Thursday, June 02, 2005

Breaking the Code of Silence

Part 1: Breaking the code of silence, by Hal Blacker.
Part 2: What is Enlightenment? editor responds.

Part 1: Breaking the code of silence, by Hal Blacker
May all beings be happy!!!

I am certainly happy because I have been granted the privilege of non-anonymously breaking the Cohen Silence Code on our What Enlightenment?! blog. And it feels real good. Don’t be shy and don’t be the last one on your block or on this blog to join in. Come on in, the water’s fine!

My name is Hal Blacker. As many readers here may recall, I was the editor in chief of What Is Enlightenment? magazine from 1994 until late 1996—the period during which Andrew Cohen’s periodical made the transition from being a small in-house newsletter to an international spiritual publication.

I left Andrew’s community in early 1997. Since that time I have experienced a gradual unfolding of understanding about what happened during my time there and what went wrong. My own personal story is not that important. In many ways, I think, I personally suffered less than many. I was one of the few who left with Andrew’s blessing (although against his wishes), and with the door (initially) left open should I wish to return.

In the past, I have not wanted to speak publicly in any way that might be seen as negative about Andrew, his community or his teachings. I was hesitant to do this at first because, despite misgivings, I felt some loyalty to Andrew. I was concerned that due to my renown as the former editor of and frequent contributor to his magazine, anything I said that might sound critical would receive undue attention, and possibly cause him harm. I was also not sure how to sort out events and their meaning. I felt that before I said anything critical, I wanted to be certain that I was not motivated by personal hurt or animosity. I wanted to wait before speaking out until I was no longer subject to anger that might skew my perspective. Finally, I felt it was more important for me to move on with my life, and continue my own spiritual path. I did not feel it was healthy to shovel energy into a bottomless hole of resentment or recrimination. So, except for personal conversations with friends who were also in the community and who had left, I remained largely silent.

But a few years ago I began to learn of things that caused me great concern. An old friend who I worked with on What Is Enlightenment? magazine called and told me she had left the community. I told her a little about my thoughts about it—how I had come to see how oppressive life in the community was, how wrong it was that there was no personal freedom or autonomy permitted, how abusive the confrontational methods used to enforce conformity now seemed, how frequently we lived in fear, and how criticism was always forcibly squelched. She interrupted me and said, “Hal, things have gotten a whole lot weirder since you left.” I asked her what she meant, and she told me stories involving the use of physical force and abuse against students. She spoke of being ordered by Andrew to deliver “messages” to fellow students consisting of slapping the student in the face as hard as she could. She told me she had been ordered by Andrew to paint messages in blood-red paint on the walls of a student’s room at Foxhollow. She described to me the conversion of the spa at Foxhollow into a kind of psychological torture chamber.

As the years passed I spoke to many other former students who confirmed these stories, elaborated upon them, and told me many more. I learned of students having large “contributions” psychologically extorted from them. I heard how a student was required to sign a “gag order” agreement prohibiting him from publicly criticizing Andrew as a condition of having his “contribution” returned. I was told the story of community women prostrating in a freezing cold lake in the winter, some suffering dangerous exposure, as a symbol of their devotion and repentance for “women’s conditioning.” I learned of a student being forced—against his will and his moral compunction—to engage in daily visits to prostitutes in Amsterdam for weeks on end as a kind of penance for past sexual indiscretions. I was told by a student how he was ordered to reveal to his estranged teenage daughter her mother’s infidelity that occurred many years in the past, in order to teach the daughter not to hold her mother, now a critical former student, in such high esteem. I heard these stories and many, many more. As the weight of the awful truth about what Andrew and his community had become accumulated, I began to feel that something must finally be said. People must be warned. At the very least, any prospective student should know what they are signing themselves up for when they join Andrew Cohen’s community.

As a result, I’ve decided to begin to write publicly about these things. I’m throwing off the cloak of anonymity. I hope to write as frankly and revealingly about what I’ve learned as I can. I plan to contribute my own opinions about Andrew’s methods and his teachings, but in the end, each of us must decide for ourselves what it all means. I hope that others will join in with their own stories, comments and contributions, anonymously or not.

Please join in. May this discussion be of benefit.

May all beings enjoy happiness and the root of happiness; be free from suffering and the root of suffering; and dwell in the great equanimity that is free from passion aggression and prejudice!

Originally published January 27, 2005
Original article on What Enlightenment??!, with comments: Breaking the Code of Silence

Part 2:

WIE Editor Admits Slapping, Smeared "Blood" Incident
by Craig Hamilton

I nearly laughed out loud when I read Hal Blacker’s preamble to his “Breaking the Code of Silence” entry on this blog. How noble of you, Hal. You’re finally going to enlighten us all to what’s really going on around Andrew? What “code of silence” exactly are you referring to? As far as I can tell, so far the only code on this blog seems to be a code of kvetching. Let me try a new approach. I’ll call this entry “Breaking the Code of Victimization.”

My name is Craig Hamilton. I’m the managing editor of What Is Enlightenment? magazine, where I’ve worked full time since 1997. I’ve been a student of Andrew’s for nearly thirteen years, and have been a close friend and colleague for the past eight of those years. I’ve been watching this latest incarnation of the anti-Cohen cult with mild curiosity since its small handful of founders started repeatedly emailing announcements about it to all of the magazine’s advertisers and contributors. I never planned to respond, but at a certain point, the rhetoric of mischaracterization got to be too much to listen to.

So, for anyone who, upon reading the entries on this blog, finds themselves scratching their head at the bizarre, two-dimensional, and often surreal picture it paints; for anyone who finds it nearly impossible to reconcile the diabolical PowerLord depicted here with their own experience of Andrew Cohen (either through his writings, his magazine, his video dialogues on the web, or his public talks and retreats), I thought it would be worth offering a few words of explanation to help set the record straight.

