When you’re in a cult, there’s rarely an easy way out.
As they meet with rejection by the outside world, cults tend to turn in on themselves, becoming more isolated and more extreme. Some end in mass suicide, like Jonestown or Heaven’s Gate; some end in fiery destruction, like the Branch Davidians. Today’s post is about a cult like many others except for one thing, the rarest thing: it’s a cult that peacefully dissolved when its founder realized he had become a monster.
The group called EnlightenNext was founded by an American, Andrew Cohen, from a secular Jewish family. In Cohen’s telling, he had a profound mystical experience of “cosmic consciousness” at 16. In 1986, in a bid to recapture this feeling, he traveled to India where he studied under a guru named H.W.L. Poonja.
When he returned to the U.S., Cohen began preaching what he called “evolutionary enlightenment,” which he touted as a harmonious blend of Eastern philosophy and modern science. According to him, the goal of existence was to attain the next stage of human consciousness, transcending the individual ego and becoming one with God and the cosmos. He believed that his meditative practice could bring about a worldwide spiritual awakening.
This is standard New Age stuff, but by all accounts, Cohen was a charismatic and dynamic speaker who presented his ideas forcefully. Some people who later joined the cult recalled that they had their own mystical-ecstatic experiences after listening to his lectures. Even those who were skeptical, like the science writer John Horgan, felt that he made a powerful impression:
I was recording these observations in my notebook when Cohen stopped speaking. I looked up and found him, and everyone else, staring at me. “You don’t have to take notes,” he said blandly. My face flushing, I put my pen and notebook away. Afterward, Cohen seemed to keep his eye on me. When he spoke contemptuously about “men,” he looked my way. I felt as though I was on probation.
It helped that Cohen had money behind him, and was able to publish books and glossy magazines extolling his ideas. EnlightenNext magazine impressed at least one reviewer, who called it “a glossy, well-designed adventure into spirituality” and “the sign of a great innovation.” Cohen also met with a friendly reception on my old haunt, Big Think (which I note hasn’t taken any of his pages down to this day).
As Cohen traveled and preached his ideas, he began to accumulate followers. At its peak, EnlightenNext had close to a thousand devotees, with established communities in the U.S., Europe and Israel. The movement’s headquarters was a compound called Fox Hollow in western Massachusetts, which they purchased in 1996.
In practice, EnlightenNext’s quest for cosmic consciousness took the form of marathon meditation sessions where devotees would sit silently for hours on end, or prostrate themselves before a portrait of their guru. As one former member says in a documentary video made by the Atlantic, four hundred prostrations was a standard morning exercise, and some adherents made it a goal to do 100,000 over time (at 9:14 in the video).
As the community grew and its devotion became more intense, what started as an oddball New Age movement began to take on cultic trappings. Cohen was treated as an infallible guru whose word was equivalent to the word of God – and as the timeless saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Supposedly in the name of breaking down the ego, he began subjecting his disciples to ritualized humiliation and abuse. Those who had displeased him in some way – even something as minor as recommending a movie for him which he disliked – had to engage in groveling apology rituals, like buying hundreds of dollars’ worth of flowers and gifts with their own money. According to allegations on this page, he ordered his devotees to prostrate themselves in freezing cold water to the point of hypothermia, or to break up with romantic partners and cut ties with their families, or to physically restrain and beat those who were disobedient.
One of EnlightenNext’s members was Luna Torlo, Cohen’s mother. At first, she was enthused about her son’s mystical awakening – but their relationship soured as he grew dictatorial, and ultimately she fled the cult and broke off contact with him:
She recalls him lashing out at his disciples—supposedly in an attempt to strip away the ego. Torlo says he told her to give way to him or their relationship would end; he once ordered a regimen where she would cook one meal a day, meditate for two hours, and remain in silence except for talking to him, saying that “since I was so full of opinions and nothing but opinions, I was absolutely forbidden to express an opinion on anything.”
Her son, formerly the “sweetest, sensitive kid, had changed into an unrecognizable tyrant.” (source)
However, unlike many cults, EnlightenNext didn’t preach rejection of modernity, and its members weren’t cut off from the outside world. This proved to be their downfall.
In 2013, a group of disaffected ex-members began to expose Cohen’s abuse and brainwashing tactics on internet forums. Word spread, and within the space of a few weeks, it was as if a spell was broken. More and more people were quitting, and the movement began to disintegrate. And then, surprisingly, Cohen himself admitted that the critics were right. He announced that he was stepping down, ceasing all public teaching and going on a soul-searching pilgrimage.
He later wrote in an public apology:
I gradually lost sight of people’s humanity, including my own, and only saw all of us as the living Self Aware consciousness that, in an evolutionary context, was going somewhere. And that was all that I believed was important or really mattered… As I was losing touch with my own simple humanity and everyone else’s, I also was simultaneously not paying attention to the gradual growing of my spiritual ambition, of my spiritual ego. I believe that my intense longing for the evolution of consciousness in my students was real, but I have begun to see more and more clearly how over time my pride and my desire for fame and recognition slowly but surely began to blur and corrupt my vision.
Fox Hollow was abandoned, and remains so to this day. According to this article, he’s also reconciled with his mother.
The impression I get is that Cohen had all the qualities of a cult leader, except the most crucial one: he wasn’t a psychopath. He wasn’t immune to the seduction of absolute power, but then again, virtually no one is. While intoxicated on his own ego, he did commit and command cruel acts, but his conscience remained intact though deeply buried. When he was faced with the undeniable evidence of what he had become, that jolt of perspective reawakened it.
That’s a very rare trait. Most people in that situation would fall prey to sunk-cost thinking, double down on their authoritarianism and ramp up the persecution of dissenters. Cohen deserves credit for doing the opposite.
Then again, maybe we shouldn’t be so easy to let him off the hook. As of 2016, he’s trying to stage a comeback, declaring himself older and wiser and arguing that many of his earlier insights are still valid. If he tries to start up a new high-pressure sect, we’ll have grounds to conclude that the cult-leader traits were intrinsic to his personality and not just the aberration of a man who lost his way.
Other posts in this series: