Review of William Yenner’s “American Guru – A story of Love, Betrayal and Healing - former students of Andrew Cohen speak out”

Update 10/21/2013: In Spring of 2013 Andrew Cohen resigned from EnlightenNext as his senior student defected en masse.  All allegations in the article below (and more) have been proven, and therefore the article is no longer relevant.  For latest see Andrew Cohen and the fall of the mythic guru.  In general the site has the latest info.

Update 5/15/2010: Be Scofield has published a new article that appeared very briefly on the popular Tikkun blog before being removed for “not meeting quality guidelines”.  It was republished on the author’s personal blog and then later in Integral World.  My prior article here.

Another Update 9/29/2010: Important contribution to the dialogue by Terry Patten in this article.  It seems that Cohen is becoming more receptive to the conversation.

William Yenner was involved in EnlightenNext between 1988 and 2000 (13 years).  He was a senior member of the community, board member of Moksha (predates EnlightenNext), and a key player in the search, acquisition and renovation of Foxhollow in 1994-1995.  He is also the subject of Cohen’s famous “gag order”, legal document which was entered into in exchange for the return of Yenner’s $80,000 inheritance that he had previously donated to Cohen – a very unusual event, incidentally, for Cohen to return money.  Cohen had denied the existence of the gag order, but it was made public in 2008.

Given the amount of information collected on EnlightenNixt about Cohen’s temper, shaming of students, abuses of power, ethically very dubious financial dealings, failure to respond credibly, and other behavior generally not befitting to a “totally enlightened being” (which is I summarized in my own research article, based on original sources that include Cohen’s writing, EnlightenNixt website, Luna Tarlo’s “Mother of God”, and Andre Van der Brack’s “Enlightenment Blues”), I wasn’t sure that Yenner’s  account would bring anything new.  And while it is true that his story seems quite typical, it contains many fascinating reflections on the narcissistic cult leader phenomenon, insights on Cohen’s attitude towards women, personal conclusions, and questions on EnlightenNext as a social phenonemon and on public endorsements of Cohen’s work.  In this light, it is an original and important contribution to the dialogue around Cohen.

The key question of course – and why this is such a fascinating research topic – is how it’s possible for an individual whose dysfunctional relations with his students have been so fully exposed, to continue to attract not just students, but the support of many leading spiritual and developmental luminaries, including Ken Wilber, Genpo Roshi, Don Beck, and many others.  Cohen’s last 21 day intensive in Florence, Italy (summer 2009) had over 250 students.  The rest of this article covers this question, for the simple reason that our support of, and belief in, charismatic but abusive spiritual leaders reveals key aspects of our humanity, both our dysfunctions and our deep longing for meaning, connection and purpose – while illuminating our infinite capacity for self-deception in the pursuit of these ideals.  My interest is in reviewing the book, but also in reflecting and sharing on this for myself.

The dynamics of “belonging” within revolutionary spiritual organizations

Yenner is very eloquent in describing the positive aspects of his years with Cohen.   One gets a clear (and thrilling) sense of the joys of living within a “family” that is both an environment where deep bonds of affection and intimacy exist, and that gives one a sense of belonging in a revolutionary organization engaged in a world-changing mission.  Yenner says that some of these years (particularly the years that he was responsible for Foxhollow) were some of the happiest of his life.

“Seldom in my life had I been so busy, so focused, but I felt purpose-driven in what struck me as a wholesome and unprecedented way, like an athlete “in the zone”, poised to break a record” [Yenner]

This gives some sense of the power of the experience, the attraction.  It is Freud’s recipe for happiness (“work and love”) and I had written about it also in my previous article, along with how I had solved this problem for myself (of needing to belong somewhere, to love and be loved, and to feel a sense of mission).

The difficulty is twofold, however.  First, the mission is somewhat delusional, and second the sense of belonging is very fragile since it is directly controlled by the leader, who uses his students’ need for love and affirmation to manipulate them.  I am aware that “delusional” is a very strong word, and it may seem arrogant for me to say this regarding a practice and a community that someone holds very dear to their heart, and has direct experience of being transformational; however, the word is justified by asking a simple question: if the practice is so powerful, how come it doesn’t work on the leader?  One cannot simultaneously claim to teach about love, and treat people like shit the moment they challenge you, or fail to rise to your expectations of them.  This is classic “narcissistic cult leader” phenomenon and is very well-documented by Len Oakes in his classic Prophetic Charisma: there exist individuals with such extraordinary confidence in themselves and personal charisma that they attract our own “idealized self” projections, which in turn then feed the guru’s need for attention and adulation (supporting his own idealized self-concept), thus closing the cycle.  The narcissistic cult-leader surrounds himself with a hall of mirrors reflecting his greatness, and if any of the mirrors starts reflecting differently, woe to it.  Cohen’s teachings are brim-full of idealized-self beliefs and also of “dissociating” ideation – what Saniel Bonder calls “hypermasculine” – which is the attempt to separate from, suppress or deny aspects of our humanity, such as egoic desire, need for affection and intimacy, “immature” emotions like jealousy, etc.  See later on in this article why this is particularly relevant to Cohen’s attitudes towards women.  Yenner talks about how, since the guru actually does not embody the desired qualities, this can only lead to an elaborate network of controls, misinformation, and emotional pressure:

