Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Andrew Cohen

Andrew Cohen is a moderately popular teacher/figure in the spiritual subculture. His rise to fame began with a visit to India in the mid-80s, where he met guru Hari Lal Poonja (aka Papaji). Andrew had some big special experience; Papaji looked in his eyes and declared the young man as his enlightened spiritual successor.

After a period of gloppy devotion to Papaji, Cohen rejected his former Master, and set out a-guruing on his own. He attracted his own mother as a disciple. Mom eventually concluded that sonny had gotten a bit full of himself; she left his group and denounced Andrew in her book Mother of God. (When your Jewish mother stops supporting you, you know there's some seriously bad weirdness going on.)

These days, Cohen has been partnering with author and self-aggrandizing philosopher Ken Wilber. Wilber has a history of glorifying authoritarian teachers, having gushed for years over bizarre guru Adi Da. Wilber refers to Cohen as a "Crazy Wisdom Teacher," which I believe is spiritual-speak for "He's an a**hole."

Cohen has been credibly accused of all sorts of deception and abuse of his followers (see the wonderful memoir Enlightenment Blues for details). Recently, the blog WHAT enlightenment??! has re-opened, for former students to reveal secrets and criticize Andrew and his org. Below are the comments I contributed yesterday to this blog's discussion. For context, see the original posting for these comments, The Truth Will Set You Free.

George said... the fact is just about everyone around him has those experiences.

It's not that Andrew demonstrates the power to reliably induce big special experiences. It's not that he could, for instance, take a randomly-selected group, move them into his community, and have them all report stunning experiences after a few days or weeks.

Rather: The people who encounter Andrew are a self-selected group who want special experiences. The price that Andrew demands (in money and subservience) insures those with the most desperate wants are the only ones that stick around.

Suppose that 1 in 20 people who come to Andrew indeed get a big experience. The other 95% soon wander off. The 5% from each new wave of arrivals accumulate around Andrew (the secret is volume). Eventually, there's the illusion that Andrew induces big experiences in most people who meet him. This is not the case… though it does require some careful critical thinking to see through the superficial appearance.

Carlos B said... Mata Amritanandamayi… It seems to me to be the perfect justification for Cohen's behaviour - particularly later in the article where she talks about the need to discipline her followers and the requirement of absolute obedience to the guru.

It’s not for nothing that Amritanandamayi has her followers call her “Amma” meaning “Mother.” All of us start out life as blind followers of our parents; otherwise, we’d have little chance of surviving childhood. As adults, we gradually learn to think independently. We do so to different degrees, and at different paces.

A percentage of the population look to rekindle the dependency, devotion, or absolute faith that we had for our parents as kids. They'll seek and find someone to play the role of a perfect parent. Either it’ll be an Andrew-like or Amma-like guru, or another person, or group, or belief-system, used with similar (if unconscious) intention.

Simon said... make no mistake, meeting a truly enlightened being is major catalyst for spiritual exploration.

We have no definition to use in determining who’s a “truly enlightened being,” so I don’t know how helpful this concept is.

True, many people have big special experiences when in the presence of an explicit guru (a person on a big chair, dressed in a fancy costume, speaking beautiful words, surrounded by like-thinking followers, accompanied by an attractive environment with tinkly music etc). Many many other people get big special experiences from a mind-stopping situation that doesn’t involve any enlightenment-claiming guru. In the US, most people who get transforming special experiences find them in charismatic churches, without any Indian-style guru involved.

Carlos B said... shouldn't love and compassion always be at the very center of a spiritual practise rather than speculative, self agrandising attempts to explain life, the universe and everything?

There’s no universal authority to tell us what the center of a practice (i.e., our life-direction, the thing we hold as most important) should be. So it’s our privilege/burden to decide for ourselves.

Should the most important thing be clarity and compassion towards each being we encounter? Or should it be a self-aggrandizing attempt to gain superior understanding or become more "evolved" than others? We can experiment with both paths, and see how it works out. We can be aware that it’s our own choice to make.

Anonymous said... What I would encourage you all to do is file a class action law suit against this creep and sue him for all the pain and suffering he's caused you… Just shut him down so he isn't continuing to do these things.

Or... we could focus on our own lives, our moment-to-moment thoughts and actions. If we don’t want to follow Andrew, no one is forcing us. If other people choose to follow Andrew in spite of readily-available warnings, we can leave them alone. People have their own ideas and situations; it’s not mandatory to force anything on others (by suing or shutting anyone down).

Maybe the most effective medicine is for each of us to think independently… rather than believing that the cause of suffering is rooted in some external evil.

philip said... [those who] doubt the intelligence and/or strength of character of those who [follow Cohen]: read those studies by Janis, Milgram, Asch and Zimbardo.

