Why We Don’t Listen to Trauma Survivors (the “Contagion” principle)

Why We Don't Listen to Trauma Survivors (the "Contagion" principle)
I had another in the series of revelatory conversations with my colleague Theodora Wildcroft the other day that have helped me at least begin to see why we don’t listen to trauma survivors. We don’t listen, ironically, even when we say we’re trying to listen to them. Even when we write articles about systemic harassment and enabling, when we host panels on the subject, when we write the think-pieces.
 
“We are contagious,” Theo said, “and those we speak to will suffer vicarious trauma. I can’t speak my truth without hurting other people.”
 

Continue reading “Why We Don’t Listen to Trauma Survivors (the “Contagion” principle)”

The Unbearable Smugness of “I Got Mine-ism” Amongst Cult and ex-Cult Members

The Smugness of "I Got Mine-ism" Amongst Cult and ex-Cult Members

I’ll preface this post by saying that, in accordance with the clinical research, I do not believe there are strong correlations between prior life experience and the likelihood that a person will join or stay in a cult (or “totalist”, or “high-demand” group.) What follows is a speculation, based on memory and anecdote, on why people who are already inside such a group may be more prone to the kind of enabling and moral harm that Philip Deslippe​ has described to me as “I got mine-ism” (IGM).

IGM is a defensive strategy by which a member who has not (or believes they have not) directly experienced abuse or institutional betrayal within the group deflects stories of abuse within the group by immediately self-referring, saying things like: “I don’t know about other’s experience; I find/found the teacher/teachings to be profoundly helpful in my life.” The statement is usually couched within an unwillingness to act on behalf on victims or mitigate future harm. Continue reading “The Unbearable Smugness of “I Got Mine-ism” Amongst Cult and ex-Cult Members”

What that Rajneesh Documentary Leaves Out

What that Rajneesh Doc Leaves Out
Coincidence: I wrote this the same day that Win McCormack’s masterful summary of his investigative reporting on the Rajneeshis from 1983-1986 was posted. It completely confirms the speculations I’ve assembled here based largely upon my own cult experiences. It also damns the Way’s efforts to near irrelevance. For a fuller picture and citations, I encourage you to read it here.
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I’m glad that Rajneesh doc was made and is out there, but I have to object to the notion going around that it adds to a general understanding of cult dynamics. It doesn’t.
 
It can’t. What the Way brothers have made is an intoxicating Bollywood Western, minus the choreography. Yokels vs. invaders stage a culture war on a battlefield of orgasms and guns, fuelled by diamonds and drugs and the budget of the DA, played out against pop abstractions of orientalist woo and Americanist fantasies of freedom.
 
The Bhagawan is dangerous, we know, we KNOW… but who can resist goggling and chuckling at this swindler wearing his assortment of tea cosies and Star Trek priest robes, stoned on his upscale IKEA throne? And then there’s Sheela! OMG Sheela! Cooking up salmonella special in her Jesus Grove kitchen. Now the Swiss are letting her take care of old people! OMG! And so on.
 
For me, the prurient high point was the retired DA saying:
 
And so they blended up the beavers, and poured the blended-up beavers into the water supply.
 
The Ways are in their 30s. They made a baseball doc previously. This might be why the last word they give to the endearing Marlboro-man rancher Bowerman is a jovial “It’s like a ball game! Somebody wins, somebody loses, and life moves on…”.
 
I wouldn’t expect the Ways to be drawn to or equipped for the task of the victim-centred narrative. But that’s what we need if learning about cults is what we want.
 
If you read reviews that laud their “objectivity”, consider this short list of big things they left out:
 
  • The effects of joining the Rajneesh movement on members’ families and prior attachments.
  • The effects of arranged marriages and divorces and forced migration.
  • The effects of ashram life on the children born or brought into the organization.
  • The money that members were required to give, and how the 30K “working members” of the Rajneesh movement worldwide — according to Sheela — were paid virtually nothing. For years. What it meant for 99% of them to hitchhike or drive out of the Oregon desert with a few bucks of gas in their tanks and the clothes on their backs, while the leadership scatters over the earth with trunks full of diamonds and gold.
  • The drug trafficking and prostitution by which members paid their passage to various communes and then fees when they got there. (Citations in Falk.)
  • Strongly-encouraged sterilizations of members. (ibid.)
  • Interviews with ANY of the 6K homeless people exploited by the org.
  • More than glancing reference to the 10K audiotapes that contain evidence of battery and sexual assault committed amongst members. Law enforcement obviously didn’t have the resources to investigate these fully. So do these just disappear into another shot of the Bhagwan’s vacant gaze while the opera music rises? I guess so.
Consider this last point for a moment. They seemed to be saying that the tapes were of private domestic exchanges. What we have to do, however, is put that together with the somatics of public ritual.
 
