Frank Visser, CLIMBING THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: Reflections on Ken Wilber's “The Religion of Tomorrow”
INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
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William Yenner is an engineer by training and a seeker by nature. He has studied meditation in India, lived in a Buddhist retreat center, and spent time in a commune. In this contribution specifically written for Integral World he reflects on the publication of his book American Guru: A Story of Love, Betrayal and Healing-former students of Andrew Cohen speak out and its reception so far. See also his website www.americanguru.net for excerpts, comments, news and reviews.
Excerpts and an Update
Introduction - "a tragic situation for all concerned"
This is, after all, a tragic situation for all concerned, including Andrew Cohen himself.
In the weeks since American Guru was published, I have been amazed by the volume and intensity of the public outpouring of defenses and rationalizations of Andrew Cohen's actions by fellow former students who lived through exactly the same experiences that I did. The two principal forums for these responses have been amazon.com and a website, guru-talk.com, created by another former student, Pete Bampton, as part of a concerted effort to rebut the implications of what I and my co-authors have presented in our book. The narrative unvaryingly articulated in these responses is that none of the events described in American Guru can be properly understood outside of a "context" that I, William Yenner, once subscribed to but have now conveniently forgotten. And more typically than not, this argument has been accompanied by "informed" attacks on my character, presumably also sanctioned by this rarefied or "missing" context, and further justified by the "nastiness" and "distortion" of my presentation of the facts, for which it is apparent that I need to be shamed, shunned and ostracized—all the familiar pedagogical techniques of the EnlightenNext community—by people I once had the privilege of considering my closest friends.
At the same time, most of the offended writers do not hesitate to turn this vicious "context" loose on their own supposed failings or inadequacies as a means of explaining why they were forced to terminate their participation in Andrew Cohen's revolutionary experiment in "evolution beyond ego." It seems that even after a period of years outside of Cohen's physical orbit, his influence remains a powerful factor in their assessment of their own motivations and general unworthiness as spiritual practitioners, and though my sympathy is neither solicited nor appreciated, I can't help but extend it. This is, after all, a tragic situation for all concerned, including Andrew Cohen himself, and Cohen's hovering presence in the thought processes and the very language of his still-devoted ex-students is impossible to ignore. It seems to have occurred neither to Cohen nor to his defenders that their responses—from the earliest emergence of allegations of questionable practices in the EnlightenNext community to those aired more recently in my book—have never reflected the humble self-assurance or basic decency one expects to encounter in individuals who have supposedly ventured "beyond ego."
Clearly, what these responses reflect is something other than enlightened understanding, and it is precisely this "something other than" that American Guru, however clumsily or offensively, is an attempt to uncover. I ask: How is it that these people as a group have thoroughly internalized Cohen's vocabulary and conceptual framework without any apparent benefit to their own independence or self-esteem? Of what productive use is it to a human being to introject a paradigm according to which he or she has "failed," while the one who invented it can only claim "victory" by appealing to a "higher context" that justifies anything he does? Is it inadmissible to speculate that this kind of indoctrination may be a form of cultic manipulation? I know that according to these former disciples my articulation of such questions is supposed to be a reflection of my own ego-driven delusion, but still—the facts are the facts, and no one, however passionately they defend Cohen or attack me, has so far convincingly denied them. And now, more heartbreaking than even the facts themselves, comes this unselfconscious demonstration of what it really means to be a student of Andrew Cohen, and to have imbibed his version of "consciousness and culture": submit to his control long enough and you may never again be able to believe in your own goodness, integrity or intrinsic self-worth; even after leaving, the best you can hope for is to join the ranks of the "failures," and you may never truly recover your footing again. (Bampton is thus far the first and only of such former students to suggest that the "stigma of having 'failed'" is inapplicable to those who left after the historic "surge of consciousness" of July 30, 2001—a rationalization yet to be articulated by the other, far more self-critical ex-disciples posting on his site.)
Interestingly, however, in the same period during which Andrew Cohen's reputation has been so stoutly defended by guru-talk.com's cadre of "fallen" or "unsuccessful" students, the integral community has also seen the emergence of another of Cohen's former disciples, Craig Hamilton, as a self-proclaimed "teacher" in his own right. As I implied in a footnote of American Guru, no one who knows Andrew Cohen is likely to believe he was pleased by Hamilton's surreptitious departure from Foxhollow, much less by Hamilton's own subsequent (and well-planned?) ascent to integral guruhood—but if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Cohen ought to be feeling swell. As a "successful" former student, Hamilton has outdone his fellow alumni not only in his wholesale assimilation of Cohen's "teaching model" but in his astute—some might say opportunistic—emulation of his teacher's tried-and-true PR strategy of using public dialogues with famous "luminaries" as a means of enhancing his own reputation. That Hamilton was able to cultivate such relationships while selflessly "serving" as his guru's senior editor and ambassador to high-level interfaith conferences is yet another manifestation of that "something other than enlightenment" that seems to be Cohen's less than inspiring human legacy.
In fairness, it remains to be seen whether Hamilton's "Integral Enlightenment" is a "teaching" that lives up to the great expectations he has worked so hard to inspire, or whether the key question resolved by Hamilton's heady formula—so perfectly in sync with the latest advances in cyberspace voice transmission—is how to capitalize (literally) on the hungry idealism of his audience. Of course it doesn't hurt to be convinced of the depth of one's insight and the soundness of one's ideology; yet experience has repeatedly shown that, from a potential follower's point of view, such uninhibited confidence is all the more reason to be wary. Proclamations and endorsements of a teacher's exalted status, of the depths of his wisdom, of the emergence of his voice as one that "needs to be heard," all feed the idealistic temptation to regard him as one who embodies the "advances in consciousness" most essential to the resolution of the pressing crises of our time.
At such moments, it is worth remembering that the list of spiritual leaders who have "fallen on their faces"—often with catastrophic results for their followers—is a long one indeed. In his foreword to American Guru, Stephen Batchelor suggests that things might have turned out far differently if, at the time of Andrew Cohen's "emergence" as a teacher, those who felt they had reason to question his motivations or qualifications had spoken out more forcefully. This is all the more reason to scrutinize Hamilton's account of his many years "working side by side" with Andrew Cohen; yet despite his acknowledged involvement in "trying to guide and work with [Cohen's] global body of students," Hamilton remains curiously silent on the issue of the abuses that took place under his nose (and mine) at Cohen's Foxhollow ashram. As Daniel Shaw has observed, "It would be wonderful to see...honesty and courage demonstrated by...leaders of the New Age movement. Instead of rationalizing and minimizing the extent of [Cohen's] abuses, instead of ignoring and dismissing the experiences of former followers, wouldn't it be wonderful if people like Ken Wilber, Genpo Roshi, Rupert Sheldrake, Deepak Chopra, Bernie Glassman, etc., could have the courage and the integrity to pay attention, to take up the cause of Cohen's former members, and confront Cohen publicly?” As an up-and-coming "spiritual luminary"—not to mention one who was actually there! —Craig Hamilton certainly deserves to have his name added to that list. The dangers of a "free pass" based on charisma and inspiring intentions having been borne out by history, I feel it ought to be perceived as reasonable, rather than gratuitously destructive, to raise questions about anyone representing himself as a "pioneer" of a cutting-edge spiritual discipline.
