The dark legacy of Carlos Castaneda, from a 2007 article in Salon by Robert Marshall
The godfather of the New Age led a secretive group of devoted followers in the last decade of his life. His closest “witches” remain missing, and former insiders, offering new details, believe the women took their own lives.
For fans of the literary con, it’s been a great few years. Currently, we have Richard Gere starring as Clifford Irving in “The Hoax,” a film about the ’70s novelist who penned a faux autobiography of Howard Hughes. We’ve had the unmasking of James Frey, JT LeRoy/Laura Albert and Harvard’s Kaavya Viswanathan, who plagiarized large chunks of her debut novel, forcing her publisher, Little, Brown and Co., to recall the book. Much has been written about the slippery boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, the publishing industry’s responsibility for distinguishing between the two, and the potential damage to readers. There’s been, however, hardly a mention of the 20th century’s most successful literary trickster: Carlos Castaneda.
If this name draws a blank for readers under 30, all they have to do is ask their parents. Deemed by Time magazine the “Godfather of the New Age,” Castaneda was the literary embodiment of the Woodstock era. His 12 books, supposedly based on meetings with a mysterious Indian shaman, don Juan, made the author, a graduate student in anthropology, a worldwide celebrity. Admirers included John Lennon, William Burroughs, Federico Fellini and Jim Morrison.
– read the article here
“Those rebellious spirits who had been degraded from the rank of angels, and cast down into the infernal pit, were still permitted to roam upon earth, to torment the bodies, and to seduce the minds, of sinful men. The daemons soon discovered and abused the natural propensity of the human heart towards devotion, and artfully withdrawing the adoration of mankind from their Creator, they usurped the place and honors of the Supreme Deity. By the success of their malicious contrivances, they at once gratified their own vanity and revenge, and obtained the only comfort of which they were yet susceptible, the hope of involving the human species in the participation of their guilt and misery. ”
(According to Wikipedia, “the daemon [is] a lesser spiritual being of dangerous, even evil character, an invisible numinous presence.”)
I have listened to web casts by Andrew Cohen for the past several months. My affiliation with Marianne Williamsonâ€™s website brought me to the Shift Network, which I found enlightening. Then came Feminine Power, which lead to Terry Patten’s Beyond Awakening Series. I listened to every webcast Terry put out last year and the few this year. The first was with Craig Hamilton, who I really enjoyed, so naturally, when I found out his teacher was Andrew Cohen, I thought maybe it was Andrew I should be seeking out.
Recently when Andrew offered a free 12 hour webcast, Awakening to Your Highest Self, I intended only to listen for a short time at the beginning, but found myself glued to my laptop the entire time, communicating by chat with people from all over the world!!!!
Later, I searched on Wikipedia for Andrew, and that is where I found your writings of your time spent at Foxhollow, and I can easily imagine all of it to be true from the few times I have seen him on video.
What I cannot believe is how close I came to seeking out someone who I thought I would be able to smell from a mile away!!! I am shocked at Jean Houston and disgusted with Deepak Chopra for participating with Cohen in the forum, particularly because he is so transparent.
I shall be writing to Ms Houston, who I believed was a true evolutionary. Are they all out just to make money??? What does one do? It seems that they are all just promoting one another and always trying to sell us the same thing wrapped in different words. Is Barbara Marx Hubbard full of it too???
Thank you for writing about your experience and informing me about what could have been my biggest mistake ever. I was so desperate for something I didnâ€™t even know what it was! But I know now I will not find it in Mr Cohen, who I always found a little narcissistic but still somehow compelling.
Oddly, I still feel a pull to just go and visit Foxhollow because I live so close. I really would like to just look into his eyes.
All The Best To All
I just read your extensive entry/comparison on enlightenext ( I insist on lower case) and Scientology. My heart aches at what you, and so many others endured in your goal, which was sacred, in the hands of these terribly destructive beings. My last letter was a bit glib, it’s easy to feel distant from such madness, but, I duly recognize that the persons seduced, swayed, and entrapped in these cults are human beings; with the innate and righteous (in the best sense of the word) desire to connect to God, spirit,humanity, through someone they believes can teach and guide them. That this most elemental and vulnerable of desires is so blatantly and shamelessly exploited tears at my heart. I know we all have our reasons for our issues, and we create them to learn what we need to learn… but therein lies the ultimate conundrum. Paraphrasing Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) ” I understand and acknowledge that the searing pain we bring upon ourselves through our unconscious acts of self sabotage are a blessing, and the pathway for us to become our higher selves, and it deserves respect and sanctity as a ritual and necessary part of life. I also believe that my purpose on this planet is to do all I can to help relieve that suffering wherever and whenever I can.’ This paradox is one of great beauty, and there is much to learn from it. I guess the only other thing I have to add is that I believe one of the elemental and non-violate indicators of the integrity of any organization that purports to be spiritual in nature, is the level of secrecy it maintains. The lack of integrity and truth is usually in direct proportion to the degree of furtiveness.
