Cohen was born in New York City in 1955. He has an elder brother, Joshua. Raised as a secular Jew, he recounts that his life was changed by a spontaneous experience of "cosmic consciousness" at the age of sixteen. Haunted by the memory of this event, Cohen abandoned his ambition to become a jazz drummer and began a quest to recapture this experience. Studying martial arts, then Kriya Yoga, then Buddhism from ages 22 to 30, Cohen eventually met the Advaita Vedanta master H. W. L. Poonja in 1986. After spending two weeks with Poonja, and having what he claimed was a deep spiritual awakening, Cohen began to teach, with the initial encouragement of Poonja, until a later personal disagreement created a split between the two.
In 1988, Cohen founded EnlightenNext, a nonprofit educational and spiritual network committed to creating a new global culture. In addition to small groups of students located in various parts of the world, EnlightenNext has public centers in New York, Boston, London, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Zurich, Paris, Copenhagen, Tel Aviv, and Rishikesh, India. The main center for EnlightenNext is a 220-acre (890,000 m²) retreat venue in Lenox, Massachusetts, where Cohen and his largest body of students currently reside.
Shortly after he began teaching, Cohen began to meet with other spiritual teachers in order to share his experience and engage in dialogue about the nature of spiritual enlightenment. In 1991, he founded EnlightenNext magazine (under its former title, What Is Enlightenment?), in order to share and further this investigation. As editor in chief of EnlightenNext magazine, he believes that "it is on our shoulders to create the future," and sees the magazine and its associated programs as popular forums for dialogue and inquiry regarding the meaning of spiritual life in the postmodern era. EnlightenNext has developed an international speaker’s series called Voices from the Edge, an online multimedia forum known as WIE Unbound, and a partnership with the Graduate Institute (TGI) to offer a master’s program in Conscious Evolution. In 2006, and again in 2007, the WIE.org website was honored by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences with the Webby People's Voice Award in the Religion and Spirituality category.
In 2000, Cohen became one of the founding members of Ken Wilber's Integral Institute. He was a featured speaker at the 2004 Parliament of the World's Religions, and, in 2006, was awarded the Kashi Humanitarian Award.
Cohen distinguishes Evolutionary Enlightenment from traditional "personal" enlightenment. In Evolutionary Enlightenment, he teaches, enlightenment is no longer the possession of the individual, but instead becomes the ground of relationship upon which a new culture is created. Cohen argues that the creation of this new consciousness and culture is essential for the survival of the race, and says that it is particularly incumbent upon those individuals who are at the leading edge of human development to take this next step.
To assist those who wish to evolve in this way, Cohen has developed a comprehensive teaching, the essential elements of which include "The Five Tenets" and "Six Principles" of Evolutionary Enlightenment. An interactive teaching model summarizes the perspective offered by these teachings.
Some of Cohen's former followers, including his mother, Luna Tarlo, view Cohen as a charismatic and manipulative spiritual teacher. Dr. André van der Braak's Enlightenment Blues: My Years with an American Guru alleges that Cohen demanded large sums of money and extreme, unquestioning devotion from his students.
Tarlo wrote a book called Mother of God about her experience as one of his disciples. She accuses Cohen of cruelty, self-aggrandizement and abuse of her and other disciples, and describes what she maintains was her struggle to free herself from his control. U. G. Krishnamurti asked Tarlo "How could you do this to your son?" after she had stopped being his disciple. Tarlo describes the conversation: "'But tell me, how can you do this to your son? You can't do this to your son, can you?' He was testing my conviction. 'Well--I've done it!' I said and laughed.
American journalist John Horgan questions the existence of "the totally enlightened guru," specifically in reference to Cohen and others.