Shrine of Devotion, Betrayal, or Indoctrination? An Internal Shambhala Email, Annotated

A source forwarded the following email, sent by a Shambhala leader to volunteers and residents at Vermont’s Karmê Chöling, the Buddhist retreat centre founded by the organization’s “root teacher”, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, in 1970.

The email follows up on a group meeting of volunteers and residents to discuss whether the portrait of Ösel Mukpo, now accused of forced confinement and sexual assault, should be covered or taken down from the altar in the staff shrine room. The letter indicates the same questions are being asked about the photographs of Trungpa.

Core teaching content is delivered in Shambhala shrine rooms, as well as group liturgies, ceremonies, and empowerments. These events often involve generating deep feelings of love and devotion towards group leaders, and the teaching content. At this moment, shrine rooms throughout the organization are surely fraught spaces for many members, who may suddenly feel they are sites of personal and institutional betrayal.

What is at stake in this discussion is whether those who have been sexually assaulted (statistically one in four women who enter that room), along with those who bear other traumas, will be asked to meditate in a space presided over by the image of a credibly accused assaulter. Because the staff shrine room altar is the focus, this is also a workplace issue.

I’m posting it below with a few brief notes in red because I think it might be useful for members to track in real time how cognitive dissonance emerges and is managed by power structures at crisis moments in yoga and Buddhist communities. I believe if members can be supported in seeing this clearly, recovery time will be hastened.

The competing impulses in this letter show the incompatibility of private devotional entrainment with public ethical responsibility. Realizing this conflict might have figured into the mass resignation of members of the “Kalapa Council”, Mukpo’s Board of Directors. But are any leaders of Shambhala International still qualified to hold space for this crisis? If they are religiously committed through the vows of “samaya” to never speak ill of or reject their religious leaders, how can they provide care for members who have been harmed by those same leaders?

The email proposes a compromise. Instead of removing the photograph, it will be covered.

The premise of such a compromise is that the conflict is between parties that share equal power. This is not true. On one side is a religious power structure beholden to answer for institutional abuse. On the other are the direct or proximal victims of that abuse, who retain rights to that institutional space by virtue of their prior emotional labour, volunteer efforts, and financial support.

While the email below relates specifically to photographs of Mukpo in Karmê Chöling’s ritual spaces, there are also images of him in common areas. The photo just below, sent by a former volunteer who wishes to remain anonymous, shows a large-sized high-definition photograph beside the stairs going down to the main shower/bathroom/cubby-storage area and some of the dorm rooms for both men and women.

“Anytime someone wants to go to the main shower area,” the source writes, “the cubby/storage area, or to some of the dorm rooms, they have to walk by this life-like picture of him that feels like he is looking at you.”

This part of the Shambhala tragedy parallels a similar conflict in another community. In response to recent confirmation of long-suppressed accounts of the abuse of Pattabhi Jois of his yoga students, the global Ashtanga community has wrestled with the convention of honouring his portrait in practice spaces. A lot of this discourse has been driven by the activism of Jois victim Karen Rain. The Ashtanga network is far less organized and centralized than Shambhala International. Also, the diffusion of Jois’s charisma following his death in 2009 has naturally given rise to more democratic expressions of authority and meaning-making. This, I believe, has helped individual teachers like Sarai Harvey-Smith take the lead in making clear policy statements about how to address abuse.

Taking devotional pictures down from community spaces is a first step, Harvey-Smith suggests. Second is the abandonment of honorifics. She writes:

I have stopped using the term ‘Guruji’. I will now refer to my one time teacher as Pattabhi Jois. Elevating someone to Guru status creates a culture of idealisation and unquestioning acquiescence and deference. This contributed to the power this man had and abused, as well as the culture of silence around it.

Consider what would be left if the honorific language of this email — which can consolidate power and silence victims — was stripped away.

(As with earlier discussions of Shambhala responses, none of the following criticism attributes any specific intentionality to the writer. I’m analyzing this as an institutional, not a personal response.)

_____

Dear Everyone,

Thank you for our discussion this morning. It was good to hear our collective wisdom and hearts. We didn’t really have time to hear from everyone who might have wanted to speak about the shrine photos being removed or staying up. Since this is a discussion that needs time and care, I would like to offer a further conversation about it soon in addition to inviting you to email me with your thoughts and feelings. I look forward to hearing more about how you are thinking and feeling into this topic. Meanwhile, for now, we are planning to cover the Sakyong’s photo in the Shambhala Shrine Room.

As we discussed, here is some information about the view and meaning of our Primordial Rigden shrine:

Note on “Primordial Rigden”. The Rigdens are the mythical/etheric kings of the Tantric land of Shambhala, described first in the Kalachakra Tantra, then fetishized by Trungpa in a series of visionary writings at the root of Shambhala International’s liturgy. A source tells me that Trungpa claimed that he was talking with the Rigdens on a regular basis. So, after the intro paragraph, the email immediately appeals to the mysticism of the deceased leader.

One way we might look at the shrine and the photos is from an outer level. From this perspective, shrines have changed over time; they have evolved. The lineage photos are just photos, which also have changed. There was a time, I am told, when there were six photos: His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa, the Vidyadhara, the Sakyong, Suzuki Roshi, and the Vajra Regent. The photo of the Sakyong is now making a number of people feel uncomfortable. Since we want to honor and respond to the requests and perceived needs of members of our community, we should take his, and possibly the Vidyadhara’s, photo down. It or they can be put back up at some point.

“Uncomfortable” is a minimization. “A number of people” is an abstraction when there are now clear reports of harm committed by Mukpo against distinct individuals. It is minimizing to victims of sexual violence to suggest they are “uncomfortable”, or that they have “perceived needs”. They have material safety needs.

However, there is an inner level, too. The Primordial Rigden shrine does not exist in pieces. Shrines represent the lineage – past, present, and future – and the photos are representative of the lineage. The shrine is a transmission of the warrior-guru principle altogether, not one specific teacher. The shrine as a whole is also the abiding place of Shambhala dralas; it represents our deepest heart. It represents basic goodness, Great Eastern Sun, and the unity of the two, enlightened society. This is a complete manifestation that represents our connection to the lineage for the long-term.

Note on “dralas”. Appropriated or absorbed from the shamanism of indigenous Tibetan spirituality, this term refers to pre/postcognitive sensory wonders at the root of phenomenological experience. A really good overview of their meaning is provided here by Bill Scheffel. In a further shock to the community, Scheffel died by suicide last week.

This paragraph deepens the privileging of metaphysical over ethical concerns. The non-cognitive drala principle here functions to unfocus the issue at hand. The facts of actions committed by real people like Mukpo are dissolved into a fascination with colours and shapes. As Scheffel points out, the point is to return to childlike curiosity about life. Here the email might clarify how this direction is not simultaneously infantilizing.

Overall, the “inward turn” here presents a basic conflict of interest. “Inner levels” of shrine meanings are by nature subjective and ambivalent. Policy with regard to harm reduction is not. Is this an appropriate forum for teaching about the ideas of known abusers? Restorative justice is not an interpretative art.

There is also another perspective: The Primordial Rigden represents the lineage and is also offered to us from the lineage. The meaning of the Primordial Rigden is part of the very heart of the shrine, us, and the lineage and, from another perspective, the Primordial Rigden does not exist without the lineage who introduced us to this universal principle.

See here for a discussion of “lineage” as a deceptive and appropriated term.

In this paragraph, Rigden is not an artifact of a conditioned religious culture appropriated for global consumption, but a “universal principle”. In other words: too big to fail. And also: validated through a feedback loop. The “lineage” gives contact with the Rigden; the Rigden validates the “lineage”.

Perhaps another aspect to consider is the role of lineage holders.

Lineage holders can be seen as sacred and pure. However, lineage holders are not models because they are sacred or pure, or different from us, but because they are the same as us. In the long history of lineage holders, each has his or her story of overcoming personal obstacles – from murder to anger and more. The teacher, our whole path, is about transforming human karma and bringing it to the dharma, to see the basic goodness beneath our confusion. Human mistakes have to be included or there is no path. Acknowledging our mistakes is key to this. This is true for both teachers and ourselves. The key is that those human mistakes are seen, acknowledged, purified, and overcome. Our lineage stories are filled with this truth. From this perspective, Shambhala doesn’t exist without lineage. If we take away the Sakyong or the Sakyong and the Vidyadhara’s photos, we are removing the Shambhala lineage.

Here, criminal activity under the influence of substance abuse and protected by institutional betrayal is minimized as “human mistakes”. Said mistakes are forgiven by being “seen, acknowledged, purified, and overcome”. How has this happened? “Our lineage stories are filled with this truth.” Really? What did Trungpa “overcome” by dying of terminal alcoholism at the age of 47? What did his “Vajra Regent”, Thomas Rich, “overcome”, by having unprotected sex with his vulnerable male students while he and his colleagues knew he was carrying HIV?

“If we take away the Sakyong or the Sakyong and the Vidyadhara’s photos, we are removing the Shambhala lineage.” It would be good to see transparency in relation to the fact that this statement would be felt by some to be coded threat to their religious/Tantric identities, which depend upon “lineage” bonds, presented as equally precious and fragile.

The Sakyong is taking time away from teaching and administration to do very challenging personal work. He has already started that work. At the same time, he is still the Sakyong, the Shambhala lineage holder. We can turn away from the Sakyong because of his actions. We can hold and feel our pain and work with both the human and the teacher. We can hold our confusion and sanity at the same time. These are very personal decisions.

This directly contradicts the above statement: “However, lineage holders are not models because they are sacred or pure, or different from us, but because they are the same as us.” Here the Acharya re-asserts that “Sakyong” is a separate and ostensibly uber-human identity.

Also, “confusion” here is conflated with pain, and “work” in relation to pacifying that pain is conflated with “sanity”. The implication is that pain is insane. 

There is not just one or the other approach. In fact, we may find that removing or keeping the pictures up will not make things more or less difficult. We will still need to feel our pain.

Victims of sexual assault and institutional abuse do not need to feel more pain. Telling them that they do, and implying that they are avoiding it by suggesting that the picture of an assaulter be removed, conflates criminal victimization with existential contemplation.