I just read the German Integrales forum position paper and Andrew’s public blogged response to it.
I think that the position paper is a great step in the right direction as far as rationally scrutinizing spiritual paths and teachers for their effectiveness, quality, transparency and integrity.
However, I disagree with the “loophole” they left in their criteria that “allows” abusive behavior by spiritual teachers -painting it as ultimately helpful if done with the “right intention.” The document is pretty good except for that obvious flaw. That error is quite significant in fact, because it rationalizes, justifies and otherwise supports abusive “crazy wisdom” behaviors which are supposedly made for the students’ awakening and highest good. Abuse is abuse plain and simple. There are countless laws within our culture that define and punish it for good reasons indeed. So, in that regard, the position paper missed the mark entirely.
As for Andrew’s response, I am flabbergasted and horrified. Not only has he deftly avoided and deflected ANY responsibility for his corruption through his masterful silver-tongued manipulation of lofty spiritual words and concepts to his own self-serving ends (again), he deliberately created his own “loopholes” in his responses to excuse his destructive behavior! A close reading by an widely informed consumer (one who knows Andrew’s tactics, MO, AND factual history closely)reveals that Andrew is a “wriggling eel.” He is slippery and clever, but not beyond reproach and ultimate responsibility for what he has done.
You see, Andrew simply HAD to wholeheartedly agree with the position paper lest he look even more terrible than ever. You could say that his hand was forced. He HAS to “keep up appearances” and at least look on the surface to the public at large to be a living standard of integrity. But many of us KNOW he is NOT in essence or in reality.
So, I am stunned, but not surprised actually. Andrew has created a long standing pattern of doublespeak and hypocritical monologues arrogantly touting (through clear implication) his own self-perceived “spiritual greatness” and “wonderful enlightened achievements.”
The saddest part of what I read was to have seen two responses to his blog giving him ever more verbal accolades for his “courageous transparency.” This is laughable but truly sad, because evidently he is still pulling the wool over the eyes of eager, naive seekers who are not as informed in critical thinking and perception when it comes to his crafty narcissistic game.
The problem with all these parasites is that they talk the talk, but can’t walk the walk. The Wizard of Oz is a perfect metaphor for what happened to us.
You and I went to the Land of Oz looking for the enlightened Wizard. We wanted him to enlighten us, to give us truth, strength, wisdom, love and courage; instead, we found a schmuck with his head up his ***.
The essence of Enlightenment is the realization that there is no such thing as “Enlightenment”; what could be more liberating and humorous, William?
Now we can live the truth of our discovery, instead of spending our life looking for it. Just because it isn’t what we expected, doesn’t make it any less the Truth.
And just like the characters in Oz, in the process of our great mis-adventure, we discovered our strength, showed our courage, did not abandon love and acquired the foundation of real wisdom.
So, we did get what we wanted from these fools, not because of them, but in spite of them. It’s all the justice anyone can ask for; in the words of that great Italian philosopher Frank Sinatra, “Living well is your best revenge”; get busy.
What we have gone through is otherwise known as “growing up”. There is no enlightenment, no god-man, no Easter bunny, no tooth fairy, no heaven, no hell and no salvation. Amen
Be well and laugh
In 1990, as a nineteen year old I was spiritually swept away through learning about Andrew Cohen from long term student J. in Boston, Massachusetts. I was truly intrigued and enthralled to read the first issues of EnlightenNext magazine. Being a seeker of “God” and enlightenment from the age of sixteen, I was hooked. I simply had to meet Andrew. -And I did.
