On June 30th, meditation instructor Susan Piver posted this reflection on the crisis unfolding within Shambhala International. On July 5th, I published this response. But before I did I reached out to her to let her know it was coming, and to make sure that she felt it was fair. She asked for one correction, which I made, but then also suggested we book time to discuss our text-exchange via Zoom, and record it. Here it is.
I’d like to thank Susan for her invitation and her resilience in considering criticism. I’d also like to say something I think I left out of recording: I’m sorry my analysis hurt her feelings at first. I really admire her ability to pivot into a discussion nonetheless, and to have been inspired enough to turn this moment into a learning opportunity for her community, and for me as well.
A Disorganized Attachment Legacy at Shambhala: Brief Notes on Two Letters and a 1993 Interview with Pema Chödrön
On Sunday, a unknown number of unnamed “Women acharyas” released this unsigned letter. The acharyas are a group of Shambhala International leaders, empowered by their current head, Ösel Mukpo, to represent the legacy and teaching content of the organization. Their letter responds to a call for action from members outraged by revelations of continued institutional sex and power abuse in their community.
Mukpo stands accused of sexual misconduct by three anonymous women whose voices have been recorded by Andrea Winn in her Project Sunshine report. He has posted a vague admission of guilt. Winn’s work has pried opened an unhealed wound carved out by the abuses of Mukpo’s father, Chogyam Trungpa, and his lieutenants. Those stories are still coming to light, and they are unbelievably savage.
Insiders will be able to better parse out the likelihood of whether this particular political constellation of “acharyas” is equipped to understand the dynamics within which it is embedded and strong enough break out of them. I don’t pretend to have any insights on that. I hope I can, however, point out a key characteristic of crisis communication that does not bode well in the present, and which has deep and influential roots in the past.
From the outset, the framework of the authors is flawed by the loaded language of the organization’s spiritual ideology. They write:
“The women acharyas of Shambhala are writing today to send our love and support to our community at a time of enormous groundlessness.” (emphasis added)
The term “groundlessness” here both indicates and hides the more appropriate word, which would be “betrayal”. The (non)signatories who didn’t know that Ösel Mukpo behaved like his father have been betrayed. Those who did know betrayed those who didn’t, which would mean most of the membership.
Why do the authors use the word “groundlessness”? Because the purpose of the letter, first and foremost, is to maintain the content and ideology of the group. If the writers can do that, they can then maintain interpretational authority over that content. They can still be “acharyas”. The word “groundlessness” positions what follows in the letter as a learning opportunity, but one in which the content of the abusive group will simply be recycled. “Groundlessness” is, after all, a virtuous state or realization described in Middle Way philosophy as a pathway to the wisdom of non-attachment to changing identities or phenomena.
By using it here, the letter writers conflate the trauma of having been stripped of care with the feeling of having seen into the nature of reality. This is tantamount to saying that abuse and abandonment are our natural state, or lead to it. It then follows that finding out that your leader is an abuser is actually (subtly, and with our help you will eventually understand it) a good thing, an opportunity to really put that same leader’s wisdom about “groundlessness” into practice. If that’s their interpretation of the First Noble Truth, then no thank you.
I imagine the “groundlessness” that some of the writers profess to feel here is actually a dawning realization of hypocrisy: that the organization has been talking about one thing for 40 years, and doing another.
Victims may feel stripped of care and support, but they are not “groundless”. They are the ground itself, wounded, right in front of you, under your feet. They were there all along. They don’t need to “be steady within this open space of not-knowing.” They know exactly what happened to them.
Asking the community to be “steady within this open space of not-knowing” sets victims up against members who are entrained to remain not advocate on behalf of justice.
After this opening, the authors cite a plaintive poem from a distressed member, petitioning for restorative action. It begins with:
To the mother lineage.
Please, break the silence.
Please, approach and speak up.
Please, step up to the plate.
Please, protect the girls and women.
Please, protect the children.
Put a pin in that. Remember that members are using maternal metaphors or transferences to petition their elders.
If Judith Simmer-Brown (Distinguished Professor of Contemplative and Religious Studies at Naropa University) and Susan Chapman are part of “the mother lineage”, and also among the (non-)signatories of this letter, their capacity to offer protection is compromised by deep conflicts.
Why? Because their names are signed to this June 30th letter to registrants for the upcoming “Scorpion Seal” empowerment (July 15-26) at the Shambhala Mountain Centre, Colorado:
June 30, 2018
Dear Scorpion Seal practitioner,
Good morning! We Werma Acharyas are writing in the wake of the cascade of
disclosures from the Sakyong and the Kalapa Council and the Sunshine Report
regarding allegations of sexual abuse of power in our mandala. We are heartbroken about these, even while we recognize the health of openness, honest exchange, and strategies for change in our sangha culture.
This is all the more concerning because of the preciousness of the Scorpion Seal teachings we have received from our Sakyong, that have provided such a vision for enhancing human goodness in a setting sun world. These teachings have been so personally important for us, equipping us to work with the most difficult, intractable situations in our world. It is essential that these teachings continue and that they help us work with personal and societal obstacles that plague our lives.
You may be wondering about the Scorpion Seal Garchen at Shambhala Mountain
Center, what to expect, how you feel, maybe even whether to come. We can assure you that we will address the current crisis in Shambhala, sharing our personal responses and deeply listening to each other’s. Rather than retreating to a bubble that pretends nothing has happened, we plan to relate with this painful news in the context of our many practices including Shambhala Meditation and the Inner White Lotus practice of working with the dons, as well as the new practices for your particular Assembly. And we look forward to being with our Scorpion Seal sisters and brothers. We see this as an opportunity to create a fresh karmic stream for our community, going into the future.
We have supplicated the Sakyong to be at Shambhala Mountain Center with us, but we honestly don’t know what he will do. Rest assured, we Werma Acharyas will be giving all the transmissions in the event he is not there.
Please join us with your heartbreak, your doubts, your confidence, and your love of the Shambhala community and teaching, and your connection with our Sakyong. It promises to be a deep and authentic experience.
In the Great Eastern Sun,
Ashe Acharya John Rockwell
Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown
Acharya Michael Greenleaf
Acharya Susan Chapman*
“The Scorpion Seal” is a “terma” or a teaching that was mystically “found” by Chogyam Trungpa in 1980 or 1981, according to Shambhala’s narrative. But according to retreat leader John Rockwell the content “was rather secret, a bit ahead of our times.” It fell to Trungpa’s son, Osel Mukpo, to “open” it, and reveal the “Werma” or ritual practices it reputedly contained.
Whether you find this plausible or not (beliefs are like intentions here: far less important than impacts), two things are important to know.
- This upcoming empowerment/training, with lodging, costs approximately 2000USD to attend. A source forwarded me an email from Shambhala Mountain that stated that there were “well over 200” registrants. This means that this single event could gross up to 400,000 USD.
- If the empowerment follows the typical pattern of Shambhala-appropriated Tantric ritual, it will ask participants to make vows of allegiance to the community, the teachings, and perhaps even to the acharyas and Mukpo himself. The vows will have both emotional and financial impacts. There are several “levels” of entrainment into the “Scorpion Seal”, which, let’s remember, was “discovered” by an abusive spiritual leader well on his way to dying of terminal alcoholism.
So what shall it be, acharyas?
- Listening in “groundlessness” and “not-knowing”? Or
- Selling empowerments to mystical teachings you assert come from the etheric realms?
The answer, if we’re willing to look at this landscape through the lens that Alexandra Stein provides on the attachment patterning that drives cult organizations, is that the acharyas must offer both things at once.
Uncertainty and certainty. Listening and telling. Care and demand. Support and dependency. These are domesticated versions of the most dangerous dyad: the confusion of love with terror at the heart of every high-demand group.