Reckoning with the reality of the situation not only casts the guru into sharp focus, it also forces deep self-examination in the disciple.  Often, the result is the painful awareness that the initial spiritual experience, whatever positive effects it may have had, has also fed the vein of a longstanding psychological neurosis – and that the two have, unfortunately, become entwined […]. In this way, the self-affirming quest for spiritual fulfillment has taken a detour into self-destructive neurotic co-dependency  [Yenner].

In a way, this provides some justification for Cohen’s attitude that the students who leave him are “failures” – however, does that make the students who truly benefit from his teaching, and who are able to turn a blind eye to self-evident out-of-integrities, manipulation and personality problems, “winners”?  Who is defining success and failure, what are the actual outcomes of each?  I can definitely see some benefits to the teaching to some (Cohen’s audios have been very transformational for me personally), but the arrogance of this position is stomach-turning.  And in terms of outcome, the only matter of importance to me is this:

‘Who among us is injecting love into the world, and who among us is just talking about it?’ [Beneteau]

Within this system, the leader then becomes nothing but an actor (sometimes a great actor) playing the role of a great spiritual leader.  This provokes at first disbelief, then self-doubt, then outrage – witness this extraordinary statement by Cohen, which I submit without further comment:

“Deep and profound trust between human beings, especially now, is nothing less than sacred, In fact, I believe it’s the currency that a truly spiritual life depends on.  For God – or whatever name we use to define that which is most sacred – to enter into this world through us, we must learn how to be deeply trustworthy”. [Cohen, March 2009]

Cohen’s attitude towards women

The book gives some very good information about Cohen’s attitude to women, although this is not original material.  Good first-hand account are  told in Wendyl’s story of the famous 1998 Rishikesh retreat and in Susan Bridle’s response.  Yenner quotes directly from these and from Andre Van der Brack:

“One major problem with Andrew’s approach is that reified the “woman’s ego”, making it into a kind of larger-than-life monster to fight with.  However, this was his approach to dealing with the ego in general – a very dualistic approach, doomed to failure.

Andrew constantly berated and shamed individual women and groups of women for expressing “women’s ego” or “women’s conditioning”.  All kinds of expressions of fear, hesitation, self-concern, rebelliousness, impatience, pride, jealousy, failure to surrender, resistance, wanting to stay in control, etc., (the typical human stuff) became not just challenges that human beings were dealing with on the spiritual path but women’s treachery.  Although he asserted that he believed that women could transcend their deep conditioning as women, he often said that women by their very nature undermine the dharma (echoing an early Buddhist scripture) and have a deep and possibly insurmountable resistance to enlightenment.  He often accused women of trying to destroy him and his teachings, of trying to “quell his revolution”.  [Susan Bridle, from EnlightenNixt blog]

And again:

“Andrew always struck me as skeptical of women’s abilities to live his teachings.  In 1989, he started to talk about a deeply rooted resistance in women that was not present in men.  In 1992, he began to espouse a theory about “women’s conditioning”.  According to Andrew, millenia of deeply rooted conditioning have engrained in women a survival instinct that prevents them from truly letting go of what is personal.  It is Andrew’s contention that women, so rooted in personal experience, are incapable of embracing the impersonal perspective.

It is my opinion that Andrew considers his female students inferior to his male students.  In 1997, Andrew started putting intense pressure on the women to be more objective, less emotional and less personal.  The catalyst for this seemed to be strife with his wife, Alka, who Andrew felt was not surrendering to him.  At a retreat with Alka and several other senior women students, Andrew addressed what he called the women’s craving for affirmation from men and asserted that that as women they were more interested in affirmation than in truth.  He charged that women use what they’re good at – sex and service – to buy men off so that they don’t have to face themselves”.  [Andre Van der Brack]

Mm… well, I relate to all this very much, as I also experience this problem with my wife: of her trying to “quell my revolution”, of her constant need for affirmation, her frequent expression of irrational needs and desires, of her unwillingness to seeing the immaturity of her position, her deep resistance to surrender to my obvious superior knowledge.  Fortunately for her and me both, I have found much value in engaging with her around these issues, and I have always benefited from the sincere attempt to understand and listen to her (which is not always present).  She is much less concerned about the “truth” or maturity of her position than I am – thank God for that, she has other priorities and values than me sometimes, and causes me to question my attitudes and beliefs, and gives me a sure mirror for my arrogance.  I am grateful to have someone to relate to who is so different from me.  This is what I call love.  To learn this is the reason I would choose a spiritual teacher.

