Chasing Immortality – The Technology of Eternal Life

An interview with Ray Kurzweil
by Craig Hamilton

The allure of eternal life has been tugging at the human imagination since we first began to contemplate our finitude. From the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest known literary work on earth to the Taoist cult of immortality to Ponce de Leon’s quest for the elixir of unending youth, the desire to free ourselves from the Grim Reaper’s grasp has proven as persistent as the force it aspires to counter.

But although we may have been inspired to hear of Himalayan yogis who have been alive for centuries and although our collective obsession with health, fitness, and increased longevity seems to be at an all-time high, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, even the most optimistic among us have probably never seriously considered the possibility that death could become optional. Indeed, in an increasingly chaotic and unpredictable world, it sometimes seems like our mortality is one of the few things that we can still be sure of.

Ray Kurzweil is determined to change all that. In the book he recently coauthored with Terry Grossman, Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, the award-winning inventor and futurist lays out a vision of “the science behind radical life extension” that makes most science fiction writers seem short on imagination. And he’s not alone.

Over the past few decades, a growing body of research into the aging process has been accumulating in laboratories around the world. And among the more ambitious of the scientists involved, there is, believe it or not, an increasing optimism about the potential of actually bringing the seemingly irreversible mechanisms of degeneration and decay that have haunted humanity for millennia to a screeching halt. Soon. How soon? According to Kurzweil, two or three decades looks like the magic number. And for him, and other aging boomers, the million-dollar question is: Will he be around and in good health when the fountain of youth finally starts flowing?

This is where the subtitle of his book comes in. Living “long enough to live forever,” it turns out, may require a bit more than simply eating your vegetables and not smoking (although that’s definitely a start). For Kurzweil, building the “first bridge” to radical life extension means a radical shift in diet, a heavy supplementation regimen (he takes 250 supplements a day), and regular checkups and rejuvenation treatments to slow the aging process as much as possible using today’s technology (and, of course, regular exercise and low-stress living). But even Kurzweil’s “longevity program” is, he admits, only a modest stay against the inevitable. With a little luck, though, it will be enough to keep him kicking until the “second and third bridges”—biotechnology and nanotechnology, respectively—emerge to secure him his place in eternity.

Are human beings really ready to live forever? Do we have the psychological and spiritual resources to deal with such a profound shift in the very fundaments of our existence? What would a person be without the confrontation with mortality that has defined life and culture as we know it? And as much as we all run from death, are we sure that doing away with it would be a good thing? What would become of the first species to break the death barrier? When confronted with a prospect as radical as immortality, questions like these start to beg for answers.

And given the possibility that we might actually be the first generation in history with the luxury of having to ask them, there are many who feel that we might do well to give them some thought before we proceed much further down the road to Shangri-la. But that isn’t stopping Kurzweil. Nor does it appear to be slowing him down.

Widely regarded as one of today’s leading futurists and innovators (winner of the prestigious National Medal of Technology, his inventions include the first reading machine for the blind and the first synthesizer to duplicate the sound of a grand piano), his unbridled enthusiasm for the omnipotence of technology to surmount any obstacle it confronts has him ready to embrace whatever the future may bring. If even one-tenth of what he predicts comes true, it will be the end of life—and death—as we’ve known it.

WIE: In your new book, you assert that in the not-too-distant future, we’ll have the capacity to extend the human life span indefinitely. How long do you think we can expect to live?

Ray Kurzweil: One analogy that life extension researcher Aubrey de Grey uses is, “How long does a house last? If you take care of the house diligently, and quickly address any problem that comes up, the house can last indefinitely. If you don’t take care of it, it won’t last very long.” The reason that analogy fails in regard to our own bodies is that we don’t yet understand all the methods and we don’t have all the maintenance tools for our bodies like we do for houses.

We fully understand how a house works, because we engineered the concept of a house. We don’t yet have all that information about our bodies and brains, and we don’t have all the tools. But we will have them within twenty to twenty-five years, so we will be able to indefinitely maintain our bodies—and even anticipate, before they occur, the kinds of issues that now cause us to age and die. We’re talking about putting your life into your own hands rather than leaving it in the metaphorical hands of fate.

WIE: How is science going to bring this about?

RK: Terry Grossman and I have described what we call the “three bridges” to radical life extension. Bridge one has to do with taking full advantage of today’s knowledge of biology in order to dramatically slow down aging and disease processes. This will enable us to stay in as good a shape as possible for when bridge-two technologies become available. Bridge two is the biotechnology revolution, which will give us the tools to reprogram our biology and the biochemical information processes underlying our biology.

We’re in the early stages of that revolution already, but in fifteen years we will have, to a large extent, mastery over our biology. That will take us to the third bridge, the nanotechnology revolution, where we can rebuild our bodies and brains at the molecular level. This will enable us to fix the remaining problems that are difficult to address within the confines of biology and ultimately allow us to go beyond the limitations of biology altogether. So the idea is to get on bridge one now, so we can be alive and healthy when the biotechnology and nanotechnology revolutions come to fruition. Our aim is to live long enough to live forever.

WIE: You’ve been following your own “bridge-one longevity program” for several years now. Do you have any indications that it’s working?

RK: When I was forty, I took these biological aging tests that measure forty or fifty different biochemical indicators, and I came out with a biological age of about thirty-eight. I’m now fifty-seven, and last year I came out at forty, so I’ve only aged a couple of years in the last sixteen years. That does reflect how I feel and look. I’ve overcome a major predisposition to diabetes—I was actually diagnosed with it twenty-two years ago, but as a result of using basically natural methods to reprogram my biochemistry, I now have no indication of it. I also had a predisposition to heart disease. My father died at fifty-eight of that disease, but I’ve never had it. So I have a completely different biochemistry than I would otherwise have.

WIE: Can you give an example of what you mean by bridge one, of how we can extend the life span using our current medical knowledge?

RK: One aging process that we can control right now has to do with the loss of phosphatidylcholine in our cell membranes. The cell membrane is typically sixty percent or more phosphatidylcholine in a young person, but it can be down to ten percent in the elderly, in whom it gets replaced by useless substances like hard fats and cholesterol. It’s one of the reasons that the skin of an elderly person is not supple and their organs don’t work as efficiently.

The body makes phosphatidylcholine, but it does so very inefficiently, so gradually over the decades, our cell membranes are depleted of that vital substance. You can reverse that by supplementing with phosphatidylcholine; that’s one of the 250 supplements I take. The objective is to use these bridge-one methods, which is applying today’s knowledge aggressively so that we can be in biotechnology revolution, become available in another fifteen years.

WIE: How is biotechnology going to aid in life extension?

