(Some rough, opinionated notes.)
I’m realizing that reading the dynamics of high-demand yoga and meditation groups through a cult psychology lens is necessary work and personal to me. I get hate mail for it, but the grateful notes outnumber the missiles by about three to one.
However, using this language doesn’t answer a crucial set of questions:
Why do groups like Michael Roach’s Diamond Mountain, Rajneeshpuram, Rigpa, Shambhala, and Agama exist? Not: where do the ideas and personalities come from? Not: what unmet needs do they pretend to fill?
But: what are the basic political and economic conditions that allowed so many of these groups to mushroom in the post-war era, and so easily construct a pretence of value? What did the culture at large have to first commodify for these groups to then come along and upsell?
Political cults run on the premise of political action. Warlord cults run on the premise of revolutionary struggle. Psychotherapy cults like the Newman Tendency ran on the premise of transforming a therapeutic mode into a social justice tool. In each of these contexts, I sense a product.
But yoga and Dharma cults? What broadly-accepted social discourse and value allows them to be a thing, to project a plausible relationship to positive, pro-social human labour? What do they promise to make? Continue reading “Don’t Deepen Your Practice”
Jonah, Matsyendra, Jivana Heyman, and Northrop Frye: Keynote Address to the Accessible Yoga Conference, Toronto, 2018
Given in the Victoria College Chapel,
University of Toronto,
May 23, 2018
I want to thank Jivana for inviting me to make a few remarks here today, near the closing of this groundbreaking event.
Fun fact: I used to go to school here. I dropped out. There were a number of reasons, not the least of which was that I couldn’t at the time see what the point was, what kind of job or living could come from a literature degree.
I didn’t want to break a spell. I’d spent several years reading books in these rooms, immersed in a dreamlike experience that shone a light into some internal space. It was like the sweet spot in a yoga career. I didn’t want to wake up and be productive. I wasn’t so interested in achieving anything. I didn’t want to perform, or conform. Maybe these sentiments sound resonant to some of you after this weekend – especially if you took the training earlier this week.
Just downstairs, I would go to the lectures of Northrop Frye in the year before he died. Frye was a famous Canadian intellectual. You Americans and others we’re hosting here might be familiar with a more recent and even more famous, and much wealthier Canadian intellectual, also tenured at this University. I’ll just say that Frye was very different from the current celebrity: he didn’t become rich and famous by mocking the emotions of marginalized people or by dismissing their needs, which the dominant culture already makes invisible – such as the need that trans people have to be recognized as who they are.
Like our current celebrity, Frye was also a Christian, and he appreciated Jung. But you can be sure that if he was still alive he’d be marching down Church Street this weekend in the PRIDE Parade.
Frye was truly a thinker, and a generous one – a literary critic and theorist who articulated several revelatory ideas that forever changed the way a lot of people read books.
He was a United Church minister, but his ideas were pretty yogic. One was the notion, broadly stated, that there are no single books in the world. It’s like the covers that separate books on shelves are simply there to allow you to pick them up more easily. Each person’s work, Frye argued, fit into a “continuity of the word”, reiterating and expanding upon primal themes handed down through the mythic frameworks by which societies live and grow. It wasn’t the critic’s job to judge an individual book so much as was to give it voice within its proper context, to see how it fit into the whole landscape of human dreams, how it mobilized the forms of the past for new purposes. He didn’t see himself as a gatekeeper of what was correct or proper, but as a facilitator of imaginative experience. That has inspired me throughout my life.
I’m opening with this recollection here, because I believe Jivana and his colleagues are doing the same thing with this organization, this movement. They look at bodies and consciousness in the way Frye looked at literature – as one broad continuum of potential experience. They aren’t high-brow. They are not gatekeepers. They don’t believe in gates, unless they’re already open. Continue reading “Jonah, Matsyendra, Jivana Heyman, and Northrop Frye: Keynote Address to the Accessible Yoga Conference, Toronto, 2018”
Accountability Or Apologia? Reading Between the Lines When Yoga and Buddhism Leaders Issue Crisis Statements
Many of today’s leaders in yoga and Buddhism built themselves through online marketing. This means that when abuse in their communities is revealed, they must be prepared to make online responses. It’s good to be able to see where the responses are continuous with the marketing: this may give clues as to how earnest, considered and educated those responses are.
The speed at which it all happens is both terrible and revealing. Terrible insofar as it suppresses sober second thought. Revealing because it lays bare microdynamics of cultic control that in the pre-digital age were invisible outside of the group. Today we can watch cults get penetrated by reporting and instantly try to circle the wagons. It’s easy to see the crude damage control of the attempt to discredit victims or reporters. What’s harder to see is how the reporting can be deflected by selective acknowledgement or yes-but statements. Whatever the responses are, they play out in the open field, like some kind of cult-exit obstacle course reality show.
We have to learn the difference between structural change and rebranding. Especially as people are getting better at co-opting and monetizing discourses around trauma-awareness and justice. There’s a lot of leaders in the Shambhala org right now who will be ramping up the trauma awareness language and dusting off their Naropa psychology chops. But if they don’t simultaneously call for the Sakyong to be removed and the org to be investigated independently, they are abusing that language and those tools. This may not at all be their fault. They may be under the illusion that those values actually came from the Trungpa legacy, instead of having been co-opted by it. Continue reading “Accountability Or Apologia? Reading Between the Lines When Yoga and Buddhism Leaders Issue Crisis Statements”
Image: myself and Diane Bruni at the #WAWADIA event on May 29, 2014. I refer to this event in the interview. The write-up and (unfortunately) butchered video is here. I love how Diane is looking at me here, trying to figure out how full of shit I am.
