December 17, 2012
Road to the Apocalypse: “Freedom in the Face of Fear”
The final ‘Guru and Pandit’ dialogue of 2012, between Andrew and integral philosopher Ken Wilber, is happening LIVE, this Friday, December 21st at 7pm ET (USA). Register here. In order to give you a taste of what’s in store, as well as to help set a larger context, you can read one of their previous dialogues below.
Taken from the ‘Envisioning the Future’ issue of EnlightenNext magazine, Andrew and Ken discuss the challenge of staying connected with a higher spiritual perspective even when humanity’s very survival hangs in the balance:
“Freedom in the Face of Fear”
Guru and Pandit series with Andrew Cohen and Ken Wilber
Andrew Cohen: These days, just about everyone is aware of the fact that we’re in what many consider to be a global crisis. At this particular moment, of course, we’re most aware of the great financial crisis, but this is happening in the context of other looming dangers—the threat of terrorism, climate change, and the destruction of our natural environment, to name just a few. In this issue of EnlightenNext, we feature a number of prominent futurists who offer us their perspectives on what we may face in the coming months, years, and decades. But I thought that you and I could approach this theme from a slightly different perspective and look into the individual’s internal, subjective, existential, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual relationship to crisis.
I’ve thought quite a lot about this matter, and I have made some interesting observations about myself and other people. I’ve noticed that what happens when human beings become frightened is a profound contraction in the self. When our way of life and our sense of freedom are being threatened, there is not only an emotional contraction but an intellectual, philosophical, and spiritual contraction—a contraction of our capacity to think in big ways.
Ken Wilber: That’s exactly right. Times of crisis tend to aggravate the self-contraction. And this issue is really crucial right now, given the nature of our times.
The Spiritual Impact of Crisis
Cohen: I think this is especially poignant or significant for people who are interested in what we could call a spiritually inspired worldview and perspective. All forms of mystical spirituality are based on a direct experience or apprehension of limitlessness—a primordial freedom, an infinite expanse, an eternal ground of all being. And when we have that kind of experience, when we become aware of no limitation whatsoever, it affects very dramatically the way we think about what it means to be a human being. You and I have spoken quite a bit about the mysterious and miraculous friction that occurs when the inherently limited individual self sense begins to awaken to that dimension of reality that is absolutely without limitation. It’s the friction between the unlimited and the limited that gives rise to spiritual ecstasy and spiritual inspiration and spiritual perspectives.
In evolutionary spirituality, that sense of limitlessness is experienced not only in the primordial Ground of Being, beyond time and form, that the mystical traditions speak of, but also in the world of time and form through the direct awakening to what I call the evolutionary impulse itself. That impulse is none other than the driving force behind all of creation. When we experience that evolutionary drive, we become conscious of a sense of infinite potential that is reaching out, ever expanding into the unknown future. It is calling us to itself, imploring us to respond to it and become one with it in an ecstatic embrace of the life process.
Now, generally speaking, when human beings are threatened at the level of survival—whether by war or disease or global warming or the apocalypse—there tends to be a contraction. When we get concerned with survival, we let go of the spiritually awakened and evolutionarily enlightened perspective and just become concerned with our own welfare. We literally lose touch with the light. And in that, we lose touch not only with the infinite openness and inherent freedom of the Ground of Being but even more importantly, in terms of what I’m interested in, with the awareness of our potential for infinite development, our potential to consciously evolve.
So I thought it would be good for us to speak a little bit about how important it is never to let that happen, no matter what happens to us. I think it is crucial for people to understand that the instinct to survive comes naturally to us, because we have been surviving all kinds of crises for hundreds of thousands of years! But the instinct to evolve, as it’s just beginning to reveal itself—that spontaneous aspiration to become more conscious—is very new. For most human beings it’s a barely emergent awareness. So this new instinct needs to be protected and nurtured, and we mustn’t let it get buried under all the fear that naturally arises when our survival appears to be threatened.
Wilber: I think that’s exactly right. The issues you are raising are really crucial right now, given the sense of lack in our world, the sense of something being missing, the sense of being poverty-stricken.
