What Happens When Your Guru Disappears?

August 17, 2016

Followers expected the swift return of spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen after he stepped down in the wake of scandal. That was two years ago, and there’s been no sign of him since.

What happens when the guru up and quits?

The controversial American spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen did just that about two years ago, and his disappearing act became an enduring mystery in the New Age world.

In June 2013, amid increasing allegations of abuse and cultish behavior, Cohen formally apologized in an open letter to his worldwide community of followers and voluntarily relinquished his 27-year reign as their “Perfectly Liberated Spiritual Master.”

Perhaps this is not earth-shaking news to observers accustomed to tales of cult leaders gone bad, but within the spiritual subculture, Andrew Cohen quitting his job and vanishing was a very big deal.

Despite all “the blood and tears he left in his trail,” as he sometimes boasted, he had consistently weathered all attempts to expose and depose him, and actually seemed to be at the top of his game. He was the author of 11 provocative books about the spiritual path; he served as editor of What Is Enlightenment?, a once-popular, thoughtful and respected magazine; he was the founder of EnlightenNext, a nonprofit global organization.

He lectured internationally, often appearing in public dialogue with leading theologians, philosophers, and scientists. He led retreats around the world; and in 2012 he was #28 on Mind Body Spirit magazine’s list of the top 100 most spiritually influential people alive.

Before his ascent to spiritual stardom, Andrew Cohen was an ardent seeker and committed meditator, but it wasn’t until a fortuitous meeting in 1986 that he was quite suddenly propelled into the guru profession. That cataclysmic “awakening” event occurred in Lucknow, India, only 20 minutes into his first encounter with H.W.L. Poonja—“Poonja-ji”—a guru who declared Andrew to be “finished” with his spiritual path and destined to be the successor Poonja-ji had waited for his entire life.

Cohen took that ball and ran with it, and before long had followers and communities all over the world. He also denounced Poonja-ji along the way, leaving him standing alone at the head of the spiritual class, without a lineage, or at the very least, some qualified supervision, which is required even to become a licensed social worker, though clearly unnecessary for an Enlightened Master.

I first went to see Cohen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1989, and was unimpressed. He was presiding over a room of perhaps 200 acolytes who appeared to have surrendered their personal decision-making power over to this conservatively dressed Jewish guy who resembled many of the kids I grew up with in the New Jersey suburbs. He fielded questions like, “Should I eat meat?” or “Should I break up with my girlfriend?” or “Where should I live?” He responded to all of them with authoritative instructions.

I stood in the back, dead center, and at one point he looked up and picked me out of the crowd: “Do I know you?” he asked. I immediately answered, “B’nai Israel Hebrew School? Fair Lawn, New Jersey? Little League?” And that was the end of our interaction. For eight years, anyway.

Then in 1997 I found myself in Rishikesh, India, on my own spiritual pilgrimage, and discovered that Andrew’s photograph was plastered all over town, announcing his upcoming two-week retreat. The local bookstores were carrying all his published works. I quickly read them all, and decided to attend.

Unlike our first encounter, on the retreat I did notice something very interesting. I had always been a restless meditator, never able to last longer than 15 minutes before needing to adjust my position. Sitting with Andrew, however, I found to my amazement that I was able to sit effortlessly for 90 minutes in perfect stillness. So there was definitely an “energy” in that room with which I was previously unfamiliar.

But as a seasoned Buddhist practitioner later pointed out to me, “Energy is not inherently a good thing.”

As the two weeks of the retreat unfolded, my “cult antennae” became increasingly aroused. Disagreeing with or challenging Andrew about anything was simply not permitted, and would be met with public humiliation and scorn from him, accompanied by his particularly annoying, cackling laughter. Cohen likened his “Perfect Teachings” to a glittering diamond, shining and flawless no matter through which facet it is viewed.

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