Guru or Guide: What’s the Scope of Practice? A Second Response to Christopher Wallis

Guru or Guide: What’s the Scope of Practice? A Second Response to Christopher Wallis

 

Christopher Wallis responded to my response to his article on guru-abuse prevention – check his comment here. We’re having a cordial exchange about an important topic — how strange for Yogaland! — and a lot of folks have seemed to appreciate the themes explored so far, so I’ll respond again. Wallis was kind enough to direct message with me to clarify certain points, so I’ll refer to those as well. 

In my previous post, I offered a positional statement:

I’m writing here as a non-Indian yoga practitioner who has interacted with echoes of the Indian guru-shishya system that have been borrowed, adapted, appropriated, or manipulated during the globalization phase of yoga.

I’ll expand that to say:

I’m not qualified to comment on the content of Wallis’ religio-philosophy, so I’ll confine my focus to what he says about its pedagogy. My content ignorance may blinder me to some subtle mechanism of integrity that’s second nature to him. Or it may be a strength, insofar as spiritual content so often obscures the structure of material relations. I don’t know. Also: I’m writing as a two-time college-dropout who cycled through two cultic environments and spent the better part of the last decade healing from it in part by informally researching what cults are and how they work, and the last few years formally researching the shadows of yoga pedagogy for a book that started out as being about injuries but every day is becoming more about the embodied effects of patriarchy in modern yoga and how people reach out of them. I’ll let Wallis share as much about his own background relationships beyond his formal bio as he wants, but for now it suffices to say that we come at the guru problem from very different angles, which makes friendly dialogue all the more useful.

First, I appreciated Wallis’ transparency in his comments, not only with regard to the incompatibility of Indian guru paradigms with non-Indian external and internal power structures, but with regard to his own liminal status as a scholar, devotee, and spiritual guide. Through some yoga of fate and choice, he’s in an odd position, trying to stay objective about something he not only dearly loves but wants to share with others. He likely braves considerable side-eye at the academic conferences. His position offers a progressive opportunity in a old-timey guise – the potential to reform a power dynamic by imagining its idealization from a time in which there was little daylight between scholar and saint.

Wallis’ response is rich and long, so I’ll limit my focus to four highlights that I hope raise helpful questions:

  1. The small print about “informed consent” as applied to spiritual/transformational relationships (it means nothing without a defined scope of practice),
  2. his reframing of “guru” as “guide”,
  3. his dismissal of psychoanalytic discourse,
  4. and the unexamined social power hiding in the narrative of “awakening”.

 

Informed Consent Demands a Scope of Practice

An important detail I neglected in my first response is that the informed consent of the modern therapeutic relationship is always bounded by scope of practice. Wallis and other commenters erroneously compare an idealized spiritual mentorship dyad with professor/student and doctor/patient models. The error is that both the prof and the doctor are mandated to know when they are beyond scope.

When we’re talking about something as indefinable as “waking up”, using a practice that accommodates all manner of techniques and purports to speak to all areas of life, what exactly is the scope? Were there aspects of Wallis’ life and internality that were off-limits to his guru, Gurumayi, whose bio note claims that her “identification with the supreme Self is uninterrupted”? 

Even in the most sophisticated discourses of yoga therapeutics – the literature produced by the IAYT – theorists struggle to establish the scope of practice. It’s ridiculously hard to define what yoga therapy is doing – not in the easy way of listing all of the possibilities it loves to explore, but in the difficult ways of establishing what those possibilities actually do, and knowing when you’re under water and have to refer outwards.

Wallis shares this struggle, as shown in the first comment exchange on this post, in which the commenter asks for advice on getting to know his true being and releasing the “story (about life) I’ve been telling myself”, after disclosing he’s suffered from anxiety for eight years. He also says he’s resisted medication. Wallis doesn’t state his scope with regard to mental health issues, nor does he recommend professional support. He suggests learning about “The Work” of New Age charismatic Byron Katie. (Katie’s not a mental health professional either.) He also pitches his book and course to the commenter, implying these are sufficient therapies for long-term anxiety. (Wallis clarified by direct message that he has referred other students on to therapists, psychiatrists, body workers, and shamans.)

