Breaking Away

BREAKING AWAY: FORMER CULT FOLLOWER TELLS HOW BLISS TURNED BITTER
By Suzanne Wilson
Published by The Daily Hampshire Gazette, Northampton, MA

ONE BOOK, TWO REALITIES
The book is titled American Guru: A Story of Love, Betrayal and Healing – former students of Andrew Cohen speak out, and it is by William Yenner of Shelburne Falls, and other contributors.
Among the comments showing up in recent days on amazon.com have been some praising Yenner for telling “a story of truly cruel and twisted behavior …”
Others have castigated him. “For me,” one wrote, “Andrew Cohen’s deep commitment for his students and his fundamental integrity has never been in doubt.”
Andrew Cohen, the guru in question, is a self-described spiritual leader who lives with a group of followers on a 220-acre estate in Lenox.
William Yenner, 62, is a former devotee of Cohen’s who broke with him in 2001. He is a local landlord, and has worked in real estate sales, construction, and renovation.
“American Guru” is Yenner’s story, along with essays by about a half-dozen other former students of Cohen’s. In response to a request for comment, a Cohen spokesman said he would not be available for an interview by press time.
“American Guru” has its roots in the search for meaning that swept a segment of America’s counterculture in the 1970s. It raises questions that have surfaced before and no doubt will again: What prompts someone to drop everything and follow a spiritual leader? And what happens when the relationship between leader and follower goes bad?

COSMIC EVOLUTION

The picture of Andrew Cohen on his Web site shows an attractive man with salt-and-pepper hair and a nice smile. The bio says that he was born in New York in 1955, and raised as an atheist. At 16, it goes on, he was forever changed by “a spontaneous revelation of cosmic consciousness,” and at 22, he began to seek spiritual enlightenment.
Cohen is described as being “dedicated to creating nothing less than a revolution in consciousness and culture.”
Exactly what that means is hard to say. A visitor to his site will find many words, but few specifics. He is referred to as “a defining voice” and a “pioneer of evolutionary enlightenment.” There is talk of “14 billion years of cosmic evolution,” and there is reference to his “original contribution to the emerging field of evolutionary spirituality.”
One of the more concrete statements calls Cohen “a vocal critic of the extreme individualism that characterizes much of contemporary spirituality. Cohen is awakening in people around the world a purpose for living that far transcends egoism …”
Something in the germ of that idea – transcending one’s own ego to find and serve a greater good – resonated with William Yenner many years ago.

BLESSINGS TO SPARE

On a Friday night in March 1988, Yenner ran into an old friend in Paul & Elizabeth’s, a natural foods restaurant in Northampton. Yenner was married and living in Ashfield at that time. He owned a number of properties in the area, which he renovated and rented.
“I was a man with blessings to spare,” Yenner would write of himself later. Despite those blessings, he also was aware of a gnawing “spiritual poverty” within himself, he says, “an inability to claim what I most deeply needed and wanted from life.”
Like others of his generation Yenner had been on something of a spiritual quest. “I had done a lot of exploring in the ’70s,” he recalled in a recent interview. He had practiced Transcendental Meditation, attended workshops to learn about other forms of personal transformation, and traveled to India at one point to explore Buddhism.
That day at the restaurant, Yenner’s friend told him about a young American man, then staying in Leverett, who had gone to India and undergone a dramatic spiritual awakening with H.W.L. Poonja, known as a mystic sage and teacher. Yenner learned that the young American, Andrew Cohen, was considered a powerful guru who was sharing what he had learned with other spiritual seekers. After leaving India, Cohen had traveled on to Israel and England, speaking before small groups. Now he had come back to the United States and people were gathering in the evenings at a house where he was staying in Leverett to hear his talks.
“I thought that sounded very intriguing,” said Yenner.

CASTING A SPELL

That Sunday night, he went to hear for himself. The room was packed, Yenner says, and he listened closely as Cohen spoke of having found within himself a deep, profound freedom, a state of peace. The words struck a chord in Yenner, who says that kind of inner freedom and fulfillment had eluded him – and that he quickly saw Cohen as the teacher who could lead him there. “He was very convincing, and he seemed extremely confident,” Yenner recalled.
Night after night, Yenner came back, crowding into the room with as many as 150 other people. It was “intoxicating,” he says now, and it made him feel as though a spell had been cast over him, “like balm for an aching soul. … Sometimes Andrew sat in silence for the duration,” he later wrote, “and left without saying a word. On other evenings, Andrew read letters that people had left by his chair. Most often, he solicited questions. … What is the true nature of freedom? What are the obstacles to achieving it? How can I be free with all my responsibilities?”
A few short months later, Yenner changed his life. He left his wife – the couple had no children – and went with Cohen to Boston, where he lived in a communal home with other followers. After a brief stay there, the group moved to California in 1989, staying for six years.
In the beginning, Yenner says, he was mostly drawn to “the very positive communal spirit” of being with other like-minded souls who shared a desire to find a meaning in life beyond their own narrow self-interests. In California, where the group numbered about 130 people, Yenner says Cohen became more interested in actively extending his reach, through an increasingly busy schedule of public talks. Students were expected to help spread the word that Cohen was indeed a true “world teacher.”
Within the community, life became more ordered during the California years, Yenner says. Daily routines included meditation sessions, group chanting of Cohen’s sayings, and prostrations, done as a form of surrender to a higher principle, Yenner says. Cohen usually spoke to the group several nights a week, expounding on his teachings. Separate meetings for men and women were started, says Yenner, which were sometimes used to publicly, and harshly, examine a student’s wrongdoing.
Yenner says he had occasional moments of doubt, when he wondered where this quest was headed, but his desire for a sense of spiritual freedom – and his close connection to others within the group – won out. Cohen’s charisma was a factor, too. “He had an energy and conviction that made him capable of inspiring people,” Yenner said. “There was an excitement that drew you into his world.”

