That Time When I Was in a Cult and Got an Incredible Letter from a Friend

That Time When I Was in a Cult and Got an Incredible Letter from a Friend

One of the hardest questions I get asked by friends or family of people in cults is about how to talk with them about their experience. How do you have a conversation with someone who you think is being deceived, who has become dependent on a power structure you suspect is harming them? What if they say they’ve never been happier, and you can’t shake the gut feeling that there’s something off? There’s never an easy answer.

So much seems to depend upon the trust you share with the person, how well you make them feel heard, the state of their basic life-resources. In all of the stories I’ve heard about people extricating themselves from cults, there never seems to be any single decisive factor that pried them loose. But often, people will say that a key exchange with someone helped them change course.

I once had an exchange like that.

In 1999, a good friend of mine wrote to me about my immersion in the cult of Michael Roach. I recently found his typewritten letter during a closet clean-out, and read it again. And again. I’m retyping it out here with minor edits to protect anonymity.

Though I didn’t fully absorb them then, these words haunted me for the entire year between receiving it and leaving Roach. Today I can’t believe how lucky I was to have such a friend who could write them to me.

I hope you enjoy my friend’s kindness and subtlety, how he unfolds his argument slowly, with wit and pathos. How he takes me seriously, and tries to imagine and validate my inner life, even as he feels alienated from it. How he avoids the question of cultism and possible abuse for just long enough to have space in the end to back away from it with cheerful melancholy.

I hope you enjoy his self-awareness, humility, uncertainty, and bravery. Beyond his many salient points, perhaps it was his modelling of these virtues that made the deepest impression upon me.

(The opening reference is to an audio tape of Robert Thurman, probably teaching elementary Tibetan Buddhism. I’d sent it to this friend as a way of explaining what I was into. Or justifying it: Thurman was a lot more mainstream-able than Roach.)

____

April 16/99

Dear M,

Thanks for the tape, I’ve listened to it and found it both fascinating and puzzling. Thurman seems to fluctuate between academic instruction and personal inspiration. It’s all new to me.

I have to admit I find your increasingly devoted, if not feverish, attachment to Buddhism somewhat frightening to me. It makes me feel simultaneously apart from your experience and intrigued.

What does it feel like to actually believe in something? Really believe? I admit I have never truly believed in anything — all religions make me feel like an outsider, someone looking in on a transcendent experience, never one of the blessed (?) the inducted (?) the knowing (?).

So, when I hear of you growing more and more a part of something that appears to loom so large in your minds and hearts, I figure, well, there he goes — in a couple of years, or shorter, he’ll be off to some austere place (mental or geographical) where only the fellow enlightened can reach him. Essentially, it feels like you’ve already begun to pack for a figurative (or real) Tibet. I will miss you greatly.

By now you’re probably reading the above as et another instance of my relentless negativity, my self absorption — but, as true as that may be, I do still feel what I fell, which is that you are disappearing, or, to be more precise, changing shape.

That in itself is, of course, good and should be accepted by anyone who loves you, except that the catalyst for this change appears to me to be an all-encompassing, and excluding religious practice. I celebrate your new found happiness and clarity, but will the vehicle for this change ultimately make me and others that love you but who do not follow the same practices irrelevant?

Will you begin to see non-Buddhists as unenlightened, backward, and no longer necessary for your happiness?

Finally, and this is perhaps the most contentious of my concerns, I just fundamentally distrust and worry about people, especially people I love, who see their redemption (? wrong term, I’m sure) as coming through a single person, a “teacher”. I have always been suspicious of anyone who would set him/herself up as a teacher of intangibles, of ultimately unknowable things.

I fear the possibility of cultish servility — although I hardly think of such an ancient and resonant religion as a cult. But that does not mean that there are not charismatic people within Buddhism who are seeking followers to dominate.

I guess it all boils down to personal psychology — as a recent victim of a massive abuse of authority and trust, I’m afraid to see my friends potentially falling under the sway of another persuasive personality.