Scope of practice in Yogaland is a vexing issue because premodern naturopathies like Ayurveda and Siddha medicine overlap with Tantrik paradigms of subtle body materialism, in which chakras are not just psychological or spiritual centers, but physiological sites. In this world, mantras can be prescribed to reinvigorate sluggish circulation, or you can wear gemstones to illicit the support of a particular planet for a specific tissue, or you can sponsor a puja to help with your meditation, scripture study, or sex life.

This porousness between categories of experience and study is part of the modern attraction to these arts: their confident holism pushes back against the hedging fragmentation of tentative specialists. The modern patient yearns for their endocrinologist, rheumatologist, dietician, psychotherapist and religious minister to simply talk to each other. A Tantra-inspired yoga therapist or Ayurvedic practitioner offers the possibility that they could actually be the same person. We want round answers, complete answers, and the generalists serve us well. But how do they know where their enthusiastic empathy ends and their grandiosity begins?

The professor and doctor are bound by other mechanisms that simply don’t exist in the global spiritual marketplace: peer review and regulatory boards. These cumbersome and sloppy institutions oversee informed consent and scope of practice, so that the pressure to regulate the dyad is not solely on the individual interaction, which is so vulnerable to unconscious sadomasochism. In the absence of any of this support, Wallis finds himself inviting me to poll his students to see how he’s doing with power issues. No thanks. That’s really his job, but how could he do it with neutrality? His offer underscores the point: because the teaching part of his profession lacks the formal feedback mechanisms that other therapies mandate, it falls to zero-budget bloggers, journalists and cultural critics who love yoga to do the work. And who’s peer-reviewing them/me?

Other accountability options are emerging for spiritual teachers. My friend and co-author Michael Stone, for example, has instituted this council apparatus to handle student grievances. It seems the Buddhists are generally ten years ahead of yoga people in things like this.

 

Guru or Guide?

Wallis describes his progressive adaptation from the guru dynamic to what he calls the “deshika” structure. The word, he writes, translates as “guide”, and “corrects for the ‘basic power imbalance in the economy of spiritual transformation’ that Remski is concerned about, since it seeks to educate and empower the student.” He lists some of the elements at play: the teacher is not confused with the teachings, and that s/he brokers practice instead of power. He explains that in his own teaching he tries to restrict himself from imposing normative values and commands.

By private message, Wallis confirmed that he’s the first to be replacing the term “guru” with “deshika”, but stopped short of saying that he’s innovating the role, “as I’m sure others have described something similar.” I appreciate the postmodern gesture of theorizing about who you are and what you’re doing while you’re doing it. But as a card-carrying postmodernist, I know from my own mistakes that that double task can be a powerful engine for self-justification. How can Wallis know that the theory with which he frames his project isn’t rationalizing a more subtle transference process that attracts students to his transparency as a spiritual virtue? Can any of his own teachers, like Adyashanti, help him sort that out? How can his students know that he isn’t innovating a role discontinuous with the tradition that attracted them in the first place, while he uses that tradition for validation?

Even if the deshika idea had sampradaya or parampara support, what would that mean in Wallis’ case? The legitimacy of many global-era teachers of classical Tantra has been torched by scandal. The field is a magnet for crazy-wisdom sex addicts. If Wallis wants to right the boat, Sanskrit accreditation from Oxford is definitely a legitimating move. But he’ll face an additional transference and accountability challenge as the creator of what basically amounts to a new lineage: an Anglophone version of Shaiva Tantra that radically revisions its root principle of transmission, and demonstrates this new role through the unprecedented choices of an American interpreter.

 

Psychoanalysis, Or: What’s Driving You?

