The Controversial Andrew Cohen
A FAREWELL WITH DEEP GRATITUDE
By Hal Blacker
April 16, 2007
More than two years ago I decided to write publicly about what I felt had gone seriously wrong with Andrew Cohen’s teaching methods and his community. I had received disturbing reports from other former students that eventually compelled me to speak out. I wrote then:
“…A few years ago I began to learn of things that caused me great concern. An old friend who I worked with on What Is Enlightenment? magazine called and told me she had left the community. I told her a little about my thoughts about it — how I had come to see how oppressive life in the community was, how wrong it was that there was no personal freedom or autonomy permitted, how abusive the confrontational methods used to enforce conformity now seemed, how frequently we lived in fear, and how criticism was always forcibly squelched. She interrupted me and said, ‘Hal, things have gotten a whole lot weirder since you left.’ I asked her what she meant, and she told me stories involving the use of physical force and abuse against students. She spoke of being ordered by Andrew to deliver ‘messages’ to fellow students consisting of slapping the student in the face as hard as she could. She told me she had been ordered by Andrew to paint messages in blood-red paint on the walls of a student’s room at Foxhollow. She described to me the conversion of the spa at Foxhollow into a kind of psychological torture chamber.
“As the years passed I spoke to many other former students who confirmed these stories, elaborated upon them, and told me many more. I learned of students having large ‘contributions’ psychologically extorted from them. I heard how a student was required to sign a ‘gag order’ agreement prohibiting him from publicly criticizing Andrew as a condition of having his ‘contribution’ returned. I was told the story of community women prostrating in a freezing cold lake in the winter, some suffering dangerous exposure, as a symbol of their devotion and repentance for ‘women’s conditioning.’ I learned of a student being forced — against his will and his moral compunction — to engage in daily visits to prostitutes in Amsterdam for weeks on end as a kind of penance for past sexual indiscretions. I was told by a student how he was ordered to reveal to his estranged teenage daughter her mother’s infidelity that occurred many years in the past, in order to teach the daughter not to hold her mother, now a critical former student, in such high esteem. I heard these stories and many, many more. As the weight of the awful truth about what Andrew and his community had become accumulated, I began to feel that something must finally be said. People must be warned. At the very least, any prospective student should know what they are signing themselves up for when they join Andrew Cohen’s community.”
In the more than two years since I personally “broke the code of silence,” all of these disturbing events, and many more, were documented and corroborated on this blog, over and over again. Three former editors of What Is Enlightenment? magazine, including myself, spoke out strongly here about the abuses in Andrew Cohen’s community. Other close students have also put their names on the line to attest to what went wrong with the community’s beautiful dream of creating heaven on earth. The woman who financed Cohen’s Foxhollow EnlightenNext world center wrote about how he unfairly took advantage of her vulnerability and largesse. Numerous other students have also contributed here, both named and anonymous, shedding light on the authoritarian abuses around Cohen, their causes and their harmful effects. In contrast, not one specific or credible factual denial has emerged from Andrew or anyone associated with him about what has been reported here in great detail and depth. Instead, we have only heard the refrain that we have failed to include the “context,” as if any overarching purpose could justify the abuses described here and the pain they caused. No cry of “context” could obscure the devastating truth that the participants in this blog have had the courage to reveal.
I hope it will not be regarded as overly dramatic if I say that I look back over what has occurred on this blog with awe, gratitude and humility. This blog’s truly collaborative, interactive and collective nature makes it, perhaps, unique in the blogosphere, on the Internet, and, perhaps beyond. I haven’t seen anything really parallel. I believe that, beyond the collaborative nature of the editorial work here, the collective intelligence, truthfulness and vulnerability of the contributions, responses, arguments and discussions have made this effort at healing and truth-telling unprecedented. I don’t think that so many have spoken out before with such rawness and honesty in an attempt to warn the unwary, comfort the injured and understand humbly how something they believed in so totally could go so wrong. For this effort and honesty, on behalf of all of the editors of this blog, I bow to everyone who has participated here, whether anonymously or named, and whether former student, interested observer or friend.
