An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

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Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, SUNY 2003Frank Visser, a psychologist of religion, founded in 1997 (back then under the name of “The World of Ken Wilber”). He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. He is the author of the first monograph on Ken Wilber and his work: “Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion” (SUNY Press, 2003), which has been translated into 7 languages, and of many essays on this website.

Andrew Cohen's Disappearing Act

Seeing Through Cultic Tendencies
in Our Most Favorite Movements

Frank Visser

Where does that leave the virtues of being rude? What does it say about Wilber's discriminatory powers when it comes to the trustworthiness of gurus?

Almost exactly two years ago, on June 23, 2013, spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen surprised the community of seekers after Truth with a brief "Apology" on his blog, announcing he would step down as a guru—at least for some time (unfortunately, this letter has been taken offline now). What prompted this move was, among other things, that some of his senior students had confronted him about his behavior (unspecified). In this candid letter, he confessed that "in spite of the depth of my awakening, my ego is still alive and well."

In the common spiritual jargon, where ego and enlightenment are often presented as excluding opposites (and this includes the Cohen jargon), this could be read between the line as: I am not so enlightened after all... It wasn't meant in the Wilberian sense of "divinely big egos", who could reform monasteries or start spiritual traditions, but in the sense of petty egos, all too human, which supposedly are the cause of all negative behavior. Wilber's understanding of enlightenment, followed by Cohen in broad outline, specifies a vertical or traditional dimension of enlightenment, and a horizontal or modern dimension, which gives it its "evolutionary" flavor. This second dimension was not other-worldly, as was the traditional understanding, but decidedly this-worldy. Transformation was not an individual affair, but something that should affect the world as a whole.

We should first notice that such an admission by a teacher is really, really rare in the spiritual scene. All too often, spiritual gurus are seen and presented as "perfect", and not seldom gurus do everything to uphold that image. When a guru admits to have faults, this is often seen as something that speaks in his favor. At last a guru who is honest about his failures! This can easily be used as a new marketing ploy: here's finally a guru who is honest enough to have a look at his shadow! Well, for a guru like Cohen who preached his followers to "face everything, avoid nothing" this shouldn't be too much of a challenge. We also shouldn't overlook that shortly before this letter went online, emails were leaked from Cohen's organization about how this "confession" was to be presented to the public, both to Cohen's close followers and to the wider audience of interested readers. It was advised in the end to present this as "stepping down from leadership" and not as a "sabbatical"—an euphemism for what was in effect a deep crisis situation—which is the word Cohen currently uses.

Andrew Cohen
Andrew Cohen: “So with all of this in place,
how could I have caused this collapse to occur?”

After this letter of apology, Cohen virtually disappeared from the planet. Even on the Internet, no trace of him could be found. From Integral Quarters as well, no comment was issued on Cohen's whereabouts, let alone the precise reasons for his sudden disappearance. This is remarkable, for Wilber and Cohen had collaborated intensively over the years in their "Guru and Pandit" debates featured in What is Enlightenment? (later renamed as EnlightenNext, but now defunct after it went broke), in which they promoted this new understanding of enlightenment, called "evolutionary enlightenment". One could almost state that Wilber provided the theoretical justification for Cohen's experiment in communal and individual transformation. As is well known, Wilber endorsed Cohen's approach as a prime example of a "rude boy", who was unwilling to comply to the sensitivities of Western seekers, but pushed them over the edge towards spiritual transformation.

Leave it to Ken Wilber to endorse a controversial guru. From Wilber's foreword to Cohen's Living Enlightenment (2002):

“Andrew Cohen is a Rude Boy. He is not here to offer comfort; he is here to tear you into approximately a thousand pieces, so that Freedom can replace imprisonment. It will, in fact, be hell, and only Rude Boys are rude enough to tell you that, and to show you that—if you can stand the rudeness, stay in the fire, burn clean as Infinity and radiate as the stars... if you can stand the heat... Andrew's magazine What Is Enlightenment? is the only magazine asking the hard questions, slaughtering the sacred cows, and dealing with the Truth no matter what the consequences.”

