A few weeks back I attended Andrew Cohen’s seminar for evolutionary spirituality. I wasn’t sure what to expect, having seen Cohen only once, about two years ago during Evolutionary Enlightenment day in Lenox. This seminar went from about 1-5pm, so I came in with an open mind and an empty cup, curious to see this spiritual teacher, and now recent author (his book, Evolutionary Spirituality, was published right around the time Occupy Wall Street began).
Cohen is part of a modern “tradition” that mingles spirituality with evolution. In popular culture, we often don’t hear about the two, together. But since the 19th century, starting with Darwin, there have been dozens of mystical teachers who incorporated evolution into their worldview, some more successful than others. Cohen finds kinship with Ken Wilber, an American thinker who ties all of these ideas to philosophers like Hegel, Teilhard de Chardin in the West, and Sri Aurobindo in the East. The two of them have been doing dialogues on spirituality for many years in Cohen’s magazine, EnlightenNext (formerly What is Enlightenment?) Cohen himself has become somewhat of an established spiritual writer. Following the publication of his book, Evolutionary Enlightenment, he has also become a writer on the Huffington Post alongside Deepak Chopra, Jean Houston, and others.
Now personally, I’ve been reading Ken Wilber and, subsequently, Teilhard de Chardin since undergrad. Mystical writers like Rudolf Steiner have fascinated me since, at least, high school. So I’ve always found myself navigating spiritual teachings and teachers in curiosity and, sometimes, kinship. Teilhard de Chardin, in particular, has a beautiful story. He was a Jesuit Priest who was silenced by the Catholic Church for his odd ideas about Christianity and evolution. Not to mention, he was a paleontologist. But I digress.
My girlfriend, Miri, and I arrived a few minutes late and quickly sat down towards the back of the room. We came in at a slow point in Cohen’s lecture. If I’m reading him right, he takes a little while to get going. Slow, gathered statements. Logical steps. A few awkward pauses. Then he finally takes off, rushing ahead with a flurry of ideas and opinions. When people asks questions, he comes to life. He seems to thrive when the audience engages him. He engages them back. Sometimes too strongly, cutting them off with his answer before the audience member finishes their question.
Let me see if I get his philosophy right. First off, he completely embraces a spiritual worldview. That is, a mystical one, where Spirit is everything. Everyone is one. We exist, even right now, in a “ground of being.” If we have the courage to, we can embrace this truth head-on and recognize it for who, and what we fundamentally are.
Second. The world evolves. That is, there’s what Cohen calls an “evolutionary impulse.” A drive that pushes the universe forward. You could call it a creative principle. Cohen tells us we can see proof of it in our impulse for, at a primal level, sex. The drive to procreate. On a “higher” level, it’s the drive to create, to expand, to develop. We all have this, says Cohen, and we can experience a kind of enlightenment with the evolutionary impulse, completely aligning with it. An evolutionary enlightenment. By aligning with this ever-creative, ever-developing, ever-expanding impulse, we are identifying with the other half of our true self. This is what he calls the Authentic Self.
Now, the audience asked a lot of good questions. This is where Cohen best articulated his worldview, and where he and I, at the same time, really differed.
One of the questions was regarding the current global crisis. Ecological devastation. Overpopulation. Technology run-amock. Cohen brushed this all off without a second thought. Why? Because, according to the scientists and technologists he’s reading, we’re making progress. As crazier as things are getting, things have never been better. As the artist, Stuart Davis, quipped,
“the higher that we climb, the more the ladder sways.”
There’s “proof of progress” Cohen told us, by the fact that the decline of violence has never been better than today. Steven Pinker’s Angels of our Better Nature is what he’s currently reading.
Someone asks him about the Mayan Calendar and 2012. Will there be a shift in consciousness? I wasn’t close to the stage, but I’m nearly sure he rolled his eyes. “Do you know what the Mayans did to their people?” He asked her. For Cohen, “savages” who brutally murdered their own people should not be trusted about secrets of the universe. He’s nearly sure they have little-to-nothing to offer about our future, let alone evolution.
Now, being Mexican myself, and originating in Southern Mexico, I am probably a little Aztec. Maybe even a little Mayan. I wasn’t sure if I should be insulted or not. After all, the Nazis were master scientists, and warfare in general is a testament to technological brilliance. Does this mean we should disregard Western culture?
Some admire Cohen’s boldness and brazen style, but I found this statement to be pretty careless for an allegedly compassionate and evolved spiritual teacher. To be fair, Cohen is not unique in this attitude. It’s pretty typical. Some people call it a Western bias, or hubris. That is, favoring reason over intuition, and literal truth over mythological or creative insight.
I can’t speak for everyone, but the ironic thing is, many evolutionary mystics like Sri Aurobindo, Owen Barfield, Rudolf Steiner, and even Jean Gebser, at least recognized that ancient consciousness was not inferior to our own. Just different. That is to say, waking reality isn’t all there is to who we are.
All in all, I thought the seminar was both challenging and frustrating.The evolutionary worldview is deeply compelling to me. So why weigh it down with the myth of progress? At least to me anyway, progress is not linear. It goes in loops and spirals. It moves up and down. In and out. It’s rhythmic and organic. Just like growing up. We have progress, sure, but we also go backwards sometimes. We even can stagnate. When we get to a scale as large as the whole human race, how much more complex must it get?
Most importantly, I wonder how sensitive we can be? How empathetic are we to a real world crisis and suffering, if we are so content with technological and social progress? Because the crisis is no myth! Our compassion has to evolve with scientific progress. Is it?
During the break, I had a lovely conversation with the artist, Alex Grey. He had a good question for Andrew: becoming aware of this “evolutionary impulse,” how should we act? Should artists do art for art’s sake, or challenge themselves to live up to this higher principle? The break ended on a high note, where we thought that this art was a way to encounter the evolutionary impulse. We come in contact with it, seeking to understand it. Art relates us to the mystery of our own becoming.
I’m beginning to think that the imagination is, as it ever was, the greatest medium of the evolutionary impulse, and the way we can truly bring forth a new culture.
Towards the end of the talk, many young members of the audience asked Andrew about creating a new culture. “You have to be totally committed,” he told us. We know. At least, I think we do. We want to. More than the boomer generation, I believe we are ready for change and want to see it happen, somehow.
So now what? That question was left unanswered. But for me, that’s up to us to figure out.
Here’s a video of Andrew Cohen talking about the “Proof of Progress”
Cohen’s article on the Huffpost. You can see that his spirituality definitely favors a more technological and scientific worldview. Which is fine. But not complete enough for me!
I’ve got plenty of commentary on Andrew Cohen’s inspiration. The evolutionary impulse is a lot like Henri Bergson’s “Elan vital.” Bergson wrote a book a century ago titled Creative Evolution, which went on to deeply inspire Teilhard de Chardin. Around the same time, a century ago, Sri Aurobindo had a series of mystical experiences and began writing The Life Divine, a massive text detailing his spiritual-evolutionary synthesis.
If you are new to evolutionary spirituality, the community is currently expanding itself in many areas, and has a few broad traditions. There is Ken Wilber in Colorado and his version of Integral Theory. Then there is the California Institute of Integral Studies, which has many interesting scholars living there who have contributed a lot to spiritual and cultural studies. On the East Coast, there is EnlightenNext in Lenox, MA with Andrew Cohen.
Carter Phipps, senior editor for EnlightenNext is coming out with a book this June, titled Evolutionaries. You can check out the first chapter on his website.