While Hamilton evaluates himself rather differently than most of his fellow former students—insinuating references to his own "awakening" into his “free preview,” to a virtual audience of nearly 700 spiritual seekers, of a 9-week "teleseminar" for which he is charging each participant $285—he shares with guru-talk.com's contributors the same abiding nostalgia for a community very different from the one I remember (a community in which abuses such as those documented in American Guru took place over a period of two decades) as well as their retrospectively rose-colored notions about the significance of what happened there. To hear Hamilton tell it:
"I lived in this vibrant global spiritual community for thirteen years with the guidance of my spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen, and spent a great deal of that time really working side by side with him in trying to sort of guide and work with this global body of students who were all giving one-hundred percent of their lives to trying to evolve consciousness. And in this laboratory, which like any laboratory is kind of a specialized environment [that] allows you to see things you would never see outside...I was afforded an opportunity to see some things about the human condition that are not normally apparent....
"In this evolutionary laboratory, we had a unique opportunity...because, honestly, the conditions could not have been better. Our life was entirely organized to support our individual and collective evolution.... We spent several hours every day engaging in vibrant, powerful spiritual practice. We had direct and extraordinary spiritual guidance coming into our personal lives on a regular basis.... There I was, producing a cutting-edge spiritual magazine and spiritual events, and my entire life was consumed in this, and all this was happening in a breathtakingly beautiful place, eating healthy gourmet vegetarian food, three meals a day. It's a bit of a spiritual utopian environment in a sense, and initially I want to acknowledge that it seemed to be everything that could possibly be required to catalyze everyone's radical evolution. And the inner life of everybody there was elevated to a profound level of well-being—I mean, in this environment everybody was living in a non-ordinary state of consciousness most of the time; there was a sort of enlightened Buddha-field...that permeated the place....
"For most of us, we would say, 'If I had all that, there would no longer be anything in my way.' And so what I want to share is what we found in this environment, because you see, when all the external obstacles to change have been removed, the stark truth reveals itself, which is that when it comes to our higher self-evolution, our authentic spiritual transformation, most of us don't want to change all that much.... We don't really want to change our deep habits of being, our deep habits of relating to life.... Very few of us honestly want to let go of the familiar ways of being and behaving that we are accustomed to. And why? Because we don't want to get outside our comfort zone. There is a deep, primitive, ingrained impulse toward stasis, toward preserving the status quo....
"I was perhaps a more extreme case...than most people," Hamilton continues, "because I came into this with an incredibly strong self-image...as a deeply sincere, committed spiritual seeker.... I was a big spiritual ego, you could say.... My teacher told me early on...'Craig, you've developed a lot of capacities that have served you well in your life...but you're going to have to let go of all of that if you're going to really succeed in this work, in really waking up spiritually'...and I could feel how much I really didn't want to let go of everything I thought myself to be, and all the familiar ways of being that did allow me to navigate life.... It was years of hard work and intense soul-level trials, I would say, before things really started to break open...and this was universal for everybody in this environment, so I think what we really had to confront was that most of us self-proclaimed evolutionaries who really see ourselves as wanting to evolve consciousness through ourselves...deep down were still largely being run by some very ancient, not particularly evolutionary software....
"If we want to really engage in a process of spiritual awakening, if we want to be truly awakened human beings, there's something that we need to pay a lot more attention to than our personal conditioning, our personal psychic make-up, and that is our collective conditioning.... We have been playing a game of survival, a very primitive game in which self-preservation is really the primary drive, and we just have to get that that is all still deeply wired into us, and so changing it is a really big deal.... We have to get that it's really this deeper, primitive, survival-orientation that is what's really our obstacle...."
These are noble sentiments, all the more poignant in light of the events described in American Guru: A Story of Love, Betrayal and Healing, from which I have excerpted, below, sections of Chapters 3, 4, 11 and 15.
from Chapter 3 ~ The Dark Side of Enlightenment
Andrew was in a position to expand the degree of control he exercised in increments that went undetected.
With the gradual imposition of rules, taxes and spirit-breaking confrontational meetings, the climate in Andrew's community had changed significantly, and the man who had once seemed to me to embody perfection was slowly revealing another side of his character. As the community took root at Foxhollow, I began to witness transformations in Andrew's personality, methods and teachings that would take me years to fully comprehend. Some of the changes in our new environment were subtle, such as the institution of a daily exercise regime, and some, while they were closely guarded secrets occurring only behind closed doors, were not subtle at all, such as punishment in the form of physical abuse. From the most benign to the most damaging, these changes were indicative of the power that Andrew Cohen sought to exert on his followers' lives. They were also harbingers of even more egregious abuses to come.
Andrew was in a position to expand the degree of control he exercised in increments that went undetected—perhaps even by him, if one cares to give him the benefit of the doubt. Now, in addition to micromanaging the fitness regimes of each of his students, it was apparent that their sexual and romantic lives represented an arena equally subject to his influence. Andrew also began instituting punishments as well. The methods were often random, harsh, out of proportion to the alleged wrong, and questionable as educational or disciplinary “skillful means.” He referred to his updated version of “crazy wisdom”—a teaching modality with centuries-old roots in some Eastern spiritual traditions—as “Acts of Outrageous Integrity,” and it consisted of extreme “teaching methods” designed to cut through a student's ego and resistance in order to facilitate awakening.
Cohen himself has remarked that crazy wisdom seems to be an excuse for some teachers to engage irresponsibly in self-indulgent behavior (of course exempting himself from this characterization), and in meetings with students he outlined the following very sensible criteria for its application: The sole goal of the implementation of unconventional or seemingly inappropriate methods is the liberation of the student; there can be no suggestion of the teacher's personal benefit or pleasure; the sole criterion for success is the student's liberation—only then can crazy wisdom be considered authentic and effective. Yet Cohen's by now customary defense against allegations directed at himself personally—of abuse masquerading as crazy wisdom—consists of splitting hairs over definitions of terms, recourse to the larger controversy regarding the validity of crazy wisdom itself that has existed for some time in East-meets-West spiritual debate, and a disarmingly unreflective attempt to cast himself as someone who is unafraid to appear politically incorrect in his heroic effort to do what his job description demands of him. It is abundantly clear, however, that crazy wisdom as a tradition has a set of implicit guidelines by means of which to judge the actions of any teacher purporting to use it; there is thus no escape from the impressions and evaluations of others, no “free pass” just because someone is supposedly “enlightened,” or claims to have the best interests of others at heart and is willing to use extreme methods in order to “free them from ignorance.”
Regarding many examples of the extreme measures sometimes taken by Andrew Cohen at Foxhollow, students have since stated that far from being freed from their own ignorance, they had been subjected to a new and pernicious version of someone else's. Cohen's “acts of outrageous integrity” included disciplinary face slapping—usually in response to a student's performance of some task failing to measure up to his expectations—in which it was difficult to discern any particular “lesson” other than “Shape up!” This practice began soon after our arrival at Foxhollow. In some cases, Andrew would direct one student to slap another; in others, he administered the slaps himself. I myself was slapped on two occasions, once by a woman and once by another man.
