At about ten days into social distancing — and improvised homeschooling — this tweet sailed across my feed:
I laughed, but it hurt.
We have an almost-4 year old and a 7 year-old at home. Last night the provincial government sealed up the parks and beaches. The boys haven’t been within six feet of their grandparents for weeks. Yesterday, everyone over 70 was asked to self-isolate.
Parents are on their own these days. It’s one thing to not have access to child-care. It’s totally another to not be allowed to have any, or to get any from extended family. Every family, in every configuration, is on its own island of togetherness and aloneness.
It’s challenging, and we’re meeting it — to the point of it being a transformative experience in some ways. Relational peace and resilience is an incredible privilege. And I know we’re a thousand times luckier than so many. Anyone who is parenting solo now, or exposed to substance abuse or domestic violence — my heart just dies. When the vulnerable are isolated, the veneer of nuclear family safety and its independence cracks.
Back to the tweet: I’ve never, to my recollection, said anything so intrusive and insensitive as what wittyidiot reports to any of my non-parent friends.
But I sure have felt it.
And when I recognized myself feeling it, and I realized it felt off, I took a look at where that feeling was coming from.
On my generous and gregarious side, there is, without a doubt, some inexpressible joy that parenting has filled me up with, to the point that my prior life feels unrecognizable and haunted. And I wish I could just share that with everyone. But on my narcissistic side, there’s a part of me that wants non-parents to validate my choices with their bodies. I want them to share my stress — as if they didn’t have their own. If I were to speak wittyidiot’s quote aloud, I would be speaking from that voice.
wittyidiot’s burn is on point. Whoever said that to him, intentionally or not, was inflating a selfish and defensive need to the point of trumping basic manners towards the many reasons, chosen or not chosen, for not being a parent.
The tweet also points out that the sentiment of “the greatest joy” is, when spoken aloud, disingenuous. When the shit hits the fan, it goes silent. Shouldn’t being a parent be “the greatest joy in life”, for better or worse? Yes, it should. Unless what the parent is really saying, in a passive aggressive way, is: “When are you going to take on the same stress that I have?”
The inflated parent is forgetting, of course, the stress of loneliness, or of building a chosen family, of miscarriage, or moral and political conviction, or simply other work in the world.
They’re also failing to anticipate just how much worse the stress of parenting can get, to the point of that unforgivable thought: that they wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
For me, the last time this issue popped out of the collective unconscious and into the memosphere was from the other side, when that “Lady No-Kids” cartoon by Will McPhail made the hetero-normie rounds:
I laughed then, too, but it didn’t feel clean.
I especially didn’t feel comfortable that the target was a non-parenting woman, contrasted with the mature mother pushing the stroller and herding the 4 year-old. It deepened the misogynistic double-bind of “You’re either frivolous, or responsible for everything.”
Happily, it looks like McPhail evened out the scales with a follow-up:
Gender aside: McPhail illuminates the bald fact that through lack of experience or imagination, the non-parent can be blind to their privileges of time and relative autonomy. And if they flaunt this, knowingly or not, or make assumptions about what their friends who are parents can and can’t do, it can be frustrating.
Or worse: for some it might provoke a grief — shameful because it’s not easily admitted — for a former life, or for choices that could have been. There are now 15K in the “I Regret Having Children” Facebook group.
The first time I clued into this tension was when the priest who was the principal of the Catholic school where my mom worked asked the staff to take on a bunch of extra tasks as though they would be giving up happy hour. I remember my dad grumbling, “Father So-and-So needs to wash some diapers.” I was young, but I understood that this wasn’t just about the work itself. Dad was talking about the kind of work: we don’t float above anything when we’re up to our elbows in crap. We don’t sit in cathedrals in contemplation. We don’t do yoga vacays.
But McPhail’s exaggeration leaves a sour taste. The heteronormies are buttoned-up. Lady and Lord No-Kids are obviously silly.
The problem with the caricature — maybe part of its purpose, in fact —is that it conceals the more stark challenges to parenting as an existential identity.
I have anti-natalist friends who say outright that it’s immoral to have children, given the imminent timeline of ecological collapse. It’s hard to argue with them. I have feminist friends who say that we just don’t have enough justice to allow for parenting partnerships — especially if they are hetero — that are structurally equal. It’s hard to argue with them. I have anti-capitalist friends who pinpoint the heteronormative family as the heart of consumerism, masquerading as love. I have climate collapse friends who say: “There’s no problem in the world that can be solved by bringing more people into it.” I know birth-striking millennials, melancholic but resolute.
All of these folks have good points. None of them are following geese around while not wearing pants. If you were to feed them wittyidiot’s line, “When are you going to have children?”, they would hear: “When are you going to conform to your gender identity? When are you going to accept your fate? When are you going to just admit you’re a producer and a consumer, just like everyone else? When are you going to get down in the shit with us?”
But there’s a lot of ways to wash diapers, and everyone has a fate. Many of these same non-parents are masters of the “chosen family” structure, which binds together those thrown out of the nuclear shelter, or those who had to flee. It’s not all extra yoga and non-fiction. They’re the ones who often have more time to volunteer, reach out by phone, share their baking, or take on an extra therapy client, pro-bono. One anti-natalist I know is spearheading vegan food distribution for the homeless in Santa Barbara. He’s committed to never having children, but he works as hard as I do, or harder feeding people he’s not bio-responsible for.
Here’s something else I’ve noticed: many of the most influential eco-prophets of our time — the “doomers” who can say what others are afraid of saying about tipping points and mass extinction events, for example, and how close they are — are non-parents. Do they have less to lose in speaking the truth? Conversely, many of the most prominent boosters of green capitalism or Green New Deals, or the belief that there are political or technological fixes for collapse — are parents. I think there’s a connection between the biological hope of parenting and maintaining a politics of progress, even when the cold hard math is all wrong.
So far the lockdowns are shining a blinding spotlight on certain differences between parenting and non-parenting life. But what if we looked for something else?
In previous lives I’ve lived on several sides of this divide, albeit in my white, male and hetero way. I’ve been single (obviously), and I’ve step-parented for seventeen years, and now I’m partnered with two young boys.
As a stepfather I was devoted and committed. But I was also resigned to always being on the bio-responsible periphery of more central relationships. The buck never stopped with me. There were years in there where I didn’t think I would be a parent in what I conceived of at the time as a more meaningful way. I’m not saying that step-parents can’t have or feel exactly what bio-parents do — if that can even be generalized — but I didn’t, not quite. Part of that may have been my own emotional avoidance, but a lot of it was circumstance
It did however give me a powerful experience of simultaneous inclusion in and exclusion from the most privileged unit in our culture: the nuclear. This, along with other life circumstances — like being recruited into two cults in which family life was present but ambivalent to the point of being devalued — meant that I also socialized on both sides of that divide.
Back then, I had friends with children and friends without. Childless friends who were happy that way, and those who weren’t. Friends who had taken vows of celibacy that suited their introversion. Friends indoctrinated into celibacy who were quietly raging. Friends who grieved miscarriages and not finding the right co-parent. Friends who felt the clock run out. Friends who knew that having a lot of sex partners wasn’t conducive to parenting, and they weren’t about to change. Friends with children who talked about it, too loudly and defensively, in the way that wittyidiot skewers in his tweet. And also friends with children who were overwhelmed, depressed, terrified that they were passing on their trauma to their kids.
Later, when the stars aligned and I did become part of the nuclear club, I was rudely awakened to the fact that I might not continue to have that same connection with friends without children. The first volley was fired by a good friend at the time. When I told him my partner was pregnant, he ghosted me.
It really hurt. But it made sense. We never got to talk about it at the time, but my guess is that he was betting I wasn’t going to be as available to him, and so he cut his losses.
He was right. No more two-hour lunches, spontaneous cafe chinwags, or hanging out after events. He’d probably seen it happen with other friends: that tunnel-vision-descent into worry and expectation and rearranged values in service to the imaginary baby, but on a functional level can feel pretty narcissistic to the person who can’t share it.
And what a paradox. Expectant-parent worry puts you in a place where you really don’t want to be disconnected from anybody important to you, and yet it is exactly this narrowing vision that can drive key people away as if you had a virus.
At the same time, I felt myself being recruited into a new club. Men who were already fathers smiled at me with a mixture of fatigue, recognition, pride, and schadenfreude: “You won’t regret it,” but also “You won’t know what hit you,” and “See you on the other side.”
And the weird thing about that club? Its impersonality. For me, it feels more symbolic than embodied. I’ve noticed that the men seem to nod at each other more than converse. We share that peculiar nuclear alienation: we belong to families that are largely hidden from each other, but we also share an abstract social power.
Much of the abstraction is a function of time. The demands of the nuclear arrangements that we have — artifacts of patriarchy and capitalism — simply don’t allow for the same levels of sharing time between equals that often characterizes non-parenting or pre-parenting life. Add to that the fact that parenting seems to shunt many families into social funnels determined less by shared interests than biological circumstance. In the meeting places — playgrounds, schoolyards, gyms, instead of parks and cafes — there’s less talk about life in general than about life with children.
And this must make us very narrow-minded at times to our non-parent friends. We don’t have time. Or we don’t share the same timeline. It might also make some of us angry, in that wittyidiot passive-aggressive way.
My gut says there’s some intrapersonal confusion as well: when the parent is trying to communicate with the non-parent, they might feel they are looking back into a life they remember. It’s not true. They’re looking at someone else. Some whose path, with a slight shift in perspective, can be an object of admiration, simply because it is so different.
I don’t have any big “Can’t we all just get along” ideas. The exchanges that wittyidiot lampoons and McPhail exaggerates should obviously just stop, or be kept private.
But there are a few public behaviour things I think we can agree on, especially on social media. That is if you care enough about this particular tension to help build a culture in which parents and non-parents empathize with each other. And especially if your social feeds contain a mixture of parents and non-parents.
IMHO, parents should really own that it’s tempting to use their children to self-object all over Facebook. To use them to show how busy or stressed or fun or woke they are. Or to hide behind. Beyond the massive consent issues involved in using your kids this way — something that non-parents may be more attuned to and put off by than we know — there’s a difference between recording and performing what happens in one’s life. The more one does the latter, the more abstract parenting becomes for everyone. Our relationships need less symbolism, not more. And if you’re a heteronormie, you may be contributing to conventional narratives that continue to bury other experiences.