While what has happened here will always remain, this seems like a good juncture at which to conclude this particular project of honesty and love. So, on behalf of the editors and administrators of this blog, I have been asked to write a kind of farewell. The discussion here could go on endlessly, or as long as authoritarianism hides behind masks of evolution, enlightenment or other ideals. This is not cynicism. I am not saying that evolution or enlightenment do not exist, or are unworthy of a life’s dedication. But the capacity for deception is endless, and opportunists and the self-deluded who use and abuse high ideals, whether consciously or unconsciously, will probably always be with us. For this reason, I hope the discussion engaged in here will persist in one form or another.
But I think that this particular forum has run its natural course. The essence of what needed to be expressed has been said. Most of the former students I know have moved on, or are in the process of doing so — they have regrouped or are regrouping, they value what they learned, both good and bad, and they have ventured into productive new lives. Those lives now may be less filled with drama, buzz and high romanticism, perhaps, than their lives with Andrew Cohen. But they seem, to me, to be lives that are far more genuine, lives that are making, or have the potential to make, greater contributions to this world. The former students I know are, by and large wiser, softer, humbler and happier than they were when in the thrall of the community discussed here. They are professionals, artists, parents, workers in the non-profit sector, and many are actively engaged in working for their own and others’ spiritual liberation. I think the healing that was, in part, the purpose of this blog has occurred to a great extent and will continue. And what has been written here will stand as a warning, a cautionary tale for the benefit of those who may consider taking a similar path to the one that went astray, as described here.
I feel confident that everyone whose life has been touched by this discussion has benefited in some fashion. Even those readers who chose to become involved with Cohen or to continue their involvement with him cannot help but be a bit smarter about it — or at least have an awareness of this resource for helping them pick up the pieces when reality shatters their dream. And we have heard that some of the more extreme abuses of community members have been stopped or moderated in the wake of their being revealed on this blog.
There is only one person for whom I still have great concern. I fear that he is perhaps the only one who has not been able to learn something of value here and who may be irretrievably committed to a painful and destructive path. That person is Andrew Cohen. I sincerely hope — and I think most ex-students will join me here — that some day our former teacher will find the humility to revise his own idea of himself; that he will demonstrate the vulnerability and lack of pride that he taught us but failed to live; and that he can find a way to recover his balance if and when his bubble implodes. We were mistaken in our assessment of him, but we did recognize his potential, and I think we all would like nothing more than to see that potential fulfilled in truth and humility. But that would require a difficult self-reckoning for him, one for which it is hard to find genuine reason for hope.
Still, against all reason perhaps, I believe in basic goodness. I have faith in the happy ending. No ending would make Andrew’s former students happier than to see him change. And nothing is completely beyond possibility in a world where the courage and honesty demonstrated by all who participated here can manifest.
For now, WHAT Enlightenment??! is signing off. We may create a web site in the future, for the sake of posterity, with some of the articles on this blog. This blog will remain as a resource, but in a few days comment posting will be turned off.
On behalf of the blog editors, I want to express deep gratitude to everyone who has participated in and contributed to this journey of healing and truth. Best wishes to you all on your path.
May all beings be happy!
PREVIOUS NHNE NEWS LIST ARTICLES:
PART 1: ANDREW COHEN: A HISTORY OF ABUSE (11/13/2006)
PART 2: ANDREW COHEN: A HISTORY OF ABUSE (11/14/2006)
American Guru is a multifaceted account of life in the contemporary spiritual community known as EnlightenNext, and the controversial “teaching methods” of its New York-born founder, self-proclaimed “guru” Andrew Cohen. With contributions from several of Cohen’s former students, William Yenner recalls the thirteen-year trajectory of his career as a leader and manager in Cohen’s community — his early days as an idealistic “seeker,” his years of service on EnlightenNext’s Board of Directors, his ultimate disillusionment and departure, and his efforts to make sense of his experiences as a once-devoted follower of a “Teacher of Evolutionary Enlightenment.” Yenner and his colleagues provide a cautionary tale on the dangers of authoritarian spirituality, and an insider’s case study on the promises and pitfalls of postmodern discipleship.
William Yenner discusses the reaction to his book, “American Guru”
David Christopher Lane, Ph.D. reviews William Yenner’s book “American Guru” on Integral World
Guru Talk is a website created by former close students of Andrew Cohen. The website includes personal testimonies of the transformation that they believe occurred through their association with Cohen. This website seeks to provide a deeper context concerning why Cohen and his Evolutionary Enlightenment teaching is so challenging and why Cohen has incited such extreme responses, especially amongst some of his former students.
EnlightenNext Magazine Formerly “What Is Enlightenment?”