RK: Through biotech, we’re developing the tools to reprogram our biology at the most fundamental level—the level of biochemical information processing. We’re not far from being able to overcome diseases like heart disease and cancer, type 2 diabetes, stroke—the major diseases that kill ninety-five percent of us. And beyond simply curing disease, we’re also working to reverse aging, which means addressing at least a dozen different processes that contribute to aging.

One of the key ideas in the biotechnology revolution is called rational drug design. We can design drugs to take on very carefully targeted missions to accomplish precise tasks

Drug development used to be called drug discovery, and it literally was that. If you had a mission like lowering hypertension, you would try fifty thousand substances and find one that seemed to lower blood pressure. But we didn’t know how it worked or why it worked, and invariably, because it was really a very crude application, it would have all kinds of side effects. Whereas now, we can actually understand these processes very precisely in biochemical terms—for instance, the whole sequence of information processes that occur in the development of something like atherosclerosis, the source of heart disease—and we can attack them at specific vulnerable points.

For example, there’s one enzyme in the body that destroys HDL, the good cholesterol. If you inhibit that enzyme, people’s HDL levels soar and it stops atherosclerosis. There’s a drug now in phase-three FDA trials, torsotropie, that does exactly that, and it looks very promising. I wouldn’t hang my hat on any one specific development, but there are thousands of these.
We also have the means now to inhibit gene expression.

That’s very important because every major disease—heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and, of course, viral diseases—uses gene expression, and if we can inhibit certain carefully selected genes, we can stop disease. There’s a new methodology, RNA interference, where we put small RNA fragments into a medication that goes into the cell and blocks the messenger RNA expressing a gene and then blocks the expression of that gene. It works very well.

There are lots of genes we’d like to inhibit. One exciting example is the fat insulin receptor gene, which basically says “hold on to every calorie, because the next hunting season may not work out so well.” You have to remember that our genes evolved tens of thousands of years ago, when conditions were very different than they are today.

There wasn’t any evolutionary reason for people to live very long, because once you were done with child rearing, which was generally maybe age thirty, you were using up the limited resources of the clan. And so longevity was not selected for. But there were genes that were appropriate for the time, like holding on to every calorie, because calories were few and far between—unlike today, with our super-sized meals.

Now when scientists inhibited that gene in mice, those mice ate ravenously and remained slim—and they got the health benefits of being slim. They didn’t get diabetes; they didn’t get heart disease; they lived twenty percent longer. A number of pharmaceutical companies took notice and are now pursuing inhibiting the fat insulin receptor gene in fat cells, which would be quite a blockbuster concept. And that’s just one of our twenty-three thousand genes.

So bridge two is already under construction, but in ten or fifteen years, we’ll have the full fruition of that revolution, where we can really reprogram these information processes underlying our biology. And then twenty-five years from now, bridge three, the nanotechnology revolution, will enable us to go far beyond the limitations of our biology.

WIE: So even with all of the biotechnological innovation you’re predicting, are there some limitations inherent in our biology that we won’t be able to overcome without going beyond it?

RK: Biology, while remarkably intricate, clever, and complex, is far from optimal, because biological evolution made various early design decisions that everything else has to be based on. For example, everything is built out of proteins, and although proteins are three-dimensional molecules, they’re a very limited class of materials with very limited properties. And we find time and again, as we actually reverse-engineer the methods of biology, that we can reengineer biological processes to be far more capable.

For instance, our thinking takes place in the interneuronal connections in our brains. We have a hundred trillion of them, and they process information at chemical switching speeds of a few hundred feet per second, which is a million times slower than contemporary electronics. And that’s based on the current speeds of today, when chips are still flat.

Once electronics goes into the third dimension, they will be far more powerful. For instance, a one-inch cube of nanotube circuitry would be a million times more powerful than the human brain.
Or take our red blood cells, which are actually very simple devices—they just store and release oxygen in a certain fashion.

There are already nanorobotic designs for robotic red blood cells that would do that hundreds of times more efficiently. If you replaced ten percent of your red blood cells with these respirocites, as they’re called, you could do an Olympic sprint for fifteen minutes without taking a breath or sit at the bottom of your pool for four hours.

Our biological systems are very sluggish. Take our white blood cells. I actually watched my own white blood cell in a microscope attack and destroy a bacterium, and it showed a measure of intelligence. It was very clever, but very slow; it was a boring thing to watch. It took about an hour and a half to complete that mission.

Robert Frietas has nano-engineered designs that are fifteen to twenty years in the future, but once perfected, these designs would be hundreds of times more capable, would be able to download software from the internet that destroys specific pathogens including cancer cells, and would perform their mission in seconds rather than hours.

Now even though nanotechnology is largely in the future, there are already early adopter applications. For example, there’s a blood-cell-sized capsule that’s nano-engineered with seven animated pores that can successfully cure type 1 diabetes in rats; there are already sensors using nanotechnology that will be used in artificial pancreases to detect glucose levels with tiny computers embedded in the skin and to control the feedback loop.

But the golden era of nanotechnology and the ubiquitous use of nanobots to augment the immune system and things like that will be more like twenty to twenty-five years away. Once we have the full fruition of biotech and nanotech, we really will have the means to indefinitely forestall disease, aging, and death.

WIE: Leonard Hayflick, one of today’s leading authorities on aging, has said that he thinks that people who believe we can engineer our own immortality don’t understand what aging really is, that deterioration and decay are universal processes that apply to everything, biological or otherwise.

RK: What am I? What is a person? I’m a pattern of matter and energy. I’m not this stuff that I’m looking at, because these particular particles were all different six months ago. We know that our cells turn over pretty quickly, and although our neurons persist longer their constituent parts, the tubules and filaments, actually get turned over in days or weeks. Within a matter of months, all of the cells, or at least all of the systems within the cells, are changed. What persists is a pattern.

I’d like to compare it to the pattern that water makes in a stream. When it’s cascading around a rock, you can see a certain pattern, and that pattern can stay the same for hours or even months or years. But the water molecules that make up the pattern are changing within milliseconds. The pattern itself gradually changes as well—both the pattern of water in a stream and the pattern in our own bodies and brains—but there’s a continuity even in this gradual change.

Now, Hayflick is correct that, left to their own devices, complex systems will eventually decay. On the other hand, you can intervene and modify those processes to maintain them. And it’s not just a matter of fixing discrete problems, like saying, “Okay, there’s a hole here. We’ll plug the hole. There’s a wound here, we’ll plug the wound. There’s a disease, we’ll fix the disease.” We do have to have more pervasive systemic interventions that maintain the integrity of this complex system. But that is something that can be done. We can do it with complex information systems, and we can do it with our bodies and brains.

