A Feminist who has a Male Spiritual Teacher?

Posted on March 25th, by Elizabeth Debold in Andrew Cohen, Blog, Consciousness, Culture, Feminism, Uncategorized, Women's liberation. 14 comments

Fourteen years ago, I was forty years old, had recently received my doctorate from Harvard where I’d worked with Carol Gilligan in a small research collective that was charting new developmental pathways for girls and women, and had co-authored a bestselling book about how to transform the mother-daughter relationship in the hopes that the next generations of women could grow into fullness and power. While I couldn’t say that it was consciously intentional, my life was an almost systematic search for the keys that would unleash new potentials in women, and between women and men, that would transform our culture. I started with feminist activism and consciousness raising, moved to psychotherapy, tried assertiveness and other forms of skill-building training, and then to the dynamics of human development. Where was the lynchpin? I asked. How could true partnership and equality between the sexes become a living reality? What did that mean for women and their development? These were the questions that drove me. So, you can imagine the surprise, and even shock, among my sisters-at-arms in the women’s movement when I became the committed student of a male spiritual teacher, Andrew Cohen.

What was that about? they wondered. I remember having dinner with a friend, a powerful voice for women’s participation in politics, and saw her watch me for signs of…insanity, imbalance, or something that would give her a clue as to why, at this rising point in my life, I had seemingly jumped the rails and gone so off track. Was it the well-documented fear of success that had been studied in women? Could it be that some deep longing for a father figure had overtaken my desire for autonomy? Another dear friend, an author who had written several groundbreaking books on women, squinted at me, and asked if I was in love with this man, this spiritual teacher? There had to be something, some reason that I would have been compelled to turn away from the life I had been living and join a spiritual experiment led by this man, Andrew Cohen.

There certainly was a reason, but its source was not the usual psychological dynamics that we are all so familiar with. Sure, structures of insecurity and dependence are part of any woman’s psyche. But that wasn’t it. While I had not even articulated this to myself yet, it was slowly dawning on me that feminism, and women-centered psychology, had hit a dead end in the path toward a genuinely new future. I don’t mean that there was anything wrong or misguided in women’s search for voice, empowerment, deeper relationship, and self-worth. In fact, such work still is essential to our collective development as women. But all of that was somehow remedial and rooted in victimization, rather than transformative. If women’s liberation was essential to the further liberation and development of humanity, which I believed, then what would that look like? In culture, including within feminist enclaves, we only really had two models: the kind of achievement and ambition that had been defined by men or the caring, relationality and nurturance that had defined women. The feminist movement swung between the two, advocating that women deserved equal rights or that we spoke with a different voice. Was it possible to integrate the two? Was such integration even desirable? We were caught between two poles, poles that had been defined by the opposition that created the biases and dynamics between the sexes in the first place. Nothing truly new or liberated existed in either position.

In meeting Andrew Cohen, another possibility awoke in me–something that at the time I couldn’t articulate but found so compelling that I had to pursue it. Andrew, knowing of my life’s work, spoke to me then with great urgency about women’s spiritual liberation–how important it was, and how committed he was to creating the context in which a group of women could realize that liberation. Simultaneously and paradoxically, I found his words absolutely frightening and absolutely thrilling. I had never really defined myself as a “spiritual” person, but what he was saying made deep sense to me. If we were to go beyond what was now possible for women and men in culture, we would have to change fundamentally. Whatever was meant by “spiritual” seemed to point to the level at which that change would have to happen.

A few weeks later, I got a glimpse of what that might mean. I wasn’t doing anything in particular when, like a smack on the back of my head, I realized something about my encounter with Andrew. He wanted nothing from me. He only wanted my liberation. In an instant, I saw that every encounter that I had had with men was tangled up in an unvoiced reciprocal web of wanting–and I don’t simply mean sexual desire or flirtation. It went deeper than that–as though in every encounter there were subtle trade-offs by which we constantly validated each other and created each other as the women and men we are now. In the next second, I realized that this was true, but in a different way, in my relationships with women. But Andrew wasn’t part of that suffocating web of need and want. He was free of it. And in that recognition simultaneously was my own freedom. More importantly, in standing in that freedom together, I knew that women and men could meet on entirely new ground.