In her riveting addition to cult analysis literature, Stein argues that the primary task that a high-demand group must accomplish in relation to recruits is to take their existing attachment patterning — instilled through familial and intimate conditioning — and, through a “groundless” alternation of love and fear, convert it into a “disorganized” state. There’s a huge literature on this; I’ll let Stein summarize the basics here:
[Disorganized attachment] responses occur when a child has been in a situation of fright without solution. Their caregiver is at once the safe haven and also the source of threat or alarm. So, when the child feels threatened by the caregiver, he or she is caught in an impossible situation: both comfort and threat are represented by the same person –the caregiver. The child experiences the unresolvable paradox of seeking to simultaneously flee from and approach the caregiver. This happens at a biological level, not thought out or conscious, but as evolved behavior to fear. The child attempts to run TO and flee FROM the caregiver at one and the same time… However, in most cases the need for proximity – for physical closeness – tends to override attempts to avoid the fear-arousing caregiver. So usually the child stays close to the frightening parent while internally both their withdrawal and approach systems are simultaneously activated, and in conflict. – Stein, loc 894-903
Now compare the two statements from the acaryas. The “mother lineage” is functioning to both comfort and make further demands. Simultaneously. Stein suggests that such a gambit is not a contradiction, but a feature of the continuously-charged feedback loop of caregiver betrayal that lies at the root of disorganized attachment. This charge will be heightened in environments of physical, sexual, financial or moral abuse.
With Shambhala International, this feedback loop is not new. There will be many examples to point to, but the one that’s fairly well-known and shows the intergenerational continuity of disorganized attachment is this 1993 interview of Pema Chödrön in Tricycle Magazine.
To be fair, this interview is now twenty-five years old, and comes from another era. However, I’m not aware of any widely-available update to these sentiments. Between 1993 and the present, of course, Chödrön has become an international spiritual celebrity. She remains listed amongst the current cohort of acharyas.
Tricycle: Would you say that the intention behind this unconventional behavior, including his sexual exploits and his drinking, was to help others?
Pema Chödrön: As the years went on, I felt everything he did was to help others. But I would also say now that maybe my understanding has gone even deeper, and it feels more to the point to say I don’t know. I don’t know what he was doing. I know he changed my life. I know I love him. But I don’t know who he was. And maybe he wasn’t doing things to help everyone, but he sure helped me. I learned something from him. But who was that masked man?
Tricycle: In recent years women have become more articulate about sexism. And we know more today about the prevalence of child abuse and about how many people come into dharma really hurting. If you knew ten years ago what you know today, would you have been so optimistic about Trungpa Rinpoche and his sexuality? Would you have wanted some of the women you’ve been working with to study with him, given their histories of sexual abuse?
Pema Chödrön: I would have said, You know he loves women, he’s very passionate, and has a lot of relationships with women, and that might be part of it if you get involved with him, and you should read all his books, go to all his talks, and actually see if you can get close to him. And you should do that knowing you might get an invitation to sleep with him, so don’t be naive about that, and don’t think you have to do it, or don’t have to do it. But you have to decide for yourself who you think this guy is.
Tricycle: Were there women who turned down his sexual invitations and maintained close relationships as students? Was that an option?
Pema Chödrön: Yes. Definitely. The other students were often the ones who made people feel like they were square and uptight if they didn’t want to sleep with Rinpoche, but Rinpoche’s teaching was to throw out the party line. However, we’re always up against human nature. The teacher says something, then everybody does it. There was a time when he smoked cigarettes and everybody started smoking. Then he stopped and they stopped and it was ridiculous. But we’re just people with human habitual patterns, and you can count on the fact that the students are going to make everything into a party line, and we did. The one predictable thing about him was that he would continually pull the rug out no matter what. That’s how he was.
There’s too much here to unpack outside of a book-length study. You can probably see the pattern, though. Chödrön employs many of the self-oriented defences I’ve listed here while showing just how powerfully Buddhist rhetoric can be mobilized to evade personal responsibility. It is also a textbook example of I-got-mine-ism.
Chödrön privileges the genius of the abuser over the time, agency, and self-direction of his prospective female student in an equally sophisticated way. The prospective student is supposed to “decide for yourself who you think this guy is”. This is after Chödrön has admitted to his sexual misconduct, as if the “groundlessness” of his teaching puts the actions of the “masked man” in doubt. Women are supposed to invest time and emotional labour in him before understanding his nature, even after Chödrön admits that he abuses power. Intentionally or not, this stunning paragraph manages to both hide and spiritualize an induction into disorganized attachment. Trungpa was brilliant, she suggests — as if this were a sign of care — because “he would continually pull the rug out no matter what.”
Chödrön’s life-long message, inspired by and inspiring Shambhala’s content generally, is about finding rest and space and security “When Things Fall Apart”. We now have to wonder whether this message has as much to do with Buddhism as it does with creating a poetic strategy for metabolizing an abusive relationship that presented itself as loving, and doing so in order for it to continue, and eventually be commodified.
The cultural impact of Chödrön’s views can only be imagined. Never mind that Tricycle thought that this was a reasonable thing to publish. How many people have been influenced by this doublespeak through contact with Chödrön’s writings via Oprah?
In the yoga world, Chödrön’s reasoning vibrates loudly. In late December of last year, Ashtanga Yoga adept Kino MacGregor recommended this very interview to her million-plus followers as a resource that would help them integrate the competing stories of love and terror that constitute the legacy of Pattabhi Jois. Whether it works remains to be seen.
* The June 30th letter was copied from a PDF doc and passed along via a trusted source, but I have not located the original. If you have a copy, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will upload and link it here.
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.
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.
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.
Hi, how are you?
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.
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?
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.
Yeah. You know what, you mentioned two and a half years for your son and-
Almost two, he’s going to be two in May 17th.
Well, we last spoke, the last time you were on the podcast was May 2016.
Oh, my goodness. Was he born or not?
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.
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.
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.
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 slash 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.”
Yeah, sorry to jump in. But I remember when I spoke to her, she came to Brooklyn and I met her. And she came on the podcast and we talked, but she talked a lot more about actually ripping up her hip and then stuff that she felt was wrong with Ashtanga having to do with just biomechanics and stuff. She didn’t necessarily, we might have gone and don’t I really remember, somebody wasn’t the focus of our conversation at that time.
Okay. Here’s the thing and this is where I think you and I as media people in the yoga world have this interesting interaction. If you interviewed her after that event, you might have been the recipient of the fact that I had silenced her because what happened at the event was that we had planned to have it videoed. That whole first section was on video.
I saw it. I remember seeing some video of you guys doing that section.
You didn’t see the story she told though because I actually convinced her to drop it. I said, “Look, the story is uncorroborated, you’re not naming your source. I’m a little bit concerned about legal liability.” I had all of these great rationalizations for encouraging her to desist. By the way, we’re very close friends and we have talked this out since. And I have given her my sincere apology for what ended up being like about a six month to a year long contribution that I made actually to the silencing of this story because I really felt that the sex scandal genre was a kind of dumpster fire of controversy and confusion. And there are specific reasons that I felt that way but are not just personal.
Oh, I remember when we spoke last we were talking about the Jivamukti thing. And I just know that you have often used Facebook as a little bit of a litmus test for things, it seems to me. I could kind of understand why you were being super careful because that’s what people were always coming after you, that’s what people still come after you about in terms of just being too sensational and not sourced or whatever?
Right. That does play into it, but there’s something deeper to investigate there. And that is that I believed somehow that these two forms of harm were separated and separable that somehow the somatic dominance that Diane Bruni and then, of course, the nine women who came forward for The Walrus article are describing in terms of assault is of a piece with attitudes of somatic dominance that are registered in the tissues. I wanted to really pull those apart. But I think, and I also began to realize that the discussion around injuries in yoga was so charged because there was this underlying theme that wasn’t actually being addressed. It’s like, why are we so upset about repetitive stress injuries and why are we really trying to figure out what the best way of doing Trikonasana is?
It seemed to be carrying a lot more than, “Okay, let’s improve our technique when we’re doing spin class.” It was fraught with not just the expectations of therapy and spiritual equanimity, but also it was fraught with I believe this unspoken set of grievances about how we had been taught or how we had been held in the community. I think by the time Diane got to you, she had already sort of been taught by somebody who’s like you, which it was me that this really isn’t the time or place to talk about this stuff. And it was so strange is that all of the arguments that I presented to her were a kind of hyper rationalized version of the arguments that had buried or made people’s responses to that infamous video of adjustments inconclusive. That video popped up for years-
I remember seeing it, I remember seeing it.