I met him several times at his early talks and a few subsequent retreats at Foxhollow. However, along the way, despite the sugar coated tales of Andrew’s so-called perfection that I heard from glassy-eyed devotees within EnlightenNext’s inner circles, I felt profound uneasiness amidst the group both within myself and among the followers. So many were unquestioningly talking the “party line.” There was never any room or space to critique nor debate anything Andrew was saying! Not only that, I personally witnessed Andrew publicly shaming and belittling students who were part of the Foxhollow retreat audiences, harshly abusing them verbally and psychologically by treating them as lowly, inferior, stupid, infantile and the like.
These and other negative experiences combined with my intuition and my readings of Tarlo’s and Van der Braak’s books helped to finally steer me clear of the narcissism of Andrew Cohen’s spiritual regime and cult of his personality. I am so grateful to have realized the danger prior to potentially getting more deeply involved with his cult. I was initially mesmerized by Andrew, and I am thankful that the spell was only temporary and dissolved with time, wisdom and authentic love and enlightenment that as you have accurately stated “doesn’t go away.” Thank you Bill for your courage to speak out and to tell the truth.
from Beyond the Art of Living by Skywalker
A real return to emotional and spiritual health requires that one face into all the implications of the cult experience. Prior to leaving the group, one no doubt was fed propaganda claiming that leavers are losers, that life will cease to have any meaning once you walk out the door, and that guilt for this sin will never leave you. Clearly that is a load of bs â€“ but it all too often works, and it is the first layer that needs to be removed on the road to recovery. This is very difficult for most of us to do. Many will offer sympathy, but few councilors, psychologists, spiritual advisors or even friends can fully understand what is taking place inside the leaver. One must make a personal mission of peeling back the layers of the cultic conditioning and by degrees allowing light back in. This is difficult and can take years to complete, but the result is having your own life back, with the added understanding and clarity of having deeply pondered this experience.
Here is what one expert on healing trauma says about the challenges facing the leaver:
â€œMany trauma suffers live in a state of resignation regarding their symptoms without ever attempting to find a way back to a more normal healthy life. Denial and amnesia play an important role in reinforcing this resigned state. Though we may be tempted to judge or criticize people who deny that they have been traumatized, claiming that nothing really happened, it is important to remember that this (in itself) is a symptom. Denial and amnesia are not volitional choices that the person makes, they do not indicate weakness of character, personality dysfunction, or deliberate dishonesty. This dysfunctional pathway becomes patterned in our physiology. At the time of a traumatic event, denial helps preserve the ability to function and survive. However when chronic, denial becomes a maladaptive symptom of trauma.
Reversing the effects of either denial or amnesia takes a great deal of courage. The amount of energy that is released when this happens can be tremendous and should not be minimized or underestimated, it is a time of great significance for the traumatized person.â€
– Peter Levine, Waking the Tiger, p. 165
I appreciated reading Be Scofield’s article.
It is still a great curiosity to me how the inflation of the ego expresses
itself in a kind of spiritual cloaking device as a disdain for the ego.
Almost like the best defense is a good offense? Maybe the attraction is
that they project such a delicious dichotomy that we too start to believe
that we can have our cake and eat it too?
(submitted by a reader)
The following quotes are from the article “Toward A New Spiritual Ethic,” by Kate Wheeler; March/April 1994 edition of Nexus. [The Dalai Lamaâ€™s own words are in bold.]
At a symposium with 22 Western Buddhist teachers, the Dalai Lama had strong words for teachers who abuse their powerâ€”and students who give theirs away.
A teacher who behaves unethically or asks students to do so can be judged as lacking in ultimate insight, His Holiness said. â€˜As far as my own understanding goes, the two claimsâ€”that you are not subject to precepts and you are freeâ€”these are the result of incorrect understanding.â€™ No behavior is free from consequences. For this reason, true wisdom always includes compassion, the understanding that all things and beings are interconnected with (and vulnerable to) each other.
â€™Even though oneâ€™s realization may be higher than the high beings,â€™ His Holiness said, â€˜oneâ€™s behavior should conform to the human way of life.â€™
When teachers break the precepts, behaving in ways that are clearly damaging to themselves and others, students must face the situation, even though this can be challenging. â€˜Criticize openly,â€™ His Holiness declared. â€˜Thatâ€™s the only way.â€™ If there is incontrovertible evidence of wrongdoing, teachers should be confronted with it. They should be allowed to admit their wrongs, make amends, and undergo a rehabilitation process. If a teacher wonâ€™t respond, students should publish the situation in a newspaper, not omitting the teacherâ€™s name,” His Holiness said. “The fact that the teacher may have done many other good things should not keep us silent.”