These practices—which some might well regard as instances of physical and mental abuse—were symptoms of the unprecedented degree of control that eventually came to pervade the atmosphere of the Foxhollow community, and “groupthink” was certainly a consequence of this atmosphere of control. It is a well-known and troubling fact that group mentality has the potential to override individual morality. I experienced this firsthand as a member of Andrew Cohen's community—observing, participating in, rationalizing and excusing, at times, extremely harsh treatment of fellow members who had angered their teacher. When a student was slapped or evicted from a student household, I told myself that it was for that individual's own good, chalking it up to my teacher's passionate determination to free him or her from a confining limitation, or from the tyranny of the ego. I also sometimes rationalized such treatment as an appropriate consequence of failing to live up to Andrew's standards and teachings. I do not regard the fact that there was no forum in which to question such behavior as an excuse for my failure to have done so. Even when, later on, I found myself on the receiving end of abusive treatment, I “compartmentalized” these experiences in my own mind, suspending judgment—and my own humanity—in an effort to adhere to the party line.
Face slapping and name-calling, while they were uncalled for and may have been damaging, were mild in comparison to other questionable manifestations of “crazy wisdom” that occurred at Foxhollow. One such incident involved a student (Mikaela) who was responsible for the marketing of Andrew's publications and who had fallen out of favor by reminding him that something he had criticized her for doing had been his idea in the first place. He decried her as evil and ordered that the walls, floor and ceiling of her office (which had been relocated to an unfinished basement room) be painted red to signify the spilled blood of her guru. She was ordered to spend hours there contemplating the implications of her transgression, with the additional aid of a large cartoon on the wall depicting her as a vampire and the word “traitor” written in large letters next to it.
Andrew often employed red paint in this fashion to create environments designed to induce shame and guilt in students that he felt had questioned his judgment or disobeyed him. Another female student who had displeased Andrew and, after leaving the community, had returned to help out on a weekend painting project, was summoned to another basement room. There she was met by four female students who, having guided her onto a plastic sheet on the floor, each poured a bucket of paint over her head as a “message of gratitude” from Andrew. She left the property traumatized and fell ill in subsequent days (during which she was harassed by phone calls from another student who, at Cohen's instigation, repeatedly called her a “coward”) and never again returned to Foxhollow. “Crazy wisdom” is the most charitable possible explanation for these often traumatic and disturbing incidents, many of which have already been related on the whatenlightenment.net blog. Several of these student accounts of Andrew Cohen's “acts of outrageous integrity,” employed to dubious or damaging effect, are reproduced below.
I was living at the Foxhollow center in 2001 when Stan Brady, at that time a leader at the London Center, was suddenly ordered to come to Foxhollow. Andrew told some of us that Stan had been “doing things his own way” for a while, and now had directly disobeyed him. Andrew was furious, and we all knew from past experience that Stan would be in for it when he got to Foxhollow. When he arrived, he was an emotional mess, expressing apologies to Andrew and feeling very guilty. The “horrible thing” that he had done was to give some advice to one of the formal students in London despite Andrew's instructions not to.
First, Andrew had me and another student speak with Stan in an intensely confrontational way. As usual, we were then to report to Andrew on whether he was “coming through,” i.e., responding appropriately. Of course Stan, who was frightened and cut off from his own emotions, was as unresponsive as any normal human being would be under such circumstances; for Andrew and ourselves, however, habituated as we were to confrontational strategies for “meeting with someone,” Stan's failure to own up to his “competition” with Andrew meant that he was not “taking responsibility.” Then Andrew himself met with Stan, treating him coldly and condescendingly (even though Stan was literally bowing to him when he entered his room) because his profuse apologies struck Andrew as “unreal.”
Next, we were instructed to call Stan back to Andrew's residence, where his wife Alka had been told not to “hold back” and to “really go for it with Stan.” I was just outside the house, and I could hear her screaming at Stan and punching him. It was a chilling experience to listen to him crying and moaning his apologies as Alka beat him while screaming loudly, “How dare you betray Andrew? How dare you?” Afterward, Andrew told me proudly, “Alka really went for it with Stan!” Subjected to such harsh discipline, people who were strong leaders in Andrew's community often became beaten down, weakened and humiliated. (This was the condition I ultimately left in as well.) As for Stan, shortly after the beating by Alka, Cohen demoted him and then kicked him out of the community. Stan stayed around for more than a year, living a strange existence on the fringes of Foxhollow and working as an orderly at a local hospital, occasionally sending flowers and apologies to Andrew—who during this period had me and others call Stan on the phone to “mess with his mind.” Listening to Stan on his speakerphone, Andrew would coach us on what to say or laugh silently, giving thumbs-up signs as all this was going on. I am sickened that I went along with these tormenting tactics, but we all did such things to each other under Andrew's direction. During this time, Andrew would say how much he hated Stan, calling him “the devil,” “Judas” and other such names. One night, he had me and [a] fellow student…go to Stan's residence and let the air out of all of his tires so that he couldn't get to work. He represented himself as trying to break down Stan's ego, but in retrospect it is obvious to me that Andrew was simply acting out his own vengeful anger at a perceived “betrayal.”
This went on and on. At one point, Stan wrote to Andrew, saying that he would do anything to be allowed to come back…. In response to Stan's desperate letter, Andrew had him come to a remote part of Foxhollow with instructions to start digging a deep 6 x 8-foot trench in the woods using only a shovel. At that time Andrew was into making videos of students who weren't “doing well” in an effort to capture what he called “the smile of the ego.” (This is a whole story in itself; Andrew was convinced that when someone is under pressure to speak about what they're doing wrong, a “smile” emerges like that of “the devil himself.”) Andrew had me drive a golf cart carrying him, his dog and one of the EnlightenNext videographers…to the site of the huge trench where we found Stan, standing about five feet below us, hunched over his shovel and drenched in sweat. He seemed startled to actually see his teacher after such a long period of excommunication. As he paused from his digging, Stan looked up at Andrew with an expression of reverence and said hello—but he looked like a broken man, not at all the person I knew.
It was a sad picture, the more horrifying because Andrew just stood there looking down at him, holding his little dog in his arms and telling us coldly, “There's the devil smiling at me,” and instructing [the videographer] to get the camera rolling. I remember him saying, “Look how cut off he is, happy to be down there digging. There's no love in his eyes.” Yet it was Andrew who seemed bereft of any love, compassion or humanity. In my mind—though now I see it differently—I still actually believed he was trying to help Stan.
Some years ago at Foxhollow, a student named Jeff, a very good writer, was having a great deal of trouble with a writing project he had been assigned to do. He was supposed to write an introduction to a book Andrew was publishing, but he was having no success. Feeling terrible guilt about this, he wrote in a desperate letter to Andrew, “If I don't come through, I will cut my finger off.” Andrew seemed to like this idea. When Jeff still did not succeed at his writing, Andrew called for Mikaela, [who was a] physician, to come see him…. Andrew told Mikaela to go to see Jeff, and to bring her medical kit. She was instructed to tell Jeff that Andrew was taking him up on his offer to sacrifice a finger. She should take out her scalpel, her mask, her gloves, a sponge—everything she would need for such an operation—and lay them all out. She was told to carry through the charade up to the very last minute, and then stop. When Mikaela visited Jeff, he had barely slept in about a week. He was in a desperate state…. Mikaela [later] confirmed…that she had followed Andrew's instructions precisely. Jeff was severely and obviously shaken by the incident. He left Andrew and Foxhollow a few weeks later.
