Kevin R. D. Shepherd
ENTRY no. 53
Copyright © 2013 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
ENTRY no. 53
Copyright © 2013 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved
A recent disillusioned book, concerning the Western guru Andrew Cohen, is difficult to ignore in any assessment of the subject. American author William Yenner states: “No one knowingly joins a cult. I spent more than thirteen years following the American guru Andrew Cohen” (Yenner 2009:1). This vocation ended in a perception of “forced enlistment in the service of an individual bent on total control” (ibid).
Yenner is not the only witness here. The sub-title of his revealing book includes the phrase “former students of Andrew Cohen speak out.” The diverse contributors are clearly dissidents from former beliefs. Cohen’s website states that, in 1988, he founded EnlightenNext, “a nonprofit educational and spiritual organisation dedicated to pushing the edge of progressive culture” (ibid:6). To critics, the word “progressive” is one of the most suspicious words in the American (and English) language. In extensive usage since the early 1970s, that word still fails to convince.
The dissident book relates that Cohen consulted a lawyer to impose a five year gag order on Yenner, when the latter demanded repayment of a large donation (ibid:7). Yenner divulges that the information curtailed by Cohen was “my own firsthand experience of operating, managing and leading his [Cohen’s] organisation” (ibid).
Twenty years earlier, Yenner had first learned of Cohen. In 1988, he heard a glowing story of how Cohen had gained enlightenment (in 1986) at the hands of H. W. L. Poonja (d.1997). This Indian guru claimed to have been enlightened by Ramana Maharshi (d.1950). Cohen’s mother expressed surprise that her son was considered transformed after only two and a half weeks of instruction (Tarlo 1997:80). Andrew Cohen thereafter spent two years teaching in England and Israel, returning to America after having gained over a hundred students (Yenner 2009:18).
Yenner quickly became a devoted follower, attracted by the Advaita Vedanta teachings employed by Cohen in his discourses. Those teachings are open to fluent duplication and distortion. There transpired to be no comparison with the example of Ramana Maharshi. Cohen’s community then numbered “approximately 130 people” (ibid:20). An increasing authoritarian policy emerged, with a proliferating code of punishments for supposed transgressions. Cohen became notorious for verbal lacerations of his students. Yenner now writes: “Of 130 of Andrew Cohen’s original students, 123 have left him, and Cohen has vilified almost all of them for having done so” (ibid:63).
Yenner became business manager, and one of the Board of Directors, at the 220 acre Foxhollow estate in Massachusetts, the headquarters of EnlightenNext. He was the only student to gain the privilege of living in Cohen’s house (apart from the latter’s wife). Entrance fees and donations became a hallmark feature of the proceedings, along with the confrontational severity. “Andrew referred to his updated version of ‘crazy wisdom’ – a teaching modality with centuries-old roots in some Eastern spiritual traditions – as ‘Acts of Outrageous Integrity’ ” (ibid:29-30). Critics consider American crazy wisdom to be an improvised attribute of extremists like Chogyam Trungpa and Adi Da Samraj, connoting a fashion in aborted mysticism.
Face-slapping and name-calling became routine at Foxhollow, along with bizarre punishments for those who disobeyed the purportedly enlightened American guru. One female victim had four buckets of paint poured over her head by ministrants of the guru’s displeasure. “She left the property traumatised and fell ill” (ibid:33), being further harassed by accusing phone calls at the guru’s instigation.
In the mid 1990s, Cohen encouraged donations to atone for mistakes. “Andrew now began attaching price tags to his forgiveness for perceived wrongs” (ibid:43). The ambitions of EnlightenNext required constant funding. The extraction of donations has been described in terms of “financial exploitation” (ibid). The coerced donations could vary from small amounts to 80,000 dollars. Yenner was a donor at this extortionate rate, which he later regretted.
After leaving the Foxhollow community in 2001, ex-devotee Yenner commenced legal proceedings. He did manage to retrieve his donation, a success which he describes as an unprecedented event (ibid:48). However, the attached gag order meant that he could not openly discuss Cohen community problems for five years, a period ending in 2008. These events were subsequent to his devotee efforts in which Yenner, for example, “began each day at 3 a.m. with a three-hour practice of one thousand prostrations before a photograph of Andrew” (ibid:53).