Put another way: this statement posits a false equivalency between abuse and the First Noble Truth of suffering, as if they belong to the same category, as if the former was as inevitable as the latter. It further weaponizes the basic teaching trope of the organization — that it is desirable to dwell in awakened sadness — against its members.

It joins many other examples in popular Shambhala literature and language to paint a picture of a spirituality strongly invested in the tensions of authoritarianism and sado-masochism.

Alternative approaches to taking the photos down that have helped people in some communities include covering one or both of the shrine photos, but not taking them down. For now we will start there, with covering the Sakyong’s photo.

It would be good to have transparency around the “we” here. The plural seems to speak for the community, but the need for this email is evidence there is no consensus on what should be done.

For those of you who would like to have a further conversation about this and voice your feelings, I look forward to talking soon or receiving your email.

With appreciation,

_______

The Challenges of Responding to Abuse at Shambhala: A Discussion with Susan Piver

On June 30th, meditation instructor Susan Piver posted this reflection on the crisis unfolding within Shambhala International. On July 5th, I published this response. But before I did I reached out to her to let her know it was coming, and to make sure that she felt it was fair. She asked for one correction, which I made, but then also suggested we book time to discuss our text-exchange via Zoom, and record it. Here it is.

I’d like to thank Susan for her invitation and her resilience in considering criticism. I’d also like to say something I think I left out of recording: I’m sorry my analysis hurt her feelings at first. I really admire her ability to pivot into a discussion nonetheless, and to have been inspired enough to turn this moment into a learning opportunity for her community, and for me as well.

 

 

 

A Disorganized Attachment Legacy at Shambhala: Brief Notes on Two Letters and a 1993 Interview with Pema Chödrön

On Sunday, a unknown number of unnamed “Women acharyas” released this unsigned letter. The acharyas are a group of Shambhala International leaders, empowered by their current head, Ösel Mukpo, to represent the legacy and teaching content of the organization. Their letter responds to a call for action from members outraged by revelations of continued institutional sex and power abuse in their community.

Mukpo stands accused of sexual misconduct by three anonymous women whose voices have been recorded by Andrea Winn in her Project Sunshine report. He has posted a vague admission of guilt. Winn’s work has pried opened an unhealed wound carved out by the abuses of Mukpo’s father, Chogyam Trungpa, and his lieutenants. Those stories are still coming to light, and they are unbelievably savage.

Insiders will be able to better parse out the likelihood of whether this particular political constellation of “acharyas” is equipped to understand the dynamics within which it is embedded and strong enough break out of them. I don’t pretend to have any insights on that. I hope I can, however, point out a key characteristic of crisis communication that does not bode well in the present, and which has deep and influential roots in the past.

_____

 

From the outset, the framework of the authors is flawed by the loaded language of the organization’s spiritual ideology. They write:

“The women acharyas of Shambhala are writing today to send our love and support to our community at a time of enormous groundlessness.” (emphasis added)

The term “groundlessness” here both indicates and hides the more appropriate word, which would be “betrayal”. The (non)signatories who didn’t know that Ösel Mukpo behaved like his father have been betrayed. Those who did know betrayed those who didn’t, which would mean most of the membership.

Why do the authors use the word “groundlessness”? Because the purpose of the letter, first and foremost, is to maintain the content and ideology of the group. If the writers can do that, they can then maintain interpretational authority over that content. They can still be “acharyas”. The word “groundlessness” positions what follows in the letter as a learning opportunity, but one in which the content of the abusive group will simply be recycled. “Groundlessness” is, after all, a virtuous state or realization described in Middle Way philosophy as a pathway to the wisdom of non-attachment to changing identities or phenomena.

By using it here, the letter writers conflate the trauma of having been stripped of care with the feeling of having seen into the nature of reality. This is tantamount to saying that abuse and abandonment are our natural state, or lead to it. It then follows that finding out that your leader is an abuser is actually (subtly, and with our help you will eventually understand it) a good thing, an opportunity to really put that same leader’s wisdom about “groundlessness” into practice. If that’s their interpretation of the First Noble Truth, then no thank you.

I imagine the “groundlessness” that some of the writers profess to feel here is actually a dawning realization of hypocrisy: that the organization has been talking about one thing for 40 years, and doing another.

Victims may feel stripped of care and support, but they are not “groundless”. They are the ground itself, wounded, right in front of you, under your feet. They were there all along. They don’t need to “be steady within this open space of not-knowing.” They know exactly what happened to them.

Asking the community to be “steady within this open space of not-knowing” sets victims up against members who are entrained to remain not advocate on behalf of justice.

_____

After this opening, the authors cite a plaintive poem from a distressed member, petitioning for restorative action. It begins with:

To the mother lineage.
Please, break the silence.
Please, approach and speak up.
Please, step up to the plate.
Please, protect the girls and women.
Please, protect the children.

Put a pin in that. Remember that members are using maternal metaphors or transferences to petition their elders.

_____

If Judith Simmer-Brown (Distinguished Professor of Contemplative and Religious Studies at Naropa University) and Susan Chapman are part of “the mother lineage”, and also among the (non-)signatories of this letter, their capacity to offer protection is compromised by deep conflicts.

Why? Because their names are signed to this June 30th letter to registrants for the upcoming “Scorpion Seal” empowerment (July 15-26) at the Shambhala Mountain Centre, Colorado:

_____

June 30, 2018

Dear Scorpion Seal practitioner,

Good morning! We Werma Acharyas are writing in the wake of the cascade of
disclosures from the Sakyong and the Kalapa Council and the Sunshine Report
regarding allegations of sexual abuse of power in our mandala. We are heartbroken about these, even while we recognize the health of openness, honest exchange, and strategies for change in our sangha culture.

This is all the more concerning because of the preciousness of the Scorpion Seal teachings we have received from our Sakyong, that have provided such a vision for enhancing human goodness in a setting sun world. These teachings have been so personally important for us, equipping us to work with the most difficult, intractable situations in our world. It is essential that these teachings continue and that they help us work with personal and societal obstacles that plague our lives.

You may be wondering about the Scorpion Seal Garchen at Shambhala Mountain
Center, what to expect, how you feel, maybe even whether to come. We can assure you that we will address the current crisis in Shambhala, sharing our personal responses and deeply listening to each other’s. Rather than retreating to a bubble that pretends nothing has happened, we plan to relate with this painful news in the context of our many practices including Shambhala Meditation and the Inner White Lotus practice of working with the dons, as well as the new practices for your particular Assembly. And we look forward to being with our Scorpion Seal sisters and brothers. We see this as an opportunity to create a fresh karmic stream for our community, going into the future.

We have supplicated the Sakyong to be at Shambhala Mountain Center with us, but we honestly don’t know what he will do. Rest assured, we Werma Acharyas will be giving all the transmissions in the event he is not there.

Please join us with your heartbreak, your doubts, your confidence, and your love of the Shambhala community and teaching, and your connection with our Sakyong. It promises to be a deep and authentic experience.

In the Great Eastern Sun,

Ashe Acharya John Rockwell
Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown
Acharya Michael Greenleaf
Acharya Susan Chapman*

____

“The Scorpion Seal” is a “terma” or a teaching that was mystically “found” by Chogyam Trungpa in 1980 or 1981, according to Shambhala’s narrative. But according to retreat leader John Rockwell the content “was rather secret, a bit ahead of our times.” It fell to Trungpa’s son, Osel Mukpo, to “open” it, and reveal the “Werma” or ritual practices it reputedly contained.

Whether you find this plausible or not (beliefs are like intentions here: far less important than impacts), two things are important to know.

  1. This upcoming empowerment/training, with lodging, costs approximately 2000USD to attend. A source forwarded me an email from Shambhala Mountain that stated that there were “well over 200” registrants. This means that this single event could gross up to 400,000 USD.
  2. If the empowerment follows the typical pattern of Shambhala-appropriated Tantric ritual, it will ask participants to make vows of allegiance to the community, the teachings, and perhaps even to the acharyas and Mukpo himself. The vows will have both emotional and financial impacts. There are several “levels” of entrainment into the “Scorpion Seal”, which, let’s remember, was “discovered” by an abusive spiritual leader well on his way to dying of terminal alcoholism.

So what shall it be, acharyas?

  1. Listening in “groundlessness” and “not-knowing”? Or
  2. Selling empowerments to mystical teachings you assert come from the etheric realms?

The answer, if we’re willing to look at this landscape through the lens that Alexandra Stein provides on the attachment patterning that drives cult organizations, is that the acharyas must offer both things at once.

Uncertainty and certainty. Listening and telling. Care and demand. Support and dependency. These are domesticated versions of the most dangerous dyad: the confusion of love with terror at the heart of every high-demand group.

In her riveting addition to cult analysis literature, Stein argues that the primary task that a high-demand group must accomplish in relation to recruits is to take their existing attachment patterning — instilled through familial and intimate conditioning — and, through a “groundless” alternation of love and fear, convert it into a “disorganized” state. There’s a huge literature on this; I’ll let Stein summarize the basics here:

[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, loc 894-903

Now compare the two statements from the acaryas. The “mother lineage” is functioning to both comfort and make further demands. Simultaneously. Stein suggests that such a gambit is not a contradiction, but a feature of the continuously-charged feedback loop of caregiver betrayal that lies at the root of disorganized attachment. This charge will be heightened in environments of physical, sexual, financial or moral abuse.

With Shambhala International, this feedback loop is not new. There will be many examples to point to, but the one that’s fairly well-known and shows the intergenerational continuity of disorganized attachment is this 1993 interview of Pema Chödrön in Tricycle Magazine.

To be fair, this interview is now twenty-five years old, and comes from another era. However, I’m not aware of any widely-available update to these sentiments. Between 1993 and the present, of course, Chödrön has become an international spiritual celebrity. She remains listed amongst the current cohort of acharyas.

 

_______

 

Tricycle: Would you say that the intention behind this unconventional behavior, including his sexual exploits and his drinking, was to help others?

