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From Spiritual Guru to the Death of a Cult: Andrew Cohen’s Untold Story

What follows is a transcript for the podcast HomeGrownHumans – Andrew Cohen – Spirituality – Hosted by Jamie Wheal.

Topics within the interview include:

  • The awakening of the guru principle
  • Core techniques of ecstasy and shared states of consciousness
  • Andrew’s regrets and how his downfall led him back to teach from a place of humility

Where it All Began: Andrew Cohen’s Fall From Grace

Jamie Wheal: Welcome to a new episode of Homegrown Humans, where I get to chat with Andrew Cohen, a one time spiritual teacher with a global reach, the founding editor of the pioneering magazine “What is Enlightenment” and I would say a bad boy of the spiritual circuit who had a fall from grace in the last decade. Who is now returning tentatively to public life. Who last year had an in-depth conversation with our buddy Sam Harris and has reached out after the writing of “Recapture the Rapture” to express some of his resonance and affinity with some of the topics in that book specifically; I’m imagining the ethical cult building and ethical culture sections towards the end.

So we thought it would be fun to actually dive into somebody who has lived some of those cautionary tales from the inside out and get to explore together what it means to both have personally profound experiences and then grow communities founded on them? And then any and all of the lessons learned by those peculiar and potent psychosocial dynamic mixes that arise around that, and then what, if any, are pathways forwards, both for Andrew, his community, both sort of his historic and potentially ongoing students and for the rest of us? So with that said, welcome to Homegrown Humans. Andrew.

Andrew Cohen: Thank you, Jamie. I’m really looking forward to talking with you.

Jamie Wheal: Yeah. Well, listen. Let’s start with the simple, which is that I think a year or so ago, you might have reached out just saying, “Hey, just read your book.” Actually, I guess it was less than a year ago. Right? So it was probably sometime in the spring to early summer. And I’m curious what landed for you in those sections and what was your reading? Because I would imagine that your point of view, reading that section on ethical cult building was relatively unique compared to your average reader coming into that content.

Andrew Cohen: Well, I was struck by how bold it was that you wanted, did you realize that human beings coming together and spiritual awakening is something that the most sensitive people are drawn to do. That part of the awakening experience is as what you call communitas. So there is a natural and spontaneous urge and desire to come together with others to share higher consciousness. And as far as I’m concerned, the coherence we experience when we come together than others, in which we can share the deepest and highest truths together, not just intellectually, but when there all had as a living experience, it’s the greatest experience of intimacy and connectedness it’s possible to have. And that’s something I hope we can speak a lot about in this call, but what I thought, I mean, what I’m intrigued by is you’re boldly trying to reach for the highest utilization, from the perspective of seeking for an open source access to the deepest experience of revelation.

And I want to try and find a way for people to make sense out of these experiences without referring to higher authorities or prior authorities. So I thought this was kind of bold, outrageous. I don’t know how it can actually be done because I have found that coming together, if you’re getting human beings to come together and profound intimacy and this deep and profound trust, which is something you’ve written about and spoken about quite a bit is one of the hardest things it is to do. Especially if the trust is not to be broken and we’re able to sustain that kind of intimacy. So doing that in an open source context is very bold because it’s dangerous territory and it requires the best from all of us. And it’s something that I’ve worked very hard on and I’ve succeeded extraordinarily and failed extraordinarily, both.

But, when you’re taking this aspiration and putting it into an open source context, I just went “Wow.” I mean, could this really work? Can anybody walk up to the mountaintop, have the revelation, come down and start sharing and coming together with other people that easily? And I don’t know how it’s possible, but I was very bowled over by your bold aspiration to make that old-time religion available to everybody in a way that it was truly democratic. Even the whole idea of the democratization of spiritualization and enlightenment and even the religious impulse is something that I understand that as an aspiration, but I don’t know how it can really work because we’re because we all have so far to go, so I was kind of blown away by it and I still am. And I don’t know if we’ll be able to go into it in depth in this call or not, but I’d like to know how, how we can make such a thing work, because I think that we do need leadership urgently. We need leadership.

Jamie Wheal: Yeah. Well, and, and to be clear, right. I’m not sure it can work either. I’ve just seen all the other bridges burned. So that just felt like if we’re trying to sort of create the Beringia to hyperspace, like what is the land bridge that lets a small band of humans make their way from the old world to the new world, into a post-conventional multiverse of awareness where we’re literally holding down transtemporal and transpersonal information streams and realities and possibilities. How do we chart that course? You know? And do we need to wait for the weather to change and the ice to recede? Can we hopscotch in boats? Like how do we get there? And what might be possible? I mean, I think this was, feels congruent with what your experiments were at Fox Hollows.

Andrew Cohen: Absolutely.

Jamie Wheal: Like what, right. What is possible if we can stabilize the down link to source consciousness and have that shared amongst…shared and amplified, right? Cause it’s a little bit like computers in serial, right? Our computing power seems to go up when we are in a coherent field together and wonderful possibilities emerge that are simply not possible when we are fragmented and isolated selves.  end 

So before we get into exploring the power and possibility of communities, it’s important to just kind of add the required disclaimers of quote-unquote platforming you, right? So for listeners that are under-familiar with Andrew, Andrew’s work, Andrew’s potential fall from grace, you can go back to the Atlantic, there was a video short on his community. And when was this? Was this ’07? Was it some other time? What was your timeline?

Andrew Cohen: Crash of the community was in 2013.

Jamie Wheal: Oh, later. Okay, so 2013, right? And basically, there was a host of folks that had been a part of your intimate students, part of your community, that leveled feelings and charges of abuse, manipulation, power trips, financial exploitation, kind of all of those things. I think noticeably absent was sex and drugs. So that’s curious. That very almost never happens. There’s almost always one or more of those.

Andrew Cohen: I never crossed that line.

Jamie Wheal: Yeah. And so, what had been a quite vibrant and transnational community sort of shuttered overnight. I think you had one of your more public steps back into public discourse with Sam last year. And I think you guys fine-grained quite a bit of the content of both your own experience, your shared experience, was it with the Poonjaji in India?

Andrew Cohen: Yeah. Yes, it was.

Jamie Wheal: All right, so I think you guys had overlapping experiences there, and I think Sam did a solid job of kind of holding that space. So for anybody that is interested in that, please feel free to look back to Sam’s podcast with Andrew and that Atlantic film, and then anything else that you come across in the kind of digital footprint of that implosion. I’m not going… I feel like that, you know, we can move on past that and let’s actually kind of plow some new furrows here. But that’s kind of the backstory to where we are today. So with that, I remember you writing a little pamphlet of a book. It was not thick at all, but it was called In Defense of the Guru Principle.

Andrew Cohen: Yeah, that was way back to 25 years ago.

The Awakening of the Guru Principle

Jamie Wheal: Yeah. Yeah, and I remember it because it was so contrarian at the time, and probably still, to the kind of antinomian sense of, “Everybody’s their own spiritual guru, everybody’s making their own choices and selections as they go along,” and you were actually putting a stake in the ground for a fairly retro perspective, which was, “Hey, deference to a guru is really important.” So just briefly sum up that argument that you make and then calibrate for us how does that sit with you today.

Andrew Cohen: Well, the guru principle is when, it’s something that happens to some people, but for the reason to which I don’t know why it’s a gift, when the capacity to awaken other people is birthed in a miraculous way. I mean, I became a teacher within weeks after meeting my guru. And I didn’t decide to do it, it started happening through me. The teaching started coming through me, people started having very deep and profound experiences, people started treating me with enormous reverence and enormous respect. And I wasn’t seeking for this. No one told me this was going to happen, and I didn’t ask for it. So it’s a principle, it’s a function, it’s a part of nature. It’s something that happens. And so, I’m trying to, I want to make a distinction between the awakening of the guru principle and what it means to become a guru as a human being now.

Jamie Wheal: Okay.

Andrew Cohen: So the problem in the mythic Eastern context is that if someone has awakening  in such a way, it’s presumed that such an individual is a perfected human being. And I think the last 30, 40, 50 years has revealed when Eastern spirituality came to the West and when Enlighten came to the West, there’s been so many tales of obviously very powerfully enlightened people who turned on and inspired many people, who were shockingly human, had failings, human failings just like everybody else. So I think this mythic belief that higher consciousness and human perfection are the same thing has been shattered and broken.

Jamie Wheal: So wait, slow down and just say that sentence again.

Andrew Cohen: That in the mythic context, it was believed that spiritually conscious, spiritually awake and powerfully enlightened human beings were inherently perfect because they had the power to transmit so much grace and so much consciousness. And so, we’ve discovered in the West, when the Eastern promise of enlightenment hit post modernity, we’ve had example after example after example, including in my case that people can be profoundly awakened, profoundly enlightened, and have the power to transmit that profound state of consciousness to other people, and still be imperfect human beings. That’s part of the new understanding. So what I still advocate for is the fact that the guru principle is a function of nature itself. And some people have this gift and it’s a sacred gift, it’s a profound gift. [Inaudible 00:05:39] to be able to transmit these higher states of consciousness to other people opens a door for them. So I still believe in the guru principle, and I think it needs to be honored. But the perfection of the awakened one is something that no longer, it’s just not, it’s never been true. And it’s never been true and it’s not true, and I think we need to reconsider what it means to be enlightened in this context.

Jamie Wheal: Which non-ironically was the title of your magazine, What is Enlightenment? Right?

