"Ego is the one and only obstacle to enlightenment. Ego is pride. Ego is arrogant self-importance. Ego is the deeply mechanical and profoundly compulsive need to always see the personal self as being separate from others, separate from the world, separate from the whole universe. Ego is a love-denying obsession with separation, narcissism, and self-concern."
--Andrew Cohen, Living Enlightenment: A Call For Evolution Beyond Ego, p. 81
In this piece I want to explore aspects of the work of spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen. While much ink has been spilled over of Cohen’s personality as well as the harmful practices of his former community (EnlightenNext), less time has been spent on whether those destructive manifestations were (and perhaps still are?) rooted in flawed elements to his teaching.
First some brief background. Andrew Cohen had a spontaneous spiritual awakening at age 16, which lead to a period of intense, deeply dedicated and focused spiritual seeking (including a move to India). During that period of his life Cohen, as he details in his writings, studied Kriya Yoga, martial arts, the teachings of Krishnamurti, Buddhist meditation practices, and ultimately Vedanta.
Cohen’s final teacher was H.W.L. Poonja (aka Poonjaji or Papaji), a disciple of the great realizer Ramana Maharshi. Through his encounters with Buddhist traditions Cohen developed a very deep meditative practice. From Krishnamurti he had imbibed the wisdom of standing up for oneself and of questioning received teaching, always examining whether it was true for oneself. From Kriya Yoga and his martial arts a fierce dedication to discipline and commitment on the path.
But it was through Poonja and his Vedantic teaching of nonduality, that Cohen found the sense of grace, of unearned nature as The One and Only Self of all selves. Poonja confirmed from Cohen that his original awakening experience at 16 was genuine. For Poonja, following in the line of Ramana, effort was not part of the path. There was only inquiry into the present moment and the realization of The Self (Capital S) that one always already was. (For more on non duality see my earlier piece on the subject.)
In this interview with Layman Pascal, from our friends at Integral Stage, Cohen speaks very directly of what his experiences with Poonja catalyzed in him.
There must be a desire for God, a love for Him, or a desire for liberation. Without that, nothing is possible. This desire for God or realisation is like an inner flame. One must kindle it and then fan it until it becomes a raging fire which consumes all one's other desires and interests. If this inner fire rages for long enough, with sufficient intensity, it will finally consume that one, central, overwhelming desire for God or the Self. The presence of the Master is the final ingredient: When the Maharshi’s gaze met my vasana-free mind, the Self reached out and destroyed it in such a way that it could never rise or function again. Only Self remained.
Poonja’s inner fire would become, in Cohen’s teaching, The First Fundamental Tenant: clarity of intention, i.e. the desire to be free more than anything else. Cohen, in his interview with Layman, still speaks in the language of a consuming fire, of being consumed by the Absolute Divine Reality.
This teaching is a very traditional one, reflected in multiple strains of spiritual awakening from multiple lineage.
For example, the medieval Christian realizer Marguerite of Porete, who was eventually executed by the French Inquisition, wrote that one must first have the will to unite with and serve God and God alone. But that eventually, according to Marguerite, that desire to do the will of God was the last remaining obstacle to actually becoming the will of God in flesh. So that, for Marguerite, even the desire to do the will of God and unite with God in love had to be surrendered to God.
Compare that to Poonja’s statement that first one must desire realization and that desire must burn away all other desires but that eventually that the desire for realization must burn itself up in order to actually experience realization.
Cohen similarly places great emphasis in his teaching on surrender, surrendering to the the consuming Love-Grace of the Divine. A key aspect of Cohen’s teaching, following in the line of Vedanta, is that awakening is an impersonal affair. The original name for his community in fact was The Impersonal Enlightenment Fellowship. According to this articulation, because there is only One Self, there are no separate selves (small s) in existence. Hence awakening is non-personal or impersonal or trans-personal in nature. (I’m going to return to this point later so please bear it in mind.)
