A stranger would not understand the magnitude of the affair, a stranger might even mock it, but last month an earthquake took place in the world of New Age. A tectonic shift the likes of which the elders of Rishikesh cannot recall. It was revealed that Andrew Cohen, one of the most famous spiritual teachers in the world, and until a few years ago one of the most powerful and influential figures in contemporary Western spirituality, is about to step down as guru and resign the leadership of the movement he founded, EnlightenNext, against a backdrop of repeated allegations of tyrannical conduct and financial and mental (but not sexual) abuse of his followers. In an official message, he announced that he would soon be stepping down, and apologized to his students for the wrongs he had done them in the past. In short: he admitted that despite hopes to the contrary, he does have an ego after all.
Cohen’s rise and fall stretches across a good chunk of the annals of contemporary New-Age spirituality. He began his journey in the late 1980’s, at first as a follower and torch-bearer of the famous Papaji, an Indian guru who left many disciples. After a few years Cohen severed ties with his master, and embarked on an independent road. His spiritual teachings have undergone several transformations. At first he insisted that there’s nothing to be done for spiritual enlightenment and release, and all that is left is to want it above all else. When he saw that this path leads to spiritual experiences but not fundamental changes in his pupils he turned sharply to the other way, and tasked them with exhausting spiritual exercises, including sexual abstinence, withstanding severe physical challenges, various humiliations and repeated demands for financial donations – all supposedly designed to “break the ego.”
Over the past decade Cohen increasingly stressed a spirituality of the evolutionary type, in which each of us must sublimate his or her awareness as part of the general development of the cosmos, and for same. He collaborated with Ken Wilber, a spiritual guide in his own right and one of the most interesting thinkers currently living in the US, and with him composed a model of “evolutionary enlightenment,” which he claimed combined the best in Oriental spirituality and Western thinking.
Beginning in 1994 Cohen edited a highly popular magazine titled What is Enlightenment? (Kant apparently transcended his ego, and did not insist on copyrights), through which he raised questions important to many spiritual seekers, and no less important, set the agenda for many in that world. The magazine was an enormous center of power for Cohen, for through it he could create new stars in the New Age firmament or cast them down as he chose. However through the years the magazine became an obvious mouthpiece for Cohen’s own teachings, lost readers and became a burden to his movement (it was shut down two years ago.) Yet only last year, well past his peak, Cohen was chosen 28th among the 100 most spiritually influential people living today by Watkins Mind Body Spirit. Below the Dalai Lama, ahead of the Pope.
Tyranny, Crazy Wisdom and Lies, Damn Lies
Complaints about the high-handedness and exploitation of Cohen’s leadership began surfacing as early as fifteen years ago. In 1997 Cohen’s mother published a critical book titled “Mother of God” about her experiences as his pupil. Another book by a disillusioned follower appeared in 2003, and a third book in 2011. This last one included testimonies by some former leading students, who described a saga of degradation and abuse inflicted by Cohen upon his followers, painting the mustachioed guru as a power and expensive-gift craving egomaniac. According to the book Cohen would extort massive donations from his students, send them on pointless missions to instill humility in them, punish them for every violation of his rules and make up all sorts of tricks to keep them moving forward on the path to enlightenment. He would never admit error, and on the other hand take credit for any and all positive developments within his community. (See more here on the litany of abuse/denial/lies.)
It is worthwhile to reflect for a moment on Cohen’s attempts to react to these disclosures. At first he denied the whole matter, dismissing it as “rumors” spread by ill-wishers. Upon accumulation of the testimonies – and, it should be stressed, the growth of the Internet – Cohen realized he couldn’t just wave his hands and create a magical forgetfulness effect. He thus began to admit, and even take pride, in being a “tough teacher” and “rude”. With time the claim was made that his entire behavior can be explained away by that marvelous concept of “Crazy Wisdom”.
To those unversed in the lore of spiritual excuse-making du-jour, this concept comes from Tibetan Buddhism, where it describes the boundary, law and custom-shattering wisdom of those who have utterly rid themselves of any ego or illusion. These sages are allegedly incapable of error, since they are in full resonance with the workings of the universe. In the context of New Age as practiced lucratively in the West this concept has undergone an insidious mutation, and is interpreted as license for the teacher to cause his students physical pain or emotional crisis in order to waken them from their blindness. The problematic nature of this arrangement is clear: Since the teacher is enlightened and crazy-wise, then as much as his actions may seem ludicrous or even evil to mere human eyes, it is a-priori impossible that he is in error. Therefore, any abuse of the student is affirmed as legitimate, and even praised as a radical attempt to free him or her of all their troubles.
