Spirituality, New-Age - Spirituality
Integral Spirituality, Evolutionary Enlightenment and the Future of Religion

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critique and simultaneously re-envisioning religion and spirituality in such a way as to avoid the pitfalls of outdated metaphysics.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 All of mystical spirituality got thrown out by the humanities because it was caught in outdated metaphysical systems.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.
Wilber: Right.
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!
Wilber: [Laughs]
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.
Cohen: Right!
Wilber: Because emptiness has to be really empty. And the more we understand stages, the more we understand that some of the things we took to be emptiness were actually just the structure we were identified with.
Cohen: But isn’t the only way we can actually find out these things through engagement, through intersubjective inquiry and dialogue and questioning and self-scrutiny?
Wilber: Always.
Cohen: It’s the only way to ultimately be able to catch ourselves assuming something is empty that within a larger reflective context is revealed to not be empty at all. Indeed, this kind of inquiry almost inevitably reveals that we’re hanging on to all sorts of very subtle concepts that appear to be empty but actually couldn’t be further from it.
Wilber: Without that intersubjective context, you wouldn’t know that you’re caught in a subtle level of the myth of the given. It’s something we all get caught in. People have the impulse to let go when they experience emptiness, or the open nondual ground, but they don’t always carry that radical inquiry forward. That’s why you need a group of peers, a group of people who are pushing ahead of you, along with you. And every time someone seems to push further than you, you need to regard them as a teacher and then try to get your understanding up to that altitude—and it’s a constant process because, once again, the world of form is evolving. The world of form may simply be lila, or the divine play, but each new game just happens to transcend and include the previous game. So there was an archaic game, then a magic game, then a mythic game, then a rational game, then a pluralistic game. And now God’s playing a new game, an integral game, and moving into a super-integral game.
So we’re asking in a sense for a double inquiry always, self-critical self-inquiry. What we’re doing is inviting people to understand, first: Can you determine what stage you’re at, what structure you’re at, what level of consciousness you’re at? And second: What are your state attainments? Do you have an understanding of formlessness? Do you have an understanding of nonduality, the ground of all being? Do you have an understanding that emptiness is one with form and that form is evolving? Simply seeing that will help you to objectify and help move you to higher levels. So judging one’s level or altitude is not a negative judgment. It’s a means of self-understanding and self-growth.
But we are also raising an alarm. Somebody who has an experience of an enlightened state of nonduality can point to the world at large and say, “Ah, you do not have this state of enlightenment; you are caught in an illusion,” and they would be right, because they’re seeing a deeper state than the average person is seeing, and therefore they’re critical of the average person. Well, in the same way, we can be critical of them if they are using that enlightenment but don’t have an understanding of these structures. We can say, “You’re caught in lower structures, and you’re interpreting your reality through those structures. So you are caught in an illusion.” Even somebody who has an enlightenment experience can still be preaching the myth of the given. And preaching myths is not generally thought to be a good way to teach enlightenment. But understanding this allows both enlightenments to emerge—vertical and horizontal, a gauge of one’s Fullness and one’s Freedom.
The Conveyor Belt
Cohen: One of the many things that deeply struck me about the book was the whole notion of what you call the “conveyor belt.”
Wilber: Let me briefly explain what I mean by the conveyor belt. I’ll start with a couple of statistics, using the general stages of consciousness we’ve talked about. And I’ll use the terms egocentric, ethnocentric, worldcentric, and Kosmocentric, which are general names for some of these developmental stages in a broad sweep.
If we look worldwide, about seventy percent of the world’s population is at an ethnocentric level of development or lower. That is to say, seventy percent of the world’s population is Nazis! And I say that with slight facetiousness but with all due seriousness. So if you ask, who owns the ideas of those ethnocentric beliefs? It’s the world’s religions. Ethnocentric corresponds to mythic in Jean Gebser’s terms. And the world’s great religions, because they began about two or three thousand years ago, are still the repositories of the magic and mythic elements of humanity. So that means they believe that Moses really did part the Red Sea, Lao Tsu really was nine hundred years old when he was born, and Jesus really was born of a biological virgin. These are all mythic elements, and religion is the only discipline that actually has grown men and women embracing magic and mythic elements.
