ENLIGHTENMENT, CULTS, PSYCHEDELICS AND FREEDOM
Article by Kevin Parker, MA, RCC; 2017
I’m inspired to write after viewing two excellent documentaries. They both air on the Conscious 2 network, an internet channel devoted to issues regarding consciousness and spirituality. The first is in six parts and it is well worth watching all of them. The title is “How I Created A Cult” and it is about Andrew Cohen, a western spiritual teacher who was the founder of Enlightenext and What is Enlightenment magazine.
Having spent time with Andrew in the 90s in India and the US, I was particularly interested in how someone could collect a following of intelligent, mostly high functioning people that could excuse the inconsistencies in their teacher’s behavior and endure the abuses that were rampant in his community. The second was a documentary about Osho, also known as Bagwhan Shree Rajneesh, an Indian teacher known mostly to the public for his opulent lifestyle (Osho at one point owned 93 Rolls Royces), his liberal attitude toward sexuality and spirituality, and the marriage of the two.
The guru principle was a relatively unknown phenomena in the Western world until relatively recently. In the 1960s young people disillusioned with capitalism and the burgeoning military industrial complex in the western world flocked to India, Nepal and all parts east hungry for something that would satisfy the emptiness they were feeling in an increasingly materialistic world. At the same Tibetan Buddhist teachers like Choygam Trungpa Rinpoche and “enlightened masters” such as Paramahansa Yogananda, Swami Muktananda and Meher Baba were finding an audience in the West. The use of psychedelics was also on the rise, in particular LSD, Albert Hoffman’s “problem child” whose virtues were being extolled by ex-Harvard professor and the acclaimed high priest of LSD Timothy Leary and being vilified by the conservative administration of then president Richard Nixon. Not unlike our current political era with which is fraught with deep divisiveness, these were deeply polarizing times.
For a culture whose work ethic is built on the autonomy of the individual, the idea of surrendering that autonomy to another individual may seem like an affront to common sense and sensibilities. Ramana Maharshi, one of India’s great saints who taught in the non-dual tradition of Advaita Vedanta, said that God, guru and self are one. When the guru reflects back to the student their essential self or true nature, the student can often mistake “the finger for the moon.” In other words, when a seeker sees into her own essential nature unfettered by egoic constraints and conditioning, there can be a tendency to project on to that teacher that they are the source of that essence. If the teacher is has not worked through their own shadow material, and there are precious few that actually have, that shadow might show up in the spiritual community in the form of abuse, humiliation, or an expectation of adulation and/or adoration on the part of the teacher.
This was the case for Cohen who would require his student s to do thousands of full body prostrations before his picture and, under the guise of a serious spiritual teaching, used shame and humiliation to embarrass his students often asking for financial remuneration before they would be allowed back into his inner circle and good graces. At one point a group of female students decided with Andrew’s approval to immerse themselves in a near freezing lake. Some blacked out and went into hypothermia dangerously close to death.
Although I never became a part of his inner circle, I did spend time with Andrew on retreat in India and at his center in Lennox Massachusetts. One thing that set Andrew apart from many other contemporary teachers was his embrace of something he called impersonal enlightenment, the idea that people seeking after enlightenment for themselves are engaged in just another form of ego gratification.
I recall, while being on retreat with Andrew in Rishikesh, he had requested that during our time there we spoke of nothing that was personal, keeping our conversations to only the teachings that he would give in our daily satsangs.
I found this to be quite liberating and when the group would meet for chai in the tent outside the meditation hall our conversations were held in a spirit of mutuality. The individual sense of separate self would dissipate and sometimes disappear. This created a very powerful and exhilarating container that felt like an energetic spiraling upwards into sublime and transcendent realms. We were voyaging together as a group, all basking in a powerful invocation of presence.
Where Andrew began to fall from grace was when he began to believe, as did Osho, he was the source of this awakening energy. Without giving away too much for those of you wanting to watch these documentaries I will reveal that in the later episodes Andrew reveals that, after his senior students had asked him to step down as leader he spent three years travelling, mostly in India, at one point working at Mother Theresa’s hospice for the dying. After some time of introspection he was invited by a former student to drink ayahuasca in Brazil. During ceremony Andrew was able for the first time to clearly see how his ego and his shadow side were sabotaging the work he was doing and negatively impacting even his most committed students. He was able to see that the shadow material was rooted in traumatic events in childhood and that he also harbored a fierce inner critic.
What Andrew lacked, as did Osho, was a lineage and a group of peers that could reflect back to him where he was failing his students and ultimately himself.
The film raised some provocative questions:
When does it become the student’s responsibility to discern if the teacher is coming from a sincere place or are acting out of ego and their own unworked shadow material?
Do the valuable lessons learned from disappointment and disillusion outweigh the pain and difficulties we go through to learn them?
Does the Guru principal represent an antiquated system that has no place in a modern society?
The film about Osho begs many of the same questions and shows how a group of seekers trying to shape a radical new paradigm for society can end up in a dystopian nightmare. Osho at a certain point in his teaching life opted to go into silence leaving many of the responsibilities of running his community to his secretary who ended up in prison for some bizarre offenses committed at Rajneesh’s Oregon community.
Osho also developed a fondness for nitrous oxide later in life which most likely impacted his cognitive abilities.
What kind of parallels can we draw from psychedelics and their potential for healing individuals and creating a more enlightened society?
The concept of “plant teachers” is a difficult one for most westerners to wrap their heads around. In Ayahusca ceremonies “Mother Ayahuasca” is revered and respected as a living conscious entity. The spirits of tobacco or coca can be looked upon as wise teachers that can impart valuable life lessons. In this sense, the guru becomes an internalized image of a wise and ancient spirit. As in any student/teacher relationship a certain amount of surrender is necessary to receive the teaching or to facilitate the healing. The shaman or curandero acts as a type of spiritual mid-wife, an intercessor between the worlds and a conduit for the visions and wisdom that the plant imparts.
At this juncture in our history it seems that shamans hold the same status that gurus once did or in many cases still do. The jungles of Peru have become the new India as thousands of westerners and Europeans head for South America in search of healing and spiritual awakening. And like some of the scandals that have erupted around gurus, similar abuses of power are taking place in shamanic communities. Recent allegations of sexual improprieties have surfaced regarding some South American shamans, and the western press has been quick to jump on any stories of things going off the rails in a ceremonial setting such as the death of a participant or the alleged abuses committed by the leaders. Once again, anyone travelling to a foreign country, be it for healing or spiritual growth, would be advised to do some research about who they plan to work with.
Psychedelics are tools and the same “finger for the moon” adage applies as it does with spiritual teachers. Despite positive news coming out of some of the new research with MDMA and Psilocybin for combatting depression and alleviating PTSD ,it is important to acknowledge that there are no magic bullets. As Meaghan Buisson, so poetically pointed out at the 2016 Psychedelic Psychotherapy Forum, the integration and relationship to the therapists are just as, if not more, important than the psychedelic session.
We live in a time of great perils and promises with the fate our planet in the balance. We must pick and choose our teachers wisely and honor the wise counsel of each other. A listening heart and an honest dialogue are the keys to moving this evolution and transformation of humanity forward.
Kevin Parker MA, RCC is a Registered Clinical Counsellor in Nanaimo. He is the founder of the Psychedelic Psychotherapy Forum. He is available in person or over Skype for psychedelic integration, trauma and addictions counseling, couples work, polyamory, gender and sexuality issues. For more information contact Kevin on 778-918-2188 or via this Contact page.