Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Seeds Of Abuse Were In Place

A View On Andrew Cohen From 15 Years later

By Douglas Wallace

I left Andrew Cohen’s community in December of 1989. Unlike others who have written about their experiences here, I was involved with Andrew Cohen and his sangha for barely over a year. But, as many readers of this blog will understand, that time was extraordinarily powerful, and marked the most intense and profound commitment I had ever made to anyone or anything. I encountered Andrew weeks after I had begun a graduate school program, but quickly abandoned my studies, job, and home to follow him. Meeting Andrew felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and there was no choice but to give myself to it completely.

Falling in love was the easy part, because what Andrew offered was so astonishing and revolutionary. I had spent years as a Buddhist practitioner, but in a scant few days Andrew opened my eyes to more freedom than I had believed possible. I became convinced that Andrew was offering me a high-speed ride to liberation, and I was among the chosen few.

Within weeks, though, I also sensed some disturbing signs in the community and in Andrew’s behavior that would only intensify over time. There were strict, but unwritten rules that tripped up even the most experienced students. Violations resulted in public humiliation and crushing “house meetings” – two words that I would come to dread. Crossing Andrew, or even appearing to disagree with him, guaranteed swift retribution.

Reading through the various accounts that former students have posted here, on WHAT Enlightenment ??!, it’s clear that the seeds of the abuse and manipulation were in place long ago, probably from the start. The details are horrifying, but not surprising. Andrew is just reenacting a role that has been played by other gurus before him – one theme, many variations – and the drama always unfolds along the same lines.

My departure from the community also followed script. After enduring a number of men’s group meetings where faltering students were shouted at and brought to tears, I finally spoke up and suggested that maybe there was a better way to help people through their difficulties. Oddly, in the weeks leading up to these events, I had been feeling increasingly confident in my own experience and judgment. I must have known, in some way, that this challenge would bring their scrutiny directly on me and force the issue of my own skepticism about Andrew.

If this was an unconscious wish on my part, the men quickly gratified it and blasted me with criticism about my treachery and lack of gratitude toward Andrew. While I acted a little contrite, I quietly knew that I wasn’t about to tolerate weeks or months of abuse for my egoic crimes. After a day of reckoning with the consequences, I gathered my clothes and my courage, and left my group house without notice.

I did have one phone call a few days later with Andrew, during which he asked me if I would reconsider my decision and return to him. With my heart in my mouth, I said I couldn’t and explained why, feeling wrenched with anger and love for him. I later learned that Andrew had recounted that conversation to my fellow students with such fabulous distortion that I became an easy villain. Abusive phone calls from the community chased me until I left the area.

I embarked on a trip to Asia for lack of a better destination, already weary from loss and depression. My life took me to an improbable encounter with Poonjaji (Andrew’s teacher) in India, and a slow healing through a desolate mental landscape, back to a semblance of wholeness. Being with Poonjaji also brought back to life the beauty of Ramana’s teachings, which Andrew had offered me my first glimpse of, but little more.

While my time with Poonjaji was critical in helping me through my separation from Andrew and the community, I still simmered in a stew of outrage and reactivity for several years afterward. My bridges to Buddhism had been burned, and I felt mistrustful and negative toward other Advaita teachers, especially those who had anointed themselves after an awakening experience. Caught in a deep disillusionment, I was intensely critical if there were any question of their integrity or authenticity. As for Andrew, I found his lingering presence in Marin County, where I finally returned to live, a source of great agitation.

As with a brief affair, I ended up spending a lot more time processing my experience with Andrew than the months I actually spent with him. Of course, I thought long and hard about sending him a letter that would finally set him straight. But each time I considered it, I remembered Andrew’s bullet-proof defenses and self-justifications, and knew that there was no getting through.

The passing years have made a difference, and I’ve been fortunate to meet several fine teachers who offered their guidance without demanding my allegiance. They were all rooted in a dharma that transcended their personal interests, and it was a deep joy for me to return to the truest part of my spiritual calling. None of them claimed perfection, and I never asked it from them. All were human, and they knew it.

I look back, bemused now, at my hopes that I would finally be free of certain kinds of experiences, particularly difficult emotions. I wanted Andrew to help me escape my basic human predicament, and he seemed more than willing to accommodate me, for a price. It was a bad bargain for both of us. I’ve learned the hard way that my spiritual longings were complex: unfulfilled narcissistic drives were interwoven with a genuine love of truth, and revulsion toward the mess of the world joined with a deep contemplative nature.

Now when I think of Andrew, I appreciate the doors he opened for me, but his delusions and failings don’t keep me up at night. He’s just another guy.

Originally published May 15, 2005
Original article on WHAT Enlightenment??!, with comments: The Seeds Of Abuse Were In Place