Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Part 2 – A Response To Andrew Cohen's "Declaration of Integrity"

Some Personal Recollections
by – Former Student

[This article provides further reflections in response to Andrew Cohen's recent attempt on his blog to explain his conduct which has been the subject of widespread criticism.]

I’d like to add a little personal background to my previous post so that readers can understand the kind of perplexity produced in sincere students by some of the situations described in this blog.

I remember clearly the first time I saw Andrew Cohen instruct one student to hit another. We were seated in a circle talking with him on a beach by the Ganges in Rishikesh. A male student made a remark to which Andrew took exception, and he instructed a female student sitting next to the speaker to punch him in the shoulder. Judging by both the sound produced and the pained expression on the victim’s face, it was clearly a powerful blow. However, the student accepted this ‘gesture’ without protest, and the conversation continued as if nothing had happened. At the time, this did not strike me as so outlandish as to require rationalization, and taking my cues from the group, I allowed myself to accept it. The “contextual” presumption was clearly that the student had benefited from this skillful response to a remark that, in Andrew’s perception, was a manifestation of “ego.”

I recently recalled this ‘early’ incident while mulling over a couple of later ones that I have always found far more troubling, and the interesting thing about it is that I vividly remember both a) the negative effect it produced in me and b) my willingness to ignore it. Energetically and philosophically, the atmosphere around Andrew is dynamic and charged, and in such an atmosphere it is a given that many accepted conventions of thought and behavior are suspended. Indeed, it is doubtful that many of us would have been with Andrew had this not been the case. Under such circumstances, incidents such as this one evoked in me—simultaneously—contradictory ‘levels’ of internal response, from cognitive dissonance (‘something is wrong here’) to business-as-usual (‘everything here is perfect’).

A few years later, I was in an evening men’s meeting at Foxhollow at which everyone was supposedly “together” with the exception of one student who was expressing what was consensually interpreted as “doubt.” Andrew’s informer for that evening, having left the room to tell him what was happening in the meeting, returned to ask us if, with the exception of that student, we were all “really together.” We answered yes, then waited while our emissary went back to Andrew for further instructions. These were not long in coming: We were to gather outside, where enough vehicles would arrive to take us all down to the lake. There, we were each to punch the doubter in the right shoulder, after which he was to submerge himself several times in the cold water while shouting “Freedom has no history!”

As I was riding down to the lake in the moonlight surrounded by my ‘brothers-in-arms’ in the back of a pick-up truck, I asked myself what was really going on here. Was this what I’d signed on for when I’d become a formal student—organized group violence, torture and humiliation? Whatever they were calling it—tough love, purification—my alarm bells were going off and it was suddenly clear to me that I was in the midst of a situation that would probably precipitate my departure from the community. Under the circumstances, (hopefully) needless to say, these were sentiments that produced tremendous confusion and inner conflict given my genuine devotion to the stated principles and aspirations of our communal life. Was I then a hypocrite? And if so, which was the greater hypocrisy: the toleration of violence against a brother, or of my own doubts as to Andrew’s wisdom and purity of motivation? I recognized in this moment that as a so-called ‘spiritual commando’ I was likely to prove utterly inadequate. Should I be more ashamed of this, or of my craven unwillingness to admit it then and there and accept the probable physical consequences? In the end I participated in this ritual without comment. One of the final shoulder blows was so effectively administered by a military-trained member of Andrew’s security team (also a holistic healer!) that it produced a nauseating pop I can still hear and a wince I can still see. After his ordeal was over, however, the student thanked us for helping him to overcome his doubt, and remains (to his credit?) a longstanding member of Andrew’s community.
On another occasion it fell to me to report to Andrew on the progress of a similar ritual recounted elsewhere in this blog, that of an editorial colleague (since departed) who’d been required to submerge himself in the frozen lake one hundred times while yelling repeatedly, “I am an asshole!” Entering his office I encountered Andrew with several of his committed students, who laughed derisively at my secondhand account of this student’s ordeal (e.g., having to relocate to less conspicuous waterfront and start over), congratulating Andrew when he asserted proudly that “things like this happen only around me,” and enthusiastically affirming his insistence that no other contemporary teacher had the “outrageous integrity” to prescribe such ruthless austerities.

Why am I reporting these incidents? For two reasons: First, I am tired of hearing it said that people should simply “get over” the effects of such experiences and carry on with their lives as if nothing had happened. Second and more importantly, both the confusion produced by such incidents, and their legitimacy as facilitators of spiritual development, are crucial topics for discussion. Why? Because they help to explain why so many people who had—and in many cases still have—feelings of incredible respect, gratitude and devotion for Andrew Cohen, have nevertheless felt compelled to move on. It is far less polarizing to approach the issue with this possibility in mind than simply to impugn the integrity of those who dare to speak out. And if a “context” and “practices” of this nature have prompted so many to leave who might otherwise have preferred to stay, it would be well for Andrew and his present community to be humbly aware of that and, as the saying goes, to face into it.

The imposing infrastructure now at Andrew’s disposal was co-created by him and many students who believed wholeheartedly in his realization and vision for humanity, and who in many cases still share that vision and acknowledge Andrew’s contribution to their development as cosmic citizens. It is high time that Andrew made his peace with these people by acknowledging and accepting their experiences as his students, and by encouraging his present students to do the same rather than inveigling them into a selective public relations campaign that serves his image rather than the whole truth.

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