Can Spiritual Teachers Be Jerks?

Via Angela Raines
on Sep 11, 2010
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My Afternoon with the Guru and the Pandit.

“The real function of a Guru is to insult you.” ~ Chogyam Trungpa

“I’ll scrub your toilets if you let me sit on the floor,” I rehearsed as I walked to the Boulder-Integral Center on a bright Sunday afternoon about two weeks ago. Thankfully, the kind woman at the door let me in before it got to that point (thus dispelling any remaining doubts about whether interning at Elephant Journal’s the most bad-ass job, ever).

The sold-out event that day was the latest of a series of conversations called “The Guru and the Pandit” between Ken Wilber (“the Pandit”) and Andrew Cohen (“the Guru”). I can’t think of any thinker who’s had a bigger impact on my life than Ken — I’ve joked that my real, secret reason for moving to Boulder was to somehow convince him to have tea with me. He’s the mastermind behind Integral Theory, which might be harder to summarize than Wittgenstein’s corpus, but is basically a framework describing how different worldviews fit together. It’s applicable to any discipline, from ecology to medicine to politics, but it’s been particularly successful at helping us “spiritual but not religious” people find intelligent ways of interfacing the gifts of tradition and modernity. I’ve got mad amounts of respect and love for this man, and as I plopped down on the floor in front of the front row (which seems to be the way I roll these days), I pinched myself.

I frankly didn’t care how many other people I had to share the room with to see Ken Wilber, but Andrew Cohen (“the Guru”) wasn’t exactly a drawback. I knew only a smidgen about him: he was the creator of EnlightenNext Magazine, and a self-styled “rude boy,” who strove to wake people up, without mincing any words or stroking any egos. I knew that he’d worked with Ken for a long time, so I proffered him a certain degree of respect, just by association.

I’d heard whispers about him, though. While washing dishes at a recent Zen retreat, one of my fellow retreatants told me that Andrew was “a real asshole,” and that his own mother had written a book about it. I’d also heard that someone** had attempted to kill him earlier this year (from my hometown of St. Louis, no less!). Well, I thought, spiritual teachers are often controversial — whether they’re good, bad, or mediocre. So while I walked into Boulder-Integral all a-twitter about finally seeing Ken, I was intrigued but neutrally open-minded about Andrew.

I was struck by how sweet and innocent he looked onstage before the talk. While Ken’s face was as placid and knowing as the moon, Andrew had a kind twinkle in his brown eyes. From his sweet Burt Reynolds ‘stache* to his pinstriped trousers, he looked like a real mensch. I studied him and wondered what could motivate someone to murder such a strangely adorable person. Certainly there was more to him than met the eye.

The talk itself was quite good. Ken and Andrew raised some compelling, important questions about what it means to be a spiritual practitioner in the 21st century.  They talked about nonduality and spirituality in an evolutionary context and the nature of love. And I felt privileged to be in the same room with not only two great thinkers, but a whole community (about 150 people were there) interested in their spiritual growth. The talk left me challenged and inspired.

From the event at Boulder Integral, photo courtesy of Vincent Drouot:

When I got home, though, I was inundated by messages from friends, alarmed that I was even listening to Andrew Cohen. They referred me to several blogs dedicated to airing grievances about his alleged misuse of power as a spiritual teacher (some are more vitriolicsome try to be more objective). Turns out there are at least three full length books out about this, too: two by former students (this one and this one) and one by his own mother. The more I researched Andrew, though, the more sides I saw to the story: were these students justified in their whistle blowing? Or were they merely backing out of the hard spiritual work they’d signed up for? The impact of that Sunday afternoon for me, then, wasn’t the actual talk, but all the questions I grappled with afterwards: When is it OK for our spiritual teachers to be jerks to us? And how do we know if they’ve crossed a line?

To be clear, Andrew Cohen doesn’t call himself a teacher, but a guru. As Terry Patten explains in a fantastic conversation on Buddhist Geeks, these two roles are worlds apart:

If I’m a teacher of one kind, I try to model what you should do […] and to the degree that my practice allows me to be a demonstration of that, you have an experience of me teaching that is congruent in a certain way. Whereas the guru role is actually a different role. Instead of just being an exemplar of the behavior of the devotee, the guru says, ‘No, I stand in relation to you in a dynamic in which I’m the other pole.’ So somebody like Andrew [Cohen] can be what looks on the outside like kind of a righteous asshole, you know? And yet, if God, if Reality is making a demand on all of us as individuals, a teacher standing as that righteous demand can be serving a function.

