My friend Alan Kazlev has a really excellent four-part critique of Ken Wilber. One part specifically deals with Wilber’s inability to deal with spiritual abuse, and focuses on Andrew Cohen:
“But the most common â€“ indeed, the standard, excuse abusive gurus use to justify their behaviour is that it is necessary that the disciple be abused and humiliated in order for them to overcome ego and attain enlightenment (although at the same time, no abusive guru ever acknowledges that any of their students have ever attained enlightenment) It is this, more subtle argument, that one finds associated with the Wilberian Integral movement as a whole. According to Andrew Cohen, teachers need to break down one’s ego, and this can be a psychologically and emotionally excruciating process. Wilber fully supports this approach. In the Foreword to one of Cohen’s books, says
“When it comes to spiritual teachers, there are those who are safe, gentle, consoling, soothing, caring; and there are the outlaws, the living terrors, the Rude Boys and Nasty Girls of God realization, the men and women who are in your face, disturbing you, terrifying you, until you radically awaken to who and what you really are….
If you want encouragement, soft smiles, ego stroking, gentle caresses of your self-contracting ways, pats on the back and sweet words of solace, find yourself a Nice Guy or Good Girl, and hold their hand on the sweet path of stress reduction and egoic comfort. But if you want Enlightenment, if you want to wake up, if you want to get fried in the fire of passionate Infinity, then, I promise you: find yourself a Rude Boy or a Nasty Girl, the ones who make you uncomfortable in their presence, who scare you witless, who will turn on you in a second and hold you up for ridicule, who will make you wish you were never born, who will offer you not sweet comfort but abject terror, not saccharin solace but scorching angst, for then, just then, you might very well be on the path to your own Original Face”.
Wilber applauds Cohen as a “rude boy”, and offers him (and abusive gurus in general) as the alternative to a ridiculous caricature that does not match the description of any spiritual teacher. He says that the “rude boy” will “hold you up for ridicule” and “will make you wish you were never born”. Yes, all out of his boundless love and compassion that you may yourself attain Enlightenment! But let us look at the reality, the mind games and psychological conditioning and abuse; things that Wilber, who has never been a disciple at Cohen’s Foxhollow community, has not had to experience.
Here is one example (from Enlighten Nixt blog)
At one point, the women as a group got into serious trouble because some women answered back to some men who told them they were not doing their spiritual practice properly. Andrew heard about this and let it be known that their disagreement was “outrageous.” The women went into a panic when they heard this. They decided they must do something extreme to prove their penitence.
The tragic nature of this example is shown by the fact that it is the disciples themselves suggested this, as a means of punishment, in order to win Cohen’s favour (other methods included giving him huge sums of money, such as twenty thousand dollars, or even the entire life savings) I will return to this point a little later. In this particular instance, it was decided that they would do prostrations in the freezing cold water of a lake on the property, standing waist deep in water and submerging themselves completely, again and again, for an entire hour.
Andrew’s wife, Alka, was excused from the practice because she had a bad chest cold. But another woman had suffered a concussion and brain injury the year before. Andrew knew this, because she had undergone a lengthy convalescence at Foxhollow. She was not excused. She passed out in the lake’s cold waters after about 50 minutes. She was carried out of the lake, unconscious. She came to in a warm shower, with two other women holding her up. Another woman described making it through the hour. She and some others who did so turned blue. They shivered so hard afterwards that they could not stop shaking enough to undo their zippers or buttons so they could take off their clothes. They went in groups into hot showers, where they stood for 45 minutes at a time until they had finally stopped shivering enough to undress. One woman wound up in the hospital with a serious kidney infection, requiring an I.V. drip, about 1 Â½ months later. She attributes this to her exposure in the lake.
Some women did not make it through the practice. The women as a group got a message from Andrew that those who did not finish had to go back again and complete it. Some women had to return to the lake and try two or three times before they could do so.”
The What Enlightenment? and Enlighten Nixt blogs are full of cases of unhealthy psychological manipulation like this. One the one hand, one is disgusted by Cohen’s willing participation in all this, on the other hand, amazed that these people â€“ through lack of self esteem and ability to claim their own power â€“ would put themselves into such a situation in the first place.
Of course it goes on and on. The following poignant message is from a post by an 82-year old war veteran to an ex-Cohenist blog What Enlightenment?, regarding his granddaughter:
My grand daughter spent 5 years with Andrew and she never spoke a word to me during that time….Andrew took a beautiful women and turned her into a fearful depressed person, it’s like he sucked the spirit out of her and left only a confused shell.
I appreciate all of your contributions I have read them all it makes me sad to see what’s happened to my grand daughter, really sad that a life has been so destroyed by someone she chose to put trust in. I hope one day someone finds a way of stopping him.
…My grand daughter was continuously asked for money, she gave over some $28,000 in the last 2 years.
This story is by no means unique (in fact it was selected here at random because it happened to be the lead story when I was researching What Enlightenment? for the current essay); and is typical of the sort of emotional, physical, and financial abuse, the human wreckage that these people leave in their wake. One wonders why Wilber himself has not investigated these claims; as â€“ his ranting against any criticism of his work aside â€“ he seems from his ambivalence regarding Adi Da to be a decent sort of person. Moreover, when a case of sexual abuse by a spiritual teacher in his own Integral Institute movement recently came up, he did act, albeit reluctantly, and with the usual “green bashing”.
I have dedicated some time to criticising Andrew Cohen, not because he is any worse than other such gurus and cult-leaders (indeed, he may be mild compared to some), but because he is considered by Wilber to be an enlightened being, albeit not as great a realiser as Adi Da. This shows a serious lack of spiritual but even common sense discrimination among Wilber and those of his followers who also support people like this. It is important to emphaise however that not all Wilberites do go along with this; some at least would seem to be critical of Wilber’s association with abusive gurus.”