Wallis and other commenters poked fun at my seeming reduction of yoga pedagogy to recursive familial dynamics. Fair enough: although I have written about the limits of the psychoanalytic literature I use here. Where it is useful is approaching the unconscious drives behind our relationships and how we manage and manipulate self-perception. Consider this graf from Wallis’ response:

As far as I’m aware, virtually no one in Remski’s circles has pointed out that the traditional model is effective in one important regard: when a student has enormous respect for his teacher, and venerates her as a conduit for lineage-transmission, it has the benefit of making him receive the practices she offers with much more gratitude and reverence, and of therefore committing to them more fully. Such was my case exactly: I’m exceedingly lucky that my guru didn’t abuse her authority, and the veneration I had for her inspired me to actually do the practices she gave me, when constitutionally I am far too lazy to have committed to them otherwise.

Effective for what? Reifying certain attachment patterns? Let’s leave aside Wallis’ attribution of his safety to “luck”. (Is that all we can offer ourselves and the culture?). Let’s bypass the generalization that Gurumayi “didn’t abuse her authority”. Wallis clarified by private message that she “didn’t abuse her authority in relation to me — but now that you mention it, I didn’t see her do so with anyone else in the three years I lived with her.” (Those who want to know more about Siddha Yoga complexities will find Liz Harris’ 1994 New Yorker article of interest.)

Psychoanalytic sensitivity can help us take a look at how Wallis’ narrative introduces what it fails to examine: What internal structures prime the devotee to fall in love with the guru? Why do they need the guru? What were they looking for when they found him/her? What’s the difference between the seeker who plunges in to venerate and the religious tourist who says “Oh – she’s interesting and weird”? What’s going on when the seeker publicly diminishes himself in relation to the guru? I argue that if these questions aren’t front and centre it will be hard to understand why you fell in love with your guru or guide, and what the heck you’re doing when you listen to them.

Psychoanalysis can be unscientific, crude, bourgeois, and self-absorbed — just like yoga! But it also forces you to ask a foundational question: “Why do you need and love what you need and love?”

In a comment thread, Wallis says that I’m “seduced by the religion of psychoanalysis.” I disagree. I just read it as an amateur, take it seriously, study its internal conflicts, and meditate on it. Also, this quip is a little rich coming from someone who’s been immersed in a religious community since the age of seven. Psychoanalysts might call this a projection.

 

Layers of Power in “Awakening”: a Sketch 

Referring to a prior comment on his posting of my piece that wondered about my position on “awakening”, Wallis writes:

I do suspect that Matthew doesn’t really believe that spiritual awakening exists, at least the strong form of it. And why would *any* rational materialist who hasn’t experienced that radical spontaneous rewiring of the brain believe it is possible?

It’s just a Facebook comment, but let’s pretend for a moment it’s important, because it highlights a subtle mechanism of power in spiritual discourse. It’s a classic argument from authority, wrapped with an armchair evaluation of my internal life. The authority of what? Having had an experience that the speaker or his followers describe as “awakening”. Here, Wallis gives me a label (“rational materialist”) I can’t remember ever applying to myself in more than a passing way, and then uses that label to attribute poverty to my inner life, and litmus test my capacity to dialogue. For the record: I’m pretty agnostic about every faith claim and knowledge discipline.

I’m not insulted: assessing my internal state is a sport for some. One guy began a slasher review of one of my books by admitting he hadn’t read it. Then he said he didn’t have to because he knew what kind of meditation experiences I have and haven’t had. Of course I’d never met him. I have met Wallis, and he isn’t at all crass like that, and he’s been terribly generous with his time and knowledge with me. But – and he can correct me if I’m wrong – he seems to share with my reviewer a fetish object: a notion called “awakening” that categorizes people into in-crowds and out.

Wallis doesn’t say explicitly that he’s awake, but his comments about what “really awake” people know puts him in the in-crowd. I’d like to know how this does anything in discourse beyond establishing power that out-crowd people then desire access to.

I’ve had bizarre, terrifying, and illuminating experiences in meditation or while doing postures or other things. I also have a history of seizures, which has made me very interested in the intersections between mystic and neurological events. All of these experiences have rewired me in the sense that any experience can rewire a person. But I don’t know what they are. They have been mostly positive to the extent that I’ve been able to mostly digest them, but I cannot track specific changes in myself to specific peak experiences. I understand why people use the language of “awakening” to refer to them, because they can present explosions of lucidity. But so do certain trauma responses. Peak experiences can make you feel for a while like everything has changed. But so can seizures or good bowel movements.

