Some Reflections on Abuse and Uncompleted or “Intermediate” Gurus
“The Intermediate Zone, in Sri Aurobindo's philosophy, refers to a dangerous and misleading transitional spiritual and pseudo-spiritual region between the ordinary consciousness of the outer being and true spiritual realisation.from Alan Kazlev’s article:
...the way that the Intermediate zone works is through a sort of psychological contagion. Thus not just the sadhak or yogi or pop guru themselves, but those around them, also experience this, and it is like a drug, a buzz, a high, a thrill, a rush; it is attractive, it draws them in, and together with the misleading information regarding "breaking down the walls of ego", they are able to justify and rationalise any abuse as "for their own good" and "a sign of the Master's fiery love and compassion"
Towards a Larger Definition of the Integral, Part 2: The Wilberian Paradigm: A Fourfold Critique, July 2006
Whatever one might think of Alan Kazlev’s ongoing critiques of Ken Wilber, he does have some very thought provoking reflections on abusive gurus and what is termed the “Intermediate Zone” problem. He gives an interesting perspective for trying to understand the roots of the kind of student abuse that Andrew Cohen and other supposedly “enlightened” teachers like him engage in. He argues that teachers like Andrew fall into an “intermediate zone” of partial realization, which is problematic when such teachers believe and act as if their enlightenment is complete. The inevitable result is some form of spiritual abuse of those who get involved with these gurus.
Toward the end of his book, Enlightenment Blues, after describing how hard it was to get free from Andrew's community, Andre van der Braak states that “...Andrew gave me very real and convincing spiritual experiences...”(pg.224).
Yet if Andrew's capacity to give such "experiences" came not from full enlightenment, but from a mixed-bag state that despite its apparent power and bliss-bestowing qualities actually falls short of complete realization -- the Intermediate Zone hypothesis might offer a freeing perspective to those persons who otherwise feel obligated to stay loyal to these spiritual experiences created by the same person who harmed them. It might help those who, though knowing in their hearts and bodies that something went very, very wrong, still believe that staying loyal to those memories is the price of remaining “spiritual”.
Too often, to heal from an I-Zone guru, the suffering seeker can only get respect for their suffering by submitting to pressure from secular-minded friends and therapists to disown the genuine spiritual experiences that accompanied the abuse, and dismiss these breakthroughs as mere trance or crowd delusion. If the suffering person wants to stay loyal to the spiritual dimension, he or she risks being accused of lingering gullibility or some form of the Stockholm syndrome. These secular-minded advisors mean well; with rare exceptions, they are stuck using frameworks that are too narrow to account for the complexities of intermediate zone spirituality/abuse. This leaves the wounded seeker in a very difficult predicament -- If he or she tries to stay true to the complexity and insists that the abuse was accompanied by genuine spiritual breakthroughs he or she risks being accused of remaining duped by the guru.
If the person seeks to recognize and process the abuse (which is real) and does so by using one of many secular therapeutic frameworks which misses the spiritual dimension, the person will get grounded, but often at the price of having to disown and perhaps devalue the spiritual dimension that would offer the deepest form of healing.
Others may pressure us to only honor the spiritual dimension, implying that feeling abused means we are ungrateful, unworthy and disloyal. This too misses the point, and leaves the wounded seeker with no relief.
What is needed is a perspective that enables the wounded seeker to recognize that the same teacher can be both abusive and revelatory -- and may even have paranormal abilities that are emancipatory for some aspects of our lives, yet have a deeply degrading and enslaving effect on us elsewhere -- and that a real and integral spirituality would have to be large enough to acknowledge all of this simultaneously!
That real sweetness and goodness can at the same time be entangled with ghastly abuse, and that both are real and can come from the same source is a profound spiritual mystery, and one that most therapeutic frameworks cannot yet accommodate.
