Tuesday, July 28, 2009

For poker fans...

The 2009 World Series of Poker (WSOP) is complete... except for the final table of the main event, which is delayed till November to build suspense and marketing opportunities. It should be an exciting finish, with super-star Phil Ivey among the remaining nine contenders.

Recorded coverage of the action so far begins tonight on ESPN. The WSOP was over a month long, with different tournaments played every day, culminating with the "main event" (no-limit hold-em with a $10K entry fee). The winner of this final event is informally consider the world champion of poker for the year. Top prize is over $8 million. Ivey is rumored to have several side bets and promotional deals worth tens of millions more if he wins.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

New Media, Old Teachings

At Empty Gate Zen Center, new resident monk Kwan Sahn Su Nim is getting a few more videos onto our YouTube channel. Below is an excerpt from the weekly Q&A with Zen Master Bon Soeng (Jeff Kitzes):

KSSN is also maintaining our active presence on Facebook and Twitter. Here's a recent tweet, quoting from old Chinese Zen Master Nam Cheon:
Understanding is illusion, not understanding is blankness. If you understand the way of not thinking, it is like space, clear and void.
To get some context on this quote, here's a right-to-the-point Dharma Talk from Zen Master Dae Kwang (Abbott of the Kwan Um School of Zen, friend and frequent visitor to Empty Gate).

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Andrew Cohen

Andrew Cohen is a moderately popular teacher/figure in the spiritual subculture. His rise to fame began with a visit to India in the mid-80s, where he met guru Hari Lal Poonja (aka Papaji). Andrew had some big special experience; Papaji looked in his eyes and declared the young man as his enlightened spiritual successor.

After a period of gloppy devotion to Papaji, Cohen rejected his former Master, and set out a-guruing on his own. He attracted his own mother as a disciple. Mom eventually concluded that sonny had gotten a bit full of himself; she left his group and denounced Andrew in her book Mother of God. (When your Jewish mother stops supporting you, you know there's some seriously bad weirdness going on.)

These days, Cohen has been partnering with author and self-aggrandizing philosopher Ken Wilber. Wilber has a history of glorifying authoritarian teachers, having gushed for years over bizarre guru Adi Da. Wilber refers to Cohen as a "Crazy Wisdom Teacher," which I believe is spiritual-speak for "He's an a**hole."

Cohen has been credibly accused of all sorts of deception and abuse of his followers (see the wonderful memoir Enlightenment Blues for details). Recently, the blog WHAT enlightenment??! has re-opened, for former students to reveal secrets and criticize Andrew and his org. Below are the comments I contributed yesterday to this blog's discussion. For context, see the original posting for these comments, The Truth Will Set You Free.

George said... the fact is just about everyone around him has those experiences.

It's not that Andrew demonstrates the power to reliably induce big special experiences. It's not that he could, for instance, take a randomly-selected group, move them into his community, and have them all report stunning experiences after a few days or weeks.

Rather: The people who encounter Andrew are a self-selected group who want special experiences. The price that Andrew demands (in money and subservience) insures those with the most desperate wants are the only ones that stick around.

Suppose that 1 in 20 people who come to Andrew indeed get a big experience. The other 95% soon wander off. The 5% from each new wave of arrivals accumulate around Andrew (the secret is volume). Eventually, there's the illusion that Andrew induces big experiences in most people who meet him. This is not the case… though it does require some careful critical thinking to see through the superficial appearance.

Carlos B said... Mata Amritanandamayi… It seems to me to be the perfect justification for Cohen's behaviour - particularly later in the article where she talks about the need to discipline her followers and the requirement of absolute obedience to the guru.

It’s not for nothing that Amritanandamayi has her followers call her “Amma” meaning “Mother.” All of us start out life as blind followers of our parents; otherwise, we’d have little chance of surviving childhood. As adults, we gradually learn to think independently. We do so to different degrees, and at different paces.

A percentage of the population look to rekindle the dependency, devotion, or absolute faith that we had for our parents as kids. They'll seek and find someone to play the role of a perfect parent. Either it’ll be an Andrew-like or Amma-like guru, or another person, or group, or belief-system, used with similar (if unconscious) intention.

Simon said... make no mistake, meeting a truly enlightened being is major catalyst for spiritual exploration.

We have no definition to use in determining who’s a “truly enlightened being,” so I don’t know how helpful this concept is.

True, many people have big special experiences when in the presence of an explicit guru (a person on a big chair, dressed in a fancy costume, speaking beautiful words, surrounded by like-thinking followers, accompanied by an attractive environment with tinkly music etc). Many many other people get big special experiences from a mind-stopping situation that doesn’t involve any enlightenment-claiming guru. In the US, most people who get transforming special experiences find them in charismatic churches, without any Indian-style guru involved.

Carlos B said... shouldn't love and compassion always be at the very center of a spiritual practise rather than speculative, self agrandising attempts to explain life, the universe and everything?

There’s no universal authority to tell us what the center of a practice (i.e., our life-direction, the thing we hold as most important) should be. So it’s our privilege/burden to decide for ourselves.

Should the most important thing be clarity and compassion towards each being we encounter? Or should it be a self-aggrandizing attempt to gain superior understanding or become more "evolved" than others? We can experiment with both paths, and see how it works out. We can be aware that it’s our own choice to make.

Anonymous said... What I would encourage you all to do is file a class action law suit against this creep and sue him for all the pain and suffering he's caused you… Just shut him down so he isn't continuing to do these things.

Or... we could focus on our own lives, our moment-to-moment thoughts and actions. If we don’t want to follow Andrew, no one is forcing us. If other people choose to follow Andrew in spite of readily-available warnings, we can leave them alone. People have their own ideas and situations; it’s not mandatory to force anything on others (by suing or shutting anyone down).

Maybe the most effective medicine is for each of us to think independently… rather than believing that the cause of suffering is rooted in some external evil.

philip said... [those who] doubt the intelligence and/or strength of character of those who [follow Cohen]: read those studies by Janis, Milgram, Asch and Zimbardo.

Many guru-types claim to have magical energy, or “shakti” that gives people special experiences. Superficially, followers can feel the energy flowing from the guru’s body, or photo, or from objects he's touched.

In controlled testing, there’s never any support for these magical claims. Desire, expectation, and belief (especially with group support) have been proven effective in inducing special experiences. But no guru's claim of magical energy has been supported by evidence.

There are people who are intelligent in some areas, but lack the skills to critically examine and test such claims. Critical thinking (a learned skill) does make a difference. You don’t have to be a Physics PhD; a basic understanding of scientific method is enough to detect the BS. People who lack this understanding/skill... can develop it with some effort and attention.

you must conclude you are probably more conformist than you like to think. The vital finding from those works is that the sense of independence westerners are so fond of entertaining is rarely put to the test, and largely illusory.

On the contrary… in Milgram’s experiment, most people sheepishly followed authority, but others refused to obey. There were those who were guided by their own independent thinking and ethics, and rejected the orders.

In the decades since Milgram’s experiment, society has moved further from blind conformity (pushed along by Vietnam, Watergate, counter-cultures, and free-flowing information). Were the experiment repeated today, maybe there'd be fewer blind followers.

Milgram proved that some people have a strong tendency to obey authority, while others do not. There are skills we can develop that affect which group we fall into. The lesson is not that we’re helpless against persuasion techniques. It’s that some people think and act less independently than others.

ordinary people who... assume immunity from manipulators like Cohen.

Metaphorically… beer companies put out highly attractive commercials, which induce some people to become drunks. But mostly we’re not helpless in the face of intense persuasion. We can learn to think independently in the face of authority, persuasion, and group-think. Rather than focus exclusively on “manipulation” by gurus or groups or beer commercials… it may be more efficient to examine our own minds, to see what’s at the root of our desire to believe and obey and follow. We can perceive the roots of gullibility in our own thought-process. Then we begin to have more choice as to whether we ultimately believe in authorities and groups and belief-systems… or in ourselves.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Pulling a Geographic (Part 2)

Finishing up my thoughts on traveling and nomadic life (which I began in June's Part 1 post)...

I first heard the phrase after I'd returned from my time in India and was settling into the Bay Area. The local paper used the AA term "pulling a geographic" to describe people who wanted to relocate in an effort to fix/reboot their lives. For decades, the prime destination for Americans pulling a geographic was the San Francisco region. Since globe-trotting often fails to alter deep life issues, this resulted in the abundance of therapists, spiritual groups, etc, hereabouts.

At the time, there was speculation that Seattle was taking over as the place to P a G. Who knows. I do seem to encounter an unusual number of nomadic people where I live. Maybe it's that California has so many folks who grew up in the East, and traveled in an effort to get as far away from their home towns as possible (without having to swim or get a passport).

Maybe I just get attracted to such people because I find the adventurous spirit interesting. Maybe it's that people attracted to new places and experiences are more likely to show up at the Zen Center I frequent.

In Korea, some Zen monks are called "floating clouds," since they're always wandering. Others are called "blue mountains," since they stay in one place. Maybe some of us get attached to familiar surroundings, and can work on this by travelling. Others may be attached to avoiding the challenges and commitments of long-term connections, and face that by being stationary. The outside situation is a tool to work with, but the bottom line isn't coming or going. It's how I keep my mind this moment.

Years ago, a friend told me that his "ace in the hole" for dealing with difficult relationships was to move to a new town. He's not around here any more... but he did end up getting married and having kids. The "floating cloud" mind does seem to be more prevalent in youth. Maybe there's something genetic about our urge to spread ourselves around the planet when we're young, and that tendency wanes as we pass prime procreation age.

Me, I'm approaching two decades living in the same apartment, and it's not just because of biology or rent control. Lots of my youthful travels -- certainly to India -- were driven by the sense that there might be some special Experience, some higher Truth, to be found out there. The more I appreciate the Truth that's always right in front of me, the more I honor the job of relating to whatever being/situation has appeared just now... the less I feel a desire to be elsewhere.