A short opinion piece:
It’s a mistake to think that Trump taking hydroxychloroquine is merely a sign of stupidity, anti-science narcissism, or a red flag for flogging something he can profit from in some way. It’s likely all of these things, yes, but I believe there’s something deeper going on.
Remember when he stared directly at the eclipse? Also a moment of stupidity, the machismo of a ten year-old, and a big F-U to so-called “experts”. He shows the same face in relation to the legal system when he fantasizes about gunning people down on 5th Avenue with impunity.
But when he challenges the *actual sun*, i.e., the source of all power on earth, he’s putting something at stake that his draft-deferring, germophobic soul rarely risks: his body. He’s showing off to his base, yes, but he’s doing it by showing them he has skin in the game. That his body is tougher than the game.
How much more extreme is it to take a medication that is both unrecommended by “experts”, and that has become an article of faith for those believing in his leadership? If he survives (if he took it at all), he gets to say:
The experts are so very wrong, they called the cure a poison. Sad!
But the unspoken somatic implication of this is:
I am so immensely sure of myself, and my body is so excellently powerful, I can magically turn what “experts” call poison (which it may actually be, I dunno) into medicine. Great!
It’s a kind of ultimate charismatic act: he’s digesting a symbol of his own insanity in order to become stronger.
If he could stage it, he’d walk on water.
Another indication of the increasingly shamanic or alchemical construction of Trump’s body is his refusal to wear a mask. I don’t believe it’s just vanity. It’s not just disbelief in the science, or a sense of libertarian entitlement.
I believe it may go farther than this: towards the conviction that his exhalation is righteous. If it makes some people sick, it would make the right people sick. Everyone else will feel its warm, moist blessing.
Back to pills though: IMO there’s a connection here between Trump’s pills and Elon Musk and Ivanka tweeting about taking the red pill.
Forgetting the MRA and 4chan connections for a moment: like hydroxychloroquine, the red pill is positioned as a dangerous but necessary challenge for the Übermensch to digest and transform. It’s a spiritual dare.
So now we have charismatic men, surrounded by enablers, cosplaying as divinities and avatars, consuming poison for personal enlightenment, and to show the people that they too can be magical.
When, barely two weeks after the global crisis and lockdowns have begun, a New Age writer with zero background in epidemiology or public health posts a 9K word novella called “The Coronation” — a play on the “corona” of the virus’s name — what do we suppose it is about? Do we have to read all 9K words to find out?
We could. But what would that investment of time and attention be predicated upon? What new and helpful information could we expect from such a long piece of writing, by a New Age writer, with zero background in epidemiology or public health? And at the very time that specialists around the world — people who spend their lives navigating medical complexities — are struggling, out in the open for everyone to see, to understand what they are dealing with?
To his credit, Eisenstein tells us within the first dozens of hynoptic grafs that new and helpful information about a uniquely terrifying global event is not his jam. He opens with a refrain of “not-knowing”. This makes the core of his New Age theme clear, and roots it in the vein of New Thought, which is not about useful information or analysis, but something better: aspiration. The not-knowing theme of New-Thought-to-New-Age literature offers the following workflow:
- Thoughts make reality, and therefore can change reality. (Consider the title of Eisenstein’s 2013 book: The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. I didn’t read it.)
- However: thoughts conditioned by conventions like science, the narratives of civilization, or emotions like fear impede the capacity to imagine a More Beautiful World.
- Therefore, our first task is “un-knowing”, “un-schooling”. We need to strip down our fixed ideas about the way things work, including politics and economics, to connect with something beyond common thought, something Our Hearts Know.
For the most part, I’ll leaving aside the fact that several chapters down in Eisenstein’s viral novella he begins to suggest that he does have specialized insight into COVID-19, by presenting cherry-picked bits of early reporting on death rates and comorbidities, flanked by idealizations of abstract indigenous cultures. Eisenstein’s “not-knowing” begins to slide into a kind of “alternative knowing” that shares space with American spiritual libertarians and anti-vax activists.
For those who are interested in a critique of the novella’s content as opposed to its structure, Jack Adam Weber has done a good job. Sentence by sentence, Weber’s painstaking dissection reveals a banal mess of poorly-researched, logical-fallacy-riddled, culturally homogenizing and appropriating, romantic-yet-emotionally-avoidant claptrap. But it takes Weber over 10K words to dispense with Eisenstein’s 9K words: evidence that the latter functioned as a Gish Gallop, in which the shear number of weak arguments overwhelms the capacity for concise refutation.
Did Eisenstein really offer content worthy of all this effort? Or is The Coronation a charismatic performance of self-entrancement that hijacks attention — even the attention of critique?
I’m going to argue here that it’s the latter: that in The Coronation, form trumps content. That the novella isn’t about the novel coronavirus, any more than Mikki Willis’s “Plandemic” is about the novel coronavirus. Eisenstein’s novella rather appropriates discourse about the novel coronavirus to mesmerize a privileged demographic during a volatile time.
