Conflict, Creativity, and the Nature of God

What is the ultimate nature of reality?

In their latest dialogue, Wilber and Cohen challenge some of our most fundamental spiritual beliefs as they come to grips with the Absolute, war and peace, creation and destruction, and the unconstrained force of evolution itself.

Andrew Cohen: Ken, let’s look into some of the most fundamental beliefs that lie at the heart of our spiritual worldview today. Because I think that many of the ideas we have about Ultimacy—about God, about the absolute nature of things—have a profound influence on the way we see the world. And these deeply held convictions greatly influence the way we relate to life, often much more than we are aware of.

And usually these beliefs are unquestioned. So if we want to awaken, if we want to be able to see clearly, I think it’s essential that we begin to question what our fundamental beliefs actually are and what they’re based on.

So in this issue we’re asking a very big question. We’re asking, What is the ultimate nature of the Absolute? Is peace the nature of the Absolute? Or to put it in more theistic terms, Is God a pacifist? Or is creation and destruction the nature of the Absolute? Does God make war? Or is God the silent witness? Is he or she completely absent from the stage? Because, once again, our deepest convictions about the nature of God or Ultimate Truth have a tremendous impact on the way we respond to life.

Ken Wilber: Yes. And if I believe that God is a pacifist, then I should be a pacifist, if I want to know God.

Cohen: Exactly! So to begin, I’ll try to describe some fundamental concepts that form the ground upon which our deepest spiritual convictions are based. In our previous discussions, we’ve talked about the nature of reality as a whole and have agreed that it is made up of the manifest and the unmanifest—the manifest domain being the realm of time and space, this whole evolving universe, and the unmanifest domain being the ground of being, the empty void out of which this entire universe emerged fourteen billion years ago.

Now, I think our notion of what God or the Absolute is depends very much on whether our view of reality is biased toward the unmanifest domain or the manifest domain, or whether it transcends and includes both.

For example, if we say that the unmanifest ground of being is what Ultimate Reality is, then we would most likely say that God is emptiness, peace, or cessation. But if we say that the manifest realm is what Ultimate Reality is, then we’re looking at a different picture altogether. Now we’re looking at reality from the perspective of deep time, of evolution. Then we could call God the impulse to become, the creative impulse, the First Cause. From this perspective, God is simultaneously creation and destruction, from the Big Bang up until the present moment.

Then if we want to expand on that, in order to embrace more of a nondual perspective, we would see both the manifest and the unmanifest domains as being absolutely nonseparate and nondifferent from each other. The manifest and the unmanifest are ONE. God is both form and emptiness, and that which transcends both.

So these are some different definitions of God or Ultimate Truth. And once again, the reason that we’re interested in this is because we want to know what our relationship to life would be if we were embodying the true nature of God—we want to know what the most right, wholesome, appropriate relationship to life in all spheres, in terms of all of our important choices, might be.

Wilber: Yes. Well, this is obviously a very, very important topic. It has to do with one’s spiritual practice as well as, for example, one’s political orientation. And obviously in the real world, those two things should overlap in a certain sense. In other words, one’s view of what one’s orientation to a spiritual reality as well. That doesn’t mean injecting religion into politics. It just means not disassociating the political and the spiritual in the first place

Cohen: Yes, because the truth is they’re not separate. If one had a deep conviction that the nature of God and the Ultimate Truth is peace, then one would probably be led to believe that one’s relationship to life has to be, at all times, radically non-confrontational, radically non-aggressive—that right action always has to be nonviolent.

Wilber: Well, I think the fundamental answer to this is found in the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna gives very interesting counsel there. Arjuna has to fight in a war that’s going to happen in any event, and of course, being a spiritual person he’s concerned that he might have to kill somebody and that this is bad, and therefore, he shouldn’t fight. And at the end of a very long and very profound discourse, Krishna says, “You must do your duty. You must remember the Lord and fight.” Now, he doesn’t say, “Remember the Lord and don’t fight.” Nor does he say, “Fight in the name of the Lord.” He says, “Remember the Lord and do your duty.” In other words, established in nondual reality, you must do the appropriate thing in this moment, which is fight.

Cohen: Right, I agree. When a just society or culture is being threatened, we have to be ready and willing to aggressively defend ourselves or others if necessary.

