Wednesday, February 02, 2005

A Legacy of Scorched Earth

Reflections of a former student
by Susan Bridle

Hal’s recent very thoughtful posts to this blog have inspired me to send a contribution, also nonanonymously. I was a student of Andrew Cohen for ten years, and worked very intimately with him for many years in my work as a writer and editor for What Is Enlightenment? magazine and other Moksha Press publications. I have witnessed or experienced everything reported in this blog and a great deal more. I left Andrew’s community a little over 3 years ago, and while I am busy with new academic, career, and spiritual goals, I am still “digesting” my experience of my relationship with Andrew and my time in his community.
Bottom line, I experienced so much that was truly profound and transformative—and that I will forever be grateful for—and also so much that was really abusive and twisted—and that still deeply saddens me. The lightest light and the darkest dark. Both. All tangled together like miles of black and white yarn entwined in a big ball at the pit of my stomach. I guess for me, I feel my work is to digest the whole thing, tease it apart, and try to come to some real maturity and wisdom about it. And without saying that Andrew doesn’t have responsibility for where, in my considered opinion, he went off the rails, take responsibility for all my choices and actions, for what brought me to him, what kept me there, and what enabled me to finally move on.
One thing that continues to strike me with painful irony is that fact that Andrew would, almost tearfully, lament about other teachers who had shown such great promise, whose passion for the spiritual life and searing dharma inspired so many spiritual seekers to abandon “the world” and give their entire lives to a spiritual revolution—but whose abuses of sex, money, power, or other addictions in the end disillusioned thousands of seekers and instead promoted cynicism about the whole endeavor. This is, in fact, the reality of the situation now with Andrew. He inspires such passion, such commitment, such sacrifice in so many seekers…for a while, a few years, maybe ten, perhaps longer. But Andrew’s legacy is, for the most part, scorched earth. Hundreds of disillusioned seekers who, when they eventually extricate themselves from their highly compromised relationship with Andrew, are scorched souls, burnt out entirely on the spiritual life, afraid to risk or trust or commit again. Many, even most, of Andrew’s former students, at least those who spent significant time in his company, have lost faith in themselves, in their own aspiration and capacity, in the possibility of a healthy student-teacher relationship, in the whole enterprise. This is a crime, a sin. Worthy of a tearful lament.
When his students leave him, rather than wishing them well and hoping that they are able to make good use of their experience with him, his community, and his teachings, Andrew scorns them, heaps abuse upon them, calls them “pigs” and “monsters,” and asserts that they have “sold their souls to the devil.” Rather than hoping that they will go on to use what they’ve learned in living fruitful lives, continuing their spiritual paths, and doing good work to relieve suffering in the world, he responds gleefully when he hears news of former students who are struggling to find their way. “That loser!” he would laugh. He delighted in hearing news about struggling former students. It vindicated what Andrew saw as their personal betrayal of him, the one true living embodiment of all that is holy and evolutionary in this world. For Andrew, his game is the only real game in town; no other spiritual teacher, path, or practice can hold a candle to it. Former students’ continued belief in this myth makes it very difficult for them to consider other spiritual paths and practices.
It seems that around Andrew and his communities today is a revolving door of students who discover him through the magazine or books, and have visited one of his centers, and perhaps attended a retreat or two. They stay for a while, and probably benefit tremendously. The “core” group of students who have been with Andrew for longer periods—and who are exposed to the kinds of tactics reported on this blog—has shrunk markedly over the years. Foxhollow, Andrew’s large and lavish residential and retreat center in western Massachusetts, when not filled with people during retreats and seminars, is significantly less populated than it once was. Some report that it feels like a monument to what might have been, a pretense of grandeur elaborately and expensively maintained, a slowly shriveling relic. Whether this is what becomes of Foxhollow and Andrew’s worldwide spiritual community remains to be seen; Andrew’s teaching and community have changed and evolved significantly since he began teaching in 1986. Maybe he will be able to adjust course regarding some of the matters discussed on this blog. That is my hope.
One other painful irony I’d like to mention—among so many others—is Andrew’s early, strong criticism of “crazy wisdom” teachers. During this period, he asked Hal to interview the American spiritual teacher Lee Lozowick about it. Lozowick has enormous insight on this subject, and his comments almost seem prophetic:
WIE: What is crazy wisdom?
LL: One of the primary aspects of crazy wisdom is that crazy-wisdom teachers are willing to use any behavior, no matter how shocking or irreverent or disturbing, if, and only if, that behavior has a very high likelihood of provoking a shift in the student, a deepening in the student. Of course, in this day and age, because of the communications industry, we hear about every idiot throughout the world whose ego takes on a crazy-wisdom function and then goes about using shock techniques whenever they feel like it, with complete disregard for the timing of the matter. Everything is timing. Gurdjieff was a master of timing. He didn't just produce shock like a research scientist to see what would happen. He only produced shock when the likelihood of its being effective, in terms of deepening a student's relationship to the Divine, was high. It didn't always work because it is only a likelihood, but still he wasn't random about it. And the teachers who I call charlatans today are teachers who are completely irresponsible in their use of power and crazy manifestation. I would consider a crazy-wisdom teacher someone who might use anything, but who is never arbitrary, and never follows their own personal motives. They only use dramatic and shocking manifestations under specific circumstances at exactly the right time. It's like faceting a diamond—if you don't understand the structure of the stone and you just take a chisel and hit it, all you get is diamond dust. You've got to know exactly the structure of the diamond because you've got to tap it along a particular fracture point. If you tap it in the middle of two fracture points, then you just smash the stone instead of getting a perfectly faceted jewel. Human beings are the same way. They've got what we could call revelation lines, so to speak, or enlightenment lines. A crazy-wisdom teacher is a master at faceting. A charlatan is someone who just takes the hammer and chisel and whales away and hopes that there are some beneficial results—or maybe doesn't even care but just loves the euphoria of the exercise of power and people groveling at his or her feet.