One example will be DNA errors. If you examine the cells of an elderly person, you’ll see there’s a very high rate of DNA errors that have occurred. And that is the type of process that Hayflick is referring to, because over time, those DNA errors cause a lack of integrity in this complex system. However, there are things you can do now to slow down DNA errors, and there will be biotech-based therapies to correct them.

For example, I could take my skin cells and convert them into heart cells by manipulating the proteins in the cell body. I would discard those that had DNA errors or correct the DNA errors, extend the telomeres, multiply them in vitro and reinject them, and a good portion would ultimately work their way into my heart. If I did this therapy repeatedly, every day and every week, then after a year, my heart would be ninety-nine percent rejuvenated cells.

Even if I was seventy, I’d have the heart of a twenty- or twenty-five-year-old, and I would have corrected the DNA errors.
So there are many ways to restore the integrity of a complex system. And yes, we do notice the sort of gradual blurring of the integrity of the information in a complex system if it’s left to its own chaotic devices. But that’s precisely what we’re going to address.

WIE: Our current life expectancy is less than one hundred years. And our current life extension technology is nowhere near being able to do what you’re speaking about. In light of this fact, what you’re predicting sounds like an enormous leap in an extremely short time. What gives you the confidence that things will unfold in the way you predict?

RK: We don’t have all the tools we need to extend longevity indefinitely at this moment, and if all science and technology were to stop, we wouldn’t be able to do it. But science and technology are not stopping, they’re accelerating. The future is always much more different than people anticipate because it grows not linearly but exponentially.
About thirty years ago, I became an ardent student of technology trends, and I began to gather data in many different fields and build mathematical models to predict future trends. And it turns out that certain things are hard to predict.

If you asked me, “Will Google stock be higher or lower than it is today three years from now?” I could give you a guess, but that’s all it would be. If you asked me, “What will the next wireless standard be?” that’s also hard to predict. But if you asked, “What would one MIPS [million instructions per second] of computing cost in 2010?” or “How much will it cost to sequence a base pair of DNA in 2012?” or “What’s the spatial and temporal resolution of noninvasive brain scanning in 2014?” I could give you a figure that will be remarkably accurate.

I have a track record of predictions based on these models, because these types of measures of information technology track in very smooth exponential progressions. We’re doubling the price/performance of information technologies each year—a factor of a thousand in ten years or a million in twenty years, which is really quite daunting.

For example, whereas it took us fifteen years to sequence HIV, we sequenced SARS in thirty-one days. It cost twelve dollars to sequence one base pair of DNA in 1990, a penny in 2000, and it’s under a tenth of a cent now.

Another important observation is that we’re now at a point where we have the intersection of information technology and biology. We’re understanding life and death, disease and aging as information processes, and we’re also gaining the tools to change those processes—to reprogram the little software programs called genes that affect our lives.

WIE: Though we may fear death, and wish we could avoid it, most people have never taken the idea of immortality seriously. It seems that if such a thing were to become possible, it would be a change far beyond any change that has ever occurred in human history, with almost unimaginable psychological, social, cultural, economic, and spiritual implications. Is humanity ready for this kind of change?

RK: Psychologically, we’re not equipped to live five hundred years. So if we were talking only about conquering disease and aging, and then just living on as human beings in our current form for hundreds or thousands of years, that would lead to a serious problem.

I think we would develop a deep ennui, a sort of profound despair. We would get bored with the level of intelligence we have and the level of experience we have available to us. I think in order to make this viable, we need not only radical life extension but radical life expansion. We need to expand our intelligence and our capacity for experience as well, which is exactly what these new technologies will enable us to do.

Then an extended life span would become not only tolerable but a remarkable frontier where we could pursue the real purpose of life, which is the creation and the appreciation of knowledge. And I mean knowledge in the broader sense, including music and art and literature and science and technology and relationships. We’re going to profoundly expand our ability to do that.

My next book, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, addresses the far-reaching implications for human life of these overlapping revolutions of genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics. For example, there are already feasibility designs showing that we could develop solar panels and nano-engineered fuel cells that could convert sunlight efficiently enough to meet all of our energy needs.

Nanotechnology will also enable us to create any physical product at virtually no cost from very inexpensive raw materials and information. And nanobots are going to be permeating our bodies, brains, and environment—doing our work for us, transforming our environment, cleaning up pollution from earlier eras, and vastly expanding our intelligence.

As we merge with our technology, we will have billions or trillions of nanobots in our bloodstreams keeping us healthy, interacting with our biological neurons, and providing, for example, full-immersion virtual reality incorporating all of the senses. If you want to be in real reality, the nanobots will just sit there and do nothing. If you want to be in virtual reality, they’ll shut down the signals coming from your real senses, replace them with the signals that you would be experiencing if you were in the virtual environment, and your brain will feel like it’s in that virtual environment. You can move your virtual body there and have any kind of encounter you want, incorporating all of the senses.

But most importantly, this intimate merger of our biological intelligence with non-biological intelligence will vastly expand human intelligence as a whole. I mean, once it gets a foothold in our brains, our thinking will really be a hybrid of the two, and ultimately, the non-biological portion will be much more powerful, and may give us access to new forms of intelligence that are very different than anything we’ve experienced.

This also relates to longevity, because the reality of longevity for non-biological systems is different than for biological systems. Right now, the software of our lives is the information in our brains. I estimate it to be thousands of trillions of bytes, which represents all of our memories and experiences and skills and just the whole state of our brain. So that’s software, and it’s inextricably tied up with our hardware. When the hardware of our brain crashes, the software dies with it. Our whole concept of life and death has those intertwined; they’re not separable.

But we have already experienced a different type of reality where they are separable, and that’s our software files. If you buy a new computer, you don’t throw all your files away—your files have a longevity that’s independent of the hardware. Our lives are also information files, which I call our mind file. So eventually, the information in our brains will be independent of the hardware substrate that it’s running on, just like software is today.

That’s the nature of immortality some decades from now, as our lives increasingly become dominated by the software of our mind file.
In envisioning the future, people frequently will take one change and consider how it would impact today’s world as if nothing else is going to change. Most futurist movies are like that.

In Spielberg’s Artificial Intelligence, for example, you have human-level cyborgs, but everything else is the same—the coffee makers, the cars, no virtual reality. But you really have to look at all the different changes. If a very prescient futurist in 1900 had said, “We have a third of the population today working on farms, but I can see that will be less than two percent in a century from now,” people would have said, “Oh my god, everybody’s going to starve.” But not only are we not starving, America’s a major food exporter. How did that happen? Because new technologies, largely information-based, have improved productivity not only of food but of everything else.

