Saturday, March 3, 2012

The 'nondualism' of Andrew Cohen

In the previous post, I raised the question of how nondualism can function as an ontology and a religion. Now I want to examine how a modern nondualist practitioner Andrew Cohen addresses these issues, and consider his relation to theism.

An a recent Facebook post, Cohen writes:
In the way that I use the term, God is the energy and intelligence that created the universe and is driving the process forward in every moment. And that energy and intelligence cares desperately about change and innovation and the release of potentials that have not existed before. So it is constantly looking for portals through which it can enter into the world and consciously engage with creating its next step. As conscious human beings who have been blessed with self-awareness and free agency, we are those portals. Each and every one of us is potentially a portal for the energy and intelligence that created the universe. You have a human body and a human personality, but from a certain perspective these are merely sheathes through which the cosmic creativity can shine. From the vantage point of the creative process, your human form, your personality, with all the particulars of your own history, your personal relationships, and your life circumstances, is a vessel for an infinite process that is trying to go somewhere. How conscious are you of this? How conscious is any one of us that in this very moment the cosmic process that produced us is now dependent on us to take its next step?
What is interesting to me is how Cohen may have started with non-dualism, but is moving towards theism. All the talk of ' your human form, your personality, with all the particulars of your own history, your personal relationships, and your life circumstances, is a vessel for an infinite process that is trying to go somewhere.' suggests very much the picture of theism, wherein we life by means of a life that only comes from God. Admittedly, he is careful to say "from a certain perspective".

Living Enlightenment

The recent book 'Living Enlightenment' by Andrew Cohen attempts to make it clear to the lay person what it means to be following the nondualist philosophy, and addresses many of the problems generally found with this view. While Cohen starts from a nondualist framework, and wants to keep that name and agree with writers such as Ken Wilbur, it has been recognized that he has some differences with traditional nondualism. Thus, Cohen develops the philosophy in ways which we need to examine in more detail, but still sometimes he resorts to asserting what are clear contradictions, such as [p. 115] ''everything is perfect and everything must change''. His initial response is that this is only a contradiction 'to the unenlightened mind', and he seems happy to remain in such a paradox. Since one of the virtues of theism compared with nondualism is that it does not attempt to include paradoxes, but rather seeks deeper understanding through more redefined discrimination, the issues which lead to these paradoxes and apparent paradoxes also deserve particular attention.

Let us look at some of the practical advice that a modern nondualist such as Cohen teaches, and consider each of them also from the theistic viewpoint. In the order in which they appear in the book, they are: 

Our personality will spontaneously become a vehicle for the manifestation of that One Self in time. The individual self will become infused with the presence of a powerful and transcendent singularity and will become a dynamic living expression of that which is absolute in this world. [p. 9] Here, as will be discussed more below, it is clear the individual person does not disappear in practical nondualism, but becomes a manifestation infused with the presence of God (the One Self) in a way that is recognisably theistic. The theist may quibble with 'spontaneously' since all the detailed stages necessary known to be necessary, may change 'manifestation' to 'creation', and may remember that the 'absolute in this world' is the immanent presence of God whose nature is Absolute and not 'in this world'. 

On the most fundamental, existential level, your questions will be answered because when your heart breaks, you experience an inconceivable, mind-transcending love that reveals a breathtaking mystery that abides beyond time [p. 16] Cohen is clearly talking about his and others experience of the Infinite Absolute Love. But this is in the God of theism, as there is little in original presentation of Advaita Vedanta that even points to Love at all. It is the alternative bhakti traditions which talk of love, and allowed to have residual dualisms, since it is acknowledged that love must always be love of others, never love of oneself (as theism also reminds us). 

As long as we are blindly attached to and unconsciously enslaved by any idea that is the expression of the fears and desires of the individual or collective ego, which is the mind of the world that we're living in, it will be impossible to live a truly liberated human life. [p. 26] The theistic advocate could not agree more, and may only differ in the means to correct this situation. 

The purification of the vehicle - purification of the fundamental motives, conscious and unconscious, in the personality. Only then will we be truly fit to represent the glory of God without wanting even a small fraction of it for ourselves. [p. 42] This 'purification of fundamental motives' summarises rather precisely our task within theism. The Theistic God is a God of Love, and he relates to us by means of our loves: it is there in particular where we must purify ourselves. And talk of 'representing the glory of God' is again pure theism, since this is the the result of being successfully conformed to receive Love and Wisdom: we become 'an image and likeness of God', a representation. 