Now that’s fine, but the problem is that in mythic/ethnocentric/blue meme/amber altitude religion, you also believe that your savior or your God is the only possible God. “There is one God; his name is Allah,” and so on. And if someone doesn’t believe in that God or his representative, then they’re basically cannon fodder. They’re an infidel, and you can kill an infidel. Not only is it not a sin—
Cohen: No, you go to heaven.
Wilber: It’s a career promotion! That’s the problem, whether it’s Allah or Buddha or anyone else. I mean, Aum Shinrikyo, the Buddhist terrorist group, put sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system. So this tendency hits any religious believer at the mythic stage of development.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that while the mythic or amber altitude parts of the world are owned by the world’s religions, as soon as you get to rational or orange altitude, science owns that part of the world. And there’s this huge gaping conflict between amber and orange, between mythic and rational, which creates what I call a pressure cooker lid around the world. It’s a staggering problem. If you look at terrorism, for example, every one of the major religiously inspired terrorist acts of the last thirty or forty years, virtually without exception, came from mythic/ethnocentric/blue meme/amber altitude beliefs. And they all basically say the same thing: “The rational/modern/orange altitude world won’t make room for my religion.” And so they try to blow it up.
Now, not all forms of religion are mythic or ethnocentric. There are rational forms of religion and there are pluralistic forms of religion and so on. For example, there are rational or worldcentric forms of Christianity that were begun by Vatican II, which said “Not only Christianity has the way to salvation. Other religions might allow salvation.” That’s the movement from ethnocentric Christianity to worldcentric Christianity. You can still believe in Christ as a personal savior, as somebody who had a deep realization and whose consciousness you want to emulate, somebody you want to have as a living part of your life. That’s absolutely legitimate and fine.
And if the religious leaders were there to explain this, to say to the believers, “Look, it’s fine that you have this fervent belief in Jesus, or Jehovah, or Allah, or the Goddess, or Mary, or whoever you think is the only savior, but the Holy Ghost speaks in many different ways and sometimes appears in different forms to other people and they can find salvation too,”—even saying something like that, from an orange or worldcentric level, is going to defuse the hatred that the true believer has for every other human being on the face of the planet. And it’s up to religion and the leaders in religion to make that understood.
So the single greatest problem in the world today is that seventy percent of the population is trapped at ethnocentric or lower by the conflict between religion and modernity. Science and modernity sit on top of these large portions of the world’s traditional religions. And there’s this huge conflict that prevents people from taking their faith from amber into orange, or from mythic into rational, or from ethnocentric into worldcentric. So the religious leaders need to start to understand that religion can act as a conveyor belt—because it actually picks people up at archaic, magic, and mythic, it can help move them into rational, pluralistic, integral, and higher. Remember, everybody is still born at square one and has to develop through these great levels or waves of consciousness. There will always be people who believe in magic and mythic, and that’s okay. But religion can help act as a conveyor belt, moving them into the higher structures, and only religion can do that. So the conveyor belt is an idea for religion and its role in the modern and postmodern world that religion has not yet thought of, but I think it would be radical and revolutionary if it would get with the picture.
Cohen: Well, for that to happen though, the religious leaders themselves would have to evolve to at least rational and pluralistic levels, if not integral. They would have to have at least a worldcentric perspective in order to appreciate how radically and completely necessary this step was—so that this lid could be taken off seventy percent of the world’s population and they could move into the modern and postmodern world. Then we could really start to become one world instead of the old world versus the new world, the premodern world fighting the modern and postmodern world.
Wilber: That’s correct. They would have to reach at least the orange altitude—
Cohen: —to begin to appreciate why these higher interpretations of their own traditions would be essential, not only for world peace but for the very survival of our species.
