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 (formerly What Is Enlightenment?) magazine and its associated online forums are reproduced below.
Note: EnlightenNext Magazine has been closed since this article was published.
I think that American Guru will become a valuable cautionary tale for many seekers. Andrew Cohen, Trungpa Rinpoche, Adi Da, Muktananda, Rajneesh, and many others have succumbed to the loss of self-awareness and abuse of power that comes with thinking that you are divine. People go crazy when they begin to believe their story; it is the principle source of our suffering. In 1995, I sat with Andrew Cohen at a book signing event at a local bookshop. I was very impressed with his writing in his magazine, but I was shocked after listening to his ninety minutes of shameless self-promotion. The main teaching of advaita is the discovery of who one is, so I found it dismaying to see such an unabashed and unaware display of egotism. I was particularly upset by the total absence of anything that sounded like love in the whole presentation. Of course, I had no idea of the abuse that was associated with his community. Similarly, I wrote an article for What is Enlightenment? magazine a few years ago in ignorance of the internal situation. People get addicted to shaktipat like any other drug. It is like falling in love. Your rational mind is turned off to anything negative that you hear about your beloved.
–Russell Targ, physicist/writer, and author of Do You See What I See: Memoirs of a Blind Biker
American Guru is an important contribution, as there are too many naïve seekers out there. In reading it I am struck once again by the danger of someone setting themselves up as a spiritual teacher without the benefit of a lineage, a teacher and colleagues who are also teachers. The ego is so strong it will almost inevitably distort any spiritual achievement or insight, as clearly is the case with Andrew Cohen.
The other striking thing is the slapping business. It is so clearly unacceptable, and no amount of rationalization can make it okay. It reminds me of Jim Jones, who had his followers get into the boxing ring if they angered him. He would choose as their boxing partner someone who had been a pro boxer, so it was an even worse case of physical abuse, but the same principle. The other anecdotes provide background and ‘flavor’ but are less convincing to me; there aren’t enough details for me to be clear that Andrew was as completely in the wrong as with the slapping business. But all it takes is one egregious example.
Unfortunately all too many spiritual teachers have feet of clay, or worse. In my own tradition, lineage and the guidance of a teacher (especially for those who have been given responsibility as teachers themselves) are extremely important, so I’m, unfortunately, not surprised when self-proclaimed teachers have a dark, unenlightened side.
Thank you for the work you are doing. I know it is often thankless and worse.
I hope that American Guru has the effect of waking more people up to what happens in us as we work toward finding a way. Personal development is tough for most of us to work on alone, so we become or are terribly vulnerable to the occasional person who seems to have it all in hand. I have no doubt that your book will be helpful on more than one level; not least (though not obvious) is that it might help Andrew Cohen change toward a more beneficial use of his gifts. Andrew is not alone, as we all know, in mistaking personal charisma for an indication of wisdom and superiority. It happens often, and it is too often destructive rather than creative of the opening to real wisdom and growth that it could be.
Robert Frager, transpersonal psychologist, and an ordained Sufi sheikh
–Roger Nelson, Director, GCP
American Guru is quite sobering. I’d had faint worries about Andrew Cohen and his organization but no idea that things were this terrible. Thank you for writing about your devastating experiences.
–Susan Blackmore, Author of Ten Zen Questions
I read American Guru with interest. What is presented seems well supported and rather dismaying. My involvement with Andrew Cohen was very peripheral; I’ve had no further involvement with him since giving a set of talks in London, and had no idea at the time that he was regarded as such a major guru. There is temptation in all such roles, and few can resist it. Such behavior does need to be resisted. A psychological investigation of what leads followers to become subservient to guru behavior, and what ways there are for a guru (if we need them!) to resist the temptation, would be of interest.
–George Ellis, professor of applied mathematics and co-author with Stephen Hawking, of The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Reader comments always welcome, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org