Remember what people would say, they would say, “Oh, we don’t actually know what he’s doing.”
It looked bad, but I didn’t trust it because it’s just an out-of-context clip on the internet. I wouldn’t damn somebody on an out-of-context clip on the internet because I don’t trust that.
Right, there is that. There’s the credibility of the technology. But then there’s also when there’s the acknowledgement of what’s actually happening in the physical contact, it’s like, well, these encounters are taking place in the intense and well-defined parameters of long-term teacher-student relationship or guru student relationship. These are advanced practitioners, they know what they’re doing, they know what they signed up for. Obviously he’s touching men and women in the same way, actually obviously he’s not. There was this endless, endless round of equivocation that I really think infected me, it poisoned me in a way to such an extent that I was looking through my emails yesterday to try to figure out when the video started to really catch my attention.
And it was my friend Carol Horton in 2013 who sent it to me. And she said, “Have you seen this thing? It’s really awful, it’s disturbing.” And I wrote back to her, and I saw my reply and it said, “Oh, yeah, I’ve seen it. It is awful.” I don’t know if I change the subject or, I don’t know. It’s just I didn’t follow up on it. And I think what was going on was that one of the things, one of the many things was that in the absence of there being audible voices, it was just too easy to equivocate over the imagery. And for the longest time I thought, well, nobody’s spoken out about this, but I was actually wrong.
In 2010, Anneke Lucas published a blog post that she just reissued in 2016, it had disappeared because the website, you probably remember it Yoga in New York City.
I do, I remember. The problem was is when [Maya 00:14:26] was a problem, but I remember there was the whole thing going on with Yoga for New York and they were trying to regulate the teacher training programs. And we raised money and got lobbyists and actually stopped that. I was one of the first times that that kind of happened. And in the meetings that we had for Yoga New York, this issue came up in those discussions. But I remember being at the time feeling like it was a distraction from the other issue.
Right. And that’s the horrible, it’s this unintentional sort of fog of neglect and rape culture and kind of just low expectations that really delays and delays, and delays the story coming out. Anneke publishes this thing in 2010, she clearly says I was groped this way, this is what it felt like, this is how I confronted him two days later. You can go back and you can find her post. When you put this up, I’ll put it into the comments.
She said it on the podcast, she came on the podcast long before the #metoo thing happened. We talked about it the last time she came on. And I remember, and guess because she also told her personal story, which is also so mind glowing. And then she also mentioned that, but I guess it just at the time seemed so crazy. What’s interesting to me right now is I think we share something in that. You’ve been interviewing people as have I in a sense. And doing that and then going back and observing yourself and your behavior when you’re talking to people about these things, which is just sort of a natural for what we’re doing. [inaudible 00:16:11] anything or whatever, reveal stuff.
I always talk about it on the podcast, and you see, “Oh, crap, look at that,” in yourself. And I do think that that’s been happening for me a lot recently. And that’s what I was talking about on the podcast this week, that trying to address these things as someone who’s starting conversations often means having to do it in yourself and failing sometimes or something.
Oh, I think that’s a huge part of it. I can tell you for sure that getting to the point where I could actually listen just did not come naturally to me. And it really took the patience of people like Diane Bruni who when I’m talking to her about, I don’t think that releasing that part of video is a good idea if we want to keep the focus on safety in asana practice. And she’s like, “But you know what I’m saying is true?” And she looks at me with this face where she’s half exhausted, half disappointed. And I’m like, “Yeah, and what am I supposed to do about it?” And there is the problem right there, it’s like you immediately sort of jump into what you think should be your problem-solving mode instead of just better listenership.
And that was a very hard lesson that I had to learn. And it was really out of those conversations with Diane that I started to pursue the stories. I reached out to Anneke, Anneke put me in touch with Marisa Sullivan. Marisa Sullivan put me in touch with Maya Hammer. Maya Hammer was Diane Bruni’s student in Toronto. And then this sort of web, this network emerged. And all I had to do was to re-associate myself with the awful sensations that I felt while watching that video and to not push them to the side, to not say, I don’t want to deal with that or I don’t know what’s going on there because I was nauseated when I saw that video.
I am not the victim of sexual assault, but I am a victim of male violence and I know what somatic domination feels like in my body and I had a sense of what generally was happening in the depiction of that physical contact. I did not put it together with, oh, this may well be predatory behavior.
Well, it makes me think a little bit of what I think it was Theo wrote recently, might have even been, I think it was Theo when she was just saying that listening to the realities of this, nobody wants to do it. It feels so terrible, and I know I keep bringing it up on the podcast and then just kind of budding it off because, oh, my god, because I want to talk about it because I think we need to. But it feels so horrible so you avoid it.
Right, right. There’s a couple of things, Theo Wildcroft, I’ll put the link to this one too. I published a little thing where I just quoted from a conversation she and I had over Skype about how the story of the trauma survivor is actually contagious. We feel that we will be infected by it, we feel that it will change our world, it will have to change our perspective on everything, on how everything works together, on what right and wrong is, on who’s in control, on whether or not something is good or something is bad. And the deeper sense of infectability, I guess is that you might begin to reorganize your own memories in a different light. There might be some reframing that you’ll have to go through if you hear Karen Rain describe something that sounds pretty familiar but you didn’t think of it that way and then, oh, no, is that something that you have been carrying in some unconscious way as well?
And Karen Rain is a wonderful example of the type of voice that is so hard to listen to because she has zero fucks to give. She has no social capital to win or lose within the yoga world, she has been 20 years metabolizing her experience. I want to take that back, it’s not that she has zero fucks to give, it’s that she is able to speak outside of because she cares very deeply, actually. I know that about whether or not this continues or whether or not it can be improved or healed. Where she has nothing to lose is in the social capital department.
Yeah, I was going to say, I think when you first said what I took was that she doesn’t have any professional skin in the game.
Not at all.
To me, that’s sort of why I have kind of looked to her and I had a chance to talk with her because she’s in that video. And everybody who got into Ashtanga in the early days knows that video. It’s the icon of Ashtanga coming to [inaudible 00:22:10] something, and she’s in that. And we all recognize other people from that video who went on to have these yoga careers.
All five of them.
There you go. I didn’t even know that offhand, but she didn’t go on to have a yoga career. And this is why, and now it’s coming out.
And it’s not just didn’t go on to have a yoga career, she couldn’t have a yoga career. I think this is a very important thing to draw out, of those six people, Karen was one of them, her name was Haberman then. And then we have Tim Miller, we have Chuck Miller, Maty Ezraty, Eddy Stern, Tim Miller and Richard Freeman. And all of them went on to have life long to this day careers in the broadcast of this method. And then we have somebody who completely vanishes. I had been aware of the video and then when I was actually visiting with and interviewing Elizabeth Kadetsky in New York City in maybe 2015 or so, she said, “You should try to get in touch with Karen because I learned Ashtanga from her in New Jersey in the early 2000s. And she had a lot of interesting things to say about her experience in Mysore, but I think she’s changed her name.”
And then I had to do this detective work to find her phone number and then call her up out of the blue. And her outsidership to this entire industry is so perfect and yet, it’s so radioactive. And I think that’s why it is extraordinarily difficult for anybody to even consider inviting her onto a panel or has she done any podcasts anywhere. There’s been a couple of public meetings on this particular issue. And as far as I know, she has not gotten many invitations. And it’s because the actual voice of the victim carries something that must be addressed, it cannot be equivocated, it cannot be turned into a photograph or a video that can be reinterpreted. The person is standing right there and they’re telling you exactly what happened and they’re telling you exactly what would help them.
And it’s no mystery anymore, you can’t stand there and you can’t say, well, I wonder what they want, I wonder what would be good or I wonder what we should do about this going forward. All of those somewhat self oriented concerns just have to dissolve actually.
I hear that. Having had a chance to speak with her and have that exact conversation with her, I felt like it had a big impact on me. I know that that has affected how I’m having the conversation a lot. And I guess trying to sort of think of the other side of the conversation in terms of why she’s not getting invited, I’ve had that conversation a little bit with some friends. And one of the things that someone brought up which I thought was maybe a valid point, maybe not is that I think people are a bit afraid because even when I was talking to her, I said a stupid thing or two and she was very sweet and gracious to help educate me. But it was touchy and I guess people don’t necessarily know that she would want to be on those panels, but you got to ask to find out I guess.