An open letter from Andrew Cohen to his friends and foes
October 18, 2006
Book: “The Mother of God” by Luna Tarlo, Andrew Cohen’s mother (includes 34 reviews)
THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE
April 22, 2009
In June of last year, the editors of this blog were contacted by Yonatan Levy, a contributor to the Israeli online journal NRG-Ma’ariv, for an article he intended to produce on Andrew Cohen and Cohen’s organization, EnlightenNext. Levy had sought an interview with Cohen himself, specifically in order to seek a balanced perspective on the allegations against Cohen previously published on this blog. While the interview he’d requested was never granted, Levy did receive from EnlightenNext’s “Communications Director,” Amy Edelstein, a series of official written responses to questions he had submitted in advance of the proposed interview. He also received an intimidating letter from Cohen’s lawyer, dated the same day, advising him of NRG-Ma’ariv’s potential legal liability in the event of the article’s publication. These documents are available here:
Under the circumstances, NRG-Ma’ariv’s legal department encouraged Levy to seek firsthand confirmation of any allegations against Cohen or EnlightenNext that he intended to outline in his article. It was for this reason that Levy contacted us with the answers he’d received from Edelstein– in which she declared that most of the information published by former students of Cohen on this site is simply false.
Almost a year later, Levy’s article has still not seen the light of day, and it now appears that it may never be published. However, EnlightenNext’s responses to Levy’s questions represent an historic event of sorts, as they constitute its first official denial of the events described on this blog. Although previously Cohen and his defenders had publicly taken refuge in the notion that the incidents reported here have been taken “out of context” by “a few disgruntled former students,” they have never — until now — gone on the record with official declarations that the reported incidents never actually took place.
Although it seems clear from the correspondence reproduced above that EnlightenNext’s representatives believed coordinated legal intimidation would be sufficient to keep their denials below the public radar, What Enlightenment??! has decided — in the interests of a free, transparent and open exchange — to publish them here. Doing so will accomplish two objectives. First, it will give EnlightenNext a platform from which to “go public” with its reportedly common response to the queries it receives from current and potential students about the contents of this blog, i.e., that they are mere fabrications. Secondly, it will give former students who have direct experience of the reported incidents an opportunity to respond specifically to EnlightenNext’s denials.
It is worth reiterating that the publication of these documents represents an historic moment in the public dialog that this blog was created to facilitate but could never fully accomplish without the full participation of both sides. This is why we have decided, at least for a limited period, to re-open it. It is our sincere hope that potential responses, from current and former students alike, can now begin to focus specifically on the truth and accuracy of our recollections, as it is only by these means that we can arrive at any meaningful reconciliation — or, in Andrew Cohen’s well-chosen words, “come together in the truth.”
SEARCHING FOR THE TRUTH ABOUT ANDREW COHEN:
A JOURNALIST’S ODYSSEY
By Yonatan Levy
Tel Aviv, Israel
My name is Yonatan Levy. For the last few years I’ve been a writer and editor for the spirituality section of NRG-Ma’ariv, a major Israeli media site. Nine years ago I attended a weekend intensive led by Andrew Cohen in Israel. It was my first encounter with a living spiritual teacher and my impression was positive. I was impressed by Cohen’s simple and clear meditation instructions and by his powerful personality. Soon afterward, I attended a meeting of a group of his followers, but found the atmosphere awkward and unnatural. Yet I still found the rhetoric of Cohen’s writings moving and inspiring. I was thus surprised and bewildered to discover dozens of accounts in the What Enlightenment??! blog depicting Cohen as a capricious, dishonest tyrant — especially in light of his emphasis on ethics and integrity as a crucial aspect of true spiritual evolution.
Before Cohen’s next visit to Israel, I asked to interview him, with the intention of asking about the allegations. In response, I was told that the interview would be granted on the condition that I would not ask about anything in the WE??! blog, because Cohen had not yet responded publicly to the issue as a whole, and was planning to do so on his own blog; after this, I was assured, I could ask about anything I wanted to. I was willing to wait, but all of my interview requests following Cohen’s post (“A Declaration of Integrity”) were declined. Finally, I decided to write the article without an interview. Yet I did send Cohen a list of questions concerning the issues and accounts that had been presented by the What Enlightenment??! blog, adding that if the allegations proved untrue I would call the article off.
