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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
David Christopher Lane
Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical
(New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession
(New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
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The Guru Who
Andrew Cohen Emerges from his Downfall
Cohen is blind to his most obvious flaw. He shouldn't be a guru. He was shoddy at it and in the end caused much more harm than good.
I can't say I was surprised. I always had a suspicion that Andrew Cohen, given his some 30 years as a self-proclaimed enlightened master and his recalcitrant narcissism, wasn't quite ready to give up the guru gig. It didn't take very long either since it has only been three years since his dramatic downfall.
Although Cohen is not explicitly clear on what exactly his re-emergence will mean or what role he expects to take or how ex and future students should treat him, a close reading of his recent self-justifying “statement” on his newly resurrected website (andrewcohen.com) gives one a deep pause, especially since his repeated mea culpas seem transparently contrived.
The following is Andrew Cohen's latest attempt to get back in the guru game, even if he must do so with his long tale of disciple abuse between his legs.
‘I believed I was infallible.
And for a very long time, the majority
of my students believed it too. ’
“In the spring of 2013, my worst nightmare came true. Everything that I and my closest friends had spent the previous three decades building came crashing down around us. The entire international body of students and centers, 27 years of tireless work and commitment, disappeared almost overnight.
It was something that I simply never contemplated happening, and it happened mainly because I was unwilling to face my pride—something in my role as a spiritual teacher I had compelled countless others to do.
The last 40 years is replete with stories of gurus and spiritual teachers falling from grace. As a younger teacher myself, I had boldly but naively declared how disillusioning it was when proclaimed spiritual masters had feet of clay, and most importantly, proved to have moral failings. To my shock, humiliation and horror, I now found myself in the very same position.
My life as a controversial teacher has been a story of unending paradoxes and contradictions. Over the last 30 years, I have been both revered and despised, hated and adored. I have been respected for my contributions and condemned for my mistakes. For most of my adult life, I lived in a context in which I had unchecked power and authority. As a result, it is undoubtedly true that too many suffered. It’s also true that many experienced extraordinary breakthroughs and developed in the most beautiful and profound ways.
The truth is, as crazy as it sounds, I believed I was infallible. And for a very long time, the majority of my students believed it too. In the end, I lost everything and caused untold suffering to many people only because of an irrational refusal to admit the simple truth: like most human beings I am deeply flawed.
The gift of my own teacher’s grace and the illumination he afforded me didn’t change that—the truth is, it usually doesn’t. As Integral philosopher Ken Wilber has repeated so many times: Enlightenment does not inherently remove shadow. Only truly wanting to face the truth about ourselves does. And that is very, very hard and usually an incredibly painful process to endure.
My fall from grace has shaken me to the core. It has compelled me to wrestle with my demons in ways I never would otherwise have done. I have experienced depths of darkness in myself. I have wrestled with shame. I have doubted everything I have ever stood for.
For a very long time I didn’t know how I would find the resources in myself to face the enormity of my hypocrisy and betrayal. It has taken me the better part of the last 3 years, and I have had a lot of help: incredible love and support from dear friends, important guidance from therapists and painful yet liberating insight gained from Shamanic plant medicine. All this has over time gradually brought me back to my senses, my self, and most importantly to God.
In this return to my Self, what has also resurfaced is that mystery to which I declared an unequivocal “Yes” when I met my teacher three decades ago. It is the undeniable conviction in the miraculous nature of our deepest selves, the immediacy of spiritual freedom, and the boundless inspiration to share that truth with others.
I know for some this will seem like an unforgivable offense. How dare I contemplate such a thing after falling so far? And yet I feel I have no choice. The easiest thing for me to do would be to disappear—and to be honest, in my weakest moments, that’s all I want to do. But the greatest challenge is to return to the work, not only in spite of my failings, but because of them.
I have learned the hard way what I did wrong. I have spent a lot of my time over the last years contemplating why so many inspired spiritual communities led by charismatic teachers more often than not have crashed and burned. Most of the time, it seems to be for the same reasons: the leader or teacher has unexamined shadow, and the ancient forms and power structures around which the communities are built are almost always outdated remnants from the distant past, shockingly unsuited for our time and this era.
Because of this, those who have had the courage to put everything on the line for the promise of paradise too often get burned with disappointment and disillusionment. It is by now a painfully predictable story, but I never imagined that I would be telling that very same story about my own community, EnlightenNext.
That being said, to characterize the 27 years of this radical experiment as unremittingly negative would be reductionist in the extreme. More importantly, it would also do a deep disservice to all those who gave their hearts and souls to our sacred work. The intense commitment, seriousness and intelligence of everyone involved gave rise to some of the most profound collective breakthroughs imaginable, the most exquisitely moving expressions of love and spiritual insight—and finally, to the teachings of Evolutionary Enlightenment that still burn brightly within me.
Against all odds and undoubtedly to the consternation of many, I feel a renewed responsibility and obligation to uphold the beauty and the promise of those teachings. Without in any way wishing to underestimate the mistakes I made as a consequence of my own unexamined shadow, I would be dishonoring the truth of my own experience if I were to walk a different path. This is simply who I am.
What this means in detail at this point I don’t yet see clearly. But I feel a powerful and sacred obligation to honor and take forward that which I and my close friends and students had worked so hard to make manifest in the world.