Pema Chödrön: As the years went on, I felt everything he did was to help others. But I would also say now that maybe my understanding has gone even deeper, and it feels more to the point to say I don’t know. I don’t know what he was doing. I know he changed my life. I know I love him. But I don’t know who he was. And maybe he wasn’t doing things to help everyone, but he sure helped me. I learned something from him. But who was that masked man?

Tricycle: In recent years women have become more articulate about sexism. And we know more today about the prevalence of child abuse and about how many people come into dharma really hurting. If you knew ten years ago what you know today, would you have been so optimistic about Trungpa Rinpoche and his sexuality? Would you have wanted some of the women you’ve been working with to study with him, given their histories of sexual abuse?

Pema Chödrön: I would have said, You know he loves women, he’s very passionate, and has a lot of relationships with women, and that might be part of it if you get involved with him, and you should read all his books, go to all his talks, and actually see if you can get close to him. And you should do that knowing you might get an invitation to sleep with him, so don’t be naive about that, and don’t think you have to do it, or don’t have to do it. But you have to decide for yourself who you think this guy is.

Tricycle: Were there women who turned down his sexual invitations and maintained close relationships as students? Was that an option?

Pema Chödrön: Yes. Definitely. The other students were often the ones who made people feel like they were square and uptight if they didn’t want to sleep with Rinpoche, but Rinpoche’s teaching was to throw out the party line. However, we’re always up against human nature. The teacher says something, then everybody does it. There was a time when he smoked cigarettes and everybody started smoking. Then he stopped and they stopped and it was ridiculous. But we’re just people with human habitual patterns, and you can count on the fact that the students are going to make everything into a party line, and we did. The one predictable thing about him was that he would continually pull the rug out no matter what. That’s how he was.

_____

There’s too much here to unpack outside of a book-length study. You can probably see the pattern, though. Chödrön employs many of the self-oriented defences I’ve listed here while showing just how powerfully Buddhist rhetoric can be mobilized to evade personal responsibility. It is also a textbook example of I-got-mine-ism.

Chödrön privileges the genius of the abuser over the time, agency, and self-direction of his prospective female student in an equally sophisticated way. The prospective student is supposed to “decide for yourself who you think this guy is”. This is after Chödrön has admitted to his sexual misconduct, as if the “groundlessness” of his teaching puts the actions of the “masked man” in doubt. Women are supposed to invest time and emotional labour in him before understanding his nature, even after Chödrön admits that he abuses power. Intentionally or not, this stunning paragraph manages to both hide and spiritualize an induction into disorganized attachment. Trungpa was brilliant, she suggests — as if this were a sign of care — because “he would continually pull the rug out no matter what.”

Chödrön’s life-long message, inspired by and inspiring Shambhala’s content generally, is about finding rest and space and security “When Things Fall Apart”. We now have to wonder whether this message has as much to do with Buddhism as it does with creating a poetic strategy for metabolizing an abusive relationship that presented itself as loving, and doing so in order for it to continue, and eventually be commodified.

The cultural impact of Chödrön’s views can only be imagined. Never mind that Tricycle thought that this was a reasonable thing to publish. How many people have been influenced by this doublespeak through contact with Chödrön’s writings via Oprah?

In the yoga world, Chödrön’s reasoning vibrates loudly. In late December of last year, Ashtanga Yoga adept Kino MacGregor recommended this very interview to her million-plus followers as a resource that would help them integrate the competing stories of love and terror that constitute the legacy of Pattabhi Jois. Whether it works remains to be seen.

 

______

* The June 30th letter was copied from a PDF doc and passed along via a trusted source, but I have not located the original. If you have a copy, please send it to threadsofyoga@gmail.com and I will upload and link it here.

Maybe It Wasn’t the “Shambhala Teachings” That Changed Your Life: A Brief Note on False Attribution

Maybe It Wasn't the "Shambhala Teachings" That Changed Your Life

“But the Shambhala TEACHINGS are precious. They changed our lives. We CAN’T let them go. We HAVE to separate them from the organization and its leadership.”

This is the active-ingredient argument you may be hearing from some of your fellow community members. It’s based on the premise that beneath all of the human imperfections and “conventional realities” of Shambhala International, there was something essentially good and true communicated by Trungpa and his followers, and that that essence was what changed lives.

A further premise is that that essence can and should be isolated and mobilized.

Those who talk about the “essence” of the teachings are those who are still in one way or another within the learning community or high-demand group. They might believe that the essential teachings were universally clear; they could test this belief by asking those who left the group what they believed the teachings were. 

They would be also be the ones who would be least likely to consider the placebo effect of the teaching content.

If the active-ingredient argument were true, there wouldn’t be a wide range of responses to Trungpa’s writings and the “Shambhala teachings”. I appreciated parts of Spiritual Materialism, for instance, but none of the rest of it sounded right to me. And I had full-on nausea response when I walked into Karme Choling in Vermont in about 1994 or so. I can’t explain why I didn’t have the same response to the high-demand groups I did actually join, except that when I crossed those thresholds, I was particularly vulnerable. 

It’s useful to investigate the possibility of false attribution. If the Shambhala teachings seemed to work for you, fine. But ask yourself: what else was involved? Did you meet new people and form new bonds over shared aspirations? Did you change self-regulation patterns, diet, sleep? 

In the Ashtanga world, people grappling with Jois’ abuse will sometimes say “but the practices are medicine”, even though they know they’ve been injured or accumulated repetitive stress through the postures.

What I believe they’re really saying is “I love this place and these people with whom I do this refined activity that gives me relief from the conventional world and relationships.”

Further, they may be saying: “I really love the things that weren’t bad.”

Can you really say that there were core Shambhala ideas or visions that were separable from the relationships that communicated them? Was there a single part of Shambhala ideology that came to you as it seemed to come to Trungpa — spontaneously, from no one else, as if in a dream? Did you believe that because it occurred spontaneously to him, it had its own reality from beyond him, and Shambhala should exist for you in the same way?

The irony of false attribution combined with essentialism is that when mobilized in an attempt to preserve neo-Buddhist teachings in the midst of an abuse crisis, basic Buddhist philosophical principles are ignored. As far as I understand the Middle-Way metaphysics that most Tibetan sources try to teach, there is no such thing as an essential object, message or teaching. There’s just a series of changing relationships within which, with great difficulty, you (who also have no findable unchanging essence) can try to orient yourself ethically and with empathy.

I believe what people are really saying when they say “But the Shambhala TEACHINGS are precious” is:

“The experiences I had with those people at that time were so compelling, so charged, so complex — they inspire me, through my imperfect memory, to this day. I really don’t want to let them go.”

There’s absolutely no shame in that.

Susan Piver’s “On Shambhala”: An Abuse Crisis Letter, Annotated

Cult Accountability, Or Cult Apologia? Tips for Reading Between the Lines

Just yesterday, I published a list of the rote defences commonly mobilized by leaders of yoga and Buddhist organizations in which institutional abuse has come to light. I feel it’s important to see these defences clearly as they unfold in real time. I have four reasons for this:

  1. Analysis — especially from the outside — can be an important reality-check for group members who are emotionally vulnerable through a crisis that casts doubt on whether leaders who they believe care for them actually do care for them, or have the tools to care for them.
  2. The defences are sophisticated. Crisis statements often conflate acknowledging organizational abuse with the encouragement for members to re-commit to the organization. They conflate transparency with damage control and rebranding. They present the unfolding of institutional betrayal in real time. Abuse with organizational roots has already manipulated the time, labour, and emotions of members. It’s not the time to ask them to give more.
  3. The defences are sophisticated, part 2. The basic teaching content of modern global yoga and Buddhism is easy to weaponize against those who were evangelized by it. People are often attracted to this content because it provides cognitive relief by focusing on the somatic present through techniques like breathwork or bodyscanning. At first, people can really benefit from the encouragement to question judgment, to disconnect feeling from thought, to take an ironic stance towards thought altogether, to change or pause thought rhythms with mantras or silencing meditations, to chase emptiness and silence, to adopt a metaview beyond all positions, and to imagine themselves or more often their leaders as always already perfect. But in crisis situations, an organization can ask members to use every one of these methods as forms self-abuse: to undermine critical thinking, cover up power differentials, minimize perceptions of harm, and silence victims.
  4. Reading these defences for their impact (and against their intention) reveals important aspects of the nature of the group and its teaching content. If you want to know what a group really teaches, listen carefully to what it says in crisis-mode.

I also wrote that “I’ve taken a lot of criticism for pointing out stuff like this. Usually I’m told that it’s not good to shame people who are trying to make accountability statements. I get that, which is why I try to identify trends instead of naming names.”

But within minutes of hitting “Publish”, a reader sent me this post by Susan Piver. Piver is a prominent figure in the global Shambhala community, although she carefully qualifies her relationship to Shambhala International, suggesting she is independent of the brand and its network. That network is now grappling with accusations that the son and heir of Shambhala innovator Chogyam Trungpa, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, is, like his father, a heavy-drinking womanizer who regularly abuses his power as a spiritual leader. The accusations have been painstakingly compiled by Andrea Winn, a life-long Shambhala member with her own personal story of sexual abuse with the community. The Sakyong has issued a qualified apology.

I’m not offering the following analysis of Piver’s community letter to shame her personally, nor because it employs many of the defences I described yesterday, even while it makes strong statements of support for Shambhala victims. I’m analyzing it because it offers nine points of advice to her followers that I believe are poorly resourced, information-controlled, and victim-silencing. Piver suggests her letter is prompted by online reactions she names as “dangerous”. I would argue that what she offers her followers falls short of emotional safety.

I hesitate to publish this, because I can predict the blowback. People will say that it’s a misinformed outsider’s opinion, or that criticizing a woman’s heartfelt communication with her community is misogynistic, or that this is a personal attack. I’ve weighed these possibilities carefully, because it’s never okay to punch down. I’m not punching down. I’m critically analyzing a public document that comments on abuse revelations within the enormously wealthy and powerful institution to which the author is tied through content and method.

