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Pete Bampton was a formal student of Andrew Cohen from 1992 to 2005. he worked as an editor of Andrew’s books and on EnlightenNext magazine. He was also his “cartoonist” and helped design his teaching models. He currently live in Portugal with his wife Cynthia, also a former student, where they are developing the Awakened Life Project. This essay was posted earlier on guru-talk.com, a website founded to defend Andrew Cohen against the allegations of former disciples. It is launched by Bampton, and created without any input from Andrew Cohen himself or current Core EnlightenNext students.
“The real function of a Guru is to insult you” Chogyam Trungpa
“Only if one sincerely wants to free more than anything else will we have access to the spiritual heart within us that will alone have the power to recognize the Guru Principle as nothing more than the call of one’s own True Self. If that is not the case, the Guru Principle will be seen for what it is but from the perspective of the ego, which means—it will be seen as our worst enemy. Andrew Cohen. In Defense of the Guru Principle
An American Guru: The Real Deal
Meeting one’s Guru or Master is a Mystery. It is a date with destiny. Those who are lucky enough to stumble upon this seismic encounter may never be the same again. In that meeting one experiences, suddenly or gradually, an ecstatic release into the limitless singularity and depth of one’s True Self. The time-bound stream of the separate self sense is mysteriously overwhelmed by a vast rushing river of intoxicating freedom and fullness welling forth from the fount of Creation Itself as Oneself. But that spontaneous breakthrough into a vast new universe of being and knowing is usually only the beginning. If the impact of this spiritual baptism is profound, one may find oneself overwhelmed by a transcendent Roar surging up from the unfathomable depths of that Revelation that demands one thing and one thing only: Surrender.
Saying YES to that transcendent Roar is the most sacred movement that can occur in a human soul. While most seekers are happy enough to take a thrilling dip in that Mystery and afterwards return to shore to bask in the knowledge, bliss and awe engendered by the experience, it is another thing altogether to willingly dive in and allow one’s life to be reconfigured by Its unknowable agenda. When I met Andrew Cohen he would liken this leap to jumping out of an aeroplane without a parachute!
If one would answer that call and would then choose to enter into a committed relationship with the Guru or Master who had been the catalyst for such an Awakening, then one is choosing to enter into a radical context of relationship unlike any other in which the laws and mores of the “conventional” world do not necessarily apply. This is well documented from sutras about the Buddha breaking up families, to Tibetan tales of Marpa and Milarepa, to numerous Zen masters wielding big sticks, to that irreverent table-turning maverick called Jesus who said “Let the dead bury the dead” and “I have come not to bring peace but a sword” amongst other provocative statements, to the wild abandon of Ramakrishna, to the crazy-wise Cossack Gurdiejff, on down to Awakeners of recent times like Lee Lozowick, Adi Da, Barry Long, Chogyam Trungpa etc. Getting involved with a Guru (if they are a Revolutionary and not a Saint) is usually a thrilling and dangerous business because true Gurus are usually controversial, utterly original and very politically incorrect characters. Why? Because they are surrendered conduits for the uncontainable fire and force of Absolute Love and Truth and hence they cannot and will not be contained!
A genuine Guru or Master is only interested in the literal transformation of his students (meaning their motivation is pure), and indeed they are choicelessly surrendered to their function as “dispellers of darkness”. That means their task is to expose and dismantle, without compromise, the structures of ego that inhibit the emergence of a liberated transformed human being. In all but very rare cases, this entails profound “psychic surgery”. This delicate operation will usually cover a long period of time and is almost always an ordeal of epic proportions encompassing extremes of ecstasy and agony (for both Guru and student) that are difficult for anyone to understand who hasn’t ventured into such terrain. Teachers and seekers walk a path that at times can look like severe and unwarranted hardship to outside eyes. But all these renunciates and aspirants were courageous souls who wanted to traverse great distances in their inner terrain as quickly as possible. What makes this process possible is a deeply heartfelt and mind-transcending trust in the Guru. This bond is not something that can be explained. It simply IS and is tacitly known by both Guru and student.
When I chose to become a student of Andrew Cohen, I knew I was entering into a relationship like no other, precisely because there wasn’t “an other” involved. I was embarking on the most profound relationship I had ever had with another human being and yet there was, and is, nothing really “personal” about it at all. As the journey unfolded I relished the fact that Andrew was so passionate and uncompromising, as all his students did. Indeed, Andrew’s absolute insistence that radical transformation was possible here and now lifted me, and my newfound spiritual brothers and sisters, into an entirely different orbit from the swamp of post-modern pluralism that surrounded us. As Adi Da said: “Dead gurus don’t kick ass”. And boy did Andrew kick ass! We had stumbled upon the REAL thing! We loved him for it (and now some who loved him for it hate him for it). We loved the fact that he carved the prevailing spiritual mainstream flatland fodder into pieces—“feel good, release and relax”, “just do the practice”, “you’re ok, and I’m ok”, “have kindness and compassion for yourself and each other” etc. This man breathed sacred fire and so did we!
Andrew never said it was going to be easy. In fact he always said the opposite. The profound spontaneous revelations of Enlightenment, Unity, and Bliss that overwhelmed so many of us during our initial association with, and ongoing surrender to, Andrew as our Teacher, were easy—mysterious Gifts of Grace. However, embracing the developmental task of purification and transformation in alignment with the accelerating penetration of our deepest understanding, was another thing altogether. As Andrew always said “Everybody wants to get Enlightened, but nobody wants to change”. I wanted Enlightenment and in meeting Andrew I “got it”, (or rather the “I” that wanted anything at all dissolved into ecstatic union with the ungraspable, all-pervading It!), so in that sense my seeking ended because there was clearly nowhere else to go. But I, along with many of my brothers and sisters who chose to give our lives to the Revolution in consciousness that was spontaneously occurring around Andrew, soon discovered that that mind-shattering revelation was only the beginning. It was a launch-pad, a rite of passage, an initiation into a spiritual odyssey the like of which we could have never previously imagined.
“Ego death is not a game” Andrew told us repeatedly. “It is never enough until it is too much” he would say over and over, night after night, to those who came to his teachings. He always said the task of genuine spiritual transformation was the most demanding task that anyone could ever undertake. Why? Because it would demand that we give everything for it. And we all, including those who now publicly seek to discredit Andrew, said a resounding YES to that awesome challenge with all the ecstasy and terror that it evoked in us.
The Hard Way
I think I can safely say that, for those of us who got deeply involved with Andrew Cohen, we all eventually found out the hard way that our egos didn’t want anything to do with our stated intention to be Free. We found out that our egos (or one could say the Western post-modern ego) were bigger, more insidious and devious in their survival strategies than we could ever have imagined. In fact our precious self images as sincere spiritual aspirants were hung, drawn and quartered many times over! There is a reason why the words humiliation and humility have the same root and genuine spiritual evolution, especially in such an intensely focused communal context, demanded eating plenty of humble pie!
However, there were times when that humility, or even simple interest, in facing our obstructions and conditioning was nowhere to be found. Andrew was sometimes faced with massive and seemingly intractable resistance to his demand that we engage with the challenge of transformation in accordance with the depth of our revelations and understanding. In these instances, he would try everything he could, in all manner of creative ways, to catalyse genuine evolution in us. But when nothing else was working in the face of a prolonged impasse, whether on an individual or collective scale, Andrew would at times be forced to exert enormous pressure.
Some ex-students, many of whom were very close to Andrew, have gone on public record to claim that these instances of enormous pressure were “abusive”. They claim that they arose from Andrews’s impure motivation (vindictiveness, malice etc) and he is hence guilty of “abuse of power”. But the truth is that, in every case that I am aware of, they rewrite and distort the context of what was occurring in those highly charged situations when something sacred in terms of the evolution of consciousness was at stake, whether with themselves individually or amongst a group of us collectively.
And I don’t use the word “sacred” lightly. We live in a relativist, individualistic, anti-hierarchical culture in which nothing is really sacred anymore. Let’s face it, us post moderns are culturally conditioned to answer to no one but ourselves. But the significance of what Andrew awakened in us went far beyond ourselves and was and is sacred and it brought us to our knees. Why? Because the implications of the continuum of shared revelation we were immersed in stretched far, far beyond our personal freedom. In its glory we recognized an overwhelming sense of meaning and purpose for human incarnation: to cease to live for our own sake and become a human conduit for the evolution of consciousness itself. This is not “Enlightenment” in the traditional sense and it is something that can be fully understood unless one has experienced it for oneself.
When I met Andrew in 1992 he had already begun to make a distinction between “Personal Enlightenment” and what he then called “Impersonal Enlightenment”. The metaphor he used then to describe the difference was by comparing a burning match with a forest fire. As Andrew’s own understanding has evolved through his ongoing experience with his students, so has the teaching continued to develop and Andrew now calls this phenomenon “Evolutionary Enlightenment”. And indeed, as our shared adventure unfolded, it became clear that not only did we not have any reference points for this in our post-modern culture, neither did we find any in the spiritual traditions of the past or the “East meets West” spiritual approaches of our own time. We, along with Andrew, were, as far as we could tell, pioneers leaning into the edge of undiscovered country. At the best of times this awareness was a doubtless living reality in our own experience. And because of that, despite the imperfections, struggles and pathologies that may have been playing out at any given time, there was always the tangible sense of the thrill of the unknown and the call of the as-yet-unmanifest future vibrating in the air.
We were attracted to Andrew because he pushed the edge, and hence we all knew at times we needed a big push! Hence it was tacitly understood that strong measures may be appropriate in the efforts to actualize the sacred potential we experienced, even when we didn’t always understand them ourselves. Why was this tacitly understood? Because something higher and deeper than the concerns, and limited understanding, of our post-modern “sensitive selves” was always at stake. This is what it means to trust the Teacher (and this is why even his most bitter detractors remained students for 10-15 years). This is also what it means to have a hope of transcending the existing structures of the self. And this is, and was, a very risky and dangerous business for all of us and for Andrew. We were all willing participants in a momentous evolutionary experiment, and we didn’t have any maps.
Evolution is a Messy Business
Evolution is a messy process. So anybody who really wants to make the effort to strive for something new is going to have to be willing to make mistakes, take wrong turns, even to fail, but never give up. The simple truth is this: if not failing is more important to you than genuinely succeeding, you’re never going to make it. If you really want to succeed, you have to have the big heart, heroic will, tenacity, courage, and commitment to fearlessly engage with the evolutionary process until something profound, mysterious, and extraordinary happens that cannot be undone. Andrew Cohen, 2010
True Teachers or Gurus are not technicians. They do not prescribe a practice. They are not seeking “followers”. They do not follow a known path. They are not bringers of peace and harmony. They are bringers of confrontation and upheaval. They are improvisational wizards, magnetic strange attractors, even geniuses, constantly and spontaneously weaving a visceral self illuminating context for Freedom, Love and Truth. In their freeform dance of creation and destruction they expose, frustrate and dismantle their student’s tendency to associate Awakening with any fixed idea or self image. The proverbial rug is always being pulled out from under one’s feet. Their passionate insistence that inner revelation must result in genuine transformation burns with a sacrificial fire that finds its mark in a sincere heart. The stripping away of falsehood and illusion is by turns ecstatic and excruciating. It is an awe-inspiring process of dying while living and being reborn over and over again. This is what Self-Realization means. This is what it means to burn karma.
Through my 13 years as a formal student, during which I often worked very closely with Andrew Cohen, there is one thing about which I had, and still have, no doubt. Andrew’s motivation as a man surrendered to the “Guru Principle” was, and is, and always will be, to reveal and release our deepest potential as human beings, and to reveal and break the ego that will always resist that emergence in the individual/collective psyche. Andrew revealed both my deepest potential as a liberated human being and the structure of my own ego in spades. For that I will always be profoundly grateful, for in being willing to face the totality of what he revealed to me I have discovered a freedom, pure passion and purpose for being alive that I could never have previously dreamed of.
But purity of motivation in a Guru still has to meet with the impurity in the student, and often for the worse. Place that already supremely challenging dynamic in a collective context infused with tremendous urgency, in which the evolution of the collective is always deemed to be more important than that of the individual, and you have an immensely challenging multidimensional crucible of spiritual transformation. Genuine spiritual evolution under the tutelage a true Guru can be a messy business for even a sincere individual. Just think of Irina Tweedie in “Daughter of Fire” for example. Her uncompromising Guru could be deemed as guilty of similar humiliating “abuses” to those now claimed by some former students of Andrew Cohen. So it follows that genuine spiritual evolution involving a collective matrix of aspirants can be far messier. But that doesn’t mean that the Guru’s real or imagined flaws should be the first thing held to account for the messes! Where we should look first is the mess of ferocious pride and self-deception that is the human condition.
Some who were close students of Andrew Cohen for many years have publicly complained of being “betrayed” by him. But who really betrayed whom and what was it exactly that was betrayed? These are profound and delicate questions that, I believe, will raise different answers in conjunction with the questioner’s willingness to embrace an all-inclusive picture.
Even if some former students appear to have legitimate complaints about some instances of their once beloved Guru’s behaviour, does this amount to his wholesale “betrayal” of them? What are they also choosing to betray by not embracing the full picture of who Andrew is, what he revealed to them and the totality of the cosmic forces at play in any given situation, especially involving themselves? Or, put another way, is there a “log in their own eye” that is causing them to magnify the “specks” that they perceive in their former Guru into “logs” that recast their Guru into an “abusive monster” and their years of dedicated service to a spiritual cause as entrapment in a brainwashed cult? I would like to offer some reflections on this whole matter of betrayal…
The temptation to betray the revealed truth is a very real and present danger in relationship with the Guru/Teacher/Master. A genuine Teacher is only interested in destroying our attachment to the illusion of separate existence. He has no interest whatsoever in maintaining a special personal relationship based on anything other than the Truth. The separate self sense or personality has absolutely nothing to gain from such a liaison. When the chips are down and one finds oneself suddenly baulking at the Teacher’s reflection and demand, this can be very, very hard to bear indeed.
Trust in the Guru sometimes means living with an extreme situation that doesn’t feel right, and which one often doesn’t fully understand. After all if we thought that we could see and transcend every self-image and conditioned structure that was in our way, we wouldn’t have sought out and surrendered to the Guru in the first place, would we? There can be times when it is very easy and tempting to view the Guru as an inhuman, power-tripping, abusive character. Why? Because he doesn’t appear to care one iota about me at all! In fact he only seems intent on scolding me, humiliating me, ostracizing me and breaking me down with excruciating relentlessness and total disregard for my suffering, period!
