The Dark Side of Enlightenment

Some of the changes in our new environment were subtle, such as the institution of a daily exercise regime, and some, while they were closely guarded secrets occurring only behind closed doors, were not subtle at all, such as punishment in the form of physical abuse. From the most benign to the most damaging, these changes were indicative of the power that Andrew Cohen sought to exert on his followers’ lives. They were also harbingers of even more egregious abuses to come.

What accounted for these developments? In part, locale. Whereas in Marin we had existed as part of a larger community and interacted with the world around us, at Foxhollow our community was completely self-contained. Inside the ashram, while the lives of students were much easier to insulate from “non-spiritual” distractions and influences, they were also much easier to control. By mandating daily physical activity, Andrew imposed a directive on his followers while subtracting a quota of their personal choice. Thus the benefits of a daily exercise program—in my case, working up the strength and stamina to complete a marathon on my fiftieth birthday—came at the price of personal freedom, and while I was troubled by this, it seemed undeniable to me that the benefit outweighed the cost.

Andrew was in a position to expand the degree of control he exercised in increments that went undetected—perhaps even by him, if one cares to give him the benefit of the doubt. Now, in addition to micromanaging the fitness regimes of each of his students, it was apparent that their sexual and romantic lives represented an arena equally subject to his influence. While I had tolerated the former because I had clearly benefited from it, when Andrew began taking control of my romantic partnerships—including who to have a relationship with and when to end it—my acquiescence was more grudging.

Romantic love was already elusive in the community. Various rules had long dictated everything from eligibility to acceptable conduct. Only members of approximately equal rank, for example, could partner with each other. As a long-term member with leadership responsibilities, I could only seek companionship among the few women who had proven themselves through years of devotion and service to Andrew. No one was allowed to seek a partner outside the community, there was no form of ritualized dating within it, and there were no casual sexual encounters. As a result, I spent all but six months of my thirteen years with Andrew without a romantic partner. When one did manage to obtain permission for a relationship, as I did for just a few months, Andrew often intervened. In my case, he decided that my relationship should end because my partner had been “proud,” thus earning his disapproval. In other words, like all relationships inside the community, mine began with his consent and ended by his decree.

Along with new rules and regulations and expanded control over our private lives, Andrew also began instituting punishments as well. The methods were often random, harsh, out of proportion to the alleged wrong, and questionable as educational or disciplinary “skillful means.” Andrew referred to his updated version of “crazy wisdom”—a teaching modality with centuries-old roots in some Eastern spiritual traditions—as “Acts of Outrageous Integrity,” and it consisted of extreme “teaching methods” designed to cut through a student’s ego and resistance in order to facilitate awakening.

In an interview in an early issue of Andrew Cohen’s own magazine, What Is Enlightenment?, the spiritual teacher Lee Lozowick remarked:

“…[T]he teachers who I call charlatans today are teachers who are completely irresponsible in their use of power and crazy manifestation. I would consider a crazy-wisdom teacher someone who might use anything, but who is never arbitrary, and never follows their own personal motives. They only use dramatic and shocking manifestations under specific circumstances at exactly the right time… A crazy-wisdom teacher is a master at faceting. A charlatan is someone who just takes the hammer and chisel and wails away and hopes that there are some beneficial results—or maybe doesn’t even care but just loves the euphoria of the exercise of power and people groveling at his or her feet.”

In apparent agreement, Andrew Cohen himself has remarked that crazy wisdom seems to be an excuse for some teachers to engage irresponsibly in self-indulgent behavior (of course exempting himself from this characterization), and in meetings with students he outlined the following very sensible criteria for its application: The sole goal of the implementation of unconventional or seemingly inappropriate methods is the liberation of the student; there can be no suggestion of the teacher’s personal benefit or pleasure; the sole criterion for success is the student’s liberation—only then can crazy wisdom be considered authentic and effective.

