Frank Visser, CLIMBING THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: Reflections on Ken Wilber's “The Religion of Tomorrow”
INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
Elliot Benjamin is a philosopher, mathematician, musician, counselor, writer, with Ph.Ds in mathematics and psychology and the author of over 150 published articles in the fields of humanistic and transpersonal psychology, pure mathematics, mathematics education, spirituality & the awareness of cult dangers, art & mental disturbance, and progressive politics. He has also written a number of self-published books, such as: The Creative Artist, Mental Disturbance, and Mental Health. See also: www.benjamin-philosopher.com.
Andrew Cohen's Apology
Ex-student/Author Marlowe Sand Responds
I had not intended to write any more essays about Andrew Cohen, as I thought I had put closure on my thoughts about whether Cohen's May, 2015 apology was “truly sincere, manipulative, or other” . However, about a month ago I received a request from William Yenner  that one of Cohen's ex-students, who recently wrote a book about her experiences with Cohen, would like to get into correspondence with me, as she appreciated my Integral World essays about Andrew Cohen. I didn't think too much about this, but soon after I agreed to the request, I became acquainted with Marlowe Sand (a pseudonym), who sent me her book: Paradise and Promises: Chronicles of My Life with a Self-Declared, Modern-day Buddha  in the hopes that I would write a review of her book. To be candid, writing reviews of books is not something I generally do per se, unless it is part of an essay that I have other reasons to be writing. But mostly out of respect for William Yenner, I replied that I would be willing to read her book and was open to writing something, but that it would probably take me a long time to do so. About 2 weeks ago I started reading Marlowe's book, just for the hell of it. And to my surprise, the Prologue captivated me right away, as I learned that Marlowe was one of those survivors of the “freezing lake” incident (cf. , ), and her portrayal was poignant and moving to me:
We are committed to prostrating ourselves in the water for an hour without stopping….Two weeks previously, in a group of 25 women, we had been the ones who staggered out of the water before the hour was up….We stand four feet apart, waist deep in the water. At first, each plunge shocks my whole body, and I dread going under the second, third, and fourth time. After ten minutes, I am so desperate that it is inconceivable that I could still be here in 50 minutes. My whole body is shaking convulsively, teeth rattling uncontrollably—banging, not chattering. “Face everything and avoid nothing!” After 30 minutes, my face shrinks tight against my skull. My brain feels as if it has shriveled inside my head. I can't feel any part of my body. I am afraid. (cf. , p. 5)
I knew right away that I would be reading Marlowe's book much sooner than I had anticipated, and I conveyed this to Marlowe and asked her again to convey to me her response to Cohen's 2015 apology letter. Marlowe was now much more responsive to my request than she had previously been, and quickly sent me her insightful detailed responses to much of what Cohen wrote, with permission for me to use them in an Integral World essay. Given the intense and disturbing life-changing experiences that Marlowe had as a student of Cohen for 15 years, I think her informative responses to Cohen's apology deserve to be publicly known. However, before conveying her responses to Cohen's apology, I believe it would be relevant and informative to describe Marlowe's thoughts and assimilation of her experiences, 5 years after leaving the movement, during a reunion with ex-community members in Costa Rica:
He would laugh raucously during stories of his students' shock and pain. His cruelty, even sadism, had been relentless for most of his years of teaching….I renewed connection with a woman I had not seen in 25 years. She told me that while her daughter was dying she was systematically intimidated and attacked for not being sufficiently committed to the teachings...The friend of a woman who died slowly with her heart broken, after Andrew rejected her as a student, described how, 11 days before her death, a senior student berated her for 45 minutes for her selfishness, telling her that she would “die a miserable old woman.”….Women who wanted children sometimes had to choose between motherhood and being his student. The result was that some women felt pressured into having tubal ligations and one woman had an abortion….I had always imagined that Andrew was unaware of some of the cruelty meted out by his students. Now I learned from those in his inner circle that he had not only ordered it, but received detailed reports about it. I realized then that his condition was not just a mixed bag of benevolent and cruel; his was, or had become, a pathological condition. Nothing stood in the way of Andrew's demands for control and adoration. There was no check on his abuse of power. (cf. , pp. 232-234)
However, Marlowe demonstrates the grace and open-mindedness of one who is able to ponder the complexity of human frailty mixed with the possibility of human spiritual attainment:
For most of 15 years, I was treated as one of the underclass. I was told on a daily basis that I didn't have much potential. I bought into Andrew's opinion that I was not up to much. Hell! I believed it for 15 years….We struggled to understand the nature of Andrew's gifts and his terrible flaws. How can one separate his genuine spirituality from the base human motives which he so often indulged? He had claimed to teach love but was a bully. He taught surrender in an atmosphere of fear; vulnerability in the context of intense competition. He claimed to teach impersonally, yet cultivated favorites in an atmosphere of suspicion. Worst of all were his responses to budding spirituality among his students. In the name of rooting out ego, he crushed the spiritual impulse just as we began to trust our deepest selves. Was there something in him, we wondered, which made him incapable of empathy?….How do we understand that some of our experiences brought about greater awareness, and some nearly shattered some of us? Could it be that some remarkable things happened in spite of, or sometimes because of, a dangerous and destructive context? (pp. 237-239)
The alarming accounts of Andrew Cohen's many years of being a destructive and sadistic guru to thousands of his followers, in the guise of nurturing their “spiritual development,” is well-documented in a number of books and articles by his ex-students and others, including articles on Integral World . However, it is difficult and puzzling to know what to think about his 2015 second apology, which is much more comprehensive and detailed than his 2013 original apology, which could be dismissed much more easily as lacking depth and sincerity . Let's now see some of the informative and detailed responses to Andrew Cohen's 2015 apology by Marlowe Sand. What follows (Marlowe Sand, 1/9/16, personal communication) are most of the statements given by Cohen in his apology, followed by excerpts from what Marlowe has sent me in response to these statementssee especially Marlowe Sand's illuminating final summary comment.
Marlowe Sand's Responses to Andrew Cohen's 2015 Apology
“I want to acknowledge that for someone who thought he was perfect it is an extraordinary shift for Andrew to have questioned his motivation at all.”
(Cohen): During those years just the notion of higher development, the extraordinary possibility of emergence, would make my heart beat a little faster. It really WAS possible...and I could always feel the immanence of the miraculous always just around the corner. Over the years I took many risks so that great leaps forward could actually happen. I also whole-heartedly encouraged others, my students, to do the same….and so many of my students saw and felt the power and potential of what we had all given so much for. It was so exciting and such a grand spiritual adventure the likes of which most people never experience or even imagine.
(Sand): Tell that to some of the people whose loved ones were dying while he was humiliating them and downgrading them for their lack of commitment! For some it was a grand spiritual adventure, for some it was utterly degrading and destructive, for others (myself included) it was some kind of nightmarish mixture of the two. Any real reckoning with the past has to include an understanding of all of these things.
(Cohen): I gradually lost sight of people's humanity, including my own, and only saw all of us as the living Self Aware consciousness that, in an evolutionary context, was going somewhere. And that was all that I believed was important or really mattered. I even stated this clearly and unequivocally at times when I was teaching.
(Sand): Yes he did.
(Cohen): And I was losing touch with my own simple humanity and everyone else's. I also was simultaneously not paying attention to the gradual growing of my spiritual ambition, of my spiritual ego. I believe that my intense longing for the evolution of consciousness in my students was real, but I have begun to see more and more clearly how over time my pride and my desire for fame and recognition slowly but surely began to blur and corrupt my vision.
(Sand): Yes, here is getting to something real that he needs to look into.
(Cohen): The worst part of it is that I was oblivious to the many different ways some of my students were being pushed too hard and at times too relentlessly to make breakthroughs and too often breaking down as a result.
(Sand): There is something important missing here. His assumption is that he was consistently pushing his students towards truth but just pushed too hard. This is in need of serious reconsideration. In my opinion he was sometimes doing that but over the years more and more often he was just acting out his own frustration and unfettered aggression in increasingly random and extreme ways.
(Cohen): The very human, frail, fallible and vulnerable dimensions of myself that I was denying, I was simultaneously denying in those who had come to me for liberation. I was blind and ambitious and yet sincere in my spiritual aspirations as a teacher and as a thought leader.
(Sand): He later in the letter dismisses the possibility that he might also have been acting out of spite, sadism or cruelty. In retrospect, his raucous laughter when humiliating others looked more like spite than anything else. What does he mean when he insists that he was sincere? Whatever he means, he probably needs to get around to questioning whether he was!
(Cohen): In that movement from glorious experience to action one can make terrible mistakes. And as a thinker, I was moving and was still often creative in finding ever-new ways to express the inexpressible. And I was still curious.