If you know non-parents who are lonely, maybe text them? Explain your time is limited, but that you’re thinking of them?
And non-parents: pandemic lockdown might not be the best time to post pics of yourself in bubble baths or meandering diary entries about how bored you are. If you know parents who are struggling — reach out to them, maybe? You could read a book to a friend’s kid over Zoom. It sounds small, but it’s extraordinary what even a half-hour of relief can give.
Maybe it’s also for you. Imagine that book you read to that kid over zoom contributes to their ability to concentrate and focus, and that they take that skill and develop it to the point where they’re able to intubate you smoothly when you need ventilation during whatever pandemic hits us in 20 years.
As for me, I’ll continue owning my feelings and softening my judgements. I don’t know what life I would be living if I wasn’t parenting with my partner. But I trust there are men out there who are living non-parenting lives with integrity, supporting the world in amazing ways I cannot.
And maybe one or two out there will see that I’m trying to work on unknotting a primal jealousy of parenting: to fantasize that someone will take care of you unconditionally when you become a baby again. I’ll admit it: I regularly visualize my deathbed, and imagine my sons on either side, holding my hands. The stories starting to pour in from Italy and Spain of parents dying alone fill me with longing and terror.
But something tells me a fantasy that rides on a notion of the care to which parenting entitles me won’t soothe longing, nor overcome terror. I want to fantasize about fostering a future of care for everyone.
Here’s a slightly edited and updated collection of some recent Facebook posts on the “But Kundalini Yoga Works!” meme that’s floating around in the wake of the KY/3HO abuse crisis, prompted by the publication of Premka: White Bird in a Golden Cage: My Life with Yogi Bhajan, by Pamela Dyson.
My aim is to address a recognizable tension: the cognitive dissonance of trying to process the fact of Bhajan as an abuser against the deeply felt experience that his techniques were healing, or even life-saving. In the cult literature, these seemingly irreconcilable facts are described as, in some cases, deeply intertwined.
Maybe Kundalini Yoga Techniques Are a Form of Social Control
“A group or movement exhibiting great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employing unethical manipulative or coercive techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it), designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community.”
— West, L. J., & Langone, M. D. (1986). “Cultism: A conference for scholars and policy makers.” Cultic Studies Journal, 3, 119-120.
Maybe Kundalini Yoga Works through Trauma Responses
The second phase of a trauma response is dissociation: “detachment from an unbearable situation.” As previously described, in this state, both physiological states of hyperarousal and dissociation are activated: internal energy-consuming resources are simultaneously on full alert at the same time as the person is dissociating to try to shut down and conserve these resources. Imagine the toll on the body that this two-fold unresolvable process must take. Eventually, dissociation – freezing and giving up the failed effort to escape – comes to dominate. Along with giving up the struggle to fight against the group and the fear it has generated, the dissociated follower comes to accept the group as the safe haven and thus forms a trauma bond. This moment of submission, of giving up the struggle, can be experienced as a moment of great relief, and even happiness, or a spiritual awakening.
Maybe Kundalini Yoga Works Because It Carries the Domination Affect of Yogi Bhajan | a note on Gurmukh’s Abuse Crisis Statement
This thought began to form in response to reading Dyson’s book and some testimonies on the Premka page about how Bhajan dominated everyone’s lives through a grandiose ideology that required constant material attention: a thousand different tasks, rituals, protocols, attitudes, gestures.
“Dominated” is the key word here. “Dominated” in the sense that no one else had time or space to have their own life, their own reality, their own feelings. One of the hardest parts of Dyson’s book for me to read was where she quotes Bhajan repeatedly saying things like: “You must be like me,” followed by pages on pages of Dyson discovering that her own identity had been suppressed, supplanted, negated, and that she had to find it again.
Domination was the root of the religion. Daniel Shaw details the granular level of how this might work in his masterful work Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation. His erudite psychoanalytic appraisal of the Bhajan-like figure — in his case Gurumayi of SYDA — shows a person who is terrified of anyone around them asserting their own agency, for then the world and and others in it would no longer be theirs to control. It would feel like a mortal threat.
Dominate in order to control, and do it completely, passionately, sleeplessly — or else you will die. I’m familiar with these themes from studying cult leaders.
But the possibility that they are baked into the very content and method of Kundalini yoga itself was made much more clear by Gurmukh’s post yesterday. Many have noted this quote in particular:
“Between the flu and the allegations, from the center of my being I choose Joy. This is sincerely all that I can do. I stand for Joy. My platform is Joy. Joy is the opposite of fear. Fear breeds more fear. Joy breeds more Joy. In my choice I choose to teach Kundalini Yoga throughout the world, God willing, until my last breath.”
Look past the white saviourism of the journey, the conflation of a virus for institutional abuse, the bypassing. The hidden-in-plain-sight message here is domination, albeit disguised in an emotive language of emotion that is coded maternal, receptive, and surrendering.
Come what may, this faithful practitioner will exert their will to Joy over all reality. No other emotion or perspective has the right to exist. With Joy she will cancel Bhajan’s critics. No one else — and obviously not survivors — will be referenced. Everything emanates from the centre of their being… and what emanates is Kundalini yoga (as taught by Yogi Bhajan), and she will colonize the world with it. This virus-infested, allegation-ridden world, teeming with orphans who will be Joyful when they are visited by the bearer of Joy.
So when I see people talk about how much Kundalini did for them — especially in totalistic terms: “It transformed my life” — I wonder about how much domination is wrapped up in that: domination of intuition, of one’s past, of trauma, of appropriately negative responses, of questions and doubts, of reasonable desires to wear jeans or drink wine. I wonder how much success in practice is generated by dominating the unwanted or disowned parts of oneself. And on the professional level: how much domination does it take to suppress bad news, to enforce cognitive dissonance, to make sure one’s buzz doesn’t dim and one’s brand isn’t tarnished, to be able to stare questions down from the mountaintop.
I don’t doubt that it helped many people. Pressure and encouragement can do that for a while. The question would be when and how helpfulness crosses that threshold into domination.
However Kundalini Yoga Works, It is Aided by “Bounded Choice” | Looking at Snatam Kaur’s Crisis Statement
Janja Lalich is a cult researcher whose work has been very important to my own healing. One of her most illuminating concepts is “bounded choice”, and it helps to explain just how difficult it is for a high-demand group or cult member to see their way clear of the insular ideology that has functioned to narrow their world.
Briefly put: “bounded choice” is the condition of having been trained to believe that everything that happens in the group, or that the leader does, or that is taught or produced by the group, is for some ultimate good. This means that everything becomes grist for the salvation mill. If the practitioner falls ill because of dietary restrictions, they’re being taught to detach from the body. If they are left impoverished, they are being taught about the maya of worldly wealth. If they are forbidden to marry, they are being taught the virtue of renunciation. If they are forced to have an abortion, they are being taught to give up on the wheel of life.
Bounded choice allows the leader and the group to continually move the goalposts so that the member is never able to convincingly say: “This is wrong. This doesn’t work.” It also does the crucial work of never allowing the group to be challenged by any external information.
The interpersonal examples above are fairly easy to spot when you get the hang of the idea. What harder is the subtler aspect of bounded choice, which is what is at play in Snatam Kaur’s invocation that all KY members should recommit themselves to chanting the mantras as they try to make sense of revelations of abuse in their group.
In Kaur’s view, the mantras are held up as all-good, all-saving, primordial, and sacred. It’s unthinkable that they were ever used to deceive, to baffle, to love-bomb, to dissociate, to hijack critical thinking in favour of bursts of serotonin. It’s inconceivable that they’ve ever been used to enforce a premature repair or forgiveness following abuse. And yet the cult research is filled with examples of techniques of hypnotic trance, contact high, pleasure/pain disruption, and nervous overwhelm that function to break down resistance and increase compliance.
Kaur’s statement can also be considered through Jennifer Freyd’s lens of institutional betrayal. One part of her theory says that when abuse victims are asked to appeal to the institution that enabled the abuse for relief, or to its content or methods, retraumatization can occur. A basic lesson is: don’t expect healing from the institution that traumatized you.
Here are some thought experiments that might help show that for some group members Kaur may be offering yet more bounded choice, even if she believes she’s offering relief. These are examples of bounded choice compounded by institutional betrayal. They also express a conflict of interest: the group continuing to promote itself as the solution to the problem it contains.
1. A man has just disclosed that a Catholic priest abused him when he was a child. The news shocks the parish. A well-meaning member suggests that everyone — including the man — bond and heal by going to church and reciting the rosary.
2. A woman has just disclosed that Harvey Weinstein raped her. The news shocks Hollywood. A well-meaning member suggests that community gather for a ceremonial showing of Shakespeare in Love.
3. A woman has just disclosed that Ashtanga yoga founder Pattabhi Jois regularly sexually assaulted her while in class. The news shocks the community. A well-meaning member suggests that everyone bond and heal by practicing the Primary Series.
4. A woman has just disclosed that Bikram Choudhury raped her. The news shocks the community. A well-meaning member suggests that everyone bond and heal by continuing to practice Choudhury’s 26 postures in 104 degree heat
5. A man has just disclosed a lifetime of institutional abuse within the Shambhala Buddhist community. The news is shocking. A well-meaning member suggests that everyone bond and heal by reaffirming their dedication to the Tantric kingdom of Shambhala.
Dear Male Privilege-Check Diary: I’m Super Confused About How I’m Supposed to Feel About Shakira and JLo
I’m super confused about the responses to Shakira and JLo. I know enough to understand the generational and 2nd/3rd wave feminism tension between rooting out internalized misogyny and celebrating empowered gender performance. I get it that there’s no answer to this. How do you own or reclaim a body through objectification? How can the unique subject shine through the cosplay and choreography?
I’m also aware that as a progressive cishet man I’m not really supposed to have an opinion. Like: which feminism should I get behind? It all seems strange, because the argument is playing out in relation to the privilege I was born into. I haven’t seen any men express opinions about the half-time show, and this feels weird, as if the spectacle and its controversy are supposed to play out before the silent male gaze, as per usual.
You know what’s really gross? Whatever side I take, I can feel virtuous. I can win. If I stand with 2nd-wavers I can feel protective of women as an oppressed class. Awesome! If I stand with 3rd-wavers, I can celebrate the autonomy of women to reclaim stereotypes. Yay me! I can be any kind of feminist that suits me, or that the women I’m around want me to be. I can be a feminist chameleon, because my own body doesn’t hang in the balance.