Andrew Cohen: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

Jamie Wheal: Which, by the way, I actually found was a remarkably clear signal. To me, that was the best thing you guys did because it involved lots of different voices, it was asking interesting questions, and was just a good repository for that kind of exploration in a more contemporary way. But now, a couple of things. So when I read that guru principle, I just remember thinking, “Oh, okay. Perhaps there is value. What is the value?” But now, how do we do this in a way? How do we acknowledge… This is similar to the Baby Boomer, Hippie generation coming out of the Eisenhower 50s, and then saying, “Authority’s bad, get rid of all authority.” Right? And they ended up with communal shitshows and just total nightmarish situations because they had stripped out functional authority from dysfunctional authority.So my curiosity was always, “Well, what’s the functional authority of the guru principle?” And at least in my reading, and then subsequent thinking, it seemed to me that there were two vital functions that a personified guru used to inhabit, however flawed or partial their execution. But that the two vital functions were one, if a person is getting close to an ego death experience, quite rightly their ego signals to them, “Hey, fight-flight. This is a life-or-death situation. You need to bail.” And the deference, sort of the absolute loyalty of, “Not my will, but thy will,” to the guru can anchor somebody through that self-immolation and prevent them from wiggling off the hook right at the moment of their potential level-up. And then the other one is the deference to lineage, which John Lilly, I think, famously said. Fundamentally, he was kind of talking about reality tunnels or which kind of version of existence you’re going to enact, and that you have to commit fully to one for it to disclose its intended or desired results. You can’t kind of half-ass it, you can’t sort of go halfway into a worldview and then expect the jewels that are promised at the end.So to me, those are two very functional and important modes that the guru principle used to enact. And the question then is, how do we update the guru principle so that it’s no longer personified in a single individual? And my sense was, “Let me run this past you and see how it tracks,” which is for the “I can’t wiggle off the hook,” as in some respects, kind of the Odysseus effect. “Can I lash myself to the mast so that the sirens don’t seduce me? Can I, ahead of an ego death experience or some other acutely uncomfortable thing I’d really rather not have to do if I don’t have to do it, can we use public commitment? Can we use accountability partners? Can we use whatever? Can we hack this guru code and still honor the fact that when the sirens sing their sweet songs, I’m going to likely be powerless just like all those other fuckers. And I’m smart enough to know ahead of time, so I’m going to limit my chances.”

And then the other is, “Can we engage fundamentally a multi-perspectival stance on clicking into and out of reality tunnels?” So it’s sort of like, “Hey, I’m going to do the Vedonta shtick, or I’m going to do the Wiccan shtick, or I’m going to do the transpersonal psych thing. I’m running this program intentionally, and I tap in and I tap out, a little bit like bowing into and out of a dojo.” You know, there’s very specific rules inside the dojo of “I’m allowed to come at you with an attack and I expect you to receive it and not take this as a street fight and knife me,” right? There’s certain rules and protocols within a bounded reality tunnel that I can commit to wholeheartedly without losing myself that that reality tunnel is in fact all-encompassing reality. I’m deliberately using an app or running a program. How does that sound to you? This is just a baby step into what you were stating that decentralized notion of waking up could be. But how do those two workarounds or updates sound to you from the guru principle point of view?

The Biggest Spiritual Risk: Death-Rebirth Experiences

Andrew Cohen: Well, the thing is we’re talking about taking a leap from the known to the unknown, which is what the big step is all about. So either we’re going to take that leap of faith and go all the way, not knowing what’s going to happen, and we have to do that at least once. Because as long as it remains in the app context, it means we’re still hedging our bets. It means we’re still holding onto a measure of sovereignty in a way that’s going to haul us back from drowning in spirit itself. And so, however we do this, there has to be at least one time when we jump all the way and take a complete leap of faith in which potentially there’s not going to be any return. Otherwise, we can’t get the complete result. That’s [crosstalk 00:11:22].

Jamie Wheal: And in that, are you describing some form of a death-rebirth experience?

Andrew Cohen: Completely.

Jamie Wheal: Some form of a complete stripping away of all known reference points and you’re just in the ocean.

Andrew Cohen: It has to happen once. Not my will, but thy will be done.

Jamie Wheal: It seems like more than once. I mean, you have it once and you’re like, “Woohoo, that’s done. I’m good.”

Andrew Cohen: I was being cautious. But yes, it has to happen many times. But I remember when I met my own teacher, I was sitting along with him in his room. He was sitting on his bed and we weren’t talking. And then I had been there a couple of days, and I remember I heard the words coming out of my mouth, and they didn’t come from my ego because they didn’t come from my mind. I heard myself say them as if someone else said it, “I’m ready. I’m ready to die, but I don’t know how.”

Jamie Wheal: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Andrew Cohen: And so, this deepest part of me was seeking for a way to let go unconditionally, absolutely and radically. So I think we have to… I mean, in my understanding, this has to become a constant reference point because what you’re pointing to is this letting go of everything. One metaphor I like to use is jumping out of an airplane without a parachute, because if you jump out of an airplane without a parachute, you don’t intend to come back. And we say, “Well, what does that really mean?” Well, we don’t know, but we have to be willing to find out. And it takes enormous courage and a very profound will and aspiration to really find out what’s on the other side. And that’s the biggest risk. That’s the biggest spiritual risk there is to take. One way or the other, if we want to find out what’s on the [inaudible 00:12:56], that’s something we have to be willing to do.

Jamie Wheal: Okay. Well, this kind of belies both your emphasis on one-way, irrevocable, non-dual awakening and your sort of Neo-Vedantic philosophy, which to me, I’ve always found wildly problematic in a modern Western context.

Andrew Cohen: It is.

Jamie Wheal: Right? So if I had to pinpoint where you came undone, it was the combination of ,what our friend, Diane Hamilton playfully called, she’s like, “Oh, well, Andrew was always a Jewish American princess.” You realize that, right? And the idea that you were a precious mama’s boy from the upper Western East side, right? So you came from money, you came from background, you came from privilege and a sense of exceptionalism and specialness, and you drafted that into irrevocable one-way waking up with the patina of Eastern, or basically Orientalism, right? The romantic, mystical, magical projections and the hierarchical claims of almost quasi monastic guru authority. To me, it’s not that much more complicated. How does that live in your experience, and where would you say you are now?

What Does it Mean to Live a Spiritual Life, Wholeheartedly and Unconditionally?

Andrew Cohen: Well, I was never a mama’s boy, but that’s another discussion, it doesn’t really matter. But I think that I don’t agree with that depiction because what was fairly unique about what I was trying to do is I was interested in people who wanted to go all the way. And I’d come back, so we would look, so people who wanted to… The question is, what does it mean to want to live the spiritual life wholeheartedly and unconditionally, radically, completely? It’s the same motivation that made people want to become monks and nuns and go to the monastery and go to the forest and go to the mountain. So that’s what moved me, that’s what inspired me, that’s what still inspires me. And the question is what, because now what’s happening is a lot of people are seeking transcendental experiences, but we’re saying, “How do we integrate them in a secular context, and what if that’s something that we don’t necessarily feel drawn to do? What will it look like if we can live the spiritual calling without any limitations, without any-“

Jamie Wheal: Meaning what if you have hits of transcendence and you don’t want to stitch it back into your day-to-day? Is that what you’re saying? Like, what if you want to just keep going and just see where the hell this golden road goes?

Andrew Cohen: Yeah, but… Yes, absolutely. And therefore, we want our day-to-day to be an experience and an expression of that, which is miraculous ongoingly in the tradition of the greatest realisers throughout history.

Jamie Wheal: All right. Well, let’s explore that, because I think I remember you writing a, not quite Scorched Earth, but I think a fairly heartfelt critique of Jack Kornfield’s After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. And I think I remember you saying something along the lines of like, “This is a little weak sauce.” Like this kind of compromise, you can have your cake and eat it too. You know, like you can just, you know, you can walk your householder’s path and just be a little sparklier around the edges is a ducking of the true kind of evolutionary impulse or mandate. Do you still hold to that, or did your time in the washing machine soften any of those stances?

Andrew Cohen: No, I still have that aspiration. I still have that aspiration, but I think that my mythic absolute is in relation to myself and in relationship to seeing my role has changed quite a bit. Because when I met my guru, he told me I was God’s gift to humanity, that he’d only seen the look he’d seen in my eyes in Ramana Maharshi and in himself. So I was pretty pumped up, and the experiences I was having, especially at the beginning, were all leading me to believe that I was special and extraordinary and had a unique gift. And I think I bought into that more than I realized, and that’s kind of what got me into trouble. Because the reason that the community fell apart was not as much for the reasons that you mentioned. It was really because my closest friends were beginning to have differences with me, and they were calling me to face into those differences and to meet them in a honest discussion about it. And I was unwilling to do that. And that was so out of alignment with everything that I taught, that it led to a big break in trust. That was the actual cause of the breakdown of our community.

Jamie Wheal: Well, I mean, well, let’s drill into that, right? Because if I’m just kind of a slightly disinterested armchair observer, and I would say, “Okay, I follow your hypothesis. There’s the idea that there are unparalleled higher states of human consciousness. They’ve been touched upon through history by the kind of saints and sages and avatars. We shouldn’t settle for anything less, and we should all get there.” And by your descriptions, you guys had some moment. I feel like there was a few months, maybe, at Foxhollow, your intentional community in the Berkshires, where you claimed to have arrived there. You said, “We did it. We did the thing.”