Cohen’s awakening began to transmit after his encounter with his guru Poonja. Over time Cohen began to emphasize that awakening to The One (and Only One) Divine Self needed to show up in moral transformation. While most of the seeking and enlightenment communities of that era put the majority of their emphasis on awakening to the inherent bliss of The Self (ananda), the sense of being immortal and eternal, the grandeur and wonder and ecstasy, Cohen began to (correctly see) that such temporary transpersonal experiences did not automatically lead to changed lives.
Cohen, by contrast, argued for authenticity, transparency, and moral conscience as the fruits of such nondual realization. This call for moral transformation as the practical application of nondual awakening came, in part, from Cohen’s growing critique and eventual break with his teacher Poonja.
For Cohen, following again a very traditional line of teaching from Vedanta (as well as certain strains of Buddhism) the lone obstacle that stands in the way of such an all consuming realization of Absolute Love is the ego. Much more on that argument in a moment.
But first, to continue the thread, through this emphasis on moral transformation Cohen began to open to the more pioneering or radical elements of his teaching, which he would eventually label Evolutionary Enlightenment. Cohen began to sense that The Self was not just the Source and Essence of all reality but also the motive force of its evolution and therefore to realize non-difference with the One Self meant identification with The Self in both its unchanging transcendental form but also its evolving dimension in time.
Cohen later termed the first form of enlightenment Being and the later Becoming. He maintained that Being realization was the necessary but not sufficient condition for Becoming realization and embodiment. In that regard he still taught much traditional enlightenment principles, with a particularly Vedanta flavor. But clearly the passion and ultimate emphasis was much more on The Becoming side.
Cohen and his community, through their inquiry, pioneered intersubjective practices, where individuals in a group setting, through deep practices of listening and hearing, would begin to awaken simultaneously to a share group awakened state.
Cohen termed the dimension of Self that arose through Becoming, The Authentic Self. Cohen retained the notion that awakening was an impersonal affair—since the ego was considered ultimately unreal and the source of all suffering—but this impersonal affair now included not only a relation of timeless eternity but also the unending Eros-charged pull to evolve. In his earlier books he spoke of The Truth of Impersonality which he later renamed The Process Perspective (these being the Fourth Fundamental Tenet of the teaching).
While there was an emphasis on creativity, Eros, moral transformation, and the larger Universal Process, the path was still viewed as that of ego-transcendence, that is moving from the ego to The Authentic Self.
After the dissolution of his community, which included Cohen being forced by his students to step down, Cohen spent a few years in the wilderness. He eventually started slowly to return to public teaching—his upcoming book will detail some of this period of his life. In 2015 Cohen posted a letter online to his former students (available now only through the Internet Wayback machine):
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 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 so fast…and for this I am to blame.
While there is some partial truth here, it’s not clear how well the full meaning of Agape has been grasped (again this is from 2015 so potentially in the meantime some further growth and understanding has taken place? …or perhaps not?).
Either way Agape is actually the descending not the horizontal dimension counter to vertical ascending Eros. Agape is embracing love moving “down” through the body, through earth. Agape has a strong flavor of mercy, whereas Cohen’s ultra-strict militant approach left no room for forgiveness.
The horizontal dimension of life would include more our right relations with all beings, ethics, and functional effectiveness in worldly terms.
Cohen, by his own admission in the letter, was so drawn to Evolutionary breakthroughs that he was breaking people through and through in the process. Without a balancing teaching of Unconditional Love (Agape) there was no sense of titration, of proper rhythm and timing for people, he pushed people way beyond their limits and folks cracked.
In the letter Cohen even goes so far as to admit that he used people, that he saw people as a means to an end—the end being higher forms of evolutionary creativity—and therefore was willing to sacrifice them as pawns in his supposed master chess game. A pretty stunning admission to be honest.