Wilber: I don’t see any other way. What has to happen, in a sense, is a “Vatican II” move for all the world’s religions, an attempt to get up to that orange altitude. And of course, they can do it within their traditions. There are abundant kosher reasons in every major religion to move to at least a worldcentric understanding. But until that happens, you’re right. It’s “Nazis rule.” And good luck . . . So the conveyor belt really has to work around the world, to move masses of people from amber to orange, from mythic to rational. And in our circles, of course, the task is to move people from green into teal and turquoise, from pluralistic into integral.
Cohen: So the task at hand in our circles is to take this highly evolved, individuated self-sense that we have, with its extraordinary capacity for objectivity and self-reflexivity, and somehow free it from its own narcissistic self-adoration so that it can embrace a larger hierarchical or, as you would say, holarchical framework in an evolutionary and developmental context.
When I was visiting Israel a few months ago, I was thinking deeply about all this. It occurred to me that as we move up through the stages of development—as we go from amber Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, et cetera, to orange and green and up into second tier and beyond—the evolving self’s locus of identification, as it moves from worldcentric to Kosmocentric, would naturally begin to let go of any identity that was less than universal. It seems that one’s identity would move more and more toward a truly universal human self-sense and simultaneously move away from any notion of self that was less than that, including being a member of any historical tradition, whether it be Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, Islamic, or anything else.
Wilber: Yes. Because then all that’s left to transcend is what the Buddhists call “lineage mind.” It’s “transcend and include.” You can still honor your lineage—that’s “include”—but you also have to transcend it.
Cohen: A Kosmocentric identity, as I understand it, is based upon the direct awakening to the authentic self or the evolutionary impulse, which (as you once pointed out) only begins to emerge somewhere between a worldcentric and Kosmocentric level of development.
Wilber: And there is yet no lineage of that, as you know.
Cohen: That’s the whole point because one is identifying with the creative impulse itself, which is ultimately the Kosmocentric self-sense as it is most authentically experienced. And there is no relative identity for that part of the self. So that would mean, therefore, that as humanity evolves into these higher levels—from orange to pluralistic to second tier and beyond, from worldcentric to a more Kosmocentric perspective—the leading edges would gradually fall away from any kind of lineage identity and become more and more identified with a truly universal self-sense beyond any kind of relative distinctions that had a mythological story. As you were rightly saying, there are higher and deeper and more profound and more inclusive interpretations of the myths that come from the great traditions. What I’m saying, though, is that eventually the myths themselves would be transcended altogether. Or, at least, the need to identify with them.
Wilber: Yes. Transcend and include.
The Shadow
Cohen: One thing we haven’t touched upon yet is “the shadow.” I found this one of the most powerful sections of the book.
Wilber: Thank you. Many people seem to have been deeply impacted by that chapter. The idea of the shadow is basically that there are dynamically repressed, disowned aspects of our own self. And this understanding is largely a contribution of the modern and postmodern West. If you look around the world and list five or six really great ideas that have been contributed by various cultures, this would be on the very short list—it’s one of the great, great discoveries about human nature, certainly alongside the discovery of the enlightened states and so on. And of course we associate it with names like Sigmund Freud, but it really has a long history that goes back several hundred years in the West, and some true giants worked on it. They saw that human beings have psychological anguish and suffering and neuroses and obsessions and fears, and they asked: “So where do these things come from?” Hopefully I’ve added a few insights of my own to this field, but I’m resting on the insights of these great researchers.
Basically, the shadow is what we call the disowned self. And the shadow, like so many aspects of the psyche, has a developmental story. We can just use the chakra system to give a simple example. When the young infant self starts out, it’s identified basically with material realities—the oral stage of development. Its entire self, its sense of I, is identified with the first chakra. Starting around the second year, its identity starts to move toward the second chakra. Its I-ness disidentifies with the first chakra, disidentifies with merely the material realm, and it starts to identify with the emotional/sexual impulses. And so now its sense of I is at the second chakra, which could be equated with magenta impulses (or purple meme impulses). So if you’re at, let’s say, the second chakra and you have certain impulses, for example, sexual impulses or anger, that become threatening—because your parents don’t like it or society doesn’t like it or you yourself just find it overwhelming—what you’ll do is take that angry impulse and push it to the other side of the self-boundary. So now it appears to be not self; it appears to not belong to you. The anger is still arising, but now it’s not your anger, so it must be someone else’s. So you project that anger, and you see it in others and in the environment: “Somebody’s angry; I know it’s not me, so it’s got to be you.” So what happens is that now instead of feeling angry, you feel that everybody is angry at you, and you might start to feel depressed because of that, to feel like the entire world is looking down on you. Now instead of being mad, you’re sad. And so what you have now is a psychological neurosis—you have a symptom, which is a sign of some repressed aspect of yourself that is now in your unconscious. And so the cure is to somehow befriend that anger, lower the repression barrier, and take it back and make it part of your I, because only when it consciously becomes part of your I can you truly let go of it. And then you can move to the third chakra.