To address these objections up front: I’m making no claims about Piver’s intentions, which seem genuinely altruistic, but rather focusing on the letter’s implications and impacts. If criticism of a public document feels like a personal attack, it is because yoga and Buddhist public figures have been encouraged by neoliberal propaganda to commodify personal spaces and moods. This makes it easy to conflate private intuition with public responsibility. The letter’s content is self-reflexive: I believe an outside view will be informative. And while I will never entirely shed my own misogynistic conditioning, I know enough to tell when pseudo-feminist arguments are being used against whistleblowers and those who call for reform.

Finally and on a grateful note I’ll say that I reached out to Piver with a draft of this before publishing, because I saw that she was really listening to and responding to criticism on her blog. This is miles better than the Shambhala International bureaucracy. She wrote back with an important correction and then, by phone, expressed appreciation for the perspective. “I think you should publish whatever you think is helpful,” she said.

I felt a lot of empathy for Piver and told her that I believed she was in a really difficult spot. Having started practicing with the Shambhala group in 1993, she’s having to re-evaluate the joys, troubles, and sunken costs of twenty-five years in a very short period of time. “This is an active learning situation,” she said.

We agreed to continue to discuss these issues and our differing approaches, and may film a conversation for broadcast. I’m really looking forward to that.

My notes are in red italics.

_____

Dear friends, students, and Shambhala Sangha,

If you haven’t heard, the head of my Shambhala lineage has been accused of clerical sexual abuse.

The reports are here. Not linking them can distance and abstract the issue. Project Sunshine is not gossip, but solid research and reporting created at enormous personal expense. 

The community is reeling. Whether you are in the Open Heart Project community or are a fellow Shambhala practitioner, I want to share with you my own thoughts and feelings about what is going on.

This statement of intention frames and limits what follows as personal. This seems reasonable, but it’s problematic. The statement is published on Piver’s personally branded blog, but she is also writing as the meditation coach and guide for the more than 20K followers of her online platform, the Open Heart Project. Through online meditation lessons, Piver’s voice has become a trusted source of internal guidance for many. By virtue of this pedagogical structure alone, her own thoughts and feelings will be easily internalized by those entrained to relax into the instructions that follow. But the instructions themselves are not framed as personal, but as universally useful.

First, thank you to those who were brave enough to bring their experience to light. My heart goes out to you and I am grateful to you for being willing to step forward.

The women making allegations in the two parts of the Sunshine Project have remained nameless. But Andrea Winn has taken incalculable risks to openly platform their voices. Naming her and platforming her efforts would be an excellent gesture.

Note: if any part of the neo-Buddhist practices commodified by Shambhala International are about actual rather than performed transparency, if they are about actual rather than meditated-upon compassion, its figureheads should be on their knees, asking Winn what they can do to help, as well as for her teachings on insight, courage, and forbearance. 

For those of you who don’t know me: I have practiced in the Shambhala lineage since 1993, graduated from Vajrayana seminary (as it was called) in 2004, completed meditation instructor training in 2007, and attended several additional programs for “advanced” students between 2007 and 2015.

The use of the word “lineage” is deceptive. (This is not a comment on Piver’s intention, but on the effects of a repeated untruth.) “Lineage” has been deployed by Trungpa devotees for over forty years to suggest that his innovations have historical or scriptural roots in medieval Tibet, or even earlier. While Shambhala narratives do borrow from early Indian and Tibetan tantrism, Trungpa had as creative a relationship to historical sources as he did to ethics, describing his teachings as “termas” — discovered or channeled texts left by previous enlightened beings. He was skilled at getting other luminaries in the Tibetan diaspora to verify them as authentic.

In its current usage, “lineage” also implies that the honorific “Sakyong” has historical depth, when in reality it dates to the enthronement of Trungpa’s son, Ösel Rangdrol Mukpo, in 1995, two years after Piver began her practice. This all seems academic until we consider that the primary mechanism of cult formation is deception and secrecy — about the leader, the origin stories, and the group’s intentions. This is worth considering when words like “lineage” are often used to inflate the legitimacy of a yoga or Buddhism organization and increase member loyalty.

In 2011, I started an online practice community called the Open Heart Project and there are now close to 20,000 members all over the world. I send out a meditation instructional video once a week to everyone (for free). We have free and paid online programs. It is an amazing, loving, genuine sangha.

Everything I teach is what I have learned along my path as a student in Shambhala. I don’t reference or hide my affiliation and I have no official role within Shambhala. I rarely teach at Shambhala centers and I’m not connected to the current curriculum. I say all of this for context.

Context can be useful, but it can also distance and limit liability. This passage initiates one of the letter’s main drives, which is to attempt to separate the content of Shambhala materials from the institution that creates and maintains them. We must consider whether this is truly possible. Whether this platform and letter would have social capital, or have emerged at all, without the seminary, programmes, and networks of the institution. Whether the general message is somehow separable from the medium. Whether there would be visible content at all without an original charismatic leader, land centres, an organization of think tanks, a university, a credit union and a media empire. The plea to “separate the teacher from the teachings” is common in crisis situations, but ironic when employed by organizations that profess to teach non-dualism.

One needn’t have legal or formal financial bonds with Shambhala International to be tied to the harm it produces. If it becomes clear that SI is cult, it will also become clear that it is encircled by front organizations and businesses that can function to recruit members towards the centre. Hannah Arendt describes this as the “transmission belt” effect in totalitarianism. Not everyone will be drawn into a deeply committed relationship to SI, but those who are will be more easily drawn if exposed to lower-demand versions of its culture and ideology.

Nor are legal or financial bonds necessary for the expression of softer powers. Piver makes clear use of Shambhala teaching content through various media streams. What’s less overt is her expression of the routinization of the Shambhala leadership charisma that tracks directly back to Trungpa himself. This can be seen through seemingly peripheral details, from aesthetic similarities to performative overlaps. If you’re using Tibetan colours, Trungpa-style low teaching thrones, and filming yourself in front of rice paper screens or a neo-Tibetan altar, the continuity is clear. The medium is the message.

More important than design elements are the performative affects that constitute the habitus of the organization — the general way it feels to sit in a Shambhala room, listening to a Shambhala teacher. Close observation shows that bodily postures, speaking speeds, Mona-Lisa smiles, and the counterpoint rhythm of seriousness and irony are shared amongst many Trungpa senior teachers. There are strict dress and grooming codes. This mimicry might not be conscious, but it’s not by accident, either. It is the way in which the somatics of Trungpa’s charisma have been distributed throughout his senior followers after his death. 

So what do we do when we hear that our Gurus are also humans who do fucked-up things, awful things, things that harm others and cause trauma? The answer is I have no bloody idea. We are all grasping for a way to meet the current circumstance.

Part of the intention here might be about fostering a sense of normal humanness and vulnerability. This can be helpful at dissuading followers from developing idealizing transferences. At the same time there is no excuse for being in a leadership position and not having ideas. There are plenty of ethical policy resources available, including those from An Olive Branch, and The Faith and Trust Institute. Anyone can Google “restorative justice”, or take a look at how Andrea Winn struggled to raise $10K to fund more than a year’s worth of research. Compare that to outsized wealth of Shambhala-related businesses, and ask whether a donation is in order.

With this graf, Piver initiates the second main drive of the letter, which is to support the idea that the abuse should mainly be addressed through the internal work of group members — work in which she is not a leader, but an equal partner. Power differentials, however, confound the premise of equal partnership. Finally, if the picture of systemic abuse coming into focus through the efforts of Winn is accurate, it is likely that a percentage of the 20K members of OHP have experienced harassment or boundary violations in relation to the Shambhala hierarchy. Here would be an ideal place to direct them to a grievance procedure or independent services. 

Even better: the letter could encourage readers to support Winn, or for victims to bring their stories, if they are comfortable, to the investigator employed by the Sunshine Project.

I have heard from my own students and have a longing to offer something of benefit, as do so many others. Here is what I have been telling them. I share it here with the vast hope that it might be useful. I will be happy if you benefit from my clarity or confusion. I offer both without quite knowing which is which.

Here are the various responses I’ve seen on the Shambhala Facebook page in an effort to make sense of where we are right now:

Here several paraphrases are presented in italics as quotes. I’ve bolded portions that seem to be additions/caricatures.

The Sakyong is a dick/criminal/bro/alcoholic, we need to fire him.

The Sakyong is a dick who is also a flawed human, we should separate those two manifestations.

I love the Sakyong and that is not going to change although I abhor what he has done.

I don’t see what’s so bad.

Like father, like son.

We need to force the Sakyong out; sign petitions; remove his photos; turn away from him completely. Hesitation in doing so to be interpreted as supporting the abuse.

Hierarchical structures and faux Asiana are part of the problem; Shambhala should be a democracy. We should vote for the next Sakyong.

The next Sakyong should be a woman.

Maybe Pema Chodron will come lead us.

Our alcoholic culture is the problem. 

This is samsara, what did you expect?

We don’t need a Guru. (Related: the Guru is within; Gurus are always trouble; there is no such thing as a Guru; follow the teachings of the Guru not the personality of the Guru, and so on.)

Forget about Sakyong Mipham. The victims are the ones who need our attention.

You feel empathy for Sakyong Mipham? Fuck you. What about the victims, huh? Huh?

Shambhala is a cult and I am out. (Related: I always felt something was off and my intuition told me to stay away; I’ve heard stories that made me feel weird; it is riddled with patriarchal dysfunction)

He is guilty, guilty, guilty, screw “allegations.” It’s obvious. I am the judge, jury, and executioner, and I say off with his head.

I’ve been around him a lot and I never saw any such behavior.

I left Shambhala long ago and man, was I right to do so.

He’s not my teacher and this is not my Sangha, but here are all of my dharma-opinions anyway.

It’s over.

It’s just beginning. 

Multiple invocations of the Four Dharmas of Gampopa, especially, “Grant your blessing so that confusion may dawn as wisdom.”

Perhaps each of these responses is quite accurate. However, with the exception of the last one, they are useless (or worse) in this particular moment.

Without citing Winn, describing the allegations, or referring to Shambhala’s intergenerational history of abuse, the letter now assesses the utility of diverse responses. These responses are admitted to possibly being accurate, but that their accuracy is divorced from their utility. In black and white, therefore, this letter is suggesting that there is a difference between what is true and what is useful. Useful to whom? To what?