It is the student’s responsibility first and foremost in these situations to trust their freely chosen Guru/Teacher/Master more than the fury of their mind and emotions. That means remaining true to what was obvious to them when they were most receptive and grounded, i.e. that beyond any doubt My Master is my Self and his only concern is my Liberation. But while this is simple to say, maintaining this thread of connection to the Guru amidst the storms of spiralling doubt and narcissistic rage can be an immensely challenging matter.
I can testify to the truth of this as I have experienced both holding onto and letting go of that thread many times. When I chose to let go of that thread, I either ran away or withdrew my trust to such an extent that I was barely participating in the Work anymore. Thus I was no longer maintaining any receptivity to absorb its lessons and benefits. Focusing on the Guru’s real or imagined flaws, as opposed to one’s own fully felt and revealed flaws, especially when they are being excruciatingly exposed in the heat of the moment, is just one more way to avoid doing the real Work that one came to the Guru to do. But unfortunately giving oneself over to the allure of betrayal is all too easy for a wounded ego—and especially an angry wounded ego. And once one would cross that line in the self, it is like walking through the looking glass.
As soon as any seed of doubt or suspicion or mistrust regarding the Guru is held as an unquestioned truth and solidified, the ego can, oh so insidiously and deviously, begin raising the drawbridge and sealing its defences. Now it has bedrock on which to build its toxic edifice. The ego seals its defences with denial or repression. It is the nature of denial or repression to be invisible. Something that is repressed or denied can’t reveal itself to us because we would then be forced to see its workings and the repression or denial would be dispelled. So not only does repression or denial aim to repress and deny, it aims at repressing and denying the very act of repression or denial itself! Hence the most telling manner in which repression or denial manifests is in the sin of omission.
In the context under investigation here, this means that the Guru’s once loved uncompromising stance and actions of creative compassion are now subjected to a “new” perspective—a flatland kangaroo court whose impenetrable logic stems from the boiling cauldron of resentment filtered through readopted relativistic post-modern cultural perspectives. How dare he do that to me!
Making a virtue out of its newfound independence from perceived spiritual slavery to the corrupt Guru/Teacher and gathering whatever evidence it can to support its counterfeit authority, the no-longer-caged ego righteously rewrites what has been done. The whole story of involvement is “expertly” re-contextualized. “Liberated” from the grips of a power-hungry Master and the brainwashed acquiescence of the “cult” mind, the devious ego exults in its self-proclaimed objectivity and rampant deconstruction. The Teacher is publicly blamed for “abuse of power” by wounded egos offering reality checks for naive seekers who may be tempted to enter into such a dangerous liaison. But this critiquing is as far from genuine truth as is opinion…
To the degree that we are not surrendered to Love and Truth, we will betray. We will make a fine art out of rationalizing our irresponsibility and disease of conscience. We will morph half-truths into truths. We will splice, edit and distort the reels of memory to collage our self-affirming picture. Betrayal is what we do when we are estranged from the deepest revealed truths that nonetheless remain silently simmering in the depths of our soul. Betrayal is what we do when we are seeking power over that which brought us to our knees in surrender, that melted and annihilated us with its radiant divine glory, that flung open a door to hitherto unimagined infinite possibilities. Only then can we stab what has nourished us, violate what was held most dear, and kill the Buddha on the road. Not with the sword of wisdom but with the sword of wounded pride.
Where Should We Point The Finger?
I don’t regard Andrew Cohen as a flawless Guru and neither has he proclaimed himself to be “perfect”. I think he has made errors of judgement along the way, especially in some very challenging situations in which he was overwhelmingly frustrated by the stubborn resistance of his students. I also have witnessed Andrew expressing regret at a revealed error of judgement, and seeking input from his close students in some challenging junctures. But errors of judgement or “mistakes” do not necessarily equate to “impure motivation”. Andrew’s detractors are often harping on about how he will not admit any mistakes, but they are doing that in a context of insisting these perceived “mistakes” validate their assumption of impure motive on Andrew’s part. In my humble opinion, given the awe-inspiring nature of the calling and the complexity of the human condition, especially in a collective context, I think that making some errors of judgement is inevitable. And I believe also that many people who have left Andrew bearing the scars of their own refusal to change, now question his fundamental motive as Teacher from a place of very dubious motivation in themselves.
While I can’t say that there is nothing in their accounts that may speak of legitimate criticism of Andrew, what I can definitely say is that there is so much that is painfully omitted. And the most glaring omission is their unwillingness to point the finger at themselves. Despite whatever perceived truth there maybe to their criticisms of Andrew, this unwillingness clearly undermines the integrity of their arguments and cuts to core of what I believe is motivating most of their critiques.
A sophisticated ego can manipulate, deconstruct, and squeeze the sacred lifeblood out of anything, and still come out looking squeaky clean and rational. Nowhere in their often eloquent critiques of Andrew and his methods do they mention the demon of ego they were faced with in themselves, which in most cases ultimately led to their undignified departure. For example, one of Andrew’s most vocal and vitriolic critics, (who left before all the so-called “abuses” his website catalogues even took place!), was given the name “Raging Bull” by his once beloved Guru to help him face the enormity and destructiveness of his own anger! Others who have publicly come out against Andrew were given the names “Mephisto”, “Vacance” and “Integrity” (and not because he had a lot of it!). These names were given as spiritual practices to help the individual face into their core egoic structure and not to “brand” or punish his students. Will you find him/them acknowledging, let alone sincerely grappling with, that side of the picture, which may have been informing his/their own desire to publicly discredit Andrew Cohen? I’m afraid not. There are many more variations on theme…
The latest variation on the theme has been the book “American Guru” by William Yenner, in which the “sin of omission” runs rife through every page. It is not my intention to attempt to fill out all the missing factors here (that would take a book in itself!). However I do want to lay out some factual context surrounding Yenner’s central allegations that revolve around the issue of money.
Yenner’s personal beef with his former Teacher issues from his sad story of being allegedly “coerced” out of his $80,000 inheritance by Andrew, and the subsequent “gag order” that was foisted upon him once he had left, and had asked for and received, his money back. Of course this all sounds very extreme and bizarre the way Yenner tells it, but he chooses to omit a great deal of very relevant context.
While he was a senior student Yenner wrote an article entitled “The Tangled Web” which sought to publicly discredit his siblings whom he was convinced had cheated him out of his inheritance. When his attempt to get the article published in the local newspaper of his brother´s hometown failed, he continued to pursue ways to publicly discredit him (do we see a pattern here?). While Andrew initially supported Yenner in writing the article, as it did appear that he had been cheated, at a certain point he felt that Yenner was becoming obsessed with his resentment and was operating out of greed in relationship to his inheritance. In his role as spiritual mentor he began putting pressure on Yenner to face into this, but was only met with resistance. Eventually, after a protracted “battle” Yenner gave his inheritance of $80,000 to EnlightenNext as a gesture of “letting go” of his attachment to money.
Yenner distorts the truth by insisting that he (and a number of others) were coerced into giving money due to “psychological pressure”. But again, in the context of a Teacher/Student relationship the experience of “psychological pressure” is par for the course. The question to ask is why is the pressure being experienced and what is the motivation of the one applying it? Being resistant in the face of the Teacher´s reflection and demand is definitely going to entail experiencing some “psychological pressure”, no doubt about it! Of course, Yenner and others, intent on rewriting history to shore up their victimized positions, insist that the pressure was only coming from Andrew, when the whole truth is that it was also issuing from their own desire to transcend their egoic attachments or re-engage their spiritual path after proving themselves to be untrustworthy. Hence the bottom line is that it was their own free choice to give or not to give. It was only on a few very rare occassions, when a student had badly betrayed their stated commitment which had usually resulted in them leaving, and they then wanted to return as a formal student within the communal body, that a financial token of their restated commitment was strongly suggested. To imply that Andrew’s intent was to fleece money from his students for his own ends is simply ridiculous. In fact, Andrew refused money that was offered by students on many occasions because he did not deem it to be an appropriate gesture. Yenner backs up his case for corruption further by insisting that the female student who donated a large sum of money to enable EnlightenNext to purchase its World Center in Massachusetts, was also similarly coerced. But again a key piece of factual information is omitted. If that was the case then why did the said student write a letter to Andrew Cohen sometime after she had left the community saying that, despite leaving, she had no regrets regarding the donation?
