Monday, April 16, 2007

A Farewell With Deep Gratitude

by Hal

More than two years ago I decided to write publicly about what I felt had gone seriously wrong with Andrew Z. Cohen's teaching methods and his community. I had received disturbing reports from other former students that eventually compelled me to speak out. I wrote then:
…A few years ago I began to learn of things that caused me great concern. An old friend who I worked with on What Is Enlightenment? magazine called and told me she had left the community. I told her a little about my thoughts about it—how I had come to see how oppressive life in the community was, how wrong it was that there was no personal freedom or autonomy permitted, how abusive the confrontational methods used to enforce conformity now seemed, how frequently we lived in fear, and how criticism was always forcibly squelched. She interrupted me and said, “Hal, things have gotten a whole lot weirder since you left.” I asked her what she meant, and she told me stories involving the use of physical force and abuse against students. She spoke of being ordered by Andrew to deliver “messages” to fellow students consisting of slapping the student in the face as hard as she could. She told me she had been ordered by Andrew to paint messages in blood-red paint on the walls of a student’s room at Foxhollow. She described to me the conversion of the spa at Foxhollow into a kind of psychological torture chamber.

As the years passed I spoke to many other former students who confirmed these stories, elaborated upon them, and told me many more. I learned of students having large “contributions” psychologically extorted from them. I heard how a student was required to sign a “gag order” agreement prohibiting him from publicly criticizing Andrew as a condition of having his “contribution” returned. I was told the story of community women prostrating in a freezing cold lake in the winter, some suffering dangerous exposure, as a symbol of their devotion and repentance for “women’s conditioning.” I learned of a student being forced—against his will and his moral compunction—to engage in daily visits to prostitutes in Amsterdam for weeks on end as a kind of penance for past sexual indiscretions. I was told by a student how he was ordered to reveal to his estranged teenage daughter her mother’s infidelity that occurred many years in the past, in order to teach the daughter not to hold her mother, now a critical former student, in such high esteem. I heard these stories and many, many more. As the weight of the awful truth about what Andrew and his community had become accumulated, I began to feel that something must finally be said. People must be warned. At the very least, any prospective student should know what they are signing themselves up for when they join Andrew Cohen’s community.

In the more than two years since I personally "broke the code of silence," all of these disturbing events, and many more, were documented and corroborated on this blog, over and over again. Three former editors of What Is Enlightenment? magazine, including myself, spoke out strongly here about the abuses in Andrew Cohen's community. Other close students have also put their names on the line to attest to what went wrong with the community's beautiful dream of creating heaven on earth. The woman who financed Cohen's Foxhollow EnlightenNext world center wrote about how he unfairly took advantage of her vulnerability and largesse. Numerous other students have also contributed here, both named and anonymous, shedding light on the authoritarian abuses around Cohen, their causes and their harmful effects. In contrast, not one specific or credible factual denial has emerged from Andrew or anyone associated with him about what has been reported here in great detail and depth. Instead, we have only heard the refrain that we have failed to include the "context," as if any overarching purpose could justify the abuses described here and the pain they caused. No cry of "context" could obscure the devastating truth that the participants in this blog have had the courage to reveal.

I hope it will not be regarded as overly dramatic if I say that I look back over what has occurred on this blog with awe, gratitude and humility. This blog's truly collaborative, interactive and collective nature makes it, perhaps, unique in the blogosphere, on the Internet, and, perhaps beyond. I haven't seen anything really parallel. I believe that, beyond the collaborative nature of the editorial work here, the collective intelligence, truthfulness and vulnerability of the contributions, responses, arguments and discussions have made this effort at healing and truth-telling unprecedented. I don't think that so many have spoken out before with such rawness and honesty in an attempt to warn the unwary, comfort the injured and understand humbly how something they believed in so totally could go so wrong. For this effort and honesty, on behalf of all of the editors of this blog, I bow to everyone who has participated here, whether anonymously or named, and whether former student, interested observer or friend.

