ANDREW COHEN AND THE FALL OF THE MYTHIC GURU IN AN AGE OF PR-SPIN
Controversial spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen will be stepping down from his role as guru and leader of the organization he founded, EnlightenNext. In a startling turn of events, Cohen has also begun apologizing to some former and current students for misdeeds and abuses of the past. Core students in the leadership of EnlightenNext have left the organization and apparently struck out on their own. But a recent “PR and Communications Plan” message, widely circulated to EnlightenNext students, leaves both the scope of future change in the organization and the depth of Andrew Cohen’s remorse over his abuse of students in the past unclear.
We at What Enlightenment??! first got wind that significant changes for Cohen and EnlightenNext were happening several weeks ago. We heard rumors that core members of Andrew Cohen's EnlightenNext organization had been calling Cohen to task for some time, attempting to get him to change an autocratic and authoritarian style of leadership. We also heard that some members of the EnlightenNext leadership had recently left the organization. There were rumors that large numbers of students had followed suit. But all of this was difficult to confirm as no one concerned had made any public statement of schism or disaffection.
So, in awe and wonder, we began to investigate. Sources close to EnlightenNext have since told us that criticism of Cohen began in the upper echelons over four years ago. Sometime over a year ago, some of these senior students were ordered by Cohen to meet together in London, apparently to attempt to purge themselves of their rebelliousness. Instead, at their meetings their questioning of Cohen’s authoritarian style of leadership deepened. They eventually stopped sending Cohen notes of their meetings, as expected and required. Soon they were joined in their dissent by other EnlightenNext leadership. A united front formed. As if this were not shocking enough, we heard that things had recently come to a head in a meeting between senior students and Cohen in Europe. A line was drawn in the sand, it was said. Not being satisfied with Cohen's response, a number of leaders left the community. Many other members followed suit.
Yet nothing was publicly disclosed of this rift. We waited to see how things would develop and if any public statement would be forthcoming. Recently, we noticed a public web announcement that the Netherlands EnlightenNext Center would no longer be associated with Cohen’s organization as of this summer. But the bombshell fell when we received from an anonymous source the “PR and Communications Plan” sent out to EnlightenNext members on June 15, 2013. This fascinating yet puzzling document is reproduced here, below.
It remains to be seen what this all means, or how it will play itself out. We have heard from several former close students of Andrew Cohen that he has contacted them personally to apologize for past misdeeds. Yet these students have also reported that Cohen seemed “cut off,” even “robotic” in his communication. Cohen has also personally contacted some current EnlightenNext students, presumably to apologize for past misdeeds to them. The news of apologies was unexpected and somewhat encouraging. Yet the “PR and Communications Plan” reproduced below makes one wonder whether all of this is part of a well-orchestrated public relations campaign, rather than the sign of a genuine turn to humility by enlightenment’s infamous “Rude Boy,” as Cohen’s friend Ken Wilber called him.
EnlightenNext appears to be attempting to explain the changes as part of a natural evolution away from the authoritarian-mythic “blue meme” guru model, using terminology originated by Don Beck and Chris Cowan in their Spiral Dynamics model of human development, a model which has been widely adopted by Integral Theory teachers and thinkers, such as Ken Wilber. The PR Plan also identifies the need to address “Founder’s Syndrome,” a situation where the founder of an organization impedes its development. These theoretical explanations, with no mention of the harm Cohen and his organization have done to students and with no inkling of empathy for the suffering those students endured, make one wonder whether EnlightenNext’s culture of authoritarianism and abuse will really change.
And what to make of the silence of those in the leadership who reportedly parted from Cohen? We wonder whether the senior students who left Cohen will attempt to follow the course of former student, What Is Enlightenment? magazine editor and Integral Enlightenment founder Craig Hamilton. Readers of What Enlightenment??! will remember Hamilton from years past as a vitriolic and insulting defender of Cohen on this blog. Later, Hamilton secretly fled Cohen’s Lenox, Massachusetts Foxhollow compound like so many other abused and damaged students, and was severely disparaged and ridiculed by Cohen, again like so many others who fled Cohen’s abuse. Yet little more than a year later, Hamilton re-created himself as a successful “graduate” of Cohen’s community, and the founder of his own “enlightenment” school, Integral Enlightenment, offering webinars and on-line courses on his philosophy, a close cousin (some might say almost a carbon copy) of the integral-oriented “evolutionary enlightenment” teaching created by Cohen. Hamilton has been financially successful at this enterprise, far more successful than Cohen’s EnlightenNext, which has been plagued by financial difficulties. Indeed, when once asked by a former Cohen student what value he had added to Cohen’s “evolutionary enlightenment” teaching, Hamilton is reported to have answered, “I figured out how to monetize it.” This seems to be the case. We cannot help but wonder if the silence of senior students who have left Cohen indicates their possible plans to re-create themselves and start lucrative “evolutionary” oriented “enlightenment” businesses like Hamilton’s.
