Unique Self Institute

Marc Gafni and Andrew Cohen
in Dialogue

In this excerpt from “Authentic Self and Unique Self”, published in the March 2011 issue of Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, Andrew Cohen and Dr. Marc Gafni engage the nature of spiritual realization.  Other dialogues on the same topics are also provided at the bottom of the page.

Andrew Cohen and Marc Gafni have engaged in dialogues in both formal and informal contexts over a number of years, beginning at a shared retreat in Israel in 2005. One of the major motifs of the dialogues was an attempt to clarify the distinctions between their two visions of enlightened consciousness. Over the years, students from different communities asked for the distinctions to be elucidated and laid out in a clear fashion. This was the intent of this culminating dialogue. What emerges is that Andrew and Marc share the belief that the realization of classical enlightenment, what is often called True Self, is the ultimate goal of the enlightenment journey. Both Andrew and Marc point to a realization beyond being, beyond the realization of one’s true nature. This evolutionary realization is called Authentic Self by Andrew and Unique Self by Marc. This dialogue charts some of the shared features and differences between these two visions.
Marc: I’m delighted to be here with Andrew Cohen to engage in this conversation on Authentic Self and Unique Self, and to discuss our respective teachings as they unfold within the larger context of evolutionary spirituality. Andrew and I have been thinking and teaching about spiritual realization within the context of evolution in our own respective contexts for the past several decades, and we have both developed our own maps for how realization unfolds on the evolutionary path. Andrew has made a huge contribution to the con- versation by laying out the evolutionary context for enlightenment in his own teaching, particularly with his teaching of the Authentic Self. I have also talked about the evolutionary context in my own work and teaching from a Kabbalistic perspective. Particularly, I’ve talked about the awakening of the Unique Self and its role in enlightened realization. In the past year and a half, there has been a lot of discussion in the integral com- munity about what relationship exists between these two teachings. People want to know whether Authentic Self and Unique Self are the same thing or not, and if they aren’t, what are the implications of these two dif- ferent teachings?

Andrew: Yes, what we really want to do is clarify what you mean by Unique Self, and what I mean by the Authentic Self, because these are such big themes in both our respective teachings and we really want to pull out what the distinctions are between them. I also want to say that at a basic level we don’t actually disagree. I think it is more a difference in emphasis that separates us. I’m emphasizing one dimension of this and you’re emphasizing a different one, but in terms of the general picture and map, as far as I can see, we’re mostly in agreement. That is why I think dialogues like this can be very positive and wholesome in generating evolu- tionarily inspired creative friction between our different points of emphasis so as to support the forwarding of a larger conversation on the whole.

It is important to understand my distinctions and the way I speak about the structures of the self from an enlightenment context because I am a teacher of enlightenment. The context and perspective of enlight- ened awareness is the ultimate background and context for my teaching and worldview. Because of this, I use words to describe the self and the structures that make up the self in a way that point toward an enlightened perspective. When postmodernists seek enlightenment in the Eastern model, which is my own background, they are usually taught the traditional path of dhyana yoga or meditation. Fundamentally, when one mediates, one makes the effort to cease to identify with the content of consciousness—with thoughts, images, ideas, memories, etc. When we are able to assume a disidentified relationship with the content of consciousness, so that we cease to compulsively identify with thought and the stream of memory, what happens, either gradu- ally or suddenly, is an awakening to and discovery of what I usually refer to as the Ground of Being. This is true for all of us. In our most intimate sense of self, in this deep state of meditative awareness, we discover the dimension of our self that transcends time. It is the part of us that has never been born and has never entered the stream of time or the evolutionary process. It’s what the Buddha called the unborn, the “unbecome.”

When we awaken to this part of the self, it is quite a discovery. We begin to recognize that the most intimately felt sense of who we are at all times has actually never been born and has never entered the stream of time—it has always been free. Because that part of ourselves has never been born and has never entered the stream of time, it has also never been hurt, wounded, traumatized, or victimized and has never really had any particular experience within the realm of time and form. When we recognize that, it is quite a discovery. It’s an experience most people liken to coming out of prison because before awakening to that Timeless Ground of Being, most individuals see and perceive their experience through the prism and the perspective of the psychological self and the psychological self-structure, which includes the personal ego and the culturally created dimension of the personal self. The experience of the Ground of Being is liberation and emancipation because we realize that who we really are has never been born and has never entered the stream of time. Our psychological self and also our culturally conditioned self are very real, but they are merely relative dimen- sions of who we are as individuals.

Depending upon the depth and degree of this kind of awakening, one comes out of the experience with some degree of enlightened awareness. Of course, there are enormous variations, all the way from being an enlightened master, someone who is more or less stabilized in this kind of awakening, to an individual who has merely had a glimpse of who they really are beyond time and beyond form. For most people, it’s usually the latter, not the former.

What I noticed when I became a spiritual teacher over 24 years ago, after teaching for about a year or so, is that when people were in that deep meditative state, they didn’t have any trouble manifesting enlight- ened awareness, but they couldn’t hold that when they left the meditation cushion. The image I often use in my teaching to describe this is that I ask people to imagine they are sitting on their bed in a deep meditative state with their eyes closed and suddenly there is a loud knock on the door and someone starts calling to them. In that moment we are shocked out of our deep meditative state and we suddenly realize that we have to respond. The question is: how are we going to respond? We realize that we can only respond, act, and react to others and the world through the structures of the psychologically and culturally conditioned self and that puts a limitation on how we live in the manifest world.

