Breaking the Rules
The Guru and the Pandit
Ken Wilber and Andrew Cohen in Dialogue
Does radical transformation break the unwritten rules of our postmodern spiritual culture? In this dialogue between guru and pandit, spiritual teacher and founder of What Is Enlightenment? Andrew Cohen and integral philosopher Ken Wilber take a piercing look at the contemporary spiritual scene and ask us how serious we are about really changing. And, in fact, change itself defines the cutting-edge spirituality that they explored in our last issue where this new WIE feature made its debut. In that issue, these two pioneers explored the unorthodox conclusion that they each had come to: the bold claim that enlightenment is evolving. They discussed how the deep spiritual recognition of nonduality—the union of emptiness and form—takes on a new significance in light of the knowledge that the world of form is itself changing, ever-complexifying, forward-moving, and increasingly conscious.
So, where do we stand on the question of change—profound, radical, evolutionary change? In this intimate dialogue, Andrew shares his experience of calling students to transform, as Ken provides an incisive assessment of the contemporary spiritual scene. Refusing to join the "conspiracy of mediocrity" that has flattened postmodern spirituality, they present an approach to spiritual transformation that calls us to live from the enlightened perspective. Together, these two, the guru and the pandit, transform spiritual transformation, revealing the possibility not only of changing ourselves but of participating in the evolution of global consciousness itself.
ANDREW COHEN: We're living in an extraordinary time, at the beginning of the twenty-first century. There seems to be an unprecedented potential for conscious evolution these days, and yet our collective future has never seemed more precarious. So much hangs in the balance, and I think the issue of transformation has never been more important. But after sixteen years of teaching a spiritual path that calls for radical transformation, I can say unequivocally that the simple truth is that everybody wants to get enlightened but nobody wants to change. Actual transformation is something that the ego, or the separate self-sense, inherently resists in the unenlightened state. In fact, the ego lives in profound fear of the kind of insecurity that change creates, and is constantly endeavoring to create the illusion of permanence in a world where everything's changing all the time, and these days, faster than ever! But there's no doubt, as we agreed in our last dialogue, that enlightenment for the twenty-first century demands that we not only cease to resist the fact of perpetual change but actually embrace it through a dynamic surrendered engagement with the life-process. That's what I call Evolutionary Enlightenment, and it's incredibly thrilling and consistently inspiring.
Now, as you express passionately in your recent book Boomeritis, the fact is that unless we are able and willing to evolve—and at this point, evolve quickly—we're probably not going to be able to prevent a very disastrous phase in human history. You also shed much-needed light on the state of our contemporary culture, and identify a postmodern cultural disease called "boomeritis" as the major obstacle to our next evolutionary step. Can you explain briefly what boomeritis is?
KEN WILBER: In order to understand boomeritis, it might help to have a general understanding of the historical context. Many sociologists have identified three general phases of cultural development: a traditional culture, a modern culture, and a postmodern culture. And those correspond in some sense to three types or levels or waves of consciousness.
The traditional culture has a kind of mythic-literal religious orientation, a very fundamentalist orientation, such as a belief that the Bible or the Qu'ran is literally true, and so on. It is marked by a belief in an absolute and unyielding truth—for example, nobody can achieve salvation without believing in Jesus or Allah. Such cultures are usually nationalistic, ethnocentric, patriarchal, with an emphasis on family values and good ol' time religion.
The modern culture has a more rational, scientific, business type of orientation. It classically started with the Western Enlightenment and is the dominant mode of governance of most industrialized democracies. It believes that there are scientific truths and they are universal, but they have to be established by research and empirical studies.
The third major phase is the postmodern culture. In distinction to the traditional mythic orientation and the modern rational mode, the postmodern orientation maintains that there actually is a plurality of worldviews—there's a relativistic series of cultural beliefs, and you can't really say one of them is right and one of them is wrong because so much of what we call truth is really an interpretation. So the whole notion of postmodernism is that reality is not merely given—it's constructed and interpreted.
