What Andrew Cohen may have gotten from William James

From my reading of William James I believe that his moral attitude, stemming from his insistence that ideas and actions are intimately connected, might be the most unique and significant thing that Andrew Cohen picked up from reading “The Varieties of Religious Experience” as a teenager in the midst of a spontaneous spiritual awakening. The entire attitude of James’ book reflects his belief that the value of a spiritual experience can only be determined by how it affects the way that we live. The experience and the affect it has on how we live are one in the same thing. This exact attitude, perhaps picked up from James years early, was to prove pivotal during a challenging turning point in Andrew Cohen’s career as a spiritual teacher.

Andrew Cohen’s life as a spiritual teacher began in 1986 with a re-awakening of the original spiritual experience that he had had years earlier. This event occurred during a brief conversation with Cohen’s own last spiritual teacher, the late H.W.L. Poonja.  During this interchange Poonja made the simple statement “You don’t have to make any effort to be free.” And upon hearing these words something happen to Cohen that he describes as follows:

“His words penetrated very deeply. I turned and looked into the courtyard outside his (Poonja’s) room and inside myself all I saw was a river – in that instant I realized that I had always been free. I saw clearly that I could never have been other than free and that any idea or concept of bondage had always ever been and could only ever be completely illusory.”

Soon after Andrew Cohen found himself surround by a small group of people wanting to be his student, and his career as a spiritual teacher had launched. For some time his life seemed like a “fairy tale.” He was teaching in the Indian style and having a deep impact on many people that came to see him. He was teaching a variation of Advaita Vedanta as he had been taught by his teacher. Advaita Vedanta is a Hindu enlightenment teaching that revolves around the immediate recognition that our fundamental nature is already free. In this tradition only the false notion that we are not free keeps us from realizing our own perfect liberation here and now. Someone like Andrew Cohen who had such unwavering confidence and conviction in this reality was able to bring other people to the same profound awakening in themselves.

After some time however Cohen began to find that he was having philosophical difficulties with what he was teaching and these difficulties were occurring on moral grounds. In the view of traditional Advaita Vedanta ultimate reality is seen as absolute Unity, total Oneness and the experience of this “non-duality” is enlightenment. From the moment of this enlightenment the aspirant is taught that the world of multiplicity is an illusion and as long as they never doubt the reality of oneness nothing that happens in the illusory world matters at all.

Andrew Cohen began to teach differently; in fact his teaching took a decidedly Pragmatic turn. Cohen didn’t accept that the experience of enlightenment could be divorced from the effects of our actions in the world. In fact, like James, he believed that the ultimate value of our spiritual experience could only be measured in its positive impact on the way that we actually lived. His teaching became something other than the Advaita Vedanta that he had been taught. By the time I met Andrew Cohen in 1992 he was already emphasizing action over experience. In fact I remember on one of the first nights that I saw him teach he exclaimed “What you do is who you are! That is the realization of Enlightenment.” Now that is as Jamesian a statement of truth as you are likely ever to find.

This abrupt turn in Andrew Cohen’s teaching work eventually led to a different direction and placed him on a new path that was to lead over time to the development of what he now calls Evolutionary Enlightenment: a spiritual teaching that recognizes the liberation of the human spirit as a potential platform for profound active participation in an evolutionary process that can bring about a new stage in human consciousness.

I think though that to better understand the origins of Andew Cohen’s work (and also James for that matter) we have to turn our attention to Romanticism.