The book by William Yenner includes chapters about female students. Cohen is here revealed as being very harsh towards that contingent, one of whom wrote after leaving Foxhollow in 1998: “I was in a state of deep traumatic stress for months afterwards; I would wake up every night in terror, with panic attacks and thoughts of suicide” (ibid:76). The same victim states: “We attempted to pay for our ‘sins’ by contributing money to buy expensive clothes and floral bouquets for Andrew, which had for years been the standard way to buy forgiveness” (ibid:75). An even more discrepant episode is recounted of an elderly woman, who after being bullied on the telephone in 1999 by a shouting male student, “died with a broken heart and in a state of absolute inner terror and anguish” (ibid:84).
Another ex-devotee, Andre van der Braak, suggested that Cohen was projecting his anger towards his mother in situations proving adverse to the female students (Braak 2003:162ff). Certainly, the rift between Cohen and his mother Luna Tarlo has been considered significant. In 2008, a representative of EnlightenNext claimed, on Cohen’s behalf, that Tarlo had admitted to having “fictionalized aspects of her book for dramatic effect” (Yenner 2009:109, 133). The following year, Yenner interviewed Tarlo, who denied the claim of the Cohen camp, saying that she was prepared to go to court with her notebooks to defend the accuracy of her book (ibid:110). Tarlo also stated in the interview that her son was “responsible for destroying people” and for “damaging people” (ibid:117). She implicated the Indian guru Poonja in the train of errors.
William Yenner concludes that Andrew Cohen’s version of perennial wisdom “rests on a foundation of dishonesty, corruption and pernicious abuse of power” (ibid:149). Yenner also queries the position of celebrities who have endorsed Cohen, including Ken Wilber, Rupert Sheldrake, and Deepak Chopra. The sector of “alternative thought” is clearly a deceptive prospect.
During the intervening decade since I wrote the above, Andrew Cohen has become more famous and more notorious. The controversial Cohen is a sad joke in some quarters. Reported excesses can cause astonishment (Catalog of Traumas and Abuses). Under mounting pressures, Cohen withdrew from his guru career, only to return afterwards with an obvious desire to resume teaching. The strategy has not escaped disapproval. Critics reflected that the ruse was successful to some degree.
Cohen is part of the neo-hippy misconstruction of India. His mother wrote: “In 1983, my son Andrew set off for India to seek enlightenment” (Tarlo 1997:7). Numerous other Westerners shared that intention, believing they could become Buddhas. Many of them fell prey to the most unlikely incarnations of wisdom. A soporific precedent to this afflicted quest was Richard Alpert (1931-2019), the 1960s LSD partisan who changed his name to Baba Ram Dass, in the fond belief that he had undergone a spiritual transformation. The floodtide of confusion still persists. Basic misconceptions may last for generations (or centuries), given the disinclination of many enthusiasts for due analysis.
Relevant details concern Cohen’s guru Poonja, the originating impulse for his exotic career. The supposedly enlightened Indian guru is reported to have told Cohen: “You don’t have to make any effort to be free.” The purported consequence of this suggestion is relayed in terms of: “Cohen instantly was free.” The disputed Poonja “assured Cohen that he was enlightened and urged him to help others achieve that state.” A setback occurred in this deceptive situation. Poonja subsequently “complained to others that Cohen was a delusional egomaniac” (John Horgan, Skeptical Writer Meets a Cult Leader). The misleading ideological derivative known as Neo-Advaita is attributed to Poonja and his followers. Poonja is said to have permitted hundreds of admirers to believe they were enlightened.
Braak, Andre van der , Enlightenment Blues: My Years with an American Guru (New York: Monkfish, 2003).
Tarlo, Luna, The Mother of God (New York: Plover, 1997).
Yenner, William, and contributors, American Guru (New York: Epigraph, 2009).
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
October 30th 2010 (modified 2020)
ENTRY no. 34
Copyright © 2020 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.