What else, besides COVID-19, does Eisenstein apparently know nothing about? One doesn’t have to read the essay to find out, thankfully. Here’s the pdf. One can use the search function to look for the following keywords — all of which have been central to the data and analysis produced by real specialists so far. These are also terms that many people believe are key to the kind of “unschooling” that actually leads to something beyond the weekend workshop.
- “Public health” does not appear.
- “Race”: does not appear. But “embrace” does, six times. (Nor do “Black”, “Color”, “Latino”, “Latinx”.
- “Racism” does not appear.
- “Oppression” does not appear.
- “Privilege” does not appear.
- “Justice” does not appear.
- “Indigenous” appears once, with reference to a 1975 book by an American writer. No indigenous writers or wisdom holders are cited or linked to, even with respect to the keyword “initiation”, which anchors the trite conclusion of the novella. (I too am uneducated in this field, but starting to learn a bit, and will share an interview with Stan Rushworth below.)
- “Systemic” appears once to impugn a global shift towards “ever-increasing control” carried out by governments. Appears a second time in the phrase “systemic change towards a more compassionate society”, but with no details offered.
- “Structural” does not appear.
- “Inequality” appears once, but in a neoliberal frame, as an “intimate” problem, like homelessness, for which there is no external solution.
- “Healthcare” appears three times in a single graf that crescendoes to the spectre of compulsory vaccines.
- “Poverty” appears once, but not as a risk factor, but as something that control freaks foolishly believe they can eradicate.
- “Politics” does not appear, but derivatives appear ten times, always to imply a degraded activity, not a series of positions and values. The takeaway is that the novella is “apolitical”.
- “Marginalization” does not appear.
“Margins”, however, appears three times, twice to refer to alternative health, and once within the one graf in the conclusion that functions like a white-saviour TUMS to readers who might identify as left/progressive, and needed reassurance of the novella’s virtue. It’s worth quoting from that graf here, not only to spotlight the single moment the essay steps out of its own trance, but because it begs the next level of text analysis:
What should we do about the homeless? What should we do about the people in prisons? In Third World slums? What should we do about the unemployed? What about all the hotel maids, the Uber drivers, the plumbers and janitors and bus drivers and cashiers who cannot work from home? And so now, finally, ideas like student debt relief and universal basic income are blossoming. “How do we protect those susceptible to Covid?” invites us into “How do we care for vulnerable people in general?”
“Who is the ‘we’ here?” Does the novella contain a positionality statement? Who is this writer? What are their skills, biases, blindspots? What are their privileges? Who are they more likely to cite? Who are they speaking for, and to? As the above graf alludes, the pandemic’s impacts are unevenly distributed. Wouldn’t it be good for the reader to understand where in that uneven landscape the writer stands? Costa Rica, or Compton? Venice Beach, or Venezuela?
The pronoun “I” appears 30 times in the text, but not one of them offers insight into any of these questions. This alone creates the impression that the writer’s identity and position is assumed to be universal. Using this analysis tool underscores the point. It generates a list of keywords by usage. Here’s the data, which shows that the word “our” is the most-used word in the novella, at 66 times. The undefined “I” doubles in transmission rate as it becomes plural.
What, then, is this novella about? On Facebook, back when more people were talking about it, I quickly argued that it was mainly about Eisenstein’s brand. But what is that brand?
I haven’t read his books, and based upon this novella I won’t. But on the basis of what this novella does I would argue that the Eisenstein brand isn’t about useful information, applicable to daily life in the midst of an horrific crisis. It seems, rather, to provide an alternative space for retreat from the world of evidence fact-checking, and consequences. I really do mean “space” here, because the sheer time it takes to read 9K words creates a bubble apart from other media and experiences.
I believe that reading The Coronation is like going on retreat, for about thirty minutes. During lockdown, it’s a great way to keep your jammies on and drop in at Esalen, Omega Institute, Wanderlust, Burning Man, or Sandals for Progressives. The novella is an escapist geography you can mind-travel through, if you have the time. Meaning: if you’re not a frontline worker. If you’re not driving a car for Instacart. If you’re not in the food bank line. If you believe that the novella’s “we” includes you.
What else happens in that landscape? Basically: anything at all connected with New Thought / New Age ideals — which, when they intersect with a pandemic, seem to work against the values and principles of public health, through fervent appeals to individual intuition and private rights. It’s no surprise then that we see Eisenstein sharing a stage with Goop expert “Dr.” Kelly Brogan, whose dangerous claims about COVID-19 are reviewed here.
That’s not a casual connection. More recently, Eisenstein shared his podcast platform with Sayer Ji, founder of the anti-vax website greenmedinfo.com. The podcast title is a clue to the grandiosity on offer. Two non-specialists, speaking under the banner of “Beyond the Coronavirus.” So not only have they understood the pandemic — as countries struggle to bury the bodies — their visionary insight is able to pontificate about what comes next.
In the show notes Eisenstein describes Ji as “a prominent holistic health researcher.” (Rationalwiki has another way of spelling that.) In the intro Eisenstein describes Ji as his friend. Ji opens by remembering Eisenstein coming to his and Brogan’s wedding.
