Thursday, June 02, 2005

A Travesty of “Enlightenment”—Wendyl’s Story

A Response to The Story of Caroline Franklyn

By Wendyl

[Wendyl was a formal student in Andrew Cohen’s community. In her words, “I was so blown apart by Mario’s story about Caroline, these words just flowed from me.” She sent this article by e-mail.]

I lived as a formal student in the US community in California and Foxhollow from 1994 to 1998. My heart ached in reading Mario’s story of what happened to Caroline, whom I knew only from a couple of retreats. Mario’s sensitive and painful rendering also opened deeply an old wound in me. I feel I have to write about my own experience to let potential devotees know that these stories you read about on this blog are not rare, isolated cases. Mario, like Susan, Stas, Hal and others, shows what it is really like to be in the middle to upper echelons of the hierarchy around Cohen and what can happen to your spirit. There was something in the story of Caroline, like others have already said, that disturbed me in a way nothing before on this blog has done, like a dentist drilling and drilling an extremely sensitive tooth and finally hitting a nerve…..maybe because of the cruel tragedy around Caroline’s death. If one multiplies this aggression and bullying of a spirit by a thousand or more, one will get an idea of what goes on behind the scenes of the bright, cheery, interested faces presented to newcomers at the centers, on the Cohen website and behind the scenes of Cohen’s self-aggrandizing, self-promoting marketing vehicle called What is Enlightenment? Magazine.

I was in the 1998 India retreat that Mario mentioned “was the first indication for what was to come for Caroline” when Cohen unleashed his “vitriolic attack on formal women students.” When he “accused [us] of being insufficiently devoted to him, manipulative, untrustworthy and therefore in need of deep and complete inner change”. We were also subhuman, lesser than men – in fact we had to be subservient to the men, walk behind them, and not talk to them. The 1998 retreat in Rishikesh was a travesty. Cohen—a self-proclaimed savior of women, in fact according to him the ONLY spiritual teacher in the history of humankind that ever cared about the enlightenment of women—was relentless with his attacks and aggression. We, 40 or 50 formal women who were cramped into about a 150 sq. foot cinderblock cell of an ashram room maybe 50 meters from the holy Ganges, were like deer caught in the headlights, competing for hasty solutions to the attacks, looking for the key to overcome or transcend or see through our subhumaness. Day after day we had fresh bullying from Cohen himself or via the “senior” students—the same Steve Brett who in Cohen’s honor broke Caroline; and we also had Debbie, Michelle, and Chris Parish among others—all sent by Cohen to batter and break us, to make us so terrified and crazy we would become “free.” It was disgusting and pathetic and had no positive results. When has this kind of aggression ever had results except in torture tactics to gain information?

Why did I stay? I can say that my already fragile spirit for Cohen and what he had to offer broke completely at that retreat. I thought the whole thing was so spiritually deadly and appalling, but I didn’t know what to do about it. I just went mute. In those days with Cohen in India and afterwards I witnessed and participated in such collective hallucinations induced by him and his puppets—harsh words—terror—then possible solution—then euphoria—all of it washing over us like a drug stupor. We were all insane. When you are so self-preoccupied for so long and so intensely with your womanly “badness” your vision becomes so inverted and leaden. No light shines in you and you become numb and blind. Some, like the senior students and those formal students who rose to the top, got good at parroting Cohen’s techniques; others didn’t have the stomach for it.

At the end of that retreat (and in fact this retreat was the apex of an entire year or two of bullying the women with their badness), Cohen went with a group of women to meet Vimala Thakar, who is the spiritual heir to J. Krishnamurti, in Mt Abu in Rajasthan. She is a very beautiful, generous and wise soul who had been featured in an interview in WIE magazine at the beginning of Cohen’s preoccupation with “women’s conditioning.” The women were so self-conscious and flattened after a year or two of intense self-preoccupation with how “bad” women are, and this travesty of a “retreat,” they could barely speak with Vimala. It was just one year earlier, before the women became such “pariahs” in the community, that I had gone with two other “formal” women to meet Vimala and had two beautiful, open, simple and profound meetings with her. In Cohen’s “meeting” everything centered on what was “wrong” with women, all the women being under Cohen’s watchful eye. And of course after this pathetic encounter the women were harshly criticized. I say, what do you expect?

We “formal” women paid for our “sins” of being less than human by each being required to pay $750 to Cohen for a Meditation Hall, a hardship for many, and just another insane, desperate idea put forth by one of the women at the end of the retreat and jumped upon in the euphoric promise of possible solution to future attacks. Desperate and insane—just like the woman who suggested that all the women prostrate in a freezing lake in Foxhollow! There were scores and scores of insane ideas coming out of our leaden, inverted, compressed spirits…….