If you saw that sequence in the 2nd episode that featured footage of dynamic therapy from the German filmmaker’s hidden camera, you witnessed physical and sexual assault, sanctioned through the guise of spiritual catharsis.
 
The camera, of course, presents the scene as an oddity that will provoke a sex panic amongst all those normies in overalls and suits. The media others the members as dangerous because of heterodox behaviour that could spread like a virus.
But the deeper truth is that the members are first and foremost dangerous to each other. They are being stimulated to exert control over each other as part of the top-down dominance hierarchy. Fearing the members’ behaviour from the outside is premised in part on believing that it is chosen, consensual. Not only is that premise either weak or false, but it fails to account for the fact that the members undertaking that “meditation” every day may be living in a state of perpetual volatility, if not trauma.
 
When I was a member of Endeavour Academy from 1999 to 2003, a similar dynamic meditation occupied the central hours of every day. Our sessions weren’t as explicitly violent as the Pune footage shows, but they did feature heavy body contact that was often rough and/or sexualized, despite the ideological understanding that “we were not bodies”. The leader commonly hit and rubbed up sexually against members — women and men both, but with the women he often mimed gestures of intercourse. Everybody laughed. I understand now that the laughter was defensive, but it was conflated with ecstasy.
 
It’s notable that Endeavour had many ex-Rajneeshis in it. Some of them were socially prominent. It was the next thing to do for them. This was the late 90s; many of them had been in similar communities since Oregon imploded in 1985.
This is something we should keep in mind when we think about influences in yoga and meditation communities of the early 2000s, when things started to mainstream and gentrify. Do a little digging, and you’ll find that many A-list yoga personalities have backgrounds in these groups. Then, just think about who might emerge from the 70s-80s cults with enough of their confidence and charisma intact — and also having spent their formative years disqualifying themselves from mainstream professional life — to take leadership roles in new yoga groups.
I’m not bringing this up to foster paranoia, but rather consideration. Of course people change, mature, and grow in kindness and self-reflection. But this process is rarely seen, and hard to measure. I counted some of those ex-Rajneeshis as some of my closest friends. One in particular I loved dearly. He taught me how to cook for three hundred people at a time. I still have some of his psychedelic paintings on my wall. My little boys stare at them in wonder.
But it pains me to say that could not trust this friend, or any other ex-cult member, in a teaching role in the fields of yoga or Buddhism or meditation unless I had a clear sense from them that they had transparently digested and healed the cult-wiring of their brains and nervous systems in such a way as to be able to provide students safer spaces than we had.
 
Four things I can report from my own Rajneesh-lite experience:
  1. Your “performance” of ecstasy (real or contrived) within the group meditation session was directly related to your social rising and falling within the group. Your capacity to physically express oneness with or domination over the group translated into social and even financial opportunity outside of the session. If you’ve never been in such a mosh pit, you can start thinking about those group activities as being non-verbal dominance rituals that test the position and resolve of participants.
  2. If you were a young woman in that melee, you were targeted for sexual attention. Some gained social and even spiritual capital from this to the extent they presented themselves as welcoming.
  3. THESE HOURS DOMINATED YOUR ENTIRE DAY AND MADE YOU INCAPABLE OF INDEPENDENT ACTIVITY. When Rajneeshis describe being “emptied” or “mindless” at the end of the session, you have to think about what comes next, how easy it is for them to go pick vegetables or clean toilets without thinking about where they are or  whether they’re being paid.
  4. The experience cannot be shared with people outside of the group. The session is so strange it cannot be described without deep self-consciousness or shame. The central part of your day, the material reason that you are in that group at all, has the function of isolating you, while, paradoxically, purporting to show you your oneness with all humanity and the universe. This isolation-through-oneness causes severe internal splitting, a cognitive dissonance that compounds daily. I believe that this somatizes in very distinct ways. I remember that in my group we would commonly speak of feeling intense internal “pressure” that would discharge in severe headaches or periods of near-catatonia. We had a narrative about these sensations being evidence of a “transformational crisis”. It was understood that the sensations would intensify until we “popped”, which might look like a seizure in the middle of the session room that could last anywhere from minutes to an hour, and was generally followed by days of radiant dissociation. We would say that the person had “gone to the other side”.

The meditation is a highly effective opiate, and it holds people in a kind of labour and agency stasis. Also, it is so fucking stressful that of course you look happy when you’re scrubbing vegetables. “I just love being here in this community” is a partial statement. It needs to be qualified by “I’m also so relieved no one is screaming at me right now, or that I’m not jumping up and down with no sense of self.”