WIE: Given our current struggles with overpopulation, many have pointed out that if such technologies were to become widely available, we would pretty quickly be faced with a choice between having more children and securing our own immortality. Do you agree?

RK: I don’t think it’s going to be a problem. Yes, radical life extension will enlarge the population. But soon, all of our products and foods will be manufactured by nanotechnology replicators that can make essentially any physical product at almost no cost. So this will lead to a radical increase in prosperity around the world. And we’ve seen that as nations become more prosperous, they lower their population growth.

The most advanced countries have negative population growth. Now that will reverse again when we dramatically reduce the death rate. The birth rate will then exceed the death rate once again, and population will grow. But how quickly is it going to grow? It’s not going to double every year, it’s going to add a few percent every year. So compared to this very slow expansion of the biological population, the wealth creation from nanotechnology is going to expand at explosive rates. We’re going to be able to keep up very easily.

WIE: One criticism of the life extension movement has been that these technologies are only going to be available to the rich, and therefore, their pursuit will intensify the class gap between the haves and have-nots—those who can afford to live forever and those who can’t. Will we end up with a divided world of immortals and mortals?

RK: That’s a misconception also. The law of accelerating returns says that there’s fifty percent deflation annually in information technology so that you can buy the same digital camera today for half what it cost to buy it a year ago. The typical cycle is that a product starts out unaffordable and actually not working very well—remember when mobile phones barely worked and only the elite could afford them?

Then it becomes merely expensive and works better, and then it becomes inexpensive and works very well, and eventually it’s almost free and it’s really perfected. So it’s only at the point where technology doesn’t work very well that only the rich can afford it.

Look at the AIDS drugs. They started out costing tens of thousands of dollars per patient and actually didn’t work very well. Now, at least in the poorer countries, say, in Africa, it’s about a hundred dollars a patient. It’s still too much, and yes, we need to do a lot more. But actually, we have the opportunity to save millions of people, because the drugs are only a hundred dollars a person, and they actually work pretty well now. We’re not where we need to be, but the technology has moved in the right direction. And that progression is going to accelerate. Ultimately, we’ll be able to meet the material needs of the entire population at almost no cost.

WIE: Biotechnology and nanotechnology have both borne the brunt of fierce criticism in recent years. Many feel that the potential perils of these new technologies outweigh any potential benefits, no matter how remarkable they might be. Yet you seem to be advocating a no-holds-barred relationship to these developing technologies. Do you feel the risks have been overblown?

RK: Technology is a double-edged sword. It empowers both our creative and destructive sides. I had this conversation with Bill Joy in September 1998 and gave him a copy of my book The Age of Spiritual Machines, which led him to write the Wired cover story “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us” and articulate the downsides of genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics. What was controversial about his article was his call for relinquishment: “Let’s keep the good technologies, but there are dangerous ones like nanotechnology and biotechnology—let’s just not do those.”

I pointed out that all technologies are leading, in the end, to those dangerous technologies; that technology is inherently dangerous. And in fact, banning a technology at a broad scale just drives it underground, where it’s actually more dangerous, because then the responsible practitioners we’re counting on to protect us don’t have easy access to the tools. So I think the most dangerous route would be to attempt to relinquish these technologies.

If one seriously tried to do that, it would require a totalitarian system. And Bill Joy himself has evolved his position. He’s now working as a venture capitalist actually investing in nanotechnology to accelerate renewable energy and other environmentally friendly technologies.

However, there are downsides. We talked about some of the tremendous benefits of genetics and the whole biotechnology revolution in terms of overcoming disease and extending longevity, but it also could empower a bioterrorist with tools found in a routine college biotechnology laboratory to create a biological pathogen that could be quite dangerous. It could be spread easily and be stealthy and deadly.

The answer, though, is not to relinquish these tools. In broad strokes, it is to put more stones on the defensive side of the scale. We’re close, for example, to broad tools that could combat biological viruses in general.

Now if we can get those quickly enough, we don’t have to attack each new virus as it comes along. So what we need to do is identify these risks.
We need ethical standards, which have worked very well in the genetic community—at least to prevent inadvertent problems, to prevent intentional abuse or misuse by terrorists, for example. But the fact that there will be risks is just inherent. I mean, technology is power, and it does empower all of our dispositions, creative and destructive.

WIE: What would you say to the idea that it’s unnatural to want immortality? That this quest for life extension goes against the natural cycles of birth and death, and that if we attained immortality, we would have stepped so far outside the natural order that in some sense, we would no longer be human?

RK: In my view, we are the species that seeks to go beyond our own boundaries. Fundamentalism is the idea of putting artificial constraints on what humans can be—defining humans in terms of our limitations rather than by our ability to supersede our limitations. We didn’t stay on the ground, we didn’t stay on the planet, we’re not staying within the limitations of our biology, and we’re not staying within the limitations of our intelligence.

The noblest purpose of human life is the creation, communication, understanding, and appreciation of knowledge in all its forms: from different art forms to different levels of expression in science and technology.

WIE: Some people would say that the meaning of life is, in a sense, defined by our mortality. That our limited life spans push us to spend the time we have wisely, creating a sense of urgency that tends to bring out our best qualities. That such things as courage and heroism, and even creativity, arise from the recognition that “I only have so much time here, and so does everybody else.” What would you say to the idea that if we were faced with the opportunity to live forever, we would quickly lose our edge, become lazy, start to take life for granted, and ultimately become more apathetic, self-centered, and indulgent?

RK: I think defining meaning in terms of death—saying that death gives life meaning—is to define us in terms of our limitations. In my mind, what’s noble is the pursuit of knowledge, and that’s going to expand through this exponential process along the law of accelerating returns. That’s really the future of human life.

If you see human beings as no different than peaches on a tree that grow old and fall and die, then that view has merit. But there is something unique, after all, about humans. I mean, it’s been said many times that science has thrown humanity off our pedestal of uniqueness and centrality.

We discovered that the universe didn’t revolve around the earth, that human beings were not anointed directly by God, and that we evolved from worms. And so we’ve continually had our egocentric view of the importance of humans shattered by these scientific insights. But there actually is one really important way in which humans are unique: We are the only the species that passes knowledge down from generation to generation, where that knowledge base is growing exponentially, and where we go beyond our limitations. Whereas other animals can be seen statically using tools, they don’t create technology that evolves.

You know, the combination of our cognitive capability and our opposable appendage, the thumb, enabled us to change our world. And that’s what’s ennobling, and gives life meaning.
Up until now, we’ve had no opportunity to circumvent our mortality. So we had no alternative but to rationalize this tragedy—which is what death is—saying, “Oh, it’s really a good thing. And it’s ennobling; it gives life meaning.” A large part of religion is to rationalize this tragic loss of knowledge and skill and personality as something positive. But really, what’s positive about human beings is our pursuit of new frontiers.