Wilber: Yes. And Krishna’s counsel would be good for somebody who is in WWII, for example, and is fighting Hitler. Hitler’s regime was gassing 20,000 Jews a day at that time. Now you can sit there and say, “Let’s be passive, let’s not be aggressive, God is peaceful, therefore, I’m going to be peaceful and I’m going to help the Lord.” No, you’re actually murdering people with that stance, and you’re contributing to homicide with that attitude. And that’s clearly not a very spiritual attitude.

So under those circumstances, what are you to do? You remember God, you do everything in your pure heart to remain established in spiritual love and openness, and then you do your duty and you fight and you kill the people who are murdering people. They simply will not stop under any other circumstance. And if that’s true, then it is your spiritual duty to kill them. And I think that’s what a lot of people get really confused about. They think that there’s simply no way that their behavior can include a duty of aggressive action but that their heart can still be open for a higher cause and a higher purpose.

Cohen: This is a very, very important point.

Many people who are awakening spiritually, who are beginning to be drawn to the deeper dimensions of life, are entering into a spiritual marketplace where there is a lot of confusion about this issue. Many spiritual teachers, some of whom are even teaching enlightenment itself, are implicitly and explicitly saying (and believing) that in fact quietude is Ultimate Truth; that the experience of deep peace is God.

And this creates a great deal of misunderstanding. Indeed, if one is convinced that the experience of peace or quietude is Truth or God, then inevitably that’s going to be one’s fundamental reference point. But in fact, the truth is more subtle, more complex, and more demanding than that.

Wilber: That’s right. That’s a very dualistic view. It takes one partial state that is set apart from an opposite, and it absolutizes that relative, partial state. And the great sages, from Shankara to Padmasambhava to Nagarjuna, really explain this very carefully. Their whole notion, as we’re saying, is that the ground of being is present in nirvikalpa [absorption in all-encompassing consciousness] but it’s also present in savikalpa [consciousness with subject-object awareness].

It is the suchness of whatever is arising or not arising. It’s radically nondual. It can’t be categorized as active or passive. And it can be and is present in any active state and in any passive state.
And so you have to have that realization of nondual, ever-present ground.

But out of that ground come yin and yang, active and passive. And in the unmanifest domain, you experience the ground as that ever-present isness, that immovable suchness, moment to moment. But your manifest domain is an evolutionary thrusting and unfolding and creative Eros and thrashing, ecstatic pushing into the world of form. And the nondual realization is that you experience both of those simultaneously.

Cohen: So, once again, the important point here is that exclusively saying that peace or stillness is God or Truth is a profound misrepresentation of the nondual totality of reality. And if that is one’s conviction, then in terms of one’s relationship to life—not just to the war in Iraq, but to one’s relationships, to one’s work, to one’s body, to life as a whole—it’s going to have a very profound influence.

You know, it’s so fascinating how awakening to the evolutionary dimension of the manifest domain changes one’s worldview in such a profound way. To awaken spiritually in that context really means to awaken to the big picture, or to a much bigger and radically inclusive view of reality as a whole. It’s a view that finally liberates one from what is ultimately a one-dimensional spiritual interpretation of reality that ends up imprisoning so much of one’s latent creative potential within a limited notion of peace.

Wilber: Yes, and I think that’s certainly not the attitude of a bodhisattva. The bodhisattva has to be a warrior. He or she has to fight the reluctance of the world, get down in the ditch and move stuff around. And stone Buddhas are a dime a dozen!


Cohen: There’s another dimension to all this that I wanted to talk about. It’s something you’re very familiar with in your own work, and something I struggle with all the time, which has to do with the nature of the creative process itself. If one is truly moved or inspired by the evolutionary impulse, ultimately one is going to be endeavoring to create that which is new—in our case, new structures in consciousness.

New structures demanding higher and higher levels of integration. And it seems that an inherent part of the creative/developmental process involves transcending the old in order to embrace the new. This kind of transition inevitably will create conflict—conflict between the old structures and those new ones that are trying to emerge. Of course, at the deepest level it’s being fueled by an ecstatic compulsion to create, but the structures that one is endeavoring to transcend and go beyond will perceive that creative impulse as threatening or even aggressive.

Wilber: Right.

Cohen: So the interesting point which I think needs to be brought out is that part and parcel of the creative process is conflict. This fact tends to challenge many of us who have spiritual inclinations. It challenges our deepest beliefs about Ultimacy, about the nature of God. It calls for greater depth, higher evolution, and a much bigger embrace of this miraculous process we are all participating in. The fact that the nature of the creative process includes conflict, and that conflict is ultimately part of our larger development, can be both a bitter pill and a glorious awakening. But it’s a fact.