Now think of it. When someone like Ken Wilber, who supposedly "knows everything about spirituality", endorses a guru or spiritual approach, this has some weight, especially for seekers who don't know about the pitfalls and dangers of guru movements. When Wilber even declares in this foreword "chose your teachers carefully", this situation becomes extremely embarrassing and painful. Wilber isn't warning spiritual aspirants here against potentially dangerous and harmful gurus, but against ineffective ones, and he is endorsing and justifying the approach of someone like Andrew Cohen, who has a history of abuse and tyranny documented by his ex-followers. So basically Wilber says to these detractors, "you just couldn't stand the heat, you are failures, losers, sorry..."

How does all this tie in to Cohen's admission—apparently forced on him by a group of his close senior students (who unfortunately go unnamed)—that he basically had to resign from his role as spiritual teacher, as a result of his less-than-enlightened behavior over the many decades he was in the guru business? Where does that leave the virtues of being rude? What does it say about Wilber's discriminatory powers (or lack thereof) when it comes to the trustworthiness of gurus—especially one he knew all to well given his many years of intimate cooperation? (Ironically, almost 30 years ago, Wilber actually co-edited a volume about precisely this topic: Spiritual Choices: The Problems of Recognizing Authentic Paths to Inner Transformation, 1987). Here again, PR considerations seem to have overrun honesty and transparency, for after all Wilber could use Cohen's glossy magazine platform to promote his own ideas all too well. Wilber isn't featured in that many magazines these days.

Apparently, there were questions pertaining to Andrew Cohen that even the editors of What is Enlightenment? had failed to ask...

However one wants to interpret Cohen's move—as an attempt to repair his tarnished reputation or an honest attempt to get clear on shadowy elements in his personality—it at least opened up the debate on how modern spiritual teachers can be come dysfunctional. In 2013 Cohen still expressed his doubts about the effectiveness of shadow-work (see: "Explorations in Integral Speak"). Typically, these guru movements are all heaven on earth when they start and remain small, but run into problems when they grow in number and fame. Even then, both followers and some ex-followers (e.g. on the now defunct "Guru Talk" website) vehemently defended Cohen's approach to spirituality, arguing that this aggressive approach was the only effective way to destroy our manipulative egos. Over the years, this authoritarian approach to spirituality has been criticized by many authors on Integral World (for an introduction see Be Scofield's "Integral Abuse" and Tomer Persico's two-part essay on "Andrew Cohen and the Decline of the Guru Institution").

“hiding out in transcendence”

“I am beginning to become simply human after so many years of hiding out in transcendence.”
—Andrew Cohen

Now, two years later (May 12, 2015), Cohen suddenly has re-appeared again. He again has posted a letter of apology to his followers: "AN OPEN LETTER TO ALL MY FORMER STUDENTS UPON RETURN FROM MY SABBATICAL." (hopefully this one will stay online for some time). In this second letter of apology Cohen relates that two years of deep soul-searching taught him, that he had gone too far in his idealism, and was blinded by spiritual pride and fame. He had become blind to his own humanity as well as those of this followers:

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. The left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing much of the time... I became more and more a living paradox.

On a more theoretical level, in Cohen's analysis his vision suffered from an excess of Eros and a lack of Agape. These are Wilberian-philosophical terms which require some explanation. "Eros" stands for the Love that strives upwards, Agape for the Love that reaches down. Cohen (and Wilber) see Eros as the Force in the Kosmos behind all evolution, the source of differentiation, creativity and novelty. Agape is the force of integration, healing, wholeness.

This is how Cohen expresses it himself, in a rather convoluted way:

I still believe in the fundamental principles that I taught and stood for all these years. I feel the Teaching is basically sound. Like someone said to me recently, the Teachings of Evolutionary Enlightenment are self-consistent. That is one of the reasons why so many of you stayed for so long. And that is why we spent so many hours learning how to look at reality through the extraordinary multidimensional lens that the Teachings provide. That being said, it has also become obvious that there have been important gaps in the Teachings from the very beginning. Even though I always said the Teachings were a work in progress, I certainly was not aware of the obvious and important holes that I had left in them. The most obvious and the most important has been the absence of Agape or Love as a FUNDAMENTAL principle that stands in contrast to and in support of the emphasis on Eros that I gave so much importance to over the last 10 to 15 years. Eros is the VERTICAL manifestation of the Absolute principle. Agape is the HORIZONTAL manifestation 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 so fast... and for this I am to blame.