Next steps are critical and what I see so far from our sangha (with some notable, profound, beautiful exceptions) feels dangerous—not because strong emotions are involved, but because some space is required in order for our wisdom to choose the way forward rather than our neuroses. With space, we plant our words and decisions in clarity. Without it, when our words and decisions are rooted in an attempt to feel better/make others feel better/offload painful emotions, we add to the confusion.

How are the next steps critical, and for whom? Here, the virtues of non-reactive communication are lauded, and the alternatives, listed above (with some parody), are deemed “dangerous”, and the product of “neuroses”. The advice that follows is previewed in contrast as “space” through which “wisdom” will “choose the way forward”. This elides the letter itself (and by extension its author) with “wisdom” and “clarity”. The words and decisions of the letter will not attempt “to feel better/make others feel better/offload painful emotions.” All of these impulses are positioned as inferior.

Apparently, it’s okay to have painful emotions, but the advice that follows offers no pathways for expressing them, whether informally in the social media forums discussed, or through any formal institutional or third-party grievance process. 

Here are some alternatives.

One: Examine your personal relationship to the teacher.

A place to begin is by contemplating your own relationship with the teacher. Not Susan’s relationship, or Johnny’s or Missy’s or the victims’ or the students of 1974 or 2004. Yours.

My relationship to Sakyong Mipham is via the teachings themselves. I have studied with him during retreats that have lasted for months on end. I have read his books and other writings. That is how I know him.

The only relationship I have ever had with the previous lineage-holder, Choygam Trungpa (who died before I entered the lineage), is through his books. It is impossible for me to overstate the power these teachings have had and continue to have in my life. They altered my trajectory completely into a far richer and more powerful place than it seemed I was headed for. (I might still be a bartender in Texas, who knows.) (Not that there was anything wrong with that.)

This may be the world’s biggest cop-out, I get that. And it is easy for me to say, as I have never experienced sexual misconduct or a power trip from Sakyong Mipham. I have compassion for the individuals mentioned in the report and am horrified on their behalf. There can be no excuse for such behavior and nothing in here is intended as such. However, when I examine myself for what I know to be true, this is what I find. I think that is always a good place to start.

Editorial note on Jul 3: I removed this paragraph for three reasons. One, I realized it could easily be misconstrued as a way to excuse inexcusable behavior. Two, I was being wishy-washy. My reasoning was murky and more applicable to my relationship with Chogyam Trungpa than Sakyong Mipham. Chogyam Trungpa is not the issue here, Sakyong Mipham is. Three, it hurt someone’s feelings and she was right to be hurt. I APOLOGIZE.

It’s really great that Piver removed and apologized for this graf, which was odious. It suggested that if a member didn’t have personal contact with either of these leaders, their verifiable experience would be limited. If, as in Piver’s case, the institutional or literary contact was non-abusive, this should be the starting-point for discussion.

This is (was) an isolating message, encouraging an individualistic and solipsistic relationship to “community” in which private experiences and interpretations are valued above all. Surely that “all” must include and privilege the experiences of victims. For more on this, the concept of “I got mine-ism” might be helpful. 

Two: Make your personal practice the very center of your life.
What I tell myself (and you) is this: Do what you need to do to deepen your practice. Period. That is the only thing that matters. If it is to practice for longer, do that. If it to retreat into study, do that. If it is to leave and study elsewhere, do that. If it is to be utterly confused and uncertain about what to do, do that. Your practice is the teacher. Your inner wisdom is always, always present.

If this letter is addressed to “friends, students, and the Shambhala Sangha”, what practice is it referring to, other than techniques and methods and sentiments that are inspired by the organization itself? What does “your personal practice” mean when referring to something that has been derived from a seminary experience and a costly pyramid of workshop programmes and trainings? What is being asked here, really? Who has defined and conferred “inner wisdom”, and how can this be distinguished from the agency of the member? The letter holds out the possibility of leaving, but fails to acknowledge how terrifying that might be to people dependent upon the group. Nor does it point to resources beyond the practices that surely Chogyam Trungpa and his son were themselves practicing, and which offered their students no protection against institutional abuse.

Three. Protect your relationship to the teachings at all costs.
At my seminary, Sakyong Mipham tossed off what could have been heard as a throwaway line, but it implanted itself in my head. Paraphrasing: “In Tibet,” he said, “When it comes to the Guru, the conventional wisdom is to live three valleys away.” Three valleys! Close enough, presumably, to receive teachings and far enough to be insulated from the goings-on of the inner court/sausage machine. That’s for me, I thought, and I have kept my version of that distance.

Leaving aside the incongruence between the item and the explanation — “inner court/sausage machine”? Really? Is this letter telling us that abuse is inherent to the organization’s administration, but that this is to be expected? That it’s better to just eat the sausage, and not know where it comes from or how it’s made? 

Four: Consider the institution and the teachings separately.
If you have lost trust in Shambhala, that is totally understandable. Some may even have lost trust in the teachings. In any case, it is important to hold Shambhala the institution separate from the Shambhala teachings. You may choose to keep both or to toss one and keep the other. Or opt out altogether. It is completely up to you and no one has the right to question your decision or tell you what to do.

This highly contradictory statement continues the attempt to separate form and content. It directs the member to do this, but then advocates personal choice.  

Five: No one will save us.
I invite you to join me in contemplating the lojong slogan, “Abandon any hope of fruition.” There is no papa who is going to save us. While there are countless beings who know infinitely more than I—and when I encounter them, I will supplicate them for their wisdom and compassion—there is no one who can figure out my life for me. To hear that the Guru may be deeply flawed gives us the chance to give up such expectations once and for all. Stop looking for someone to rescue you. Focus on what is rather than what you hoped would be. Stop wishing there was another now. In this way, you make your heart and mind available to our world that needs you so much. I’m not saying we should not hold perpetrators accountable. We most definitely should. Hold Sakyong Mipham accountable in the conventional courts if you choose, but hold yourself accountable in the ethereal courts.

Meditation slogans won’t save us, either. Here the activities of social and political change are degraded as the infantile wishes of those who aren’t wise enough to recognize the innate goodness of the present moment. Wanting justice or even clear answers is conflated with “wishing there was another now.” Worse, such desires are said to limit one’s capacity to engage with real-world issues. This is not true. Wanting justice or clear answers is also a present and embodied state. 

“To hear that the Guru may be deeply flawed gives us the chance to give up such expectations once and for all.”

Or, hearing that the Guru may be deeply flawed gives members the opportunity to examine how and why he ascended to power, and how he was enabled both materially and through his organization’s valuing of empty and perfect nowness, whilst relying on idealizations of magical pasts and futures for validation. It gives members the opportunity to ask where all their money and labour and emotional energy went, and how they might get some of it back.

The last line mobilizes a Mahayana teaching on the division between conventional and absolute reality to subtly degrade legal remedies, and then goes farther to make Tantric reference. “Hold yourself accountable in the ethereal courts,” will read like a thinly-veiled threat, unfortunately, to fully-ensconced Shambhala members. As a part of their “Vajrayana” commitment ceremonies, they have all been told about the horrible afterlife consequences of even thinking negatively about their Buddhist teachers. 

Six. Hold your seat.
“Feel the feelings. Drop the story,” said Pema Chodron. It is very important to do this at a time when emotions are powerful. The more powerful, the more important. Fortunately, as practitioners we know exactly how to do this. Whether you feel rage, sorrow, numbness, all of the above, turn toward it immediately and lean in as deeply as you can—unless you are traumatized and/or triggered due to past abuses, in which case, DO NOT DO THIS. Meditation may actually be harmful. Please turn to whomever you can for help and feel the love of your sangha in whatever way you can. And know that my heart goes out to you so bad.

Otherwise, “feel the feelings” means something like locate it in your body and rest within the sensations as best you can. When thoughts arise: The Sakyong should be fired/we live in a patriarchy/I feel so sad for everyone…just as you do in meditation, let go. Return attention to the feelings until you are ready to stop. Trust yourself. Know that in so doing, you are priming the ground of power, not desperation.

Here the meditation techniques of Trungpa, Chodron, and the Shambhala organization are turned against against members who are merely thinking about ethics policies, social conditions, or even the pain of abuse victims. 

This advice conflates transparency with aggression by acknowledging the feelings of abuse and betrayal as real while making the member responsible for resolving them. In applying this message to this circumstance, the letter suggests that “Yes, there is abuse, and it has real effects on you. Ultimately you alone are responsible for those effects. You’ve been given tools for neutralizing this pain. It’s your task to use them. When the feelings stop, through the use of our techniques, you will be more powerful.” 

Seven. Dudes: check yourselves.
I haven’t exhaustively parsed the vast kaleidoscope of comments on the Shambhala Facebook page, although I have been following the threads as carefully as I can. Some things I’ve read have been truly helpful while others have really pissed me off or made me depressed. Cool. That’s how these things go. However, I can’t help but notice that the majority of voices calling for unilateral moves, making demands, and telling others what to do come from our friends with penises.

Men. Thank you for decrying the patriarchy. However, I would like to suggest that you consider taking yourselves out of the center of the conversation by asserting black-and-white opinions, calling for reprisals, airing condemnations, circulating petitions, and so on. Try to listen. Let other voices come to the fore. Consider asking more questions and issuing fewer proclamations. Many have said they wish for more female/feminine energy voices. This is one way to accomplish that. Otherwise you’re not going to get these voices to step into the conversation. This is not because we are fragile and we certainly do not need hand-holding but because the conversation will simply arise in a different way if you stop dominating it via edicts and mansplaining.

This is 101% my view and if my sisters and brothers want to dispute me on this, that would be awesome.

These points should be foregrounded as crucial to fostering women’s leadership in all yoga and dharma organizations. The content,  however, is inconsistent in relation to nine items of top-down directive advice given by this very blog. Piver is drawing on content created within a dominance hierarchy that fantasizes about a heavenly monarchy headed by a transcendental king that will eventually rule the world.

