Monday, October 25, 2004

Enlightenment Blues reviewed by Parabola Magazine

Enlightenment Blues: My Years with an American Guru
By Andre van der Braak New York: Monkfish Book Publishing Company

Reviewed by Joshua Leavitt for Parabola Magazine

Worthwhile accounts of personal work with a spiritual teacher are hard to come by. Because of the intensely intimate nature of the relationship, it is difficult for most authors to maintain the critical distance necessary to present their experience in a way that is meaningful to readers outside the circle of their particular community. Most attempts at this genre fall either into the trap of thinly disguised hagiography or embittered reprisal. In this memoir of his years with spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen, author Andre van der Braak skillfully avoids such oversimplification, primarily through keeping in sight his most basic task as a writer: to tell a compelling story. In this he succeeds admirably.

Van der Braak evokes his experiences in a gradual but ultimately gripping way, beginning with the intoxicating bliss of the early days through his progressive disillusionment and final break from Andrew eleven years later. Written almost entirely in the present tense, the narrative’s honesty and immediacy draw the reader in from the first page. The author wisely allows events to speak for themselves, presenting his struggles and questions as he experienced them at the time rather than in sweeping conclusions or personal diatribes.

Aside from its literary merits, this is an important work because of its subject matter. A controversial figure in the spiritual landscape since his earliest days as a teacher, Andrew Cohen has provoked heated reactions in many people over the years and is likely to be an important figure in the history of alternative spirituality in America. His teachings on the nature of liberation have tremendous depth and clarity and, taken together, form a potent contribution to contemporary Western formulations of spiritual wisdom.

Enlightenment Blues is the first reliable published account of Andrew’s intimate work with his students. It raises complex issues about the dynamics of power, control, and human imperfection in positions of formal spiritual authority, both in Andrew’s case and in the student-Teacher relationship in general. It presents the picture of a heavy handed, “direct attack” approach to dealing with ego in Andrew’s community that is, at the least, unskillful, and quite possibly simply a well rationalized form of personal aggression.

This points to a dangerous blind spot on Andrew’s part, one that will continue to jeopardize his work until it is acknowledged and accepted. The book is, among other things, a powerful invitation to van der Braak’s former teacher to reexamine the myth of his own perfection, and to consider the personal psychological basis from which it has been created. Should Andrew, who has always been a risk taker, prove willing to engage that risk, he might discover subtler and far more effective methods for the transformational work he is attempting.

For his part, Andre van der Braak has shown great courage in chronicling the intimate aspects of his personal spiritual journey in Enlightenment Blues. In doing so he has produced a moving, thoughtful, heartfelt testimony that will serve any sincere seeker on the path to spiritual realization.

Joshua Leavitt is a writer and consultant who lives in a formal spiritual community in Montana. His first book, Playing with Fire, is currently under completion.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wanted to say that Andre’s book has made a very large contribution to understanding what happens in the presence of a powerful and charismatic spiritual authority like Cohen. I was in the Cohen group (or cult, pick your word) for many, many years. It was quite a struggle to leave, complete with much personal reprobation, but finally I did get out. I was warned that if I ever left that my soul would rot, that the world “out there” was a desert, that no one ever finds true happiness once leaving the community. However, almost immediately upon my departure I had an explosive experience of freedom, joy and an unboundedness that was not about anything in particular other than that I was now the captain of my own ship, I was once again free to fully explore without the rigid dictates of any system. I felt free in a way that surprised and amazed me. I looked down the street, and it was just a street, yet this joy! In my mind there had been the possibility of feeling guilty for leaving the organization I had given so many years to, but when this sunshine began to shine on me I knew that there was nothing at all wrong, that on the contrary there was a hell of a lot to be very grateful for. Over those years in the community the horizon had become slowly, imperceptibly, closed and dark. It didn’t begin that way, but somehow it really had become that way. But now, within hours of departure, I found my horizon beginning to clear up. To quote Nietzsche, “at long last our ship may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again: perhaps there has never been such an ‘open sea.’”
I literally had my life back, and that recognition continues to be more precious than anything I had ever imagined.

Monday, 25 October, 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The person who commented above wrote:

'Over those years in the community the horizon had become slowly, imperceptibly, closed and dark. It didn’t begin that way, but somehow it really had become that way.'

This process is described in great detail by Janja Lalitch in her book 'Bounded Choice'. Lalitch is now a sociologist, but in earlier years was a long time member of a political cult whose leader was abusive, so she experienced bounded choice from the inside.

When bounded choice is imposed, this often takes place so gradually, you're not aware of what you're losing---much like certain medical conditions (eg diabetes, glaucoma) in which an illness takes its toll so gradually that you dont realize what has happened until there's one stress too many and you discover the extent to which your health has been compromised.

Fortunately, recovery is possible. Lalich's book is expensive, but worth reading after you've stabilized recovery, and can be found on

Tuesday, 16 November, 2004  

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