Many guru-types claim to have magical energy, or “shakti” that gives people special experiences. Superficially, followers can feel the energy flowing from the guru’s body, or photo, or from objects he's touched.

In controlled testing, there’s never any support for these magical claims. Desire, expectation, and belief (especially with group support) have been proven effective in inducing special experiences. But no guru's claim of magical energy has been supported by evidence.

There are people who are intelligent in some areas, but lack the skills to critically examine and test such claims. Critical thinking (a learned skill) does make a difference. You don’t have to be a Physics PhD; a basic understanding of scientific method is enough to detect the BS. People who lack this understanding/skill... can develop it with some effort and attention.

you must conclude you are probably more conformist than you like to think. The vital finding from those works is that the sense of independence westerners are so fond of entertaining is rarely put to the test, and largely illusory.

On the contrary… in Milgram’s experiment, most people sheepishly followed authority, but others refused to obey. There were those who were guided by their own independent thinking and ethics, and rejected the orders.

In the decades since Milgram’s experiment, society has moved further from blind conformity (pushed along by Vietnam, Watergate, counter-cultures, and free-flowing information). Were the experiment repeated today, maybe there'd be fewer blind followers.

Milgram proved that some people have a strong tendency to obey authority, while others do not. There are skills we can develop that affect which group we fall into. The lesson is not that we’re helpless against persuasion techniques. It’s that some people think and act less independently than others.

ordinary people who... assume immunity from manipulators like Cohen.

Metaphorically… beer companies put out highly attractive commercials, which induce some people to become drunks. But mostly we’re not helpless in the face of intense persuasion. We can learn to think independently in the face of authority, persuasion, and group-think. Rather than focus exclusively on “manipulation” by gurus or groups or beer commercials… it may be more efficient to examine our own minds, to see what’s at the root of our desire to believe and obey and follow. We can perceive the roots of gullibility in our own thought-process. Then we begin to have more choice as to whether we ultimately believe in authorities and groups and belief-systems… or in ourselves.


yomamma said...

Stuart said "Critical thinking (a learned skill) does make a difference. You don’t have to be a Physics PhD; a basic understanding of scientific method is enough to detect the BS. People who lack this understanding/skill... can develop it with some effort and attention."

I think having insight into the many ways we think and feel is a good way to go, how well we know ourselves through life experiences, which would include study, living ,maturation, and a developed ability to discern the difference between real intuition/insight and infantile wish fulfillment.
Scientific method is great , but it is also just another method (albeit very good , very reliable) and can separate you from your experience as well as any other. Dare I say even a bit of psychological insight might come in handy, though i know i blaspheme in these parts!

Stuart said...

Scientific method is great, but it is also just another method (albeit very good, very reliable) and can separate you from your experience as well as any other. Dare I say even a bit of psychological insight might come in handy

Nice to hear from you as always, yomamma.

My comments on critical thinking and scientific method... were directed at one specific issue. In the negative writings about Andrew Cohen and similar leaders (on the What Enlightenment?!? blog etc), former followers are writing of their past involvement in a cultish group scenario. Exploring such a history might properly include the significant issue: why did I once fall into group-think, and how can I avoid repeating that fall one way or another?

It's that specific line of inquiry I was addressing. Whatever merits there might be to focusing on feelings and getting psychological insights therefrom... I can't see that path as necessarily helpful to the specific issue of avoiding sheep-like behavior.

In my experience, I always feel good about being part of a group. Agreeing with the people around me, whatever they may be asserting, gives me an emotional reward inside. I can see why DNA wired such responses into us, as sticking close to the tribe may have been essential at times in our evolution.

I'm saying that the tendency of feelings is to lead us towards greater group cohesion. Of course that's not always bad; for some people at some times, identifying with a group may be just what they need and want.

But if we're talking about avoiding blind devotion (of the sort that many ex-Cohen followers see as poisonous in his group)... I don't see psychological insights as doing the trick. At least not nearly as efficiently as developing the critical thinking muscle.

yomamma said...

Dear hierarchy guy,lots of research has been done in the name of psychology that predicts pretty accurately what people will do in given cases. cult leaders have studied this stuff. it is behavioral stuff. they use scientific method, the trouble with scientific method is if you are really rigorous you can't proceed with anything till all results are in. most of us need to just have good common sense, and to get our information from a variety of sources, and do the best we can. I find your tone some what condescending. obviously many of these folks have good educations , they are smart, but for some reason have ,not found sufficient answers in the western/rational methods. feelings are just part of the evolving brain and nervous system the more we know them ,own then integrate them the better off we will be.

zirbata said...

hey Stuart, you still yada yadaring on like that other yada yada specialist Brian Hines or you got some substance you may want to share with anyone?

