It’s been just over a week now since I returned to the States after participating in EnlightenNext’s first “Being and Becoming” retreat in Florence, Italy. And I’m still reeling from the experience in the best possible way. Andrew Cohen—who is both my spiritual teacher and my editor-in-chief—has been leading people into the mystical depths of enlightened consciousness since he began teaching twenty-three years ago, but never before has he been able to take so many people so far, so fast, with everyone moving forward consistently from one day to the next. And this retreat lasted more than 20 days (half devoted to Being, half to Becoming), so you can only imagine how far we were able to go with Andrew’s skillful guidance and that much focused time…
Over the coming month, I want to blog about some of the different aspects of Andrew’s teaching of Evolutionary Enlightenment that became clearer to everyone on this retreat because of how deeply we were able to go into them with complete focus and no distractions for three solid weeks. I’ve been studying Andrew’s work for eleven years, and I’ve been a student of his for nine, so I’m familiar with the principles, practice, and perspective of Evolutionary Enlightenment. It’s the perspective that I attempt to bring to bear on every article I write for EnlightenNext magazine. But a retreat with Andrew always takes you to your furthest developmental edge—and then pulls you over the edge in a full-on plunge into the Unknown. (See Michael Wombacher’s excellent book 11 Days at the Edge for a compelling account of this phenomenon.) And this, being the longest retreat I’d ever attended, did exactly that and more, humbling me in ways I didn’t anticipate and causing me to question everything that I thought I already understood.
So for all the evolutionaries out there who weren’t able to attend the retreat, I thought I’d attempt to give you a sense of why the retreat was so powerful and profound. And I’m sure writing about it will also help me to get clearer about it myself. While it’s hard to know where to begin with something so vast and multidimensional, one obvious place to start is with the two central axes of the retreat itself—“Being and Becoming.”
For this post, I’ll start with Being. What does that word really refer to? Ten years ago, when I was a young collegiate dropout who spent his days and nights reading books on Zen and Advaita Vedanta and obsessing over the finer points of Ken Wilber’s integral philosophy, I thought I had it all figured out. Five years later, as a full-time student of Andrew’s at his main residential center in western Massachusetts, I’d had enough mind-blowing spiritual experiences to realize that my previous understanding was merely intellectual and superficial—but I still thought I had it figured out. In the past couple of years, however, I’ve been coming to realize that maybe I don’t quite grasp the true nature of Being as well as I think I do. And this retreat removed all doubt. On the most fundamental level, I now strongly suspect that I haven’t got a clue.
This started dawning on me within the first few days of the retreat, as Andrew—in full Advaita Master mode—began guiding 160 of us into a deeper and deeper experiential realization of the nature of pure Being (otherwise known as consciousness, emptiness, Spirit, Brahman, nirvana, nonduality, ultimate reality, or the Self Absolute). Following Andrew’s instructions to “have no relationship to the content of consciousness”—which, in practice, essentially means letting everything be exactly as it is—I began finding myself catching subtle yet exhilarating glimpses of a mysterious sense of joy. The first time I ever experienced this was back in early 1999, when I was 18 years old and driving to work after reading some passages from Andrew’s book Freedom Has No History. Putting my attention on my own awareness while I was driving, I suddenly caught a glimpse of the fundamental purity of consciousness itself—eternally clear, unstained, untouched by thought, feeling, memory, or time. That glimpse lasted only a split second, but the ecstatic thrill that surged through me for hours afterward turned my whole life upside down (or rightside up!), convincing me that the state of “enlightenment” I’d been reading about was a real possibility.
Ten years and countless hours of meditation and spiritual experiences later, including many quite prolonged forays into “intersubjective” enlightened states (i.e., sharing a higher state and perspective simultaneously with other people), I thought I had a pretty good lay of the land, both philosophically and experientially. But what I soon realized on this retreat, as those familiar sensations of joy and freedom began bubbling up within me, is that I’d simply never had the opportunity to one-pointedly disengage from my mind for such an extended period of time. With no work to do, no emails to send, and no one to talk to (we were in silence), all of us on retreat found ourselves faced with an incredibly rare opportunity to really let go—and not stop letting go—for days and nights on end.
Assuming the position of “no relationship” to all experience, moment to moment, soon became the most thrilling thing I’d ever done in my life. Because when you stop compulsively identifying with and being fascinated by your mind (and ego), what eventually becomes evident is the space or emptiness in which the mind is always arising and fading away. You begin to notice consciousness or awareness itself, a silent background Presence that never comes or goes. And it is inherently alluring and mysteriously compelling, especially the more you begin to understand that That is who and what you really, truly are. As Andrew took us further into that profound depth of Self, he confronted us over and over again with the fact that this wasn’t just some pleasant meditative state we were experiencing; it was another dimension of reality, the very basis of reality. Through our own direct experience, and as we engaged in dialogue with him about what was happening, he made it undeniably clear to us that we all ARE that primordial Self, which is the eternal “Beingness” or essence of all that is.
