At about ten days into social distancing — and improvised homeschooling — this tweet sailed across my feed:
I laughed, but it hurt.
We have an almost-4 year old and a 7 year-old at home. Last night the provincial government sealed up the parks and beaches. The boys haven’t been within six feet of their grandparents for weeks. Yesterday, everyone over 70 was asked to self-isolate.
Parents are on their own these days. It’s one thing to not have access to child-care. It’s totally another to not be allowed to have any, or to get any from extended family. Every family, in every configuration, is on its own island of togetherness and aloneness.
It’s challenging, and we’re meeting it — to the point of it being a transformative experience in some ways. Relational peace and resilience is an incredible privilege. And I know we’re a thousand times luckier than so many. Anyone who is parenting solo now, or exposed to substance abuse or domestic violence — my heart just dies. When the vulnerable are isolated, the veneer of nuclear family safety and its independence cracks.
Back to the tweet: I’ve never, to my recollection, said anything so intrusive and insensitive as what wittyidiot reports to any of my non-parent friends.
But I sure have felt it.
And when I recognized myself feeling it, and I realized it felt off, I took a look at where that feeling was coming from.
On my generous and gregarious side, there is, without a doubt, some inexpressible joy that parenting has filled me up with, to the point that my prior life feels unrecognizable and haunted. And I wish I could just share that with everyone. But on my narcissistic side, there’s a part of me that wants non-parents to validate my choices with their bodies. I want them to share my stress — as if they didn’t have their own. If I were to speak wittyidiot’s quote aloud, I would be speaking from that voice.
wittyidiot’s burn is on point. Whoever said that to him, intentionally or not, was inflating a selfish and defensive need to the point of trumping basic manners towards the many reasons, chosen or not chosen, for not being a parent.
The tweet also points out that the sentiment of “the greatest joy” is, when spoken aloud, disingenuous. When the shit hits the fan, it goes silent. Shouldn’t being a parent be “the greatest joy in life”, for better or worse? Yes, it should. Unless what the parent is really saying, in a passive aggressive way, is: “When are you going to take on the same stress that I have?”
The inflated parent is forgetting, of course, the stress of loneliness, or of building a chosen family, of miscarriage, or moral and political conviction, or simply other work in the world.
They’re also failing to anticipate just how much worse the stress of parenting can get, to the point of that unforgivable thought: that they wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
For me, the last time this issue popped out of the collective unconscious and into the memosphere was from the other side, when that “Lady No-Kids” cartoon by Will McPhail made the hetero-normie rounds:
I laughed then, too, but it didn’t feel clean.
I especially didn’t feel comfortable that the target was a non-parenting woman, contrasted with the mature mother pushing the stroller and herding the 4 year-old. It deepened the misogynistic double-bind of “You’re either frivolous, or responsible for everything.”
Happily, it looks like McPhail evened out the scales with a follow-up:
Gender aside: McPhail illuminates the bald fact that through lack of experience or imagination, the non-parent can be blind to their privileges of time and relative autonomy. And if they flaunt this, knowingly or not, or make assumptions about what their friends who are parents can and can’t do, it can be frustrating.
Or worse: for some it might provoke a grief — shameful because it’s not easily admitted — for a former life, or for choices that could have been. There are now 15K in the “I Regret Having Children” Facebook group.
The first time I clued into this tension was when the priest who was the principal of the Catholic school where my mom worked asked the staff to take on a bunch of extra tasks as though they would be giving up happy hour. I remember my dad grumbling, “Father So-and-So needs to wash some diapers.” I was young, but I understood that this wasn’t just about the work itself. Dad was talking about the kind of work: we don’t float above anything when we’re up to our elbows in crap. We don’t sit in cathedrals in contemplation. We don’t do yoga vacays.
But McPhail’s exaggeration leaves a sour taste. The heteronormies are buttoned-up. Lady and Lord No-Kids are obviously silly.
The problem with the caricature — maybe part of its purpose, in fact —is that it conceals the more stark challenges to parenting as an existential identity.
I have anti-natalist friends who say outright that it’s immoral to have children, given the imminent timeline of ecological collapse. It’s hard to argue with them. I have feminist friends who say that we just don’t have enough justice to allow for parenting partnerships — especially if they are hetero — that are structurally equal. It’s hard to argue with them. I have anti-capitalist friends who pinpoint the heteronormative family as the heart of consumerism, masquerading as love. I have climate collapse friends who say: “There’s no problem in the world that can be solved by bringing more people into it.” I know birth-striking millennials, melancholic but resolute.
All of these folks have good points. None of them are following geese around while not wearing pants. If you were to feed them wittyidiot’s line, “When are you going to have children?”, they would hear: “When are you going to conform to your gender identity? When are you going to accept your fate? When are you going to just admit you’re a producer and a consumer, just like everyone else? When are you going to get down in the shit with us?”
But there’s a lot of ways to wash diapers, and everyone has a fate. Many of these same non-parents are masters of the “chosen family” structure, which binds together those thrown out of the nuclear shelter, or those who had to flee. It’s not all extra yoga and non-fiction. They’re the ones who often have more time to volunteer, reach out by phone, share their baking, or take on an extra therapy client, pro-bono. One anti-natalist I know is spearheading vegan food distribution for the homeless in Santa Barbara. He’s committed to never having children, but he works as hard as I do, or harder feeding people he’s not bio-responsible for.
Here’s something else I’ve noticed: many of the most influential eco-prophets of our time — the “doomers” who can say what others are afraid of saying about tipping points and mass extinction events, for example, and how close they are — are non-parents. Do they have less to lose in speaking the truth? Conversely, many of the most prominent boosters of green capitalism or Green New Deals, or the belief that there are political or technological fixes for collapse — are parents. I think there’s a connection between the biological hope of parenting and maintaining a politics of progress, even when the cold hard math is all wrong.
So far the lockdowns are shining a blinding spotlight on certain differences between parenting and non-parenting life. But what if we looked for something else?
In previous lives I’ve lived on several sides of this divide, albeit in my white, male and hetero way. I’ve been single (obviously), and I’ve step-parented for seventeen years, and now I’m partnered with two young boys.
As a stepfather I was devoted and committed. But I was also resigned to always being on the bio-responsible periphery of more central relationships. The buck never stopped with me. There were years in there where I didn’t think I would be a parent in what I conceived of at the time as a more meaningful way. I’m not saying that step-parents can’t have or feel exactly what bio-parents do — if that can even be generalized — but I didn’t, not quite. Part of that may have been my own emotional avoidance, but a lot of it was circumstance
It did however give me a powerful experience of simultaneous inclusion in and exclusion from the most privileged unit in our culture: the nuclear. This, along with other life circumstances — like being recruited into two cults in which family life was present but ambivalent to the point of being devalued — meant that I also socialized on both sides of that divide.
Back then, I had friends with children and friends without. Childless friends who were happy that way, and those who weren’t. Friends who had taken vows of celibacy that suited their introversion. Friends indoctrinated into celibacy who were quietly raging. Friends who grieved miscarriages and not finding the right co-parent. Friends who felt the clock run out. Friends who knew that having a lot of sex partners wasn’t conducive to parenting, and they weren’t about to change. Friends with children who talked about it, too loudly and defensively, in the way that wittyidiot skewers in his tweet. And also friends with children who were overwhelmed, depressed, terrified that they were passing on their trauma to their kids.
Later, when the stars aligned and I did become part of the nuclear club, I was rudely awakened to the fact that I might not continue to have that same connection with friends without children. The first volley was fired by a good friend at the time. When I told him my partner was pregnant, he ghosted me.
It really hurt. But it made sense. We never got to talk about it at the time, but my guess is that he was betting I wasn’t going to be as available to him, and so he cut his losses.
He was right. No more two-hour lunches, spontaneous cafe chinwags, or hanging out after events. He’d probably seen it happen with other friends: that tunnel-vision-descent into worry and expectation and rearranged values in service to the imaginary baby, but on a functional level can feel pretty narcissistic to the person who can’t share it.
And what a paradox. Expectant-parent worry puts you in a place where you really don’t want to be disconnected from anybody important to you, and yet it is exactly this narrowing vision that can drive key people away as if you had a virus.
At the same time, I felt myself being recruited into a new club. Men who were already fathers smiled at me with a mixture of fatigue, recognition, pride, and schadenfreude: “You won’t regret it,” but also “You won’t know what hit you,” and “See you on the other side.”
And the weird thing about that club? Its impersonality. For me, it feels more symbolic than embodied. I’ve noticed that the men seem to nod at each other more than converse. We share that peculiar nuclear alienation: we belong to families that are largely hidden from each other, but we also share an abstract social power.
Much of the abstraction is a function of time. The demands of the nuclear arrangements that we have — artifacts of patriarchy and capitalism — simply don’t allow for the same levels of sharing time between equals that often characterizes non-parenting or pre-parenting life. Add to that the fact that parenting seems to shunt many families into social funnels determined less by shared interests than biological circumstance. In the meeting places — playgrounds, schoolyards, gyms, instead of parks and cafes — there’s less talk about life in general than about life with children.
And this must make us very narrow-minded at times to our non-parent friends. We don’t have time. Or we don’t share the same timeline. It might also make some of us angry, in that wittyidiot passive-aggressive way.
My gut says there’s some intrapersonal confusion as well: when the parent is trying to communicate with the non-parent, they might feel they are looking back into a life they remember. It’s not true. They’re looking at someone else. Some whose path, with a slight shift in perspective, can be an object of admiration, simply because it is so different.
I don’t have any big “Can’t we all just get along” ideas. The exchanges that wittyidiot lampoons and McPhail exaggerates should obviously just stop, or be kept private.
But there are a few public behaviour things I think we can agree on, especially on social media. That is if you care enough about this particular tension to help build a culture in which parents and non-parents empathize with each other. And especially if your social feeds contain a mixture of parents and non-parents.
IMHO, parents should really own that it’s tempting to use their children to self-object all over Facebook. To use them to show how busy or stressed or fun or woke they are. Or to hide behind. Beyond the massive consent issues involved in using your kids this way — something that non-parents may be more attuned to and put off by than we know — there’s a difference between recording and performing what happens in one’s life. The more one does the latter, the more abstract parenting becomes for everyone. Our relationships need less symbolism, not more. And if you’re a heteronormie, you may be contributing to conventional narratives that continue to bury other experiences.
If you know non-parents who are lonely, maybe text them? Explain your time is limited, but that you’re thinking of them?
And non-parents: pandemic lockdown might not be the best time to post pics of yourself in bubble baths or meandering diary entries about how bored you are. If you know parents who are struggling — reach out to them, maybe? You could read a book to a friend’s kid over Zoom. It sounds small, but it’s extraordinary what even a half-hour of relief can give.
Maybe it’s also for you. Imagine that book you read to that kid over zoom contributes to their ability to concentrate and focus, and that they take that skill and develop it to the point where they’re able to intubate you smoothly when you need ventilation during whatever pandemic hits us in 20 years.
As for me, I’ll continue owning my feelings and softening my judgements. I don’t know what life I would be living if I wasn’t parenting with my partner. But I trust there are men out there who are living non-parenting lives with integrity, supporting the world in amazing ways I cannot.