Now there are elements of truth, so to speak, in each of these orientations, although most developmentalists, including myself, see each successive wave as being a higher, wider, or more complex level of development. So general development tends to move from traditional to modern to postmodern. And a lot of us believe there are even higher levels or waves of consciousness, but these are the three that are present on a widespread scale among adults in today's world. And, of course, in any given society, you find a mixture of these cultures and individuals.
In this country, for example, sociologist Paul Ray [author of The Cultural Creatives] estimates that about 20 percent of the people are at the traditional mythic level, about 50 percent are at the modern, universal, rational level, and about 25 percent are at postmodern pluralistic, which includes the cultural creatives. And frankly, most of the people who would be listening to what we have to say come out of that postmodern, pluralistic, cultural-creative context. And that's both good news and bad news. The good news is that it is indeed a higher, deeper wave of consciousness development than what came before, and therefore it's open to higher, deeper, and wider truths, including certain spiritual realities. The bad news is that each of these great waves of development has a pathology, or shadow side, or downside, and the pluralistic wave is no different. Its downside is, "Since all views are equally correct, nobody is right and nobody is wrong. My truth is true for me and you cannot say that my truth isn't true."
AC: Boy, that sounds familiar!
THE DOWNSIDE OF PLURALISM
AC: As you make clear in Boomeritis, this pluralistic-postmodern level of development you've been describing, which in the system of Spiral Dynamics is also called the "green meme," is a position that tends to be inherently anti-evolutionary and anti-transformational.
KW: It does tend to be that way. But it gets tricky, because what the green meme, or the pluralistic-postmodern wave of development, likes to talk about is transformation. And there's a grain of truth to the fact that the green meme really does want to transform, even if it badly fumbles the ball on occasion. But remember that this particular pluralistic wave really is a very high level of development. That needs to be kept in mind, even though we're talking about the pathological version. This wave didn't become really widespread until the sixties, and the boomers were the first generation in history where a significant percentage was in fact at this fairly high pluralistic level of development. The previous level or wave, which is still prevalent, the universal rational wave, became widespread with the Western Enlightenment and is itself only around three hundred years old. But the green meme, the pluralistic wave, came into widespread existence only about thirty years ago. So, all of the great positive aspects of the sixties, including environmental protection, feminism, health care reforms, and, most importantly, the civil rights movement, were products of healthy pluralism and healthy postmodernism. Those were the positive gains of the cultural creatives, the green meme, the pluralistic wave. So in that sense, it was a transformative event because transformation means any vertical move in the developmental scale. And the boomers, the cultural creatives, were a transformation from modern to postmodern, or from rational to pluralistic, from orange to green—whatever terms one prefers.
But once they settled in there, boy, they settled in! And you're not going to get them to move now because the downside is that once you're there, you are not allowed to make judgments, because "Everybody's expressive truth is the same." So you can't challenge somebody and say, "Look, you have to grow. You're being self-contracted. There's a higher spiritual reality." They'll say, "How do you know it's higher? How dare you judge me!"
So when boomers engage in a spiritual path, their fundamental desire is not to transcend the ego but to confirm it, to express it, to be told that "What I'm doing is wonderful and divine, just like I am." They are there to celebrate the self-contraction, to embrace the self-contraction and to feel it really hard and call that god or goddess or spirit. And you can't talk them out of it because then you're being judgmental.
Under the guise of pluralism—which holds that no truth is better than another—not just higher realities but also all of my petty, shallow, narcissistic tendencies can find a happy home. The higher significance of pluralism gets swamped with lower impulses, contracted tendencies, and egocentric expression—all now parading under the banner of pluralism.
To put it simply: boomeritis is pluralism infected with narcissism. It's the very high truths of pluralism completely corrupted and derailed by an ego that uses them to entrench itself firmly in a place where it can never be challenged because there is no objective truth that can get rid of it.
AC: This is the same kind of resistance that I've been endeavoring to penetrate for the whole sixteen years I've been teaching.
KW: Alas, it's a green swamp.
AC: With a vengeance! When I read Boomeritis, it was a revelation to me because it helped me to understand in a broader context why so many people have been deeply resistant in the face of my call for change. Ever since I began teaching, I have been consistently challenging people to evolve, to transform—to move from a lower to a higher level of development. Very specifically, I have been asking them to make the noble effort to move beyond inertia, beyond resistance, beyond ego. Initially, when someone is inspired and wants to become a student, it's as if they have fallen in love. "Oh, this is wonderful," they say. "This is fantastic. This is everything I've ever dreamed of." But sooner or later the inevitable occurs: I ask them to change and they turn on me in a rage—a narcissistic rage.