Secondly Cohen mentions that he, in light of this tragedy, he undertook an exhumation of shadow work. Cohen writes:
Over these 2 years I have struggled to awaken to my Shadow, to those unconscious forces and drives within us that will, as long as they remain hidden, continue to wreak havoc with our lives. This will remain the case even if in many other ways we are unusually conscious and aware, and as hard to believe as it may be, even if we may be lucky enough to have access to Enlightened awareness. I know this is hard to fathom, but it certainly has been true in my case, and has been true in many other cases where powerfully awakened Teachers have acted out in either destructive or self-destructive ways…or both. It’s been a significant part of the rocky legacy of eastern Enlightenment coming to the psychologically informed west. Ironically, I spent much of my early career speaking and writing about this very issue.
The title of Cohen’s upcoming book on the subject is entitled When Shadow Meets The Bodhisattva, so shadow work is clearly a prominent theme. I’ve written previously about the path of immanence, aka “waking down” versus waking up. Immanence does definitely involve shadow work and related topics like emotional alchemy, but it also involves an understanding of somatic regulation (from trauma work), as I’ve also written about in other pieces.
But the path of immanence also involves most radically the embrace of the self-contraction, the sacred wound of the ego-divine human complex. The sacred wound of fully embracing divinity and humanity in one, not valuing one over the other, is a sacred wound that heals, just like The Holy Grail lore of the Fisher King.
In other words, in the path of immanence there is no way to ever fully transcend, kill, annihilate, obliterate, crucify, or otherwise overcome the ego. Only an ego wishes to transcend itself.
So while incorporating shadow work is a solid and crucial step, without a larger framework of immanence, the overall gap in the teaching would remain. The gap that would see Agape as horizontal rather vertically descending. So long as that gap remains the potential for suffering (of all involved) remains. This potential mistake is especially true if shadow work becomes co-opted to a continued overall denigration and shame-based attack on the ego, now complete with more evidence of the ego’s supposed nefariousness due to deeper tools of self-criticism through shadow work. As long the ego is going to be demonized, I believe, the blind spot in the teaching remains.
In a previous piece I detailed a threefold model of spiritual teachings oriented to transcendence, immanence, and/or incandescence. Transcendence is waking up and looking to overcome certain parts of one’s humanity (read: ego). Immanence is to “wake down” and focus on the embodiment and divinely human life of being both radically infinite and finite in one. Incandescence is to “light up”, as the fire of one’s being to shine melts a being in the ardor of the Divine Ecstasy.
In that piece, I further argued that I believed incandescence, in a more coherent and regulated way, could only come through a path of immanence. Incandescence could only come in a sustained way after immanence in other words. Andrew Cohen’s teaching, in many ways, was an attempt to jump straight from transcendence into incandescence and to bypass immanence. He sought to skip the slow, patient work of truly incarnating spiritual realization by embracing and transfiguring our experience, even and most especially the ego. Only then can there be incandescing (rather than transcending) of the ego.
Trying to leap frog from transcendence to incandescence without the in between step of immanence, individuals would experience glimpses of incandescence but not have the somatic and energetic container necessary to hold and integrate it more seamlessly and coherently. In such a case a person would experience life like a rubber band, stretched out incredibly and ecstatically for a period, only to “snap back” with whiplash-like effects. Those whiplash-like “snap backs” were then met with attack, humiliation, and merciless derision.
Agape is a core pillar of Immanence—shadow work is another. But there are still others and perhaps most pointedly, at the center of the core of immanence it might said, is the willingness to embrace the ego.
Even if we take the most negatively framed descriptions of the ego, like Cohen’s in the quotation at the beginning of this piece as true—the excessive need for personalization of thought, identity, and feeling—then even that would need to be fully embraced. Embraced does not mean collapsed into or left untransformed. It means having a wider, deeper sense of containment that can envelope and hold in love that energy. In so doing one would find a deep relaxation and release of the need to transcend the ego, which will never happen any way.
Paradoxically it is at precisely that point however that one begins to experience and realize many of the currents Cohen named: an evolutionary emergent pulsation, a liberated pull towards more creative expression, and a fire-light that melts one’s core into molten love. These impulses however will not lead to becoming dissociated from our human embodiment. They will emerge more organically, with a wiser pace and sense of right timing.