Call it projection (accurately), call it melodrama (possibly) — but I ask you to please keep a small part of yourself open to questions and the tiny voices of disquiet all intelligent people carry inside them as protection against fraud.

Know that I love you, and that this little diatribe has been brewing in me for awhile, and is not easy to write.

I admit I’m always confused, but sometimes I’m also very perceptive.

Am I losing you? Is the world? Please accept my love,

X

Against the “Recent YTT Grad” Stereotype

Against the "Recent YTT Grad" Stereotype

I want to push back a little against an inaccurate and often cruel stereotype of the 200-hour YTT graduate that’s been gaining steam in Yogaland over the past couple of years.

It frames out like this:

The recent YTT grad (80% likely it’s a “she”) is millennial, hasn’t practiced for long enough to be taking a training to start with, thinks that shapes are the point and has the Insta account to prove it. She got conned by a McStudio into signing up for a watered-down curriculum and is being taught by only slightly older entrepreneurial hacks who needed to run a programme to make their rent. Her knowledge of biomechanics is scant and of yoga philosophy worse. She has no connection to the “sacred”, and believes that yoga is a personal lifestyle choice, indistinguishable from fashion. Continue reading “Against the “Recent YTT Grad” Stereotype”

Suggested Additions to Adyashanti’s Anemic “Post-Election Letter”

Suggested Additions to Adyashanti’s Anemic “Post-Election Letter”

 

Spiritual teacher Adyashanti published the following Post-Election Letter to his Facebook page on November 19th. It was formatted as a caption to the photograph below. Since posting, it has been shared 1.7K times amongst his almost 57K followers. Continue reading “Suggested Additions to Adyashanti’s Anemic “Post-Election Letter””

What a Yoga Bro Who Sees His Trump Vote as An Act of Love Tells Us About Yoga Spaces

What a Yoga Bro Who Sees His Trump Vote as An Act of Love Tells Us About Yoga Spaces

 

Honestly I’m conflicted about spotlighting this article (trigger warning: predatory gaslighting), but I think exploring it might be instructive. My intent isn’t to isolate this individual any more than he’s isolated himself. It’s to show how Yogaland is woefully ill-equipped to engage the Trump era because of this malicious fact:

the discourse of neutrality, openness, and empathy can be effortlessly co-opted by a cynical and grandiose narcissism and used by those whose job it is to put others into psychosomatic stress positions and presume to shape their inner lives. This has always been a problem. Now it’s a cultural crisis.

Continue reading “What a Yoga Bro Who Sees His Trump Vote as An Act of Love Tells Us About Yoga Spaces”

After 11/9: How About a National Engaged Yoga Network?

After 11/9: How About a National Engaged Yoga Network?

This thought-experiment is meant for yoga practitioners and teachers who identify as progressive and/or opposed to the President-elect and the hellfire of social oppression, political regression, and environmental destruction that’s upon us.

It’s for those who wonder if they can maximize the physical, financial and emotional resources they commit to internal work and justice by combining them more than they’re combined already.

Most importantly, it’s for studio owners and prominent teachers who feel that their student base fits this profile.

If that’s not you, I wish you well, and we’ll talk some other time. Continue reading “After 11/9: How About a National Engaged Yoga Network?”

Poem and Prayer for the Night Before

Poem and Prayer for the Night Before

This is for those who have worked too hard in their lives to see it come to this absurdity. That would be almost everybody.

It’s for those who retreated to the foliage of Vermont after the New Dealer and his era tickered out like a grandfather clock with a lost winding key.

For those who bore and will bear the brunt of the “emancipation of unbridled hatred.”

For those who were duped or coerced into letting that hatred flow through them, and hollow them out.

For people of colour who had to watch the Klan endorse a mainstream candidate.

For election officials, some of whom will be people of colour, who must faithfully count votes for the Klan’s candidate.

For those of less privilege, who absorb all the emotions and history in lieu of burning the country to the ground. Continue reading “Poem and Prayer for the Night Before”

Meditation and a Basket of Phones

Meditation and a Basket of Phones

My kind host for a meditation weekend in Coeur d’Alene emailed ahead to ask about protocol for the weekend. One question was about mobile devices. The logistics part is simple, but the question also brings up a lot about what meditation might mean and engage with moving forward in our evolutionary storm.