Thank you to J. Brown for having me on his podcast, as part of his series about current news in the Ashtanga world. You can also tune in to his talks with Kino MacGregor, Scott Johnson, and Sarai Harvey-Smith.
Here’s our talk. Resources and transcript (trimmed of intro/outro) below.
Here’s where I’ve quoted Theodora Wildcroft on the fear of contagion elicited by the voice of the victim.
Here’s my conversation with Colin Hall and Sarah Garden.
I’ve posted the classic “Deception, Dependence, and Dread” summary from cult researcher Michael Langone here.
Hi, how are you?
I’m good, I’m good. I just listened to your intro to Scott Johnson. I didn’t listen to what Scott had to say, but I really appreciated the intro, it was good.
Well, thanks. There was still some debate about it, I guess. I just default to transparency and not everybody always thinks that’s a good idea. But for me, it’s where I feel most comfortable. So, thanks. But what else, what’s been going on, how’s your day going? It’s the middle of the day for you too, right?
It is. And I just got up from a nap with alongside the almost two-year-old, Owen. And that was really good because I was up until about 1:30 in the morning after doing another interview with my friends Colin Hall and Sarah Garden at Bodhi Tree in Regina. It took me a while to come down off of that. But the sun is shining, we got some backyard cleaning done over the weekend, we emptied out the basement. Things are heading in an upward arc it feels in many ways.
Yeah. You know what, you mentioned two and a half years for your son and-
Almost two, he’s going to be two on May 17th.
Well, we last spoke, the last time you were on the podcast was May 2016.
Oh, my goodness. Was he born or not?
I guess he wouldn’t have been born because it’s exactly two years ago. But we spoke about that book that you wrote with Michael Stone about becoming fathers and stuff. I remember that. I can’t believe it’s been two years.
Yeah, it’s been a long time. We’ve been in touch since. The difference between the podcast and being on the phone is a little bit thin.
That’s true actually. That’s a good point because sometimes, I had Peter Blackaby on and I had not had other conversations with him other than the two that you hear on the podcast, but you and I had had many conversations. There is a three line there. And gosh, so much has happened. When we last spoke, we were talking about WAWADIA still. And right at the end of that, we were saying, “Oh, it’s going in different directions.” And people were sort of, I think upset back then and maybe still that it was started out as what poses hurt you, what poses don’t hurt you. People wanted to sort of have some how to practice safe in clear, simple answers. And you were like, “I looked at it and I don’t know that pose exists. And you were saying that it was going in this direction of the interpersonal dynamics that were going on.
Yeah. That’s a good summary actually. It took about two years to figure out that I was barking up kind of a dissociative tree, that when the hard data is really laid out as I think you yourself suggested those years ago and perhaps before that as well, we don’t really see that yoga is any more damaging physically to anybody than any other physical activity. In fact, it’s probably safer. When that was clear, for a moment I held on to this notion that the problem with yoga injuries is the problem of expectation, that people get involved in this practice for therapy and spiritual healing. And why it seems very bizarre that they would hurt themselves, that they would develop repetitive stress or chronic pain.
I held on to that for a while. But trying to hang a research narrative on that premise became a lot less important than realizing the kinds of stories I was overlooking or I was papering over in the midst of all of the interviews that I was doing with people who had injured themselves or who had been injured by teachers. And a couple of key things happened that kind of spun me around. And one of them was that Diane Bruni was an early supporter of the work and she was one of my first interviews. And she told me about the correlation between overuse, repetitive stress and her hip injury coming out of the Ashtanga world.
And I interviewed her, it was a really compelling interview. She loved the project, she was a big supporter and she wanted to host this event at her home studio in Parkdale here in Toronto. We advertised it, it was going to be under the banner / branding of WAWADIA or my project. And 60 people showed up, and she was going to speak on her injury experience. I was going to give my initial research that was related to psychosocial dynamics of injury. And then we had also a sports medicine doctor who was going to come, and he was going to do a little bit of statistical analysis on who got hurt when and where and how. And Diane was going first, and she just did not follow the plan. That’s not really her jam.
It wasn’t unexpected, but at the same time, what she began talking about was really outside of what I felt the scope of my project should be. She started talking about the whisper network that she had encountered in the late 1990s that informed her that Pattabhi Jois was allegedly assaulting female students. And she described how that led her into a kind of crisis of faith and professional choices like how was she going to associate herself with a system where this was true? And the information that she had was credible. She told the story, and I was sitting there gripping my meditation cushion listening to her say it and thinking, “This wasn’t in the program, this wasn’t part of the deal.”
Karen Rain Speaks About Pattabhi Jois and Recovering from Sexual and Spiritual Abuse — Video Interview
Thank you for visiting this page. If you scroll down past these intro notes, you will see the full transcript of the interview offered below, for easy citation.
We’d like to start with a trigger warning:
This interview conveys details of sexual assault and the silencing of a victim of sexual assault. The descriptions are detailed and emotionally charged.
One of our supportive advisors offered the following feedback: viewers should leave good time for self-care while engaging with this video.
It was suggested that this might be especially important not only for those whose trauma occurred in yoga spaces, but also those who have gone to yoga for healing.
We’d also like to offer the following resources, notes, clarifications, and links.
- The Walrus: Yoga’s Culture of Sexual Abuse: Nine Women Tell Their Stories
- Karen Rain’s blog.
- Anneke Lucas’ 2010 disclosure (republished in 2016). This is to my knowledge the first public disclosure.
- Bodhi Tree Yoga, Regina, SK. (Thanks, Colin and Sarah.)