Stuart said...

zirbata said...
you got some substance you may want to share with anyone?

If you walk into a restaurant and say you want "food," you shouldn't expect satisfaction. You must be clear about what specifically it is that you want.

So if you want me to share something with you, that's OK, but when you ask for it, you ought to be much much clearer about what exactly you want. Asking for "substance" isn't communicating anything in particular.

zirbata said...

just yanking your chain cause both you and I know aint ever going to be any substance found about out here in cyberspace, the most unsubstantial medium of communication known or unknown to man.

pity is its intellect that cannot reason for itself how absolutely futile it actually is

Stuart said...

zirbata said...
just yanking your chain

OK then. Even in real life, it's not always so easy to know whether someone is serious or joking. In text-only conversations, it's somewhere between very difficult and impossible.

you and I know aint ever going to be any substance found about out here in cyberspace

In Buddhism, we sometimes say that emptiness (aka "no substance") is the substance of everything.

pity is its intellect that cannot reason for itself how absolutely futile it actually is

That's why I've really liked koan practice. It's a technique that's both cognitively clear... and a precise pointer to the problem of "I want to get something!"

It's common teaching that "I want" brings suffering when directed at "stuff." But also: this "I want" brings suffering when it grasps at ideas, opinions, understanding... any type of thinking.

zirbata said...

so where's the substance to all this 'thinking'

you aint going to achieve emptiness out here in superficial emptiness where reality runs fickle.

just like all these so called free thinking realms of absolute delusion

Stuart said...

zirbata said...
you aint going to achieve emptiness out here

Do you want to "achieve emptiness"?!?

zirbata said...

so you tell me then whats the point of all this chit chat about emptiness

somebody got any answers out there about anything..?

doubt it much.. answers ain't forthcoming especially out here in cyberspace and in peoples minds where ego's and ranting intellects run rampant

like on so called free thinking avenues of delusional self righteous escapism.

Right? .. yeah.. right.

zirbata said...

end of discussion

still no truth, still no substance, just figments of imagination left dangling out in the fickle falsities of the tango dancing duos of duality

anyone got any thoughts, random or otherwise, about whats 'real' leave em at the door on your way out

meantime letters on a cyber chalkboard don't mean squat about nothing, or no-thing, or every thing or fullness or emptiness, just as they were before they were written, they're just a jingle jangle jumping jack flash of justified jargon.

zirbata said...

what is it with these Yanks, soon as you start giving them a little bit of substance to chew on they get all holier than thou and start choking on the bit, spitting and spluttering in disarray as the all enlightened advance guard of the human race that their enlightened intellects tell themselves they are.

whazzup Stuart, the random thinking just a little too far outside the colloquial status quotient of some illustrious advanced free thought parameter in this environment of the supreme Buddhist / Taoist Way?

Stuart said...

zirbata said...
so you tell me then whats the point of all this chit chat about emptiness

Do you want "the point"?!? If so, why not examine your wants for yourself? Why repeatedly ask others about it?

end of discussion

Intention is most significant. Whether you cultivate discussions or avoid discussions... either way is OK, but in either case: Why do that?

If your intention (in seeking discussion or avoiding it) is to help others, then no problem. If your intention is to get something for yourself, then this "I want" is the root of suffering.

Finally, a technical/procedural matter. If you really want to end a discussion, saying "end of discussion" is not the simple and effective way to do so. Rather, you can just stop opening your mouth.

zirbata said...

seems you miss the 'point' in both instances

this is usually the result of such 'discussions' across cyberspace and across intellectual ramifications

one intellect thinking this and another thinking that

just as so often occurs in these type esoteric rationalizations

simply no such meeting of minds ever occur, always one thinking this and another thinking that... whereas truth is a completely different set of circumstances... something no ism would ever quite understand... or internet blogsite cult, whether they believe they have a patent out on unencumbered free thought or not.

yomamma said...

it seems to me this discussion was about people in the What Enlightenment? group, and the sticky issues they have become involved in. If no matter what you do , whatever line of inquiry you make it all comes back to hinging only on a charismatic teacher, you are in real trouble, not just cyberspace, verbal loop de loop trouble.
it seems that the relationship some have with their teacher is the problem.

zirbata said...

this is where thinking and words are such feeble fickle random delusions of grandeur, people can sprout on ad infinitum about this n that conceptual nonentity.. yet never will there be an iota of truth.. not even a meager little morsel of it.

Grand pity all this intellectualizing of nothingness, got no one remotely closer to themselves whatsoever.

Blind bat bull talk artists leading the blind.

yomamma said...

hey we're just some people talking, talk that stick out.

yomamma said...

i mean take the stick out!

zirbata said...

