Shame, Guilt and the Guru’s Blood
May all beings be happy!
May the truth, no matter how difficult it is to hear, set all beings free.
I have previously written on this blog of incidents of slapping and physical assault against students by Andrew Cohen and at his direction. I told the story of the assault of Donna with buckets of paint, and the emotional assault on her teenage daughter. Stas (Ernest) has shared his story on this blog, and you have had the chance to read some stories from some other former students. But it is difficult to convey, from these various particular stories and incidents, the pervasive atmosphere of guilt, shame and fear created by Andrew in his community, which refugees from the community have communicated to me.
When I left the Andrew Cohen community in late 1996, before its move to Lenox, Massachusetts, Andrew had already begun to speak openly of his fondness for guilt. It went along, in his mind, with his emphasis on conscience and “doing the right thing.” I remember Andrew saying at a special retreat of close students in Mill Valley, California that I attended that while other teachers talked of unconditional love, self-acceptance and forgiveness, he did not agree with such talk. “I’m not into unconditional love or forgiveness,” he said. “I’m into conditional love and guilt.” Andrew would say that while it was not his preference, if that is what it took to force change, using guilt and shame was perfectly alright.
Over the years, Andrew instilled a sense of guilt and shame in various ways, as he deemed necessary. He would often highlight student’s weak points by giving them an embarrassing or insulting name. A student who received such a name could only use that name in the community, and community members were required to use that name when addressing or referring to that person, until Andrew said it could stop. Some examples of these names include Vacance, Mad Dog, Raging Bull, Furious, Dizzy, Casual, Unreal, Mephisto, Q the Clown, Sherma the Tank, Tamasa and His Greatness or “HG.” The shaving of heads was also used to mark someone who was in trouble. While it was sometimes a voluntary act symbolizing renunciation, shaving one’s head became more and more something that you were required to do when Andrew was unhappy with you. These devices of inducing shame were already in force before the move to Foxhollow. But after the move to Foxhollow, the use of guilt and shame as a teaching device seemed to increase dramatically. At Foxhollow, Andrew also began to speak openly of what he called “healthy shame.”
Incidents involving writing messages in fake blood on the walls of Foxhollow residents’ rooms or offices have been already described on this blog. One such incident was obliquely alluded to in the 10th anniversary issue of What Is Enlightenment? magazine, published in the Fall of 2001, and Craig Hamilton referred to this incident in one of his contributions to this blog. When Andrew would receive a letter from a student or students that offended him, he would sometimes have it blown up, splattered with fake blood and posted publicly. Everyone knew that this fake blood, or red paint, represented “the guru’s blood.” Andrew made it clear that he felt that when a student questioned, disobeyed or offended him, they were spilling his blood. Fake blood was used liberally to induce shame and guilt in students, or his entire student body, when he was unhappy with them. For a time he converted the basement spa at Foxhollow into a space for practice and penitence, where the walls were liberally smeared with this “blood,” his “blood.” There was a men’s side and a women’s side. Both were copiously stained with Andrew’s “blood.”
One very dedicated long-time student of Andrew’s, a physician named Michele, who was a leader in the community at the time, committed the unthinkable crime of contradicting Andrew. When Andrew criticized her about something she had done, she countered that Andrew had told her to do it. Andrew said that she was trying to make him doubt himself, and that was the worst possible crime and sin. For her perceived betrayal of him, her office was moved into the basement under the kitchen in the main building at Foxhollow. She was forced to work in an unfinished room, where the heating pipes were exposed. All four walls, the ceiling and the floor were painted in red paint, representing the guru’s blood. One witness recalls there was a large cartoon put up there, representing Michele as a vampire. Another recalls that the word “traitor” was painted on the walls, as well. Michele was required to stay in that room for hours a day.
The period in 2001 preceding the publication of the 10th anniversary issue of What Is Enlightenment? was a particularly difficult time for the men at Foxhollow. As described earlier on this blog, when that issue of the community’s magazine was published, most of the editorial staff had been banned from the center. But all of the formal male students had been under extreme pressure and had been recipients of Andrew’s displeasure and wrath for some time before then. It seemed that Andrew’s shift in emphasis from individual enlightenment to collective evolution translated into group experiments with his male and female students, involving pressure, shame and guilt.
It was understood, at one point, that Andrew was “taking on” all of the formal male students. The women had already been under great pressure for at least several years before then. Now Andrew’s attention had shifted to the men. He wanted a “collective shift” to occur in them. At a certain point, frustrated with their lack of movement, he had all of the formal men stand in a circle, surrounding his house, in the winter in the Berkshires, for two to three days. The group has been estimated at 15-18 men. They were permitted to sleep for a few hours a day and were brought sandwiches a couple of times a day, but otherwise they were not permitted to move. Some of them urinated in their pants. An eyewitness to these events reports having seen Andrew emerge from his home and laugh at the men from time to time. During the extended period of intense pressure on the men, approximately 8-10 formal men could not stand it, and left the community.