The lake was not yet frozen but it was very, very cold. Fall and winter come quickly in the Berkshires. The women were “in trouble” for an indiscretion, and we were falling all over ourselves to come up with a gesture of apology and repentance to Andrew. One of the women suggested that we go en masse to do prostrations in the lake. A message was sent to Andrew that this was our intention. He accepted and then sent a couple of directives about it. So while he did not exactly order us to do it, once we had offered to do it he became quite involved. Women who did not complete the exercise were ordered to go back and do it again—supervised, to make sure that they remained in the lake the whole hour. At least one woman had to go back a third time. Because I was one of the few women who had already done this before [in warmer weather], I just gritted my teeth and tried to muscle through it. However, I was immediately shocked by how cold the water was.
At that time in the community, when you received word that Andrew wanted you to go do “prostrations” in the lake, you went immediately in whatever you were wearing. I was wearing cotton pants and a cotton shirt, neither of which provided any warmth. I also had a shaved head. I believe that the women with shaved heads had a bit more difficulty with the cold. I just forced myself to continue even as I found it harder and harder to keep my balance and was becoming increasingly “blank.” I then have a very vague memory of being pushed into a car. The next thing I remember was regaining consciousness propped up in a shower stall with three other women, all of us standing under the hot water trying to regain enough feeling in our hands to unbutton our clothes and pull them off of us. I had lost consciousness at about 50 or 55 minutes, just shy of the full hour. I am told that one woman who was watching and didn't go in because she was recovering from a bad chest cold (Alka, Andrew's wife), and a couple of women who had said “Enough!” and had come out early (and therefore had to go back and repeat the exercise a couple of days later), noticed that I was losing consciousness and had me pulled out of the water.
from Chapter 4 ~ The Currency of Forgiveness
And if there had ever been any doubt prior to the community's relocation to Foxhollow, there was none thereafter: Money, not spirit, was the new coin of the realm.
The move to Foxhollow represented a new and unfamiliar undertaking for Andrew Cohen and his students. Moving from small rented offices and houses in Marin County to a new 220-acre facility with accommodations for up to a hundred, plus a main building of over 30,000 square feet, was a jump that was thrilling for us as participants, and also quite a lot to digest and take responsibility for. The new venue would require a far greater infusion of capital than we were accustomed to, and in response Andrew set about creating new sources of funding. EnlightenNext insists to this day that all of its funding has been generated through voluntary donations only; yet the accounts presented below tell a vastly different story. EnlightenNext also denies—contrary to the facts—that it was ever customary for Andrew Cohen's students to buy him valuable gifts, which in fact was common practice from the early days of the community, and may well continue as such to this day. During my tenure there, it was quite common for students to buy Andrew expensive gifts on almost any occasion, and especially common as a gesture of apology after having in some manner earned his disapproval. The student body as a whole purchased a new Volvo for Andrew in 1996, although he already had the use of a perfectly serviceable Honda Accord, and in 1998, on the occasion of my tenth anniversary as his student, I gave him a gift of $10,000 cash—which seemed to me at the time a perfectly appropriate gesture of gratitude to my spiritual teacher.
The practice of donating money to atone for mistakes had begun in Marin in the mid-1990s, and at that time had been accepted by all and never questioned or challenged. The first time I became aware of its having evolved into official policy was after the move to Foxhollow. Following Jane O'Neil's $2,000,000 “donation” and the Foxhollow “entrance fee” assessed from every individual formal student based on duration of prior community involvement, money held unprecedented sway within Andrew's community after its relocation east. Beyond the usual expenses of running a nonprofit organization, there were now new costs to be absorbed by students—arbitrary punitive penalties that defied categorization on any balance sheet.
In response to an inquiry by journalist Yonatan Levy about whether large donations from students were ever solicited under pressure, the official response of EnlightenNext's “Communications Director,” Amy Edelstein, was as follows: “No, students are absolutely not put under pressure to give large sums of money. That would go against everything that EnlightenNext and Andrew Cohen stand for. All donations are given freely, and the vast majority of our donations are small.” My own observation, as one privy to every detail of the Foxhollow purchase and its subsequent administration and management, was that while Andrew was very moved by the new opportunity that the property represented—because he believed it was going to “put him on the map”—he also felt that his students in particular were now obligated to support his ambitions financially. He may even feel inwardly sincere in his representation that no pressure was brought to bear to the extent that, from his point of view, it was his students' obligation, rather than any grosser form of third-party manipulation, that compelled their “generosity.”
But however Andrew Cohen may justify it to himself and his Board of Directors, what I witnessed, and what others have also reported, are clear indications of his recognition that he was going to have to venture beyond a purely voluntary basis for the collection of donations if his organization was to thrive. And if there had ever been any doubt prior to the community's relocation to Foxhollow, there was none thereafter: Money, not spirit, was the new coin of the realm. Beyond any concerns as mundane as operating overhead, money now became a key component of the spiritual path for Andrew's students. Just as the Catholic Church had once sold “indulgences” to sinners seeking absolution, so Andrew now began attaching price tags to his forgiveness for perceived wrongs.
Andrew let it be understood that his good favor could also be had for a price, establishing a practice that was morally reprehensible, legally questionable and indicative of a degree of corruption that had warped his ideals and would eventually stain the fabric of his entire organization. It is a testament to the faith that so many of us had in Andrew that, despite the questionable nature of these new financial arrangements, we complied—some of us taking on enormous and ill-advised debt. Though it may be difficult for outsiders to comprehend, our desire to please our guru was so great that we were prepared to mortgage our futures in order to do so.
Here again, the accounts on the whatenlightenment.net blog reproduced below—the first of which is excerpted from a letter addressed directly to Andrew Cohen—paint a composite picture of financial exploitation that is both revealing and deeply disturbing.
The following downward spiral would occur on more than one occasion: (1) your unreasonable demand on my time and dwindling resources, followed by (2) my unexpressed resentment, and ultimate “failure to produce,” leading to (3) your overly intense expression of outrage toward me for the personal betrayal of you, for which I was put under enormous pressure by you and my fellow students to feel remorse, while making some gesture of contrition to you. As you well know, this psychological pressure and manipulation from you and others would even extend to being physically slapped in the face repeatedly, and verbally insulted and humiliated (often by women) until I could be “trusted” to turn over a new leaf. But at no time was I able to question you or your methods because I knew that at any time, if I didn't comply, I could be out on my ear, ostracized and even shunned by all my friends of fifteen years…. I have seen this sort of banishment happen to many others, and knew the anger and even hatred you harbored for those older students who left the community and/or, according to you, didn't give you all their time, attention, respect, obedience and at times even their money. Under the psychological intensity and despair of one of these early cycles with you, I was struggling to prove to you that I cared enough, and so took the course that had by then become the prescribed means of getting out of hot water with you, showing remorse and proving how much one cared—offering you money.
In desperation I wrote you a check for $3,000…. I remember distinctly when you received my offer, you stormed into my room, angrily throwing the check to the floor and shouting at me dramatically, “Do you think you can buy me off for a lousy three grand?” I was flabbergasted. Could it be that there was an amount that I was expected to give that would show the necessary amount of intention and resolve to change? The right amount of care for you? I remembered a time when buying you flowers was a symbol for this; but times had changed, and now the currency of forgiveness and intention apparently was cash.