The thing is that men can be publicly conservative/2nd wave or progressive/3rd wave on the issue, while privately, as a class, they remain the near-totally-dominant consumers of porn, and sex work. That consumption might feel transgressive to the conservative and celebratory to the progressive, but the commodity remains the same.
Which gets me out of the abstraction of politics and into the feelings around consumption and objectification. So here’s what I feel when I watch the show.
1) As a man who was exposed to porn as a boy, the spectacle hits all of that old neurology and lights it right the hell up, prompting an old fuzzy split between pleasure and nausea. I’m personally not into being biohacked anymore. I basically want to turn away when I can feel it start to happen, like someone literally flipping a switch in the back of my brain. Yet I feel guilty at turning away, because these amazing performers do not deserve my historical or projected shame. At the same time, the whole mirage through which they are doing what they do is just too proximal to imagery that for years troubled my capacity to see women as complete people.
2) I was really glad that my seven year-old son went to bed when the first half ended. He had never seen a football game. He was astounded, a little thrilled, and a little scared at the outright violence. We talked about brain injuries and what courage meant on that field, and why so many men from poor families end up playing at that level. So it was already enough for him to metabolize that end of the essentialized gender binary and its political economy; it’s not like he would have benefited from the “balance” of the stripper pole and the twerking. If he hadn’t gone to bed I would have sat very awkwardly beside him, wondering what exact models of equality and empowerment were being etched into his brain, and what he might come to expect of women — and himself — in time. It would have been way more awkward than when watching the football players smash and strut: at least I’m somewhat confident that I can help him navigate toxic masculinity.
3) I’m remembering being four and the teacher asking us to paint paintings of our parents. I produced a large, well-executed rendition of a woman dressed like a server at Hooters, carrying a huge martini glass. To this day my mother busts out laughing as she tells the story of the looks she got from the teachers at parent-teacher night while standing in front of it trying to feel proud about the brush-strokes. Needless to say, my mother never dressed like that and was never a drinker. Where the hell did that come from, so early? How was I programmed at five years old to stereotype my mother?
4) I feel embarrassed for the women I know who feel literally tortured by essentialized beauty standards. I fantasize about having a giant remote control that could turn the show off throughout the world.
5) It’s great that JLo can be 50 and command that space and move like that, but there’s also something tragic about it. How far can her 400M net worth push it? 60? 70? How will she be allowed to age or get sick? Will that shitgibbon A-Rod care for her when she does? What’s the unseen cost of that power? Nobody is truly in love with the cult of youth. That’s a stand-in for loving a person. A person is a passage of time.
6) I also feel sad that I can’t just enjoy the movement and skill and exuberance, because they really are incredible performers and life is very short. But I resent that I’m supposed to look at them, in fact I’m forced into looking through the hardwiring and chemistry of the addiction of gender construction, and by a lifetime of social programming that won’t get me an inch closer to knowing who those women are, or who I am for that matter.
7) I could have cried over the Puerto Rican flag, but it was over in a flash. And JLo’s daughter climbing out of that cage to sing. I could have talked about that with my son, if he’d been able to see it. My white son, who is unlikely to ever fear being caged.
8) I feel sad that I can’t lighten up, because lightening up is so necessary. But I wish that relief could be provided by people who seem truly liberated by performance, like any of the men-women on Drag Race.
9) So my vote for next half-time show is for JINKX MONSOON to be the lead, serving up joyful campy football-tights, helmet hair, 80s shoulder-pad realness, really showing it’s a SHOW, proving that gender is only liberating when it is fluid. I love Jinkx so much I’m going to talk with my therapist about it. I just want to be thrilled by people who perform life, not gender, who test my perception of myself and the world, people who weren’t trained from toddlerhood to conform and perform, people who don’t double down on the neurology that formed around stereotypes they’ll waste their middle age on maintaining, if they even have the money to do it.
10) Actually, strike all that because I’m not sure it’s exactly woke to want drag queens to replace women on stage. Sorry Jinkx! Okay, new idea: Please please PLEASE can we have the four Baroness Von Sketch women to do the next show, so they can punk the whole damn thing. I want to see Meredith MacNeill twist around that brass pole with sanitary wipes. I want to see the Red Wine Ladies get plastered at the 50 yard line and tackle the refs. I want them to make us laugh at all the anxious and tragic things we think we want, and that we think we want to be.
11) Who am I kidding? Jinkx and the Red Wine Ladies will never be hired by the NFL/Fox/Pepsi complex to do the show. We’re seeing what money wants us to see. We’re seeing who those guys want us to see, because their world is the world. Those guys who made it big with Roger Ailes. We’re seeing the perfect balance to the bloody scrimmage. We’re standing there on the sideline with A-Rod. He’s pumping his fist in the air, enjoying what his world can pay for. Do I want to like the world he likes? Do our children have a choice?
Here’s Jinkx Monsoon:
And here’s Meredith MacNeill:
1. It’s Not Just Men
In YTT groups, I introduce the theme that the last century of global yoga has largely run on the fuel of “somatic dominance” by which teachers assume possession and authority over student’s bodies, and the body itself is an object of surveillance and discipline that must perform its virtue.
In discussion, most groups rightly dive into truths about male violence, male charisma, bullying, and sexual assault.
So then I trouble the gendering of that story a little by showing clips from this Jivamukti class from 2014. Check out the teacher’s entrance into the space after about 20 minutes of fawning speeches.
Take a look at that bowing sequence. You can’t see the whole room but I assure you everyone is bowing right back in this parody of Tibetan monkdom. I know that’s where it’s from because they started the bowing thing after teaming up with Michael Roach over a decade ago. But he never took it that far. The teacher seems to be making intrusive eye contact with every person in the room; Roach never bothered with that. (Maybe he didn’t have to, being male and 6’+, 200+ lbs.)
After I show the clip I ask:
What would it cost you socially to be in that room and not mirror the teacher with the bowing thing?
What would it cost you to chew gum, slouch on your mat, blow a fart, or yell out “Hey, are we getting started yet or WHAT”?
People get the point. They know they would feel way out of line, which is another way of saying that they’d feel controlled.
What I believe the teacher is doing here, unconsciously but habitually, is establishing a coerced “habitus” (via Bourdieu, very nice intro video below), or rules of somatic behaviour or ethos for that space.
Right from the beginning of class, there is a contagious way to be there. It’s sophisticated, because it looks like respect, surrender, and even gentleness. And the teacher and some students might even feel all those things deeply and authentically. But the impact is that the people in that room who show strong buy-in for what she’s doing are now under her somatic influence.
And so when, inexplicably, she lies fully on top of women at 1:57 and 1:58 or sits right down on the thighs of a woman in supta virasana at time cue 1:11:50, and gives a lecture about not finding fault in others, it’s just par for the course. Implied consent, and intimacy conflated with care.
If there’s a next stage in examining somatic dominance in Yogaland, it might involve seeing how it translated, in cycles, between generations and across genders in the 1980s and 90s, how it could be coded to express female strength and empowerment (even though it was an overflow of male violence), and how this further impeded survivors of Jois, Manos and the rest from being heard.
2. What Does Somatic Dominance Feel Like When You’re Doing It?
How would you know if your somatic dominance circuits were turned on? I’m sure it feels different for everyone, but here’s how it felt for me.
I’m using the past tense, not because I’m totally over it, but because it’s very easy to remember how I did it when I was teaching active yoga classes, which I haven’t done since about 2014. I also remember having to stop teaching in part because I was becoming more aware of my somatic dominance tendencies.
I remember distinctly crossing over a threshold into the teaching space. It could have been in the parking lot, at the front door, or in the lobby. If the studio was particularly modern and sleek and minimalist, the feeling was more acute: in some way the bare lines and white walls and flower arrangement were contagious with a kind of meticulous aesthetic attention that called perfection out of my body. I remember holding my breath more, standing up even more straight, feeling my skin glaze over with smooth hardness.
In some ways I’m describing basic somatic defensiveness via grandiosity, and I would have felt a degree of these things when stepping into any professional environment. If there was a suit involved it would have started at home with subtle fretting over how crisp my collar was going to stay on the commute — the collar signifying my armored skin.
But what made this particularly yoga-related was that as I was both holding my breath and puffing myself up, I was also aware of the pre-verbal tape-loop of all of the Iyengar instructions that were then embedded in my back-brain. In other words: I was turning basic social discomfort and self-defensiveness into a somatic virtue — a sign of transcendence over those very things.
I never met Iyengar but I’ve heard enough and I’ve met enough men like him that my gut says there were threads of intense social awkwardness and maybe even shame that the demonstration of asana mastery helped him overpower.
So the first somatic dominance is over myself. How does it pivot to take power over others?
Of the thousands of students I encountered in my classes, I’ll imagine here someone generic: male or female doesn’t matter. As soon as I instinctually identified that this person was NOT as erect as I was, I remember turning towards them and subtly doubling down, both trying to model something, and encouraging them to mirror me. I remember now with some shame the sense of gratification I had when they did mirror me, either then or in the class, and I understood it then as a good thing: that I had inspired a new confidence. But perhaps what I did in some if not many instances is that I procured a kind of compliance, and the gratification was not from having given them something, but from having their mirroring of me make me feel better about my own strained efforts to achieve comfort and dignity.
And the irony is that the person who came in slouchy or melancholic may well have been far healthier than I in their psyche-soma. If they were feeling crushed and drained of dignity that’s one thing — and I assumed this was the case for everyone — but if they were just being themselves in somatic honesty, and were able to do that because they were less bound to our systems of self-objectification, I actually disrupted that out of a projective need for bodily validation. I created a problem were there was none, and I called it yoga or mindfulness, and I got paid.
All of this took place on a subtle level that created a nameless power dynamic that normalized the standard adjustments I then went on to apply, without clear consent or even the notion of what clear consent would mean or how it could be affirmative or informed.
One more thing about how stealthy this was. We used to say “strong and soft”, which I suppose echoed the old “sthiram sukham”, and gave me at least a sense of somatic continuity with an ancient nobility. I still appreciate this double instruction, but I think it can nurture the seeds of what I’m describing above:
In the Iyengar instructions, the strength and firmness was always built first, upwards from the ground. Strong feet, knees like so, quads engaged, do something something with your perineum and navel, micromanage you rib cage and especially your floaty ribs and don’t forget the mystical kidneys etc. And after this pillar of nobility or self-defence was built, the teacher would ask you to “soften your eyes”.