KW: Yes, that's boomeritis to the core. Everything is wonderful until you make a judgment, then narcissistic rage comes front and center, and now you, the teacher, and not the student's ego, are supposedly the problem.
"THOU SHALT NOT JUDGE"
AC: As long as the seeker after higher truths is firmly entrenched in the green meme, it renders the teacher-student relationship virtually dysfunctional. One comes to a teacher of liberation to evolve spiritually. But this particular entrenched position will often undermine the teacher's ability to help the person who came to them to evolve, because the teacher-student relationship, when authentic, is going to demand transformation—not just horizontal affirmation but vertical transformation.
KW: And the student has to accept a "judgment" that they are at a lesser stance of consciousness, at least in this particular regard.
AC: Yes, exactly, this is the big problem. At a recent retreat that I gave, the issue of judgment became the topic of much heated discussion. I had to spend a great deal of time explaining that a big part of the evolutionary process has to do with the cultivation of the all-important capacity to discriminate—to see things more clearly. I had to bend over backward to help everyone understand that the manifest universe is made up of objects that are in relationship to each other, and that being able to see clearly what those relationships are doesn't necessarily imply a negative judgment, but is simply the expression of clear discrimination. If one aspires to have a liberated relationship to the human experience, then one has to be able to see things clearly in order to know how to make the right choices, how to respond in the most appropriate way in any given circumstance. And in order to do that, one is definitely going to have to be willing, God forbid, to make judgments!
I've noticed that especially for people who are engaged in the spiritual dimension of life, there is a tremendous fear, often to the point of becoming a superstition, of any conclusions about anything that could possibly be seen as being anything other than—
KW: —accepting of all stances.
AC: Yes, which of course is inherently an impossible position to take!
KW: Again, that's part of the real downside, the pathological version, of this wave of development. Of course, there are certain types of judgment that a liberal, advanced, caring person ought not to make. There are certain ways we should not be judgmental. We ought not to make judgments based on prejudice—based on skin color, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and so on. But there are types of judgments and discriminating awareness that are positive and necessary—including, incidentally, the healthy part of the pluralistic stance. That is, the postmodern pluralistic stance is itself a huge judgment: that certain types of judgments ought not to be made. And there are other types of judgments, traditionally known as discriminating wisdom, that do have to be made. Those have to do with degrees of depth, not between human beings but within any human being. One can be, for example, prerational, rational, or transrational, and each of those is a progressively higher level of development. One's perspective can be egocentric, ethnocentric, or worldcentric—and each of those is a progressively higher level of development. A worldcentric person will correctly condemn an ethnocentric judgment. Hierarchies like that are very important because they represent degrees of truth and inclusiveness and compassion. But if you get stuck in the green meme, you're jammed. You can't make a choice. You can't make any more decisions because ALL judgments and ALL hierarchies are supposed to be bad. I call it aperspectival madness.
AC: And these hierarchies that you're describing represent actual structures that exist in reality, real developmental structures. They're not just subjective conceptual fabrications.
KW: Yes, the point is that there are these general waves of unfolding, and they represent what we call "nested hierarchies" or "holarchies" of development—such as that worldcentric is higher than ethnocentric, which is higher than egocentric. It is better to be worldcentric than ethnocentric, and hence you can be very judgmental about ethnocentric prejudice. The irony is that the green meme itself is involved in making hierarchical judgments all the time, even though it denies hierarchies.
AC: That's self-contradictory.
KW: Right. It's now pretty widely accepted by most philosophers that postmodernism is riddled with what's called a performative self-contradiction. It condemns in others exactly what it constantly does itself. It makes judgments constantly. For example, it has its own hierarchy that says "linking is better than ranking"—well, that's a hierarchy of value. So it hierarchically condemns hierarchies. Oops!