One take-home lesson is that we need to allow room for the varied and often opposing experiences people have of their guru. One lucky experiencer may be going through a phase of being the guru's favorite. Another who winds up being one of his or her many scapegoats will have quite a different set of experiences. Hopefully we can remain altruistic and ask whether one's fellow aspirants are also thriving. We cannot be said to benefit from a guru if we remain cruelly indifferent to the way that guru is harming others. Such an attitude of just-my-bliss-matters is no different from an addict's focus on the next fix and brutal indifference to how friends and family are being harmed in the quest for that next fix.
In fact, one implication of moving beyond this indifference may be recognizing the importance of speaking out against such harm and abuse of fellow students at the hands of one's teacher. This is, in effect, one of the primary purposes of this blog. (...Note: We've heard from a former student resident of Andrew's Foxhollow headquarters who recently left, that to her knowlege since this blog has started, Andrew hasn't been employing his usual physically harsh “disciplining” methods on students -- which often includes slapping them or having them slapped by others. This was good news, and suggested that this blog may be having some moderating effect on Andrew's behavior with students.)
Offered below are some of Kazlev’s reflections on abusive gurus in general, which were published in a recent online article he wrote about Ken Wilber. We have excerpted specific sections in which he discusses Cohen (and comparisons to Adi Da), and references to cases of his abusiveness documented in this blog.
The What Enlightenment?! Editors
The Problem of Abusive Gurus
from Alan Kazlev’s article:
Towards a Larger Definition of the Integral, Part 2: The Wilberian Paradigm: A Fourfold Critique, July 2006
For whatever reason...[Ken Wilber] cannot recognise that the most obvious sign of any integral transformation is precisely that the Teacher is never abusive! In fact, Wilber falls into the common trap of seeing abuse at the hands of a guru as somehow necessary for enlightenment. This idea goes back at least as far Medieval Tibetan Buddhism; Naropa, one of the great sages of the Tibetan tradition, suffered greatly at the hands of his guru, Tilopa...Wilber's friend and colleague, self-styled guru Andrew Cohen seems -- if the the harrowing accounts of their experiences by his ex-disciples is anything to go by -- to show very similar behaviour to that of [contemporary Western Guru] Adi Da, and is every bit as abusive towards his followers.
With this in mind, let's make a brief checklist of warning that indicate a guru, even a nonduality "enlightened" one, that is an abuser. The following is in no way meant as a complete checklist, but just lists a few common flaws. Note that not all abusive gurus will have all of these flaws, but an abusive guru will at the very least have two or three:
• Sexually abusive behaviour
• Demanding or requesting large "donations" (to fund an unnecessarily opulent or wealthy lifestyle)
• Acting or teaching one way in public and another in private (e.g. celibate gurus justifying sex with female disciples as "Tantric Initiation")
• Narcissistic behaviour
• Using insulting words or other abusive behaviour to "break down your ego".
• Physical abuse, usually by telling devotees to assault other devotees
• Taking advantage of the disciples trust; controlling or forcing them to do something they don't want to
• Emotionally sadistic (and in extreme cases physically sadistic)
• Vindictive attitude towards ex-devotees
• Responding to critics with anger, bitterness, hatred, or mockery rather than love
And so on. You get the idea. Note also that not having any of the above, or any of the other common pop guru flaws, does not mean a Guru or Teacher is genuine. It simply means it may be okay to be involved with them. Another indicator – uneasy feeling or small voice that says "this is wrong" may not be reliable, as it requires a well-developed spiritual consciousness on the part of the seeker. And feeling drained after some time in the abusive guru's presence is also unreliable; not everyone is emotionally parasitised.
Sometimes, as in Da Free John / Adi Da's case, gurus justify their behaviour by saying it represents "crazy wisdom" (another Tibetan theme). So-called "crazy wisdom" gurus, in addition to being abusive, may partake of alcohol or drugs, have lots of (willing) sexual partners, and so on. Chogyam Trungpa is a typical example of a Crazy Wisdom guru, but he does not seem to have been as specifically abusive.