What was the eye thing about? It felt interesting to have this play of tension between skeletal firmness and eyeball softness, so there was that. But I also think the soft eyes managed to spiritualize or Mona-Lisa-ize the entire presentation. So that you could be armored but also inviting and wise. So that if you were actually defending your body against your neighbour with a thousand muscular actions in your butt, you could also affect openness and intimacy with the person you were asking to mirror you.
What does this all have to do with charisma?
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, charisma doesn’t have to look like anything in particular. It’s not how you hold yourself or defend yourself, as I’ve described here.
I believe that charisma is the somatically contagious feedback loop that initiates when all of the stuff I’ve described above begins to work to the advantage of the person performing it. And so they escalate it. Before long, it becomes their “method”. The content doesn’t matter. It could be Iyengar or it could be Ru Paul or it could be Donald Trump: charisma is the commodification of somatic defence, which, at a certain saturation point, can flip into habitual bullying.
3. Somatic Dominance, Buddhist-Style
In Yogaland, somatic dominance is explicitly part of the wellness programme, where posture is the sign of multiple levels of attainment. While lately I’m pretty consistent about pointing these critiques at “Yoga/Buddhism”, I’d like to bring out the “Buddhism” presentations of somatic dominance a little more clearly.
There’s no doubt that sitting with relative stability and stillness makes sense for whatever meditation is for whoever is practicing it. So I’m not talking here about what people do when they’re sitting at home. I’m talking about how the posture of meditation gets translated in group settings into the somatics of control. How things like stillness, erectness, a wide and/or vacant gaze, a quizzical smile — can all be virally transmitted through a group so that suddenly it feels taboo to slouch, even if by slouching you would relieve the pain in your spine.
In the crudest examples, the Zen master literally beats you with a stick to force your posture into compliance. But how much more effective is it if you can encourage the student to straighten themselves, through manners alone?
I remember distinctly walking into Karme Choling in about 1995 and developing a wicked headache and backache from sitting up way too straight to listen to the warrior talk. I had no idea what was going on inside me, and no tools for investigating it. It would be decades before I understood the coercive stiffness at the root of the culture and its links to repression.
Trungpa himself modelled upright posture in most of his talks. They called him “perky”, “inscrutable”, “spacious” and other things, when the truth was that he had to maintain that posture as a defence against being shit-faced drunk most of the time. He was erect because if he wasn’t he’d fall over. Of course he had to bring this somatic control into all areas of life. I’m sure teaching people to use utensils as though they were on the set of Downton Abbey helped keep a lot of them from keeling over into their plates.
When the next year I was brought to a Michael Roach event I interpreted the same feelings of erectness as excitement or “receptivity”, especially in relation to the more natural transference that overcame me. The Shambhala shrine room explicitly reminded me of 1970s Sicilian Catholic kitsch, so I was less inclined to interpret the Shambhala headache positively. Michael’s group was fringey and boho, so the headache I got from all the sitting there was more easily interpreted as a “blockage” related to my own hang-ups.
If I had had the tools I would have understood that what was really happening was a new form of repressive behavioural control. There were proper ways to be in Michael’s presence. You could deviate from those ways in your body if the deviations expressed special insight or closeness to him. That’s why we watched Ian Thorson tremble and spasm and bark and quiver and sometimes even fall over out of meditation posture and chalked it all up to his devotion to Michael tickling his kundalini. I didn’t know him in the last ten years of his life, but back then I don’t remember anyone asking whether he needed medical care.
Most of us weren’t as “blessed” as Ian. We sat upright and still and got filled up with instructions to such an extent that there was no room for internal questioning, let alone breaking the spell in the room with any kind of challenge.
This happened in other contexts as well, subtler ones, and way closer to home. I remember the first time I hired my friend Michael Stone to teach at Yoga Festival Toronto. I passed by the room as they were setting up and 50 people surrounded him, all sitting stock still, mirroring him, arranged like a Renaissance painting. This is just part of what made his chaotic death so shocking to almost everyone.
As for myself: I remember leading meditation classes where I would open with the basic instructions about sitting upright, but then also model that uprightness myself, and lay it on thicker than I actually felt like doing, and then continued to straighten and ground and whatever as the people around me mirrored me.
And I kept going as I felt the relief of having others validate the sublimation of my bodily anxiety and shame.
That Time Manouso Manos Started a Yoga Class with a Verbal Attack And Showed How Trauma Bonding Works
Special thanks to Cassie Jackson, who was there that day and helped confirm many details. Her testimony of Manos assaulting her is included in the IYNAUS investigative report on pages 15-17.
In January of 2017 I emailed Manouso Manos to request an interview. At that time, my research for the book that eventually focused on Jois and Ashtanga Yoga was casting a wider net. The working title back then was Shadow Pose: Trauma and Healing in the Cult of Modern Yoga.
I was upfront and honest about the project. I told him I was investigating intergenerational trauma in the yoga world, and would be citing the 1991 report on allegations of sexual assault against him. I wrote that I wanted to ask him if or how he had changed over the years, and how he understood his teaching within the legacy of BKS Iyengar.
This was about ten months before I heard about the sexual assault claim Ann Tapsell West was preparing to file against Manos, which was first dismissed by the IYNAUS Ethics Committee, and then substantiated by an independent investigator.
When I wrote to Manos I did not know that there were or would be contemporary allegations against him. I also didn’t consider or research sexual offender recidivism. In this light, my initial query was naive.
Manos’s curt responses included a threat to take me to court for writing about him from the public record. Then, paradoxically, he invited me me to come to one of his classes for free.
So I made plan to go. I didn’t expect a warm welcome. But I didn’t expect to be ambushed. Continue reading “That Time Manouso Manos Started a Yoga Class with a Verbal Attack And Showed How Trauma Bonding Works”
I’ve done a lot of podcasts, but this one is different. Tiffany and I have known each other for many years, and we were able to record at her dinner table with the Edmonton winter held at bay outside the window. I was exhausted and just off a plane but that somehow helped make me focused and relaxed and a little unguarded. Also, Tiffany doesn’t fuck around. Thanks for the all the hard work you do, Tiff, and for your friendship.
Here’s the recording, which is episode 2 on her new series with Elliot Kesse. You can support their work here. I’m posting a cleaned-up transcript below.
Welcome to Where’d My Chakras Go? A yoga podcast for the rest of us, with Elliot Kesse and Tiffany Rose. So I am here with Matthew Remski and Elliot is not able to join us unfortunately, but we will be discussing some of the topics that Elliot had requested. So maybe Matthew can just tell us a little bit about yourself?
Sure. Thanks for inviting me Tiffany. I’ve been teaching or I guess involved in yoga since about 2003, and that followed two three-year stints in yoga related cults. And how that happened is a long story, but coming to yoga itself was really wrapped up in trying to recover my sense of agency and autonomy after those experiences of control — of social control. And that really started with being able to feel my own body as my own, being able to feel my thoughts as my own. So I plunged right in.
Also, I’d lost a lot of time in my late twenties and early thirties, wrapped up in these two cultic organizations. The yoga industry was booming when I got out and it seemed like a fortuitous fit and, there was a training that I could go to and there wasn’t a yoga studio in the little town that my ex partner and I were living in at that time. So, things just seem to fall into place to put me in this strange position of studying a lot of yoga and then beginning to teach it a little bit too early, but in a very intensive way. I started out with 25 classes a week or something like that. There’s a lot of people who ended up doing that in the early 2000s I think.
I eventually continued to study in subject areas like yoga therapy and Ayurveda and more esoteric subjects like Jyotish or Vedic astrology and palmistry and the spatial arrangement thing called Vastu. And that was all really enriching in my life. I’ve continued on from there, but it’s really taken me about 10 years to swing around to recognizing that the primary value that I found in this to begin with was tools to access some sort of internal sense of constancy or agency, and capacity to feel like a single self and that’s been really important to me. And then it’s also directed how I’ve begun to look at how systems of social control developed within yoga environments as well. I think a lot of your listeners will probably know that I do a lot of work on yoga and Buddhist cults now in my writing. So that’s a little bit about me.
So you live in Toronto and you have two children and you’re married to a partner who is just starting to move into her own practice and the boys are both in school now, so this is kind of a transitional time for you as well, hey?
Right. Yeah. My partner is starting her psychotherapy practice and supervision as you say, the boys are both into school, little Owie is only in preschool. He says “pee skoo”. Then I’ve got this book coming out in March and I have no idea what’s going to happen after that because there’s going to be a lot of people I think who appreciate it and there’s gonna be bunch of people who really hate it. And I think it’s going to bring my engagement with yoga training work into a different area because up until this point I’ve been doing YTT modules in or facilitating YTT modules in history, philosophy and culture. But I think especially the conclusion of this book is going to put me into the zone of — or at least I’d like it to put me in the zone of — starting to talk about community health and, and safer spaces. Not just in terms of affirmative consent or informed consent or all of the amazing anti-oppression work that I’ve been exposed to and I’ve started to learn about, but also in terms of how do people actually form relationships in yoga and Buddhist communities, and what’s the role of charisma, and how do you know that you’re in a bounded-logic group, and how do you know when you’re being asked to do things through mechanisms of undue influence, and how do you know that the person’s actually giving you care instead of trying to control you? Those are very pressing questions to me because the last, especially three years of work that I’ve done in the writing and journalism that I’ve published have all focused on that in various yoga communities.
So you’ve kind of had this sort of archetypal position in Yogaland as like the evil sort of villain that just picks apart everything that’s good, and things that everybody loves, you know, you’re just there to shit on it. Did that happen intentionally or was it just sort of, did it just sort of evolve?
Well, I think, I mean to me, thinking critically about one’s internal life and how one consumes spiritual ideas is a form of spirituality. I think we — I don’t want to speak for everybody — but it seems to be a common thread that we take our spiritual aspirations really seriously, and to the extent that we do that, I feel like it’s really good to interrogate where they’re coming from and what kinds of wishes they’re fulfilling within us and what they make us more receptive to and what they make us more blind to. So I’ve always felt in the critical work I’ve done around yoga and injuries or the difficulty in telling apart trance states and dissociative states in meditation or how smiling and seemingly beneficent and communities can really hold these daggers of betrayal — all of that work to me has actually been a form of spirituality.