Andrew Cohen: No, no, no, no. We had several big breakthroughs, but the one you’re referring to was I had always been very interested in, “What if the experience of enlightened awareness was not a unique, subjective experience of one unique individual? But what if it could become the shared ground between us?”

Jamie Wheal: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Andrew Cohen: So I was working on that for about 18 years, and I was putting a lot of pressure on my students to make this happen. And then after many, many dramas and a lot of pressure, there was a huge explosion and this thing happened. And my students experienced the ground open up between them, and people… There was this shared recognition of an evolutionarily inspired state of consciousness that everybody was sharing, that none of them had ever known before. And they’d been with me a long time. They all had a lot of experiences, so this was the emergence of a shared state of an evolutionarily directed enlightenment that changed everything. And that was the big breakthrough that happened. And I do believe that we punched a hole in the cosmos at some particular point and made something possible that didn’t exist before. And a lot of people might call it grandiose thinking, and it could be true, but something amazing did happen. And we had several events like this because I was really pushing for breakthroughs. I really didn’t want to just have followers, that’s why I was pushing, because a lot of people, if they’re around a powerful realiser, then they think that makes them great because they’re in relationship with a powerful realiser. But they’re not doing anything, they’re just hanging around.

And a lot of people who haven’t really been able to make something out of themselves in other context will find a context like this and suddenly feel that they’ve become great, even though they haven’t done a damn thing to become great. And so, I wanted… My vision was I thought, “Look, I’m really pushing for this. If we’re all working very hard on ourselves and we’re able to work hard on this project together, then we can generate a kind of energy that’s going to be miraculous.” And so, that’s what I kept pushing for and pushing for and pushing for, and it led to many extraordinary breakthroughs.

Jamie Wheal: Yeah, but just from a super pragmatic point of view, right? Nevermind the kind of metaphysical. I would just ask sort of, “So well, if so, then what? If you guys got there, and let’s even just, let’s give you full marks, like Poonjaji would recognize in you some exceptional transmission capacity, you had access to non-ordinary realms, and after nearly two decades of really hard, sustained effort building your community and your people, you guys were able to link up and do the next thing, which was in some form of a collective coherent presencing of a higher-order intelligence, then how on Earth did you also run it off the cliff?”

Andrew Cohen: Well, it’s tragic because I wasn’t willing to let go of power. That’s really what did it.

Jamie Wheal: And was that non-illumined in those rarefied states? How was that occluded from the illumination that was so profound it punched the hole in the universe?

Andrew Cohen: Well, ego creates big blind spots, even for people that have access to awaken consciousness like me. So the tragedy is that I literally didn’t see it because I’d always felt that if I let go of control, everything was going to fall apart. And ironically, that’s what happened. But what needed to happen was I was operating within a kind of a mythic belief system, an old mythic hierarchical belief system. So these, my closest friend had surrendered to me as their spiritual master, which meant in the traditional sense that we were going to be together for eternity. And I didn’t realize, “So look, these are postmodern boys and girls who, at a certain point, are going to need to do their own thing. They’re going to need to grow up and leave the shade of Daddy’s tree. And they’re going to want the freedom to be able to do their own thing, whether it’s with me or whether it’s not.” And that was something that, for my closest friends, I couldn’t understand that, I couldn’t see that. And I realize it’s pathetic, but it’s true. 

Jamie Wheal: Wait, which bit is pathetic?

Andrew Cohen: That I couldn’t see that my closest students needed to individuate in order to complete their own higher development, and that individuation would mean outside of our own context and outside of the relationship with me, maybe even, God forbid. So the thing is, had I realized this earlier, in other words, my friend, Steve McIntosh said it to me at the time. He said, “Andrew,” he said, “One way to look at this is it shows what a good teacher you are, because when you’re closest students reach individual consciousness, the group paradigm wasn’t going to work anymore. That’s one way to see it.” So I literally didn’t get it. So I realized, had I realized this 10 years earlier, five years earlier, and opened up the system at the top, open it because there’s loyalty and because a lot of the cultic habits of loyalty and being together, being together with the guru, we had a lot of those cultic ideas as I did. Had I opened up our world and opened up from the right top and gave everybody, especially my closest friends, the permission to come and go as they needed to, this thing could have organically developed in a truly postmodern way that could have left everybody free to work together in a way that was much more spacious than the one that we had arrived at. And I failed in that.

Jamie Wheal: Yeah. I mean, I wonder how much is just generational. I think you’ve probably got about a decade on me, but I personally was just never, ever, ever drawn to the Eastern Neo-Vedanta because it just seemed to have all of those pathologies baked in, especially and including absolute disclaims of enlightenment.

… those pathologies baked in, especially and including absolutist claims of enlightenment and then subsequent infallibility. That was kind of the ah-dee-da trip, right?

Andrew Cohen: Yeah, for sure.

Jamie Wheal: Right. And the only time I ever saw you speak publicly, some friend dragged me to something you’d done in New York. It was a fairly small room. There was maybe 50 to 75 people in it. It kind of had big windows and a wooden floor. It was sometime in the early 2000s. And I remember listening and thinking, “Oh, this is quite persuasive. This is quite seductive. We’re all on the frothy edge of evolution. And here we all are. And if we’re in this room, we must be part of the magic too.”But I remembered leaving that day, thinking, “Oh, every single one of these hooks that Andrew’s throwing into the ocean has a barb in it.” For instance, this is this grand evolutionary process. But on the one hand, which is presumably a natural unfolding, a natural and almost inevitable unfolding. And on the other hand, we’re part of an elite, elect, revolutionary vanguard, so we’re special. Or you have the capacity to transcend your ego, but you can’t trust yourself. You have to defer to a guru, A.K.A. me. And I just remember that feeling of like, “Oh, whoa, this is super compelling.” And it will be very easy to get people and reel them in here. But every single one of them, that hook that originally drags them in is also really hard to take out. And that was just my hit at the time, and it seems like it played out in some way.

So, I think if you were just truly a dyed-in-the-wool, old school boomer, enamored with Eastern mysticism, circa ’60s to ’70s, that would be one thing. But you explicitly hitched your wagon to both Wilber and Integral Theory, have some form of evolutionary enlightenment, some form of developmentally informed progress. So how did you miss what Steve McIntosh was saying about the need for fundamentally going from socially divine to self-authoring, to self-transforming humans in Kegan’s models? How did you miss that you simply had none of the scaffolding for the move to self-transforming individualism, and those barbs in the hook were eventually going to fester and create some profound mismatch between deference and dysfunctional family dynamics in a hierarchy, versus helping folks wake up and stand up on their own two feet?

Andrew Cohen: Well, I mean, I don’t think I can give a satisfying answer. I just realized that I was pulling people in two directions at once. We were working with Evolutionary Theory. We were working with Stage Theory. We were working with a lot of these ideas. And at the same time, I was still very identified with the Mythic Model that the relationship with the guru is eternal, and we’re going to be with him in this context forever. But I really bought into it. And I only began to wake up to this after everything fell apart. It took me… I’m not ashamed, it took me two or three years to see this, even though it’s painfully obvious now. I didn’t. And Ken told me, he said, he made it clear that when we had some discussions about this, I was pulling people in a paradox. I was holding people in a paradoxical hole, pushing towards the future and holding people back below their actual center of gravity at the same time. And I just didn’t see it.

Jamie Wheal: Mm. Mm. Well, and I mean, I’m still curious what in either your lived experience in history or your initial exposures or elective choice, what prompted you to hitch your wagon so strongly to fundamentally, that Indian lineage tradition versus, “Oh, Hey, I went bumbling around. I went exploring. I had a few Shazam moments in an exotic place. And then I came back to the States. I came back to the Western world. And I translated that light into the idioms that were more accessible.” What prompted you to double down on the traditional absolutist hierarchic trip versus something more progressive and updated, modern, because you’ve spoken today, and in your recent book, you’ve also acknowledged something around the levels of cultural levels of development of your community and those things. So you had an awareness of just kind of this postmodern movement, the center of gravity, all those things. But the vehicle, in which you attempted to transmit the thing you felt you had, was quite traditional. Yeah, to the point of retro.

Andrew Cohen: Yes. From an evolutionary context, that’s true. I mean, I can’t give you a satisfying answer to the question. It’s just something that I think the experience of the love that we shared was so profound, and the experience of intimacy that we shared was so profound that I couldn’t see beyond it. I mean, I just couldn’t see beyond it because the intimacy was so strong. And I couldn’t see the places where I was stuck and blind. I mean, now it’s as obvious to me as the fact that I’m sitting in a room talking to you. It’s painfully obvious. Because if all I had to do was with the essence of teaching, all I needed to do was let go. All I needed to do was let go.

And we were also together. We would’ve stayed together. But in a way, which everybody would’ve felt absolutely unbounded and free to do as they needed to do in whatever way they needed to do it. And it would’ve made our community 10 times more beautiful than it was in its best moments. And all I needed to do is let go and trust, which is what I teach other people to do all the time. And I didn’t see it and I couldn’t do it. And I became proud and angry. And I felt proud and angry and threatened. And yeah, all the pride before the fall.

Jamie Wheal: Well, okay. So, I mean, I’ll put on my kind of like conservative parent sitting at home and my young child is about to run off and join you or someone like you. Right? And I would state, why bother, right? If all of that highfalutin shits amounts to a hill of beans, right? It would show up in the lives of these people, demonstrably for the better. But look at what happened, right? Look at what happened to Cohen’s community. It was all this effort. It was all this heartache and heartbreak. It was all of this subjugation and dysfunction. And yes, they glimpsed this shimmering thing briefly at times, but so fucking what? Right? All of that love and light couldn’t heal the healer, right? And didn’t transform the community.