Etiquette first: ringers and vibrate functions are best turned off for a weekend like this. Going further to block cell data would seem to be reasonable if you want to really internalize.

On the other hand, access to texting can put the mind of an anxious caregiver – for children or the elderly – at ease. And nobody would ask the on-call surgeon to turn their pager off.

For those willing to experiment, it’s interesting to see what limiting device usage on off hours contributes as well. Many people sense a serene envelope open up in time when they fast from data. Perhaps they remember the feeling of knowing something instead of being told something. Continue reading “Meditation and a Basket of Phones”

The Sublime Uselessness of Old-School Asana

The Sublime Uselessness of Old-School Asana

“Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way. It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility. If the contemplation of a work of art is followed by activity of any kind, the work is either of a very second-rate order, or the spectator has failed to realise the complete artistic impression.” – Oscar Wilde, letter to young artist

“What’s the difference between the ‘functional mover’ and the productive citizen?”Theodora Wildcroft, via Skype

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In this highly polished Iyengar tutorial, the instructor is obviously hyperextending her knees. She leans back, exquisitely, into her ligaments. She rests there for an appropriately penitential interval. Distended and refreshed, she eases out. The students follow suit. Continue reading “The Sublime Uselessness of Old-School Asana”

Billy Bush and the Rape Culture Alpha-Toady Dyad: 1 Quote and 8 Thoughts

I’d like to share this sharp reflection from a friend-of-a-friend on Facebook, and record a few additional points that have been inspired by it, as well as a whole lot of personal memories.

The thing that disgusts me most about that tape of Trump bragging about sexual assault is not him (although that is *plenty* disgusting), but Billy Bush’s response. Because I’ve heard that kind of response my entire life. When you are a guy, you occasionally find yourself in unwanted proximity to these two kinds of toxic masculinity: the alpha male and his sycophantic toady. The former brags about doing things to women against their will, while the latter laughs and showers praise on him for doing so. But while the former is pathological in all sorts of ways, the latter is enraging *and* pathetic. Because the toady is both perpetrator and victim of the patriarchal power exercised by the alpha male. When Bush cravenly exclaims “Yes! The Donald has scored. Whoa, my man!” he is abjectly trying to gain some purchase on the privileges of heteromasculinity from which he feels excluded (the fact that Bush is widely rumoured to be gay only reinforces this point). But the toady can only accomplish this through endorsing and even trying to share in the assault on women’s bodies. The bodies of the women waiting outside the bus, unaware of their role as currency in the exchange between alpha male and toady.

Tl; dr: Trump is to rape as Billy Bush is to rape culture. And the GOP, by keeping Trump as their candidate, are all Billy Bush now. And how fucking pathetic is that. — Derek Nystrom

 

  1. Rape culture is a hierarchy, and toadies strike a dirty bargain to gain advantage within it, in relation to the violence of the alpha male. Their need to avoid violence is plain when we see that they are often physically smaller than the alpha. If they are the same size or larger, they are often physically other or inept in some way that makes them vulnerable. Vaudeville enshrines this as a basic sight gag: the sidekick is a shrimp or a geek or a lurch or a fat guy. Each are targets, each knows it. The internal pressure of the toady’s anxious defensiveness reflects the alpha’s psychic armour and doubles the charge of his aggression.

 

  1. The toady has likely gone through an initial hazing, and is subjected to periodic and arbitrary exclusions and humiliations. That these are arbitrary is key: the shadow-fuel of the toady’s enthusiasm is knowing that he can be excluded or fired or sued or mocked or physically brutalized at any moment. Enthusiasm is not just vicarious self-identification with the person who can assault women at will: it is also an attempt to sublimate immediate danger. The easiest and safest thing to do for the toady is to perform joy in the transfer of his humiliation onto another person, while stabilizing his social capital by gratifying the dominance of the alpha.

