The Darker Side of Enlightenment

So, last night I went to hear an ‘awakened’ master, Andrew Cohen speak about his new book. I’d read his latest book, Living Enlightenment, in the first hour of a plane flight (on the way to do an Esalen workshop on spirituality, ironically) hoping to glean a few insights about the process of spiritual awakening, as well as its value.

Cohen is as credentialed as a word-of-mouth credential system allows someone to get. He’s got the approval of everyone from Ken Wilbur to Andrei Codrescu, and actually made a name for himself by exposing the corruption of one of his former teachers.

I read his book, and found that his approach was very similar to the one I described in one of my early books, Cyberia. Basically, the idea is that spiritual awakening, or what I would call consciousness expansion, is a matter of becoming more aware of how individuality is something of an illusion. We’re all part of a bigger organism, and the more conscious we can become of this greater collective being, the more consciously we’ll be able to participate in evolution.

It’s a beautiful thought, articulated by many new age texts, de Chardin, and science-based poets. I find myself believing it, much of the time. The danger of this gaian view of evolution is that it can easily become a way for justifying quite fascist thinking. Even many great, countercultural and druggie philosophers I’ve studied often talk about “the bottleneck” at “the end of time” when “those who know” will be elevated above “the chrysalis of matter” while “those who don’t” will be “left behind.” If evolution is truly a team sport, then such distinctions are simply theo-centric ignorance.

The other problem is the tendancy for those using scientific metaphors to mistake them for scientific fact. (See Ray Kurzweil’s book for the danger of equating the behaviors of human beings with those of quarks.)

In any case, Cohen’s thesis, based mostly in the ancient Jewish notion that time is not circular, but linear (that human beings develop over time, and progress can be made), seemed to fail when he spoke of awakening and enlightenment as prerequisites for “getting on the train” and finding out “what it is we’re all here for.”

Let’s say there *is* something we’re all here for – and let’s say it’s something as non-descript as “evolving” into a more coordinated meta-being. Why do we need to be “awakened” in order to begin to effect the necessary changes to allow such a phenomenon to occur (or emerge)? Why not get on with the business of negotiating where it is we want this train to go (unless, of course, the tracks of Andrew’s train are already laid, and it’s simply our job as humans to follow them…) and build the track.

Spiritual awakening, with its many attendant liberative “joys” and “exaltations” sounds like a distraction. Sure – awakening is a great and motivating goal for a mentally ill person, a self-obsessed person, or an addict of one kind or another. But it is so very much not an end in itself, that I question whether an awakened being would want to waste his or her time talking about awakening. The crowds one draws are generally people looking to be released from their self-induced pain, and the rhetoric one develops is intellectually undisciplined. I should know – I’ve been there. (Read some of my early work.) No, it doesn’t hurt anyone (necessarily) and it’s fine and beautiful stuff. But it’s not of a higher order.

Okay – so I took a night off from working, meeting with people, or teaching, to sit and listen to a man speak about awakening. He said it happens in an instant (not incrementally), you’d know for sure if it happened to you, and that it’s the only way to participate mindfully in the human narrative.

Call me unenlightened, but I’m glad it’s over, and that I can now get back to the real work of making this world a smarter, better place.