And you can extrapolate this to psychedelic visioning and the psychedelic Renaissance. You can extrapolate this to any body of practice or community of practice that is truly shooting the moon. But the question is, is that the weak link? Is access to profound, nondual information actually the hard part, or is the weakest link Monday mornings and doing the human thing? To lay my cards, that’s my increasing hypothesis that shooting the moon is actually easier than ever. It’s the humaning, it’s the mammaling, it’s the tribal primate stuff that is actually our persistent fail point. So make a case or revise your style, as to why bother?

Andrew Cohen: I feel your description was painfully reductionistic. So our mutual friend, Diane Hamilton, said to me that, “I’ve never seen students like yours, Andrew. They are the most incredible people I’ve ever met, in terms of seeing the products or what it means to work with a teacher.” And several other teachers have told me they’re impressed with my students. So I’m also proud of the work I did and the life we’re living together, and what we were experiencing and what was going down was profound, extraordinary, miraculous, and so infused with higher potentials that it wasn’t what you’re describing, as its best.

Jamie Wheal: Well, remember, I was in role. I was playing the conservative parent sitting at home.

Andrew Cohen: That’s cool.

Jamie Wheal: Right.

Andrew Cohen: I see the crash and burn as something that has to happen to make room for a kind of a much more expanded. And I very much regret it, reading about all this.

Spiritual Awakening vs. Interoception

Jamie Wheal: Okay. Well, and as you’re describing the role of kind of guru/ transmitter, the first thing that comes to mind for me, especially given the last decade of neuroscience, and I wrote about this in Stealing Fire, but then also spoke with ESADE Business School, and even business school folks, and the folks that were most effective as leaders were the people that were able to entrain others into state. So fundamentally, using their neurosemantics as a metronome to bring people into a coherent, resonant field with them. Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, which is still very much just a theory, but that sense of, “Oh, we attune to each other’s vagal nerve tone, and we get a sense of safety or security or danger. And vocal inflection and tone, and just even tons of non-verbal cues and markers can meaningfully shift state for folks.”

And then Lisa Feldman Barrett’s work on Interoception, that sense of kind of how do we, pre-emotion, just in our viscera, feel in the company of other animals, and organisms, and primates, and even Alpha Silverback/ kind of dominant primates. And you described it as a spiritual gift, but, and again, to deliberately be reductionist and materialist, is that capacity to transmit, is much of the wonder, much of the mystery really simply someone who has intuited or through discipline practice, found a way into Alpha, Theta, even waking Delta states who can perhaps hold a pulse of Gamma inspiration and is able to entrain other monkeys with clothes into comparable states. And then, all sorts of interesting things happen in those states, which then get ascribed to a mysto magical cause. But in fact, it’s just, hell, you’re one hell of a tuning fork or a metronome.

Andrew Cohen: Well, I think it’s more profound than that. I wouldn’t reduce it to materialistic context. I mean, the metaphor I would use to describe it is when these experiences are truly profound, they have an almost physical effect on our psyche and in our soul. So after I met my teacher, I spent three weeks in an altered state with the energy running through my body. And currently, with occurrence of bliss were so intense that I thought I was going to die, felt like I was literally being consumed by a dimension, a reality that I couldn’t see but I could feel. It lasted for about three weeks.And during that experience, and ever since that experience, if I sit with people, there’s a hole in my soul, in the most positive sense of what that could mean. And through that hole, what we could call the ground of being, the deepest dimension of reality, infuses itself, and other people feel it. And I don’t have to do anything. And I’m not trying to hypnotize people and I’m not using any techniques. So it’s natural, it’s spontaneous. And it’s easy, and it’s effortless, and happens by itself. And that’s part of the miracle about it.

And of course, even in terms of the teaching capacity, as you’re an expert on flow states, when I’m teaching, a portal opens up inside my being. And I have access to information that often I’ve never thought about before, and a level of knowledge, especially when I started teaching, that I never earned. It was already there, fully formed. And I had access to wisdom and knowledge about higher consciousness that was potent. And when people would just listen to me speak about these dimensions of consciousness, they would begin to awaken to them simultaneously. And I was as shocked and as amazed by, as everyone else.

Jamie Wheal: Yeah. Right? In the mystical Christian tradition, that would be known as Logos or sort of the Pentecostal Tongues of Fire, right? The ability to speak a reality and to being, and to speak when’s spoken through. But now, interestingly, and I’m curious, I’d love to touch on your relationship with your wife and things like that as well. Because my own experiences, I wouldn’t in any way say parallel, that they were wildly different, but my experiences of booting up into interesting domains, late teens through twenties, the sense being a bit of a Pied Piper to my students who were in sort of high school and college, and we were spending time in guiding them in the wilderness and all these kinds of things.

And then, sometime, teaching at Esalen in the early 2000s, I literally had a sort of “Fonzie on Happy Days” moment, like unable to transmit anymore. Because at the time, I had just been like, “Yee-haw, this is amazing. Come follow me.” Like some rad shit over this here hill. And then a bunch of students were coming in for a week at Esalen, and I knew they were expecting me and hoping that I would light them up. And then suddenly, it was like… I couldn’t say sorry. I couldn’t. I was like, “Oh.” And there was some quiet, still voice in my head. There was like, “Yeah, this is no longer serving them or you.” You can light them up like Roman candles, sure. But it is going to create dependency, and it’s going to feed your shadow and it’s going to prevent them from standing on their own two feet.

And then literally, all that capacity just ebbed away from me. And I felt absolutely naked and bereft. I’m like, “Oh, shit. I’m going to disappoint people. This is going to be a lame week. Fuck.” And it was really vulnerable and edgy, but I was like, “Oh, okay.” Actually, what I need to do now is spend four to five times as much effort on really kick-ass instructional design. I can’t just show up and be a transmitter, right? I actually have to put more time, thought and effort into the learning that these folks can have. And that’s not to say that I haven’t had to drop into state, and I haven’t, from time to time, string a few words together, that have a poetic impact. But it is to say that that was a fork in my road where it was clearly no longer okay to accept other people’s golden shadow, right? That it was like, “Oh, no. That road lies ruined eventually.”

And I also wonder, I was a father at a relatively young age, sort of, at 27. And so I always had this domesticity like no matter how far up the mountain I got flung, there was no bones about it. I had to make it back down to my family, which was always the most grounded and unflinching litmus test of how well integrated I was or wasn’t. So I never even the option to say, “Fuck it, I’m staying up here.” And I’m just curious as to your relational background. My understanding is that you were with your wife intact through this entire time, is that right?

Andrew Cohen: Married for 35 years. Still together.

Jamie Wheal: Yeah. But no children, is that right?

Andrew Cohen: No children.

Jamie Wheal: No children. Okay. So, talk to me about that.

Andrew Cohen: [inaudible 00:40:11] with lot of adult children.

Jamie Wheal: Yeah. So how did your familial relationships inform, both support and thought, your stable grounding of your own lived experience and your role as teacher?

Andrew Cohen: Well, my wife and I, we were together before my awakening. Then after my awakening, when we met, I said, “If you want to be with me, you have to want this as much as I do.” And she said, “I do.” And so she supported me. But the thing is, Jamie, that time more than ever, this mythic identity was very profound. So we didn’t have a peer relationship. I was the spiritual master and she was my wife. And so, she loved and supported me. And I feel like I owe her everything. But I think she had a hard time because she was the guru’s wife. And so, our relationship was unequal. I had all the power in the relationship.

And so, it made it very difficult. But we stayed together. And what was very interesting is that with the crash of the community and suddenly, everybody was thinking I was the greatest thing that’s ever been born to the worst, she was watching all this happen and she saw through it all. And she remained very loyal and very supportive of me. Now we are truly peers. So for all those years, we weren’t peers. Now, we’re peers, and we’re very good friends on a very human level. And she’s fully supportive of my teaching work, but she’s not my student anymore. So we have a much healthier relationship for that reason now than we did then.

Jamie Wheal: Well, and how were you able to sort of unwind the defacto Stockholm Syndrome of if she had any co-dependencies that allowed her to subjugate herself to you, and you were willing to play along with that for decades, formative decades? How were you guys able to unwind that in the wreckage? Because obviously, that’s unstable times at everything from prestige to social networks to earning to all sorts of things. How did you guys navigate going from guru-wife to something presumably approximating a diad, a balance of masculine and feminine?

Andrew Cohen: I mean, I don’t have a very interesting answer. It was really very, very natural and uncomplicated. And I think when she saw so many people change their opinion of me so dramatically and so quickly, but I was very surprised because what could have happened, she could have said, “Hey, [inaudible 00:43:07].” And she could have pushed me away. She would’ve gotten the love and support and the adoration of so many people. But she was chewing on her own experience. And there was no manipulating her in that, because I spent about a year on my own.

During this period, we spent a year apart. And we naturally came back together in a very simple human way. It was very undramatic. And she didn’t seem to be all that wounded to me. She had suffered because the fact that everything fell apart and because of how painful it had been. But she didn’t go through any kind of dramatic, emotional process in terms of reclaiming her own autonomy or anything like that. It was really very natural.

And it was during a period I was really finding my feet again. There was a deep friendship and a kind of a sense of supporting each other at the level of lifelong partners in a way that was very sweet and very beautiful. And I’m forever in her debt for that because when one is broken, kindness and love, that’s simple and uncomplicated, can do wonders. So yeah, we have a very good relationship. We love each other very much. But even though my whole life is committed to this teaching work and what it meant and what is possible, she’s not part of it anymore. She doesn’t want to be. She wants to be a potter.