As I wrote on Facebook, I’m not proposing a counter-conspiracy of wellness industry moustache-twirlers, seeking to make a buck on the fear they tell us is the real virus. Neither am I implying guilt by association. These folks don’t need to be villains to cause a lot of damage. It’s more like an opportunistic convergence of landscape and actor, and the engine of neoliberal content-production that rushes to fill every emotional void.
The novella rolls out a geography of not-knowing, of asking leading questions, subtly conflating “universal health care” with forced vaccination, for example. Into the open space stride Brogan and Ji with the activities and products. They set up the pamphlet tables in the lunch hall at the retreat centre. It’s like Esalen — an open space of questioning — hosting the juicing and magnet healing retreat. All while a war is going on outside.
Is it wrong to go on retreat, or even vacation? Is it wrong to want cognitive and emotional relief from a fright without solution? Not at all. At best, The Coronation wraps the reader up in a spa-towel of vague encouragement.
At the level of meh, it pretends to be philosophy instead of affect regulation.
But at worst — and this is a real tragedy — The Coronation silences a diversity of feeling and imagination, and not only by what its positionality excludes. I believe that the logorrheic rollout of a novella-sermon, only two weeks into lockdown, that waffles between “not-knowing” and conspiratorial knowing, can tranquilize the creative responsiveness of its readership. So I’m wondering what better thinking got numbed out because this went viral.
A very prolific and highly ethical writer friend of mine summed it up:
“I’m just not ready to write anything about this yet. I don’t know enough about what is happening. And I’m having two many intensely personal responses to be of broader service. Writing some big thing right now would feel sacrilegious.”
Here’s Stan Rushworth.
We go by many names: Spiritpreneur, Life Coach, Gridworker, Transmuter, Singing Bowl Sacred Masculine Person, Conscious Filmaker, Shamanpreneur, doTerra Rep, Part-Time Reiki Healer, Yoga Teacher.
We are beyond labels and definitions. Our purpose is Singular. No one can deprive us of our undefined terms.
We will remain forever unregulated. Lightworkers can have no scope of practice. We govern ourselves — by shining.
In our Oneness we are post-political. The Light we know contains all skin colours and dissolves all propagandist divisions of North and South, rich and poor.
We honour Truth beyond left and right, beyond right and alt-right.
We will never be victims. Victimhood is a state of mind. Our minds are sovereign.
We will not live in fear. But there are many common things we pledge to be afraid of, and we pledge to warn others about them, incessantly.
All is One, and time is unified. There is a war coming, it’s already over, and we are in the midst of it.
We have saluted the sun in Tulum, Ubud, Rishikesh, the Burn, Wanderlust. We have found ourselves in workshops and trainings. In our Hearts we are all Indigenous. We have come home to everywhere, online, plant medicine in hand, to find each other.
The State has failed to educate us, so we have pledged to educate ourselves.
The State has failed to provide us with healthcare, so we have pledged to medicate ourselves.
We have remained open to all possibilities, and so we demand the State reopen.
We are not afraid of not-knowing. We have learned to abide in the certainty of not-knowing.
Despite this failed State, and to glorify its founding intentions, we have done our research, educated ourselves, and woken up to defy tyranny.
We pledge to tell others, very loudly, demonstrating for them the certainty they desperately crave, to do their research, educate themselves, and wake up to defy tyranny.
We know there is no virus.
We know there is a virus, but it’s not the virus they’re telling you about.
We know that the real virus jumps from Chinese bats to sheeple through Big Pharma microchips.
We know that in the universal plan, at the time of the Reunion, we are the virus we’ve been waiting for.
We know that the virus is the vaccine.
We’re not “against vaccines”. We’re asking deep questions about the nature of consciousness, the future of history. And vaccines.
We know that medicine and science are personal belief systems. Therefore we strive to be the very best people.
We know there is nothing to fear but fear. We pledge to nurture our fear of fear with courage. To stay with it. The only way out is through.
We are not attached to these bodies, over which we assert sovereignty.
We are not afraid to die for the right to not be killed by “licensed” doctors.
We know the only real lockdown in this world is the lockdown of the heart.
We pledge to always look deeper, past the “words” on the page of the “peer-reviewed paper”, past the ink to the Paper Itself, its network of fibres, which looks like mycelium, which is how our mushrooms talk to each other and hold our fungal memory.
We are here to serve the revivification of Life, not the transhumanist agendas of technocrats. We don’t even know what that means, but we’re open to it.
We laud the doctors who have been discredited for “falsifying research”. We honour those who trained in “consensus reality” and then set out on their own Way. We know the bravery it takes to follow one’s Gut Flora.
All data is light in transformation. There is no need to investigate sources when we connect with Source.
Our Truth is encoded in our name: “Woke” begins with the double-YOU before the sound of the Holy Tree. “Spiracy” is the inspired breath that never needs a ventilator.
We pledge to use social media to resist the algorithms of social media.
We will not mask our original, shining, defiant face.