A, you have to ask to find out. B, you’re going to make mistakes. C, if you show good faith and you say, “Yeah, there is obviously something here that I have to learn,” then 9 times out of 10 people in Karen Rain’s position, if they have the energy on that particular day are going to probably respond to that earnestness and say, “Yes, well, out of my desire to help other victims or to improve the culture in general, here’s what would be helpful.” And I can say now that the number of mistakes that I made in communicating with Karen was really almost … Sometimes I wonder about the amount of patience she had with me actually because I don’t have her experience. And not only do I not have her experience, but I have never encountered somebody who’s been able to … There are many people who can do it, but this is my first personal encounter with somebody who can speak so clearly to the facts and to the effects and to the meanings.
I’ll tell you about one thing that I did was when we were going back and forth in our interview process, and that was long, it took place over about a year and a half actually. And there’s is development story to that too, which we’ll describe in a future interview, she and I. But at one point, she decided she was going to make her me too statement and we were talking about that. And I was asking her how she felt and things. And then in the wake of making that statement, I began tracking the responses. And we were discussing the responses, and one of the things that she was very clear about with me was “I am triggered by seeing his photograph. That has a negative impact upon my nervous system, it makes me feel in these ways, that’s very hard for me.”
And what did I do when I was giving her reports on how people were responding in their blog post? I kept sending her just links to people’s blogs where Jois’s face is right at the top beaming. I don’t know how many of those I did before she said, “You’ve got to stop doing that.” I think when she initially said that, I didn’t even know what she was talking about. There’s a level of otherness to that experience that I just couldn’t grasp and so I made mistakes. And it’s really in making those mistakes and having them pointed out through the patience that she showed that I feel I’ve been able to go to college or something in-
Oh, I feel like just trying to have the conversation has been a huge education for me. And it does seem to go beyond how much of the more recent revelations and the reasons that we’re listening to it maybe in ways now that we weren’t before are just because of the #metoo phenomena.
I think it’s integral. When Karen describes why she wanted to make her statement, she says in this forthcoming interview that the #metoo movement came and she said, “Well, I know that I have been sexually assaulted by somebody famous and I have to do my part.” There’s a paradigmatic listening shift that in the yoga world has its own crisis and conflict. In a way, the #metoo movement has had this profound effect on yoga culture so far. But at the same time, it has also encountered particular resistances that are related to the narratives that yoga people like to tell about themselves.
Nobody looked to Harvey Weinstein as a benevolent grandfather who is also a spiritual master. Being disillusioned about him is not so painful, everybody knew that the guy was off and cruel. There’s this extra layer of cognitive dissonance and idealization and mystification that #metoo has to break through. I think it’s happening in a unique way in the yoga world. And in some places, it’s taking a little bit longer than it should, but it’s definitely happening.
Well, that goes a little bit back to me where we started in the sense that if you start out trying to figure out why you’re hurt, you’re doing all this yoga practice and that you manifest chronic pain, which is what happened to me. And you start to examine why that is and maybe even you start a project called What Are We Actually Doing in Asana because of that. And then you first look to some technical things and you can identify things that you think might be it like maybe triangle pose is a problem. You’re trying to find some technical things that you think may be the answer. But when you examine deeper, as you said at the beginning, getting into these conversations with Amy Matthews and Peter Blackaby, you’re like, “But wait, is that really the reason?”
And when you start to look at it, it really comes back for me to something that you threw out there and it’s a term that I think is kind of an important term, this term “somatic dominance”. I think of it in two ways, there’s sort of the somatic dominance of the way a certain teacher and student relate. But there’s even a somatic dominance against my own body.
Right. Well, I think those two things are inseparable actually, that the self relationship, the self objectification, the struggle with one’s own body in some way has got to be an internalization, and who knows which one comes first of the dominant pedagogy that one engages. And yeah, I think that in a way, that’s the core theme of the WAWADIA project. And it was really these stories of criminal acts, of boundary transgressions, of sexual assault and harassment that made the wider theme of dominance as it plays out in subtler ways, in non-sexual ways, but ways that are equally expressive of unequal power dynamics. That’s really the core. And it’s one of the factors, I think it’s one of the factors that contributes to the silencing of personal experience.
I used to go to Diane Bruni’s classes, but I was never in a Ashtanga community and I never practiced Mysore style. And I don’t think I would have tolerated adjustments for very long, although who knows? That’s the thing about being inducted into a system of influences that you really can’t predict what you’re going to accept depending upon what you’re told about it. But having not had that experience, when I imagine what it must be like to spend years every morning six days a week really placing yourself into the hands of the person who will mold you into the shape that you can’t quite attain yourself, that is enormous.
That has to have such profound effects upon other ways in which you would relate to that authority figure. And I think it goes along too with the general report of the silence within the culture. Now, this is not unique to Ashtanga, but the number of people who have described being in those practice rooms and not having time to speak openly with the teacher about how something felt or to give them feedback or to tell them that they were hurt or to speak with them after class or to have tea with them or whatever. That kind of deep, involved, close, intimate, claustrophobic almost somatic space in which a very powerful set of sensations is being negotiated, it’s not really given to stepping back and having a conversation.
You would have to reorient your entire way of communicating with that teacher in order to step back and say, “Hey, can you tell me a little bit about what you knew about Pattabhi Jois and his relationship to his women students?” In order to do that, you would have to completely reorient yourself somatically towards the person you were speaking to. I think that the whole sort of landscape of one body expressing power over another or offering itself as a gateway to another’s experience that they can’t attain themselves, that’s both the root of to me, the WAWADIA project now, but also it’s the sphere of influence that circulates out from the difficult, the terrible stories detailed in The Walrus article.
Well, I’ve been thinking about what you’re pointing to a lot because I just had this conversation with Scott Johnson. And he and I are kind of the same generation where we didn’t go to India and meet the gurus and have a direct connection to them. Our teachers were the Westerners who went and did that. I didn’t have any, I don’t know. The picture of Pattabhi Jois was up on the altar and I was just sort of taught to revere them as the living masters. But it was sort of secondhand through my teachers. But my teachers, at least the ones that I went to, they didn’t set themselves up in that same way with me.
They may have had a certain, I said it on the podcast that the in is the teacher rather than the in being things that that teacher taught other people or something. There’s sort of this difference. I want to come back to what you’re saying because it goes back to the connection between why doing really hard assists and popping someone’s hamstring connector relates to sexual abuse in the space, this idea of somatic dominance. And even in some of the Ashtanga teachers I’ve been speaking to who don’t have this direct connection to Pattabhi Jois as their guru, they still have learned to do these assists. Even like when someone’s in paschimottanasana and they lay on top of them on their back, some of them aren’t crazy trying to pull your leg behind your head.
But when I spoke to these very thoughtful Ashtanga teachers who I think are being incredibly thoughtful, Scott and Sarai, they’re really tackling these things. But when I asked them specifically about this, I asked Sarai, “Do you still do that?” And she said, “I will if someone wants me to, but I do them in a different way.” But she could hear in her voice there’s this question of that. There’s a consent often given to them to lay on their back when they’re in paschimottanasana but that dynamic of teaching is sort of what we’re talking about. I don’t do that anymore, I don’t put my weight on anybody like that anymore because of this sense of dominance to it even if someone wants me to do it in a way.
For me personally what I’ve come to in my own practice and why I do it, it’s not the space where someone could have a conversation with me. I guess what you’re saying to me, they connect. I am there after-class and if you want to talk to me about whatever, that’s what I’m most interested in actually.
I think that there are so many things going on with the squish that you’re talking about from the practitioners that I’ve spoken to. Some students will develop relationships with teachers where that is a moment of deep, sweet intimate connection that feels safe because they’ve built up a field of trust between them over a long period of time. And then some people feel as though it’s something that they have tolerated for a while and some people didn’t like it at all and they gave boundaries. There’s a whole spectrum of responses. But the basic sort of principle of whether or not there’s a transparent conversation around affirmative consent and why it’s happening, why it’s happening. Is it really that the student is being helped into a deeper expression of the posture or is what is happening that a certain type of intimacy is being communicated and that is richly appreciated by both the student and the teacher?