Letting “other voices come to the fore” could first involve platforming Andrea Winn and her reporting subjects.

Also problematic is the parallelism here between “feminine energy” and the bias of Piver’s advice, which seeks to avoid taking a solid and active position in the face of systemic abuse, preferring internalized examination and silencing. Mansplaining is patriarchal, but dharmasplaining is not necessarily a feminist alternative.

Eight. Stop aiming your weapon at yourself.
This is something I have seen so many times, in myself, you, the planet. When we are upset about something, we do that exact thing in response. If it wasn’t so painful, it would be really funny. A made-up example:

Person 1: What you just said is so judgmental. Who made you the judge and jury? Stop telling me what to do.
Person 2: Wait. You just did all of those things.

Obviously, this is a silly example. but I have seen so many instances where we do exactly what we tell other people to stop doing and then wonder why the conversation isn’t going anywhere.

Conflict in such circumstances is often minimized as dramatic or childish. Here the letter is presents a high road voice, above it all. It presents the conflicting views as though their perspectives are equal, when in reality the main “sides” in authority crises in high-demand groups express a power disparity. Generally speaking, on one side are those who demand restorative justice, while the other side attempts to preserve power and order. This is not childish bickering, but a values dialectic that will be bitterly contested until the status quo changes or is re-established.

Nine. We’re on our own. And that’s okay.
It may seem like now we are on our own and it is up to each Shambhala person to bring the heart of the teachings to the world. It is true. But this has always been true. In no way is this meant as an excuse for the behavior attributed to Sakyong Mipham or to bypass the suffering of anyone who may have been harmed by him (which, to varying degrees, would be all of us). Do whatever you can to bring the teachings to life in your world with the support of the three jewels, however they arise for you.

“In no way is this meant as an excuse for the behavior attributed to Sakyong Mipham or to bypass the suffering of anyone who may have been harmed by him (which, to varying degrees, would be all of us).” Perhaps not. But what is the impact of writing over 2K words without referring to a single restorative action the author, her students, or the broader Shambhala sangha might take in relation to the victims of institutional and systemic abuse?

Here the concept of bypassing is addressed, which creates the impression that it is a studied and digested mechanism. This is belied by the teaching content of “letting go”. Lastly, the reinforcement of the value of privatized religion marks the overlap between the rise of Shambhala and the wave of neoliberal sentiment and politics in the Global North. I don’t know if “We’re on our own” was the message of Trungpa, but it certainly was the message of Thatcher and Reagan.

You got this. And speaking on behalf of all humanity, I implore you to take your seat with wisdom, compassion, and power.

Finally, please know that I am reevaluating my relationship to Shambhala (the institution, not the teachings). I don’t know what the future holds for me, although I am committed without question to the dharma, to you, and to my path as a student and a teacher.

I offer this post, not as an activist or jurist, but out of spiritual friendship.

This sign-off statement reminds readers that the letter is coming from a higher place, a place beyond agitating for reform or restorative justice, or enacting policies that would help prevent harm.  

May it be of benefit.

Good luck everyone.

Love, Susan

Accountability Or Apologia? Reading Between the Lines When Yoga and Buddhism Leaders Issue Crisis Statements

Accountability Or Apologia? Tips for Reading Between the Lines

 

Many of today’s leaders in yoga and Buddhism built themselves through online marketing. This means that when abuse in their communities is revealed, they must be prepared to make online responses. It’s good to be able to see where the responses are continuous with the marketing: this may give clues as to how earnest, considered and educated those responses are.

The speed at which it all happens is both terrible and revealing. Terrible insofar as it suppresses sober second thought. Revealing because it lays bare microdynamics of cultic control that in the pre-digital age were invisible outside of the group. Today we can watch cults get penetrated by reporting and instantly try to circle the wagons. It’s easy to see the crude damage control of the attempt to discredit victims or reporters. What’s harder to see is how the reporting can be deflected by selective acknowledgement or yes-but statements. Whatever the responses are, they play out in the open field, like some kind of cult-exit obstacle course reality show.

We have to learn the difference between structural change and rebranding. Especially as people are getting better at co-opting and monetizing discourses around trauma-awareness and justice. There’s a lot of leaders in the Shambhala org right now who will be ramping up the trauma awareness language and dusting off their Naropa psychology chops. But if they don’t simultaneously call for the Sakyong to be removed and the org to be investigated independently, they are abusing that language and those tools. This may not at all be their fault. They may be under the illusion that those values actually came from the Trungpa legacy, instead of having been co-opted by it.

I’ve learned a lot about this through discussing the responses to the Jois revelations with Karen Rain. She’s really good at sniffing out when sober accountability pivots into self-inflation, what-about-me-ism, and wagon circling. She had to learn that in order to determine whether a space or encounter was safe. Here are some tips that have evolved from our conversations:

1. Look at the narrative arc of an acknowledgement statement. If it starts out expressing empathy for victims but then shifts to reaffirm the value of the abuser’s legacy, ask yourself “Why are those two things together?”

2. Look for self-aggrandizement in the statement, distinguishing how the speaker is so much more careful than the disgraced leader. This misses the point.

3. Look for the gambit of psychologically distancing oneself from what happened with statements like “I never saw him as a Guru.” If the person has materially profited by association, internal semantics aren’t that important.

4. Suss out the knee-jerk reasoning around “separating the teacher from the teaching”. It’s not so simple. It’s probably impossible. And chances are good the speaker is economically or socially dependent on the teaching structures, so the reasoning is highly motivated.

5. If the org lied about the teacher, ask if it also lied about the teachings. There’s usually pretty strong overlap.

6. Tune in to minimization and false equivalencies. “We’re all human.” Yes, but not all of us run or enable cults and break harassment, assault, and labour laws in the service of “crazy wisdom”.

7. If the speaker has family connections within the organization, imagine that for as much as they’re speaking about the org they are also negotiating a family crisis, with all of its compromises, in public.

8. Relatedly, if the speaker has logged many years in the org, their statement will always be a complex tight-rope walk between public discourse and in-group messaging. Be aware that with the latter task the speaker has to position themselves within a quickly-devolving social and economic landscape, often re-negotiating long-term relationships or finding out that old friends weren’t actually friends at all. They’re under a lot of stress. They might be looking for new jobs, or tuition costs of going back to grad school without health insurance. Don’t expect clarity.

9. Look for how the boundary blur between private and public selves drives the speaker into an unconscious narcissism. Mainstream yoga and Buddhism runs on the en masse commodification of the confessional voice, on the marketing of vulnerability and openness. This is at the heart of personal branding – it’s *personal*. When there are structural or institutional responsibilities at hand, however, your personal journey isn’t the thing to centre. This is hard to learn if you’ve been paid for the performance of personal transparency. Bottom line: if you make money from a wealthy yoga or Buddhism brand, you don’t get to have JUST a personal take on the issue. This is because your personal take is automatically becomes social guidance for your closest followers. “These are my personal views only” doesn’t cut it. If you are successful as a spiritual teacher it is because a lot of people want to have your personal views as their own.

10. Tune in to how a group will change the channel. Fundraisers are always a good idea. Who can argue with raising money for a great cause? Members can be enthusiastic about a cause and not recognize that it can be a subtle form of brand-washing, if internal problems remain unaddressed. It’s a lot harder to raise money for outside consulting and independent ethics review.

11. If the speaker references the wisdom of the in-group as a tool for restorative justice, read up on what Jennifer Freyd describes as “Institutional Betrayal”. Victims of Catholic priest abuse don’t need sermons delivered by people wearing the same robes as the abuser. They need victim’s services.

12. If a speaker is not reaching for independent resources to understand what has happened and how it can be rectified, there’s little chance that either will occur. This is because a primary mechanism of cult dynamics is information control. The speaker got into the mess they’re in by having shut out independent resources to begin with.

13. If the speaker can’t seem to avoid “yes but” pivots, you have to question whether they really are “finding comfort in uncertainty”, or “owning their vulnerability.”

14. #13 becomes extra complicated if “finding comfort in uncertainty” has actually been mobilized to encourage members to do nothing at all. We have to ask when and if meditations on “No Mud, No Lotus”, on “Full Catastrophe Living” or on “When Things Fall Apart” are being used to pacify and reabsorb the member on the edge of leaving by saying: yes we’re all flawed, all flaws are the same, let’s work on these flaws together. Again, Freyd is excellent on this.

15. Look at how the commenters respond. Try to feel into statements like “Oh _____, I’m so glad you’ve come out with such as wise and compassionate statement and view. It really puts my mind at ease in this difficult time.” This might be an entirely earnest reflection, but it is also a sign that the regrouping part of the original statement has done its work. Order cannot simply be re-established. It has to be changed.

I’ve taken a lot of criticism for pointing out stuff like this. Usually I’m told that it’s not good to shame people who are trying to make accountability statements. I get that, which is why I try to identify trends instead of naming names. It’s not easy to negotiate a personal crisis in public. But that’s part of the problem. The whole yoga/Buddhism industry has to recognize the difference between private revelation and public care. This is a challenge for any privatized religion. Holding a public statement up to critical analysis is not incompatible with nurturing personal empathy for its speaker. Ideally, these positions should nurture each other.

Grief and Masculine Armour: A Brief Note

Grief and Masculine Armour: A Brief Note

Death is a singularity, but not all deaths are the same.

This summer marked the second time a friend of mine has died, suddenly and unnaturally.

This time it was a man, my age, with whom I shared so much that I walked around for weeks wondering whether I had suddenly died, or whether I was at the edge of it.

There was unfinished business, but not the type you’d have with a father or a son. Not the type that had built up over decades of microactions. It was the unfinished business of feeling that a part of yourself was now amputated, and couldn’t do its work. That first friend was hit and killed by a truck. But that’s not what happened this summer. There was no ultimate outside force involved. It was a godless death. Continue reading “Grief and Masculine Armour: A Brief Note”

Sudden Harvest: An Elegy for Michael Stone

Sudden Harvest: An Elegy for Michael Stone

Please support Michael’s partner Carina and children through this fund.

 Photo courtesy of Ian MacKenzie.

