Andrew Cohen, Evolutionary Enlightenment: a new path to spiritual awakening

Evolutionary Enlightenment: A New Path to Spiritual Awakening is the first book by Andrew Cohen that I’ve read. His name precedes him of course: both on the good and the not-so-good. But I’ll let the book stand on it’s own two feet. Let’s start with the style: Andrew Cohen really is a great writer. The words just pull you along as though you were having a personal conversation with Andrew on your couch – and of course he doesn’t stop talking 😉

Part of this book is inspiring – standing in the tradition of Sri Aurobindo and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (who in their turn built on Blavatsky, though without acknowledgement), he unites a vision of personal spirituality with one of universal evolution.

This is perhaps a very ‘male’ book: lots of metaphysics, little practical method. Also, it assumes an ultimately selfish aim to spiritual practice, even if the result is not as selfish:

When we embark on the spiritual quest, most of us, understandably, are pursuing freedom or enlightenment for our own sake. This is why we begin by asking, What do I really want? What is more important to me than anything else? But once your intention has become clear, and you sincerely pursue that one-pointed aspiration, a profound shift occurs. Over time, as your soul develops and matures through the practice of the first three tenets, you will see the quality of that intention evolve. And as you embrace the fourth tenet, and learn to see yourself as a very small part of a very big process, your relationship to the spiritual path becomes dramatically recontextualized. You discover that it’s not about you. (p. 158, ch. Cosmic Consciousness)

It is a strange spiritual path where the result is different from the cause. It’s roughly at this point in the book (about 2/3rds in) that Cohen lost me. Still, there were parts of the book I loved and I also thought I’d share some similarities to Tibetan Buddhist tradition that won’t be immediately obvious to the casual reader. Since they’re not referenced, and not the best known parts of that tradition, they are easily missed.

First off: we’re asked to imagine the beginning of all being. This is reminiscent of a meditation exercise in which a Buddhist will be asked to find the beginning of consciousness. Imagining that: “You cannot go any deeper into yourself than the unmanifest dimension. There is nowhere else to go. Everything begins and ends in that primordial emptiness, which is why mystics call it the ground of Being.” (pp 9, 10, ch. Before the Beginning)

More interesting to me is the second Buddhist reference (I’m ignoring the obviously more Hindu elements in his book):

When you think objectively about how much work went into creating your own capacity to have the experience you are having in this very moment – fourteen billion years of hard work – then it might even begin to strike you as immoral to spend too much time sitting around and worrying about the fears and desires of your personal ego. Surely the purpose of all that cosmic effort and creativity and positivity – from nothing to energy to light to matter to life to consciousness to you – could not possibly have been just for that. When you awaken to the evolutionary process and its endless creativity, and you discover how profound and complex the structure of our universe is, you start to recognize and appreciate, at a soul level, what a precious gift it is to be here.  (p. 37, ch. A Big Yes)

The precious human rebirth is a meditation topic in the Tibetan Buddhist Lam Rim. It’s where you realize just how lucky you are to be human, be reasonably healthy, live in a time when the Buddha’s teachings are accessible, live in a place where the Buddha’s teachings are accessible, have leisure time to practice etc. This meditation is meant to motivate us to become active practitioners and use our life well.

See the similarity? Of course Andrew Cohen’s version is not sectarian: it’s not about Buddha, but about spiritual progress in general. It’s also updated to our time. He goes into this theme more explicitly in the chapter ‘The Postmodern Predicament’:

Think about it for a moment: if you are reading a book like this, the likelihood is that you are among the luckiest people who have ever been born. To begin with, you are one of those privileged to have received a high degree of education. People like you and me have access to information that wasn’t available until very recently – about the life process, about our psychological development, the natural history of our planet, and the evolution of the expanding cosmos. Besides this wealth of knowledge, we also have a degree of material wealth, comfort, security, and leisure time that is historically unprecedented. The standard of living that we take for granted, kings and queens of old could not have imagined. And on top of all this, we enjoy a degree of freedom that is unparalleled – personal, political, religious, and philosophical. There have never been human beings who have had the extraordinary liberty we have to experiment with our own lives – to think in whatever way we want, to do almost anything we want, to say anything we want, to go anywhere we want, to be whatever we want. (p. 78, Ch. The Postmodern Predicament)

I quote that paragraph in full because it really is amazing, the luxury of our everyday lives. It’s easy to forget, especially with stories of economic crisis abounding on TV. Sure, the crisis is there, but for most of us it doesn’t mean we’re homeless, or lose our internet connection, or our kids won’t go to school etc. It’s RELATIVE poverty some of my readers here have to face, not absolute poverty. Even if you did lose your job, you probably still have heating in your car, radio, tv, the ability to drive for miles without having to bother (or hire) another human being or buy an animal (say a horse and cart). We tend to forget that, because it’s beyond our experience.

