Cohen embraces his reputation as an "uncompromising" teacher, and says that former students who criticize his approach (such as his own mother, Luna Tarlo, who wrote "Mother of God" about her experience as a disciple) are people who'd found themselves, under his tutelage, "in deeper water than they were prepared for." Others, including Ken Wilber -- who (fondly) referred to Cohen as a "rude boy of enlightenment -- praise his work.
Cohen offers teachings on "evolutionary enlightenment" at talks and spiritual retreats around the world. He spoke with Beliefnet recently about his work, what he believes is wrong with New Age spirituality, and whether he thinks one needs to be intelligent in order to reach enlightenment.
For those who aren't familiar with your work, how would you describe yourself?
I'm a spiritual teacher, first and foremost. I teach what I call "evolutionary enlightenment."
Traditionally, in the pre-modern or ancient notion of enlightenment, the spiritual experience or revelation called enlightenment was considered to be the end of the path. Someone who was supposedly an enlightened human being was no longer developing. They had reached some kind of final end point.
I'm saying that kind of awakening really is the beginning of awakening to the fact that we're part of a developmental process. We're part of the evolutionary process where human beings, I believe, ultimately, will function at the level of consciousness and recognize that we are that very process that started 14 billion years ago with the Big Bang. That we are that very evolutionary process that has the capacity to become conscious of itself.
The traditional notion of enlightenment was the attainment of a state of consciousness that freed us from the world, it freed us from the time process. In the traditional notion of enlightenment one was trying to experience nirvana or achieve a nirvanic state or enter into a nirvanic realm which would free one from the experience of embodiment. It would free from one from being embedded in the world process.
Well, now. that sounds pretty good!
Well, it all depends how you look at it. I mean, if you feel that life is hell, that life is suffering, that life is misery, then, yes. I guess then it would be the highest pleasure and the highest release would be to escape from the world process. But if that's the way we're looking at it, that's obviously based on a fundamental conviction that life is not a good thing, that there's something fundamentally wrong.
So, with "evolutionary enlightenment" you remain fully engaged in the world?
Well, it's based on the discovery and the recognition that who we are at the level of consciousness is not separate from the same energy and intelligence that initiated this whole process 14 billion years ago. Human beings have this capacity to begin to discover that who we are at the deepest level is not separate from the energy and the intelligence that initiated the whole process.
Would you assign any word to that intelligence? Would you call it God?
Absolutely, of course. In other words, who is it that could have created the universe? The only name that comes to mind is God. I can't imagine anybody else would have had the audacity or the courage to do such a crazy thing. And when a human being begins to become aware at the level of consciousness that that's what we are, we are that process becoming aware of itself.
Okay. So we're sort of-
God becoming aware of himself or herself, which is quite a leap.
So we all have this divine potential inside of us that we can tap into?
Well, divine potential is one way to look at it, and the answer is definitely yes. The degree to which we identify with the ego, with the separate identity, with our personal history and separate identity related to that, it becomes difficult to perceive and to understand these things. But when we are able to step beyond a compulsive identification with ego, with the personality and with our historical identity, we can begin to glimpse and directly experience ourself as what I call in my own teaching work "the authentic self."