28 March 2006

Enlightenment

Speaking of What Is Enlightenment? magazine, I picked up an issue last year and was astonished by what I read in a dialogue between magazine founder Andrew Cohen and philosopher Ken Wilber.

Cohen:
I think that a lot of people who are interested in enlightenment, including myself for a long time, have unintentionally been failing to make the important distinction between the Self Absolute, the Authentic Self, and the ego. As I have come to understand it, the Authentic Self is the deepest part of our humanity beyond ego, or the awakened spiritual conscience.
....
And this recognition was very helpful to me, because for a long time the traditional enlightenment model, which only seemed to describe the path from the ego to the Self Absolute, had not been meeting my own evolving understanding of what radical realization is all about when one is no longer merely trying to transcend the world but is simultaneously aspiring to transform it.

Wilber:
Yes. The traditional model goes from ego to absolute, and that's it. And now you're emphasizing the Authentic Self as an important ingredient in this whole equation.

Okay, that's an interesting distinction, if you're into that sort of thing. But I was a little surprised that Cohen was admitting that he hadn't been making that distiction well.

And then he described the Authentic Self in greater detail, and said the surprising thing.

Cohen:
[The Authentic Self] is the part of ourselves that cares passionately about evolution for its own sake, already. When individuals awaken to the Authentic Self—even if it's only temporarily—suddenly they become aware of a living evolutionary context and experience a passion and concern about the necessity for development itself. I identify the Authentic Self as synonymous with what we could call the first cause, the creative impulse, and its expression in the awakening human. The Authentic Self doesn't abide in the gross realm; it abides in what you would call the subtle realm. It's aware of everything that is happening here, cares passionately about and can act in response to everything that's happening here, but is always free from everything that's happening here.

Many of my spiritually-inclined readers undoubtedly see why this point was familiar to me. (Other folks, hang with me, I'll get to it in a sec.)

Cohen:
Very few people seem to know about it. In fact, besides Aurobindo, I've never heard anybody speak about the Authentic Self in this way.

Wilber:
You have to do a fair amount of translation and it wouldn't fit quite as well, but a lot of the Christian mystics, in their orientation to the soul, are pretty good on some of that. Also, a lot of Kabbalists are pretty good on that kind of stuff, as is tantra. But even those profound mystics have always been an extreme minority—East or West—in terms of what's really going on. That's the tragedy. And in our culture right now, in our generation, unfortunately what we have, on one hand, is what I believe is a misunderstanding of the anatta [no self] doctrine, which just trashes everything manifest and puts you in that radical pluralistic, relativistic, extreme postmodern nightmare that we've talked so much about. That's what so much of American Buddhism is doing now. Or we get the neo-vedantist or pure absolute approach, on the other hand. And the Authentic Self gets gutted one way or another—in a sense, those are the two lousy choices that we have at large.

Whoa. “Very few people seem to know about it”?

I keep company with occultists, and in those circles folks pretty much never shut up about the Authentic Self level of enlightenment. We generally use the expression “knowledge and conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel” to describe this enlightenment epiphany, after spooky old Aleister Crowley's usage. (Uncle Al once admitted that the slight silliness of the expression “Holy Guardian Angel” was one of the benefits of using the term, since it keeps you from getting too worked up about exactly what it means. If one of my readers can find the quote, I'd appreciate it.) The HGA is said to be experienced as a deeply personal entity, separate from the mundane self, that offers one's ideal best aspect and aids one in acting with extraordinary effectiveness and fierce compassion. Very obviously the same thing that Cohen is talking about with the Authentic Self. Though western occultists are hardly unfamiliar with the idea of the egoless, universal transcendence of what Cohen calls the Self Absolute, this isn't nearly so much a preoccupation as pursing the HGA.

This is part of the distinction between the mystical and the magickal that I was groping for with the swamp essay. Mystics directly pursue the egoless nondual transcendent state, while magickians pursue immanent empowerment, a project for which the HGA is a central component. No doubt some of my occultist readers are already protesting that magickians are interested in the transcendent nondual, commonly called Crossing the Abyss in those circles; there is a saying that “good magickians always end up mystics in the end.” True enough, but I think it's fair to say that occultists spill a lot more ink writing about the HGA. And, contra Cohen, in my experience many occultists are not so clear on Crossing the Abyss, but any halfway serious occultist is familiar with the HGA and discusses it with their peers.

Now granted, the western occult arts aren't familiar to most folks. But they're not some big secret. Heck, you can read comic books featuring an encounter with the HGA, and I've seen a simple, step-by-step manual about how to contact your HGA for sale at Borders books. And this isn't just some contemporary occult fad. The HGA is obviously the same thing as the eudæmon of ancient Greek philosophy, also called the augoeides by the neoplatonist Iamblichus. Debatably, one might include atman as described in at least some schools of Hinduism, as well.

Cohen publishes a magazine about the nature of enlightenment, quotes Sri Aurobindo, and is literally a professional spiritual guru. So how is it he hadn't heard about this, and only recently came to understand it? Wilbur holds a claim to being the one of the leading contemporary scholars of spiritual practice. Why didn't he know to mention that the “Authentic Self” is a central preoccupation of an thriving community of contemporary spiritual practice?

How strange is that?

4 comments:

happydog said...

Both Cohen and Wilbur might be lying? Surely you can't be at the level they are supposedly at, and not know about the Authentic Self. But then again, why would they lie?

jennconspiracy said...

Wilbur & Cohen might be lying, or they might have just been so focused on other things that was all they could see. In the sense that if you are looking for something, that's all you're going to find -- even if you're reading (skimming) through a book that describes it, it's easy to miss something you're not seeking.

By that same rationale, perhaps their intense focus on other subjects results in other folks approaching them to specifically discuss those subjects rather than opening up to the broader questions or asking about "Authentic Self" (for example) because they assume that a) these guys already know about it; b) the fact that it is missing is a value judgement rather than a hole in knowledge.

Alternatively, they could just have been totally high when they did the interview (ha ha! just kidding, just kidding!)


If I am properly understanding this, you're saying that the concept of the "holy guardian angel" is the "authentic self."

I find that very interesting because I have heard quite a lot of discussion about guardians, "spirit guides," and the like but find it really difficult to believe that there is some non-human entity which is only good and has only my best interests in mind.

If I look at it as contacting with the purest essence of who I am (the authentic self) as a separate entity --ok, that's slightly schizophrenic-- but makes a lot more sense.

Jonathan Korman said...

I don't imagine that they're lying. I think it's that they're mystics, interested in pursing the experience of big Oneness that Cohen calls the Self Absoulte. So to these guys, the Authentic Self (HGA) is something you stumble across during the pursuit of the Self Absolute. Magickians see this the other way around: they pursue the Authentic Self, then having attained that they tend to march toward the Self Absolute.

Still, it is surprising to me that Wilbur, who has researched a wide range of enlightenment paths pretty deeply, seems to regard this as obscure. I know that he has said some dismissive things about western magickians and neopagans, but I would have presumed that he was familiar enough with the rigorous side of these approaches to have recognized the Authentic Self --- which he describes quite well --- as a preoccupation of folks working these paths.

Al said...

Well, there is the fact that most occultists are perceived as pretentious wankers, an opinion that isn't entirely without merit. I'm less interested in people discussing the HGA, for example, if they aren't actually willing to do the work.

After nearly 17 years of being around Neopagans and occultists, I can safely say that most don't do the work and have no interest in doing it. This is the very fact that drove me into Vajrayana. There are wankers there but you can clearly find people doing the work and not dressing in black and getting all into being a spooky occultist...