Thursday, June 02, 2005

A Legacy of Scorched Earth

Part 1: A Legacy of Scorched Earth
Part 2: WIE Editor Responds

A Legacy of Scorched Earth
Reflections of a former student
by Susan Bridle

Hal Blacker’s recent very thoughtful posts to this blog have inspired me to send a contribution, also nonanonymously. I was a student of Andrew Cohen for ten years, and worked very intimately with him for many years in my work as a writer and editor for What Is Enlightenment? magazine and other Moksha Press publications. I have witnessed or experienced everything reported in this blog and a great deal more. I left Andrew’s community a little over 3 years ago, and while I am busy with new academic, career, and spiritual goals, I am still “digesting” my experience of my relationship with Andrew and my time in his community.
Bottom line, I experienced so much that was truly profound and transformative—and that I will forever be grateful for—and also so much that was really abusive and twisted—and that still deeply saddens me. The lightest light and the darkest dark. Both. All tangled together like miles of black and white yarn entwined in a big ball at the pit of my stomach. I guess for me, I feel my work is to digest the whole thing, tease it apart, and try to come to some real maturity and wisdom about it. And without saying that Andrew doesn’t have responsibility for where, in my considered opinion, he went off the rails, take responsibility for all my choices and actions, for what brought me to him, what kept me there, and what enabled me to finally move on.
One thing that continues to strike me with painful irony is that fact that Andrew would, almost tearfully, lament about other teachers who had shown such great promise, whose passion for the spiritual life and searing dharma inspired so many spiritual seekers to abandon “the world” and give their entire lives to a spiritual revolution—but whose abuses of sex, money, power, or other addictions in the end disillusioned thousands of seekers and instead promoted cynicism about the whole endeavor. This is, in fact, the reality of the situation now with Andrew. He inspires such passion, such commitment, such sacrifice in so many seekers…for a while, a few years, maybe ten, perhaps longer. But Andrew’s legacy is, for the most part, scorched earth. Hundreds of disillusioned seekers who, when they eventually extricate themselves from their highly compromised relationship with Andrew, are scorched souls, burnt out entirely on the spiritual life, afraid to risk or trust or commit again. Many, even most, of Andrew’s former students, at least those who spent significant time in his company, have lost faith in themselves, in their own aspiration and capacity, in the possibility of a healthy student-teacher relationship, in the whole enterprise. This is a crime, a sin. Worthy of a tearful lament.
When his students leave him, rather than wishing them well and hoping that they are able to make good use of their experience with him, his community, and his teachings, Andrew scorns them, heaps abuse upon them, calls them “pigs” and “monsters,” and asserts that they have “sold their souls to the devil.” Rather than hoping that they will go on to use what they’ve learned in living fruitful lives, continuing their spiritual paths, and doing good work to relieve suffering in the world, he responds gleefully when he hears news of former students who are struggling to find their way. “That loser!” he would laugh. He delighted in hearing news about struggling former students. It vindicated what Andrew saw as their personal betrayal of him, the one true living embodiment of all that is holy and evolutionary in this world. For Andrew, his game is the only real game in town; no other spiritual teacher, path, or practice can hold a candle to it. Former students’ continued belief in this myth makes it very difficult for them to consider other spiritual paths and practices.
It seems that around Andrew and his communities today is a revolving door of students who discover him through the magazine or books, and have visited one of his centers, and perhaps attended a retreat or two. They stay for a while, and probably benefit tremendously. The “core” group of students who have been with Andrew for longer periods—and who are exposed to the kinds of tactics reported on this blog—has shrunk markedly over the years. Foxhollow, Andrew’s large and lavish residential and retreat center in western Massachusetts, when not filled with people during retreats and seminars, is significantly less populated than it once was. Some report that it feels like a monument to what might have been, a pretense of grandeur elaborately and expensively maintained, a slowly shriveling relic. Whether this is what becomes of Foxhollow and Andrew’s worldwide spiritual community remains to be seen; Andrew’s teaching and community have changed and evolved significantly since he began teaching in 1986. Maybe he will be able to adjust course regarding some of the matters discussed on this blog. That is my hope.
