September 12, 2010

Can Spiritual Teachers Be Jerks?

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.)


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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