A Case Study

I’ve talked before about winding down the shadow, teaching prematurely, and having peer support. Issues with these are important to recognize in others and groups so we don’t get caught up in their junk (as much) or amplify our own. I’ve also touched on cultish teachers and some of the symptoms of problems.

I gave an example recently in Ken Wilber. He cofounded What is Enlightenment? magazine and the Integral Institute with Andrew Cohen. Cohen has become a useful case study in what can go wrong.

It’s not the purpose of this blog to attack or judge others or their teachings but it’s very useful to distinguish between the nuggets and the mud on offer.

Any teacher who’s been around for awhile will have some disgruntled students. Some will make a point of publicly attacking or dismissing the work. You also get the followers attacking back. I’ve had a few of both show up on this blog.

But there’s a line between being human: personality defects, mistakes, and organizational problems vs ongoing abuse. Also between charisma and presence.

Over a couple of decades, Cohen became a well-known and loved teacher who also had some disturbing habits. There are occasions when it may be suitable to knock a student off their pedestal but there’s a big difference between that and abuse. Cohen became notorious for all sorts of abuse.  

Evidently, Cohen found students were making little progress in his presence and demanded more commitment. This devolved into “physical force, verbal abuse, and intense psychological pressure.”

Several books have been published about his bad behavior, including one by his own mother (Mother of God). He broke with his teacher Papaji early on after being asked to step down, accusing Papaji of ethical and enlightened shortcomings.

Ironically, Cohen insisted that “flawless behavior” was the manifestation of enlightenment. He apparently forgot he was still a human.

In 2013, Cohen was finally asked to step down by his organization and the group folded. He took a sabbatical.

Recently, a few events have brought him back to the fore. Conscious 2 (a subscription-based video service) is releasing a film about him in a 6-part series called How I Created A Cult. Cohen himself is interviewed for the film and the title implies he stated this.

However, the end of the second trailer on the above link suggests he has not yet understood how he contributed to this. But a prior clip in the same trailer certainly illustrates what we’re talking about.

Herein lies the problem. For some people, positions of power bring out their dark side. He has now announced he plans to return to teaching again. Like Wilber, I’m dubious he’s actually awake but seems convinced he’s “fully free from karmic bondage.” (shadow) That’s a dangerous assumption for anyone to make – even someone quite enlightened. But it’s a great story if you want to avoid responsibility.

It certainly illustrates the difficulty of our shadow. We can’t see what we’re standing in. But if we refuse to see when others point it out, then the grip is still strong.

There is a fine line between exploring these issues and walking into the mud. There is value in being real about enlightenment and humanity. But hanging out on guru-bashing sites is not likely to serve you.

In that sense, it varies what the value of watching the above film might be. For some, it can be healing or illusion-popping. For others, another reason to hate teachers or dismiss Cohen out of hand. If the makers of such media can find a balanced approach, as the filmmakers state, it may be quite valuable. I’ve not seen it myself.

Just be careful what draws you to the flame. Slowing down to see the crash? Or seeking to understand this messy thing called human spirituality.

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11 Responses to A Case Study

  1. michael says:

    Very, very good post David!!!

    “fully free of karma”?! ……sounds like some serious denial.


    • Davidya says:

      Agreed, Michael. But it’s certainly a common idea with eastern teachings. Maharishi taught we became “stress free” with Cosmic Consciousness for example. Awakening is also said to “roast” all the unsprouted seeds too.

      But there’s a big difference between winding down the creation of new karma and completing all karma. What drove us into this life is rarely purged by awakening.

      • Isabella C. says:

        “But there’s a big difference between winding down the creation of new karma and completing all karma. What drove us into this life is rarely purged by awakening.”

        I am fascinated by this and wonder if you have a blog post or two that talks about this further?

        • Davidya says:

          Hi Isabella
          The key idea here is “sprouted seeds” – those aspects that have begun unfolding are not roasted in awakening but continue to unfold. We might also think of them as the lessons or obligations of this lifetime. Awakening doesn’t stop our life or turn it into something else. Rather, it changes our relationship with it.
          (of course, our life emphasis may change, leading the expression to change over time but the same gifts and laws continue)

          You can search Sprouted for more but heres a couple of articles around the subject.

  2. Jim says:

    Hi David – Thanks as always for a provocative perspective. 🙂 First I will say that Mr. Cohen has always looked remarkably unhealthy to me, for a spiritual teacher – sallow skin, poor circulation, and troubled eyes. Same with Wilbur. So there is the first clue, if one insists on ‘following a teacher’, pick a robust and radiant one.

    Also, this practice of moving in full-time with a teacher is something to be done with the eyes wide open. I recall working for a spiritual org many years ago, and eventually left, because what was being said, and what was being practiced, were two very different things.

    No expose, or even hard feelings on my part. It simply became obvious to me that I could only make progress by being tested out in the world, tying my spiritual progress to social and economic achievements.

    Worked out well. The shortest path to the goal is not always the obvious one. A phrase I heard a long time ago was, “The way to find God, is to stop looking for Him.” Authenticity (and enlightenment) can be found anywhere. 🙂

    • Davidya says:

      Hi Jim
      I suppose I was always more attracted to what a teacher had to say. If they inspired me. But yes, I also had a similar experience with orgs, although I think it took me a little longer to take a step back.

      But yes, that was a valuable step – to live it in the world.

  3. Jim says:

    Yes, a robust and radiant teacher, *who makes sense*… thanks for the clarification.

    It seems if the reality of getting enlightened only works according to the teacher, in their own little cell, then obviously something is wrong, unbalanced.

    We all go through the fantasy period of, “enlightenment will solve everything, without me having to change anything…”, but after that, there is the connection between Self-Realization, etc., and practical value. What is the practical value?

    Further steps into someone’s ‘ashram’ are rarely the answer. As you mention, life and karma continue to exist. Better to test ourselves in the constant fire of life, than sequestered away, living someone else’s reality.

    • Davidya says:

      Yes, I’ve called that the Keener phase but apparently thats more colloquial than I realized.

      For some people, leaving their lives and entering into retreat can be useful for breaking attachments and finding silence. But I agree – for most people in the current time thats unnecessary. In fact it can even be detrimental if its taken as an escape. Things become mushy rather than clear.

    • Davidya says:

      A conversation I had earlier today adds another point. Are there people truly awake and further around a teacher? Thats the real test – results. Such teachers are still relatively rare.

  4. DAVIDYA, it’s so important to write posts like this one. Not as pleasant as the YES posts, either to read (or to write?).

    Yet appropriate NO articles are tremendously important. Seeking Enlightenment is not “Trivial Pursuit.”

    • Davidya says:

      Hi Rose
      Agreed. Not so pleasant to go into the shadow but if we don’t know it’s there, we’re much more likely to get caught by it.

      Cohen happens to be a current public example of the issues but I’ve seen it many times over the years in different forms.

      Somewhat ironically, I recently finished reading Halfway Up The Mountain, on premature claims of enlightenment. Cohen is quoted frequently in the book, speaking to many of the issues of where we can get caught or side-tracked.

      That speaks to how theres a big difference between an understanding of the issues and a willingness to see them in ourselves.

      So yes, it’s not a game and nor is it a concept.

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