(Sand): Curious about what? Not it would appear, about the inner experience of his students, nor about their individual development. He may have had a rigid idea about aiming for a specific style of collective expression and everything else including extreme suffering was subordinated to that idea. In fact even though he was very perceptive, and intuitive about people and their motivation, he may have been limited in really being able to relate to, or imagine or anticipate the consequences that his actions wrought. Certainly, there was something missing in his ability to empathize with others.
(Cohen): Even after 28 years of being a guide and a guru and a public thinker, I was still reaching and stretching to understand more and more about Life, Reality and the meaning/purpose of it all.
(Sand): Not stretching to understand how his behavior actually impacted people in the real world. I do believe that his excitement level may have continued but more and more in an ivory tower at one step removed form real people, with less and less reality checking from those around him (until those bold senior students in the last couple of years).
(Cohen): This fact of my still evolving and developing as a teacher made it that much easier for me to avoid and deny that slowly the world that I had given so much to give rise to over so many years, was beginning to crumble from the inside. My closest and most devoted senior students were beginning to see through my facade, could see that I was out of control, and see that I didn't even know it. What made matters much worse is that I ignored the evidence; I ignored their respectful pleas for me to slow down and listen to them. For over six months during this period I literally couldn't sleep, and night after night I convinced myself that I had no idea why this was the case. My self became more and more divided. I was still an inspired teacher and speaker, but I adamantly remained steadfastly and obstinately oblivious to the growing storm I was creating.
(Sand): Here we see Andrew Cohen beginning to feel what he did to a few of his close senior students at the end. I do not yet feel his sorrow for the other several thousand of us!
(Cohen): In those historic moments it all seemed worth it. But there were and have been too many moments where I simply have been wrong. Not only did my arrow miss the target but it caused unnecessary pain and suffering to too many people. For this I am deeply and terribly sorry. Too much suffering has resulted from my at times misguided efforts to create breakthroughs. I should have known better.
(Sand): He says the words, and this is good. But there is not any detail that shows us that he really has an example of having hurt someone in his mind and that he cares ABOUT THEM.
(Cohen): So many of you trusted me with your souls and I proved myself at certain pivotal moments unworthy of that trust. Again I am sorry. What I feel dreadful about is that the very idealism that I inspired and released in so many of you, I have wounded in the worst way possible. It's difficult to bear that this is the case, but it just is.
(Sand): This paragraph strikes me as the real thing. I am glad he gets this. I hope at a deep enough level. His destruction of the spiritual impulse in some of his students is indeed a terrible thing.
(Cohen): I am committed to finding a way to honor all that was real and true that we stood for, for so many years. There is nothing else for me to do. There is nothing else I want to do.
(Sand): That is not enough. That would be a recipe for another, quite likely similar, chapter with a more benign face.
(Cohen): Eros is the VERTICAL manifestation of the Absolute principle. Agape is the HORIZONTAL manifestation of the Absolute principle. To say I neglected Agape is an understatement to be sure. Eros and Agape BOTH are essential ingredients of a truly Evolutionary Dharma. They BALANCE each other. They hold each other in a dynamic embrace of loving, creative and Integral tension. My over-emphasis on Eros with little respect for Agape created the circumstance where a collapse was inevitable. And that's why it happened to fast...and for this I am to blame.
(Sand): Please Andrew Cohen! Drop the jargon and talk about some of the terrible things you actually did to people. If you want to generalize then use normal vocabulary in the English languageit is rich enough.
(Cohen): The deep pain. That's what has made it possible for me to begin to truly let in the damage I have wrought and the harm I have caused to too many of you. I only wish I had been more awake to and in touch with my own flawed humanity form the very beginning.
(Sand): Again, the gap we feel is his being intimately in touch with another human. Was this hard for him before he was enlightened? Was this difficulty compounded by his guru role? This then was a terrible tragedy for Andrew Cohen. What did we do to him?
(Cohen): I often wonder how much of the outrageous evolutionary Fire could have awakened and been shared between us in the way that it was, without there being some kind of fallout, some measure of pain and suffering. And if that's possible then how much would have been acceptable, and when would it all have become too much? At this point I really don't know.
(Sand): So here he is bargaining. He asks, maybe to have the good stuff we had to have some of the bad stuff too? This is hair's breadth away from saying, maybe it was worth it. Ask some of those on the A list if they thought it was worth it.
(Cohen): I do know that without the ultimate challenge this enormous calamity has given to me personally on a soul level, my own ego would never have backed down. It's been extremely challenging on many levels to even begin to let in what has actually happened and why it has happened. And I know there is further to go.
(Sand): Good, I am glad he said that.