…[The fact that Reality cannot be understood with the conceptual mind] is one of the revelations that can deepen a student's relationship to the Divine. So one might do something under a specific circumstance to produce the revelation that reality is nonlinear. But ordinarily, one wouldn't function like that all the time just to prove that point. One would do that only when the student was just on the edge of the real possibility of getting that point, beyond just knowing the party line. Another important consideration is that the kind of behavior that would demonstrate the absurdity of linearity would not tend to be violent behavior or the kind of behavior that would psychologically scar someone.
I think that, so sadly, Andrew became the kind of teacher Lozowick speaks about here, one “who just takes the hammer and chisel and whales away and hopes that there are some beneficial results—or maybe doesn't even care but just loves the euphoria of the exercise of power and people groveling at his or her feet.”
Andrew’s passion, inspiration, insight, and personal example melted my heart, and enabled me to take great risks in my commitment to the spiritual life. My association with him transformed my life in many very positive ways. I carry with me enormous benefits from my time with Andrew, and I do not regret those years. But now, reflecting on his techniques, I have to say that he is an exceptionally ham-handed teacher, willing to inflict great harm in his clumsy and often extreme dharma experiments.
On a personal note, I’m now quite involved with the Zen Center of Denver. I’ve been meditating there and very slowly getting more involved for the past couple of years. I did a sesshin (intensive Zen retreat) last June that was very powerful. I had been afraid to do an intense retreat like that before then because I guess I felt I wasn’t ready, that it would be too painful, that too much stuff around Andrew would come up. And sure enough, for the first half of the sesshin, layer after layer of stuff about my relationship to Andrew, to the spiritual life, to my own aspiration, to pain and cynicism came up. But I just sat with it, let it be, experienced it without clinging or pushing away. And layer by layer, it burned away like fog. I experienced a lot of pain and grief and sadness, but also a lot of gratitude about my whole experience with Andrew. And what was also amazing was that Danan Henry Roshi, the abbot at ZCD was at the same time coming to the end of a long process of coming to terms with his first Zen teacher, the renowned Philip Kapleau Roshi, who had died just before the sesshin. The sesshin was dedicated to Kapleau Roshi, and we listened to recorded dharma talks by Kapleau every morning. Henry broke with Kapleau more than 10 years ago, a few years after Kapleau had sanctioned him as a dharma heir and had sent him to open a Zen center in Denver. Henry had felt there was still something missing in his understanding, and began his Zen training all over again with Robert Aitken Roshi. (Aitken and Kapleau had both trained with the same Japanese Zen masters, but they developed very different teaching styles). Henry’s break with Kapleau was difficult for a few years, but he remained in an essentially friendly and respectful relationship with him. Nonetheless, he had a painful process of coming to terms with breaking with his first dharma father, with some of the painful and confusing aspects of his training with Kapleau, and the difference between Kapleau’s understanding of the dharma and the subtleties of teaching, and his own. Kapleau had a very passionate but also a militaristic style of teaching, and people would be beaten black and blue with the Zen stick during sesshins. Henry came to realize that Kapleau began to teach before his own Zen training was complete. While Kapleau had had a very powerful awakening, there was something incomplete in his understanding of the dharma and of teaching. In Zen, kensho and satori are by no means the end of the road. Henry suggested that he and many others were casualties of this incomplete training on Kapelau’s part. BUT, what was more interesting and helpful was Henry’s example of clear-eyed love, respect, and gratitude for Kapleau, even while knowing of his limitations. (Which it would seem were far less serious than Andrew’s; my point here is not to compare Kapleau with Andrew, but to share Henry’s approach.) Henry had dealt with most of this before Kapleau’s death, but there was still a bit further for him to go in coming to total peace with his dharma father. So, during this sesshin where I was doing the work I needed to do about my relationship with Andrew, Henry was finishing the work he needed to do around Kapleau. In the mornings we listened to Kapleau’s dharma talks, and in the evenings Henry would comment on them and put them in the context of his own teaching and that of Robert Aitken. He really modeled a way of being around this that avoided nothing, and was at the same time incredibly compassionate for both himself and Kapleau, wise, mature, respectful, grateful. So this going on in the sesshin was like a container for me to go through my own process. Interesting, I said very little to Danan Henry Roshi about it in dokusan (formal interviews with the teacher). Things just came up and burned off. Toward the end of the sesshin, Henry said of Kapleau, with enormous emotion, that he loved him and he owed him. And that Kapleau was fully himself, limitations and all, a great lion of the dharma, and could not have been other than he was. And at that moment that was exactly how I felt about Andrew. So, that sesshin was very powerful for me. The last couple of days of the sesshin were different. I went beyond my attachment to and interest in thought and insight, and glimpsed beyond a deep ego-entrenched fear/shame of my “self” being somehow antithetical to the Absolute. I was able to get past, at least briefly, some blocks that had always hung me up in all my practice with Andrew. I can’t say this big opening lasted very long, but I feel the sesshin planted my feet firmly on the path again. I regained the path, and my faith, and my willingness to risk again. And now it wasn’t attached to a particular person, but just to my own aspiration. I’m doing the Zen training here, gradually. It’s sooo different from Andrew’s community. Much more spacious, much more respectful of the individual, definitely not authoritarian. I’m finding my way with having a completely different, non-guru-like relationship with my spiritual guide.
May we all learn how to turn our challenges and travails on the spiritual path, and the path of life in general, into pearls of wisdom and compassion.
Susan Bridle


