Thursday, June 02, 2005

Two Commentaries: Fall From Grace & Shared Inquiry

Part 1
Andrew Cohen's Fall From Grace
by anonymous

To Everyone Who Reads This Blog:

It is sad to hear Craig Hamilton—a strong practitioner, fine writer and reporter—sounding like nothing more than a childish mouthpiece for Andrew Cohen. I find Susan Bridle and Hal Blacker’s letters to be simple, straightforward and heartfelt. My instincts tell me that they speak the truth in the service of greater clarity, while there is a noticeable insincerity and a cloud of confusion that hovers over the convoluted denials of Craig’s letters to this blog.

I was glad to see that someone else also noticed the glaring fact that Lee Lozowick’s endorsement of Andrew Cohen was written almost ten years ago. Craig, why are you using ancient history to defend Andrew? Do you notice the disparity between your statement that Susan Bridle is “living in the past” because she cites abusive events that occurred in her relationship with Andrew Cohen and his students and your use of an endorsement written by Lee Lozowick almost ten years ago to justify your position regarding Mr. Cohen’s innocence with regard to these accusations? When we don’t see ourselves clearly, we are blind to the deeper motivations that permeate our actions and speech, and while others can see our hypocrisy, we go about blithely justifying and rationalizing our position.

However, the most important point is that, in the most practical sense, people change over time, and not necessarily for the better. The shadow has a way of making its presence known—revealing itself—especially to those on the spiritual path. There is much that can be said about how the shadow gets activated and brought to the surface on any genuine path, and undoubtedly Mr. Cohen originally had “the goods”—that is, the potency and authenticity of realization—to create a genuine transformational vehicle for his students. However, in such a process the teacher is also transformed, further clarified into deeper dimensions of realization. Not only is this process of transformation on the genuine path reciprocal between student and teacher, but between the teacher and the raw forces of the Divine which are called into play. It is an undeniable shake down in which everything is stirred up, brought to the blinding arc lamp of truth, scrutinized and subjected to processes of dissolution and purification through fire.

Again, the teacher himself or herself is not immune to this process because they have “gone beyond” in some way but goes through it with the students, disciples, devotees. In describing the psychological development through the three yanas or vehicles, hinayana, mahayana and vajrayana, we find this comment in Mudra, by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche: “It should be clear to all who read [the description] that a competent guide is needed since the tendency towards self-deception becomes increasingly dangerous as one progresses on the path.” (page 67.)

This wisdom should be taken to heart as it applies to everyone, for the path is never-ending, and it is said by some that “enlightenment,” that indefinable mystery, is only the beginning of it. It is spiritual pride and spiritual immaturity that says, “I am the teacher; I am infallible, complete, done, finished … enlightened like no one before me,” or, “I have been practicing for thirty years, therefore I don’t need to meditate anymore, and because of my attainment, vision and seniority, I can cut corners on integrity here, here and here…”

When the teacher or student succumbs to spiritual pride and the pull of personal megalomania, it is usually because they do not have the help of a “competent guide,” a true spiritual authority who is has gone farther on the path than him or herself. Andrew Cohen rejected his own master, Poonjaji, the source of transmission in his own case, because of “spiritual crimes” far, far less damning than those currently being levied against Mr. Cohen.

Every authentic tradition world-wide states clearly—and this is especially true once one enters the domain of tantra, or the vajrayana path, where the dangers that are inherent in such accelerated transformation are very great—that one must have a guide. An essential flaw in Mr. Cohen’s work at this point in time lies in the fact that he has the hubris to believe that he can go it alone, without surrender, gratitude and obeisance to his master, Poonjaji. He is flaunting his personal sense of power in the face of the cosmic law that governs us all.

The processes of spiritual purification and dissolution always yield up the truth of the matter: the darkness or knot of illusion or deeply buried psychosis that too often lurks beneath the veneer of intellectual brilliance and a charismatic, overweening character formation. The tendency toward fascism and paranoia in such a strong, super-sized personality is a fearsome thing to witness. Andrew Cohen’s fall from grace as an individual of great insight and possibility—whose personal ambitions have blinded him to the autonomous workings of his own shadow—is a powerful teaching to everyone on the path. He has become the very thing that he has lashed out against for so many years: teachers who lack integrity.

