Last Sunday, I was joined by Tom Steininger for a conversation entitled “My Guru Experiment: Twenty Years with Andrew Cohen.” It was an edgy and timely dialogue, coming a year after the collapse of the global EnlightenNext network, and while Andrew Cohen is still on sabbatical to understand the lessons of that collapse and reckon with his shortcomings as a teacher and leader.
I confess that I felt a bit nervous about this dialogue. There is such fierce polarization and passion surrounding any discussion of Andrew Cohen, with both appreciators and critics arrayed in a wide spectrum of sometimes fierce positions. Some former students say their lives have been wonderfully transformed by their work with Andrew. Thousands of people, including many who were never Andrew’s students, feel like their understanding of spirituality has deepened and grown, aided by the distinctions he’s made, particularly his innovations regarding evolutionary spirituality and collective enlightenment. And there are many who are outraged by his harsh methods and lack of care for his students’ humanity, some who say that they’ve been traumatized and victimized by their experiences with him. But for many reasons, I felt it was important to wade into these waters and open up the beginnings of what I think is an important, larger conversation.
I knew that it would be hard to adequately presence the many paradoxes and nuances at play, and that the limitations of that attempt would, on one end, provoke accusations of being an apologist and enabling abuse; or on the other end, be a cop out, and carelessly devalue everything associated with Andrew Cohen and his teaching, essentially throwing out the baby with the bathwater. So I didn’t feel ready until now. But I finally felt ready to plunge ahead.
And so did Tom Steininger. He is uniquely capable of walking the knife’s edge of this important discussion. He was a longtime close and senior student of Andrew’s, the leader of EnlightenNext Germany, and the senior editor of the German-language version of Cohen’s magazine, What Is Enlightenment and then EnlightenNext. He is also a thoughtful, philosophically sophisticated original thinker who is currently in his own process of a deep, self-critical inquiry, holding the tension of having experienced and witnessed profound and authentic spiritual growth and innovation with Andrew, while examining ways in which he may have colluded in the damaging mistakes that Andrew, and the culture around him, made. Not only that, he’s been a key leader in forging several trans-lineage evolutionary spiritual collaboratives that beautifully transcend cultism.
What does Tom mean by his “Guru Experiment”? During our dialogue, he explained that in part he wanted to experiment by finding someone who could challenge him to realize something absolute, something truly far beyond himself, beyond his “arrogance.” He felt that there was something authentic and real about Andrew, who was radical in a very unusual way.
Tom’s experiment involved making a choice to trust someone else more than he trusted himself and to surrender his own perspectives to something he sensed was higher. And it worked. His surrender created enough leverage to pull him beyond insidiously subtle ego dynamics. When the guru relationship works well, it can be a powerful function, completely based on trust.
And yet such trust can also be dangerous.
When I wrote my blog post “Are You in a Cult?” I suggested that everyone in the whole world is in a cult, subject to a whole matrix of limiting attitudes and assumptions that researcher Charles Tart described as “the Consensus Trance.” To break from this trance, I think there needs to be room for bold, challenging experiments, such as surrender to a guru. And yet there’s a serious potential for people to be damaged by pathological dynamics when they’ve surrendered their own will to that of a guru.
I recounted that I’d heard that Andrew had told his students to “strangle your inner child in its crib”, which exemplifies the kind of harshness that I believe contributed to the breakdown of Enlightenment Next. Tom acknowledged this, and yet pointed out that there are enlightened masters who have used harsh methods in their teaching, but have come from the right place.
He believes the issue is the motivation for that harshness. According to Tom, there were things that Andrew did that did not come from the right place; and this at least partially accounts for the controversies and harm that have resulted.
Tom suggested that in order to understand Andrew’s strengths and failings, you have to consider both his theoretical orientation and his personal motivations. Like Ken Wilber and Don Beck, Andrew launched a powerful critique of postmodern relativism. But Tom says this was done in flawed way in that it was just an antithesis to postmodern relativism, without integrating important postmodern values. In addition, on many occasions Andrew demonstrated a profound lack of caring for the personal souls of his students, and that was damaging. This, according to Tom, is part of what precipitated the crisis at EnlightenNext.
But the critiques of Andrew are only half the story. The headline is that Tom continues to feel that much of what he had dedicated his life to as a student of Andrew Cohen was valid, and thus he has learned from the lessons of the crisis, but he and many colleagues in the German-speaking world have continued to work on behalf of the evolution of consciousness and culture, in just the ways their “Guru Experiment” set in motion. These higher values remain primary in his life and I deeply respect this higher commitment.
Ultimately, Tom feels that his “experiment” was really about coming together with other human beings to go beyond ego, to collectively realize a Higher We. This intention is still central to Tom’s life and work. I pointed out that this is almost the opposite of the dharma that matured him into what he is doing now, He is bringing people together in ways that are profoundly respectful of everyone concerned. Instead of brutally confronting the ego, Tom is creating compassionate, collaborative containers.
Tom agrees. He observes something important — that the evolutionary unfolding of Oneness, what Andrew would call “Eros”, is an inherently dialogical process. Thus the true evolutionary integral process is not a philosophy or a theory, but a conversation. He says, “the unfolding of consciousness is always bigger than my voice, and what we create only has value as a contribution to something bigger than ourselves. The classic mistake of any cult is thinking ‘we are it.’”
I pointed out that Andrew Cohen is on his own journey, and I wish him well. To what degree he will metabolize a deep transformation of his heart remains to be seen. On one hand, he’s shown tremendous clarity, courage, intelligence and self-transcending capacity in the past. On the other, this crisis asks something tremendously difficult and entirely different.
We had only begun our conversation when we ran out of time. So our conversation was alive, edgy, and yet incomplete. When we talked afterwards, Tom asked me, and I agreed, to hold a follow-up conversation “about the conversation” which we’ve scheduled for October 15th. For details, click here.
But this first public conversation has opened up a larger, very thoughtful dialogue. And there’s more; our conversation ranged more widely than I can recount in this space. I invite you to listen to the full recording here