This excerpt from a 2014 “dharma talk” by disgraced former Dharma Ocean founder Reggie Ray provides a textbook example of how the terror of disorganized attachment – as analyzed by cult survivor and researcher Alexandra Stein – can be framed as a spiritual necessity.
This theme is especially prominent within the Trungpa mythology. Pema Chodron reveals it here.
There’s not a lot of analysis required, but I’ll add some notes in red to the transcript. Ray succinctly provides a perfect vignette of the terror-euphoria cycle that characterizes the trauma bonding that Stein argues is central to cultic coherence. Of course this is not his framework. He’s telling the story as a kind of hero’s journey that has the secondary advantage of justifying a continuation of these dynamics within his own circle.
And so we have this very ambivalent reaction, I think, to the path, very ambivalent response, which I myself often felt with Rinpoche. I would spend time with him, I would sit down to dinner with him or a more likely lunch at the picnic tables in Tail of the Tiger and he would be sitting there. I would come downstairs, Oh, I’m sure he’s there. He’s having lunch. And of course nobody’s sitting around him and there’s a reason for that. So, you know, um, you know, I’m in Chicago in graduate school and I come and visit and I think, okay, this is my big chance.
“Ambivalent” is a misleading framework here. In the literature of Klein and others, ambivalence refers to a maturation beyond idealization, through which a person can come to understand the blending of good and not-good qualities that characterize the psyche. Ray goes on to describe extreme idealization, and being terrified.
So I sit down next to him, Rinpoche, and suddenly I am overcome with terror. And I’m not exaggerating. I start [hyperventilating]. You felt like your clothes were totally stripped off at all times and you try to say something like, Hi, Rinpoche.
The stripping off of clothes, used here as metaphor for spiritual transparency, is ironic given Trungpa’s serial sexual abuse, including the criminal act – around that time period – of having W.S. Merwin and Dana Noane forcibly stripped of their clothes at a party at the Boulder temple in 1973.
And the amazing thing was, I think it was his field of awareness. You saw this pitiful, pathetic, terrified little person basically trying to get a handle on them and you’re trying to manipulate him and you’re trying to get him to acknowledge you and all I said was, Hi, Rinpoche and all of a sudden my whole thing is totally exposed and then of course the big problem is lunch has just started.
Note that the student in fear is labelled as “pathetic” and “pitiful” – as if this were there nature state of original sin – instead of someone responding reasonably to psychosocial stress.
And I would start to sweat and I would more than anything I wanted him to like say back Hi, but he didn’t, he would just turn slowly and look at me and I many times thought I’m either going to faint or I’m going to die. Those are the only two possibilities. It was so hard being around him and it was so hard being around the community for the same reason. Somehow we created a situation where everybody’s mask was basically, I wouldn’t say it was off, but it was falling off all the time and you kept trying to put it back on and I could falling off.
Note the absence of any question as to why Trungpa doesn’t give a response. What appears to be callous neglect is framed as transcendent wisdom.
At Tail of the Tiger, there was this long driveway and I used to take the bus up and they would drop me off. At the end of the driveway. And the minute I got off the bus, I would start to feel like throwing up and I would feel like throwing up from that moment until I got back on the bus three or four days later, a week later, whatever it was. But here’s the ambivalence, which I think we all feel. I would, um, I get away from him because I spent half my time trying to be closer to him and the other half trying to get away from him.
Here Ray discloses that he was violently ill whenever he was close to his master. He’s describing what Stein analyzes as the state of “fright without solution” that provokes disorganized attachment behaviours. To quote:
[Disorganized attachment] responses occur when a child has been in a situation of fright without solution. Their caregiver is at once the safe haven and also the source of threat or alarm. So, when the child feels threatened by the caregiver, he or she is caught in an impossible situation: both comfort and threat are represented by the same person — the caregiver. The child experiences the unresolvable paradox of seeking to simultaneously flee from and approach the caregiver. This happens at a biological level, not thought out or conscious, but as evolved behavior to fear. The child attempts to run TO and flee FROM the caregiver at one and the same time… However, in most cases the need for proximity — for physical closeness — tends to override attempts to avoid the fear-arousing caregiver. So usually the child stays close to the frightening parent while internally both their withdrawal and approach systems are simultaneously activated, and in conflict.
— Stein, Alexandra. Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017. Loc. 894
And when I would get away from him. Um, even during seminars, you know, you go through these, you know, periods cause he hung around the house, you know, he, he was in the dining room, he was talking to people, he was, he was there. So it was in your face a lot of the time. And it was a very small community at that time. Very, very small. And, um, what I would do is after his afternoon talk, he would talk after lunch in about to, um, during the warm weather. There was, uh, it was a Hill up in, back. And I, like many of us I had a little tent cause the farmhouse couldn’t like, couldn’t sleep very many people. And um, about two o’clock or three I would go up and I go to bed for the night.
Personal anecdote: in both of the high-demand groups I was in it was very common for the stress of the group meditations and activities to be so excruciating that group members would try to disappear for as long as they could avoid their service work. Dead-to-the-world naps or hour-long weeping jags were common. We would whisper to each other that “the transformation is intense” or “these practices go so deep” or “I’m converting so much right now.” For the most part, however, I believe we were trying to recover, and unwittingly sharing the group’s propaganda amongst ourselves to reassure us that the cycles were spiritually appropriate.
But then I would wake up the next morning and I would be in a different place. And suddenly the feeling of being completely suffocated by my own vomit and my own shit and the feeling of, uh, incredible, overwhelming anxiety all the time, which really I felt that much of the time when I was in the in the first year, first year or two, um, it would be completely gone. And I would get up and you know, you know how it goes because you go through this too and look outside and it’s an unbelievable day you’ve ever seen. And you look at the mountains and you smell the air and um, you, you feel the warmth of the sun and you feel so open and you run into parts of yourself that you didn’t even know where there. Beautiful parts and inspired parts and open. And you look at people’s faces and you see them and you feel the tremendous sense of their sacredness and you feel love for them.
Stein describes a paradoxical moment of relief when the nervous response to cultic stress collapses into fold or fawning mode. She writes:
Giving in – dissociating and ceasing to think – is experienced as relief. In my own experience I remember well this sensation: overwhelmed with confusion and exhaustion, the thoughts that were trying to enter the cognitive part of my brain just could not make it there and they fell back out of consciousness. Simultaneously I stopped struggling and decided to commit myself more fully to the group even though I disagreed with it. That too felt like relief – I didn’t have to fight anymore. In fact, as we shall see later in more detail, key regions of the brain that connect emotional (largely right brain) and cognitive processing (largely left brain) are shut down in the disorganized and dissociated state.
I can report from interviews with and reading the testimonies of students of Jois, Iyengar, and others that the relief portion of this trauma-bond cycle – especially if it is also contrasted with the physical pain of yoga practice or sitting in meditation for long periods of time – can be amplified into euphoria.
And so then when lunch came, I go back into the dining room and Oh, Hi Rinpoche sitting there and no one’s sitting around him. And I would go through the whole process again. And that is the nature of the journey. And you know, at that time and later I used to think, well, is there some way I can get out of the journey and be up here and look down at myself being completely freaked out and be okay with it? And the answer is actually no. The thing about the journey is it is all consuming. We, um, many times, you know, uh, those of us who meditate would like to orchestrate our own enlightenment. We want to be in charge of what happens on our journey. And it’s understandable because that’s how we work as humans. But there’s one place where it doesn’t work. And this is it.
Ray concludes by framing the spiritual journey as a beneficent and necessary terror-euphoria loop that is to be repeated over and over again. Most disturbingly, he openly names the loss of personal agency that is central to traumatic experiences as being a positive development. Not only does he present the trauma-bond rhythm as a spiritual path, he equates the traumatic loss of agency with enlightenment.
Given Ray’s training and capacity to reframe the traumatic experiences he describes as necessary, it’s little wonder that Dharma Ocean’s dynamics go on to produce this extensive testimony of abuse.
This is a followup on notes I published about the structure, language, and impact of disorganized attachment evident in the Shambhala organization. It also provides an update on the question of Chödrön’s approach to Shambhala history, and whether it provides clarity or obfuscation in relation to the present revelations of institutional abuse.
On July 13th, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse (Khyentse Norbu) cited Chödrön’s 1993 interview with Tricycle as a laudable example of how a Vajrayana student is to view and contemplate their teacher. However, Norbu incorrectly dated Chödrön’s statement to 2015. I argued that this unfortunately could create the unfair impression that Chödrön’s 25 year-old views are current, and perhaps issued to pre-empt current criticism of Shambhala.
But in the 2011 hagiographical film “Crazy Wisdom: The Life and Times of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche” (New York: Kino Lorber), director and Trungpa student Johanna Demetrakas records Chödrön delivering an aphoristic encapsulation of her 1993 statement.
At time cue 51:00, Chödrön says:
People say to me, how could you follow a teacher like that? Or how could an enlightened person do that? I do not know. I can’t buy a party line where they say it was sacred activity or something like this. Come up with ground to make it okay. I also can’t come up with ground or a fixed idea to make it not okay. You know, I’m left, really left in that I don’t know. I don’t know. But I can’t answer the relative questions because he defied being able to answer them.
In October of last year, twelve long-time students at Dharma Village / Dharma Ocean (I’ll call them the “DO12”) published an open letter disclosing “longstanding patterns of emotional and spiritual abuse within Dharma Ocean, the Buddhist community led by Reggie Ray.”
The DO12 said they’d been inspired by two previous efforts: the 2017 letter published by eight former students of the late Sogyal Lakar, founder of Rigpa International, and the 2019 letter published by six former attendants to Mipham Mukpo, the now-exiled (but slated for reinstatement) leader of Shambhala International.
In contrast to the Rigpa and Shambhala dissidents, the DO12 do not accuse their former leader of criminal acts — with the possible exception of lying to the Crestone CO, non-profit that granted Dharma Ocean land for a retreat centre. Instead, Ray’s critics focus on a long list of fully legal but blatantly abusive tactics that form the classic modus operandi of cults. They cite psychological grooming, love bombing, the punishment of questions, public shaming, verbal abuse, triangulation, unrestrained charismatic leadership, gaslighting, and “a pervasive culture of fear and paranoia.”
Whereas the Rigpa and Shambhala letters flag assaults on group members, the DO12 articulated and impugned the general ways in which Buddhist cults assault the values they pretend to promote.
Here’s the full letter:An Open Letter on Abuse in Dharma Ocean
The day after the letter was released, the Dharma Ocean board responded by announcing Ray had recused himself from administrative and teaching responsibilities. The response acknowledged and thanked the DO12, but also rejected a number of their assertions — particularly the DO12 description of Ray and DO being impervious to feedback.
At the end of November, newly appointed board members announced that Dharma Ocean would be folding, and that Ray remained sequestered in contemplative retreat. Two letters from Ray himself in February (here and here) have confirmed the dissolution, in terms similar to those he deployed in the half-apology, half-justification video I’ll analyze below. Spoiler: Ray narrativizes the destruction of the group as poetic, intimate proof of the Buddhist theory of impermanence, a sign of successful spiritual transmission, and an appropriate ending for a worthwhile community.
It’s been a swift collapse, compared with other embattled Buddhist groups. By contrast, Shambhala hobbles onward from one quarter to the next, selling off assets and dialling up fundraising, and Rigpa moves forward in the same basic form, seemingly relieved to be decapitated. The collapse-speed makes sense, given Dharma Ocean’s small size and fatal reliance on a single charismatic leader with no clear inheritors.
