What is Enlightenment Blues about?
It is the age old story of the spiritual seeker seeking enlightenment, of liberation from the conditioned world of samsara. Tradition has it that you can only attain this through the help of a spiritual guide, a guru. I actually went through all that, eleven years long. The book is a description of this journey out of samsara.
Just for our less enlightened readers, this whole thing “enlightenment” –- what is it all about?
According to this way of thinking, we are all bound by the ego –- which is nothing but a whole mess of impurities and conditionings that are staining the mirror of our awareness. Enlightenment means that, suddenly or gradually, the realization breaks through that this ego is an illusion. The idea is that through the light of such a realization, all real and imagined impurities are burned away, and the mirror of our awareness will be completely spotless and able to reflect whatever is happening around us. Then we’ll be able to function effortlessly and respond appropriately to the world around us.
Sounds great. Is this what Andrew Cohen was teaching?
Yes. According to Andrew Cohen, to live in an “enlightened” way meant to live not out of the impulses of the ego, but to be aware of the needs of the situation that one is in. It also means that you’re able to fully and passionately respond to this recognition, and act in a wholehearted and undivided way for the benefit of others.
Was Andrew Cohen enlightened himself?
He told us that he was, through meeting his Indian guru Poonjaji. He had realized the light of the Source. It had required no conscious effort. This is what he was teaching us, too. Just relax, you don’t have to do anything to be free. After a few years, he said he realized that for almost all of his students, it would require effort, because we were too entrenched in our egos, and too invested in it.
Oh dear. What happened next?
After a few years of teaching, Andrew became frustrated that “no one was getting it,” and that people weren’t transformed even after going through multiple spiritual experiences — which he felt should have been transformative. At first Andrew taught that realizing the nondual Source would transform the personality, and would naturally lead to a transcending of the egoic self. A few years later, he claimed that the ego was too tenacious and would not let go voluntarily, and had to be forcefully overcome. That’s when you get all these stories about radical teaching techniques, such as the guy having to crush his Saab [See excerpt].
What was Andrew like, as a person and as a teacher?
In the first few years after I met him, he exuded tremendous peace and ease. He was just amazed at everything that was spontaneously happening around him. Later on, however, he started to feel that he was on a mission, that we were all on a mission, a mission to bring Heaven to Earth. This is when he started craving attention and validation from other spiritual teachers. All those human emotions such as fear, hope, anxiety and anger –- he seemed to experience them all but not get caught up in it. Later, I felt that his anger sometimes got the better of him, and that he could fly off the handle and get into temper tantrums. He also became more and more unhappy and dissatisfied with us, his students, for not living up to his teachings.
Andrew was also very competitive. He was always dissing other spiritual teachers, claiming they were compromising or not living up to their teachings. He said several times that he was the only one who was “willing to go all the way.” In his book “Autobiography of an Awakening”, he is very critical of the Advaita Vedanta teachings of his own teacher Poonjaji, feeling that they are only half of the truth, and that “living up to one’s realization” is not covered in Advaita Vedanta. In this way, he set himself above his own teacher — something that is, in my view, definitely a sign that something is wrong.
Why did you write the book?
I never intended to write a book, it kind of happened to me. I took a creative writing course in the fall of 1998, six months after I’d left Andrew, and was asked to write an essay on a topic of my own choosing. Naturally, my eleven years with Andrew were foremost on my mind. Once I got going, I noticed that more and more stories and memories popped up, and the essay got longer and longer. At one point, the creative writing teacher suggested I keep on going after the course was finished, and expand it into a book. So I did, but I still had no intention to look for a professional publisher. I thought to maybe put it out on the web. The first versions of the manuscript were very bitter, angry and resentful, but gradually, with each new version the tone got milder and, I felt, more objective. That’s when I started to think that this story might be helpful to publish as a book.
Some of the stories in the book seem too outrageous to be true. Did Andrew Cohen really demand that you do thousands of push-ups in a row?
Oh yes, all the students had a push-up marathon every Sunday, and these muscles really develop quite fast when you get used to this type of exercise. We would do series of thirty, then rest on our arms, then do more series of thirty. Since quitting was not an option, you had to keep going at it.
Did it all work?
No, I do not believe that all these radical teaching methods had a lasting transformative effect on his students. There often would be a short term effect; people would be shaken up, and shocked out of their usual mode of relating to themselves and others, but I would not call such an effect ‘enlightening.’ I wouldn’t know of any person that has become ‘enlightened’ as a result of these teachings.
Why are we in the West so fascinated with Eastern enlightenment, and why does it so often go so wrong?
I think it’s a form of romanticism. We tend to idealize Eastern spirituality, and then uncritically import teacher-student relationships that are not appropriate for our Western circumstances. Secondly, religion has become privatized, and has become a marketable product, called “spirituality.”
How do you look on it all now?
When I reread the book now, it seems like it was literally Kafkaesque at times. To the reader, it all goes from bad to worse, and just when you think it could not get anymore difficult, it descends into another diabolical level of hell. At first I was quite angry and mad about what happened, but over the years I’ve found a kind of detachment from it all.
And what about enlightenment?
I now teach Zen meditation in the style of the Japanese Zen master Dogen. He teaches that enlightenment is not some kind of state you have to reach, but your original natural state that is already there. When you sit in meditation, you actually express this enlightenment, whether you’re aware of it or not. We are always already intimately connected to such an enlightenment. For me, that’s a way of looking at enlightenment that feels very natural. More like an enlightenment waltz than an enlightenment blues.