Paradoxes and Dilemmas on the Spiritual Path
The term "spiritual transmission" refers to the passing of the state of enlightenment from teacher to student, which takes place in many spiritual traditions. In itself, the transmission is synonymous with the experience of enlightenment. But the fact that the student's experience is rooted in a relationship with a human teacher who is perceived to possess absolute knowledge lends the experience much of its intrinsic, yet hidden, nature.
Following the breakup of his 21-year relationship with his own spiritual teacher, Amir Freimann launched a quest to discover the deeper realities of the student teacher relationship, logging over 1,000 hours of interviews with students and teachers. These interviews reveal the promises and perils of the guru-to-student relationship and explore hot-button topics such as the differences and similarities between therapists and gurus; the role of trust vs. rationality in the spiritual quest; and how money, power and sex are dealt with during the course of a student's training.
Spiritual Transmission includes never-before-published dialogues with many prominent spiritual teachers, plus a revelatory afterword by renowned integral theorist Ken Wilber. If you have ever been involved with a spiritual teacher or know someone who has, you need this book.
Interviewees in Spiritual Transmission include Peter (Hakim) Young, Stephen Fulder, Christopher Titmuss, James Finley, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri, Aliya Haeri, Saniel Bonder, Mariana Caplan, Mooji, Lakshmi, Barry Magid, Claire Slemmer, Diane Hamilton, Bill Epperly, Thomas Steininger, Carolyn Lee, Terry Patten, Andrew Cohen, Steve Brett and Mary Adams.
Review of the book from its Amazon page: Fascinating Journey into the Paradoxes and Pitfalls of the Master-Disciple Relationship
Amir Freimann's approach to the often mysterious relationship between a Spiritual Teacher and Student is a brilliant, highly engaging and very accessible read. Written in the form of dialogues he conducted with a very diverse array of Teachers and Students with accompanying commentary, Amir weaves a powerfully illuminating tapestry that leaves one appreciating the enormous potential, delicacy and complexity of this relationship. In a secular, hyper-individualized western culture that is devoid of any context to truly understand such a relationship, this book does a great service and brings a discerning intellect and a big heart into territory that few spiritual explorers have been willing to tread.
Another review of the book from its Amazon page: An important exploration of a complex subject
What makes this such an important book in the world of any kind of Truth seekers is the depth of the inquiry. Amir Freimann shares his own lived experience very honestly and extensively. This lived experience seems to have enabled him to ask in-depth and well-informed questions of the impressive array of teachers he has interviewed. Having lived through intense teacher-student relationships myself I saw my experiences not only reflected all through the book but also analysed. I must admit I couldn't put it down. As I finished reading Ken Wilbur's meaningful afterword I felt that I had gained a much deeper insight and understanding of the relationships I'd experienced (and endured!) and am left with much to further contemplate.
Introduction: The Why, How and What of the Book
Nearly seven years after I broke up my 21-year relationship with spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen – by far the most significant, intense, challenging and rewarding relationship of my adult life – I decided to create this book. It has since taken me hundreds of hours of interviews with teachers and students, who I thought could help me cast light on the spiritual teacher-student relationship, followed by perhaps thousands of hours of reading, editing, contemplation and writing. I'm happy and nervous to present you here with my findings, humble though they may be, regarding the paradoxical nature of that relationship. I write in the hopes that we, students and teachers alike, can begin to come to better grips with its meaning in our lives.
The interviews and stories you are about to read are deeply personal in nature. Such is the subject matter itself. I would like to start introducing the subject with the following diary-like entries, which stand for the beginning, the middle and the end of my own relationship with Andrew. The questions I have sought to elucidate in this book are the very ones that I myself have struggled with all these years.
On a warm July summer morning in 1987 in Jerusalem, at the age of 29 and at the end of my fifth year of medical studies, I was in total turmoil about my life. The turmoil had to do with Andrew Cohen.
He was an ordinary-looking "American Jewish kid from New York", as I fondly thought of him even though he was three years my elder. Sitting every evening with a small group of people who gathered to meet with him in a friend's living room in Jerusalem, listening to him answering people's questions about enlightenment, liberation, timelessness and the absolute reality with utter simplicity and directness and having revelatory personal conversations with him was catalyzing a tectonic shift in me.