After having “fallen from grace” as a leader in the community with disastrous consequences, and after a protracted period of unwillingness to face the obstacles to his own stated intention to be Free, Yenner decided to leave Andrew and the community and then subsequently asked for his donation back. EnlightenNext consulted with their lawyer as to the legal obligation to return it. They were told that it was almost completely unheard of for a non-profit to return a donation, and even borderline illegal for a charity to do so. Hence EnlightenNext was under NO obligation at all to return the funds. But EnlightenNext did decide to return the money on condition that William sign a 5 year contract prohibiting him from public discourse regarding Andrew Cohen and EnlightenNext. There never was a “gag order” (as Yenner calls it) or, for that matter, any other court order issued. That would imply that there was some kind of order being issued by judge or jury, but that was never the case. So why did Andrew and EnlightenNext see fit to do this? Because they knew full well that Yenner would take the money (which he had no right to anyway!) and seek a very public and nasty revenge, just as he had done with his siblings. Unfortunately five years wasn’t long enough for Yenner to cool down and gain some perspective on what had happened, and so he is now finally taking his revenge…nine years later! Even after the publication of his book Yenner’s smear campaign continues. For example, he has seen fit to contact contributors to EnlightenNext magazine and donors to EnlightenNext in an attempt to turn them against Andrew Cohen with his revelations of “the Truth”. Oh what a tangled web indeed!
So in light of all this messy fall-out did Andrew make an error of judgement in how he dealt with the issue of Yenner’s money? In hindsight it is easy to say yes. But wasn’t he also in a no-win situation? I definitely think so. Yenner would have gone after Andrew publicly regardless. Should Andrew not have pressured Yenner about his obsessive resentment and attachment to money? Should he not have accepted Yenner’s inheritance as a donation to the cause that he freely had given his life to? However one might answer, the bottom line is that Andrew, as Yenner’s chosen Teacher, was doing his, often thankless, job: confronting unwholesome self-serving motivation in his student. Yenner, while stating his own case as one of coercion, also sees fit to omit the fact that he offered to give a significant donation three times over an eight month period. It was refused each time as it did not seem to the few individuals involved that the intent behind this offering was without misgivings.
The other “controversy” that I would like to illuminate further is an apparently open “interview” between EnlightenNext and an Israeli journalist from which Yenner draws all kinds of dubious conclusions. Again the “sin of omission” applies in spades here as no context is given as to why the questions were answered in the way that they were. A close former student who was involved with EnlightenNext at the time provided me with the following background…
EnlightenNext was asked to submit a fact verification for the editor in chief of NRG, an online portal owned by the large Israeli newspaper company Ma’ariv. These questions were submitted to determine whether a proposed article by journalist Jonathan Levy had a basis of fact. The article, as had been stated on the writer’s spiritual gossip column was positioned to discredit Andrew Cohen and his work, and the news agency wanted to confirm that what was going to be published was accurate. EnlightenNext’s lawyers advised that all responses be precise and directly respond to the questions asked. The issue at hand was representing EnlightenNext fairly and accurately in the media, and to prevent distortion, sensationalism, slander, and tabloid smears. EnlightenNext fully complied with the several sets of questions asked and offered to comment on and write a more broad response about the spiritual context of its work. But as the article was dropped, they were never given the opportunity to respond in this way.
Many of the questions asked by Levy/Ma’ariv Newspaper Company referred to specific events and individuals. They were not philosophical in nature. Because, as had previously been stated by author Levy on his online gossip column, a sensational and negative article about Andrew Cohen was being prepared, EnlightenNext understandably made every effort to conform with actual fact and common definition, not to a sensationalized caricature of its history. NRG chose not to run Levy’s article. EnlightenNext was never given a response, explanation, or description of the article or why it was not run. Sometime later, the fact verification questions, which were never intended for publication, were posted without permission from EnlightenNext, on a blog crafted by a handful of individuals on a negative campaign about Andrew Cohen and his work. Yenner then took this document and published it in his book.
Some may ask, quite understandably, why did EnlightenNext answer according to the precise question and not to the general spirit of what Levy asked? The answer is simple. EnlightenNext was asked to provide factual responses. To that extent, every answer is factual. Had it been a freely conducted interview, I have no doubt EnlightenNext would have been happy to discuss other points around the questions asked, to explain why certain practices were often done, why there was a more traditional Eastern relationship to Andrew as a spiritual teacher or guru in the early years (as that was Andrew’s own lineage, as well as the spiritual background of many of his close early students), and why that evolved over time as EnlightenNext did. I have no doubt they would be happy to discuss why mantras, chanting, dips in a lake etc were practiced and taken in the spirit of time-honored Hindu and Buddhist practices. The practices, particularly in the early years of EnlightenNext, as a profound evolutionary structure was being developed, were neither misguided “crazy wisdom” nor erratic expressions of an individual ego. They were well intentioned spiritual responses, designed to support the highest aspirations of individuals deeply committed to their own spiritual evolution. In this light and to this end, all the individuals who embarked on this path were spiritual warriors, and the result of the efforts of these inspired souls can be seen as the fruits of the teaching, structure and leadership of EnlightenNext now, and in the lives of many former close students, some of whom are writing for Guru Talk.
All of the other stories that Yenner and his co-authors relate in the book are distorted in similar ways to create a very specific impression and there are a number of outright falsehoods. In the writing of “American Guru” Yenner went to great efforts to solicit former students who are now negatively disposed toward their former Teacher to write for his book. Interestingly only a few of them agreed. I know for a fact that some of those solicited, who are close friends of his, refused because they did not trust his motivation. This is why a large portion of the book is made up of previously published material. I also know a former student who forbade Yenner to include his interpretation of his story and Yenner ignored his request.
Context is Everything
So for all their seemingly sincere grappling with Andrew’s perceived “abuse of power”, one won’t find former student critics attempting to embrace the issues of their own revealed shortcomings and destructive urges, or the whole truth of why they ultimately left Andrew. Why? Because then they would have to, at the very least, put a big question mark around the conclusions that they are choosing to come to now, and be willing to look squarely at their own motives for going public with them. As long as they can convince themselves that they are “doing the world a service” by publicly sharing their partial, one-dimensional negative conclusions, they can avoid facing into the more unsavoury motivations.
Most, it seems to me, who take the position of Andrew being “abusive” and hence themselves or others as the “wounded”, are speaking from a very limited and very personal point of view which is profoundly lacking in the vast impersonal, evolutionary context in which everything occurred (and continues to occur!). And, of course, once one leaves and steps out of the highly-charged living context of the guru/disciple relationship and looks at that “kick-ass” behaviour (which was only a very small part of a very big picture) from the perspective of “conventional” post-modern spiritual morality at best or an angry wounded ego at worst, then of course much of it appears outrageous, abusive, even insane. How dare he do that to me!