WIE: It is well known among evolutionary theorists that the chief catalysts for change are stress and challenge. Whether we look at technological innovation, personal transformation, or collective evolution, positive change in any form tends to be driven by external pressures, by challenges that push us to reach further, dig deeper, create, and innovate.

Even this rush for life extension is being driven by the stress of imminent death. In the utopian immortal future you envision, what do you see as the catalyst for continuing evolution, development, and change? In securing for ourselves a trouble-free future in eternity, will we inadvertently be ensuring our own stasis and depriving ourselves of the conditions needed for our own continued development?

RK: Well, already we can see that that’s not the case. We are now pushing evolution forward. Biological evolution is not the cutting edge—it’s really our technological evolution. We’ve taken over the driving force of the evolution of complexity from this evolutionary process that created it. And I think that the evolutionary process has its own urgency because there are still competitive pressures, and time becomes increasingly valuable when things are moving more and more quickly. We’re not motivated only by the realization that we’re running out of time because we’re going to die in a few years.

You see lots of people competing to create new businesses and new knowledge, competing in the academic and artistic arenas. And by and large, they’re not propelled by the need to put the next meal on the table. We don’t need death to propel that forward. We have a hierarchy of needs: air is pretty much a need, but if you have air, then you worry about food, and if you have that, you worry about shelter. But most of us have already moved on to worrying about ego needs, and beyond that, there are desires to create meaningful knowledge and so on.

WIE: What is your response to the observation that death is part of a process of regeneration, and that it’s through the cycle of death and rebirth that the very process you’re speaking about happens? That in some sense, evolutionary progression wouldn’t really be possible once the regenerative dimension were taken out of it?

RK: Religion talks about transcending death, but it has a mystical answer to how that happens. In fact, we find this transcendence in the real physical world. We find it in technology. If you put materials and energy in the right configurations, magical things happen. You get powers that go beyond the original materials. That’s what excites me about being an inventor.

And we will transcend death and that natural cycle. We’re not just grapes on the vine—we are overcoming that natural process that we emerged from. Yes, we came from nature, but we are going to surpass it through the power of our technology, which comes from our mind made manifest in the real world.

A VOW TO LIVE FOREVER

Embracing the tension between the finite and the infinite

Ken Wilber & Andrew Cohen in dialogue


KEN WILBER: PANDIT. A scholar who is deeply proficient and immersed in spiritual wisdom. Self-described “defender of the dharma; intellectual samurai.” Hailed as “the Einstein of consciousness,” Wilber is one of the most highly regarded philosophers alive today, and his work offers a comprehensive and original synthesis of the world’s great psychological, philosophical, and spiritual traditions. Author of numerous books, including Sex, Ecology, Spirituality and A Brief History of Everything, Wilber is the founder of Integral Institute and a regular contributor to WIE.

ANDREW COHEN: GURU. Evolutionary thinker and spiritual pathfinder. Self-described “idealist with revolutionary inclinations.” Cohen, founder of What Is Enlightenment? magazine, is a spiritual teacher and author widely recognized as a defining voice in the emerging field of evolutionary spirituality. Over the last decade in the pages of WIE, Cohen has brought together leading thinkers from East and West—mystics and materialists, philosophers and psychologists—to explore the significance of a new spirituality for the new millennium. His books include Embracing Heaven & Earth and Living Enlightenment.

Dialogue X

Whether it’s heaven, reincarnation, or the fountain of youth, mankind has had a perennial fascination with immortality. But have we ever asked ourselves what it would really be like to live forever? In their tenth dialogue, Cohen and Wilber deconstruct the “immortality projects” of the human ego and in the process reveal a striking new vision of eternal life.

ANDREW COHEN: The twenty-first-century quest for physical immortality is the theme for this issue, so I thought it would be appropriate if we had a discussion about enlightenment and immortality. In fact, the first time I became aware of the possibility of extending our physical lives to a ridiculously long length of time—to hundreds, if not thousands of years—was when I read your book Boomeritis.

KEN WILBER: It really shook me up when I first heard about the possibility of physical immortality—or at least massively extended physical life span, perhaps several hundred thousand years—which is why I used it as a little subplot in Boomeritis. For about three days, I was in a daze, because when you think about that possibility, it seems to change just about everything!

COHEN: Precisely. It scared the heck out of me, too! But I think this is something we all have to begin to consider, because it seems that in the not-too-distant future, for better or worse, these capacities, these potentials, are actually going to be available to us. This fact should compel all thoughtful and sensitive souls to dare to face into some big and ultimately challenging questions.

Initially, at a deep existential level, the notion of the mortal self, or ego, being able to carry on for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, just feels absolutely wrong. Intuitively, it seemed to me that if one could infinitely extend the life of the individual, one would be breaking some fundamental law of the universe—tampering with natural structures in the creative process that shouldn’t be tampered with. It just seemed deeply chilling and even horrifying. But then it suddenly occurred to me that this is all inevitable—that sooner or later, we will have the ability to prolong our physical life span.

And then I wondered: Would the possibility of extending the human experience still feel so deeply wrong if human beings were much more evolved at the level of consciousness? Or might extending our physical life span eventually be a natural expression of our evolutionary development?

WILBER: Well, I think that’s a question everybody should ask. Let me give my own quick overview of what we mean by immortality.

COHEN: We’re talking about physical immortality.

WILBER: I know, but physical immortality gets confused with other realms. Let me briefly give an overview of what we’re talking about in terms of these realms—the body, the soul, and the spirit—and then we can focus on whether we mean physical immortality or the immortality of the soul or the immortality of spirit.

Human beings want immortality in a bodily realm because they intuit something deeper that’s not bodily. That’s one version of what I call the Atman Project, which is an intuition of infinity applied to the finite realm—when you want the finite realm to be infinite. And that’s part of the difficulty. When most people think about immortality, they’re thinking about some variation of overcoming time. And in the physical domain you overcome time by living forever. That’s the body’s idea of immortality. It’s simply not physically dying. You’re materially going on forever.
Immortality for the soul is usually thought of as reincarnation. The soul is immortal because it never dies. It goes from body to body to body. It’s as if the soul takes off one coat and puts on another. That’s another version of immortality, a higher-realm version, but ultimately it is also just another version of the Atman Project, because it is a fussing around in the realm of time looking for the timeless. It just fusses around a lot longer.

For the realm of non-dual spirit, immortality doesn’t mean living forever. It means the experience of timelessness; it means a moment of pure timeless presence, not going on forever in time.