Now actually, of course, you’ll move to the third chakra anyway, but the point is that if the self splits off a part of itself and represses it, that part doesn’t develop anymore. It stays at the level at which you split it off because it’s now not part of your I. Consciousness is continuing its developmental march, but if you push something out, then it’s no longer part of the conscious self and it’s not going to develop with you. So you end up with a whole series of subpersonalities or shadow impulses. And all of your little subpersonalities won’t develop—they will stay at the level of development at which you repressed them. So you can have a red subpersonality, an amber subpersonality, an orange subpersonality—wherever in the developmental scale you take part of your I and push it to the other side of the self-boundary, you’ll turn it from first-person I into second-person you or third-person it.
Now if we could just get rid of these impulses like that and they stayed out there, there would be no problem. But the trouble is that they are actually parts of our own self, and every time we push something to the other side of the self-boundary, we diminish our own consciousness; we make ourselves smaller. And that keeps us out of the present moment. Even if we are practicing the “power of Now,” if we’ve got a first-chakra subpersonality that wants to eat now and if we have a second-chakra subpersonality that wants to fuck now, we can’t really stay in the Now! So in addition to working on states and stages, if our consciousness isn’t freed up, we really have to work on our shadow.
Cohen: In order to free up our consciousness, we have to own these repressed parts of ourselves—we have to embrace all of them, we have to bring light into all the dark and hidden corners of our self, we have to claim ownership of the entirety of our I—before we can authentically transcend our ego in the spiritual sense.
Wilber: Exactly. When we repress these impulses, we’re not really transcending them and we’re not even really disidentifying with them; we’re dissociating from them. And this can become a very big problem. So understanding this distinction enables us to tell the difference between two very conflicting instructions we’re generally given by people who are trying to help us—therapists and meditation teachers—about how we should relate to different components of our own experience, for example, anger. Gestalt therapy will tell you to identify with it; Zen will tell you to disidentify with it. So what should you do? If you’re meditating and anger comes up, should you identify with it or disidentify with it? The answer is both, but in the correct sequence.
Cohen: Yes, because meditation and therapy are two very different contexts with very different purposes. When I was a seeker, way back in my twenties, I remember discovering just this dichotomy. I was a dedicated meditator who intuited the difference between the liberating experience of higher states of consciousness and the fact that there were emotional and psychological dimensions of my self that needed a kind of attention that meditation alone was incapable of giving. Unfortunately, a lot of people who were meditating with me didn’t seem to be so aware of this distinction. I remember doing some intensive vipassana retreats and sitting up in the middle of the night having an incredible time meditating, and out of the blue I would hear people letting out bloodcurdling screams or sobbing uncontrollably. And I always felt that this was not the appropriate context for this kind of psychodynamic catharsis. I was very aware that these kinds of developmental issues and neuroses, et cetera, needed to be dealt with in different therapeutic contexts, but I knew that the meditative context was fundamentally about letting go of everything.
Wilber: Yes, the meditative context is all about letting go, but we can only do that if we deal with our dissociated impulses first. What we want to do is take the very best from both worlds without diluting either.
But if I have dissociated anger and come into a vipassana retreat, and if anger arises and all I’m supposed to do is say, “There is anger arising, there is anger arising . . . ,” I’m doing nothing to undercut the repression. I’m doing nothing to reown it. I’m just seeing that there’s anger in the world arising at me, and so I feel fear, “There is fear arising, there is fear arising. . . .” But fear is a false emotion because it is a reaction to my own projected anger.