(Cohen): I am beginning to become simply human after so many years of hiding out in transcendence.
(Sand): Good. That is true.
(Cohen): It's like coming back to earth after almost a quarter of a century of flying above the clouds. As much as I spoke about the need to “embrace heaven and earth,” I was obviously still rejecting so much of what it means to be a fully human being.
(Sand): Good. So Andrew might question many of his above assumptions in the light of this paragraph.
(Cohen): In so many ways I thought I was awake when I was clearly not.
(Cohen): In my rejection of Agape, I was also rejecting the feminine principle in myself and in others and most painfully in women as a whole.
(Sand): Good. And much more for him to see here.
(Cohen): I am ashamed of how badly I blamed women for their evolutionary challenges.
(Sand): Here he appears to be holding on to his view that women are indeed particularly handicapped when it comes to enlightenment.
(Cohen): Many people accuse me of hating women. This is not and has never been true. But I was in so many ways arrogant and insensitive and even cruel in my impatience at times.
(Sand): Is he claiming that his insensitivity and cruelty were really just impatience and therefore not so bad?
(Cohen): I apologize to the women who were affected and am so very sorry for being so lacking in the real heart that was desperately needed.
(Sand): Good. This feels real.
(Cohen): I failed many of you in the worst way and for this I really have no excuse. I became a caricature of the very behavior and attitudes in men that I was so sure that I had transcended.
(Cohen): And the painful and ironic truth in all of this is that I did have a real passion and commitment for a very radical expression of women's liberation. I had seen a truly miraculous potential and possibility. But, in the end, I proved to have neither the patience, nor the skill, nor the deep humility and care (agape) to create the conditions that would have made a stable breakthrough actually possible.
(Sand): Good. Well said. But he still assumes that he SAW things clearly. Given that he now admits that the shadow was there yet unacknowledged, then all of his perceptions may have been less clear.
(Cohen): In the middle years of my teaching career, at times I came up with and tried many outrageous stunts in order to once again catalyze big breakthroughs. Also to be honest I was many times actually in a state of desperation because I cared so much, and was trying to get my students to care as much as I did about what was possible, the very promise we had all given our lives for.
(Sand): It is a big assumption that he did what he did because he cared to much. There is no sign that he really has questioned this.
(Cohen): But as well-meaning as many of these attempts were on my part, some were certainly just too much...too outrageous and simply lacking in compassion and a deep appreciation of what is actually involved in change at the deepest level.
(Sand): Good, but I wonder if someone told him to say that.
(Cohen): More often than not what is needed is simply more love and encouragement, not more shocks, challenges and confrontations with one's own division. There were times of course where strong challenges are called for and many former students have reminded me of many ways in which I did help them to reach breakthroughs through harsh tactics...but there is no doubt this happened too often, and more often than not it caused more harm than good.
(Sand): Good, I believe this.
(Cohen): I was a revolutionary, and publicly declared myself as such...ant that's why many of you came to me. But that can no longer be an excuse for my own insensitivity and at time ruthless attempts to force deep changes to occur. Again I deeply apologize to any of you who suffered unnecessarily because of this.
(Cohen): Over these two years away, I have come to appreciate with growing regret that the hierarchies that I had used as a teaching tool gradually over time became ossified and rigid, becoming for some not too different to being held in a straightjacket or a prison….Finally what has been hardest for me has been facing and coming to terms with the fact that I have let down so deeply and betrayed my former students whom I was closest to, those former senior students who had trusted me with their lives and souls and who gave so much to make it possible for the promise of Evolutionary Enlightenment to come alive in the world….I who had demanded so much was, when my turn came, seemingly unable or unwilling to do the very thing I had asked from them. I am so ashamed about this and my public apology was really meant for them.
(Sand): From this paragraph I am shocked to learn that he really does care about his most senior students and feels ashamed and sorry for his behavior which hurt THEM. But what about the hundreds and probably a couple of thousand other students who were never senior students. Some were peripherally involved and yet terribly traumatized. Some still are. The outcome of the children who were reared in the community is another storynot a pretty one.
(Cohen): Almost 2 years after my fall from grace and the collapse of EnlightenNext, I still care as much as I ever did about most of what I taught and a lot of what I stood for. I am committed to giving the rest of my life to trying to make good on it all.
(Sand): I hope that does not mean having another go at being a teacher.