The following quote is from the article “Small â€˜cottage cultsâ€™ drawing more converts in United States,” by Richard Read in the Oregonian, Sunday, July 15, 2001:
The Dalai Lama, the high lama of Tibetan Buddhism, advises potential converts to check a guru’s qualifications carefully and to view a teacher as a spiritual brother or sister. â€˜The best thing is,â€™ the Dalai Lama said in an interview last February, â€˜whenever exploitation, sexual abuse or money abuse happen, make them public.â€™
Love and Light to you,
You have now emerged as the newest and most articulate dissident voice
in relation to Cohen.
And…if most of the hateful reviews indicate that the writer had no right as a US citizen to exercise his or her First Amendment privilege to speak out—that is truly a signal that the books is worth reading.
The defenders of Andrew Cohen and EnlightenNext have pulled out all stops in an attempt to shame William Yenner for writing American Guru which details his experiences as a 13 year disciple and a leader in the Cohen community.
Here is one of the best examples of the shaming campaign, used as a way of attempting to neutralize a critic, from a longer comment by Elisa Mishory posted on the Amazon page for American Guru.
“[Bill Yenner] made a comment here in response to another review that it’s inappropriate to write anything personal about the author. I tend to agree with that statement and wish it were possible to review this book without referring to Bill Yenner. However, it’s simply impossible to do so when the author has written slanderously and dishonestly about his own experience. There really isn’t anything else to respond to.
This book is a call for vengeance from the wounded ego – the ego that Bill himself had pledged to give his life to caging. Is it a valuable perspective? Well, I’d have to say I find it extremely destructive because it is exactly what the postmodern ego wants to hear. Bill Yenner knows so well where we need to go as a culture so that we’ll be able to reach ever-wiser and more integrated solutions to the world’s problems, and yet he’s chosen here to pull it all down to make himself feel better. Pretty nasty stuff.”
What is most interesting is the apparent conviction of Mishory that this sort of drivel will have any impact on anyone besides those already shamed by Cohen. And in stepping out with his new book, Yenner is clearly stating in public that shaming and other cultic conditioning is what he had to throw off to free himself from the cult leader. His book is a clear and helpful guide to anyone in the process of freeing themselves from any similar oppression of shame from whatever the source – but especially if that individual be still under the shame cloud of Andrew Cohen and EnlightenNext.
– from a longer comment posted on Rick Ross Forum
– a UK academic
I have decided, as a result, to [cancel plans I’d made to attend a future EnlightenNext event which is] being advertised now. I will not knowingly lend my presence to causes not consonant with integrity and the greater good, and I thank you for advising me about this situation.
– a US professor
-a reader in Australia
As someone who spent little more than a year in Andrew Cohen’s community (1988-89), I have mostly kept myself apart from the online rumble. However, reading Bill Yenner’s “American Guru” was a fine refresher in the reasons I left relatively quickly.
I will only briefly echo the praise this book has rightfully received. It’s honest, humble, and complete without dragging the reader through every horrifying abuse that Cohen has perpetrated (and which is available on the What Enlightenment blog expose for those with the stomach for it.)
If I am equally honest with myself, I have to admit that I saw the cult dynamics at work from the very beginning. I saw otherwise mature people acting slavish and infantilized to meet Cohen’s tacit expectation of devotion. A fellow student shared with me her letter to Andrew in which she so thoroughly demonized herself for (fill in the blank: arrogance, ego, selfishness) that it took all the denial I could muster not to see it as the introjection of Cohen’s own shadow. When, after a few months, I was offered the plum assignment of editing the transcripts of Andrew’s talks, it was just as quickly taken away when I did not drop everything, run to his house with an armful of flowers, and throw myself at his feet in gratitude (all part of the unwritten rulebook).
The final straw for me was attending a series of brutal, 70s-style men’s group encounters where the designated scapegoat would be psychically flayed by the community members he had entrusted his spiritual well-being to. When I dared to raise a question about whether this was an effective way of working with the wayward student (leaving aside such wimpy notions as compassion), I drew the collective ire of the group upon myself. I was berated for days, until my own good sense caught up with me and gave me permission to leave.