The answers to my questions, formulated by Amy Edelstein, perhaps with the aid of Attorney Barry Fischer, are the first detailed public response by Andrew Cohen’s organization, EnlightenNext, to the accounts of Cohen’s ex-followers. Some of the answers use juridical language, taking advantage of inaccuracies in the phrasing of the questions to evade the matter. Others seem to be blatantly counterfactual, or are so easily refuted that there is little doubt they were primarily given in order to convince me not to write the article — which ultimately did not appear on NRG-Ma’ariv for fear of a long and costly lawsuit.
As part of my research, I sought reactions and statements of verification from former contributors to the WE??! blog, whose accounts of abuse on Cohen’s part had raised the issue in the first place. Some of these appear below. In several cases, I was able to speak with individuals directly involved in incidents described on the blog, who also confirmed the accuracy of accounts that have been denied or disputed by EnlightenNext.
Here then (above), for the benefit and judgment of those who are interested in Andrew Cohen’s standards of integrity, openness, honesty and “soul strength,” are the questions I asked and the answers I received from his organization, EnlightenNext.
Selected responses to EnlightenNext’s statements from former students of Andrew Cohen:
Student #1 (Susan Bridle) (pdf)
Student #2 (Mimi Katz) (pdf)
Student #3 (Stas Mavrides) (pdf)
Student #4 (Simeon Alev) (pdf)
UNGAGGED: EX-STUDENT BREAKS FIVE YEAR ENFORCED SILENCE
By William Yenner
July 20, 2009
My name is William Yenner, and I am the former student who was subjected to the “gag order” mentioned in the official responses given to journalist Yonatan Levy. While I know from personal experience that most of the replies given to Levy by Andrew Cohen’s representative are false and/or misleading, this particular question and the circumstances surrounding it have been, in particular, a big presence in my life for many years, so I’m providing more information here for anyone seeking to know the truth about Andrew Cohen and EnlightenNext. I was bound by this “gag order” from 2003 to 2008, forbidden by an enforceable contract from making any public statements about Andrew Cohen or EnlightenNext.
I was a member of the “inner circle” of Cohen’s students; in fact, I lived in his personal residence for several years, was a member of the EnlightenNext Board of Directors, and was the real estate scout who located and helped arrange the purchase of the 220 acre, nearly three-million-dollar, EnlightenNext “World Headquarters” at Foxhollow, as well as the EnlightenNext Centre in London. I was a student for a total of thirteen-and-a-half years, leaving in 2001.
Like most long-term students, after years of dodging bullets, I finally incurred the wrath of my teacher (Cohen) in a form that I could not internalize and work with, and in 1999 I had my own personal version of falling out of his favor, with all its attendant humiliations and debasements. Under extreme psychological distress and in an emotionally crushed state of mind, in an effort to save myself from what seemed like a form of death-spiral, I decided to offer up all I had at the time, which was a recently received inheritance of $80,000. Giving sizeable donations at a time of spiritual and personal crisis was, after all, the solution I had witnessed countless other students resort to; and I had also witnessed how reliably this course of action brought others back into the fold after they had been similarly cast out by their teacher. Some weeks after making my offer to Cohen, I got a call from his assistant telling me to send it in, which I did.
Though my situation took a big “up-tick” following this “donation,” overall I was still treated like damaged goods, having lost the trust and belief in Cohen’s project that had guided me for so many years. My discipline, confidence and goodwill were now compromised beyond repair, though at the time I was barely aware of this as I tried to hold on to the life I had committed myself to. There is a lot more to this story, including much that I personally witnessed and also took part in, which I will go into in greater detail elsewhere. However, I did leave about a year after this “donation” was made.
Subsequent to leaving EnlightenNext, I discovered that I had a great deal of painful and extremely confusing history to deal with, and began the process of pulling myself back together and putting together a new life — one not based on blind obedience, humiliation and abuse. This process was liberating and took me to places I’d never expected to go. One of those new places was a strong resolve to confront Cohen for what I was beginning to realize was his hidden agenda of conquer-and-control at any cost to his students — which in my case had included the extraction of my “donation” at what had been the lowest point, psychologically, of my entire life. I realized that taking money from me when I was really broken was just wrong, and so I wrote to Cohen in the spring of 2003 to demand its return.