One helpful way to look at this is through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Abraham Maslow found empirically that people are driven by about a half dozen fundamental needs, which he represented as a pyramid with the more basic needs at the bottom. He observed that when we fulfill the most basic of those needs, the next higher need emerges. When physiological and safety needs are taken care of, belongingness or love needs and esteem needs and eventually self-actualization needs emerge. But what he found that was especially interesting in terms of this discussion is that human needs are divided into two major types of motivation, which he called deficiency needs and being needs. Deficiency needs are needs that are driven by a lack—and the five I just mentioned, from physiological to self-actualization, are all deficiency needs.
But Maslow found that after self-actualization needs are met, an entirely different type of motivation emerges—a motivation that is driven not by lack but by abundance, by overflowing. He called these being needs—and the need for self-transcendence was his example of this. At this point, what has happened is that the person has indeed started to get in touch with the absolute dimension of their being, with a limitless primordial freedom and fullness, a great perfection, an infinite openness, a timeless now, the blissful joy and happiness of the Ground of all Being. When they’re in contact with that, their motivation is one of fullness, of spilling out, of abundance. It’s as if you’re given a billion dollars—the first thing you do is start sharing it with your friends, as opposed to when you have only ten dollars and you’re scrounging.
So the essential point in times of crisis is, as you have been saying, not to let the circumstances aggravate the self-contraction and cause a regression from being needs to deficiency needs. Don’t let that whole dimension of motivation for self-transcendence, and even self-evolution, be lost and driven back down into self-esteem or belongingness or even safety needs.
Cohen: Exactly. Especially because that need to consciously evolve is such a new emergence, just barely appearing at the top of the pyramid, it’s all too easy to lose touch with it.
Wilber: One of Maslow’s main students was Clare Graves, whose work formed the basis of Spiral Dynamics, which we’ve spoken about many times. In his research involving human values, Graves found two essential types of motivation, which he called first tier and second tier. Graves’s first-tier stages are similar to the first five levels in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the deficiency needs, while his second-tier stages correspond generally to Maslow’s being needs. For Clare Graves, one of the defining factors of second tier was that there is a dramatic drop in fear. And that’s important.
Cohen: Very important.
Wilber: The level of fear really is sort of a marker of how identified you are with the separate, merely individual self. The Upanishads say, “Wherever there is other there is fear.” Higher consciousness—the consciousness of nonduality, of suchness—transcends the sense of separation that is inherent in subject-object duality. Individuals motivated by self-transcendent needs, by being needs, feel themselves to be essentially one with manifestation. The Sufis call it the Supreme Identity. So you have what Zen calls “body-mind dropped”—you’re no longer exclusively identified with the individual body-mind, and so fear drops also, because there’s much less concern for the fate of this individual organism. Yet if we allow crisis times to reactivate the self-contraction and allow a regression down into first-tier or deficiency needs, then we are allowing these conditions to push us out of Kosmic consciousness, out of radiant, radical, nondual suchness, and into one of the lower value structures that is isolated and separate and contracted. Unfortunately, that’s one of the main things that happens during times like these.
Cohen: That’s all too true. I encourage people who are reading or hearing this conversation to pay attention to this movement in themselves, to look closely at their own responses to the current circumstances in light of the kinds of distinctions we’re making. In putting together this issue, we did an interview with futurist John Petersen, which laid out a pretty bleak picture of our very near future. After listening to it, I saw myself literally descend out of what you’ve been calling being needs and fall right down to a survival level. Suddenly, everything I’ve devoted my life to and everything I’m living for—the evolution of consciousness and culture and the inherent glory of that in every moment—seemed to vanish. I found myself thinking, “There’s no point in doing this. We just need to find a way to get through this crisis.” It took me about three or four hours to get back in touch with the glory and beauty of what’s always calling me.
So I want people to think about the distinctions we’re making—to spend some time paying attention to those moments when they make this descent into fear and see how different the world begins to look. It’s one thing to just discuss things like this, but it’s quite another thing to actually see it in one’s own experience. These internal flips can happen very, very quickly, especially if we get faced with real crises. What we need to learn to do, because we are faced with a real crisis, is not to lose perspective and not lose touch with that dimension of our experience that isn’t relative and that’s always more important than anything else.