Personal Conclusion

I don’t claim to own the “truth” in any of this, nor do I believe that there isn’t any value in Cohen ‘s work and community.  See for example the site for positive testimonials by ex-students.  I do discourage people from joining EnlightenNext, which I feel is a dead-end for any serious seeker; and if they are already in, I suggest they stay as long as they are benefiting, but to “sleep with one eye open” and to use their training at EnlightenNext to develop leadership in other transformational organizations, where they will not be so vulnerable and also be exposed to less dissociative modalities (less “hyper-masculine” in Saniel Bonder’s system).  The lack of major public defections or published incidents since 2004, when EnlightenNixt blog went public, would argue in favor of EnlightenNext; however the failure of any credible response, along with Cohen’s absurdly-named Declaration of Integrity as late as 2006 (it’s actually a declaration of his students failures and victimization, which is a profound out-of-integrity), argues against any major change.  Yenner does say that when Cohen returned his money in 2003, which he apparently did quite gracefully, Cohen asked him: “Do you want to see me on my knees before the whole world, admitting that I was wrong”?  Yenner’s response is not recorded, but it strikes me as a rather brilliant idea!  To apologize for the hurt one has caused others, what a concept!   Given all the good he has done, the transformation he has caused, Cohen could actually re-establish his credibility, and the future of EnlightenNext, by public and private apologies and the offer to return money taken under dubious ethical circumstances; but this is not possible because to acknowledge his imperfection would void his belief system.   We (his students, the world), do not expect him to be perfect and never make mistakes — we just want these to be acknowledged and not thrown back as our own “failures”.  To wish that Cohen would do this however, no matter how common-sense it may seem, is delusional.  The damage done to EnlightenNext by all this negative publicity has to be far worse than the repayment of even several million dollars. But it’s not going to happen, and it’s a great sadness to me personally that a transformational organization with the power and reach of EnlightenNext exists, and that I cannot benefit from it.  Although that is, no doubt, my delusion as well.  The reason I am not in EnlightenNext, is that the practice itself doesn’t appeal to me, despite the extraordinary power of the ideas. Quoting from my previous article:

If through this decision of mine (not to surrender to a “guru”) I have permanently eliminated the possibility of enlightenment in this lifetime – if I am simply stuck in my lower-level Wilberian “Green” (egalitarian) meme and will never get to Stage II (integral) development – so be it. We’ll see who has more fun at the end of the day.

As I have written previously, the value of this inquiry for me is twofold.  First, our passionate engagement with these types of movements, regardless of the track that this passion takes, is deeply precious and needs affirming, but also needs reflection and truth-telling.  Secondly, my fascination with Cohen is nothing other than fascination with my own self-delusional tendencies, narcissism, self-inflation and hubris – I am seeing a very familiar picture out there (which may be why, as I had responded to a comment by Hal Blacker in my previous post, I have such insight into these questions).  However, unlike Cohen, I am not ashamed to admit these tendencies, as I consider them part and parcel of my humanity, that includes my deep passion and curiosity about the nature of human development and of transcendent experiences.

Yenner’s conclusions are also quite powerful:

It is painful to come to terms with one’s experiences with a powerful but imperfect spiritual leader.  I left Foxhollow in a state of uncertainty over what had occurred there and who I was as a result of it.  What I knew for certain, though, and what sustains me to this day, is that something beautiful can happen when open-hearted, trusting individuals come together to give themselves to a higher purpose.  That those of us who devoted ourselves to Andrew Cohen were disappointed need not – and does not – diminish the power of our intention.

This book is not an invitation to cynicism.  This story – the hard truth of it – deserves to be aired, but it should not be embraced as substantation of the cynic’s claim that spiritual enlightenment or an authentic spiritual approach to living cannot be achieved, or that spiritual communities cannot thrive.  They can – just not under the kind of authoritarian conditions described in these pages.

My hope is that this book will inspire conversations about how spiritual communities founded in goodness can find their place in this world.  There are so many fine teachers who have integrity and their students’ best interests at heart.  The path is open to all seekers.  Authoritarians are not required to shepherd the seeker to spiritual awakening.  My great discovery since leaving Andrew Cohen’s community is that the path is wide open – and always has been.  [Yenner]

Amen to that, brother.  And I also want to say: Thank you, Andrew, for creating the context for this conversation to happen.  Although, regarding gratitude:

Those of us who lived in Andrew Cohen’s community for a number of years no doubt had experiences that were catalyzed  by his power and presence.  I believe, however — knowing what we know now about Andrew — that our gratitude for such experiences is due primarily to the community of friends with whom we shared them, rather than to him.  What seemed to be an electric current of spiritual power emanating from Andrew and his confidence was not, after all, based on goodness or integrity.  As Oakes puts it in Prophetic Charisma, “The leader is not a great man; he is a great actor playing the role of a great man”. [...]