When I talk with my yoga friends these days, there’s only one topic: the forest fire of reform sweeping through our sub-culture. Or at least the social media layer of it (the thickness of which is hard to gauge).
We talk about Rachel Brathen’s #metoo post, and what will happen when she connects her correspondents and supports them in taking further action, whether legally, or in the mainstream media. We talk about Karen Rain’s statements. This one, and this one.
We also worry about the smoke inhalation. About the toll taken on faith and hope, about the 30M yoga practitioners in the U.S. alone who are getting dusted in ash, the majority of whom may not know or care about the venerated names, what Yogi Bhajan was really up to, or may have no feeling at all that the memorized script of Bikram’s method might be inseparable from the man.
But it’s not right to infantilize the innocent practitioner. I’ve spoken with several older devotees of these teachers. They question the value of airing “old stuff”. “Why disturb the faith of new students?” they ask. I tell them they sound like Catholics filibustering inquiries into the clergy.
This morning I’m thinking about how one wise friend said, “there will always be yoga tomorrow.”
It’s a good thing. Countless people will wake up at 4 to get to the shala at 5 to perform a candlelit ritual of bodily testing and reclamation. They’ll head to the gym after work. They’ll go to restorative class, or a therapeutics class with those Iyengar backbending props. People will treasure the waves of warmth and sensitivity and tender self-observations that ripple out through their day. The vast majority will feel supported, nurtured, even liberated.
The vast majority — millions — practice in the space between two poles: the fires of reform and the marketing of an industry that has tried to pretend it has no shadows. How can we support this space on a daily basis?
Further, I have to ask every day: what’s my responsibility, with this strange platform, cobbled together out of critique? I spend half of my working life burning the roof. How do I show the less visible work of those I admire, shoring up foundations in the clay and the mud?
I have a more robust list in mind. What do they call these things? Gratitude lists?
It’s a jumble of precious moments and articles of faith, both personal and social. They perform two actions for me: they counter the demoralizing content, and they provide space. This is a list with candlelight instead of fire.
- A long breath, deep or shallow, never gets old.
- Nor does that feeling I had rolling out of my first savasana, gazing at my hand lit up by the sun, and thinking I am That.
- There are radiant heating coils in the polished concrete floors of Lacombe Yoga, in rural Alberta. It’s -31C this morning in Lacombe. My friend Tiffany runs the place. She’s a trauma expert. She taught over 500 classes in 2017 and barely broke even.
- Yoga Service Council. I’m not as involved as I want to be, because time and other excuses, but wow, what great work that network does. YSC is like the Canada of modern global yoga. (Canada on a good day.)
- I love talking with Jivana Heyman. Social media allows me to fantasize a wonderful IRL community.
- I get to talk with almost all of these people on a panel looking to build an actionable and aspirational code of conduct for yoga teachers.
- What’s left of movies in the wake of Weinstein? Lady Bird opens. Patty Jenkins champions Wonder Woman. In the yoga world too, what was always underneath will rise up.
- I go to a Community Centre in the basement of a public housing complex to play handball and swim. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, one of the activity rooms is packed with Indian women in saris and punjabis doing yoga. The door is open and I can hear the breath count and see the simple stretches of people taking a holy hour for themselves. The drab room has a cold tile floor and florescent lights. It’s about as far away as you can get from the gentrified spaces I identify with yoga. The class is free. I listen at the door and realize I don’t know anything about yoga yet, and this makes me happy.
- So many of us are coming out of cults. Tuning in to the deception, dependency, and dread-of-leaving. We’re learning that everyone comes out at a different pace. We all have different needs, different privileges. We really can learn to respect each other’s pathways. Maybe the fires are burning the cultic to fertilize the permaculture.
- I’ve learned that yoga trolls are like vrittis, and yes they can be stopped. With single-pointed concentration on the “Block” button.
- Several years ago, Dexter Xurukulasuriya in Montreal humbled me during a global yoga culture 101 presentation for a YTT with the best yoga cultural appropriation questions ever. Their family is from Sri Lanka. They reminded me of their comments by DM: “Since EVERY culture has its own rich, complex treasury of inspirational poetry, imagery, mythology and holy scripture,” Dexter wrote, “shouldn’t we ask why some people feel so comfortable and are so drawn to re-work and update other people’s traditions rather than their own? Isn’t it a form of privilege to be able pick and choose whatever aspects of a culture you want to adopt when so many of us have been so forcibly estranged from our cultures through colonial and imperial violence and while your own still-living traditions are actively oppressing millions of people? Isn’t this reworking of our cultures a kind of colonization? Isn’t abandoning rather than reworking your own traditions an abdication of responsibility?” Um, uh, I said. Yes. You’re right.
- I recently visited Dexter and they prepared incredible food. “Bonchi curry, parippu, vambatu moju,” they said, “and Sri Lankan red rice with cardamum & cinnamon, and an arugula salad topped with purple carrots, Quebec cranberries and crickets from the local market.” They taught me to eat it with my fingers. Two trips to India, and nobody ever showed me how to do this. We talked about a lot of things. When we circled back around to appropriation, I said: “The thing is, non-Indians aren’t just enthralled by the yoga, or some romantic idea of India. And it’s not just that our churches are dead to a lot of us, or that our mystics haven’t been taken seriously for centuries. This yoga fascination is also about falling in love with the families of the gurus.” I said that at least one aspect of the yoga cultural appropriation story evolves out of the Euro-American wish for stable, predictable, orderly relationships. A conservative family, with strong gender roles, in which everyone understands their place in the universe. Where dad isn’t drinking the war away, but instead lighting the oil lamps in front of the divine and the ancestors every morning. As Dexter and I talked and listened to each other I could feel the bits and pieces of love we might recover through all of our jumbled history. We fell in love with your families. They smiled, then served something chocolatey.
