International Journal of Cultic Studies, Vol. 5, 2014, 30-36.
Crazy Wisdom: A Personal Account
This personal narrative offers a synopsis of the author’s experience as recounted in American Guru (2009). The author describes his life in the spiritual community EnlightenNext, tracing his path from an idealistic seeker to a leader in the group. He discusses the teaching methods of its founder, Andrew Cohen, the author’s ultimate disillusionment with and departure from the group, and his attempts to make sense of his experience.
On a snowy night in 1988 in Amherst, Massachusetts, an old friend told me a remarkable story. H.W.L. Poonja, a mystic sage in India, had transformed a young Westerner in a matter of weeks into a powerful guru whom he had charged with inspiring “a revolution among the young.” The Westerner's name was Andrew Cohen.
Within a few days, I hurried to attend my first of countless gatherings, known as satsangs, focused on Andrew’s teaching. (Satsang is a Sanskrit word that means “in the company of truth.”) That evening, Andrew sat in the front of the room, eyes closed. Eventually, he opened his eyes and said, “Does anyone have any questions?”
Many people did: “What is the true nature of freedom?” “What are the obstacles to achieving it?”
I was struck by Andrew’s serenity. He spoke broadly about spiritual freedom and urged us to abandon the notion that we are not free. His talk cast a spell, and I felt connected to my passionate desire to attain freedom.
I returned nightly, sensing a mystery that defied expression or comprehension. My own exchanges with Andrew fed my deep yearning for freedom, which had been the object of my many years of spiritual practice.
Andrew wove the nonduality teachings of Indian Advaita Vedanta into his discourses. I became more convinced that I could attain the highest spiritual goal: enlightenment.
Inevitably, my gravitation toward Andrew strained my marriage, which soon broke down. I moved into one of Andrew’s group houses and embarked on what was to be a 13-year career as a devotee. From that moment forward, my life and Andrew’s—his teachings, wishes, and priorities—were profoundly intertwined.
Within months, Andrew moved his community to California, where the closeness and trust between community members grew. He founded EnlightenNext Magazine and increasingly relied on his students for (unremunerated) creative and managerial support.
Andrew instituted weekly gender-segregated meetings, in which members could “investigate the teachings.” These meetings gradually took on another purpose: targeted criticism of a fellow student, ostensibly to free that student from the influence of the ego. Such meetings could be grueling affairs; if individuals did not humbly and sincerely embrace the offered criticism, they were subjected to protracted attacks on their character by other students.
On one occasion, I was the focus of one such session, having been accused of undermining a fellow student. I became frightened and defensive, and I was subjected to several hours of intense and escalating pressure intended to humble me.
The day after my ordeal, which had concluded at 3 am, I received a directive from Andrew to shave my head. This edict was Andrew’s remedy for pride or vanity, and it was typically prescribed for a year at a time. Often, however, a perceived offense—a display of pride or aggressive behavior, for example—would result in a “renewal of vows”: another year with a shaved head. My “vows” were extended in this fashion three times.
Although vaguely aware of a creeping authoritarianism in Andrew’s approach, I still felt trustful of his motivations, and I still considered the balance of things to be tipped totally in his favor.
In 1994, Andrew put me in charge of a search for a home, or ashram, for his growing community. Eventually, the search turned to the East Coast, where we found a 220-acre property in Lenox, Massachusetts.
At close to $3 million, the property, known as Foxhollow, required far more funds than were available. Andrew was counting on the largesse of a wealthy student, Jane O’Neil, who had earlier offered a loan toward the purchase of a property. Instead, Andrew now asked Jane to consider donating the money. Andrew charged a senior student who was one of Jane’s closest friends with bringing her around to donating rather than lending the money.
Jane was gradually persuaded to finance the purchase, with the stipulation that the donation be kept strictly confidential, to keep her family from finding out. Andrew agreed.
Within a few months, the property was officially ours. I have a photo of a beaming Jane O’Neil and me standing together in front of Foxhollow. Seeing that photo now, I cringe at the memory of how Jane was manipulated while I silently stood by. Within 2 years, Jane had left the community. Days after Jane’s departure, an angry Andrew Cohen publicly revealed that she had been the donor who made Foxhollow possible.
