The evolution of consciousness

Manoj Khatri met spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen to demystify enlightenment and get insights into his unique concept of evolutionary enlightenment

Andrew Cohen
Andrew Cohen is a world renowned spiritual teacher, cultural visionary, and founder of the global nonprofit EnlightenNext. Since 1986, Cohen has been traveling the world giving public lectures and leading intensive retreats. In addition to his work as a teacher, Cohen is also dedicated to changing the cultural conversation about the purpose and significance of spiritual enlightenment in our time.

Manoj: There’s a Zen quote, “Before enlightenment: Chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: Chop wood, carry water.” In this context, what has been your own experience of enlightenment?

Andrew: In my experience, the context changed completely. Before, everything that happened occurred in a very small personal world that was all about the fears and desires of my psychological self. That has changed completely.

Now, it’s always apparent to me that my body, mind, and personality are merely vehicles through which the energy and intelligence that created, and is creating, the universe can engage with it. So while earlier, “Chopping wood and carrying water” used to be all for and about me, now it’s about everyone else.

Manoj: Traditionally, enlightenment has been thought to be a sudden phenomenon, like someone switched on the lights in a dark room and everything is suddenly clear? Is enlightenment always sudden like that or can it be a gradual process?

Andrew: It all depends upon the individual. There are many ways to get to the top of the mountain. One can take a long and winding path or one can, especially these days, get there very quickly by helicopter. In my case, as a result of the transformative grace of my last teacher, the great HWL Poonja, my experience was the helicopter variety. Meeting the Master was like walking through a looking glass. My life has never been the same and I have never looked back. That being said, I was a very earnest seeker for eight years before I met him. I was determined that one way or the other, a profound and irrevocable shift had to happen and was going to happen. So from this perspective, it was only a matter of time before it did.

Manoj: How much of a person’s life on earth, according to you, is free will and how much is karma or destiny? Is enlightenment purely a human endeavour, or does one need divine grace for it?

Andrew: All of the above! The choices you make determine your destiny. Positive and negative experiences from the past, including [I believe] former lives and the way we responded to them, determine our destiny. Finally, what I call the ‘evolutionary impulse,’ the spiritual impulse that compels us to seek out enlightenment is the essence of grace itself. Unmanifest spirit gave rise to time and space and all of manifestation. The desire to exist at all is a spiritual one for sure. So in this way, grace and higher human aspirations are one and the same thing.

Manoj: What’s the relevance of enlightenment in one’s everyday life? Why should anyone want or care for enlightenment? If existence has no purpose, what purpose does enlightenment serve?

Andrew: Enlightenment has no relevance to the life of the separate psychological self, which is the ‘everyday self.’ As a matter of fact, if you have the good fortune to truly wake up for yourself, you’ll realise that the fears and desires of the psychological self, from the perspective of enlightened awareness are, believe it or not, utterly irrelevant. Who said existence has no purpose? It is my firm conviction that Spirit as the Uncreated, Unborn, Unmanifest, timeless Ground of Being ‘chose’ to create the universe. How do I know this? Because, from our vantage point in the 21st century, we can look back and see where we came from—nothing whatsoever.

God or absolute Spirit must have wanted to do something after doing absolutely nothing whatsoever for eternity. That’s why, when we experience the creative impulse in the universe vibrating and pulsating in our bodies and minds, we experience a powerful sense of purposefulness. When you awaken to evolution, you awaken to a profound sense of directionality that is inherent in the life force, inherent in existence itself. At the lower levels, the purpose of existence is to survive. At the highest levels, the purpose of existence is to create. God, or Spirit, as manifestation is the felt desire to create and give rise to that which has never existed before.

Manoj: Is the phenomenon of enlightenment beyond the five senses and the intellect? Often, enlightenment appears to be something that requires a high degree of intellect—if this is true, does that mean that enlightenment is accessible only to those with a high IQ?

Andrew: Obviously not. Two of Mother India’s greatest realisers in modern history, Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Ramana Maharshi, were both uneducated men. Ramakrishna was completely uneducated and Ramana Maharshi didn’t even finish high school. And yet their realisations are considered to be peerless and beyond comparison.