Our Slogans, Our Selves.
Due to the substantial risk of misreading here, please note:
The following analysis is extremely careful to stay out of ad hominem territory. I am not saying that Mikki Willis is intentionally emotionally controlling viewers. I don’t know him and only he can have insight into his intentions. It’s totally possible that he’s acting in good faith and with sincere desire to help. If that’s so, I hope the following feedback on his media output is helpful. My argument is not about Willis or Mikovits. My argument is that the spectacle generated by and surrounding Willis’s film can function in an emotionally controlling way.
There’s already been a lot of time and effort put into exposing the misinformation of Mikki Willis’s “Plandemic”. It’s a necessary start. Next up is considering the spectacle generated by and surrounding the film as a form of viral emotional control.
On the misinformation front: Snopes has this to say about star interviewee Judy Mikovits’s work and criminal controversy, and Dr. David Gorski, does a thorough breakdown of the film’s distortions. Dr. Jennifer Kasten focuses on Mikovits’s claims about masks and her denial that SARS-CoV-2 causes COVID-19. Someone has anonymously compiled a timeline of the available journalism here, and Derek Beres also offers a good untangling. Reddit is pretty rich as well.
Any one of these rebuttals renders Willis’s film an incoherent mess. So how does it have such a hold on so many? Psychology Today posted a good rundown on some clinical mechanisms. Experts in conspiracism, educational deficits, the paranoid style in American politics, the backfire effect (in which arguing facts actually provokes a retrenchment of fictions) and social media filter bubbles will all have useful data and frames for understanding it.
My survivor and independent research history is in the field of emotional manipulation networked around charismatic male leaders in neo-spiritual groups, so that’s how I’ll contribute. It’s not a complete view, and it’s only one of many.
From my perspective, the shape of the Willis/Plandemic spectacle becomes clearer when his film is juxtaposed with his post-film-release FB selfie video. (You can scroll to it below.)
Plandemic provokes panic, terror, and outrage.
But the selfie video — a hypnotic but also menacing sermon released less than 24 hours after the film — offers emotional oversharing, intrusive caregiving, and soft apocalypticism.
The film provokes hypervigilance, but then the sermon soothes, quasi-explains, and entrances, positioning Willis as a spiritual guide. This rhythm and confusing contrast can create a bond in which viewers run for comfort to the person who terrified them.
This is a feedback loop unlikely to be disrupted by facts.
We also know that the film is a trailer only: the terror arc of the cycle will return, though we don’t know when. The uncertainly itself elevates the stakes, and likely the cortisol.
In the field of cultic studies, such a rhythm is understood as one driver of disorganized attachment and trauma bonding. The cult member is actively confused by the proximity of danger and care. The leader’s main impact is not to communicate content, but to forge an exploitative relationship through that confusion, which can only be resolved by staying.
In an internet spectacle such as this, the reward is emotional attention. (It’s beyond my scope to speculate on the ramifications: for instance, how much this slice of emotional exploitation will impact public health communications.)
Essential to this framework is the idea that the Willis/Plandemic spectacle is not mainly about Mikovits, Big Pharma, or COVID-19. Willis isn’t a scientist or a science journalist. He’s from the entertainment industry and produces wellness and spirituality media content.
This means, unfortunately, that there may be little ground on which to debate the epidemiology with Willis and those who are deceived by the film, because that’s not the subject matter at hand. The spectacle parasitizes the complexity and stress of the pandemic, and uses it as a front. The Willis sermon makes this clear, as it contains almost no reference to the claims made in the film.
Another angle: the film engages with COVID-19 in the mode of what philosopher Henry Frankfurt calls “bullshit”, in which the speaker is less invested in the truth of what they are saying than in the attention they win for saying it. In this paradigm, even negative attention (think debunking) can constitute a win for the bullshitter, because it reinforces the visibility and importance of the bullshit.
Bottom line? With Willis/Plandemic, we’re not just dealing with misinformation, but with intense relational feedback loops that colonize emotional attention and centre male charismatic leadership so it can offer an antidote to the same anxiety it provokes.
I don’t personally believe the cycle can be broken by evidence-based refutations that on some level humiliate the person under this spell. You can’t help a person in a trauma bond by telling them they are stupid.
But perhaps you can model what consistent and secure love and care actually look like. Neither begin with misinformation.
Here’s the sermon. Below I’ll make a few observations on the charismatic mechanics, aesthetics, and innuendo of Willis’s sermon before the transcript.
oo:oo: The framing and ring-lighting is near Renaissance-quality in terms of definition and radiance. The head-tilt is saintly/iconic, as is the transfixing gaze.
00:02: If the viewer notes that the speaker’s eyes aren’t actually red, what will they do with the dissonance?
00:17: By this point we have instantaneous, presumed, intrusive intimacy. The sermon does not present as a media event: it is a private and personal conversation. In my research on charismatic leadership, many interview subjects report the paradoxical phenomena of the speaker speaking to countless people, while seeming to forge a private connection. Some of this is amplified by the webcam medium, but it’s also played up with direct 2nd-person address. As the sermon finds its ultimate/totalistic theme, the diction shifts to first-person plural. The viewer is invited to merge with the speaker. The sermon is about something ultimately important, communicated in close intimacy.