Because I think that one recurring pattern in my life is that when I learn something, it’s through some type of disillusionment. I don’t think that’s necessarily true for everybody, but I think it’s underrated. I think disillusionment as a growth process actually underrated. The trick is (and this is where I think I fall down and where people, perhaps people who are critical of what I do don’t get enough from me) which is that disillusionment really has to be healed by some form of re-enchantment. And so I’m working on that part, but it’s hard because all of my critical work is also wrapped up in the wounds of having been a cult survivor.
And so trying to find the pathway between criticism and productivity can be a real challenge, but it’s something that I think I want to keep working on for sure. I feel responsible to that. When people engage in my work and they feel depressed or more cynical or low, that’s a burden for me. It’s a burden for them! But I think it poses a responsibility. It gives me a responsibility. I don’t want to shy away from that.
I used to have this like almost-avoidant and dismissive attitude of “Oh, well, you know, I can just describe a problem and if you don’t like it then, you know, suck it up.” But that’s not where I’m at anymore. I think being in a really supportive relationship makes me understand how that can’t be where I am anymore. Trying to do well by my sons makes me understand that I really don’t want to be there anymore. I do want to do more to look at positive solution-seeking.
Is it you that says, are you quoting somebody that says something like enlightenment is the end of… what’s it?
I think maybe what you’re pointing to is that I had a teacher who gave this, I think probably eccentric etymology for “moksha”. He suggested that the first part of the compound word was shared with the name of Mohini,one of the divine feminine figures who has said to distract the yogi from — in this very misogynistic system of course — distract the yogi from his other-worldly concerns. And then the “ksha” is related to space element. And so his really beautiful explanation… I don’t know how other Sanskritists would find it, but he used to say that he thought of moksha as being “the end of infatuation”.
And leaving two cults was about two different types of infatuation coming to an end. Understanding that the bodily autonomy and, the real blessing of newfound interoception that I got from asana when I first started… really began to slide over into a kind of anxious ableism. When I realized that that was true, that was another end to infatuation. There was an infatuation that I had with physical capacity or even a capacity to sense things internally. You know, I think interoception is wonderful, but it can also be fetishized as, as some kind of core anchoring thing that will always bring you into the present moment and solve all problems and stuff like that. But it’s just another faculty and it has its uses and then it has its abuses as well.
And in fact, like for someone like me or people who have extreme chronic pain or maybe body dysmorphia or things like that, intense focus on interoception can sometimes be damaging, right? It can be harmful for people to feel like they’re trapped in their sensations or like they have to be tied to those internal sensations or else they’re not practicing yoga.
And that’s, and that’s a harder story for you for you to tell. I think it’s a lot easier — what I’m saying about interoception as being this wonderful grounding or agency-enhancing thing is a common yoga narrative. And then along comes Tiffany and says, “Wait, wait, wait a minute, wait a minute! When I go inside and try to find relaxation or peace or security and internal sensation, maybe I find the opposite. Maybe I just don’t find that at all.” And that in itself is a breaking of a kind of infatuation to just have that statement out there somewhere that, “Wait a minute, not everybody has that. Or not everybody does that. Or not everybody works that way.” It breaks this illusion that we’re all starting from the same place or that we all share something irreducibly in common. I think it gets us out of thinking that what we can share is an ideology instead of what we can share is a relationship where we’re actually continually learning about things that we just can’t understand about each other.
Doesn’t that make teaching harder though?
Like when there’s no common bond that we can kind of preach to. Then Actually have to start teaching in relationship.
And for people who maybe are closed down to relationship or maybe even like you were saying that closed down to a relationship to themselves. It makes teaching yoga a lot harder. I think
It does. It’s certainly harder to describe. It’s harder to market. It’s harder to feel evangelical about.
Well, there’s no flashing lights with that, you know?
No, there isn’t. This is a weird thing. I mean, when we hear the hopeful, hope-laden in statement in yoga culture or literature or marketing, we’re hearing two things. We’re hearing something earnest and yearning from the perspective of the teacher who’s marketing or the student who’s consuming. But we’re also hearing the potential for a kind of aspirational bypass where we’re somehow asking ourselves or other people to do and accomplish and feel more than they are able. And that brings up the whole problem of what happens when they don’t.
Do you think that…. I’m just kind of thinking this out loud, like, because I think that there’s so many teachers who are really wanting to do right. They’re really wanting to feel like their classes can be inclusive of everyone and that they are accessible, right? But with the current way that yoga is consumed in North America, it’s really difficult to remain profitable if that’s your livelihood and not sell hope. Right? So how do you, how do people who are really trying to be trauma-informed and inclusive and accessible, how do they compete with the evangelical, hopeful Lululemon crowd?
Yeah, I don’t think they compete. I think they offer something different which is: if there’s hope on offer, it’s the hope of, of inquiry or curiosity or a period of time out or a period of care or nurturance. I don’t see how they’re going to compete. I mean in a way, they’re antithetical so they can’t compete.
I think part of what we’re talking about is how can people make livings. And I think that when I consider what I know about your story and the story of so many other people who do this really sort of a in-depth trauma aware and non-commercialized work, I think of how I’m seeing this growing divide structurally between commercial and public service models. Where I see a hopefulness not in terms of marketing marketing solutions, but hopefulness in terms of the possibility for people like you and your colleagues for perhaps making more of a living over time or a better living over time is in the increasing movement of yoga into public health circumstances where the funding is assured because the population is known to simply benefit from what’s being offered.
That’s what I see with the work of people in the Yoga Service Council. And a little bit in the Accessibility Yoga Movement as well, that people are getting really good at, or better anyway, at figuring out where to pursue public funding rather than private commercial, consumer-based funding. So I’m very interested in that and that change in that movement.
One of the really great experiences that I had with you this year was at the Accessible Yoga Conference in Toronto. We had the privilege of presenting on a panel together there and you and I sat in on a session together at New Leaf foundation and I remember halfway through it, we were sitting beside each other and I was kind of a curled up in my chair and I had my knee in my chest and I was rocking a little bit and I remember you looking over at me and saying. “This is really good, hey?” And I remember thinking like, yeah, I feel very comforted. I’m like almost like rocking myself. Like I just feel very safe and comforted.
And that kind of work that they’re doing, I found a lot of hope in that and it was something that I hadn’t really been exposed to until then and just listening to them speak about the work that they do and the way that they approached it really gave me hope for yoga. Did you feel that way when you were listening to them?
I totally did. And I think it’s not just because of their content, which is top notch — because their content is not that much that far off from yours and it’s not going to be that much far off from anybody in yoga service. Where I find the comfort in just meeting people like that is in seeing how they have learned to approach the public infrastructure for support and to carve out their niche in it. And, I don’t know the New Leaf people personally that well, but that support is something that I know is a huge part of everybody who’s deeply invested in yoga service throughout North America is really trying hard to work on.
I was really struck sitting at the Yoga Service Council conference I think two years ago and I was speaking with a woman named Mayuri. I think her organization is called Little Flower Yoga and she trains teachers how to give 20, 30 and 40 minute yoga classes to grade school kids and she works in Manhattan. I think her partner is a public school teacher and so they’re sort of networked in the school system in a way. And she not only developed her training and by knocking on doors got her programs and her teachers into eight or nine public schools, which took three or four years, and they were able to pay out of discretionary spending for that. I think that’s how her business got going and I think she’s set up as a nonprofit as well. But she taught herself all how to do that, coming out of a non admin or nonprofit background. But the thing is there was one point at which, I think last year, Deblasio, the mayor of New York announced through the education department that they were making $20,000,000 available to the boroughs of New York public schools for wellness programs that would include yoga and mindfulness sessions or something like that. And so who’s on the phone the next morning, knowing who to call to get in on that funding is Mayuri. That is so cool because now she has networked her… she’s going to be able to leverage all of these teachers who she has trained into a new field that in terms of public money is still only being funded to a drop in the bucket. This has nothing to do with commercial yoga economics at all.
And yoga people are not in these circumstances having to worry about overhead or any of the things that you just went through with your studio over the last several years. So when I going back to sitting with New Leaf, the comfort that I feel is these people had figured out how to interface with the public health world. That means that comes with responsibility. That comes with “I’m going to have to have informed consent policies for all my workers. I’m going to have to have trauma informed training. I’m going to have to have good HR policies. I’m going to have to have all of these things that the commercial yoga world is totally shit at, and they’re just going to have to be a matter of course, and people are gonna have to be trained to a certain level that will allow them to be accountable to their public health positions.” And it’s like, it’s just a totally different world. And so I feel very, I feel very — it’s not what I’m professionally doing, but just as an observer and as a cultural critic and as a somebody who does journalism of this stuff sometimes, and I’m really fascinated to look at how that’s working.
I’m just going back to the conference. You gave the closing address for the conference and I had to jump on a bus to get to Montreal so I didn’t get to hear it, but I did watch the video. And I think I cried, which is really hard to get me to do so. But I think one of the things that really touched a lot of people in that address with you talking about how you too will one day become disabled. And I’m wondering if you can share a little bit about that.
Jivana, and — I’m a little bit embarrassed that I can’t remember the activist’s name that he cited in his presentation during the conference, but it’s somebody famous I think in California who was at the center of the disability rights movement from maybe the seventies or something like that — I think his one of his statements was, “It’s not like you’re not going to need these services. We’re all in this together.” And it’s kind of like a more visceral and material framing for all of the old ascetic and Buddhist realizations around mortality, old age, sickness and death. So there’s picture of the guy in his wheelchair saying, “You’re going to be somewhere like this.” And and then I was in his class a little bit later and,
Jivana’s class right. And I think he asked us to, — he’s got this great way of, “Let’s see how you can do Tadasana or a mountain pose, but, imagine that you need to have your full body in contact with a wall. Or let’s see if you can do tree pose on a chair. And he’s got all this amazing teaching around, “What is the posture actually? If you have an internal visualization of it, and that’s meaningful to you, is that the posture?” All of these ways of picking apart an ableism that is so pervasive, it’s invisible to people like me who, you know, I don’t see myself as being physically disabled.
So there was one point where I just burst into tears because I realized that he was giving me an end-of-life practice, or a later-on-in-life practice or something like that. He was actually preparing me for something in a way that nobody had ever prepared me for in a yoga class. When I got into yoga and I was doing asana obsessively, it was more like, “What secrets does this body hold that I can stretch out of it? And how can I break this open to find what’s inside?”