Wilber: Oh, I agree. I think even the traditions have generally tended to agree with that view. As you know, in the Hindu tradition, for example, generally Ultimate Reality itself, or Brahman, is seen as un-qualifiable. It’s a cloud of unknowing; it’s divine ignorance. You can’t say it is or it isn’t, or it’s up or it’s down—it transcends all opposites including that one. So it’s neither aggressive nor peaceful. But the manifest world always arises as a play of opposites.

There’s Brahma the creator and Shiva the destroyer—creation and destruction go together. In the manifest domain, God is all of nature and everything that’s out there. And nature is one big restaurant—everybody’s eating everybody; it’s a daily menu. It’s creation, destruction, life and death happening a gazillion times a second, and all of that is God, the manifest God, playing both light and shadow.
Cohen: Yes. And that’s not difficult to see at the gross physical level. But when we go to the highest or most subtle level, the level of consciousness, the same process of creation and destruction is also still occurring.

Wilber: Absolutely. I think Hegel gave a wonderful summary of what we’re talking about. It’s a fancy kind of Hegelian tongue twister, of course, but this was his notion of transformation or transcendence: “To transform is at once both to negate and to preserve.” I often say to “transcend and include.” Each moment transcends and includes its predecessor. So to transcend something means that you go beyond it, and therefore you negate it in that sense. It’s even a death in a sense; it’s the destruction of the narrowness of the thing that came before. But then you also include it in the new and bigger reality. So I always liked that expression, “negate and preserve.” It’s creative death and destruction leading to a new birth or rebirth at a new and more encompassing reality.


Cohen: So as we begin to understand that God is manifest, unmanifest, and also transcends both, then the question arises: What does the nature of God look like as it becomes conscious of itself, or aware of itself?

Wilber: In the manifest domain?

Cohen: In the manifest domain.

Wilber: I call it spirit-in-action. And it looks like evolution!

Cohen: And how does evolution look?

Wilber: [Laughing] Evolution is like riding a psychotic horse toward a burning barn!

Cohen: You mean because it meanders so wildly?

Wilber: Mike Murphy is fond of saying that evolution meanders more than it progresses. And that’s true, but it does progress.

Cohen: Sure. But let’s try to move closer to the very center of the evolutionary impulse itself. As regards the ultimate nature of this whole process, in my own experience I have found that there is a profound ecstasy at the innermost heart of it all. When it is purely witnessed, free from any distinctions, it seems to reveal to us that the ultimate nature of this whole process is inconceivably positive. And it’s not felt as meandering—it feels more like a powerfully focused intensity.

Wilber: I think it varies at different moments, but I think what you’re saying is very important because even though evolution at large meanders and progresses, the very impulse itself is definitely spirit-in-action; it’s an Eros. It’s a very erotic and very intense impulse. And half of it is a blissful pushing into newness, and the other half is sort of a carpet burn and the death of the old.
Cohen: Exactly! So this definition and understanding of God as evolution in action, as this kind of focused intensity, points to something very important, I think.

Wilber: Yes, I think so too.

Cohen: Especially as we endeavor to redefine and update what enlightenment is all about, to recontextualize the realization of nondual awareness in an evolutionary, developmental framework.

Wilber: Right. And I do think that’s sometimes where people get confused about what you’re saying or what I’m saying or what Mike Murphy is saying, or what any of us are saying who are trying to have a nondual view of evolution.

What I mean by that is that we acknowledge ground, we acknowledge this pure emptiness that is neither evolving nor not evolving, this fundamental ground that you describe in your teachings; that’s a fundamental component of meditation as well. And we’re not denying that you have to be established in that ever-present nondual isness or suchness. But some people, if they just stick to that alone, end up getting caught in a quietude or passivity or quiescence, which is really a misunderstanding of ground. So what we’re saying is that there needs to be a bigger mind, if you like, a Big Mind that embraces both emptiness and form.

And emptiness is absolute stillness, but form is absolute shouting! It’s evolutionary manifestation, and if you can’t get both of those in Big Mind, then frankly, you ain’t got a very big mind!


Cohen: So then to take this one step further, we agree, more or less, that the expression of God in the manifest realm, at its best, is this evolutionary push, this thrust forward. And in that, there is always the exciting possibility of new structures emerging, which is something we’re both very interested in. But if one has awakened in this way and is compelled ecstatically to create new and higher structures, that’s inevitably going to demand the use of some kind of force, for want of a better word, or insistence, that we move to a higher level.

Wilber: Yes, in the manifest domain, of course. But a lot of people are going to object to the word “force.”