To my surprise, he did agree to this, but with the stipulation that I sign an agreement not to make any public statements about him or EnlightenNext for five years. What he was saying in effect was, “You can have your money back, but you must remain, like all my students in a state of muteness; keep your mouth shut, because I’m not ready to let go of you yet.” His reply to Levy denying the existence of a gag order, “or for that matter any other court order,” is utterly dishonest and disingenuous. Of course it wasn’t an official court order; he had gotten me to sign it without having to go to court because he knew that I wanted my $80,000 back. There is a copy of the original “gag order” previously posted on this site, which can also be viewed here. I got my “donation” back, and Cohen bought a few more years of my silence.
It must be emphasized that this kind of silencing is the norm at EnlightenNext; no current student would ever venture a public critique, or dare even to utter one privately in the presence of Cohen or a fellow student. There is no right of free speech even for close students of Cohen. And as is demonstrated by my case, he will try mightily to silence even former students. This also I intend describe in greater detail elsewhere. I have posted my own personal story here in support of all those who have come forward before me to help reveal the corruption that is, sadly, the norm in the world of Andrew Cohen.
Further to this discussion and investigation, I have been working on a book, along with several contributors, which will go into much greater depth and detail and which will be published soon.
A STORY OF LOVE, BETRAYAL AND HEALING – FORMER STUDENTS OF ANDREW COHEN SPEAK OUT
American Guru is a multifaceted account of life in the contemporary spiritual community known as EnlightenNext, and the controversial “teaching methods” of its New York-born founder, self-proclaimed “guru” Andrew Cohen. With contributions from several of Cohen’s former students, William Yenner recalls the thirteen-year trajectory of his career as a leader and manager in Cohen’s community — his early days as an idealistic “seeker,” his years of service on EnlightenNext’s Board of Directors, his ultimate disillusionment and departure, and his efforts to make sense of his experiences as a once-devoted follower of a “Teacher of Evolutionary Enlightenment.” With wit and insight, Yenner and his colleagues have produced a riveting cautionary tale on the dangers of authoritarian spirituality, and an insider’s case study on the promises and pitfalls of postmodern discipleship.
Yenner’s book is a depiction of abuse of power as it continues to play out in the lives of real people, the students of spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen, at Cohen’s 220-acre Foxhollow ashram in western Massachusetts. A look behind the scenes at “EnlightenNext,” a global nonprofit devoted to “the evolution of consciousness and culture,” American Guru reveals what happens when hundreds of contemporary idealists devote their lives to the teachings of a charismatic leader who demands the unconditional surrender of their “egos.”
William Yenner and his fellow contributors, all former members of Cohen’s “EnlightenNext” community, describe their initial meetings with Cohen and their varied responses, over the twenty years that followed, to his promise to lead them to enlightenment. It was a journey that began in love and beauty, during which deep friendships were forged and profound spiritual meaning was discovered by many. Energized and fulfilled by their participation in Cohen’s projects, they derived purpose, satisfaction and hope from their years of discipleship, until darkness clouded the light that had illuminated the early years of their association with this powerful teacher. Gradually, their abandonment of the familiar for the guidance of a charismatic guru came to feel less like a life freely chosen than forced enlistment in the service of an individual bent on total control.
How did it all go wrong? What are the lessons to be learned? What comes next for the many seekers, on a wide variety of contemporary spiritual paths, who become disillusioned with iconoclastic authority figures who have opened their minds and hearts to previously unimagined possibilities? And how can an understanding of the authoritarian dynamic inoculate others against abuse at the hands of such powerfully charismatic individuals?
5 WAYS IN WHICH ANDREW COHEN’S TEACHING IS WRONG
By Alan Chapman
October 12, 009
I have no doubt that Andrew Cohen experienced enlightenment in 1986, simply because a few years ago I experienced a ‘transmission’ effect, or what I prefer to call intersubjective enlightenment, twice in his presence when attending a couple of his public talks (I’d had numerous partial awakenings before then during my personal practice, which is why I believe the intersubjective enlightenment occurred at all, and both ‘transmissions’ eventually faded. This occurred a year or so before my ‘full’ enlightenment). There is also a great deal of anecdotal evidence to suggest this kind of phenomenon happens a lot around Cohen.