As you well know, I was around to watch as many others who “bottomed out,” and wanting to prove their sincerity, felt pressured by you to buy their way back into your good graces. In fact, any longtime student in the community knew that sooner or later a “donation” would be required as the only way to resolve matters if they ever got into real trouble with you. Extracting “donations” from your students generally took place at a time when they felt victimized, emotionally overwrought, guilty, and trying to gain back your love, trust and affection. You actually even said to me and a few others at one time that when a 'committed' or a 'senior' student “blows it,” it'll cost them $20,000 in karmic retribution. And all this, of course, normally happened without the slightest regard on your part for the student's actual financial situation. As appallingly manipulative and abusive as I now see your attitude to be, I knew that this was still the accepted way that things operated around you up until the time I left.
So, despite grave reservations about being able to do what your “rules” dictated in this situation, I dug deep, cleared out my bank account, borrowing the rest, and offered you what I thought would surely show my heart was in the right place—a check for $20,000. It was accepted and deposited by you. (This was followed by another pledge of $10,000 made to you a bit later when I was in London after having failed once again to meet all that you were demanding of me. I paid you $500 toward this at that time.)
I now find it all quite twisted and sickening. The benefit of leaving has afforded me the clarity I never had while in your world, and under the constant duress of enforced compliance to your wishes (being told this was for my liberation). So, now I am making a different and sane choice on my own behalf: Without further elaboration of past events, I simply and directly ask you to return my money to me now in full—$20,500—without conditions. This money can by no stretch of the imagination be considered a good faith donation to a nonprofit group, having been extracted from me under some of the most intense and extreme psychological stress imaginable.
A friend of mine, a close student of Andrew's and a fellow leader in his community…[who] is presently one of the main officers in the EnlightenNext organization…“broke his vow” of celibacy, meaning in this case that he masturbated. Subsequently, he broke down and confessed this to Andrew, who was very upset and angry with him. My friend felt so guilty over this that he offered to give Andrew his inheritance to show how sorry he was. This offer was accepted, but the inheritance was not yet available. The last thing my friend told me at the time was that he was meeting with his family to request to borrow a sum of money as an advance on his inheritance. Can such a “donation” possibly be construed as “given freely”? Or was it encouraged and exploited as a sad and fearful plea for forgiveness? To me, the answer is obvious.
I cashed out a $60,000 IRA (Individual Retirement Account) and gave it to Andrew under severe pressure. These are the circumstances: In July of 2000 I left the community—snuck out and ran away. I rented a car and just started driving, in a pretty distraught state. I ended up in New Orleans. Andrew tracked me down (that's a long story in itself) and I was persuaded to return to Massachusetts. Still in a pretty volatile state, I was assigned to stay with two other women who were also “in trouble” off-campus (or “off the property”). We rented a room in a boarding house. Over the next weeks, with daily messages and input from Andrew and his representatives, I came to be persuaded that I had made a horrible mistake in trying to leave, and I came to believe that Andrew was showing unfathomable generosity in trying to “save me from myself.” I came to genuinely want to return to community life. We were living as pariahs in a kind of no-man's-land. I was told that in order to return, I had to give everything. I responded in various ways, offering what I thought was everything—spiritually, mentally, emotionally, physically. I offered some money, a few thousand dollars, thinking I would take it off my credit card. But I was told that it was not enough: “Everything means everything.” I had an IRA that my father had been putting money into over many years. It was in my name, but my father was in control of it. It was to be a retirement account—exactly what the name says—because my father knew I wasn't making or saving any money and wasn't likely to, given the life I had chosen. Andrew was aware that I had an IRA; he knew everything about us. I eventually realized that this was what Andrew was asking for. After some inner struggle, I finally offered it. It was accepted, but then there was another message: “Everything is everything.” It was then that I also offered any future inheritance I would receive from my family.
As I recount in greater detail elsewhere in this book, I also had the experience of buying forgiveness. In 1999, after eleven years of discipleship, I was judged to be "doing poorly," presumably because of my pride. I had been a leader in Andrew's community when, suddenly, I was exiled from Foxhollow. My isolation, which alternated for some time with "contact" in the form of vicious verbal attacks from other students, took such a severe toll on my mental state that I felt that I might break down completely. In desperation, I offered everything I had to Andrew: an inheritance of $80,000 that I had recently received following my father's death. As soon as I'd conveyed this offer to Andrew's office, I regretted having done so, and when no response was forthcoming I was silently relieved. A while later, however, I received a call instructing me to send the money.
This "donation" sat very badly with me, and two years after leaving Andrew's community, I demanded its return. After considerable legal wrangling, I did get my money back—an unprecedented event in Andrew Cohen's community. But there was a gag order attached; the return of my money was conditional on my willingness to sign an agreement not to publicly discuss Andrew Cohen for five years—until Independence Day, July 4th, 2008. Tuesday, November 10, 2009
from Chapter 11 ~ A Misplaced Gratitude
Who deserves the credit--the teacher, for spurring the student to action, or the student, for doing the work?
There are as many spiritual teachers as there are spiritual paths. At one end of the spectrum are teachers who mentor their students and share their knowledge and insight with them without making any demands of "surrender." And at the opposite end is the authoritarian guru who embraces a more confrontational approach, "taking the student on" and laying considerable claim to the individual's autonomy and day-to-day life. If the path, under the guidance an authoritarian guru, entails sacrificing one's autonomy, one might well ask: Why follow it? On the other hand, thousands the world over have submitted themselves in this way, and in some cultures surrender to a guru is considered the only true spiritual path. If it is presupposed that the seeker is by definition "lost in ego," it seems to follow naturally that he or she cannot be expected to arrive at Self-realization alone—justifying the conclusion that only a profoundly liberated spiritual authority can guide one to enlightenment.
Psychologist Len Oakes proposes an alternative rationale (which, as I have indicated elsewhere in this book, may or may not be applicable across the full spectrum of spiritual paths and practices). According to Oakes's model, the seeker who submits to an authoritarian guru is primarily motivated by the desire to engage in a "great work," a project that summons the student's inner resources and speaks to his or her most profound concerns about life. The teacher inspires the essential confidence that the student can—indeed, must—do this "great work," but it is the student who cultivates the commitment and integrity required to see it through.
If, in either case, the teacher inspires a desire for transformation in the student, and the student (to whatever degree) realizes this goal, one might ask: Who deserves the credit—the teacher, for spurring the student to action, or the student, for doing the work? As I have learned in conversations with many of Andrew Cohen's former students, the answer depends on the individual. Some have expressed the conviction that, despite having left Cohen's community, they owe Cohen a large debt of gratitude. I contend, on the other hand, that such gratitude is at least partly misplaced: I believe (using Oakes's model) that the gratitude of former students who have achieved some measure of their "great work" is more appropriately directed toward themselves and to those fellow community members who most fostered their progress.