- Yoga and Movement Research Community. Hurray. Sometimes a multiple car pile-up, but people are getting better at keeping it moving, limiting their rubber-necking.
- I’ve been working with a friend on an app that aims to take the yoga conversation out of the Facebook trench and into a creative, talking-circle space, with professional moderation. We can always dream.
- Some yoga researchers are so generous. Like this one. And these ones.
- Uma Dinsmore-Tuli suggests that all of the wild alchemical aspirations of medieval yoga may be a cultural case of womb-envy. Woah.
- When I enter the room to give a presentation at Queen Street Yoga, I walk by framed statement on the wall about how the studio occupies the land of the Anishnawbe and Haudenosaunee people. A while back, on the opposite wall, there was a “Body-Positivity Blackboard”, where students were encouraged to finish the sentence, “My body is great because…”. Different hands have written: “It made a baby”, “Its squishiness makes me good at cuddling”. I picked up the chalk as people filed past, murmuring cheerfully. “Through depression, anxiety, and neglect,” I wrote, “my body has always been here, holding me.”
- Consent cards.
- Talking about my late friend Michael Stone with one of his students. He’s been diagnosed with bipolar disorder as well. He disclosed this on social media, saying he wanted it to be an open part of his discourse around teaching yoga. We sat on the patio on College Street in the late summer sun. He explained to me little about what he thought might have been going on for Michael. Part of his practice is knowing which parts of yoga work for his diagnosis, and which parts don’t. He has the most gentle, self-aware voice.
- TFW I’m texting with Be Scofield about plans for a cult-busting website while she’s driving across the rural South. We also text about how much she adores a good Kundalini class. Then we throw potential cult-infiltrator code-names back and forth. She turns down “Maya Honeypot”. I never argue with her. She’s the boss.
- I’m in class with Peter Blackaby at Esther Myers Yoga Studio. He says: “It’s not quite exercise. It’s not quite therapy. I’m not quite sure what ‘good alignment’ means. The only term that makes sense to me is ‘self-inquiry’.”
- I get a stack of papers in a big brown envelope all the way from New Zealand. Donna Farhi has sent me a file of her notes on the ethical complaints she collected from throughout yogaland in the 1990s. The contents are heavy: Donna has been doing the heavy lifting.
- At Esther Myers again, sitting with Monica Voss on the tatami mats. She tells me she’s never been injured practicing yoga. I look puzzled, and she looks back at me, puzzled that I’m puzzled. Like — why is that even a question? We talk about Vanda Scaravelli. Then we talk about the relationship between teaching yoga and the hospice work she does. Her voice is quiet. I can hardly hear it when I listen to the recording afterward. I turn my phone off and just try to remember. That’s oral tradition, creeping back in.
- Before dawn, I unroll my mat in my cramped space. The black rubber absorbs a landing strip of scant light against the sheen of the hardwood. Around me, the books are mute with shadow. On the harmonium-case that serves as my writing table, my laptop sits like a window closed against the storm. I light a candle.
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OP: Hi everybody! I love this group! I hope you can help. I have a question about this thing in yoga: [insert whatever]. I’m wondering if you have any advice or resources to share. I’m writing this OP in good faith with an upbeat tone. I know that I might not be using the most correct language — after all, I’m just starting out as a teacher! I’m hoping that won’t matter, because we’re all learning together, and you all want to help, right? Thanks!
Commenter 1 (C1): [That thing in yoga you’re asking about] has nothing to do with real yoga. Can’t believe you’re going to be teaching.
OP: um okay well I’m just starting out thanks Continue reading “Facebook Yoga Group Thread From Hell (Hopefully, a Requiem)”
One thing that’s coming into clearer focus as I keep looking into the 1960s-90s period of the global yoga boom is that non-Indian students/consumers were attracted not just to notions of bodily freedom and the enhanced internal agency promised by meditation.
Through idealism and orientalist distortions, they were also attracted to an ostensibly older and more grounded mode of being.
On one hand, this was partially expressed through a nostalgia for conservatism. I believe this had a lot to do with being attracted to how Iyengar’s (and others’) colonial-era survivorship blended with post-war Fordism to value good posture, an independent work ethic, strongly defined gender roles, visions of the benevolent patriarch, obedience to a productive method, a fixation on the hero’s journey, and the notion that the world was improving, one sun salute at a time.
Beneath this simmered an attraction to something more primal: the very capacity for belief itself. Postmodernism had argued an “incredulity towards metanarratives”, such as “nationhood” or “religion” or “history” and even “self”. The 1970s academic deconstructionists attacked faith without mercy. Their work trickled down into a pervasive sense of irony within popular culture. It got so bad that at one point I realized that the feeling I had of understanding something was indistinguishable from the feeling I got when mocking it.
Somehow, the ground of yoga offered something more solid, less depressed. For the disillusioned global spiritual consumer, its homeland became the site of an unshifting reality or confidence, lived by those who had stood there and endured.
With privilege, you could travel to India as a tourist from historical and cultural bankruptcy, and try to soak some of that up, to fill the hole.
You could study there, get sick there, feel like a child again, without language or good toilet skills.
You could watch countless people flow by in an endless reaffirmation of your stereotypes and archetypes.
You could go to a temple and ask a nadi reader to retrieve your life story from a library of palm leaves. You could hear mantras recited, unchanged in tone or rhythm (or so they said) from before the dawn of time.
You could pretend to be guiltless, making yourself oblivious to the inequalities that allowed you to fly there in a plane and blend the reverie of gazing out at cloud cover with a vague sense of spiritual purpose.