Manoj: How does one know that the concept enlightenment isn’t just an intellectual exercise, an indulgence of highly intelligent minds? So long as we discuss it, the mind is engaged—whereas the actual phenomenon seems to be experiential and therefore beyond what words can describe…

Andrew: Unless you have the direct experience of transcending the mind for yourself, it’s hard to know the answer! Always remember, the journey to enlightenment is a leap from the known to the unknown. Upon returning to see my own Teacher after several months, the first thing he said when I walked through the door was “I’m so glad you found a friend you’ll never be able to see.”

Manoj: You make a distinction between traditional enlightenment and evolutionary enlightenment. Can you explain the difference?

Andrew: Evolutionary Enlightenment is about awakening directly to the energy and intelligence that created the universe and is creating the universe. The Big Bang, the creation of the universe was the unimaginably powerful expression of that energy and intelligence—and still is. The nature of what I call the ‘evolutionary impulse’ is an ecstatic urgency that is always only interested in one thing: to create the future—to give rise to that which is new. . . unceasingly. What I call ‘Traditional Enlightenment’ is about awakening to the timeless, formless Being—that primordial emptiness from which the entire creative process emerged 14 billion years ago. Before the universe was created, there was no time and there was no space. That’s why when you enter into a very deep state of meditation you experience such deep peace. That’s because there you awaken to that deepest dimension of reality and of your own self that is always free from time and history. The new Evolutionary Enlightenment is about creating the future unendingly. Traditional Enlightenment is about being free from history altogether.

Manoj: Isn’t enlightenment simply what it is—by labelling it as evolutionary, are you not distinguishing it from the traditional enlightenment? How does it then fit in with the concept of advaita or non-duality?

Andrew: It doesn’t fit into the concept of advaita at all. Advaita is about transcending time and experiencing/knowing/seeing/being timelessness itself. And yes, I am very deliberately distinguishing Evolutionary Enlightenment from Traditional Enlightenment. Evolutionary Enlightenment is a different animal altogether, because it occurs in and through the time process and is always only about creativity—endless and unceasing creativity for eternity.

Manoj: If enlightenment is the pinnacle of our consciousness, can there be anything more than that? On reading your book, it appears that enlightenment alone, in the traditional sense is not enough, and even after traditional enlightenment, [the kind which was attained by the Buddha or Mahavira or Jesus Christ] one has to go ahead and do more. Is this really possible for the average human being?

Andrew: Considering that the average human being is not interested in higher matters, of course such lofty aspirations and attainments are not within their reach. But the point is that in an evolutionary context, development has no end. That means we can always develop more, further, higher, and deeper. In Traditional Enlightenment, it’s possible to become ‘fully enlightened.’ In Buddhism, they call it ‘cessation’ or ‘the end of becoming.’ Evolutionary Enlightenment is about infinite becoming for eternity.

Manoj: In your book, Evolutionary Enlightenment, you outline the Five Fundamental Tenets that those who walk the path must follow, namely Clarity of Intention, The Power of Volition, Face Everything and Avoid Nothing, The Process Perspective and Cosmic Conscience. Does it mean that unless these are followed—like guidelines—evolutionary enlightenment is not possible?

Andrew: Yes.

Manoj: What is the impact of the recent discovery of the so called ‘God Particle’ by scientists on the idea enlightenment?

Andrew: No impact. The ‘God Particle,’ or the Higgs-Boson, as far as I understand, is that mysterious subatomic particle that imbues other particles with mass and substance. The ‘God Particle,’ in this context, is really trying to understand how matter and energy work together to give form and structure to our cosmos. There’s no direct relationship between this discovery and higher human capacities for consciousness.

Manoj Khatri
Manoj Khatri has spent the last two decades learning, teaching and writing about wellbeing and mindful living. He has contributed over 1500 articles for several newspapers and magazines including The Times of India, The Economic Times, The Statesman, Mid-Day, Bombay Times, Femina, and more. He is a counseling therapist and the author of What a thought!, a critically acclaimed best-selling book on self-transformation. An award-winning editor, Manoj runs Complete Wellbeing and believes that "peace begins with me".


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