But the positive aspect, again, is that green is cleaning out bad hierarchies; the downside is that it's losing all the good hierarchies as well. And, as we were saying, that stance very quickly turns on itself and becomes self-contradictory. The green wave itself is the product of a hierarchical developmental unfolding from traditional to modern to postmodern, so when the green meme condemns all hierarchies, it's basically condemning the very process that produced its own higher position.
AC: That's what's so enlightening about this point—realizing that condemning all hierarchies inherently destroys the very ground one is standing on.
KW: When you're faced with this in students, what exactly do you do? How do you, on the one hand, appreciate the fact that they no longer want to make, let's say, ethnocentric judgments or homophobic judgments, but, on the other hand, help them understand that they do have to make other judgments? We all have to make judgments based on the degree of depth in our own consciousness, in our own awareness. And there are higher states and stages of consciousness that a spiritual aspirant has to orient him- or herself toward if there's going to be growth and evolution at all, and those higher states definitely pass judgments on the lower and lesser states, just as worldcentric correctly passes judgment on ethnocentric.
AC: Well, the answer to that question would be that a spiritual mentor, if he or she is authentic, should be able to demonstrate to the student that there is a living, breathing difference between their respective levels of consciousness that can be objectively recognized. And hopefully that's going to generate in the student a little humility and a lot of evolutionary tension, awakened inspiration, and real interest in meeting the mentor at his or her own level.
THE CONSPIRACY OF MEDIOCRITY
KW: Let me just say that in a student who's got a really bad case of boomeritis—which is to say, pretty much any cultural creative out there, all fifty million strong—the internal stance is, "I'm holding on to my position and nobody can tell me what to do. My state, just as it is, has the same worth as any other." And that stance effectively aborts any real transformation.
And so, for example, most of the people involved with what I call Boomeritis Buddhism even deny the importance of satori or Enlightenment or Awakening. Because that's saying some states are higher than others—and we shouldn't be judgmental. But guess what? Some states are higher. And so the entire raison d'etre of Buddhism gets tossed out the door because it offends the pluralistic ego. Yikes!
AC: So the whole point is that with boomeritis, real radical transformation is against the rules.
KW: Yes. Well, it has to be.
AC: To dare to even speak about radical transformation, let alone call other people to a higher level, is against the unstated rules. And of course, one's definitely going to be put in one's place for doing something like that. But unless the possibility of genuine transformation is actually declared, unless one is willing to demonstrate it publicly and to call other people to the same, no one is even going to know that it's possible. And then unknowingly, everybody's going to be participating in the conspiracy of mediocrity.
KW: Yes, the conspiracy of mediocrity, which is basically the conspiracy to express your ego instead of transcending it or letting go of it. The idea is "If I can really emote and express my self-contraction with sincerity, I'm somehow spiritual." So then we have a convention of the self-contractions, and that's basically boomeritis spirituality. It's a problem, to put it mildly. And it's a concern to me that a lot of teachers actually embrace that kind of postmodern flatland pluralism.
AC: Well, I think that part of the reason for that is that many people are teaching now who actually have had little if any enlightenment experience or satori themselves. And if one is a teacher and yet has little authentic experience on which to base one's teaching, one is going to end up being in the kind of position you described.
KW: I think that's certainly part of the picture. Another part of the picture, which concerns me even more, is that I know some teachers who have had a very strong satori, but they still interpret it through the mental apparatus that they have in place. And so they interpret it through boomeritis, the mean green meme, pluralistic flatland. And that, frankly, is extremely unsettling.
AC: You know, over the years that I have been working with students, I've seen repeatedly that people who are at different levels of development can have a similar or even identical spiritual experience but will interpret what the experience means in a completely different way. And therefore it has become clear to me that the way we interpret our experience is far more important than the actual experience that we have.
KW: I think they're both very, very important. And certainly the interpretative component has an enormous hand in this. One of the things that I've tried to do in various writings, as you know, is develop a kind of matrix of various types of altered states. This matrix has two major components. There are levels or stages of consciousness, and there are also altered states of consciousness. And you may experience a gross, subtle, causal, or nondual state of consciousness, but it will inevitably be interpreted through whatever stage of development you're at. So developmentally, you can be at the traditionalist level, or the modernist level, or the postmodernist level, or the integral level, and you can have a subtle or even nondual experience, but you're going to interpret it through whatever apparatus you have. So if, developmentally, you're at the green meme, you can have a very profound satori, but you're going to interpret it in pluralistic, flatland terms.
