric perspective is. I have found out the hard way that unless we all are willing to make the heroic effort to interpret our spiritual experiences from a higher level of development than the one that is probably our center of gravity right now, nothing is going to happen. We are just not going to evolve. Unknowingly, we will render Eros, or what I call the evolutionary impulse, powerless.
Wilber: That’s true. Especially at the pluralistic/postmodern/green altitude, as we’ve discussed extensively. Researchers agree that around twenty-five percent of the U.S. population—the cultural creatives—are at this altitude. They are having wonderful state experiences, and they are interpreting Ati and Vajrayana Buddhism and Vedanta according to this green pluralistic stage. And the result can be very, very messy—that’s how we get what I call Boomeritis Buddhism.
Cohen: I’d call it Boomeritis enlightenment! That’s what happens when, as you’re saying, green altitude boomers or Gen-Xers, and even their Gen-Y kids, taste enlightened consciousness. The meaning and significance of enlightenment itself is interpreted through a pluralistic worldview, which desperately attempts to give equal value to all views and perspectives and in the process destroys hierarchy and the ability to make value distinctions—which are essential in order to move to a higher level. The inevitable result is that the emerging mind of God gets flattened out like a pancake!
Wilber: Boomeritis enlightenment—exactly! And it’s just a complete myth of the given based on a structure that you’re at, which happens to be pluralistic/postmodern/green. And then it seems that your meditative states are basically reinforcing the structure you’re already at. The states are wonderful and we applaud those; they are part of horizontal enlightenment. But the vertical component is not as highly advanced as it could be.
Cohen: It seems that if state experiences don’t, at least to some degree, compel one to begin to move toward higher stages, actually those experiences could even embed one more deeply in the stage that one is already at.
Wilber: Yes. And that depends largely on what your culture is telling you. Indeed, if your culture is green and you’re at green, then meditation—which (if you were using it in an integral way) could be used to help you move to higher structures—is used instead to cement you at the structure you’re at. And that’s what has happened in large part in this country. It’s one of the problems that we have. It could be said of everybody from the late Krishnamurti to Eckhart Tolle, who are doing absolutely fantastic work in terms of states but are interpreting their states according to this green pluralistic structure.
Cohen: Exactly. And then, ironically enough, the higher state experience can end up being an anti-evolutionary episode, the consequences of which could actually inhibit the potential for higher development in the individual.
Wilber: Very much so, which is sad, because I do not believe it is their intent at all.
Cohen: I think this is partly because the state experience of nonduality itself gives one, at a deep existential level, a sense of absolute conviction, which can make one’s fundamental perspective or worldview (in this case, one’s pluralistic ideas) seem to be the Truth—not just a truth or a version of truth, but the truth. Whereas if that perspective or worldview wasn’t being informed by this very powerful experience of nonduality and all the absolute confidence that comes with it, one would—
Wilber: —have doubt about it.
Cohen: One would have at least some doubt about it; one would be questioning. But often the result of these nondual experiences is a kind of emotional conviction that really inhibits growth in a way that is shockingly profound.
Wilber: Right on the money.
Cohen: And I can say in my own adventures in the world as a teacher, I’ve come up against this problem quite a bit. It’s a kind of fundamentalism—even if it is a green fundamentalism—and I’ve done battle with it for many years. In this kind of absolute conviction, the willingness to consider other possibilities is nowhere to be found. And even worse, I’ve found that individuals are often willing to say things that don’t even make rational sense simply because these ideas conform to the emotional conviction that they experienced in their higher states. For example, when people experience the ground of being or emptiness, when they have a satori, they all too easily conclude, “This world is all an illusion,” or “Nothing matters,” or, even worse (as someone actually said to me during a public lecture in the egalitarian capital of the world, Amsterdam), “There is no obvious moral distinction between Nelson Mandela and Osama Bin Laden”!
Wilber: Charles Manson said, “If all is one, nothing is wrong.” I see this deep confusion all the time. State experiences can make you a fundamentalist at any stage. In the East we face the mythic/traditionalist/blue meme/amber altitude fundamentalism. And then there’s orange fundamentalism, which would be extreme scientific materialism, and also in this country, we face green fundamentalism. And just as you beautifully described, the experience of fundamental absolute reality that you get in emptiness and nondual states is then interpreted in such a way that you think that your structure is absolutely true. And you will not yield. You simply won’t let go.
Cohen: And what exacerbates the problem is that inherent in human nature is the quest for certainty and the sense of security that is its reward. So there is always going to be a clash between the evolving self’s aspiration for certainty and the necessity to relinquish that need in order to be able to keep moving up to higher stages without ever halting one’s vertical development.
Wilber: Yes, definitely. One thing you’ve talked about that I really appreciate in relation to this is your notion of the authentic self—and one of the ways to interpret it is as the self that is comfortable with this discomfort.
Cohen: It thrives on it. The authentic self is the expression of the evolutionary imperative itself, within the human heart and mind. It is a perpetual, unending, and always ecstatic impulse in consciousness that strives only to create the future. But in order for the authentic self to function uninhibitedly, the individual has to be willing to continually let go and embrace ever more of the world of form in every moment. For the individual, emotionally, psychologically, and philosophically, this is what is so ultimately challenging about a truly evolutionary context at the level of consciousness—the relentless demand to continue to let go at these very deep and subtle levels. I think it’s only a rare individual who actually is going to have the courage, the authenticity of interest, the fearlessness, the liberated awareness to be able and willing to continually let go in that way and at the same time have his or her own deepest sense of confidence in the nature of being and in life remain absolutely unthreatened. This is often very difficult to explain to people—that it’s possible to be deeply certain, to have the absolute conviction that is the hallmark of enlightened awareness, togetherwith a profoundly open and vertically aspiring self-sense or evolutionary impulse. At an existential level one can be absolutely convinced and still be vertically reaching, groping, learning, inquiring, and growing eternally.
Wilber: Very much so. That’s an excellent point. When we understand both stages of consciousness and states of consciousness, we get a refined understanding of emptiness as the component of certainty.