American Guru » EnlightenNext to Leave

EnlightenNext to Leave

foxhollow winter

EnlightenNext, mired in controversy, seeking $7 million for Lenox campus

By Michael Kelley
Reprinted by permission from The Berkshire Record, January 27, 2010

LENOX—EnlightenNext, a spiritual retreat center on Fox Hollow Drive is moving out of the Berkshires. Started by self-described American guru of evolutionary spirituality, Andrew Cohen, the movement has been mired in controversy for years.

Located on the 220-acre campus of the former Fox Hollow girl’s school, between Route 7 and Laurel Lake, which was the location of Erskine Park, George Westinghouse’s palatial estate, the nonprofit enlightenment organization, is rumored to be moving its main center to a smaller location in Northampton. In a statement from EnlightenNext, the new location for the center has not been announced, at least publicly, and a relocation committee has been set up to find a suitable location.

The decision to sell the property came at an end-of-the-year board meeting in December.
David Gold, a member of the board of directors and the chairman of the development
committee, said the property has met the organization’s needs for a dozen years, but with more events being held at the organization’s other venues around the world, which include locations in England, the Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Denmark, and Russia, the Lenox location was being used less and less for organizational events.

The property is listed with Randy Thunfors of Stone House Properties for $7 million.
It was purchased by EnlightenNext for $2.8 million in 1996. If the organization moves
out of the Berkshires, it would end its controversial time here.

William Yenner, who was involved with EnlightenNext for 13 years as a close follower
of Cohen’s, a member of the Board of Directors and the one in charge of finding the site for EnlightenNext’s headquarters in the mid 1990s, is quite familiar with this history of problems within the organization, as he claims he was a victim of it himself.

“I was witness to an increasing number of controversies over the years—financial coercion of donations, physical abuse and certainly a lot of emotional abuse,” he told the Record. It was this alleged abuse that lead Yenner to write “American Guru: A Story of Love, Betrayal and Healing” in 2009, after a five-year gag order had expired. Two years after Yenner left the community in 2001, he asked Cohen to return an $80,000 donation he had made to EnlightenNext, a donation, Yenner said in his book, he was forced to make “under emotional and psychological duress” after Cohen had made him feel guilty for failing in his spiritual journey. Cohen agreed to give back the money, but persuaded Yenner to agree to the gag order that Yenner could not discuss Cohen, his teachings or EnlightenNext. The gag order, which EnlightenNext denies, expired in March 2008 and Yenner then began work on his book, which he called part of the healing process.

“I feel, in retrospect, that it was beneficial to have been forced to ruminate for so long,” Yenner wrote in “American Guru.” “This book is one result of that process.” Two others, Andre Van der Braak and Cohen’s own mother, Luna Tarlo, have also written books denouncing EnlightenNext teachings. Tarlo, whose book is titled “The Mother of God”, is estranged from her son and has said she no longer a believer. “I don’t believe in the premise anymore that anybody can save you,” she said in the March/April 1998 issue of Psychology Today. “My son has become a monster to me.” She said her son “had the power to turn everyday pleasures…into evil distractions that kept his followers from him.” Cohen was so popular, she related to Yenner in an interview for his book, because people wanted to believe they could be saved from suffering.

Yenner said in his book that the reason Cohen’s behavior continued for so long was because those within the system didn’t want to believe it was happening. “He gets away with it because for the most part his audience, both intimate and remote, are not inclined to believe anyone could or would lie so boldly and completely,” Yenner wrote.

Van der Braak, Tarlo, and Yenner are but three of EnlightenNext’s former followers who have come forward with stories of their time with the organization. One story, left on the blog in April of last year, recalled a women’s experience being forced to perform prostrations—a common practice in some religions to show reverence to a spiritual being— in the ice cold water of Laurel Lake in October 2008 for upwards of an hour. The woman who shared the story, passed out from the experience just shy of the hour mark and remembers regaining consciousness propped up in a shower under hot water hours later. It took her days to recover.

There are dozens of other former followers who have shared personal, and often time emotionally painful stories through the blog. “There have been a lot of complaints and quite a full record of what happened over the years from a variety of sources,” Yenner told the Record. “Andrew Cohen’s response to his critics has been that they are failures of the spiritual life and are disgruntled.”

“Andrew Cohen is not, at least in my estimation, an evil or demonic figure. He is, rather, someone who believes so fervently in his own fantasy and mastery that he attracts people who seek to strive with the same boundless confidence,” Yenner wrote in his book.

Tarlo has indicated she doesn’t quite see it that way. “As far as I am concerned,” she told Yenner for his book, “he is responsible for destroying people. I have no feelings about him anymore, he is just a very bad person. His presence on Earth is not good for anyone. He can’t afford to face what he has become.” It is, she said, the age-old story of power corrupts people and how they operate.

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