What is also true, and what must be stated in fairness to Andrew and to those who continue to believe in him, is that he did play a part in the transformation that took place among us, and in the love and communion that were shared.  But it is important, I feel, not to go too far in granting him credit.  After all, he continues to defend his most dubious conduct, and he continues to deny allegations of abuse.  Thus, for many of his former students, gratitude is mixed with confusion, and with a nagging reminder of Andrew’s lies, excesses and misguided teaching methods. [Yenner]

And one of my favorites:

A great leader is one of whom the people will say, when the work is all done, ‘we did it ourselves’. [Lao Tzu]

The larger social context of the movement

The most interesting part of the book to me, is actually the last chapter, in which Yenner explores the larger social context of EnlightenNext, particularly the implications of endorsements of its work by other spiritual leaders and evolutionaries, people such as Ken Wilber, Genpo Roshi (founder of Big Mind), Don Beck (founder of Spiral Dynamics), and others.  Since this chapter has already been published in its entirety online, I will quote at length. [highlights are mine]

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.”

I am not suggesting that this is a view to be easily or casually dismissed. As I have indicated elsewhere in this book, it is my own experience that Andrew Cohen presents a vast and credible perspective on human existence that is exciting, enlivening and inspiring, and that he produces an energetic transmission that moves people to connect or re-engage with the spiritual path. Further, his persuasively presented personal story seems to substantiate his claims. Many of Cohen’s students, myself included, have been inspired to believe in his autobiography and to accept and defend his interpretation of its broad outlines: He was a dedicated seeker from an early age, had a spontaneous awakening experience that presaged his ultimate realization at thirty, was possessed of a rare purity of motivation that, at the time of his “final realization” and “perfect surrender” to his guru, helped to catalyze a total transformation that made it impossible thereafter for him to act out of ignorance such as to cause suffering to himself or others. At his teacher’s request, he selflessly accepted as his mantle and destiny the responsibility of creating “a revolution among the young.” These claims are advanced in several of his self-published books, and enough of his followers believe them that anyone so predisposed could easily feel comfortable doing the same.

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.

While we may be inspired by such myths, organizing our lives around them is not necessarily advisable, and doing so has implications for the followers as well as for the leader. 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.

[...] Is it any wonder, then, that in Cohen’s community, “leaving” and “failure” are considered to be virtually synonymous, and that students tend to live in greater fear of giving in to the impulse to escape his control than of enduring the familiar compromises and discomforts of soldiering on? “As harsh as it may sound to some,” Cohen writes, “the simple truth is that my most virulent critics are almost all former students who failed miserably.” What exactly is the nature of Cohen’s power over his devotees that they are willing not only to endure his abuses for extended periods but also to ignore or rationalize his behavior, and to lie to the public on his behalf when called upon to do so? Only a large group of people who have been uniformly indoctrinated could collectively believe—as they do about former members like myself—that we are all, consistently and almost without exception, “miserable failures.” Is it possible that there is some mass form of Stockholm Syndrome being lived out at Foxhollow and EnlightenNext’s centers around the world? If so, how does this authoritarian dynamic relate to the broader “revolution in consciousness and culture” that is the goal of EnlightenNext’s feverish public outreach? Is Cohen’s “revolution” authentically spiritual and cultural, or is it rather political—in the sense that the motivation underlying political rhetoric, when it is not the propagation of truth, is often the desire to convince, cajole, manipulate, hierarchize, dominate and humiliate?

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.

In 1996, Andrew Cohen wrote,

…I feel it is so essential that those individuals, who have been fortunate enough to have fallen into the miracle of transcendent spiritual realization, be able to demonstrate an attainment that clearly and unambiguously expresses the evolutionary potential of the race. For as long as this demand is not made, and those who are showing the way for others are allowed to demonstrate the very same schizophrenic condition of contradictory impulses as everyone else, then the attainment of true simplicity and unequivocal victory over ignorance will remain a myth.

The idea that Cohen and his followers are “fortunate enough to have fallen into the miracle of transcendent spiritual realization”, while most of the rest of us are “demonstrating schizophrenic conditions of contradictory impulse”,would be comical under the circumstances, were it not that it seems to be endorsed with great enthusiam by his students (some of whom also demonstrate a bone-chilling arrogance and acrimonious defensiveness — see the Amazon reviews of Yenner’s book).  My primary objection, again, is not that Cohen makes mistakes — that he would suffer occasionally, as we all do, from poor judgment, self-inflation, and hubris.  My objection is that behaviour which any objective person would characterize as clumsy at best, and abusive at worst, get thrown back at us as our personal failure (failure to understand the “beauty and majesty of his teaching” –  direct quote from Autobiography of an Awakening) and a demonstration of our “post-modern narcissism”.  The boldness and hypocrisy of this position is jaw-dropping — especially considering this is all in the name of spiritual development! — and provides valid support, it seems to me, for Yenner’s contention of  “a vast myth-based social network”.