Soon we began restoration of the Manor House, the largest of about a dozen buildings. It was one of the happiest times of my career as Andrew's right-hand man. I became Foxhollow’s business manager and a member of its Board of Directors. I also lived in Andrew’s house, the only student other than his wife who shared that privilege.
At Foxhollow, the number of practices, meetings, and projects began to multiply. Andrew spoke about “an absolute relationship to life” as a feature of the enlightened condition; and, as his students, we were committed to the cultivation of an “all-hands-on-deck” attitude.
Nearly a decade had passed since I first met Andrew Cohen. Foxhollow was my home, my fellow students were my family, and Andrew was my spiritual mentor. Yet not everything was as it seemed. In addition to new rules and practices that seemed to contradict some of Andrew’s earlier teachings, money began to have a growing influence on day-to-day life. To help finance Foxhollow, Andrew instituted an entrance fee of $1,000 per formal student for each year of prior participation. This fee entitled the student to participate at Foxhollow.
Thus, with the gradual imposition of rules, taxes, and spirit-breaking confrontational meetings, the climate in Andrew’s community had changed significantly; and I began to witness transformations in Andrew’s personality, methods, and teachings that would take me years to fully comprehend. But in 1997, with a gleaming new facility, a growing community, and my own personal sense of accomplishment, Foxhollow was still where I wanted to be. At that point, I could not see the storm clouds gathering on the horizon.
The Dark Side of Enlightenment
Some of the changes in our new environment were subtle, such as the institution of a daily exercise regime; others, while they were closely guarded secrets that occurred only behind closed doors, were not subtle at all, such as punishment in the form of physical abuse. These changes were indicative of the power that Andrew Cohen sought to exert on his followers’ lives. They were also harbingers of even more egregious abuses to come.
As Andrew's influence over us grew, he became more controlling of our sexual and romantic lives. As a long-term member, I could seek companionship only among the few women who had proven themselves through years of devotion and service to Andrew.
One could not seek a partner outside the community, and there were no casual sexual encounters. As a result, I spent all but 6 months of my 13 years with Andrew without a romantic partner. When one did manage to obtain permission for a relationship, Andrew often intervened to end it. In my case, he decided that my relationship should end because my partner had been “proud.” In other words, like all relationships inside the community, mine began with his consent and ended by his decree.
Along with new rules and regulations, Andrew also began instituting punishments, as well. The methods were often random, harsh, out of proportion to the alleged wrong, and questionable as educational “skillful means.” Andrew referred to his new system as “Acts of Outrageous Integrity,” and it consisted of extreme “teaching methods” designed to cut through a student’s ego and resistance in order to facilitate awakening.
Cohen’s acts of outrageous integrity included disciplinary face slapping, in which it was difficult to discern any particular lesson other than “Shape up!” In some cases, Andrew would direct one student to slap another; in others, he administered the slaps himself.
For some time, Cohen had also been bestowing ironic spiritual names intended to make their bearers acutely aware of their character flaws. There were Mad Dog and Raging Bull, who had tempers; Nar, who was “narcissistic”; Cas, who was “casual”; Integrity, who supposedly lacked it; and many others.
Thus, an unprecedented degree of control eventually came to pervade the atmosphere of the Foxhollow community, and “groupthink” was certainly one of the consequences. It is a well-known and troubling fact that group mentality has the potential to override individual morality. I experienced this firsthand as a member of Andrew Cohen’s community— at times observing, participating in, rationalizing, and excusing extremely harsh treatment of fellow members who had angered their teacher. When a student was slapped or evicted from a student household, for example, I told myself that it was for that individual’s own good, chalking it up to my teacher’s passionate determination to free the student from the tyranny of the ego. I do not regard the fact that there was no forum in which to question such behavior as an excuse for my failure to have done so. Even when, later on, I found myself on the receiving end of abusive treatment, I compartmentalized these experiences in my own mind, suspending judgment—and my own humanity—in an effort to adhere to the party line.