So were there transpersonal, maybe even sacred, dimensions of meaning and significance that many of them were experientially in touch with at the time that they would rather now forget, or simply don’t realise they have forgotten (denial denies the fact of denial), because those dimensions cannot be held in the mind if they are no longer alive within one’s own being? Andrew constantly reminded us that the gross cannot remember the subtle. And yes much of what they now label as gross “abuse” was occurring within a very, very subtle and, I daresay, sacred context.
Andrew always said that “Context is Everything”. All of us students who ventured in deep with Andrew know how easily and how repeatedly we lost the context even when we were there! Despite being experientially convinced over and over again, with Andrew bending over backwards to help us get over conditioned structures, with brothers and sisters doing all they could to illuminate and support our evolutionary pathway, with spiritual practices designed to assist us through the stormy seas of spiritual crisis, still, all of us, at one time or another (and usually a lot more than once!), refused to embrace the bigger context that would set ourselves, and everybody else, including our Teacher, FREE!
So given that fact shouldn’t we have a lot of humility for how easy it is to lose that context once we choose to leave? Of course everyone wants to feel good about themselves and why they chose to leave. The self-image of the “sincere spiritual person” for all its “may all beings be happy” schmaltz is usually revealed, when challenged, to be yet another shiny mask of the demon that will do anything it can in order to survive intact and unthreatened. The temptation to skew, distort and rewrite history to even a small degree is almost overwhelming, especially when something was revealed that challenges all the ideas and image one had about oneself. I have seen this play out in myself so many times.
Calling the Dragon out of the Cave
On one of those pivotal occasions when the formal male body of students was collectively locked into a visceral NO to his uncompromising call to evolve beyond our present structures, I remember Andrew Cohen saying: “Either I am messing people up or there is something so positive coming out of me that it brings the devil out of you”.
When we were with him those of us who were very committed knew that the latter was true, because we experienced it firsthand in ourselves, and that includes those who have now turned against Andrew. The living breathing presence of a true Guru will call the dragon out of the cave in a way that no spiritual experience or practice or technique ever can. The Guru is like a mirror that forces a living, breathing confrontation in real time. The ego, which previously may have blended in innocuously with other aspects of the personality, now finds itself revealed and cornered in stark relief. The unanimous impersonal response to this exposure is visceral terror and/or narcissistic rage.
Once we have acknowledged the nature of the force of ego in ourselves and understood its agenda the path of purification becomes truly the proverbial “razors edge” and more excruciatingly black and white the further we go. Not because we now have to “kill” the ego but because we can now, through the power of conscious choice, cage the ego and choose for, what Andrew Cohen calls, the Authentic Self. This was, and is, a profound part of the “good news” of Andrew Cohen’s Liberation teaching. He taught us how to discriminate and take responsibility for all of who we are. He showed us, and convinced us experientially, that we didn’t have to be abiding in an unbroken state of “Enlightenment” (or anything for that matter) to be Free! He showed us how, if we were truly giving everything, the Path and the Goal were fused as One.
Once we “knew the score”, meaning we had fundamentally seen and understood the inner foe we were up against (and granted there are endless degrees of subtlety to this), and we had proven our stated intention over several years of involvement, Andrew would push us very hard, if needed, to live up to what we knew was possible from our own experience. Many weren’t up for that and ultimately left, feeling emotionally and psychologically exhausted as a result of that pressure and so may have ended up feeling very “messed up”. But does that mean it was Andrew’s intention to cause harm? Does it mean that the Guru is to be blamed for this result? The question that those who accuse Andrew Cohen of abuses of power never convincingly answer is: what would he have gotten out of that? Some will say he was a narcissistic megalomaniac gleefully relishing his “absolute power” over us, but these people have just gone off the rails into extreme denial and distortion. The truth is that in those instances Andrew was taking us at our stated intention and playing hardball, when nothing else was gleaning sustained results. So why did Andrew play hardball? Because he cared so deeply about actualizing the sacred potential he saw in the eye of his intuition. In fact he cared so deeply that he would risk everything for it.
It is easy to say in retrospect that “playing hardball” didn’t work, wasn’t appropriate or backfired in some cases, and that may be true or it may be false, depending largely on subjective interpretation. But how could Andrew have known for sure beforehand what the result of playing hardball would be in any given situation? And hadn’t we all given him our trust, usually over many years, for a reason? And hadn’t we all witnessed in ourselves and others profoundly liberating results as a result of Andrew’s pressure? And just what part of the self is it that, even years later, still wants to engage in endless nitpicking and cry foul? Fair enough if one wants to engage in this kind of inquiry with fellow ex-students, but what part of the self is it that feels compelled to influence the wider world with their one-sided negative conclusions?
I would say in my experience, (and I know many others who would say the same), that 99% of the time whatever Andrew was challenging in us (definitely me!) in his sometimes radically rude no-holds-barred manner, eventually revealed itself to be individual/collective resistance, often on a deeply embedded and very insidious scale – that is if and when we had the eyes, mind and heart to transcend our “sensitive” post-modern selves and see it. But spiritual physics being what it is, that is always a big IF. While in retrospect one can engage in “what if” speculation about how certain individual and collective challenges may have been navigated differently, and therefore question various aspects of Andrew’s (or our own, yes we made plenty of “mistakes” too!) methodology, the fact is that those of us who became committed formal students signed up for a supremely challenging and unknown path. While it can be argued that “mistakes” were made, I have no doubt that Andrew would not have achieved the remarkable results that he has, and continues to, if he hadn’t taken us at our word and played hardball at some very crucial junctures in the game, both individually and collectively. It is just the way it is. True spiritual evolution is very hard won. And we, and Andrew, all learned that the hard way. We didn’t choose a Saint as our Guru, we chose a groundbreaking Revolutionary and the ground he was breaking was us. The experience of being broken so that new ground for human evolutionary potential could emerge was, for us and for Andrew, agonizing and ecstatic, glorious and terrifying, utterly challenging and utterly liberating. And, believe me, utterly Real.
Dark Night Early Dawn 1999-2001
I think it is significant that most ex-students who have chosen to publicly portray Andrew Cohen as a dangerous and abusive Guru, left before (and have heard from hearsay), or during, the period around 1999-2001, when all of the women formal students, and then later the men, went through a collective “dark night of the soul” ordeal of epic proportions. Why do I say this? Because almost all of the “controversial” events that Andrew’s detractors take issue with occurred during this very specific time period, for example, the “slappings”, dips in the lake, “abusive” cartoons (drawn by myself!), alleged “coercion” of donations when students left and wanted to return etc… This is a very important fact because the way they write intends to create the impression that Andrew was and is employing these kinds of extreme “kick ass” measures all the time. This is simply not true and creates a distorted picture of who Andrew is and how he works with his students.
However, this period was and is very significant because it marks a watershed in the evolutionary trajectory of the whole radical endeavour that we formal and committed students chose to be a part of. This is because Andrew began to push for a literal collective shift in our centre of gravity up the spiral of evolutionary transformation. While truly extraordinary miracles of individual and collective awakening had already occurred relative to anything any of us had experienced in our lives, Andrew saw a potential on the horizon that far transcended where most of us were very content to settle. This radical potential had to do with birthing Evolutionary Enlightenment in real time as a collective emergence. But while the teachings that pointed to this possibility lit us all up with inspired passion, we usually confused what we thought was its emergence with our own experience of higher states (which came and went as all states do). Also we couldn’t clearly see the conditioned structures that were inhibiting this emergence, especially the culturally conditioned collective structures. Compared to what all of us know about this dimension of the Western post-modern ego now, we knew very little about it then.