This role is difficult for those of us raised as individualistic citizens of democracy to accept. Yet in my experience, it’s sometimes the quickest way to truly grow spiritually. For example, a teacher modeling generosity is all fine and good, but if her student has staunchly blinded himself to his own greed, a louder clarion call might be needed. Some of my best growth has been thanks to friends (or foes!) pointing out my flaws. And when I’m truly stuck on something, a honey-coated message won’t do the trick: it’s time for some barbed wire.

Every time I’ve grown in this way, it’s been excruciating, and I know I’m not alone. As Andrew Cohen himself often says, “everybody wants enlightenment, but nobody wants to change.” No matter how dedicated we claim to be to outgrowing our small, suffering selves, the ego still pouts, seduces, and throws tantrums when its prowess is threatened. This is the hardest, messiest work one can undertake, and requires courage, willingness, and deep surrender.

A guide can be incredibly helpful, even necessary, on this path — but it’s a tricky, sticky role: massive amounts of projection and deception often occur. The work becomes a maze in a house of mirrors, and if we abort midway, we’re often left with misplaced anger and resentment towards the other. I can’t help but wonder if this is part of what’s happened with some of Andrew’s former students.

Cohen explains, “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 not be seen for what it is but from the perspective of the ego, which means it will be seen as our worst enemy.”

Take, for example, this now infamous clip of Andrew and Ken Wilber, which has been passed around the blogosphere as an example of Andrew’s edginess. The seeker in this clip, with touching and courageous vulnerability, totally breaks down and asks for help understanding and transcending her limitations. While Ken is mostly soft and encouraging, Andrew suggests, (flippantly?) “You can always commit suicide.”  She immediately retorts, “Thanks. I could always kill you.” (Skip to about 8:30 if your attention span’s getting anemic.)

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On the one hand, I find this answer insufferably irresponsible, and it gives me some perspective on Andrew’s angry former students. Yet I also recognize that curtailing someone’s unnecessary suffering is the most compassionate thing a spiritual teacher (or anyone, really) can do. If Andrew’s accepting the role of the dharmic jerk to help awaken this woman to a deeper truth, then isn’t it possible that this is a beautiful, loving act?

Post Charles Manson (and the countless other spiritual teachers with maleficent intentions), we have an understandable mistrust for charismatic teachers with a dark streak, and we’re on constant alert for the breaching of the brainwashing line. How much do the teacher’s intentions come into play here?

I heard recently, “challenge without support is abuse, but support without challenge is sentimentalism.” I love that. No matter how deep their own realization, if a spiritual teacher supports our delusions and perpetuates our suffering, they’re not inciting real transformation. And if  they cut us down to bring us to a more deeply-rooted strength, even if they look like meanies along the way, it can be a deeply loving act.

I’m no expert, but what I’ve seen in Andrew’s work (and in others like him) is often an invitation (albeit fierce, even violent) to tap into our own, deeper truth. Unfortunately, this is often buried beneath many layers of self-deception, so before this stronger trust in self can occur, we must go through a good measure of healthy self-doubt. This can be incredibly confusing terrain.

Rumi says, “Your task is not to seek love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” One of the most loving things anybody can do is to help you in that process. I don’t know if Andrew Cohen’s intentions are pure — I haven’t had nearly enough interaction with him. At this point, though, I wonder if such a thing is truly knowable. And I’ve noticed that when I release that need to know, a certain egoic grasping dissolves, and a great trust emerges, a trust in myself and my own experience as a spiritual being. I think what’s most important is to examine our own intentions. And if a guru helps us do that, or if a dog or a clump of silly putty does, then they’re a great teacher in my book. Even if they’re assholes.

What do you think? Have you had experiences with a harsh teacher? Post your thoughts below!

*I know, it’s not Burt. But it’s hilarious.

