Friday, December 02, 2005

Why Leaving Andrew Cohen’s Group Can Be So Hard

In addition to the direct difficulties Cohen often creates for close students who wish to leave him, including threats and acts perhaps just this (or the other?) side of false imprisonment (see my previous article Karma Will (Literally) Cost You And Leaving Isn’t Easy), there are psychological reasons why leaving a group like Cohen’s can be very difficult. In many ways, abusive spiritual groups like Andrew Cohen’s replicate the circumstances created by Dr. Philip Zimbardo in his famous Stanford Prison Experiment.

A friend who was a former close Cohen student recently pointed me to Geoffrey Falk’s Stripping the Gurus, a book available on-line, that contains a chapter that makes this point, compares abusive groups and analyzes the reasons members often have a difficult time leaving them despite their abuse. Here is a brief excerpt:
AS WE HAVE SEEN, a common set of alleged problems, even expressed in nearly identical words, tend to occur in our world’s spiritual communities. Indeed, the reported characteristics observed are essentially independent of the specific beliefs espoused by the community, and of the historical time and place in which the spiritual leader and his disciples have existed.
Why would that be?
A large part of the answer surely comes from well-known research done at Stanford University in the early 1970s. There, Dr. Philip Zimbardo—later, president of the American Psychological Association—was able to inadvertently transform a group of “healthy, intelligent, middle-class” college-age individuals into “fearful, depressed, neurotic, suicidal shadows” in less than a week. He did that simply by arbitrarily assigning them (via the flip of a coin) to guard/prisoner roles in a simulated prison environment which they all knew was just an experiment.

Falk describes the Stanford Prison Experiment and discusses the similarity of the psychological coercion created there to the environment in abusive groups. In examining the role of psychological trauma and abuse in disempowering students in abusive spiritual communities, he mentions Andrew Cohen’s group. For example:
To a more chronic degree, though, much of the emotional violence and psychological abuse reportedly perpetrated in the name of “ego-killing discipline,” as a betrayal of trust and widely recognized “spiritual rape,” would also qualify as trauma. Indeed, Tarlo’s (1997) and van der Braak’s (2003) stories of alleged discipline at Cohen’s hands are nothing if not descriptions of repeated emotional trauma/shocks, humiliation and degradation. Further, those occurred in an “intimate or bonded relationship” with the guru-figure, which they could not escape without being “bad disciples” or “failures.” And wherever there is such inescapable trauma, one will find instances of both “learned helplessness” and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Thus, “crazy wisdom” or “Rude Boy” environments in particular cannot help but be breeding grounds for exactly those ailments.

Many former Cohen students find this chapter of Falk’s book eerily familiar. The complete chapter can be found here:

Stripping The Gurus: Chapter XXVII, Gurus and Prisoners.

9 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a great blog. Thanks for talking about your experiences. Since discovering this blog a couple of weeks ago I've been absolutely absorbed in reading the posts. You all have been through a lot and I respect and appreciate your willingness to write in detail about your experiences.

Since you all have studied with Cohen, I'm curious to what folks here think of Ken Wilbur. Wilbur is now teaching through the Integral Institute, has anyone who has studied with Cohen also studied with Wilbur?

Also, how does someone who feels that deep, powerful yearning for the spiritual avoid getting involved with someone like Cohen? That desire for enlightenment can be so strong that when one encounters someone like Cohen there is perhaps an eagerness to believe that one has found the Way. How can someone at that point spot the Cohens and Adi Da's of the world?

Thanks, Phil

Sunday, 04 December, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When long term friends or partners want to leave a mutual endeavor of deep investment and commitment, I feel many things. I feel anger, confusion, concern and betrayal. I also do many things. I talk to them, plead with them, argue with them and do what I can to show them the error of their ways in light of our mutual commitment.

If long term friends or partners betray me, they fall out of favor with me.

The voracity and passion behind these feelings and actions would of course be relative to the type of endeavor or relationship those involved had shared.

These seem like such natural responses yet they are are amongst many bones of contention with Andrew Cohen and his group about how they act towards those that leave the group.

I'm sure I'm not the first to point this out, but can someone save me the searching through the blog to understand what I'm missing? Why is it strange that Andrew Cohen and group would act this way when you leave? Thanks.

Sunday, 04 December, 2005  
Anonymous Angel from the sun said...

Hal, you are certainly on a mission by your presentation and hard work done in all your efforts in presenting truth of the shadow side within a spiritual community with a guru that many new neophytes are unaware of.

You are doing a great service and are bringing an awareness to all that life in a community is not a blissed out state of Nirvana, but instead can be a most painful experience.

Keep up the good work.
Angel from the sun

Sunday, 04 December, 2005  
Anonymous a Cohen "betrayer" said...

to the previous anonymous poster:
Some questions for you. Do you physically assault people in relationship with you when their heart is no longer commited in the same way? Do you encourage them to give you large sums of money to show love and commitment? And do you heap scorn, humiliation and violent rage on them when they finally leave the relationship? I would imagine that you wouldn't do such things. But all this and more are exactly among the ways in which Andrew Cohen treats those in a committed student relationship with him.
I hope you take the time to actually read the many personal accounts of ex-students of Cohen. May their first-hand factual reports of his abuse of them help you to find the answer to your question about what the big deal is about.