As strange as it sounds, when some people experience enlightened consciousness, it's not uncommon for them to conclude that now, because they are free, what they do doesn't matter. Some have even said things like: ''What the personality says and what the body does is of no significance whatsoever - it's all an illusion anyway. The only thing that is real is the Self Absolute.'' [p. 42] Here, Cohen address the 'moral issue' of nondualism mentioned earlier. His answer is in part: ''the spiritual dimension of life only becomes apparent through ... profound human transformation. That unborn, unseen reality must become manifest as you and I, so that this world that we're living in will literally be transformed by it. And the only way that can happen is if you and I become a living expression of that mystery and glory, that One without a second, in this world. One without a second means undivided. When there's only One without a second, then only one thing will be expressed, and that is Love.''. This is a good theistic presentation, if 'expression' is again 'representation' rather than identity (as it may have been read by nondualists), and if 'undivided' applied to God does not forbid His sustaining of creation. Still, the essential feature for Cohen, as for religious theists, is that ''[most of] spiritual practice is about the purification of our motivation in relationship to the human experience. That means we make the noble effort to face and come to terms with the destructive nature of our petty self-concern''. Cohen continues ''... in light of our true identity as One without a second'', but theists merely change this to '... in light of our true identity as sustained by the One without a second'.

Cohen says ''The goal is to get to that point where the personality naturally and spontaneously expresses a perfect and seamless consistency of pure motivation. That means nothing is hidden, there are no secrets, and nothing is personal.'' [p. 42] and later ''with a ruthless integrity we must scrutinize our own motives and make the honest effort to find out what our relationship to life is really based on'' [p. 47] which again summarise the spiritual tasks of the theist in the reformation and regeneration of the lives by means of some self-examination. This is provided 'personal' here is taken to refer to ego concerns (selfish loves), rather than even the very existence of a person. 

The descent of Grace is not sufficient by itself, Cohen explains, because the conscious experience of divine presence usually grants us only a temporary respite from the ego's endless needs and concerns. That kind of experience, as inspiring as it may be, is just not enough to set us free. [p. 59] This again is the theistic view; that grace may remind us of our tasks ahead by giving us a foretaste, but that the real task consists of living a life full of faith and love. 

As long as there is a human being who is walking and talking, there is always going to be someone in there who is making the choices. ... As long as there is a human being who is walking and talking, there is always going to be someone in there who is making the choices. [p. 63] Here, Cohen puts his finger on an essential aspect of theism: that the Divine sustenance leaves us yet free to make our own choices and decisions. We are all given (at least) rationality and freedom to think and choose as if by ourselves. It is these decisions which make us human, according to both Cohen and theism, and therefore the regeneration of this humanity must begin by taking responsibility for our choices. 

Cohen distinguishes though and action: ''the door to liberation is found when you discover that the mere presence of thought has no power whatsoever unless you believe that it does. '' [p. 71] In theism, this statement becomes true if we say '... unless you think from any intention ', which is to bring the thought into the will. (In Cohen's book there is not a fully fledged account of will and understanding.) In theism, one of the spiritual practices is to view (but not adopt) the multitude of thoughts that continually bubble into our minds. We should examine them all, and only allow good thoughts into our intention (the others we have to tell to get lost!) Cohen summarises part of this by saying ''The right relationship with thought is one in which we identify only with those thoughts that are in line with our desire to be free.'' [p. 72]. In fact, we can apply this to the thoughts that are in line with any desire for what is good. 

Cohen comes down hard on the Ego: ''Ego is the one and only obstacle to enlightenment. Ego is pride. Ego is arrogant self-importance. Ego is the deeply mechanical and profoundly compulsive need to always see the personal self as being separate from others, separate from the world, separate from the whole universe. Ego is a love-denying obsession with separation, narcissism, and self-concern.'' [p. 81] Furthermore, he says that ''it is only when we take the enormous risk of not looking into it, of leaving the ego completely alone, that we will finally be able to see it for what it really is.'' [p. 84] Here, Cohen is apparently paradoxical, since earlier (p. 42) he talks of purifying our fundamental motives, and if these are 'conscious and unconscious' then clearly some of them are connected to the ego. Cohen admits that his admonition to 'leave the Ego completely alone' stems in part from 'the kind of teacher that I am' [p. 85], and indeed the theistic viewpoint is that the reformation and regeneration of the human person is a process of many steps that begins by using ego loves (such as curiosity, ambition and the love of knowledge) that may ultimately be discarded. Cohen speaks from the nondualist tradition when he speaks of 'instantaneous enlightenment', yet even in his own life it is clear that this was not permanently won overnight.

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