Real pity there so few true truth seekers on this planet, I guess thats just the way its cut out to be, guess one don't find diamonds in clusters, or nuggets of gold scattered all over the sidewalks.. you gotta search far n wide to discover true truth seekers, and out here in the majestic world of make believe, I guess they simply don't exist at all.

Stuart said...

Zirbata said... Real pity there so few true truth seekers on this planet

Truth has already appeared, right in front of you, in this moment. If you don't believe in your just-now experience, or if it isn't enough for you... then by all means go out and "seek truth" somewhere else. For as long as you need to or want to.

The idea "this isn't enough, I must seek something more!" appears in your own thinking. No problem, follow it as you choose. But it doesn't necessarily appear in everyone else's mind. So your desire that other people on the planet should follow your lead in "seeking" this or that... may not be so fruitful.

Anonymous said...

Gotta love it, spiritual drama with the guru - look at how many replies this post got, the others which were posts about teachings and presumably more authentic/truthful got few or none.

Mind you, I understand the need to deconstruct such experiences, I've had a cult type background myself. Actually, upon closer inspection of the comments it seems it's just a personal exchange more than anything. I suppose the reason for the drama does not matter in the end. Well enjoy, if that's your thing.

yomamma said...

yes everyone has their concerns but, if it doesn't concern you , why you would bother to comment is beyond me.

Stuart said...

yomamma said...if it doesn't concern you , why you would bother to comment is beyond me.

It's like me and the Jerry Springer Show. I have no interest in the sleezy trash he puts on the air. And I can be certain that I have no interest in it, because I watch the show so often.

yomamma said...

at least you admit it!

zirbata said...

whats up with you people. its just two forlorn souls in here, Stuart and Yomamma chit chatting away about nothing substantial at all, like the Jerry Springer show.

Now so happens this particular thread has no relevance whatsoever, just happens to be the one you been chit chatting away on. Wouldn't know a damn thing about this other idiot Andrew Cohen and what floated his boat.

So either you open to some truth or you not... seems I stumbled into one more of these Yankee doodle dandy nonentity debilitating sing alongs.. like the other delinquent churchless cult... when you Yanks going to get out of your highfalutin over inflated opinion of yourselves and see some reality staring you in the face.

Pete said...

For another view on Andrew Cohen from former students check out:

セレブラブ said...


Stuart said...

I ran the comment above through Google Translate Japanese-to-English, and got the following:

In Sereburabu monthly honorarium earned 10 million yen to the lowest line and there is work to give women pleasure celebrities. After free registration to wait and see approach in the e-mail OK, Why not make the relationship between the site and meet your needs met

I'm just sayin'.

Stuart said...

In the comment 3 above this one... Pete offers a link to a pro-Andrew Cohen blog, which I've added to the links list of this blog.

Today (11/18/09) on that Guru Talk blog, a new posting by Steve Brett went up, titled A Real Master For Our Times.

As the title suggests, this post is filled with beautiful words declaring Cohen to be a miraculous spiritual master who inspires the great mission to create a new world in the image of Spirit. What's lacking is simple, concrete, plain English explanation of what Cohen teaches or why anyone should accept or believe the author's assertions.

I've submitted to Guru Talk the following comment to this "Real Master" post:

> … we could become fit vehicles
> for the greatest mission there
> could ever be: to create a new
> world in the image of Spirit—
> together.

If we look at history, as well as the current world situation, we can easily see how much conflict and trouble is created by people who consider themselves on a Holy Mission to Change The World.

Personally, I much prefer the company of those who humbly try to act with clarity and compassion in ordinary daily life… to those filled with big ideas and certainty that they’re on The Side of the Angels.

Whether or not you find any value/agreement with my comment... I feel it's a coherently-stated, reasonable view. If the Guru Talk blog is meant for open-minded discussion, my comment should appear shortly. If my comment is blocked by the moderator, it'll be some evidence that Guru Talk is designed for propoganda, rather than reasoned examination of Cohen's teachings (whatever they may be, underneath the rhetoric and poetry).

Anonymous said...

weird, Im part of eNext, a well doing person and I feel good. I also enjoy complex philosophy and can thin into all sorts of advanced philosophical systems, as you seem to still be unable to. I would advice you to try, because I think that without these abilities you ae unable to understand a thing, but this will probably make me seem oppressive, like schol, right? btw, english is my thrid language, please excuse the fact that by effort and not by joy I learned stuff

Stuart Resnick said...

I appreciate that English isn't your first language... But couldn't you try harder to express a coherent thought? Also, please don't post anonymously. When you make a comment that doesn't communicate anything, and don't sign it, it makes me doubt if you have any serious intention.

I mean, what's the point of ask your philosophy if you can't even express one meaningful idea.