“No wait!” the advocates of ‘awakening’ will say. “Awakening is different! It’s so much bigger! Let’s count the ways.” Wallis makes the distinction this way:

I know, you’ve had powerful experiences in which you tasted your divine essence; but this is really not the same as properly waking up out of the belief that your thoughts, memories, and story have anything to do with who you really are.

How we narrativize peak experiences is up to us. But we shouldn’t forget that assigning the property of “awakened” to ourselves or others is based entirely upon self-reporting influenced by scriptural suggestion and complicated by the social capital wrapped up in being called awake. My point is that you can be awake or not — I don’t know — but telling somebody you are, or that somebody else is, creates power.

I can’t think of a way of validating the claim of awakeness that steers clear of transference and countertransference: what people need to think about others, and what people need others to think about them. Bottom line: nobody can really say what “awakeness” is or who has it, because it’s an internal state. So we should really look at who we want to have it, and why. We also have to look at how it functions as a content-free currency of social capital in spiritual discourse.

Why content-free? Consider the Wallis post I originally responded to. I hope he will forgive me for paraphrasing one of its key arguments like this:

You can be awake and still be a jerk, or you can be awake and be integrated.

Question: what does the word “awake” add to the sentence above? Let’s try removing it:

You can be a jerk, or you can be integrated.

Isn’t it much more direct without the in-crowd dogwhistle? Aren’t we really only ever concerned about whether people are jerks or integrated? What does a poorly-defined allusion to self-reported threshold experiences add, beyond mystification?

Here’s what I’ve noticed over years of being in or around groups where some people believed they were awake or that they had had awakening experiences, or attributed them to others, while others hadn’t. 1) Being awake is talked about with the same mystified, secretive charge as teenage sex was in my Catholic boys school of the 1980s: Did you do it? How far did you get? 2) Men are more interested in it than women.

Here’s my thought, which I’ll have to develop further at some point: the discourse of awakeness is what Derrida called phallogocentric. It privileges masculine constructions of meaning and power expressed through transcendental terms that resist analysis. Derrida used it to critique the entirety of Western intellectual history. But there’s an obvious overlap with Yogaland in light of the regressive sexual politics of a global Tantra administered almost exclusively by men, where even the most thoughtful communities are still earnestly debating whether teachers should be allowed to sleep with students as part of a transmission process. In those discussions, notions of “awakeness” — as either what guru has or what a student wants — easily complicates the analysis of behaviour.

Wallis is right about this: I don’t know what “awake” means, and I don’t know how anybody else does. But I do know that the word itself is typically used by men to register status or to rationalize their actions and self-perceptions and means-to-ends, or those of other men. I’m not saying that this is how Wallis is using the term. I’m suggesting that it’s an unexamined mechanism of social power at the heart of his narrative about spiritual life. “Awake” is a transcendent signifier, impossible to evidence, yet a defining aspect of a devotee’s or teacher’s social identity. Mingled with the legacy of guru abuses Wallis has inherited, it makes his democratizing, therapeutic task admirably ambitious.

 
 

11 Comments

  1. allise

    Thanks to mremski for writing about this thing we call yogaland etc. Specifically getting into convo w/Wallis. Brilliant. I can say that I did ‘love’ my yoga guide. But never did I dive into any quasi-religious idealization of him as a guru, or myself as any kind of supplicant. I loved him because he loved to be curious and think deeply –and to be himself: self deprecating with a big dollop of humor. Totally human, and totally an adolescent-type of nerd. Lovable! A patriarch? Maybe when he grew up….Which would be never. But still: there was privilege and power there. What if you weren’t loved in return? Or respected? Or … well, something!! My take on it all was that humans want to be in. A group. That they feel they have chosen. This desire can be a natural clean robust respectful community. Or it can look Trumpian. Or something in between. But people are gonna wanna be in. A group. I was really struck by Remski’s comment that included the word –sadomasochism- … … … If I was a pray-er, I might seek to understand the mystery of the need we have for the ‘ordeal’.