Jamie Wheal: Nice. It’s much simpler.

Andrew Cohen: No, but she’s individuating and she’s finding her own creative passions. And she fully supports what I’m doing. And it’s honest, because she believes in it. But she’s found her own art. She’s found her own autonomy in a way that’s been very… She’s individuating in a beautiful way. So it’s a happy ending to the story.

Is there something you want to talk about the issue of why I didn’t cross sexual boundaries with my students? You wanted to speak about that earlier? Because I’m an anomaly. I know that. I’m one of the few gurus who never did.

Gaining Mastery Over Sexuality 

Jamie Wheal: Yeah. Well, I mean, for sure. Feel free to speak too, because almost all of them go off the rails and sort of break their own rules, right? So regardless of whether they were aesthetic monastic up front, they’re almost always raging in the back room. So what for you about the sex, drugs, rock and roll shtick, or Libertine hedonism and crazy wisdom indulgence, either wasn’t appealing to you or was such an important firewall you never breached it, even though you muddied some other lines?

Andrew Cohen: Well, when I was a young seeker, when I was in my early twenties, after reading Autobiography of a Yogi, I became very interested in experimenting with celibacy. And I wasn’t living in a monastery. I was living in New York in my younger days, surrounded by beautiful, vivacious, attractive women. But I was becoming kind of disgusted by this kind of programmed relationship to lust and sexuality. I didn’t like it. I didn’t feel free in relationship to my own sexuality.

And I’d heard all this talk about the virtues of celibacy. I became very curious about it. So when a relationship broke up, I said, “Now I have a chance to find out.” So I took a vow between me and me, and I went strictly celibate for almost three years. And I was very strict about it. I didn’t masturbate. I didn’t look at pornographic pictures. And even if I was in a movie, if there’s any sexual activity, I just looked away. And it wasn’t a moralistic thing. I wanted to release myself from the identification with the sexual impulse.

And I found that process and that practice more powerful than meditation in the beginning to see more limitations of the mind and see the peak condition we were. And I remember when I told a good friend of mine at the time that had spiritual [inaudible 00:47:09], I said, “Oh, I’m so happy today. I’m out of my mind with excitement because six months has gone by, I haven’t had an orgasm.” And he looked at me like I was a lunatic. He couldn’t relate to what I was talking about. But it was a sense of self mastery, not repression. But I never had a moralistic relationship with sexuality, or any issues with it. I’m very postmodern. But there was a sense of mastery.

So then, when I got involved in the spiritual world, and I saw that so many of the greatest gurus of the time, I saw in Nithyananda, so many of the greatest teachers had [inaudible 00:47:41] relationship to sexuality. And they’d all have done this, practice this incredible austerities. They were accomplished yogis in the way that I never was. That when it came to sex, they couldn’t keep their pants on, including my own teacher. They started to go to my head, so I started developing an idea. Part of my spiritual legal was that I was the pure one, because they almost all couldn’t keep it together.

And I remember there was one night after I’d been teaching for a few months, I was sitting in a room in England meditating with a group of about 30 people and I remember I opened my eyes at one point and I looked around the room and I realized everybody in this room trusted me implicitly, absolutely and completely.

And I realized that I could more or less start to change what I was saying slightly and no-one would notice because it was coming from my lips. And I realized, “Oh, this is how it happens.” And I told myself in that moment that I was never going to cross that line. It was a golden rule for me but the downside of it was that I started feeling superior to so many other truly great realizers because of this one issue and that became an ego trip.

Jamie Wheal: Yeah, so fascinating that the ultimately primal tug of sexual impulse, particularly coupled with power and adoration, didn’t bend you, even though the ego trip of being the Pure One did.

Andrew Cohen: Correct.

Jamie Wheal: So it kind of got you on the back end, like the Balrog and Gandalf.

Andrew Cohen: Correct.

Jamie Wheal: Now, and when you described celibacy to me, it seems like there’s two importantly different threads there. One is the Taoist non-orgasmic, non-ejaculatory, but you’re still cultivating the sexual energy, you’re just not dispersing it.

And then, the other is almost just sublimating it or even turning away from it. And I’m curious as to whether, because in the former that Kundalini energy or whatever you want to call it, the sexual vital life force builds and builds and builds because you’re not pumping and dumping. But on the other where you simply just almost neuter yourself and decouple from those impulses, doesn’t it not ebb away over time? It’s almost like a willfully invoked menopause or andropause. What was your experience of it over time?

Andrew Cohen: No, no. With the Taoist approach, I experimented that in my marriage not during my period of celibacy, so with my wife. Something amazing happened because after about nine months of being very strict, I started to mindfully observe something very odd happened that when I would see people kiss lustfully or touch each other in anyway they would express lust, I started to feel an organic aversion and I went, “Whoa, that’s very interesting.”

It’s almost like when you stop eating meat and you go through a long period of time when you don’t eat meat, you start [inaudible 00:50:32] see people digging into a beef steak, you start feeling nauseous. So I was mindfully aware of this organic revulsion to lust. That seemed to be a natural result of disengaging from identification with sexual feelings.

And I thought it was only fascinating seeing how it all worked. And for me, this working with sexuality as a spiritual practice for me, taught me more about how to let go of my emotions and my mind, more than meditation ever did. Because it’s one of the hardest things for people to deal with and especially for men have a very difficult time with their own sexual feelings and often feel weakened and overpowered by the power of it all. So I would often encourage my students to work with these practices too, so they wouldn’t feel victimized by their own feelings.

Jamie Wheal: Okay. So you worked with sexual energy via negation, right?

Andrew Cohen: Yes.

Core Techniques of Ecstasy and Shared States of Consciousness

Jamie Wheal: Via mindful celibacy. What were your core techniques or technologies of ecstasy? How did you, when you were talking about getting into group coherence, was it just you in an unformatted way, opening up a hole in the universe, as you described it at the center of your being and people falling in one at a time? Was there meditation, chanting, breath work, scriptural contemplation? What did you use as your techniques of ecstasy in your community if sexuality and substances weren’t, which are clearly the go-tos these days?

Andrew Cohen: What you might find interesting is that I wanted my students to be able to have access to non-duality not being dependent on my presence. So they would be meeting together without me being there and I wanted them to find, have access to the source without my physical presence, without me really needing to be there.

And what we found, the simple technology has to do with coming together and coming together with other people in a state and profound trust, deep trust and shared commitment to take this leap. And the ego has to be transcendent, so the way the ego’s transcended in this context is that we have to practice becoming more interested in what we don’t already know than what we do already know, but with great sincerity. In other words, to come together and be more interested in listening than expressing our opinion to sharing what we think we’ve know or what we think we realize.

We have to return to zero, sit with other people in a state of awakened inspired intention and become more interested in listening to what we don’t already know and listening to what we don’t already know, listening to what we don’t already know, and listening, listening, listening.

And if we can do this with enough intensity, what we could call the source, we begin to bubble up in one individual and we begin to speak. And so then someone will find access to the mind of enlightenment, to the mind of the Buddha, the way realized teachers do. They’ll find access to that same source of knowledge and they’ll start speaking from that place. And suddenly they’re speaking through the personality of the individual but it’s become much deeper. So something much deeper is coming through them, just like it comes through me.

It would bubble up in one person and another person, they would respond. And the idea, then the goal would be to get this deeper source of wisdom in the mind of the Buddha, start having a conversation with itself through these otherwise unenlightened individuals. That this source would begin to have a conversation with himself.

And of course the minute that happens, there’s a shared state of unbelievable ecstasy and excitement because people start to feel that they’re being turned on in the most thrilling way, because they feel connected to the deepest dimensions of reality and creative potential is bubbling through them.

And they didn’t even know that they could do such wondrous things. Only Andrew could or only other people could and suddenly they find that it’s happening through them. And this was the most exciting breakthrough that we ever did and this is what we continued to work on.

Shared States of Consciousness: Identifying the Origin

Jamie Wheal: And of course that feels like it lives somewhere inside the triangle of Werner Erhard and [Aston 00:54:36] Gestalt encounter sessions, those would often have some emergent properties, Fritz Perls throw in those early pioneers.

You’ve got jazz bands, you know that famous kind of round midnight, after the first set they come back, they probably smoke a little weed, have a few whiskeys at set break, come back out, the audience is loose and around midnight is where the good shit would happen and there would be these emergent notes and the music playing the band.

And then there’s obviously the historic Quaker Society of Friends, that notion of a gathered meeting where spirit or if they played their cards right and no-one grandstanded and we really allowed ourselves to drop, then there would be truth being spoken amongst us.

If that’s an approximate back of the napkin map, where would you locate your guys’ group emergence practice? What felt closest?

Andrew Cohen: Well for us, I think everything you mentioned all at the same time. But I think we were very much focused on awakening through the evolutionary impulse. The evolutionary impulse is the state of ecstatic urgency. It’s the thought state of ecstatic urgency, which is very related to the state of flow that you speak about all the time.

So it’s a shared state of consciousness where the omega point suddenly would become visible to everybody simultaneously and that omega point would be calling everybody’s attention and calling forth our surrendered participation so that it’s gifts could become manifest.

So I don’t know if the Quaker process, which other people have spoken about, saying it’s very similar to what we are doing, occurred in an evolutionary context or not. I think it probably didn’t. That was the unique characteristic, had to do with the fact of becoming aware of this momentum. In other words, it’s what Sierra Bender calls the Psychic Being.