 

  1. The unconscious toxic mimic of homoeroticism here should not be missed, nor its contribution to homophobia. The toady is masturbating the alpha, psychically for sure, but even physically, by mirroring and amplifying his excitations. If the toady is homophobic himself — and he may well be in part through the process of displacing having been called faggot enough — it is in part because he can’t imagine a homosocial world without humiliation. And what if, horrifically, the toady is actually gay? Reflecting on this as a straight man fills me with overwhelming admiration for what many gay men must have to do to come out and try to be at home in the world. They have to find and trust and believe in their tenderness and love amidst the alpha-toady dyads of dominant male dynamics. Unbelievable how scary and hard that must be. I can hear a million voices saying well, duh! as I write this. I’m truly sorry I didn’t see it before, and how essential the bravery of queerness can be to dissolving male violence, where it doesn’t replicate it. What an inspiration it is, capturing my awestruck gratitude, along with, I hope, that of every other hetero man who wants a different world.

 

  1. The toady might actually loathe women as much as the alpha does and seek to likewise assault wherever he can, or he might have convinced himself he loathes women in order to limit his cognitive dissonance, or he might not loathe women at all, and be caught up in a massive internal split. It doesn’t matter to women, who carry the heaviest burden. The toady’s goal is to offload shame, and if he doesn’t assault to do it his contribution is the pathetic enabling so integral to rape culture.

 

  1. I think an unexamined voice in the horrendous victim-blaming that men use to deny or minimize rape culture is that of the toady who is really saying: “I figured out how to offload alpha violence. Why couldn’t you?” Deeper still, I can imagine a toady affecting a special hatred for the rape accuser because she is standing up for herself exactly where he couldn’t, and under circumstances inconceivably more difficult. Her nobility challenges the omnipotence of the alpha, but it magnifies the toady’s impotence. The toady must reframe her speech as whining or self-pity, which is what he’s doing inside. He hates her brave stride to regain her dignity, because it reminds him of his shrinking, dirty bargain.

 

  1. I believe the somatic trace of that bargain might be a core obstruction to some men becoming true feminist allies. I’m not talking about the alphas, for whom there’s no hope beyond damage control. I’m talking about those who live in that enabling territory all the way up to toady, but deny it through attempts to self-cleanse through mantras like #notallmen. Yes: it’s daunting to consider the ramifications of male privilege and to wake up to the oppression of patriarchy. The empathy of some might be jostled into activism from these considerations alone. But others will have to remember and feel it in their bodies — that place and moment when they absorbed the violence and dulled its pain by discharging it onto someone smaller, other, or gendered differently. Once you feel it in you, watch out: you’ll have to really recover from it instead of drinking or inflating yourself with your chosen distraction. A big reason you punched down was because you didn’t even recognize your humiliation, let alone recover from it. It was normalized. Once you recover, you may be able to ally yourself and start punching up. But that can be a long road.

 

  1. There isn’t enough time and money in the world for all the adult men who need it to do all that therapy. They’d have to want to besides. Fat chance. We’d also have to collectively offer support through yet another cultural “conversation”, designed to expose wannabe-ex-toadies to the proper self-inquiry resources etc. Who has enough spoons to “call them in”? How many toads can really change their toadiness after their 30th birthday? Emotional capital is a precious resource, and maybe shunning is the economical choice in some cases.

 

  1. Consider the littles at home and in the schoolyard, where it all begins. Where forces as old as time shape the alpha-toady bedrock of the culture. It forms through countless tiny acts of domination and submission that any woke parent can see. But with hard work, the energy within this primal economy can be transformed into rhythms of consent, nurturance, protection, and acceptance.

Discussing Cultural Appropriation Amidst the Yoga Trolling

Discussing Cultural Appropriation Amidst the Yoga Trolling

This notable comment about cultural appropriation in yoga just popped up on my post called “Am I Even Teaching Yoga Anymore?”

Notable, because it shows how reasonableness can occlude emotional intelligence. I’ll paste an excerpt in here in full and then offer some commentary below. Continue reading “Discussing Cultural Appropriation Amidst the Yoga Trolling”