Rajneeshpuram in Oregon, 1980s
The stance of an analytical citizen philosopher does not mean any form of convergence with popular beliefs. Quite to the contrary, at least in my case. Philosophy denotes a discipline of mind and exposition. Compromises are potentially disastrous.
I believe that the viable form of philosophical exercise extends to psychology, sociology, logic, language, history, biography, metaphysics, and yet other channels of analysis. For instance, the difficult subject of metaphysics is no barrier to philosophical commitment, and can be argued for and against with many permutations. To be convincing, the subject has to be closely argued with due reference points. This is just not the same procedure as one tends to find in the widespread “alternative thought” clichés so closely associated with the confusing post-1950s American “new spirituality” trend.
The 1960s “Me” decade of pseudo-enlightenment left ongoing symptoms of debility in contemporary thinking processes. Simplistic refrains are still taken for granted; the word “therapy” is dominant in too many versions of supposed spirituality. Countercultural Americans of the neo-hippy ambience elevated therapy to the status of a mystical achievement. The Esalen commerce in alternative thought disliked philosophical rigour, which was and is unfashionable in sectors of “Inner Science” and related claims.
The general confusion is staggering when duly analysed. The field under discussion is ripe for linguistic and other forms of appraisal, which could perhaps never be exacting enough at the present time. The idioms employed to capture commercial therapy clients and nominally “holistic” subscribers have been nauseating for many years. The pseudo-holistic commercial adventure so frequently subsists upon banal language and suggestion.
The “workshop” vogue was imported from America to Britain and Europe, providing a career income for numerous entrepreneurs in the spurious esoteric. Some of this is on detailed record. The surfeits of pop-mysticism are not merely erratic, but totally misleading in too many instances. For some indications, see Stephen J. Castro, Hypocrisy and Dissent within the Findhorn Foundation (Forres: New Media, 1996), chapter six; also Findhorn Foundation Commercial Mysticism (2008).
Another pitfall was supplied by the “guru cults” and related phenomena. These have varied from relatively harmless religious sects to predatory activities, also suppressive strategies conducted against dissidents. An early danger signal was afforded by the Rajneesh sect, which transplanted to Oregon from India in the 1980s, creating the intended city known as Rajneeshpuram.
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (Osho) became noted for his sponsorship of reckless alternative therapy of the neo-Reichian type. This activity was strongly implicated as one factor causing belligerent attitudes within the sect at Oregon, where a group of Rajneeshi women resorted to terrorist acts of food-poisoning in the local area. The American authorities had to intervene, with the consequence that Rajneesh was deported. See further Professor Lewis F. Carter, Charisma and Control in Rajneeshpuram (Cambridge University Press, 1990).
Relevant is an account of discrepancies in the activity of “neo-Advaita” and “crazy wisdom” guru Andrew Cohen. See William Yenner, American Guru (2009). Yenner was a leading participant in Cohen’s community EnlightenNext for thirteen years. A related website describes the book as “documenting a history of abuses that Cohen and many of his current devotees have gone to great lengths to conceal.” See also the review by Professor David Lane.
My first three websites profiled some anomalies in the popular field of presumed “spirituality.” Psychologists, psychiatrists, medics, victim support organisations, and yet other agencies, have been concerned at the drawbacks in evidence, which amount to rather more than the well known controversies about Scientology.
In future, it is not the claims to prowess that must be taken seriously, but the visible repression of dissidents by any suspect organisation. There is the further complication of extremist verbal aggression displayed towards outsiders by sectarian believers. See Internet Terrorist and Hate Campaign Blogs.
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
March 5th 2010
ENTRY no. 14
Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.
The American thinker Ken Wilber is well known for an integral approach, generally described in terms of psychology and spirituality (and formerly classified in terms of transpersonalism). He has reacted to the format of analytical philosophy (and also “continental” philosophy) associated with the universities. His outlook might be described as one form of citizen philosophy. I have attempted to point out the substantial differences from my own version.