AC: Yes, and one will interpret it through one's self-infatuation or narcissism.
KW: That's the downside of pluralism—narcissism—that's the boomeritis form, the unhealthy form. And that's how we end up with Boomeritis Buddhism, or it could be Boomeritis Shamanism or Boomeritis Vedanta, et cetera.
AC: Because in whichever case, the satori or mystical breakthrough is being used to affirm one's own ego.
KW: Yes, alas.
AC: The spiritual experience, which ideally should be a stepping-stone to less ego and greater transparency, can in fact be the opposite, a catalytic event that empowers the ego, making it even more solid—and then we end up with real enlightened narcissism.
KW: That part to me is very disturbing, actually. And that's why I think Boomeritis Buddhism is the biggest internal threat to the dharma in the West—that's my own personal opinion. And we might as well come clean ourselves—I don't think any of us escapes some degree of boomeritis. You know, I've got a dose of it, I think you've got a dose of it, every human being who comes out of this culture has a dose of it. The question is, how much, what can we do about it, can we at least spot it, and is there some portion of us that's bigger than it? And I think that's of course why the student-teacher relationship is so important. Hopefully teachers like you and me and others have to some extent recognized this problem and moved a bit beyond it, or else we are not going to be of much help to anybody, but are simply going to reproduce our own boomeritis and now call it "spiritual."
AC: That's true. And don't you think the real issue here is dealing with ego? I mean, declaring ego to be the main issue in relationship to spiritual transformation is definitely not cool if you have boomeritis. In the East-meets-West spiritual marketplace, more often than not, self-acceptance seems to have replaced the goal of enlightenment, or real ego transcendence. The goal of the spiritual path has always been radical, and very demanding—an enormous leap beyond ego. And now suddenly it's about accepting ourselves the way we already are. And too often, powerful Buddhist and Vedantic enlightenment concepts are used as techniques to actually relieve the seeker of having to pay the price of transformation—to relieve them of the burden of having to really face themselves and change.
KW: I think that's very true. It's part of our therapeutic culture, where we don't make any judgments because that would hurt egoic self-esteem, and so all we do is embrace, console, and celebrate the personal self. Sophisticated forms of the therapeutic culture replace "subjectivity" with an emphasis on communal awareness or "intersubjectivity," and now intersubjectivity has become the main home of boomeritis. But all are variations on a celebration of the entrenched green meme and its therapeutic culture.
AC: So spiritual practice becomes nothing more than a form of therapy, where self-acceptance rather than ego-transcendence is the goal. The "practice" is being "nonjudgmental" under all circumstances and one ends up tying oneself up in knots trying to cultivate a dubious kind of compassion that often goes against all common sense.
KW: Yes, what Chogyam Trungpa called "idiot compassion." That's the therapeutic culture that is such a large part of boomeritis. But again, there are positive sides to the therapeutic culture and the green meme, and we need to honor those. Some people have low self-esteem, they're devastated, they've been abused and beaten and all of that—of course they need to improve self-esteem. But once you've done that, you need to let go of it. You really, really, really need to let go of self and egoic self-esteem altogether. And the problem is that therapists are basically pimps for samsara. They want to hold onto the egoic self-contraction and make it feel good about itself.
And yet the fundamental stance of enlightenment is: "If you feel rotten about yourself—good! That's the beginning of a correct perception."
AC: That's right!
KW: "You should fundamentally hate yourself in order to start moving beyond this tangled, contracted mess called you." That is the awakening of discriminating wisdom that opens up the possibility of higher, wider, deeper states and stages.
You know, there's that enigmatic statement of Christ's in the New Testament: "He who hateth not his own soul cannot be my disciple." Of course that makes perfect sense, but it is exactly what the therapeutic society does not want to hear or allow.