Yet Cohen’s by now customary defense against allegations directed at himself personally—of abuse masquerading as crazy wisdom—consists of splitting hairs over definitions of terms, recourse to the larger controversy regarding the validity of crazy wisdom itself that has existed for some time in East-meets-West spiritual debate, and a disarmingly unreflective attempt to cast himself as someone who is unafraid to appear politically incorrect in his heroic effort to do what his job description demands of him. It is abundantly clear from the ostensible views of both Lozowick and Cohen, however, that crazy wisdom as a tradition has a set of implicit guidelines by means of which to judge the actions of any teacher purporting to use it; there is thus no escape from the impressions and evaluations of others, no “free pass” just because someone is supposedly “enlightened,” or claims to have the best interests of others at heart and is willing to use extreme methods in order to “free them from ignorance.”

Regarding many examples of the extreme measures sometimes taken by Andrew Cohen at Foxhollow, students have since stated that far from being freed from their own ignorance, they had been subjected to a new and pernicious version of someone else’s. Cohen’s “acts of outrageous integrity” included disciplinary face slapping—usually in response to a student’s performance of some task failing to measure up to his expectations—in which it was difficult to discern any particular “lesson” other than “Shape up!” This practice began soon after our arrival at Foxhollow. In some cases, Andrew would direct one student to slap another; in others, he administered the slaps himself. I myself was slapped on two occasions, once by a woman and once by another man.

These practices—which some might well regard as instances of physical and mental abuse—were symptoms of the unprecedented degree of control that eventually came to pervade the atmosphere of the Foxhollow community, and “groupthink” was certainly a consequence of this atmosphere of control. It is a well-known and troubling fact that group mentality has the potential to override individual morality. I experienced this firsthand as a member of Andrew Cohen’s community—observing, participating in, rationalizing and excusing, at times, extremely harsh treatment of fellow members who had angered their teacher. When a student was slapped or evicted from a student household, for example, I told myself that it was for that individual’s own good, chalking it up to my teacher’s passionate determination to free him or her from a confining limitation, or from the tyranny of the ego. I also sometimes rationalized such treatment as an appropriate consequence of failing to live up to Andrew’s standards and teachings. I do not regard the fact that there was no forum in which to question such behavior as an excuse for my failure to have done so. Even when, later on, I found myself on the receiving end of abusive treatment, I “compartmentalized” these experiences in my own mind, suspending judgment—and my own humanity—in an effort to adhere to the party line.

Face slapping and name-calling, while they were uncalled for and may have been damaging, were mild in comparison to other questionable manifestations of “crazy wisdom” that occurred at Foxhollow. One such incident involved a student (Mikaela) who was responsible for the marketing of Andrew’s publications and who had fallen out of favor by reminding him that something he had criticized her for doing had been his idea in the first place. He decried her as evil and ordered that the walls, floor and ceiling of her office (which had been relocated to an unfinished basement room) be painted red to signify the spilled blood of her guru. She was ordered to spend hours there contemplating the implications of her transgression, with the additional aid of a large cartoon on the wall depicting her as a vampire and the word “traitor” written in large letters next to it.

Andrew often employed red paint in this fashion to create environments designed to induce shame and guilt in students that he felt had questioned his judgment or disobeyed him. Another female student who had displeased Andrew and, after leaving the community, had returned to help out on a weekend painting project, was summoned to another basement room. There she was met by four female students who, having guided her onto a plastic sheet on the floor, each poured a bucket of paint over her head as a “message of gratitude” from Andrew. She left the property traumatized and fell ill in subsequent days (during which she was harassed by phone calls from another student who, at Cohen’s instigation, repeatedly called her a “coward”) and never again returned to Foxhollow.

“Crazy wisdom” is the most charitable possible explanation for these often traumatic and disturbing incidents, many of which have already been related on the whatenlightenment.net blog. Several of these student accounts of Andrew Cohen’s “acts of outrageous integrity,” employed to dubious or damaging effect, are reproduced below.

***

“I was living at the Foxhollow center in 2001 when Stan Brady, at that time a leader at the London Center, was suddenly ordered to come to Foxhollow. Andrew told some of us that Stan had been “doing things his own way” for a while, and now had directly disobeyed him. Andrew was furious, and we all knew from past experience that Stan would be in for it when he got to Foxhollow. When he arrived, he was an emotional mess, expressing apologies to Andrew and feeling very guilty. The “horrible thing” that he had done was to give some advice to one of the formal students in London despite Andrew’s instructions not to.