The Psychic Being is like waking up on a moving train and when you wake up, it’s already moving forward. And the feeling of that momentum is a feeling of ecstatic urgency, it’s so pregnant with unlimited potential and so when our limited selves awaken to this unlimited potential, it’s the biggest thrill. And especially if we follow through on it and co-create something extraordinary as a result, then we’re really doing something important.

Jamie Wheal: My sense is, is that it is so neat and so fun and so potent and so inspiring and so information rich, that we generally just lose our tits when we get there, right? I mean, it’s cartography and the protocols that we bugger up. It’s not that humans haven’t been doing this for ages, there’s even arguments that neanderthals did it before sapiens, that sense of some form of group mind and non-verbal connectivity and potentially stable access…

In fact, there’s a book called the Hidden Spring, which meshes very closely with the thesis I lay out in Recapture the Rapture about the brainstem potentially being the seed of consciousness then if I now graphed some of the research at Stanford and Harvard and elsewhere and MIT, onto it is that it is the Delta Wave access of deeply coherent field that is providing an access to the information layer. Which in your idioms, would’ve been spirit source, ground, non-dual being, whatever it would be.

But you could just really generically, deliberately generically, so it doesn’t get aggrandized, just say the information layer where all is apprehensible in all directions at once that that is potentially table stakes and something that homo sapiens with a sufficiently complex prefrontal cortex and spinal columns and androgynous zone and opposable thumbs have particular access to. And this would be that dualistic model of Henri Bergson and everybody else have kind of radio receiver of signal, a dualistic situation versus just information. Are we just jacking into the back door of the John Wheeler’s It’s from Bits, the information substrate of the universe in legible form?

Are we just simply able to decode it? And if so, it’s actually not. It’s profound, it’s amazing, but it’s not miraculous. It is super natural not supernatural. And I just wonder if, with a few more laps on this, can we start mapping that terrain? And rather than having it being these anomalous moments that anoint gurus or geniuses or avatars, who by and large have had access to this all along. They’ve either given it, this was the grace of God or this was the muses, this was tongues of fire, this was an epileptic state for Joan of Arc.

Whatever, whether they are spiritual explanations or materialistic explanations, we’ve generally kept them pretty close to the vest. There’s not that many people that have generated outside creativity on behalf of culture, civilization, arts, technology, philosophy, religion. And also just blurted out, “Here’s how I got there” Most people keep it on the shelf. Like, “Don’t tell anybody but this is where it actually comes from.”

We have a buddy who is a NASA PhD who has just… I think it was published in Smithsonian and several other magazines, but he’s basically reimagined the entire origins of life based not on thermal vents but actually based on hot springs and the ebbing and flowing of hot water in the hot springs. And specifically like the bathtub ring, it’s literally where fish infusion would happen. It’s where molecules and things would get slammed together and then animated with heat and then it would recede and then they’d kind of fall apart. And found some geologic evidence, some fossil record six months later, they put it on a bulletin board six months later, these other Australian researchers, “I think we just found what you were looking for.”

But his original thesis came on high dose mushrooms in the redwoods of Santa Cruz and he was literally encountered an entity that was like, “Here’s physics here, you push here, pushed there.” And basically engaged in him in a Socratic dialogue in hyperspace that demonstrated to him, “Here’s how this shit works, now go look for it.”

And he went to his research partner who was a little bit more grounded and were like, “Okay buddy, that’s whack but possible, let’s articulate this.” And next thing you know, three years later, it’s a Peer Review Journal. But he’s not putting that in the footnotes.

So this question is, my hunch is, is that it’s the same way that logos, the ability for humans to express language, was bolted onto a primate chassis. We still had to get glucose to the brain and we still had to avoid sharp things and cats with teeth, but on the other hand, we had the capacity to imagine past, present in future. We had the capacity to transfer into generational wisdom. We collapsed time with culture, technology, philosophy, art, abstract, symbols, and signs and signifiers. That what is possible if and when we get to the thing that you were barking up, the tree you were barking up, which is fundamentally stabilized group coherence of the information field that is the substrate of all reality. And can we do that in a way that’s unremarkable, non-hierarchical, congruent with developmental impulses? And yet still acknowledges the profound significance of doing it together, of doing it in community, of doing it with mutuality support and modeling.

Andrew Cohen: Well yeah, I’d love to know the answer to that question. But I think it’ll always be remarkable because that is what we experience in those states, is non-ordinary extraordinary and transformed you-

Jamie Wheal: And it’s super fucking fun. Let’s not forget that part.

Andrew Cohen: Yeah, yeah. But that’s when people’s ambivalence about being alive, it just disappears because suddenly life becomes so thrilling and so inherently purposeful. Not because it should be, because they see that it just is. It’s so liberating, it’s so life-affirming and so that’s why it’s so remarkable every time. And it’s ever new, it’s the only experience we can have in which we can never already know it, even if we’ve known it thousands of times, it’s always like the first time. So for that reason, I don’t know how it can ever become ordinary, but I agree with everything [crosstalk 01:03:17]-

Jamie Wheal: Well, interesting. I think that good old Jerry Garcia, the founder of the Grateful Dead and he stood up with Ken Kesey for the Merry Pranksters in those early acid tests. I think those guys were some of the most interesting pioneers and experimenters in this space because under high doses of LSD, dancing at the acid test in San Francisco and noodling on guitars with newly electrified amps and all that kind of stuff, they found that field and they found that there was something emergent.

It wasn’t a musical show or a concert, it was a happening. And the happening was, “What could we do together if we all just… No-one grabs the ring and we all wait to see what emerges?” Which requires the distinct possibility of falling flat on your fucking face and it’s sucking, it will not be entertaining. But on those nights that it hit, it was quintessential. And that was something that Garcia was emphatic about, he’s like, “I refuse to grab the ring. If I do that, even though everybody wants me to, everybody’s pumping messianic juju my way, because what comes out of my guitar in those moments is truly mystic krystic, lysergic mystic krystic, I refuse.”

And as a result, they kept that lane clear and it showed up in the lyrics, it showed up in the music. That they had attuned people joining hand-in-hand while the music played the band, they forgot about the time. So that whole notion of slipping into kairos together. But it seems like in the spiritual marketplace, very few teachers are willing or able to leave the throne empty for Elvis or Elijah. That temptation to plunk their asses down and take that adoration is strong.

So a question for you, and there’s two more I have as we wrap, but one is in the Rogues Gallery where you’ve got most recently and I think least interestingly, Keith Raniere and NXIVM, then you’ve got Trunkper, you’ve got ARDIDA, and you’ve got [Osho 01:05:21], where would you locate yourself and why? Both in methodology, transmissions and implosions.

Andrew Cohen: Wow, that’s a difficult question. So it’s Osho, ARDIDA, Trunkper and the NXIVM fellow?

Jamie Wheal: Yeah.

Andrew Cohen: Thanks Jamie.

Jamie Wheal: Because you’ve got the hairdo of the NXIVM fellow, but I think you were tapping in some different stuff. He was basically like a hot, retread, landmark, multi-level marketing guy. So there’s other stuff with the other guys.

Andrew Cohen: Well, I think I have some of the grandiosity of ARDIDA, some of the-

Jamie Wheal: You didn’t write in all caps though. I think your punctuation was on point.

Andrew Cohen: No, I never wrote an all caps and I never became quite as absurdly narcissistic as he obviously did. But I respect him as one of the greatest modern realizers that’s ever existed, but he had some serious issues. But I did have a sense of grandiosity.

I feel with Trunkper, there is a respect and a love and appreciation for the significance of the dharma. That to me is very much alive in my heart and still is, which I see in a context of the evolution of tradition, even though I’m not a Buddhist but it’s very much alive for me.

And very much like Osho, I still have all these feelings, but I wanted to create a revolution and I still feel this way, the fire’s still burning. But like Osho, I wanted to create a revolution and I was aware of all the difficulties and the failings of all of these teachers-

Andrew Cohen Shares His Blind Spots

Jamie Wheal: You offered extended critiques, right? So what slipped through your filters? Where you were both aware of them and the obvious lessons learned of like, “Don’t go that way. Don’t do what they did.” And yet, which bits did you miss in the after action reviews of those feet of clay fellow teachers?

Andrew Cohen: Well, I think that there’s a couple of basic things I had wrong, I believed because of certain experiences I’d had with the students, and at some level we all always know what we’re doing. And I realized after this huge crisis that happened in my life, the crash of the [communionist 01:08:21], I didn’t know where the fact in several instances, there were things I didn’t want to see because I didn’t want to see them, I didn’t see them, I was avoiding and denying them.

But it wasn’t how I saw myself because I saw myself as being fully conscious of everything that was happening within me. Even though I understood the concept of shadow and I could speak about it. I believe that I was aware that everything that was happening inside me wasn’t avoiding anything, but it just wasn’t true.

Jamie Wheal: Okay. So your blind spots had blind spots?

Andrew Cohen: Yes.

Jamie Wheal: Right? I mean, not even to be able to locate them on the map? It’s one thing to be like, “Oh, that’s my shit and I’m still working on it.” And it’s another thing to be like, “My shit don’t stink. I don’t have any.” But you do.