Finally, what will become of Andrew Cohen? Can we really believe that his role as the “Mythic Guru” is over, as stated in the “PR & Communications plan for Andrew” reproduced below? Can Cohen’s purported self-examination and newfound remorse for the harm he has caused scores of past and present students be believed? Or is this just all part of a public relations stunt?
Only time will tell. But judging from the June 15 “PR & Communications plan for Andrew” and reports from those close to the organization, big changes for EnlightenNext and Andrew Cohen seem to be afoot. And these changes will almost certainly profoundly affect both current students and the scores of former students who saw through the “Mythic Guru” and left him.
From: R____ B____ <firstname.lastname@example.org> Date: June 15, 2013, 7:09:43 PM EDT To: R____ B_____ <email@example.com> Subject: PR & Communications plan for Andrew
I just sent out the email below to the current Core students (Defining, Resolute and Committed Core) and also wanted you all to hear about our PR communications plan for Andrew. I'm sending this to everyone who I know is involved in the current programs and who I've personally spoken to, please feel free to forward this email on to others involved who would like to hear the messaging going forward.
Thanks so much,
I wanted to let you know the PR communications plan for Andrew that will roll out in the next few weeks.
As most of you know J__ P___ and I are responsible for Andrew's PR and media platform and we have been working on a message to the broader public regarding the situation we are in the midst of with Andrew, and all the subsequent changes.
Many of you have contacted us sharing your urgency around making a public statement, and we thank you all for your input! We have taken everything you have said into consideration and come up with a plan that we are very happy with.
Before I go any further I want to point out that while we're working very closely with M__, A__, M___ and the Education Department in our communications, what J___ and I are specifically responsible for (and what we've outlined in this email) has to do with communications from the Andrew Stream (to the broader public, Andrew's personal relationships, etc), and not the communications for the education programs and long retreats.
We felt it was imperative to get an "outside perspective" on our PR communications as, being close students of Andrew in this emotionally charged situation, it's very difficult to envision the right message for the public at large. Our primary consultant has been our PR advisor N___ W____. N___ is not only an excellent PR consultant, but he also trained in crisis management. He has been working with us for the last several years, and is fully appraised of Andrew's history, the history of EnlightenNext, and the current situation. Given his experience and his friendship with Andrew, we feel that he is the perfect person to help us with this messaging now, and his input has been invaluable.
N___has helped us to see that the most important point to consider in relationship to our PR strategy is that there is a tremendous difference between communicating to our "internal" audience of past and present students, and our "external" audience of people who follow Andrew's work, but are not part of any formal structures or communities (see a breakdown/description of our audiences at the end of this email). N___ also stressed how important it is that our public messaging be appropriate to our external audience, and that this should not be expected to address the issues that pertain to our "internal" audience of past and present students.
He made it very clear that from an outside perspective, what is currently happening represents an evolution of both our organization/movement and Andrew's work. The fact that Andrew is acknowledging his mistakes, has stepped down from his role as Guru, and will be stepping down as head of the organization, is a reflection of the fact that our movement is changing and growing, and that Andrew is taking the necessary time off to reflect, respond, and take the next step in his own development.
For the internal group of past and present students, Andrew must find a different and appropriate way to make peace; and, as most of you know, this internal process has already begun. He has already stepped down from his Guru role, which is on hiatus until spring 2014, and he is in the midst of responding appropriately to many past and present students.
STEPPING DOWN FROM LEADERSHIP:
Another very important distinction in our messaging that N___ helped us to understand has to do with how to announce Andrew's "sabbatical." He clarified that to frame the time that Andrew will be taking to reflect and respond as a sabbatical is not accurate. Given that Andrew will be doing a minimum of teaching work during this period, (the retreats and French forum) and that our many programs and content streams will continue in some form, from an outside perspective calling this time period a "sabbatical" would be confusing. Instead he suggested we emphasize in our public messaging that Andrew is stepping down from leadership, both within the organization and the spiritual community, and will be taking time to reflect and respond.