I had caught the bug of seeking spiritual liberation when I was 16 but I was always suspicious and even hostile toward the idea of being a student of a teacher. It seemed to me a sure recipe for spiritual slavery, the very opposite of what I was looking for. Even after I lived for two years with a delightfully free-spirited Zen master in Japan, and even though I spoke of him as my teacher and intended to go back to meditate with him after I completed my studies, I never considered him as my Teacher. But there I was, contemplating the possibility that in Andrew I had met my Teacher; and it was driving me crazy. How could I know if this is true? How does anyone know? What does it even mean?
On that morning, the upheaval I was experiencing was so intense that once I arrived at the hospital I couldn't imagine joining my team at the Surgery Department. We were studying anesthesia that day. I needed to figure this out first, I told myself, and without further delay. My life depended on it. But how could I know? My mind seemed completely useless in the face of this question. I walked back and forth on the hospital lawn in an agitated state for what felt like hours. Then, in despair I thought: I should try to have a nap; maybe the answer would come to me in my sleep. I lay down under a tree but the heat, the flies and my agitation made it a hopeless attempt. "I give up," I thought, "I might as well join my team and use the rest of the day for studying." I started to get up and just as I was half-way to standing I was catapulted into a state of unitive consciousness.
I have no idea how long I was in it, for I had no perception of "I" nor of time. It seems to me that if somebody was standing next to me with a stopwatch, they would have measured only a few seconds, but I was in a "dimension" or an "existential state" in which a fraction of a second and eternity are the same. I cannot use the words "experience" or "knowing" for it, because "experience" or "knowing" require a split between the knower (the subject, "I") and the known (the object of experience or knowing), and in that state there was no such split. Some report of characteristics such as absolute positivity, cosmic intelligence, love, energy and sacredness, but those terms are borrowed from the ordinary human experience and do not apply to that state.
In that fraction of a second the very foundation of my being seemed to have shifted. When I found myself back in the world of self and time, I knew that Andrew had always been and would always be my Teacher, and that somehow I had always known that.
I stumbled to the phone booth at the hospital entrance and called the house where Andrew was staying. "Hello," he said in his now familiar voice. "Andrew?" I said, "This is Andrew. I mean, hi Andrew, this is Amir." I couldn't think straight. "I'm yours," I said. I could hear Andrew smiling on the other end. "I knew that since we first met," he replied, "why don't you come over and tell me what happened?"
September 15, 1987, Totnes, UK
A few days after completing my end-of-year exams in medical school I flew over to the UK, and was warmly welcomed into one of the sangha [Sanskrit for community] houses of Andrew's students in Totnes, a town in the South-West region of England where Andrew was staying.
A few weeks after arriving in Totnes I spent one evening after satsang [Sanskrit for being in the company of a guru] with Andrew and the people who were living with him. The next day I received a message from him that he wanted to talk with me, and so I went over to his house. Sitting in the living room, Andrew laid out for me the full picture of my psycho-spiritual makeup. He said that on the one hand he found me an exceptionally warm, trusting, serious and committed man, and felt a deep connection with me, on the other hand, he felt a heavy presence of ego in me, and he and the other people with him were very aware of it when we spent time together the night before. He said it was rare to have these two extremes co-exiting in the same person. Then he said: “You want to become as light as a feather, and this may take a few years. I suggest that you forget any plans you may have other than being with me. Think of yourself as a wandering monk. This means you should completely forget about your medical career.”
It was a lot to let in, and Andrew saw that and got up to make coffee for both of us. In the few minutes that he was in the kitchen, I decided I was going to follow his advice. Instantly I experienced a change in my attitude. When he came back, holding two cups of cappuccino, I told him: “Andrew, something completely unexpected has just happened to me. Only a few minutes ago I was dreading the possibility that you would suggest that I completely discard my medical career, and now I feel like I've just dropped a few sandbags, to help my takeoff.”
