Exploring the connections of theism (from philosophy and religion) with physics and psychology (of science).
Friday, March 9, 2012
How Cohen's Nondualism is almost Theism
We continue to look at some statements of traditional nondualism that still appear in Cohen's presentation, and consider how they may be yet ever-so-slightly changed so as to be consistent with theism, while keeping a spiritual impact in form very similar to his original intention. This concludes the discussion started here and continued here.
That's when there is no longer any distinction between the inherent perfection of the Self Absolute and that response that is its expression in the world of time and space [p. 17]According to theism, everything good in the world of time and space is in fact belonging to God: it appears as if it is our own when we perform good act, but we must never claim ownership for ourselves and to become 'as God' (Gen 3:5).
To the question ''The ego can claim enlightenment for itself?'', Cohen replies ''Yes, and unfortunately it often does. But if the individual's motivation is pure, if there is a foundation of deep and profound humility, then the realization will not be corrupted by the desire for personal gain, and that's very rare indeed.'' [p. 21] It is clear that nondualism itself has nothing in its logic to stop 'atman = Atman = Brahman' to be reversed as 'Brahman = Atman = atman', and the Infinite claimed for oneself. Cohen's response points to lack of personal gain, but this response begins to make sense in a theistic framework where there is a distinction between Divine and personal objectives.
Cohen describes an early experience as ''that all of life is One that the whole universe and everything that exists within it, seen and unseen, known and unknown, is one conscious, glorious, intelligent Being that is self-aware. Its nature is Love but it is a love that is so overwhelming in its intensity that even to experience the faintest hint of it is almost unbearable for the human body. I saw in that moment that there is no such thing as death, that life has no beginning and no end.'' [p. 31-32]This wonderful experience is correct in almost every detail to the theist, only one identification needs to be remade. This, that really it is 'the life of the whole universe and everything that exists within it ... is one Being that is self-aware'. Since the Divine Life everywhere permeates and sustains the whole universe, one may be forgiven for missing the distinction between what is Divine (essentially infinite & overwhelming) and what is created (essentially finite & underwhelming).
Cohen sees our representation of the Divine as like a mirror [p. 45] which should be spotless.In theism, the manner of representation of the Infinite in the finite creature is more complicated than as a mirror, and in fact takes a whole biological body with all its myriad structures and functions to represent God properly. Discussion of this, however, is beyond the scope of this essay.
Our True Self is always paying attention in a way that we are usually not conscious of. And when we discover this Self - this mysterious depth that is already awake - we find that which is miraculous. We discover who we truly are. It's the Self that we cannot see with the mind, but when we experience it directly we will understand what it means to be enlightened. And when we liberate this Self that mysteriously sees and knows what we cannot see or know with our conscious mind, we will begin to respond to life in ways that, left to our own devices, we never could. [p. 76]Cohen is here using the phrase 'True Self' to refer to what theists call the internal spiritual mind. Most of us only come to this state after death, but then Cohen's description is remarkably accurate in describing a new 'heavenly proprium' (as Swedenborg calls it) that cannot be seen by our existing natural minds.
Cohen talks of the revelation of ''true conscience'', which is the unexpected manifestation of intense compassion. True conscience emerges from that very same mysterious part of our own self; it expresses a kind of care that the personality could never understand. It's the true heart, which is not the heart that we normally identify with the personality. [p. 77] Again we see Cohen expressing views that could not have come from traditional nondualism, but which clearly come from a person (or God) who works in a theistic framework. As he says beautifully, ''The degree to which we are able to liberate ourselves from self-concern will be the degree to which we are able to recognize that our true nature as human beings is love.'' He is only mistaken in thinking ''It happens automatically. This is one of the miracles of human life.'' It is well known that the God of theism mostly operates behind the scenes.
In the impersonal view, which is the enlightened perspective, the ego and the entire personal world that it creates is not seen as being real. That world is revealed to be empty of meaning, value, and purpose, ultimately serving only to perpetuate the existence of a separate self that doesn't really exist. [p. 104]Cohen speaks from the nondualist tradition, but this is immediately contradicted by the next page, which has a purely theistic observation: When that impersonal Self Absolute begins to emerge in consciousness as a living presence, the ''personal," instead of being the impenetrable fortress that the separate ego abides in, becomes a permeable vessel through which the impersonal Self Absolute seeps into this world. [p. 105]It is the idea of theism that the internal spiritual self can be modelled as a vessel that receives the Divine sustaining influx. This useful idea of a 'permeable vessel' is a development of strict nondualism toward the ideas of theism.
Cohen agrees that ''there's really nothing personal in either the absolute or the relative dimension of our experience,'' [p. 105]and insists that the ''enlightened perspective always points us to that which is singular, empty of anything personal, and free from any and all motivation that comes from ego.'' [p. 105] This reveals a failure to recognise the true nature of person as constituted by love and wisdom, a constitution that in theism applies primarily to God as the Lord, and then derivatively to us as persons sustained by influx. There is no 'ego compulsion' in the Lord, and when we conform ourselves to his life there need be hardly any in us either.
Cohen seeks ''That place of absolute singularity [which] is where true freedom and enlightened understanding are found. That is where the relative and the Absolute, the personal and the impersonal, merge and become one. In that mysterious place, they become one unbroken universal unfolding that is free from the bondage of duality.'' [p. 107] Here, lacking the conceptual means to discriminate Source and creation, or between personal loves and Infinite Loves, Cohen has to resort to paradoxical assertions to make his point.
Cohen ends with the contradiction mentioned earlier, that ''This apparent paradox - that everything is already perfect and everything must change - is the complete picture of what enlightenment is all about.'' [p. 115]He says that paradoxes for the unenlightened mind may still be in his system, because ''the mind exists in and as duality itself, and therefore, by definition, cannot see beyond it to that place where no duality exists'' [p. 116]. Swedenborg as a theist agrees that a full understanding of the genuine truth concerning spirit and nature awaits the enlightenment at comes from the eventual awakening of our inner spiritual mind, but would insist that partial or 'apparent truths' may still enter our understanding even now, and may usefully portray spiritual reality without any essential contradictions. This allows some kind of rational understanding of spirituality, even if it is still incomplete. Sometimes, theistic portrayal may be more indirect, using representations in the structure of Sacred Scriptures, in order to allow a more external understanding.
We see from this examination of Cohen's book ''Living Enlightenment'' that the actual practice and understanding of 'nondual discipleship' requires ideas that go beyond traditional Advaita Vedanta. Many of these ideas turn out to be very similar to those advocated for example by Emanuel Swedenborg in his rational account of how theism should be understood. In that case, there is no need to hid behind paradoxes.