**  UPDATE 9/17/2010:  I apparently misspoke in the original version of this article when I claimed that the assailant had been a former student of Andrew Cohen’s.  Thankfully, this has been brought to my attention.  Joel Pitney, associate editor for EnlightenNext Magazine, contacted me with the following:

The assailant Joel Snider was not a student of Andrew’s. EnlightenNext went through records to find that the assailant Snider had attended a couple events with Andrew around 8 years ago. Andrew has been teaching for over 20 years, with thousands of people attending events over the years, but they are by no means all students of his or practitioners of his teachings. Andrew has a close relationship with his students. It’s a specific relationship and the parties are well known to each other. To characterize him as a student (which has been misrepresented on other blog posts on the web) gives an impression that simply is not true. The assailant was well known to the yoga teacher in Pennsylvania who was tragically murdered. It was a terrible event and our sympathies are with the late Sudharman’s family and students.

Thanks for the correction, Joel!

Read on for more on Andrew Cohen’s controversial brand of crazy wisdom.

Andrew Cohen and Genpo Roshi discuss the student-guru dynamic:

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About Angela Raines

Angela Raines hails from "America's most dangerous city," St. Louis, MO. She recently moved to Boulder, CO (as one does) to write, do yoga, and sit. So far, this has worked out beyond her wildest dreams. She completed an editorial internship at Elephant Journal and still writes for them when Waylon reminds her. She landed a job at the company of her dreams, Integral Life, and is currently putting her third-person writing skills to work in her own online writing business, Conscious Copywriting. Her main teachers are Jun Po Roshi and Ken Wilber. She is an enthusiast of all things yogic, contemplative, and chocolate.

Comments

47 Responses to “Can Spiritual Teachers Be Jerks?”

  1. Padma Kadag says:

    Not you….the subject….this is degenerative…. mental masterbation believingthey have a partner.

  2. Aron says:

    Love the dialouge between Roshi and Andrew. I'm biased since Roshi is my teacher, but Jesus, Andrew gives off this sense of complete self absorption, talking about me, and how his students should…blah blah blah. The lame laughter and jokes, and constant interruptions. It's pretty amusing really.

    Just sense the difference in energy between the two and that should tell you all you need.

  3. mamabear234 says:

    Has any student of Andrew's really woken up and reached enlightenment or self-realization? I myself prefer a "walk your talk" style of teacher. The "Gurus" that can do and say anything with no accountability or responsiblity have in my experience and witnessing caused a lot of damage. Maybe I am missing some big picture karmic thing but the ones that take lots of your money

  4. David says:

    Big difference between that and suggesting to someone who may be mentally unstable/clinically depressed, to kill themselves. But otherwise I agree with your sentiments in general.

  5. Kari Balakrishnan says:

    Ken Wilber’s guru is the man who introduced Integral philosophy to the world..Sri Aurobindo.

  6. mamabear234 says:

    Has any student of Andrew's really woken up and reached enlightenment or self-realization? I myself prefer a "walk your talk" style of teacher. The "Gurus" that can do and say anything with no accountability or responsiblity have in my experience and witnessing caused a lot of damage. Maybe I am missing some big picture karmic thing but the ones that take lots of your money , preach celibacy and have sex with students, are into control trips and are downright mean have no place in my world.

  7. Ben Ralston says:

    Great article, and much needed examination of the whole Guru concept.

    Fact is our (western) society has no real reference point for the word guru – which is an Eastern concept that is essentially alien to our culture. Hence the whole business Guru, Sex Guru, parenting Guru etc…

    I’ve been thinking of writing a similar article myself lately, so it’s nice to see someone else doing the same.

    Thanks,

    Ben

  8. Rick says:

    I appreciate the questions you raise and I think they are not easily answered! Clearly, not all of Andrew's ex-students share my experience as one of many who left Andrew's community with nothing but gratitude, respect and deep appreciation for the many years I spent with him.