01:38: Note the meta-narrative, which positions the sermon as distinct from media manipulation, and makes it seem as though Plandemic is not itself terrifying content.
3:30: Here, one of the most traumatic narratives in popular culture [Epstein] is co-opted, incoherently, to connect the pandemic and public health responses to it with organized pedophilia. This recalls the innuendo made by an anti-vax group comparing vaccinating children with raping them.
5:25: The speech reaches its high-stakes peak with a messianic/sacrificial promise, followed by very long intrusive eye contact and then a dare to join in self-sacrifice, followed by a pacifying walkback. The rhythm of intensity and relaxation provides a microcosm of the terror/care superstructure. The incoherence here is rising to the level of confusion induction, through which the viewer may experience a collapse of critical thinking.
7:12: “Your fear of losing is what’s causing the loss that we’re all experiencing right now” may as well be a line out of The Secret, which Willis’s production company promoted. The conclusion swells, quietly, towards full apocalyticism.
My eyes are puffy and red because I just had a really fantastic quarantine cry. If you haven’t done that yet. I highly recommend it. Very purifying, very clarifying.
So much so that I’m compelled to say something to you. Just to you. So if you’re scrolling, a lot on your mind, multitasking and doing that thing we do, I ask that you stop just for a moment, take a pause and if you can’t, maybe pause this video and get back to it later.
What I want to talk to you about in this moment is the cheerful subject of death about our fear of death, your fear of death, my fear of death and the way that it stops us from doing the things that most need doing right now in this time and this incredibly critical, precious moment. The window of opportunity is open in a way that it never has been before. We have technology at our fingertips that we’ve never had before. We have the world’s attention in a way that we’ve never had before and the entire human organism is awakened, aware enough to know one thing, something’s not right.
We all have our own different ideas and opinions of who to blame. What’s the blame? But we know that something’s not right. But what stops us from speaking out is this fear that’s been wired into our psyches, generations of media manipulation, just wiring the brain to be so fearful, so controllable, and it’s through fear, the weapon of fear that we are controllable.
We can be fully antiwar, but all they have to do is to convince us to some foreign leader is threatening our existence and we suddenly say, strike. Fear is one of the only things that has us completely drop our morals, our standards, what we know to be right and wrong. But this fear of death has gotta be addressed. We have to really take a deep look at our fear of our own mortality. What I saw this morning was that we love this life so much. The intrinsic impulse to be alive is so fierce and intense that we avoid everything that threatens our life, which we should, but we sometimes extend that to allowing our voices to be silenced, to allow us to be stopped from holding accountable those who are the real threat to our survival.
There are people, let’s get beyond conspiracy theory and beyond all the conditioning that we’ve had to just accept the idea that there are people on this planet that are so greedy, they will destroy millions of lives for their gain, for their gain of money, of control, of power. We’ve seen them through our lifetimes. We know they exist. We know the Jeffrey Epsteins of the world exists, that that forcing children to engage in sexual, devious sexual acts and have their lives and their hearts and spirits ripped out all for a little bit of profit and control. These people exist and they exist on all sides.
This imaginary sides thing that we’ve created, they’re men, they’re women, the Republican, the Democrat, they’re everything. They’re out there and what I see online so much of is good hearted citizens who care, unwittingly fighting for these wicked forces and that’s part of the mind control. We actually fight for big pharma. I see so many messages from obviously from mothers and fathers who care and they have no idea that they’re fighting for the profit. Here is a big pharma and the only way that kind of insanity can occur is through fear.
And so the declaration that I’m making in this moment right now to you, to the world is that I love this life so much that I am willing to die for it. Are you?
And no. I have never and will never be suicidal. This is about being willing to let go of all things. For the doctors out there that are listening to this who are on the fence, knowing in your heart what has been happening in your industry, knowing that your oath to do no harm has been violated and you’ve been forced to violate that off and you’re on the fence afraid to be criticized by your peers, afraid to lose your job, afraid to lose your status, your license, your house, your car, whatever it might be. It is time to rise above that fear. Two years ago, my family experienced the biggest gift we’ve ever been given and that was, we lost everything, everything in the California fires, and that was the greatest gift we ever had. Letting go of everything so that we could focus on what matters. And that is each other, our families, our lives, every human cell. And this organism matters.
So what are you willing to lose? Because you’re, you’re holding on. Your fear of losing is what’s causing the loss that we’re all experiencing right now. The loss of our health, the loss of our freedoms, the loss of our voice, our ability to speak truth into the world. So I stand here right now making a declaration that I’m willing to die for this life, for life itself, for you. And when we all stand up, unlike the all the holistic doctors who have suddenly been suicided because they spoke up one at a time or maybe three at a time. But when we speak up as a mass together, there’s no stopping us.