Assessing one's past experience with a guru in terms of one's personal evolution can be a challenging task, and may entail a reassessment of one's basic assumptions regarding the spiritual path. In some cases, for example, it may prove necessary to examine anew one's faith in the notion that such a person as a "perfectly enlightened teacher" actually exists. Though there is, again, a spectrum of views on this subject, in most cases it is not difficult to discern a teacher's flaws. While some teachers forthrightly acknowledge their shortcomings, others, such as Andrew Cohen, not only deny the possibility of their own fallibility, but advance tacit or explicit claims to flawlessness. In his book An Unconditional Relationship to Life, Cohen implies that he has attained a condition that "perfectly reflects the Absolute." Similarly, in his "Declaration of Integrity"—a rebuttal to former students' charges of his responsibility for abuses inside his community—he implies that he possesses unblemished integrity, putting the onus on the observer to decide whether his conduct actually lives up to his insinuations or outright claims of perfection. In this book, I make the case that the answer to this question is no.
What does this imply for the student? How does the awareness of a guru's limitations and contradictions affect one's perception of his or her experiences with the guru? In my own case, I am reminded of the Buddha's famous enjoinder to "be a light unto yourself." Those of us who lived in Andrew Cohen's community for a number of years no doubt had experiences that were catalyzed by his power and presence. I believe, however—knowing what we now know about Andrew—that our gratitude for such experiences is due primarily to the community of friends with whom we shared them, rather than to him. What seemed to be an electric current of spiritual power emanating from Andrew and his confidence was not, after all, based on goodness or integrity. As Oakes puts it in Prophetic Charisma, "[T]he leader is not a great man; he is a great actor playing the role of a great man." In the final analysis, such seems to be the case with Andrew Cohen.
What, then, was the spark that ignited our individual and collective spiritual fire? If not Andrew Cohen's flawless nature—if not, as he would have it, his "perfect reflection of the Absolute"—then what? I conclude that it must have come from our goodness, from the open hearts of his disciples, and from our idealism. I do not say this out of vanity. We wanted very much for Andrew Cohen to be the man and the spiritual leader that he claimed to be, and we gave him wide margins for error because his failure to live up to his claims of perfection would be, in essence, our failure, too: If he was not the perfectly enlightened guru that he insisted he was, then why had we given up so much in our lives to follow him? Andrew Cohen has never strayed from his message that all that happened around him was, in effect, because of him. Ultimately, however, it does not seem possible to attribute the power and profundity of our experiences to "the guru's grace," because the corrosive effect of Andrew's flaws ultimately ate away at whatever "grace" might have existed. Andrew Cohen did not emanate perfection, nor is he the manifestation of an idealized evolutionary potential. That is the painful realization that only time has enabled me to grasp.
What is also true, and what must be stated in fairness to Andrew and to those who continue to believe in him, is that he did play a part in the transformation that took place among us, and in the love and communion that were shared. But it is important, I feel, not to go too far in granting him credit. After all, he continues to defend his most dubious conduct, and he continues to deny allegations of abuse. Thus, for many of his former students, gratitude is mixed with confusion, and with a nagging reminder of Andrew's lies, excesses and misguided teaching methods. We are the "shadow sangha," as he calls us, and his disparagement of us further dilutes what gratitude we might permit ourselves to feel and that he might deserve.
Andrew's reasoning goes like this: Those who criticize me are spiritual failures who cannot stand to see their own egos exposed. What rather seems to be the case, however, is that Andrew cannot bear to be seen as anything less than perfect. That is his pathology. It drives the guru/disciple dynamic within his community, it accounts for his vehement denials of abuse, and it underlies his fear of being exposed. I would argue that Andrew's notion of a "shadow sangha," and of what he calls the spiritual "failure" of his former students, is actually a projection: He fears his own failure and is in denial of his own shadow—a community of ex-followers who were once devoted to him and are now estranged from him, living full lives without him as their center, free from his gravitational pull.
In The Castle in the Forest, Norman Mailer writes, "A mediocre mind, once devoted entirely to one mystical idea, can obtain a mental confidence well beyond its normal potential." This is the dynamic at play in Andrew Cohen's community, where authoritarianism and an oversimplification of spiritual ideals transfer the individual autonomy of others into his hands. Unfortunately, it is difficult to see this when one is inside his community. All authoritarian ideologies represent themselves as revolutionary marches into history, and their success thus depends on the acquiescence of their followers. The individuals involved lose their moral bearings and discover that they are capable of doing things they would not otherwise do. It is exhilarating to feel "chosen"—and horrifying to realize in retrospect how blindly and misguidedly one followed.
Despite his claims to the contrary, Andrew Cohen is not invincible. No one is. That being the case, he compensates with grandiosity. He ignores his critics and refers to them as "spiritual failures." When his mother wrote a book that was critical of him, his rebuttal was a book of his own, In Defense of the Guru Principle, in which he asserts the indispensability of the guru for human spiritual progress. As Oakes writes:
The prophet's credibility founders most over his failure to be truly human, that is, to reflect on his behavior, to doubt himself, to concede error, and to show genuine regret for hurt to others. This lack unnerves and embarrasses the followers. They bring with them enormous goodwill and loyalty, but when the leader shows not mere refusal but sheer inability to admit any insufficiency, when vain boasting and ranting, and na•ve invincibility alternate with bouts of self-pity and paranoid fantasies, and when the followers' sense that the leader's fantasies are more important to him than their welfare, their affections change.... Even the most loyal soon begin to question. To continue working for him then becomes a conspiracy to protect him from facing his own delusions. The leader defends his brittle strengths in an increasingly grotesque and inflexible way; the nearer he comes to the core of his pathology, the more catastrophic and extreme his reactions become.
It is painful to come to terms with one's experiences with a powerful but imperfect spiritual leader. I left Foxhollow in a state of uncertainty over what had occurred there and who I was as a result of it. What I knew for certain, though, and what sustains me to this day, is that something beautiful can happen when openhearted, trusting individuals come together to give themselves to a higher purpose. That those of us who devoted ourselves to Andrew Cohen were disappointed by him need not—and does not—diminish the power of our intention.
This book is not an invitation to cynicism. This story—the hard truth of it—deserves to be aired, but it should not be embraced as substantiation of the cynic's claim that spiritual enlightenment or an authentic spiritual approach to living cannot be achieved, or that spiritual communities cannot thrive. They can—just not under the kind of authoritarian conditions described in these pages.
My hope is that this book will inspire conversations about how spiritual communities founded in goodness can find their place in this world. There are so many fine teachers who have integrity and their students' best interests at heart. The path is open to all seekers. Authoritarians are not required to shepherd the seeker to spiritual awakening. My great discovery since leaving Andrew Cohen's community is that the path is wide open—and always has been.
from Chapter 15 ~ Connecting the Dots
Cohen's interpretation of the defining events and experiences of his own life is a comprehensive myth that weaves together elements of truth and wishful thinking.
In his "Declaration of Integrity," Andrew Cohen writes: "You can take any particular incident out of context, as my detractors have made an art form of doing, and of course it creates a confusing impression.... One thing that has never failed to mystify me is that some people just don't connect the dots: If I really were the sadistic, irrational megalomaniac that I have been portrayed as, why in God's name would anybody stick around for ten or more years before finally 'waking up'?" (By "waking up" Cohen here means not liberation but something on the order of recognizing that he is a fraud.)