Think about what it means for 10K people to be engaged in a daily ritual that expresses and routinizes their positions within a somatic hierarchy, and then mobilizes their excess labour for centralized profit. Think about parents caught up in this daily cycle, and how they are or are not energetically or emotionally available to their children.
 
If you watch Wild Wild Country, I encourage you to think about these things, because the doc won’t ask you to. The doc wants you to wonder about Sheela’s mental health, how Sunny can keep permasmiling. The Ways want you to get all verklempt with Niren as he wells up remembering the great genius delicate sensitive man — THE GREATEST MAN WHO EVER LIVED NO THAT’S A FACT I’M A LAWYER — and the great project and the great possibility that failed… but maybe it didn’t really, because wasn’t it all a test and play of consciousness? [Sheds more tears.]
 
I hope that you were all able to hear the abstraction and objectification with which these humiliated honchos uttered the word “sannyasins”. As if they were still speaking for the group. As if everyone would still be on the same page. As if they were actually hiding their complicity, and their wounding.
 
It was really moving to hear about how much Jane was able to understand and recover, but even with her it doesn’t appear she was asked about the mass suffering at the heart of the group. It’s too bad — I have the feeling she understands some of it.
 
Think of everyone they could have interviewed. The Ways have said that they didn’t want to gum up the narrative with too many talking heads. Fair enough. Clinical psychologists probably depress Netflix rankings. But when you focus on four ex-leaders you give up a lot in exchange for flash. You get the self-absorbed musings of the privileged. Those for whom it more or less worked out.
They could have interviewed a single child who grew up there. A single homeless person lied to and kidnapped and then fed narcotics in his beer when he started to get anxious. Or just a single woman or man who now names her experience in dynamic meditation as assault, and is now working with complex PTSD. I can assure you many are out there. 
 
Finally, since the buzz over this doc has erupted, I’ve seen several earnest and naive convos cross my feed about how cult analysis discourse is alienating, it defames all members, etc. Or that analyzing this cult is structurally racist — as if Osho was somehow drawing on a venerable tradition, instead of actively abusing traditions and getting turfed out of India in the process. As if his first victims weren’t Indian. Yes it is important that we not perpetuate colonial stereotypes of evil sex yogis, but that’s a small part of the mix here, even though the Ways want you to focus on it.
 
The complaints are always abstract; they never make mention of the obvious harm and suffering produced by an organization like this. This too is the fault of the documentary bias. WWC plays up the culture war angle, which is like candy to the “civilizational struggle” addiction that certain yoga people seem to be nursing. Rajneeshpuram was not about spirituality, anymore than rape is about sex. It was about power.
And please don’t tell me that without Osho we wouldn’t have the sweet sweet tunes of Deva Premal and Miten, and so everything’s even-steven and that the dark produces light or whatever. There’s plenty of folks who make good music without the aid of gun-addled sex and doomsdays cults.
 
Those who came out of Rajneeshpuram and then enjoyed good and productive lives are the beneficiaries of privileges that had little to do with the cult. They may in fact have socially and psychologically benefited from having been able to come through the chaos armed with an unearned experience of invulnerability, and then reinforced by leaving with an unearned story of perseverance-and-triumph.
If you want the fuller story, find the silent and silenced majority.

Faith in Yogaland (a work in progress)

Articles of Faith (in progress)

When I talk with my yoga friends these days, there’s only one topic: the forest fire of reform sweeping through our sub-culture. Or at least the social media layer of it (the thickness of which is hard to gauge).

We talk about Rachel Brathen’s #metoo post, and what will happen when she connects her correspondents and supports them in taking further action, whether legally, or in the mainstream media. We talk about Karen Rain’s statements. This one, and this one.

We also worry about the smoke inhalation. About the toll taken on faith and hope, about the 30M yoga practitioners in the U.S. alone who are getting dusted in ash, the majority of whom may not know or care about the venerated names, what Yogi Bhajan was really up to, or may have no feeling at all that the memorized script of Bikram’s method might be inseparable from the man.

But it’s not right to infantilize the innocent practitioner. I’ve spoken with several older devotees of these teachers. They question the value of airing “old stuff”. “Why disturb the faith of new students?” they ask. I tell them they sound like Catholics filibustering inquiries into the clergy.

This morning I’m thinking about how one wise friend said, “there will always be yoga tomorrow.”

It’s a good thing. Countless people will wake up at 4 to get to the shala at 5 to perform a candlelit ritual of bodily testing and reclamation. They’ll head to the gym after work. They’ll go to restorative class, or a therapeutics class with those Iyengar backbending props. People will treasure the waves of warmth and sensitivity and tender self-observations that ripple out through their day. The vast majority will feel supported, nurtured, even liberated.