One other painful irony I’d like to mention—among so many others—is Andrew’s early, strong criticism of “crazy wisdom” teachers. During this period, he asked Hal to interview the American spiritual teacher Lee Lozowick about it. Lozowick has enormous insight on this subject, and his comments almost seem prophetic:
WIE: What is crazy wisdom?
LL: One of the primary aspects of crazy wisdom is that crazy-wisdom teachers are willing to use any behavior, no matter how shocking or irreverent or disturbing, if, and only if, that behavior has a very high likelihood of provoking a shift in the student, a deepening in the student. Of course, in this day and age, because of the communications industry, we hear about every idiot throughout the world whose ego takes on a crazy-wisdom function and then goes about using shock techniques whenever they feel like it, with complete disregard for the timing of the matter. Everything is timing. Gurdjieff was a master of timing. He didn't just produce shock like a research scientist to see what would happen. He only produced shock when the likelihood of its being effective, in terms of deepening a student's relationship to the Divine, was high. It didn't always work because it is only a likelihood, but still he wasn't random about it. And the teachers who I call charlatans today are teachers who are completely irresponsible in their use of power and crazy manifestation. I would consider a crazy-wisdom teacher someone who might use anything, but who is never arbitrary, and never follows their own personal motives. They only use dramatic and shocking manifestations under specific circumstances at exactly the right time. It's like faceting a diamond—if you don't understand the structure of the stone and you just take a chisel and hit it, all you get is diamond dust. You've got to know exactly the structure of the diamond because you've got to tap it along a particular fracture point. If you tap it in the middle of two fracture points, then you just smash the stone instead of getting a perfectly faceted jewel. Human beings are the same way. They've got what we could call revelation lines, so to speak, or enlightenment lines. A crazy-wisdom teacher is a master at faceting. A charlatan is someone who just takes the hammer and chisel and whales away and hopes that there are some beneficial results—or maybe doesn't even care but just loves the euphoria of the exercise of power and people groveling at his or her feet.
…[The fact that Reality cannot be understood with the conceptual mind] is one of the revelations that can deepen a student's relationship to the Divine. So one might do something under a specific circumstance to produce the revelation that reality is nonlinear. But ordinarily, one wouldn't function like that all the time just to prove that point. One would do that only when the student was just on the edge of the real possibility of getting that point, beyond just knowing the party line. Another important consideration is that the kind of behavior that would demonstrate the absurdity of linearity would not tend to be violent behavior or the kind of behavior that would psychologically scar someone.
I think that, so sadly, Andrew became the kind of teacher Lozowick speaks about here, one “who just takes the hammer and chisel and whales away and hopes that there are some beneficial results—or maybe doesn't even care but just loves the euphoria of the exercise of power and people groveling at his or her feet.”
Andrew’s passion, inspiration, insight, and personal example melted my heart, and enabled me to take great risks in my commitment to the spiritual life. My association with him transformed my life in many very positive ways. I carry with me enormous benefits from my time with Andrew, and I do not regret those years. But now, reflecting on his techniques, I have to say that he is an exceptionally ham-handed teacher, willing to inflict great harm in his clumsy and often extreme dharma experiments.