COHEN: An infinite moment of timelessness.

WILBER: Yes, an infinite moment. It basically means without space and without time. Even Wittgenstein got it right. He said, “If we take eternity to mean not everlasting time but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.”
So you can have eternal life by simply and fully being in the timeless present with spirit, now. And whether your body lives for a million years or not, you are still eternal. It doesn’t mean you live forever; it means you’re not in the stream of time. So all of time arises within the awareness or spaciousness that you are in this timeless present. The “I AMness” that you are is radically without time. So it’s eternal in its fullness right now.

There are, at the very least, three types of “immortality.” There’s the immortality of living forever in time—whether physically living forever or having the soul go on forever—and then there’s the immortality or eternity of the timeless present as spirit’s Presence. And you can have immortality and eternity in the timeless present, right now, with no further requirements whatsoever. But immortality through time, ultimately it just can’t be done, not for any finite body and not for the soul, either, not really. You can make it live for a million years, but to go on for a million years in time looking for the timeless is simply to miss the point for a million years. So there’s only one kind of actual immortality, and that’s the immortality of the timeless ever-present clarity of spirit.

COHEN: Yes. The whole notion of physical immortality is strictly about the domain of the body and of the egoic self, which is inherently finite. When people speak about immortality in this way, it has nothing to do with the immortal nature of the spirit. Making these distinctions is very important. And one significant issue is that if we begin to experiment with extending our capacity or ability to live in the physical domain but are not more evolved spiritually, philosophically, and ethically, the picture becomes inherently problematic.

In the physical domain of the universe, there’s a constant process of creation and destruction that’s occurring in every moment at all levels. It’s unbroken. It’s never static. In fact, that appears to be the very nature of the manifest domain. And at some level it feels like attaining physical immortality would be interfering with that process. If we suddenly gained the capacity to live beyond what is currently considered our natural life span, it seems like we would be crossing over into a kind of ungodly realm of the “undead.”

WILBER: I understand. It violates nature’s laws.

COHEN: Yes. Ironically enough, I imagine that if we do succeed in extending our capacity to live for hundreds or thousands of years, it just might create more fear and attachment than we’re already burdened with. For example, I’ve noticed that people who have a lot of money tend to be more worried and concerned about it than people who have a lot less. In the same way, if I knew I was going to live for 5,000 years, I would probably take fewer risks than I do now. In fact, maybe I’d never want to get on an airplane or go bungee jumping, because if anything happened, I’d lose my chance to live for 5,000 years! Just as people who are very rich become more attached to money—it doesn’t free them; it imprisons them—the gift of immortality could create a hellish life.

WILBER: You’d never go outdoors, would you?

COHEN: Precisely. It could be ironic and horrible.

WILBER: Otto Rank was one of Freud’s initial five inner disciples and he was a brilliant man. He was one of the first to use the term “neurosis,” but he had an existential meaning for it, which is still quite extraordinary: a neurotic, he said, was somebody whose fear of death caused them to fear life. I drew a lot on his work when I was writing The Atman Project, which is basically about the fear of death, the ego’s fear of death. The ego intuits that its True Self is spirit and is infinite and eternal. But it applies that intuition of eternity to its own finite body or self and then wants its finite body or self to be eternal.

It’s that intuition of infinity applied to the finite realm that makes human beings such a peculiar mixture—both completely human and completely divine simultaneously and constantly prone to confusing those spheres! When we confuse these two spheres, all hell breaks out, literally. That’s why Rank defined neurosis as when somebody’s fear of death makes them especially fearful of life, which is a beautiful understanding of neurosis and not at all what you get from standard psychoanalysis. So that’s what you’re talking about, and yes, if we actually extended our life span to 1,000, 5,000, or 10,000 years, you’d feel like an idiot if on your thirtieth birthday you got run over by a truck.

COHEN: You’d hate it.

WILBER: Oh, man, what a bummer!

COHEN: But what’s interesting is that the people in our culture who are pushing this whole potential are, of course, those who have reached the scientific/rational worldview and have what you might call a scientific Atman project: they intuit their infinite Selves but want to scientifically make their finite selves go on forever!

WILBER: Absolutely. And the latest twist is that they want to download consciousness into computers. But then you always have to say, “What level of consciousness are you talking about? There are a dozen levels and basically all you want to do is download the egoic rational level. I mean, why?” They say, “We’re going to live 5,000 years or 10,000 years—won’t that be great!” I say, “Why would you want Hitler to live 10,000 years? Why do you want Saddam Hussein to live 10,000 years? What exactly are you talking about when you say that this is necessarily a good thing?”

COHEN: To handle this extraordinary capacity, we would have to be evolved at the level of spirit.

WILBER: That’s right. So let’s say you have realized spirit in the deepest way possible. Let’s say you have an enlightened realization that doesn’t need to live forever in time. It’s transcended the soul’s version of immortality and therefore no longer needs to reincarnate, and it’s transcended the body’s idea of immortality and therefore does not have to eat food everlastingly and live everlastingly in the physical realm. You are a pure timeless presence and you have eternity in this moment. If human beings started developing the technology to live longer in a human body, would you choose to inhabit a body that might live longer, as evolution itself, if you were enlightened? Well, why not? Let’s just suppose that somebody’s born 10,000 years from now and they become fairly enlightened and at that time human societies do have bodies that live for 5,000 years—

COHEN: They’ll be ready for it. They’ll be prepared.

WILBER: That’s correct. That’s the point. It all hangs on that.

COHEN: Obviously the main problem, though, is that our technological capacities are so far ahead of our moral, ethical, philosophical, and spiritual development.

WILBER: As always! There’s got to be some mathematical law about a lag period in human understanding, because I see no exceptions to it throughout history.

COHEN: It’s very problematic.

WILBER: It is problematic.

COHEN: But the fact that physical immortality could make sense when we become more evolved at the level of spirit is totally intriguing. It gives one a perspective on an unimaginable potential in the future.

WILBER: Doesn’t it? And in the meantime, though, I think what we’re looking at here is the Atman Project, where the typical egoic self intuits that its own deepest nature is timeless, but it applies that intuition to a finite realm. And so it looks at its physical body and says, “I want this to live forever.”

COHEN: Yes, but of course, the “I” that wants to live forever wants to do so for all the wrong reasons. And if it wants to live forever for the wrong reasons, it is going to wreak havoc in this world.

WILBER: That’s right—that’s what the Atman Project is. In my book Up from Eden, I went through historical epochs to show how so much of the havoc wreaked in each of those eras was indeed the result of an intuition of infinity applied to the finite realm. You want to blow the finite realm up to infinite proportions—and all you can do is blow it up.