But the most common indeed, the standard, excuse abusive gurus use to justify their behaviour is that it is necessary that the disciple be abused and humiliated in order for them to overcome ego and attain enlightenment (although at the same time, no abusive guru ever acknowledges that any of their students have ever attained enlightenment) It is this, more subtle argument, that one finds associated with the Wilberian Integral movement as a whole. According to Andrew Cohen, teachers need to break down one's ego, and this can be a psychologically and emotionally excruciating process. Wilber fully supports this approach. In the Foreword to one of Cohen's books, he says:
"When it comes to spiritual teachers, there are those who are safe, gentle, consoling, soothing, caring; and there are the outlaws, the living terrors, the Rude Boys and Nasty Girls of God realization, the men and women who are in your face, disturbing you, terrifying you, until you radically awaken to who and what you really are....
If you want encouragement, soft smiles, ego stroking, gentle caresses of your self-contracting ways, pats on the back and sweet words of solace, find yourself a Nice Guy or Good Girl, and hold their hand on the sweet path of stress reduction and egoic comfort. But if you want Enlightenment, if you want to wake up, if you want to get fried in the fire of passionate Infinity, then, I promise you: find yourself a Rude Boy or a Nasty Girl, the ones who make you uncomfortable in their presence, who scare you witless, who will turn on you in a second and hold you up for ridicule, who will make you wish you were never born, who will offer you not sweet comfort but abject terror, not saccharin solace but scorching angst, for then, just then, you might very well be on the path to your own Original Face".
from Living Enlightenment by Andrew Cohen
Wilber applauds Cohen as a "rude boy", and offers him (and abusive gurus in general) as the alternative to a ridiculous caricature that does not match the description of any spiritual teacher. He says that the "rude boy" will "hold you up for ridicule" and "will make you wish you were never born". Yes, all out of his boundless love and compassion that you may yourself attain Enlightenment! But let us look at the reality, the mind games and psychological conditioning and abuse; things that Wilber, who has never been a disciple at Cohen's Foxhollow community, has not had to experience.
Here is one example (from Enlighten Nixt blog)
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.The tragic nature of this example is shown by the fact that it is the disciples themselves suggested this, as a means of punishment, in order to win Cohen's favour (other methods included giving him huge sums of money, such as twenty-thousand dollars, or even the entire life savings) I will return to this point a little later. In this particular instance, it was decided that they would do prostrations in the freezing cold water of a lake on the property, standing waist deep in water and submerging themselves completely, again and again, for an entire 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 some months later with a serious kidney infection, requiring an I.V. drip. She attributes this to her exposure in the lake.The What Enlightenment? and EnlightenNixt blogs are full of cases of unhealthy psychological manipulation like this. On the one hand, one is disgusted by Cohen's willing participation in all this, on the other hand, amazed that these people through lack of self-esteem and ability to claim their own power would put themselves into such a situation in the first place.
Some women did not make it through the practice. The women as 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."
Of course it goes on and on. The following poignant message is from a post by an 82-year old war veteran to the ex-Cohenist blog What Enlightenment?, regarding his granddaughter:
My grand daughter spent 5 years with Andrew and she never spoke a word to me during that time....Andrew took a beautiful women and turned her into a fearful depressed person, it's like he sucked the spirit out of her and left only a confused shell...This story is by no means unique (in fact it was selected here a random because it happened to be the lead story when I was researching What Enlightenment? for the current essay); and is typical of the sort of emotional, physical, and financial abuse, the human wreckage that these people leave in their wake. One wonders why Wilber himself has not investigated these claims; as -- his ranting against any criticism of his work aside -- he seems, from his ambivalence regarding Adi Da, to be a decent sort of person. Moreover, when a case of sexual abuse by a spiritual teacher in his own Integral Institute movement recently came up, he did act, albeit reluctantly, and with the usual "green bashing".
I appreciate all of your contributions I have read them all it makes me sad to see what's happened to my grand daughter, really sad that a life has been so destroyed by someone she chose to put trust in. I hope one day someone finds a way of stopping him.
...My grand daughter was continuously asked for money, she gave over some $28,000 in the last 2 years.