(Cohen): What that will mean, of course, remains to be seen. Through this process of coming to terms with all that has happened, so many important questions have understandably arisen. As I make progress in my inquiry, I will be writing more about it here. I still love you very much and hope from the bottom of my heart that you will find it in yourselves to believe that even Gurus with big egos can find the courage and humility to change. I know in “Embracing Heaven and Earth,” I boldly stated that once Enlightenment has occurred, an individual gets frozen in their developmentthat from then on their evolution actually comes to a halt forever. I am committing the rest of my life to proving myself wrong.
(Sand): So did he miss the whole point which is for him to question whether he did in fact love us, or whether we were characters in the working out of his unconscious mind. There is no question that Andrew could now again engender love, trust and adoration from followers. My question is whether he actually could sit down with another person he had hurt and imagine their experience at times when he had hurt them. Whether his ability to intuit, includes the ability to attune to another's mind and feel with them, in a way which has nothing to do with him.
As I assimilate what I have learned from reading Marlowe Sand's book and digesting her responses to Andrew Cohen's apology, I have gained more understanding about my initial determination that Cohen's apology was neither truly sincere or manipulative. When I wrote my essay about this in May, 2015, I chose to classify his apology in the category “other” (cf. ) for lack of any better way to conceptualize where it belonged.
However, upon further reflection in consideration of all that Marlowe has conveyed, I must say that I agree with Frank Visser in his comparison of Cohen with Mark Gafni, as Frank has this to say about Cohen's apology:
He showed some self-insight in that he had been “hiding in transcendence,” neglecting the dimension of “vulnerable humanity” both in himself and others. Though I have never been a fan of Cohen's philosophy, I think this was a great gesture and a step in the right direction. .
Although I also think that Cohen had devastating negative effects on far more people than Gafni did, I am willing to give Cohen the benefit of the doubt for at least making what I now construe as a reasonably authentic apology.
Yes there could have been more substance to his apology, as Marlowe Sand describes, in particular having more insight and awareness about his condescension towards women, feeling and conveying sincere remorse for the multitude of people he had devastating effects uponaside from his focus on his senior students, and conveying real life examples of his mis-deeds. However, Marlowe affirms a number of Cohen's statements as being “real,” and she conveys to us in no uncertain terms that she appreciates the crux of his apology. If Marlowe Sand, after all she has suffered for 15 years being under the control of Andrew Cohen in practically every aspect of her life, can rise to the level of being able to appreciate at least “some” of Cohen's apology, then certainly I can do the same.
I don't think it is insignificant that Cohen has stayed out of the limelight for the past 2 years, and I would like to think that he is truly taking stock and doing his personal retreat work. Of course I could be wrong, and I think Marlowe's concerns are legitimate that a large number of Cohen's ex-students still look toward him with devotion and may ask him to return as their teacher. But all things considered I must agree with Marlowe Sand that “for someone who thought he was perfect it is an extraordinary shift for Andrew to have questioned his motivation at all.”
As Marlowe says, “Time will tell. The jury is still out.”
Notes and References
1) See Elliot Benjamin (2015). Andrew Cohen's “Apology”: Truly Sincere, Manipulative, or “Other”? Retrieved from www.integralworld.net
2) See William Yenner (2009). American Guru: A Story of Love, Betrayal, and Healing: Former Students of Andrew Cohen Speak Out. Rhinebeck NY: Epigraph Books.
3) See Marlowe Sand (2015). Paradise and Promises: Chronicles of My Life with a Self-declared, Modern-day Buddha. O books. Winchester, UK.
4) See in particular Hal Blacker (2013). The “A” List of Andrew Cohen: A Catalog of Trauma and Abuse; Be Scofield (2013). Integral Abuse: Andrew Cohen and the Culture of Evolutionary Enlightenment; William Yenner (2011). Cut From the Same Cloth: Scientology and EnlightenNext. Retrieved from www.integralworld.net
5) Andrew Cohen's 2013 apology (as well as his 2015 apology) is no longer available online at the site it originally appeared at. However, Marlowe Sand included in her book (cf. , p. 251) the following statement from his 2013 apology:
Some of my closest students have tried to make it apparent to me that in spite of the depth of my awakening, my ego is still alive and well...when I was being asked to face my own ego by those who were nearest and dearest to me, I resisted. And I often made their lives difficult as a result. I'm aware that many of my students over the years have also been affected by my lack of awareness of this part of myself. As time passes I intend to reach out and engage in a process of dialogue with those of you who would like to.
6) See Frank Visser (2015). What's Love Got to Do with It: Love Guru Marc Gafni Under Attack after New York Times Publications. Retrieved from www.integralworld.net