But the one thing you couldn’t do as a spiritual traveller in India was to feel ironic. The feeling would instantly erase your visa from your passport.
That milky chai in a red clay cup as you waited for the rickety train was the sweet taste of relief from all doubt and skepticism and smugness. You could breathe its aroma deeply.
The Oneness everyone talked about had a somatic immediacy. There was nothing abstract about it. I felt it in the springs of the bus seat lurching up to Dharamsala, the punch of camphor in the sinuses. I thought I saw it in the cow pats drying on the mud walls.
How painful it is to become disillusioned with an authenticity project. To become ironic about yoga culture, skeptical of its pathways of authority, doubtful of its origin stories. How shameful to realize you were making yourself feel better by othering, by positively colonizing.
Or: to hear that this one made that up and the other one was in it for money or sexual gratification. To see that modern yoga in the U.S. and India both can prop up a politics you abhor. Didn’t we come to these mats and cushions to relax our cynicism?
From personal experience I know that irony can be the ironclad defence of the depressive. But if it retains just a little bit of sweet within its bitterness, it can serve a nobler role. If it’s a little less sneer and little more Mona Lisa, it can light a pathway to inquiry.
There really can be more to deconstruction than clever white men reliving their adolescence by claiming that all meaning – including the meanings that create power and inequality – is somehow a mirage.
Deeper than its flash, deconstruction shows that the heart is a garden of doubts to be carefully tended.
It shows that the attempt to fix meaning flows from patriarchal insecurities, that nostalgia for the father and the Word and for certainty cannot be healed through transference and projection, or fawning neocolonialism.
It shows how ultimately ridiculous it was – though not innocent – that you thought yoga was a specific thing you could grasp and possess and preach.
I had a teacher once who gave an eccentric etymology (of the “nirukta” or poetic variety) for “moksha”. He said that the “mo” pointed to “Mohini” who infatuates the yogi, and the “ksha” meant “removal”. Thus, he said, one way to think of “moksha” was as “the ending of infatuation.”
Infatuation ends in disillusionment. Irony comes in to soothe and protect.
But after a while, one may not need protection from vanished illusions.
It’s impossible to take a deep ironic breath, after all.
Maybe the Buddha is smiling through the other side of irony. The mature, humble, forgiving side.
Please support Michael’s partner Carina and children through this fund.
Photo courtesy of Ian MacKenzie.
Content warning: description of organ harvest.
I started writing this the day my friend Michael Stone died. On that day, the surgeons carefully cut into the body associated with him, to take the parts that used to be him and give them to others in need.
I wasn’t there, but I picture the following:
Their scalpels slide under the skin that was him, and was scanned a hundred thousand times in vipassana meditation.
They poke through the webbing of fascia that was him, and was stretched and twisted through a hundred thousand yoga postures.
Their blue-gloved hands, splashed with blood, pluck out two kidneys like sleeping fish.
They saw through the ribcage, softened by a decade of exhaling visualized light in the Tibetan style. They lift out the still-pulsing lungs, and watch them shudder to stillness on the ice pack. As though Michael were still practicing to lengthen and smooth his breath into that single point of silence he craved.
The transplant team demonstrates an ancient proof in Buddhist logic:
If you look for the person among the parts, you will not find him. “Michael” and “my friend” and “Buddhist teacher” are designations applied to a collection of skin, blood, voice, eyes, behaviors, images, and mysteries. All of which are ultimately ownerless.
One of the mantras Michael sought comfort from was: There is no “me” or “mine.” It’s an assertion of emptiness, but it hides a multiplicity: Michael, like any person, was many.
There was Carina’s Michael: doting and vulnerable. The Michael who stood large beside his brother Jayme and sister Sunny. The Michael of his parents, his teenage friends, his first partner. His friends from many walks of life. Those who didn’t care about Buddhism or yoga.
The Michaels of his children: Arlyn, and the two boys he had with Carina. The thirteen year-old, the four year-old, and the toddler knew different fathers. Baby-to-be heard a resonant voice to be remembered in dreams.
In rings circling outwards, more Michaels appear, each one a little less knowable: therapist, sometimes-monk, public speaker, heartthrob, author, entrepreneur. And of course, Michael the dharma teacher, sitting at the front of the room, by turns radiant, startled, or wooden.
Which Michael did his Buddhist teachers see? His therapists? His psychotherapy supervisor? What about his doctors?
Who was Michael to the man who sold him that little white pill?
The surgeons murmur over the body, and it sounds like prayers.
If you knew and loved Michael through his work, you beat the surgeons to that harvest.
You harvested the voice of his writing and podcasts, marked by the rhythm of the practices he loved and depended on. His penchant for boiling the broadest themes down to taut aphorisms. And for finding the Buddha everywhere he wanted to find him: novels, obscure Canadian poetry, cool apps, superior espresso, pop music, therapy, laundry, mountains, streetcars, his motorcycle, and hospitals.
If you were a student who went to his retreats, you harvested other things. Like how so many mirrored his exquisite posture with equal parts earnestness and piety. You absorbed a dynamic silence – at times anxious, haunted, or womblike. The talks he gave were metronomic, as though he needed the entire world to slow down and listen at the exact pace that soothed him. Then, his quirky yoga instructions tangled you up on your mat, made you teeter and laugh.
Perhaps you had a meeting with him about your meditation or yoga practice and he dispensed advice that connected, perhaps miraculously. Was he intuitive, or lucky? You can’t honestly say. Or maybe the meeting made no sense at all, and you felt odd about that – maybe even apologetic, like you were letting him down. Or: he outright frustrated you with those blue eyes that could seem to know you, love you, judge you, or be lost, all in quick succession.
