On Outrageous Teaching and Charges of Enabling Abuse
One of Andrew Cohen’s critics recently attacked me in a blog post. Detailing a few of the most inflammatory stories about Cohen, a group of teachers (including me, Ken Wilber and others) were accused of “enabling abuse” because we have dialoged and cooperated with Andrew, his students and his publications. None of us responded publicly to the attack. I chose not to because in the echo chamber of the blogosphere there is no way to respond thoughtfully and at length to irresponsible negativity without raising it to an implicitly equal status, and thereby validating and empowering it.
Considering Andrew Cohen
Firstly, what do I think of Andrew Cohen and his allegedly abusive treatment of students? I should admit here that, although I’ve investigated it with some seriousness, I don’t know Andrew’s work or history in enough depth and detail to vouch entirely for it or him. For the first fifteen or more years of his teaching career, I responded to him with distaste. I was turned off by what seemed to be arrogance, rudeness, and an unnecessary edge in his personality and teaching style.
But I have read his magazine for years (I think it’s truly excellent, and has made a whole series of increasingly important and crucial contributions to the leading-edge of culture and consciousness), and I have watched him and his approach change and grow over time (in exciting and innovative ways with which I’ve in general resonated.) I have been especially positively impressed by the intelligence, sincerity, seriousness, and depth of many of Andrew’s students and former students.
More recently, I’ve read some hair-raising stories of blaming and shaming and anathematizing the ego that seem like they would only create very deep hypermasculine splits in people’s psyches. The worst stories sound pretty strange. I don’t “condone” humiliating, pressuring, or emotionally traumatizing people.
But many of the folks who lived through it tell me that they all relate to a particular period of extreme transformational intensity that worked to create an intrapsychic crisis in the dualistic polarity between students’ egos and their enlightened intentions, one that ultimately enabled them to break through into a new zone of self-transcending freedom and mutual trust. I’ve read and heard various passionate testimonies that support this interpretation. Many former and current students assure me that the kinds of incidents that are being called “abuse” ceased long ago. Do I know for a fact that this is true? I can’t be certain. But I think so. And I’m 100% satisfied that there’s no simplistic open-and-shut evil here. It’s at the very least a paradoxical dynamic in which nuances count.
Andrew Cohen keeps growing and learning as a teacher. He articulates many of the most important ideas that invigorate integral evolutionary spirituality. He has entered into dialogs with many leading thinkers in the pages of his magazine that have advanced our worldview. His contributions are important and unique. We need more passionate evolutionaries who take the transformation of consciousness and culture as seriously as he does. I want to see many of those ideas extended and deepened, not delegitimized.
Because I cared in all these ways, and because I held some critical perspectives, I raised them with some of his former students, and then some current ones. They were able to discuss these issues in a way that “kool-aid drinkers” could not. They agreed with much of what I had to say, and a couple even suggested that I approach Andrew directly. So last year I did.
Over the last six months, I have confronted Andrew about these issues very directly on a number of occasions, privately and publicly. I was surprised and pleased to find that he has listened to me in a way that seemed authentically curious, open, and self-critical rather than defended. He has listened, debated me, listened again, and ultimately taken some of my comments very much to heart. In the process I told Andrew that the karmas left behind in the process of his past teaching work are his responsibility to clean up, even if (as he insists) he never did anything wrong, and he took that on the chin as entirely valid and very useful, and even thanked me.
I have urged him to say publicly what he has told me — that his work has turned a corner, that through some intense experiments he’s established a core group of committed spiritual evolutionaries and that he’s more interested now in engaging publicly with allies in cooperatively building evolutionary culture. I hope that is altogether true, and from my experience it appears to be. I’ve given all of this a “smell test” and so far, I find it entirely credible.
The outrageous stories pertain to extreme “spiritual theater” that arose in a context that is hard for most people to even conceive — an extraordinary experiment, an attempt to live a radically true and conscious existence, as a trustable member of an intensely-committed close-knit group. Andrew Cohen (like my teacher, Adi Da) warned that he is a fierce, fiery guru, trying to create a red-hot transformational cauldron, a “hard school” for the most committed aspirants, a pressure-cooker that people should not approach unless they were interested in the fiercest kind of self-transcending ordeal. And the ones involved in the outrageous stories about Andrew were, I’m told, only close students who had been involved for years. (There seems, at least, to have been truth in advertising.) I don’t choose that kind of relationship with Andrew, and neither do most of the people reading this. But we can still appreciate the passionate and radical commitment he brings into our cultural world space, and we can benefit from it.