Even so, had you asked me, I might have said that Andrew’s being a man and my teacher was something like a cosmic accident. He just happened to be male, which was helpful because it gave him a very clear perspective on limitations that I took for granted. It was only years later, that I realized how significant this fact is. I now appreciate that everything I needed to know was in that first meeting–that moment seems to exist in a dimension outside of time and each choice in my life plays out against a backdrop of the potential that was enfolded in it. On this occasion, Andrew said to me and a few of my spiritual sisters, “If you realized that I am a man, and through me you have realized liberation, that could take you all the way.” For a few moments, my feminist alarm bells started to clang, ringing out the usual messages of mistrust and warnings of oppression: What? Who does he think he is to say that his being a man would liberate us women? But I knew that wasn’t what he meant. For days, those words of his burrowed beneath my superficial feminist habits and reactions, hitting home in a place in myself that went beyond my identification with being a woman or with him being a man. Suddenly I got it: the fact that in meeting him, I met the new, the unconditioned and free in myself meant that freedom has no gender. In meeting a true teacher, the sages say, one encounters one’s True Self–simultaneously as the teacher and as the deepest truth of who one is. In that place there is no separation, no opposition between female and male. In fact, there is no Other.

Amazingly, I’ve come to realize that Andrew being a man is essential to my liberation. Why, said one well-intentioned feminist friend, if you wanted to dive into the spiritual life, couldn’t you have found a woman teacher? But had I done so, I would have clung steadfastly to my identification with being a woman, first, as the most essential aspect of who I am. And it is not! In this dimension of freedom, this place before and beyond time that is who we all are most deeply, there is no gender–because freedom has no history. It has no past, and in the spiritual work we are doing, that freedom from the past is the first step. As Andrew has written, “Truth has no gender. It has no name and has no face. That’s why it is a mystery and that’s why it will always be a mystery….” Through that mystery, an enormous potential is born that releases us from the limitations of who we have been–personally and culturally. It is up to us to make good on that potential. And then discover and create who we are as women and men based on that truth that has no gender.

14 responses to “A Feminist who has a Male Spiritual Teacher?”

  1. Catherine says:

    Dear Elizabeth,

    I loved your blog, especially the part where you talk about Andrew wanted nothing from you. I got the same feeling strongly. I also was very inspired by the part where you say that Truth has no gender. I have this impression very strongly as well, that anything which is transcendent has no gender at all.

    In my work as a physicist, people say I have a very masculine mind, or that I am a very tough woman etc…sometimes I wonder what “ having a masculine mind means”’. I sit get getting some scientific ideas which turn out to be correct ? getting right idea has no gender at all, it is just being in the Truth.

    Where I stop to understand is when you say that that only a male teacher could have helped you to grow out of your feminism. I agree with the friend who asked you the question, that it is a logical fault. If Truth has really no gender, then you could have as well met a woman teacher. She just would have had to be at least at the same level as Andrew. For example Vimala Takhar could have been your teacher . She had transcended the gender problem in a way that few human beings have done, and then she would have been completely apt to be at the level as your teacher.

    When you say that if you had not met a man you would have clung to your old feminist habits, your just say something you cannot know . Life, or the force of Evolution has its own solutions to problems and it happens that for you, the solution was to meet Andrew and he happens to be man. hat is all that can be said.

    If we really believe that Truth has no gender, then it really doesn’t matter, and a Truly enlightened master, man of woman, would be able to convey the solution to a problem of “clinging to a feminist view”.
    Then it is just a question of the level of attainment of the Spiritually Enlighten Teacher, nothing more.

    Do you agree ?

    Best wishes, Catherine

    • Elizabeth Debold says:

      Dear Catherine,

      Thank you very much for your thorughtful comment and question. I wasn’t just speaking about my feminist views, but about my fundamental sense of being a woman. Identification with being a woman is a very strong aspect of the conditioned self, particularly in our postmodern times, and that identification runs very deep–often it is a central organizing principle of the self that is complete. But most spiritual teachers don’t really look into questions of gender or culture and their influence on us as human beings. And in fact, most women spiritual teachers identify with being women–manifest as the Feminine Divine, the Divine Mother, the Ma. Andrew Cohen places a particular focus on going beyond this kind of identification–and as a man, and finding myself not separate with him in the deepest truth of who we are as consciousness evolving, shows the fallacy and superficiality of that identificaiton.


      • Catherine says:

        Again, take a teacher like Vimala Thakar. She was a woman, and she could have been your teacher, addressing the same issues as Andrew addresses about the woman’s conditioning.

        Hence she is the proof that gender doesn’t matter for getting a teacher: only his level.

        This was my point. I agree with you that most of the women Teachers still identify with the Divine Mother, but we have at least one counter example (Vimala), and it is enough to sustain the idea that only the level of attainment is important, not the gender.

  2. Liesbeth says:

    Dear Catherine, sorry to jump in at this moment. I think you are very right. But I experience the blog of Elizabeth very different (and I am not talking about you).
    It resonated very much with me in connection to a post that I wrote to her last blog, which was about romantics and ‘the second sex’ which brought back to me ideas I had a long time ago. Even though her answer is about Spirit, it is also about new feminism which is more about us as women. Young women might not believe it, but during the previous feminist period we really had to fight for equality in relationships and work; to be taken serious that was the main thing. What I realized the last few days, is what has happened is that we ‘like the good stuff, but not the pain’. Yesterday I read an article that women, although highly educated, prefer to have ‘fun jobs’, part-time and not to stressful it seems that 70% of the medical students in Holland are women and there is a real fear (in the newspaper) that we will have a shortage of doctors in the future, with our mentality as women. I think it was Elizabeth who once told that women do go into the army now but as soon as it becomes dangerous, get pregnant. I just saw a movie which made me see why: one and a half hour I sat with four guys in the inside of a tank entering the war in Lebanon. I always thought that people in the war are different, but what I saw in the movie I also saw with my very tough male neighbor when he came back from Afghanistan. He was like these guys in the movie: real war is something different than training, it was mind-blowing to experience this so directly. Women like the equality and the training, like being tough. But no sane person goes to war without real necessity. New feminism is about making real choices: if we decide to be in the army, than take the consequences, we can do it, no doubt but why would we want it..; it is us now that has to show that we can live the conquered equality.

  3. EnlightenNext’s Elizabeth Debold has a great new blog post about being a feminist and having a male spiritual teacher http://bit.ly/bZahGd

  4. jantu says:

    we have not “conquered equality”, that is pure fantasy. there is a window, created by our feminist sisters, but 21st century women still haven’t opened that window, we are barely looking through it. even active feminists have rested on their laurels and allowed the increasing sexism of the past decade to creep up on them. Women, sisters, there is a huge fight on our hands. So rise up, walk on.

  5. Olga says:

    When I read the part where Elizabeth describes her first meeting with Andrew, it resonates completely with my experience when being with him, something I only realized quite recently. It is when I actually engage with him, (as supposed to just sticking my head out), I realize who I am. It can’t be described in normal relationship-terms; it is not like being with someone you have always known, a close family member, a soul mate… it is beyond relationship. With him we meet walking talking go-baby-go-oneness.
    Contemplating the fact that he is a man, I DO think it is significant.
    If He had been a She, she could be a manifestation of that same go-baby-go-oneness, she might allso have brought evolutionary enlightenment to the world, but then I would most likely by default, and even unconsciously, draw the conclusion that what I experienced with her, was inherently female! -Would that conclusion lead me/us to freedom? I think not, quite the opposite!
    So in him and with him, we realize who we are beyond gender, and we realize a sacred dimension to human relationship that sets a very high standard, for who we are, and how we want to be together.

    “If you realized that I am a man, and through me you have realized liberation, that could take you all the way.”
    Look foreward to follow the comments on this one, and go deeper together and all the way!

  6. Lee Chalmers says:

    I totoally agree with what you have been saying for some time now about the need to move beyond gender. Not just a need for women to do this, for all of us to do this. Or else we are not going to have the capacity to see the future through. I just wrote a blog post on this topic.



