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

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

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

Insiders will be able to better parse out the likelihood of whether this particular political constellation of “acharyas” is equipped to understand the dynamics within which it is embedded and strong enough break out of them. I don’t pretend to have any insights on that. I hope I can, however, point out a key characteristic of crisis communication that does not bode well in the present, and which has deep and influential roots in the past. Continue reading “A Disorganized Attachment Legacy at Shambhala: Brief Notes on Two Letters and a 1993 Interview with Pema Chödrön”

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

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

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

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

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

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

They would be also be the ones who would be least likely to consider the placebo effect of the teaching content. Continue reading “Maybe It Wasn’t the “Shambhala Teachings” That Changed Your Life: A Brief Note on False Attribution”

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

Accountability Or Apologia? Tips for Reading Between the Lines

 

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

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

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

“From Somatic Dominance to Trauma Awareness” – Interview with J. Brown (Transcript)

"From Somatic Dominance to Trauma Awareness" - Interview with J. Brown (Transcript)

Image: myself and Diane Bruni at the #WAWADIA event on May 29, 2014. I refer to this event in the interview. The write-up and (unfortunately) butchered video is here. I love how Diane is looking at me here, trying to figure out how full of shit I am.

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Thank you to J. Brown for having me on his podcast, as part of his series about current news in the Ashtanga world. You can also tune in to his talks with Kino MacGregor, Scott Johnson, and Sarai Harvey-Smith.

Here’s our talk. Resources and transcript (trimmed of intro/outro) below.

 

Karen Rain’s writings on her experience with Pattabhi Jois and Ashtanga Yoga can be found here. I interview her at length here.

I’ve updated my WAWADIA project plans here. My article on Pattabhi Jois and sexual assault, featuring Karen’s voice and the voices of eight other women, can be found here.

Here’s where I’ve quoted Theodora Wildcroft on the fear of contagion elicited by the voice of the victim.

Here’s my conversation with Colin Hall and Sarah Garden.

I’ve posted the classic “Deception, Dependence, and Dread” summary from cult researcher Michael Langone here.

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Transcript

Matthew Remski:

Hi.

Jason Brown:

Hi, how are you?

Matthew Remski:

I’m good, I’m good. I just listened to your intro to Scott Johnson. I didn’t listen to what Scott had to say, but I really appreciated the intro, it was good.

Jason Brown:

Well, thanks. There was still some debate about it, I guess. I just default to transparency and not everybody always thinks that’s a good idea. But for me, it’s where I feel most comfortable. So, thanks. But what else, what’s been going on, how’s your day going? It’s the middle of the day for you too, right?

Matthew Remski:

It is. And I just got up from a nap with alongside the almost two-year-old, Owen. And that was really good because I was up until about 1:30 in the morning after doing another interview with my friends Colin Hall and Sarah Garden at Bodhi Tree in Regina. It took me a while to come down off of that. But the sun is shining, we got some backyard cleaning done over the weekend, we emptied out the basement. Things are heading in an upward arc it feels in many ways.

Jason Brown:

Yeah. You know what, you mentioned two and a half years for your son and-

Matthew Remski:

Almost two, he’s going to be two on May 17th.

Jason Brown:

Well, we last spoke, the last time you were on the podcast was May 2016.

Matthew Remski:

Oh, my goodness. Was he born or not?

Jason Brown:

I guess he wouldn’t have been born because it’s exactly two years ago. But we spoke about that book that you wrote with Michael Stone about becoming fathers and stuff. I remember that. I can’t believe it’s been two years.

Matthew Remski:

Yeah, it’s been a long time. We’ve been in touch since. The difference between the podcast and being on the phone is a little bit thin.

Jason Brown:

That’s true actually. That’s a good point because sometimes, I had Peter Blackaby on and I had not had other conversations with him other than the two that you hear on the podcast, but you and I had had many conversations. There is a three line there. And gosh, so much has happened. When we last spoke, we were talking about WAWADIA still. And right at the end of that, we were saying, “Oh, it’s going in different directions.” And people were sort of, I think upset back then and maybe still that it was started out as what poses hurt you, what poses don’t hurt you. People wanted to sort of have some how to practice safe in clear, simple answers. And you were like, “I looked at it and I don’t know that pose exists. And you were saying that it was going in this direction of the interpersonal dynamics that were going on.

Matthew Remski:

Yeah. That’s a good summary actually. It took about two years to figure out that I was barking up kind of a dissociative tree, that when the hard data is really laid out as I think you yourself suggested those years ago and perhaps before that as well, we don’t really see that yoga is any more damaging physically to anybody than any other physical activity. In fact, it’s probably safer. When that was clear, for a moment I held on to this notion that the problem with yoga injuries is the problem of expectation, that people get involved in this practice for therapy and spiritual healing. And why it seems very bizarre that they would hurt themselves, that they would develop repetitive stress or chronic pain.

I held on to that for a while. But trying to hang a research narrative on that premise became a lot less important than realizing the kinds of stories I was overlooking or I was papering over in the midst of all of the interviews that I was doing with people who had injured themselves or who had been injured by teachers. And a couple of key things happened that kind of spun me around. And one of them was that Diane Bruni was an early supporter of the work and she was one of my first interviews. And she told me about the correlation between overuse, repetitive stress and her hip injury coming out of the Ashtanga world.