We should note that there is a vast middle ground between, on one hand, supporting everything he has ever done and, on the other, refusing to work with him on behalf of the evolution of a positive future for humanity. It is also unnecessary to condemn a very paradoxical and sophisticated, and apparently sincere experiment, if there are serious reasons for suspending final judgments. I and we have every right to explore that territory. In fact, if we take integral evolutionary spiritual activism seriously, we might have an obligation to.
Considering Cohen’s Critics
Speaking of “smell tests,” I have also caught a whiff of some of Cohen’s most vocal critics. Something stinks. Some of the righteous aggrieved accusers seem to think they live in a nice simple world of right and wrong, reminiscent of other kinds of fundamentalism. They advocate indignantly on behalf of his “victims” (even though some of the victims see themselves as beneficiaries.) Their outraged voices are part of a larger chorus of critics of various other spiritual teachers and philosophers, reaching back to the critics of Adi Da (most of whom are longtime old friends of mine.) A related subculture of critics even attack philosopher Ken Wilber (from every direction, almost endlessly.) These folks despise the “bathwater” so intensely they seem heedless of what happens to the “baby.”
In all fairness, the critics of leading-edge teachers and evolutionaries are diverse. They include many sincere people concerned with the well being of aspirants, some quite intelligent, many of them deeply wounded themselves — but their criticisms play upon and are amplified by the virulent anti-cultism of postmodern culture, which deserves criticism itself.
There are some who, in McCarthyesque style, angrily excoriate all spiritual teachers and authorities and anyone who’s been seen associating with them. It is this group I will address here. Some of them have no criteria for honoring a valid teaching or teacher. They live in a world, like that of George W. Bush, in which there is simple line between good and evil and you’re either “with us or against us.” To them, spiritual authority is inherently dangerous; teachers are guilty until proven innocent. I don’t see these folks grasping or engaging sincerely with the complexity and nuance of this total situation.
The motives and assumptions behind the most zealous attacks on Andrew Cohen are a form of “mean green” fundamentalism (often resonating with “mean orange” and “mean blue/amber” fundamentalisms.) My response to the Integrales Forum Position Paper explains why I don’t buy their victim story. Andrew’s most vocal critics are not true victims. (And neither are the much-maligned gurus, even though they must function in a cultural climate of anti-cultism in which they tend to be presumed guilty until proven innocent.) We need to remember that all the critics (and gurus) chose to involve themselves in a hard school as self-responsible adults.
Andrew Cohen has at least been passionately trying to help transform and uplift human culture at a time of evolutionary crisis. Some of his angry and righteous critics seem unable to honor the importance of any such intention. Most of them are predominantly negative and reactive, not creative or proactive — not leaders or even authentic participants in evolving spirituality or culture. All their care is focused on the “victims” of the “abuse” of spiritual power. Would these folks prefer that we all live conventionally, making no passionate attempt to break through to higher consciousness and culture? Are worldly popular culture and the consensus trance just fine with them? What positive offering do they have to a human world that by tendency is sleepwalking, oblivious to the moral, evolutionary urgency of our current crises?
This is unlikely to change minds that are already made up, I realize. As Pete Bampton, one of Cohen’s former students said, acutely, “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.”
And the converse is equally true, as some critics charge. Assumptions often define inquiry and lead to epistemic closure. So the “noise” of non-intersecting perspectives will continue, as it always has as and always will. But integral evolutionary spiritual cultural dialog is a “signal” that distinguishes itself from this “noise.” That’s a responsibility we cannot turn away from, even when the way forward is unclear and treacherous.
In that context, these attacks serve a vital purpose; they are challenges that can mature all of us who are involved in integrating these apparently contradictory perspectives and forging a more vibrant and adequate emerging spiritual culture, forcing our dialog to deepen and expand. I hope this contributes!