An avid reader of the groundbreaking biannual What Is Enlightenment? magazine, founded by spiritual teacher and author Andrew Cohen, I was interested in learning more about this man who lives to teach others of their potential for total liberation from the bondage of ignorance, superstition and selfishness.
Hearing of his daylong intensive planned at Whole Life Expo Minneapolis this year, I scoured his website [www.andrewcohen.org] and learned that Cohen began teaching in 1986 after a spiritual realization transformed his life beyond recognition. Since that time, â€œthe fire of his awakening has sparked a revolution in the hearts and minds of many people throughout the world.â€œ
Cohen is the author of An Unconditional Relationship to Life, Enlightenment Is a Secret, Autobiography of an Awakening, My Master Is My Self and the forthcoming A Perfect Foundation in the Absolute. He teaches through the Impersonal Enlightenment Fellowship (IEF) in Lenox, Mass., and in the past few years, communities dedicated to living his teachings have formed throughout the world, with a network of centers in North America, Europe and Israel. Cohen now travels extensively around the world every year, giving public talks and intensive retreats.
He spoke with The EDGE in a phone interview from his office in Massachusetts.
Thereâ€™s been mention, I believe on your website and even in your magazine, about an event that happened in 1986 that sparked your awakening. Tell us what happened.
Andrew Cohen: Basically, there were two fundamental spiritual experiences Iâ€™ve had in my life. The first one was when I was 16 years old. I was sitting up late one night and I had a spontaneous awakening. In that experience, there was a recognition that I was not separate from all of lifeâ€”and that meant that all of life, the universe as a whole, I saw to be one conscious, radiant being whose nature was unimaginable love. It kind of rocked my foundations at that time, and I didnâ€™t really know what to do with that experience because it was unlike anything that had happened to me beforehand. At the end of this experience there was a message that said, â€œIf you devote your life to me and me alone, there is nothing to fear.â€
After that, I didnâ€™t really do anything with it until I was 22. I started to seek to rediscover who had visited me without me looking for it, and so I began to practice meditation and go to see various spiritual teachers and that kind of thing. When I was 27 or so, I went to India and spent a few years there, and at the end of my time there, I went to see a teacher and I told him what had happened to me when I was a teenager, and he said, â€œYou know everything then.â€ When he said that, the confidence began to release something inside of me, and that was the beginning of the transformation.
For those not familiar with your work, what would you say makes your teaching unique?
Cohen: I put a great deal of emphasis on the need to live the spiritual experience, because these days there are many people becoming interested in the spiritual experience, but what I have noticed is that having spiritual experiences is really not all that difficult if one is in the right circumstances. But I found after teaching it for a few years that the hardest thing is really to live it. So in my teaching, I put a great deal of emphasis on experiencing the spiritual experience. I feel that looking into the implications of the spiritual experience may be even more important than the spiritual experience itself. I emphasize deep and sincere contemplation. In other words, what does the spiritual experience actually mean, and what are the implications for how to live?
There are two fundamental questions: One is, â€œWho am I?â€ and the other is, â€œHow shall I live?â€ I think all questions about the spiritual life all boil down to these two questions.
Now, the spiritual experience generally answers the question, â€œWho am I?â€ Many people I meet have discovered the answer to â€œWho am I?â€ to a greater or lesser degree and many have tasted the miraculous, but when it comes to the question â€œHow shall I live?â€ and how to translate these spiritual experiences into these implications for being a human being, thatâ€™s when a lot of people get into trouble. There is so much confusion. Thatâ€™s why I put a great deal of emphasis on encouraging people and helping people to look into what the spiritual experience actually means and what are its implications and to inspire people to embark on the task of inquiry with real sincerity.
I believe at Whole Life Expo youâ€™re going to lead a daylong event on Friday. Can you describe a little bit about what that experience will be like?
Cohen: That experience will be a mixture of meditation and talk by myself and questions and answersâ€”definitely experiential, not abstract or theoretical. The experience of meditation provides the context for the practice of sincere inquiry and contemplation into the nature and implications of the spiritual experience.