Andrew Cohen: Exactly, exactly right. And I never believed I was infallible. I never honestly believed that and I did embrace an evolutionary world, I always knew they were all works in progress. I understood that and I believe that, but I think-

Jamie Wheal: But everything you’ve said and everything I ever heard or experienced from you, did seem to suggest that you posited yourself outside of that time in causation, as someone at the end of time.

Andrew Cohen: Absolutely… Well, yes and no. But fundamentally, yes.

Jamie Wheal: You were like a Francis Fukuyama’s guru, you know? You positioned yourself at the end of history, you were the last man.

Andrew Cohen: I never thought of that but it sounds reasonable.

Jamie Wheal: Like things have culminated where I stand, there is no beyond that.

Andrew Cohen: Oh, I’m not completely sure I saw things that way. I had a lot of confidence in myself and in my realization and in my perspective, but I wasn’t sure that I had since saw myself as having gone beyond where all others had gone before. That’s just not really true.

Jamie Wheal: Yeah. And I wouldn’t necessarily phrase it that specific way of superseding all those who have come before, but more just that sense of, “I am a culmination of that evolutionary impulse. I am a stake in the ground on the high ground and-“

Andrew Cohen: Or I saw myself at the leading edge.

Jamie Wheal: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Andrew Cohen: Absolutely, absolutely.

Jamie Wheal: All right. Well, there’s a bunch of different things I’d love to do, but in the interest of time, I’ll ask you a couple of the most recent bringing us up to speed moments.

One was, I was thinking of going through the Culty Cult Checklist with you and it loops back to my last question, which was the mythologized origin stories of the founder, the specialized in-group language, the tight control of peak states in particular, these chances for you guys to get to group experience.

But the one that happened a few years ago that I think you wrote about, which was your experience coming out of the dark night of your soul and having a really profound, either singular or maybe series of Ayahuasca experiences. And the obvious question to ask would be, for an unreconstructed narcissist, of course mother eye is going to tell you, you are actually still super special and are in fact a world teacher need to go back to teaching-

Andrew Cohen: That’s not what happened. That’s not what happened.

Jamie Wheal: Great, great. So walk me through that from the inside out, because that sounds like fundamentally a different domain of inquiry than the Indian contemplative tradition. It’s quite boosty and quite often has its own whatever you want to call it, intelligence, information streams, et cetera. So, what was it like at a time of profound self-instability, questioning, not knowing, to dive into that experience, and what light did it ultimately shed on both your present moment at that time and your future?

How Andrew Cohen’s Awakening Led Him Back to Teaching From a Place of Humility

Andrew Cohen: Well, I experimented with the ayahuasca with guidance because I wanted to find out what I wasn’t seeing about myself. And especially in the first trip I took, I realized that there were holes in my soul that I hadn’t been aware of. I just hadn’t been aware of them. And I [crosstalk 01:12:48].

Jamie Wheal: Holes in your soul. That’s a phrase.

Andrew Cohen: They were painful wounds. I saw them as physical wounds, but I realized that there weren’t in my body. They looked physical in that state of consciousness, but they were actually in my soul, and it was very painful. And I remember waves and waves of grief and despair and regret and shame that were literally gutting and overwhelming.

But the experience I had with the ayahuasca that was the most revelatory was that I said, I wanted to know how all this happened. How did all this happen? Why did all this happen? So, I was whisked to some space someplace, and my brother was beating the shit out of me when I was a little boy, which he did quite a bit. And I saw all this at a level of vibration, which I just saw all coming.

And I suddenly understood that my sub-personality was… Because I realized that, for example, like little girls who are sexually molested think that they must have done something to deserve this molestation, and they usually feel guilty, so I realized in that moment that my sub-personality was the bad boy who deserves to be punished. Because why was he doing this to me? It quite messed me up when I was a little boy. So, I realized I had a sub-personality that I was a bad boy who deserves to be punished. And my frontal personality was perfect sadhguru.

So, I kind of realized in that moment that what I was going through, and what I’d been through, that if I couldn’t be the perfect sadhguru, then I was going to be the bad boy who deserved to be punished. And then I remembered it and then I went, “Oh my God, is that what this is all about?” Because my shadow pulled it off, because now I was internationally famous for being the bad boy who deserves to be punished, and I realized that my shadow won in that moment. And it was a [crosstalk 01:14:43]-

Jamie Wheal: Yeah. I mean, and to think you could have just sorted that all out with some latex and a ball gag. I mean, son of a bitch.

Andrew Cohen: But what happened in that moment is I feel I joined the human race in a way that I hadn’t ever before because I saw the drama and the pathos of it all on a very human level. It was painful. It was unbearable. It was very purifying. So, that was number one.

And then the second one was, it’s the other side of this was, the next one was, I was whisked off. A voice said, “You have to take responsibility for this. You have to change now. You have to do this.” It was a voice of the teacher, whatever that means. And I was whisked off to my… And I didn’t ask, I didn’t think about this when I was whisked off to the feet of my guru, and I re-experienced the moment of-

Jamie Wheal: Wait, wait, just one sec. Is that still Punjaji?

Andrew Cohen: It was only one. Yeah.

Jamie Wheal: Okay. So, even though in real life, you experienced separations and breaks-

Andrew Cohen: Yes.

Jamie Wheal: … in your kind of energetic life, he’s still the one.

Andrew Cohen: Absolutely.

Jamie Wheal: Okay.

Andrew Cohen: Absolutely. [inaudible 01:15:55] forever. So I was whisked off and I re-experienced the moment of benediction, and he put the jewel in my hands. And then he said, “Don’t ever drop it again.” And then suddenly was back. I was just on my mat, and I stayed there for about 3, 4, 5, 6 hours, just staring at my hands and meditating on emptiness.

Jamie Wheal: And for you, that was some on-ramp onto back towards a role of teaching?

Andrew Cohen: Well, it certainly was, but yes, it certainly was. But, the thing is Jamie, I never gave it up. It never occurred to me that it was something that I shouldn’t be doing, and it’s always been obvious to me that it’s the only thing I can do, the only thing I need to do, the only thing that I should do. It’s what my gift is.

What’s on the Horizon for Andrew Cohen

Jamie Wheal: Well, and so let’s bring this home because you’ve recently… Has your book come out now? Is it already published?

Andrew Cohen: Unfortunately it’s not coming out for another year.

Jamie Wheal: Oh no. What happened?

Andrew Cohen: It was the catalog and the schedule. I can’t [inaudible 01:17:15]. We’ve just got what we covered today.

Jamie Wheal: Okay. Well, you shared with me a manuscript, probably around the time you reached out and made contact in the spring, and I read through it. And then also just kind of hearing feedback from people in our kind of extended, overlapping communities, where I think there was both potentially some acceptance, I’m sure you’ve had some meaningful reconnecting conversations and some kind of truth and reconciliation kind of conversations with people. No? You’re saying that hasn’t Happened?

Andrew Cohen: No. I spent about six months traveling around the world, reaching out to people. I went to about seven different countries, specifically to do exactly what you’re saying. But there’s a strange standoff. I don’t understand it, but there has been almost no reconciliation. There’s a strange black and white world, where I was God’s gift to humanity, I was the most revolutionary, extraordinary, [inaudible 01:18:14], evolutionary guru on the planet to being this this flawed [inaudible 01:18:20]. And suddenly, people who knew me very well, because I’m kind of like an open book, so people who know me know me pretty well as a human being, but suddenly, the way I was being seen was different. And there’s a lot of healing that I feel had [inaudible 01:18:38] needs to happen for a couple hundred people. And we’re at a very big stand-off. And a lot of my former students, who are now teachers in their own right, who spent 20, 25 years as my students, which is not a small amount of time, have disavowed that I was so much of what they’re doing. So, it’s pretty odd.

Jamie Wheal: Which is not dissimilar to Adi Da, right? I mean, there was a very clear lineage transmission that happened to many of Da’s students.

Andrew Cohen: Oh, yes. Absolutely.

Jamie Wheal: And then he was just sort of stricken from resumes left and right, right? And, in fact, our dear friend Terry Patton, who just recently died, was probably one of the few not to recant, to be like, “He was crazy. He threw me in a fucking fire. It was whacked, and invaluable.” And even Pema Chodron, at least, I don’t know if she’s most recently done any recanting on Trungpa, but in her, I think it was Tricycle or Shambhala, did an interview 10, 20 years ago, where a woman journalist was explicitly trying to get her to kind of me-too Trungpa, And she refused. She’s like, “He was dangerous. We knew he was dangerous. That’s what made his teachings so invaluable.”

But I wish for everyone involved a deeper reconciliation. But in reading your manuscript, I’m not surprised because I literally had kind of a face-palm moment going into the beginnings of it, where you began with the same mythologized origin stories. You recounted a story that I think you’ve told many times in your career of your upbringing, with even the story, as you contextualized it, with your brother, which was, “I was smarter, better looking, and more eloquent than he was.” Then Punjaji recognizing you.

And I was just like, “Oh, Andrew, those are the wrong notes to hit out of the gates.” And in your passing of the community, and what happened there, and the damage you inflicted, I think for sure you acknowledge the chaos, the confusion, your blind spots. But then you also kind of go to the almost professorial high ground, and you sort of spiral-dynamics them.

And you’re like, “Oh, well, they were postmodern, and here’s the reason why they couldn’t get it. And this is why it all happened.” Which, even reading it sympathetically, wanting you to get it right, I’m like, “Fuck, dude. This is not going to play well in the bleacher seats. You’re going to get killed on this.” And that’s actually why I emailed you back. Like, “Are you are close to done on the manuscript? Is there a chance to shuffle some things around?” Because that sequencing, to anybody, particularly in our hypersensitive world these days, right, where everything from social justice to gender politics and things have become both… Let’s think, let’s see if-

Andrew Cohen: True.