So I invite you to do what I did this morning, which is to take some time to yourself. Pray if you pray, meditate. If you meditate, think if you think whatever it takes to get to that deepest core of that fear of dying and find the strength, that warrior strength in your heart to rise above that, to understand that life isn’t worth living if it’s not lived with freedom and good health and happiness and love and connection. They have divided us mentally for decades. This latest move has now divided us physically. We are socially distanced, dividing us from each other and from ourselves, from our nature. We’re shipping synthetic drugs and things that addict our family members and kill the organism that gives us life, a very organism that gives us life and to deny all the incredible intelligence and food and medicine that comes from the ground itself, from this incredibly beautiful planet that allows us to this day, despite our mistakes, our errors to live here on her, for the love of her, for the love of life. I’m willing to die.
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.
Here’s a short post in which I apply “The Work” of Byron Katie to some concrete thoughts that are disturbing me, as per her instructions on this worksheet, but also in this 2016 exchange in which Katie encourages a woman to say that she’s not afraid of the outcomes of a Trump presidency, but that she actually wants those outcomes.
Let’s see how this goes…
The Four Questions, Thought 1: I am afraid of contracting COVID-19 and dying or becoming disabled.
Q1. Is it true?
Q2. Can I absolutely know that it’s true?
Because I haven’t contracted COVID-19 and either died or become disabled, I can’t say for absolute sure that these are events that would be ultimately fearful. But this is a manipulative question, because it uses my own intellectual integrity against the feeling. It asks me to dominate my feeling with doubt.
Q3. How do I react, what happens, when I believe that thought?
I experience anxiety, a sense of meaninglessness, but also a sense of urgency with regard to connecting and relationship-building.
Q4. Who would I be without that thought?
A dissociative lump.
The Turnaround: “I’m looking forward to contracting COVID-19 so that I can die or be disabled.”
The Four Questions, Thought 2: “I am afraid that if I die I will leave my partner and children vulnerable.”
Q1. Is it true?
Q2. Can I absolutely know that it’s true?
Because I haven’t died and can’t absolutely say how my family would respond, it is possible that this fear is irrational. The manipulation and cruelty in this question is that it undermines my reasonable sense of empathy for my family members, while seeking to devalue my perception of my importance to them. The doubt here says: “Don’t trust the instinctual feelings of attachment that have been forged by intimacy and care.”
Q3. How do I react, what happens, when I believe that thought?
I think of my family members in grief and under stress and I feel it throughout my entire being.
Q4. Who would I be without that thought?
The Turnaround: “I want to die so that I will leave my partner and children vulnerable.”
The Four Questions, Thought 3: “I am afraid that the pandemic will destabilize fragile human systems and cause enormous suffering, unequally borne by the poor.”
Q1. Is it true?
Q2. Can I absolutely know that it’s true?
Because the epidemiology is still being worked out, not even experts can determine the extent of the suffering to come. The gaslighting nature of this question is carried by it’s black-and-white setup. It’s not like the pandemic will or will not destabilize fragile human systems and cause enormous suffering, but the EXTENT to which it will do just that. In this case, responsible intellectual conservatism is weaponized against me in the attempt to invalidate the feeling.
Q3. How do I react, what happens, when I believe that thought?
I’m filled with impotent rage at the scope of injustice. I feel intense shame at my complicity in systems of oppression. I feel deep survivor’s guilt.
Q4. Who would I be without that thought?
A banal privileged monster.
The Turnaround: “I’m looking forward to the pandemic destabilizing fragile human systems and causing enormous suffering, unequally borne by the poor.”
If you are a proponent of The Work, please let me know if I got any of this wrong. Thank you!
(adapted from Facebook entries that reflect on the intersection between yoga/spiritualism/wellness crowds and COVID-19 conspiracy discourse)
Yoga Culture Can Train Us to See Conspiracy
The intersection between yoga/spiritualism/wellness interests and conspiracy discourse makes sense.
The history of yoga/spiritualism/wellness is a history of understanding the conventional as illusory, or bankrupt. Society itself is typically seen as a conspiracy against the inner self.
More recently, the yoga/spiritualism/wellness world exists in part as a response to scientific materialism, and a rejection of biomedical objectification.
It gives a lot of people a renewed sense of agency in relation to their bodies and ways in which meaning is made.
Yoga/spiritualism/wellness also rebels against the caste structures of bureaucracy and professionalism.
It rebels against the gatekeeping that invalidates intuition and minimizes body memory.
Through meditating on principles like karma, yoga people can rightly claim foreknowledge in current fields of study, like trauma.
Through meditating on principles like renunciation, yoga people can also develop a keen sense of where social conditioning is inauthentic, limiting, or exploitative.
When yoga/spiritualism/wellness isn’t conveyed by cults, it really can push back against authoritarianism. Where it does not victimize, it really can nurture survivors.
But COVID-19 doesn’t care about any of these things.
It’s not going to work to displace a generalized spiritual feeling of distrusting convention and rationalism onto this crisis.