While what has happened here will always remain, this seems like a good juncture at which to conclude this particular project of honesty and love. So, on behalf of the editors and administrators of this blog, I have been asked to write a kind of farewell. The discussion here could go on endlessly, or as long as authoritarianism hides behind masks of evolution, enlightenment or other ideals. This is not cynicism. I am not saying that evolution or enlightenment do not exist, or are unworthy of a life's dedication. But the capacity for deception is endless, and opportunists and the self-deluded who use and abuse high ideals, whether consciously or unconsciously, will probably always be with us. For this reason, I hope the discussion engaged in here will persist in one form or another.

But I think that this particular forum has run its natural course. The essence of what needed to be expressed has been said. Most of the former students I know have moved on, or are in the process of doing so—they have regrouped or are regrouping, they value what they learned, both good and bad, and they have ventured into productive new lives. Those lives now may be less filled with drama, buzz and high romanticism, perhaps, than their lives with Andrew Cohen. But they seem, to me, to be lives that are far more genuine, lives that are making, or have the potential to make, greater contributions to this world. The former students I know are, by and large wiser, softer, humbler and happier than they were when in the thrall of the community discussed here. They are professionals, artists, parents, workers in the non-profit sector, and many are actively engaged in working for their own and others' spiritual liberation. I think the healing that was, in part, the purpose of this blog has occurred to a great extent and will continue. And what has been written here will stand as a warning, a cautionary tale for the benefit of those who may consider taking a similar path to the one that went astray, as described here.

I feel confident that everyone whose life has been touched by this discussion has benefited in some fashion. Even those readers who chose to become involved with Cohen or to continue their involvement with him cannot help but be a bit smarter about it—or at least have an awareness of this resource for helping them pick up the pieces when reality shatters their dream. And we have heard that some of the more extreme abuses of community members have been stopped or moderated in the wake of their being revealed on this blog.

There is only one person for whom I still have great concern. I fear that he is perhaps the only one who has not been able to learn something of value here and who may be irretrievably committed to a painful and destructive path. That person is Andrew Cohen. I sincerely hope—and I think most ex-students will join me here—that some day our former teacher will find the humility to revise his own idea of himself; that he will demonstrate the vulnerability and lack of pride that he taught us but failed to live; and that he can find a way to recover his balance if and when his bubble implodes. We were mistaken in our assessment of him, but we did recognize his potential, and I think we all would like nothing more than to see that potential fulfilled in truth and humility. But that would require a difficult self-reckoning for him, one for which it is hard to find genuine reason for hope.

Still, against all reason perhaps, I believe in basic goodness. I have faith in the happy ending. No ending would make Andrew's former students happier than to see him change. And nothing is completely beyond possibility in a world where the courage and honesty demonstrated by all who participated here can manifest.

For now, WHAT Enlightenment??! is signing off. We may create a web site in the future, for the sake of posterity, with some of the articles on this blog. This blog will remain as a resource, but in a few days comment posting will be turned off.

On behalf of the blog editors, I want to express deep gratitude to everyone who has participated in and contributed to this journey of healing and truth. Best wishes to you all on your path.

May all beings be happy!

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Deja Vu All Over Again

By Anonymous

I came across this blog surfing on various spiritual topics. I recently met a creative (and quite successful) entertainer who told me he lives in Andrew's Community. I later recognized Cohen's name from the "What Is Enlightment?" magazine I'd see on the stands.

I once belonged to a major meditation sect for nearly a decade, living and working in their largest US community for several years. While followers were never physically violated, the familiar financial, mental and shame pressures were all there. The movement later ventured into politics also (but often with laughable results).

After reading just a few cross-postings here, I just got cold shivers of recognition. I recognized the same two roles, played over and over again -- no matter which particular group or leader it is about. I know this since I played both roles over time.

I was once the bright, angry apologist whose eager, dismissive counter-attacks barely hid my own insecurity and indignation. I relished jumping on any dissenter to pick apart his story and credibility. After all, I was defending the "perfect." And it is only a doubter's own, personal failure to recognize it as such.

Then I became the burnt-out, disoriented, ex-member who was trying to make sense of their positive experience while raising uncomfortable questions about all the logical disconnect. I would come across similar stories on ex-member sites, only to recognize their names as those who once vigorously defended the Movement (and sometimes help keep me in line!). What a shock! And then I'd read the same, predictable, snide responses to them from the faithful.

These templates, and the types of people who fall into them, never seem to change -- just the labels.

Will we ever learn?

Labels: , ,