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."
The authentic self is the very part of us that feels compelled to evolve at the level of consciousness itself. It's the spiritual impulse. At a certain point in many individuals' lives people find themselves compelled to seek for some kind of depth within themselves, within life itself. Something within themselves compels them to search and to seek for greater depth and greater understanding. So that mysterious impulse we can call an evolutionary impulse.
The authentic self is the expression and the manifestation at the level of consciousness of that initial creative impulse. The creative impulse was what the Big Bang is. We experience this impulse at the gross physical level as sexual desire, as a procreative impulse; but at the highest level, at the level of consciousness, we experience it as the urge to evolve at the level of consciousness itself. We want to evolve, we want to become more conscious, we want to awaken.
Do you consider yourself enlightened?
Do I consider myself. Well, that's a trick question. If I say I'm enlightened it's not politically correct. And then if I say I'm not, then... why should anyone listen to me speak about it? So what I like to do is basically let everybody make up their own minds [laughs]. Ever since I started teaching I realized that saying I was enlightened didn't serve me and saying I wasn't didn't either. So, I thought it was better maybe just to let everyone else make up their own mind.
What do you consider your spiritual credentials, so to speak?
Hmm. My spiritual credentials. That's an interesting question. I don't have a degree from the enlightenment university [laughs].
You know, in some of the Theravadan Buddhist schools from Burma you can go to some monasteries and if you have certain kinds of experiences they'll literally will give you a diploma. You can put it up on the wall. No, it's true. It's kind of funny, but anyway...
It's a hard thing to answer. I mean, there's a whole personal journey behind what it is that I'm doing, but I don't know if we really have the time to go into it. I find it's not the most important thing anyway.
Would you call yourself a guru?
Well, I have been accused of such crimes. Definitely, yes.
I don't have a problem with that word, because guru means dispeller of darkness, bringer of light. The truth is, I have to admit, even though it's politically very incorrect to say so, I do serve that function in the lives of many people.
So, guilty as charged?
Guilty as charged. But you're not allowed to say things like that in postmodern secular America. Because if you do, you're [considered] either crazy or a charlatan or both [laughs]. Because what happened in the seventies and the eighties a lot of gurus came over from the East from different traditions and people would say, "Well, they're enlightened which means they're perfect." So then we found that many of them seemed to have difficulties around some basic human instincts [laughs]; that they didn't seem to be able to handle living in the West. And then everybody said, "Oh well, I guess they're not enlightened." And then, that was the end of enlightenment.
You distance yourself from the "New Age" label...
How do you see your message being different from the message of other thinkers who consider themselves New Age?
The New Age thing tends to gloss over the complexity of the human experience in such a way that often the goal seems to be to find a way to help us to feel better about the way things are instead of helping us to wake up and realize, Well, the future really depends on us, and things can change in miraculous and extraordinary ways.
Ken Wilber calls you a "rude boy of enlightenment" in the introduction to your book, "Living Enlightenment." What does he mean by that?
I've been teaching now for about 19 years and so I have a fair amount of experience under my belt. I've been doing it full time for 19 years and I found that actually most people who say that they're interested in things like enlightenment or some shape and form of that, when push comes to shove aren't really interested. Most people want to find a ways to feel better, to experience relief. Because, you know, life is tough.
The "rude boy" [moniker] is well, because I tell the truth. And because from the very beginning I've been trying to wake people up versus trying to make people feel better. And I've always been a very uncompromising fellow and I don't really know why that is. Something very deep has been calling me to be very authentic, and I also call other people to be very authentic. And when one does that, the part of us that doesn't want to meet authenticity and transparency often doesn't appreciate it.
Do you think that your message is going to a sort of narrow audience? Because it seems most people do just want to feel better. Who are you speaking to?
In the first 10 or 15 years of my teaching, a lot of the "spiritual crowd" was coming to see me which are a lot of the aging boomers. That's the East meets West kind of spiritual crowd, individuals who in one way or another really were looking for a way to feel better.
What I've discovered in my work in the last 7 or 8 years, more and more, is people who are realize that in order to be able to embrace the future we have to evolve as individuals at the level of consciousness. Individuals who are looking to embrace a deeper level of responsibility and authenticity in their lives, those are the kind of people that are beginning to come to me now. Now people are a lot more serious about what it means to be alive.
A lot of the spiritual crowd-I think it's a phenomenon that is getting outdated. It's something that started in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, and I think something new is beginning to happen that's a lot more interesting and that has a lot more to do with the whole world than it has to do with this elite group of people who are really just looking for something for themselves.
So, what is the reward for those pursuing evolutionary enlightenment? Or is there no reward?
The reward is a fully conscious, ecstatically engaged relationship with the life process. It means that one's actually, really here in a way that most people aren't. Most people are kind of treading water through most of their experience, kind of sleep walking. People often don't live very consciously, in terms of really coming to terms with who they are and making a clear decision about what the purpose of being here is.
In the kind of awakening that I'm speaking about--when we awaken beyond ego or beyond the very conditioned value structures that we have grown up in--we awaken to this kind of ecstatic, creative impulse that is the manifestation of the energy and intelligence that created this whole process. What we suddenly begin to feel surging through our veins is a kind of passionate interest in being alive.
It's a very profound thing when this happens to a human being, because what they realize is all the things that they were concerned about personally are not half as important as we believed they were, because we've discovered a much deeper and much more authentic part of ourself. As we become aware of it we become one with that energy and intelligence behind the whole process itself. At that point the degree to which the individual is willing to begin to take responsibility for it, to surrender to it, it literally begins to consume their lives. They begin to experience a passion for being alive that most people have never experienced. I mean, it's nothing less than a religious calling.
Where is this process leading us ultimately?
Hopefully to a glorious future, but it's not looking very good right now. Life as we know it is definitely more than threatened. We can't go on the way we've been going, but unless a lot of people wake up in a very short amount of time--I mean, many people who really know a lot more than I do about this are convinced that catastrophe and calamity in terms of our very survival is just going to happen.
Let's say the earth is destroyed. Do you imagine that we're still part of this ultimate consciousness, this energy that created us in the first place?
No matter what happens we're not going anywhere. So you and I aren't going anywhere, but the problem is our capacity to have this conversation, which is the expression of the evolution of consciousness, as far as we know, would disappear. And we'd have to go through this whole long-you know, at least as far as we know now has taken 14 billion years-we'd have to go through all of this again to get to the point we could begin to have this discussion. That would be, that would be a hell of a shame, because a lot of work has gone into enabling you and I just to have this conversation!
As evolving human beings we begin to have the capacity to really know who we are in the most deep and profound, extraordinary ways. Now that changes our perspective; that's what enlightenment is all about.
The whole point then is that at this level that we're speaking about now the context for the human experience changes radically and dramatically because the awakening human literally sees himself or herself as a citizen of the cosmos.And we see the life process that we're involved in here and now on earth in literally nothing less than a cosmic context and in a context of consciousness.
A lot of what you're saying is very abstract. Would you say that intelligence is a prerequisite for enlightenment?
Yes, I think that a reasonable degree of intelligence is necessary, but even more than that there has to be a tremendous amount of humility in the face of that which we can never really know and grasp with the mind. And that, for Westerners, is very, very hard because in Western secular culture we can't help but view our experience from the perspective of scientism and materialism. It's quite something to get over.
Secondarily of course there needs to be a reasonable degree of intelligence, but the humility is the biggest prerequisite and it's the hardest thing for us to cultivate.