COHEN: Like the Nazis, for example!

WILBER: Yup.

WHAT HOLDS THE UNIVERSE TOGETHER

COHEN: It seems to me that the nature or the structure of the universe is supported by and completely dependent upon the tension between the un-manifest domain and the manifest domain, between the time-bound mortal self and the timeless immortal spirit. It seems that the fundamental and inherent tension between those two is what holds the universe together. And it is that tension itself that is the creative process and is simultaneously the gravity that holds the whole in place. I think that if the mortal, or finite, dimension succeeded in becoming immortal, the universe would disappear.

WILBER: I think that’s right. The great German idealists were some of the first to talk about it. You can actually look at evolution from two perspectives: you can look at it from the perspective of a finite thing, and you can look at it from the perspective of infinite spirit. And from the perspective of the finite thing, Hegel said, “Even the rocks cry out and scream and raise themselves up to spirit.”

And Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schelling and Hegel gave extraordinary accounts of what’s driving developmental evolution, which is the attempt of a finite thing to find infinity. And it can’t do it. It tries and fails. It tries again at a higher level, and it can’t do it there, and it fails. It gives up and then tries again at an even higher level. And each level gets closer to spirit, but it’s still in the manifest domain. And like you said, if it ever actually reached the infinite, then the whole game would be up. And then as spirit you would close your eyes, dream for a billion years, open your eyes, sneeze and start the whole thing all over again.

COHEN: And it seems to be in the tension of that juxtaposition—where the mortal self awakens to its immortal nature as spirit—that enlightenment is found and that real immortality is attained. That’s heaven.

WILBER: Yes, I very much agree. But here’s what is so interesting: there’s a little stretch of hell in our development from subconscious to self-conscious to superconscious. The subconscious realm doesn’t suffer because it’s not self-conscious. There’s no existential angst. But then there’s a period where you’re self-conscious enough to know that you’re finite and you intuit infinity, but you haven’t yet awakened to real infinity. And between that is all of the hell of humanity.

COHEN: That’s samsara.

WILBER: That’s exactly right. It is absolute hell because you are on earth, you intuit heaven, and you’re a mixture of both. I think the great archetypal figure of this is Christ. Because, for example, the sitting image of the Buddha is largely of one who is simply awakened and “off the wheel.” He’s awakened to the infinite unmanifest but hasn’t integrated the manifest. But Christ is both human and divine, and he knows fully that he’s both. And the passion on the cross is the passion of humanity between those two points. I think it’s a beautiful image. It’s a sad, horrifying image, but it’s very true.

COHEN: And of course, in his case he was aware of the predicament

WILBER: Yes, he was, unfortunately.

COHEN: Most of us aren’t, though. The tension between these two poles is actually the source of our deepest sustenance, our spiritual sustenance, our soul’s raison d’etre. But this is something a lot of people don’t know about. A lot of us are looking for relief and release from the existential hell of postmodern alienation through the experience of the immortal self. But we’re missing where the action really is: the tension point between both extremes—between the infinite, unmanifest, or immortal self and the finite, manifest, or mortal self.

WILBER: I agree that we have to embrace both poles. But let’s keep in mind that there are two ways to get it wrong. On the one hand, you can stay on the finite side of the street, trying to get the physical body to live forever. These are immortality projects in the physical realm. On the other hand, you have the form of spiritual seeking where you want your soul to live forever and be reincarnated. And of course you can remember the times when you were building a pyramid . . . or Cleopatra! You’re doing an immortality project on the soul level, still finite, still not realizing the timeless present, and therefore being propelled through birth after birth.

COHEN: And in a traditional enlightenment context, you want to rest beyond the world.

WILBER: That’s right. You want to get off the wheel, which itself is an immortality project of the arhat.* And then there’s tantra, which embraces both the timeless realm and the fact that the timeless realm is manifesting itself in the realm of time. With tantra, you want to be able to embrace both of those domains without pulling an immortality project on the one hand or getting lost in the unmanifest domain on the other.

TWO EXPRESSIONS OF OUR IMMORTAL NATURE

COHEN: What the concept of immortality means in relationship to our actual human experience is different depending on which dimension of ourselves we’re speaking about. When we awaken to the timeless unmanifest realm, or what’s called the Self Absolute, that experience is the awareness of eternity.

Suddenly one becomes aware of the eternal present. One awakens to the presence of eternity now. In an instant, one goes from a state of finitude, of being locked in time, to an experience in which the awareness of time recedes into the background, if not disappearing altogether. The experience of this state is absolutely tangible. It almost feels material—as real as this table in front of me.

WILBER: And in that state, nothing changes; time doesn’t touch this.

COHEN: Yes. There’s no beginning and there’s no end. That’s instant enlightenment—unconditional freedom.

WILBER: And radical release.

COHEN: In that release, one becomes aware of the immortal nature of consciousness itself. Its very nature is always free of anything that happens in time. So this is one manifestation of the immortal nature of spirit—the unmanifest, timeless ground of being itself. But there is another manifestation of the immortal nature of consciousness, which is the creative evolutionary impulse to become.

This is what I call the “authentic self.” The authentic self is the God impulse, the energy and intelligence that initiated the creative process in the first place. Now what does the authentic self, or evolutionary impulse, feel like when we awaken to it? It feels like a sense of absolute power, of indestructibility, expressed as a kind of ceaseless optimism, an almost unbearable positivity.

WILBER: And it has a passionate, desire-less desire to change the realm of manifestation.

COHEN: Right. And it’s like an unceasing explosion; it’s a power that is inherently creative, and it also feels immortal because its very nature is immortal, but in a completely different way than the Self Absolute. And so these are the two different expressions of our immortal nature as consciousness or spirit.

WILBER: And the immortal God impulse that is creatively working with the manifest side of the world also finds that it runs up against itself. In other words, that infinite power runs up against the density of its own material manifestation.

COHEN: Yes. It’s constantly striving to push beyond what it has already created—and that is its ongoing battle.

WILBER: So this infinite power of ours is running into our own density.

COHEN: Absolutely, constantly.

WILBER: And that’s the tension of evolution.

THE EXUBERANT YES

COHEN: As we were saying earlier, when the mortal self considers what it would actually be like to live forever, something about that possibility is felt to be deeply and inherently wrong. Interestingly enough, most mortal selves find the notion of living unendingly quite unbearable. Just think about it for a minute. Would Andrew or Ken or anyone else really want to live forever as Andrew, Ken, or anyone else?

The idea is actually quite terrifying, isn’t it? But how does the authentic self, the conscious evolutionary impulse alive in us, feel about living forever? It was, after all, that same creative impulse that initiated this whole process fourteen billion years ago. In other words, from the perspective of the authentic self, the universe is our creation. We did it; we created all this. We were the ones who decided to do this. Of course, we forget that . . . but who else could it have been?!