The vast majority — millions — practice in the space between two poles: the fires of reform and the marketing of an industry that has tried to pretend it has no shadows. How can we support this space on a daily basis?

Further, I have to ask every day: what’s my responsibility, with this strange platform, cobbled together out of critique? I spend half of my working life burning the roof. How do I show the less visible work of those I admire, shoring up foundations in the clay and the mud?

I’ve published gestures to hope here and here. But they’re a little melancholic.

I have a more robust list in mind. What do they call these things? Gratitude lists?

It’s a jumble of precious moments and articles of faith, both personal and social. They perform two actions for me: they counter the demoralizing content, and they provide space. This is a list with candlelight instead of fire.

  1. A long breath, deep or shallow, never gets old.
  2. Nor does that feeling I had rolling out of my first savasana, gazing at my hand lit up by the sun, and thinking I am That.
  3. There are radiant heating coils in the polished concrete floors of Lacombe Yoga, in rural Alberta. It’s -31C this morning in Lacombe. My friend Tiffany runs the place. She’s a trauma expert. She taught over 500 classes in 2017 and barely broke even.
  4. Yoga Service Council. I’m not as involved as I want to be, because time and other excuses, but wow, what great work that network does. YSC is like the Canada of modern global yoga. (Canada on a good day.)
  5. I love talking with Jivana Heyman. Social media allows me to fantasize a wonderful IRL community.
  6. I get to talk with almost all of these people on a panel looking to build an actionable and aspirational code of conduct for yoga teachers.
  7. What’s left of movies in the wake of Weinstein? Lady Bird opens. Patty Jenkins champions Wonder Woman. In the yoga world too, what was always underneath will rise up.
  8. I go to a Community Centre in the basement of a public housing complex to play handball and swim. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, one of the activity rooms is packed with Indian women in saris and punjabis doing yoga. The door is open and I can hear the breath count and see the simple stretches of people taking a holy hour for themselves. The drab room has a cold tile floor and florescent lights. It’s about as far away as you can get from the gentrified spaces I identify with yoga. The class is free. I listen at the door and realize I don’t know anything about yoga yet, and this makes me happy.
  9. So many of us are coming out of cults. Tuning in to the deception, dependency, and dread-of-leaving. We’re learning that everyone comes out at a different pace. We all have different needs, different privileges. We really can learn to respect each other’s pathways. Maybe the fires are burning the cultic to fertilize the permaculture.
  10. I’ve learned that yoga trolls are like vrittis, and yes they can be stopped. With single-pointed concentration on the “Block” button.
  11. Several years ago, Dexter Xurukulasuriya in Montreal humbled me during a global yoga culture 101 presentation for a YTT with the best yoga cultural appropriation questions ever. Their family is from Sri Lanka. They reminded me of their comments by DM: “Since EVERY culture has its own rich, complex treasury of inspirational poetry, imagery, mythology and holy scripture,” Dexter wrote, “shouldn’t we ask why some people feel so comfortable and are so drawn to re-work and update other people’s traditions rather than their own? Isn’t it a form of privilege to be able pick and choose whatever aspects of a culture you want to adopt when so many of us have been so forcibly estranged from our cultures through colonial and imperial violence and while your own still-living traditions are actively oppressing millions of people? Isn’t this reworking of our cultures a kind of colonization? Isn’t abandoning rather than reworking your own traditions an abdication of responsibility?” Um, uh, I said. Yes. You’re right. 