And Jivana’s doing something different. He’s like, “What’s already inside that can be felt and accepted as your condition or what your condition will be when you’re perhaps not able to stand or you’re not able to see or you’re not able to feel all of these things that you associate with yourself.” So there’s something very profound about that and it just kind of like, it added to this row of dominoes that have been falling around me or within me around what it means to not see your own privilege.
For me, that started with, I don’t know, several years ago. Actually, it came up this morning as well because I arrived here in Edmonton at 9:30, which meant that I had to leave the house in Toronto at 3:30 in the morning. And several years ago, my partner said that she wanted me to take a cab to the bus stop we live in. We live in a neighborhood where if you want to catch the bus to the airport — like the bus that costs $3 instead of paying 60 bucks to take a cab at that time — you know you have to walk through a kind of lonely patch. And it’s a little bit of a sketchy area. And actually there were just two shootings this past week in the area. And so a couple of years ago, I was going to take one of these trips. I was probably coming here and she said, “Can you just take a cab to the bus stop?” And I was like, I was insulted. And I was like. “No, I’m not gonna, I’m not gonna.” I got all proud and huffy and stuff like that.
It took this argument, I’m ashamed to say, to break through this layer of absolute unconsciousness around what it actually meant to be female and in a body and in this part of the city, and thinking about walking at that time of night. And it kind of like overwhelmed me. I was like, “Oh, you live in a totally different world than I live in. And I haven’t seen that before. And I have to start taking care of that. Like I have to start taking care of you. Not in a paternalistic way, but taking care of the fact that I don’t even understand how much benefit I have here.”
It’s funny because I stayed with you during the conference and I, one night I went out and I was up until midnight and I had to navigate my way back to your house and I remember you asking me because I walked from that bus stop to your house and it was about midnight or 12:30 and I remember you asking me if I felt unsafe and I said no. And I thought about that and you know, I think probably what that is, you know, as a trauma survivor, I tend to feel safe in unsafe situations and unsafe in safe situations. So for me, I just kind of…
It can be scrambled, right?
Yeah. I puff myself up and put my head down and just walked to your house without even giving it a second thought. But, you know, it didn’t probably even occur to me that I might be putting myself at risk or in danger or that I should have maybe taken a cab or something like that. I just wandered through the streets of Toronto by myself.
Yeah. And like me asking you that and me asking you that comes from… I mean, it’s funny because there’s a potential for paternalism in there too, right? Where I’m going to be protective towards my partner or towards you as a guest and maybe over-compensate in some way and so these questions about empowerment and equality that come up. But really listening — I think the main point about privilege is just really letting it sink in: that we live in different worlds. And that was one of the first big things that, that I think really started to, it changed my spirituality in the sense that like the infatuation now that I am interested in ending or interrogating in myself is the infatuation that I have with forms of privilege that I can’t even see.
Because that infatuation — not understanding what it means to be male, or male-identified, not understanding the advantages of being white, not understanding the advantages of being considered to be able-bodied — that those are all barriers to empathy and communication and activism. Because they make a person feel like that the world is just, should be okay and navigable by everybody.
And so I’m in Jivana’s class and this, this other sort of penny dropped which was, “Oh, I’m not looking at the world as… I’m looking at the world through ableist eyes, and I’m doing that in physical terms. I’m doing it in psychological terms. I’m doing it in cognitive terms. And if I can stop doing that or if I can, I can start questioning that a little bit, I’m going to see and invite others into, or I’m going to see other people a little bit more clearly and I’m going to be able to care for things a little bit better or at least I’m going to make fewer boneheaded remarks. I’m going to cause less harm and that’d be a start.”
So we talked a little bit about disability and the, the Accessible Yoga conference, and one of the things that we talked about before we were recording was — and Elliot talks a little bit about this too, as someone who is physically disabled — that oftentimes there’s this binary around disability where we think of disability only in terms of physical disability. And one of the things that I try to talk about is how we can be disabled in other ways, right? I think when talking about internalized ableism and how we don’t always see how, how people may be disabled in certain ways or how we might have blind spots. One of the blind spots I think that I see a lot in Yogaland is around people not really understanding neurodivergence. I think you don’t really speak about this very often, but I know when I did an Ayurveda training with you, you shared about in your twenties something that happened to you, that you kind of realized that there was some neuro divergence in your life. Do you mind sharing about that?
No. Not a lot to say except that during a period in my early twenties of real emotional stress and alienation and probably like — I think I’ve been undiagnosed clinically depressed at several points in my life and it was just never in my culture or it wasn’t in my toolbox to seek out therapy. That wasn’t part of where I came from. So, that’s why I think I remained undiagnosed. But yeah during a period of really severe stress, I had a series of really explosive seizures where I lost consciousness for fairly long, I don’t know how long, but fairly long periods of time. And they were physically violent enough that I would wake up on my or I came to on the floor of my apartment with like the bookshelves toppled over. So something had happened or I’d be physically injured in some way.
And I went for testing and there was nothing found so I did whatever the EEG tests that were typical. They did a sleep deprivation test and things like that. The neurologist who saw me felt the things were, that the experiences were anomalous or they could be stress-related. But one thing that emerged out of that was every once in a while, like I sort of like go back into, I’m thinking about or researching how people experience seizures because one feature of what I experienced was that — or at least the way I narrativized it was that — the physical sensations were associated with some sort of mystical experience.
So I was in university then for religious studies, I was reading all kinds of mysticism. I was in classes where I got my first exposure to yoga philosophy and Buddhism and other things. And I think Tantric thought as well. But the story that I had ready-made for me to apply to these physical experiences I had was that something transcendental was happening to me. And so after that period, my fascination with things religious and spiritual just seemed to increase, as did my obsessive writing. And so there’s this weird thing which I haven’t been diagnosed with but seems very resonant. It’s called Geschwind Syndrome. And I think it’s a subset of a particular type of epileptic condition where — and I should say just right upfront that I haven’t had seizures for a since that period, so this is really going back 25 years now — but I think they flipped something in me or they turned something on… Geschwind Syndrome is marked by not just the seizures, but two very clear characteristics. One is hyper-religiosity, but it’s not the type of hyper-religiosity that is devotional. It’s a hyper-religiosity that is simply intellectually interested in religion. And then the other thing that people with Geshschwind Syndrome have or typically present is hypergraphia or endless writing, obsessive writing. And that’s certainly very resonant with me.
Because you’ve described yourself as almost addicted to, writing.
Sure, for sure. Yeah. Because, for various reasons, that’s also been like a way of internally parenting myself when I do various types of writing. So not all of this is like this. I can write pseudo-academically or whatever and I can write in a kind of reporting format. But when I really need care, my instinct has always been to write about something. And what’s fascinating is that as soon as it begins to appear on the screen or the page in front of me, it’s almost like a hologram. Almost like like there’s a person there that I am dialoguing with and who is caring for me enough to listen to what I’m saying and faithfully reproducing it.
My partner actually told me about this thing DW Winnicott says, which is that sometimes a person can turn to their intellect for care. And that’s certainly been true for me for writing. So it’s a very hard thing to describe except that when I get into the flow of it, I don’t feel like I’m alone. However I have to be alone to do it!
And so that makes — I struggle with accepting care from other people because I’ve developed this really sort of iron-clad way of doing it for myself internally and that all intensified after the seizure experience. The other symptom that, or thing that people with Geschwind Syndrome present with is atypical sexuality, and that doesn’t really resonate with me, but often they say two out of the three things is good. So that’s been interesting to me.
I want to learn more about that so it can be more transparent about that because I think that if my writing becomes more prominent or you know, if this book does really well or something like that, I want to be really clear with myself and with my readership that writing is not just a profession or a skill for me. It has a therapeutic aspect to it. It has a compulsive aspect to it. And that means that I have to take responsibility for dumping on other people when I write and you know, you can have the kind of avoidant hand-wiping attitude of “Well I’m just gonna produce my content and people can do with it what they will.” Or you can say “No, if you do something that’s compelling and people follow it, then you have responsibility towards them.” And so yeah, I wanna learn more about that part of myself which is so large, it’s hard to see.
One of the things that, that I hear a lot when I talk to other yoga people about you is, you know, I think it comes out of intimidation to be honest. People are intimidated, by some of the big words that you use when you write. But there’s a lot of like, “Oh, he thinks he’s better than everyone,” or “He thinks he’s smarter than everyone,” or “He’s so negative or judgey. And certainly like, you’re probably one of the smartest people I’ve met. But I mean, I don’t personally find you intimidating. But I’m wondering, and somebody asked me this about you. Somebody asked me a couple of weeks ago like, “I wonder why Matthew didn’t become a cult leader?”
Some people say that I have!
Some people say that you have, some people say that —
I’m like: “Show me the people.”
Where’s the money? Well, I mean, I think some people think because, you know, like myself and some of some of our other friends that we have in common will come to your defence when you’re being dog-piled on for things. I think that we get accused of being Rembots or that we’re in the cult of Remski or whatever. But like because you kind of have the brain that you do. I mean, it certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibility that you could have at one point created some kind of a cult if you wanted to.
Yeah, you’re totally, you’re totally right. Okay. So, so the first thing that comes up when you, when you asked that is that I stopped doing classes that I was… Well, I mean, a lot of things happened that ended up closing up my last studio that I owned in Toronto with my ex partner. Like the main thing being that the relationship ended. I ran courses in Ayurveda and I had a small following and there were a lot of people who really liked what I did and… But there was also… I would do, Ayurvedic health education appointments, for which there’s no licensing or no accountability structure. And it was only when I started to go to psychotherapy myself that… then certainly when I met my partner and she comes from a psychotherapy family and she was going to start studying psychotherapy herself, I was like, “Oh a regulated industry means that there’s a huge interpersonal training component that really should be in place before you’re visiting with people alone and talking with them about their diets and their relational lives and all of the things that come up in Ayurvedic health education.”
And I stopped doing those appointments because I realized that I did not know how to understand — or I started to begin to understand what was happening in things like transference and countertransference. And that happened through my own therapy, also, as I said with starting to learn about my partner’s world. And I realized that I did not know how to… there was nothing in the training in the yoga world or the yoga therapy world or in the Ayurveda world that I had encountered that really gave me a clear understanding of how to understand the power dynamics of the relationship of a personal meeting like that. And so I just stopped doing it because I realized I didn’t understand it.