Wilber: It’s critical. That’s why, at these times, our spiritual practice becomes essential. We really do have to develop a heightened awareness of our own internal mechanisms and of what can throw us out of being grounded in this unqualifiable, timeless-moment awareness and back into a contracted, survivalist mode. That’s really important, because there are some very serious survivalist issues right now.
Wilber: We might not make it as a species. There are some very, very real concerns. And being able to watch the internal dynamics, to watch yourself contract in the face of that, is a supreme teacher. It’s a chance, as you described in your own example, to really learn how you allow the survivalist mode to knock you out of your true self and your already free awareness.
Cohen: Yes. The reason it’s so important is that when we descend back down the ladder of development, it’s not just our feeling experience that contracts; it’s our perspectives and our values. We fall out of touch with that which is higher, that which has inherent glory, and we contract into a very fearful orientation to life.
Cohen: Often, the human beings who are able to really make a difference in these times are those who are able to see these very real crises and global events in the biggest developmental context—to see it all as part of a larger process, which itself is indestructible. Never losing touch with that perspective is critical, because the problem is that when we lose touch with the bigger perspective, we lose touch with the best part of ourselves. That’s the big challenge at times like these.
Wilber: We’ve seen a lot of that, individually and culturally and planetarily.
Cohen: That’s also why what you said about the importance of practice is true. I think one has to be a spiritual hero to be able to keep one’s eye both on the timeless ground of consciousness itself and on this larger Kosmic evolutionary perspective. One needs to have a deep samadhi, a powerful focus, a steadiness of purpose, a big perspective, an evolutionary worldview—and this all needs to be cultivated.
Wilber: That is a challenging task, especially when in a psychological, cultural, and economic sense the world is going through a great depression. It’s happening in all four quadrants, as we would say—the psychological, the cultural, the social, the biological. It’s almost as if a subtle energy of consciousness is itself getting contracted, and that’s what’s getting transmitted to all of us. That’s what happens during survivalist times. So being aware of that and keeping the big picture in mind is exactly what needs to be done. That’s why these times are opportunities, in that sense, to be able to find this being awareness even in the midst of the survivalist self-contraction and to be able to affirm that unqualifiable, infinite, joyful, radiant, timeless presence in ourselves, even as we go about taking seriously the issues in the manifest world that need to be responded to. That’s not to say we only want to be in touch with spiritual values and ignore the crisis. We’re saying to be in touch with both—with samsara and with the troubles that are going on there and with nirvana, which is the ultimate great liberation.
Cohen: Yes, and I would make one addition to that. It’s one thing to be aware of the inherent and timeless nature of the Ground of all Being—that infinite radiant nirvana you were speaking of. But we also want to be aware of the evolutionary impulse, the ecstatic creative spark that awakens in consciousness, the aspiration to evolve and to develop that’s driven by a kind of utopian urge. It’s an impulse to express that inherent perfection and wholeness that we intuit in the timeless unmanifest dimension here in the manifest realm. So I just wanted to add that element to what you were saying. The challenge isn’t just to not lose touch with the primordial, timeless Ground of Being; it’s also to not lose touch with that utopian impulse, that aspiration to manifest perfection.
Wilber: For all beings.
Cohen: Yes, for all beings and for the universe itself.
When the New Age Meets the Apocalypse
Cohen: You know, there are many people who say that a complete collapse is actually necessary for that which is new to be able to emerge, so that out of the ashes an extraordinary regeneration can occur. I don’t just mean apocalyptic fundamentalists. I mean people we know who are generally quite progressive in their views. But I don’t agree with that way of thinking. If everything collapses, we’ll have to struggle just to get back to where we were, let alone move forward! But too many spiritually oriented people tend to think this way, and I feel it’s a little bit naïve, if not even dangerous.