Monday, 05 December, 2005  
Anonymous Gregg said...

I would like to see more real information about the day to day lifestyle of ordinary community members.

Rituals, eyc

Monday, 05 December, 2005  
Anonymous Stuart said...

Anonymous said:
> When long term friends or
> partners want to leave a mutual
> endeavor of deep investment and
> commitment, I feel many things.
> I feel anger, confusion, concern
> and betrayal.

There's the point. These feelings that you list, are they really the chief feelings, the strongest feelings? If so, that's a problem, and it's the problem with Andrew and similar groups.

If for instance a close friend decided to move to another town, I'd feel sadness. I'd also let him know that I wish him well in his new endeavor, and that I can respect his decisions even when I don't share them.

That's because I don't pretend to know what's best for everyone else. I understand that even close friends and family won't always act the way I think they should, and that doesn't mean that they're wrong.

> If long term friends or partners
> betray me, they fall out of
> favor with me.

Someone chooses to live life differently than you do. If you define that simple act as "betrayal," then you're creating all sorts of unnecessary problems.

> These seem like such natural
> responses

Often people close to you don't hold exactly the same opinions or life direction as you do. If you're feelings are dominated by "anger" and "betrayal" and the like, without even any MENTION of support, understanding, and compassion... I don't see that as natural, and I do see it as a recipe for suffering.

Monday, 05 December, 2005  
Anonymous Stuart said...

> how does someone who feels that
> deep, powerful yearning for the
> spiritual avoid getting involved
> with someone like Cohen?

If you practice questioning, then you'll avoid the mistake of blindly following others.

If I really want ice cream, I'm in danger of getting fat. I may need recognize my yearning for ice cream, see it clearly, but also question whether I really need to follow my desire.

Exactly the same way: if you have a big desire for the "spiritual," especially if it's supported by lots of people around you, then you're in danger of being hoodwinked. But you can question for yourself, "What's spiritual, what's un-spiritual? Why isn't this moment enough for me, why am I yearning for something else? For what? For who?" With this type of questioning, you'll find your own way, and never be hoodwinked.

>That desire for enlightenment
>can be so strong that when one
>encounters someone like Cohen
>there is perhaps an eagerness to
>believe that one has found the
>Way.

Yes, of course, the desire for enlightenment can be even stronger than the desire for ice cream. What's enlightenment, and why want it? Wherever you go, wherever you are, that's the Way; why isn't that enough?

It's not that there's anything bad about getting hoodwinked by Cohen or Adi Da or anyone else. If you question for yourself, even traps or mistakes are teachings that you can eventually see through and learn from.

Monday, 05 December, 2005  
Blogger sritantra said...

It has been years since I last met Andrew Cohen. Back in 1986 we were hanging together in the beachside pilgrimage of Puri in India, just before he went off to meet his teacher. Then a few months after that Andrew showed up in southern Thailand with a handful of silly 'followers' whispering around that he is enlightened. That was just the beginning of Andrew's mega-farce road show. And to now understand that he has gone the full circle, from conning tens of thousands of people into believing he was enlightened to now having weblogs dedicated to his downfall. My only question to all of you is this: How could you all have been so blind? If you can't see an Andrew Cohen coming a mile away, there is something horribly wrong with your vision.

Wednesday, 14 December, 2005  
Anonymous Stuart said...

> How could you all have been so
> blind? If you can't see an
> Andrew Cohen coming a mile away,
> there is something horribly
> wrong with your vision.

When you're born into this world, you're in an interesting situation. You don't know where you came from, you don't know where you're going, you don't know why you're here, and you don't know who you are.

It's like... I once arrived in Prague in the wee hours on a bus. It was in the outskirts of the city. I had no local currency, knew no one, and couldn't speak the language. So what could I do? I watched what people around me were doing, and blindly followed them. Eventually, I gained a little understanding of what was going on, so I could be a little independent.

In this world, where our understanding is so small, and the mystery so great, I have no problem seeing why someone would follow Cohen, or any other guru, or Judeo-Christian dogma, or whatever. I mean, we've got so little to go on, we just clutch at straws.

Like the Prague traveller, EVENTUALLY we may get a little wisdom and be able to stand on our own feet a little. Or it may dawn on us that even if we're ignorant, everyone else is also, so following won't help.

The only way I know of to get wisdom of this sort is by trial and error, paying attention so as to learn from mistakes. But when we start from zero, how could one possibly avoid making the mistakes? So I see it as perfectly natural that people turn to Cohen or whomever or whatever; I don't see anything horribly wrong about it.

Stuart
http://home.comcast.net/~sresnick2/mypage.htm

Thursday, 15 December, 2005  

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