Cohen: Right.
Wilber: I’m not supposed to get more in touch with fear—that’s not authentic. That’s inauthentic. So by just doing vipassana on a dissociated emotion, you are making it worse.
Cohen: You are making it a lot worse!
Wilber: There’s a big difference between transcendental disidentification and pathological dissociation. And once again, if there’s something that you haven’t owned—it can be power, sex, arrogance, emotivity, any of that—and then you try to let go of it, you make it worse.
Let’s take an example of somebody who has dissociated their fear and they start doing vipassana on it or doing Vedanta, “Who am I? Who am I?” letting go of the fear, letting go, letting go, “I’m not that, I’m not that,” even though that is an inauthentic emotion. And then he or she says, “I feel better when I do that, so I know it’s working.”
Cohen: Of course they feel better—temporarily!
Wilber: Yes. The analogy is, let’s say you get run over by a bus and you are sitting in the street looking at your broken leg. You can say, “I’m not that, I’m not that, I’m not that,” and you will feel better. You can actually get in a higher state of consciousness with a broken leg and you will feel better, and that’s fine. But I’m saying that you need to fix the broken leg first and then also do “I’m not that, I’m not that,” and you’ve got the best of both worlds. The shadow is the broken leg, so we’ll tell you how to fix that. We’re not saying you can’t do the other, but fix the broken leg first and then also do vipassana or Vedanta. The leg is your vehicle of bodhisattvahood; it’s your vehicle of transmitting truth. If you are enlightened and you are sitting there with a broken leg and can’t walk anywhere, what good is it? You can’t teach if you’ve got a broken leg! But a lot of people do. They have awakened to these higher states of consciousness, but they have broken legs. So what we want to do is basically heal the vehicles through which we will manifest our enlightened awareness.
Cohen: Yes, I wholeheartedly agree. And to be honest, I’ve found that in the end, truly owning one’s shadow, or being willing to face oneself unconditionally, radically and ongoingly, seems to be not only more challenging but ultimately more significant in the transformative process than assuming a meditative posture. I work with this shadow dimension in the context of evolutionary enlightenment, which is in some ways different from working with the shadow in a therapeutic context. In this context, the shadow is seen as one manifestation of ego, and the reason that it is so essential to heroically endeavor to take responsibility for all of it is so that our actions will be able to manifest a clear expression of a truly enlightened intention in this world. I’m talking about a repeated demonstration of spontaneous integration and wholeness of intention and action, week to week, month to month, year to year, in such a way that we can unequivocally say: “This individual is awake.” The whole point is that unless the individual is willing to own their own shadow, they are going to continue acting out of all those repressed impulses and continue creating karma, which means acting out of ignorance and unconsciousness in ways that cause suffering to others. And the whole definition of enlightenment is that, at least ideally, we are supposed to become so conscious, so awake, that we don’t create karma anymore. Until an individual can at least own a significant portion of their own shadow, they can’t possibly take responsibility for themselves and become a truly autonomous, enlightened, integrated self who can really take on the evolutionary process.
Wilber: That’s for sure!
Cohen: Honestly, when you look at the kind of spiritual energy and passion that an individual would need to own all these different parts of the self, to truly endeavor to take responsibility for them and then to transcend them—this is a rare soul. In terms of the real love for God necessary to truly become whole, it has to be said that it’s a rare individual who cares that much, who would be willing to do that. In the end I really believe that in fact it is only those who awaken to a larger purpose, a purpose bigger than their own wholeness, salvation, or even enlightenment, who will actually find the energy and the resources to begin to own these darker and more unconscious parts of themselves and really change in ways that make all the difference in the world.
Wilber: Rare indeed. Thank you, my friend.

Integral Spirituality, Evolutionary Enlightenment and the Future of Religion (Spirituality, New-Age - Spirituality)    -    Author : OLIVIER - France

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Zen-Blogs >> Spirituality, New-Age >> Blog #18