Another incident involved a student (Mikaela) who had fallen out of favor by reminding Cohen that something he had criticized her for doing had been his idea in the first place. He decried her as evil and ordered that the walls, floor, and ceiling of her office (which had been relocated to an unfinished basement room) be painted red to signify the spilled blood of her guru. She was ordered to spend hours there contemplating the implications of her transgression, with the additional aid of a large cartoon on the wall depicting her as a vampire and the word traitor written in large letters next to it. Andrew often employed red paint in this fashion to create environments designed to induce shame and guilt in students who he felt had questioned his judgment or disobeyed him.
Another female student who had displeased Andrew and, after leaving the community, had returned to help out on a weekend painting project, was summoned to another basement room. There she was met by four female students who, having guided her onto a plastic sheet on the floor, each poured a bucket of paint over her head as a “message of gratitude” from Andrew. She left the property traumatized; she fell ill in subsequent days (during which she was harassed by phone calls from another student who, at Cohen’s instigation, repeatedly called her a coward) and never again returned to Foxhollow.
A Final Word on Crazy Wisdom
Many of us who have left the community have often discussed among ourselves our complicity in the execution of acts of outrageous integrity that essentially amounted to abuse. And whether we witnessed these abuses firsthand or from a distance, we have often expressed regret over our failure to intervene or to acknowledge our part in the harm they brought to so many individuals.
Thus, while Andrew Cohen’s acts of outrageous integrity became a common fixture in our community, redemption rarely if ever followed, and it gradually became apparent that the guru’s renewed good graces came at an entirely different sort of price. This new “currency of forgiveness” was cold, hard cash.
The Currency of Forgiveness
The practice of donating money to atone for mistakes had begun in California in the mid-1990s, and at that time it had been accepted by all and never questioned. What I witnessed at Foxhollow, and what others have also reported, are clear indications of Cohen’s recognition that he was going to have to venture beyond a purely voluntary basis for the collection of donations if his organization was to thrive: Money, not spirit, was the new coin of the realm.
Andrew let it be understood that his good favor could be had for a price. It is a testament to the faith that so many of us had in Andrew that, despite the questionable nature of these new financial arrangements, we complied—some of us taking on enormous and ill-advised borrowing. Here are two brief summaries of financial exploitation:
Student A stated that as a result of “doing poorly” in his teacher’s eyes and feeling under great pressure to do more for EnligthenNext, he offered a check of $3,000 to Cohen as a sign of his remorse. Cohen stormed into the student’s room, threw the check on the floor, and demanded angrily, “Do you think you can buy me off for a lousy three grand?” Having previously heard Cohen say that any long-term student who blows it will owe $20,000 in “karmic retribution,” this student scraped together what he had and borrowed the rest to present the expected amount. This student, after he left EnlightenNext, asked for his donation back, a request that was declined.
Student B related how she ran away from Foxhollow but was found and brought back by another student. She wasn’t allowed to live in Foxhollow, however, but off-campus with other women who were deemed to be doing poorly. In the meantime, she was told how she had made a terrible mistake in trying to leave, and that to make her way back she had to give everything. Gradually, she came to understand that everything was meant to specifically include her $60,000 IRA, and after a time she did turn it over to EnlightenNext. But she was told again that everything means everything, which led her to offer any future inheritance from her family. Subsequently, she was allowed to return to Foxhollow; shortly thereafter, she left EnlightenNext prior to receiving an inheritance.
My Fall From Grace
By mid-1999, I was beginning to wake up to the reality of the life I was living. That summer, I rankled Andrew with my failure to congratulate him for a recently published book. I had also organized a 5-day holiday for myself and four other students, something that was rarely done—vacations were normally taken in conjunction with work for Andrew, such as setting up a retreat. This one had no purpose other than to go away for a while. My new expression of independence didn't sit well with Andrew.
Then, after a retreat in France, Andrew casually revealed to a group of four close male students a deeply personal story that I had told him in confidence. Andrew frequently revealed information shared with him in confidence, particularly delicate information of a sexual nature. I was mortified when he revealed that I had twice in my life paid for sex. I was forced to admit to what I had done during my vacation some twenty years prior.