  12. I recently visited Dexter and they prepared incredible food. “Bonchi curry, parippu, vambatu moju,” they said, “and Sri Lankan red rice with cardamum & cinnamon, and an arugula salad topped with purple carrots, Quebec cranberries and crickets from the local market.” They taught me to eat it with my fingers. Two trips to India, and nobody ever showed me how to do this. We talked about a lot of things. When we circled back around to appropriation, I said: “The thing is, non-Indians aren’t just enthralled by the yoga, or some romantic idea of India. And it’s not just that our churches are dead to a lot of us, or that our mystics haven’t been taken seriously for centuries. This yoga fascination is also about falling in love with the families of the gurus.” I said that at least one aspect of the yoga cultural appropriation story evolves out of the Euro-American wish for stable, predictable, orderly relationships. A conservative family, with strong gender roles, in which everyone understands their place in the universe. Where dad isn’t drinking the war away, but instead lighting the oil lamps in front of the divine and the ancestors every morning. As Dexter and I talked and listened to each other I could feel the bits and pieces of love we might recover through all of our jumbled history. We fell in love with your families. They smiled, then served something chocolatey.
  13. Yoga and Movement Research Community. Hurray. Sometimes a multiple car pile-up, but people are getting better at keeping it moving, limiting their rubber-necking.
  14. I’ve been working with a friend on an app that aims to take the yoga conversation out of the Facebook trench and into a creative, talking-circle space, with professional moderation. We can always dream.
  15. Some yoga researchers are so generous. Like this one. And these ones.
  16. Uma Dinsmore-Tuli suggests that all of the wild alchemical aspirations of medieval yoga may be a cultural case of womb-envy. Woah.
  17. When I enter the room to give a presentation at Queen Street Yoga, I walk by framed statement on the wall about how the studio occupies the land of the Anishnawbe and Haudenosaunee people. A while back, on the opposite wall, there was a “Body-Positivity Blackboard”, where students were encouraged to finish the sentence, “My body is great because…”. Different hands have written: “It made a baby”, “Its squishiness makes me good at cuddling”. I picked up the chalk as people filed past, murmuring cheerfully. “Through depression, anxiety, and neglect,” I wrote, “my body has always been here, holding me.”
  18. Consent cards.
  19. Talking about my late friend Michael Stone with one of his students. He’s been diagnosed with bipolar disorder as well. He disclosed this on social media, saying he wanted it to be an open part of his discourse around teaching yoga. We sat on the patio on College Street in the late summer sun. He explained to me little about what he thought might have been going on for Michael. Part of his practice is knowing which parts of yoga work for his diagnosis, and which parts don’t. He has the most gentle, self-aware voice.
  20. TFW I’m texting with Be Scofield about plans for a cult-busting website while she’s driving across the rural South. We also text about how much she adores a good Kundalini class. Then we throw potential cult-infiltrator code-names back and forth. She turns down “Maya Honeypot”. I never argue with her. She’s the boss.
  21. I’m in class with Peter Blackaby at Esther Myers Yoga Studio. He says: “It’s not quite exercise. It’s not quite therapy. I’m not quite sure what ‘good alignment’ means. The only term that makes sense to me is ‘self-inquiry’.”
  22. I get a stack of papers in a big brown envelope all the way from New Zealand. Donna Farhi has sent me a file of her notes on the ethical complaints she collected from throughout yogaland in the 1990s. The contents are heavy: Donna has been doing the heavy lifting.
  23. At Esther Myers again, sitting with Monica Voss on the tatami mats. She tells me she’s never been injured practicing yoga. I look puzzled, and she looks back at me, puzzled that I’m puzzled. Like — why is that even a question? We talk about Vanda Scaravelli. Then we talk about the relationship between teaching yoga and the hospice work she does. Her voice is quiet. I can hardly hear it when I listen to the recording afterward. I turn my phone off and just try to remember. That’s oral tradition, creeping back in.
  24. Before dawn, I unroll my mat in my cramped space. The black rubber absorbs a landing strip of scant light against the sheen of the hardwood. Around me, the books are mute with shadow. On the harmonium-case that serves as my writing table, my laptop sits like a window closed against the storm. I light a candle.