And maybe one or two out there will see that I’m trying to work on unknotting a primal jealousy of parenting: to fantasize that someone will take care of you unconditionally when you become a baby again. I’ll admit it: I regularly visualize my deathbed, and imagine my sons on either side, holding my hands. The stories starting to pour in from Italy and Spain of parents dying alone fill me with longing and terror.
But something tells me a fantasy that rides on a notion of the care to which parenting entitles me won’t soothe longing, nor overcome terror. I want to fantasize about fostering a future of care for everyone.
A starter list. Feel free to add your own questions in the comments.
Did I let you learn about the pandemic at your own pace?
Did I tell you enough, so that you didn’t feel I was keeping secrets?
Did I tell you too much?
Did it ever feel like I was asking you to take care of me, or to soothe my worry?
I know I was scrambling to find money during that whole time. How did it feel when I couldn’t pay you enough attention?
Did it make sense to you at the time to ask you to do that homework-type stuff? Was it weird for your dad to be a teacher too?
Do you remember doing aerobics-dance-party-wrestling with mom in the living room when it rained?
Remember when the Croatian bakery had to close and my mom gave us that bread recipe and we started baking bread?
Remember when she needed more yeast and my dad drove my mom across the city to get some from me, and we met them at the curb but you weren’t allowed to hug them?
Did it bother you that I looked at my phone while we played chess?
We had a lot of new rules during that time. Did I explain them well enough? Did they make you feel more or less secure?
I remember walking with you and your brother in the ravine, and other kids were running around less supervised, and coming too close. Were you embarrassed when I scolded them?
But do you remember when the ravine was empty, and we walked there hand in hand in the dusk?
Do you remember me losing my temper? Did I come to you to repair?
Do you remember being angry at me? Did you ever feel shy about telling me about it?
How did it feel to have to keep that distance from Nana and Papa when we met at the park?
I remember saying “No, we can’t do that,” a lot, and it made me feel awful. Do you remember me saying: “But we can do this other thing?”
What did you imagine was happening for other kids around the world? Did it make you start thinking about justice?
Did you feel like your mom and I were working happily together? Did you feel our love?
Did you see me thank her enough for all the things she does?
When you heard the news over the radio, what was most interesting to you? Frightening? Inspiring?
Did it make you want to be a doctor, a nurse?
What did you learn about being bored?
Were you worried about your little brother?
Do you remember when your mom gave him his first haircut in the kitchen — with kitchen scissors because that’s all we had — because we couldn’t take him to Denise, who came to our house for your first haircut?
What made you most scared? What helped soothe you most?
What did you learn about reassuring children, without lying to them?
Did I ever say anything that, remembering it now, you feel: “That didn’t help me prepare for this”?
Did I live or buy things or relate to our neighbours in a way that now makes you feel, “That didn’t really model the skills I need now”?
How did this influence your thinking about the climate?
Did this make you want to have your own children more, or less, or about the same?
Most Yoga Teachers are Not Online Producers. They Have a Deeper Gift, and Now Is the Time to Trust It.
Actually, some yoga teachers are online producers. They have highly developed business models and an easy familiarity with outrageously expensive and complex technology. They have seamless integration between video production and distribution through nerdy tools like “affiliate networks” that allow them to “blitzscale”. Their in-person events and conferences are really advertising gigs for their online products. They pull off a near-mystical blend of personae: equal parts tech-bro, boss-babe, and yogalebrity.
Does this sound like you? Nah, I didn’t think so.
Next questions: Does it sound like a landscape you want to compete in? Do you want to take up space there? Is there another option when you’re forced online?
This blog is an expansion on some thoughts I first discussed and developed privately with Theodora Wildcroft about ten days ago, and then publicly with Jivana Heyman in a webversation we did yesterday that I’ll embed below. I’ll also say that this is a very new idea but that I feel it’s worth initiating broader conversation about sooner rather than later, given how quickly things have changed. I’ll be happy to hear your thoughts, feedback, and objections.
About twelve days ago my Facebook feed filled up with dozens of independent teachers and studio owners teaching yoga classes from their living rooms with anywhere from 2 to 8 viewers and lonely little Venmo links in the comments. I had a number of itchy, conflicting feelings:
This makes sense.
The dedication is moving.
Everyone wants to serve and connect, and survive.
I’m worried this isn’t sustainable.
I wonder if these folks are aware of what they’re competing against.
I’m afraid it won’t work out well to try to occupy space with Omstars or Yogaglo or Alo Moves.
So here’s what Theo said to me (I paraphrase):
Streaming yoga classes have been available on the cheap since 2009. The world already has more demonstration videos than anyone can even use. Most of them are free or cost a pittance. We’ve got to figure out why people have still been coming to studios and classes at all, and offer that.
(2009 was the year Yogaglo was founded. And the platforms have only gotten slicker, and more competitive.)
So I sat down to think of the reasons that people have chosen to attend studios despite online instruction becoming ubiquitous and virtually free.
Here’s an incomplete list:
- They enjoy the scheduled trip out of the home or on the way to work dedicated to self-care.
- They enjoy the body-buzz of the room: they’re inspired by others moving beside and around them.
- They want hands-on help from the instructor.
- They enjoy the togetherness, and sometimes find common cause beyond the mat.
- They want direct communication with, feedback from, and attunement with the instructor.
Let’s call these the IRL values. What’s not on this list is the visual demonstration/ performance of postures. The streaming formats have that locked up.
Physical distancing means that among the IRL values listed, #1-4 are off the table, perhaps indefinitely.
Let me pause here, and articulate two caveats about what follows.
- There are IRL yoga businesses that have developed online content over the past decade that is not fairly characterized by the tech-bro / boss-babe / yogalebrity stereotype above. I know several studios that have produced excellent online work that has served to support rather than overshadow or replace their IRL values. They may be better set up to shift into virtual studio mode at the present moment, but I fear the economy will be cruel to them as well, especially if they expect the virtual to subsidize the shuttered real.
- IRL value #4 is off the table as far as the mainstream yoga economy goes. But I also know that there are communities of marginalized practitioners for whom gathering together is a survival need, and this need will likely outlast what is to come. For these populations, #4 is better stated as “They require togetherness“.
Okay, moving on:
If the UK’s Imperial College is correct about distancing likely needing to last for 18 months in most parts of the world, and if poor old Dr. Fauci is correct that COVID-19 will have cyclical surges until a vaccine is found, most of the brick-and-mortar spaces that provide IRL values may well be finished. I’ve owned two studios, organized festivals, and taught in YTT programmes for more than a decade. I know dozens of studio owners, and can think of only one who might have the resources — which come from outside the yoga industry — to ride out this stoppage.
Thus: I believe it’s naïve to think about this condition as temporary, and about the online space as a “holding tank” for a brick-and-mortar business that will just pick up where it left off.
Let’s say that those of use who have survived are all free and clear and vaccinated in 18 months. How long will it take for the public to resume feeling comfortable in embodiment spaces? How long will it take for former yoga consumers to have the same level of disposable income? And will they spend it on class passes? Will they spend it on cardio training to rehabilitate damaged lungs? Will they use it build up their community gardens or learn new survival skills? Will the yoga consumer of 2021 need more yoga classes, or have we given them enough since the 1980s? Let’s remember that we’re not just talking about an 18-month stoppage: we’re talking about 18 months of people getting super-interested in other things, by necessity.
If I’m right about the impacts of an 18-month stoppage, we may be looking at a near-total collapse in the private-sector industry — or at a paradigm shift away from its basic group-class model. Which brings me back to the list:
To my eye, the IRL values that can be sustainably approximated in online / streaming / webinar formats are expressed in #5. Communication, feedback, and attunement are NOT on offer from existing streaming services — and certainly not from celebrities. (Levels of attunement are likely inversely proportional to the celebrity of the teacher.)
But #5 is exactly what independent teachers and studio owners seeking to maintain connection with their long-term students and communities can actually provide. For a while it may seem as though a certain portion of your business is willing to play Simon Says on Zoom along with you, but stripped of the IRL values that Zoom in the long term cannot provide, I can’t see how this will last.
It certainly won’t last if independent teachers and studios post rates comparable to their pre-pandemic drop-in standard. I’ve seen folks ask for $10-15 for each class, which I feel in my bones isn’t going to fly long-term — again, given the dirt-cheap rates of the yoga video mills, plus the fact that the majority of the clientele are also seeing their income in free-fall.
Most of the major yoga media platforms have free trial periods. New or existing students could even skip the countless YouTube classes and be on commercial-free platforms for months, at no cost. And check out these screencaps from Googling “online yoga” just this morning:
QED: the tolerance for paying for online classes is already low. In a tanked economy, it will sink lower.
Don’t get me wrong — I think the impulse to ask for $10-15 is on point, because the premise is that the teacher is offering IRL values. But for that to be true, the focus has to be on #5.
So: what does #5 look like, in practical terms, for the non tech-bro, non boss-babe, non yogalebrity teacher now having anxiety rise as they try to learn Zoom?
I think it looks like a brief, conversation-based private lesson. Equal parts check-in, instruction, and homework assignment. The vibe is encouraging and empathetic. The limits are clear: it’s instructional, but it’s not therapy. The timing and finances are set by mutual agreement, just like any other private appointment.
The scope of practice issue here is crucial. I’ve spent a good amount of the past five years analyzing and theorizing and consulting on the issue of the yoga teacher’s scope of practice. My basic argument has been that the absence of a SOP in the profession is closely tied with rates of charismatic overreach, as well as physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuse. As I’ve done that work, people have often said: “But the vast majority of yoga teachers are kind and ethical people,” and my response has been “Okay, I’m not talking about that, but I agree with you, and also think we can improve things further.” But in this situation I feel it’s appropriate to be sensitive to the costs of gatekeeping, lean into the general-goodness theory, and have faith that on the whole, yoga teachers with whom this blog resonates will understand clearly how not to cross over into unqualified territory.
As I see it, here are two key advantages of the online private lesson:
- The timing is flexible. I’ve seen a lot of colleagues try to guess about when they should be running their new virtual classes. It seems to be an impossible calculus, because so many people are now at home with their children, and those schedules aren’t going to settle down for months. It’s a lot easier to block off a specific half-hour in a week than to pencil in a virtual class that you can bail on at any time.
- The finances can be individually negotiated. People are falling apart financially, but it’s unevenly distributed. I don’t believe that we can establish a stable market value for an online class at this point. However: the individual student who knows their daily and weekly needs and resources can definitely make a decision about how much a 30-minute meeting is worth vs. what they can afford. It might be $5, it might be $50. I’m betting that by the time we get to 6 months, most of us will accept the fact that beggars can’t be choosers. In a broader sense: negotiating the value of each exchange is a step, however small, towards anti-capitalism.
With regard to time vs. money: a participant in my webservation with Jivana asked, astutely:
“How many teachers have the time to give 20 individual classes right now rather than one class on Zoom for all 20??”
I don’t know the answer to that question, but I believe the time/money calculus will become clearer as people monitor their income from those Zoom classes over the next month. My prediction is that the numbers will inevitably decline, because a) the Zoom format will feel flatter and less communicative over time (visual media retention requires increasing visual complexity) and b) the money won’t be competitive. Also: it will be far harder for the virtual studio to attract new students. The question is: why not act upon the clear IRL value #5 sooner, while you have existing connections, rather than later, as they start to fray?
There’s a broader theme here, and some supportive history.
The rush to digitalize the brick-and-mortar studio is bringing up a lot of anxiety. I think it’s important to tune into that. Because beneath the tech issues and financial terrors, I’m betting that something else is coming into focus:
Yoga has always been degraded by visual media, and we can feel this in our bodies. I believe this tunes us in to something we’ve known all along: that the entire modern movement has constellated around a paradox:
Yoga is an internal, personal practice. Look! Here are some pictures and demonstrations of other people doing it for you to imitate.
Is cultural appropriation a problem? Yes. Commercialization? Yes. But at a more primal, embodied, cross-cultural level, the modern yoga movement — for a century now — has nurtured a schizoid split between presence and performance.
The most obvious example of this is reported on by BKS Iyengar himself — perhaps the most-photographed yoga person of the pre-Instagram era. The hundreds of plates in Light on Yoga were photographed in such a compressed period of time that he had to be hospitalized for weeks after. What that means is that the best-selling yoga photo-manual in the world, which is chock-full of claims of medical benefits, is actually the visual record of a man entering a health crisis. He’s literally sickened by his performance of wellness. He both established an artform and set the tone for its most unsettling outcomes.
There’s something fundamentally off about this very old problem. And the rush to go online may only rub salt in this wound.
It’s no-one’s fault. It is a collision of culture, technology, and globalization. But right now, in the space of a few weeks, our world has become very small and intimate. As we wash our hands, things become very tactile. We cannot be globalized in the same way. The age of spiritual junkets to Pune and Mysore might be over for good. We can’t afford to use technology uncritically, and this means we might be able to re-invest in a culture that values presence over performance.
We can let the tech bros, boss babes, and yogalebrities keep their share of the performance market. If we do, we might connect with something older in yoga history.
So far as we know, yoga instruction in the premodern period featured no group classes, no visual aids, no physical adjustments, and no physical demonstrations. As Jim Mallinson told me about learning hatha yoga from his late guru Balyogi Sri Ram Balak Das: the instruction was all oral. Jim was told, in conversation, about a series of postures, and encouraged to practice on his own. There was no need for “alignment”. There were no mirrors, no selfies. No need to make sure it looked right. There was only simple instruction, encouragement, and faith.
Now that’s a process that can easily migrate to Zoom, with no special equipment — or persona — required.
P.S.: Here’s my online plug. The last session of 6 Critical Problems in Modern Yoga and How to Work With Them runs this afternoon. The topic today is: “How and why to practice in the shadow of climate crisis, or during COVID-19 chaos…plus. a Bhagavad Gita thought experiment”. You can join at any time. If you need tuition relief, we can work that out by email.
New series starts May 1. “Cult Dynamics in Yoga and Buddhism: Recognition, Recovery, Resilience“. Also negotiable tuition.
Somatic Dominance: Climate Collapse & The Spectre Of Cultic Yearnings | convo with Patrick Farnsworth
I had the deep pleasure of speaking with Patrick Farnsworth, whose excellent podcast “Last Born in the Wilderness” has enriched my life over the past year. Here’s the episode. Lightly edited transcript below (minus intro/outro). You can support Patrick’s freelance work here.
So you were making all these connections I hadn’t made. I’m just starting to understand that these types of things that you’re discussing, while they make sense within the context of yoga, but you’re trying to bridge these different subjects together. You’re trying to make it more understandable and approachable for people that are outside of yoga. This isn’t just a phenomenon within yoga itself. But we can learn a lot from what you’ve at least explored in your research and in your particular experiences within this world.
Thank you for that. And it’s heartening to know because I think that is a bridge that I’m starting to try to build. I think that experience in history is showing within modern yoga and Buddhist groups that when we have aspirational communities, especially fronted by charismatic leaders in uncertain discourses or uncertain times, that the potential for cultic dynamics to emerge is really, really strong. And so as I see social power gathering in certain sectors of eco activism I’m concerned, about some of those behaviors began to develop as well. And I think that the last 50 years of spiritual seeking in a globalized modern sense has a lot to offer to eco activism, especially if we view it through a critical lens. So yeah, I’m really happy that you’re glomming onto that connection. And I hope we can unfold it.
Yeah. And I think just to make this note before we delve into your work more specifically in your journey, which I think is really interesting but just to make this connection for people, because for a long time, I just want to say this, is that when people become aware of these crises, the global climate crisis, for instance, it comes originally I think as a very data-driven thing. It’s like this is the data. This is the information, the science that surrounds it. More and more I’m at a point in my work at least where I’m still covering that and talking about that. And it’s important to keep up with that. But the ways in which people on a mass scale — we live within mass societies — and we have to acknowledge the ways in which large scale societies are going to react to these crises in real time. And so it’s really crazy when you really think about how there are people who have this agenda. You know. It’s about creating really unhealthy toxic environments that are really about their own, I guess, their own ego and their own, you know what I mean? Like really toxic behaviors, you can even say toxic masculinity in many cases. It is so strange to me because when we think of yoga, we think of this peaceful, loving, self affirming environment where people are there to better themselves, right? And something quite the opposite to happen in those environments often. And I find that really interesting. And so for me, what I want to say here is when it comes to my work and my end of it, with exploring the edges of this time we’re in, I really want people to be psychologically, emotionally, spiritually prepared for what human beings are going to do in this time. And it’s not something we can be adequately prepared for in any real sense. But when it comes to building communities and forms of resilience, um, we really have to be wary and be on the lookout for these signs of culting behaviors, cult-like environments, more and more. Yeah.
Right. One bridge between global yoga and Buddhist communities, because I also study Buddhist communities and I was part of a Buddhist cult from 96 to about 2000, — part of the premise of that content, that discourse is the notion of waking up to something and as you describe with regard to collapsology, there is a waking up that takes place in the form of education and there’s a waking up that takes place in the form of psychological realization or existential maturity. I think that, you know, the interview that you did with Dahr Jamail and Barbara Cecil expresses that kind of turning point where we have this polymathically skilled journalist and world traveler who is able to say, enough data has been produced and now I’m waking up to something deeper and that turn from living in the sort of rational, descriptive world of the facts that are happening on the ground to what does this mean on an existential level is something that, that particular turn has been the commodity of modern yoga and global Buddhism over the last 50 years.
The same language has been used to describe, you know, waking up from conventionality or waking up from your bourgeois Potemkin village life or waking up from normalcy. And so there’s a real overlap. It’s almost as if you know, new age spirituality, going back to the Human Potential Movement has primed this discourse of waking up to something. And so there’s a lot of lessons to be learned from how communities have, quote unquote, woken up to the nature of reality or to the need for compassion or to the thin veneer of superficiality that neo-liberalism provides, to waking up to, Oh my God, the world is actually dying. There’s a bridge there. There’s a similarity in discourse that we can learn a lot from because as Buddhist and yoga communities have marshaled that language and have talked about waking up and have theorized about what it means or tried to, you know, design societies around its principles… they’ve done some good things and a lot of bad things. And ecological movements can learn a lot from that.
I completely agree with you on that. Yeah it’s interesting cause I think there’s a lot of for me this queasiness or wariness of this language around being woke or being awake, which I know that in yoga and Eastern spiritual traditions and Buddhism, that’s kind of the premise: enlightenment. You know, you can achieve some sort of enlightenment. And I think the way it can be presented to the West is it is a commodifiable thing. It’s something you can go to retreat in Maui and you can attain something like that, you know, by spending six weeks with some guru or whatever. It’s always been a bit perplexing to me because I don’t think, there aren’t the connections made that I think that need to be made when it comes to the fact that you feel like you have to go to this, this Island that was colonized by Americans, you know, and you go there to have this little spiritual retreat. I don’t think those connections are often made by those that are participating in it. It’s like the materiality, the material conditions that we’re a part of are not really addressed. And to me, it kind of reinforces this idea, this false dichotomy between the split between spirit and matter. Maybe you could speak to that a bit, but this idea that what’s happening in the world isn’t really, that’s not gonna, that’s not gonna liberate you. You have to be liberated through your own will to wake up and be enlightened and to detach yourself from everything that’s happening around you to elevate yourself above it and…
Yeah and yet, and yet it will take material, resources and, and those will have consequences. But somehow, I mean the thing about the thing about the last 50 years of global Buddhism and yoga is that it in some ways, it’s provided a way for the neoliberal vision of freedom through consumerism to be spiritualized so that you know, you can convince yourself that you need to go to Costa Rica to find yourself. And if you, and if and if you drink fair trade coffee, but you also soak in the heat and the humidity of the jungle, that there will be some internal transformation that will create a new self that will then radiate back out into your urbanized, global, North environment and will change everything for the better. Like that’s the sort of subtext. I think it was about five years ago that I first had a conversation with this independent researcher named Brian Francis Culkin who researches gentrification in specific locations, especially Boston. We started talking about like, how did the modern yoga studio emerge? Like how did it, how did it come to be? And he pointed out that the yoga studio in the modern urban, global North setting only really comes into existence through the process of gentrification. In fact, it’s often on the leading edge of gentrification.
Naomi Klein in No Logo opens, in the first few pages she talks about one of the first major yoga studios in Toronto actually being established in the beautiful old warehouse space that used to be the home of a garment manufacturer in the garment district in Toronto. That was available for lease because free trade agreements in the mid-nineties sent all of those manufacturing jobs to Vietnam. Suddenly in global North spaces, we have these gorgeous brick buildings with hardwood floors and white walls and they’re empty of all of their machinery and nobody’s making anything in them anymore. And so people moved into them and begin these practices that are about remaking the self, right? And they’re usually wearing the yoga clothes that are made by the people whose labor got outsourced in Vietnam, who couldn’t possibly afford to go to those yoga classes.
This key thing that, that Culkin really helped me understand is that like the modern yoga space is exists because of paradigmatic changes in labor and the meaning of the body, in globalization through the ascendancy of technology and finance, and through the transformation of the urban landscape into the monotone of gentrification. And what’s amazing about that passage in No Logo is that like, I know the people who founded that yoga studio in 1996 in Toronto, like they’re my friends and their lease only lasted for a few years and guess who moved in afterwards? A dot-com company who could afford the latest rent. And so where did the yoga studio go? It went out West on Queen Street, farther out to the leading edge of gentrification at that point, and now it’s running out to the end of its lease. So anyway, yoga studios have like five year leases and then they have to move out to the leading edge of wherever the city is continuing to gentrify.
But the upshot of this is that what yoga practitioners don’t realize is that they’re participating in the kind of embodied neo-liberalization of the actual city and then they’re participating in this practice, and especially if they professionalize into it, they’re kind of participating in a way of making all of the aspects of new liberal economy — the fact that it works on flex time, the fact that it’s gig economy, the fact that it’s all about self motivation and self responsibility — all of these themes are embedded into this practice by which you’re supposed to take care of yourself and seek your own betterment, make yourself healthy, you know, become a better citizen. If you’re a woman, you’re supposed to be wear even more hats and be a feminist at the same time while you’re leaning into your postures and making more green shakes.