From another point of view, it may be that DO12’s focus upon Ray as a controller of group dynamics — as opposed to the perpetrator of specific crimes — has dealt the decisive blow. They’ve indicted the core feature of the global convert Buddhist constellation: the grandiose, narcissistic teacher who cloaks his power in sermons on humility and empathy.
But the lack of detail also means that Ray has also been able to defend himself in very general, philosophical — even contemplative — terms. In a video response to DO12 filmed from retreat in Hawaii, Ray makes no mention of the open letter. The title is: “Reggie on His Responsibilities and Failures as a Spiritual Teacher”. It follows the basic structure of a dharma teaching: Ray slowly, methodically — hypnotically — lays out his grand themes over 54 minutes. Ray points in the direction of apology, but the gesture is swallowed up in a kabuki of teaching mudras. There are scattered notes of accountability (no plans) but they are buried in chords of metaphysical droning.
What grand themes? Well, the title could have been: “I Practiced Buddhism So Hard I Just Couldn’t Help Hurting People. But It’s All Okay.”
The video was deleted soon after it was posted. I’m reposting it here, with the transcript below, because I believe it should be preserved as an remarkable encounter with several features of charismatic leadership and how it can not only survive the demand for transparency but fold the discourse of transparency back into teacherly branding.
Side note: my impression is that turning abuse into Buddhist teaching content is a fundamental Trungpa legacy. Consider this love-letter from credibly-accused-of-multiple-assaults Shambhala leader Mipham Mukpo — Trungpa’s son — announcing his return to teaching.
Also: Ray’s video also serves as a sophisticated example of what an apology is not.
Ray opens with the declaration that he’s speaking from within a “deep, powerful, spiritual tradition.” In other words, he’s not speaking in the midst of an abuse crisis of his own making.
He goes on to frame the crisis as resulting from his own spiritual power. He claims that the power and force he derived from good understanding and practice attracted people to him. He was understandably burdened by the accumulating force of his own practice, he laments, and then victimized because he became too powerful. This all supports an effort to position himself as a newly-minted expert on “spiritual codependency.”
Throughout, Ray uses language that is on one hand abstract and distancing, yet also claims personal expertise: “So I’m not trying to make any cases here against myself particularly, but I am trying to put on the table what I’m seeing and then we’ll see where the chips fall.”
The distancing keywords also connect him with his master, Chogyam Trungpa. One keyword is “situation”, which Ray uses to both point to and deflect from the accusations made against him. The word implies a shared and equal status with his students and customers and recalls the disastrous post-“Vajra Regent” period in Shambhala history, which group members came to call “The Current Situation.”
At one point, he even cites the Vajra Regent’s (the late Thomas Rich) description of him in the 1970s as a “transparent snowflake”, using this to gesture at a natural innocence that was then corrupted by the aforementioned spiritual codependency. It’s an extremely odd moment: at best tone-deaf, at worst gaslighting. Is he really relying on a quip by Rich, a serial sexual abuser, to frame his own youthful innocence? Are we to believe this? Is this yet another example of the Trungpa legacy needing to assert that insanity and lucidity are proximal, and that insight and abuse are a matter of perspective?
Besides abstracting language, Ray also consistently employs boundary-blurring affects, most notable in an effortless slide between singular and plural first-person pronouns, and between speaking to a third-person audience, and using the power of second person address. “When you were in trouble,” he says at one point, gazing into his webcam like a father over a child’s bed, “I was able to show you a different way.” Granted: the video is made for his initiated devotees. But the ease with which he engages pronoun-merging is clearly well-practiced. How are devotees meant to distinguish their internal selves from his? Oh wait — isn’t that precisely the target of the Tantric paradigm?
Ray seems to take responsibility for his treatment of students at some points, describing himself as emotionally immature or “in denial and defensive”. He also shows a familiarity with counter-transference that might suggest he’s working on it. But then he also frames his actions through the lens of traumatic response. His cruelty or anger at his students, he explains, comes from being “triggered” or “activated”. By whom? Folks like DO12?
Ray indirectly refers to the DO12’s descriptions of emotional abuse as a lack of “consistency”: “You know, one day, I completely embodied the teachings [what a claim!] and the next day, you know, I’m irritated, I’m activated, whatever it may be. And you know, so on day one the students feel loved, received, accepted, and on day two they feel like I don’t like them.”
Ray might be describing what I’ve argued is a known feature of Trungpa’s heritage, and a common pattern in high-demand groups: the fostering of disorganized attachment, whereby trauma bonds are formed by group members who are continually confused about whether they are being cared for or abused.
But strangely, in the latter of his two recent letters, we see backtracking on this position relating to the ethics of “inconsistency”:
Complaining because your teacher is sometimes encouraging and other times quite cutting misses the point. Falling into an ill-temper because you cannot pin your teacher down, that your teacher can’t be pinned down—well, you can do that, but it is somewhat pointless. You came to me not to be your friend, in the ordinary sense, but to be your spiritual teacher. And it was on that basis and on that basis alone that I accepted you and agreed we could work together.
Also key in the video are flips between active and passive responsibility, to the point where all actors are equally victimized:
But when that kind of ambition replaces the relationship with the students who are helping you, that is really, really damaging and really it’s terrible, shameful. And that happened to me, has happened to me really throughout, you know, our time together.
The video culminates with a dream followed by an anecdote. Both are invested with divinatory meaning.
The night before recording the video, Rays says, he had a dream that Dharma Ocean members were flying on a beautiful plane together, but that it was going down. He’s careful to note that he is a passenger — not the pilot. He’s not in control, you see. He is puzzled that no safety announcements are made, except that they would be landing on the St. Lawrence River. When they skimmed onto the surface, no one was scared or injured. They came to a stop and found themselves, separate but together, in the bracing but somehow baptismal water.
Later in the video, the dream is summarized. The dream has digested and depersonalized the abuse accusations, and becomes Ray’s next or perhaps ultimate dharma teaching:
“So we’re all in this rushing stream,” he says,
which was life. We’ve been thrown out of the plane, the plane crashes, plane’s gone. Forget it. Let’s just walk away. We can’t walk away we’ve been thrown out and we’re all our own, but we all know how to swim and we’re actually doing fine. And we can move ahead with an a tremendous amount of trust, in ourselves and in what we know.
The anecdote that follows seems to be an attempt at clarity and tenderness, but it’s also terrifying. Ray describes having had to set kill traps for mice in his house — in contravention of Buddhist ethics. He watches a mouse take the bait. The trap springs, breaking its back.
The mouse, dying, gazes at him as if for help. He’s reminded of the students he has harmed.
You read that correctly: Ray literally casts the student as vermin he had no choice but to kill. He regrets it, so much.
Nonetheless, it’s all good, Ray asserts, in a conclusion that closes the door on DO12 with a mixture of self-erasure and self-divinization:
“I personally don’t think anything that’s happened is amiss,” Ray says.
This is how the teachings happen. And my mistakes, my blindness, it’s part of the world’s process. And me taking responsibility for it is also part of the world’s process. And you being freed from me, it’s part of the world’s process. It’s part of the lineage.
The video fades to light, as though Ray’s eccentricities have been forgiven, and his wisdom restored. But in his second letter to the Dharma Ocean list, Ray doubled back on his journey to responsibility in a pearl-clutching maneuvre worthy of the DARVO Olympics. He bemoaned “internet negativity” and western mindsets that cannot seem to understand meditation. He also seems to poke a veiled jab at the DO12, who he frames as attacking Buddhism, and not his behaviour:
“If even Vajrayana students of many years can turn so easily against the teachings and the training I am offering, and against me as their teacher, what then?” Ray asked.
To tell you the truth, my question is whether this lineage can even be taught in this cultural environment, given the widespread hostility to the teachings of non-ego? In our situation, my question is, must the authentic dharma now go silent, given the willingness of some unscrupulous people, not just to ignore these teachings, but to openly attack them and people like me who present them? And for many of us to be so vulnerable to those attacks?
What’s fascinating is that between Ray’s video contrition and his newsletter walk-back, Ray seems to demonstrate the same “emotional inconsistency” to which he is presumably confessing.
Alexandra Stein’s work shows how manufactured disorganized attachment in the high-demand group eventually will have every member both coming and going at the same time. It’s the unpredictability — “inconsistency”, to use Ray’s word — that puts the member in the position of the child who “experiences the unresolvable paradox of seeking to simultaneously flee from and approach the caregiver. This happens at a biological level, not thought out or conscious, but as evolved behavior to fear.”1)Stein, A. 2017. Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems. Routledge. 2017. 33
Maybe, now that Dharma Ocean is no more, there will be less to fear, and nothing run to — besides pixels circulating through an obsolete email list.
Hello everybody. I am making this recording from where I’m in retreat in Hawaii and I’m looking out over the ocean and the sun is about to come up. So during, during this recording, I may have to adjust the light a little bit or pull down some shades.
When someone is harmed as we know, it’s really, it’s really a good thing if the person who has caused the harm, which in this case is me, can I acknowledge what’s happened? Okay. And that’s what I want to do in this recording. I want to talk about, at least from my point of view, what I see other ways in which I’ve harmed people in our sangha. And you might wonder, you know, what took me so long because the, the initial sort of public criticisms or sangha wide criticisms or Vajra-sangha criticisms began a year and a half ago in really great intensity. And you know, why did I take a year and a half to say anything? And of course I have said things and I’ve written letters and I think included things in talks, but truthfully, in terms of the big picture, as we always say in the teachings, you know, I had to, I had to think about things, I had to reflect on them and I had to make the criticisms my own.
I had to see really how things landed for me and how I felt. But anyway, here we are and I want to talk about a lot of things. And I think the best place to start is with this whole issue of what we might call spiritual codependency, which I think has been a big it’s kind of the underlying thing. And, and it’s, you know, everything that I’m saying, this is, you know, this is my perspective. This is my story. This is our situation. But of course it applies to other similar situations and when your teachers, or if you are teacher as it applies to you. But right now I’m just speaking for myself and how it’s been in my sangha.
So when you you know, when you’re part of a practicing tradition, you know, you know, deep, powerful spiritual tradition as we are, what happens is, and what happened with me is you develop a lot of power and you develop a lot of understanding. You’ve developed a lot of insight. Okay. And what happens is you you change as a person? Oh, when I was, at Naropa, I dunno if it was the first summer or second summer I participated in a talk and afterwards, you know, in a panel and afterwards the Regent was characterizing everybody’s energy and he said, I was a snowflake. Transparent, light, clear.
And over time through the practice you know, I became something other than a snowflake as you know — energetically — we’re not talking about anything more than that. So you practice and you know, you develop there’s a lot of power, a lot of force in the way you do things and people are attracted to that. You know, if your understanding is good and your practice is good, people are attracted. As I was to Rinpoche. And those people are, you know, to teachers and you want, you want to be part of it and you want to receive it. You want to bask in the energy, you want to receive the teachings. And it’s very beautiful. It’s wonderful.
And what happens is that in my case, you know, I brought you into a world. I showed you the world that I had been shown and that was you know, part of my experience and I made it part of your experience. And you know, when you were in trouble, I was able to show you a different way of looking at things so you maybe didn’t feel so bad about yourself and you you could see things in a larger way and have more faith and more trust. And then of course, the body work totally underscored that and totally helped you experience what I was talking about. So it began to become your own experience. So, so far so good. But what happened? What happens and what happened with me? If you as the teacher, don’t realize the amount of power that you have, you know, the amount of the potential force of your energy, which I have not realized, you can do a lot of damage. And if you as a teacher, and this is true of me, get hooked on interpreting other people’s experience, you can do a lot of damage. And that’s what happened with me.
