Unique Self: Reclaiming the Personal and Democratizing Enlightenment – An Excerpt from Zak Stein’s Review of Radical Kabbalah

Zach-SteinZachary Stein, Senior Analyst for the Developmental Testing, Deputy Director at Lectica, Inc., and as of late Academic Director of the Center for Integral Wisdom, has written a beautiful review about Marc Gafni‘s Radical Kabbalah for the Integral Review March 2014.

Here is a little excerpt:

Unique Self: Reclaiming the Personal and Democratizing Enlightenment

To my mind the core value of these books is that they reconfirm (in a compelling scholarly fashion) some of the most central ethical tenants of Western Civilization. Moreover, they do so by reminding us that the Judeo-Christian tradition contains a radical Enlightenment teaching, with a message about the collective Awakening of everyone everywhere. Gafni calls this the democratization of Enlightenment. This is a theological metaphysics justifying the reign of an Absolute Democracy, in which each must live so that all have the ability and dignity to be heard, known,  and counted. The mystical core of the great democratic political revolutions can be found in the cipher of ancient texts, reinterpreted in each age, and again today, in order to enliven the struggle to create a world-order conducive to human liberation. As Habermas has stressed, there is currently no replacement for the world-disclosing power of religious language, especially in its capacity to give voice to the profound vulnerabilities, interdependencies, and potentialities of human social life.

The core theoretical innovation enabling the democratization of Enlightenment is what Gafni calls, the reclaiming of the personal. This idea is presented most clearly where he offers a comparison between two models of Self, his own model of Unique Self and Andrew Cohen’s Authentic Self or Evolutionary Self (a comparison undertaken in detail in Gafni’s forthcoming book Two Models of Self and Why They Matter). He notes that in classic Enlightenment teachings
from the East the key move is from the personal to the impersonal. For example, Cohen’s community was for many years called the Impersonal Enlightenment Fellowship. This is the classic understanding of enlightenment, which finds expression in many Eastern schools of thought, including Buddhist and Advaita Vedanta. In Cohen’s book Evolutionary Enlightenment, for example, the word ‘personal’ is used dozens of times throughout the text, but always with a negative and pejorative connotation. The personal is not to be embraced; it is to be transcended. “Leave your story behind” has become virtually the clarion call of Enlightenment teaching in the Western adaption of most Eastern models.

Gafni (2012a, Ch. 7) points out that the conflation of the personal with the conditioned personality is a confusion that needs to be corrected. In Gafni’s model an essential distinction is posited between the personal before realization (of  non-dual radically impersonal Emptiness or God) and the personal that re-emerges after this realization. The former he terms separate self and the latter Unique Self. Unique Self is thus likened to a structure-stage of consciousness suggesting that to confuse the personal before realization with the personal that manifest postrealization is to fall into what Wilber terms a pre-trans fallacy. No less serious a mistake in Gafni’s reading is to denigrate the personal in favor of an impersonal process, such as cosmic evolution, without distinguishing which level of the personal is being addressed. True enough, cosmic evolution (conceived as a panentheistic unfolding) is hierarchically beyond the pre-realization conditioned personality, but it doesn’t efface the irreducible dignity of the post-realized personal, i.e. the Unique Self; in fact it find its expression in an infinite variety of uniquely personal forms. This is a lesson that cannot be stressed enough, especially in a context of discourse where an evolutionary ethic has emerged that turns a blind eye toward the tragedy of injustices that resulted from the enthusiasms of previous generations of evolutionary thinkers, from Dialectical Materialism to Eugenics.

Gafni’s reclaiming of the personal is the ground of his non-dual humanism and sourced deep in the lineage upon which he draws. The following passage from the Introduction to Radical Kabbalah engages this point and is worth quoting at length:

…..It is in this sense that we can begin to understand Lainer’s provocative idea that the Torah was given by a Moses who is merged with God—not in the voice of God, but in the voice of Moses…. Lainer uses the Zoharic phrase ‘The Shekhinah speaks through the voice of Moses’ as a foundation for his position. This Zoharic phrase, describing the authorship of Deuteronomy, was understood in two very different ways. The theocentric understanding, reflected in most Hasidic works, is that Moses was so completely effaced that he became a kind of channel for the divine voice. For Lainer this is only the first instrumental level of enlightenment. The second possible understanding of the phrase ‘the Shekhinah speaks through the voice of Moses’, corresponding to the higher level of enlightenment in Lainer, is almost the opposite: Moses is not effaced, but is rather so completely present that his voice and the voice of the Shekhinah become one. Moses’ unique persona, his voice and personality, incarnate the Shekhinah; through radical uniqueness, he participates in ontic unity with God….the Shekhinah speaking comes through the intensification of individuality, rather than through its effacement. Because the human is a part of God, the principle of acosmism does not negate but rather empowers the individual. The divine voice finds expression in the voice of the unique spirit, modeled by the prophet who manifests God’s voice through the clear prism of his unique individuality. This is the core of Lainer’s nondual
humanism. Lainer argues, both explicitly and implicitly, that the unique individual is the portal through which comes the revelation of the unmediated divine will, the new Torah that can override the law of Sinai. In various writings I have called this pivot in Lainer’s thought ‘sacred autobiography’ or ‘unique self.’ (Gafni, 2012, p. liii-liv)

