William James & Andrew Cohen: Explorers of the Fringe
For the past 16 years I have been associated with Andrew Cohen and his spiritual philosophy of Evolutionary Enlightenment. In 2001 Andrew offered me the opportunity to work as his personal assistant and I jumped at the chance. In the eight years since, Andrew and I have worked closely together on a daily basis and I have learned an enormous amount about Evolutionary Enlightenment and about Andrew Cohen as a teacher and a man.
One of the things that inspired me to start this blog was knowing that Andrew Cohen’s initial spiritual experience as a teenager was catalyzed by his reading of William James’ “On the Varieties of Religious Experience.” As I spend time studying James (and of course his predecessor Emerson) I find how much of the American philosophical tradition has been absorbed by Cohen and lives on in his work.
Even some of James’ more personal tendencies seem to be shared by Cohen and one that is most striking is both of their tendencies toward open-mindedness. James befuddled many of his academic peers because he seemed willing to give anything a chance. James experimented with “laughing gas,” he frequently saw mediums, spiritualists and channelers. In preparation for the Gifford lectures that would become “On the Varieties of Religious Experience” he explored every sort of religious fringe, even witchcraft (although he appears to have dropped that when it freaked him out a little.) He once took twelve of his graduate students to visit the then 14 year old Helen Keller. Being a student in one of James’ classes at Harvard around the turn of the last century must have been a blast.
James believed that whatever was new, was going to come out of the edges of human exploration and so he remained open to everything until it proved itself invalid. He was not a fool, he was in many ways a skeptic, but he was initially open to almost everything it seems. This quality is one that I have seen continuously in Andrew Cohen. For someone who holds such strong ideas about what is true, he never ceases to amaze me by his openness to what seems like the very edges of human experience. As a student and close associate of Cohen I have had the opportunity to meet all kinds of interesting people that I am not sure I would have noticed on my own. As Cohen’s assistant I am frequently asked to experiment with new spiritual practices and techniques that strike him as potentially authentic vehicles for transformation. For sure, these turn out to be much less than they appear more often than not, but sometimes you find a real gem that you would have overlooked, and most of them offer something of remarkable interest.
I can relate to what I imagine was the experience of some of those students of William James at Harvard. It’s like being the wizard’s apprentice. What is more intimidating is looking at the high-caliber of so many of James’ students. Some of the greatest American philosophers and social critics received their philosophical training from James. These include: George Santayana, Herbert Mead, W.E.B. Dubois, and Gertrude Stein. I have a pretty hefty American legacy to live up to.