Pro-tips for Yoga/Spiritual Abuse Gaslighters

Pro-tips for Yoga/Spiritual Abuse Gaslighters:

It can be really hard listening to stories of abuse, especially if they implicate people or institutions that you love and benefit from. If you ever feel that strange tingle, followed by the urge to say:

Wow, that sounds like an intense and difficult experience; if you want to share more about it, I’ll listen…

…the following reminders can really help:

  1. Encourage all accusers to only talk about the here and now: “There’s only the present moment.” (They’ll thank you for this wisdom later.)
  2. Another angle is to relieve them of the terrible burden of history: “But that was so long ago. Do you really want to rehash that?”
  3. Or, remind them that history is also precious, in the memories of other people — innocent people, people they should care about: “But he’s been dead for years. Think of what this will do to those who really loved him.”
  4. Or, remind them that history is incomprehensible: “He came from a different time. He lived through unimaginable things. He’s a survivor.” (This is particularly important to tell the person who is calling themselves a “survivor”.)
  5. Memory is a part of consciousness. You really want it to be dirty?
  6. You can also cast doubt on their future in general: “What exactly do you hope to get out of this?”
  7. Or, in particular, being sure to predict their future unhappiness: “What satisfaction can you extract from a old/senile/dead man?”
  8. Remember that because Truth is Real and there is no separation and all that, literally anything can be re-framed as love. That’s right — anything.
  9. The only limit to your reframing capacity is fear, and fear is the root of the accusation to begin with. You are hearing the accusation because you haven’t fully accepted the power of Truth.
  10. Put more simply: you can appeal to the language of spiritual unity to explain why telling stories about abuse is divisive.
  11. Remember to always conceal your personal need to avoid consequences behind an abstract wish for collective peace.
  12. Remember that accusers want revenge. You know this is not healthy for them. It’s your job to save them from the mental and moral hell of revenge. Somebody must do it.
  13. Remember: you got exactly what you needed from that teacher/guru/organization. It/they transformed you. Don’t let any victim or their snowflake victim mentality take that from you. Nobody can disempower you.
  14. Also, remember how hard you worked to always see the good, then and now. All the sunken costs you gobbled up, all the humiliation you smiled through, how many goddam mantras you had to say to dull the pain of cognitive dissonance. You repressed that shit like a mofo. Don’t let anybody steal that work from you.
  15. Make sure to question the “intentions” of people who want to share their stories of abuse. Intentions are everything. And the intention to be divisive is reflective of a divided self.
  16. The Law of Attraction says that talking about abuse invites more abuse. But you don’t need the LoA to know that. Just look at what happens when you do it. Do you really want to subject yourself to abuse?
  17. Remember that the intentions of the teacher/guru/organization were ALWAYS good.
  18. Remember that your intentions are ALWAYS totally neutral. You have nothing at stake in how that teacher/guru/organization is portrayed.
  19. On the other hand, the accused, even if dead, has a lot at stake: “He has a wife and children. Think of them!”
  20. If you ever doubt the intentions of teacher/guru/organization, remember that people are always flawed. What’s important are the teachings.
  21. Whenever you say the word “teachings” aloud, pretend it has a capital letter. Teachings. Go ahead and say it again. Louder. You can do the same thing with the words “perception” (as in “it’s just your Perception“) and Forgiveness.
  22. Suggest that the need to be heard and seek justice creates more cycles of karma.
  23. Explain that no one needs justice if they can pretend to have equanimity. You can practice the facial expression of equanimity by gazing into a mirror while gently massaging your anus with an oiled finger.
  24. When you look at the accuser with the gaze of equanimity, your eyes should be slightly unfocused. This will give the person the feeling that you are listening-but-not-listening, seeing-but-not-seeing. If they ask Where the fuck are you anyway I’m saying something important!, you can breathe deeply and reply that you’re listening to and looking at them through the lens of non-judgement in that field where Rumi is posting to Facebook with one hand and massaging his anus with the other.
  25. If you’re doing all this noble work through email, make sure to sign off with “Love and Light”, so that your intentions are crystal clear!
  26. If it’s in person, make sure to offer the accuser a hug. They might recoil, but don’t back down. If they step back, step towards them, saying something like: “Let’s just take a moment to join in the present.” When you do hug them, count to at least ten, and then five more for good measure. Breathe deeply and let out a sigh. Show the accuser how warm your chest is, how human you are, how it’s like you’re the same person, which means it’s all going to be alright. If they pull back, hug a little tighter. Make them feel like it’s best for them to relax into it. Besides, they might just be smelling your poopy finger. That’s not gonna kill them.

 

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The Guru May Actually Hate You, and You May Actually Hate Him

The Guru Actually Hates You, and You Actually Hate Him

Image: Father Yod of the Source Family.

 

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Yesterday, I learned something new about cult leaders from Philip Deslippe​, a whip-smart Religious Studies scholar who focuses on the history of modern yoga and new religious movements.

He once interviewed an attorney who handled a number of high profile cases against cults. The attorney said that from his experience, leaders follow clear patterns:

At some point they realize how desperately co-dependent they are in relation to their students. They begin to regard their students as idiots, children, incompetents. They begin to loathe them not only for their immaturity, but even more intensely because they are dependent on that immaturity, that devotion, for their daily bread. They’re trapped. Some drink themselves senseless, others take drugs, hide out under mountains of cash, or think help. Some manage to kill themselves.

Oof.

What impresses me about this analysis is that we’re always aghast when we hear of cruelty and abuse flowing downward from a spiritual leader. We can’t believe its inconsistency with their apparent spiritual mission. But what if instead of pathologizing it we considered a simpler answer: it’s an economy of loathing.

Sogyal Rinpoche punching a nun, Trungpa sexually assaulting public figures in a temple, Osho staring blankly at his followers from the window of his Rolls. Iyengar ranting about how students who have touched his feet for a decade are ignorant fools, and then hitting them, Michael Roach giving people meaningless unpaid tasks and joking with the inner circle: “Of course we’re in cult.”

The pattern I’ve seen seems to be that the cruelty increases in direct proportion to the “success” of the guru. Is power its own addictive feedback loop? Yes, but so is loathing. How can the guru not loathe himself, when he sees he’s propped up by the very people he’s broken? Then, if you’re a crazy wisdom dude like Sogyal or Adi Da you fold that very corruption back into the the content of your teaching: of course the world is an absurd illusion for you. What else do you know?

They hit their students, sexually dominate them, starve them, steal their labour and money, mock them. These are all morbid actions, but they also acts of retribution against the terms of their shameful imprisonment, which they blame on their students, and cannot own for themselves. And the most incredible part of all is that as the loathing escalates, so does the devotee’s need to say it is something else, all the way up to love, in order to stand it.