    • Elizabeth Debold says:

      Thanks so much, Lee. I enjoyed your post, too. The habit of looking for and constantly reinforcing gender as an all-or-nothing male vs. female category is a very deep structure in consciousness in modernity. Transcending that is our crucial next step.

  7. dominique says:

    Dear All, thanks Elisabeth for your article and your honnest and deep thoughts. I agree with you that ultimate truth is beyond gender, but its human manifestation and perception has indeed a gender content, the same way it has a cultural and educational content and context. As a matter of fact, human consciousness is nothing else than “Truth” ( still partly unknown) becoming , and evolving into a human, and therefore also a gender context. We are nothing more and nothing less than that .. Andrew is a spiritual teacher, but he is also a male most of the time , you can feel the way he is speaking, and interacting with others. Even his moustache is a sign that he wants to be recalled as a man. Nothing wrong with that ….As a matter of fact, he has to be a male because it is partly from there that he is getting some source of energy,, from there that he can channel, at a very inconscious level, his human form of truth. The problem is to know how much his male dimension is challenging your female dimension, and in which way. If Andrew was called Elisabeth or Catherine for eg, she would probably have a different teaching force . She would probably be less pushing on the “becoming urgency” , and may be more putting the emphasis on the “emerging holism”, for exemple ( which is also evolutionary). What I mean is that the packaging of the so called spiritual truth, has definitively a cultural and gender content and context, whoever channels it. Acknowledging that reality does not diminuish the value of Andrew teaching, it just puts it into its own human context. best, Domninique

    • Elizabeth Debold says:

      Dear Dominique,
      Thank you for a great response! What is amazing is that it is possible, only now among us privileged postmoderns, to actually shift one’s fundamental identification to align with the ultimate reality of being and becoming, rather than with one’s gender. Such a shift doesn’t deny that we are embodied male or female, but from it one sees sex difference as a happenstance of this incarnation. Andrew Cohen’s “becoming urgency” is that alignment with the universal creative force of consciousness. When a woman aligns with that principle of the cosmos, she expresses the same becoming urgency. While we have been culturally conditioned to see Eros (another name for this creative principle) as masculine, it isn’t. Check out my first post on this blog for more on this…The Eros (Wo)manifesto.

  8. dominique says:

    Dear Elisabeth,

    thanks for your response, and fully agreed that the cosmic process that is going through the human species is hapenning well beyond the gender differences. A a matter of fact, the gender conditioning we are experiencing evolves,.. as all the rest of the cosmos..Gender is only a more refined and cultural construction of sex in the human species . We all know that sex originally was invented by life first to increase its resilience on the earth, and above all, to be able to evolve through its natural genetic engeenering sexual process. In other words , sex and then gender were made to allow evolution ! Today we are reaching a point where that biological and then cultutal “cosmic tool” may become more and more obsolete , with the increasing mastering of life technologies . It is not casual that you are working on redefining gender in a spiritual context. It can happen only because others are working on reengeneering new life forms, and processes, that all together hopefully will speed up the evolution process ( or destroy it on the earth ..). These are signs that the becoming urgency is accelerating at many paralell levels, without we seem to realise it. It may be that one day, we decide as a species, to abandon the sexual life, and invent a new type of life. To be frank with you, I am not yet ready for that..that would need a Resurection, but today is Easter, so you never know…very best wishes , Dominique

    • Catherine says:

      Hi Dom,

      Would you say that all human activities have a gender ?
      The point made is that Truth, Thinking, all that touch the Absolute, has no gender at all.

      I believe it is what you mean when you say that gender is a product of Evolution. At some point we might end up to transcend completely this notion of gender, and this is happening with the development of our capacities to Touch the absolute.

      • dominique says:

        Hi Catherine,

        Thanks engaging a dialogue. Yes, agreed, human consciousness includes many interconnected layers, some of them being certainly gender related, and others being deeper , such the one you mention ( closer to the level of the ground of being) which do have no gender.

        Evolution to be real and efficient , does need to align to its deepest levels, and in that sense,indeed, it has to relate to the non gender levels of human consciousness.

        So if one is able to evolve without relating to his or her gender, it strongly indicates that he or she is evolving from his or her deeper level, meaning evolving higher and quicker .

        best ,



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