So you know, the, the student is in a very vulnerable, very vulnerable position because they have come to you with open hearts with deep inspiration and people have come to me that way and okay, they want to be trained the way I was trained and they want to become like Trungpa Rinpoche, let’s put it that way. They want to become that person who embodies teachings fully and it’s very, it was very important for me, and in some ways I did it. In some ways I didn’t, and this is, you know, one of the big, I would say, failings on my side is my inconsistency. I think that’s been very, very hard for people, very inconsistent in the way I did things. You know, one day I completely embodied the teachings and the next day, you know, I’m irritated, I’m activated, whatever it may be.
And you know, so on day one the students feel loved, received, accepted, and on day two they feel like I don’t like them. Inconsistency, you know, in a, in a university teacher inconsistency, it’s like it’s a human thing and you, you have a strong container, you know, in the university system and classes and grades and everything. But in the spiritual world, you don’t have that and you as a spiritual teacher, you really, this is what I’ve learned. It was very harmful for me, how inconsistent I was emotionally um my state of mind in terms of I related to people and I think people were, I know people were harmed by this.
With Trungpa Rinpoche, he didn’t let me become too dependent. Yeah, I’ve told you this over and over. He, every time I came in and I tried to like just bask in his thing, he wouldn’t let me do it. I mean in the teaching’s fine, you know, when he was giving a talk, fine. But in the personal level, he, he never let me suck off him. He never let me depend on him. He never let me get him to interpret experience. He would affirm my experience, but he didn’t interpret it for me. And this has been a huge failing on my part that I consistently I was vulnerable to interpreting people’s experience when they came to me and said, well, what about this and what about that? And I was happy to, happy to do the thinking for them.
And I think that has helped people back. I think it’s very been very harmful for them. Now you can say why, why did you do that? I asked myself, you know, why did I do it? I think that I was very flattered that people were so turned on by my teaching. And that was a term Rinpoche used when I started teaching and say, well, you know, you can turn people on. He didn’t judge it. And I thought that was very interesting. He wasn’t saying it was good and it wasn’t saying it was bad. And I think it’s actually very neutral kind of quality. The question is what you as a teacher do with that. And in my case, I became flattered by it and I became dependent on people giving me positive feedback. And as we all know, it’s very, it feels good, you know, when someone comes to you and says, you know, thank you so much. That was so helpful. That’s very important, you know, that we have those kinds of exchanges. But I think for me, and I think, you know, for teachers, but for me, it’s almost like I became I became dependent on people coming and telling me that I’d saved their life. It kind of gave my life meaning, but not in the right way. It’s almost like it became kind of almost I don’t know what to say.
So in my case, solving myself esteem problems, by the relationship that I had with many of my students and you know, you as a teacher really can’t do that because once it becomes about you, then it’s not about them and the students realize it. And I think people, not everybody, and again, I’m not talking about the fact that I did this all the time, but even doing it inconsistently was very confusing for people and very harmful for many people. Another part of this dynamic for me is the I did not work on my core issues in the way that I should have. When you’re a teacher you know, let’s, let’s start at the beginning. So you’re a meditator. That’s fine. I was a meditator and it’s been really, honestly, that’s been the most that’s been my work my whole life.
Nothing else really. I did the academic thing just to kind of as a placeholder until I could do what I really wanted to. And of course, as you know, practice has been the basic reality of my work. That’s my work. And then I became a meditation instructor and that was okay. You know, I think, you know, qualified to do that. Yes, I could be a meditation instructor. But when you become a spiritual teacher, then that’s a whole different ballgame. And I did not realize it. I didn’t see it. And in my case, one of the things that happened is that I used being a spiritual teacher and the spiritual codependency I’m talking about as a substitute for working on core issues. And I somehow, you know, I, I’ve always known they were there and of course they can’t, they’ve come up in every relationship I’ve had, but I didn’t really address them at all. Until I met Caroline in my personal relationships. And even after I met Caroline, I didn’t address them with you.
So, you know, you need, there are three things you need in my, you know, three things that I have needed, in being a spiritual teacher, number one is the practice. Okay. Check number two is the understanding I’m going to have to put a cough drop, so I apologize. Okay. Check. But number three, and perhaps the most important thing is you need a certain level of emotional maturity, which I have not had. You need a certain level of relationship skills, which I have not had. And you need to be able to, when you’re with students, you need to be able to handle the situation in a way that is consistently beneficial to them. And I have not done that. And I think many people rightfully so, feel harmed.
So do you know, there are, I have an abrasive nature as you know, I have you know, my, my root klesha is anger and the enlightened aspect is a kind of wrathful cutting quality, but it has to be without ego. And in my case, it often has not been without ego. And that’s very, very harmful. No, we can debate about you know, which klesha is worse for a spiritual teacher and spiritual teachers or let’s say more damaging to the students. And you know, we’ve seen all kinds of damage done and we can go through the Buddha families. It’s interesting, you know, they’re teachers that represent all of them. Okay. But what Trungpa Rinpoche said, and I agree with this, I actually think anger is the most potentially damaging because it, it really, it causes a different kind of hurt than the other ones.
So it’s just my opinion. But I feel in my case you know, I’m not saying that the people have where anger is the real klesha. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be spiritual teachers. However, if that is the case, you have to work on it. You have to see it, you have to address it. You have to get feedback. You have to be very, very clear that this is one of your weak points. And I did not do many of those things. And I have been throughout my teaching career, I’ve I feel personally that I’ve had a lot of spiritual inflation. Spiritual inflation means that you confuse your self with the power of the teachings. You begin to think that because the teachings are so powerful that somehow that’s a comment on you, and if the teachings are pure and the teachings are affecting people in a good way, and the teachings are changing people’s lives, that’s about you.
And that you’re a good person and everything’s basically fine. That’s spiritual inflation. And what happens at that point is you actually lose your own journey. You know, my meditative journey has continued as you know, and my meditative teachings have continued to evolve. And if you’re a meditator or a meditation instructor, maybe you can get away with it. But when you become a spiritual teacher, you cannot, that’s not okay. And it’s damaging to the people around you. And in my case, I think because of that spiritual inflation, I didn’t take seriously my own failings. And because of my abrasive nature and my emotional, I’m just going to use the word year with my emotional immaturity and lack of development. I really didn’t see or understand the tender open, devoted souls [cries].
That come to me and I didn’t see the impact. Oh my unconstrained force in relating to them. It’s been too much about me and not enough about these people that I love. And this I think is another important thing for me to acknowledge. No, if I were just, you know, a terrible person, you know, if I were consistently abusive or consistently, you know, angry and hateful, I mean, it would be easy because nobody would have studied with me no matter what the teachings were. And I think what has been very painful for people and also very hurtful is it, I actually have two sides. And you know, as we know from internal family systems, which many of us have been studying lately, we actually have many different sides. But I have two, two main sides that had been I think especially hurtful to people when, when they’re both happening. One is I have a side that is incredibly tender and loving and wants the world for the people I love. And in even in my, Naropa days and certainly, you know, with all of us, when I met you, and I would say it’s true of everyone.
There has been you know, everyone that came, everyone that studied here, I have felt a tremendous almost almost a sense of the sacredness of your being. And I’ve felt huge amount of appreciation and love and wonder at you, and it’s very real and has been very much part of the whole situation. And often I told you so. And that, that’s tricky. It’s tricky because it sets up expectations and you know, I know Rinpoche felt that way about his students, but he didn’t really talk about it very much. You know, he kind of held, he held that, he expressed it, you know, in the way he related to us, but he didn’t talk about it. And I did. I think, I don’t think that was helpful. And the other thing that I’ve done now, we’re on this sort of loving side is I’ve made a lot of promises to people that I couldn’t keep, you know, if I had one student,
I could say to them, here’s my private email address. Call me any time I’m here. You know, I love you. You know, I appreciate you. You’re so amazing and it’s all genuine. And maybe you could even do that with 10 students, but you can’t do it the way I did it with the size of the sangha that we had. In other words, there was here. Really. You know, we come back to the emotional immaturity issue here. We have,just being clueless in terms of the impact of the things that I do and the things that I’ve said with you, just clueless, clueless, checked out.
And so, you know, maybe you walk away from that interview and think, you know, this is it, you know, I found my teacher, I found my teachings, this is what I want to do with my life. And but then there’s this other side of me,
That it’s triggered, gets activated, it can be harsh, can be critical, overly critical. And that’s very confusing and you don’t know what the hell you’re dealing with.
And I just think it’s, it just causes a tremendous amount of doubt, tremendous amount of confusion in some cases. You know, it really undermines you. I think people felt very undermined by that lack of consistency. And then, you know, all of a sudden you’re really in a crisis and you send me an email, I don’t respond ever. What does that feel like? It’s terrible. So I think, you know, my lack of we could call it emotional restraint on both sides being too positive and too negative. I mean, it’s fine to feel those things, you know, all of us feel those things. Maybe I sit down with a student and I think the student is the most wonderful person I ever met and I do feel that way actually. You’d be amazed how often I feel that way. For God sake. Don’t say it. Don’t say it. Don’t do it. Don’t put out that kind of, you know, magnetizing because you can’t follow through and when you don’t follow through, it’s going to be really harmful and cause confusion. But that’s what I’ve done many, many, many too many times.
In terms of you know, some of you have come and you have worked, you have come in and you said, how can I help? And open-hearted, tender hearted, trusting and willing to jump in. And some of you have ended up being very close. You’ve been on the staff, you been my assistants, you’ve been, you’ve help programs and that’s wonderful. The problem has come in the way that I have responded to that. Of course initially, you know, it’s a, it’s been a deeper connection and a deeper sense of us working together and helping others. But here’s the thing about me, you know, being in my role as a spiritual teacher, the most important thing, and I say this in my teachings, the most important thing is that every situation with a student, it’s about them. It’s not about you. It’s not about the work. It’s not about the end product. It’s not about the goal, it’s about them. And far, far, far too often in my case, I have failed to remember that. And in fact, I feel, I have in many cases, particularly with people who have been staff in Dharma Ocean and particularly people who’ve been close staff. And I’m thinking of one person who was an executive director in the past or present, I don’t know what the term was, where I, I failed miserably. Miserable, horrifying, terrible. And this is probably in terms of my individual students, I think that’s, this is probably the one that haunts me the most because I turned into, I didn’t turn into, I already was ambitious, you know. Okay, fine. You’re ambitious for the teachings, you know, you want the center to be beautiful, you want the teachings to be spread, that’s good. But when that kind of ambition replaces the relationship with the students who are helping you, that is really, really damaging and really it’s terrible, shameful. And that happened to me, has happened to me really throughout, you know, our time together and staff people know, you know, you talk to staff and they’ll tell you, you know, they get a call from me in the middle of the night about something that I don’t like, a mistake that I think has been made.
And if you have come to you know, Dharma Ocean, out of love, and that’s what you get back, how is that going to make you feel? And what does that do to your, even your trust in the teachings. You know, forget about the teacher, but what about the teachings? Here’s the thing. This has to be admitted and acknowledged by me. Because I want you to feel that the person who was done this harm does have some understanding of what he did and how he harmed you, how he hurt your feelings and how he harmed you and how he undermined you and caused a lot of problems for you. You know, there’s not, there’s no way I can not do the past, but at least I can do this. This is the very least I can do. So
Another sort of area, you know, here’s the thing, I’m not gonna, I’m not gonna cover every way in which I’ve hurt people, obviously, because we’re talking about if we go back to Dharma Village, we’re talking about 25 years. That’s a long time. And there are a lot of things I’m not talking about. They’re probably a lot of things I don’t know. In spite of all the feedback, you know, there are probably things I don’t know that you know, so that’s, that’s a given. But I’m just trying to touch base on the main things. Another very important area is sloppy, sloppy, ignorant speech patterns on my part. Terrible. Really unbelievable. Now, you know, I’m talking emotionally here, these are not judgements, but I’m telling you how I feel. I feel the way I’d use speech is, you know, has been very, not always, you know, obviously, you know, there are two sides to it. There are two sides to me but often there’s the sane side. And then the insane side or the neurotic side. But often the way I’ve used speech has been, it’s been sloppy and it’s been hurtful. And I’ll just give you some examples. For example sometimes when people have challenged me in the interviews
And maybe, you know, maybe the challenge wasn’t clean, doesn’t matter, maybe they were attacking me personally. It doesn’t matter what’s happened — or maybe it was clean. But what’s happened and is, you know, in my opinion really under forgivable is that I’ve gotten triggered, I’ve gotten activated and I have responded with harshness. I responded with defensiveness and if you’re going to be a spiritual teacher, you can’t do that. Okay. And then we have the,uthe public sphere where it’s even worse, where people have gotten up and sometimes people get up and say something really, you know, very, very critical, very demeaning of me or Dharma Ocean or the teachings. It doesn’t matter. You know, you as a spiritual teacher, you can’t get triggered. You cannot get triggered. And if you do, which is typically my response, I mean, this is an area where I’m pretty consistent. You know, when that kind of thing happens in public, I respond in public and then the person ends up feeling undermined and shamed. Of course they do. How could they not?
And then of course, our relationship is, you know, I mean, I can I can seek repair, which you know, that that is what I do. But that’s not good enough. Truthfully, you can’t do in the first place if you’re going to be a spiritual teacher. If you are going to be a spiritual teacher, you have to have some emotional maturity. Emotional steadiness is, you have to, it’s, it’s, you know, it’s one of those qualifications that is not, it’s not optional. And I, I have not had it. And as I said, you know, if you don’t have it and you work on it and it’s clear everybody knows you’re working on it and you get everybody to help you and working on it, then I think the whole situation can be okay. I think it can, it can move forward. But that was not, the case has not been the case with me. I’ve been, you know, largely in denial and defensive. And then we have in public, people get up and they say something completely innocent, you know, completely innocent and open and just, you know, questioning. But something in me, you know, it triggers something in me and same thing, defensive, undermining, reactive.
So I’m not trying to make any cases here against myself particularly, but I am trying to put on the table when I’m seeing and then we’ll see the chips fall and then, you know, on and on and on. I mean, we can talk about other, you know, speech patterns talking about students to other students. And I’m not talking about you know, talking within about their students and, you know, maybe something that student is going through that’s, that’s part of the job. I’m talking about gossiping me gossiping and you know, me promoting negativity. Now mind you, a lot of the things I’m talking about it’s not like that’s the main thing. Other things are the main thing, you know, more positive things. But the thing that the person in my position can’t, I mean, it doesn’t, I’m not going to say they can’t do it.
They can’t, you know, sort of fall off the wagon, so to speak, but they can’t if, if they behave in ways that go against right speech in the different ways that I’m talking about, it undermines everybody’s confidence in, in me. And in what I’m doing, what we’re doing together. And it harms the people who, who are on the receiving end of it. It really does. And you know, we do talk about how important repair and reconciliation is yes, it is important, but it doesn’t change what happened and it doesn’t change, you know, your realization that I’m like that, and then I do those things and that, you know, even if you’re just a witness, it undermines our relationship, your trust in me. And that’s it’s harmful. It’s harmful to the lineage and it’s harmful to the teachings.
So let me check. I have some notes here. This obviously wasn’t too carefully planned, but yeah, I guess I want to come back for I want to come back a little bit to the the spiritual codependency. And this, you know, interesting saying that in this kind of situation, the student, you know, the student becomes initially becomes dependent on the teacher. You know, which is happened. That’s how it works. You’re coming, you’re attracted. You want to be there and be part of it. And bathe in, you know, the student bears 50% of the responsibility and the teacher bears 100% of the responsibility. And I haven’t. What happens know when the teacher encourages spiritual codependency and the teacher doesn’t in the way that Trungpa Rinpoche did deliberately be, you know, be super aware of the tendency on both sides, you know, of the student’s tendency and that the teacher, you know, wanting to feed on it and solve their own self esteem problems.
When that awareness is not there, then you really hold the students back. And I do feel that that’s been a very particularly if you, as you have matured and practiced and come along. I have impeded the process of you making your own discoveries and of making, you know, admittedly for the student certainly true of me and everybody I knew working with Rinpoche, you know, we’re stumbling along, you know, trying to see, you know, what this means for us. We’re kind of fumbling along, crawling along in the darkness and that is the process. And you know, Rinpoche, amazing person. He, he saw it and he understood it and he knew that’s, that’s the best.
And I haven’t done that. I haven’t appreciated that. I haven’t, I just didn’t, hadn’t had the understanding, you know, I’ve been trying to get too much out of this in a personal way all the way along. And I think it’s held you back. I think it has it’s impeded your sense of discovering for yourself what these teachings are. Um you know, and even when you come in to see me, you sit down with me and you ask me a question, I’m too ready to give the answer. I’m too ready to be the person who knows what’s going on. You know, I’m too ready to take up all the space. And this is a , you know, it’s, it’s pretty horrifying for me to realize it. This is how it’s been. But this from my point of view, this is how it’s been. Those of you who have, kept away physically, you know, as I was saying in Tibet, you want to make sure that, there’s a mountain between you and your teacher, you’re in this Valley and your teachers in the other Valley and you need to keep it that way. I think that’s a plus. And, and also I think when you’re on the other side of the mountain, you do tend to be more self reliant and you do tend to, you know, to focus more on your practice because you have to, you don’t really have anything else. So that’s an interesting point.
Okay. So let’s see. Is there anything else I can come up with here that needs to be… I, I think, you know, I think this is probably enough. I mean, I could go on on, I were talking about 25 years of mistakes and 25 years of causing harm to students. I’m not saying all students, but many, many students, you know. So, you know, obviously I could keep going, but I did want to close by telling you the dream I had this morning before I woke up. I woke up at around five which I do in retreat. And I had I had the following dream: I was all of us were in a plane and it was a jet plane. It was a beautiful plane. And it wasn’t you know, it wasn’t a 747 . It was I dunno, maybe about the size of a 707, you know, there are a lot of people in the plane that was us in the plane this new shiny, beautiful, and then the plane was gonna crash. We’re notified the planes can crash right now and that, that is kind of what’s happened, I would say in the last you know three or four weeks, it’s, you know, the plane is going down. And so the plane, it goes down and it goes down. And then we see there’s a big river.
And for some reason it’s the Saint Lawrence river. I don’t know what that is. I never heard of it, but that was the name that was mentioned. And I looked out the window. And there were ripples in the water, but the water was pretty calm and I thought, Hmm, this might work. But they weren’t telling us anything and nobody was saying take the brace position, you know, I said, why aren’t these people telling us anything? And I was a passenger too by the way. I was not the pilot. So the plane is going down, I’m about two-thirds of the way back, you know, in the passenger section. Plane goes down and we, we hit the water and it’s actually pretty smooth landing and we’re going really fast. And so the plane is skimming along the water. And you know, frankly I thought it would slow down quicker than it did, but you know, it took a while to slow down and meantime, you know, you can see the banks, I need this side of the river. In a certain point the banks are like really close and I thought, Oh my God, you know, it’s going to rip off the wings. But somehow we got through it, but then at a certain point the plane is pretty slow, but then it flips over upside down and we’re all thrown out of the plane into the water. And the water is speeding along and we’re all in the water. And by the way, we’re all on our own, each one it was, I’m in the water, each one of you was in the water, the water is speeding along and it’s actually, it’s kind of wonderful, really. I mean, it was, it was beautiful and beautiful day speeding along and you know, the banks are rushing by and there was something, you know, slightly Mmm. It was kind of okay. It was fine. In fact, I looked around and I saw everybody’s fine and they were kind of just bobbing up and down the water. I waved and they waved. And then we were on dry land. Some of us were, I don’t know, you know, there was just as a small group of us that kind of got washed up in a certain place. And, h thought that was, it was a very, auspicious dream. I felt very much so. And, h
I think it was it was reflecting my feeling about giving this talk or my feeling and giving the talk. First of all, the Dharma Ocean that we knew is, is gone. I mean, I think we can all see that. And also I felt contemplating this talk that I felt like a sky diver, this jumping out of a plane and this a 10% chance the chute is going to open 10%, 90% chance the chute is not going to open. But here’s the thing it doesn’t matter because this had to be done and whether the chute opens to me up, doesn’t matter. The important point is that, you know what I see and you know what I understand and you know the tremendous sense of responsibility I feel for having heard so many people and not taking responsibility myself sooner. So that’s the most important thing. And then there was one other thing that came up.
And it’s the mouse. And some of you have heard me talk about the mouse. Caroline And I were sitting in the kitchen of the Crestone house and we were having mouse problems and end of the day we had to put out actually traps and kill mice because we couldn’t get rid of them any other way. And there was a trap under the sink. And we’re talking and all of a sudden a mouse scoots across and the trap and tries to take the cheese and the trap lands on his back, and the reason I’m mentioning this, and it actually came up for me when I thought about you and, mice usually don’t look at people. They just try to get away. But in this case, he looked at us, he turned around and looked at it the same. It was like, help me, help me. I’m so hurt. I’m so hurt, helped me. And his eyes were big and they look right at us. It looks like a small thing that wasn’t for either one of us. It’s not a small thing. And at the time we didn’t attribute any meaning to it.
But this is how I’m feeling about you. That’s something that I have done has really hurt you and I didn’t help you. I didn’t see it.
So talking about my mistakes wasn’t good enough. We have to look at the whole picture and have I been and what I haven’t done. What I have done and how it’s impacted you.
I personally don’t think anything that’s happened is amiss. This is how the teachings happen. And my mistakes, my blindness, it’s part of the world’s process. And me taking responsibility for it is also part of the world’s process. And you being freed from me, it’s part of the world’s process. It’s part of the lineage.
So we’re all in this rushing stream, which was life. We’ve been thrown out of the plane, the planes crash, planes gone. Forget it. Let’s just walk away. We can’t walk away we’ve been thrown out and we’re all our own, but we all know how to swim and we’re actually doing fine. And we can move ahead with a tremendous amount of trust, in ourselves and in what we know. And you know, the teacher that some of you may have thought you had is gone. The person is gone. The person who inspired you and loved you, and the person who hurt you, harmed you, made you feel bad about yourselves. Everything is washed away and it’s a new day. I don’t know what the future will bring.
So this is a bit of a postscript. I got a little bit rattled at the end of the recording you just listened to it because the leaf blowers started up outside. Oh. So I’m in a different room now. You can see and there were a couple of things actually I do want to say just as a sort of summary and just to be clear. Mmm. Well, obviously you know, many, many people are still devoted practitioners in this lineage. And there are many people who have not felt harmed. I just need to say that because I’ve gotten all kinds of emails obviously from everywhere. And even people I haven’t heard from in a long time. And they’re saying, you know, we’re here, we’re practicing and we love you. And, you know, we understand there’ve been a lot of problems, you know, and a lot of, things, you hadn’t seen you’re human, but it hasn’t gotten in our way.
So I want to acknowledge that obviously. And you know, for me, I do feel that I have not been qualified to be doing this job that I’ve been doing. And I was told at one point you’re actually not qualified, but there isn’t anybody else is gonna do what is needed now in Trungpa’s Rinpoche’s lineage. Actually Traleg Rinpoche told me that shortly after I moved across to Crestone said, you know, well, you didn’t get the training that we did, you know, in the Tibetan tradition. But you have to do it because you know, you were, you understand Trungpa Rinpoche’s vision and how important it is. You have to go ahead anyway. So I think there’s been sort of understanding all the way along and by some people that, you know, I’m, I’m very human and probably more human in the sense of having unresolved issues and you know, blind spots and everything. Then many people even in our sangha, but at the same time, of course, you know, it’s been a learning process for me really, I would say my whole life, you know, going back to my days with June Singer and when I was in my early twenties, the Jungian analysis I did for several years and, you know, dismantling the Western bias toward consciousness and activity and accomplishment, materialism is not a small thing. Dismantling the patriarchy in myself, which is, where people of the male gender are given advantages and opportunities that are denied to people of other genders. It’s not a small thing. Dismantling the misuse of power. It’s not a small thing. And this has been really the course of my whole life. And,I’m still working on it and I would say that the most of the hurt that has been felt, not all of it and most of it has been before I really sort of began to realize the lay of the land and, began to dig in deeper and deeper. So the work continues. Am I going to teach anymore? I don’t know. Am I going to lead programs? I don’t know. Am I going to be, continue my own practice? Definitely. Will I continue to be a meditation instructor. Definitely. Excuse me. And, we’ll go from there. I don’t know. We’ll have to see. We’ll have to see what people want. Trungpa Rinpoche once said to me through someone else, if the students need the teachings, you can’t really slam your door and lock it, but I don’t know what it’s gonna look like. And as far as Dharma Ocean, I also want to say that,
As I said, I feel, and you know this is just my view, but I feel the Dharma Ocean that we have known, I do feel it’s crashed. And as you normally put a lot of stock in dreams, and I think the dream was pretty straightforward. It’s gone, at the same time. What will arise out of the of the collapse? We don’t know. And I think we have to be open to it. And also it’s my dream said we’re okay. Everybody’s okay, there may have been some people trapped in the plane or not. Okay. I don’t know. But, a lot of people are okay and we’re going to be okay. So I just wanted to provide that you know I, I don’t want the whole thing to be negative and kind of, we’re all going down. We’re all falling off a cliff into the abyss. It’s not like that. But I do think that what has needed to be destroyed has been destroyed. And now what needs, and now we need to care for whatever it needs our care. And that’s, you know, that’s the sadhana from the Mahamudra. Okay. So wishing everybody well from sometimes peaceful, sometimes a noisy and chaotic Hawaii, like our lives. And, I look forward to the unfolding situation and I’m very curious to see what’s going to happen.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Stein, A. 2017. Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems. Routledge. 2017. 33|
Here’s something I wasn’t able to fit into the Sivananda Yoga feature, because it veers into commentary/opinion, and because it would have stretched the word count beyond breaking.
There was a guest on Rachel Bernstein’s IndoctriNation podcast (can’t recall the name or find it now) who said something I’ll paraphrase: “The cult takes the best part of a person. It takes their altruism, their youth, their compassion, their discipline and drive to work. It clothes itself in this energy.”
It rang true in my own experience when I heard it. I remember how my own natural skills (and hopes) were mobilized and manipulated by the groups that recruited me. Now I feel like I’m understanding it on a deeper level.
When I report on institutional abuse in yoga and Buddhism I invariably discover that the survivors were stripped of time, attention, money, social capital, earning potential, bodily autonomy and dignity. Those spoils contribute to the total value of the organization. In a previous post I focused on the material assets derived from “karma yoga”, which would include facility maintenance, gardening, hospitality, cooking. To take Sivananda Yoga as the example, this would be everything that makes the possibility of the “yoga vacation” or a training programme a viable commodity.
I’m seeing now that it goes much deeper than that. I think the pictures curated for the article really let it sink in. In one image, we see Julie holding a coconut for Nair to sip. In another, we see her in an old-timey Indian phone centre, speaking on his behalf. (Few others could understand him after his stroke.) Staring at the images, I realized that my first impulse was to identify with her, but in relation to him: to feel the anxious compliance, to share in the hope that the service was adequate. Meditating like this instantly positions Nair as the moral or spiritual authority who we must wonder about, be concerned for, or fear.
But at some point I felt my brain click over into a different track. It’s not Nair who is the special person in these photographs, but Julie. He’s an old, debilitated man. He’s not why people were drawn to the organization, at least at that point. In earlier years he presents a puckish radiance that surely attracted some. But even then he was never alone. He was always surrounded by people who made him important by their presence. I suggest we look at them, first and foremost, to try to answer: was it their attractiveness and altruism that made the organization what it was?
One picture that GEN didn’t print (see the lede, above) features Pamela Kyssa marching in a small group with Nair through the bullet-riddled streets of Belfast, on one of Nair’s “Peace Missions”. It’s the early 1980s. Kyssa is holding a pasteboard sign with a peace message carefully written out in Gaelic. I don’t know whether she knows Gaelic or had to learn it to write it out. But I do know that Nair walking through those streets alone would not have been a story. There’s a strong young woman beside him, holding a sign in the language that makes his message communicable.
It’s not just Julie’s labour, attention, and so on that was exploited. It was her virtue, service, and faith in ideals that Nair couldn’t uphold, and for all we know, never believed in himself. It was her affect, her visible devotion. More than Nair’s face or voice or words, I believe these goodnesses constitute the core social and economic value of Nair’s organization.
This misattribution of value is plainly visible in other cases of institutional abuse. Sarah Baughn’s devotional athleticism was the face of Bikram Yoga for years, during which time Bikram raped her. Karen Rain’s superhuman focus in the famous Ashtanga Primary Series video helped to market the practice — deceptively, because the video showed no “adjustments” — to the global market. Jois assaulted her regularly. Leslie Hays’ “promotion” to “spiritual wife” of Trungpa Rinpoche (one of seven) allowed the organization to consolidate its branding as traditional-yet-edgy, transcendent of “conventional” morality, etc.
When people accuse these women of trying to “destroy” their former organizations by coming forward with their abuse disclosures, they are delusional. They have it backwards.
Julie isn’t destroying Sivananda Yoga. If people still come to those ashrams, it’s because of the energy that people like Julie invested and displayed. If people come, it is despite the institution and its abuse, which all the karma yoga concealed. Julie and others alongside her literally built the organization. They formed its moral and altruistic core. It’s exactly this that elevates those ashrams and retreat centres above the level of rather shabby vacay spots.
At the height of the Ashtanga Yoga crisis, an Ashtanga practitioner named Dimi Currey wrote the following about the centrality of the survivor to organizational “success”. I quoted her in my book on p. 88. .
These women’s suffering is as much a part of why we have Ashtanga today, as David Williams’, or Norman Allen’s contributions. [Williams and Allen are early Jois students.] If these women had filed charges back then (and there were some that wanted to), maybe the system would not have spread as it has? These women suffered through it, in some ways sacrificing themselves for what seemed to be a greater cause. And the system has lived on.
Now those women who were hurt, would like the wrongs done to them to be recognized. It doesn’t seem like any of them are out to publicly shame others regarding the situation. Only that their suffering be recognized, so that steps can be taken to insure that others are not hurt as they were. I think there should be some action—very clear action taken to recognize this. I think it should become part of the history of the lineage. It is the truth. History is supposed to be factual.
So, maybe we should know the faces and names of these women who were hurt by P. Jois, but carried on the lineage? Because, it is in part due to their suffering that we have Ashtanga today. Maybe instead of his picture in studios, on altars, etc. Maybe it is their pictures that belong there.
There is a continuing irony in all this:
In uncovering the facts of institutional abuse, survivors actually continue their selfless service to the organization and its ideals. Their activism actually embodies the stated goals of the group, better than the group ever did. They become leaders. In addition to reparations, they deserve consulting fees.
My sense is that this continuation of labour sometimes seems to show that the good will and zest for life that they brought to the group may not have been entirely erased.
In cult studies there’s this idea that the pre-cult self may not ever be entirely killed off, and that re-acclimating to the outside world — and especially to former relationships — may well resuscitate it from its dissociative sleep. Alongside this, the skills and talents that the group exploited might re-emerge to support that reconnection.
In my case, the groups I was in sought to exploit my writing skill. Both did so so successfully that after six years I couldn’t do my own writing. I no longer had an internal voice. I couldn’t string two sentences together. It took me about a decade to begin to feel like I had a voice again, an internal coherence I could call my own. It’s significant that I knew a major part of that healing was done when I started writing about cults. At that moment, a certain natural flow returned, and the content itself lifted me out of isolation, connecting me with other survivors, but also writing friends who knew me from before, and recognized me again.
But it’s not just about the pre-cult self. There are also positive skills and connections that people make within groups, and which sustain them after leaving.
The big one for me is cooking. Some of the most fun I’ve had in my life was learning how to cook for 300 people with my friend Rupi, who was a cooking genius. To this day that exuberant love gets stirred into every meal I make for my family.
My bet is that the Sivananda karma yogis, who bonded over the ideals of selfless service that their leaders may not have even have believed in, may find that the joy they took in the skills the group exploited can return to them. If they entered with accounting skills that the group used, it’s possible that doing accounts for real clients in the real world will feel immensely satisfying again. If they were the ashram photographer they might now delight in new images.
And if they learned how to garden or do carpentry while in the group, they may yet take great joy in growing vegetables for the family or the neighbourhood, and in building that clubhouse out back for the children.
Not long after the glowing obits for Ram Dass started packing my feeds, Karen Rain, a trusted friend and colleague messaged me:
“Did you know that Neem Karoli Baba was a sex offender too?” No. No I didn’t.
Neem Karoli Baba was Dass’s guru. Bhagavan Das introduced them. (Falk has the rundown here.) Karoli Baba is essential to the bios of Krishna Das and Jai Uttal as well.
Rain pointed me to a book that I was able to download and search in a few minutes. Miracle of Love (Dutton Publications, 1979. ISBN-13: 9780525476115). It’s a hagiography of Karoli Baba, compiled by Ram Dass.
Dass has an entire chapter in the book called “Krishna Play” (loc. 4661). Here’s how he introduces it:
IT SEEMS AT ONCE surprising and obvious to note that Maharajji was quite different in the quality of his relationship with men and with women. With men he hung out and gossiped, scolded, and guided—as friend, father, and sage. With the women, on the other hand, in addition to those roles, he seemed frequently to assume roles like that of Krishna, as child and playmate and lover. Such play on Maharajji’s part of course created some consternation and confusion among devotees and also grounds for criticism on the part of people who did not like or trust Maharajji. But for the women devotees who were directly involved with Maharajji in this way, his actions served as a catalyst to catapult them to God.
Here are some of the testimonies that Dass compiles for this section:
We’d be sitting outside and Maharajji would pull my hands under the blanket and make me massage his legs, almost pulling me under the blanket. I loved touching him, but I was not sure how far you can go in touching Maharajji. I’d be working on his feet and calves, and he’d grab my arm and pull my hand up to his thigh. So I’d do his thighs for a little bit and then my hands would start wandering down to his calves again, because all of a sudden I’d look around and see all these people staring at me. An Indian woman would be gasping, and I’d get real embarrassed, so I’d start working on his feet again. Then his hand would come sliding down and grab mine and pull it up again. He would often perform this puzzling ritual with me. And if I tried to explain it to myself, no sooner would I have the thought than he’d turn to me and yell “Nahin!” and then go on with his conversation.
One Indian widow who had no children came to Maharajji, worried about who would take care of her. Maharajji said, “Ma, I’ll be your child.” She started to treat him like a child and then he said, “You know, Hariakhan Baba used to suck the breasts of women. I’ll sit on your lap.” And he sat on her lap and he was so light and small, just like a child. He sucked on her breasts and milk poured out of them, although she was sixty-five. Enough milk came from her to have filled a glass. After that she never missed not having children.
I felt a great deal of fear of Maharajji and experienced a kind of awkwardness with him, wanting so much to do the right thing yet afraid that I wouldn’t know what that was. He called me into his room in Kainchi one day. (Of course it always happened on the days when you really needed it.) He had me close the doors. He was up on the tucket, I was sitting on the floor, and he leaned down to hug me. I reached out to hug him back and he meant for me to come even closer. He said, “Come closer, come closer, you’re not close enough.” And he just lifted me off the ground, onto the tucket, and into his arms. He put his arms and his blanket all the way around me. He absolutely covered me with his blanket and with his being. He swallowed me whole! I melted—all my fears, all that stuff totally vanished into the sea of Maharajji. I was completely out of my body, totally immersed. So that’s how he answered all those questions: Just by one hug!
I was kneeling before Maharajji when he grabbed at my sari and started pulling at it. Then he was holding my breasts and saying, “Ma, Ma.” I felt for the first time as if I were experiencing an intimate act free of lust.
There are stories about gurus doing things with women. But somehow around Maharajji there was a feeling of such purity that people could tell me anything he had done, and it never shook my total trust in him at all. It was clear that he needed nothing; he had no desires of his own. I believe that he would do things with women for whom the sexual part of their lives was not straight. In retrospect, it looks as though it served a very direct function for them.
In the introduction to the book, Dass explains that the material comes from interviews with over one hundred devotees. He writes:
These stories, anecdotes, and quotations create a mosaic through which Maharajji can be met. To hold the components of this mosaic together I have used the absolute minimum of structural cement, preferring to keep out my personal interpretations and perspective as much as possible.
Any Stanford psychology PhD should know that it’s not that simple. Inclusion choices are also exclusion choices. Dass put together the book by either cherry-picking statements that frame experiences with Karoli Baba as transformative, or, most likely, by not having interest in or access to survivors’ narratives in the first place. There is a difference between cult literature and survivor literature.
Interestingly, the most visible time Dass displayed a critical eye in relation to sexual abuse in the guise of spiritual intimacy was in his vicious take-down of “Joya”, a female spiritual teacher living in Brooklyn in his 1976 Yoga Journal essay “Egg On My Beard”.
Then there’s this bit from Dass’s obituary in the New York Times:
Mr. Leary accused Mr. Alpert [Das] of trying to seduce his 15-year-old son, Jack, whom Mr. Alpert often took care of while Mr. Leary, a single parent, traveled.
I’d like to know more about that. Can’t find much.
There’s an entire genre of male writing that mystifies, rationalizes, or spiritualizes women’s experiences — especially of sexuality — within modern global yoga and Buddhist cultures. I believe it has both blessed and reinforced a misogynistic pattern that has prevented survivors’ stories from being heard.
Consider these two passages, both written by men, glorifying Chögyam Trungpa’s relationships with women:
For those of his fortunate female students who wished it, his love could manifest in the most intimate physical manner. Those who did take up his invitation almost always remembered these times as some of the most precious of their years with Rinpoche. They were felt as times of profound teaching — though rarely was there any formal dharma discussion between them — as well as times of lightness, freedom from care, and playful humor. At the same time, of course, anyone in any similarly intimate situation with Rinpoche was pushed to the edge of their little ego games, pushed to be open and genuine; and, for many of us in the West, sex provides one of the deepest entrenchments for ego.
— Hayward, Jeremy W. Warrior-King of Shambhala: Remembering Chögyam Trungpa. Wisdom Publ., 2008. 48.
A measure of his compassion can be gleaned from the reports of a number of female students who experienced spending intimate time with him as a very precious communication. Some women reported that, even when there was no sexual intimacy involved—as was often the case in the last years of his life—they experienced spending the night with him as the greatest kind of intimacy.
— Midal, Fabrice, and Ian Monk. Chogyam Trungpa: His Life and Vision. Shambhala, 2012. 153.
Hayward and Midal obviously didn’t ask Leslie Hays about her experience of Trungpa.
I’m left with uncomfortable questions, given how wall-to-wall the praise has been for Dass. The way he was mourned over the holidays positioned him as some kind of unimpeachable saint. I started to notice that every single portrait of him captured exactly the same overwhelming beaming smile.
But this is the yoga world, and I’m skeptical of single-toned portrayals.
So I’m wondering if he also benefited from the mythologization of his guru. And if that mythologization depended upon the suppression of abuse stories.
I’m wondering how many bystanders to abuse in the yoga world felt consoled — for decades — by that enormous, unfailing smile.
I’m wondering if he was the guy who somehow made it all okay.
1. It’s Not Just Men
In YTT groups, I introduce the theme that the last century of global yoga has largely run on the fuel of “somatic dominance” by which teachers assume possession and authority over student’s bodies, and the body itself is an object of surveillance and discipline that must perform its virtue.
In discussion, most groups rightly dive into truths about male violence, male charisma, bullying, and sexual assault.
So then I trouble the gendering of that story a little by showing clips from this Jivamukti class from 2014. Check out the teacher’s entrance into the space after about 20 minutes of fawning speeches.
Take a look at that bowing sequence. You can’t see the whole room but I assure you everyone is bowing right back in this parody of Tibetan monkdom. I know that’s where it’s from because they started the bowing thing after teaming up with Michael Roach over a decade ago. But he never took it that far. The teacher seems to be making intrusive eye contact with every person in the room; Roach never bothered with that. (Maybe he didn’t have to, being male and 6’+, 200+ lbs.)
After I show the clip I ask:
What would it cost you socially to be in that room and not mirror the teacher with the bowing thing?
What would it cost you to chew gum, slouch on your mat, blow a fart, or yell out “Hey, are we getting started yet or WHAT”?
People get the point. They know they would feel way out of line, which is another way of saying that they’d feel controlled.
What I believe the teacher is doing here, unconsciously but habitually, is establishing a coerced “habitus” (via Bourdieu, very nice intro video below), or rules of somatic behaviour or ethos for that space.
Right from the beginning of class, there is a contagious way to be there. It’s sophisticated, because it looks like respect, surrender, and even gentleness. And the teacher and some students might even feel all those things deeply and authentically. But the impact is that the people in that room who show strong buy-in for what she’s doing are now under her somatic influence.
And so when, inexplicably, she lies fully on top of women at 1:57 and 1:58 or sits right down on the thighs of a woman in supta virasana at time cue 1:11:50, and gives a lecture about not finding fault in others, it’s just par for the course. Implied consent, and intimacy conflated with care.
If there’s a next stage in examining somatic dominance in Yogaland, it might involve seeing how it translated, in cycles, between generations and across genders in the 1980s and 90s, how it could be coded to express female strength and empowerment (even though it was an overflow of male violence), and how this further impeded survivors of Jois, Manos and the rest from being heard.
2. What Does Somatic Dominance Feel Like When You’re Doing It?
How would you know if your somatic dominance circuits were turned on? I’m sure it feels different for everyone, but here’s how it felt for me.
I’m using the past tense, not because I’m totally over it, but because it’s very easy to remember how I did it when I was teaching active yoga classes, which I haven’t done since about 2014. I also remember having to stop teaching in part because I was becoming more aware of my somatic dominance tendencies.
I remember distinctly crossing over a threshold into the teaching space. It could have been in the parking lot, at the front door, or in the lobby. If the studio was particularly modern and sleek and minimalist, the feeling was more acute: in some way the bare lines and white walls and flower arrangement were contagious with a kind of meticulous aesthetic attention that called perfection out of my body. I remember holding my breath more, standing up even more straight, feeling my skin glaze over with smooth hardness.
In some ways I’m describing basic somatic defensiveness via grandiosity, and I would have felt a degree of these things when stepping into any professional environment. If there was a suit involved it would have started at home with subtle fretting over how crisp my collar was going to stay on the commute — the collar signifying my armored skin.
But what made this particularly yoga-related was that as I was both holding my breath and puffing myself up, I was also aware of the pre-verbal tape-loop of all of the Iyengar instructions that were then embedded in my back-brain. In other words: I was turning basic social discomfort and self-defensiveness into a somatic virtue — a sign of transcendence over those very things.
I never met Iyengar but I’ve heard enough and I’ve met enough men like him that my gut says there were threads of intense social awkwardness and maybe even shame that the demonstration of asana mastery helped him overpower.
So the first somatic dominance is over myself. How does it pivot to take power over others?
Of the thousands of students I encountered in my classes, I’ll imagine here someone generic: male or female doesn’t matter. As soon as I instinctually identified that this person was NOT as erect as I was, I remember turning towards them and subtly doubling down, both trying to model something, and encouraging them to mirror me. I remember now with some shame the sense of gratification I had when they did mirror me, either then or in the class, and I understood it then as a good thing: that I had inspired a new confidence. But perhaps what I did in some if not many instances is that I procured a kind of compliance, and the gratification was not from having given them something, but from having their mirroring of me make me feel better about my own strained efforts to achieve comfort and dignity.
And the irony is that the person who came in slouchy or melancholic may well have been far healthier than I in their psyche-soma. If they were feeling crushed and drained of dignity that’s one thing — and I assumed this was the case for everyone — but if they were just being themselves in somatic honesty, and were able to do that because they were less bound to our systems of self-objectification, I actually disrupted that out of a projective need for bodily validation. I created a problem were there was none, and I called it yoga or mindfulness, and I got paid.
All of this took place on a subtle level that created a nameless power dynamic that normalized the standard adjustments I then went on to apply, without clear consent or even the notion of what clear consent would mean or how it could be affirmative or informed.
One more thing about how stealthy this was. We used to say “strong and soft”, which I suppose echoed the old “sthiram sukham”, and gave me at least a sense of somatic continuity with an ancient nobility. I still appreciate this double instruction, but I think it can nurture the seeds of what I’m describing above:
In the Iyengar instructions, the strength and firmness was always built first, upwards from the ground. Strong feet, knees like so, quads engaged, do something something with your perineum and navel, micromanage you rib cage and especially your floaty ribs and don’t forget the mystical kidneys etc. And after this pillar of nobility or self-defence was built, the teacher would ask you to “soften your eyes”.
What was the eye thing about? It felt interesting to have this play of tension between skeletal firmness and eyeball softness, so there was that. But I also think the soft eyes managed to spiritualize or Mona-Lisa-ize the entire presentation. So that you could be armored but also inviting and wise. So that if you were actually defending your body against your neighbour with a thousand muscular actions in your butt, you could also affect openness and intimacy with the person you were asking to mirror you.
What does this all have to do with charisma?
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, charisma doesn’t have to look like anything in particular. It’s not how you hold yourself or defend yourself, as I’ve described here.
I believe that charisma is the somatically contagious feedback loop that initiates when all of the stuff I’ve described above begins to work to the advantage of the person performing it. And so they escalate it. Before long, it becomes their “method”. The content doesn’t matter. It could be Iyengar or it could be Ru Paul or it could be Donald Trump: charisma is the commodification of somatic defence, which, at a certain saturation point, can flip into habitual bullying.
3. Somatic Dominance, Buddhist-Style
In Yogaland, somatic dominance is explicitly part of the wellness programme, where posture is the sign of multiple levels of attainment. While lately I’m pretty consistent about pointing these critiques at “Yoga/Buddhism”, I’d like to bring out the “Buddhism” presentations of somatic dominance a little more clearly.
There’s no doubt that sitting with relative stability and stillness makes sense for whatever meditation is for whoever is practicing it. So I’m not talking here about what people do when they’re sitting at home. I’m talking about how the posture of meditation gets translated in group settings into the somatics of control. How things like stillness, erectness, a wide and/or vacant gaze, a quizzical smile — can all be virally transmitted through a group so that suddenly it feels taboo to slouch, even if by slouching you would relieve the pain in your spine.
In the crudest examples, the Zen master literally beats you with a stick to force your posture into compliance. But how much more effective is it if you can encourage the student to straighten themselves, through manners alone?
I remember distinctly walking into Karme Choling in about 1995 and developing a wicked headache and backache from sitting up way too straight to listen to the warrior talk. I had no idea what was going on inside me, and no tools for investigating it. It would be decades before I understood the coercive stiffness at the root of the culture and its links to repression.
Trungpa himself modelled upright posture in most of his talks. They called him “perky”, “inscrutable”, “spacious” and other things, when the truth was that he had to maintain that posture as a defence against being shit-faced drunk most of the time. He was erect because if he wasn’t he’d fall over. Of course he had to bring this somatic control into all areas of life. I’m sure teaching people to use utensils as though they were on the set of Downton Abbey helped keep a lot of them from keeling over into their plates.
When the next year I was brought to a Michael Roach event I interpreted the same feelings of erectness as excitement or “receptivity”, especially in relation to the more natural transference that overcame me. The Shambhala shrine room explicitly reminded me of 1970s Sicilian Catholic kitsch, so I was less inclined to interpret the Shambhala headache positively. Michael’s group was fringey and boho, so the headache I got from all the sitting there was more easily interpreted as a “blockage” related to my own hang-ups.
If I had had the tools I would have understood that what was really happening was a new form of repressive behavioural control. There were proper ways to be in Michael’s presence. You could deviate from those ways in your body if the deviations expressed special insight or closeness to him. That’s why we watched Ian Thorson tremble and spasm and bark and quiver and sometimes even fall over out of meditation posture and chalked it all up to his devotion to Michael tickling his kundalini. I didn’t know him in the last ten years of his life, but back then I don’t remember anyone asking whether he needed medical care.
Most of us weren’t as “blessed” as Ian. We sat upright and still and got filled up with instructions to such an extent that there was no room for internal questioning, let alone breaking the spell in the room with any kind of challenge.
This happened in other contexts as well, subtler ones, and way closer to home. I remember the first time I hired my friend Michael Stone to teach at Yoga Festival Toronto. I passed by the room as they were setting up and 50 people surrounded him, all sitting stock still, mirroring him, arranged like a Renaissance painting. This is just part of what made his chaotic death so shocking to almost everyone.
As for myself: I remember leading meditation classes where I would open with the basic instructions about sitting upright, but then also model that uprightness myself, and lay it on thicker than I actually felt like doing, and then continued to straighten and ground and whatever as the people around me mirrored me.
And I kept going as I felt the relief of having others validate the sublimation of my bodily anxiety and shame.
Short answer: there’s a lot you can do if after all this you still love yoga and Buddhism the way you did in the beginning and you still want to share it with others. Scroll down if you don’t need the primer on the problem.
In January of 2018, Shannon Roche, current CEO of Yoga Alliance said the following in a video announcement of YA’s updated sexual misconduct policy:
There’s a deeply troubling pattern of sexual misconduct within our community, a pattern that touches almost every tradition in modern yoga.
Every human being deserves to practice yoga free from abuse, harassment and manipulation.
In honour of those who have spoken up, and in honour of those who have been too hurt to speak, we have to start somewhere, and we have to start now.
“Almost every tradition.” Did she really say that? Yes she did. Is that accurate? Yes it is.
You can scroll to the very bottom for an incomplete List of abuse documentation. Roche is speaking for the yoga industry here, but her statement might equally apply to Buddhist organizations, so The List is in two parts.
Please note I’m not talking about “Yoga” and “Buddhism” in some general sense, and as you’ll see from the list below, I’m not referring to organizations that are strictly indigenous to India or South Asia. The focus here is on modern businesses conducted mostly in English and responsible for the global commodification of yoga and Buddhism as wellness and spirituality products.
When I present The List publicly to groups of teachers and teacher trainees, I can feel the air get sucked out of the room.
Because virtually everyone who has professionalized into yoga or Buddhism over the last thirty years has done so in relation to one or more of these groups.
The List makes clear just how terrible the yoga and Buddhism industries have been at fostering the communities of competence, safety, dignity, and even love that their marketing has promised. The List lays bear the toxic outcomes of (mainly) male charismatic leadership over brands that vie for commercial legitimacy within an unregulated field. The List shows that the main thing that facilitates practice — a safe social space — is actually a very rare commodity. On the broadest scale, the sensitive observer will look at the list and wonder “What was this industry about, really?”
So what now? What do all of those trainings and certifications mean? What baggage do they carry with them? What do we do with this past?
I remember writing about Anusara Yoga in 2012. I was amazed at many things, but two stood out: how quickly the organization imploded, and then, how equally quickly so many people moved on. Some of the higher-ups simply switched gears and replicated abusive patterns in unregulated coaching or MLM schemes. But the lower-downs with more integrity tried to pivot to independent teaching status where they could still share what they really loved and valued. As they did so, many scrubbed their resumes, as if it had all been a bad trip they’d rather forget. I remember talking to many friends at the time. They now had a secret, and didn’t know what to do with it, and wondered how they would recover their sense of confidence.
There are fewer and fewer secrets now. That said, some of the articles listed below are from the early 1990s, so the secrets have been open for ages, and of course the survivors of these organizations have known the truth all along.
#metoo sweeping through the yoga and Buddhism worlds has turned the open secret into a do-not-pass-go reality test, and shown that abuse ignored is abuse perpetuated. One of the clearest recent examples has come from Dharma Ocean, where brave former students of Reggie Ray have disclosed a system of charismatic coercion that mimics the Trungpa/Shambhala community Ray famously broke away from. (Pro-tip: charismatic men splitting off from charismatic groups to form their own groups are waving red flags right in your face.)
The shame-scented grace period within which people have been able to quietly rebrand and move on is now over. We’re in a golden age of cult journalism. Skepticism is at an all-time high. And the yoga labour market is simply too saturated to skip town and just hang out another shingle. There’s no room left for blank slates. But there is room for honest growth and resilience.
Four Groups of Stakeholders
What do we do with the knowledge that our education is compromised by the unaddressed abuse histories of our schools? Let’s first get clear on who wants to do something.
In my experience so far, people relate to their abusive groups in four modes of descending intensity. I’ll briefly describe them here to narrow down who my real audience is here (spoiler alert: it’s group 3), because that audience has the burden of being surrounded by people (groups 1+2) who used to be friends and associates, but have now revealed insupportable values.
- Doubled-down Devotees. Take a look (trigger warning) at this petition organized by Russian Ashtanga students. And this one, organized by a Bulgarian student of Manouso Manos. Here are folks who show the classic hard-cultic habits of absolute denial, DARVO, black-and-white thinking, and bounded choice. For these folks, revelations of abuse by Jois and Manos cannot be true, but must be evil, must be motivated by hate and jealousy for sincere practitioners like them who have found the truth. These folks are the life-support system for the high-demand group before it implodes fully, or runs out of recruitment possibilities. That these two petitions target non-English speakers shows that the most recalcitrant elements of a cult will always evade responsibility in their home lands and languages to go for broke abroad.
- Reformer-Apologists. These respectable bystanders are often able to admit that their guru was a flawed man. Oddly, this can automatically increase their own social capital, because they are said to be showing wisdom and forgiveness. “Jois was only human,” they say, never naming the behaviour as criminal. They are even less likely to acknowledge that the criminality was enabled by the organization. Their statements and actions consistently ignore or minimize survivor testimony, and seem guided primarily by the need to limit liability and preserve the idea that the practice of the organization itself (as continued on through their virtue) will be enough to solve all problems. They typically argue that the practice can be separated from the abuser at the centre of the organization, even when they themselves enabled the abuser, and owe him a chunk of their social status. Most of these folks have financial positions to defend in relation to the organization. I’ve talked with many survivors who say that these folks are far more harmful in their behaviours than those in group 1, because reformer apologists pretend to care, but then go about business as usual. In the worst cases, they go so far as to take on reformer roles within the organization, even while shutting down survivor voices.
- The Disillusioned-Sincere. This is the group of people who are worth talking to about how to move forward with integrity. These are folks who professionalized through an abusive school. They may or may not have known about the abuse at the time they were on the inside. If they didn’t, they may have felt something. If they did, they might have frozen in response to it and haven’t known what to do since. They generally finished their educations and then struck out on their own, but were always low enough on the totem pole that it would have been a risk to clearly differentiate from the group. They’ve had good learning experiences, and they value the shreds of community they have left, but they also question what unspoken things they picked up. They can feel lingering weirdnesses, silences, and secrets. Most of all, they want to reclaim whatever it was that drew them to practice in the beginning, and to extract that from the mud. They know it’s worth keeping and sharing with others.
- The Long-Time-Gone Independents. People like Angela Farmer, Donna Farhi, and Diane Bruni are far enough away from their abusive learning communities that they’ve had time to feel and model the empowerment of personal creativity. They’re in a good place in relation to the systems that booted them out or that they had to leave, but it wasn’t always easy.
The iron laws of cultic allegiance mean that for the most part, people in groups 1+2 will only ever be able to serve their own diminishing markets. They’re either too indoctrinated or conflicted to care about or have the ability to move beyond their groups to show the general public that they’ve learned something beyond what their leader taught and his enablers rationalized.
Folks in Group #2 might move at some point to #3, but only if they get pushed off the island by fellow Group #2ers. I think there’s too much at stake in terms of identity formation for them to go on their own.
But if you’re in Group #3, there are three categories of action I believe you can take to reparatively and positively move forward.
I. Personal Inventory and Therapy:
As a Disillusioned-Sincere person, it’s tough to realize that your educational affiliation is compromised, or worse — that it has value to the extent that the group’s leaders suppressed abuse histories. But here we are.
My sense is that personal reckoning in most cases has to come first in order to get over the guilt and shame responses that impede being able to truly listen to and centre survivor voices, and let them carry reform forward, or conceptualize a new way of doing things altogether. So here are some thoughts I hope are helpful:
- It’s an unregulated profession in which male charisma — not competence, not kindness — has been the primary currency of value. It’s not surprising that the power dynamics are bad. You didn’t make the system up, and you wouldn’t have chosen it if offered a choice. But you can take responsibility for your part.
- If the group you were part of was indeed cultic, there is no shame in having been recruited. You know you didn’t sign up for abuse. The group hid that part from you.
- Educating yourself on how high-demand groups work can be really liberating. Here’s a great reading list from Janja Lalich.
- Don’t get caught up in the meaningless shame spiral of thinking that, for instance, the victims of Jois judge you harshly because you love Ashtanga. They don’t care what you love to do with your body, as long as you’re not hurting anybody else. That shame is a black-and-white defence against moving forward.
- You may have been a bystander to harm. Or you may have perpetuated harm. You can go to therapy to explore how that might have happened, and how you feel about it. But keep in mind that the group may have taught you to do exactly that, and that there were strong mechanisms in place to egg you on and shut you up.
- You don’t have to totally forgive yourself for having been there in order to do a good job with the next two categories, and the main point is not to make yourself feel better. But if you are gentle with yourself you’ll have less of your own stuff in the way moving forward.
The baseline, ground-zero instructions for how to listen to and support those your organization abused are in this white paper by Karen Rain and Jubilee Cooke: “How to Respond to Sexual Abuse Within a Yoga or Spiritual Community With Competency and Accountability.” Please read it, digest it, and share it with everyone you can. Follow up, to the best of your ability, on its distinct suggestions (I’ve added some terms in brackets to broaden the scope):
- Seek education from experts outside of the community [on all aspects of equality and justice, for no yoga or Buddhist organizations have this as a focus].
