Scandals, Apologies, and Excuses: Why we disarm our discernment

Buddhists, nondual folks, and people engaged in the work of awakening are generally the nicest people one could ever hope to meet. They are warm-hearted, earnest to a fault, and sincerely interested in improving the world. They tend to avoid conflict like ebola. This is the beautiful side of the spiritual life. Seeing the Dalai Lama refer to the Chinese government as “my friends, the enemy” warms the heart. One way spiritual teachers and seekers avoid anger and accomplish this level of compassion is through self-examination whenever pain and anger arises. This is smart and effective. But while this level of forgiveness and self-examination is generally a good thing, I also believe it can become a problem. A much bigger one than we may be willing to acknowledge. Why? Because this is the kind of habit that keeps abusive people in power.

This thought occurred to me while following what has occurred with the famous nondual teacher Andrew Cohen, who recently released a letter of apology. Why the letter of apology? I don’t want to go into the details here, as his behavior has been written about extensively. For more information on the scandal read Enlightenment Blues by Andre Van der Braak, American Guru by William Yenner (former students), or the book written by his own mother The Mother of GodThere is also an entire website devoted to cataloguing the allegations.

While this kind of scandal is concerning, there is something else about it that is beginning to concern me more, and that is how people in spiritual communities are reacting to Andrew’s apology. In my own honest opinion, the apology was disappointing. I felt that the apology was inauthentic and did not fit the magnitude of the abuses, and a close friend pointed out that the admission of wrongdoing was sandwiched in between layers of self-aggrandizement. I believe that this is plain to anyone who reads it. Many people commented on Cohen’s blog to this effect and people who follow such things have noted it in social media. However, there were a significant number of people on social media and in the comment section of the apology itself who responded to criticisms by pointing out that critics should examine their own “shadow sides” and engage in more self-reflection. As chatter about Cohen’s apology spread on social media, this meme began making the rounds:

While I agree with the sentiment in principle, and even find it beautiful, these reactions gave me chills. As a family psychologist who has worked with many victims of abuse, and abusers themselves, what I was seeing was disturbingly familiar. This is how abusers stay in authority. I realized that the same family dynamics that are well-understood in psychology are at play in spiritual communities. People are downplaying the magnitude of what happened, blaming those who bring it up, and trying to make everything OK when it isn’t. As I read the comments I kept asking myself if this is what the Buddha really meant in that instruction to examine ourselves.

What is really happening when people who express their appropriate skepticism of an abuser’s mea culpa are told, essentially, to be quiet? What does “skillful” really mean in this context?

When faced with the crimes of spiritual teachers, spiritual seekers tend to perform a strange kind of psychological judo on themselves and others by disarming anger and judgement with spiritual techniques. With intense self-investigation we avoid investigating the crimes committed. When abuses happen and we turn inward, we should ask ourselves if we are using spiritual practice to avoid the hard work of confronting abuse or crying out for justice when others don’t want to hear it. We should consider if the “shadow side” in these situations is not our own anger but the avoidance of it. We should ask ourselves if we are excusing misdeeds by omission of an appropriate emotional response. Perhaps in these situations it is important to understand that there are many kinds of anger – not all of them are unskillful in certain contexts. In my work with children of abuse one of the phases of therapy children often go through is what I call “permission to be angry.” I think the same can be said for spiritual communities.

People like Cohen seem well aware of the habit spiritual seekers have of turning indignation into navel-gazing, and he has a history of using it to his advantage. In the books linked to above there are many instances in which people attempt to criticize, or merely question, Cohen but are shut down by being told to look at their own issues first. Over and over again he accused people who questioned him, or had his inner circle accuse people, of giving in to ego trips, underlying narcissism, and of being consumed with jealousy for his realization and enlightenment. By doing so he fostered a sense of chronic self doubt and mistrust in those who followed him, leading to a deeper dependence on his certainty. Essentially, he used people’s habit of self examination and forgiveness to disarm their wise discernment.  This isn’t something that only happened with Cohen, or only in neoadvaita communities. In his Atlantic article “The Zen Predator of the Upper East Side” Mark Oppenheimer points out that the kind of western Buddhists who fell victim to Eido Shimano “…proved extremely, perhaps uniquely, willing to forgive.” In response to the sexual predations of Jashu Sasaki Roshi, Joan Halifax wrote:

There is something about our religions… that disallows us facing the shame associated with sexual violations…

I would take her statement farther, and say that in spiritual communities, especially Buddhist ones focused on kind speech and avoiding division, people are particularly vulnerable to abuse because confronting others runs counter to the way we are trying to live. As Buddhists we excel at ethical self-inquiry but are ill equipped to confront violations when they arise in our own communities.

