Thursday, June 02, 2005

Letter From A Senior Student

I am one of the many longtime students of Andrew Cohen who you don’t see around or hear about anymore. My name is Anastasi (or “Stas”). Those of you who’ve been (or are) in Andrew Cohen’s community have known me as “Ernest”. But for those readers who don’t know me, I was a student of Andrew for fifteen years before I left (read: ran away) in May of 2003. In later years, I was one of his ”senior” students leading centers for him in Tel Aviv, Stockholm and London, as well as being in a leadership role while we were all in California, then later in Massachusetts. I was also his so-called ‘close friend’, and even played music with him in his band.

Some posts on this blog suggest that things are “better than ever” in Andrew’s community. They always are aren’t they?…always evolving, changing, expanding, ”transcending and including.” Who would want to deny that? Yet, simultaneously there seems to be a kind of selective and collective exclusion of a shadowy side of things, of the past, which if constantly denied or minimized, in due course rears it’s ugly and angry head. Lke a “crazy” family member who, unable to openly voice perceived hypocrisy and emotional pain in the family becomes an uncomfortable embarrassment. How about some of those “disgruntled” and “whining” voices that just won’t shut up and go away, and let us be our squeaky clean, fantastic, ever-evolving, better-than-ever enlightened selves?

Like Hal Blacker and others, I feel strongly that it’s time that a fuller picture of Andrew Cohen, the teacher, be revealed and spoken about, a picture that includes some of the pitfalls and even dysfunctionality that are often encountered by his closer students. In saying this, I am not meaning to imply that Andrew isn’t a profoundly awakened individual, and a passionate and inspiring teacher with much to offer students and, for that matter, the larger “spiritual” world. Over my years with him, I’ve had such appreciation and unbelievable love for him, as he was one of the catalysts for my own awakening process —otherwise, why would I have gotten so close to him as a student and stayed for so long? For years, I considered him to be my spiritual “father.” But it took me quite some time to realize that ”daddy” has some fundamental issues of his own. Side by side with all of his gifts is an unquestioned narcissism, that, unacknowledged and unchecked by anyone, has led him to make some pretty serious mistakes with students. Because Andrew has a supporting cast of people around him (like me) who daily reaffirm his self-image as a “living Buddha”, or Perfected One, his personality traits, wounds and proclivities have somehow been “absolutized,” and viewed as an expression of the goal of perfection, or perfect response. We are all imperfect beings on a human level –Andrew, as well —yet there is a lot to protect if you’ve already closed the book on questioning your own motivations just because you’re “enlightened” (whatever that means), and infinitely more so if you’re a teacher with no lineage or tradition to answer to. I communicated this point directly to Andrew in a letter 5 months after parting company with him. This is an excerpt from that letter:

“…Andrew, one problem I have is that you answer to no one. Even the holiest of the Orthodox Christian fathers and saints had elders and ‘brothers’ before whom they humbled themselves and sought spiritual guidance and correction if needed. You humble yourself before no one, and have no peers -- not really. Anytime you’ve seemingly “questioned yourself” before your closer students (the usual lip service is: ’Am I doing something wrong?’) of course no one dares suggest that you might be on a wrong course of action or that you’re reacting out of outrage or indignation rather than making an objectively appropriate call in the face of the transgressions of a student. At such times you frequently alienate people from you, and so from their conscience, and their own heart, further activating their ego rage. Please understand that I anticipate your usual response along the lines of how much you always have acted only out of care for the freedom/evolution of myself or whoever it happens to be. I don’t doubt this. However, my point is not to question your good-hearted intentions or motive, but to question your judgment, as borne out numerous times with respect to others and to myself…

…On the matter of humility, something has stayed with me – a little thing – but it’s just that you never gave any weight whatsoever to the reflection, given in semi-jest from your so-called ’brother and peer,’ Ken Wilber, when he suggested that you have some uninspected ’boomeritis’ of your own. You didn’t seem the slightest bit curious if there was maybe something to it. You just chuckled that one off. Perhaps your narcissism is on a messianic level -- but whatever the case, its effect is real, and has left the bodies and souls of some of your closest students strewn needlessly all over the world…”