  2. Okay here we go.

    Point #1 (and some on #2). Remski is right in suggesting that spirituality, almost by definition, is unlimited in its scope. For that matter, so is religion, which tells you everything from what to eat to how to die. But nobody proposes that religion or spirituality is wrong to have such a wide scope – after all, if everything under the sun is part of God’s domain, or is an expression of pure Spirit, how could the scope be any less? But Remski is right, I think, in implying that the spiritual teacher must nonetheless limit their scope. I don’t tell my students what to do with their lives, even when they wish I would; I explore options with them. I don’t diagnose them, I encourage them to practice self-reflection. To me, avoiding an overreach of one’s scope is relatively easy through a combination of respect for the students’ autonomy, common sense, and lack of investment in one’s self image. When I was in a formal disciple relationship to my guru and living in her home/āshram, I wouldn’t have said that any aspect of my life or internality was off-limits to her guidance, but she never took advantage of my zealous youthful naïveté, and she respected the autonomy of her students enough to give them guidance, not commands. The reason she never took advantage (Lis Harris’ sensationalist and misinformed article notwithstanding), I’m convinced, is that she never felt tempted to. There was no part of her that craved the sense of personal validation that some so-called gurus get from having students obey their every command (Ādi Dā was a famous example). She was/is a great exemplar in that way.

    Remski subtly sneers at the idea that Byron Katie’s work or my book could help someone with long-term anxiety, but I have seen both of them help enormously. (Well, not my book as a whole, but the specific section that seeks to help people become free of their negative story about life or themselves has, people tell me, been helpful and even life-changing — and that was the section I recommended to the person Remski is talking about. I was not self-promoting, as Remski cynically implies, I was giving the person resources I’ve seen to be effective.)

    Point #2. Matthew Remski says we come at the ‘guru problem’ from “very different angles”, and that much is certain. We all approach controversial issues on the basis of our life experience. I had a profoundly empowering and uplifting experience with my guru, and Remski had a disempowering and damaging experience with his teacher, the famously delusional ‘Geshe’ Michael Roach.

    It is no exaggeration to say that this difference in perspective informs every aspect of our discourse around this issue. Remski’s cynicism about the spiritual teacher-student relationship is subtle but pervasive — for example, he implies that my attempts at transparency might be part of a subconscious agenda on my part to more successfully attract students. Clearly, I can’t win with that sort of attitude. Furthermore, he suggests that by positioning myself as a deshika (spiritual guide) instead of a guru — in part to create a structure less prone to projection and/or abuse, and in part because I don’t feel qualified to be anyone’s guru — I’m breaking from the very tradition that I “use for validation”! Again, can’t win with him. The very phrase “use the tradition for validation” is odious to me. I serve the tradition, I don’t use it. And I serve my students too. But it seems that Remski thinks that wanting to teach spirituality is itself evidence of a bloated ego, and so it’s hard for him to picture a spiritual teacher as a servant. It seems to me that he stops just short of saying that the spiritual teacher-student model is nearly always unhealthy by its very nature, and that even in its healthiest version, the good and harm it does probably cancel out. It’s possible he would abolish the model if he could, whereas I believe that reinventing and rehabilitating it can lead to tremendous benefit — and already is.

    A much more prominent example (than myself) of reinventing the model through a shift from guru to deshika (spiritual guide) is Ādyashānti, who declaims the title of guru and strongly discourages devotion to himself, and by doing so, functions more effectively as a teacher. His public one-on-one coaching with students is exemplary as a model of how to offer support without undermining the student’s autonomy in any way. Ādya teaches his students to “never abdicate [their] authority” and jokes that he’s “always trying to put [himself] out of a job”. He is an exemplar of integrity that I look to for inspiration.