But my embarrassed admission was not the end of it. I was urged to elaborate on the experience and then was accused of being too revealing. Next, Andrew convened several meetings of these four male students with me on the subject of my sexuality. Men I considered my brothers shouted in my face and abused me verbally. Later, a fellow student slapped me in the face. She didn’t have to tell me that the blow was from Andrew.
Around the World in 100 Days
I was then ordered to go to London, where I felt disoriented once I was stripped of my responsibilities. I behaved like a jilted lover—pouting, raging, and sending expensive bouquets with letters of apology to Andrew. When another community member, likely at Andrew’s insistence, slapped me in the face, I thanked him, despite the anger I struggled to conceal.
As my situation and state of mind deteriorated, I decided to offer to Andrew the last remnant of my self-worth—that is to say, all my money. In the twisted reality in which I found myself, I considered this my last, best option. I did not think, “Leave this community.” I told him that I wanted to surrender all that I had. What I wanted to give up was my $80,000 inheritance. I heard nothing immediately from Andrew about accepting this offer.
Weeks later, I received instructions that I was to move again, this time to Australia to join another penitent there. My crime: “Betraying Andrew and His Teachings.” Then, just 6 days after I had arrived there, Andrew ordered my return to Cambridge, where I was ordered to move into a student house and share a room with three other men.
My mortification deepened with each day and its attendant indignities. Community members insulted me. I had fallen very far and had done so very publicly.
Soon, word came from Andrew’s office at Foxhollow for me to send the $80,000 that I had pledged. Despite my regret, I sent it in.
Not long after I sent Andrew the money, I learned that a colleague of mine had fled the London community and was in Rotterdam. Because of the atmosphere of fear and intimidation in Andrew’s communities, students often left surreptitiously. I was given the task to retrieve the escapee; in Rotterdam, I did locate him, but I had no luck convincing him to return. However, now my lot seemed better, and I returned to Foxhollow on somewhat better footing.
Although no longer a leader, I jumped back into work and life there, beginning each day at 3 am with a 3-hour practice of 1,000 prostrations before a photograph of Andrew. I didn't gain insight into why I had so precipitously fallen out of favor. Was the recent positive turn of my experience of community life “for real”? I wasn't sure.
One day, Andrew asked me to search for a new property for his London Center. I quickly moved to London, and over the next several months I found an appropriate property and helped to arrange for its purchase.
Then, as if with the flick of a switch, I was evicted from my quarters in a student house and soon thereafter was told to return to Massachusetts to live with two other fallen male students. I was now running on empty, exhausted. The three of us outcasts made futile attempts to win Andrew’s forgiveness.
Some days later, I was told, once again, that I was no longer welcome at Foxhollow. I felt nothing. Not yet. Not even relief. I decided to leave the community for good.
In the immediate days of my new life outside EnlightenNext, I was aware that something very important was happening. I began to feel joy and liberation. I had anticipated that I might feel overcome with guilt or shame. Instead, I felt gratitude—to myself. I was back; my life was again mine. Autonomy, individuality, freedom—all of the precious things I had been conditioned to live without—were once again mine. Words of Nietzsche come to mind: “At long last the horizon appears free to us again... the sea, our sea, lies open again: perhaps there has never been such an ‘open sea.’”
Life After Andrew
Leaving the EnlightenNext cult has been one of the most powerful and positive experiences of my life. The sheer emptiness I felt was actually a balm to my soul, and as the first hours and days passed, I began to experience a sense of boundless freedom and joy. The relief I felt at having escaped Andrew’s grip propelled me into a nearly constant state of bliss. The recovery of one’s autonomy is the sweetest thing!
I also had my inner work cut out for me: I still had many deeply ingrained Andrew-centric ideas to purge.
Approximately two years after I had left, in early 2003, I heard from two fellow former students; Andrew had recently invited each for a sit-down, and both reported that he had spoken negatively of his former students, referring to us as the “shadow sangha.” He had encouraged both of these former students to withdraw their commitments to attend an upcoming reunion of former students that was being planned in Costa Rica. Hearing this left me angry and determined not to allow my newfound freedom to waver in any way.