And so there’s all of this, all of these demands placed upon the person who basically is creating no product, but the aspirational self. And then yoga discourse and Buddhist discourse gives a kind of spiritual aspect to that. When those themes started to come together together about five years ago, I started to develop this political economy, analysis of the body and modern yoga as being— what is the person actually bowing down in front of? It’s not nature anymore. It’s not tradition particularly. It’s a kind of manufactured sense of individual freedom that is at the heart of the neoliberal project. That’s not all that’s going on. That sounds terribly cynical, but I mean that’s a big part of the story. That’s why the yoga world has exploded at the same time that we’ve seen this proliferation of the effects of globalization.
Well you make this point in the video, I did see of you talking about this subject to some in some depth, but you were saying as we see the neoliberal project really take off globally, that’s when we start seeing global carbon emissions rise. Global climate change is really taking off — that’s exactly when the global yoga popularity phenomenon really started to take off. They’re tied together.
And nobody really thinks about the fact that the global yoga economy booms in relationship to cheapening air travel and deregulated credit. All of the yoga communities that I have known and been involved in, especially those that develop into high demand groups — they’re all, everybody is overspending on their credit cards. Everybody is flying to this retreat and that retreat and accumulating trainings so that they can become even more self-actualized. The tie-ins are pretty, clear. And I think Brian said, you know, yoga is the de-facto spirituality of neoliberalism. It demands that people be flexible and receptive. It demands that people lean in, it demands that people become more self responsible. And I think particularly for an 80% female practice population that has like real grave implications for whether or not yoga is actually feminist.
That’s a great point. I never thought of it that way. I mean, drawing that connection there. Absolutely. So, you know, this is something I’ve also explored with psychedelics because that’s kind of my little foray in my personal life into spirituality or whatnot since leaving my, you know, religion that I grew up with behind as a teenager. But, you know, having my first psychedelic experiences, I just sort of took for granted that — let me just say this, with yoga obviously if done in the right way, the right context, it’s just like any sort of physical activity or spiritual practice if done properly. It’s really beneficial for the individual. And if done in a community context, it’s probably really good for the community as well. Right? And that’s what I think attracts people to it. They sense that, okay, this is obviously they feel better when they do it. It challenges them. There’s a lot of things going on. And the same thing for me with my psychedelic experiences.
So then I just took for granted that everything that was happening within the sort of growing popularity, again with psychedelics, that that was the case. But as I started to delve more deeply into it, the same phenomenon is happening with say, the ayuasca industry where you have people in the global North going down to Peru or other places in South and central America and engaging in this sort of theater that’s put on for them to sort of heal them of their very legitimate concerns about trauma. And obviously I think our population is pretty severely traumatized in general, right? So it makes sense why people are seeking it. But in a way it’s perpetuating things that have been going on for centuries, which is a form of colonialism. And it’s manifesting maybe as neo-liberalism or what have you, but, uh, people need to be conscious of this and have sort of political and social consciousness that I don’t think is often encouraged in these settings. There again it’s focusing so much on the individual self actualization, and is perpetuating this neoliberal ideal, uh, in the society and the people participating in it.
Let me just say that the parallel between the explosion in like ayuasca spirituality or the ayuasca economy and the global yoga economy, I think shares an aspect of the global North’s search for authenticity in the face of its rootless white settler status. And so one thing that I’ve become very aware of, not just through personal experience but through a lot of observation and research, is that the concept of looking for something authentic, close to nature, of-the-earth, from-a-location is like an obsession for people who feel, rootless and kind of erased from their location. People who grew up in subdivisions that look like the next subdivision or people who know that this Whole Foods has exactly the same stock as that Whole Foods. And when you don’t know where you are from and you have some maybe unconscious understanding that being from a place means that you can have some sort of reality or some sort of touchstone for actions that have integrity. Then global South becomes this sort of place where identity and rootedness and plant medicine and tradition can become very attractive to the point of fetishization.
You know, like this became super clear to me when, — I’m here in Montreal actually. I just finished, working in a training program here at a yoga school —and in this same city, maybe three or four years ago a person who has since become a friend of mine named Dexter, who’s Sri Lankan by background and is trying to like reconstitute the Buddhism that has been nurtured by his family lineage. Although, you know, they’re there in the diaspora and, and it’s hard to do that. It’s hard to figure out where that tradition is for the family now. They’re a super active political activist and agitator an ecological activist. And this is somebody I really, really admire, but there’s something about their connection with Indian wisdom culture that for me is kind of abstract still, even though I longed to be closer to it. Anyway, they were in this class three years ago and I’m at the front of the room and I’m supposed to be giving sort of like a learning outline for looking at this particular yoga text. And, they put up their hand and they say, you know, “What I want to understand better is why do you people,,” looking at me and around the room because the rest of the room was mostly white, “Why do people insist on playing with our old stuff? Why are you so interested in like playing with our old things?” And I said, “Oh, can you, can you say a little bit more about that?” Because I could feel myself start to sweat. And they said, well, you know, it’s like, “Don’t you have your own old things? Don’t you have your own culture, your own antiquities? I don’t even have access to my culture’s antiquities. Why do you have such an interest in them? I mean, aren’t they already in your museums?” And I’m like, Oh boy.
I realized at that moment that like having grown up Catholic, that for a large part of my teenage years, I was like fascinated in Catholic esotericism. I wanted to know everything that I could know about Hildegard of Bingen and the herbal blends that she made while she’s singing her heavenly songs and whatever. And like John of the Cross and I was so interested in that stuff. And then it just kind of all fell away because I was generally betrayed. I felt betrayed by the institution of the Catholic church and so it made me understand that when I am with my friend Dexter, like I know that they’re from somewhere, like I know that they have some thing, the culture of the identity is informed and shaped and like forever altered by oppression and colonialism, but they’re from somewhere. And I don’t feel like I’m from anywhere. And my attraction to Buddhism and yoga was in part about this, the emptiness of rootlessness that I think is part of the phenomenon of being white.
That adds another layer of weirdness to traveling down to the jungles of South America to find the shaman who’s going to administer ayauasca or traveling to South India so that I can stay in a Tibetan monastery for six weeks and try to learn something from somebody who comes from a totally, completely different experience of life than I do. But I want the realness of their experience. I want the locale, the connection to the earth. I want all of the things that they have and that paradoxically, my culture has stolen. And so it’s an amazing thing to contemplate, uh, and then to bear witness to its lives. It’s not like I can solve these things, but I can I can certainly stop being a consumer of them and start being a critic of my own participation.
I’m very sympathetic with this. We’re both white and we both are talking about this. And I think white people need to have this conversation in general because whiteness itself is a social construct. There’s a historical dimension to it that needs to be acknowledged and addressed and all of this. I’m sympathetic with because I feel it in myself that rootlessness you’re talking about that lack of… I don’t know where I’m from. I don’t know what traditions do I have to draw upon here? You mentioned people that are practicing whatever they’re practicing, they have at least something to draw on, even if it was, you know, through centuries of colonization and oppression and all the horrible things that come with these things. They, at least it seems to, to us that they have something like tangible that they can draw on. And for us it’s deeply, it’s just, it’s not there.
It’s not there because I think we want it to be everywhere. That’s not just the settler mindset and psychology, but it’s also the sort of casual imperialism that comes along with it. It’s like, Oh, I can go anywhere. How did I travel to India in 1997? Like, how did I do that? Who gave me the credit card? How was I able to be off work for that amount of time to be able to try to find myself in somebody else’s country? Part of privilege is its invisibleness to you, right, is that you don’t know how you got the opportunity to kind of walk around the world as though you owned it. And that comes with a price that you then sort of try to I think outsource onto other people At least in my case.
Yeah. I, I have a lot I could say about that. Maybe I’ll tell you about it after regarding something. But I do want to shift gears a bit just because I like, it’s so funny…
We got to talk about cults, right?
Exactly. Yeah. We got to get into the nitty gritty here. It’s always how it goes though. It’s like once you get into the flow of it, I never want to disrupt that. That’s kind of the magic of doing these podcasts is like, okay, well here we are. This is, I’m not going to try to disrupt this flow at all. But I do really want to get into the culting what you’ve explored within these yoga communities. So there’s a few like terms I’m going to throw out and I really want to delve into them. So you talk about cultic dynamics, trauma bonding, another term that you use is somatic dominance. No, these are all different. They’re all connected of course. But you know, reading your work, I didn’t really get, cause when I think about going to a yoga class, got a group of people, they’re all, to me what just looked like really intense poses and stretches and you have a person there who’s the teacher, the instructor who’s guiding you through that. And it’s always, to me seemed very like very chill. It’s difficult, it’s hard. But nonetheless, people are there to try to better themselves and you sweat it out and that’s it. You, for me at least has revealed a whole world of, I wanted to say crazy, but that diminishes it. But this sense of like there’s a lot going on in yoga that I’m completely oblivious to.
So I want to say this first. This’ll be my first question for you. This maybe will frame it a little better. So we’ve talked about neoliberalism and the way in which yoga has exploded globally and all that ties into all the things that that ties into. But if you could make this really simple comparison. So yoga is a very old practice. I don’t know how old it is, but I assume it’s been around for a very, very long time. And if you could compare, say the way in which yoga is practiced in the modern context in the Western world versus what it may have been like to exist in its original context, the pre modern context and that way we can have a framework to work within and then from there, delve into the abuses and the, the power dynamics and all of that that come up in the modern context.
It’s a great place to start. So first of all, if we’re speaking in pre-modern terms or pre 20th century terms, we have to speak of a plurality of yogas and yoga traditions and streams of practice. In general terms, if people are practicing physical postures and breath work and meditation practices prior to the 20th century they’re doing so not in group class format, but in individually instructed, oral instructions, oral instruction transmission: “Here are six or seven poses for you to do. Go away and do them on your own and tell them, come back and tell me what you’ve learned about yourself.” The primary mechanism of learning within the pre 20th century period would have been interoception or, the practitioner’s internal capacity to feel sensations. The sensation of breath, the sensation of bodily orientation in a strange position or a novel position. The sensation of warmth during a breathing exercise. Internal sensations would have been the primary focus and the practices would have done it and been done primarily in isolation. And they would have been done gently. So one of the things that’s come to light in modern research into medieval Hatha yoga would be that the refrain in most of the texts is that the postures are to be performed sanaih, sanaih, or gently, gently. That’s a refrain in a bunch of key texts. And so this whole notion that yoga postures should be strenuous or people should be sweating really hard, or teachers should be climbing on them to prove the power of mind over body or something like that, that has nothing to do with anything prior to the 20th century.
With regard to adjustments or the notion that the teacher would touch the student that has no history prior to the 1930s, probably at all. Nothing whatsoever. There’s nothing traditional about it. What happens? Uh, it to change. All of that is a series of geopolitical, post-colonial and technological changes, that begin to globalize yoga, but according to a particular modern framework. What begins to happen that Indian innovators and modernizers who generally are anti-colonialists and making plans for a new nationalist culture, a new national, ethos — because independence comes in 1947 — begin to think of physical education and physical culture, especially as influenced by Europe, as a way to reinvigorate the Indian body politic. And what happens then is they don’t want to simply import the gymnastics from Sweden or the bodybuilding from Germany or the things that are quite popular actually at the time. They don’t just want to do what the YMCA is teaching in various Indian cities because weirdly, they’re there. So what they do is they look back into their own medieval history for you physical practices that have some relationship to Indian culture, to indigenous culture. And these postures begin to make their way into group class formats that also end up becoming demonstrative in the sense that many of the early Indian yoga teachers of this period — primarily Krishnamacharya, who ends up teaching Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar, who then go on to globalize the entire industry — he’s paid actually by his patron to promote yoga through demonstrations and performances to school boards, town councils, and city squares and stuff like that.