The universe is the project of the authentic self, of the creative impulse. And the degree to which we awaken to the authentic self is the degree to which we awaken to that God impulse, which is none other than our own passion to move this process forward. Now, that part of myself and that part of yourself never think about what it would be like to live forever, because that part of the self doesn’t have the capacity to think of itself as being separate from the ongoing creative process. It’s only aware of this unbridled passion to create, to move forward ceaselessly. On the other hand, the ego, or mortal self, has an inherent fear of death and dissolution. We don’t want to die. Our worst fear is dying. But from the perspective of the authentic self, or the part of you that is one with the evolutionary impulse, which is what I call God, we’re just getting started.

From God’s perspective, the fourteen billion years it’s taken to get to this point is just the beginning—we’re really just getting rolling. It’s as if we’re running a marathon and we’re maybe halfway through the first mile, if that. We’re just warming up! But when the mortal self considers the infinite nature of the evolutionary process, it finds it absolutely unbearable to think of having to be at it for that long. And what’s so interesting about this is that the ego is presented with this contradiction: “Oh, I thought I wanted to live forever, but I really don’t.” Just as we feel the relief of going to sleep at night after a long and busy day, even death can be felt to be a relief and a release from the experience of incarnation. It’s like we need a rest in which we go through a process of regeneration before we get back in the fray.

From God’s perspective, the infinite nature of this process is not frightening or overwhelming, or a process for which we need any rest. And this is why I have come up with a new definition of the bodhisattva ideal. The traditional declaration of the bodhisattva is, “I vow to postpone my own nirvana until all other sentient beings reach nirvana,” which is the point at which we all get released from the ordeal of the evolutionary process. But in the new version, it changes to “I vow to participate in this process forever because that is who I am.” It is the most frightening thing for a human being to say yes to that, because what that really means is, “I vow to be conscious for eternity.” And that is unbearable. It’s ultimately frightening. It challenges our humanity at a soul level. And it’s a new way to look at this whole notion of the bodhisattva ideal in an evolutionary context.

WILBER: It’s true that we as human beings indeed have this chance—to consciously engage with the evolutionary process—for the first time in fourteen billion years, and this really has only occurred in the last microsecond of this whole evolutionary unfolding. So, on the one hand, we have the Christ figure who is fully aware of how deeply you can suffer when you’re awake to both your natures—your infinite, eternal, timeless Self and your finite, suffering, existential, dread-and-angst self.

The cross is a perfect expression of the suffering that is caused by the intersection of those two. On the other hand, there’s the Eastern, nondual, tantric version of all this, which is: I vow to be both nirvana and samsara for as long as they both last. And that’s the kind of vow you’re talking about, which is basically a commitment to not withdraw from either.

COHEN: But there’s another dimension to it. Don’t you think that as the energy, the intelligence that initiated the evolutionary process awakens to itself in us, the very direction of this process literally depends on our willingness to take responsibility for it? In other words, unless we are unconditionally willing to say, “Yes, I will do this with all of my heart, and all of my soul, and all of my being, for eternity,” ultimately, the process won’t be able to continue to develop. It seems we’re at this crossing-over point. Up until now, the evolutionary process has been occurring more or less unconsciously. But in beginning to become conscious of itself, it’s becoming more and more dependent upon us to take it to higher and higher levels.

WILBER: I agree. And there are two different phases of it. One is the phase of promising not to withdraw from the finite realm. And that is the Mahayana or bodhisattva vow, which is basically, “I vow not to get off the wheel of samsara but to help it as best I can,” because essentially nirvana and samsara are not two.

But there is an extraordinary deepening of that realization with tantra or Vajrayana, which is a realization not just that I won’t get off the wheel of samsara, but that samsara itself, the entire finite realm, is an ecstatic expression of my very own infinite selfless Self or True Nature. The best parts of tantra went further and played with luminosity. All of a sudden samsara becomes a sparkling ornament and manifestation, or radiant joyous expression and taste, of what you always already are. And so now it’s not, “I promise not to withdraw.” It’s, “I will fully enter that, and I will enter even the lowest domains of samsara as expressions of nirvana itself.” In this there’s a little intimation of what you’re talking about. And this comes to an even fuller flowering with an understanding of the evolutionary nature of spirit, which happened with the great idealists, and then Sri Aurobindo, among others.

I think that’s close to what you’re describing, which really has only come into fruition on the planet, East and West, in the last thirty years. It’s God realization as the positive, absolute commitment to an exuberant embrace of the manifest realm, and the promise to carry it forward forever, as endlessly unfolding dimensions of your own deepest Divinity and Spirit-in-action.

COHEN: The beautiful thing about this is that it overwhelms the ego in the most absolute way. I mean, the traditional notion of ego death in the face of unmanifest emptiness, or the void, is one thing. That’s when so many people declare, “I’m so afraid of the unknown.” But what about taking on the manifest realm forever? That pulls the rug out from under the ego and its fear of the dark! It’s an instantly tangible, absolute confrontation that is profound, ever-new, and relentless.

It shakes us awake to what we really have to step into now, and it destroys the split between the world and the spirit in a way that’s essential at this time. Any spirituality that is merely a personal matter is completely undercut in this new way of thinking.

WILBER: Like I said, there were beautiful early intimations of this in the Mahayana and the Vajrayana turnings of the wheel. The Heart Sutra is a very static simple form, but it’s still extremely beautiful: “That which is emptiness is non-other than form; that which is form is non-other than emptiness.” But then we discovered that form is evolving.

Therefore, that which is evolving is none other than spirit. That which is spirit is none other than that which is evolving. That’s the Heart Sutra in its updated evolutionary form. So all of a sudden, emptiness becomes the exuberant manifestation of its own evolving form, and that’s what you’re calling God, or the God impulse, which is to enter into that with an exuberant yes that is so actually immortal that it completely undoes the immortality project of the ego.

I think the form that you’re expressing it in is exactly right. A thousand years from now they’ll have a slightly different form. But that intersection between the infinite and the finite—that’s the seed. It was the cross for Christ, it was the basis for Mahayana, and it was much stronger in tantra and is even stronger in the present-day nondual evolutionary panentheism, which is what we’re speaking about. It’s that extraordinary intersection between the infinite and the finite that is where all the action is. It’s such a friction point—and once you get on the other side of it, you can’t go back.

COHEN: Because now you know who you are, and there’s no escape clause anymore. It’s kind of like a permanent crucifixion.

WILBER: Yes, and liberation simultaneously!

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