And public health people care that yoga/spiritualist/wellness people don’t die, or endanger others. Like everyone, they might not have all the answers, but they’re practicing too, in ways that we may write epics or sutras about one day.
If Conspiracy Discourse Intersects with Cultic Behaviour, How Do You Help?
There are a number of ways in which those who have been recruited into social media conspiracy discourse behave like high-demand group (i.e. cult) members.
Two caveats, however:
- Conspiracy discourse rarely has visible leadership, whereas most cults do.
- Conspiracy discourse that spreads online is unlikely to enforce a key aspect of cultic control — behavioural control — except in the broadest sense of “You must be online most of the time.” Other than this high demand, it’s implausible that an online group could control food, dress, sexual activity, sleeping hours, etc.
Questions of leadership and online vs. IRL aside: if conspiracy discourse maps onto parts of the cultic template, it might mean there are ways of helping recruits you know and care for, or at least showing them that consensus reality is not as threatening as they feel, or have been told to feel.
I see four qualities in social media conspiracy discourse that approach or the standard of thought or information control (cf. Hassan), by which a group cannot admit outside data or sources of authority that would disturb the ideology:
- Black and white, all-good/all-bad thinking;
- Unshakeable belief in a grand civilization narrative;
- Inability to distinguish charisma from evidence;
- The willingness to absolutely isolate oneself from consensus reality.
I see three qualities that meet the standard of emotional control (again Hassan), by which a group enhances bonds and compliance:
- Extreme hypervigilance. The group takes great pride in being constantly and uniquely awake to the highest truth of things.
- Frenzied defensive certainty expressed through endless comments, tagging, link-dumping.
- Affect of pious devotion that must remain impervious to evidence.
Cult analysts mostly agree that the person who has been recruited is extremely difficult to communicate with. Their new value system obstructs all former closeness, understanding, and generosity. But Hassan and Alexandra Stein and others suggest that if you knew the person outside of their cult behaviour, you can actually play a role in helping them remember that part of themselves.
In other words: if you had a relationship with the person pre-cult, you are keeping their pre-cult self accessible, perhaps even alive. This means that nurturing the relationship, despite how despicable their views are, can be important — and that you’re in the position to do it. Stein says that the cult member is in a disorganized attachment relationship to the group, which has offered a “false safe haven”. The antidote is the real safe haven of the secure attachment.
But simply considering this might be impossible if they are spreading falsehoods about COVID-19 and 5G, and you’re immunosuppressed, and/or you just can’t even. Their behaviour is directly and palpably endangering you, and maybe the best thing is to block them.
But if you value the relationship —again, not saying you should — and Stein is right that the person presenting cultic behaviour is acting through an attachment wound and/or trauma bond, it literally cannot be repaired through dismissing, abandoning, patronizing, or humiliating them.
Maybe “Oh wow, I hear that you’re scared, and I am too” can go a long way.
Ignoring Direct Testimony is a Form of Silencing
Generosity dictates seeing the person engaging conspiracy discourse, or the subtler versions (“I’m just asking questions no one is allowed to ask”) as earnestly trying to be helpful, defend the vulnerable, nurture intuition and personal agency, and see through the illusion of an abusive civilization.
But there’s a moment when that earnestness turns a corner and is revealed as either a deception, or as immature, or as self-centred. I’m seeing this a lot.
It happens when someone posts a conspiracy theory doubting the existence, power, or origin of the virus, citing an indirect source. Then a friend, obviously triggered, posts a comment like:
“Please stop posting misinformation. My (partner, sibling, child) is a front-line health worker and this information endangers them.”
“Please stop posting misinformation. My (partner, sibling, child) is terribly sick (or has died) from this disease, and your post will endanger others.”
“Please stop posting misinformation. I’m recovering from this disease and I don’t want anyone else to get it, because it’s the worst thing I’ve ever been through.”
The key moment is when the OP doesn’t respond to that comment. What that shows is either that they value their idea over the direct testimony of the commenter, or that they believe the commenter is lying.
Valuing an ideology over testimony is at the root of systemic abuse.
We might consider the non-response to be a form of survivor silencing.
Conspiracy Discourse is Not Pessimistic Enough
The paranoia conceals an unreasonable hope.
The iconography of warfare and cast of evil and angelic characters presents a morality play in which, if Bill Gates (or whoever) is outed and defeated the truth will be known and the world (righteousness/purity etc) will be restored.
In this light, the pandemic is a chapter in a necessarily heroic narrative that places the underdog truth-tellers – the brave few who get it – at the centre of a transcendent revolution.
This is not pessimistic enough, in my view, because there really are no grand heroic narratives in the age of climate collapse.
To my eye, what’s happening now is basically what we have going forward, unevenly distributed: one unsolvable crisis after another rolling around the globe and intersecting, with little to rely on but the ability to discern solid sources of information, the capacity to strengthen secure attachments, and willingness to listen to the indigenous, who have been here before.
A non-grandiose framework is not depressive. Within it, there are innumerable loving, nameless actions, compromised by blindspots and anxieties, but also enriched by good instincts and earned resilience.