And so it happened that I ultimately and irrevocably discarded my plans to be a medical doctor, and never looked back. Also, this meeting marked another significant turning point in my life. Until that day I never liked coffee, and under any other circumstances I would have refused it, but when your guru makes you a cup of cappuccino you drink it. I drank it – and to my utter surprise, I loved it. That day I became a coffee lover.
November 1990, Santa Cruz and Mill Valley, CA
In mid-1988 I moved, together with Andrew and over a hundred of his European students, to live in the US. We lived for about a year in Boston and then moved to Marin County, California. Around the middle of 1990 the pressure on me by Andrew and my friends in the community, to face my "Israeli macho" conditioning was becoming unbearable for me. I could see some of what they were pointing out to me, but I also felt that there wasn’t much I could do about it. I fell into despair and considered giving up my spiritual aspirations and returning to "life in the world". At some point I left the community and moved to Santa Cruz, a few hours away from where the community was living. I rented a room in a house there and spent a few months working and thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. The crisis ended surprisingly in a dream.
In my dream I was sitting face-to-face with Andrew, close to him, telling him in great detail all I was seeing and understanding about my psychological and spiritual condition, all the obstacles I saw in my way, which of them I already faced, which of them I felt I could overcome and which of them I had no confidence I could overcome. Andrew listened to me very attentively without responding, and when I finished speaking (in the dream it was after a long time) he said to me very simply: it all depends on what you want.
I woke up immediately. It was still completely dark outside. The dream was so lucid, so tangible, that it could have been real. I knew that in the dream I was clearer and more accurate than I could be awake, and decided to write down all I said in the dream while it was still fresh in my memory. I opened my diary and started writing feverishly. I wrote about the obstacles in my way, but as I read what I wrote I knew these particular obstacles could not stop me. At the end of the process I had all the obstacles clearly laid out on the pages of my diary and none of them was a real obstacle. I knew what I wanted.
At 9am I called the office of the community and asked to give Andrew the message that I wanted to come back. Minutes later I received a call from Andrew. I told him what had happened, and asked him to let me come back to the community. "Why don't you come over and meet with me and a few of your friends," he suggested. A few days later I moved back to the community.
January 1991, during a month-long retreat with Andrew in Bodhgaya, India
"Andrew, what happens when we die?" – The question came from a Bhutanese monk, wearing saffron robes, who had been coming regularly to satsang with Andrew. "I don't know,” said Andrew, “I don’t have any memory of it. But when I get there I’ll send you a postcard.” We all laughed, and I started thinking: do I know anything about this question? Is there anything in my experience that could indicate to me what happens after we die? What if I died right now – would everything stop or would something of me continue?
I sat there and imagined that I died and suddenly, without anything leading to it, I knew that my death would have absolutely no effect on my relationship with Andrew. It wouldn’t even register on that level – it would be completely insignificant. I didn’t know how I knew it, but I had no doubt that it was true – and contemplating it I was flooded with intense ecstasy. I was thinking about death and I was totally ecstatic, because I knew my death would mean nothing for my relationship with Andrew.
January 1998, during a month-long retreat with Andrew in Rishikesh, India
"I've just inherited a lot of money and I don't have to work anymore," said the man sitting in front of Andrew in satsang, "On the one hand I am attracted to do social work and help the needy, and on the other I am pulled to dedicate my life to the spiritual quest. What should I do?" "You should find what it is that pulls you like a black hole, that if you immerse yourself in it you will disappear into it, and then you should give yourself wholeheartedly to that," replied Andrew. I contemplated for a minute what that black hole was for me, and quickly came to the answer: it was the purity and absolute nature of the enlightenment teachings that I felt drawn to and wanted to immerse myself completely in.
I sat there happy with that answer, when it suddenly hit me that it was my relationship with Andrew much more than the teachings, that I was pulled to. What? How could that be? – The answer made no sense to me. How could the relationship with Andrew, who is just a human being, be more powerful and all-consuming than the teachings? To my mind the answer made no sense, but at the same time my heart was exploding with it, and tears were streaming down my face.
I knew I had to ask Andrew what this meant, and after satsang ended I went and asked to talk with him. “I have a spiritual question I want to ask you,” I said, and told him what had happened and my bewilderment about the insight I had.