And at the workshop, participants will be given a taste for how to proceed in their own life?
Cohen: Well, if theyâ€™re lucky! If theyâ€™re lucky, theyâ€™ll be given a taste of what is possible, of their own potential and the tools of how to pursue what it is that they have tasted on their own.
I think thatâ€™s more what I meant. A guide for how to proceed after your workshop.
What is the intent of your magazine What is â€œEnlightenmentâ€?
Cohen: The intent of the magazine is to provide a forum for serious spiritual inquiry in the modern day marketplace, which has become rather diluted and superficial.
Iâ€™m still going through the last issue.
Cohen: Thatâ€™s a tough issue.
Yes, the one with Jack LaLanne and Anthony Robbins. Iâ€™ve seen Anthony Robbins on the TV infomercials and your interview was really interesting. It gave me a little more insight into him. I find the magazine to be really indepth. I like the interviews that you do. I found a lot to think about in your interviews.
Cohen: Thank you very much. We really put a lot of effort into the magazine and into all the interviews and we try to present a comprehensive picture. The thing is, all those magazines represent ongoing inquiries by me and my students. We are providing a public forum for our own inquiry. Thatâ€™s why itâ€™s so alive. Itâ€™s something weâ€™re really looking into. Itâ€™s an education for all of us, also.
And youâ€™re working on the next one now?
Cohen: The one weâ€™re working on now is the relationship between enlightenment and gender. On the cover there will be a picture of a man and a woman, and then it will say: Menâ€™s Liberation, Womenâ€™s Liberation, Gay Liberation, How free do you really want to be? As all the magazines do, coming from the perspective of enlightenment, it really looks into the whole question of what does it mean to be a liberated man, what does it mean to be a liberated woman, and some of the issues around gay liberation are all looked at in the context of enlightenment and some of the classical concepts of enlightenment in relationship to some of these very modern questions.
How would you answer the question, â€œWhat is enlightenment?â€
Cohen: You know, I get asked that question all the time, and I always go blank! I think it is when the deep and profound experiential recognition of oneself as not being separate from all of life is expressed as an undivided, utterly positive, and selfless and compassionate relationship to life expressed in action. Thatâ€™s what I would say enlightenment is.
I understand from Whole Life Expo that you had a book that came out in April, In Defense of the Guru Principle? Tell me a little bit about that.
Cohen: Itâ€™s basically about the role of the teacher on the spiritual path. Iâ€™ve written quite passionately about the role of the teacher on the spiritual path and the guru, because weâ€™re living in a very cynical time and many of the greatest spiritual teachers of the modern and post-modern era have left confusion and corruption in their wake, and as a result, many people have become very cynical. They donâ€™t really believe itâ€™s possible for a person to be in a position of spiritual authority and not be corrupt. Itâ€™s really gotten that bad. Because of this mood of distrust and cynicism, everybody wants to just do it on their own.
From times immemorial, true seekers of liberation have gathered around other men and women who had realized somethingâ€”shall we say, had come to solid ground in their own spiritual search. I think itâ€™s really very difficult to make oneâ€™s way without the intimate help of someone who knows the terrain, someone who has actually arrived somewhere on solid ground, because the movement in the spiritual life is from the gross to the subtle.
We move from a gross state of consciousness in a way to one of greater and greater subtlety. Without the help of those who have come from that gross state to a greater subtlety, itâ€™s going to be very difficult to not keep losing our way, and even if we do have this guidance, itâ€™s still very easy to lose our way. So I am making a case for the need for a qualified spiritual guide who can really help us find our way through the treacherous waters of the spiritual life,.
Yes, because in many ways it is still uncharted territory for most of us.
Cohen: Itâ€™s uncharted territory for many people, thatâ€™s true, and there are certain natural laws that I just donâ€™t think change in the post-modern environment in the West. Many people in America want to have their cake and eat it too. Everybody wants to get enlightened, but nobody wants to pay the cost. One thing I am trying to do is to encourage people to look very seriously at the implications of what this is all about. And what it is all about is ego death, you know, this very self-centered motivation that most people have in relationship to life. Really looking into that and questioning that in a serious way takes a lot of courage and a lot of humilityâ€”and also a lot of passion.