“You can die a miserable old woman,” like Steve Brett (almost certainly at Cohen’s behest) said to Caroline, or you can prostrate for hours each morning to Cohen’s picture because you are so miserably inhuman. I ask: WHO is inhuman? As Mario stated, we women were “in for it.” After this retreat we continued endless hours of women’s meetings which were unbearable, as they were poisonous forums for bullying, aggression and self fixation. Any truly transcendent moments—and there were some transcendent moments—were quickly battered and beaten out of recognition—too positive and uplifting (and therefore unreal) in a time of preoccupation with darkness and negativity. We were always paying for our “sins” by “contributing” money to buy Cohen expensive clothes, floral bouquets, whatever, staying up all night writing flowery and sickening apologies to Cohen and his chief puppets for one “transgression” after another, for how awful, inhuman we women were and how grateful we were for their “wisdom.” And we were insane and became more and more insane with this treatment. I am not saying that we women did not have deep conditioning to explore. But Cohen’s methodology is sadistic and had deeply sickened our spirits. WHO, I ask, is insane?

Why did I stay? Why did I choose this? Due to community demands, I had by that time (after 4 years in the community and 6 months before I left) cut myself off from friends, family, work possibilities; I was broke, and I doubted myself profoundly and was in a mild stupor most of the time from lack of sleep. It was only a matter of time before I was demoted as my heart had long since fled. Like Caroline I was given cruel and nasty messages from Cohen. And I too was accused by other women of things I never did. I was lucky because when I was demoted I did not have the $2000 required by Cohen to buy my way back into the “formal” students.

When you are demoted it becomes a free-for-all. Every Mary, Debbie and Cathy watches you like hawks and vultures; they shun you but also take every opportunity to peck at you, to give you their “opinion” about your behavior, also known as “feedback”. What a horror show in the name of Truth and Freedom. What a dishonor to the words in Enlightenment is a Secret that resonated deep in my heart and experience and made my spirit soar in the early 1990’s when I first read them. I was so dispirited in my last months that when I finally escaped in late 1998 I was in a state of deep traumatic stress for months afterwards. I would wake up every night in terror, with panic attacks and my thoughts were often on suicide. When I left Foxhollow to be “in hell” (according to Cohen) with my family, with the “them” not the “us.” I was humbled by how beautiful and generous my family was/is, how gracious and kind.

What makes one student resilient in spite of the severe beating of the spirit “for its own good”? And another student succumb to thoughts of suicide? I have asked myself this many times. Maybe it cannot be answered. My heart aches at the tragic situation with Caroline and her family. We can euphemistically call Cohen’s behavior “lack of skillfulness” or “crazy wisdom” or just simply and transparently call it sadism and potentially deadly terror tactics, in some arenas called “torture.” A woman who had been in the US community wrote in response to Mario’s story “I have no doubt that Andrew had no intention to cause this kind of harm to Caroline.” I don’t believe this. His intention is to break people.

So this time with Cohen was “crazed deviation” (thank you, MeroSanthi) but it showed me there had to be something in me that resonated with Cohen’s “them and us” mentality, the “cutting edge” spiritual superiority, and narcissism. And these “concepts” I have left behind in the years since leaving Foxhollow. There is nothing unusual about my experience. The whole thing is so much bigger than Cohen and many have written about this whole phenomenon. When I left, I read everything I could find which explored this kind of group/guru/authority phenomenon. Why do many of us choose these situations, whether in ashrams or corporations or any other group situation? There are a number of books out there which explain cult behavior, many of them already mentioned on this blog. There are psychologists, like Robert J. Lifton who delve deeply into Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and the psychology of traumatized peoples. Other books like Prophetic Charisma, The Guru Papers, Stripping the Gurus and many more explore the actual phenomenon of charismatic figures, authoritarianism etc. I am certain from my own recent experiences that the authoritarian/dominating paradigm is an anachronism. Many of us are finding other ways to experience and express our unity and oneness with our brothers and sisters.

When I look at the beautiful sanity and simplicity of my life now I can hardly believe how insane and sick I became in the Cohen community. Living for the last 5 years in Bali, I have moved out of my head and into my heart. After the terrorist bombings here in October 2002, I started some sustainable economic development projects—sewing and agriculture—in a poor mountain village with my close Balinese woman friend, Jero, who is from the village and is a traditional healer and Hindu priest. I fell in love with an amazing group of young people who are a wellspring of positivity, and moved by this love found that I wanted to help them find ways to support themselves, so they could help their families—bring some money in to pay for health care, schooling and food. They have been a force of inspiration and change for their whole village. What an amazing and rich adventure. Every day opportunities and challenges teach me and move me. I meet and work with many who are simple, humble forces of goodness, kindness, generosity and deep wisdom from this little village and from many countries.

Thank you very much, Hal, for this forum. Susan, Stas, Mario, Roberta, Richard, Smadar and all my “anonymous” friends……….

My love to you all.


Originally published February 2, 2006
Original article, with comments on WHAT Enlightenment??!:
A Travesty of "Enlightenment" - Wendyl's Story