My personal response paraphrases Emma Goldman: “If this is your revolution, count me out”.  Where spiritual development is concerned, I go by Swami Rudrananda: “The true test of your spiritual success is the happiness of the people around you” (I believe Jesus said something similar as well, “by their works they will be known”).  It is to be noted that Yenner is not denying the transformative power of the experience or the transmission. He is denying its basis in reality. The paradox, is that there is no doubt that the practice itself can be very transformational — I am very attracted to it myself — but, arguably, at what cost?

The conclusion is forced upon by all this, that we are seeing the emergence of a great mass delusion of the same nature as early 20th century communism  The dynamics are very much the same (although,  obviously, not equal either in destructiveness or in scope – Cohen’s committed students probably number less than 500): when one rests one’s allegiance on a powerful idea, and uses this to justify all kinds of actions that are out of line with both common sense and ordinary human decency, this is what happens.  The appeal is particularly strong to Western intellectuals with sincere spiritual aspirations (Cohen’s so-called “Individuals on the leading edge of consciousness”) — generally bright, capable and sophisticated people, who function well in the world — which gives the whole thing an interesting, if surreal, flavor.  We may remember, by comparison, in the early part of this century, how many sincere and well-educated people supported communism (an equally compelling idea to Cohen’s), and how long it took for otherwise very intelligent people, once they had bought in to the dream and had identified it with the Russian revolution, to acknowledge what was happening in Stalinist Russia and condemn it.  Intelligence is, it seems, no protection against self-delusion.

Note: I am not drawing any parallels between Stalinism and EnlightenNext in terms of destructiveness.  I am just saying that the underlying dynamics, the appeal to intellectuals via powerful ideas followed by indoctrination, are very similar.

About Craig Hamilton

Yenner is quite critical of Craig Hamilton, ex-student of Cohen, editor of WIE magazine for many years, founder of Integral Enlightenment and The Great Integral Awakening course and lecture series.   I  find minimal basis for this criticism [Note that, as of this writing, Yenner may be revising his position]. To have ambition and some business sense isn’t incompatible with being a spiritual teacher (150+ people registered in Craig’s $285 evolutionary telecourse last month), but at least he doesn’t claim to be a totally enlightened master, free from imperfection.  His previous association with Cohen does make him suspect, however he left to do his own work several years ago (in a move that insider reports say was accompanied by the usual shenanigans), which occurs as the sensible thing to do.  His failure to confront Cohen or break with him publicly is unfortunate, however this would be bad for business, and if Genpo Roshi, Ken Wilber and Don Beck don’t have the guts to do it, it doesn’t seem realistic to ask Craig Hamilton to.  Again, all this is a very, very delicate issue, the final truth of which probably won’t be known for decades.

Postscript (November 2009)

A significant portion of American Guru was published on Integral World recently, along with Yenner’s response to criticisms of his book.  It’s well worth reading, and here is my response.

The scariest thing about this situation is the stubborn insistence on the part of many of Cohen’s students — even the ones that have left!  — on Cohen’s status as a great spiritual leader, on his “enormous integrity”, and on the self-lessness of his relationship with them (accompanied, in some cases, by personal attacks and “jargon defenses” against anyone who disagrees). What is astonishing in all this, is not just these students rationalization of Cohen’s behaviour, but their belief that their choice to leave him was a personal failure (failure to “confront their ego”) — rather, than, say, simply a bad match, or else (heaven forbid), their having been deceived and manipulated by an unconsciously narcissistic cult leader. This belief seems to stay, in many of these students, for years after they have left.  There is also frequent mention of what a “mensch” Cohen is (how attractive, funny, charming and personable) — as if this would preclude any possible personality problems, or void the ethical issues involved.  The strength of this myth in many of these students — some of whom I know quite well, and are (or were at one point) friends — is astonishing, along with their willingness to sacrifice personal relationships over this issue.

This puts me in a very awkard personal situation, which I mentioned in my previous post.  All of us suffer from some delusion or other — the uncovering of delusions is the essential process of spiritual realization — and therefore, I don’t feel it be my role to tell someone they are deluded in a teaching that seems to be serving them.  On the other hand, I cannot, in all conscience, stay silent when I see both damage being done to people’s psyches, and arguments going on that have no intelletual credibility at all.  As I mentioned, this is an exact repeat (although on a smaller scale) of the situation that occurred with early 20th century communism: when people give their allegiance to a powerful idea, while rationalizing the facts and suppressing their emotional (gut-level response) to a situation.