Now, I guess I run the risk here (like Hal Blacker and Susan Bridle) of having my weaknesses and flaws thrown up at me because I am daring to raise questions about the guru. Craig Hamilton's letter really felt like a personal ”slap” from Andrew to potential student-critics to get back in their place, spiritual peons that they are. He went right for the jugular with Susan, questioning where her confidence is coming from. Yet, I wonder how much sustained confidence Andrew would have in his position if he weren’t constantly supported and reaffirmed by everyone around him. This is not to let myself off the hook here. I never had the guts to break the “code of silence”, as Hal puts it, while I was his student. As one example -- I didn’t question or hesitate to carry out Andrew’s numerous orders for me to slap people for him, although it strongly went against my nature to do so. And I have also been on the receiving end of a number of these “messages” from him. (Contrary to what was implied in one of Craig’s posts, “slapping” and other forms of physical abuse were frequently used against many students over the years. Andrew explicitly ordered or directly committed these assaults himself.) So it’s pretty clear what a “wimp”-- one of Andrew’s favorite words -- I am.

My story isn’t really unique, yet often people inside the community don’t really know what goes down when a close longtime student or a leader leaves. They usually hear some variation of the vague party line that he or she “refused to live the teachings”, a two-dimensional picture with zero compassion or empathy, except to say how much Andrew has suffered because of this person. Then every effort is made to erase this ”mess” from all the ”new and amazing evolutionary things that are happening now.” Yet somewhere people must harbor feelings of uncertainty of how they will fare if they ever get close enough to their guru, Andrew, and hit that invisible and unchallengeable wall around his ”perfect responses.” I know I did.

I hit that wall for the last time almost two years ago in May of 2003. That’s when, feeling beaten down under the psychological and sometimes physical pressure to conform to what Andrew wanted from me, and unable to deal with or raise my own doubts about the situation, I packed my car without telling anyone, and drove away from Foxhollow, the headquarters of the Impersonal Enlightenment Fellowship in Lenox, Massachusetts, and headed south for New York City. Not a very dignified exit, I know, but sneaking away like this was really the only effective way one could leave after years of close association with Andrew Cohen. This is because close students have seen the extreme lengths to which he’ll go to prevent his longtime people from even thinking about leaving…and now he was hot on my trail trying to track me down to get me to return. He had other students calling my family members trying to reach me. In the first month, I communicated with him via email, and knew that he was extremely upset that I had left. He had told me that my departure was making him look bad: what was he supposed to say to everyone who looked to me as his representative and close student?

In these first few months, I was an emotional wreck, feeling guilty, confused, alone, financially broke, trying to reckon with the fact that my guru was writing to me calling me a “coward,” but still knowing somewhere I didn’t want to go back – I knew it was over. Yet, perhaps sensing some unsureness, Andrew was now frantically pulling out all the stops. He even wrote me a bizarre email from his dog, pleading for me to “come home” (sounds weird, but I’m not kidding). I asked him to please not involve my family in this; that I needed some time on my own away from his constant badgering to return. Still, he persisted having people call my parents, my ex-wife, and my daughter. I knew I had to make a clear break, and so I wrote him the letter (excerpted above), which I’ve decided not to post in full. (In this letter, I describe a situation with some of the children in the community that I felt Andrew severely and completely mishandled. I’ve left this out because I want to write more fully at a later time about Andrew’s dysfunctional relationship through the years to the children in the community. This issue deserves special attention.)

A year later, after much soul searching and trying to understand more clearly everything I went through with Andrew – the awakening, the help, and the horror show – I wrote the following letter. In it I particularly address the extremely unethical way he extracts sizable monetary ”donations” from close students at times when they are struggling and under extreme emotional stress. I also tried to get him to do the right thing, and return the money he got from me under precisely such conditions. I received no response from Andrew to this letter, except indirectly, as reproduced below it.

Stas M.
October 7, 2004
Dear Andrew,

I wanted to let you know that in the months since my departure from you and IEF back in June of 2003, I’ve been trying to understand more clearly, the multi-dimensional, mixed bag of my fifteen-year relationship with you as my mentor and teacher. And, I’ve realized with unsettling clarity the staggering degree of emotional manipulation and abuse that I and so many others “close” to you have been unhappy recipients of. It’s been quite unnerving, but freeing, to finally recognize that despite your claims to the contrary, there is a strong subtext of narcissism that is deeply woven into your particular brand of guru-disciple relationship, which often seems to compel you to make inappropriate demands from your closer students. In this letter I want to elaborate in factual detail on this point, which continues to have an adverse affect on so many of your students, past and present. And, above all, I personally want to redress the unethical means that you used to get me to donate all the money that I did to you. The money I handed over to you was not in any way freely given, but was given as a result of intense emotional and psychological blackmail. And, I am writing to tell you that I would like it back now.