  9. Ramesh says:

    Angela, great article and important questions! Having been around the guru-block a few times, I know not to judge a book simply by its covers, nor a guru by his looks, smiles or ego-smashing words. Intellectually I find much of what Cohen and Wilber expressing to be genuine spirituality, but not having spent time with any of them, I cannot comment on any of the "wild" stories as these may be projections, exaggerations, both, or none of the above. Too many people have criticized my own guru, and I found none of these comments or observations matching my own experiences nor those of hundreds of other friends. As for genuine gurus: there are perhaps only a few dozen, or less, at any given time in human history who deserve the title in the best sense of the word: someone who can truly point the way from darkness (gu) to light (ru), someone who is truly enlightened in the most sublime, yogic sense of the word. Those beings come, unfortunately, still mostly from India, Nepal, Tibet, etc. since that is the earthly region where the sophisticated inner technology for enlightenment mainly exist and is sincerely practiced (hatha yogis beware, a great looking body and pants just won't cut it!), and thus that is where the candidates still tend to take (re)birth.
    I highly recommend Wilbers books for the critical, spiritual philosophy buffs out there. Intellectually, he's more right on than not! And one thing, for sure, he is right about saying that (I paraphrase) spiritual philosophy is truly useful if it inspires us to deepen our practice.

  10. BenRiggs says:

    Well, I would first like to say that I enjoyed this article Angela… And the videos.
    As to the question, "What do I think?"- I think it is dangerous. The whole guru/student relationship is dangerous; not in a bad way, but more like bungie-jumping. Like the old adage suggests, "The guru is like fire: Get too far away and you freeze, but if you get too close your burned!" The problem with trying to identify a uniform code of conduct, a model of appropriate behavior and whats inappropriate behavior on the part of the guru seems to be that true relationship, a spiritual friendship, is spontaneous- not black & white, and certainly not predetermined. Every situation is fresh and demands a fresh or spontaneous response. The teacher has to be responsible, which is to say capable of responding appropriately to the student as they are.
    Another problem seems to be one of perception, from the students side. The student comes to the spiritual path at the invitation of suffering, which is the result of egocentricity, and agrees to work with the teacher to transcend the false self & all it's institutions. When they get caught up in judging the teachers behavior they are doing so with the very perception the teacher is pointing out as fraudulent and unhealthy. So it comes as no surprise that the students perception judges the teachers behavior as undesirable or inconsiderate. Ultimately the student must be responsible for him/herself- they must be willing to be honest with themselves, and the teacher must do the same. The spiritual friendship seems to be all about being genuine, which enables to human beings to meet one another and share the experience of being fully human! Thanks for the article!

  11. beej says:

    You are blessed with a keen ear and a questioning mind, Angela; that will get you into plenty of trouble. As much has been said and written about why the teacher-student dynamic is moot, I will not repeat it. But does even a guru rise above karma? It is only dakdzin that is willing to sacrifice one for the good of many.

  12. elephantjournal says:

    My interview with Andrew a year ago: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2009/07/walk-the-t

  13. elephantjournal says:

    A rather negative recounting of some of issues around Andrew: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2009/06/andrew-coh

  14. YogiOne says:

    People are the same no matter where you go.

  15. jody says:

    Cohen sure used a lot of “I”s and “me”s in the quote. 😉 His abusive tendencies are well-documented, and seeming to be the kind of guru that makes it all about him, his teaching, and his commands, leaves him seeming a bit grandiose in the best light.

    That said, I firmly believe that enlightened assholes are entirely possible. I’d be willing to accept that Cohen is one of these.

  16. tobye says:

    Just to comment on the piece where Andrew tells the girl she could always kill herself…… I think that's a nod in the direction of Eckhart Tolle and his epiphany after he considered killing himself….

    The people we find most challenging to deal with are always our gurus.

  17. markleerobinson says:

    I certainly find Ken to be warmer and more obviously compassionate than Andrew. But what I look for in a teacher is different from what I look for in a dating partner. I want my teacher to see something I don't. I want my teacher to be able to show me truths I am blind to, even ones I actively avoid. That doesn't happen by being soft and cuddly.

  18. stella says:

    i seriously doubt he is a true guru.

  19. AngelaRaines says:

    I've been contacted by William Yenner, a former student of Andrew's and one of his most vocal critics, author of American Guru. He says:

    Hi Angela,
    In response to your article, I offer this short piece I have written which is posted at http://americanguru.net/news-and-reviews/a-darker
    Please feel free to post all or part of it.
    Thanks, William Yenner

    A Darker Side to EnlightenNext

    Recently it has been announced that Andrew Cohen and his organization, EnlightenNext, are selling their ashram in Lenox MA and moving. This has brought about news articles and discussion, which include some recent and very heated comments to local newspapers and online forums. I wanted to respond since as author of a recently published book about Andrew Cohen I have often been the focus of much of the ire expressed. Some of these comments also infer that I am completely discounting any value at all to any aspects of this organization. I am making no such claim, and to my knowledge none of Andrew Cohen’s critics are either. To suggest this only appears as an attempt to deflect from the main issue.