I have no solution to this dilemma for myself.  I recently wrote (on My Manifesto) “I never apologize for my truth”.  On this point I stand, for better or for worse.

One more thing, about Craig Hamilton.  I don’t fully share Yenner’s position on Hamilton, as I have no inherent prejudice against spiritual-leaders-cum-businessmen.  However, one thing disturbs me: either Craig is not telling the truth, or he is still operating in the standard Cohen delusion himself (that his great teacher attempted to “kill his ego”, but he couldn’t stand the heat due to his personality weakness and left).  Whichever it is, it’s not good, and kind of precludes my taking Craig as a spiritual teacher.  Given the great choice of authentic spiritual teachings out there and leaders with genuine integrity, I don’t see why one would have to make any compromises at all in one’s choice of a teacher. Of course, if Craig (and even Cohen) is able to introduce a great number of people to the ideas of evolutionary spirituality, and spark them to do something different or remarkable with their lives, more power to them.  The truth of this may not be fully known or understood for decades.

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12 comments to Review of William Yenner’s “American Guru – A story of Love, Betrayal and Healing – former students of Andrew Cohen speak out”

  • Thanks for writing this review. I read a proof copy of Mr Yenner’s book ‘American Guru’ before publication and may review the finished product for a the Cultic Studies Journal (see: I’ve reviewed several of the books by former Cohen students. Yenner’s book adds valuable insights for anyone curious about what Cohen is about and why his movement ranks as one more odd little cult on the spiritual seeker landscape. Yes, I know–no one likes that four letter word “cult” applied to their group or guru but I find it to be appropriate by any definition of the word to place EnlightenNext and Cohen in context.

    For the record I have been called a ‘cult expert’ in light of my long history of intervention work (deprogrammer) and some sociologists have (since 1986) listed me among what they call the AntiCult Movement (ACM). I am neither an “expert” nor am I anti-cult. I have a degree in fine arts and “cult” to me is an entirely neutral designation of devotional activity directed at a person, idea, or object. Sometimes these devotional systems go haywire due to inherent flaws in the cult person, idea, or object as well as the in the behaviors of the devotees. People hire me when cults go bad.

    I just re-read the self-serving Declaration of Integrity by Cohen (2006) that you referred to above. Cohen needs an editor, seriously, but his entire career as a self-proclaimed guru depends on an unedited Andrew who needs a continuous stream of befuddled devotees that will not dare edit their guru. To edit the guru means to doubt his enlightened status and to doubt that would mean to doubt one’s own good judgment for submitting to the guru. The most ridiculous guru cults form not because the guru wants control but because the devotee wants the guru to perform as the most cutting edge thing in the universe, thus enhancing the devotee’s ego for finding the most advanced cutting edge thing in the universe. Cohen’s “genius” is that he recognized this trait in his naive devotees early on and he ran with it. Or, if you will, he got trapped in the devotees’ projection him-self and now cannot see any way out of his staged reality.

    (Hint: All theaters have exits and you can leave early if the show is no good. But if you are a character on stage you may need to sit in the audience for a time before you see just how lousy the play really is.)

    A Cohen (2006)stated: “For every Buddha, there’s been a Jim Jones; for every Martin Luther King, Jr., there has been a Hitler; and I’m sure that will remain the case well into the distant future. But unlike so many of my contemporaries, I have never used this as an excuse to dampen my spiritual fire and my passion for and commitment to what, against all odds, I know is actually possible. I’m talking about a truly committed engagement with the fullest expression of the spiritual impulse—taking the risk of reaching for the highest, alone and together, to see how far we can take this.”

    (Hint: Obsessive compulsive disorders need treatment, not encouragement;)

  • Thanks Joe for your very interesting perspectives. I like the idea of an actor on a stage – you can’t see know how good the play is until you step into the audience!

  • Pat Parisi

    Wow, this is a very thorough (if long) exposition on Cohen. I am a subscriber to the magazine but not to Cohen’s personality. I find his teachings on evolutionary spirituality to be quite good even while I find his personality very off putting to the point of offensive. I find that there is an essential discomfort in Westerners with the guru model, whose origins were in much simpler times and culture, and were deeply embedded in the Eastern psyche, not the Western. In the west, many gurus have fallen hard through the excesses of their undeveloped areas and the shadow of their psyche. I believe Cohen is quite clearly one of them. The problem w/ shadow, though, is that since it is unconscious you don’t know it exists. It’s going to take a very big mirror to wake Cohen up from this one.