It is important to bear this in mind because we were already living relatively extraordinary spiritual lives. We just did not see now self-satisfied we had become; we felt we were already “doing it”. As a result of this Andrew had to draw a line in the sand and go to battle. The forces of collective resistance that Andrew confronted in us as he resolved to actualize this potential were immense and far exceeded in scale what any of us, including Andrew, could have imagined (see articles The Birth of Evolutionary Enlightenment and Meeting your Match at a Soul-Level for a more in-depth description of this phenomenon).
I can well understand how challenging and confusing it was for those that did leave during this period, because I left myself firmly in the grip of my reeling ego. If I had not found the passion and courage to return I can imagine that I would have found it very confusing and challenging to make sense out of the totality of my experience. The stakes were very high and for a long time during this Dark Night there did not seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel. There were junctures were it appeared that our evolutionary experiment might ultimately fail, that Heaven had slipped from our grasp, and many of us sank into caverns of despair and numb indifference that were quite simply Hell on earth, and still make us shudder whenever we recall them.
This was a period when Andrew literally had to risk everything to stand alone for the highest potential he saw, in the face of enormous resistance from almost all of his students, and for this he has been relentlessly attacked. Convinced of their moral high ground, for which of course they have the support of the individualistic, egalitarian values of the prevailing post-modern spiritual subculture, these former students are united in their conviction that his stand was TOO MUCH! But Andrew did always say, that when it comes to true spiritual liberation and evolution, “it is never enough until it is TOO MUCH” And boy, did we, and he, find out what that really meant!
Those who now publicly claim that some of Andrew’s extreme methods (which were outrageously creative and extremely challenging but never seriously endangered anyone) during that period were “abusive” see fit to omit a very important truth: that real, profound, unprecedented breakthroughs were made both amongst the men and the women on the other side of this collective “Dark Night”. The men were able to build on this and carry it forward over time. For the women the results were perhaps less linear but ultimately equally positive. For all the men there at the time, and many of the women I know, these collective breakthroughs were undeniably real, and shatteringly so. And I will never forget how, in the light of the radically impersonal and cosmically expansive consciousness engulfing us, the enormity of the relentless collective resistance we had all been embedded in, became object rather than subject. We were looking at it as one perceiver and we were on the other side inhabiting an utterly new being, new context and a vast and mysterious intelligence that was both who we were and far, far transcended what we could comprehend. I know for a fact that all the men had a tacit understanding of why Andrew had taken the extreme measures he had, why this would have never happened by itself, and of how the implications of that monumental “battle” stretched far beyond us and Andrew himself. And that is why we all went down to Andrew’s house in silence in the middle of the night after this explosion of consciousness had emerged between us and prostrated on the ground outside his house as he slept. It was the only appropriate response. I remember lying there with my nose in the dirt saying out loud once and then over and over to myself “Thank You, Andrew”. We all lay there in the night silence for a long time. That was the most real prostration I ever did in my life (and, believe me, I did 1000´s!).
Would these extraordinary individual/collective breakthroughs have occurred without Andrew, at times, applying relentless pressure and what many now deem “abusive” behaviour? I have no doubt not. Was the nature of what revealed itself on the other side of that ordeal sacred beyond measure? Absolutely yes. Did it mark a beachhead from which the evolution of consciousness has continued to unfold? Yes I have no doubt. Why do I say that? Because that revelation/emergence is living and breathing in both current and many former students in a way that it simply never was before. And, by the way, it was us and not Andrew who first said this was “New”.
The Tipping Point
It is hard to put into words the nature of the “shift” that occurred in the zeitgeist of the community after this period. I can only say it was vast, profound and immensely powerful, and that it had to do with the evolution of consciousness itself. No individual could hold or grasp it in any way. After that period access to a new matrix of awakened consciousness and collective intelligence was remarkably much more available to anyone who had a sincere interest. This phenomenon has continued, and I don’t just mean amongst present and former students of Andrew Cohen. This was, and is, a real and astonishing non local phenomenon. For example, people who had never even met Andrew or been exposed to his teachings would walk off the street into an EnlightenNext centre for an “enlightened communication” group and be swept into an experiential depth of inquiry and self-discovery in a way that clearly could not have occurred previously. The later generation students who came after us simply did not have to go through the same battles with embedded conditioned structures that we had to “access” this miraculous evolutionary potential; it was as if consciousness itself had “speeded up”!
When I look back on it now, the explosion that began on the night of July 30th 2001, and that continued to flare forth unabated like an erupting volcano for several weeks, was a collective initiation into a new matrix of human evolutionary potential. It was as if a rocket had broken through the gravitational field of the collective post-modern ego and suddenly a new orbit or higher octave of spiritual power and perspective was miraculously available to those who had sincere interest, passion and receptivity.
A memory from the beginning of the Dark Night period just came back to me very vividly as I am writing this. The pressure was really starting to build and Andrew was pushing all of us men in a very challenging way, and we were all starting to fragment. He had recently told us in a meeting that “the Revolution hadn’t happened yet” (this is year 2000) and that he was going to have to force it because none of us knew what he was pointing to.
A group of us men were outside Andrew’s house in the snow. Andrew came by and gathered us all into a huddle like a rugby scrum, so our noses were almost touching. He began to implore us to hang in there with him and spoke in a highly charged, volcanic, prophetic way about what he saw in the eye of his intuition. As we huddled together in the falling snow, he said
“If enough of you can bear witness to this and stand firm, even in the midst of enormous pressure, then a gate will open through you all that will make something available to others in such a way that they will not have to go through everything you have. What will happen then I have no idea but it will be explosive in its impact…”
We were all stunned and bewildered, barely having any real sense of what Andrew was talking about. I clearly remember one of Andrew’s closest senior students (who is now one of his most bitter detractors) saying in a hushed, reverent tone in the silence of our huddle in the snow after Andrew walked away, “My God, who is Andrew Cohen?”
Well that gate did open about 9 months later, even if some were not there to bear witness to it.
I mention all of the above because I think it is the main reason why almost all of us who have left Andrew and the formal “core” body of students after this period have a completely different perspective on the so-called “abuses”. Why? Because we experienced the individual and collective victory of evolutionary enlightenment on the other side and hence we know the true nature of Andrew’s intent and motivation.
This is also why so many of us are not living under the stigma of having “failed” in our evolutionary experiment regardless of the reasons we chose to leave but, on the contrary, are living lives of passion, fearlessness and commitment to evolving consciousness and culture in the many varied contexts in which we now find ourselves. The door to Evolutionary Enlightenment once opened can never be closed, although it can be denied. Hence there is an ever-dawning recognition amongst many “former students” who are endeavouring to embrace the entirety of their experience right up to the present moment that they are all part of an ever-changing and ever-expanding “movement” that reaches far beyond our shared history as students of Andrew Cohen and EnlightenNext.