And at the same time, people begin taking photographs and as they take photographs, photography becomes the primary way in which yoga, the idea of yoga is communicated in a transcultural sense. Then we have this transition from the pre 20th century focus on internal bodily sensations to the 20th century, focus on what does the body look like in the posture. And in order to do that, or as that happens, all of these elaborate notions related to bodybuilding, related to gymnastics begin to evolve, that transform the yoga body into something that must perform a virtue through symmetry, through strength, through balance, through all of those sort of physical practices that are now the bread and butter of the industry.
That leads to what I call the landscape of somatic dominance, where the teacher is telling the student how exactly they must organize their bodies in space in order to be good, in order to be true, in order to be awake or enlightened. And then that domination becomes internalized in practitioners as well to the point where people begin trying very hard to perfect postures when these are, these are completely new ideas that have nothing to do with anything that yoga was about prior to the 20th century. And the somatic dominance also becomes explicit through training protocols that involve corporal punishment if there are children involved. And also other forms of physical discipline, including physical adjustments where teachers are manipulating students’ bodies deeper into postures that they can’t attain themselves. And that leads to injury. But it also provides cover for physical assault. And then in the worst cases it provides cover for sexual assault.
So that’s the book that I just published, about how Pattabhi Jois, who was a student of Krishnamacharya, comes out of this environment and then sexually assaults, his students pretty much every day of his working life for about 30 years. And how that’s enabled, covered over whitewashed. And that happens because of cult dynamics, which is the other thing that emerges in this modern period is that we go from very small groups of practitioners kind of learning about postures together to the entrepreneurial and charismatic model of leadership that we see in the modern yoga world.
Just to break this down a little bit, so I think, I don’t know if I said this at the actual beginning of the recording or before…. This is why I wanted to talk to you. I wanted to get this deeper understanding. So I think it’s become more commonly understood that sexual abuse and assault and just bodily violation or you know the violation of someone’s boundaries is far more common within yoga classes, then maybe people would even even…
It’s actually the norm.
It’s actually the norm. And that’s so upsetting, right? I mean, I can’t express how upsetting that really is and especially if you are a yoga practitioner like yourself. So this my question for you. So you’ve been doing this for a very long time. What I find more, almost more disturbing than the actual abuse that I’m seeing is the ways in which people rationalize gloss over, just completely excuse it. Because I see this in family dynamics where you have an abusive father, abusive whoever, and the family just sort of, well, we don’t want to cause any problems. Let’s just pretend it doesn’t exist. And we see that all kinds of group dynamics.
Or it goes farther than that. It goes, let’s pretend that it doesn’t exist. It can flip into well, actually these are signs of love.
Yeah, that’s incredibly disturbing.
And one of the cult researchers that I cite in my book and that I really appreciate as Janja Lalich who describes that particular flip in terms of… her phrase is “bounded choice” or “bounded reality” where the basic premise is that anything that the charismatic leader does is reinterpreted to be of benefit to them, to the group member or to the student or the client or whatever. So if they physically injure you, they’re teaching you something about your body, about the vulnerability of your body. If they sexually assault you, then they’re freeing your psychological hangups that have to do with sexual trauma. If they financially abuse you, then they are helping you get over the illusion that money is worth something. So there’s a number of ways. The ways of abuse rationalization or well-documented within the cult literature and they’re part of the M.O. of how groups like this end up working. I think I interrupted you.
No, I think I was just sort of pointing to… I think I was just saying something about the documentary that came out recently on Netflix about Bikram yoga. And it was interesting watching that because all the interviews they were doing with, with the women that were assaulted by him, and the other people that were there that knew what was going on, but they just, like you said, they rationalize it. They even see it as, Oh, he’s being loving. And how he is as you say, with the body posture corrections or, or touching the body, you know, when you’re writing, for instance, I read this where I think you mentioned an injury that you had where somebody pushed you into a pose more deeply and actually, you know, you injured your back. And you, I think you maybe even said that you rationalized the injury.
Absolutely. The premises of the implied consent space or those somatic dominance space is that the teacher has ownership over your body, but also mystical insight into what your body needs. And so you ostensibly abdicate agency and autonomy at the door. Like that’s the way it’s been over the last 50 years or so. I do want to make the point though, that that’s changing in the culture through some very powerful new social movements that are gaining some traction. Not enough and not fast enough, I don’t think. But, so I’ve had the personal experience of a senior teacher within the Iyengar world, which is kind of like the, I dunno, Harvard of yoga, without warning and without explaining why he was doing what he was doing, he torqued my spine in a very sort of sharp and acute fashion, to the point where there was a sound of Velcro ripping all the way up my spine. It happens so quickly and it’s so sharp and we can have paradoxical injury or pain responses, that give us mixed messages. So in my interviews with practitioners — as you know, I compiled my book and I’ve done other research projects — It’s not uncommon for the practitioner to say that it felt pleasurable to be assaulted in such a way that they would be flooded with adrenaline ori nternal opiates. What I remember is feeling this rush of warmth throughout me, as I fell to the floor actually. And my first thought was: I actually hope he comes back and does that to me on the other side.
And it was by reflecting on that, that I could really understand the capacity within those spaces for what’s known as trauma bonding, or the capacity of a victim of physical violence to actually feel neurologically that what’s better to do in a given circumstance spontaneously is to seek more care from the abuser, or to fawn in front of them or to immediately believe, because the cognitive dissonance is so radical, that what they’ve done is actually loving instead of dangerous or violating. So yeah, that’s a very clear personal experience for me. And I think it’s replicated in many of the elite environments of yoga practice all over the world, especially amongst those who professionalize into the industry because they have to do like really hard trainings with very charismatic people.
But let me turn to why does this person have power in the room? Because that’s where we get closer to the pervasion of cultic dynamics in yoga and Buddhist communities. And I think it’s super important for people who are doing ecological activism to start looking at this carefully. Because in the yoga and Buddhist worlds, there are no scopes of practice. There are no codes of informed consent for why people teach certain things or why teachers suggest interventions for students. There are no regulatory agencies. There are no tests for competency. And so in unregulated environments, the only thing that has real currency is charisma. The only thing that allows a figure, usually a male figure in the yoga and Buddhist worlds to rise to some kind of prominence is the social phenomenon of charisma. And this is not a personal quality of the individual. Uh, it is a social phenomenon. It’s a way in which people respond to a particular kind of activity within a bound group.
And so what I hope my particular study of charismatic leadership and the cultic dynamics that surrounded in the yoga and Buddhist worlds is helpful for as we move deeper into collapse awareness is that we’ll be able to see that in the field of climate crisis discourse, the same kind of landscape applies. There is no sort of measurement for competency. You can’t get a degree in, in collapsology where, where you have peer-reviewed support. There are no regulatory agencies that give you permission to talk about collapsology in a legitimate or a safe way. And if somebody begins to lead a social movement in eco activism that you know, has ethical issues or becomes abusive of its membership, where’s the accountability going to be? It’s kind of like a wide open field, a wild-West field. And I hope that some understanding of what’s happening in a similar field — which is also about waking up to reality, which is also about self regulation, which is also about apparently trying to form healthy communities — I hope that data from that experience over the last 50 years will be useful here because what I see emerging in the movements that I think you and I are like very interested in and that we’re proximal to is we’re seeing the rise of charismatic figures. I’m not saying they have negative intentions. I’m not saying that I distrust any of them, but I am saying that we’ve got to be aware of the power of the charismatic phenomenon in leadership situations. And we have to be aware of how cultic dynamics function so that we don’t tear each other apart as we try to actually, you know, come closer together in community at the end of the world.
That is absolutely what I wanted to draw on in this discussion with you because I see it happening in small ways, I suppose, or an isolated cases. Like you say, there are charismatic figures. I’m not going to name particular people. It’s not really useful. But the point of that is just to say that it’s a couple of things I can see happening here. Within these doomer communities and groups, there’s a lot of amazing support groups, people that are just trying to help process the unfolding process of accepting and coming to terms with what’s happening and what the implications are for the future and all of that. But it’s become really interesting to me. I’ve been really reflecting on this more and more in my life. I grew up in a religious environment in which the apocalypse was a very real thing that within my lifetime, Jesus Christ will come back, the second coming is happening, the anti antichrist will be coming within my lifetime. All of these things, right? I was from a very young age, told this and then.
I did not know that Patrick, I’m sorry.
No, it’s okay. No, it’s just, it’s fine. It’s something that’s incredibly common and I think in the United States, there’s a lot of that happening in general. But what I thought was interesting is that, you know, that was really deeply imprinted in me. So I wonder how much of my interest in the apocalypse is tied to this religion.
Now you just mentioned that you’re not comfortable naming names, but if you’re comfortable with me talking about a particular figure, I’d like to do so, not in a way that like impugns them, but I think it’s really good to have concrete examples. So I’m going to talk about Roger Hallam for a moment who I’ve never met, but who has risen to a kind of prominence within Extinction Rebellion. And here’s what I’ve noticed: he is incredibly compelling for me to listen to. I could listen to him all day. I mean, I’m not sure about that, now. There was a time where I was like: I want to listen. I want to listen to this guy speak. I want to be inspired by his gritty, existentialist realism. I want to soak up his Welsh-green-thumb-organic-farming wisdom, right? Like, I want all of this. I want all of this stuff. And I know because I’ve been in many different groups, that the power of that capacity for articulation and to inspire people is at the heart of why people gather.
Now, here’s the thing, is that when I step back a little bit and I look at the three demands of XR: Tell the truth: that governments have got to declare climate crises, that we have to commit to net zero carbon by 2025, and that we’re going to put citizen assemblies in place in order to make all decisions and depoliticize, this apolitical issue. Um, so great. At first I go, Oh, they actually have a plan, right? Or they actually have a series of policies. But then when you go and dig a little bit deeper and you look at the first principle of “tell the truth”, and then you start looking at how the group has mobilized the research of Chenoweth in a way that’s inaccurate…. In a way that applies an argument about civil disobedience in the overthrow of oppressive regimes and tries to apply it to liberal democracies, for getting people to vote differently or something like that. And you realize that that doesn’t work. And then you realize that the second premise, that we have to get people, we have to get governments to go net zero by 2025 just ain’t gonna happen. Like it’s just not anywhere close to being reasonable to believe that that’s going to happen. And as an aspirational demand it’s okay.
But here’s the thing: how many young people are super-gluing their hands to train rails or whatever in the belief that the Chenoweth research is validly applied in this discourse, and in the belief that it will be possible for net zero to be achieved by 2025. If young people are stirred by charisma to make unreasonable or uninformed choices, we have the beginnings of cultic dynamics. Because what happens is that people are actually deceived by what’s going on. They may not understand that the demands are aspirational. They may not understand that the decision-making process of XR is not transparent. They may not understand that they’re not actually engaging in a community dialogue in which everybody has their cards on the table.