I am not claiming to know how to determine what an appropriate expression of anger is for abuses such as sexual harassment, beatings, death threats, or financial ruin. But I do believe that some expression of anger, even for those on the path to awakening, is appropriate. Finding how to balance the expression of authentic anger with liberating insight into it may be one of the most mature of spiritual practices. It may also be one of the only sustainable solutions to the constant reoccurrence of abuse that seems to happen in our spiritual communities.

If a psychologist, lawyer, medical doctor, or school teacher were caught doing any of the things Cohen is alleged to have done they would not only have to write a letter of apology, but state licensing boards would revoke their ability practice, civil penalties would be leveled against them, and criminal investigations would begin. In our society we recognize that no one, no matter how well-trained or accomplished, is invulnerable to behaving recklessly. But when it comes to spiritual leaders we seem to throw out the rules and expect people to be something greater than ordinary. This is a problem. The most disturbed people seem to know this, and gravitate toward the role of spiritual leader, as the late great meditation teacher Bill Hamilton pointed out in his book Saints and Psychopaths.

Changing this problem is worth the discomfort, and even anger, of speaking up. It can be done. I am an optimist about this. We can have spiritual communities in the west that are free of these kinds of abuses, but it requires that we all agree on basic rights for meditation students, and that we stop telling those who are offended by the violation of those rights to point their attention back at their own failings. Things can get better, but first we need to change our relationship to anger, and understand that in some situations expressing it is an appropriate response. Once expressed, we can get on with business of insight and healing. At that time, it may be useful to point others to examine their own “shadow sides.” Until then, allow responses to be what they are. Allow people to call for justice. Allow the process of wise discernment to take its first uncertain steps.

Posted on May 18, 2015, in Morality, psychology and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Dwight Eisenhower

    I like your response that anger is positive and justified. But I am confused over the reaction to this entire situation on all sides, and how the problem began in the first place. I’m confused at how there seems to be a demand institutional protection in facets of spiritual life. Are people not adults aware of what they are getting into? When they see this poor conduct, can they not just get up and leave to go elsewhere searching for what they need? Can they not just stop associating with “harmful” influences?

    Is this demand for an institutional protection an artificial and ultimately meaningless sanction?

    I wonder if these efforts cover up the real pulp of what a spiritual or contemplative path is all about, which to me is a process driven by real insights concerning what is really happening in your experience. Does setting forth measures to protect against these types of things just create a situation where the individual is relinquished from any responsibility to delve into these issues on their side?

    Or, what worse? Is it very hard to imagine how these types of controlling efforts can quell creative efforts from someone to flesh out their path in a real way?

    I would be concerned that these measures give people a way to not be accountable, but instead to be safe, lacking true insight and meditative accomplishment, and to be passive aggressive instead. But maybe this is a discussion that better encompasses other themes in modern spiritual culture, like spiritual materialism.

    To sum up my concern, I am not saying that the person who is criticizing should turn inwards and think about themselves. What I am saying is, why the fuck do we care about Andrew Cohen? Really. Why do we care about Sasaki Roshi. The way some people have represented their offenses over these situations say to me that these people are looking for a fantasy universe that ties up nicely and says sorry – as if this is meaningful thing.

    So for me the real lesson is only that Life Sucks – and if you want to do something about it, the only thing meaningful for you to do is get serious and real about your practice and find a way to make it work.

    • Yes I would agree that many of the people who fall under the sway of these folks are naive and searching for the wrong thing in the wrong way. But they deserved better. I’m not sure institutions or rules are the answer to this problem, but I do think that changing the norms around how we talk about these things -and in particular getting more comfortable with anger and criticism – would be helpful.