Now what is especially critical is that this capacity to “incarnate the Shekhinah” is understood in Gafni’s writing, emergent from all of his sources, not as the domain of the elite but as an innate capacity available to every human being. He adduces relevant texts to overturn the dominant reading of Lainer’s model as only referring to the elite and asserts, in Lainer’s name, what he terms “the democratization of Enlightenment.” Again, from the Introduction to Radical Kabbalah:

The goal of Lainer’s teaching is no less than the full democratization of enlightenment. He implicitly identifies and distinguishes between two forms of enlightened consciousness. The first is what we might call the instrumental level. At this stage of realization, the person is an instrument, like a flute or shofar, played by the divine. Images describing this stage of illumination were replete in the Hasidic teachings and writings which constituted Lainer’s intellectual framework. This is the level of utter surrender to the divine. As one internalizes this level and transcends it, one comes to another level, which Lainer associates with Temple energy and the Judah archetype. At this level, God does not move through the person as an external force animating and filling the person’s voice, but rather God is incarnate within the person, who achieves a radical identity with the divine. Lainer makes clear that this enlightenment is a possibility for every member of the community. Every human being has the potential of Moses. (Gafni, 2012, p.lii)

3D-YourUniqueSelf-CoverThis teaching principle of democratization is a pivotal focus in the more popular and accessible companion to Radical Kabbalah, entitled Your Unique Self. It is the one the defining characteristics of Gafni’s work which seeks not only the evolution of the leading edge but the articulation of a world spirituality that can potentially become a shared spiritual language for large swaths of the mainstream. This language revolves around the idea of “higher individuation beyond ego,” tracing its roots to an enlightenment lineage which places sacred autobiography at the center of the awakening realization. […]

This notion of Unique Self changes the fundamental way we think about Enlightenment. Gafni’s overarching point is that what is commonly referred to as Enlightenment or Awakening is available to every human being. This move towards the democratization of enlightenment is a core structure not of Eastern but classic Judeo-Christian thought. Gafni points out that a failure to understand the true nature of Enlightenment has kept it from having its critically needed impact as a legitimate modern belief, which would serve as an evolutionary strange attractor for human motivation and aspiration. Gafni redefines Enlightenment in its most basic terms as sanity. Once you understand Enlightenment as sanity then the democratization of sanity (aka Enlightenment) becomes a self-evident requirement. What stands in the way is the incorrect conflation of uniqueness and separateness (or personal with personality) which moves Enlightenment teachers to reject uniqueness; this in tern moves the mainstream population, who intuit personal uniqueness to be a critical source of human dignity, to reject Enlightenment. […]

These kinds of theological and philosophical arguments for inviolable uniqueness and individual dignity pile up until a fundamentally new image of divinity and awakening dawns on the reader. It is not through the extinguishing of personality or the self that awakening unfolds. The goal of spiritual practice is not to merge one’s personal uniqueness into some vast impersonal process. Instead, the goal of the religiosity argued for by Gafni is to become, to borrow his nomenclature, “outrageously sane,” to be so “fully human,” so fully yourself, that you liberate the powers needed to actualize the stunning uniqueness of your life. That is, the goal is to lift up your head and be counted, to affirm your irreducible individual dignity, and be empowered to participate as only you can in the evolution of humanity.

Toward a New Language of Liberation and Social Emancipation

This is all very different from lowering your head to look at your navel in meditation. Why be counted when you are really nobody? Why work to build a world that affirms the dignity of each and every person’s illusory self? The radical teachings in Gafni’s books expose the a-political, apathetic, and defeatist underbelly of so much of Western Buddhism, where the teaching of meditation is combined with affluence and liberal values to create an insular and self-affirming escape from the obligations of uniqueness. Who is left to stand up for the inviolable rights of individuals when everyone is sitting down, counting their breaths, and spending a small fortune on retreats from the world? There is no better ideological lubricant to grease our decline into a global corporate dystopia than a form of religiosity that denigrates the individual, promotes quiescence, and calls for a personal disappearance into some larger structure or process. […]

Martin Luther King Jr.The point here is not to critique Buddhism as a whole (some of my best friends are Buddhists) but rather just to point out that the most rapidly spreading religion in the Western world (Buddhism) is not a form of spirituality that has been leading its adherents to perpetrate disruptive social change in the name of social justice. The last time that happened on a large scale in this county it was a movement firmly rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, under the leadership of a reverend with a dream about the dignity of each individual, the inviolability of human rights regardless of race, and the unique expression of humanity represented by African Americans. Today our enthusiasms for Eastern spiritual imports are leading us away from the discourse about individual rights and democracy leveraged so eloquently by Dr. King, which has served as the most powerful catalyst of social change in history. This language of liberation that is our heritage is being replaced by a language of liberation that is predominantly about the qualities of our own minds and emotional states and which includes the remarkable idea that by sitting for an hour a day on our $90 buckwheat meditation cushion we are somehow helping to change the world. There is perhaps no more iconic representation of the new American post-modern spiritual landscape than a room full of homogenized white people sitting on sets of standardized cushions facing the wall.