This is an anti-traditionalist book: Andrew Cohen has issues with the kind of spirituality that leads away from this world into seclusion and experiencing ‘the now’. However, it’s not clear to me what the alternative is he offers. But let’s get back to his own words:

This awakened passion for evolutionary transformation is not reasonable. It demands change, right now, and it will not wait, because God is always desperate to grow. God is infinite in the unmanifest realm. But in the manifest realm God is not infinite – God can only know him- or herself to the extent to which conscious beings are actually able to awaken to their own absolute nature. (p. 52, Ch. The Universe Project)
This is the sort of vision that I’m sure many people can relate to. It puts us humans right at the front seat of evolution, instead of being mere products of randomness and selection that science would make us. At least there is some sort of purpose to it all… However, it’s not quite clear what that purpose is and that’s because in Andrew Cohen’s vision each person contributes TO the purpose and direction of universal evolution. Now isn’t that a huge responsibility? It’s so huge in fact, that it reminds me of that other huge spiritual vision: the Bodhisattva vow. The Bodhisattva takes on responsibility, personally, for all the suffering in the universe: present and future. A Bodhisattva vows to become a Buddha to personally make an end to all that sorrow, distress, annoyance and even boredom.
The difference ought to be clear by now: whereas the Bodhisattva starts out with an unselfish motivation (as unselfish as it gets in fact), in Andrew Cohen’s vision we’re called on to do no more than follow the direction we think/feel universal evolution ought to take. In both cases the responsibility taken on is huge: we become individually responsible for the fate of all consciousness. The difference is in the motivation.
Motivation is essential to Andrew Cohen’s book too: he devotes a whole chapter to ‘Enlightening the Choosing Faculty’ in which the basic message is:
There are layers of cultural conditioning, values and assumptions about how things should be that color our perspectives without us even knowing it. And many people believe that within our psyches we also carry the unresolved stories of previous lifetimes. All these factors play a part in the complex web of motives and impulses that makes up your sense of self. All this is you. And yet it is possible to take responsibility for all of these dimensions of who you are, through the transformative recognition that you are always the one who is choosing. (p. 71, Ch. Enlightening the Choosing Faculty)

The issue is, for Andrew Cohen, that whether we are actually karmically responsible or not doesn’t matter. What matters is that we TAKE responsibility, so that we don’t feel like victims, so that we actually take charge of our lives and do what needs to be done, face what needs to be faced. Leaving karma out of it like that is smart: it makes the book more accessible, but for me it is unsatisfying. Does Andrew Cohen believe in karma? Does he believe in previous lives? By sidestepping those issues he’s ignoring a whole lot of metaphysical questions just waiting to be answered. But that is NOT what this book is about. Don’t get me wrong: Andrew Cohen does try and get the moral side of life a place. But it’s morality, not compassion that he ends up with. He puts it like this on page 86 (Ch. A Moral Imperative):

When you awaken to the truth that your human experience of consciousness and cognition, your personal presence here on this small planet, is part of an infinitely bigger process than you had ever imagined, you may notice an uncomfortable and perhaps unfamiliar sensation stirring within you – a sense of obligation. 

Why do I say it’s not compassion he ends up with? Because all he’s interested in are the successful people at the edge of the wave. For instance he says (p. 89):

But if we choose – consciously or unconsciously – to live a life of mediocrity, then we are also making a statement. Because we are not flourishing, what we are saying, whether we intend it or not, is that the evolutionary process is not flourishing. (Ch. The Moral Imperative)

Ouch. Is Andrew really saying that the single mother raising her kids on a waitress paycheck and tips should start worrying about whether the evolutionary process is flourishing or not? Traditional Indian spirituality has a much kinder (though still harsh) message: it’s due to actions and thoughts in past lives that you’re in this mess. Do better this time and you’ll get an easier lot in your next life. That may still sound harsh, but at least it gives that struggling mother something to hold on to: if she loves her children, does her best to raise them well, avoids alcohol and addiction, and contributes to society to her capacity (and being a mother is plenty), her devotion to her children and her pure desire to do better will have a positive result in a distant future. This review is already too long, so I’ll share a bit of what inspired me in the five tenets (clarity of intention, the power of volition, face everything and avoid nothing, the process perspective, and cosmic conscience). I read the ‘Face everything and Avoid Nothing’ chapter just after I’d realized that some of the worst mistakes in my life were made when things got so tough that I no longer felt able to do that. Instead I fled into chocolate addiction and making bad choices I won’t go into here. The fact is: this may just be the one thing Jiddu Krishnamurti taught that I’ll be agreeing with for the rest of my life. This chapter is also the most inspiring in the book and in fact I’d recommend buying the book just to read this chapter. I’ll close  with his words (p. 138, ch. Face Everything and Avoid Nothing):