  2. I definitely find myself vulnerable to this kind of behavior in my own life since I began meditating = turning to self examination when someone is behaving harmfully to examine my own reaction to it, and not responding strongly enough to the harmful behavior. I think it is endemic in the early stages of practice, partly because our culture has difficulty distinguishing angry behavior from assertive behavior, and partly because early in practice one is struggling so much to sort out emotions, that it’s tough to engage in resistance to harmful behavior without falling into outrage, rage, etc.

    I had a counselor I was working with call me out on my lack of assertiveness and it helped me to see this behavior more clearly. He would have described the behavior of critics of Cohen’s critics as co-dependent, which I think is a pretty good label, though I’ve heard it is not favored anymore.

  3. Two comments… (1) Google “idiot compassion”. (2) When I first read this phrase — “We can have spiritual communities in the west that are free of these kinds of abuses, but it requires that we all agree on…” — I thought it was parody, tongue-in-cheek — but on rereading I see that you are serious. Ron, you seem to have misplaced your usually excellent common sense. Since when are human communities (or any human endeavor) west, east, north, south or anywhere, going to be free of abuses — yes, the same day the “we all agree on” anything! I’d say that would be about three countless eons *squared* in the future. 😉 Of course, that does not diminish the importance of people, alone or in concert, making the best approximation they can muster to wise action — see (1) above. But the day there is a formula or infallible rule for that is that same day in the future.

    • Please don’t get me wrong – I don’t mean perfect. But I do mean that we can have communities that are as free of these kinds of things as most other kinds. As I see it, we have a problem that is outsized compared to other communities. This is something we can do something about. And the solution starts with having some backbone and confidence to say it when we see it and draw some reasonable boundaries for teachers.

    • I notice that there are a great deal of *existing* communities where members are adult enough to not tolerate this sort of abuse. They *do* all agree on certain basic ethical principles like, “People should not treat others like crap, and if I see it happening, I’m going to spread the word that it’s happening, and it’s wrong, and it must stop.”

      Consider re-thinking the “impossibility” of such a community.

      And, Ron, if this whole phenomenon reminds me of a quote from the Buddha, it’s not one about turning away from others’ flaws and doubling up on self-examination. It’s actually the one about “a philosophy of slippery eels” who “don’t think this, but don’t NOT think this”.

      Slippery indeed are the excuses of those who don’t encourage anyone to do something about this problem! Now don’t get me wrong– they’re not “for” abusive behavior by those in power… but they’re not “NOT for” it either.

  4. Nice essay! I agree and noticed the too-quick proclivity to smooth over what seemed to me to be a self-serving “apology” by Cohen.

  5. If I’m reminded of a quote from the Buddha, it’s not the one about ignoring the faults of others in favor of self-examination. It’s the one about a “philosophy of slippery eels” who “don’t believe this, but don’t NOT believe it either”…

    Slippery indeed are the words of those who aren’t *for* abuses by those in power… but they’re also not *for* doing anything to stop it… but they’re not *NOT for* that either…

    Blegh. Come on people, abuse is, by definition, morally wrong. No, you’ll never eradicate it. So what, just give up? You’ll never eradicate roaches, but don’t you still spray around your house when you see one, just to keep the numbers down?

    And don’t spout that crap about “well the people being taken advantage of — they should be more mature so they don’t get taken advantage of anymore.” No. Don’t rely on the people who are actively being manipulated, actively being kept in an anti-maturation set of circumstances, to just magically grow up. Note that they are in an environment deliberately engineered to keep them from growing up — instead, they are required to stay dependent on the guru.

    If you want them to grow up (as I do too) then think “How could we change their situation to make growing up more likely?” This is what the creators of the meditation students’ bill of rights have done.

    In the 5 Buddha Families tradition of Tibetan Vajrayana, every one of the 5 poisonous emotions can be transmuted directly to a liberating emotion. It doesn’t have to be ignored, or vipassana-ed to death, or destroyed by applying the opposite, or brahma-vihara-ed into oblivion. Anger is directly linked to clarity. It can be transformed directly into clarity about what the problem is, and what needs to be done about it, yet in the process it loses the desire to hurt others.

    By losing the poisonous desire to inflict pain, and restoring a (fiercely) compassionate desire to help all sentient beings, anger can be transformed into action.

    But that’s exactly what the eels don’t want. Clarity is what exposes them – and wisely informed action is what deposes them.

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