Andrew, for me, our relationship began with the ecstatic realization of my deepest Self and heart in meeting you, spending time and, in gratitude, working closely together for noble and lofty aims. During and after the blush of my awakening to a deep, transcendent Love, I felt very close to you in a fatherly way (even though I was older than you), and took you to be my guru, as you seemed to be the catalyst for my profound awakening. But, in time, I gradually found myself being beholden to you personally above anything or anyone else, including family, friends and even my physical, psychological and financial well-being, which I dared not question for fear of threatening my relationship to the self-proclaimed ‘Source’ of that love – you. In fact, what I have realized is that you treat all your closest students (male and female alike) as in a co-dependant romantic relationship with you – with all the hooks and emotional stickiness one finds in such a relationship. Guilt, betrayal, feelings of specialness, self-unworthiness, etc. all abound, as we hopelessly try with all our hearts to please you. Remember, I was there when you pulled Mary and Debbie back into this relationship with you after kicking them out months earlier, calling them “fucking bitches” and other demeaning epithets. I watched you court and manipulate them, trying to get them back in your fold with your most seductive “you’re mine” heart appeals. I sat with you in your car as you played Body and Soul, a song of romantic longing to Mary over the phone, relishing it as she started sobbing. After I had run away from Foxhollow to escape the overwhelming pressure, and regain, some sense of sanity, I got your warm, fuzzy and bizarrely repulsive letter to me from your puppy, Kensho, pleading to me to “come home”. I ask, what’s spiritual about all this? Is this “impersonal” Love? It’s sickness.

It strikes me that whenever one of your close students, God forbid, wants to or does part company with you, you always seem to hysterically re-enact your break-up with the first real love of your life, Donnatella. That’s exactly how we all feel on the other end. Is this supposed to show us what a real relationship to an enlightened master is all about? Relating your Donnatella story in one of your videos, in true narcissistic form, you’ve actually made the part where she “destroys the best thing that ever happened to her” – i.e., her relationship to you – a definition of what ego is. Wow! Maybe, she just didn’t want to be your girlfriend anymore, Andrew. Maybe she wanted to move on. I know it’s a hard one to swallow.

I, in fact, came to you for spiritual liberation, yet the added gift of a friendship with my teacher was something I was grateful for and cherished deeply. Still, I never really wanted to be in a position of making a binding commitment for life to you personally or to your organization. Through the years, I was constantly at odds in myself with my contradictory feelings of loyalty to you and to my own autonomy. And, instead of being given the freedom to choose, reassess and possibly change relationship to you or to my practical involvement with IEF over time, I was always made to feel that I was never giving enough in an ever-escalating level of commitment -- either as a community leader on your behalf or as a manager in the Audio Visual department. And when I didn’t meet these expectations, I was made to feel guilty for betraying you personally, for having no sense of obligation to you in return for everything you’ve given me. Yet, my real fault was my inability to be honest with you about all of this, to attempt to break the spell of this binding, ‘love’ relationship with you.

At your request, and out of loyalty to you, I led your communities fulltime for years, running your centers in Israel, Sweden and the UK. As a matter of record, although my rent was covered, I was never paid a cent. I did this out of love and dedication to you, and at great personal sacrifice, including the compromise of my relationship with my daughter, who, due to your demands, I could only manage to see for short visits once or twice a year for nearly four years. All this was during critical years of her development while she was growing up. Both she and I can never regain what we lost due to my total immersion in my work for you during those years. But this wasn't enough for you. On top of that, you insisted that I run the AV department long distance from Stockholm, then London by phone, a ridiculous idea that could never work. Anyway, since, as always, there was no disagreeing with you about this (or anything), when it didn't work, I was chastised by you for my ‘disobedience’, and made to feel like I had betrayed you.

When the same situation recurred while I was in London, you became outraged, and sent me packing to Sydney, Australia for a couple of weeks at my expense to be brow-beaten and counseled daily by Mary and Debbie, who were there for similar reasons, for the “betrayal of my master”. When I was sufficiently repentant, I was allowed to come to Lenox, stay in a motel room, again at my expense, until I proved to Bob, through endless meetings with him in my room that I was really “with you”, and ready to surrender to what you felt was best for me, which was to begin to make up for my defiant ways and “take on” the AV department.

