The Guru May Actually Hate You, and You May Actually Hate Him
Image: Father Yod of the Source Family.
Yesterday, I learned something new about cult leaders from Philip Deslippe, a whip-smart Religious Studies scholar who focuses on the history of modern yoga and new religious movements.
He once interviewed an attorney who handled a number of high profile cases against cults. The attorney said that from his experience, leaders follow clear patterns:
At some point they realize how desperately co-dependent they are in relation to their students. They begin to regard their students as idiots, children, incompetents. They begin to loathe them not only for their immaturity, but even more intensely because they are dependent on that immaturity, that devotion, for their daily bread. They’re trapped. Some drink themselves senseless, others take drugs, hide out under mountains of cash, or think help. Some manage to kill themselves.
What impresses me about this analysis is that we’re always aghast when we hear of cruelty and abuse flowing downward from a spiritual leader. We can’t believe its inconsistency with their apparent spiritual mission. But what if instead of pathologizing it we considered a simpler answer: it’s an economy of loathing.
Sogyal Rinpoche punching a nun, Trungpa sexually assaulting public figures in a temple, Osho staring blankly at his followers from the window of his Rolls. Iyengar ranting about how students who have touched his feet for a decade are ignorant fools, and then hitting them, Michael Roach giving people meaningless unpaid tasks and joking with the inner circle: “Of course we’re in cult.”
The pattern I’ve seen seems to be that the cruelty increases in direct proportion to the “success” of the guru. Is power its own addictive feedback loop? Yes, but so is loathing. How can the guru not loathe himself, when he sees he’s propped up by the very people he’s broken? Then, if you’re a crazy wisdom dude like Sogyal or Adi Da you fold that very corruption back into the the content of your teaching: of course the world is an absurd illusion for you. What else do you know?
They hit their students, sexually dominate them, starve them, steal their labour and money, mock them. These are all morbid actions, but they also acts of retribution against the terms of their shameful imprisonment, which they blame on their students, and cannot own for themselves. And the most incredible part of all is that as the loathing escalates, so does the devotee’s need to say it is something else, all the way up to love, in order to stand it.
This is not a post about humanizing cult leaders, although everyone is human. They were all little boys once. It’s a post about standing outside the cult mechanisms in our lives to see that fantasy and idealization are the opposite of love, and that when directed en masse at a leader whose charisma flows out of some ungodly wound, a downward spiral ensues that belies the upward spiral of the group’s self-narrative.
Of course there’s another side of the loathing economy. A a part of the devotee secretly loathes the guru as well.
Because devotion is inseparable from fantasy and idealization, it must have a conflicted core. How can you love someone who towers above you in grace and humanness? How can love a person who builds his presence before you on the premise he knows you, knows your nature, knows the nature of the world? How can you really love a saviour, when the first thing a saviour must do to be a saviour is to concretize your sense of inadequacy?
My guess is that the tension holds true in both the flesh and the abstract. Who can truly love Jesus, whose nature excludes you from communion with God? Who can truly love Krishna, who knows enough about the universe that he can reverse your reason and moral doubt and send you off to war? That we eroticize both is a clue to how hard it is to really love them.
The shadow cast by fantasy and idealization is that of your presumed failure. The guru sits there and pontificates, and you are seduced. The secret of seduction is that “seduction” means: “being led away from yourself.” If you pay attention you can feel it happening. The body is running away from him as fast as it can. But the socialized self co-opts that kinetic energy, and aims you at his feet.
The disillusionment, already built-in to the structure of fantasy and idealization, becomes a little more palpable when the devotee subconsciously realizes their fantasy and idealization can’t be fulfilled. Somewhere they feel they don’t actually love the leader, or perhaps never did. But they’re in so deep they force themselves to. The leader smells the lie he brought on himself, and lashes out.
Really sorry this post is dark. I still believe that the more we can see this clearly, I believe, the less it will happen.
I don’t think this is dark – I think it does what you’re great at – calling out bullshit.
I was in a few cult-like institutions in my 20s and 30s. In retrospect, I was acting out my autonomy trauma. It took physical symptoms a la “When the Body Says No” to make me seriously look at this. Since then I’ve read more to understand autonomy is a fundamental human need. We’re educated away from listening to that need, with the result growth in cults and other forms of belonging through conformity, which as Krishnamurti said, is a form of violence. I’m still loosely associated with Shambhala and see some cult-like behaviours with the hierarchy, with “all paths leading to the Sakyong”. I wonder if he feels what you describe.
The co-dependency makes such obvious sense once you see it. It isn’t just that “chelas can’t be chelas without a guru, and a guru can’t be a guru without chelas,” there’s a particular edge to the dynamic. Any spiritual leader who puts themselves out to the world as being able to heal lives, give meaning, and make people whole will naturally attract a lot of people who are hurt, needing direction, or broken. And if the leader claims to be not just a person who knows about meditation or yoga, but an expert on relationships, diet, business, and health… then you’re also going to get endless questions and requests about those things, not to mention adding in the intense dynamics of a communal living situation. When you get into the details, it not just co-dependent, but for the leader, intensely claustrophobic: no time, no privacy, always observed, no chance to ever exist out of the role.