Jamie Wheal: Right. Right. Well, fraught and hyper reactive, and also almost Maoist scripted. If you’re on the receiving end of a struggle session, there is a script you follow, and if you do not follow it, you just are subject to further beatings. And I didn’t get the sense that the manuscript, at least in the form as I read it, was going to get you out of the dog box. So, my curiosity there is, what was your sense on structuring it that way?

Andrew Cohen: Well, the book wasn’t written as an apology to anybody in particular, I was trying to tell them, I was trying to tell a big story, and [inaudible 01:22:15] big context for it. And so many people who have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, that I thought I needed to stand up for the truth of the baby, that we all co-created, and that we all shared, and that still has value and relevance. So, I feel that if I took it as far as you’re suggesting that I should have, I don’t know how I could honor the truth and beauty that we all created together.

Jamie Wheal: Yeah. And that is the trick, right? Because the bathwater is really muddy these days.

Andrew Cohen: No, because I wrote a very passionate apology letter. But the beginning, I was trying to remind everybody what we were doing and what the context was. Because I just didn’t say I’m sorry, but I spoke about the context, people became furious. I’m aware of that.

Jamie Wheal: Yeah. Yep. And then you look… I mean, America’s got a well-established tradition, and even aesthetic, of the repentant sinner. Right?

Andrew Cohen: Exactly.

Jamie Wheal: From the scholar letter to the crucible, to Bill Clinton, we love a good pedestal to the pit to the rehabilitation, but it does follow a script. And if you deviate from the script, you risk a stoning instead of a clean guillotine. And so it’s just the fact that you are, at least at those times, those moments of choice that you had, you were unwilling to set aside the aspirational and simply meet people at the level of the emotional.

Andrew Cohen: But I did. I spent many months traveling and meeting people one-on-one and doing that.

Jamie Wheal: Oh yeah, no. Again, I’m just being super pragmatic. This isn’t me.

Andrew Cohen: Oh.

Jamie Wheal: This isn’t me sort of judging you. It just didn’t fucking work by your own description.

Andrew Cohen: No, not at all. Zero.

Jamie Wheal: Right? Yeah. So, something was missing.

Andrew Cohen: But the thing is, Jamie, I would have had to apologize for my radical spirit. That’s why I called the book Radicals. I would’ve had to apologize for that, and then I’d be a liar. That’s what they wanted. They wanted me to apologize for the whole thing. They wanted me to apologize for the very thing that attracted them to me in the first place, and I couldn’t go that far because that would’ve been just completely dishonest. A lot of people wanted me to say it was all wrong from the very, very beginning. The teaching was all wrong, I was all wrong. And then they would say, “Now he really gets it. Now I really feel he’s gotten the message.” And I could never go that far and not be true to myself and true to reality as I understand it. That’s the conundrum.

Because everybody knew that I was a bad boy, and everybody knew I was making it up as I went along, and they thought that was so heroic and so outrageous. And when I got it right, I really got it right. And people saw me improvising, and seeing when the arrow hit the center of the target, they said, “This is amazing.”

And so, I wasn’t hiding. It was no secret how out there I was as a teacher, how audacious. And so everybody said, “Yes.” And so, I don’t excuse myself for my own mistakes because they were mine, and I created a lot of karma, and I do feel I have atoned for that. But I can’t apologize for the radical spirit that’s still alive in me and that everybody was deeply attracted to and thought was the coolest, hippest, most outrageous thing they’d ever seen.

Jamie Wheal: Well, I mean, it strikes me that the radical spirit you’re talking about is profoundly transpersonal.

Andrew Cohen: Correct.

Jamie Wheal: And if the collective presenting and recognition of that is the actual juice, that’s the new ground that you, as someone for whom that beacon was alive and alert, being a totally fallible human is fundamentally decoupled from that source consciousness, whether it just abides in the timeless void, or whether it comes alive when three or more are gathered, to me that feels like a fairly easy delineation. This wasn’t me. This was coming through me. It was also coming through us. It it’s like the dude, it just abides.

Andrew Cohen: Yes.

Jamie Wheal: And versus, I still had some exceptionality in my commitment or dedication to it. Because ultimately it doesn’t give a fuck, and we’re all just blips in the time stream.

Andrew Cohen: For sure.

Jamie Wheal: So, is that possible? I mean, my sense is the cement has already set on whatever this next chapter of your life is going to look like.

Andrew Cohen: No, it’s not.

Jamie Wheal: You probably had moments of deep fluidity. No?

Andrew Cohen: No, no, no, because I’m still trying to figure out how to do this in a completely different way. And I think about nothing else. The cement is definitely not dry. I have more questions about how to move this forward than I ever had in my life.

Jamie Wheal: Neat. Well then-

Andrew Cohen: I’m supremely unsure about it, and I’m very open and curious and in a state of constant inquiry about it. [inaudible 01:27:20].

Jamie Wheal: I appreciate you having taken a big swing for what you thought to be true. I was on a podcast with Matthew Remski, I think is his name, and Derek Beres. They run a conspirituality podcast. And weirdly, Matthew got totally hijacked. I think he’s got some cultic background himself and has written some books about it, but he got completely hijacked by the section where I said, “Hey, it’s actually, all the post-cult folks. Tut-tut.” And kind of pluck at their apron strings and say, “See, they were just gurus with feet of clay. They were just in it for money, sex or power.” And I was like, “For some total scheisters, that’s true. But for the true transmitters, for the Das and the Oshos, for folks that absolutely, positively lit people up and put people into repeat powerful states, it’s more complicated than that.”

Andrew Cohen: Right.

Jamie Wheal: And he absolutely went of the rails that I was an apologist for cult leaders, and that I was somehow justifying their abuses, and all this kind of stuff, which clearly I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have written a book about ethical cults and did a culty-cult checklist if that had been the case. But full hijack for the dude. But he advanced a case, and this is one that I’m curious about. Is it better or worse for humanity or the cosmos that Adi Da, Osho, and you ever lived?

Andrew Cohen: You think I can give you an objective answer to that question?

Jamie Wheal: No, just a heartfelt spontaneous one. Is it better to have swung for those fences and blown the whole thing sideways?

Andrew Cohen: Absolutely yes. Without a doubt.

Jamie Wheal: And why?

Andrew Cohen: Because radical experiments like this generate enormous energy and human potential. I mean, Adi Da has had an extraordinary influence on hundreds of thousands of people. Chögyam Trungpa has had an enormous influence of hundreds of thousands of people. And I believe that my work has influenced a lot of people also. And I think a radical spirit, these radical spirits who are so flawed, pushed the envelope for all of us.

I mean, I was never particularly fascinated by Osho as a teacher for many reasons. But if you can imagine if he was preaching live free sexuality in India in the early ’60s, he was an outrageous character who was challenging all the Indian uptight status quo like nobody’s business. Of course, teaching free sex to Western hippies is no big accomplishment, but where he was, if you pay attention to where he was coming from in the early ’60s, he was completely outrageous.

And Trungpa, of course, in terms of his teaching, was similarly, but in a very different way, completely outrageous. And so, outrageous characters make it possible for us to question the way we interpret reality in ways that people who are more careful probably would never be able to do.

So, I think the answer’s an unequivocal yes. And the dharma needs a lot of work, and people like me have a lot of work to do to clean up our acts so we can present the dharma in a way that is equally potent, but less dangerous.

Jamie Wheal: Well, there we go. The dharma needs a lot of work. That’s hilarious. So, yeah.

Andrew Cohen: The way it’s taught.

Jamie Wheal: Uh-huh (affirmative). Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Andrew Cohen: Because one of the things you said in your book about the significance of traditions was, well, if you take these teachers outside traditions, they anoint themselves, or the traditions keep people safe, and it’s a context they have be true to and be guided by. But there’s been as much corruption and confusion and destruction in the Catholic church and in Buddhist monasteries as it has been outside it. So, tradition doesn’t save us in any way, shape or form.

Jamie Wheal: Nor does religiosity or atheism. Right? I mean, Stalinism and Maoism had no gods and did all sorts of murderous things. Right?

Andrew Cohen: Much worse, much worse.

Jamie Wheal: Yeah.

Andrew Cohen: But, I know we’ve got to go, but just to finish this, that I feel that radical awakening is inherently countercultural. And I think you realize that. So, I think that’s a truth we have to discredit. It’s going to shake up our world. And I remember Terry, when I was hanging out with Terry during the fall of the community, he said, “Andrew, if you look at communities where nobody’s egos got singed at all, nobody ever changes.”

Jamie Wheal: All right.

Andrew Cohen: So, it’s complicated.

Jamie Wheal: So, it’s [inaudible 01:31:46] creative destruction in the realm of the psychospiritual. It’s even our NASA buddies’ fish infusion on the bathtub ring of life that we need to bring some heat, and we sometimes need to let things cool and consolidate, and from the propagation of novelty and what is an emergent life, and awareness comes. So, Andrew-

Andrew Cohen: And one last thing. And never think we’ve arrived, and always keep learning.

Jamie Wheal: Yeah. Something like that. The good old-fashioned horizon line we always sail towards and never reach.

Andrew Cohen: Thank, thank you, Jamie. You’re a delight. Thank you very much.

Jamie Wheal: Yeah, man. I appreciate the riff, and wish you well on your deliberate and intentional return to public life.


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