Whenever I’m in an XR environment, and I have a question about policy that I ask, what invariably happens is that the group leader will say, “I can communicate with you about that privately.” I’ve had that answer over and over and over again. And that’s a red flag for me because, because cultic dynamics emerged in secret. They emerge when the membership doesn’t know what the leadership is doing. Does anybody really understand how “holocracy” works or how the decision-making process of XR is actually being deployed? I haven’t met anybody who’s given me an explanation for that and I’ve asked a lot of questions. And so what we have to understand about cultic dynamics — and I’m not saying XR is a cult, I’m saying that these dynamics can begin to emerge where there’s a lot of social charge around a particular issue and where there’s charismatic leadership — cultic dynamics begin to emerge when people do things because they’re deceived.
Do you really need to tell the 19 year old person to get arrested while chanting “We love the police?” While they’re being kettled or while they’re being deprived of their wheelchairs or while they’re not being allowed to go to the bathroom. To what extent do we have middle-aged charismatic figures telling young people to sacrifice themselves on dubious pretences. Also when the money is not transparent — like everything that XR does is, is crowdfunded, right? — I actually appreciate a lot of this movement, but I just want to communicate to the listeners that when you don’t feel that a group is being transparent with you and when there is charismatic leadership at play, follow your instincts and ask really good questions. And if you don’t get answers, then there’s something fishy going on. And if there’s something fishy going on, there might, there’s probably manipulation. And people are probably ending up committing to things that then produce sunken costs, cognitive dissonance, and then they don’t feel like they can back out of. And the three gateways for cultic analysis or standards for assessing cultic dynamics would be deception as to what the group is doing and what the leaders actually want, dependence that people have upon the group, whether it’s emotional, financial, psychological or whatever, and then a dread of leaving. Like, what would you give up if you left? So I hope that that cult analysis language is destigmatized enough through conversations like this that we can honestly look at the health of our communities as we form them in resistance, in the quest to nurture resilience.
I feel like my comment about my own personal history with this, I just want to clarify something really quickly, which is just this: I really want people to acknowledge something about the climate crisis and the existential despair dread that comes with it, that it actually can produce something like, it sounds very strange, but a religious experience. And that’s something that I wanted to just acknowledge. And so particularly with the climate crisis, it’s absolutely real. I’m not discrediting, I’m saying, you know, I’ve made my opinions and my thoughts on it very clear. But I do want to acknowledge that I do get the sense from people that this is like a truly an apocalyptic in the religious sense subject for many people. Um, whether or not you’re like a God fearing person or whatever. It’s not about that particular side of the religious experience.
But it does say something about our general view of human beings and human nature. And I think that our view of human nature can often be so skewed as to make room for what you mentioned there with Extinction Rebellion or other people and other groups that can make space a certain kind of politics, a certain kind of group dynamics, power dynamics that if not adequately addressed, and like you said, having more of this, normalizing the language around cult dynamics, culting behaviors, then we could actually identify it and we can speak out against it and we can then do what we can as activists as those that are conscious of this to steer people away from very abusive group dynamics that don’t really get us anywhere except to just confuse and I guess maybe lead to some sort of abuse as well within these these contexts. It’s something I’m very much on alert now because I think we are shifting right now. I could say that, you’re aware of the data. I feel like we have crossed very specific tipping points just in the past year or two. So I think we’re heading into a state here in the next several years of accelerating change and we don’t know what that’s going to look like or feel like exactly. But we can certainly make an assessment that it’s probably not going to be good for certain.
I just want to honour the fact that you’re transparent about this tendency, within yourself, but also in the general discourse that climate collapsology proposes a kind of spiritual doorway for people. And that’s super important to understand because, I acknowledge that too, it means that for me as well, like it changes everything about my life yet again. And at the same time, I know that once people walk through that doorway, they are in a sociology that has vulnerabilities attached to it, and we’ve got to be really aware of what kind of discourse we’re moving out of and then into.
So one example that is really interesting for me in terms of this transition from a data-driven discussion to a psychologically drip driven discussion is watching what’s happening with Positive Deep Adaptation, and the group inspired by the work of Jem Bendell. So he releases this paper. It’s been downloaded half a million times. I’ve never met him, but that is a charismatic event. He becomes a charismatic figure now suddenly, or at least very quickly. The implications of that paper provoke intense… that’s what the paper is about too. It’s like: I’m familiar with data and I’m an academic and I think that we’ve got to make a transition as data crunchers to this emotional reality that our rational appraisal of things has almost suppressed. And so that’s embedded in the paper. And then people have those responses to the paper as well. And then suddenly he’s catapulted into this position in which it’s almost expected that he’s supposed to provide some sort of psychological wisdom for people. And then he starts doing interviews where like he’s talking to Joanna Macy and they’re talking about feelings and spirituality and how to cope.
And what I’m seeing is that certain climate figures are becoming spiritual leaders. And that might be appropriate. There might be no other way for it to happen. But what I want to say from my experience in the yoga and Buddhism worlds is that when you move into a kind of spiritual leadership, there’s all kinds of things that you want to be aware of because it’s a really vulnerable environment. And the first thing to be aware of is like, what’s your scope of practice? Like what’s your actual expertise? You know, if you’re going to start talking about psychology or psychotherapy or Buddhism in an online format that’s very performative because there’s 50,000 people watching you, what kind of training do you need to do that in a safe way? How are you going to manage aspects of your charisma?
Like, this is something that I want to talk more to Dahr Jamail about because as soon as he starts getting into what he got into with the interview that you did with him, I’m like: people are gonna flock to you, dude. As a kind of sage and I think you’ve earned it. Like, that’s my impression so far. I think you’ve earned it, but I don’t know if there’s anything in your background or your education that’s gonna provide you with, that’s going to prepare you for the amount of bullshit that gets sent your way and the amount of transference and the feelings that that’s going to produce. And whether or not that’s going to be gratifying to you in ways you’re unconscious to.
It’s like: there’s nothing I love more than listening to how he has oriented his life and how his story is going. I’ve never met him in person, but I love this guy and I can imagine that so many other people do as well. And that’s something that I hope he really gets support with because when a lot of people start loving you, weird shit happens. And so, I hope that all of these people, I hope that all of these people get reach out and get support from psychotherapists and people who know, understand group and cultic dynamics and start educating themselves on how do you diffuse that stuff because it’s going to be super important.
You know, the rules would be: Don’t ever speak out of your expertise, ever. Do not speculate. Never ever come close to doing anything that’s deceptive. Make sure your money is completely transparent. If you’re going to sell something, you know, be very clear about why you’re selling something. If you’re going to start leading group classes in something or hosting, talking circles or something like that. Be aware that people train in doing group therapy for years before they’re allowed to do it legally. This stuff isn’t a joke. And then there’s a whole bunch of like really earnest people who are moving into this kind of spiritual territory. And I’m here to tell you that fucking landscape is a mess. And it has been, and it has been over the last 50 years, so I don’t think it needs to continue that way, but, but we can certainly learn a lot, that’s for sure.
I was just smiling and laughing about Dahr in particular. I know him pretty well at this point. So I will say, he’s the one, for instance, I mentioned my interview with Milton Bennett. He’s the one that hooked me up with that guy about culting in particular because Dahr is very conscious of this. And doing his own work in journalism for as long as he has and seeing just this whole spectrum of human nature, the human condition — I’ll speak confidently as his friend that he’s very much in tune with what you’re saying. I hope he listens to this episode and appreciates what we’re saying right now because he and I have had numerous conversations about this very thing.
He is such a great example of the power of integrity becoming potentially becoming a charismatic phenomenon. It’s just like, here’s a guy, he speaks in full paragraphs, right? Broad, beautiful, you know, late-Texan accent that’s been like burnished by all his world travels. And so there’s something super compelling about listening to the guy and that is power, and power makes for responsibility. And so, I’m really happy to hear that he’s tuned into that and not surprised too cause like, you know, he’s super smart.
That’s the thing, right? And that’s the real challenge that I would pose on an individual level to those in these positions that they kind of get thrust into. It’s of course a combination of personal decisions they make to get there, but it’s also thrust upon them and it’s absolutely imperative that it’s your sacred responsibility to not fuck over people in their vulnerabilities, in their most vulnerable space. Like nothing is more reprehensible to me and more disgusting, then when I hear about these yoga practitioners you mentioned taking advantage of women in particular, but human beings in a very general sense in their most vulnerable spaces, literally the most vulnerable physical position they could be in.
Understanding trauma on a certain level, it really deeply, it’s repulsive and even makes me feel almost violent in my reaction to it because it’s really the worst thing a person can do. It’s one thing to be able to work with somebody and be abusive on almost a level playing field, if that makes sense. Like you’re you and I’m me and I’m going to be abusive. It’s another thing when you take advantage of people in these very vulnerable spaces, which is what these people do. And so I think, just to tie this into the climate crisis and the very vulnerable spaces that people are entering into, if you are a person that is engaging with this material on a spiritual level, on a scientific level, however you’re doing it I or anybody in my work that I respect, if we sense that you’re a snake oil salesman or that you’re trying to take advantage of people’s vulnerability, I promise you that we’ll call you out publicly. Like it has to be done.
Matthew, you’re so good at that. I read this article that you published about going to, I think it was back in 2017 I wish I could remember the name of it. You went to a yoga class, in the capacity of writing your book and being a journalist, you were like, you experienced trauma-bonding and you witnessed it in a group dynamic and that person, that yoga practitioner was calling you out and abusing you in front of everybody. And like I have no patience for that shit anymore or ever. I mean, I guess I’ve come to a place personally where I’m like, I have no patience for that. So I think specifically in the work that I’m doing with this podcast, in my own capacities with it there has to be a point where you have to call people out in a good way. I mean, there’s a way to do it where it’s appropriate, but there’s a way to do it where you’re able to articulate and point to this very specific reasons why these people are taking advantage of others in their most vulnerable states. That is not your responsibility. That is not what you’re supposed to be doing right now. And so I just want to say that clearly now that we’re talking about this particular subject, that that’s my, that’s my end of it.
And the vulnerability of the yoga posture that the person is in and then is assaulted… I think there’s a real analogy there. It’s a microcosm of the sort of catatonic, sometimes paralyzed and fetal position of grief and despair that many people feel themselves to be is all the time in relation to climate collapse. People are, people are super vulnerable and the leaders that they reached to have to be like, exemplary and their ethics and in their standard of care. And one thing that I want to… I don’t know how much more time you have, but I wanted to make sure too that I highlighted the, the potential vulnerability of how Buddhist and yoga discourse might start to enter — I think it’s already started to enter —eco-activism. I mean, there’s some good parts to that. So I think the work of Joanna Macy is really effective and it’s been helpful for so many people. Catherine Ingram is also well-learned in Buddhism, and I think she uses that in a really good way.
But I want people to know that Buddhist communities over the last 30 or 40 years have been racked by scandal and abuse. And most of that is unacknowledged or unresolved. And so when Buddhist teachers start showing up in ecoactivist spaces, providing wisdom or knowledge or what have you, some of that might be really useful, but I want people to be aware and vigilant to the fact that if organizing principles begin to grow around these figures, you want to look carefully at where they’re coming from. Because when Buddhist communities fall apart because of abuse crises, those teachers have to go somewhere. They’ve got to work somewhere else.
