American Guru » Connecting the Dots

Connecting the Dots

In his “Declaration of Integrity,” Andrew Cohen writes: “You can take any particular incident out of context, as my detractors have made an art form of doing, and of course it creates a confusing impression…. One thing that has never failed to mystify me is that some people just don’t connect the dots: If I really were the sadistic, irrational megalomaniac that I have been portrayed as, why in God’s name would anybody stick around for ten or more years before finally ‘waking up’?” (By “waking up” Cohen here means not liberation but something on the order of recognizing that he is a fraud.)

This is, I believe, a fair question, the answer to which is for the reader to decide. Though I have done everything in my power to address it in a way that is faithful to my own experience, the events I have described in this book remain, it would seem, open to interpretation. Thus, at the end as at the beginning, there seem to be two distinctly different “realities” to be considered, each with its own unique set of implications, or “dots to connect.”

Let us first consider the perspective advanced by Andrew Cohen, according to which he is a realized master whose transmission of an authentic, absolute, impersonal “evolutionary impulse” is the overarching “higher context” for his role and conduct as a genuine and legitimate spiritual authority figure. The most relevant implication of this view is that, along with the contributors to this book and numerous other of his former followers, I am a deluded individual who, because I proved unable or unwilling to face my imperfect reflection in the glorious light of “the Absolute,” have compulsively turned my back on “the Highest.” Fair enough. Certainly in the arc of my career as Andrew’s student I have considered this possibility more times than I can count (not exactly a recipe for “liberation”!) and was often convinced that he must be right. And now, as part of a continuing strategy for hiding my “failure” from myself, I have produced a self-serving book that falsely denounces one of the great religious luminaries of our era—whereas the real truth about Andrew Cohen (“for those who have eyes to see”) is that he is an Enlightened Being full of redemptory blessings for the world; his “revolution” is authentic; and those students humble enough to have remained with him through thick and thin are fulfilled, living expressions of unfolding human potential “at the leading edge.”
At the same time, though, it seems to me that any attempt to “connect the dots” should also take into account numerous examples of abuse on Cohen’s part that, in many cases, require greater “artfulness” for him to justify than for me to remove from their “proper context.” To give one of many possible examples: Do those students who, following Cohen’s orders, lured a fellow student to a basement room at Foxhollow and each poured a bucket of paint over her head, really imagine that their guru is above ordinary spite, vindictiveness or malice, or is incapable of causing suffering?

What, then, does such an act signify?

Cohen insists that “if you were made aware of the enormous amount of time, care, attention, and support that had been given to the individual; understood the complex psychological/spiritual dynamics at work; saw it in the context of a collective endeavor to create a higher ideal for the noblest of reasons; and didn’t conveniently forget that it was a freely chosen path; what may have appeared unreasonable often starts to look very different.” But to the extent that such incidents raise legitimate questions about Andrew Cohen’s understanding of his own “attainment,” their implications are at least as significant as those that follow from accepting at face value the version that he and his devotees would prefer the world to accept.

The most fundamental of these implications is that Cohen’s interpretation of the defining events and experiences of his own life is a comprehensive myth that weaves together elements of truth and wishful thinking. And if Andrew Cohen believes some things about himself that are not true, then we are confronted, by definition, with the possibility that he is deluded. (God forbid that I should make something that sounds like a judgment about my former teacher!) Of course, many human beings are deluded to some extent, but some delusions are more harmful than others. Not to put too fine a point on it, the propagation of a glorious myth of personal sanctification and liberation, and the willingness of many others to accept it, is one definition of a potentially destructive cult.

In a recent dialogue with Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi, Cohen described his attitude toward his students as follows: “[My] love for them is not for them as an individual but for them as a potential vessel for that which is higher. That’s very hard for the ego to take, but from a certain point of view we could say it’s not possible to love anyone more than that, because you love them so much that you actually don’t care about their ego at all.” Yet to the extent that this explanation of Cohen’s “teaching function” represents an unconscious rationalization for his manipulation of others in the service of a delusional myth, followers put themselves at considerable psychic risk by subjugating themselves to a “spiritual authority” who may actually be quite limited in his capacity for genuine love and compassion—and who may, in addition, feel an underlying contempt for them because of what they allow him to get away with at their own expense.

During the thirteen years of my career as a student, when I could be said to have been fully indoctrinated—to have “swallowed the myth,” hook, line and sinker—I did not always do what I thought was right, but (like the members of the paint-bucket brigade) what seemed necessary to survive and thrive in a highly unconventional environment. To the extent that this characterization of my own experience is honest rather than merely “cynical,” the situation of Cohen’s current generation of devoted followers is unlikely to be much different. They, too, have given over their lives for the sake of an idealism predicated on what they may only later come to realize was a well-concealed lie. In some cases, their egos are stroked and gratified by their allotted roles, as mine was; and while they may fervently believe that they are doing good, the underlying hypocrisy of the situation as a whole ends up contributing, in the guise of Andrew Cohen’s version of “goodness,” to so much of what is already wrong with the world.
One discovers, then, as a counterpoint to Cohen’s dismissive assessment of the motives and failures of his critics, that “connecting the dots” leads to an equally viable (and far more disturbing) conclusion: that EnlightenNext’s web of publications, centers, student groups, enlisted experts and strategic alliances comprises a sizeable myth-based social complex fueled—at this point principally via the internet—by a powerful mixture of genuine insight and disingenuous propaganda; and that it can be as true of a spiritual community as of the larger society it seeks to transform that the appeal of its prevailing ideology guarantees neither the wholesomeness of its underlying motivations nor the integrity of its leaders.