Diving deeper and deeper into that ecstatic emptiness beyond thought—no relationship, no relationship, no relationship—I could also see the activity of my mind more clearly and objectively than ever before. It constantly tries to grasp, analyze, manipulate, and lay claim to all experience, including even the experience of That which infinitely transcends it! And I could see that this limited mental machine is what I have always returned to as my primary reference point, no matter how many times similarly profound forays into enlightened states have swept me far beyond the mind in the past. I could see that as someone who has based his entire identity on his ability to think well, I’ve actually refused to let in the fact that maybe—just maybe—the mind really DOES need to be radically transcended in a fundamental way, once and for all. That doesn’t mean ceasing to use the mind as the awesome, essential, and powerfully creative tool that it is; it means ceasing to believe that it could ever contain the whole truth of who and what I am.
In other words, I’ve had a lot of peak experiences of enlightened consciousness. One can’t spend nearly a decade in close proximity to an enlightened teacher without being continuously blasted into higher states. But without fail, I’ve always relied on my mind to try to control and categorize these higher states while I’ve been experiencing them—that is, to instinctively filter the inconceivable glory of God through the tiny filter of my mind. “Now I am experiencing a nondual ‘One Taste’ union with the manifest world,” I’d marvel to myself, oh-so-subtly and unwittingly turning the Infinite into another safe and manageable concept—and turning that which is Timeless into just another passing experience in memory and time.
I guess it’s understandable why I’ve habitually done this. I have been deeply invested in being a smart (and arrogant) “knower” since I was a little kid, when I started earning constant praise from parents and teachers for having such a well-tuned little brain. But as this retreat went on, and as I continued to take the risk of being completely and utterly free from the mind, over and over again, the ecstatic freedom of not knowing began thrilling me to no end. When you’re in a meditative state and can see the activity of your mind objectively, you can see that it is obviously inherently limited, operating on the basis of countless tiny snapshots of reality (including even snapshots of past “nonduality” or “enlightenment” experiences), while consciousness itself is inherently open, limitless, and FREE, brimming with infinite possibility and potential. One night towards the end of the retreat, after a particularly deep five-hour meditation session, the late English mystic Douglas Harding’s pithy quote “I take my stand on that which I cannot understand” flashed through my awareness, and I could see more clearly than ever what he really meant by that.
Harding was speaking about trusting absolutely in that eternal Mystery beyond the mind, first and foremost, in every moment—in other words, basing one’s life on something that forever transcends one’s ability to grasp or figure out. And as shocking as that prospect seems to those of us who have trusted primarily in our sturdy intellects to guide us through life, it dawned on me towards the end of the retreat that this is what authentic spirituality has always been about: trusting in God, in Spirit, more than one trusts in oneself. It’s about taking a radical leap of faith beyond the mind, beyond the egoic self we maintain through memory and imagination—and never looking back.
In Freedom Has No History, Andrew offers a striking metaphor that has always stayed with me since I first read it a decade ago, but which has taken me just as long to realize that he actually, really means it:
Imagine that you are orbiting the earth in a spaceship. Sometimes you leave the ship to walk outside. While outside you are attached to the ship by a cord. Out in space it is the greatest thrill. You experience extraordinary, unspeakable freedom. But you always know that you will return back to the safety of the ship…. I’m speaking about being out there and cutting that cord. The instant that occurs you will experience the thrill of existence. You will experience the overwhelming implications of the fact that you are alive. The magnitude of that is more than most people want to bear. Most want only to taste it and then go back. I’m speaking about never going back, about going all the way in this life. And that can’t happen unless you are willing to cut that cord.
On some level, I think I’ve never really believed this was possible before (for me), no matter how many times I’ve ventured out of the safety of my ship. I’ve always been too terrified to even seriously consider cutting that cord. But I can see now that this is a real possibility—to let it all go, 24/7, living my life in the ecstatic freefall of holding onto nothing at all. Because from the perspective of the Ground of Being, you see that there’s nothing you could hold onto anyway! There’s nothing here to grasp.
In the next post, I want to try to convey what it was like to go so deeply into emptiness with so many people under Andrew’s expert guidance, with many of us often meditating together all night long, sitting silently at the bottom of the Ocean of Being. Our collective immersion in this mysterious depth—where absolutely nothing is missing and nothing is wrong—made it so apparent to me why the Buddha decided, 2500 years ago, that the only sensible thing to do was to renounce the world completely. But it also became even more clear why today, in the 21st century, returning to that timeless nirvana couldn’t possibly be the final goal of spiritual evolution.
I’ll also try to keep my posts a little shorter. :)