You collected the countless steps of walking meditation, and the group chants Michael loved. They may have stirred you deeply. Or you may have found that in the English translations from Sanskrit or Japanese he collected and tweaked, they sounded angular and explicit to the point of embarrassment:
Don’t squander your life!
Does anyone really squander their life?
2013. We were walking through Mile End in Montreal, looking for the perfect cortado. Michael was telling me he’d backed off on the rigidity of practice in recent years, as we tend to do.
“I’m leaving just enough discipline to hold the shape of something,” he said, on the step of Café Névé. He gestured in the cold air with his hands.
That something was always meticulous, artistic, and intense. It felt like his longing for ritual order emerged, as much religion does, as an artistic response to internal and external chaos.
I remember when he rented my old space in Cabbagetown for several month-long retreats in 2006. One was in February. He’d ride his Danish bicycle over from Parkdale, and come in with snow in his beard that melted into the cup of coffee I handed him. Through the day, I sat at the desk outside the room, working to the rhythm of his somnambulant baritone, lulled by the vowels.
The students were Gen X, Y, and millennials, countercultural. Three-quarters women. When they trickled out to the bathroom they moved quietly and kept their heads down. It seemed like they were under a thrall they couldn’t risk breaking. When the studio door was left open, I could see the cohort encircle him. Some sat very close, absorbed in him.
I was impressed, and uneasy. What was going on? How did he manage to make all of that attention directed at him seem natural?
The fragments of his talks I overheard rung with a single note. It wasn’t from Buddhism or yoga. The texts were delivery devices for a sense of collective certainty, expressed through the first person plural.
“When we feel… we often find… and then we get caught up in… and so we practice because… and we fail… our hearts are like… our armour falls away… we are open to… we can be receptive to… we touch intimacy… we continue on with our work, not knowing.”
Michael’s register of wisdom could make people feel merged with each other, and with him. It created a feeling of group confession that generalized and depersonalized towards an unboundaried warmth. It seemed to hold nothing in private.
When the group left at dusk, the building vibrated. I’d sweep the room and then pause for a while by the altar they’d made by the window. I took note not only of the personal artifacts people had brought, but also the pristine and eccentric aesthetic Michael inspired. Japanese paper, quirky calligraphy, microbrew beer coasters folded into squat origami turtles.
The style was hipster zen, years before it was a thing. But instead of irony, it was imbued with what his brother Jayme described over the phone as Michael’s sense of the “ceremonious”. That same sense, Jayme said, that made the scene of Michael’s death so uncharacteristic of him.
I was never Michael’s student. I was his peer, colleague, co-author, and eventually, his friend.
I was that friend – I’m sure there were others – who made fun of him for having students. I would say:
Look at the mess you’re in now. People expect you to give them spiritual advice!
He smiled and shrugged, a little bashful. Sometimes he laughed. It was like he didn’t know how it all happened, even if he knew how to nudge it along. He didn’t stop it, because it seemed to be working. The glowing feedback he got burned everything else away. It’s hard to imagine anyone around him being large enough to persuade him to slow down.
But he asked everyone else to slow down, and look within. I wonder if he needed those around him to find the answers he couldn’t.
Friends harvested more hidden things:
His bouts of social unease, his obsession with dorky trivia and dark humour. You saw him long for guidance from senior teachers, like a prodigal son. He would connect with them, misfire with them.
You saw him draw conflict, get defensive, take a breath, take inventory, try to make amends. He would drift away from these people over here, become infatuated with others over there. You saw the acrimony from his divorce spill out and polarize a community. You understood that his prescription to always practice intimacy and forgiveness was the one he had written for himself.
You saw his effect on women, of all ages. They adored him and confessed to him. They poured their labour into his projects. Some became angry when they realized the imbalances. When they ghosted away, others came to replace them.
In such seemingly progressive spaces, it can be hard to call out hierarchy. The spirituality industry wants to make Iron Age yoga and medieval Zen look like they aren’t patriarchal in theme, form, and division of labour.
If you were a close friend, you saw how Michael’s doubts about his direction and competence were punctuated by flourishes of manic creativity. You saw how easy it was for his vision to outpace his introversion, and his appetite to outpace his digestion.
When he was flying high, his intellect became very porous, consuming and repackaging every idea he loved with dizzying speed. He was a DJ of ambient Buddhism, mixing freely from whatever tracks he could find.
If you were close to him, you collected his surges of warmth. These became more poignant when you realized that he often had to climb up out of a dark well to let them flow. You collected things that were hidden by his stylishness, his supermodel looks, and by the gold paint that people sprayed on him in their minds and online.
Maybe you were close enough to soak up what he was like with his family in its various constellations. How he loved and baffled them, how he thrilled but could also disappoint. How relatives orbited his sun in seasons of estrangement and reconciliation.
When he touched Carina’s hand or when his sons clung to his arms, or when he listened to Jayme play the banjo, or when he watched his sister Sunny whip up her cooking magic, you could feel his love come out in a flood of bewildered tenderness.
He ended our book together with a distillation of such moments:
Everything was in its right place and everything was heading in the same direction. In my body I felt something new about life: not my own life, but about the whole parade of humans moving through the world, of which my family was only one small part, but the largest part of the world I could ever know.
If you worked with him, like I did on his talk about struggling with the danger of his own charisma, you harvested the giddiness of his concentration. You understood that he survived in part by taking risks.
After their first son was born, Carina asked him to sell the motorcycle a psychic had told him he should buy. He did as she asked. But he kept driving too fast in his mind.