So in our public statements, which will launch on Andrew's blog on June 28th(see Blog Themes below for more detail), we will announce that Andrew is "stepping down from leadership" rather than "taking a sabbatical." We feel that this is also more authentic as to what is actually happening, so please consider this in your own communications.
Our public messaging will center around a series of blog posts which will be published on all of the sites where Andrew writes (BigThink, HuffPo, etc) in addition to AC.org. They will be on two themes outlined below. The first blog will also be accompanied by an email to our list announcing Andrew's decision to step down from leadership and offer some description of how the EnlightenNext programs will be continuing forward:
Confronting Founder's Syndrome: In this initial post, Andrew lays out what is happening for him right now in the context of "Founder's Syndrome," which is a common phase that organizations go through when due to a lack of willingness to give up control its visionary Founder gets in the way of the further evolution of the organization. He'll announce in this post that to address this situation, he's stepping down from leadership of both the organization and the spiritual community, and will radically reduce his teaching engagements to take time to reflect and respond.
The Death of A Mythic Guru: In this second post (which may end up in multiple parts), Andrew will speak about his own development as a Guru and how he created a "mythic" Guru model within the postmodern world, outlining the negative and positive consequences of that. He'll talk about how difficult it has been for him to recognize the mythic structures within himself, and how he's going to now take the time necessary to develop both himself and the teachings.
Below is a list of the various communications that will go out to our different audiences over the next month:
Today: Overview of communications strategy/plan to the Defining, Resolute, Committed, and Past students (this email!) Next few weeks: Series of calls/emails to various donors. 6/28: Blog #1 on Founder's Syndrome will go up on BigThink 6/28: Accompanying the blog will be an email to our email list announcing that Andrew is stepping down from leadership and giving a brief overview of what kinds of offerings they will continue to get from both Andrew and EnlightenNext. 7/6: Guru & Pandit Virtual Broadcast on the theme of The Death of A Mythic Guru 7/12: Blog #2 on The Death of A Mythic Guru goes up on BigThink Thank you all for taking the time to read this. I apologize for the length of this email, but we felt it was important that we keep everyone informed as much as we can during this challenging period of our lives.
Also, when we have an approved plan of how Andrew's business line will be going forward, I'll send out another email.
Best wishes all,
Below is a description of the various audiences that we're reaching out to and an overview of the basic messaging strategy for each:
Past and Present Students: Includes all Defining, Resolute, and Committed Core students and people who have been close students in the past. We are the people who are the most affected by what is happening and have the most investment in the whole situation and subsequent changes. These communications have several dimensions: First and foremost, Andrew is following up personally with people, both current and past students. Second, we as his communications team want to keep everyone abreast of our overall communications, so that everyone knows why we're saying what we're saying. Donors: This audience has a significant overlap with past and present students. Since they have all committed financial support to Andrew and EnlightenNext, it is important for us to communicate how the current situation will affect Andrew's and the organization's short and long-term future, and the financial implications of this. We will be reaching out to communicate directly with our current donors within the next few weeks. "EXTERNAL AUDIENCES":
Blog Readers: This is our broadest audience and consists of people who engage with Andrew's content on a wide variety of external platforms (BigThink, Speaking Tree, HuffPost, etc). This audience is least familiar with Andrew and sees him more as a spiritual thought leader and less as a Guru with a community of students. This audience is the least interested in hearing about the details of our current situation, and our plan to communicate with them is through a series of blogs in which Andrew will speak about the current situation in more of a philosophical/cultural context (outlined in the Blog Themes section). Email List: This is a group of about 35K people (~12K of which are very active) who receive consistent communications from us about new content, events, and products. This audience is a mix of people, but generally has more familiarity with Andrew's role as a teacher and also leader of our organization. Our primary communications to them will draw upon themes in Andrew's blog, but speak specifically about how we as an organization plan to respond to this situation and how that will affect the content and programs that they are used to hearing about. Integral/Evolutionary Community: This is the segment of our public audience that is most familiar with the deeper dimensions of Andrew's work as a Guru and spiritual innovator. This audience has been following Andrew's work through the magazine, through the Guru & Pandit dialogues, and through other platforms like Craig Hamilton's, and is more familiar with the spiritual and philosophical stands that Andrew has taken in the post-traditional spiritual world. Our plan for this audience is for Andrew to use some of the remaining Guru & Pandit Virtual dialogues with Ken this year to explore some of the "Mythic-to-Post-Mythic-Guru" themes that are at the heart of the current situation.
[v. 2.0 6/11/14: removed names of students]
[v. 2.0 6/11/14: removed names of students]