This is not a post about humanizing cult leaders, although everyone is human. They were all little boys once. It’s a post about standing outside the cult mechanisms in our lives to see that fantasy and idealization are the opposite of love, and that when directed en masse at a leader whose charisma flows out of some ungodly wound, a downward spiral ensues that belies the upward spiral of the group’s self-narrative.

Of course there’s another side of the loathing economy. A a part of the devotee secretly loathes the guru as well.

Because devotion is inseparable from fantasy and idealization, it must have a conflicted core. How can you love someone who towers above you in grace and humanness? How can love a person who builds his presence before you on the premise he knows you, knows your nature, knows the nature of the world? How can you really love a saviour, when the first thing a saviour must do to be a saviour is to concretize your sense of inadequacy?

My guess is that the tension holds true in both the flesh and the abstract. Who can truly love Jesus, whose nature excludes you from communion with God? Who can truly love Krishna, who knows enough about the universe that he can reverse your reason and moral doubt and send you off to war? That we eroticize both is a clue to how hard it is to really love them.

The shadow cast by fantasy and idealization is that of your presumed failure. The guru sits there and pontificates, and you are seduced. The secret of seduction is that “seduction” means: “being led away from yourself.” If you pay attention you can feel it happening. The body is running away from him as fast as it can. But the socialized self co-opts that kinetic energy, and aims you at his feet.

The disillusionment, already built-in to the structure of fantasy and idealization, becomes a little more palpable when the devotee subconsciously realizes their fantasy and idealization can’t be fulfilled. Somewhere they feel they don’t actually love the leader, or perhaps never did. But they’re in so deep they force themselves to. The leader smells the lie he brought on himself, and lashes out.

Really sorry this post is dark. I still believe that the more we can see this clearly, I believe, the less it will happen.

Trance States and Choked Voices: Brief Notes on Charisma and Toxic Masculinity

Trance States and Choked Voices: Brief Notes on Charisma and Toxic Masculinity

Duff McDuffee pointed this out to me first on a Facebook thread. When Alex Jones — Infowars conspiracy theorist and hawker of survivalist protein powders — gets on a roll, the content of what he says is secondary to the state he embodies. He’s not communicating something to be understood, but rather broadcasting a trance state.

The content supports the transmission of this state only to the extent that it helps defamiliarize whatever hold on consensus reality he and his audience have. Yes, he is talking about aliens here, but this only underlines the alienating experience of a body that needs to transcend its pain and confusion.

You can watch a bit of the following with the sound on to get a sense of this intersection of content and somatics. But then you can mute it and just watch what he does with his body. Or: what his body does with him.

Gazing off to the right and up. Conjuring the completeness of his vision by caressing an invisible sphere in front of him face, as though the sphere were his face, perfected. Leaning with his eyes into the vastness or the void before him. The conspiracy theories seem rooted in the conspiracy of his being bodily possessed.

And — maybe the most important detail McDuffee pointed out: when Rogan interrupts the freestyle in any way, Jones’ primary goal is not to answer the question, let alone hear it. His goal is to maintain the self-enclosed-but-extroverted trance state. He needs to get back on that train as soon as possible, perhaps because it’s where he feels most at home, most protected.

A comparison to Trump here isn’t lazy: when we ask why he can’t stick to the teleprompter, something similar might be happening. Reading from the teleprompter, like taking in Rogan’s question, would stop the trance train.

Reading the teleprompter would be like being distracted from masturbating, which may tell us something about the adolescent anxiety informing it all, not to mention the overwhelming intersection between alt-right spaces and porn.

Other things that interrupt masturbating? Oh, you know — evidence, citations. Those little facts of external reality that call us into responsibility, that tell us our pleasure is not the only thing that exists.

Jordan Peterson rides a similar train, only in first class, and tenured. This modestly-titled clip is typical of his in-person somatic strategy, marked by constant repetition: pacing, hand gestures, head-tilts, the pretence of making eye contact. Again: try watching for a minute with the sound muted.

Back in June I went to one of his public lectures. It was sold out: 500 people, $30 each. $15K gross on a regular Tuesday night. Crowd was 90% white. Lots of buzz cuts, ball caps and sun glasses amongst the men, who made up maybe 70% of the crowd. Amongst the 20% of the crowd who were over 40, the vast majority were men. Going for a pee was like being at an NHL hockey game in 1978.

As Peterson strode onto the stage, the guy beside me yelled out over the applause, “There he is, there he is!”

