Note: The following article is an English translation by Kerstin Tuschik of an article by Tom Steininger and Sonja Student regarding perspectives of a new spirituality for our times. It was first published in the German magazine EnlightenNext Impulse.
TOM STEININGER: Of late we have spoken a lot about the Authentic Self and the Unique Self. [The Authentic Self teaching is widely associated with spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen among others and the Unique Self teaching with Marc Gafni and his book Your Unique Self.] This discussion is about how we can find a new understanding of spirituality in the 21 century. Is there also a new self-perception emerging through this new spirituality, a new spiritual self-concept?
SONJA STUDENT: Yes, at first we realize that in a new spirituality the evolutionary perspective plays a very important role. In the spirituality of today it is not only about realizing the timelessness or the primordial ground of being. In our inside we have to attend to other dimensions as well. This exceeds the classical terms of enlightenment. In these matters we cannot rely exclusively on the mystical traditions or the great world religions any longer. This is why the Integral Theory says that it is not only about waking up, but simultaneously about the process of growing up. We have to take care of becoming adult and developed personalities as well.
TS: Yes, we need both. The mystical teachings are about waking up, enlightenment. Many integral or evolutionary interested people forgot how important the dimension of the Absolute is, how important transcendence is. This dimension however takes center stage in all the traditional, mystical paths. In the East one speaks about the experience of Being, in Buddhism about the emptiness, the Christian mystics called it the direct experience of God.
Now the West, with the emergence of modernity and the age of enlightenment, takes a different path. In the Western Enlightenment it is about becoming independent and responsible individuals. To be enlightened here means to become adult, or like you have called it, to grow up. The European Enlightenment enabled us to leave behind our childlike approach to the world. And today another realization amounts to this. Slowly we begin to understand that we are a part of and an expression of an evolving cosmos. The enlightened individual (in the Western sense of the word) and this big evolutionary context are two aspects the spiritual traditions were not aware of.
SS: And in our Western countries the enlightenment dimension has been lost for the most part. Through that we have cut off an important source of our being, also of our humanness. To begin with we have to get back this dimension, because after all that is our deepest self. How can we express this absolute dimension in our time?
TS: Yes, how can we express this dimension as independent individuals? Meaning, how can we express the idea of a Unique Self as brought into the discussion by Marc Gafni and Ken Wilber? And how can we also become a conscious expression of this big evolutionary context that we are just starting to realize. This is meant by Andrew Cohen when he speaks of the Authentic Self: Do we see our individuality in relation to this big Becoming of the universe, or do we see it as separate of it? Andrew Cohen even speaks of the absolute dimension of becoming. The cosmos is a big Becoming, and through us, the people of the 21 century, this process is just beginning to become self-aware.
SS: Andrew Cohen emphasizes very much the absolute dimension of the process of becoming. It is very important to recognize that the Absolute is not only immanent in the Ground of Being, but also in the Becoming. I see the Unique Self here more with a holonic approach. We are the Whole, but also a part, we are both. We are individuals, and we are simultaneously the whole process. We have to deal with this paradox.
TS: The term Unique Self of course does not only refer to the relative self. It sees an enlightened dimension even in the individual.
SS: Yes, as far as I see it, the individuality is “built into” the cosmos. This is what Ken Wilber means when he says that the cosmos consists of perspectives. There is the perspective of the individual and the collective, of the exterior and the interior, and these perspectives are there from the beginning. Individuality is an integral part of the cosmos and this is why the individual is not reducible. The individual is not merely an appendage to the cosmic process. The human being has a very special task or dignity in the cosmos: to be the Whole and to be a part and to live this paradox.
TS: This paradox also implies that the whole process can only evolve further through our individuality. The process itself has brought forth the individuality – it is part and product of the whole process. That we as strongly individualized humans of the 21 century can sit here, we owe to this process – and this process can only evolve further on the level of consciousness through our participation as we participate in it in personal responsibility, for example in this conversation. The One needs this multiplicity to be able to unfold.
SS: Another point is important for an Integral Spirituality: the merit of the Western Enlightenment was that we became conscious as individuals. Individuals were there before that, but through modernity we became conscious of ourselves as individuals. And in post-modernity something else was added: the perspectives. We are not only individuals. We are all informed differently by different circumstances. Even Enlightenment shows up through us with our own special imprinting, our own special flavor. You as Tom are realizing it in a different way than I as Sonja. Everyone realizes the Taste of the Whole so-to-speak – this Oneness from which we all came and that we are – with our special flavor. Because otherwise it would be like a puzzle that consists of all the same pieces. That would be relatively boring.