“First, Andrew had me and another student speak with Stan in an intensely confrontational way. As usual, we were then to report to Andrew on whether he was “coming through,” i.e., responding appropriately. Of course Stan, who was frightened and cut off from his own emotions, was as unresponsive as any normal human being would be under such circumstances; for Andrew and ourselves, however, habituated as we were to confrontational strategies for “meeting with someone,” Stan’s failure to own up to his “competition” with Andrew meant that he was not “taking responsibility.” Then Andrew himself met with Stan, treating him coldly and condescendingly (even though Stan was literally bowing to him when he entered his room) because his profuse apologies struck Andrew as “unreal.”

“Next, we were instructed to call Stan back to Andrew’s residence, where his wife Alka had been told not to “hold back” and to “really go for it with Stan.” I was just outside the house, and I could hear her screaming at Stan and punching him. It was a chilling experience to listen to him crying and moaning his apologies as Alka beat him while screaming loudly, “How dare you betray Andrew? How dare you?” Afterward, Andrew told me proudly, “Alka really went for it with Stan!”

“Subjected to such harsh discipline, people who were strong leaders in Andrew’s community often became beaten down, weakened and humiliated. (This was the condition I ultimately left in as well.) As for Stan, shortly after the beating by Alka, Cohen demoted him and then kicked him out of the community. Stan stayed around for more than a year, living a strange existence on the fringes of Foxhollow and working as an orderly at a local hospital, occasionally sending flowers and apologies to Andrew—who during this period had me and others call Stan on the phone to “mess with his mind.” Listening to Stan on his speakerphone, Andrew would coach us on what to say or laugh silently, giving thumbs-up signs as all this was going on. I am sickened that I went along with these tormenting tactics, but we all did such things to each other under Andrew’s direction. During this time, Andrew would say how much he hated Stan, calling him “the devil,” “Judas” and other such names. One night, he had me and [a] fellow student…go to Stan’s residence and let the air out of all of his tires so that he couldn’t get to work. He represented himself as trying to break down Stan’s ego, but in retrospect it is obvious to me that Andrew was simply acting out his own vengeful anger at a perceived “betrayal.”

“This went on and on. At one point, Stan wrote to Andrew, saying that he would do anything to be allowed to come back…. In response to Stan’s desperate letter, Andrew had him come to a remote part of Foxhollow with instructions to start digging a deep 6 x 8-foot trench in the woods using only a shovel. At that time Andrew was into making videos of students who weren’t “doing well” in an effort to capture what he called “the smile of the ego.” (This is a whole story in itself; Andrew was convinced that when someone is under pressure to speak about what they’re doing wrong, a “smile” emerges like that of “the devil himself.”) Andrew had me drive a golf cart carrying him, his dog and one of the EnlightenNext videographers…to the site of the huge trench where we found Stan, standing about five feet below us, hunched over his shovel and drenched in sweat. He seemed startled to actually see his teacher after such a long period of excommunication. As he paused from his digging, Stan looked up at Andrew with an expression of reverence and said hello—but he looked like a broken man, not at all the person I knew.

“It was a sad picture, the more horrifying because Andrew just stood there looking down at him, holding his little dog in his arms and telling us coldly, “There’s the devil smiling at me,” and instructing [the videographer] to get the camera rolling. I remember him saying, “Look how cut off he is, happy to be down there digging. There’s no love in his eyes.” Yet it was Andrew who seemed bereft of any love, compassion or humanity. In my mind—though now I see it differently—I still actually believed he was trying to help Stan.”

***

“Some years ago at Foxhollow, a student named Jeff, a very good writer, was having a great deal of trouble with a writing project he had been assigned to do. He was supposed to write an introduction to a book Andrew was publishing, but he was having no success. Feeling terrible guilt about this, he wrote in a desperate letter to Andrew, “If I don’t come through, I will cut my finger off.” Andrew seemed to like this idea. When Jeff still did not succeed at his writing, Andrew called for Mikaela, [who was a] physician, to come see him…. Andrew told Mikaela to go to see Jeff, and to bring her medical kit. She was instructed to tell Jeff that Andrew was taking him up on his offer to sacrifice a finger. She should take out her scalpel, her mask, her gloves, a sponge—everything she would need for such an operation—and lay them all out. She was told to carry through the charade up to the very last minute, and then stop.