The lecture was a stream of folksy megalomania: one long off-book, beyond-scope-of-practice-for-clinical-psychology digression after another of his alt-right sweet spots. He held out for 107 minutes before substantially addressing the published topic for a 2-hour event — The Tower of Babel (appropriately), and The Flood. And the actual substance he got to seemed designed to avoid distracting anyone from the mystery of himself. A key slide cited a banal remark from Mircea Eliade on the ubiquity of flood narratives (1:47:59). No citation provided. 

It was like he wasn’t even trying to conceal the fact that he’s not interested in the content.

Why should he? Nobody was there for the content, advertised or otherwise. They were there to commune with Peterson’s body, his performance of radical bravery, his fragility and grievances. Their adoring gaze on him was only broken by thrilled shudders elicited by phrases like “cultural marxism”.

Okay, full disclosure:

I know what this stream of loghorreic bliss feels like. Both of the cults I was in in my late 20s / early 30s were led by men whose social and somatic power hinged on being able to flip into these states at will.

In both organizations, I progressed far enough up the hierarchy to be invited to give sermons to entry-level members. The content was spiritual revelation, and I was to mimic the guru.

Before it felt terribly wrong — which was pretty quick — it was exhilarating. The format was “dharma talk”, or “satsang”. The premise was that I had something deeply subjective yet universally applicable to share. I could feel myself “filled with the spirit” of the guru. No other resources were needed. I opened my mouth, and something “inspired” poured out, fast. I created a wall of sound around myself that gave some kind of relief. I felt as though I was within a ring, but also rising above myself.

I’d had experience with this before, albeit “secular”. As a young poet and novelist, I would give readings from my work around town. (That was “social media” in those days.) I remember feeling that the microphone was like a gun-shield, and that if my text could fire out and overwhelm the room, my brilliance would be clear to everyone. My presentation style was loud and fast. I inflated myself with every inhalation.

It wasn’t unique. Many of the men I worked with and loved nurtured a similar affect. One of them, the now-famous Christian Bök, was then famous for reading his language poems so loud and fast that he literally foamed at the mouth. But Bök was self-consciously performing a kind of mania, mimicking the machine-like virality of language itself. Most of the rest us were just trying to emote, without receiving anything. As with punk rock, I think it was very hard for us to find the line between catharsis and aggression.

I haven’t lost my taste for holding forth, though it has declined to the extent I own my general shame. And to the extent that writing helps me sublimate an impulse I believe flows out of a deep wound. When I lecture now, I feel distinctly inadequate, and I try to respect and treasure this rather than overcome it.

I emailed a friend and veteran psychologist about the phenomenon of speed and overwhelm in speech. She wrote back:

In psycho-traumatology the concept of “pressurised talk” is considered symptomatic of a cry for help that went unanswered. It’s a new addition to the fight-flight-freeze-submit roster. And it’s helped me sit with many traumatized people who fill their hours with a wall of words. Simple, ongoing listening, with facial & gestural attunement (rather than the frustration, disbelief or boredom that this defence is unconsciously intended to re-create) slowly works its wonders. It seems that it is dangerous for them to allow a pause or moment of reflection. “Going inside” means losing your constant, necessary vigilance against the world.

I talked about Peterson with another friend. He remarked that Peterson sounds like he’s trying to speak while someone is throttling his neck.

I hear it too. He’s always running out of time. Why? Because things are always so bad, culture is always dying, the world is always ending. Patriarchy always holds the apocalypse over our heads like some fantasy of ultimate violence: wait till your father gets home.

Peterson’s fans have pointed out that he sounds like Kermit the Frog, which lets them fantasize about his archetypal resonance with Pepe the Frog.

Again, it’s not about data, or content. It’s about free association, rhythm, dream states, and the passions unleashed by all three. Which is why it makes sense that another alt-right babble-mouth Mike Cernovich compares himself to a DJ:

I would say that I pay more attention to what DJs do and how DJs manage their gigs and their fan base than anybody in traditional media. 

Alex Jones has the same throttled, pressurized voice. So does Tony Robbins, though he powers through it. So did the late great B.K.S. Iyengar. So does Michael Roach. So does Trump, though in a less obvious way: you can hear all of his vowels bottlenecking through jaw tension.

This might be a weak correlation. Jones’ voice also sounds soaked in bourbon, while Robbins lives with acromegaly. And of course vocal strain or awkwardness does not imply traumatized charisma.

My gut telling me there’s something more going on with these guys might be more of the same self-centred speech, but I’ll risk it:

Yes, they speak through the feeling of being choked, of having to overcome attackers. They also speak through the strain of the pubescent boy’s voice. as it breaks into a dangerous vision of manhood they feel it’s better to dominate than change.

 

 

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

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

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

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

I once had an exchange like that.

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

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

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

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

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

____

April 16/99

Dear M,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

X