In October 1960,
A gas explosion tore off the back wall
Of the Metropolitan department store in downtown Windsor.
Nine seniors sitting on chrome stools at the lunch counter
Were crushed under the rubble,
Along with one young girl, who bled out
In the arms of two firemen who couldn’t pry her free.
One five year-old boy was small enough
That the blast threw him free and clear.
My great-grandmother ran the flower shop
On that street, and over the next days
My mother, fourteen, worked with her through the nights
Making the funeral bouquets.
The current explosion, also accidental,
is slow, almost invisible.
The elderly vanish. The shops remain intact.
No one is allowed inside them,
But the shopkeepers are still working
Through the night, or whatever we call time
In the enclosed and sleeping city.
The flower shop at the end of my street is closed,
But the keeper curates her shrinking deliveries
As people call in for wreaths, centrepieces.
We can still do funerals, though no one can attend.
Two blocks down, my barber visits his quiet shop
To sit in his own chair
And listen for the echo of banter and trash talk.
To watch the sunlight pass through the barbicide
And the shears glint gently on the flannel.
Beards are growing in homes,
Like the community gardens, locked up and tangling.
An arthritic priest fumbles with his iPhone
On a tripod, on the altar, trying to frame
His face, the book, the chalice, stained glass behind him.
A parishioner Amazoned him a selfie ring-light
And it glows like a hollow monstrance.
He’s joining an ancient line of hermits
Performing rites for laypeople, remotely.
There have always been funerals that no one attends
Except those who are working on them.
Poverty, trauma, and alcoholism socially distance.
Once a month when I was a church organist,
I’d play at the service of some war vet
Who’d died on the street.
The Legion paid me, the priest, a bagpiper,
And five bucks for the altar boy
To carry the candle and fold the flag.
I sat up in the loft and listened to the gospel,
Stared out the clerestory,
Shivered when the pipes droned and cried Going Home.
Three men, a coffin, and a boy,
Standing more than six feet apart,
Saying nothing to each other apart from the ritual,
Watched by no one, careful to get it right.
Except for the boy: young, easily distractible,
Not quite part of this slow disaster.
Justin Trudeau has our attention on the CBC
For the children’s question period.
Our boys lean in to hear what he’ll say.
I’m tense, waiting for the pauses and wavers.
I know that ministers and fathers can lie.
The seven year-old notes Justin is handsome.
The almost-four year-old is watchful on my lap.
My partner stands behind our chair.
A brother and sister in Montreal ask:
“What will happen to us if our parents get sick?”
I can feel my partner breathe with me,
But we keep our focus on the boys.
At bedtime she will rock the younger one as he cries
And repeats the question.
It takes more time for parents to comfort children
Than they have to comfort each other.
Justin presents a navy cardigan and meticulous grooming,
Neatly framed on the colonial steps.
I bet he’s pulling on old drama teacher tricks:
Pretend the camera lens is the face of his youngest.
Pretend the teleprompter scrolls a Christmas story.
Forget the actor’s terror of an empty theatre:
Pretend the children are all there.
He starts every answer in good form: with a sigh,
A smile, and “I know many of you are frightened.”
Then he finds the talking-point groove:
Canada, taking care, Canada, safe, Canada,
Brave nurses, Canada, working together, health,
Good place, good country, Canada.
The country’s name can become a mantra
For how its settlers want to see themselves.
If you let the sound be ancient again,
You can hear the word that meant “village”
In a time before boats and planes brought
Smallpox, economic plans, and cardigans.
A while back, the seven year-old asked me
“Is Justin Trudeau a good man?”
By instinct, my reply was more about myself:
“Like all of us, he’s trying to be a good person.”
(That feeling when teaching the benefit of the doubt
Perpetuates a spell about white intentions.)
The young interviewer, online from his bedroom,
Says they received 4000 questions.
The selections show that children ask
What many adults ask, stripped of number-crunching.
A snowsuited boy in Iqaluit asks
Whether the virus can survive the cold.
A six year-old girl in Toronto asks
How homeless people are supposed to stay at home.
There is no question from a First Nations child about how
To wash your hands without clean water.
I know the parent politics of cutting a deal
Between what I know, what I am ashamed of,
And what I can say to project a safe world.
I know the pivot between dread
And the reframe that mixes hope with fiction.
Does acting the part of the good parent scale up?
The Minister of Children also has to comfort oil barons.
He has to pretend he knows what millennials need,
Promise that we can do anything when we grow up,
That everything we want is sustainable,
That everything will turn out alright.
He shares tobacco with chiefs and then betrays them.
He has to smile as he zooms with sociopaths.
He has to count the money that pays for the stagecraft
That prompts a boy to ask: “Is he a good man?”
Instead of “Does he do good things?”
Justin is a month younger than me.
He and I might share night sweats,
Palpitations, a certain emptiness about who we are.
He and I might have bonded
In a high school drama class in the late 1980s,
When climate collapse and trickster stories
Were fantasies to star in
Rather than medicine to surrender to
When we manage to tell our children: “We don’t know.”