Evolution moves in mysterious ways. When the totality of our experience is being embraced and nothing is being denied, when we are no longer holding onto grievances, fixed conclusions about who we are, who Andrew Cohen is and what is possible now, then all boundaries and fixed positions break down and dissolve in the liberating surge of the Authentic Self. Thus Happy Endings and New Beginnings abound! That is how the real Healing happens in an evolutionary context, leaving everyone unburdened by the past and united on the edge of the possible. Authentic healing does not occur by licking ones wounds and “coming to terms” with the, what has now been deemed, “abusive behaviour” of ones formerly beloved Guru. Authentic healing can only occur by embracing and embodying the whole picture (which may include criticism and may require something to “be healed”) and that picture is very BIG and getting bigger all the time. But because Yenner and company are not willing to embrace a bigger picture than their own grievances and hence are in denial of so much of their own experience (that caused them to remain students for 10-15 years!), they are still angry enough to fight this fight so intensely even many years after they’ve left. Why haven’t they really moved on? And why are their sentiments so strong when there is no actual, irrefutable, factual “scandal” to speak of?
These are intriguing questions in light of how many obviously self-serving, corrupt gurus have generated far less venom. While Andrew is greatly respected amongst many of today’s most prominent spiritual luminaries and visionaries, he does not, and never has had, a particularly large following. And in contrast to some of the past few decades’ prominent spiritual leaders, he has not been accused of any financial or sexual improprieties—nothing at all that would constitute any sort of wholesale “scandal” that would cause his students and associates to leave him behind in disillusionment. But despite this he has already had three books (and one blog) written about him by some former students in an attempt to assassinate his character. So what does this reveal? Might it have something to do with: “there is something so positive coming out of me that it brings the devil out of you”? Might it have to do with the depth and revolutionary magnitude of what Andrew awakened in those who got close to him? The brighter the Light, the more it calls forth the Dark. For all of their dramatic impact, somehow the cries of “he told me to jump in a cold lake,” or “he had a cartoon caricature of me drawn,” or “he threw me out until I was ready to be serious,” or even, “he had my best friend slap me in the face when I was being a jerk,” just aren’t the stuff of scandal in a true Guru/Student relationship, even if they might offend our more egalitarian post-modern sensibilities.
Abuse of Power or Acts of Outrageous Love?
So to clarify what I think is the most important issue: was Andrews’s intention to “humiliate and abuse” the individual as a whole at any given time when he was using forceful means, or was it to “humiliate and abuse” a very specific part of the individual that was, in that instance, not only running the show, but obstructing the emergence of something “higher”? When one is no longer in living contact with the intensity of the guru/student confrontation, then it can be very easy to blur that distinction. “He he went on a tirade about me saying I was a hopeless case, he said I was evil and going to the devil, he ostracised me, he had someone slap me, he asked me to back up my restated commitment after having left with disastrous consequences by giving a donation…” etc. What part of the self feels “abused” when it looks back on those cases and what part of the self is now feeling “wounded”?
I ask everyone reading this to appreciate that I am one who received what Andrew Cohen’s detractors now call “abuse”, as much as any of my peers, and more than most. I was a recipient of alleged physical “abuse” (which I will illuminate below) and yes I was slapped once by Andrew when I was locked in a stubborn cycle of victimized resistance, and this shocking act completely snapped me out of it and I immediately recognized it as an act of pure compassion! Plenty of the alleged verbal “abuse” was heaped upon me when I drove Andrew to distraction with my entrenched selfishness and lack of courage. I was given the name “Cas” as in Casual for a while to help me break through my “core” condition of casual arrogance, and I will never forget the sweetness with which Andrew did that as he put his arm around me and announced to all present that the new name was “impermanent” (some of the detractors would now say I was “branded” in a vindictive manner). And also the sweetness with which he told me one day that the name was no longer appropriate and I was called Pete again. I was told to take a dip in the cold lake and even the river Ganges, while on retreat in Rishikesh and to shout “Freedom Has No History” out loud when I was locked in tamasic inertia, all very bracing and invigorating stuff I have to say which did me the world of good!
While many of these measures were definitely shocking, challenging and unpleasant, I have no doubt that Andrew was coming from a place of uncompromising love and concern for my own liberation and the release of the potential that he saw in me. I know for a fact that he had far more concern for that than I did in my self-centred casualness and arrogance. Why do I know that? Because of the result in my own being and from the love with which he embraced me whenever I came through to the other side.
Let me illustrate with an example from my own experience that I think clarifies this very charged, controversial and misunderstood terrain a great deal. As a caveat I firstly want to say that what I am going to share here could be deemed far more “abusive”, in my opinion, than anything that Andrew’s detractors are complaining about. What follows is a brief account of what they allege is “physical abuse”. Let me make clear that this was a very rare event and in no way typical of Andrews methods.
First some background…. I had been a formal student of Andrew for 6 years. I was a passionate, bright individual (still am I hope!) and when I stood firmly in the depth of my own experience I could have a positive impact on people and clearly had a lot to give. But the problem was that that didn’t happen with any consistency. Why? Because I was also a chronically weak and selfish individual to such a degree that whenever Andrew or my peers would seriously challenge me to consistently live up to my potential, I would crumble. Thus a pattern asserted itself over time as I would seesaw between settling into casual arrogance (when I wasn’t being challenged) and plummeting into pathetic weakness (when I was!) without any consistent ground in-between. The ground “in-between” that Andrew was endeavouring to get me to cultivate and stand in would be based on that most elusive and hard-won spiritual virtue, humility, and hence be free from the taint of ego. While this was a very impersonal pattern of conditioning that got revealed in some form in many of his male students, I was an extreme case and was going nowhere fast. Andrew had made it very clear over a long period of time that he was getting increasingly frustrated with my lack of genuine interest and backbone in the face of his demand, especially when I had the potential to be a positive force in our collective evolutionary experiment. So we had effectively reached a stalemate. Yet I was still professing my commitment to spiritual life under Andrew´s guidance.
So one day Andrew took a big risk with me. He had several of my brothers jump me and rough me up. Although they did this in a way that ensured I was not seriously hurt, I was definitely shaken. I was told that this would happen every evening in our locker room. While I knew full well why this was happening (Andrew was now playing hardball!), I immediately crumbled into fear and doubt. Lying in bed the following night, feeling rather sore and profoundly sorry for myself, I was very tempted to pack my bag and leave. But despite the intensity of what I was going through, at that point my trust in Andrew did not break. Somewhere I knew it was I that had to break for this impasse to yield any positive liberating result, although I didn’t know what that meant or how it would look.
For the next few days when my brothers would take me down to the locker room I would simply roll up into a ball to protect myself and absorb their blows. Again I want to emphasise they were very careful not to hurt me in any serious way. I was in lock down and I would not even meet their eyes. This was very intense and challenging for all of them as well as for me. Once more my pathos and pride meant I was going nowhere fast and the pressure within and without was growing to unbearable proportions… Then after a few days of this, and feeling rather sore and sorry for myself, I went down to the locker room and found only two of my more muscle-bound brothers down there. They told me to take off my shirt and lie face down on the bench. I was definitely scared, caught off guard, and didn’t know what was happening. To my shock and surprise they then proceeded to give me a massage. But this was no ordinary massage! With extreme delicacy they rubbed globs of skin cream with their fingertips into my back and shoulders murmuring things like, “ah very soft and slow, does that feel nice, we don’t want to hurt you now do we?…” Believe me, despite the obvious humour of the event, this was the most excruciatingly humiliating moment of my life! My pride burned up and it brought me to a point of desperation in which something broke inside. I leapt off the bench, turned to face them and said “ok let’s fight!” and we proceeded to have a very spirited scrap, not that I stood a chance of winning against these guys! What I miraculously discovered then was a joyous abandon, passion and strength in fighting (in this case literally) for my own freedom, which of course delighted my brothers as we were now together as one effectively vanquishing my pathetic ego.