On a personal note, I’m now quite involved with the Zen Center of Denver. I’ve been meditating there and very slowly getting more involved for the past couple of years. I did a sesshin (intensive Zen retreat) last June that was very powerful. I had been afraid to do an intense retreat like that before then because I guess I felt I wasn’t ready, that it would be too painful, that too much stuff around Andrew would come up. And sure enough, for the first half of the sesshin, layer after layer of stuff about my relationship to Andrew, to the spiritual life, to my own aspiration, to pain and cynicism came up. But I just sat with it, let it be, experienced it without clinging or pushing away. And layer by layer, it burned away like fog. I experienced a lot of pain and grief and sadness, but also a lot of gratitude about my whole experience with Andrew. And what was also amazing was that Danan Henry Roshi, the abbot at ZCD was at the same time coming to the end of a long process of coming to terms with his first Zen teacher, the renowned Philip Kapleau Roshi, who had died just before the sesshin. The sesshin was dedicated to Kapleau Roshi, and we listened to recorded dharma talks by Kapleau every morning. Henry broke with Kapleau more than 10 years ago, a few years after Kapleau had sanctioned him as a dharma heir and had sent him to open a Zen center in Denver. Henry had felt there was still something missing in his understanding, and began his Zen training all over again with Robert Aitken Roshi. (Aitken and Kapleau had both trained with the same Japanese Zen masters, but they developed very different teaching styles). Henry’s break with Kapleau was difficult for a few years, but he remained in an essentially friendly and respectful relationship with him. Nonetheless, he had a painful process of coming to terms with breaking with his first dharma father, with some of the painful and confusing aspects of his training with Kapleau, and the difference between Kapleau’s understanding of the dharma and the subtleties of teaching, and his own. Kapleau had a very passionate but also a militaristic style of teaching, and people would be beaten black and blue with the Zen stick during sesshins. Henry came to realize that Kapleau began to teach before his own Zen training was complete. While Kapleau had had a very powerful awakening, there was something incomplete in his understanding of the dharma and of teaching. In Zen, kensho and satori are by no means the end of the road. Henry suggested that he and many others were casualties of this incomplete training on Kapelau’s part. BUT, what was more interesting and helpful was Henry’s example of clear-eyed love, respect, and gratitude for Kapleau, even while knowing of his limitations. (Which it would seem were far less serious than Andrew’s; my point here is not to compare Kapleau with Andrew, but to share Henry’s approach.) Henry had dealt with most of this before Kapleau’s death, but there was still a bit further for him to go in coming to total peace with his dharma father. So, during this sesshin where I was doing the work I needed to do about my relationship with Andrew, Henry was finishing the work he needed to do around Kapleau. In the mornings we listened to Kapleau’s dharma talks, and in the evenings Henry would comment on them and put them in the context of his own teaching and that of Robert Aitken. He really modeled a way of being around this that avoided nothing, and was at the same time incredibly compassionate for both himself and Kapleau, wise, mature, respectful, grateful. So this going on in the sesshin was like a container for me to go through my own process. Interesting, I said very little to Danan Henry Roshi about it in dokusan (formal interviews with the teacher). Things just came up and burned off. Toward the end of the sesshin, Henry said of Kapleau, with enormous emotion, that he loved him and he owed him. And that Kapleau was fully himself, limitations and all, a great lion of the dharma, and could not have been other than he was. And at that moment that was exactly how I felt about Andrew. So, that sesshin was very powerful for me. The last couple of days of the sesshin were different. I went beyond my attachment to and interest in thought and insight, and glimpsed beyond a deep ego-entrenched fear/shame of my “self” being somehow antithetical to the Absolute. I was able to get past, at least briefly, some blocks that had always hung me up in all my practice with Andrew. I can’t say this big opening lasted very long, but I feel the sesshin planted my feet firmly on the path again. I regained the path, and my faith, and my willingness to risk again. And now it wasn’t attached to a particular person, but just to my own aspiration. I’m doing the Zen training here, gradually. It’s sooo different from Andrew’s community. Much more spacious, much more respectful of the individual, definitely not authoritarian. I’m finding my way with having a completely different, non-guru-like relationship with my spiritual guide.
May we all learn how to turn our challenges and travails on the spiritual path, and the path of life in general, into pearls of wisdom and compassion.
Susan Bridle