Content warning: description of organ harvest.

 

 

1.

I started writing this the day my friend Michael Stone died. On that day, the surgeons carefully cut into the body associated with him, to take the parts that used to be him and give them to others in need.

I wasn’t there, but I picture the following:

Their scalpels slide under the skin that was him, and was scanned a hundred thousand times in vipassana meditation.

They poke through the webbing of fascia that was him, and was stretched and twisted through a hundred thousand yoga postures.

Their blue-gloved hands, splashed with blood, pluck out two kidneys like sleeping fish.

They saw through the ribcage, softened by a decade of exhaling visualized light in the Tibetan style. They lift out the still-pulsing lungs, and watch them shudder to stillness on the ice pack. As though Michael were still practicing to lengthen and smooth his breath into that single point of silence he craved.

The transplant team demonstrates an ancient proof in Buddhist logic:

If you look for the person among the parts, you will not find him. “Michael” and “my friend” and “Buddhist teacher” are designations applied to a collection of skin, blood, voice, eyes, behaviors, images, and mysteries. All of which are ultimately ownerless.

One of the mantras Michael sought comfort from was: There is no “me” or “mine.” It’s an assertion of emptiness, but it hides a multiplicity: Michael, like any person, was many.

There was Carina’s Michael: doting and vulnerable. The Michael who stood large beside his brother Jayme and sister Sunny. The Michael of his parents, his teenage friends, his first partner. His friends from many walks of life. Those who didn’t care about Buddhism or yoga.

The Michaels of his children: Arlyn, and the two boys he had with  Carina. The thirteen year-old, the four year-old, and the toddler knew different fathers. Baby-to-be heard a resonant voice to be remembered in dreams.

In rings circling outwards, more Michaels appear, each one a little less knowable: therapist, sometimes-monk, public speaker, heartthrob, author, entrepreneur. And of course, Michael the dharma teacher, sitting at the front of the room, by turns radiant, startled, or wooden.

Which Michael did his Buddhist teachers see? His therapists? His psychotherapy supervisor? What about his doctors?

Who was Michael to the man who sold him that little white pill?

The surgeons murmur over the body, and it sounds like prayers.

 

2.

If you knew and loved Michael through his work, you beat the surgeons to that harvest.

You harvested the voice of his writing and podcasts, marked by the rhythm of the practices he loved and depended on. His penchant for boiling the broadest themes down to taut aphorisms. And for finding the Buddha everywhere he wanted to find him: novels, obscure Canadian poetry, cool apps, superior espresso, pop music, therapy, laundry, mountains, streetcars, his motorcycle, and hospitals.

If you were a student who went to his retreats, you harvested other things. Like how so many mirrored his exquisite posture with equal parts earnestness and piety. You absorbed a dynamic silence – at times anxious, haunted, or womblike. The talks he gave were metronomic, as though he needed the entire world to slow down and listen at the exact pace that soothed him. Then, his quirky yoga instructions tangled you up on your mat, made you teeter and laugh.

Perhaps you had a meeting with him about your meditation or yoga practice and he dispensed advice that connected, perhaps miraculously. Was he intuitive, or lucky? You can’t honestly say. Or maybe the meeting made no sense at all, and you felt odd about that – maybe even apologetic, like you were letting him down. Or: he outright frustrated you with those blue eyes that could seem to know you, love you, judge you, or be lost, all in quick succession.

You collected the countless steps of walking meditation, and the group chants Michael loved. They may have stirred you deeply. Or you may have found that in the English translations from Sanskrit or Japanese he collected and tweaked, they sounded angular and explicit to the point of embarrassment:

Don’t squander your life!

Does anyone really squander their life?

 

3.

2013. We were walking through Mile End in Montreal, looking for the perfect cortado. Michael was telling me he’d backed off on the rigidity of practice in recent years, as we tend to do.

“I’m leaving just enough discipline to hold the shape of something,” he said, on the step of Café Névé. He gestured in the cold air with his hands.

That something was always meticulous, artistic, and intense. It felt like his longing for ritual order emerged, as much religion does, as an artistic response to internal and external chaos.

I remember when he rented my old space in Cabbagetown for several month-long retreats in 2006. One was in February. He’d ride his Danish bicycle over from Parkdale, and come in with snow in his beard that melted into the cup of coffee I handed him. Through the day, I sat at the desk outside the room, working to the rhythm of his somnambulant baritone, lulled by the vowels.

The students were Gen X, Y, and millennials, countercultural. Three-quarters women. When they trickled out to the bathroom they moved quietly and kept their heads down. It seemed like they were under a thrall they couldn’t risk breaking. When the studio door was left open, I could see the cohort encircle him. Some sat very close, absorbed in him.

I was impressed, and uneasy. What was going on? How did he manage to make all of that attention directed at him seem natural?

The fragments of his talks I overheard rung with a single note. It wasn’t from Buddhism or yoga. The texts were delivery devices for a sense of collective certainty, expressed through the first person plural.

“When we feel… we often find… and then we get caught up in… and so we practice because… and we fail… our hearts are like… our armour falls away… we are open to… we can be receptive to… we touch intimacy… we continue on with our work, not knowing.”

Michael’s register of wisdom could make people feel merged with each other, and with him. It created a feeling of group confession that generalized and depersonalized towards an unboundaried warmth. It seemed to hold nothing in private.

When the group left at dusk, the building vibrated. I’d sweep the room and then pause for a while by the altar they’d made by the window. I took note not only of the personal artifacts people had brought, but also the pristine and eccentric aesthetic Michael inspired. Japanese paper, quirky calligraphy, microbrew beer coasters folded into squat origami turtles.

The style was hipster zen, years before it was a thing. But instead of irony, it was imbued with what his brother Jayme described over the phone as Michael’s sense of the “ceremonious”. That same sense, Jayme said, that made the scene of Michael’s death so uncharacteristic of him.

 

4.

I was never Michael’s student. I was his peer, colleague, co-author, and eventually, his friend.

I was that friend – I’m sure there were others – who made fun of him for having students. I would say:

Look at the mess you’re in now. People expect you to give them spiritual advice!

He smiled and shrugged, a little bashful. Sometimes he laughed. It was like he didn’t know how it all happened, even if he knew how to nudge it along. He didn’t stop it, because it seemed to be working. The glowing feedback he got burned everything else away. It’s hard to imagine anyone around him being large enough to persuade him to slow down.

But he asked everyone else to slow down, and look within. I wonder if he needed those around him to find the answers he couldn’t.

 

5.

Friends harvested more hidden things:

His bouts of social unease, his obsession with dorky trivia and dark humour. You saw him long for guidance from senior teachers, like a prodigal son. He would connect with them, misfire with them.

You saw him draw conflict, get defensive, take a breath, take inventory, try to make amends. He would drift away from these people over here, become infatuated with others over there. You saw the acrimony from his divorce spill out and polarize a community. You understood that his prescription to always practice intimacy and forgiveness was the one he had written for himself.

You saw his effect on women, of all ages. They adored him and confessed to him. They poured their labour into his projects. Some became angry when they realized the imbalances. When they ghosted away, others came to replace them.

In such seemingly progressive spaces, it can be hard to call out hierarchy. The spirituality industry wants to make Iron Age yoga and medieval Zen look like they aren’t patriarchal in theme, form, and division of labour.

If you were a close friend, you saw how Michael’s doubts about his direction and competence were punctuated by flourishes of manic creativity. You saw how easy it was for his vision to outpace his introversion, and his appetite to outpace his digestion.

When he was flying high, his intellect became very porous, consuming and repackaging every idea he loved with dizzying speed. He was a DJ of ambient Buddhism, mixing freely from whatever tracks he could find.

 

6.

If you were close to him, you collected his surges of warmth. These became more poignant when you realized that he often had to climb up out of a dark well to let them flow. You collected things that were hidden by his stylishness, his supermodel looks, and by the gold paint that people sprayed on him in their minds and online.

Maybe you were close enough to soak up what he was like with his family in its various constellations. How he loved and baffled them, how he thrilled but could also disappoint. How relatives orbited his sun in seasons of estrangement and reconciliation.

When he touched Carina’s hand or when his sons clung to his arms, or when he listened to Jayme play the banjo, or when he watched his sister Sunny whip up her cooking magic, you could feel his love come out in a flood of bewildered tenderness.

He ended our book together with a distillation of such moments:

Everything was in its right place and everything was heading in the same direction. In my body I felt something new about life: not my own life, but about the whole parade of humans moving through the world, of which my family was only one small part, but the largest part of the world I could ever know.

If you worked with him, like I did on his talk about struggling with the danger of his own charisma, you harvested the giddiness of his concentration. You understood that he survived in part by taking risks.

After their first son was born, Carina asked him to sell the motorcycle a psychic had told him he should buy. He did as she asked. But he kept driving too fast in his mind.

When we worked he would pause, waiting for the words to come. I could feel him teeter on the edge of something.  One March day, I prodded him a little harder. I could hear his tapping keys over the phone as he murmured:

“I came to understand the shadow of charisma — of my charisma — was dependency.”

There was that feeling I often had around him. A lightning bolt of clarity, and then something fuzzy and frenetic rushing back in.

He was impatient with whatever couldn’t be finished with the speed of a zen brush painting. I would offer a paragraph of commentary; he parried with a sentence. I built things up, and he hacked them away. He loved the koans that could be answered in a single word. He was acutely aware of the shortness of time, and he’d learned that art must be made from the simplicity of panic.

I can hear him saying now: “This elegy is too damned long. And you always go too far!”

I yell into my silent phone:

Dude, I’m just getting started. And you’re the one who went too far. Gone, gone beyond, and all that, right?

I wait for his laugh.

 

7.

During a snowstorm three years ago, Michael and I met for lunch to finish work on our book. At one point he stopped and leaned over to ask me something that wasn’t really a question.

“Hey – do you generally feel even-keeled?”

I shrugged.

“I guess. Can you say more?”

“I mean – do you feel in control of your emotions?”

After I fumbled through an answer, he told me he was struggling with his mental health. That it had been going on for as long as he could remember. Suddenly many things made sense.