And if it’s the latter thing, there is nothing illegal about that. However, it’s something that should be discussed openly. It should be transparent, it can’t be hidden underneath the sphere of mysticism or “This is the way the parampara does it” or “This is what Guruji did.” It really doesn’t matter that some people really crave that contact, there’s nothing wrong with that. What’s wrong with it is whether or not the reasons for that craving are fully exposed and whether or not they can be interrogated without shame, without guilt, whether they can be fully discussed. And I think this is why it’s a really contentious conversation within the community because the reality is that that physical contact is deeply, deeply nourishing.
And then in the absence of transparency around it, people discovered that the line between that physical contact and a kind of grooming for assault is very difficult to find. And that is a very, very threatening. It’s a very shaky ground I think for the people that I’ve spoken to to be standing on. and I really admire folks like Scott and Sarai and Greg Nardi and his partner Juan in Florida and Jean Byrne in Australia figuring out how to negotiate all of that because it’s rough. It’s like people want contact and yet contact has to be safe. And safety comes through transparency. And transparency comes through honesty about what the thing actually is.
Well, that’s the word I was going to use, transparency because I think a lot of these assists, they have been held up until now with this air of magic. And you know me, I’m an advocate for magic when it comes. But I adopted certain things, I remember standing on someone’s back and pushing my way down to give them cracks. I used to do it all the time to people, people loved it. I think of it now and I shudder. But that’s what teachers did to me, teachers did it to me.
But you think they loved it?
People would ask me for it, they’d be like, “Jay, please, will you stand on my back? Jay, will you stand on my back?” A teacher had done that to me, I liked it and I did it to other people. But I guess there’s sort of this idea that the yoga teacher knows something that you don’t. And that means that you would give over to them because they’re somehow going to do something that you wouldn’t be able to do or know how to do on your own.
Right, right. And think about the vulnerability of that being an embodied ritual where the actual posture that the teacher knows more about than you is the thing that they’re going to put you into that you can’t get into on your own and that you might not be able to get out of on your own. Immobilization actually is a key feature of that moment. And, of course, that brings up all kinds of notions of surrender and trust. And the question for me is, does the yoga world, never mind Ashtanga, does the yoga world have anywhere near as intelligent a conversation around the issues of immobilization, trust, sensation, pleasure and pain as, for instance, the BDSM community does.
Yeah, you brought it up. And I saw that talk with that woman whose name I don’t remember, maybe you know her name.
Tiffany Rose, my friend in Red Deer had a great interview with my friend Daniel Clements who’s in off of the coast of British Columbia, but I think he’s in Japan now. Yeah, that’s where it’s at. I am not a BDSM practitioner, but I am astonished by the richness of the discourse that that community has developed not without its problems, not without its own predators of course. But the richness that community has developed around these interpersonal interactions that are designed to provoke sensation in dyads. That’s what it’s about. And if the yoga world can learn something from that, I think that’s amazing.
I guess it brings me a little bit when we talk about learning from this and what we’re hoping to have happen by making people have to taste this stuff. It’s interesting to me that since I’ve been putting out some of these episodes, the kind of responses and comments and conversations that are happening, they’ve often been kind of surprising to me the way, I mentioned this week, people don’t see the same things or hear the same things that I hear. It goes back to what we talked about when we talked about your personal experience, I don’t know, did you listen to this podcast series called Dear Franklin Jones?
No, I haven’t but I know quite a bit about Bubba Free John, Adi Da, Franklin Jones.
I’m bringing it up because I literally just finished it this afternoon before I got on with you. And for people listen who don’t know what it is, basically, Adi Da who I’ve heard about forever, the same we heard about Osho. There was that big documentary. But the series is by a man whose parents, he was born into it, his parents were in when he was a boy and he was in it. And when he got old enough too, he actually believed and practiced. And then at 16, they left. And he started going through this process through the podcast series of kind of unraveling he loves Adi Da and he also has to face that … He ultimately comes to I was in a cult. And he never thought of it that way. But through the course of the podcast, he comes to that.
I guess my question is, and I can hear people in the back of my mind right now when I bring up the word cult when we talk about Ashtanga yoga. It’s sort of like, how much is there cult-like behavior and how much of it is a cult or is there a line or where is the line? Because sometimes it feels a little bit like that when I try to have conversations about this.
I’m really glad that you brought it up because it’s a discourse that I’m pretty familiar with being a two-time cult survivor myself. And it’s also highly radioactive. And I think it’s because there’s some fundamental misunderstandings about what a cult is and who cult members are. Cult members are you and I who become deceived by systems of influence. There are no predictors of who joins an organization that is deceptive and that begins to control their emotional labor or their finances or their ideas or their friendships or their relationships. People who I lived with in the two cults that I was in came from every walk of life, every level of education, every type of psychological background, every form of trauma or happiness that would be available in the whole menu of human experience.
Anybody is susceptible. And once you get that, once you get that the actual clinical psychology data on cult membership is not about who the people are but what the organization does, then the guilt associated with the word, the griminess, the shitty feeling that people get when they have to ask themselves, “Oh, was I in a cult?” All of that begins to lessen, it doesn’t disappear. But I can say from personal experience and from speaking to many, many other cult survivors to begin to understand that you did not join a cult but rather as Cathleen Mann says, you delayed leaving an organization that misrepresented itself to you. That begins to lessen the burden and allows you to pull back and look at, “Okay. Well, what were the mechanisms here that allowed for this system of influence to operate and then at the highest levels, for it to abuse people? What are the mechanisms there?”
And they’re pretty clear. Going right back to the fundamental research of Michael Langone, the three sort of building blocks of the cultic organization are deception, dependence and dread of leaving. And deception is however the first step. Going back to what you said about how adjustments were presented to you as a younger Ashtanga student. If you heard that, “Oh, this is the way we traditionally do it.” If you heard the sense that the adjustments had some sort of history to them. If you wondered why the teacher was touching somebody’s perineum and you discussed it in a group and somebody said, “Oh, that’s the Mula Bandha adjustment.”
All of those responses, those rationales, they are all deceptive. We know now from the scholarship that there’s no real pre-modern precedent for adjustments in yoga practice prior to the Mysore Palace. We know that there’s no such thing as the Mula Bandha adjustment that at best it’s a euphemism, at worst, it’s a rationalization that contributed to this feeling that something else was going on than what was actually going on. And what was actually going on was more properly termed sexual assault. But there was this veil of explanation over it that began to spread into other area. If we just take the Mysore narratives as an example, there’s this word used parampara to describe the method and the teaching lineage of Ashtanga yoga.
Now, that literally implies at least in medieval tantric terms that a teaching technique or a spiritual transmission was passed on for over multiple generations over centuries from one person to another, not generally through family lines. To call Astanga yoga a parampara, which is now a term that second-generation Jois students have picked up and started to use themselves to refer to how they relate to the Jois method, that is deceptive. It’s not true, it begins to create sort of mirage of importances and mystique and very attractive spiritual aspirations that people want to engage with, but they don’t have factual basis.
The entire origin narrative of the primary series is dependent upon the existence of a book that nobody has seen called the Yoga Korunta, which apparently was found by Krishnamacharya in 1929 in the Kolkata library bound into a copy of the Yoga Sutras. And the word within the culture is that terms like “vinyasa” come from that book to describe the harmonization of movement and breath. And then if you talk to Sanskritists who actually look at the literature they say, “No, there’s no pre-modern usage of vinyasa that works that way.” And these Jay, they might seem like niggling academic details. But what ends up happening is that a kind of phantom city is constructed out of idealizations and deceptions.
And when I say deception, I don’t mean it’s intentional. People can repeat these things because they like how they sound or because it gives them a sense of hope or validity or aspiration or something. But the … Go ahead.