Originally published February 2, 2005
Original article on What Enlightenment??!, with comments: A Legacy of Scorched Earth

Part 2:

Craig Hamilton's "Explosion"

Reflections of a current student
by Craig Hamilton

Dear Susan,

I’m glad to hear that you had a good sesshin, that you finally feel you have gotten your feet back on the path, and that you have regained your self-confidence. But after reading your diatribe against Andrew above, I have to ask you one question: Do you really believe the picture you laid out? Or perhaps more to the point, did writing all that out so eloquently and forcefully help you to believe it a little more?
Having worked closely with you on the What Is Enlightenment? issue “What Is Ego: Friend or Foe?,” I know you get why I’m asking, but for those who are peering into our little fishbowl here let me lay out a little context.
As Sigmund Freud saw clearly, and as Anna Freud explained in its details, the ego, or self-image, protects itself with an army of defense mechanisms which, in effect, endlessly reshuffle the details of reality in order to keep one’s picture of oneself intact. The “wisdom of the ego” as Harvard psychologist George Vaillant refers to it in his book by the same name, lies in its ingenious ability to distort reality to protect us from uncomfortable, even devastating truths. This is why authentic spiritual paths are so challenging. They attempt to disarm the ego, so we can see clearly, free of its distortions. And as any tradition worth its salt will tell you, except in the rarest of cases, human beings will not give up their defenses without a fight. And most of the time, we won’t give them up at all.
The problem this presents for the authentic spiritual teacher, then, is that it puts him or her in the difficult position of having to, in an often painfully literal sense, start a fight with the student. Granted, it’s a fight that the student has agreed to, perhaps even begged for. But, let’s face it, a fight is a fight. And once it has started, the outcome is never assured. This is probably why many of the great Zen masters would put their would-be disciples through such extreme trials before they would even consider accepting them as students. They wanted to gather some data: how likely is it that they are going to let me win the fight? When push comes to shove, as it inevitably will, are they going to side with the aspiration that brought them to me? Or are they going to side with the part of them that wants absolutely nothing to do with me and the freedom from delusion I represent? And as history tells us, no matter how much data they gathered, still there was no way to be sure.
Now, here we are in the postmodern world. A world in which, as Ken Wilber points out in Boomeritis, and Christopher Lasch makes clear in A Culture of Narcissism, the personal, egoic, narcissistic self-sense has become something of a god without peers. Let’s admit it together. We postmoderns answer to no one but ourselves. And if we have a God, it is a God (or Buddha) we have constructed to perfectly suit our spiritual self-image. A God that serves us well. Certainly not a God who challenges us. So, what happens when an authentic spiritual teacher—a teacher interested only in the real liberation of his or her disciples—walks into the middle of this narcissistic, postmodern world and gets to work? Any guesses?
Well, for starters, he ends up with a blog like this one and a couple of books written by angry former students who, surprise, surprise, got their egos bruised one too many times and decided to retreat to sunnier climes. But the problem is, once they got there, they realized they were still in the fight—only this time the fight was between two parts of themselves—the part of them that had been awakened by the teacher and the part that ran away. Of course, now the part of them that ran away is fully in control, but for all of its internal efforts, it can’t get that other part to shut up. Imagine the predicament. How to respond? You guessed it. Attack the one who started the fight in the first place in the desperate hope that tearing him down will stop the fight. It is truly a horrendous, and perhaps uniquely postmodern, predicament.
So, to return to my question at the beginning, the reason I’m asking Susan if she really believes what she said is that she and I both know that behind all of her confidence and feigned sincerity, she isn’t really quite as sure about this picture as she is making out to be. Although no doubt, she feels a bit emboldened, and at least temporarily more certain, for having said it so well and so publicly. This was, like most of the entries on this blog, an attempt to stop the internal fight, to untangle what she referred to as the “miles of black and white yarn entwined in a big ball at the pit of my stomach.”

But, of course, this isn’t really mainly about Susan. What I’m trying to shed light on here are the three areas that people reading this blog understandably tend to find confusing:

1) Why are some people so angry at Andrew Cohen when he seems to be such a powerful and inspiring teacher so wholeheartedly and selflessly committed to humanity’s highest ideals?

2) Why are people still angry enough to fight this fight so intensely even many years after they’ve left? Why haven’t they moved on?

3) Why are the sentiments so strong when there is no actual scandal to speak of?