Wilber became famous as a writer of numerous books on psychology, therapy, and “perennial philosophy.” Commencing with The Spectrum of Consciousness (1977) and The Atman Project (1980), his output continued in the 1990s with such works as Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995) and Integral Psychology (2000). This led to an accolade from the Dutch partisan Frank Visser, who produced a detailed study of Wilber’s books after having personally interviewed him. See Visser, Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion (State University of New York Press, 2003).
Many readers were surprised when Visser soon afterwards became a critic of his subject. Other converging web critics such as Jeff Meyerhoff (author of an online book) also became noted for a resistance to Ken Wilber’s worldview, described as being too ambitious and lacking due supporting proofs. Wilber’s Quadrant Theory aroused opposition, claiming an “Everything” scope based on metaphysical doctrines and questionable deductions. Such counters are in evidence at the Visser site integralworld (formerly in support of the integral psychologist). Wilber has strongly denounced his critics as having failed to reach the spiritual “altitude” required for the perspectives under discussion.
Wilber has the rare distinction of having his Collected Works available in a multi-volume edition. He has launched in America the Integral Institute, declaring elaborate objectives and an interdisciplinary scope. I am certainly not against the interdisciplinary ideal, having myself pursued a form of that ideal for thirty years. One of my objections relates to the issue of what can usefully be integrated. I am not an integralist, but an analytical commentator.
My disagreement with the approach evolved by Ken Wilber has spotlighted, for example, the “new age workshop” issue. See Ken Wilber and Integralism (2009). Cf. Wilber, Integral Spirituality (Boston: Integral Books, 2007), pp. 201ff., referring to “Integral Life Practice workshops offered by Integral Institute.”
There is a basic disagreement about the viability of “integral” concepts in a “new age” format, however modified the latter might become (Ken Wilber is not typical of the “new age” by any means). A presentation in terms of spirituality invites strong analytical responses. The claim to spirituality is a widespread contemporary problem. This does not mean that spirituality cannot exist; however, the claim is no proof of competence.
Adi Da Samraj
Ken Wilber aroused query when he supported the controversial American guru Adi Da Samraj (Da Free John) many years ago. That deceased entity became notorious as an antinomian opportunist. See Ken Wilber and Adi Da Samraj. Wilber modified his enthusiasm in that direction; he nevertheless continued to esteem the teaching of Adi Da. He also substantially assisted the profile of the “neo-Advaita” guru Andrew Cohen, regularly appearing via a dialogue feature in the latter’s popular magazine What is Enlightenment ? The dialogue duo were rolecast as the guru (Cohen) and the pundit (Wilber). Cohen became the subject of strong criticism. An American Professor of Philosophy described Cohen in terms of being “in deep need of long term therapy.” See David C. Lane, Andrew Cohen Exposed (2009).
Many contemporary confusions relate to the subject known as “perennial philosophy.” This became popular in the 1960s and later, though seldom attended by a due sense of perspective. Adi Da Samraj made some strong overtures in this direction, which critics have found unconvincing, despite the trappings of “crazy wisdom” that supposedly proved legitimacy.
Wilber was for long a promoter of perenniality; he has since opted for a “post-metaphysical” exegesis. Some ask why the fantasised subject of “perennial philosophy” has thrived in contemporary alternativism, where so much academic literature on the history of religion is ignored. This has been one of my own complaints. My citizen presentation has quite frequently resorted to scholastic literature, which can supply information too often overlooked.
Ken Wilber is unusual for having defined his intellectual career in terms of successive phases. He has enumerated Wilber-1, Wilber-2, and so on. Wilber-5, concurrent with “integral post-metaphysics,” expanded his controversial Quadrant Theory, declaredly comprehensive. He affirms: “The Integral Approach involves the cultivation of body, mind, and spirit in self, culture, and nature” (Wilber, Integral Spirituality, 2007, p. 26).
Ken Wilber stresses a spiritual altitude relating to “levels of consciousness” signified by spectrum colours. Via Integral Life Practice, Wilber partisans are supposedly participants in the favoured zone of turquoise to Clear Light. Critics require a more convincing exposition that does not lead to “workshops” and bizarre gurus whose followers have so often defected.
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
February 6th 2010 (slightly revised 2018)
ENTRY no. 12
Copyright © 2018 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.