I have dedicated some time to criticising Andrew Cohen, not because he is any worse than other such gurus and cult-leaders (indeed, he may be mild compared to some), but because he is considered by Wilber to be an enlightened being, albeit not as great a realiser as Adi Da. This shows a serious lack of spiritual, but even common sense discrimination among Wilber and those of his followers who also support people like this. It is important to emphasize however that not all Wilberites do go along with this; some at least would seem to be critical of Wilber's association with abusive gurus.
In any case, this sort of situation is almost pandemic among a great many pop gurus and teachers. From his magazine, and the talks on his website, I get a decent enough vibe from Andrew Cohen. I certainly think he does do a lot of good work; it is just a question of this other, more negative side to his nature.
...The problem is that the current Guru institution, as it has been adopted in the West, is deeply flawed, indeed, it is quite medieval. It may be that these traditional cultures like India, Tibet, and the Far East have their own checks and balances, and since these have been removed in the West, what is left is the abusiveness. Or perhaps the same problems also have occurred and do occur in traditional cultures, and great Gurus and Teachers were great not because of this institution, but in spite of it (in the same manner as with religious institutions everywhere). I certainly am not qualified to say which of these alternatives are correct; perhaps it might be a bit of both.
My explanation of how abusiveness works is simple. It has nothing to do with noble motives of helping the disciple work through their ego, progress more swiftly to enlightenment, and all the rest. That is just the rationalization that is at the heart of the pop guru institution, and the reason why this institution is flawed. In other words, the abusive guru is just basically your average emotionally immature and selfish imperfect human being, except that he or she also happens to have some opening to inner and subtle states and powers, up to and including self-realisation. As Wilber himself puts it, these individuals are characterised by "One Taste sufficiency that leaves schmucks as it finds them". Psychologist and participative spirituality advocate John Heron criticises Wilber's conception of spiritual development on that count, but I think what Wilber says is true, although I would strongly disagree with Wilber's assessment that these abusive gurus actually are authentically enlightened (see sect. 2-v). In this instance (and perhaps in all such instances) what Wilber calls "One Taste sufficiency" is simply a lesser experience, not even a spiritual experience. In any case, the argument that "this is good for you, it will help you attain enlightenment" is simply a ploy that the abusive guru uses, a way of manipulating his or her victims, and which he or she can use, precisely because it is part of the whole pop guru mindset. Quite likely the abusive guru genuinely believes his or her own words, because he or she is likewise conditioned by this mindset, just as much as his or her followers are.
But it goes beyond just that. Note the story of Cohen's female disciples who themselves offered to submit themselves to "water torture". What it all comes down to is the sadomasochistic co-dependency between abusive guru and dysfunctional disciple. For every sadist there is a victim, who wants to be tortured and hurt, perhaps out of deep self-loathing, or repressed memories of childhood abuse, in order to earn the love of their abuser (who, being an abuser, will never be satisfied, and will always continue to abuse). I tend to see the current pop guru phenomenon as very much like the battered wife attitude; with their followers so used to be abused, and they know nothing else, that they think it is "their fault" and all this is done for "their benefit". And the more abusive the guru is, the more the disciple rationalises the abuse! A classic case, but only one among probably many thousands of such cases, is what happened to Georg Feurestein and his wife at the hands of Da Free John.
All this is due to the fact that without doubt the largest number of pop Gurus do not have what I would call an integral awakening (more on this a little later). And because the theme that "being abused is necessary if you want to attain enlightenment" is perpetuated by people like Wilber who are seen as reputable authorities in the New Consciousness movement (e.g. Wilber's recommendation above that the seeker should choose "the Rude Boys and Nasty Girls of God realization"), susceptible and vulnerable seekers in the "spiritual supermarket", who only know what they read and hear, fall into this whole sadomasochistic relationship and hence serve as a supply of new victims. But as ex-devotees can now use the Internet to expose abusive gurus, John Heron may well be right when he says that the age of authoritarian guru is coming to an end. (there will always be these sorts of gurus, but i think in future they won't have such an easy time of it)
The Intermediate Zone
How are spiritually realised abusive gurus even possible? Clearly many of the pop gurus have genuine, even profound experiences. Up to and including nondual experiences. How can they be so narcissistic and insensitive to the needs of others, if they have realised non-duality, and that there is no separation between themselves and others?