As long as we remain invested in the ego’s need to manipulate reality, we will find that we keep making the same mistakes, over and over and over again, because we are deliberately avoiding aspects of the way things are. It’s not a mystery: if we are trying  to get somewhere, but we cover our eyes to avoid seeing the obstacles that lie in our path, it’s no wonder we keep tripping over them.
(p. 139) But the point is that when you choose to avoid, you lose touch with your own soul. Emotionally, you become disconnected from your own deeper dimensions. It’s as if there is a wall, a barrier, between you and your own authenticity. And far too many of us get accustomed to living that way.
(p. 141) When you remove the protective shield of avoidance and self-protection, there is an intensity and vulnerability to the human experience. And the complexity of life hits you more directly. … It demands that you be emotionally willing to bear a degree of reality – both in regard to yourself and to life itself – that you may have been unwilling to tolerate before.

See also a conversation with Andrew Cohen about whether a spiritual teacher should practice what they preach (the answer is right at the bottom).

4 thoughts on “Andrew Cohen, Evolutionary Enlightenment: a new path to spiritual awakening”

  1. I haven’t had a chance to read the book but I have read some other things by Cohen and I think, and I could be wrong on this, that the reason you may struggle with the ideas on page 86 & 89 moral imperative) is that you are reading these with your thoughts focused on “Eastern” spirituality practices. It seems as those the ideas presented are in some ways informed by Judaism and the idea of tzedakah. Distributive justice is as much, if not more, about compassion and understanding than morality The altruism associated with each higher level of tzedakah (as described by Maimonides) is a deeply intertwined moral obligation born of compassion and desire to do right by others and the world for the right reasons as opposed to the Christian notion of doing the “moral” thing to receive some great reward (go to heaven). Of course there is the conundrum of altruism that it’s not 100% selfless because you have that knowledge and feeling of satisfaction from both how the act and the resulting action makes you feel . . .

    1. Since Andrew Cohen was born an agnostic Jew it does make some sense to see a Jewish connection here, but I think it’s a bit far fetched in general. Our Western culture today has such an aversion to morality that he doesn’t need any other cultural excuses. I’m firmly rooted in the West and pretty widely read in Eastern spirituality – that doesn’t mean you should read my comments in that context per se.

      From my perspective it seems that responsibility, compassion and morality are all intertwined in reality. Whichever way you look at it: they’re all important. Andrew Cohen spends a lot of time writing about how enlightened beings would communicate, but that is hardly relevant to us non-enlightened beings, is it? That’s my main point here.

  2. Hi Katinka,
    In the realm of this world the drama goes on and on, including the drama of aspiration and struggle to enlightenment. But ultimately you have nothing to do with any of this. If the world, the universe ended tomorrow; if the switch were thrown and the universe and all the dream of personhood ceased to be, it would not make a bit of difference to who you are.
    Behind the world is the manifest being. It is like space and is complete and pure and is fulfilled (it is fulfillment itself!) and needs nothing. It is pure love and openess and is unchanging and eternal and everpresent–and is entirely untouched by the world. This is what you are. You are already complete and need nothing. The drama of life goes on but once manifest pure being is realized the drama takes on a different cast; the drama becomes the foam at the edge of a vast and sweet sea of being. In relation to the body this experience appears to eminate from the heart moment by moment.
    I experience indubitably that this pure being is what we are. It has entirely changed my vision of life and world.
    As much as there may be struggle with what is seen as one’s imperfections inthis world—the pure being behind it all shows that there is ultimately never anything amiss. What is permanent, what is lasting, what is truly existent has never changed nor diminished.
    On the world level there is drama and happiness and sadness. But behind it ever is the permanent eternal sweetness of being entirely removed from the world.
    I cannot give you this (how I wish that I had that power) but I can tell you it is there to be had within you and awaits your attention and engagement.
    But perhaps you know of this?

  3. I have been to many Satsangs with Cohen over the years. It is not easy to tell what Cohen is saying regarding “mediocrity”.
    Cohen used to say that the reason he went to India and studied with H.W.L. Poonja (Papaji) in lucknow is that he was tired of living a kind of “mediocrity” in life, wherein his inner and outer life were cramped and his vision narrow, his spirit in poverty. This is what I think he means by not “flourishing”.
    It was to break out of this mediocrity and narrowness that he studied with Papaji.
    I think Cohen believes sincerely that if someone does not at least pursue spiritual development as he conceives it then one will not be flourishing in life by breaking out of material “mediocrity” as he did.
    I don’t think this is an uncompassionate stance. However, it seems absurd to me to say that those who do not try to break out are necessarily making some kind of statement about evolution. And, of course, there are other paths to enlightenment than that which Cohen conceives and advocates.

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