From what I’ve seen, many leaders have privately speculated (or seriously planned) about leaving the groups that they head, and I’m sure the same impulse (less recognized and more externalized) has lead to fantasizing and openly ruminating about their own death or the end of life as we know it. People who study New Religious Movements sometimes apply ideas like “sunk cost” and “exit analysis” to understand why people stay in groups long after they are disillusioned and the group is no longer doing good for them. I think the same can be applied to the leaders. What is a leader outside of the group and their role in that group? Not much at all. What do you do when your greatest accomplishment and legacy is also what you also deeply resent or know that you bullshitted your way into? I think the co-dependency and claustrophobia explains a lot of the behavior of leaders beyond the abuse, like the consistent patterns of a leader retreating and giving day-to-day control to assistants, or retreating into a small inner circle of intimates and confidants, or the sending away and busywork assignments to students where in some cases they are literally sending the flock as far away as possible.
The students of Yogi Bhajan I’ve spoken with who were present when he hosted Punjabi guests repeatedly told me stories of how he would swear at his American students and mock them in Punjabi. Of course, his American students, despite claiming a Sikh identity, couldn’t understand what he was saying, and relied on the rare occasions when some of those Punjabi guests would pull them aside and point out that he was calling them “stupid sister-f***ers” and joking about how he could get these dumb Americans to run around like trained dogs. I wonder if this was just abusive behavior or self-aggrandizement, or if there was also a sense of embarrassment on Bhajan’s part about the absurdity of one’s life being filled by Americans running around offering you food and hoping to have the honor or ironing your underwear.
Please don’t use the word ‘guru’ then in trying to explain the ignorance of a few.
I doubt that anyone would ever hate the person showing them the way in a big city for instance! nor would the person showing the way!
Anytime we get lost and in crisis, conflicted, seeking help we go to someone in the hope that they can alleviate and show us the way out of our crisis. Lost in a big city for instance after running out of options we seek out the help of a stranger, someone familiar with the neighbourhood. Who in pointing us in the right direction is in that moment ‘guru’ the remover of obstacles.. . ignorance. The only time we seek help is in crisis. While we are still in conflict seeking help, immediately we ask someone, in that moment they become teacher and we their student. Once the problem of our ignorance is solved the obstacle disappears. No longer our teacher, we no longer their student. So the job of teaching besides removing our ignorance is for the teacher to remove our need of them as a teacher.
This is how its always been. Any person who claims to know the way, and we having no choice succumb to their lies, telling us to go this or that way when they themselves don’t know the truth and want to hook us in putting us on a leash like a fool is the only problem.
A good test of ‘guru’ is if there are thousands or millions of followers. Obviously incapable of solving anyones problems they cannot solve ours. Charlatan’s, the blind leading the blind, rather than teaching they are cheating and we should run a mile.
Saying that it’s a “few” is a gross minimization. My usage of the word is reported, not invented.
You know, I get a lot of comments like this that vaguely attempt to re-idealize the term without giving examples or naming names. If you want to restore the term as something functional rather than imagined, please show receipts.
Hi Mathew – maybe read the explanation of the relationship in the comment above. Without wanting to go into a debate here – we’ve all had our experiences with this – the word ‘guru’ itself is innocent. Its meaning is also very clear. It represents and symbolises the remover of obstacles. Whatever that is. Our biggest obstacle in our lives being ignorance. Whatever removes our ignorance is ‘guru’. Saving us from our stupidity. Our ignorance of this word is also another obstacle.
All a matter of roles if I have no wife I cannot be a husband. If I am not student – in other words If I am not experiencing some crisis in my understanding – there is no need of any teacher. Very simple.
Maybe understand that your content-free comment is an (unconscious?) attempt to change the subject away from cult dynamics and the harm they cause with a vague concern about semantics. Maybe understand what the net effect of what devotees — especially men, over decades or centuries — deflecting this way does to people who are harmed by dominance hierarchies.
Great comment. Thank you.
Maybe – there has never been a devotee guru relationship before? Certainly in India of the past there have never been temples built to ‘gurus’. This is a strange new paradigm (new as in India – 1000’s of years guru teacher relationship have been going on as part of the framework of social behaviour) and something that is quite unnatural.
Do we carry a picture of our maths teacher around with us and remain their devotee for the rest of our life, doing oblations and pooja every time we do a calculation? Like at the check out in the supermarket – getting on your knees to do some ritual making offering to your maths teacher? Of course not. Neither do we carry a picture of our driving instructor around with us making offerings to them every time we drive a car. This whole ‘guru’ teacher worship thing is bullshit.