However, I’m convinced Cohen has no real understanding of how he experienced enlightenment, or why some people have a peak or partial awakening in his presence. I believe Cohen’s understanding and teaching of enlightenment have both suffered greatly as a result of the ignorance and lack of integrity of his ex-guru, Poonjaji. At the moment of enlightenment, and the aftermath that follows, a great deal of time and care needs to be taken to ensure that the experience is understood and integrated in the most honest, sane and healthiest way possible; what you don’t need is a supposed ‘master’ telling you that he has been waiting for you his entire life and so can now retire, that you will be bigger than the Buddha, that you will create a ‘revolution amongst the young’, and that you are fit to teach by virtue of the experience alone.
If, at the time, Cohen had access to a good teacher who didn’t feel the need to set him up as some infallible guru, things might have worked out very differently and a good deal of suffering might have been spared Cohen, his family and followers.
This piece is not aimed at Cohen personally, but at his teaching, how it inaccurately describes enlightenment and how that misunderstanding may have come into being; I believe our collective understanding of enlightenment is more important than what we personally think of any man professing ideas about the phenomenon.
My understanding of Cohen’s teaching is taken from andrewcohen.org; his books Living Enlightenment, In Defense of the Guru Principle, and A Story of an Awakening; attending two of his talks on Evolutionary Enlightenment; and Enlightenment Blues and American Guru, written by two ex-students.
Here are five ways in which I believe Andrew Cohen’s teaching is inaccurate, unhelpful and misguided:
1. Impersonal is not the same thing as Kosmocentric
Cohen describes his teaching as Impersonal Enlightenment. By this he means that every single event in a person’s life can be seen from an impersonal perspective, and this is both the view afforded by enlightenment, and the perspective we must adopt if we are to experience enlightenment permanently.
However, enlightenment is not the realisation of impersonality, which is just the other half of the personal (where one is, you will most assuredly find the other). Enlightenment is the inclusive transcendence of everything that has gone before, both the personal and impersonal alike.
And the emphasis I want to make here is that the event is inclusive, not destructive, dismissive or repressive. What is recognised at enlightenment I like to call Original Nature, and the personal viewpoint is just as much Original Nature as the Buddha, George W. Bush or the Number 73 bus to Islington. The realisation of enlightenment is that only Original Nature is; and so the personal is just as much Original Nature as anything else.
Cohen further aligns the Impersonal with his ‘fifth tenet’ of evolutionary enlightenment, which he calls For the Sake of the Whole:
The movement of spiritual awakening is part and parcel of the cosmic process of development, and the purpose of enlightenment is ultimately to bring the light of awakened consciousness to the process itself.
Is the personal not a part of this process too? Is the ‘whole’ not whole enough to include the self and the ego?
Developmental psychologists describe the process of moral growth in three stages: egocentric, when we are concerned only about ourselves; ethnocentric, when our concern grows to include our family/tribe/nation; and worldcentric, when we are concerned with the welfare of all human beings. Ken Wilber, Cohen’s friend and collaborator, adds a further stage called kosmocentric, which is concern for all things manifest and unmanifest, or what we might call the perspective of enlightenment. Usually, spiritual development facilitates this moral development, which is why the Axial Age traditions all profess universal compassion as the bedrock of authentic spirituality.
Just as enlightenment is inclusively transcendent of what went before, so too is each stage of moral development, with ethnocentrism transcending but including egocentrism, and worldcentrism transcending but including ethnocentrism, and so on. Wilber describes pathology as a failure to integrate and honour a preceding stage of development; and so in Wilber’s terms, Cohen’s view of a kosmocentric process that does not integrate and honour the personal, but in fact attempts to suppress or destroy it, is in fact a pathological moral development.
2. Judgement only begets judgement, not transformation
Cohen’s ‘ultimate spiritual practice’ is his third tenet of evolutionary enlightenment, Face Everything and Avoid Nothing.
This almost sounds like genuine spiritual practice, in the sense that compassion, openness and awareness is brought to bear on any phenomena that may be encountered, especially the often buried psychological and emotional material that informs current behaviour. But ‘face’ does not mean ‘accept’, and ‘everything’ only refers to the activity of the ego.
For many years the only ‘spiritual exercise’ that Cohen prescribed was the forming of groups where the apparent egotistical faults of each student would be discussed and the person in question would be berated for failing so miserably, which sometimes lasted for many hours. In order to overcome the ego, the student would have to apologise in earnest, promise to change, and – if the reports of his ex-students (including three former editors of EnlightenNext magazine) are to be believed – donate a large sum of money to make amends. This led to an anxiety-ridden, back-stabbing, paranoid, cold and financially-strapped sangha, where an individual would be terrified of falling out of favour and being ‘sent away’ by Andrew. It’s hard to see how any spiritual development might have occurred.