Let me jump first saying, what I want to say is that when I point to what you just did, the research that you’re pointing to about how some of these origin myths and some of these things that we’ve thought of as coming from the ancient wisdom but were kind of maybe invented by charismatic men along the way. When I point to that kind of research that’s being done often by academics, by some people there’s this knee-jerk reaction to it as this baseless attack. To me, it goes back to what I said before, even in my conversations with Ashtanga teachers. Sometimes I have a conversation with an Ashtanga teacher, doesn’t sound like I’m talking to anybody who’s exhibiting cult-like whatever. But other times I’m talking to someone and when there’s an over defensiveness about the conversation, that’s when I start to feel that.
I guess, I’m just sort of wondering it seems to me that often what legitimizes what you’re doing is this connection to some idea of ancient lineage. It’s kind of what we said before to be able to let it come into question means de-legitimizing something that’s really important to you.
And I think it puts people in a very emotionally tenuous position, and I think it’s very painful. People wind up having to resolve a lot of cognitive dissonance. But the thing is that it’s only really problematic, and here’s where we cross over into the threshold of cult analysis. Human beings can believe whatever they want to believe. It doesn’t matter whether they believe that their practices come from unicorns or whether Krishnamacharya got a download from Nathamuni. None of that matters, there are plenty of mythopoeic believes that do not end up fueling abusive organizational structures. There’s no solid correlation between belief and behavior.
The thing that is really good to focus on, and I think this also depersonalized cult discourse in a way that might be helpful is that let’s forget about whether or not the Yoga Korunta is true, let’s talk about whether or not we are willing to create a sphere of deception in which the real asset of the student, the real commodity that we’re going for is credulity. And because if we can get people to believe things, then will they believe me when they come to me and they say Pattabhi Jois just sexually assaulted me and I can tell them, “Oh, well that wasn’t sexual.”
There’s an interview that I’ll publish soon in a follow-up bit where a person who was there for not as long as Karen Rain but but almost describes being assaulted and going to her colleagues and being told preemptively, “Oh, that wasn’t sexual what he did to you.” Now, that’s a deceptive statement because it’s up to her to decide whether it was sexual or not. But it’s a deceptive statement that comes at the end of a long string of other statements that are designed to create a sphere of credulity. It’s not the first time that she’s been lied to. It doesn’t matter what the content of the lies are, what matters is that the individual is being induced into a system of influence and control and something is being extracted from them. That’s what matters.
And some of those deceptions, they’re happening in silence it seems to me.
Yeah. Tell me what you’re thinking about.
It’s sort of what we were saying before that in certain yoga practice rooms, there’s a certain air about it. I remember that expression silence is the best teacher. In that space, you’re set up for this somatic dominance dynamic.
You could be.
It seems to me. And then that’s why for me, it seems to me if you’re not going to have legitimacy because you’re connected to a particular guru or lineage tradition, the transparency and ability to have this kind of dialogue is the only thing that gives you any legitimacy.
Well, that’s a very good point. And I would say that it’s like on the other side of the fear, that, oh, maybe the Yoga Korunta isn’t a thing or maybe there were some exaggerations going on there, or maybe the series are not traditional in the sense that they’ve been changing every couple of years according to how many people have had to funnel through the shala. On the other side of this nauseating fear that perhaps you have been lied to, perhaps you have been deceived, I believe, possibly lies the liberation of transparency, lies the liberation of, oh, wow, it’s amazing what our desire drive us towards, oh, it’s amazing what the process of idealization tells us about ourselves, oh, it’s amazing how we can be vulnerable to manipulation. We really should base our service towards others upon offering protection and safety and safe spaces and trauma awareness.
Far from wanting to just having any animosity towards people’s yoga inquiry at all, for me, personally looking directly at this stuff is actually the source of my spirituality because I don’t see what else I can learn about it except how I am deluded. I don’t see what is more valuable for me to learn except where my blind spots are, except where I shut down Diane Bruni or I can’t actually understand what Karen Rain is telling me, or I don’t want to look at that video, or I want to maintain some image of wholesomeness that is actually fragile and tragic in a way because it’s not going to last.
Oh, I so appreciate that because if we were going to think of yoga as being about some kind of freedom or liberation or moksha, which I generally don’t like to frame it as. But if we were, my experience of freedom is very much connected to just not having any secrets. That’s where I feel that sense of I don’t have anything to hide, I can feel free to talk about anything. I don’t know. To me, is where the freedom comes. And I heard you say in that talk, you offered this definition of moksha that I thought was quite-
Right. Yeah, I said to Colin and Sarah that I had a teacher who gave, I think eccentric and perhaps unique etymology from the nirukta tradition or “what is not said” poetry of the Sanskrit technique where he described moksha as there was a way that he had of translating the roots, but the basic translation of the compound was “the end of infatuation”. And I feel like the process of disillusionment if I’ve been well supported, if I can reach out to reality in other forms, if I can find stability outside of my social bubble, if I can reach out and hold on to something else. And, of course, that depends a heck of a lot or almost entirely upon privilege, then I am able to survive the disillusionment process and perhaps even make it into compost. Yeah, the end of infatuation.
Yeah, the ending of illusions. And to me, that has to do with what I’ve been doing in this process of having the conversation like you described, it feels like practice to me.
Yeah, I feel the same way.
Well, it brings me to something because in getting ready to talk to you, I reached out to some friends of mine who don’t know you so well, who I’ve heard be a little critical of you because we’re friends and I don’t want people to feel like I was soft-balling you. I reached out to them, and it’s interesting because the line of questioning was really I think sometimes a reaction to maybe even your writing style sometimes more than content. But what it boiled down to for me, which I thought was kind of an interesting line of questioning and maybe where we would start to wind it down is it’s sort of about your practice because sometimes people accuse you of being this academic. But I remember from when I talked to you before, you were a yoga teacher, you had a yoga center, you did Ayurveda. You’ve had a whole history of practice. I’m curious about that, what do you practice now?
Yeah. I practice movement every day, sometimes on my mat, sometimes not. I generally sit every day, but I have to be really drawn to … I don’t even know what it is, by some internal ringing bell that says, “Okay. If you have time right now, you should sit down.” I go through the forums that I used to practice when I was in my full-on asana days occasionally. But I’ve also explored so many other different types of movement over the last couple of years that I’m sort of constantly playing and examining, but then I can have an almost nerdy aspect to that investigation that, I don’t know, starts the inner dialog in my brain about what is this action doing and is this functional movement? And what is that sensation actually?
When people ask me, “Would you teach asana again?” I always have to say, I really don’t know how I could. If I lived in Peter Blackaby’s town and he was giving a teacher training, I would probably go and do that. And maybe I would come out the other side and I would feel like I knew what I was doing.
Let me ask you something, when you are doing whatever you’re doing and it’s not like the forms that you learned back from your asana yoga teacher days and you’re doing other things that you describe, do you think of that as yoga practice?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely, absolutely. I think that if there’s the thread of self inquiry, if I’m looking into my sensations and into the pattern of my breath and I am watching the relationship between my breathing arc and my thinking arc and if I’m seeing how thinking is embodied, and if I can feel knots in the flesh related to knots in my psychology, then yeah, that whole holistic and non-dual conversation I think is happening. And if there’s pleasure and interest in that, so much the better. But then also sometimes it’s boring.
I like that, that’s a really good point.
And if it’s boring, for a while, I was like, “Why be bored?”
That’s true. Sometimes I think of boredom as a pleasure, sometimes.
Right. And sometimes it’s not, sometimes it’s connected with ennui and depression. And also if I’m able to feel other people better as the result of what I’m doing on my mat or on my cushion, then I feel like I’m doing yoga even though it’s not like I learned anything particularly from anyone that really made that connection solid. The yoga that I learned, the asana practice and breathing practices, meditation practice that I learned was really about individualistic self inquiry. And there was a sense that your life, your relationships would straighten out a little bit. But now when I can actually relax myself into the difficult conversation or the thing that I don’t know or the blind spot that I’m coming up against or some echo of intergenerational anger that’s playing out in my parenting, if I can do all of that, then I feel like I still definitely have my practice.