As I said above – if you know something I don’t, like you can help me find my way in the city, in that moment you are my teacher – for that moment. Until my need of a teacher drops away. Getting knowledge gets rid of the need of the teacher.
Our role of student is born out of our ignorance – the moment our ignorance dies our role of student dies. Our mother being our first teacher means in our role as students, we keep seeking out all our role models seeing them in our relationship with our teachers; mother, father, uncle, aunt siblings etc. Which accounts for the teacher archetype being so powerful.
That we have cults existing and that the archetype of teacher becomes open to abuse and abusive relationships follow as a result is immoral and demeaning in the extreme. Massively disturbing and ignored, hugely painful and powerful it is a sign of our dysfunctionality as human beings, but is still something we must get over.
Which is why I make my comments. Not to demean or slight your endeavour to show the appalling abuse, but to help heal the wounds of our dysfunctionality.
And hopefully for us to see the teacher word or word ‘guru’ for what it is.
Great article. A New Age guru of my acquaintance seems to loathe his ‘students’ because they never ‘get it’ – his amazing ‘simple and easy’ philosophy of Universal magic.
I’m interested in how your theory of the devotee projection side of the equation develops.
You wrote that part of the devotee secretly hates the guru. Is it secret or subconscious?
From what I can gather devotees are immature – refusing or lacking the capacity to confront the shadow. They should hate the guru, or hate what the guru does, but they can’t or won’t. At all, in some cases. They can’t or won’t believe the guru is capable of harm, let alone harming them. They may not believe they are capable of that either. I think that’s when cults are most dangerous. When they act out that sense of entitlement, believing that their aggressive method of advancement is spreading ‘love’ or ‘truth’.
Thanks for commenting. It’s my unoriginal take on the mechanisms of splitting, compensation, and false self creation in psychoanalysis, applied to the guru-as-object. In plain terms, I just don’t think one can love a person one idealizes with harbouring resentment towards them. It would never be conscious.
My understanding of cult psychology doesn’t square with devotees as “immature”. Many are highly functional, intelligent, etc. They have simply been lied to.
One commenter on the FB thread for this post put it this way, speaking from personal experience:
“I believe that predatory teachers/sexual predators cultivate people of integrity who will act as shields for them, and give them credibility. These shield people don’t know the behind the scenes stuff and they’re benefiting and doing good work in the cult (yes, they’re enablers, but they don’t know they are). I was one of these people for a long time. Now I see that they used my integrity, my idealism, my trust as a shield; and they still do that with a lot of other people. They cultivate people who will speak well of them, so that when someone speaks up against them, there’s a whole lot of these people of integrity that speak up for the predator and negate the victims’ complaints. Nancy – you might consider if it’s possible that maybe you are being used in that way? (Addition: when I started to see what was happening and speak up, the cult leaders defamed me as crazy, angry, lacking in integrity. That was very clarifying!)”
When I was in Swami Tripurari’s Hare Krishna offshoot cult (and his assistant) I read several of Scott Peck’s books. At one point when I still only like 19 or 20 I was trying to write an article using peck’s discussion of cathexis and falling in love vs standing in love (quoting Erich Fromm) as a framework to promote a more mature (in my eyes, then) kind of discipleship. But we were taught a very insidious and seemingly open-minded notion of our guru, who was quite down to earth, calm, friendly, at least in the years I was involved. I don’t think this loathing model would be representative of all guru/disciple dynamics (but I do believe the very notion of guru/disciple is flawed and abusive).
On the other hand, he talked shit about every single one of us behind our backs (and occasionally directly). I was 3rd in the pecking order, and not even the one above me was spared at times. As for me, I think I went through periods of being really mad at him but not being able to acknowledge it. And I did at times loathe the 2nd in command as she was the tool of a lot psychological abuse and instilling submission.
Interesting that you mention Iyengar. What is important to note is that he was a very demanding teacher and that he would hit a muscle or poke a bone to get it to function correctly. I understood that he had a strong personality, according to my teacher who trained with him for thirty years. What you failed to mention was that he wrote the seminal book on yoga. He brought yoga to the west and that he himself said that he was not born with a spark of divinity as some of these teachers claim that you mention above. He talked about his imperfections as a human, and how yoga shaped his mind and he talks about that in many interviews. I guess my problem with the inclusion of Iyengar on this list is that he didn’t have the arrogance of Osho. He talked about how his body was dumb and how he always had to be after his own mind like a strict teacher. I myself have benefited tremendously from the demands of yoga ( not BOGA–bogus yoga). It has healed my frozen shoulders, my hip problem and returned the cervical curve of my neck. If it wasn’t for the precision of Iyengar’s knowledge and the fact that he created all the props in yoga, many would still be suffering or not be practicing yoga correctly.