But as of now it seems that this too was to no avail. In recent years, largely due to increased reports of his problematic behavior, Cohen’s organization suffered the defection of top students and rather heavy financial problems. The magazine, as mentioned above, was closed, and the mansion that served as commune/HQ/ashram for the community was put up for sale. Part of the blame for this situation lies on Cohen’s shoulders: he insisted on keeping the magazine alive well after it ceased to make business sense (largely, I’m guessing, because of the power and influence it gave him). The demise of the movement’s center removed the students both from under his direct control and from the group-dynamics characteristic of such places, and allowed for more independent thought and reflexive critique. Matters reached a point that a resolution was formed saying the movement can no longer keep going as it has. Cohen was forced out.
A month ago internal email correspondence of Cohen’ community appeared on the Internet, in which the participant discuss the ways to manage the publicity of the crisis the movement will fund itself in once Cohen officially announces his resignation from the post of guru, and apologizes for some of his past actions. A day later he published the official announcement, in which he confessed that “in spite of the depth of my awakening, my ego is still alive and well.”
Whither The Guru Institution
As stated above, this can be seen as a landmark in the history of western contemporary New Age, and I would like to use it to try to examine not only Cohen, but the entire institution of the guru. One didn’t need the fall of Cohen to understand that this institution is in trouble, but as one of the most prominent teachers in the West, Cohen surely emphasizes how dire the situation is.
The problem begins with the fact that just as the term “Crazy Wisdom”, the guru institution has also been taken out of context. Spiritual teachers who gather pupils around them have existed in the Oriental religions for thousands of years, and for a thousand or more in Judaism and Islam. What’s different these days is that while in the past those teachers functioned within a constant, well-known context – that is to say, within a certain spiritual tradition – today there is often no normative framework in which gurus and their acolytes operate. The guru institution has been removed from its traditional context (“traditional” here in more than one meaning) and implanted into conditions foreign to its nature.
This should not be taken lightly. Instead of being surrounded by a system of checks and balances that can limit and stabilize him, the Western spiritual teacher in essence develops his spiritual path on his own, and therefore does not enjoy the benefit of previous generations’ experience, nor is his will bound by traditional laws and restrictions. If in the past the guru would ask the student to yield to his will on the authority of a tradition of which he was but a link, today’s guru asks his disciples to submit to him alone, and solely to his own authority. Instead of joining a veteran spiritual heritage that has withstood the test of time, today’s student binds himself to one person, original and perhaps special, but not necessarily very intelligent or responsible, and in more miserble cases merely a charlatan. Who will question his every whim? His conscience, one would hope, but sometimes he lacks one, or the spine to obey it, and the consequences can be dire.
What we see here is the magnification of the well-known problem of contemporary spirituality. Alongside the freedom to take different ideas and practices from various traditions and mold the spiritual path best suited to the individual, and alongside the personal discipline which spiritual seeking without a set tradition requires, there are the drawbacks deriving from inexperience and a lack of boundaries. In solitary seeking this situation may lead to useless paths, but when one yields the authority over her or his spiritual development to an exterior force who also lacks the benefit of experience or constraints on his actions, results can be far more troubling. Moreover, without clear rules of engagement it is very difficult to reprimand such a person or make him admit his mistakes.
And yet, a wholesale rejection of the guru institution is a solution not only devoid of real probability, but also speaks of a simplicity and lack of understanding. Spiritual teachers exist not only, as detractors would have it, because people like to surrender their freedom or fear loneliness. The spiritual teacher exists because this institution does indeed help us discover new things about ourselves. One must also recall that lacking in spiritual tradition as they were, Cohen’s students – however tragically late – did manage to free themselves of his control and put him in his place.
I myself have had many spiritual teachers, but never an outright guru. In my next article I will seek to delve deeper into the question of the guru and Andrew Cohen’s specific case. To that end I will interview a long-time student of Cohen’s who left his community several years ago, and together we shall try to understand what are the qualities, and the pratfalls, of a guru. In addition, I will provide updates on developments in the community following Cohen’s resignations. So, definitely to be continued.
Published in Maariv, 5.7.13, and yesterday aired on Integral World