Devoid of all the integral jargon one might say that Cohen has discovered his more humanly, earthly and feminine side, where he had concentrated too much on his godly, heavenly and masculine side (if we excuse the stereotypes for the moment). This is expressed most beautifully in this passage:

I am beginning to become simply human after so many years of hiding out in transcendence. 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.

The gist of his letter, however, still seems to aim at a reform of his particular spirituality. An integralist would say that Cohen just hadn't been "integral enough", for in integral philosophy both Eros and Agape are included. But that would be too easy on Cohen. Why not forget all about transformation and enlightenment for a while? Wouldn't that enable Cohen to contact his humanity most effectively?

Enlightenment Blues

Some questions still remain. His impatience with, especially, women, is something he now regrets. Is he saying women are constitutionally incapable of understanding (his version of) enlightenment, and he should have shown more compassion with them? Or could it be that women just follow a different path, one which Cohen doesn't have any affinity with? (In the past Wilber has played with the idea of men and women following different spiritual paths, those of Ascent and Descent respectively, but unfortunately he has never worked this out in detail. His projected Kosmos-volume Sex, God and Gender supposedly covering this field was never published).

At the same time, Cohen still thinks his view of spirituality was sound. It's just that it turned out simply too challenging for some, who consequently left the movement (a highly questionable conclusion if you read Enlightenment Blues by Andre van der Braak, or American Guru by William Yenner—both former and close disciples of Andrew Cohen). As Wilber was warning us about, the conditions in Cohen's community were a veritable hell, and not in the safe and literary sense Wilber intended in his foreword.

Ken Wilber's defense of cults

Where were Wilber's senior students in those days to stand up and be counted? There was opposition, for sure, but apparently of a minority.

I see the same pattern around Wilber over the years, as in the Cohen community, where not "our guru is right" but "our pandit is right" is the maxim. Wilber is always right, even if he changes his mind (to Wilber-2, Wilber-3, Wilber-4, Wilber-5, Wilber-n). Critics can always be accused of being "one Wilber behind". Do you find fault with Sex, Ecology, Spirituality? Oh, but that's Wilber-4, we have moved on and this is all corrected in Wilber-5. Granted that a philosopher's point of view can be evolving over the years, there's every reason to focus on one particular point of view expressed by this philosopher and put it to the test.

The same condescending attitude Wilber displayed towards his critics in his infamous Wyatt Earp blog postings. Where were Wilber's senior students in those days to stand up and be counted? There was some opposition, for sure, but apparently of a minority (about 30% from a group of 200 integral students objected to posting these blogs, as they would not be understood and would even hurt Integral Institute's reputation). Echoing Cohen, he could call them stupid, or retarded, or just not developed enough to understand his grand vision. A decade of intelligent exchange has been prevented by this authoritarian attitude.

Might, just might, Wilber have been swept away too by his own Eros-inspired, masculine, abstract style of thinking and writing, convinced of his own superiority? And wouldn't it be wonderful to hear from himself about this in an "open letter" to his students? A word of "sorry" for his support of abusive gurus (Da Free John, Cohen, Gafni), his repeated avoidance of pertinent criticism, and his neglect of current standards of science in favor of endlessly repeating his own ideas? The same defense mechanisms are operative in Wilber and his community of students as they are in any spiritual community.

Long time ago, in 1980, Wilber defended the notion of cults, in a foreword to Da Free John's book Scientific Proof of the Existence of God Will Soon Be Announced by the White House! (seriously), by saying that in all fields of intellectual endeavor we find cults:

Examine any major historical phenomenon, and you will find it is cultic: headed by a Hero surrounded by devotees... Politics is cultic; religion is cultic; philosophy is cultic; even science is cultic—and cults, in the broadest sense, simply represent groups of those who acknowledge and try to follow in the steps of the Heroes of a particular field of endeavor.

This overlooks that this very cultism prevents us to look at the glaring deficiencies an otherwise glorious vision might have, or the damage, intended or not, it can have in the real life of its students/followers. Especially when the stakes are high, and the philosophic or spiritual systems claim to have Truth on its side, what is most needed is calm and clear reflection.

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