- Learn about sexual [physical, emotional] violence.
- Talk in a way that supports survivors and does not cause further trauma or perpetuate rape culture.
- Be accountable.
- Understand and address the shortcomings of the organization.
- Design policies and practices that help prevent further sexual [physical, emotional, financial] abuse.
- Utilize resources.
Here’s yet another tool that Karen Rain has offered for Jois-identified teachers who want to do the right thing. They can take this pledge,which commits to stepping back from any leadership in reform.
If you know that you have some bystanderism or enabling in your past, it might make sense to personally apologize to those you impacted. However, it’s anyone’s guess whether they want to hear from you, and there’s no telling how it will go if you do reach out.
In considering repair, let’s think about money as well. As an example, check out this still from this famous video released in 1991:
Jois stands in the centre. From the right we see Maty Ezraty, Eddie Stern, Chuck Miller, Tim Miller, Richard Freeman, and Karen Haberman (now Rain). Jois died a wealthy man, and five of these students went on to have very lucrative careers. There are reports that Ezraty’s net worth at the time of her recent death was 15M USD. Karen Rain, by contrast, had to leave the Ashtanga world, and her career, because she was able to discern that Jois was assaulting her and other students. Most of her colleagues on that stage alongside her knew what Jois was doing to women. Rain had to leave what she loved behind and start over.
Maybe at some point someone will be able to collect data on the amounts of money that survivors of abuse in yoga and Buddhist communities have had to spend on therapy and lost wages. In some cases, groups of survivors might find themselves in class action territory.
Until then, do what you can to support and platform survivors of your organization. And you can go farther than that by refusing to participate in yoga financial structures that suck profits up to the top. As with any vertical system, wealth accumulates because it gets stolen from others. You can re-orient yourself in relation to this by moving towards yoga service in public health spaces. See the Yoga Service Council for more details.
III. Moving towards Protection, Mitigation, and Freedom
This is where I pitch my book, because the last section is called “Better Practices and Safer Spaces: Conclusion and Workbook”, and it goes into detail about how to recognize cultic dynamics and how to think critically about group-based spiritual practice. It contains several frameworks meant to foster protection and safety. One such framework is the PRISM method, which I use in consulting. Another calls for a “Scope of Practice for the Yoga Humanities”, in which I argue that it’s not enough for yoga teachers to adhere to a physical SOP that would govern things like touch and unlicensed dietary advice, but for teachers to abide by standards of humility and self-restraint in the areas where they can most easily manipulate the emotions and intellects of students.
At this point I also believe that the staunchly anti-regulatory attitude of the (especially American-dominated) yoga industry has to be called out for enabling abuse. This is a very contentious topic, but I’ll just give one example to prove my point:
It was not only internally reported, but publicly reported, in 1991, that Manouso Manos was committing sexual assault and misconduct on a regular basis. Had yoga teaching in California at that time been a licensed profession, he would have been barred for life. It wasn’t and he wasn’t, so he was free to go about his business after being “forgiven” by Iyengar.
I don’t know how licensing could or should work, but I do know that a blanket rejection of the very idea regulatory oversight is an ongoing slap in the face to abuse victims in the industry. What that attitude basically says is “The consequences of everyone being unaccountable to a college or licensing board are not as important as my freedom.” That’s immoral.
One of the most powerful assertions and recommendations that Rain and Cooke make in their article is this:
Accreditation through an organization lacking transparency, accountability, or reparations for abuse is inadequate for establishing safety. Upgrade accreditation through an uncompromised yoga organization or other educational avenue.
Let that sink in for a moment. What it’s saying is that those certificates from Pune and Mysore that people have been waving around for years are now liabilities. They thought they were showing their competency, but now they show corruption.
What Rain and Cooke are saying here is that a flawed certification can and must be upgraded. You have be able to show yourself, your community, and the public what you have done to mitigate your prior education. This is obviously the best thing to do. In a world of workshops, why not pursue the knowledge that will show real leaning? Even without the need to mitigate your resume, taking a trauma-sensitive certification would be an excellent thing to do.
Eddie Stern is a central figure in the Jois tragedy. He knew that Jois was assaulting women at least as early as 2001, when his student Anneke Lucas disclosed to him that Jois assaulted her (PAAIC p. 319-20). Yet, he went on to host Jois on many tours, and in 2012 released the book Guruji, in which close to 40 devotees of Jois give their hagiographical accounts of his mystic power, and no-one breathes a word of his criminality. Stern’s co-editor Guy Donahaye has disclaimed the book and promoted an accountability gesture for Ashtanga teachers to sign. Here’s Donahaye’s statement on the book:
Since his death, KPJ has been elevated to a position of sainthood. Part of this promotion has been due to the book of interviews I collected and published with Eddie Stern as “Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K Pattabhi Jois” which paints a positive picture of his life and avoids exploring the issues of injury and sexual assault. In emphasizing only positive stories it has done more to cement the idea that he was a perfect yogi, which he clearly was not.
By burnishing his image, we make it unassailable – it makes us doubt the testimony of those he abused. This causes further harm to those whose testimony we deny and to ourselves.
I would like to offer my sincere apologies to all victims who were harmed by KPJ or by his teachings as passed through his students for my part in cultivating this image of perfection that denies the suffering and healing of many. I would also like to apologize for taking so long to write this – it was not easy to do.
Aside from a poorly-presented series of quotes in the New Yorker, Stern has remained publicly silent on the issue of institutional abuse in Ashtanga. And his new bio note scrubs all reference to Jois.
Here’s a thought experiment: without his connections to Jois, would Stern have been able to build the networking power that enables him to now release a book with a forward by Deepak Chopra, or be the fly-in asana guy for the Walton family’s upcoming conference? (This brings us back to money, see above.) What does it mean that Jois has now vanished from his history?
Whenever someone asks me what they should do about their prior affiliation with the Jois family, Manos, Satyananda, or Choudhury, I can basically say: “Don’t do what Stern does.”
Here’s what transparency, which I believe leads to freedom, looks like:
- Fully own your educational past, and your relationships.
- Show how you’ve updated your education.
- If you feel that you were in a high-demand group, this is not a point of shame if you can show what you’ve learned from it. If you have to make amends to anyone before spilling it, do it: it’s the right thing to do anyway.
- Within the bounds of legal risk, be frank about both what you learned to do and what you learned not to do. If you can refer to mainstream articles to make your point about your former school, that should be safe. I am not giving legal advice here, but I can say in general that the test for defamation is that what you say about your past needs to be untrue for you to be in legal jeopardy. That said, people with money can sue over anything.
- If it’s not your style or it wouldn’t be appropriate or would be legally dangerous to share about your past in a confrontational way, you could instead write a manifesto of values that clearly names dynamics that you have suffered and will continue to work against and reverse.
Owning your past, flaws and all, can give a new sense of creative and educational opportunity. Erasing trauma and history does not lead to freedom, but working with both may.
Note: The organizations on this incomplete list are all different. What they share is social power that has survived unresolved abuse histories of different varieties. Often this involves the lieutenants of abusive leaders assuming routinized leadership positions by burying the truth about the organization’s origins and how they have benefited from the silence of the organization’s victims.
Rinzai Zen (Joshu Sasaki Roshi)
Diamond Mountain / Asian Classics Institute https://michaelroachfiles.wordpress.com/
New Kadampa Tradition
Stories of abuse and betrayal tremble beneath the veneer of spiritual groups. Silently. For decades.
The veneer functions like money does in the Epstein world to write the laws, conceal the truth, and dispose of the evidence. Spiritual groups don’t have Epstein-level money, but they have other shiny objects to distract and confuse. They have stories of extraordinary men, spiritual transformations, and a coming enlightened age.
One type of question I often field is “what makes the Jois story a yoga story?” or: “What makes the Rigpa story a story about Buddhism?” I counter the deflection of this question by saying “It’s true: these are rape culture and high-demand group stories.”
Then I add: “But it’s important that we see how they play out in environments in which they are explicitly not meant to happen: places where vulnerable people come to be protected from abuse.”
But there’s another reason I believe stories of spiritual abuse are important to investigate and understand. In some cases, the group has an outsize impact upon the broader culture, usually through having found a way to conceal its origins, manage its image, and secularize and popularize its techniques.
I’m not talking about groups like Scientology, which unduly influence celebrities who carry a lot of social power, but which also have a hard time commodifying their core content. (One test here is that Dianetics has always been published in-house, while much of the “advanced” literature is hidden altogether.) With Shambhala, for example, the core content is sanitized, legitimized, and monetized through institutions like Naropa and a number of spiritual/self-help books that became touchstones in the 1990s neoliberalism that believed it was progressive.
That core content is a group effort. More importantly: the group effort conceals itself through the presentation of individual genius. Nowhere is this more efficient than in the spiritual book industry.
Spiritual books are marketed on the basis of the awakened personality and the intimacy of the author’s written “voice”. The public ends up thinking they’re encountering the realized presence of Pema Chödrön on the page, for example. That page, and the buzz around it, gets her onto Oprah.
But Chödrön’s ascent to Oprah isn’t driven by her personal wisdom or virtue. She gets that gig because she has risen to the top of a high-demand group as a spokesperson.
On June 19th, Myra Woodruff, the Executive Director of the Karmê Chöling retreat centre in Barnett, Vermont, sent an email to the centre’s mailing list. The email announces that the devotional portraits of Chogyam Trungpa and his son, Mipham Mukpo, will be reinstalled in the centre’s shrine rooms.
Karmê Chöling was founded by Trungpa in 1970. Initially named “Tail of the Tiger”, it was an early site for recruiting members and establishing the model of “land centers” through which Shambhala International has extended its assets. After dying of cirrhosis of the liver related to terminal alcoholism, Trungpa was cremated at Karmê Chöling in May of 1987. Continue reading “Shambhala Centre Will Rehang Devotional Pictures of Alleged Sexual Predator: Announcement Annotated”
Trigger warning: descriptions of sexual and physical assault.
Josh Summers: 00:00:06
Hi Matthew, how are you doing?
Matthew Remski: 00:00:07
I’m good. Thanks for having me, Josh.
Josh Summers: 00:00:09
Thanks so much for coming on. Let me introduce us. I am Josh Summers. I’m a yoga teacher and licensed acupuncturist. And this is Meaning of Life TV. You are Matthew Remski, a yoga teacher as well also an industry consultant in the Yoga Industry and an author of several books. Most recently you’ve written a book about problematic group dynamics in the yoga world and it’s called Practice and All is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics and Healing in Yoga, and Beyond. So I should say, you know, is it’s really nice to meet you. This is kind of an odd sort of endorsement to you, but, right at this point I’d say you’re the main reason I go onto Facebook.
Matthew Remski: 00:01:00
That’s, that’s mixed. I’m happy to hear that. And I’m sorry to hear that all at the same time.
Josh Summers: 00:01:06
No, no. I mean, for me it’s positive because there isn’t that much, worth following on Facebook. But, I came across your work maybe two or three years ago. Someone shared something you had blogged about, about abuse and some of these problematic dynamics in the yoga world. And I just kind of got into following what you had to say about it and it really seemed like you had some trenchant analysis that was deeply missing in the broader conversation. So I want to dive into that. Talk about what’s going on in Yoga land, uh, what’s problematic about it and what might be some ways that things can be remedied. But as way of introduction. You are yourself a survivor of two cults, and I know that part of this work in this book has been a bit of a healing journey for you. But how did you come to a focus on the Ashtanga yoga situation in particular and what was going on in that that you felt needed to be highlighted? Continue reading ““Abuse in the Yoga Community”: Josh Summers Interviews Matthew Remski”