Wilber: I think it is naïve. It’s like the Y2K bug all over again—the notion that there’s going to be complete societal collapse and then out of that love and compassion will grow and put us back together again. It’s a lovely thought, but it’s highly naïve and very impractical. What that kind of collapse really does is throw human beings down the scale of development, back down into first tier—to physiological needs, safety needs, survival needs. If there were to be a worldwide collapse, we would be thrown back down the scale of technological modes of existence. We would be out in the streets foraging for food. Then we’d have to learn how to plant food again and go from horticulture to agrarian, and then develop machinery and slowly work our way back to the industrial era and from there into the information era. So the idea that somehow a complete collapse is going to get rid of just the bad stuff and leave all the good stuff implicitly in place is a little bit crazy.
Cohen: It’s almost like when a New Age myth meets a kind of traditional apocalyptic perspective.
Wilber: Yeah. Now, if we look at human history, we do see that human beings have almost never acted with enough foresight and wisdom to change the course of the world’s problems before some type of catastrophe. Usually something has to really get sick before we’ll give it enough attention to fix it. So that’s where the impetus for this collapse idea comes from. But it’s crazy to exaggerate it and to say that there has to be total collapse before anything is going to change.
Cohen: Or even worse, to say that that collapse is going to pave the way for this extraordinary renewal.
Wilber: Psychologically, that just doesn’t happen. Technologically, it doesn’t happen. And culturally, it doesn’t happen.
Cohen: On an individual level, I’ve seen many people go through some pretty bad phases and sink to much lower levels or structures within themselves. But that’s rarely the catalyst for some kind of extraordinary awakening or renewal. There are occasional cases, of course, where this kind of thing happens, but it’s the exception rather than the rule. So I think that in popular spirituality, and also in some traditional orientations, this is a kind of a myth that has gotten overemphasized. The fact that it may be true in some exceptions doesn’t make it a rule. It’s usually quite the opposite.
Wilber: Yes. I think it’s a misreading of how growth and development occur. Although it certainly is the case that in some instances some type of breakdown is necessary for some type of breakthrough to occur.
Wilber: Spiritually, the ego has to break down in order for a satori to break through, and so on. But that’s quite different from having the entire mechanism of culture collapse. That’s not going to generate love and peace—it’s going to generate survivalist war, aggression, anger, and hatred.
Cohen: You know, in spite of how bad things seem, I also feel—and of course I could be wrong—that somehow or other we are going to get through this. There seems to be such a sense of goodwill and positivity and passion for life and ingenuity in the human spirit, and even more so since Obama’s election. It feels so strong to me that it just doesn’t seem like we’re going to be leaving this planet anytime soon. It’s not certain that we’re going to get through this crisis, but it feels to me more likely than anything else. Our will to survive and our capacity for innovation are such that it just intuitively feels like we’re going to find a way through.
Wilber: I personally believe that is the case. I believe that those circumstances where it’s a close call—not complete collapse but economically stressful times—can be part of the evolutionary stresses that help humanity realize the necessity to come together. One of the good ways to look at our present predicament is that the ecological crisis is basically the first worldwide crisis, the first one that affects every man, woman, and child on the planet. That type of crisis hasn’t happened before, and what it’s starting to show us is that in terms of the evolution of social structures, we have reached the limit of what the nation-state can do. There are three things that nation-states no longer can control: They can’t control global climate issues in the great commons of the entire planet; they can’t alone control monetary issues; and they can’t control war. So those issues are pushing evolutionarily against the limitations of our present form of social organization, and new forms of social organization that are global and planetary are going to start emerging. Globalization, in both the positive and negative sense, is here, it’s on us, and it really is showing that there needs to be a transition into the next form of human organization, one that will have to include some sort of world federation.
Cohen: How exciting!
Wilber: And have global issues at its heart. So we are just at the beginning of that, and it’s a very frightening and exciting period in spiritual evolution. It’s one of the positive sides of the crises that we are going through right now.
Cohen: The leaders of the first world, hopefully, will be able to take a big leap, because the leap to a global federation really is a big one.
Wilber: That’s right. Nobody is going to willingly give up power. So it’s going to continue to take a series of crises.
Cohen: To force it, to compel it to happen.
Wilber: Right. In measured doses, these crises do push us into coming up with new solutions.