And I interviewed her, it was a really compelling interview. She loved the project, she was a big supporter and she wanted to host this event at her home studio in Parkdale here in Toronto. We advertised it, it was going to be under the banner / branding of WAWADIA or my project. And 60 people showed up, and she was going to speak on her injury experience. I was going to give my initial research that was related to psychosocial dynamics of injury. And then we had also a sports medicine doctor who was going to come, and he was going to do a little bit of statistical analysis on who got hurt when and where and how. And Diane was going first, and she just did not follow the plan. That’s not really her jam.

It wasn’t unexpected, but at the same time, what she began talking about was really outside of what I felt the scope of my project should be. She started talking about the whisper network that she had encountered in the late 1990s that informed her that Pattabhi Jois was allegedly assaulting female students. And she described how that led her into a kind of crisis of faith and professional choices like how was she going to associate herself with a system where this was true? And the information that she had was credible. She told the story, and I was sitting there gripping my meditation cushion listening to her say it and thinking, “This wasn’t in the program, this wasn’t part of the deal.”

Continue reading ““From Somatic Dominance to Trauma Awareness” – Interview with J. Brown (Transcript)”

Talking about The Walrus Article on Jois with Colin Hall and Sarah Garden on Bodhi Talks Live

Talking about The Walrus Article on Jois with Colin Hall and Sarah Garden on Bodhi Talks Live

Resources:

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 Facebook friend Joseph Teskey 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.

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.

Whiplash Is a Terrible Movie

Whiplash Is a Terrible Movie

I loathed the movie Whiplash. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll spoil it for you here.

An embittered genius jazz band conductor for an elite New York school emotionally and physically abuses and gaslights the mostly young men in his band, constantly.

Who knows what happened in his own history for him to be this way but it was probably brutal. He plays the boys off of each other in a dominance hierarchy in which everyone pays tribute upwards. The administration knows it, the faculty knows it. Nobody stops him. The school believes he gets results, rather than that they are a selection facility for talent and privilege, and that results can be and are arrived at in many different ways.

The narrative centres around one boy, a drummer, who we watch manage the trauma of this relationship. He does everything he can to please the abuser, including rehearsing maniacally until his hands bleed. The euphoria of music, plus the flow states of his toxic effort, afford him and viewer a kind of spiritual bypassing relief.

But of course the abusive teacher cannot be pleased by any of the drummer’s efforts. Why? Because then he would lose his power.

Accurate depiction of abuse? Yes. Good movie? No, because the writer-director chickens out at the end through a cascade of rationalizations that pretend to show that the abuse was all worth it. He avoids the more obvious, less Oscar-worthy answer, which is that some children survive horrible things with remarkable resilience, while others don’t.

After the abuser wields every trick of power in the book and betrays the drummer in the most epic way, the director then has the boy finally surrender to the abuser and the “process” in a moment of communion through the ecstasy of music. It’s a very Christian apologetic, really, with glory and pain not only contingent upon each other, but that contingency throbbing with an (homo)erotic charge.

Who is caught in the crossfire? The woman, of course. The drummer’s partner appeals to his emotional core, and so she must be discarded. Such an old story: somato-psychodramas between men feed the roots of the misogyny tree. Demeaning women comes to be accepted by patriarchy as an insignificant form of collateral damage.

The pseudo-resolution of the film orbits around the faulty premise that abusive teaching can produce empowered learning. Is there any data for this, or is it merely the best story we think we can tell?

Is it such a prominent story because it’s untrue? Do we have to keep repeating it to convince ourselves it’s meaningful?

I don’t buy it. Abusive teaching can be correlated with certain performed results, but only through a battery of other factors coming together.

We have to name the process: saying the band leader got the drummer boy to show his “essence” – which is what the entire denouement of the movie tells us – is a trauma response designed to relieve cognitive dissonance.

This culture conflates communion with survivorship, which is why brothers-at-arms war movies are a staple. We didn’t actually need to go to war to find out who we really are. Rather, we were sent to war and we found out how we each improvise survivorship according to our privileges and wounds. Except for those of us who didn’t survive, and who therefore didn’t get movies made about them.

Although – the dead were in those movies, really. They were the bit characters who had their heads shot off in order to show everyone else what dangers the survivors survived. That’s the thing about triumph-through-adversity narratives. They require sacrificial victims. In Whiplash, the director throws another kid under the bus to illuminate the resurrection of the hero via contrast. That the sacrificial victim is black adds another disturbing layer.

This is all on my mind because of yoga, of course. In response to a description of teacherly abuse on the Yoga and Movement Research board, someone commented to the effect that the teacher involved was difficult, full of contradictions, but that, like fire, being around him could be “incredibly transformative.”

Sorry, but “transformative” is not the appropriate word. If dude were able to pull himself up short in the middle of his intrusions and say “Wow, there’s my anger management problem pouring out again, full force. I think it has something to do with intergenerational violence and my need to offload my repressed humiliation onto younger men. I’m really sorry” – that would be transformative. Anything less is just a cycle of abuse with chaotic results narrativized by (partial) winners who need to make sense of winning.

I believe the comment also betrays something unintended. It puts the old-school yoga teacher in the category of artist. It suggests: “He’s a genius, but he can burn you.” This has been used as a framing device for guru-types forever.

Of all of the problems with this model, this is perhaps the most pernicious. Maybe it hangs around precisely because of vestigial Christianity, and we can’t stop making sense of things that way.

I’ve never met any, but I believe that spiritual geniuses — unlike artists, who I know a bunch of — would be those who figure out how to not burn others with the coals of their past.