Last week, on October 15th, Tom Steininger and I held a follow up conversation to our October 5th Beyond Awakening dialogue, “My Guru Experiment: Twenty Years with Andrew Cohen”. We discussed what did and didn’t happen during that first dialogue and went into a deeper exploration of the intricate paradoxes surrounding the evolutionary experiments in the community of students of Andrew Cohen.
Tom requested this follow up because he wanted to share more of his own story and offer a more personal account of his experience during his twenty years with Andrew.
In addition to telling us how he had been served by the white-hot intense demands that produced some extraordinary advancements in consciousness, he also said there were four times when he had decided to leave Andrew and EnlightenNext. He described two of those occasions. He decided to leave once because of what he perceived as “inhuman” ways of being with each other in the community in Cologne, and another time during the Iraq war, when he was repulsed what he felt was a kind of group-think in support of the war from Andrew and the Foxhollow community.
Some people had asked for an explanation of the vague word “abuse” so I explained that Andrew’s own awakening had been dramatic and radical, and that it had given him a sense of zeal for transcendence, and for the unqualified commitment it required, and that he had trusted this absolutely. So he became impatient, even scornful with whatever stood in the way. And he saw that powerful insights and breakthroughs were sometimes catalyzed by intense demands. So he leaned in to create transformational crises. He even articulated a principle of his work that spiritual progress is served by “evolutionary tension” which he embraced to the point of a general failure of empathy for human limitations, even gradual time-anchored change. When people resisted, Andrew almost always ignored their anguish and turned up the heat.
And at times he took this to extremes. This occurred especially during one particular period leading up to July 30, 2001, when a collective crisis had led to a collective breakthrough among many students, expressed by a “volcanic surge of spiritual illumination” among a whole group that many regard as one of the crowning achievements of his teaching innovations regarding collective consciousness and evolutionary spirituality.
Andrew stood unmoving for his demands, and he got results, but he didn’t listen to people’s cries of pain. Many students left (and many stayed) after seemingly cruel, cultic, even bizarre forms of pressure. And since then, students have shared their stories in blogs and books, and have charged him with a long list of misbehaviors, including physical abuse, financial exploitation, interference with family and personal relationships, violation of sexual and reproductive rights and privacy, emotional and psychological abuse and ostracizing students, and denying and discouraging students’ freedom to leave the community.
Tom acknowledged all this, and he admitted he agreed with some of this critique, even though he is still committed to the utopian purposes behind all the extremes.
Importantly, he clarified that, counter-intuitively, the “abuse” was not what had caused the collapse of the worldwide EnlightenNext community. In his view, the collapse had been caused because of the key way in which Andrew’s work had succeeded. His senior students had awakened together enough to become his peers, but he was unable to receive feedback and submit to the higher collective intersubjective awakening he had helped to catalyze. And the leadership couldn’t come together to wrest control of EnlightenNext from him and correct for his mistakes.
We also considered an important question about the fact that Andrew contrasted the authentic self with the ego in a binary, black and white, “either or” fashion. Was this false dichotomy at the root of the harm, abuse, and dehumanization of people? Acknowledging that this was indeed a key factor, Tom also pointed out that it was also a source of some of the tremendous value in the EnlightenNext experiment — the transformative power of directly facing the challenge to choose real changes. I agreed with the key points made by both the questioner and Tom, and suggested that perhaps there’s a greater “both/and” that includes both sides of this enduring polarity.
We managed to address a number of the comments and questions that came in subsequent to the first dialogue. There has been quite a lot of passion, energy, and thoughtful exchange generated around both dialogues.
And during our discussion, comments continued to arrrive. I felt it was important to address comments that Tom seemed emotionally removed from the ways in which he had supported something that was hurting people. People seemed to be wanting to hear a more embodied, emotional response, not just an intellectual acknowledgement of mistakes. I tried to make it more vivid for Tom by saying “If there is a real trail of blood and you have some of it on your hands, I think some people are wanting to see some tears.”
Tom responded honestly, acknowledging his typological difficulty in speaking emotionally on a public call— and he spoke about how he feels implicated in the patterns of abuse, while at the same time feeling a necessity to stand strongly in his commitment to the positive evolutionary, utopian core that EnlightenNext’s work was about.
I also thought it important to expose my own process of self-questioning with regard to Andrew. In the past, I’ve publicly defended Andrew’s students and community because I believed (and still do) that there was tremendous psycho-spiritual capital invested that became coherent around him, and that his students became a fierce and important cultural force, a counterforce to the apathy, mediocrity, abstraction, and other limiting attitudes and assumptions that pervade conventional culture (the “Consensus Trance”) and even much of spiritual and integral culture. And yet it is clear to me now that there was a more critical failure of compassion on the part of Andrew and the whole EnlightenNext community than I had realized. And it must be understood, processed, and purified.
A great deal can be learned and taken forward from the EnlightenNext experiment, but that progress requires going beyond both rigid ideals and deconstructive cynicism. It ultimately requires love more than anything else, love from a fully broken heart, perhaps in a way that Andrew hasn’t yet been able to completely embody. Still, as the experiment has shown, the bottom line is love. In my opinion, that love has to extend to everyone who cares about evolutionary spirituality and collective awakening, to everyone who gave their lives and energy to EnlightenNext, to everyone who feels damaged, and even to Andrew himself.
And yet, it was important for me to acknowledge that I can’t claim to have clean hands, that my defense of Andrew’s evolutionary innovations may have influenced some individuals to get into or remain in a dynamic with unhealthy dimensions that might have adversely impacted them. And I confessed that I’ve been taking that to heart.
Another listener’s question we addressed was around which aspects of Tom’s experience with Andrew had been retained, and which had been discarded. Tom stated that the core of what he retains is the principle of higher intersubjectivity. Dialogue is at the core of his current work, including collaboration with individuals committed to dharmas and practices that differ from his own. But he’s still valuing the need to aspire to a “utopian” ideal, as EnlightenNext aspired to that “Higher We” in order to most fully advance and develop, all the while holding respectful space for the world as it is, and people as they are.
Believe it or not, there was much, much more. This blog post just touches on a few highlights of the conversation.
I hope you’ll listen to the recording to access the depth of this discussion and consider this contribution to what is really just one step in an extended process of healing and ever deepening levels of understanding.