This is, I believe, a fair question, the answer to which is for the reader to decide. Though I have done everything in my power to address it in a way that is faithful to my own experience, the events I have described in this book remain, it would seem, open to interpretation. Thus, at the end as at the beginning, there seem to be two distinctly different "realities" to be considered, each with its own unique set of implications, or "dots to connect."
Let us first consider the perspective advanced by Andrew Cohen, according to which he is a realized master whose transmission of an authentic, absolute, impersonal "evolutionary impulse" is the overarching "higher context" for his role and conduct as a genuine and legitimate spiritual authority figure. The most relevant implication of this view is that, along with the contributors to this book and numerous other of his former followers, I am a deluded individual who, because I proved unable or unwilling to face my imperfect reflection in the glorious light of "the Absolute," have compulsively turned my back on "the Highest." Fair enough. Certainly in the arc of my career as Andrew's student I have considered this possibility more times than I can count (not exactly a recipe for "liberation"!) and was often convinced that he must be right. And now, as part of a continuing strategy for hiding my "failure" from myself, I have produced a self-serving book that falsely denounces one of the great religious luminaries of our era—whereas the real truth about Andrew Cohen ("for those who have eyes to see") is that he is an Enlightened Being full of redemptory blessings for the world; his "revolution" is authentic; and those students humble enough to have remained with him through thick and thin are fulfilled, living expressions of unfolding human potential "at the leading edge."
I am not suggesting that this is a view to be easily or casually dismissed. As I have indicated elsewhere in this book, it is my own experience that Andrew Cohen presents a vast and credible perspective on human existence that is exciting, enlivening and inspiring, and that he produces an energetic transmission that moves people to connect or re-engage with the spiritual path. Further, his persuasively presented personal story seems to substantiate his claims. Many of Cohen's students, myself included, have been inspired to believe in his autobiography and to accept and defend his interpretation of its broad outlines: He was a dedicated seeker from an early age, had a spontaneous awakening experience that presaged his ultimate realization at thirty, was possessed of a rare purity of motivation that, at the time of his "final realization" and "perfect surrender" to his guru, helped to catalyze a total transformation that made it impossible thereafter for him to act out of ignorance such as to cause suffering to himself or others. At his teacher's request, he selflessly accepted as his mantle and destiny the responsibility of creating "a revolution among the young." These claims are advanced in several of his self-published books, and enough of his followers believe them that anyone so predisposed could easily feel comfortable doing the same.
At the same time, though, it seems to me that any attempt to "connect the dots" should also take into account numerous examples of abuse on Cohen's part that, in many cases, require greater "artfulness" for him to justify than for me to remove from their "proper context." To give one of many possible examples: Do those students who, following Cohen's orders, lured a fellow student to a basement room at Foxhollow and each poured a bucket of paint over her head, really imagine that their guru is above ordinary spite, vindictiveness or malice, or is incapable of causing suffering?
What, then, does such an act signify?
Cohen insists that "if you were made aware of the enormous amount of time, care, attention, and support that had been given to the individual; understood the complex psychological/spiritual dynamics at work; saw it in the context of a collective endeavor to create a higher ideal for the noblest of reasons; and didn't conveniently forget that it was a freely chosen path; what may have appeared unreasonable often starts to look very different." But to the extent that such incidents raise legitimate questions about Andrew Cohen's understanding of his own "attainment," their implications are at least as significant as those that follow from accepting at face value the version that he and his devotees would prefer the world to accept.
The most fundamental of these implications is that Cohen's interpretation of the defining events and experiences of his own life is a comprehensive myth that weaves together elements of truth and wishful thinking. And if Andrew Cohen believes some things about himself that are not true, then we are confronted, by definition, with the possibility that he is deluded. (God forbid that I should make something that sounds like a judgment about my former teacher!) Of course, many human beings are deluded to some extent, but some delusions are more harmful than others. Not to put too fine a point on it, the propagation of a glorious myth of personal sanctification and liberation, and the willingness of many others to accept it, is one definition of a potentially destructive cult.
While we may be inspired by such myths, organizing our lives around them is not necessarily advisable, and doing so has implications for the followers as well as for the leader. In a recent dialogue with Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi, Cohen described his attitude toward his students as follows: "[My] love for them is not for them as an individual but for them as a potential vessel for that which is higher. That's very hard for the ego to take, but from a certain point of view we could say it's not possible to love anyone more than that, because you love them so much that you actually don't care about their ego at all." Yet to the extent that this explanation of Cohen's "teaching function" represents an unconscious rationalization for his manipulation of others in the service of a delusional myth, followers put themselves at considerable psychic risk by subjugating themselves to a "spiritual authority" who may actually be quite limited in his capacity for genuine love and compassion—and who may, in addition, feel an underlying contempt for them because of what they allow him to get away with at their own expense.
During the thirteen years of my career as a student, when I could be said to have been fully indoctrinated—to have "swallowed the myth," hook, line and sinker—I did not always do what I thought was right, but (like the members of the paint-bucket brigade) what seemed necessary to survive and thrive in a highly unconventional environment. To the extent that this characterization of my own experience is honest rather than merely "cynical," the situation of Cohen's current generation of devoted followers is unlikely to be much different. They, too, have given over their lives for the sake of an idealism predicated on what they may only later come to realize was a well-concealed lie. In some cases, their egos are stroked and gratified by their allotted roles, as mine was; and while they may fervently believe that they are doing good, the underlying hypocrisy of the situation as a whole ends up contributing, in the guise of Andrew Cohen's version of "goodness," to so much of what is already wrong with the world.
If this is so, it may be that the public work of a number of individuals associated with EnlightenNext is similarly compromised. Examples include Craig Hamilton, a newly self-proclaimed "pioneer in the emerging field of evolutionary spirituality" who, having "lived and worked in a dynamic living 'laboratory of evolution' under the direct guidance of EnlightenNext founder and spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen," and having played "a key role in the leadership of this thriving international spiritual community," looks back on the results as "extraordinary"; Elizabeth Debold, a Harvard-trained developmental psychologist who is now (in her supposedly unbiased position as Senior Editor of Cohen's EnlightenNext magazine) trying to create objective measures of "higher development" designed to substantiate her "hypothesis" that people who take Cohen's retreats will display such traits; Linus Roache, an internationally renowned actor, who directs EnlightenNext's New York center; Dave Gold and Michael Wombacher, published authors who have gone on record selectively extolling their teacher, Andrew Cohen; Amy Edelstein, a member of EnlightenNext's Board of Directors, who has lied extensively to a journalist on Cohen's behalf; and Carter Phipps, the current Executive Editor of EnlightenNext magazine, whose reprinted article on the Huffington Post ("What Ever Happened to Truth?") takes others to task for the sort of revisionist dishonesty and abuse of power he seems perfectly willing to overlook in his teacher and Editor-in-chief.