“You’re right!” exclaimed Andrew when I finished. “Do you know why? First of all, because I am the teachings! Secondly, it’s also a perfect answer because a smart guy like you can find a way to remain separate and intact in your relationship with the teachings, but you sense and know that you will lose yourself completely in your relationship with me.”
June, 2006, at Foxhollow, MA, USA
On that weekend the tension at Foxhollow was almost palpable. It was a moment of truth for the men among Andrew's oldest students, whom I was one of. After months of intensive practice and countless meetings among us, Andrew felt that the time was ripe for a significant change in our relationship with him and our ability to take more responsibility for the development of the community. A meeting with him was scheduled for the morning of the following day, Saturday. In a message Andrew sent to all of us he emphasized that it was important that we be all together, and each of us individually, ready for the next step.
It was clear to everyone that I was the "weak link" in the group. My friends were concerned about the effect that my weakness – self-doubt, lack of confidence and emotional instability – would have on this important meeting. I promised them that I would do all I can not to disappoint them, but in my heart I was not confident at all that I would keep my promise.
That evening, Andrew played with his jazz band at a club in one of the nearby towns. I drove with a few friends to the gig. As soon as I entered the club Andrew noticed me, even as he was busy setting his drum kit, and signaled for me to come over to him. As I leaned toward him, he whispered forcefully:
"Amir, tomorrow we are going to have a very important meeting, and its success depends very much on you. But rather than do all everything to face your weakness and come prepared to the meeting, you chose to come here, drink beer and enjoy the music. It seems that you don't really care. But do. A lot. Would you please do it for me?"
Shaken and on the verge of tears I left the club and drove back to Foxhollow. I didn't know what to do. I went to the meditation hall, sat down in the middle of the large, empty hall, and meditated through the night. In those hours of meditation, I re-discovered immovable stability, which was not dependent in any way on me.
In the morning, when we met with Andrew, it was clear to everyone – without exchanging a word – that something settled down and completely relaxed in me. I shared with everyone what happened. "Andrew, I don't understand," I said, "I've been meditating for thirty years, but nothing like this has ever happened to me; I never had such a meditation. What happened?" "It's very simple," Andrew replied, "you're a narcissist, so even your meditation is for yourself. Last night you meditated for me. That's what made all the difference."
December 26, 2008, at Foxhollow, MA, USA
"We've been putting so much energy, time and money into it and it never took off," said Andrew, "so, as disappointing as it is for me and for everybody, we decided to close the Israeli center. I want you to move back to Foxhollow and be part of the core group here."
I sank in my chair as if all energy was drained out of my body. The room turned darker suddenly. A horrible feeling of total and final failure came over me. But it wasn't the failure of our Israeli center and of me as its co-leader. At that moment I sensed that for me, it would be the failure of my relationship with Andrew and the promise it had carried.
In a way, it was the culmination of a half-year process, in which my mistrust in Andrew's motivation was growing – mistrust of his willingness to support me in the independence, strength, creativity and responsibility I was discovering. The stronger and more independent I became, as a leader and a cultural activist, the more I felt tension growing between us. Having me back in Foxhollow also meant that I would be again in Andrew's sphere of tight control, and a major setback to my growing autonomy.
From the bottom of the sinkhole I heard myself mumbling "I cannot do that. I cannot leave Israel and all the projects I'm involved in. That would be completely wrong." "Why don't you think about it, and let's talk again tomorrow," said Andrew. "I think it would be good for you to be here, with your brothers and close to me. You've become a leader, and here you'd be part of the worldwide revolution, rather than wasting your time in Israel." "I cannot leave Israel," I repeated, now with a little more determination, "that would be a total let-down of my friends and colleagues there, and of my own integrity. I'm not going to do that."
As I stepped out of Andrew's office into the freezing wind and started walking back to the house where I was staying during my visit, I already knew that that conversation marked the end of my relationship with Andrew as my teacher. It was the first time in nearly 22 years that I told him directly that he was wrong and that I wasn't going to obey his instructions. This meant that I trusted myself more than I trusted him. This meant the termination of our teacher-student "contract". But at that moment, it also meant to me failure, disappointment and heartache. I was left with a big, gaping "What Was It All About?"