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where would we be without duality? The need for twoness is primary if we want to fight and struggle. If one accepts the premise that there is a "devil" inside which must be overcome, with the help of an authoratarian who supposedly has "arrived", the game is on. We are back in the supposed safety of the family mode with infallible parent to guide, discipline and control us towards ultimate victory over this "bad" part of ourselves which we have no chance of controlling on our own, as well as brothers and sisters to keep us company along the way and share the stresses of our position of vulnerability. All of the struggle, fighting, highs and lows of this scenario depend soley on our refusal to stand on our own and walk forward in peace.
Where is the peace in this scenario? Divide and conquer is the basis for war.

There is a state of Consciousness beneath all division and striving, and there is no devil in this realm. There is Silence, Peace and true understanding which no thought can disturb. There is nothing to divide, nothing to conquer and there is no enemy here. To stay focused in this present moment is the key and here we walk the razor's edge of Now. This brilliant blade of attention is narrow and straight. One step to the right or left and all is lost. No "other" can hold us to this task of living on the edge. There is no "other" here.

Saturday, 05 February, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Susan and everyone,

I was never a student of Andrew, but as a therapist and spiritual counseler, I had a few clients who where seeking help in recovering from their experience with Andrew. They needed to come to terms with their experience without staying in a victim mode, yet acknowledging the pressure they experienced without the induced guilt of feeling that anything less than total agreement with Andrew is demonic ego resistance.

One thing I would like to ficus on in this discussion is the question of freedom from suffering. If there is value in enlightenment, global enlightenment and an evolutionary unfolding of humanity's highest potential, it must be linked to a true release from suffering. This brings up the question of how free from suffering Andrew is. I know a network chipopractor who was once asked to work on Andrew, not knowing who he was. Afterwards, he asked who this Andrew Cohen fellow is and was told by that he is some sort of spiritual teacher. The chiropractor could not believe what he heard and said that in his 20years of experience, he very rarely felt a body so messed up by tension and rigidity and that life for him has to be an terribly draining struggle. This chiropractor had no reason to have an opinion either for or against Andrew and he endowed with a very refined skill of feeling a person's stuff through his hands. If Andrew holds that much tension in his physiological and psychological being, no matter how much access he has to a consciousness that transcends all that, he will largely teach from suffering, not from freedom. Spiritual awakening brings us to aspects of reality that never suffered, but it does not heal suffering on its own level.


Thursday, 12 May, 2005  

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