And what I’m starting to see is some of those folks showing up in eco-activism circles because that’s where they can sell their books or their programs or their meditations or whatever. And so just take things with a grain of salt, right? Like, I don’t wanna, you know, make people freaked out about everybody else because there’s enough horizontal hostility. But, you know, if somebody is claiming to have answers with regard to community health and critical thinking, take a look at where they’re coming from because, you know, if they belong to the Shambhala community or the Rigpa Buddhist community or something like that, then you know, you will want to know what kind of work they did to recover from the compromise of that institutional abuse.
I would ask this of you actually, if you could maybe provide something. So this could fit really easily within these Buddhist communities, yoga communities, and in these eco activist circles as well… When it comes to these dynamics, you mentioned, if there are things that maybe very specific signs of things that people can look out for. Because we’re talking about it in pretty general sense. We have some specific examples that are may very particular to yoga practitioners specifically with body and consent and boundaries and all of this, but maybe within a more general sense. So if people can have a takeaway, I guess you could say from this discussion of like what to look out for, both in positive ways. I think you mentioned something about Extinction Rebellion in a general sense: transparency is extremely important in these group settings and in these organizations. I completely agree. Look out for that, have respect for that. Try to embody that. If you are in fact leading a group, be very transparent in what you do know and what you don’t know. Don’t pretend to be something you’re not. Don’t pretend to be an expert in something you’re not. But as far as like abusive, potentially abusive, um, group dynamics, I mean, what can you point people towards?
A very simple model for looking at a group dynamics from a cultic studies perspective would be Steve Hassan’s BITE model where he describes the elements of behavioral, informational, thought, and emotion control. There are lists of examples that he provides where you can pretty easily sort of assess whether or not the group that you’re involved with is asking you to behave, asking you to control any of those aspects of your experience. Cathleen Mann has a model called the MIND model where, uh, she describes the group dynamics of manipulation, negation and deception. And then the “I” I’m forgetting, that’s embarrassing, but you can look up Cathleen Mann and the MIND model.
Probably the most breakthrough text that I’ve come across in terms of de-stigmatizing normalizing and making more accessible, the whole cult studies genre is Love Terror and Brainwashing by Alexandra Stein where she uses the principles of attachment theory to describe how cultic organizations rewire members for a disorganized attachment, which in the simplest terms is really the confusion between love and terror.And this speaks a lot to the capacity for cultic groups to nurture trauma bonding where members are actually always feel compelled to move towards the abuser because they also believe that the abuser is providing love or an answer or a safe Haven. So there are resources that people can look for.
You’ve really skillfully summed up the need for looking at transparency. The transparency also should be about where the leader is coming from, what their background is and what they actually have competency in speaking about. In the yoga and Buddhist worlds, it’s really hard to suss out who knows what because often people are quoting from Sanskrit or Pali or Tibetan and it’s hard for most people to know whether they’re competent or not. So I think that that climate science can actually be manipulable in the same way. People who have research positions where they have a certain level of education can be automatically endowed with a kind of authority that lay people can’t really assess. So that’s something to look at too.
If people become more aware of the processes of idealization and transference and countertransference — that’s very helpful that if you get involved in a group where the leadership or the ideology is framed as being total or all-good or unquestionable. That’s really difficult if you can’t ask questions openly, if you can’t offer critique in a way that’s received with openness. These are red flags.
I wrote this article about how Buddhist organizations and yoga organizations over the last 50 years have been plagued by abuse histories. I think it was the title was like, if you’re an eco-activist looking to Buddhism for answers, here’s some things to be aware of. And it wasn’t about Buddhism, it was about Buddhist organizations and about how many of them have failed their members in terms of safety and protection. I posted that article to Positive Deep Adaptation and there was nothing but, “Hey, thanks. That’s really good information. Wow. That really opened my eyes to something. I’m really grateful for that. That’s really cool.”
Then I posted it to Extinction Rebellion Buddhists page and there was a discussion about whether or not they were going to delete it — a long discussion about like whether my article was disrespecting the Dharma or something like that. That’s not a good sign. Like, you’re kind of proving my point guys.
And so if there’s resistance to critique or if people want to privatize difficult discussions, move them offline, or situations where they’re out of the public eye, that’s a red flag. If there seems to be a concentration of social power that’s gathering around an ideology, you know, start asking questions, right? Like: Did you want to belong to a human community or did you want to belong to an activist community? You know, does it make sense to really pour money into somebody’s online platform who’s located in England when you don’t even know who your neighbours are? You know what I mean? So yeah: think locally, be aware of the impact of charisma, demand transparency, make sure that you can ask questions, and then you’re probably going to be more confident that you’re in a power-sharing environment, instead of a manipulative environment.
My little thing I would say is: Be an anarchist question authority. You know, just question everything. I mean, obviously there’s a point where that’s obnoxious and not really helpful, but just be aware that we live in a very peculiar time. This is very peculiar time that we’re in. Just have your wits about you. I know it’s difficult. This is a very difficult time to be alive, I would say for its own very specific reasons, but have your wits about you and there’s plenty of people like I think you and probably many others that you’ve cited as well that provide the tools and the frameworks to understand these things. And so I just asked people to.
Hopefully, hopefully a little bit, yes.
Well I think your, your writing is beautiful and that you come from a deeply compassionate place. And I imagine for you it was as much a personal journey as anything else to come to terms with these things. So I do admire you for that. That does take strength and courage. You are calling out people very specifically for their abuses and abusive people act abusively. So when you start to really talk openly about it, it creates all kinds of blowback. So I do want to say I admire you for that courage that you have demonstrated in that.
Thank you Patrick and just returning the compliment. I think you’re doing great work. It’s a great podcast, amazing series of people. And it’s changed my life for the better. So thank you for that.
I know there are lots of people out there who, like me, never really bought into Buddhism and yoga as wellness products. Though locked into consumerism, we wanted out of buying and selling. We could tell the difference between commodity and nourishment. For whatever reason, from whatever background, we came to this space for transformation, salvation, or whatever peak outcome we could articulate. For us it was never just about self-regulation, or self-care. Whether our jam was immanence or transcendence, we wanted something totalizing, for ourselves and for others and we dove in head-first.
I suspect that we, the head-first divers, are over-represented in the demographic of those who went on to professionalize in these industries. We invested everything, or at least a lot, because we believed the stakes were high. In my case, I couldn’t think of more meaningful work, and I had the privilege to pursue it. Obsessed with meaning, I and many others then became super-invested in anxious questions over the authenticity of practice, the nature of spiritual authority, the scourge of spiritual abuse, the problem of the body in self-perception, and cultural appropriation.
It’s a great tragedy that people who fall into competing camps on these issues often fail to recognize what they share: a steadfast faith that yoga and Buddhism are not merely wellness products, but pathways that (should) matter in ways that address ultimate human concerns. We don’t seem to understand that conflict in these worlds is actually a sign of a shared faith that might be too intimate to disclose: we want reality, we want truth, we want to heal trauma, we want to integrate or purify or even erase the venal parts of ourselves. We see an opportunity in these wisdom traditions to step off the wheel of empty promises and into a fuller expression of being alive. We argue with each other like Talmudic scholars — minus the courtesy — about our future selves.
What of the stakes? I get the feeling that many of us believe that if we don’t work this hard, if we stay asleep, then we miss our lives. We’ll turn over and over in unconscious loops of consumption and dissatisfaction, eating to get hungry again and loving to be lonely again. When the old books describe samsara, it resonates with the drone of consumer capitalism, ever in our ears, and the loathsome veneer of optimism that occludes the heart, the Stepford wife who sticks a dummy in your mouth and tells you everything is fine. No wonder we’re most outraged when we see yoga and Buddhism themselves appropriated by global capitalism, aka the Big Dream, that erases all urgency except for the need to create sleepier and sleepier drugs, because all drugs wear off.
Here’s the thing.
If you’re paying attention to the climate data — the fact that Arctic sea ice is barely forming this year, that correcting a geomapping error now shows Mumbai completely underwater by 2050 (and we know it’ll be sooner), that crops have largely failed across the Midwest, that Australia is roasting, that millions are on the brink of starvation in Africa, and civil unrest is erupted around the globe as fast as brushfires spread in California — samsara is no longer theoretical, psychological, or even descriptive of a pattern.
The suffering of the world is no longer just a turning wheel. It is a turning wheel rolling towards a cliff of annihilation and oblivion. And it’s not about individuals. My first Buddhist teacher’s existential challenge to me — “You’re dying, what are you going to do about it?” — carried a necessary urgency, but is now obsolete. “We’re all dying,” is the appropriate frame now: “What are we going to do about it?”
Part of me is angry and embarrassed at having spent more than two decades engaged in global Buddhism and yoga while so many people, most with way less privilege, have been on the front lines of ecological activism. I remember the moment I literally chose to meditate instead of join a resistance cell, and that moment feels like a stain I cannot clean.
But part of me forgives myself: at least I didn’t go into the oil business, or social media development, or hedge funds, or selling weight loss products or porn. I could have done a lot more damage to the world in those gigs. Most of us could have done way worse.
Yet another part of me realizes that Global Buddhism and yoga were passively used by capitalism to lull huge numbers of us into hyperindividualistic concern and contemplation, and that’s so gross.
But a fourth part of me knows that so many of us carried trauma that self-care seemed to antidote, and that makes sense.
And a fifth part knows that the promises make to the aspirational self are inextricable from the promises made to the neoliberal citizen: that everything can always grow and improve, regardless of structural oppression, that our hope for increased goodness should be audacious or grandiose instead of lateral and humble, that Global Buddhism and yoga became the spirituality of neoliberalism without us knowing it.
There are so many parts speaking! A last one for now says that:
None of it matters, because we had reproduced and baked ourselves into catastrophic climate change decades before Iyengar published Light on Yoga in 1966. So in many ways, we’ve always been practicing in a kind of civilizational afterlife. Yes, it sucks that Boomers just carried on with their business and now rub their savings and equity in our faces, but did they know any better?
We studied and practiced Ayurveda as though there still was a stable and resilient world. We saluted the sun as though we weren’t simultaneously turning it into a dehydrating lamp. Maybe this was a good way to spend what would have otherwise been a hopeless time?
So here’s my thought.
What if Global Buddhism and yoga gave us a model for waking up that we can now apply not to the suffering modern narcissistic self, but to empirical reality?
What if it really did effectively educate us about sleeping and dreaming, illusion and interdependence, but most of all, the urgent need to do something?
What if these pathways really were practice for what has now arrived?
What if they really were boats that brought us into presence, and that we should now step out onto the shore?
These days I find myself saying:
“Thank you Patanjali, not because you were right about the nature of consciousness. You’re just as confused as everyone else. But you took the problem of existence seriously and urgently, and maybe you also saw the ticking time bomb of human reproduction combined with human avarice and wanted to warn us all. I don’t buy into your answer of shrivelling up and disappearing into meditation, but we all have our ways of dealing, and yours is as good as any.”
“Thank you, Gita-writers, not for providing spiritual justifications for war, nor for hazing the hero with divine terror, but for your examination of the need to act in uncertainty at what feels like the end of time.”
“Thank you, Siddhartha, not because the churches inspired by your teaching were any better than the Christian ones in terms of ethics and political grift, but because you modeled a radical rejection of consensus values, and you pursued your goal until there was nothing left to pursue.”
Clearly, the ancients intuited the crisis of life at its root.