When we worked he would pause, waiting for the words to come. I could feel him teeter on the edge of something. One March day, I prodded him a little harder. I could hear his tapping keys over the phone as he murmured:
“I came to understand the shadow of charisma — of my charisma — was dependency.”
There was that feeling I often had around him. A lightning bolt of clarity, and then something fuzzy and frenetic rushing back in.
He was impatient with whatever couldn’t be finished with the speed of a zen brush painting. I would offer a paragraph of commentary; he parried with a sentence. I built things up, and he hacked them away. He loved the koans that could be answered in a single word. He was acutely aware of the shortness of time, and he’d learned that art must be made from the simplicity of panic.
I can hear him saying now: “This elegy is too damned long. And you always go too far!”
I yell into my silent phone:
Dude, I’m just getting started. And you’re the one who went too far. Gone, gone beyond, and all that, right?
I wait for his laugh.
During a snowstorm three years ago, Michael and I met for lunch to finish work on our book. At one point he stopped and leaned over to ask me something that wasn’t really a question.
“Hey – do you generally feel even-keeled?”
“I guess. Can you say more?”
“I mean – do you feel in control of your emotions?”
After I fumbled through an answer, he told me he was struggling with his mental health. That it had been going on for as long as he could remember. Suddenly many things made sense.
We got very still and gazed at each other. After a moment, I realized he was gapping out. I’d seen this before, but now it was clear that he had to struggle to come back to the table.
It occurred to me that this oscillation between intense focus and vacancy was part of what drew people to him. Like he could see you, and that felt so intoxicating, but then you’d have to chase after him to feel that again. Like he was profoundly okay in one moment, but you wanted to save him in the next. Or maybe you thought he was regularly falling into a meditative trance.
Things became more transparent between us, but never fully. I loved him more, even as – or because – I felt more uncertain about where he was going. I knew I’d been drawn to him without understanding a crucial thing. I was in his sphere because he’d cast a spell over me. Part of me resented that, but now I could love him closer to where he was.
We deepened things by trading war stories about our health. On the phone he’d tell me about crushing insomnia. About having to fly places and teach meditation on autopilot because he was exhausted and agitated. I told him about my heart palpitations in the middle of the night. He’d had that too. Once, I picked him up from the hospital when he went for knee surgery to fix the damage from that stupid lotus pose. Or was it skateboarding?
I developed a pulmonary embolism a few months after our book was published. I could easily have died. He was the first person outside of my family I called. I knew he would say something luminous and comforting. But there was also the feeling that I wanted him to know I was joining him at the edge of something.
We talked a lot about self-regulation. He told me that he’d stopped meditating everyday as an experiment to see if meditation was actually making his swings worse. He suspected it was. This was around the time he taped an interview with the world’s leading researcher in the neuroscience of negative meditation experiences. I’ll bet the turns of his research interests map perfectly onto his internal labyrinth.
I had to take warfarin to thin out my blood clots. He told me that lithium seemed to help even out his moods. We joked about it: after years of studying Ayurvedic diet and self-care, here I was, kept alive on rat poison. And for him — after scouring the library of scriptures, he’d found the answer in the periodic table. A single molecule, labeled “3”.
I said it was the chemical version of the triple jewel of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. He laughed his broad broken laugh.
Over the next few years I saw Michael increasingly exhausted by a race against the pressures of his persona, the tightening claustrophobia of his brain, his search for better medications, and the possibility that disclosing it all would help, or at least give him the next thing to work with. I thought about the growing distance between what he saw in the mirror and the headshots staring out at him from the screen.
His public life went viral, even as he seemed to become more isolated. He kept preaching the necessity of practice, even as I knew practice was less accessible to him. His sermons were about place and connection and sustainability. But he composed them on airplanes. He preached about community from the remote island he moved to after leaving the community he had founded.
When he was getting ready to move out west with Carina and their first child, he called me to say that he wanted to give me a bunch of his books on psychoanalysis. Two titles stood out: Being a Character, by Christopher Bollas, and Terrors and Experts, by Adam Phillips, who Michael and I had recently gone to see lecture.
Bollas describes the devastating results of living in the prison of other peoples’ idealizations. Phillips opens his book by quoting Iris Murdoch on how philosophers show you what they fear through what they become experts in.
We thumbed through his books, stacked in the front hallway. “I really think psychoanalysis,” he said, “gave us the most beautiful literature we have.”
He sounded wistful. I don’t know whether he was giving me a message, telling me about what had helped him find peace for a while, or parting with things that hadn’t worked. He handed over the books with a generous smile, and his body pulsed with warmth when we hugged. But as I drove away I felt like a thief.
As time wore on, Michael became an ever stronger advocate of the thing he struggled to do. Show each other your face, he would say.
I wondered whether his ideas got larger as his internal space and room to breathe narrowed. Not only did he constantly push himself to break new ground in Buddhist thought, he wanted to carve out a leadership role in the movement to renovate yoga postures. There was talk of building a new centre in the western mountains, and landing a university fellowship. He told me about one of his next books, in which he was going to be more transparent about his mental health. He was searching for the right hook. Something that could go mainstream.
If he was going to own his mental illness, he was going to learn and write and teach his way through it. It’s what he had always done.
It is perhaps what the Buddha himself had done.
A main difference being: Siddhartha Gautama wasn’t preceded in the world by the images of his own enlightenment. He didn’t need to feed the insatiable hunger of wellness culture. He did not have to live up to – nor compete with – the branding of spirituality.
The poet John Ashbury just died at the ripe old age of ninety. He once wrote:
Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibility that they are founded on nothing.
Don’t squander your life!
Sometimes the group whispered it. At the memorial, one of his students shouted it at the top of his lungs. Who was he shouting it at?