Ignorant, greedy, and hateful behaviour has its roots in the belief in a subject, and the often unconscious, non-verbal and unquestioned beliefs about the self and reality that have been adopted from very early on in life. It takes a great deal of personal exploration and care to discover these hidden beliefs about the self and reality – even after enlightenment – and a great deal more patience, time and compassion before our behaviour changes to a personal expression of the perspective of enlightenment: open, free, compassionate and curious.
Judgements about the subject only further enforce the idea of the subject, and do nothing to mitigate the already existing judgements buried deep within the psyche. We only act out of selflessness when we have no reason to chase or avoid anything, and so it is only by bringing compassion to bear on what we are chasing or avoiding that we cease to act ‘egotistically’.
Compassion – first and foremost for the self – is genuine spiritual practice; enforcing judgement upon your students can only be the result of an inability to bring compassion to your own ego first.
3. Romantic relationships are not a hindrance to awakening
Due to Cohen’s confusion of the impersonal with the kosmocentric, he believes that all aspects of life must be engaged without engendering personal attachment. For Cohen, romance is a major obstacle on the road to enlightenment, and his teaching has evolved from enforced celibacy on his students, to enforced sexual relationships where any romantic attachment must be suppressed.
(Of course, celibacy has been a common practice amongst dedicated seekers for millennia, as an aid in reducing distraction from the spiritual life. I think this approach is fundamentally flawed and misguided, which is a topic for a whole other post.)
As I have already touched on above, the personal domain is a healthy and necessary part of the greater kosmocentric vision; and it is completely possible to experience enlightenment and remain habitually attached to all manner of worldy things at a personal level (consider the great number of gurus who certainly appeared fully realised, but who have had affairs with students, abused drugs and alcohol and revelled in messianic fantasy).
My own personal experience is testament to this: I fell head over heels in love with my wife a year before my enlightenment, and our relationship played a major role in my spiritual development. My friend Duncan Barford had been in a ten year relationship at the time of his enlightenment, and I don’t know of one single person who has experienced enlightenment or is making genuine spiritual progress (as outlined by models of the territory from many traditions, including Buddhism) who is not in a committed and loving relationship.
It is again ironic that Ken Wilber also testifies in Grace and Grit to the fundamental role his deeply romantic relationship to his wife played in his spiritual progress. Perhaps Cohen should actually familiarise himself with Wilber’s work sometime?
4. God does not need our help
Cohen firmly believes that ‘God’ – the creative principle that created the universe and drives evolution – needs our help to manifest its greatest desire, which is ‘to emerge’:
Although I would agree to some extent with the notion that ‘God’ is becoming aware of its self through the manifest universe, it most certainly does not need our help in order to emerge. For 14 billion years the universe has managed to get along just fine without human consciousness; and furthermore, as humans we are part and parcel of the process of the universe, not separate from it, and this includes the desire for enlightenment and our spiritual development.
Everything is Original Nature, from the Big Bang to the dinosaurs to the ignorant ape who has never heard of enlightenment to the actual event of enlightenment and the resulting fully realised human being. At what point is Original Nature not unfolding as Original Nature? At what point is Original Nature missing from the universe, requiring our personal intervention in order to help the universe along?
Isn’t it a little bit narcissistic to believe that the fulfilment of God’s greatest desire rests on our decision to pursue ‘evolutionary enlightenment’?
5. Enlightenment is not the end in personal development
Cohen prescribes the adherence to five tenets in order to experience enlightenment, and he believes the same five tenets describe the state of enlightenment itself. However, whereas it requires great effort and integrity on the part of the seeker in order to reach lasting enlightenment, the person who is already ‘fully enlightened’ expresses the five tenets effortlessly. In other words, Cohen believes that enlightenment spells the end of personal, spiritual practice and development.
What Cohen doesn’t realise is that understanding, wisdom and virtuous action do not come part and parcel with enlightenment, regardless of whether it is permanent or not.
A ‘fully enlightened’ human being is just a human being who has recognised Original Nature. The recognition has absolutely no bearing on the person’s intelligence, teaching ability or integrity. This is why spiritual practice is not just a means to enlightenment, but an end in itself; and how much more important is it for the person post-enlightenment, considering the possible implications of misunderstanding enlightenment for the person’s ego, behaviour and the culture that may grow around him or her?