And what of Cohen's celebrity endorsers—Genpo Roshi, Ken Wilber, Rupert Sheldrake, Deepak Chopra, Bernie Glassman, to name only a few—who offer their implicit support by agreeing to participate in his forums? To what extent have they considered the possibility that the extensive allegations against Cohen exist for valid reasons—that where there is smoke there is every likelihood of fire? Are they poor judges of character? Are they as vulnerable to Cohen's manipulations as anyone else? Are they swayed by Cohen's humble-seeming profession of the Bodhisattva vow "to enlighten the world"? Or are they taking advantage of the strategic media opportunity that Andrew Cohen represents with no thought for the possible consequences? Does Genpo Roshi, for example, make any practical distinction—particularly with respect to the risk of abuse—between surrendering unconditionally to a manipulative cult leader and submitting to the guidance of a sanctioned teacher within the framework of an established tradition? Why not? However accurate it may be, Cohen's maverick reputation for questionable conduct is certainly no secret.
Further, what are the implications of these "high-level" interactions between "spiritual authorities" such as Cohen and Wilber for our understanding of spiritual life as a whole? Is there validity, for example, in Cohen's notions of "verticality" and "hierarchy," or in his (and Wilber's) use of the Spiral Dynamics conceptual model as a means of dismissing critics by characterizing their legitimate concerns as "narcissistic" postmodern expressions of "lower" developmental levels? Are these hierarchical principles applicable to followers in all situations, regardless of the behavior of the self-appointed spiritual authority figures that demand their "surrender" as a necessary precondition for the transcendence of egoic self-delusion? If not, why haven't the reservations of these respected figures (assuming they have any) been publicly articulated?
Recent EnlightenNext webcasts have stressed the importance of the second of Wilber's "Three Faces of God," i.e., the living manifestation of the divine in the form of the guru before whom the devotee must prostrate, as Cohen puts it, "on bended knee." On one such webcast, Terry Patten, a former follower of the recently deceased American guru/cult-leader Adi Da (a.k.a. Da Free John)—whose "corruption" and "megalomania" Cohen himself once pointedly criticized—was interviewed enthusiastically by two of Cohen's students, Elizabeth Debold and Jeff Carreira. Patten, a Wilber co-author who offers international workshops explaining the "The Three Faces of God," complimented Cohen's student body as a whole for its ready receptivity to the notion of surrender to the guru—neglecting, like Genpo Roshi, to acknowledge both the many instances in which "surrender" has turned out to be a code-word for misguided loyalty and the obvious dangers of surrendering to a "megalomaniac," whoever he (or she) might be. Perhaps not surprisingly, Debold and Carreira, good disciples that they are, didn't raise these issues either.
Adi Da's explanation of "Second Face of God" devotional practice, transcribed from a video on youtube.com, reads thus:
Having no rug to stand on, no separateness to define you in separation from me, surrendered in the perfect sense so that you are tacitly directly in the room with me, the room of my indivisible person, with your shoes at the door—in other words having stepped into the space of indivisibility—that's the perfect practice of devotion to me. If you don't know me enough to know that's the only right relationship to me then you don't recognize me, you're not feeling my actual state. Mistaking me for somebody else, for somebody like yourself, you're seeing in me your own reflection in some sense; you're being a narcissist when you're looking at me. So without recognition of me, and true turning to me, true devotion to me, you're actually seeing yourself, a projection of yourself, a superimposition of your own limitations on my form.
And asked by the journalist John Horgan to explain his assertion that his students should never leave him, Andrew Cohen offers this equally striking rationale for total, uncritical surrender: "Let's say the Buddha was alive today. Let's say someone that great, that enlightened, that pure, that perfect, with such a great teaching, was still alive. I mean, could someone be too attached to someone like that? The more attached you get to a person like that, the more free, literally, you become"—adding, however, that "anybody who wants to be free is going to have to bend his knee.... However that happens, it doesn't really matter, as long as it happens."
Is it any wonder, then, that in Cohen's community, "leaving" and "failure" are considered to be virtually synonymous, and that students tend to live in greater fear of giving in to the impulse to escape his control than of enduring the familiar compromises and discomforts of soldiering on? "As harsh as it may sound to some," Cohen writes, "the simple truth is that my most virulent critics are almost all former students who failed miserably." What exactly is the nature of Cohen's power over his devotees that they are willing not only to endure his abuses for extended periods but also to ignore or rationalize his behavior, and to lie to the public on his behalf when called upon to do so? Only a large group of people who have been uniformly indoctrinated could collectively believe—as they do about former members like myself—that we are all, consistently and almost without exception, "miserable failures." Is it possible that there is some mass form of Stockholm Syndrome being lived out at Foxhollow and EnlightenNext's centers around the world? If so, how does this authoritarian dynamic relate to the broader "revolution in consciousness and culture" that is the goal of EnlightenNext's feverish public outreach? Is Cohen's "revolution" authentically spiritual and cultural, or is it rather political—in the sense that the motivation underlying political rhetoric, when it is not the propagation of truth, is often the desire to convince, cajole, manipulate, hierarchize, dominate and humiliate?
One discovers, then, as a counterpoint to Cohen's dismissive assessment of the motives and failures of his critics, that "connecting the dots" leads to an equally viable (and far more disturbing) conclusion: that EnlightenNext's web of publications, centers, student groups, enlisted experts and strategic alliances comprises a sizeable myth-based social complex fueled—at this point principally via the internet—by a powerful mixture of genuine insight and disingenuous propaganda; and that it can be as true of a spiritual community as of the larger society it seeks to transform that the appeal of its prevailing ideology guarantees neither the wholesomeness of its underlying motivations nor the integrity of its leaders. In 1996, Andrew Cohen wrote,
...I feel it is so essential that those individuals, who have been fortunate enough to have fallen into the miracle of transcendent spiritual realization, be able to demonstrate an attainment that clearly and unambiguously expresses the evolutionary potential of the race. For as long as this demand is not made, and those who are showing the way for others are allowed to demonstrate the very same schizophrenic condition of contradictory impulses as everyone else, then the attainment of true simplicity and unequivocal victory over ignorance will remain a myth.
I applaud Cohen's good intentions, which I trusted enough to offer him thirteen years of my life. Unfortunately, though the "teaching" he has cobbled together contains elements of perennial wisdom, time has revealed that it rests on a foundation of dishonesty, corruption and pernicious abuse of power that undermines whatever positive effects it might otherwise have produced. Knowing what I know, if I were a parent whose children had elected to join Cohen's community, I would be fearful, upset and deeply concerned for their welfare, and resentful of the carelessness with which respected spiritual authorities advance Cohen's "mission" by endorsing it without any consideration for the abuses they may thereby be facilitating. Without realizing it, those who support Andrew Cohen from a safe distance—or worse, sanction his abuses—increase the potential of harm to the followers they help him to attract or retain. In the end, it is my concern for the individuals involved at the many levels of the EnlightenNext network that has inspired me to undertake and complete this project. Whether or not they feel they need it, I wish healing for them all.
Former Contributors to EnlightenNext magazine respond to revelations in American Guru
As a former member of Andrew Cohen's EnlightenNext “spiritual community,” I am aware of a dimension of his activities that is not known to many of the public figures whose contributions he solicits for publication in his EnlightenNext print and online forums. Because Cohen strategically uses the names and ideas of respected public figures to camouflage and legitimize behind-the-scenes abuses against his own students, the final chapter of my book, American Guru, includes a call to those who have been publicly associated with Cohen as an editor and publisher to weigh in on the potential dangers of personal involvement with Cohen as a teacher and spiritual authority figure. The statements of several former contributors to EnlightenNext magazine can be found here.