RETURN TO MASSACH– USETTS

Over time, Yenner writes, he became a trusted associate of Cohen’s, taking on such responsibilities as making travel plans for Cohen’s speaking tours. Money came in from various sources, according to Yenner: donations from those who came to hear him speak, plus income from Cohen’s books and subscriptions to EnlightenNext, the magazine about spiritual topics that Cohen founded in 1991. Some followers turned over whatever money they had, says Yenner, while many others worked at outside jobs, such as cleaning houses, to help with expenses. Yenner continued to earn money through his rental properties.
In 1994, Yenner says, Cohen asked him to head the effort to find a new headquarters for the group. After six years in northern California, Cohen had decided that the West Coast had become “too yuppified,” Yenner says. Yenner helped scout properties back East before finding an estate in Lenox, Foxhollow, that had once belonged to the Vanderbilt family. Yenner writes that the deal to buy the property was made using $2 million donated by a Cohen follower who later left the community.
In Yenner’s telling, Cohen became increasingly controlling after the move to Massachusetts. Physical fitness became mandatory, for example, and romantic relationships could only take place with Cohen’s consent.
There was no single moment, Yenner says, when he began to believe that the line between spiritual discipline and authoritarian control had begun to blur. But he contends that Cohen mandated – directly or indirectly – actions such as slapping the face of someone for showing too much ego or pride; banishing followers, at least temporarily, for alleged misbehavior; or requiring followers to shave their heads as a form of humility. In one incident recounted in the book, Yenner says a woman who spoke up to Cohen had red paint thrown in her face as punishment. To this day, says Yenner, it bothers him that he didn’t object.
“You rationalize it,” said Yenner, who writes that he was once told to perform 1,000 prostrations facing Cohen’s photo. “You start to believe that you deserve what happens.”
Asked what he had done to incur Cohen’s anger, Yenner says it was a series of small transgressions that built up. Once, he says, he had suggested that he and several friends from within the community take a short vacation to Nova Scotia, an initiative that Cohen thought was inappropriate. Yenner says that on some occasions he wasn’t deferential enough around Cohen. He had failed, he writes, to praise a new book Cohen had written, and he had shown interest in a woman in the community.
Having fallen out of favor, Yenner says, he was increasingly criticized by Cohen for a lack of seriousness. In one instance, Yenner writes, Cohen revealed to some in the group a 20-year-old secret about a sexual experience in Yenner’s past. “I felt bewildered, belittled, and angry,” he writes.

PARTING WAYS

Still, as Yenner writes, he remained loyal, as if the more demanding Cohen got, the more Yenner tried to please him. In 1998, he says, he gave Cohen a gift of $10,000 to thank him for being his mentor. A year later, Yenner, told that he was exhibiting too much pride, says he was banished from Foxhollow for betraying Cohen and his teachings.
Increasingly exhausted, desperate, and almost mentally broken, Yenner says, he sought to regain favor by offering EnlightenNext an $80,000 inheritance from his father. Things got only more bizarre after that – Yenner was told to go to Australia to stay with another out-of-favor follower. Six days after his arrival Down Under, Yenner says, Cohen ordered him to return to the United States.
After another cycle of banishment and forgiveness, Yenner was told he was no longer welcome at Foxhollow. “I felt nothing,” he writes. “I decided to leave the community for good.” That night, he stayed in a hotel in the tiny town of Florida in the Berkshires. “I could see for miles,” he writes. “I began to feel joy and liberation.”

NEW LIFE

Faced with starting over, Yenner began with some fence-mending. He looked up old friends in western Massachusetts and some family members in Indiana. “I had completely turned my back on everybody,” he said. Most, he says, warmly welcomed him back. He is remarried, and tends to properties he still owns in this area. He and his wife live in a home he renovated in Shelburne Falls; a Buddha statue overlooks the rock garden outside.
He contacted EnlightenNext to see about getting his $80,000 back. He agreed to a settlement in which the money was returned, in exchange for a gag order – Yenner agreed not to write anything about his time with Cohen for five years, until 2008.
Yenner says he has stayed in touch with others he was close to who also left Cohen. In fact, he says, they remain his closest friends – and the more they talked among themselves, the more he became convinced that they should tell their stories, if only to warn others. “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…” Yenner says he hasn’t heard from Cohen since the book came out.
Cohen’s work, meanwhile, continues. A retreat this summer in Tuscany, Italy drew crowds of followers. Though that was hailed as good news on his Web site, another posting appealed for donations to help support EnlightenNext magazine, which is suffering financial losses during the current recession. Cohen’s postings on his blog continue to garner profuse praise and encouragement.
“Every word you utter,” one wrote to Cohen, “always has this profound energy to it which summons our whole being.”

Suzanne Wilson can be reached at swilson@gazettenet.com.

Article originally posted on www.gazettenet.com