    My point in speaking out against EnlightenNext has been only to call attention to the numerous abusive practices that have been used on EnlightenNext students at Mr. Cohen’s direction. I feel it is important for the local community and potential students to have this exposed and addressed, so that they can make more informed decisions. And, for the many past students who have left under emotional duress and trauma, the hope is that this will help us to begin healing from Andrew’s harmful and unhealthy approach to spiritual growth.

    During my 13 years with Andrew Cohen, as a member of his inner circle of students, manager of Foxhollow, and a member of the Board of Directors, I was witness to countless instances of abusive behavior toward students on a regular basis. The strategy at EnlightenNext has always been to “destroy the ego”, believing it to be the main obstacle to spiritual “evolution”. Andrew’s tactics are largely based on ever increasing levels of demands and psychological pressure on the “ego”, which is often how the abuse results. I have witnessed such treatment escalate in some cases to emotional, financial and even physical abuse. In far too many cases students were coerced to behave in ways that violated their own dignity, privacy and good sense, all in the belief that only a self-limiting ego would resist their guru’s instruction.

    [For the rest of the article, go here: http://americanguru.net/news-and-reviews/a-darker… ]

  20. […] Can Spiritual Teachers Be Jerks? ~ Angela Raines | elephant journal. […]

  21. D.S. says:

    Angela,

    Your article makes something good out of gossip. That is a hard art to come by. Thanks for sharing it. Great piece.

  22. yeye says:

    the teacher is within

  23. Aron Stein says:

    There is no Ego. There is nothing to transcend.
    Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.

  24. AngelaRaines says:

    "Fear and trembling" is right, Gary. These aren't small matters. Thanks for sharing.

  25. […] meditation is therefore not for psychological sissies. It takes courage to face and contemplate all the creepy demons suddenly let loose from the inside […]

  26. Angela,

    Thanks for the great and thought-provoking article on "spiritual jerks." 😉

    As a student and teacher of Dharma (aren't we all both?) I found the two videos, plus the article to be very interesting and eye-opening. The videos were of particular interest to me, and while I acknowledge that I have never met Ken or Andrew in person, it *appears (I stress this word) that Andrew is still quite attached to HIS own ego.

    Backing up my claim: I've noticed that when teachers of ANY sort, are attached to any particular outcome from or for their students, what "sticks" or is attached to outcome IS ego. It is a recipe for teacher-student disaster. Getting the correct or desired (word used on purpose) outcome allows the teacher access to what human emotions? Feeling good about self, feeling strong, feeling powerful, feeling productive, avoidance of more vulnerable emotions like being wrong, etc. As a therapist, coach, and blooming spiritual teacher I've certainly noticed Ego's skin as I do this type of work. Be it a politician or spiritual leader, power is something one must learn to wield with grace. When not wielded properly, it shows.

    Watching how much his own ego lights up from feeling right and correct is the dead give-away here. At this point, it becomes challenging for my ears to stay open to a guy like this.

    Side Thought: Perhaps it's wise to stay open to the message of continued students who "whistle blow"? Maybe it's not them who's the only one still caught in ego's net. Aren't we all to some extent?

    Humble Bows,

    -Patrick

  27. […] as a reliable and joyful path to enlightenment. Yet he did so without the abandon and panache of other, iconoclastic teachers: his presence was radical for its […]

  28. […] the other people we share the planet with. Or at least not dismissing them as total idiots/jerks for disagreeing with […]

  29. […] a 2001 What Is Enlightenment interview with Andrew Cohen, LaLanne, when compared to the spiritual masters and gurus “in the east,” sees just how apt the […]

  30. billyen says:

    I suggest a read of this article to anyone thinking that the assassin of yoga teacher Sudharman never had a student-teacher relationship with Andrew Cohen: http://whatenlightenment.blogspot.com/2010/07/bir

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