I like that. It integrates, it’s that direct connection between that time that you spend in practice and it having an actual application or something to you dealing with the thing that’s at the most forefront or whatever that’s in front of you. And very rarely for me is it about … And I guess it is physical, but often it’s more my direction in life and my relationships as you said, the way I’m relating to people. And I guess I’m wondering now how much has doing these interviews over the last years and hearing these stories and navigating all the stuff, how much has that affected and changes your practice along the way like?
Oh, it’s been at the heart of it really. I think that the selfish part of it is that I’ve learned about ways in which I dissociate, I armor myself, I don’t give positive regard to other people, I project or I fantasize or I transfer or I counter transfer. I’ve gotten to see all of those things. Yeah, I wouldn’t be able to pull those things apart.
Yeah. I guess they don’t really separate out for me either, gain, the podcast and the blog writing and trying to … In a way, to me, I think of it in the sense of almost I need to do it and I think that if we can say the word yoga community, which I’m hesitant. But I think we need to grapple with these things. If some of us don’t go first and put ourselves out there and make mistakes and have to deal with that, then it’s going to be harder for everybody to do it.
Yeah. And one thing I agree with you and one thing that I just want to sort of clarify is that in the midst of answering a question like how these interviews impacted you, I am sensitive to the privilege involved in listening to Karen Rain’s experience being part of my personal development. That’s not what it’s for. It was a very happy development that I feel responsible for paying back in some way. I think that you and I both in this particular arc, in this particular field can, I don’t know, in some ways have these encounters, these difficult encounters that we can ultimately turn around into some kind of spiritual or psychological benefit and not everybody has that possibility.
One of the things that Sarah Garden said last night was that she really liked how in the article the nine women who gave their testimony, the article turned around and showed how they were doing later on. And most of the stories were or the aspects to their stories that the article disclosed were all on an upward arc. Maya becomes a certified psychologist and Karen Rain heals herself through contact improv and dance. And Marisa Sullivan is doing all of these wonderful workshops, and Anneke is doing this fantastic prison work with yoga. And those feel-good stories, that feel-good part of the narrative, I think we want to be really mindful of because there’s a whole bunch of other stories out there, perhaps the majority of people who suffered abuse in yoga community and in relation to yoga methods where there isn’t an upward arc, where the life didn’t turn out well.
When there’s a positive story that arises out of adversity, we really want to remember, this is my firm belief that there’s a whole social matrix that allows that positive narrative to emerge. And that it’s really good if we’re not seduced by the notion even in small ways that somehow it all turns out for the best because I think in a lot of cases, that’s not true.
Well, I appreciate that and I’m glad you brought us back to the women in your article because I think that’s right. I may have fallen victim to some of the things that we were talking about even in the course of this conversation. But I really appreciate that you’re bringing me back to that and also to this idea that I know for myself, and I’m betting it’s true for you that the reason we’re we’re doing this is because we really want there to be healing. And we have our own relationships to yoga that have served us and we’ve seen it help other people, and we want there to be healing. And in order to do that, it feels to me that there has to be this transparency.
Sometimes I think when I get into these conversations with people, it gets to this back and forth and it’s like this who’s more intellectually, more morally superior than the other or something. And we lose this thread of why people are passionate about it. And you said another thing because it’s something I’ve been going through with the whole Kino episode and stuff. And someone asked you about it, and you made a really important comment. You said, “She said that she was conflicted about things,” and you take her comments in that context. And I think that’s important, it was important for me to hear it that as much as I can sometimes have a reaction and feel passionate and get upset where I feel like someone’s deflecting, these are really hard things. And people are grappling with them, and we have to do it in the spirit of like shared humanity or there’s no way we’re going to get through this in a good way.
Yeah. When I encounter statements that are problematic or controversial, I just have to reflect back upon my own divided intentions. You mentioned that, yes, we do want healing. To be completely honest, I’ve also had to negotiate the fact that I want revenge and that my need for justice is very much related to early streams of anger that I have worked in for a long time to try to understand and to try to unravel. And the paradox is that it’s driven me to this work, and it can also harm this work.
Revenge against who?
Well, it’s a long story.
Isn’t that what people are accusing you of sometimes, you’re taking that out on?
Yes, exactly. And they’re right, and a lot of time they’re right. They can feel it and I would say they have a good point. And every time I’ve been accused of this guy is an unhealed dude and he’s toileting on people, I’ve really tried to listen to that. I haven’t always been successful, but I have become more respectful of the paradox of the fact that you do not become an activist without, well, I think it would be very rare to become an activist and certainly not an activist journalist without having a personal need for some kind of justice. And the problem with that is that every story becomes about you. And what was so fortuitous for me, so lucky was to somehow find myself involved in this process where I could step out of the way and let these nine people speak. I really could step out of the way. Now, that didn’t come naturally to me.
Yeah, I was going to say the folks at The Walrus did you a big service I think because I’ve read all your stuff and this one, there was none of those moments where the alarm goes off and I go, “Oh, Matthew,” that little flourish of a language, you just know that’s the thing that everybody’s going to jump on. But it seems like this particular article was quite impeccably checked and sourced and there wasn’t that in there. And I haven’t seen anybody being able to jump on you for that in this one.
Yeah. I’m grateful for that, that kind of firewall that’s provided. But I’m even more grateful for the lesson that I learned through that editorial process and others, which is it’s the paradox is you’re driven here by a sense of justice, you have a passion for it and you cross over the threshold and you really have to leave that at the door. And I think the article is largely a result of my being helped to do that. And now the problem that I think I’m going to have to face next is that I have to cross back over that threshold outside of the mainstream feature article mode. And if I go farther with this material, which I intend to, I do have to bring back the analysis and the personal positionality. And I have to be able to say, “Okay. Along with this evidence, here is my research input, my observational input into where this story goes to next.” And I think that’s going to be interesting to navigate.
And I know just in our conversations, there’s a lot more in the research that you’ve been doing over these years and it does seem like there’s bigger works coming. This was just a little bit of something that came up and maybe because of recent and current events with me too, but it does seem like all of this is leading to much larger works. I was one of those people who helped finance WAWADIA a few years ago, and I’ve heard people express little grief. Maybe we could give a little update. I think I’ve been privy to conversations with you and been learning, and I think people have on Facebook been learning from the project as it’s been happening. But I know you’ve got plans for stuff to eventually come out. Where are you in that process?
Yeah. I sent out a too late update to all of the crowdfunding supporters. I think the day that the article was published, I said basically this is, and I put the same statement I think on the WAWADIA page on my website. and I basically said, “This is why this project is late is that it took a left turn into the investigative and into the interpersonal dynamic of toxic pedagogy.” And now that that has been covered, that data has grown. The backstory on The Walrus article is that it was accepted for publication in December and it took basically five months. And during that time, I continued to compile data, I continued to research.
And what I thought was going to be the second chapter in a book called Shadow Pose as my agent has been flogging throughout North America for the last year is now too large to fit into that book. And it’s got to become its own book, but its own book really dedicated to the industry itself and presented as a case study for how abuse can happen within a yoga community, how it can be enabled and how it can be prevented. That will be the first volume of the WAWADIA project, which is now going to be at least two volumes long. The second volume is still called shadow pose as far as I’m conceiving it. The book on Pattabhi Jois is 180 pages in manuscript form right now.
The second book is still at its 300 pages that it was before with the Jois material extracted or at least reduced. And it’s going to be a much more generalized alternative history of the modern postural yoga movement that describes the movement from somatic domination to trauma sensitivity. That’s the basic arc, how did that happen? Who were the major figures in that? And how did the trauma-sensitive movement arise in response to realizations around somatic dominance in the yoga world in general?
Well, I think that final note you just made is sort of where we’re at.
I think that’s the story, yeah.
That’s where we’re at.
Right, right. If there’s a short way of describing the arc of the last 50 years, we have gone from somatic dominance to trauma awareness.
And practice is reflecting that.
And practice is reflecting that. And modes of teaching are reflecting that. And that’s the story that I’m trying to tell not in an academic sense, but in a kind of interview fieldwork sense that focuses on key figures like Donna Farhi is a key interview subject for that book because she begins her career in the Iyengar world and spends eight years there and then has to leave. And she goes on to create her own thing.