This catalyzed a very liberating shift for me at the time. Somehow this whole ordeal hit a fault line in my personality and a door opened. I found myself experiencing a dignity and strength born of humility that I had not known before. I will never forget Andrew seeing me after this had occurred with a big smile on his face, his eyes beaming. He gathered a few of my brothers to his side and said to them, “Do you see there is something completely different in him?” He then walked up to me and gave me a warm hug and said, “Good Man!” Was this a man motivated by spite, malice and vindictiveness?
Ironically, during this ordeal one of my fellow male formal students left because he felt what Andrew did was “too much”. I even spoke to him on the phone afterwards telling him passionately about the profoundly liberating result, but it was to no avail and he would not return. A few days later I also told a visiting Dutch fellow student about what had happened, while we were out running together one sunny day. I remember I was feeling so strong and empty of self I felt like I was running on air! He left Andrew and the community soon after and this event was completely distorted out of context (along with everything else!) in his book “Enlightenment Blues”.
I think my personal story here raises a lot of impersonal questions about how we choose to interpret such extreme actions in a Teacher/Student relationship. If I had left Andrew in the midst of that event would I have been justified in feeling I had been “abused”? Most would probably say yes. Would I have found ammunition to convince myself that Andrew wanted to vent his frustration by vindictively hurting me and hence conclude that his motive was “impure” and maybe even feel moved to publicly “reveal the truth” about this “corrupt” guru? If I had been inclined in that direction, I am sure I could have found some righteous indignation in that! And what of the result, does the “end” (very liberating in this case) justify the “means”? And what of the motivation? Abuse of Power or an Act of Outrageous Love?
So why is it that I, who have been subject to all of that, do not think of myself in the least “wounded” and not in the camp of those calling Andrew “abusive”—but, on the contrary, am profoundly grateful for the tough treatment he meted out to me at crucial times and am able, as well, to forgive him for the very rare times that he may have made a “mistake”? Is it because I am some weak, deluded character who is too afraid to “see the truth” about my Teacher’s aberrant ways? Or is it because I know I was a very tough case to crack and that I would be a far more weak, arrogant, deluded, self-satisfied and self centred man today if it had been otherwise? Is it because I know (as I daresay we all did) that Andrew has a very challenging and dangerous job and I personally don’t demand that he be absolutely perfect given what he is taking on and given that he found himself surrounded by people like myself who were attracted to him because he pushed the edge? And I want to emphasis that this tough treatment was a small part of my overall experience with Andrew as my Teacher.
What I am saying is that starting from the assumption of “abuse”, as so many of the ex-student detractors (very conveniently) do, limits the parameters of the inquiry. Everything is viewed through an already skewed lens that rejects any information that does not fit its mould. The ego, as we all painfully learned over and over again (but many not nearly enough apparently), is a master of selective perception and distorted interpretation. The ego confuses opinions and viewpoints with facts. The ego confuses half-truths with truths. The ego cannot tell the difference between an event and its reaction to that event. The ego cannot recall or see a context that transcends and includes itself. And finally, as those of us who ventured in deep discovered without exception, when push comes to shove, the ego will not lay down and give up without a fight, and a big one at that! And, it has to be said, the truth is that all of Andrew Cohen’s most vocal critics left in the middle of that fight, having failed to come through whatever challenge was up for them at the time, period (regardless of however they want to spin their story now). You will find no real heartfelt humility, no sincere grappling with this side of the story in their indictments. What you will find instead is a one-dimensional distortion of events, so that they can successfully and oh so rationally, project the demon that they didn’t want to face and transcend in themselves onto their formerly beloved Master. Oh what a tangled web indeed!
So is it possible that intense pressure, humiliation and even a physical ordeal (I repeat, used only on a few very rare occasions) can not only arrive at love and freedom, but even be coming from a place of love and freedom in a Teacher/Student context? I have to say yes definitely because that has been true in my own experience. Does it mean that the application of intense pressure is always going to result in skilful means? No not necessarily, but I will say this: I don’t think any Guru/Teacher/Master, including Andrew Cohen, can necessarily know beforehand what any individual’s response to enormous pressure is going to be. That is a risk the Guru (and the student) is always taking, and why it is almost always a messy business to some degree. This is also why, as Andrew has always said, “spiritual evolution is not a game”. I can look back and see where I said YES and NO in those circumstances, and Andrew was always consistent, I wasn’t. Often the biggest and most liberating YESES came on the heels of the most intense and so-called “abusive” pressure. Then of course, the strong treatment was understood in a context of profound freedom and gratitude. Go figure!
Onward and Upward
Obviously Andrew is taking a bold stand as a Guru in a post-modern world that instinctively hates hierarchy. Becoming a close student requires obedience and surrender; otherwise the dynamic of the relationship can never truly do its job. However, while there is a clear hierarchy in place in the relationship, it is a gross distortion to portray Andrew as a power-hungry dictator demanding blind allegiance. He repeatedly said to us that he wasn’t interested in having “followers” but wanted “partners”. And granted, becoming a true partner with Andrew is a very tall order indeed! But the truth is that he now does have a core group of true partners, and his fundamental battle has been won in the hearts of many in the wider arc of his influence. So it is a new dawn and a new day, and evolutionary enlightenment is here to stay
And there is a lot more to Andrew Cohen as a Teacher than the tough uncompromising “Rude Boy” that some now caricature him as. The depth of Andrews care for spiritual awakening and evolution is the most profound and moving human quality I have ever experienced. For example, I have witnessed him agonizing helplessly for months in a row (to the point where he could hardly sleep) over how to deal with an intractable impasse with his female students. I have witnessed him questioning over and over, both with myself and others, whether he was doing the right thing or whether he was missing something. I have witnessed countless times when he displayed a disarming vulnerability, innocence, generosity and heartfelt care for me and many of my brothers and sisters, even in the midst of great personal challenges. This man only ever appeared “inhuman” or “unloving” to our egos and when we stepped into the limitless field of the Authentic Self, he met us there with open arms and a Love that defies conception.
My hope is writing all of the above is not to make a case for Andrew Cohen as being “perfect” or beyond criticism (I know he doesn’t feel that way about himself either) but to show that there is far more to the picture than meets the eye, if you are reading about him through the interpretation of negative former students. The story of the phenomenon called Andrew Cohen and all he has, and is catalyzing, has been, and is, a constantly evolving one. One has to reach ever higher and suspend ones “personal” perspective to have a hope of glimpsing the whole picture. For it is only in that ever spiralling upward impersonal context that many of the challenges and complexities can be fully understood. That doesn’t mean we should discount or not question the failures, mistakes and pathologies that played out, for we all have a lot to learn from the rare depth of our hard-won experience. But those things will be found in some form in any genuine communal experiment in human evolution when it is charting new territory.
The obstacles to human beings truly coming together beyond ego are daunting and very real. Anyone who thinks this is not the case simply doesn’t know what they are talking about and does not know what the ego really is. When one does know what it is and what it is capable of, one then understands why we are in such an evolutionary crisis as a race. Everyone who was originally inspired by Andrews’ vision, and who committed themselves to his tutelage and joined the collective endeavour for however long, played a significant role in the wider arc of this evolutionary trajectory. This is a trajectory which reaches far beyond any individual’s liberation or personal story and beyond Andrew Cohen himself. And to the degree that any of us, wherever we are, are endeavouring to be true to all we know in our hearts, we are all part of that vast unfolding of consciousness—forever seeking and finding its glorious emergent destiny now and now and now.