You then allowed me to come to Foxhollow to do a half-time retreat in the morning, while burning my ‘bad karma’ by working the rest of the time in AV. Initially, you offered to loan me money to live on while I worked in AV, although you never actually made good on this offer. And, at no time was there ever the thought of paying me anything for my production work for IEF, which I felt resentful about. But, I never dared say anything, as it was considered a privilege to be able to work for you for nothing. After all, you already had “given me everything”, so I owed you everything. And so, the following downward spiral would occur on more than one occasion: (1) First, was your unreasonable demand on my time and dwindling resources, followed by (2) my unexpressed resentment, and ultimate “failure to produce”, leading to (3) your overly intense expression of outrage toward me for the personal betrayal of you, for which I was put under enormous pressure by you and my fellow students to feel remorse about, while making some gesture of contrition to you. As you well know, this psychological pressure and manipulation from you and others would even extend to being physically slapped in the face repeatedly, and verbally insulted and humiliated (often by women) until I could be “trusted” to turn over a new leaf. But at no time was I able to question you or your methods because I knew that at anytime if I didn’t comply, I could be out on my ear, ostracized and even shunned by all my friends of 15 years. (And you made it clear to me and others on numerous occasions that if I would decide to leave and make a go of it on my own, that would be equivalent to “spiritual suicide” (your words) and exile to the lowest realms of hell.) I have seen this sort of banishment happen to many others, and knew the anger and even hatred you harbored for those older students who left the community and/or according to you, didn't give you all their time, attention, respect, obedience and at times even their money.

Under the psychological intensity and despair of one of these early cycles with you, I was struggling to prove to you that I cared enough, and so took the course that had by then become the prescribed means of getting out of hot water with you, showing remorse and proving how much one cared – offering you money.

In desperation I wrote you a check for $3,000, I think it was. I remember distinctly when you received my offer, you stormed into my room, angrily throwing the check to the floor and shouting at me dramatically, “Do you think you can buy me off for a lousy three grand?” I was flabbergasted. Could it be that there was an amount that I was expected to give that would show the necessary amount of intention and resolve to change? The right amount of care for you? I had remembered a time when buying you flowers was a symbol for this; but times had changed, and now the currency of forgiveness and intention apparently was cash.

As you well know, I was around to watch as many others who “bottomed out”, and wanting to prove their sincerity felt pressured by you to buy their way back into your good graces. In fact, any longtime student in the community knew that sooner or later a “donation” would be required as the only way to resolve matters if they ever got into real trouble with you. Extracting “donations” from your students generally took place at a time when they felt victimized, emotionally overwrought, guilty, and trying to gain back your love, trust and affection. You actually even said to me and a few others at one time that when a ‘committed’ or a ‘senior’ student “blows it”, it’ll cost them $20,000 in karmic retribution. And all this, of course, normally happened without the slightest regard on your part for the student’s actual financial situation. As appallingly manipulative and abusive as I now see your attitude to be, I know that this was still the accepted way that things operated around you up until the time I left.

So, despite grave reservations about being able to do what your “rules” dictated in this situation, I dug deep, cleared out my bank account, borrowing the rest, and offered you what I thought would surely show my heart was in the right place – a check for $20,000. It was accepted and deposited by you. (This was followed by another pledge of $10,000. made to you a bit later when I was in London after having failed once again to meet all that you were demanding of me. I paid you $500. toward this at that time.)

I now find it all quite twisted and sickening. The benefit of leaving has afforded me the clarity I never had while in your world, and under the constant duress of enforced compliance to your wishes (being told this was for my liberation). So, now I am making a different and sane choice on my own behalf:

Without further elaboration of past events, I simply and directly ask you to return my money to me now in full -- $20,500. -- without conditions. This money can by no stretch of the imagination be considered a good faith donation to a nonprofit group, having been extracted from me under some of the most intense and extreme psychological stress imaginable.


Ernest Mavrides
Nearly a month later, this is the email response I received from Andrew’s assistant:

From: "Cathy Snow"
Date: Sun, 7 Nov 2004 19:41:03 -0500
To: "Ernest Mavrides"
Subject: from Cathy Snow

Dear Ernest,

We have reviewed your request and have decided to decline it. We wish you all the best.

Thank you,

Cathy Snow

Originally published February 7, 2005
Original article on WHAT Enlightenment??!, with comments: Letter From A Senior Student