I’m convinced that it is this belief in the conference of perfection through realisation that has led to Cohen’s pathological brand of enlightenment, and his inability to recognise the workings of his own overblown ego, visible to everyone else but himself and his followers. If you were told that you were perfected, without ego and ready to teach – in the midst of the profound, life-changing event of enlightenment – by someone you believe is also perfect, and then great numbers of the best and the brightest of the spiritual scene begin to treat you as if you were indeed perfected and without ego, hanging on your every word and showering you with gifts, how likely is it that you would attribute any of your thoughts, beliefs or actions to something you and everyone else is certain no longer exists? With a heavy investment in the egoless model, and re-enforced by group behaviour and shared bliss states, it doesn’t seem quite so puzzling how a guru and his followers can spend a lot of time feeding the guru’s ego, only to suffer as a result without ever realising exactly what the problem is.
FROM RUDE BOY TO NICE GUY?
January 24, 2012
There appears to be a curious online trend occurring with Andrew Cohen and his cohorts at EnlightenNext. Here at WhatEnlightenment??! we have observed with interest the following events:
First, Andrew’s infamous “Declaration of Integrity” (reposted here), his bombastic and scathing blog rant from 2006 against his critical ex-students has quietly disappeared from his own blog. Simultaneously, the gushing student-run Cohen-apologists’ blog, Guru-Talk.com has likewise been taken down in its entirety without so much as a peep*. (See a reposted entry here) And even more, around the same time, someone going by the user name “Kosmocentric” attempted to remove the entire “Criticisms” section from Andrew Cohen’s Wikipedia page. (It has since been restored by someone else).
So what is going on here, folks? Dare we infer that there is a slippery and concerted effort on the part of Cohen and his students to remake the “rude boy” guru’s online image?
Stas Mavrides’ recent article, I Love Him, I Hate Him, I Love Him Again suggested that Andrew did a pubic about-face on his critical, angry stance toward his former teacher, in part per his PR consultant’s advice that he needed to make some specific image changes in order to help his fundraising efforts. (There are indications that Cohen’s group is in difficult financial straits – In 2011 it officially ended publication of its magazine “EnlightenNext”, and listed its Foxhollow property for sale, selling off a portion of the estate to a development company.) We believe that Andrew’s disingenuous re-creation of himself as a “kinder, gentler” guru described in that article is continuing with the above-mentioned “disappearing” of his angry and arrogant “Declaration“, the silent takedown of his students’ apologetics website “Guru Talk”, as well as the attempted removal of the “Criticism” section of his Wikipedia bio.
We also believe these numerous actions have a common theme, which is to defang his “rude boy” guru image, as well as to hide cultic public displays of student adoration in an attempt to appear more compassionate, less pompous and even humble to potential new students and donors. These days Andrew speaks to large Integral audiences like the “Integral Spiritual Experience” convocation held in California earlier in January. His “abusive-guru” baggage, if discovered, would most likely be a liability in trying to reach these new, discriminating Integral students.
There are many in the Integral world who are disturbed by the endorsements given to Cohen by various Integral teachers, especially Ken Wilber. Given that, it would seem by removing earlier internet testaments from himself and fawning students it might help him forge his new image as a likable ‘Integral-friendly’ leader; an image that belies the character of an abrasive, even abusively autocratic guru, a man to whom his inner circle of students have surrendered control of their lives, yet secretly fear displeasing.
And so we say, “Beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing!”
The WhatEnlightenment??! Editors
*Editor’s Update: Will wonders never cease?
Well, imagine our surprise when after our post noting the recent removal of Andrew Cohen’s “Declaration of Integrity” from his blog, the attempted takedown of the “Criticsms” section on his Wikipedia page, and the concurrent disappearance of the Cohen apologetics blog, “Guru-Talk.com”, we got an email from “Guru-Talk” founder, Pete Bampton, claiming that his site was not intentionally taken down, but had according to him been “hacked into”. So what’s next? Will Cohen’s “Declaration” make a sudden reappearance? Who knows? Nevertheless, we welcome back online our WhatEnlightenment??! ‘counterpart’, “Guru-Talk”, or as we affectionately call it, “Kool-Aid Talk”.