Cohen: Ideally these kinds of crises can be opportune moments for individuals and cultures that ordinarily would have greater trouble getting along to realize that it’s going to be much easier to survive and prosper together than it will be alone. When there’s a perceived threat, either from a common enemy or from nature, we human beings have proved historically that we are willing to come together for mutual survival. But it’s also important to realize that what has hardly ever happened is for individuals and groups to come together to actually evolve.
Cohen: Of course, if there’s a common threat that we face, there are certain differences that we’re going to be willing to let go of in order to come together. We are going to have to make sacrifices for the sake of our collective survival. But this is also true for the evolution of consciousness. When human beings come together to consciously evolve, certain kinds of sacrifices will also have to be made, and I don’t think that has ever really happened. So this is something I speak about quite often to try and give people a sense of what I feel we need to do now. We’ve proved that we can come together when we’re threatened by a common enemy, but can we come together to evolve? What has yet to happen, as far as I can see, is for human beings to be compelled to come together to create the future, to make the world a better and more enlightened place—not to be spurred on by crises or fear but inspired by the love of truth, the love of God, for the sake of the evolutionary impulse itself. That hasn’t happened yet. It’s an important thing for people to think about. Even the most extraordinary innovation—whether in technology or in breathtaking acts of compassion and bravery—has often happened as a result of crisis or warfare. I think humanity as a whole has yet to reach that point where we find ourselves inspired to work together, not because there is a common threat but because there’s really nothing else to do.
Wilber: That’s true, and demographic studies can help us to see why that is the case. If you look at moral development, it unfolds like virtually all lines of development, through three or four major stages. We can call these egocentric, ethnocentric, worldcentric, and Kosmocentric.
Egocentric means that morals are decided by what I feel: What’s right is what I say is right, and what’s good is what’s good for me, and to hell with everybody else. That’s the narcissistic, egocentric stance that is expressed in the earliest stages of moral development in individuals and cultures. That moral context expands when the individuals start to include others of their group in moral consideration. Then what is right and good becomes what is good for my tribe or my family or my nation. That’s the ethnocentric stage. And then the next stage is worldcentric, and that looks at what is right or good in terms of what’s right or good for all human beings, regardless of race, sex, or creed. And finally, Kosmocentric is what’s right for all sentient beings—not just humans but the great consciousness looking out through the eyes of every sentient being and in identity with all of the Kosmos.
So when we look at the world in terms of actual development, the picture is a little bit depressing: Seventy percent of the world’s population is at the ethnocentric stage or lower. But we have to remember that that’s still a huge leap from where we were in premodern times. There is a steady increase in individuals who expand love and care and compassion beyond themselves and beyond their tribe into all tribes and indeed to all sentient beings. We’re moving along on that and getting a little bit closer, but I don’t think we are at a point where the world is going to come together in one collective unity.
Cohen: Of course. I think it would be far into the future before such a thing like that could happen. But I’m not talking about all of humanity coming together in some kind of perfect harmony. I’m just saying that it’s very rare or almost unheard of for any groups of individuals to merge simply for the sake of evolution itself, not spurred on by a conflict. Usually what causes us to transcend our differences and come together are crises, not these higher spiritual motives.
Wilber: That’s exactly right.
Cohen: And it’s important. Often people think that responding to problems and crises is evolution. And I say, well, not necessarily. Evolution really means a moving forward, a creation of something new, not just a restoration of peace and a return to the way things were. Of course, conflict, as we’ve been saying, can and often does compel us to find new ways to move forward creatively and practically, and that’s good. But that’s different than what it means to evolve for its own sake, which is the highest motive there is.
Cohen: So I think it’s very important not to confuse the aspiration to make the world a better place by fixing its many problems with the aspiration to consciously evolve. The evolutionary impulse is ultimately for its own sake. As we awaken to this evolutionary impulse, we begin to understand that merely surviving is not what we are here for. Consciously and intentionally striving to evolve, individually and collectively, for the sake of the evolution of the entire creative process is what imbues human life with a higher meaning and purpose. And what an extraordinary world we can create when we are in touch with this very best part of ourselves!
Andrew’s final Guru & Pandit dialogue of 2012 with Ken Wilber is coming up on December 21st. Register here.
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