In his latest book, Andrew Cohen discusses how enlightenment is also part of the evolutionary process.
Beliefnet: “Consciousness is evolving as you.” What does that mean?
Andrew Cohen: Evolution means we’re part of the process that’s going somewhere. Cosmic evolution gave rise to biological evolution, [which] eventually gave rise to cultural evolution. The evolution of culture is the evolution of consciousness. The cosmic evolution eventually created the conditions that made it possible for life to emerge. From life and for life after trillions of years eventually we have the beginning of human culture. The capacity for consciousness emerged simultaneously with life. Then finally with the emergence of human beings and the beginning of human culture then we can really see that all of human history is really the documentation and history of how human consciousness has evolved and developed. So in this way of looking at evolution, I see consciousness as an emergent property within the evolutionary process as a whole. The way many people are beginning to think about it is the recognition that the capacity for consciousness, complex thinking and self reflective awareness [puts us at] the very leading edge of a process that had a beginning in time almost 14 billion years ago.
Beliefnet: When you say “enlightenment”, people look at it from a Buddhist standpoint. But this is not restricted to Buddhism, correct?
Cohen: This includes the basic and most fundamental insights of Buddhism, but we’re adding the new big idea, which is evolution. As I said, evolution means a part of a process that’s going somewhere. The Buddha believed that time moved in cycles or in circles. He wasn’t aware that time had a beginning and that time is part of a linear creative process. So the idea in traditional Buddhism is to get off the endless wheel of becoming. You're going to go through the same process over and over again until you wake up. I don’t want to be on a merry-go-round for eternity. I want to be liberated, and therefore the idea was to get off the endless wheel of becoming to experience the eternity of freedom of nirvana. Nirvana is the state of consciousness where there’s no time, no space and nothing ever happens. It’s a place where history does not exist. So in the traditional notion of Buddhism, they get off the wheel of becoming, but what science has taught us is that we’re actually part of a process that’s going somewhere, that had a beginning in time. The process is evolving and developing in complexity and giving rise to greater and greater capacities. The universe has the capacity to know itself, to awaken to itself, to realize itself through us. When you realize that we’re part of a developmental process that’s going somewhere and the leading edge of this process is the human capacity for awareness, the idea of wanting to get off the wheel of becoming doesn’t make sense. We realize that the creative process actually needs us. It needs our complex minds and our highly evolved capacity for empathy, for care, in order to take the next step in this human incarnation.
Beliefnet: Does meditation help people to be more conscious?
Cohen: Meditation helps enormously in becoming a more conscious person, because the position of meditation is the position of assuming no relationship to the content of consciousness, no relationship to the conditioned mind. So it enables us to for periods of time to stand apart from our biologically conditioned responses and desires and our culturally conditioned fears. In this standing apart from it makes it possible for us to experience the deepest dimension of ourselves, which is always free from anything that’s ever happened in time. It’s in the setting that we experience a relief and a release from our conditioned relationship to life. It’s awakening to a prior or fundamental freedom.
Beliefnet: How does evolution help people on their spiritual path, no matter what path that is?
Cohen: Awakening to evolution enables individuals from all faiths and all traditions to realize that we are all the products of a cosmic process that’s going somewhere. We notice that inherent in that is an aspiration to come to terms with what it means to be alive. So then we begin to see that all the great religious traditions have been different in manifestation, because of a singular impulse in consciousness to come to terms with the human experience, to understand who I really am, why am I here, what this process is that I'm a part of. So an evolutionary orientation helps us to understand that the religious impulse seems to be inherent in the evolutionary process when it begins to become conscious of itself. From that point of view, evolution enables us to see the universal nature of the religious impulse.