But again, there is a tremendous value in seeing ourselves in the mirror as well. Andrew Cohen strikes me as someone who started out as a teacher with something very real to offer, but whose delusions have grown greater than his realizations. Does he really think he is beyond being taught a hard lesson by the Universe? Does he think he is beyond the fundamental nondual truth that one’s environment—people, events, circumstances—is one’s very self, and what it reflects to us should be used as a message from a universal Source? No teacher, guru, avatar or saint is greater than God, that is, the inexorable universal processes, laws and Intelligence that governs us all. It is said that there is a great deal of negative karma accrued by teachers who lose their way in leading others; it is also true that it is never too late to change our ways.

Originally published February 15, 2005
Original article on WHAT Enlightenment??!, with comments: Fall From Grace

Part 2
In The Hope Of A Shared Inquiry Toward Deeper Truth
by anonymous

Although I have never been involved in Andrew Cohen's community, I have read with interest the dialogue currently appearing on this blog. The considerations raised are essential and challenging issues for anyone attempting to follow a spiritual path. What is the optimal relationship between student and teacher? How do we confront and penetrate the egoic resistance to obedience and surrender, while maintaining the very inner authority and responsibility that enable us to become truly useful, vibrant servants of the divine rather than thoughtless automatons? Without a guide in unknown territory, we almost inevitably become lost--so a teacher is necessary to real spiritual progress; yet in an age of epidemic distortion of ancient teachings, how do we discriminate between the false and the real, in professed teachers as well as in ourselves?

What I find particularly striking in reading the current dialogue, is the contrast it provides between examples of real self-observation with heartfelt inquiry, and examples of projection, diatribe, and attack. Unfortunately for those who are defending Andrew Cohen, it is the students who have left this teacher who provide examples of the penetrating practice of self-observation, which involves taking full responsibility for one's actions. Susan, Hal, and other former students engage in a respectful inquiry into the complexity of the human being, their teacher, and their own actions. Those who intend to defend Andrew ironically demonstrate precisely the weaknesses of which he and his community are accused. Craig's letters in particular are replete with simplistic, crude, and manipulative attacks and blame. They evidence emotional manipulation with a strong element of cruelty; disrespect and psychological invasiveness; personal attack and vindictiveness; refusal of responsibility; and cloying defensiveness of the teacher. From Craig's letters even more than from the measured considerations from former students, the relation to Andrew appears as that of abused child to adored yet abusive father, with both child and parent desperate to maintain the illusion of the parent's perfection, even godliness, that will make all the hurt alright.

Over many years as a spiritual practitioner, I have found that one of the ways to evaluate the effectiveness and integrity of a spiritual teacher is to observe his or her students. The students, however imperfectly they emulate their teacher, nevertheless reliably express the principles at the source of their school. A spiritual school in which the teacher lives as a servant of the divine, will produce students who also express this essential humility and selflessness. (Again, this expression is (in my view) inevitably imperfect, because this is the human condition, and both student and teacher have willingly made the sacrifice to enter this condition. I have come to think that the expectation and demand for perfection, in teacher or students, is one of the biggest doorways into self-deceit and hypocrisy. Human beings rarely if ever live up to this demand, and it is more healthy to see the flawed yet committed human being in all his or her faults and glories.) A teacher who, despite his inspiring rhetoric, actually lives from a basis of self-centeredness, manipulativeness, and competition for power, will eventually animate a community of students who express these same negations of true spiritual principles.

Susan, Hal, and Stas speak with heartbreak, respect, and even gratitude, toward their former teacher. At the same time they express with clarity the weaknesses, the fault lines, they discovered in Andrew and his community. Their heartfelt wish for the good of their former teacher and his students is palpable even in the midst of an anger that could be called righteously indignant.

The defenses of Andrew, on the other hand, are permeated with "cheap shots," while accusing others of such vulgarity. Craig attacks, belittles, and attempts to degrade those who have shared their observations of Andrew. His childishness is truly pitiful. To ask condescendingly of a former editor of the magazine, "Remember the magazine?" does not degrade the editor, as was the obvious intention, but it portrays Craig himself as totally out of relationship and even disconnected from reality. In what isolated, walled, impenetrable castle can he be living? The attempt to manipulate others by feeding self-doubt and to twist their emotions by auguring low self-esteem--this is an ugly tactic which corrupts and poisons his letters. It is not a savory invitation to his teacher and his community, for any outsider reading his communications. To dishonor others is not an effective way to honor his teacher.