TS: Absolutely boring! And at the same time this special imprinting meets the deep mystical insight that we are all not separate. We are individual parts, but not only.
SS: And the single parts are necessary to become whole. This is not about a narcissistic separation where it is all about me as a person. Essentially for the Unique Self the classical enlightenment is needed. We need the experience of Oneness and then we recognize that it is not only all-One but a differentiated Oneness. Coming from this Oneness we see what a blessing, what a joy, what an abundance this variety as existential dimension of being has to offer.
TS: That is an important point. It needs our individuality. It needs the multiplicity. Only through it the process can evolve further. And then another insight emerges: that all this diversity is an expression of this one process – or rather that we are this process ourselves.
SS: Yes, this is spirit-in-action that evolves in an ongoing process. And the question is: How can we measure up to this? Individuality existed from the beginning; it is no byproduct of the cosmic process. If we don’t consider that we would run the risk of reducing individuality and not really appreciating it.
TS: It wouldn’t do justice to the role of individuality that it plays. The process as a whole cannot unfold separately from our individuality. We as humans, or to express it more strongly, the evolutionary process cannot evolve at the level of consciousness, if we as individuals don’t develop further.
SS: Yes, because the process itself can only unfold in its multiplicity. And each puzzle-piece or each individual perspective is necessary for the whole process.
TS: Let’s go into details about the dangers of the respective emphases. You have already brought up one: If there is no appreciation of individuality there is the danger of regression. We give up our maturity, our autonomy. From that no enlightened spirituality results. If however I emphasize individuality in a one-sided way, my frame of reference remains my small separate world. Then maybe I see the cosmic evolutionary process, but my real point of reference is merely my separate self, my personal life. Especially in our narcissistic culture that is a real danger.
SS: I see this danger as well. In a way one tries to bypass the waking up to the One. So the Unique Self becomes the narcissistic self rapidly. When we emphasize only the One on the other hand, the enlightened people (in the western sense of the word) are put off. One could assume then that spiritual development would mean to sacrifice one’s own individuality. Individuality is a precious accomplishment of evolution, especially as the awareness of our human rights. As you know I am also an activist for children’s rights and democracy. We have to avoid that people think that we have to jettison all of this in order to reach the timeless dimension.
TS: It needs all those dimensions together. Even in this conversation that we are having right now, they are all present: There is the dimension of being; it is always at the bottom of everything. But there is also the dimension of becoming; this conversation is part of a universal process of the evolution of consciousness. And we have the different perspectives that we can take, our autonomy, our individuality. If all of this together is allowed to be a whole, then what does it mean to be a human being? Maybe in this dialogue something is unfolding, maybe we can clarify something, and through that a richer consciousness emerges. To understand this process, its nuances and dimensions in an existential way is in my understanding part of this new spirituality. We can become a creative expression of this process ourselves, and for that my individuality, my responsibility is needed.
SS: Yes, and I think this deep humanness and the enlightenment belong together. This waking up to a deeper spirituality can only be found in the recognition of who we really are. And for that we need the recognition of multiplicity and diversity of humanness and the recognition that the creation evolves. It is a process. Through it the cosmos unfolds in its infinite abundance, carried by beauty, plenitude, mutuality, expressivity, and creativity. It is not about what I can get through this for myself, but to recognize that the whole cosmos is in me. And if the whole cosmos is in me, and I am in the cosmos, then this is a Oneness, but a paradoxical and very differentiated Oneness.
Individuality is an integral part of the cosmos and this is why the individual is not reducible.
If however I emphasize individuality in a one-sided way, my frame of reference remains my small separate world.
Deep humanness and enlightenment belong together.
The process as a whole cannot unfold separately from our individuality.
Sonja Student is a teacher and today engaged in communication training, education for democracy and work for children’s rights. For a long time she has been engaged in Integral Theory by Ken Wilber and is a member of the Board of the Integrales Forum, Co-Founder of the Integral Academy, and Co-Author of the book Wissen, Weisheit, Wirklichkeit (Knowledge, Wisdom, Reality) www.integralesleben.org
Dr. Tom Steininger has studied philosophy in Vienna and worked e.g. for the Austrian radio and at the Graduate Institute in Connecticut/USA on issues of the evolution of consciousness. As Leader of EnlightenNext Germany/Switzerland and editor-in-chief of the German issue of the correspondent magazine he brings the visions of the American spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen, whose long-time student he is, into the German-speaking countries. He is founder and moderator of Radio EnlightenNext, a weekly broadcast for new consciousness and culture. Tom internationally gives talks and seminars on evolutionary spirituality.
For the original audio-dialogue in German, see “Radio EnlightenNext – Conversation with Sonja Student.”