First, a couple of questions:

(1) if the community around Cohen even remotely resembled the sort of life-destroying police-state this blog depicts, why would most of those writing on this blog have stayed with Cohen of their own free will for ten or more years? And why would so many others report it to be the most enriching, life-affirming, and genuinely evolutionary environment they have ever experienced?

(2) if Andrew Cohen really were the menace to society this blog describes, why would so many of today’s wisest and most respected spiritual and cultural authorities have expressed such strong support for his work? (A small sample of these can be found at:

For starters, just to be clear, yes Andrew Cohen is a demanding teacher. And if he accepts you as a student and you get close enough to him, he’ll likely challenge you in ways you have never been challenged. Sometimes warmly. Sometimes affectionately. Sometimes fiercely. But if you’ve been even a few steps down the path of transformation, and have begun to glimpse the usually obscured face of that dubious cluster of self-serving motivations traditionally known as ego, you’ve probably realized that, frankly, sometimes you need to be challenged. I know I had. In fact, a big part of the reason I came to Andrew for help was that, after years of meditation and therapy, I had managed to see myself just clearly enough that I was starting to become faintly disgusted by the self-aggrandizement, narcissism, and deep-rooted selfishness that was playing itself out in all my relationships. And it was clear that, despite my growing concern about it, I wasn’t in a hurry to give it up on my own. Andrew made it clear from the word go that he was in a hurry for me to give it up, and that it wouldn’t be easy, that I would at times resent him or worse for forcing me to confront and leave behind the self-image I had grown so fond of. But I was pretty convinced that without the kind of “evolutionary tension” a relationship with a teacher like Andrew promised, I would likely spend the better part of a lifetime in spiritual self-delusion, in love with my own image as a seeker.

In case there was any doubt, Andrew delivered. And then some. And he was right. There have been many times when I have resented him and worse for the sometimes stark or even severe reflection he has unfailingly provided. (I was the one mentioned in Hal Blacker’s letter who got slapped in the face and also had fake blood smeared on his wall—which, incidentally, we already wrote about in the magazine three years ago—so much for the “code of silence”). And if I had, at any one of those times, followed my bruised ego out the door, as a number of others have, I might well be joining the feeding frenzy along with them. The spiritual path has always been a high-stakes game. The mystical literature isn’t filled with metaphors like “Razor’s Edge” and “Chasm of Fire” simply for poetic effect. Indeed, before I met Andrew, I always wondered why the traditional stories were so replete with images of demons trying, and often succeeding, at tempting people from their own highest aspirations. For all of my meditation and therapy, I had encountered nothing in my own experience that could help explain their existence—metaphorical or otherwise. But in my thirteen years with Andrew, where the fires of transformation burn bright, I have seen in often painful living color just why the traditions made such a strong, if metaphorical, point of this. The sad and at times devastating truth is, not everybody makes it. And some barely make it to the starting line.

But for those who have remained steadfast through the struggles that come with the territory, something miraculous is unfolding. On an individual level, it manifests as a deep authenticity and vulnerability, a profound freedom of being, whose human face is care for others and for all of life. But the greater fruits of this sacred labor are revealing themselves on a collective level. Coming together beyond the fears and desires of ego, we are discovering a new way of being together, in which the autonomy of each individual is fueled and animated by the power and love of communion beyond difference. If you want to get a glimpse of what heaven on earth might look like, I strongly encourage you to pay us a visit. Our doors are always open, and many who have come through have commented that they’ve never experienced anything like what they tasted here.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that Hal Blacker or any of the other writers on this blog shouldn’t have left. Nor am I suggesting that everyone who leaves this path does so because they have an ego tantrum. No path is for everyone, and least of all this one. But having known Hal for many years, I have no doubt that the reasons for his departure were as I described above. And that in light of that, we would do well to question his motives for writing what he has, and the accuracy of the picture he paints. (For the record, Hal served very briefly as the lead editor of What is Enlightenment? while it was making the transition from a two-color in-house newsletter to its first issue or two as a small, four-color magazine. Those of us who worked with him remember him as an emotionally unstable and often aggressive colleague. Indeed, it was his unwillingness to make any effort to control his fitful aggression that eventually compelled Andrew to give him the nickname “Raging Bull,” and which also ultimately led to his departure).

Finally, I think it needs to be said that this blog’s portrayal of Andrew as a self-proclaimed infallible authority who answers to no one is little more than a cheap shot. It ignores the fact that since he began teaching, Andrew has gone out of his way to seek out meetings with other teachers, traditional and non-traditional, with whom he shares not only his insights but his struggles and questions. It also leaves out the fact that Andrew regularly speaks about his own continued evolution as a teacher.

I was hesitant to write this letter. I recognize that, given the level of aggression we are confronting here, this small effort at explanation may well backfire, generating a yet greater wave of animosity, even if again only from that small minority whose axe will not be sufficiently ground until it is but a stub of a handle. But at some point, silence on such matters starts to look like consent. And if nothing else, perhaps this small statement will at least raise a question for anyone who might have been fooled by Hal and his gang. I guarantee that if you dig deep enough to find out for yourself, you’ll discover that the picture of Andrew Cohen portrayed on this blog is nothing more than a small-hearted rendition of loosely assembled half-truths, a coward’s caricature. Yes, there is another side to the story. It’s a side whose glory cannot be contained in the space of this letter. But one well worth investigating for anyone in whom the heart’s cry for freedom cannot be drowned in the clamor of cynicism.
Craig Hamilton

Originally published February 3 (comment) and 4 (as article), 2005
Original article on What Enlightenment??! with comments: here