We got very still and gazed at each other. After a moment, I realized he was gapping out. I’d seen this before, but now it was clear that he had to struggle to come back to the table.

It occurred to me that this oscillation between intense focus and vacancy was part of what drew people to him. Like he could see you, and that felt so intoxicating, but then you’d have to chase after him to feel that again. Like he was profoundly okay in one moment, but you wanted to save him in the next. Or maybe you thought he was regularly falling into a meditative trance.

Things became more transparent between us, but never fully. I loved him more, even as – or because – I felt more uncertain about where he was going. I knew I’d been drawn to him without understanding a crucial thing. I was in his sphere because he’d cast a spell over me. Part of me resented that, but now I could love him closer to where he was.

We deepened things by trading war stories about our health. On the phone he’d tell me about crushing insomnia. About having to fly places and teach meditation on autopilot because he was exhausted and agitated. I told him about my heart palpitations in the middle of the night. He’d had that too. Once, I picked him up from the hospital when he went for knee surgery to fix the damage from that stupid lotus pose. Or was it skateboarding?

I developed a pulmonary embolism a few months after our book was published. I could easily have died. He was the first person outside of my family I called. I knew he would  say something luminous and comforting. But there was also the feeling that I wanted him to know I was joining him at the edge of something.

We talked a lot about self-regulation. He told me that he’d stopped meditating everyday as an experiment to see if meditation was actually making his swings worse. He suspected it was. This was around the time he taped an interview with the world’s leading researcher in the neuroscience of negative meditation experiences. I’ll bet the turns of his research interests map perfectly onto his internal labyrinth.

I had to take warfarin to thin out my blood clots. He told me that lithium seemed to help even out his moods. We joked about it: after years of studying Ayurvedic diet and self-care, here I was, kept alive on rat poison. And for him — after scouring the library of scriptures, he’d found the answer in the periodic table. A single molecule, labeled “3”.

I said it was the chemical version of the triple jewel of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. He laughed his broad broken laugh.

 

8.

Over the next few years I saw Michael increasingly exhausted by a race against the pressures of his persona, the tightening claustrophobia of his brain, his search for better medications, and the possibility that disclosing it all would help, or at least give him the next thing to work with. I thought about the growing distance between what he saw in the mirror and the headshots staring out at him from the screen.

His public life went viral, even as he seemed to become more isolated. He kept preaching the necessity of practice, even as I knew practice was less accessible to him. His sermons were about place and connection and sustainability. But he composed them on airplanes. He preached about community from the remote island he moved to after leaving the community he had founded.

When he was getting ready to move out west with Carina and their first child, he called me to say that he wanted to give me a bunch of his books on psychoanalysis. Two titles stood out: Being a Character, by Christopher Bollas, and Terrors and Experts, by Adam Phillips, who Michael and I had recently gone to see lecture.

Bollas describes the devastating results of living in the prison of other peoples’ idealizations. Phillips opens his book by quoting Iris Murdoch on how philosophers show you what they fear through what they become experts in.

We thumbed through his books, stacked in the front hallway. “I really think psychoanalysis,” he said, “gave us the most beautiful literature we have.”

He sounded wistful. I don’t know whether he was giving me a message, telling me about what had helped him find peace for a while, or parting with things that hadn’t worked. He handed over the books with a generous smile, and his body pulsed with warmth when we hugged. But as I drove away I felt like a thief.

As time wore on, Michael became an ever stronger advocate of the thing he struggled to do.  Show each other your face, he would say.

I wondered whether his ideas got larger as his internal space and room to breathe narrowed. Not only did he constantly push himself to break new ground in Buddhist thought, he wanted to carve out a leadership role in the movement to renovate yoga postures. There was talk of building a new centre in the western mountains, and landing a university fellowship. He told me about one of his next books, in which he was going to be more transparent about his mental health. He was searching for the right hook. Something that could go mainstream.

If he was going to own his mental illness, he was going to learn and write and teach his way through it. It’s what he had always done.

It is perhaps what the Buddha himself had done.

A main difference being: Siddhartha Gautama wasn’t preceded in the world by the images of his own enlightenment. He didn’t need to feed the insatiable hunger of wellness culture. He did not have to live up to – nor compete with – the branding of spirituality.

 

9.

The poet John Ashbury just died at the ripe old age of ninety. He once wrote:

Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibility that they are founded on nothing.

 

10.

Don’t squander your life!

Sometimes the group whispered it. At the memorial, one of his students shouted it at the top of his lungs. Who was he shouting it at?

Those who harbour anger at Michael right now – and feel so guilty because of it – might feel sucker-punched by that line. Doesn’t it open a cut of hypocrisy? Did he really recite it a hundred thousand times? Who was he talking to?

The stigma Michael faced is real. But the broader story must include the fact that thousands of us paid him for the creative side of his mania, which was hard to separate from his talent. A portion of our money poured directly into a small industry of marketing and publicity that reflected our desires back to us. It paid for gorgeous photography and design, for occasional ghostwriting, and for partnerships that gave structure and anchoring to his flow states.

The yoga and meditation economy embraced him with open arms. And enabled him. He was working on four different books, all in different subject areas, when he died.

He may not have wanted to disclose. But if anyone could have turned stigma into stigmata, it was him. The spirituality industry, however, would suffer for it.

A disclosure like Michael’s would continue to erode the arbitrary distinctions between sane and insane spiritual leaders. It would be that much harder to read Pema Chodron or Alan Watts without wondering how much of Buddhism amongst postmodern converts is an elaborate way of covering over a hidden story.

If Michael had disclosed, we would look at our shelves full of Shambhala titles and wonder how many trees were felled to print them. We’d remember that the press that launched him was itself launched by the mercurial genius of Chogyam Trungpa: alcoholic, womanizing, surely undiagnosed. We would not be talking about the fall of a single hero, but the clay feet of a culture. We might sense the deep feelings of shame and inadequacy that drive so many men to the front of the room to prove themselves. We think they are vibrating, when really they are trembling.

After that line about squandering your life, Michael’s assistant would strike the gong while holding the rim, so it couldn’t ring to its natural end.

 

11.

I was always a crappy Buddhist. Over that surreal weekend of his coma, I felt so identified with Michael’s body that I felt some shadow part of myself on that ventilator, forcing me to breathe, waiting for it to be switched off. A more solid part of me was here, not believing that he couldn’t taste this coffee, couldn’t stand in this garden, couldn’t smile at his wife, couldn’t hold his toddler.

Even two weeks later, his death still seemed a spectacle to me, I expected him to step out from behind a tree, or send a text from the edge of Algonquin Park, where he disappeared to when he was twenty. As though he’d just been out of cell phone range, and had no clue there was such a fuss.

It only really hit home as I sat with my family on a driftwood log on a Pender Island beach with a hundred others at the memorial. The children waited patiently through the chanting, holding the paper lanterns they would release after the last bell.

Jayme stood behind the altar with his partner Laura and cracked open the Zen liturgy with his banjo and a southern spiritual. His voice, braided with hers, carried light and ash. Their three year-old son pulled at Laura’s dress, asking to be picked up.

 

12.

If you’re a Canadian Gen Xer like Michael and me, you’ll probably remember a little Québécois film from 1989 by Denys Arcand called “Jesus of Montreal”. I went to the Carleton Cinema over and over again to soak it in. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if Michael was sitting there during one of those screenings. I was eighteen; he would have been fifteen.

The movie tells a simple, predictable story. A wandering actor returns to his hometown and is hired to direct and star in a revamp of the Cathedral’s chintzy Passion play. He’s silent, magnetic, dreamboaty. Also a little wonky. He electrifies an unlikely cohort of disciples and leads them in pulling their art and their lives out of banality.

At the peak of his influence, while performing Jesus, and not really knowing what he was doing, the actor accidentally dies.

The concluding montage leaves the main characters behind. It cuts from one hospital room to the next, showing patient after patient waking up after their surgery to receive an organ, donated by the actor who played Jesus.

An old man wakes up with a new heart. A middle-aged woman has the bandages removed so that she can blink at her daughter with new eyes, and call out her name.

This is my body, which will be given up for you, as they say in the church to which I once belonged.

I cried harder during that scene than almost ever before or since, and couldn’t move from my seat until the janitor tapped me on the arm at closing time.

 

13.

Whenever I crest over this present edge of numbness and am finally able to cry about Michael, I think the tears will join the river that started in that theatre. They’ll flow from the material realizations of love:

I’ll feel how one body becomes other bodies.

I’ll feel that this is all there ever was or needs to be: a recycling of flesh into new joys and troubles. This is the way biology grants forgiveness. The process itself is the only soul we need to speculate about.

I’ll feel that in death, as in life, a person is both visible and invisible. Charisma magnifies this split.

Visible or invisible, Michael couldn’t be found or boxed in. I was foolish to think he could be. So it goes for those burdened with charisma. They are who they are because they seem so much larger and more permanent than you, even when they desperately want to be equal, normal, not-special; even when they want to disappear.

I know this tune: I’ve spent years deconstructing the light and shadow of spiritual teachers. On the surface my crusade has been related to healing from being in two cults. But the deeper drives that both attracted me to those men and led me to loathe them flow from my own need to be special, to heal attachment wounds, to be seen and praised — and then the shame of recognizing these things.

Pegging Michael as charismatic, and feeling smug about it, let me off the hook for years. I could only truly love him when I began to understand that he was living an amplified version of my own needs.

Part of why I wanted to be his friend was that I wanted to see myself more clearly. Knowing he did many of the things I work against, I tried to forgive him because he was ill and couldn’t seem to do otherwise. Perhaps he was my dharma teacher after all, teaching me about love in that sideways land of the unconscious.

My eventual tears will tally all I harvested in every moment I knew him – over years, and not just suddenly. The organs are just the last parts to be offered.

I’ll understand that those who speak most about community and ethics and family and forgiveness and intimacy are those who most long for such things.

I’ll sense that the pain of watching a person you love shattering into emptiness can be soothed by the feeling that he’s already inside you, transplanted, flaws and all. He lends you the heart, for the brief time we have, to take care of others.

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

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”