I think that so far, I’ve pretty well covered the first two. But in light of how many truly self-serving, corrupt gurus have generated far less animosity, this third question is particularly intriguing. Take note: Andrew, for all of the respect he has garnered among today’s most prominent thought leaders and visionaries, does not have a particularly large following. And in contrast to many of the past few decades’ more prominent spiritual leaders, he has not been accused of any financial or sexual improprieties—nothing at all that would constitute any sort of scandal. And yet, he has already had two books (and one blog) written about him attempting to assassinate his character. Think about it. For all of their dramatic impact, somehow the cries of “he told me to jump in a cold lake,” or “he had my friend draw a cartoon caricature of me and post it on my office wall,” or “he threw me out until I was ready to be serious,” or even, “he had my best friend slap me in the face when I was being a jerk,” or even, “he told me to sleep with three prostitutes a day to try to get me to stop sleeping with prostitutes instead of my wife!” (which only happened once, just for the record) just aren’t the stuff of scandal. Even if they might offend our more conservative sensibilities.
Now, to return to your post, Susan, there are a few specifics I can’t help but respond to. First, I don’t know where you’re getting your data, but your characterization of what is happening around Andrew now is so far off the mark that I would suggest, in any future diatribes, you stick to the usual fare on this blog—rehashing the past. As for the “core group”, whatever that was (some special elite you saw yourself as part of?), it has not only gotten bigger and stronger, but more importantly, it has expanded to include everyone. Far from being the “monument to what might have been” you describe, Andrew’s global community is exploding—exploding with passion, exploding with creativity, and most remarkably, exploding with individual and collective liberation. The revolution in consciousness that Andrew and all of us have worked so hard to bring into being is now bursting out of every corner. It’s bursting out of the magazine (remember the magazine?), it’s bursting out of our new international speaker’s series, it’s bursting out of our new broadcast media website, it’s bursting out of the new documentary film we shot last summer at the Parliament of World’s Religions (incidentally, did you know Andrew spoke at the Parliament, and I hosted a panel on the Future of Religion?), and most importantly, it’s bursting out of every aspect of our collective life together, our meetings, our meditations, our Enlightened Communication groups. It’s by no means a finished product, and hopefully never will be, but some kind of critical mass has happened that is creating a momentum of awakening in the collective that anyone who visits here can feel in their cells. You wouldn’t believe what it’s like at Foxhollow now. Hardly a week goes by that some spiritual or cultural luminary doesn’t drop in for a visit to see what the buzz is all about. And the same could be said for our beautiful new five-storey evolutionary megacenter in London. And, of course to a lesser degree, our smaller but no less thriving centers in New York, Boston, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Paris, and Rishikesh.
Second, your characterization of Andrew as an ivory tower guru who thinks his is the only game in town has to be one of the most absurd distortions I’ve ever heard. I think any of us would be hard pressed to name one other spiritual teacher alive today who has made more effort to personally connect and maintain relationships with as many other teachers as Andrew has. Not to mention his efforts to actually promote the work of other teachers through his magazine, our speaker’s series, our broadcast media website, etc. This was really a low blow.
Third, your (and this blog’s) characterization of Andrew as someone who rejects and vilifies former students is another cheap shot. No doubt, splitting from such a close and involved relationship can evoke all kinds of feelings on both sides. But particularly in light of the fact that it was Andrew and I who reached out to you last year, simply to see how you were doing and try to reconnect, this emphasis in your letter was frankly painful. There are many former students who have maintained good connections with Andrew and the community, and we are always delighted to see anyone who drops in for a visit.
Finally, I have to point out the irony of your using the Lee Lozowick quote to try to build your case against Andrew, given that he’s one of the many people who knew you before you met Andrew who couldn’t believe how much you’d changed as a result of your time with Andrew. I hope some of that change has managed to stick, and that in your next sesshin, you come a bit closer to the truth that might really set you free.

Craig Hamilton
Managing Editor
What Is Enlightenment?

Originally published February 4, 2005
Original comment on WHAT Enlightenment??!: Craig's Explosion