After about 10 years of teaching, I discovered that there is another dimension of this “unbecome,” un- born, unmanifest, or enlightened dimension of the self that can also respond to the manifest world. This other dimension of the enlightened self is the energy and intelligence that we both refer to as Eros. It is the energy intelligence that initiated and drives the greater process of evolution; it is the energy and intelligence that caused the Big Bang itself. It is that energy and drive that absolutely aspires and desires to unequivocally exist in the world of time and form. All the very creatively inspired human beings of history, whether they were art- ists, musicians, scientists, spiritual luminaries, or politicians, were individuals who were very driven by this energy. They were driven by the ecstatic urgency of the evolutionary impulse. Individuals who are lit up with this particular unique evolutionary impulse, the expression of which is a kind of ecstatic urgency, are awake to the force of Eros itself. The expression of this kind of energy is inspiration—an unusual degree of inspira- tion that has an ecstasy and urgency to it. It is a drive to make the world a better place, and most specifically, most importantly, it is a drive to give rise to that which is new, and to that which has never existed before. The most creative individuals throughout history who were the real architects of society were individuals who were deeply driven by this force that came from the deepest part of themselves. It is that force of nature that uniquely compels human beings to innovate and thus give rise to that which is new.

What I’ve called the Authentic Self is the unmistakable manifestation and expression of that particular energy and intelligence as the force of Eros expressing itself in and through the psychological self and the culturally conditioned self-structures that make up the unique individuals that we all are. This force of Eros, as it expresses itself through the drive toward innovation and creative urgency, has a particular flavor to it that is singular, but it is not unique to any individual. As we awaken to the ecstatic urgency of the evolutionary impulse, what we discover is a thrill. It is an ecstatic thrill to be alive that doesn’t come from our psychologi- cal history. The force of this particular kind of energy is overwhelmingly positive: it is one big Absolute and unconditional yes to existence. It’s the big yes of the Big Bang. When we awaken to the force of Eros, what I’m calling the Authentic Self, we experience this overwhelming yes as a surge of positivity, excitement and thrill to be alive, which allows us to really get involved in the creative process and to give rise to that which is new. When this happens, it is a different kind of experience of enlightened awareness than the Ground of Being. We also feel that in light of this overwhelming positivity and excitement about participating in the creative process, the psychological perspective and the perspective of our cultural heritage become displaced. Those structures still inform our intelligence and our minds, but now what’s moving through them is the force of Eros itself, which is the Authentic Self. The Authentic Self looks like a person who is extremely turned on and excited about being alive and is therefore thrilled to make a difference in the world.

Now, until human beings begin to be cloned, we will all be unique. Biologically, we all have differ- ent genes and psychologically we all have different life experiences and cultural backgrounds. So the self- structure of each and every individual is always going to be unique. When the energy and intelligence of Eros works through us, how that’s going to actually express itself is always going to be unique depending on our background and conditioning and the unique gifts and talents we may possess, but the deepest quality of Eros is still the same in all of us.

Marc: That is a fantastic overview of your teaching. As you already said, we share a deep common language in regard to much of the teaching even if we arrive at it through very different paths and say it in different ways. Let me try and outline, in a similar way, the basic understanding of Unique Self. Your core intuition that we are basically talking in the same realm seems absolutely correct, but our difference in emphasis could also yield a great richness out of which great music could emerge. And as you said in one of our delightful phone conversations, emphasis matters.

The context out of which I talk about Unique Self is really the context of my particular lineage in the Kabbalistic teachings. The particular master I want to honor in this tradition, and the one whom I draw from, is Mordechai Lainer of Izbica, a Hasidic master that lived in the mid 19th century. I spent much of my life breathing him in and trying to merge with him as my text guru, if you will. I also have spent a good part of my life writing a couple thousand pages that served his teachings and outline this great tradition of Unique Self as it moves through the Kabbalist lineage. A similar tradition appears in Sufism, and I recently discovered that A.H. Almaas has also written about this. Using different language, Unique Self expressed in Eastern terms is a realization of the nature of emptiness.

Unique Self is, in my understanding, not merely the necessary expression of distinction, which results from cultural, social, or psychological conditioning. Rather, Unique Self is the only quality of essence or realization of emptiness that we ever experience. But I am getting ahead of myself; let me speak initially out of my lineage tradition of Kabbalah.

In the Kabbalist tradition, what stands against the realized human being or what is in the way of the hu- man being moving towards realization would always be the yesh. The yesh would be something akin to what you are describing as the ego, or what we might describe as the separate self. It is that experience of limitation on our identity when we experience ourselves as being merely a separate skin-encapsulated ego. The move toward realization would be to engage in practices that cause a disillusionment of that ego. However, we do not deconstruct the separate self; we do not evolve beyond ego. Rather, we release the self-contraction of the
ego; we evolve beyond exclusive identification with ego.

About Andrew Cohen

Andrew Cohen is an internationally respected spiritual teacher, and the founder of Evolutionary Enlightenment. Departing radically from a traditional Eastern approach, Evolutionary Enlightenment calls not for transcendence of the world, but for a deep and heroic responsibility for its evolution. In nearly three decades of teaching work, he has engaged with thousands of seekers worldwide, evolving his teaching in response to direct dialogue with students, teachers, scholars and philosophers.

Other dialogues with Andrew Cohen