I also feel a great sense of obligation to journey into the heart of this profoundly complex subject, and, with the help of others, to return with some answers. It is my fervent hope that, in doing so, I can help to illuminate the multifaceted and divisive issues that so often lead to such catastrophic failures.
The most challenging thing is to be able to carry this forward in the context of what I have learned can go so badly wrong. EnlightenNext failed primarily because of my own issues; but I cannot simply put the past behind me and move on. Those issues are also what I am drawing on as a source of renewed wisdom and insight. I am holding them within me as some the deepest lessons I have ever had to learn.
Most importantly of all, the last three years have convinced me that it is possible to place these events in a much bigger context than my own story. This open ended, future-oriented inquiry is what is calling the deepest part of me to move forward.”
From a skeptical perspective (and one that I am sure many will share, particularly those who were most burned by Andrew Cohen's unnecessarily authoritative and systematic abuse), this latest apologetic from Cohen is anything but. Rather, it is a strategic piece of justifying why he feels he can still be a spiritual teacher and still redeem his Evolutionary Enlightenment movement. Quite simply, Andrew Cohen could have reduced his 1000 plus words down to one sentence, “I'm back!”
Many of his ex-students feared that his three year sabbatical wasn't going to end well and that their disgraced teacher was buying time to regroup and rethink about how he could rise phoenix-like from the ashes he unceremoniously left after burning his organization to the ground by his unchecked hubris. Several students wrote to tell me of their fear that Andrew Cohen was staging a comeback and were seeking out the ways and means to prevent it. But alas apparently nothing can stop a wanna-be guru from his desired title.
After watching how closely involved he was with the scathing documentary on his life and work by Conscious 2 (see How I Created A Cult), it became exceedingly obvious to me and other observers that Andrew Cohen was orchestrating a not so subtle comeback to the position he missed most: being the center of attention. Andrew Cohen wants to be a guru, even if he was a lousy one for some 30 years. He feels entitled to the position and willy nilly (critics be damned) he wants the spiritual entitlement back, even if he has to grovel for it with repeated mantras of “I am sorry” to appease those most hurt by his egregious and nefarious actions.
Although Cohen speaks of now accepting his Jungian shadow (quoting Wilber yet again with, “Enlightenment does not inherently remove shadow”), he doesn't seem to realize how disingenuous he can be in wanting to move forward when he still hasn't come to grips with his real problem: egomania.
It isn't about you and your problems Andrew or how to get back in the spiritual sport.
It isn't about you and your problems Andrew or how to get back in the spiritual sport. It is rather about how you treated your students for nearly three decades. Instead of worrying about your status, it might be more enlightening if you thought about getting a real job and paying back your disciples' hard earned money that they offered to you only to see it wasted by bad advice and bad investments. It might be singularly impressive to hear you say, “I am not getting back into the guru business but instead I am going to live an exemplary life of giving and not taking. I want to live up to my apology by action, and thus I am going to stay away from the very movement that wreaked so much havoc on so many sincere seekers who wanted something better.”
I am not a betting man, but I would wager that Andrew is not going to listen to such advice. Why? As he himself admitted in his web statement,
“Against all odds and undoubtedly to the consternation of many, I feel a renewed responsibility and obligation to uphold the beauty and the promise of those teachings. Without in any way wishing to underestimate the mistakes I made as a consequence of my own unexamined shadow, I would be dishonoring the truth of my own experience if I were to walk a different path. This is simply who I am.”
Notice how in several sweeping self-proclamations Andrew Cohen once again bypasses his students wishes only to uphold his own. Cohen is blind to his most obvious flaw. He shouldn't be a guru. He was shoddy at it and in the end caused much more harm than good. Yet, Cohen's arrogance remains unchecked when he writes, “I would be dishonoring the truth of my own experience if were to walk a different path. This is simply who I am.”
These last two lines should be heeded as a warning that nothing fundamental has changed in Andrew Cohen's modus operandi. It is always about him and his truth.
So what is Andrew Cohen proposing to do? Well, for starters he is back doing much of what he did before, even with a slight twist (what he calls the “ongoing exploration of the role of both student and guru in a post-mythic context”), which includes:
1) a new video introduction to the “evolutionary impulse”;
2) a website journal about his latest interviews and activities;
3) a section for students to buy his old and new books;
4) an audio section to listen to his various dialogues and other engagements; and
5) presenting new retreats for interested seekers to interact with Andrew Cohen in person.
As the old saying goes, “A leopard can't change its spots.” Or, in this case, “Andrew Cohen can't change being a narcissist.”
Sincere aspirants don't need more guru posers, and they especially don't need Andrew Cohen cluttering up the spiritual marketplace once again hawking his wares.
I once heard a very wise counsel during my many travels to India when an old sage told me at the tender age of 22, “Any guru who wants to be a guru isn't worthy of your attention.”
You were lucky Andrew that you got off so easily. Many of your disciples feel you should be in jail. If an elementary school teacher did just 1/10th of what you did he or she would be forever banned from the classroom. Perhaps you should listen more carefully to your ex-students and stay retired. As Rumi insightfully taught, “Let silence take you to the core of life.”