And so if people come and they say, "Gee, I'm not feeling too good about myself," the initial response should be, "Excellent, let's see if we can increase that. At some point you will find that your real Self is radically free of your small-self ego. And therefore you have a fullness and a freedom that is true Self esteem. But it starts by fundamentally throwing out this pitiful small slice of reality you call your ego."
AC: And as one goes deeper and deeper into the process of transformation, it gradually becomes clear what a daunting foe the ego really is, and what a poison narcissism is. We become aware of the long shadow that ego casts over our own consciousness and over the consciousness of others. But this is something that we're not going to be able to appreciate until we actually begin to awaken.
A BACKLASH OF CYNICISM
AC: Another dimension to all this is that in the spiritual marketplace, the strong current of antihierarchical sentiment is, in part, fueled by the deep cynicism out there about the actual possibility of radical transformation. And as you know, this is largely a result of what's occurred here in the West over the last thirty years or so. In the seventies, a lot of people got very excited about transformation. Many began to say, "Wow, it's really possible," and they started going to gurus and doing intensive spiritual practice. But then in the eighties and nineties, most of the great masters, individuals who at the time were considered to be fully enlightened, one after the other betrayed their students through blatant abuses of power. So there has been an enormous backlash of cynicism.
Few people are even aspiring to reach that high anymore, and one of the reasons for this is that a lot of teachers these days are kind of overcompensating, bending over backward to make everybody feel comfortable by leaving no doubt that in the end they're really not claiming to be much more evolved than the rest of us.
KW: That's true, and very unfortunate, I think. As we've been saying, now we are all supposed to simply come to some sort of sensitive, communal, shared self-acceptance of the self-contraction. And if we can really come to peace with that neurotic coil, and embrace it and hug it, then somehow that's the same as the enlightened state. Obviously that's a bit of a caricature, but that's what a lot of these teachers actually start to sound like.
AC: And of course, the great tragedy in all this is that the higher dimensions of human potential are often being left out of the picture.
KW: I've watched this up close. I've watched the human potential movement for about thirty years. The great promise of the human potential movement was very straightforward—there are higher human potentials. Now the problem is that the green meme, the mean green meme, the boomeritis version, got hold of that and said, "Wait a minute. You're saying there are higher potentials, so does that mean I'm lower? Because that can't be right." All of a sudden it implied a judgment, and nobody's allowed to be higher because that means somebody else is going to be lower. And you're not allowed to call anybody lower; therefore nobody's allowed to be higher.
So the whole human potential movement got derailed and, as we're saying, was replaced by this therapeutic self-expression, self-acceptance movement, which is fine as far as it goes, but which absolutely catastrophically prevents higher transformation. That's exactly what happened. And what I hear you calling for is the reawakening of this capacity and this desire to have a really radical transformation. The reawakening of the notion that there are higher potentials. And that means we have to awaken discriminating awareness, start making judgments about our own contracted state, and enter a relationship with a teacher who has some awareness of these higher possibilities.
THE AUTHENTIC SELF
AC: In light of everything we've been discussing, I'd like to speak a little bit about what real maturity is in relationship to spiritual transformation. Even though it doesn't sound very romantic, the truth is, I think, that in the end, sustained character development carries more spiritual weight, for most of us, than the peak experience, the ecstatic episode, the transitory event of samadhi or satori. The whole point is, how much real maturity, in human terms, is the seeker able to express in their relationship to life as a result of the spiritual experiences they've had? As you've clearly explained, ultimately it has to do with the degree of mature development. And the specific aspect of this that I'm very interested in has to do with narcissism, and how its presence, to varying degrees, makes it so difficult for the seeker—and also some teachers—to let go for real during the spiritual experience and as a result embrace a relationship to life that expresses real strength, dignity, and maturity.
In regard to this question, I wanted to bring up what I call the "authentic self." Sri Aurobindo referred to this as the "psychic being," and in Integral Psychology you call it the "deeper psychic."
KW: Yes, which is the opening to authentic being beyond conventional and egoic modes.