Well, I guess there’s one last little tidbit that I got from your talk last night that is maybe the perfect note for us to end on at least in my mind, which is this story that you told about the older woman and the younger woman next to each other at a Pattabhi Jois practice. Do you know which one I’m talking about?
I do. Did you want me to just-
I want you to tell it again even if people heard it because there’s a lot more who are going to listen to this and maybe saw that Facebook Live thing. And to me, it really kind of encapsulates what we’re just saying, maybe just tell it again if you don’t mind.
Yeah, sure. One of my interviews was with a senior Jois student, and she’s probably in her late 50s now, she might be in her early 60s. And she went to Mysore several times, she was thick in the Ashtanga community in her home state in the US. And somewhere in the early 2000s, Jois came back on tour to California and was in one of these big gym environments and there was a couple of hundred people there or something. And she shows up, and she’s maybe in her early 50s then. She rolls out her mat and there is a woman in her early 20s who rolls out her mat beside her. And when Joyce comes in, he walks around and he greets everybody. And he recognizes the older woman, and he says hello and greets her.
And then as he passes on in front of the younger woman, the younger woman says, “Oh, hello Guruji, I have this problem with my back,” she names some condition, some injury or vulnerability. And she says, “I would rather not be adjusted today.” I’m interviewing the older practitioner, and she’s recounting this story. And when she gets to quoting the younger woman, her voice fills with indignation. And she says, “What kind of nerve does that young woman have? Who does she think she is? She’s going to come into this room and demand that the Guru not touch her? That’s why she’s here, why did she even come?”
And it was this kind of stunning moment for me in the interview recognizing this deep generational divide that the older generation is expressing indignation over the younger generation asserting agency over their bodily autonomy. And I just thought it said so much. And it said so much about things also changing naturally and organically and without a lot of effort too. There are tremendous efforts on several fronts. But in other ways with a thousand different little cultural movements, it is gradually becoming unacceptable for one person to exert somatic dominance over another. I’m trying to bring the way that happens into focus.
I really appreciate it because I do think there just has been a huge change. Even among people who haven’t been saying this previously, I’ve been hearing them say it where, yeah, in the past, nobody ever asked. And now, it’s not cool to touch somebody without asking.
Right, right. Figuring out how that happened and trying to tell that story clearly, I think can only strengthen the values that are being expressed. That’s what I hope to go on and do. And I kind of dodged, “What’s your publication schedule?” I’m kind of negotiating figuring out exactly when this first book will be done. But I do want to say that I hope within a couple of weeks, I’ll have a firmer answer.
Fair enough, fair enough. I for one don’t mind. Again, I have a friendship to you, not everybody has that benefit. I know you’ve been working on stuff. I know you didn’t just take the money and run.
There were no vacations.
No, you’re working hard on this stuff. I hope that in this conversation we’ve done some of what we were just saying in terms of these conversations being yoga practice and finding these ways forward.
Well, thank you.
Oh, no, Matthew, thank you. It’s been great to talk to you, I’ll be in touch. I think this is going to post in two weeks, I’ll let you know for sure. All right man, take care. And yeah, it’ll be ongoing.
Okay, yes, have a great day.
All right man, take it easy.
Karen Rain Speaks About Pattabhi Jois and Recovering from Sexual and Spiritual Abuse — Video Interview
Thank you for visiting this page. If you scroll down past these intro notes, you will see the full transcript of the interview offered below, for easy citation.
We’d like to start with a trigger warning:
This interview conveys details of sexual assault and the silencing of a victim of sexual assault. The descriptions are detailed and emotionally charged.
One of our supportive advisors offered the following feedback: viewers should leave good time for self-care while engaging with this video.
It was suggested that this might be especially important not only for those whose trauma occurred in yoga spaces, but also those who have gone to yoga for healing.
We’d also like to offer the following resources, notes, clarifications, and links.
- The Walrus: Yoga’s Culture of Sexual Abuse: Nine Women Tell Their Stories
- Karen Rain’s blog.
- Anneke Lucas’ 2010 disclosure (republished in 2016). This is to my knowledge the first public disclosure.
- Bodhi Tree Yoga, Regina, SK. (Thanks, Colin and Sarah.)
What I’m learning from others is that trauma stories can rarely be remembered and told in anything that resembles a linear arc.
The reason for this is that trauma disorganizes the continuity of the self.
Details are broken, and their fragments are retrieved in an unpredictable order.
Therapists have known this forever. They register the verbal evidence of the earthquake: patients stutter, loop back, gap out, break in with non sequiturs, change the subject, and weep.
Imagine trying to pick up the pieces of a smashed mirror. You’ll never be able to do it in the precise order or radius in which they scattered.
You’ll pick up what you can, according to the energy you have. You’ll cut yourself in the process. It will take a long time, and what you put back together will never be complete.
Problem: journalism and the law often cooperate to enforce a general societal demand that disregards this reality of the trauma story.
We ask the trauma survivor who chooses to tell their story to present something like a news story or a legal writ. We want it scrubbed of jagged emotions. We want them to present the mirror of their continuous self as though it had not been smashed.
This demand is so unreasonable, so tone-deaf, that the person trying to pick up those pieces can be easily discouraged, humiliated by the mess that somehow they must make whole again for it to be heard, let alone believed.
We say that we hope the trauma survivor is working this all out in therapy, without realizing that the way in which we listen may be playing a critical role in whether it can be worked out at all.
We don’t understand that our responses can have a direct impact on the accessibility of those memories. A denial or deflection from the listener can easily and shamefully reinforce the very repressions of denial and deflection that the speaker is trying to break through.
Most of us are neither journalists nor lawyers. But we can all be better listeners through this single practice: when you hear the beginnings of a story that sounds like it is conveying trauma, don’t interrupt. Not with questions, contexts, challenges, equivocations, or it-can’t-be-that-bad-isms.
Try to imagine that you’ve started to eavesdrop on someone picking up those shards. You can’t see the shards, and you’d need some professional training to help the person in any explicit sense.
The very least you can do is stay out of their way, and let them know you are listening. A further step would be to indicate you understand how much it costs them to speak at all. It may be hurting them to speak.
If all you can offer is a fraction of the time and space that was stolen away, that’s really something.
Note: I am not a trauma specialist or trauma counsellor. I’m I writer who has been interviewing people who have had adverse experiences in yoga culture, in support of the WAWADIA project. For qualified trauma-sensitive support and training in yoga modalities, check out the work of Molly Boeder Harris, Tiffany Rose, and Hala Khouri, to name just a few. Also: although I did not see this (or any similar) article prior to working with the mirror metaphor, I am not the first to use it in this context.
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 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.
- A long breath, deep or shallow, never gets old.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- I love talking with Jivana Heyman. Social media allows me to fantasize a wonderful IRL community.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- I’ve learned that yoga trolls are like vrittis, and yes they can be stopped. With single-pointed concentration on the “Block” button.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Some yoga researchers are so generous. Like this one. And these ones.
- Uma Dinsmore-Tuli suggests that all of the wild alchemical aspirations of medieval yoga may be a cultural case of womb-envy. Woah.
- 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.”
- Consent cards.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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’.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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:
- 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.)
- 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?”
- 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.”
- 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”.)
- Memory is a part of consciousness. You really want it to be dirty?
- You can also cast doubt on their future in general: “What exactly do you hope to get out of this?”
- Or, in particular, being sure to predict their future unhappiness: “What satisfaction can you extract from a old/senile/dead man?”
- 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.
- 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.
- Put more simply: you can appeal to the language of spiritual unity to explain why telling stories about abuse is divisive.
- Remember to always conceal your personal need to avoid consequences behind an abstract wish for collective peace.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- Remember that the intentions of the teacher/guru/organization were ALWAYS good.
- Remember that your intentions are ALWAYS totally neutral. You have nothing at stake in how that teacher/guru/organization is portrayed.
- On the other hand, the accused, even if dead, has a lot at stake: “He has a wife and children. Think of them!”
- If you ever doubt the intentions of teacher/guru/organization, remember that people are always flawed. What’s important are the teachings.
- 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.
- Suggest that the need to be heard and seek justice creates more cycles of karma.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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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Image: Father Yod of the Source Family.
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.
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.