Cohen: I wish there was a better word, because “force” sounds so negative.

Wilber: Well, it’s like whatever a chicken does when it hatches out of an egg. You can use whatever words you want, but what that chick is doing looks pretty damn forceful to me.

Cohen: I call it “evolutionary tension.” Often we relate to tension as being bad or negative, but I always remind people that evolutionary tension is inherently positive. That’s what makes you sit up straight. That’s when you’re focused, you’re paying attention. It’s when your higher conscience has been awakened and you are conscious of a mysterious sense of care for something higher than the concerns of your own ego.

Wilber: This is another thing that people commonly misunderstand. People think that when you say force, it means “I have the right to force you.” But what we’re talking about is that my higher self has a right to force my lower self. That’s all we’re talking about.

Cohen: Exactly. As I’ve mentioned to you before, one of the most important things that I’m trying to do with my students is to create a structure that is based on the radical truth of that higher self, which we described in our last dialogue as the Authentic Self, and that will not admit the limited truth of the lower self, the ego, and all of its relative fears and desires.

For many years I’ve sensed that if a collective could meet in this Authentic Self, a higher structure would be created that could become, one could say, a portal or even an engine for the evolution of consciousness itself. One that would support a kind of development that was beyond any individual, a new or higher form of creative potential. Does this make any sense to you?

Wilber: Well, it does. This is the thing that’s so interesting, frustrating, exciting, freaky, disappointing all at once—that to the extent that spirit is in action, any age is evolving. Whether it’s in the Paleolithic caves or the Middle Ages or any other time, moment to moment that spirit is in action. Moment to moment God unfolds in the manifest domain

And so if you’re on a spiritual path, in any age, and you’re actually attuned to the authentic moment itself whenever it occurs, you’re going to be riding the edge of evolution. You’re going to be sitting on the edge of that chaotic, frothy emergence and both helping it to unfold and also intuiting the higher, deeper dimensions of spirit itself. So you’re actually watching structure-building occurring. And to some extent you’re helping it, and to some extent you’re having it done to you. But we’re all sort of groping our way into it.

New structures have to be built, and we don’t know what those are. And so there’s this trial-and-error process, where you try to build these structures and hope they get laid down in some way that fits with the other grains and dimensions of the universe. And certainly somebody who’s in a sangha like you are, and pushing this thing forward, is going to see these kinds of things starting to happen.

Cohen: It’s so exciting. Because one gets glimpses of an enormous potential that’s just right on the edge of awareness. And at times it really feels like we’re trying to create a structure that’s going to be a vehicle for something so much bigger than anything I understand.

Wilber: I think down the line, there’s going to be an increasing sort of subtlety and sophistication in being able to discern exactly what’s going on. For example, if you’re building inter-subjective structures, to the extent that they do get built, they’ll stick because structures are permanent. They’re actual stage accomplishments. You’ll notice that once they’re laid down, everybody can kind of breathe easier and rest there. But then there will be these ecstatic states, which I would call “trans-subjective,” that kind of swoop down. And every time a trans-subjective state is experienced, it helps to break the previous inter-subjective structure.

Cohen: To take it to a higher level, you mean.

Wilber: Exactly.

Cohen: Or at least to reveal a higher potential.

Wilber: Yes. So all of this is part of that creation/destruction process. Any moment of laying down a new structure has at least those three parts. One, it has a trans-subjective state that sort of descends on people. Then there’s a destruction of the previous inter-subjective structure.

And then the third component is a laying down of the new, higher inter-subjective structure, and that is driven by this trans-subjective state that’s pushing fullness and evolutionary unfolding and trans-individuality. And that’s an impersonal force, not an inter-subjective force, if that makes sense.

Cohen: Yes, it definitely does. And it’s so thrilling when one begins to see and understand how these new structures are formed and to recognize what their incredible evolutionary potential is. I mean, that’s what you must find in your own work—you’re not only helping people to see what structures already exist that they weren’t aware of before
but through that same insight, also making it possible for new structures to be created.

Wilber: I certainly hope so. The hope is that by looking at the formation of structures in the past, using empirical and historical research, we can not only honor and acknowledge the structures that are there, but we can also focus our attention on that leading, frothy, chaotic, creative/destructive edge of evolution and help to move it forward. We have no choice. Evolution is conscious of itself now. There’s no going back. Therefore we have to take it into our own hands. It’s spirit in action today. So if you’re spiritually active today, you’re helping to understand evolution. That’s my strongest belief.

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