  • marc

    Pat -
    I adore Cohen’s ideas – almost enough to cause me to forget about whether he is actually embodying these ideas or not – which is what makes this inquiry so fascinating.

  • marc

    Pete Brampton commented to the older article – copied below

    Hello Marc,

    I appreciate your inquiry here and the endeveour to be open to as full a picture as possible given what you are reading. However, the conclusion that Andrew is “lacking in integrity” is based on some very questionable assumptions. I was a close student for 13 years and I know his former student “critics” very well, while I dont regard Andrew as flawless and think he has made some errors along the way, I have no doubt whatsoever about his integrity as a human being and Guru. But to appreciate what that means one has to appreciate just how embedded and dense most of our post-modern green meme egos are, and how hard a job it is for a true Teacher to catalyze genuine and enduring evolutionary transformation in real time. Without this context then so much of what Andrews detractors now call “abuse” cannot be understood. Evolution is a messy business, that is just the way it is. I do not believe it was Andrews intention ever to harm anybody, but it was his intention to help them break their egos (which they said they wanted), which can be excruciatingly painful and challenging.

    See my article for an in-depth investigation into this:

    As to your open question about how is injecting real Love into the world. In my experience (and I have done years of prectice and met many teachers) Andrew Cohen is the most courageous and passionate vehicle for Love & Evolution I have ever met. And like all the great Revolutionary Masters (not Saints!) throughout history, there are those who want to betray and tear him down.

    If you think the “evolutionary enlightenment” movement is based on delusion then I challenge anyone to go on a retreat with Andrew or visit an EnlightenNext center (and yes there are many many former students around the whole also lit up by that realization and perspective) and find out for yourself. Dont rely on hearsay and the “complaints” of some. There issues are not only questionable and lacking context, they are regarding events that occurred years ago before Evolutionary Enlightenment was a stable, living reality. Hence there is one heck of alot that they have no idea about, or ,if they do, they choose to deny it.

  • marc

    Pete -
    thanks for this. Like I say I don’t claim to own the truth in this, nor am I denying the transformative value or the transmission. Nor do I have much interest in email debates about this topic – if I am ever in Spain maybe I’ll drop by and see what you are up to ;). Just for the record, however, I find the “out of context argument” not credible in view of the number and the severity of the documented events. Also, it would be great if Andrew himself acknowledged “not being flawless” and “making some errors on the way” (with specific examples, even, and offers of restitution where appropriate). That is what I, and I think anybody really, would consider true “integrity”. In terms of “events occurring years ago”… yes, I have had the same thought. However 2006 (the date of writing of Cohen’s absurd “declaration of integrity”) is not that long ago. Maybe we need to wait another decade or two for the truth to come out. In the meantime, I respect what you are doing and wish you the best in your future endeavors. Good luck with the “injecting love” part, specifically. I am not attacking Cohen, you, or any individual personally. I am attacking the idea of Cohen’s perfection and all that comes with it (the abuse of his students in the name of evolution – with or without their permission, it doesn’t matter), the hypocrisies that derive from this so ardently-held belief, and the dangers of resting one’s allegiance on a powerful idea rather than the facts of a situation.

  • marc

    One last thing. I would love to join you and some other friends at a Cohen event. They sound like a blast, and it’s a great sadness to me that I can’t under the circumstances (or choose not). My most earnest desire is that Cohen re-establish his credibility, but I think that is a delusional wish on my part.

  • > His failure to confront Cohen or break with him publicly is unfortunate,
    > however this would be bad for business, and if Genpo Roshi, Ken Wilber
    > and Don Beck don’t have the guts to do it, it doesn’t seem realistic to
    > ask Craig Hamilton to.

    Why in the world is it unrealistic?? The vast majority of humanity tries to live with straight-forward honesty. The masses of ordinary people DON’T sacrifice simple, direct truth-telling when it’s “bad for business.”

    Re Genpo Roshi, Ken Wilber, etc: these are people who make money and secure fame by means of projecting a certain image to the public. It’s certainly *possible* that they’re attached to these rewards to an extent that overshadows their commitment to honesty. I’m not saying this is necessarily true… but they sure wouldn’t be the *first* people I’d look to for simple honesty.

    I don’t see any reason whatsoever to adopt Genpo, Wilber, etc, as models of integrity to be followed by Hamilton or anyone else. Why not pick someone at random from the phonebook; wouldn’t they be at least an equally good integrity as a famous author or workshop-leader? Where’s the evidence to believe otherwise??



    EnlightenNext, the non-profit founded by Andrew Cohen which owns the 220 acre Foxhollow estate located in Lenox, MA, has decided to put the property up for sale. According to the broker Stone House Properties, EnlightenNext is trying to relocate to smaller facilities and into the Connecticut River Valley town of Northampton. Foxhollow, described by EnlightenNext as its “World Center”, was purchased in 1996 for $2.8 million; it’s now being marketed for nearly $7 million.