Those who harbour anger at Michael right now – and feel so guilty because of it – might feel sucker-punched by that line. Doesn’t it open a cut of hypocrisy? Did he really recite it a hundred thousand times? Who was he talking to?
The stigma Michael faced is real. But the broader story must include the fact that thousands of us paid him for the creative side of his mania, which was hard to separate from his talent. A portion of our money poured directly into a small industry of marketing and publicity that reflected our desires back to us. It paid for gorgeous photography and design, for occasional ghostwriting, and for partnerships that gave structure and anchoring to his flow states.
The yoga and meditation economy embraced him with open arms. And enabled him. He was working on four different books, all in different subject areas, when he died.
He may not have wanted to disclose. But if anyone could have turned stigma into stigmata, it was him. The spirituality industry, however, would suffer for it.
A disclosure like Michael’s would continue to erode the arbitrary distinctions between sane and insane spiritual leaders. It would be that much harder to read Pema Chodron or Alan Watts without wondering how much of Buddhism amongst postmodern converts is an elaborate way of covering over a hidden story.
If Michael had disclosed, we would look at our shelves full of Shambhala titles and wonder how many trees were felled to print them. We’d remember that the press that launched him was itself launched by the mercurial genius of Chogyam Trungpa: alcoholic, womanizing, surely undiagnosed. We would not be talking about the fall of a single hero, but the clay feet of a culture. We might sense the deep feelings of shame and inadequacy that drive so many men to the front of the room to prove themselves. We think they are vibrating, when really they are trembling.
After that line about squandering your life, Michael’s assistant would strike the gong while holding the rim, so it couldn’t ring to its natural end.
I was always a crappy Buddhist. Over that surreal weekend of his coma, I felt so identified with Michael’s body that I felt some shadow part of myself on that ventilator, forcing me to breathe, waiting for it to be switched off. A more solid part of me was here, not believing that he couldn’t taste this coffee, couldn’t stand in this garden, couldn’t smile at his wife, couldn’t hold his toddler.
Even two weeks later, his death still seemed a spectacle to me, I expected him to step out from behind a tree, or send a text from the edge of Algonquin Park, where he disappeared to when he was twenty. As though he’d just been out of cell phone range, and had no clue there was such a fuss.
It only really hit home as I sat with my family on a driftwood log on a Pender Island beach with a hundred others at the memorial. The children waited patiently through the chanting, holding the paper lanterns they would release after the last bell.
Jayme stood behind the altar with his partner Laura and cracked open the Zen liturgy with his banjo and a southern spiritual. His voice, braided with hers, carried light and ash. Their three year-old son pulled at Laura’s dress, asking to be picked up.
If you’re a Canadian Gen Xer like Michael and me, you’ll probably remember a little Québécois film from 1989 by Denys Arcand called “Jesus of Montreal”. I went to the Carleton Cinema over and over again to soak it in. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if Michael was sitting there during one of those screenings. I was eighteen; he would have been fifteen.
The movie tells a simple, predictable story. A wandering actor returns to his hometown and is hired to direct and star in a revamp of the Cathedral’s chintzy Passion play. He’s silent, magnetic, dreamboaty. Also a little wonky. He electrifies an unlikely cohort of disciples and leads them in pulling their art and their lives out of banality.
At the peak of his influence, while performing Jesus, and not really knowing what he was doing, the actor accidentally dies.
The concluding montage leaves the main characters behind. It cuts from one hospital room to the next, showing patient after patient waking up after their surgery to receive an organ, donated by the actor who played Jesus.
An old man wakes up with a new heart. A middle-aged woman has the bandages removed so that she can blink at her daughter with new eyes, and call out her name.
This is my body, which will be given up for you, as they say in the church to which I once belonged.
I cried harder during that scene than almost ever before or since, and couldn’t move from my seat until the janitor tapped me on the arm at closing time.
Whenever I crest over this present edge of numbness and am finally able to cry about Michael, I think the tears will join the river that started in that theatre. They’ll flow from the material realizations of love:
I’ll feel how one body becomes other bodies.
I’ll feel that this is all there ever was or needs to be: a recycling of flesh into new joys and troubles. This is the way biology grants forgiveness. The process itself is the only soul we need to speculate about.
I’ll feel that in death, as in life, a person is both visible and invisible. Charisma magnifies this split.
Visible or invisible, Michael couldn’t be found or boxed in. I was foolish to think he could be. So it goes for those burdened with charisma. They are who they are because they seem so much larger and more permanent than you, even when they desperately want to be equal, normal, not-special; even when they want to disappear.
I know this tune: I’ve spent years deconstructing the light and shadow of spiritual teachers. On the surface my crusade has been related to healing from being in two cults. But the deeper drives that both attracted me to those men and led me to loathe them flow from my own need to be special, to heal attachment wounds, to be seen and praised — and then the shame of recognizing these things.
Pegging Michael as charismatic, and feeling smug about it, let me off the hook for years. I could only truly love him when I began to understand that he was living an amplified version of my own needs.
Part of why I wanted to be his friend was that I wanted to see myself more clearly. Knowing he did many of the things I work against, I tried to forgive him because he was ill and couldn’t seem to do otherwise. Perhaps he was my dharma teacher after all, teaching me about love in that sideways land of the unconscious.
My eventual tears will tally all I harvested in every moment I knew him – over years, and not just suddenly. The organs are just the last parts to be offered.
I’ll understand that those who speak most about community and ethics and family and forgiveness and intimacy are those who most long for such things.
I’ll sense that the pain of watching a person you love shattering into emptiness can be soothed by the feeling that he’s already inside you, transplanted, flaws and all. He lends you the heart, for the brief time we have, to take care of others.