Marlowe Sands (a pen name) writes of her 15 year association with Andrew Cohen and the "Community" that grew up around him during that time in "Paradise and Promises", and to my eye the heart and soul of the book is encapsulated at the end:
"Andrew Cohen's Community, taken in its entirety, was overwhelmingly destructive to hundreds of people. But to make sense of the controversy surrounding Andrew Cohen we also have to understand the threads of grace and healing that ran simultaneously through his work.
The weakness of some anti-cult writings is that they categorize all forms of spiritual experience as pathological and/or
dissociative. In order to do justice to the complexity of human experience we need a model that distinguishes between those experiences that bring about greater awareness and those that shatter us." Postscript para 11.
Her story is one of an intense commitment to rigorous spiritual practice and relates a series of sacrifices for the Community she makes as a part of that. Within and spanning the narrative is a progression of her world view, central to which are several intense point experiences. Two in particular are in the form of spiritual awakenings, one by Cohen's grace, and the other essentially in spite of him. While accounts of experiences of this nature can be categorized and generalized, the subjective nature of them leads necessarily to their relation inevitably taking the form of a poetic voice, and Marlowe's poetry in this regard is quite unique, genuine and profound. While she pulls no punches about the Community, and hints strongly at an overall orientation of regret as to lost opportunity and price paid by her and her family, she conveys a very deep understanding of the underlying existential issues that would draw one to make the sacrifices she describes in the story, and credits that understanding largely to her participation in the Community and goes to lengths to acknowledge Andrew as a factor.
It's easy to despise the image of Andrew Cohen, especially when his exploits are read through the looking glass of conventional cultural conditioning. But central to Marlowe's journey and commitment was a hard, in depth subjective examination of her own cultural conditioning, and she presents the reader an opportunity to explore three different perspectives: what it was like for her at the time, the Community from an objective viewpoint, and the upshot and downsides of the journey for her as a person looking backward. Marlowe's training and work experience in the fields of education and psychology offer us a unique opportunity for an examination of the process of exploitation of a committed spiritual seekers interest.
While surrender to a guru or spiritual awakening by the grace of a guru are foreign to me, ultimately devotion and insight are roads that lead to the same Rome. While the stories about prostrations, chanting and tithing certainly might sound shocking to us average joe's, I have been to a few Catholic funerals. Kneeling on the back of the pew during catechism as incense filled the air gives me a point of reference for spiritual sacrifice in a cultural context widely accepted as conventional.
Some of the more heinous acts described in the book will be familiar to many as the power politics between people that happen in all walks and situations of life. Anyone who's ever had a white collar corporate job can relate and understand this in terms of simple personal self-interest in the context of a social hierarchy. The closest I've ever come to communal living was time served in a college dorm room, but the U.S. military is a widely accepted form of it, and there is a long history of monastic traditions that span world culture. Navy seals would all be quite familiar with the offering in the autumn lake, and celibacy would never be my deal, but I can certainly suspend my judgment of the choice.
Where the line comes down with regard to suspending my judgment of the Community is in terms of the mechanisms of control, and the purposes that this control was put to use. This is illustrated most starkly by the disruptions to the marital and other family relationships experienced by some of it's members. The lever of control was spiritual devotion, with Andrew as the proxy for God, and the primary mechanism was a subversion of the process of subjective inquiry.
So how does all of this happen? How do educated and otherwise sophisticated people find themselves in a situation such as the Community? The spiritual seekers interest can, of course, take the form of a consuming obsession. This interest can be understood in terms of the first Christian commandment and thereby correlated into secular terms. One way to understand "Thou Shalt Have no God before Me" is to recognize that the default human condition is one that involves a sense of incompleteness that can range from totally unconscious, to a subtle gnawing sense that something isn't quite right, through on to an all-consuming angst and drive to set matters straight. If one doesn't look to God in this endeavor, then they'll fill that void with something else. It might be money and power -- lots of people throw themselves into their jobs, perhaps in sacrifice for their loved ones, perhaps not -- or it might be chasing the pleasure from sex, drugs and rock and roll. It might take the form of devotion to a social cause like global warming, social justice or changing the laws to make life difficult for the evil pedophiles, or it might just take the form of losing yourself in the impersonal love of your friendly smiling neighborhood guru.
To understand the Community one must face it's flaws, and in so doing, suspension of judgment might get us to a deeper understanding and exploration, but recognition of those flaws does ultimately require some sort of cultural lens. The one I'll offer here is the culture and vocabulary of the the discussion forums like this one that I've participated in.
As an outsider looking in, the biggest flaw at the core of the Community struck me as what Marlowe writes here:
"He claimed to teach love but was a bully. He taught surrender in an atmosphere of fear; vulnerability in the context of intense competition. He claimed to teach impersonality, yet cultivated favorites in an atmosphere of suspicion. Worst of all were his responses to budding spirituality among his students. In the name of rooting out ego, he crushed the spiritual impulse just as we began to trust our deepest selves". 2nd to last para chapter 17.
Central to this is something that Cohen obviously missed: what we really are doesn't evolve, and impersonal love, forgiveness, and acceptance certainly do apply -- and ever and always so -- to any and every individual and start with the recognition that every human being is always worthy of them, regardless of circumstance. It is, after all .. well, you know .. impersonal. Another way to state it is that impersonal love is unconditional. The Community, as Marlowe describes it, was an embodiment of a conceptualized negation of this notion.
Now that expression does entangle a bit of controversy on the forum about evolution, change, paths, effort and the notion of identity. But I think that one point that even my most determined of debating partners here would agree on, is that the subject of the spiritual search can never be forced. Coercion of any sort has no place in a genuine spiritual story. A controversial refinement of this point would be that while some forms of deep spiritual experience can be induced, even planned for and almost scripted, the end of the search is always by grace, which isn't to say either random or destined. The Community's approach was one of an extreme material effort to obtain what everyone already is, and thereby doomed by premise to begin with.
What seems another flaw to me in Andrews five tenants is this idea of the destruction of ego. In the way I think of either ego, or even the false self/person, it is only ever ego that would want to or think that it can succeed in destroying ego. Reading the tenants is rather spooky because of how they subvert ideas that are common with some sources that myself and others have found useful and helpful along the way. Even when they're lost in translation -- such as describing self-honesty and internal practice/inquiry in terms of volition -- the commonality is striking. The way to understand them in the context of the Community though -- and this is really rather horrifying -- is as instruments of control.
The Terrible Tenants, as I like to think of them, could be interesting fodder for discussion and analysis, but I'll spare that unless anyone has any specific interest. I'll also hold off on my speculation as to what Marlowe's pen name might express by way of anagram unless and until anyone gets curious.
Stop talking. Hear every sound as background. Look straight ahead and focus. Take one deep breath. This is you. This is Now.