In recent decades we have become increasingly homogenized and standardized, as individuals’ lives have been forced into a matrix of techno-economic and political institutions of unprecedented reach and invasiveness. Counterintuitively, reported increases in individualism, narcissism, and entitlement reflect exactly these trends marking “the twilight of the individual.” The post-modern narcissist or entitled millennial are in fact suffering from radical doubt about their own self-worth and unbearable uncertainty about the value of their contributions to the world. As Kohut (1971) and other self-psychologists have taught us, the narcissistic personality is in fact an extremely fragile self-system, one almost totally dependent upon the affirmations of others. Conspicuous displays of self through social media, self-aggrandizing do-gooding, demands for special treatment and attention—these are not signs of the a self blown out of proportion, they are signs of a self desperate to be seen, a self needing to be counted among the worthy, needing to be affirmed in its unique worth.

The cure for the dysfunctions of post-modern identity formation is not a spiritual teaching that tells individuals to look through the illusions of their unique personal essence and beyond the unique time and place in which they live. In fact, the post-modern reader of spiritual books is already tenuously connected to their unique gifts (as opposed to the gifts the media leads them to wish they had) and the unique responsibilities of their time and place (as opposed to those directed toward a world represented through social media). Most spiritual books offer a weak balm for the stinging anonymity and de-personalization of mass-customized lifestyles and posthistorical consciousness. These books tell us that our particular personalities and places are to be devalued in favor of some abstract Universal (be it Evolution, Big-Mind, or The Great Perfection), leaving the reader confirmed in their suspicion that their unique life has no special value.

As a way of bringing this point home and as a kind of poetic closing it is worth quoting at length a teaching delivered by Gafni at Esalen Institute in 2012:

Artwork by Megwyn White

Your Unique Self is your irreducibly unique perspective which fosters your unique insight which creates your unique gift which engenders your unique responsibility to address the unique needs in your circle of intimacy and influence. Are you willing [as a seeker of Enlightenment] to play a larger game? Let me state the core premise clearly. We live in a world of outrageous pain. The only response to outrageous pain is outrageous love. Why can we not access the outrageous love necessary to engage in the evolutionary healing and transformation of ourselves and our reality? Because we shut our hearts to the unbearable pain of the world. Not merely because, as the classic Enlightenment teachers reprimand us, we are stuck in ego. Rather because the gap between our ability to feel and our ability to heal has become too great. It simply hurts too much. Through the virtues of the virtual media we are almost omniscient. We are aware today of a level of suffering that only God was aware of a hundred years ago. But unlike the classic vision of an omniscient but also omnipotent God, we are largely impotent to heal the suffering. Because the gap between our ability to feel and our ability to heal has become too great we shut our hearts and turn inwards in varying mixtures of overt narcissism and more subtle spiritual materialism in the form of soothing meditations and various pseudo-realizations of oneness and enlightenment. This is in marked distinction to the realization of Unique Self that closes the gap between the ability to feel and the ability to heal…. We now come back to our core premise. We live in a world of outrageous pain. The only response to outrageous pain is outrageous love. What does an outrageous lover do? She commits outrageous acts of love. Which outrageous acts of love? Those acts of love that are a function of her Unique Self. In this way the Enlightened Unique Self who is the incarnation of all that is, living in her as her and through her, intimately addresses the unique needs in her circle of intimacy and influence. In doing so she reclaims her potent power—the power of the Shekhinah —the power to heal and transform. The gap between the ability to feel and heal is closed. The heart opens once again and a sacred activism sourced in outrageous love perfumes all of reality. (Gafni, 2012b)

Gafni’s work is a dramatic evolution of the languages of liberation that constitute the profound dignity of our Western traditions—languages of liberation that allow us to understand Enlightenment as a potent force for social transformation. This is why I argue for reading some books instead of others. It is in books that we find the images that catalyze our transformation and the words that we use to remind ourselves of who we are and what we are about.

Gafni’s books are unrivaled in their provision of a profoundly new language of liberation. These are teachings for our time, which is a time to practice spirituality in the world, fearlessly, with eyes open, and to participate in a planet needing to be transformed by the power justice and love.

So I will do something out of character and say: read these books. You will be compelled by the rigor and depth of the scholarship, while at the same time swooning from the depth of the ideas.

Works like this come along once in a generation.

Zachary Stein

You can download the whole review by Zachary Stein here.