So when I think about like why, if I’m a charismatic person and I have interesting and unique content, why I didn’t go forward and want to accumulate power or something like that socially with people in real life. I think about that. I think there’s something in me that said, “No, wait a minute, I’m over my head here and I don’t know how to do this.”
And there’s a lot of people out there in this world who also don’t know how to do this and they’re doing it and they’re hurting people, because we started to hear those stories as well. And so I guess the notion that I would manipulate people interpersonally just fills me with such dread and guilt and shame that that would be possible.
Can I tell you a story?
Yes, you can.
So the first time you ever came to my studio in LaCombe it was packed. So there was like, I don’t know, 30, 40 people in the room. It was all women. And LaCombe is this tiny little city in central Alberta and it’s I think the most churched community in Canada if I’m not wrong. And it’s also a guaranteed conservative stronghold. Anytime there’s an election, it’s always a conservative community.
And I remember watching you teach meditation to this room full of women, at the studio. We had just opened. I think we were maybe open for four or five months. And I remember watching the women were sitting down and you were standing up and you were talking about meditation and I just remember their faces watching you talk with…. they seem to be just full of like this weird wondering. It’s probably, they’ve probably never seen somebody like you before or interacted with somebody like you before. And I remember thinking after a while after they’d asked questions and you were talking about meditation and how to claim agency in your own body. I remember thinking, “These women are asking him for permission to exist.”
I remember being so blown away by that and wondering how you were navigating that because I’m sure you picked up on it and in some ways
And I wondered like, how is he going to navigate this? They’re asking him to just give them basic permission to breathe and like they don’t even know that they can breathe.
Right. And what does it mean to stand at the front of the room as a man? And have it be okay that you’re the person who’s going to do that. It’s just so…
That is so weird.
It’s so bizarre and it’s, I think it’s very unhealthy and I just don’t think it’s a good. I just don’t think it’s a good dynamic. There’s too many,.. like at that point, at that point, I can feel, I can feel the countertransference, right. So: Dude’s from the city. A totally different background from anybody I know. He’s gendered differently in some ways —
Yeah there’s some sort of femininity about him.
Right. So I know that there’s something new or odd or attractive about me and I’m like, and it just makes me uncomfortable, My immediate feeling is I’m uncomfortable and there’s a power dynamic here that is artificial or it’s overriding, not overriding but competing with whatever the basic content is of saying a few things about meditation.
So we’re running out of time, but I really want to get into your book and I really want to get into the other thing we want to talk about, but I wanted to, I want to kind of dive into this a little bit because this is something I’ve personally had to navigate because I was raised in a cult. And certainly male authority has more power for me than female authority.
And I think when you and I first met because we’re both cult survivors, I think there was a really strong pull that could have gone into countertransference for me anyways, I don’t know about, for you, but for me there could have been a really strong sort of like glomming on to you as some sort of, you know, teacher figure or something. And at one point there was something we were talking about, and I was asking you what you thought and I think you said, “You know, I’m just telling you this as your friend, right?” And I remember hearing you say that and thinking, “Okay, yeah, you’re right, like, this is just like two people sharing information. This isn’t you some kind of supernatural being telling me something that I needed to hear.”
I hope that like saying “friend” implied like equal.
Yeah, it did, it did, it totally diffused…
Because that can be a weird word too.
No, it completely diffused it for me and really brought me back down to earth and kind of cemented the relationship that I feel like I have with you. But I know that for me in certain circumstances, because those deeply ingrained patterns are so embedded that it’s almost impossible for me sometimes not to need that in order to hear something.
It’s tragic, totally fucking tragic.
It is. I had this dream one time that I was, I was an elephant in an elephant sanctuary and I really wanted to be out in the wild. And I remember the elephant me crying and wanting to be wild and having this realization that I had to stay in the sanctuary because I couldn’t survive in the wild. And like, that really spoke to me about, you know, I was born into dynamics, so my patterning is from birth and it’s so, it’s not so easy to untangle. And so my whole journey now has been, you know, what do I need to embrace and work with and what can I, what can I get rid of. And so when I, when I had that realization about you at my studio and I saw the way that these women were watching you, I had this realization that I’m this whole city that I was opening the studio in felt like an abusive relationship to me. It felt like an oppressive and abusive relationship where, and you know, I’m, I’m saying this knowing that maybe some of the people from my studio are going to be listening to this, that there were women in this community who had never experienced agency and who had never had the chance to really be in their own bodies and to make their own decisions. And I wonder, you know, with you saying, well, that’s wrong. I shouldn’t be teaching these people, but I wonder if there are things that you could say to someone like that that wouldn’t be heard from anyone else other than a man.
Yeah. I really don’t know. Like, it’s a really sort of prime example of privilege meeting an old paradigm that seems to want it or need it or something like that.
Well we talked about this a little bit when we talk about, the ways that people can go into practices that are harming and so like practices like BDSM where, where people are addressing their trauma through, through physical harm to their bodies or physical harm. Maybe harm isn’t the right word, but from hurting themselves. And how that, some people find that as a pathway to healing. And I wonder, you know…
Yeah — If there’s informed consent and if there’s all kinds of safety procedures and all that, right? I don’t know how to answer that question of what does it mean to be in the front of the room as a man with a lot of women listening to you very intently. And the dynamics that creates and echoes. I don’t have a personal answer for that except to say it doesn’t really work for me, and I’m not comfortable with it.
That said, I’m here in Edmonton, I’m going to facilitate a YTT module. It’s going to be mainly women in the room, but it’s going to be different because I’m not going to be teaching techniques or practices. I’m going to be giving basically a seminar in critical thinking. And so it’s not about instructing people towards their higher selves or giving them some sort of spirituality or pretending in some way that there was something inside me that is worth sharing. Those things are not really part of that kind of instruction. But I do know that leading a retreat for or like leading a group class in an 80 percent female practice population… I just don’t know how personally I would feel comfortable given everything that I’ve learned about sustaining those dynamics.
And so everything that I’m doing now is to try to move towards just offering a content rather than practices. And coming out of this book, I’m working on modules for community health. I’m thinking about going to, I guess it wouldn’t be graduate school because I didn’t graduate, but I don’t know, doing what I need to do to become a licensed counselor for people who are navigating their way out of cults. Because I’m doing that like a dozen times a week anyway and I’m doing it for free and I should be paid for it, but I also should know how to do it better, and not just have informal conversations with people. And so I’m just moving away from the charismatic power dynamic that is kind of at the center of how commercial yoga works and that is exacerbated by this structural sexism that you point out.
I mean that could lead into a whole conversation around men teaching yoga and what needs to happen around that for sure. But I’d like to finish off with talking about your book and maybe some cult dynamics in yoga land for sure. So: March, you’re book is going to be out?,
Yeah, March 14th. We’re in the thick of production whirlwind and there’s a thousand little details and decisions to be made along the way and we’re setting up online resources. And, there’s a workbook that is at the end of the book that I’m hoping will be a resource for teacher training programs. The book’s called Practice and All Is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics, and Healing in Yoga and Beyond. And it comes out of three years of a tracking the stories of the survivors of Pattabhi Jois’s sexual assaults, which he got away with for 30 years because he was enabled, I argue, by a number of factors including including key cultic dynamics of information control and image management and rationalization and pyramid-like structures, where power just floats to the top and, you know, information leaks down to the bottom and get suppressed and silenced.
And feels like a good time. Like it took three years to do. And because I’m so personally invested, not in Ashtanga yoga, but in cult literature and cult recovery I didn’t realize until I pretty much finished the draft how exhausted it had made me and how much it had, caused my physical and mental health to deteriorate. I feel that slowly I’m recovering from that. And it kind of feels like an exciting time now because, there’s going to be a shitstorm when it’s released, but I kind of know what’s coming and I’m a little bit more relaxed into the decisions I’ve made around, how I’ve analyzed things and who I’ve called to account in the book and that sort of thing. So I’m feeling good about it and I also just don’t know what’s going to happen.
Yeah. Because there’s always kind of like the things you can’t really predict, right? Like your work over the last few years, you know, you’ve really kind of dug into exposing the unhealthy dynamics in Yogaland. And I think through that work and through the work of others that are less visible than you, like Theo and myself and other trauma informed teachers, we’ve seen this language and this movement become co-opted. And so it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out with your book as well.
Right? Well it will be. And what I was really grateful for in working with, with my editor at the Walrus, is that she really guided me through the nuts and bolts of creating a victim-centered narrative or a survivor-centered narrative. And that’s the most important thing about this book to me is that at the heart of it I’m learning to listen to what people like Karen Rain and, and Anneke Lucas and Marissa Sullivan and Jubilee Cooke have to say about their experience and really trying to grasp what it was like and how difficult it has been to hold it and to name it and to manage and to then disclose it and then to deal with all of the blowback.
And my editor also with Embodied Wisdom Publications has been excellent in helping me to really keep the book focused on a survivor’s voices. And that’s key because as we’ve seen in the last six months or so as people have tried to address… as the yoga world… I would say the yoga administrative or bureaucratic world has tried to address the issue of institutional abuse in yoga schools and amongst yoga teachers, they’re not inviting survivors to the table. In event after event, panel after panel, the people who are not invited are the people who actually have done the most work. And this was true back in March or something like that of 2018 when all of the luminaries of the world gathered for their confluence in San Diego. And they actually had a panel discussion on, “Well, what do we do now that we’ve realized that the leader of our method was a 30 year sexual predator?”
They didn’t use those terms, but they convened a panel where they basically discussed, “Well, what does this mean to us as faithful people? What does this mean to us as devotees?” They didn’t reach out to Karen Rain and say, “Can you come and tell us what we should do in relation to survivors of our guru’s abuse? We’re here and we’ve made our careers because we actually either turned a blind eye or enabled him.” They didn’t, of course, they didn’t do that.
There was a similar meeting in London where again, none of Pattabhi Jois’s actual survivors were invited to participate. It was a closed session, but Theo was invited to it and she reluctantly agreed, I believe, I think I can say that on her behalf, to be the person who was going to speak for survivors as the trauma-sensitive person. But you know, they had a Jois devotee on the panel. And it’s like — if you’re going to actually tackle it, you actually have to listen to the people who were impacted and you have to let them drive the story. Because where are you going to be otherwise other than in one realm or another of brand reframing or management or brand washing.
