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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Andrew Cohen’s “evolutionary enlightenment” is a watered-down and trite version of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy

the stumbling mystic God shall grow up . . . while the wise men talk and sleep.
I have always had mixed feelings about the What is Enlightenment? magazine created by spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen, partly because of Cohen’s own questionable enlightenment (many allegations of authoritarian behavior have been made against him by former students and even his own mother, Luna Tarlo), and partly because the content of the magazine — some good, common sense spirituality that nevertheless seems to be seeking validation from science and even from pop culture — indicates a lack of authentic spiritual presence in the Cohen community (the same lack one senses in the Wilberian movement).
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a regular subscriber to WIE, but I do make it a point to purchase issues that look interesting, and there’s no doubt that many are of a very high quality. Two of their most brilliant issues — one on the evolution debate, and the other on utopian thought in human history — were remarkably well-produced, balanced, and contained numerous excellent references and book reviews. I’ve also really appreciated some of the multimedia interviews they’ve provided online at WIE Unbound. All in all, it’s a great effort and brings together some remarkable minds, and the fact that WIE is fostering more dialogue between science and spirituality is very positive (they have interviews with people like Robert Wright, David Sloan Wilson, Eric Chaisson, and many other great scientists available).
That said, it’s obviously not like Sri Aurobindo’s Arya, which primarily consisted of intellectual formulations of authentic spiritual realizations, nor even like Pir Zia’s Elixir, which is an esoteric-intellectual journal. Sri Aurobindo himself notes about the aims of Arya:
We had not in view at any time a review or magazine in the ordinary sense of the word, that is to say, a popular presentation or criticism of current information and current thought on philosophical questions. Nor was it, as in some philosophical and religious magazines in India, the restatement of an existing school or position of philosophical thought cut out in its lines and needing only to be popularised and supported. Our idea was the thinking out of a synthetic philosophy which might be a contribution to the thought of the new age that is coming upon us.
Given the obvious difference in their aims, I’m not trying to read WIE the same way I would read Arya. It’s not meant to be that sort of journal, and to my knowledge does not claim to be presenting a set of spiritual realizations either (except, I suppose, for the articles by Andrew Cohen himself) — fair enough. Still, if Cohen really wants to live up to the “guru” title, he’ll have to do better than produce a magazine that’s this head-centered and that seems to unnecessarily pander to both popular science and popular culture in a way that I can only describe as indulgent. If Cohen made no claims to enlightenment, if he was presenting himself as just a normal person who may even have had an awakening or two, but was not liberated fully from the ego, and if he just claimed to be creating a forum for an exchange of views rather than some sort of evolutionary “leading edge”, I’d be much less critical. But of course once you’ve slapped on the “guru” label, be prepared for public scrutiny.
By far the most annoying (and at times veering into obnoxious) part of the magazine is The Guru and the Pandit dialogues between Andrew Cohen (the guru) and Ken Wilber (the pandit). Yes, there are often great nuggets of gold in these dialogues, but the overall tone is very paternalistic, authoritarian, and often full of sweeping generalizations. Sometimes it’s just pretentious twaddle, frankly, such as one dialogue in which Cohen is talking about how he’s trying to create and stabilize a new psychological “structure” among his students (I got particularly irritated by how he seemed to think he was “personally” responsible for any such thing happening). He and Ken Wilber do this a lot: talk about these psychological structures in an abstract mental way, but since they seem to consider metaphysics to be a dirty word, we never really find out “what” exactly these higher structures are.
On the whole, Andrew Cohen’s “evolutionary enlightenment” is a really watered-down and trite version of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy. He often appropriates Aurobindonian terms such as “Supermind” and “Delight” and redefines them in a way that usually lacks the insight I’ve come to expect from Sri Aurobindo’s work. And I at least have never seen either Cohen or Wilber produce the sort of detailed and even precise descriptions of spiritual experiences and realizations that you find in Sri Aurobindo’s Record of Yoga or in Mother’s Agenda.
Because the truth is that when you actually start to have such experiences and start becoming established in them, there’s very little in those realizations that either secular science or postmodern deconstructionists will appreciate, and so you better lose the need to want to appease either camp! I think Cohen and Wilber pretty much bury themselves by talking from a purely psychological viewpoint divorced from metaphysics and occultism — secular science will never accept them anyway, and by denying metaphysics they’ll be ignored by most serious esotericists as well. In any event, it makes me question whether either of them has managed to sustain an authentic spiritual realization at all.
Now I don’t know Andrew Cohen and Ken Wilber personally, so what I’m saying is based on what I have read of their writings. On that basis, my personal assessment is that Ken Wilber hasn’t really gone beyond the rational-mental level at all (to his credit he doesn’t claim he is a spiritual guru, only that he is a theoretician), whereas Cohen comes across as someone who has had a partial inner awakening that’s been hijacked by the ego (stealing a phrase M. Alan Kazlev uses).
In reality, though, you have to really share someone’s presence and have a relationship with them to truly understand where they are coming from (the Mother, who is the best example of the possibilities available here, reports that she could literally become identified with people who were receptive, and so could experience them as herself). So I would be open to revising my opinion about Cohen and Wilber, but for now they don’t seem to be saying or doing anything very different from what I’ve seen so far. I don’t say their work is not playing a useful or even an important role — indeed it is probably even necessary in the intellectual environment of the West — but this is not spiritual enlightenment as I’ve understood it. Posted by ned on July 21, 2007. Filed under Notes and Speculations.
One Response to “Cohen’s What is Enlightenment?” >>>>Sri Aurobindo :>>”…thought of the new age that is coming upon us.”>> Sri Aurobindo’s usage of the phrase ‘new age’ made me feel as if he knew that’s what all spiritual endeavors will be classified under in the modern era. This god in human form has examined every thought, every impulse, every element of human existence, and has definitively known the origin, the place and the fate of each of these elements. Chandresh said this on July 22nd, 2007 at 12:37 am

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