We need here to distinguish genuine Spirituality, and genuine Gurus and Teachers, from those who, while possessing a greater or lesser degree of non-dual realisation, even total self-realisation on the mental or consciousness level, nevertheless retain ego, and can often have a destructive and abusive effect on their disciples and devotees. To understand how this can be so, we need to look at the Intermediate Zone. The Intermediate Zone, in Sri Aurobindo's philosophy, refers to a dangerous and misleading transitional spiritual and pseudo-spiritual region between the ordinary consciousness of the outer being and true spiritual realisation.
...the way that the Intermediate Zone works is through a sort of psychological contagion. Thus not just the sadhak or yogi or pop guru themselves, but those around them, also experience this, and it is like a drug, a buzz, a high, a thrill, a rush; it is attractive, it draws them in, and together with the misleading information regarding "breaking down the walls of ego", they are able to justify and rationalise any abuse as "for their own good" and "a sign of the Master's fiery love and compassion".
Note also that the Intermediate Zone does not mean that you are not enlightened. If that is was the case it would present much less danger, because the Teachers who are stuck at that level would be more easily seen to be fakes. No, it is quite possible, even very common, for the abusive gurus stuck here to be Enlightened, and indeed not only themselves Enlightened, but through their own realisation to transformation others, or rather those lucky few who for whatever reason, perhaps a certain grossness or resilience of nature, are able to ride out the waves of emotional parasitism and sadistic abuse that is tied in with and inseparable from the love and compassion. For it is all part of the ambiguity of the Intermediate Zone that some people can be totally destroyed by its negative energies, and others transformed.
And here is where the cultic justification comes in: because ...[if] one person [is] benefited, he assumes that everyone will, if only they will stick at the process. But this conveniently ignores the extent of human wreckage these abusive gurus leave in their wake. The contradiction between the two realities -- that of the devotees who are come through stronger, and of the larger number who are crushed – cannot be surmounted by the rational mind; the situation is fluid; there are no dogmatic answers. But is it really a sensible thing to put your life in the hands of someone who adopts a sadomasochistic attitude towards his or her followers? ( a "rude boy" and "nasty girl" as Wilber euphemistically puts it)
The paradox is all the greater when we consider that many of these gurus and teachers genuinely do many good things, alongside the negative things. Thus there seem to be, in addition to the narcissistic and abusive elements, a number of more positive characteristics by which Intermediate zone gurus and teachers, or those that have even a partial development, may be recognised:
• A profound manner of writing or speaking, by which one can sense of the Light and consciousness in the words.
• A feeling of force or shakti in their presence, which is perceptible to and can even bring about an elevation of consciousness in sensitive observers (even if they are otherwise spiritually undeveloped)
• By their own account, they have gone beyond the outer personality and realised a transcendent state of being or reality
... If Intermediate Zone gurus were totally of ...[a negative] nature there would be no problem; they would be seen for the ugly pettiness of their egos, and no-one (except psychologically disturbed people and masochists) would be compelled to follow them. But the whole idea of the Intermediate zone is that it is immensely alluring, immensely attractive and powerful and potent.
It takes a rare seeker not to be impressed or awed by the powerful charismatic spiritual qualities of Intermediate Zone individuals, and for this reason, if they are naive or susceptible, rationalise the abusive elements, as we have seen...
The presence of blogs like "What Enlightenment?" which contain numerous allegations of abusive behaviour by Cohen towards his devotees, indicate that perhaps he does indeed think in that way. This is not to deny that he has had genuine experiences, as has Wilber, as described in his journals in One Taste, but there is absolutely no shortage of such experiences that can be had in the Intermediate Zone.