AC: Sri Aurobindo writes:
It is this secret psychic entity which is the true original Conscience in us deeper than the constructive and conventional conscience of the moralist, for it is this which points always towards Truth, and Right, and Beauty, towards Love, and Harmony and all that is a divine possibility in us, and persists till these things become the major need of our nature. It is the psychic personality in us that flowers as the saint, the sage, the seer; when it reaches its full strength, it turns the being towards the Knowledge of Self and the Divine, towards the supreme Truth, the supreme Good, the supreme Beauty, Love and Bliss, the divine heights and largenesses, and opens us to the touch of spiritual sympathy, universality, oneness. . . . If the secret psychic Person can come forward into the front and, replacing the desire-soul, govern overtly and entirely and not only partially and from behind the veil this outer nature of mind, life and body, then these can be cast into soul images of what is true, right and beautiful, and in the end the whole nature can be turned towards the real aim of life, the supreme victory, the ascent into spiritual existence.What's become apparent in my work with students is that unless the seeker becomes grounded in this authentic self, or psychic being—which is the true self, beyond ego, or the awakened spiritual conscience—then higher nondual enlightenment experiences are never going to stick. There's not going to be a firm ground for those potentially liberating and transformative experiences to take root. This kind of development—the awakening of the authentic self—is missing from the picture in many enlightenment teachings these days. And I think that's why these genuine higher experiences rarely result in real maturity—a human being whose awareness is resting in an awakened higher conscience.
KW: Yes. I think that's really true. And I would say that boomeritis is kind of a scab over that authentic self. I think it's actually the last major roadblock to an awakening of this deeper psychic disposition. That's one of the reasons that it really concerns me. Boomeritis ensconces the ego and the self-contraction as an unassailable entity that cannot be judged because "You are not allowed to judge me. How dare you?" And under those circumstances you're never going to find your own authentic self because the authentic self itself passes that same judgment on your self-contraction. So as long as you won't accept that judgment from your teacher, you won't accept it from your own higher self either.
AC: That's right. And unless one is emotionally grounded in the authentic self or soul, under pressure one will waver, one will betray that authentic self to the ego.
KW: Yes. What really tends to hold sway in people is indeed their emotional disposition. I call it the "center of gravity"—it's actually where you "live" so to speak. Under pressure is really when you find out where the person's "soul" is, where their center of gravity is, and unless it reaches into the deepest emotional disposition of a person, it is a superficial realization at best.
TOP-DOWN VS. BOTTOM-UP
AC: In relationship to this question of transformation, I thought it would be good to speak a little bit about a very important distinction between what we might call a bottom-up and a top-down model of how we relate to the human experience. In other words, the distinction between ego psychology and a psychology of liberation. Ego psychology gives us a bottom-up model: a relationship to the human experience that's based on the presumption that there's something wrong, that there's a fundamental problem. A psychology of liberation, however, gives us a top-down model, one that is based on the opposite presumption, that there's absolutely nothing wrong and that one is inherently free right now and in every moment.
If one is lucky, a certain moment will come where one GETS IT. One gets the whole picture. In that moment, one directly experiences one's own inherently liberated self, beyond mind and beyond time, and in that, knows for the first time one's very real potential for liberation in this life, because one sees the ego, and the conditioned mind, for what it truly is—relative, impermanent, and ultimately unreal.
Now, if one has had a very deep experience of the inherently liberated self, if one has directly seen that one has never actually been unfree, then one would be in a very unusual position. One would potentially be able to embrace a completely different relationship to one's own conditioned mind and emotions—a relationship that would be the expression of liberation itself. And for this to become the case, one would have to surrender wholeheartedly to what one has seen. One would have to consciously—
KW: —align oneself with it.
AC: Yes. And if through intense aspiration and profound surrender one is able to align oneself with the liberating truth of what one has seen, then we can say that such a person has awakened. To what degree is another issue, but we can say that a transformation has indeed occurred. And it would be obvious. For this kind of top-down transformation to be sustained, what's demanded is literally a different psychology—a psychology of liberation.
Just to illustrate this, I can tell you a story about one of my students. She has a Ph.D. in psychology, and she is very smart, an unusually bright human being. She really got my teaching, had a deep experience of it, and as a result became a passionate supporter of my work. And then, as usually happens around someone like me, after a few years she came bang up against her own narcissism, her own raging ego.
KW: What fun for you!