Youâ€™ve been teaching now for more than a dozen years?
Cohen: Fourteen years.
What has that experience taught you about who you are?Â
Cohen: The experience of teaching for 14 years has shown me that itâ€™s very mysterious, because Andrew, the person, does not really have a sense of himself as a teacher, that is, one who is able to help and empower other people on the spiritual path. Obviously, that ability is there, but it is something that, as an individual, I am not really aware of, because when I teach, it all spontaneously comes in, and the teaching function begins miraculously to occur, and itâ€™s all a very powerful response of people to that. But as an individual, I am not able to see that objectively, so itâ€™s kind of a strange and mysterious process I find myself in the middle of. The one thing I am sure of is that the teaching function is safe from me. In other words, after 14 years, I feel confident that Andrew is not going to do anything to, shall we say, screw it upâ€”to put it in plain English.
Are there any simple guidelines you can give the average person who want to put their ego aside, but they are challenged by everyday life? Like devoting a certain amount of time to meditation every day?
Cohen: What I say is the most important thing, more important than meditation or any other spiritual practice, more important than anything else, is the intentional, conscious cultivation of the desire for liberation and freedom above and beyond anything else in life. The conscious, deliberate cultivation of the desire to be free is the most important spiritual practice and it is more important than meditation or anything else.
Thatâ€™s because often people will practice meditation and even have spiritual experiences, but the experience of meditation or deep spiritual experiences often happens in a context where there really is no room for meditation. Often, people donâ€™t know what to do with a spiritual experience. They donâ€™t know how to make sense of it, they donâ€™t know what to do with it. But if we very intentionally and deliberately cultivate a desire for liberation that transcends our desire for anything else in life, it literally has the power to change the direction of our psychological and emotional lives and it also materializes in a very real way. So the cultivation of our desire to be free more than anything else, I feel, is the most important thing. It just lays the foundation for enlightenment and liberation in our lives and it also provides the context in which we can begin to think about the practical implications of the spiritual life in a way that can be very helpful.
If we want to be free more than anything else, we answer a lot of practical questions for ourselves. Many people say, â€œWhat should I do about this, what should I do about that, what should I do about the other thing?â€ If people know they want to be free more than anything else, the answer is not that hard to find.
Pretty good advice. Is there anything else youâ€™d like to add?
Cohen: I think Iâ€™d like to end with saying that if this world is going to change, everybody has to realize that the evolution of the race rests on the shoulders of each and every one of us. That weâ€™ve got to give everything weâ€™ve got to make this miserable world a very different place. And when we really realize that it is up to us, and when we really realize it in a very deep way, most of the personal trials and tribulations and a lot of our personal, neurotic worries all disappear very quickly, and we begin to experience a spiritual glory that wipes away our infatuation with our personal history and really brings us very much into the present in a way that is almost inconceivable.
â€œIâ€™m speaking about a revolutionary possibility in which the individual is no longer trying to fit in or just surviveâ€”but has become unconditionally committed to being fully liberated in this life. Iâ€™m speaking about arriving at a place that is free from limitationâ€”an explosion of consciousness. The individual who arrives at this place is immersed in meditation and a continuous contemplation that consumes their entire being. Why? Because they are no longer only living for themselves. This enables them to become a vehicle for the force of evolutionâ€”to become the expression of a liberation that is profoundâ€”to become living proof of the fact that it is possible to go all the way in this life and in so doing become the force of love itself.â€ â€” Andrew Cohen
Andrew Cohen will lead one of the three Friday intensives at Whole Life Expo Minneapolis. â€œThe Jewel of Enlightenment and Passion of Inquiryâ€ will be presented from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 10, in Room 208C of the Minneapolis Convention Center. Intensives are $75 in advance, $90 at the door. Call (800) 551 EXPO or go to www.wholelife.com. For more on Andrew Cohen and his teaching, call (413) 637 6000 or go to www.andrewcohen.org.