At various times, it was the women’s turn to “collectively shift.” The women’s side of the Foxhollow basement spa was turned into a multi-media space, where 20-30 women would be required to squeeze into a small space and watch the movie “To Die For” or listen to Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman” over and over again. The women had to take shifts, including in the middle of the night, and keep these media playing non-stop, 24 hours a day. One woman described the area where this occurred as 80-90 square meters (about 240-270 square feet) of wall-to-wall blown up comments, letters, cartoons and caricatures, red paint and multi-media. Andrew used a very talented caricaturist who was in the community, and he spent an enormous amount of time making very large, dramatic cartoons for Andrew. Many of the caricatures depicted specific students as devils or demons. Some showed these women eviscerating Andrew, literally tearing his intestines out with their bare hands. Others showed students dancing demonically around a fire, throwing Andrew’s dharma books into the flames. Another depicted a female student as a dominatrix, performing sexually predatory acts. At times, all or most of the women had to sleep down there. This went on, even though most of the women had to work all day at outside jobs, as well as perform labor for Andrew’s organization, the Impersonal Enlightenment Fellowship. For much of this period the women in relationships were prohibited from having sexual relations. They were not allowed to speak about personal matters, feelings or concerns with each other. They were especially prohibited from expressing any doubt, fear or confusion to anyone. The term “code of silence” was explicitly used for these rules. In general, the men ignored the women, because this was encouraged. At times the women were required to spend 3-4 hours a day in a group, confessing and writing in a document every way in which they had “betrayed the revolution.” This document was eventually typed up and presented to Andrew.
At one point, the women as a group got into serious trouble because some women answered back to some men who told them they were not doing their spiritual practice properly. Andrew heard about this and let it be known that their disagreement was “outrageous.” The women went into a panic when they heard this. They decided they must do something extreme to prove their penitence. Kathy Bayer came up with the idea that they should all perform prostrations in the freezing waters of Laurel Lake, the lake on the Foxhollow property. Memories vary as to exactly what month the prostrations occurred. Witnesses have reported dates from mid-October to late November. Most agree November. There wasn’t ice on the lake yet, but all agree that it was bitterly cold.
Andrew learned of the plan for the lake prostrations group penitence, and approved it. Some people had performed prostrations in the lake before, but not in such cold weather. For example, Craig Hamilton at one point performed prostrations as penitence in the same lake, shouting “I am an asshole” at each prostration. His sadhana had been interrupted, however, when some local construction workers became disturbed by what he was doing and threatened to beat him up if he didn’t stop.
The women entered the lake and walked to where the water was about waist deep, or a little higher. They held their hands above their head, shouted “Face everything and avoid nothing,” and plunged down, completely submerging themselves. Then they got up and did it again. Their goal was to do it over and over again, for an hour.
Andrew’s wife, Alka, was excused from the practice because she had a bad chest cold. But another woman had suffered a concussion and brain injury the year before. Andrew knew this, because she had undergone a lengthy convalescence at Foxhollow. She was not excused. She passed out in the lake’s cold waters after about 50 minutes. She was carried out of the lake, unconscious. She came to in a warm shower, with two other women holding her up. Another woman described making it through the hour. She and some others who did so turned blue. They shivered so hard afterwards that they could not stop shaking enough to undo their zippers or buttons so they could take off their clothes. They went in groups into hot showers, where they stood for 45 minutes at a time until they had finally stopped shivering enough to undress. One woman wound up in the hospital with a serious kidney infection, requiring an I.V. drip, about 1 ½ months later. She attributes this to her exposure in the lake.
Some women did not make it through the practice. The women as a group got a message from Andrew that those who did not finish had to go back again and complete it. Some women had to return to the lake and try two or three times before they could do so.
The sense of guilt and shame, and the feeling that one was constantly “betraying one’s Master” could inspire the willingness to make sacrifices that seem extreme and irrational from the outside. Andrew seems to encourage this behavior, even relish it. Some years ago at Foxhollow, a student named Jeff, a very good writer, was having a great deal of trouble with a writing project he had been assigned to do. He was supposed to write an introduction to a book Andrew was publishing, but he was having no success. Feeling terrible guilt about this, he wrote in a desperate letter to Andrew that “if I don’t come through, I will cut my finger off.” Andrew seemed to like this idea. When Jeff still did not succeed at his writing, Andrew called for Michele, the physician, to come see him. My informant was present when Andrew instructed Michele what to do. Andrew told Michele to go to see Jeff, and to bring her medical kit. She was instructed to tell Jeff that Andrew was taking him up on his offer to sacrifice a finger. She should take out her scalpel, her mask, her gloves, a sponge—everything she would need for such an operation—and lay them all out. She was told to carry through the charade up to the very last minute, and then stop.
When Michele visited Jeff, he had barely slept in about a week. He was in a desperate state. Nobody was there but Michele, who is still a student of Andrew, and Jeff, who I do not know how to contact. But Michele confirmed to another informant of mine that she had followed Andrew’s instructions precisely. Jeff was severely and obviously shaken by the incident. He left Andrew and Foxhollow a few weeks later.