AC: What fun indeed! Well, that's the downside of being a guru. Anyway, as soon as her ego was challenged, she abandoned the top-down model, which she had had a very deep grasp of, and which would have demanded that she change there and then in accordance with what she knew to be true, and she suddenly declared, "I think I need to see a therapist in order to find out why I don't want to let go of my ego."
AC: I said, "What do you mean? You don't want to let go of your ego for the same reason everybody doesn't want to let go of it. There's only one reason. There's nothing unique about your reason." You see, from the top down, in the psychology of liberation, everything in the human experience becomes radically impersonal. And in that light, of course, it takes great maturity to truly embrace a liberated relationship to our own experience.
KW: What's so interesting to me is that both top-down and bottom-up have a role to play. That awakening event—when a person acknowledges that the already liberated self is something that is in the fabric of their awareness that they had simply not noticed—is profound transformation. But then the person comes out of that state. And, as you say, there's the whole process of how much does it stick, can they align themselves with it?
AC: Can they live it?
KW: Right. Because the alternative to living the already realized state is that they become a seeker. And a seeker, of course, is somebody who relates to the world in terms of a fundamental lack, who presupposes a lack of Spirit, a lack of already enlightened self. All of that is in the contracted realm. But to the extent that they can stay aligned with that already liberated self—that's the top-down model—it starts reconfiguring their entire psychology.
KW: So the top-down approach is important because a person has to really get a fundamental reorientation to the already liberated nature of their present condition. And that true awakening becomes the foundation of true spiritual practice and replaces the disposition of egoic seeking.
So when that top-down transformative enlightening experience occurs, then the question becomes, what level of development is the person at? If they are at a traditional, or a modern, or a postmodern, or an integral wave—are they going to interpret it differently and perhaps be able to handle it differently? Are they going to carry it differently? Will one wave be able to carry it better than others? Will it stick? Are they going to be able to stand in the fire long enough for it to really reconfigure their entire being? Or are they going to contract and start picking fights with the teacher?
KW: So what needs to happen from the bottom up, so to speak? How much development and maturity do we need to inculcate in students in order for them to be able to hold the top-down disposition long enough for it to reconfigure their entire being? A traditionalist can have a strong satori, but it will quickly get turned into fundamentalist dogma. A postmodernist can have a strong satori, but it will often degenerate into boomeritis. In other words, development beyond green seems very important to being able to carry this realization effectively. So this is where we need to marry top-down realization with bottom-up development.
AC: Yes, I agree. And you know, in the end, I have found, it always simply boils down to this: How much do we care? How interested are we really, and how much do we care? Because you see, when we're under pressure, when our back is against the wall, the only thing that really counts is how much we care. And that's when this whole question of the authentic self, or soul, comes in, because when this is cultivated, then a deeper capacity to care—to care more about truth, about what is higher—begins to emerge. And our capacity to not be swayed from that position is strengthened, which then makes it possible to actually carry the already liberated state through the trials, tests, and challenges of life.
KW: And also, once there's that acknowledgment and recognition of the already free and liberated condition, then that becomes the basis of a motivation of, in a sense, duty.
AC: Yes, an obligation.
KW: You're not motivated out of lack. You're not motivated out of "I'm seeking or grasping something." I mean, a lot of people say, "If you had the experience of being one with everything, how can you be motivated at all?"
AC: Actually, you'd be more motivated.
KW: You're more motivated—of course. You're motivated now to express that, to make that happen, as a duty, to be true to that nature that's been awakened.
AC: That's what we're here for.
KW: At that point your center of gravity shifts to the authentic self, the deeper psychic, because you can never go back now.
KW: And frankly that's what boomeritis prevents. If you want to get to the deeper psychic and never go back, you've really got to get over yourself. And that means let go of boomeritis and stop being so self-satisfied, forget therapy, and get back to hating yourself!
AC: Yes, because at that point the way we relate to our self and also to other people has to change. There is no going back, no matter how we may happen to feel on any given day, even if we're having a hard time, even if things are not going our way. Because of what we have seen, and because of what we've said yes to, we just can't go back anymore. And that's the ultimate challenge of transformation on a deeply human level: Are we willing to be a different person, no matter what?