But globalization domesticated and commodified their ideas, repurposing them for the glory of the aspirational self.
It did so while riding an enormous burning wave of oil that is now consuming the very ground that Siddhartha touched, saying, “As earth is my witness.”
Globalization brought the world Buddhism, yoga, and the destruction of the living world itself. It’s the paradox that keeps on giving.
At worst, our practices have kept us asleep to the animals and other people, thinking that inner peace was the most worthy goal.
At best, they have sensitized us to what is now scientifically absolute: that there is nothing to depend on but each other, and love.
It could be that you’re already familiar with modern global Buddhism, be it of the Tibetan, Burmese, Thai, Vietnamese, “mindfulness”, “insight”, or other variety. Your practice might predate your decision to join an eco-activist group or ecological support network. If this describes you, you may have already navigated what I’m about to say.
I’m addressing this in particular to those activists and concerned citizens who have been introduced to global Buddhist practices and communities through eco-activism networks that are understandably reaching out to seek sources of support and nurturance in a critical time.
I’m writing because I’m seeing a lot of interest in Buddhism as both a philosophy and as a series of self-and-co-regulation techniques within groups like Extinction Rebellion and Positive Deep Adaptation. I don’t want to discourage this interest in any way, but I do believe there are some things to bear in mind for those on the verge of going deeper into practice. These are facts I’ve gathered as a survivor and researcher of cults.
Here’s the main point, which I’ll break down below:
Yes: use the techniques and be comforted by the philosophy. But: be very wary of taking advice from or handing leadership over to “career” Buddhist teachers in the following areas: ethics, communications, group behaviour, political tactics, regeneration culture, or community building.
Why? Here are a few reasons:
1. Virtually every large modern Anglophone global Buddhist community is awash with unaddressed abuse. The abuse has been physical, emotional, sexual, financial, and spiritual. The pattern is broad and the damage is deep. Links at the bottom.
2. It is rare that a modern global Buddhist community trains its members in anti-oppression, ecological awareness, or the history of social movements. It’s just not on the curriculum. Despite this, there is a tendency amongst long-term practitioners to assume that Buddhist practice magically confers insight in one or all of these areas. Many labour under the illusion that being Buddhist magically makes them anti-racist, for example. Or they believe that a Buddhist perspective gives insight into how best we confront the state, as in the recent viral post that suggested that (without using this language) XR rebels view the police with metta, because “we’re all on the same side.” The poster has a point, though not the one intended: for fifty years, global Buddhism has for the most part sanctified, rather than resisted, the neoliberal police and surveillance state. Bottom line: competency in Buddhism does not predict competency in any other area, and may in fact impede it. There’s no shame in this: one can’t be good at everything.
3. Recent implosions of prominent Buddhist organizations have exposed decades of widespread abuse and enablement. This has scattered many senior staff, many of whom are now looking for new communities, new angles, and new work. In many cases, these are folks who have been deeply embedded — as enablers and victims — in cultic dynamics. It takes a long time to get sorted out after being embedded. Healing and accountability can happen, but I can say anecdotally as a journalist and researcher in this area that it is rare.
4. Most Buddhist teachers that attained social power in these groups did so not through the strength of their training nor any measurement of their attainment in the techniques of meditation (for there is none), but through their skill at serving the leadership, or through the power of their charisma, and the group transferences that feed it. Leadership in these organizations is often gained through socially toxic means.
5. The post-implosion histories of many Buddhist organizations feature a pattern of charismatic lieutenants breaking away from the original group to found their own communities, often with predictable results. I guarantee that there will be Buddhist teachers whose organizations have recently failed who out of narcissistic or financial necessity — or just pure habit — will now try to lead or monetize their brands within eco-activist organizations.
6. Part of what we’re seeing in the highly-flawed internal reform movements of organizations like Shambhala is the adoption of woketivist language as a form of brandwashing, even while the needs of the organization’s survivors remain unaddressed. Arguably, any attention placed on social justice issues has some social benefit, but the activist newcomer to Buddhism should consider that the newly-minted eco-Buddhist teacher might be far more interested in promoting their own ideology than in the actual cause. They may be using XR or PDA as a delivery device for their real commitment.
7. While the self-and-co-regulation techniques of meditation, mindfulness, metta, warrior-compassion, right speech, etc. can all valuable in and of themselves, activists who are unfamiliar with global Buddhism should know that each and every one of these techniques and attitudes has been used in various group contexts to suppress critical thinking, member agency, and enable abuse.
8. Abuse in Buddhist organizations often plays out along gender lines. Every organization listed below was founded and/or was led by a charismatic male teacher. The majority of sexual assault victims to come forward in recent abuse revelations are women. It is also true that the majority of unpaid administrative and emotional labour in these groups is performed by women. Further, women’s administrative visibility and labour can be used to extend the pretence that an organization’s values are feminist, trauma-aware, or justice-oriented — all values that aid in recruitment, especially of younger women. But in reality, many of these organizations are deeply patriarchal and misogynist. Eco-movements do not want to import yet more forms of misogyny and unexamined rape culture, whether explicit or internalized.
None of this is to say that Buddhists are bad people or that there aren’t some Buddhist teachers doing great social justice or activism work. In my experience, these are the folks who have been independent from branded communities for years, have spoken out against abuses they witnessed, and have adopted an interdisciplinary approach to how they continue to learn and practice. Many hold qualifications as psychotherapists, social workers, or scholars of religion, and this can afford some critical distance. (However, in the case of Shambhala International, many earned their degrees at the group’s own university, Naropa, and so can’t really be said to be qualified outside of the group.)
Bottom line: Buddhism can be great, but the organizations and leadership structures that have emerged in its globalization period are often myopic, bourgeois, self-serving, and at times abusive to their members. People who professionalized in those spaces have a lot of work to do to show how they’re not going to repeat what they’ve been through or been complicit in.
I predict that the era of ecological collapse will be a boom-time for cults — political, religious, or both. This is because nobody knows exactly what’s going to happen, but we do know it’s going to be apocalyptically bad, and we’re going to be even more desperate for community than we are now. This means that conditions are ripe for inspired and charismatic leadership, which we already see in the figureheads of XR, for example. Charismatic leadership is one of Lalich’s four factors in defining the cultic. (Another is totalizing ideology. XR is at least 2 for 4. A third thing to look at would be information control. Hm.)
Many of us may be starting to feel like strong communities are the only reliable refuge we’ll have as collapse continues to spread. So far, branded global Buddhisms have not provided good models for strong community.
Messianic movements are dangerous, and so is the modern police and surveillance state. I hope we can all be careful that global Buddhism doesn’t get used to meditate those dangers away.
Some online responses to this article have suggested, without offering evidence, that the institutions listed below have made strides towards rectifying abuse. For those who wish to research this assertion, I propose the following test:
Try to find published survivor testimonies that speak to these improvements.
Such testimony might read as follows:
“I was abused in [organization name] and the organization has been very responsive to my needs. When I approached the community with my story, I knew who to go to, and no one ignored, deflected, or snubbed me. No one tried to tell me the abuse was my fault or that I should use the spiritual techniques of the group to reframe the abuse as love. I found several people in the organization who became allies and helped me to come forward. They took risks with their own social capital to defend me against enablers. The leadership did not stall or try to limit the PR damage. They investigated and sanctioned those who abused me. They offered me direct care in my recovery, and paid for my related expenses. They really showed that they were able to offer the values of their spirituality in difficult circumstances. This has restored my hope in [Buddhism/yoga/etc], because it has helped to heal the very deep level of trauma that comes from spiritual abuse.”
Problematic global Buddhist Organizations (an incomplete list):
I used to be able to self-regulate stress pretty quickly by putting myself in view of the sky or a tree, or by closing my eyes to listen to ambient sounds. I happened upon this as a young child: I have a preverbal memory of feeling my body melt into the rain in the garden beyond the screen door. I think this was the first moment I was conscious of being a self, of being me.
Later, this habit was captured and refined by teaching and training in Buddhism and mindfulness and yoga, where the instructions pointed me towards sensory awareness and breathing and interoception and (at least for me) the constancy and reassurance these offered.
“You always have the opportunity to pay attention to your breath” was an empowering instruction for me.
Or: “The breath is always there, supporting you, like a friend.”
This worked for me, and I thought it worked for everyone until a human friend told me that it wasn’t true for her because living with CPTSD means that her “regular” breathing patterns can be triggering for her to pay attention to, because they carry the rhythms of damage.
So for a while I had a skill, and a worldview that supported it. I don’t necessarily think this is or was a uniformly good thing. At times, it allowed me to spiritualize my tendency for avoidant attachment. It could be similar to the feeling I had during the years I smoked: a cigarette gave me about eight minutes of absolute aloneness, focused on my breath and not on other people. I stopped smoking when I found meditation, but a part of that avoidant/dissociative drive remained. In a sneaky way, it got buried or rebranded. Continue reading “I Cannot Self-Regulate with Mindfulness Now That The World is Collapsing”
I obviously think it’s really important to illuminate abuse in spiritual communities. It’s as important as advocacy work for any survivor group. Abuse survivors hold up the mirror.
And yet in the shadow of climate chaos, is it visible? Is it efficient? Is the scope broad enough, and scalable? Are venal spiritual communities worth the attention while entire nations operate as cults, and are pushing others into the sea?
What does it mean when you’re doing good work — the work you’ve made, trained for, the best work of your life, perhaps — in a culture based in economic and privilege excesses that both accelerate and will be wiped out by climate chaos?
Most projects of substance, whether undertaken alone or in groups, take five years. A graduate degree, a book, a training curriculum. Reviewing and reforming standards at Yoga Alliance. Five years is also one predicted window for seeing the first ice-free Arctic summer, which may provoke a methane tipping point, and then an exponential temperature rise. Continue reading “Yoga Work and Climate Chaos: a Note”
It was Brian Culkin who first got me thinking in socio-economic terms about modern yoga. He talks about yoga as the de facto religion of neoliberalism: preaching individualistic empowerment through flexibility, adaptability, leaning-in to challenges, self-reliance, lowering expectations for structural support and change, and creating facsimiles of community where real communities used to be. Later, my thinking was bumped along by an amazing essay by Lavrence and Lozanski on how Lululemon, especially in earlier days, wove these themes into its athleisure fabrics and stitched it all up with random orientalist clichés.
Along this trajectory it became clear that yoga infrastructure was inseparable from urban gentrification. I remember Diane Bruni telling me how much rent Downward Dog had to pay for its two-studio space in Toronto’s Parkdale in the mid 2000s. It was something like 10K/mo. She said that making that rent in the summers was touch-and-go. I was shocked: this was Toronto’s most popular/lucrative yoga space, and they were just hanging on? Moreover: this was their second home.
They had moved west and down-rent along Queen St. from their first space on Spadina, which was in a building that used to house garment factories. So the studio itself owed its birth to the shuttering of manufacturing in Toronto’s downtown core. They practiced in the rooms that used to make the clothes that they practiced in. Downward Dog was actually featured by Naomi Klein in the first pages of No Logo, who gives it as an example of who and what moves into a North American urban space when jobs get shipped to the lowest-paying labour market. Continue reading “Listening to Survivors is a Survival Test (Or: Neoliberalism and Yoga Rise and Implode Together)”