    During its tenure in Lenox, EnlightenNext has been subject of considerable controversy about its founder and spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen. Over the years multiple allegations of abuse of students have come to light including three books, one of which, The Mother of God, was written by Cohen’s mother, Luna Tarlo.

    In the fall of 2009 another book by another former student was published: American Guru, by William Yenner and contributors. Several events have marked the introduction of the book including talks at book stores and interviews on CTSB TV in South Lee on the Bob Balogh Show on WBCR Radio, as well as feature newspaper articles in the Northampton Daily Hampshire Gazette and The Greenfield Recorder. In December American Guru was selected as one of 10 Best Non-fiction Books by P2P Foundation, a media think tank.

    The controversies about Cohen and EnlightenNext include many well documented allegations from many witnesses of physical, emotional, and financial abuse.

    Recently some of the public figures whose contributions Cohen has solicited for publication in EnlightenNext magazine have come forward to express their own concerns about the situation at Foxhollow; their statements can be seen on the American Guru website.

  • Dear all who read this,

    The problem with awakening is that there is always another level and each level allows you to feel invincible until you understand that you are nothing, at each level. That is the ego of course that feels invincible and not the true self. And, of course, the humanity gets in the way too, and that is when the master makes mistakes.

    But just like all humans, the master must learn to accept that he is vulnerable to the forces and will absolutely make mistakes. And, a master who cannot make mistakes and admit to them is no master. But that does not mean that he has not had an enlightening experience that may be well above others.

    When you have that experience, you can absolutely see and perceive where others stand on their path, as you are viewing them from a loftier position, as it were. But, until you can walk on water, then for sure, you are not fully enlightened, only at one stage or another on the path.

    Andrew, like all others on the path, is learning and we should give him the opportunity and space to learn without judgement, understanding that anyone drawn to his light has absolutely chosen that path as part of their own learning experience. There, but for the grace of God, go I.

    We should all be careful of using, not only too much intellect, to discern what is right or wrong on the path, but to some degree, using any at all, as the mind will always cloud the issues, and although I have enjoyed reading the above and value the observations greatly, reflections can be a double edged sword in the world of illusions.

    Learn to trust your heart and go with the feelings. There is darkness in everyone and the path is merely a process of learning how to dissolve it with light. Be aware of your own darkness and work at illuminating it, with the help of whatever teacher is calling to you at this time. Just because Andrew’s methods might be difficult for some and a learning process for himself, does not mean that his work is not good in the higher order of things, and as we cannot see his path from that higher perspective, we should be very careful not to attract a difficult lesson for ourselves.

    We should also remember that the answers are alway simple. God didn’t make the journey difficult. Why would he? It is humans that make things difficult. But let’s leave on a light note as all seriousness should be avoided if we are to learn the art of laughing at ourselves.

    What is the difference between a cult and a religion? Size!

    Blessings and Peace.

    Dave Ashworth

    • marc

      I agree with 90% of what you wrote below — thanks for sharing this — with
      the possible exception of

      ” you can absolutely see and perceive where others stand on their path”

      A person who is unconscious of their own darkness (or in a
      less-than-perfect state of awakening) is liable to project all kinds of
      nonsence onto others — and then enroll himself and the world in their
      badness, as is clearly happening with EnlightenNext. Is this part of the
      “wheel of karma” (human development)? Surely, in the larger picture, yes,
      but it’s also necessary for people to “speak truth to power” and to respond
      out of ordinary common sense rather than jargon. That is my role I guess..

      Thanks for your contribution.

  • Dear Marc,

    Perhaps I should qualify that statement of: ‘you can absolutely see and perceive where othersstand on their path,’ as meaning from one’s present perspective. That perspective, of course, will still have many levels to develop. So, what the teacher should observe about themselves is that they are always in a process of becomming, and at each level of becoming, as you so rightly observe, they are still full of darkness. But once the teacher has foudn the courage to accept their own darkess, then taken a stand of reverence to the developing spirit in the seeker and one of humility in one’s self, then without judgement, you may offer guidance and assistance based uponn the experiences and transcendence of your own journey.

    And, indeed, as you say, and something I point out very often, the journey, although difficult at times is all common sense.

    Perhaps if I might make one more point. A teacher worth his salt is not going to project anything at all onto his or her students for the simple reason that the karma will come back so fast and hard as to give them a tremendous about of difficulty to work through. Hence one’s opportunity to learn quickly in these fast moving times. The age old problem of power is that at some level it always corrupts, but on this path, if one misuses power, the next level of power is not bestowed until the teacher has learned how to use it wisely. Therefore, the teacher is always their own limitation and certainly any the teacher is still only a seeker until full enlightenment is reached.

    Blessings and Peace.

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