The point? Whatever stupendous and transcendent experiences I had (and we all had them), the corruption was there from the start. Cohen’s own demons were not vanquished upon meeting Poonja-ji. To the lasting sorrow of all who have thrown away their autonomy for him, those demons were given free rein and given the name “Master”.
Congratulations and thanks to William Yenner and all the contributors to this exceptionally clear, important book.
It is an open secret that followers of Andrew Cohen are subjected to abuse and exploitation that has nothing to do with spirituality, and everything to do with the pathological narcissism of Andrew Cohen. Former followers have spoken out, in this volume, with great courage and honesty.
It would be wonderful to see such honesty and courage demonstrated by other leaders of the New Age movement. Instead of rationalizing and minimizing the extent of these abuses, instead of ignoring and dismissing the experiences of former followers, wouldn’t it be wonderful if people like Ken Wilber, Genpo Roshi, Rupert Sheldrake, Deepak Chopra, Bernie Glassman, etc, could have the courage and the integrity to pay attention, to take up the cause of Cohen’s former members, and confront Cohen publicly?
If such celebrities of the New Age do not have this kind of courage and integrity, at least William Yenner and the authors of this book do – and their work will be of enormous benefit to those who have been cruelly violated and betrayed by Andrew Cohen, in the name of spirituality.
“Awakened men and women are those who have recognized spiritual
domains as being more real and true than anything else. But if our
shared culture doesnâ€™t have the eyes to see what they see and know
what they know, such men and women usually end up being perceived as
irrational, self-deceived, and deludedâ€”as representatives of the
false. Indeed, authentic holders of timeless spiritual truths are
often thought to be hucksters and con artists because they boldly dare
to bear witness to the unseen.” – That’s Andrew Cohen from his closing article in the latest issue of EnlightenNext magazine: [http://www.enlightennext.org/magazine/j45/daring-to-bear-witness.asp]
Interesting choice of words on Cohen’s part. But aren’t people sometimes
“thought to be hucksters and con artists” simply because they lie a lot and
take other people’s money?
– a reader 10/13/09
– a reader 10/11/09
My name is Jared. You may or may not remember me, but I was part of the [Andrew Cohen] community in the mid to late 90s, during the transition from Marin to Massachusetts. I’m the cousin of Calvin and Carter Phipps [current long time students of Cohen with high level responsibilities in the organization]. I was involved with Andrew for probably three years or so, and left in late 1998. At the time, you were one of the leaders in the community, and I very much admired and looked up to you.
Your book comes at an opportune time for me, because lately I’ve felt like something in me is forcing me to revisit that period in my life to reevaluate what happened there, and to try to make sense of Andrew, his community, and his message. Although my time in the community was brief, I was very deeply affected by my time there, both in positive and negative ways. Without a doubt, I had my first real taste of something beyond me, but also struggled with what I perceived as an underlying fear and hostility that I couldn’t make sense of at the time.
For perhaps 8 or 9 years after I left, I felt a lot of personal failure, that I had “failed” in some way, and I found myself always defending Andrew and his community despite any misgivings I had. I still looked up to the community as an embodiment of the highest ideals any spiritual seeker could hope to achieve.
About five years ago, I got involved with another spiritual community, the Ridwan School (also known as the Diamond Approach), led by a teacher named Hameed Ali (who goes by the pen name A. H. Almaas). Over the past few years, I’ve been following the developments on the whatenlightenment blog with much interest, and through the process of inquiry with my current group, much anger and resentment at how Andrew and his community has treated people has risen in me. After 12 years, I didn’t think I had much left to process, but I was wrong.
At this point, I have no doubt that what happened around Andrew to be abuse. I actually think it’s quite apparent to anyone who is being objective. It’s not particularly subtle. People have been undoubtedly mistreated, and it’s impossible for me to see how this was done for their benefit. What this means about Andrew’s attainment or how this reflects on his teaching and what his organization is trying to accomplish is less clear to me.
I have read your book cover-to-cover twice, and I want to personally thank you for both sharing your story, and for taking the risk of putting yourself on the line for the sake of the truth. Your personal story is both heartbreaking and inspiring.
I don’t know what effect this will have on Andrew and his community. At the very least, though, the truth has been documented, it’s in the public sphere, and people will now have the opportunity to judge for themselves based on all the evidence. That feels like a huge victory in itself.