What my hope is that people will start listening to what Karen Rain says as being central to the narrative of modern yoga. That she has as much to say about what it means to learn about yourself and to deal with suffering and to deal with trauma and to understand what kind of support one needs as any yoga expert does. I just want to see people like people like her become the real community leaders. Having said that, I know that that’s not what she wants! I think what I wrote my book is that is that at a certain point people in Yoga culture will be more interested in what Karen Rain has to say about her experience in yoga than they’ll be interested in what Pattabhi Jois taught. And at that point, I think we’ll all be practicing more yoga actually.
Amen. All right. I think we’re done. Thank you so much. I really appreciate you being willing to do this. I know you’re exhausted and you need to have a nap. So thank you so much for your time.
Talking with Carmen Spagnola about Attachment, High-Demand Groups, Responsibilism, and Grief (Transcript)
We talked about the intersection of aspirational and high-demand groups, getting over the guilt and shame of privilege-recognition, the somatic affect of charisma and how it leads to weird group habitus and the paradox of having to “market” things like community.
Carmen totally cracked me up when she described some of the well-intentioned jargon taking root in the deep ecology / revillaging circles she runs in. We talked about how highly evocative but undefinable terms like “grief-soaked” can brand a newly-commodified activism while also shutting down real-world convos. No, people probably don’t really talk like that. And when they do, there’s probably a little bit of trying-to-sell-shit-to-each-other going on. And loaded language is always a red flag for high-demand dynamics.
My favourite bits were when she asked me about how I stay connected to yoga practice while studying high-demand yoga groups, and how I manage rage and grief. This made me think about how I don’t actually know how well I’m taking care of myself — I mean, how would I? — even after all these years of yoga and meditation. Also it allowed me to describe how I have to split my brain in several ways in order to quarantine off certain things to get on with it.
I found the process of stumbling through answers to those two difficult questions was quite healing. Continue reading “Talking with Carmen Spagnola about Attachment, High-Demand Groups, Responsibilism, and Grief (Transcript)”
Just over a year ago, eight long-term students of Sogyal Lakar (known as Sogyal Rinpoche) sent him a letter that is still shaking the foundations of his “Rigpa International” corporation. The letter from “The Eight” accused him of decades of physical, emotional, psychological and sexual abuse of students, a “lavish, gluttonous, and sybaritic lifestyle”, and degrading the image and meaning of global Buddhism. The accusations have not been denied. Lakar has retreated from public life, and RI says that it’s investigating. Whether this will result in transparency and restorative justice remains to be seen.
Khyentse Norbu (Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse) comes from a decorated family of Tibetan Buddhist teachers, and is said to be a “Rinpoche” — a reincarnated “precious one”, born to carry perfect and rare teachings forward from a primordial source. Norbu is known for engaging his cosmopolitan global audience with pugnacious erudition, pot-stirring books, and a flair for documentary filmmaking, in which he was reportedly tutored by Bernardo Bertolucci, who he met on the set of “Little Buddha”.
Norbu shares a global stage with Lakar as a popular teacher of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism (Vajrayana). Accordingly, his students asked him to comment on the accusations against Lakar. A month after the letter from “The Eight”, he obliged by posting a ten thousand-word essay that was shared over a thousand times on Facebook, and lauded by his students around the world as a nuanced defence of Vajrayana’s abiding magic and the unorthodox but salvific bonds it promotes between teachers and students.
“Defence” is perhaps not the right word, however. The essay spends none of its time on the accusations. Rather, it sermonizes on the glory of the Vajrayana process, and laments the poor education of those who claim to be hurt by it. The Eight, Norbu argues, must have known what they were in for as Vajrayana students. They should have had “superior faculties” that would have allowed them to transform the perception of Lakar’s abuse into a belief in his spiritual care. These faculties should have been further cemented by the students’ “samaya”, or psychospiritual commitment to Lakar. The essay reminds readers that for Lakar’s students to break samaya by not framing all of his actions as beneficial condemns them to aeons of literal hell. Continue reading “Tantric Trolling, Tantric Fixing: Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse’s Posts on Clerical Sexual Abuse”
It identifies Mukpo as both the reincarnation of a Tibetan saint and a meditational deity. It says that he is a king, a ruler of the “three worlds” (of desire, form, and formlessness), and the “manifestation of buddha activity.” The chanter prays for Mukpa’s influence to spread through Jambudvipa, which basically means “earth”, but from the perspective of deities who can perceive multiple worlds.
According to members I’ve spoken with, this chant is deployed to two contexts. At some Shambhala centres, entry-level members are introduced to it at weekly gatherings. When they ask about the chant’s meanings or express discomfort at praying to human being as if he were a deity, they are typically told that they can understand it “symbolically” for now, and that deeper meanings will be unfolded at higher levels of commitment.
The second usage of the change comes at those higher levels, where, along with explication, the chant itself becomes an expression of “samaya”.
“Samaya” is a “contract” to a teacher made in Tantric streams of Indian wisdom culture. Breaking it, which can happen through as little as thinking badly about that teacher, is said to result in endless cycles of disgusting and horrific torture in “hell-realms”. Over the years I have received communications from members of neo-Tibetan tantric groups who say that this is a source of literal terror for them.
I don’t think it matters that much that the literal meanings of these threats might be lost on postmodern practitioners. When I had “samaya” with Michael Roach and his teacher, the late Khenpo Rinpoche, I took the gory details as metaphors for inescapable psychological pain.
Many traditionalists would say that a text used for Tantric practitioners is actually forbidden to those who are not initiated. In other words, it would be “illegal” for students who had not attained a certain maturity in relation to the teaching content to be asked to read ritual literature “symbolically”. Amongst all of the ways in which the followers of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche have, like him, both appealed to “tradition” while holding it in contempt, what would this one be about?
A commenter on my Facebook feed wrote about how he was asked to hold the meaning of the chant symbolically as a new student. He remarks:
“Sadly it turns out that this soft-symbolic, “Don’t worry about it’, ‘You are your own meditation instructor'”, guidance on the chants is actually a bait and switch for those who enter the Vajrayana path, which I fortunately never did.”
The commenter’s observations describe a well-known feature of cult media.
The two performance levels — intro and advanced — allow this same chant to perform the dual functions of propaganda and indoctrination described by Alexandra Stein (via Hannah Arendt) employed by cultic organizations. She explains the difference here. My argument is that the intro-level chant, explained to newcomers as symbolic, works as propaganda. The advanced application, with its more literal implications and commitments, functions to deepen indoctrination.
“Propaganda is not indoctrination, though it may be the first step towards entering a process of indoctrination. Indoctrination is what happens during the subsequent process of brainwashing within an isolated context. Importantly, those to whom propaganda is directed are not yet isolated or are only partially so. They still have some points of reference in the outside world. They may still have friends or family or colleagues with whom they can check out their impressions. The much more intense process of indoctrination to extreme beliefs occurs when the new recruit has been successfully separated from their external contacts. Then they can begin to be broken down, to lose their own sense of reality, their own common sense, and they can eventually be pressured to take on new and often dangerous or damaging ideas and behaviors. This part of the process can sometimes take years. Propaganda can be seen as the softening up process that gets the recruit to the point where indoctrination processes can start to be implemented. Propaganda must be believable enough, must have some kind of hook into the real world so that potential recruits will follow the thread and not simply be repulsed immediately.” (2017, 53-54)
According to this schema, it would be worth investigating the relationship between popular Shambhala-based books and media content and the ritual literature of the inner core. The books on the Shambhala Publications back list, for example, might function as a “transmission belt” (again, after Arendt) towards the inner core and its high demands.
I don’t know how many people have “samaya” with Ösel Mukpo, but there are at least 200 gathering on the 15th at the Shambhala Mountain Centre. (More on this in this earlier post.)
Emails to registrants confirm that Mukpo won’t be there, and suggest that the retreat leaders will be attempting to “separate the teacher from the teachings”. In the case of this upcoming “Garchen”, those teachings are said to have been mystically revealed to Mukpo’s father in the early 1980s, and now Mukpo himself.
But this chant, in which devotion and metaphysics are inextricable, makes it clear just how difficult separating the teacher from the teachings actually is in this and other communities governed by modern appropriations of “samaya”. Devotion is the content. The medium is the message.
Reformers who really want to work towards student empowerment and safety have to not only insist upon the physical and administrative withdrawal of an abusive leader, but re-imagine a curriculum somehow separate from its origin story. The content didn’t come from outer space.
The manual from which this is taken ends with the statement: “This material is available in limited publication, and no general publication is made or intended. No part of this material may be reproduced or published in any form without the written consent of the Nalanda Translation Committee.”
Here it is anyway, because transparency, right? It’s important for everyone in yoga and Buddhist communities, which are so susceptible to mechanisms of undue influence, to see how hidden materials of indoctrination work.
Also, no author gets to establish the “intention” of a text as somehow separate from the way it is read, or its various impacts. That goes for me as well, which is something I contemplate as I continue to cover this subject.
A Disorganized Attachment Legacy at Shambhala: Brief Notes on Two Letters and a 1993 Interview with Pema Chödrön
On Sunday, a unknown number of unnamed “Women acharyas” released this unsigned letter. The acharyas are a group of Shambhala International leaders, empowered by their current head, Ösel Mukpo, to represent the legacy and teaching content of the organization. Their letter responds to a call for action from members outraged by revelations of continued institutional sex and power abuse in their community.
Mukpo stands accused of sexual misconduct by three anonymous women whose voices have been recorded by Andrea Winn in her Project Sunshine report. He has posted a vague admission of guilt. Winn’s work has pried opened an unhealed wound carved out by the abuses of Mukpo’s father, Chogyam Trungpa, and his lieutenants. Those stories are still coming to light, and they are unbelievably savage.
Insiders will be able to better parse out the likelihood of whether this particular political constellation of “acharyas” is equipped to understand the dynamics within which it is embedded and strong enough break out of them. I don’t pretend to have any insights on that. I hope I can, however, point out a key characteristic of crisis communication that does not bode well in the present, and which has deep and influential roots in the past. Continue reading “A Disorganized Attachment Legacy at Shambhala: Brief Notes on Two Letters and a 1993 Interview with Pema Chödrön”