I heard Andrew speak a number of times in the early years of his teaching. I was impressed by the pristine brilliance of his communication of the dharma, and I found his students at that time to be inspiring and challenging practitioners, deeply committed to inquiry and to living the principles they investigated. Yet even at that time, from my admittedly lowly position as a novice spiritual student, I felt uneasy hearing the vehemence with which he attacked a number of other spiritual teachers for their failure to live up to his rigidly pure standards. In my experience the people who attack with that kind of harshness, even viciousness, are those who have not honestly observed their own human failings and the endemic, painful imperfection of the human condition. Who was the far-right Christian television evangelist who lambasted others for their sins and sexual impurities, until he himself was caught with a prostitute in his hotel room (saving her from her sins, no doubt!)? Someone like Nelson Mandela, on the other hand, is too busy serving as a truly ennobling example to his people, to waste time with pillorying others.

The spiritual teachers I most respect are those who freely and intimately admit their own failings, as examples to their students of real self-observation and of confrontation with the forces that seek to subvert even the highest realizations. The tendency for Andrew to present himself as beyond reproach, and his community as advancing into realms never before touched by human beings, has over the years seemed to me a marked red flag. Yet I hoped that his obvious commitment to the spiritual path would bring its own natural self-correction and purification. Our troubled world desperately needs wise guidance, and it seemed that Andrew had the potential to provide guidance of a high calibre. The Ocmulgee Native Americans had a saying, "All things are connected." The interplay of real spiritual schools and committed practitioners provides a matrix of support for all of us that is unparalleled, unique, its flavor affected by each element even while the different schools remain distinct and in some ways vastly different.

Unfortunately based on the evidence of his own conversations reprinted in his magazine, as well as the energy in the letters of his apologists, it appears that Andrew's unexamined shadow has been progressively devouring that in himself and his teaching which was originally clear and bright. The tendency to megalomania has grown, and the openness to any corrective input from others has correspondingly shrunk. I see no evidence of real self-inquiry and deep dialogue between Andrew and any other teacher. I see only a kind of self-serving publication of those who offer him no real challenge, those whom he can control, manipulate, or use to his supposed advantage.

Watching the devolution of Andrew's teaching from pristine dharma to a psychologically and physically violent and abusive perversion of spiritual life, I see the central missing element as the lack of a lineage which holds and guides the individual teacher. Andrew is not the first or the last initially inspiring teacher to lead his students into this kind of cul-de-sac. Without the matrix of spiritual tradition, without the weight and wisdom of a lineage which guides and informs the individual teacher, it is perhaps almost too much to expect of the fallible human being, to hold steady against the immense forces of darkness which seek to distort and use the power of the light.

The poverty of spirit evidenced in Craig's letter, which undoubtedly was closely supervised and approved by his teacher, leaves little hope that Andrew will listen to the many voices which are trying to offer him help. There is still respect being offered to the man who was once visible; there is still obviously some faint hope among many people that Andrew might listen to these voices. It is Andrew himself who is choosing to act as less than he could be, notably in his total refusal even to recognize this respect and deep care that is still given to him. In a way his value now becomes that of a sacrificial example of one of the biggest traps on the spiritual path--an aspect of what Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche called spiritual materialism; what the ancients called hubris: the pride of the human who thinks himself God.

What I find most ironic, painful, and even heartbreaking, is the fact that in spite of the demeaning and hurtful tone that pervades Craig's representation of Andrew's community, it is clear that Craig, Andrew, and their community as a whole consciously wish only the best for all beings. The problem is not the conscious intention, but the unconscious motivations, elements of what Carl Jung called "the shadow," which powerfully drive us in directions that can cause great harm while we justify and disguise them with our conscious sincerity. G.I. Gurdjieff said that even those who commit the greatest evil are doing what they truly believe is for the good. To see one's teacher fall off the razor's edge of the spiritual path is one of the deepest heartbreaks a student can experience. To be that teacher, whenever remorse finally breaks through, must be a heartbreak almost beyond bearing. The defense against feeling such a depth of sorrow and responsibility is deeply ingrained in all of us.

in the hope that this letter may contribute to a shared inquiry toward a deeper truth…

Originally published February 17, 2005
Original article on WHAT Enlightenment??!, with comments: Shared Inquiry