Five years later, Andrew’s worldwide organization of EnlightenNext collapsed. I decided to even more fully engage with the questions I was left with as a student and take their exploration as far as I could, at least for myself at this point in my spiritual process. I didn't know where it would lead or what discoveries I would make in the process, but just the idea of diving into these questions made my nerves tingle with excitement.
I started by reading every book and article on the subject I could find, and taking my first steps in interviewing teachers and students in Israel. My very first interview was with a British Sufi teacher Peter (Hakim) Young who was visiting Israel with his Israeli-born wife. We met on a sunny morning in a café on Sheinkin Street in Tel Aviv, and I vividly remember the first exchange in that first interview. I asked Hakim to tell me about his relationship with his teacher, Bulent Rauf, and he replied that the man never regarded himself as a teacher but as "a fellow student." "Gosh," I thought to myself, "this project is going to be trickier than I thought…"
My second interviewee was Aikido teacher Miles Kessler, in another café in Tel Aviv. At the end of the interview I asked him if he was willing to refer me to a couple of his students to interview, and his response seriously impressed me: "Since you heard from me only good things about myself," he said, "I think you should get a more balanced picture, so I'll introduce you to two former students of mine with whom the relationship did not end well. If they agree to be interviewed, I think you'll get quite a different perspective from them." Indeed, the picture I got from those former students was much more complex and dilemmatic than I got from him.
I went on to interview about a dozen teachers in Israel, from Zen masters to Jewish Rabbis, and a few of their students including British Vipassanā teacher Christopher Titmuss, American teacher Gabriel Cousens and two Tibetan Rinpoches while they were visiting the country. Israel is a mecca for spiritual teachers. During that initial process I built a list of ten basic questions, which I used as the basis of each interview and from which I happily diverted into whatever interesting subject came up during the interview. I soon discovered that teachers were generally clearer and had more to say than students about what it meant to be a student, based on their experience with their teachers, and in many interviews with teachers we devoted a good part of the interview to their experience as students.
After this first round of interviews in Israel, and with the generous help of "Buddha at the Gas Pump" interviewer Rick Archer, interfaith dialogue advocate Kurt Johnson and some of my friends in Europe and the US, I started to contact teachers from other parts of the world and ask them for an interview about their relationship with their own teacher and with their students.
I was surprised by the high ratio of positive responses I received. Within a few months I had conducted about 30 more interviews, most of them by Skype and a few in face-to-face meetings during trips I made to the UK and the US. About half of the interviews were with teachers and half were follow-up interviews with their students. Reading through the interviews and considering the excerpts, I realized that the most potent parts in each interview to me were those where I sensed a paradox or an unresolved question or dilemma, suggested by the interviewee's hesitation, inconsistency, vagueness or confusion. I remember the conversation at the dinner table in which I excitedly told my wife that I came upon what would be the heart of my book – paradoxes and dilemmas in the teacher-student relationship.
I went on and conducted many more interviews, but from that point on I decided to make the paradoxes and dilemmas in the relationship the center of the book. I became interested in the types of relationship in which those were most prominent. This necessarily meant I was interested in the "Spiritual Mentorship" and "Root Guru-Disciple Relationship" which is described in the next chapter. It is a relationship characterized by a high level of commitment, involvement on many levels, and a certain intensity of intimacy or love between teacher and student.
After conducting nearly a hundred interviews, of which about a third were with teachers and two-thirds with students, and forming a list of a dozen paradoxes and dilemmas, I decided to dedicate each chapter in the book to a specific paradox or dilemma, and demonstrate that paradox or dilemma by one or two interviews, in which it is most clearly evident. This meant that most of the interviews I conducted were not included in the book.
 Foxhollow was the world center of EnlightenNext, the worldwide organization and spiritual community that grew around Andrew, with a dozen centers in Europe, the US, Israel and India. Andrew and 60-70 of his students lived in Foxhollow, and the place functioned also as an ashram or a monastery, where people practiced meditation and different physical practices a few hours a day, and engaged in intensive individual and collective enquiry.