“When Mikaela visited Jeff, he had barely slept in about a week. He was in a desperate state…. Mikaela [later] confirmed…that she had followed Andrew’s instructions precisely. Jeff was severely and obviously shaken by the incident. He left Andrew and Foxhollow a few weeks later.”

***

“For a period of time, Andrew occasionally sent close students, individually, to the lake to chant some affirmation or repentance while repeatedly submerging themselves in the water. I had done this two times before…. One time it took one hour, and the other time it took over three hours to complete the assigned number of chants/submersions. Both of these incidents were in the warm summer months. So, while very challenging (especially the time it took—three-plus hours!), it was not dangerous. (Reflecting on it now, though, I find both of those teaching directives from Andrew very unhelpful responses to what was happening with me at those times.)

“The lake incident…was different in that it involved many women at once, and it was in October. The lake was not yet frozen but it was very, very cold. Fall and winter come quickly in the Berkshires…. The women were “in trouble” for an indiscretion, and we were falling all over ourselves to come up with a gesture of apology and repentance to Andrew. One of the women suggested that we go en masse to do prostrations in the lake. A message was sent to Andrew that this was our intention. He accepted and then sent a couple of directives about it. So while he did not exactly order us to do it, once we had offered to do it he became quite involved. Women who did not complete the exercise were ordered to go back and do it again—supervised, to make sure that they remained in the lake the whole hour. At least one woman had to go back a third time. Because I was one of the few women who had already done this, twice, I just gritted my teeth and tried to muscle through it. However, I was immediately shocked by how cold the water was.

“At that time in the community, when you received word that Andrew wanted you to go do “prostrations” in the lake, you went immediately in whatever you were wearing. I was wearing cotton pants and a cotton shirt, neither of which provided any warmth. I also had a shaved head. I believe that the women with shaved heads had a bit more difficulty with the cold. I just forced myself to continue even as I found it harder and harder to keep my balance and was becoming increasingly “blank.” I then have a very vague memory of being pushed into a car. The next thing I remember was regaining consciousness propped up in a shower stall with three other women, all of us standing under the hot water trying to regain enough feeling in our hands to unbutton our clothes and pull them off of us. I had lost consciousness at about 50 or 55 minutes, just shy of the full hour. I am told that one woman who was watching and didn’t go in because she was recovering from a bad chest cold (Alka, Andrew’s wife), and a couple of women who had said “Enough!” and had come out early (and therefore had to go back and repeat the exercise a couple of days later), noticed that I was losing consciousness and had me pulled out of the water.

“It took two days for me to feel normal again. I do feel that this was one of the more dangerous things that Andrew had his students do. Many of the women who participated say it was one of the most extreme things they have ever experienced in the community. I think it may have been worse for me because I had been in a serious car accident less than a year earlier and had suffered a severe concussion. I was continuing to have regular follow-up doctor’s appointments and EEGs for a year following the accident, which included the period of the October lake incident. I find this one of Andrew’s most ham-handed responses as a teacher, subjecting a large group of women to the same giant hammer without regard for what would be appropriate and useful for individuals. I also acknowledge how stupid and sheeplike it was for me to participate.”

***

A FINAL WORD ON CRAZY WISDOM
“…I don’t hesitate to say,” Andrew has declared, “that for the sake of individual or collective development, I definitely have at times pushed my students very hard—not for personal gain and, indeed, always at tremendous personal risk.” But because (characteristically) the “personal risk” Andrew is willing to acknowledge is to himself or his projects rather than to the students he is “pushing,” the work of healing the long-term damage inflicted by his directives lands by default on the people whose minds and bodies absorb them, and on the consciences of the trusting onlookers who collude through their silence. Many of us who have left the community have often discussed among ourselves our complicity in the meting out of punishments and the execution of “crazy wisdom acts” that essentially amounted to abuse, and whether we witnessed these abuses firsthand or from a distance, we have often expressed regret over our failure to intervene or to acknowledge our part in the harm they brought to so many individuals.