My growing sense of autonomy now made it possible for me, for the first time, to begin holding Andrew accountable for his actions. I decided that I must confront Andrew. In a letter to him, I said that it was outrageous that he would have anything other than kind words for those of us who had given years of our lives to his loyal service, and I declared that in my view his solicitation of my inheritance had been made under duress—which we both knew to be unethical—and demanded its return.
Within a couple of days, I received a call from Andrew. He offered to return my money because if I didn’t want to donate it he didn’t want to keep it.
When the paperwork for the return of the donation arrived, however, there was a string attached: a 5-year gag order restricting me from making public statements about Andrew. The gag order seemed to contradict everything that Andrew had ever stood for, but I signed the papers and took my donation back.
The return of my money was an unprecedented triumph for a former student, yet only the beginning for me. I still had a lot left to process about my 13 years of discipleship. I feel, in retrospect, that it was beneficial for me to have been forced to ruminate so quietly for so long. By the summer of 2008, when my gag order expired, I was well into writing American Guru, which was published the following year.
Since the publications of American Guru and other revelations of abuse online at the WhatEnlightenment blog, Cohen has made an attempt to moderate his public persona as a “rude guru.” Last year, his harsh denunciation of ex-students in his 2006 essay, “A Declaration of Integrity,” was removed from his blog, although it was returned months later after its removal was publicly pointed out. Over the same period, he has revised his formerly extremely harsh appraisal of his former teacher, now replacing that with words of love and appreciation. We have heard that a PR consultant hired by Cohen advised him to improve his outreach or risk deterioration of financial support.
The lessons of the EnlightenNext story have yet to be learned in their entirety. Although I wish neither ill nor harm to Cohen’s current followers, it is my opinion that membership in his community represents an invitation to waste one’s time and energy, and possibly one’s entire life, in the service of a destructive and damaging myth, as well as a dubious opportunity to entangle oneself ever more deeply and dangerously in its creator’s elaborately constructed lies. Those of us who have left the EnlightenNext community did so for what have turned out to be compellingly good reasons. No teacher worthy of the name would subject his students to the kinds of mental, physical, and financial abuses described here, and no spiritual leader who requires his followers to internalize and reinforce a fantasy of his own perfection deserves a platform for his hypocritical ideology of “evolutionary enlightenment.”
Even with the adversity that they brought into my life, I have benefited from the years I spent with Andrew Cohen. Twenty years ago, a younger man left it all to join in Andrew's holy life. What looks naïve to me today was totally compelling then. From this realization springs compassion for all who participated. Even now, I choose not to renounce my years of devotion. I experienced the freedom of letting go and learned about the deeper meaning of my existence. I wouldn’t be who I am today without all of it, positive and negative, and regret would take away the gratitude I have for being courageous enough to take the initial leap and wise enough to know when to call it quits. I do, however, feel responsible for hurting others through my complicity in Cohen’s excesses. I hope that the publication of my memoir and further testimony such as this article can help spare others from making the same mistakes.
Yenner, W. (2009). American guru. Rhinebeck, NY: Epigraph Publishing.
About the Author
William Yenner was first introduced to meditation in Rishikesh, India in the 1970s and was later a committed practitioner of Buddhist Vipassana meditation. His involvement with Andrew Cohen and Cohen’s EnlightenNext community spanned 13 years.
His story is typical of that of many longtime students of Cohen’s. At the outset, it was characterized by idealism and inspiration. In the middle, devotion and hard work prevailed as he helped build the organization. And in the end, he was left disillusioned and disappointed after a series of debilitating, abusive experiences.
Following his departure, and in order to secure the return of a large monetary donation that he had been pressured to give to Cohen, a gag order prevented his writing or speaking publicly about his experiences in Cohen’s community. That gag order expired in the summer of 2008; following that, he began the work of writing and editing American Guru (2009). This paper is based on that volume.
Yenner currently lives in Western Massachusetts, owns a property management business, and travels often.