    Point #3. Remski’s cynicism (and lack of understanding) gets another airing when he questions my example of how the traditional guru-shishya model can be effective, asking “Effective for what? Reifying certain attachment patterns?” Effective for experiencing the profound benefits of practice, I told him via private message. For waking up. (More on *that* important topic below.) Actually, despite his psychoanalytic mockery, my relationship with my guru helped me grow up. It lead me to greater self-confidence, self-reliance, and self-worth, and now I teach that that is a primary measure of the healthy student-teacher relationship.

    I wasn’t looking for a guru when I met Gurumayī (at age 16, not 7), but I soon realised I’d hit the jackpot. The seeker who ‘plunges in’, as Matthew put it, is one who realises that they need help and guidance to find their way to something that the wider culture doesn’t understand or value. Finding it on your own, as some people seem to think they can do, is about as easy as finding your way to a specific location across the country without GPS or smartphones or maps. It’s a lot easier with someone pointing the way. People who aren’t looking for what that person can point the way to are the ones who say “she’s interesting and weird” and move on. And they aren’t less for doing so, they’re just interested in something else. I certainly never diminished myself in relation to the guru, as Remski seems to assume, and as far as I’m concerned, no authentic teacher would permit that.

    Point #4. This is the most important thing, probably; here’s where the most severe misunderstandings live, at any rate. This section of Remski’s response is jam-packed with misunderstandings — such as suggesting that I have “inherited a legacy of guru abuses”, which is just nonsense. The fact that some other teachers of Shaiva Tantra have abused their authority does not necessitate the conclusion that I have inherited anything.

    Remski also wrongly states that I “attribute poverty to [his] inner life”, when in fact any awake person knows that being awake confers no superiority or advantage whatsoever — it’s not in any way a ‘better’ condition to be in (though many find it more joyful and/or free). It is true, however, that someone who hasn’t experienced awakening can’t talk about it meaningfully. This isn’t exclusionism, any more than saying that someone who’s never tasted a mango can’t talk about it meaningfully is exclusionism. *If* it is really true that someone is either awake or they’re not, and that there’s no way to know what awakeness is like until you’ve experienced it for yourself, than HOW can we language it without some people seeing the language as exclusionary? That’s not a rhetorical question, I’m really asking how. Help me with this if you can, anyone!

    If people who hear about awakening desire for it to happen to them, fine. But they are no more disempowered by that desire than someone who wants to know what it’s like to see Earth from space, or someone who wants to learn to scuba-dive. In both cases, they’ll need help to get there, and there’s no shame in that, nor any necessity for power-plays. (With emphasis on the word ‘necessity’; they happen, but they don’t have to, they aren’t inherent in the pedagogical structure like Remski seems to think.)

    Let’s address the key point, though: what the fuck is awakening? I define it below, but first I have to say this: if you haven’t gone through the awakening process, you are very likely to regard it as a myth, a dangled carrot, a way to self-aggrandize or engage in power dynamics, or, at best, a way to glorify a peak experience. None of those have anything to do with it. Awakening is *not* a peak experience, Matthew: ~it’s not an experience at all.~ It’s honestly not bigger or better than mystical experiences or seizures or bowel movements or anything else. It’s not something you could place on a comparative scale (and saying that is not a clever way of aggrandizing it! it’s just true). It’s a different kind of thing (or rather, no-thing) entirely.

    What is awakening, if it’s not an experience? It’s a paradigm shift that reconfigures the way you experience *everything*. There may or may not be an experiential element to this paradigm shift, but it doesn’t matter. Awakening accompanied by fireworks and awakening accompanied by nothing to write home about (much more common) are the same in terms of where they land you.

    But let’s at last come to what awakening actually is, since Remski says it’s “poorly-defined”. While language can make it seem as if the awakened person knows something — or has something — the unawake person doesn’t, **it’s actually the other way round.** Awakening entails losing something — deeply conditioned beliefs about who you are and what the world is — and gaining nothing.

    ’Awakening’ itself is of course a metaphor. Since no human language has an adequate word for this paradigm shift, we (teachers of Asian spiritual traditions) use the metaphor of waking up out of a dream — because that’s what it feels like.

    Though it’s true that someone is awake or not, there are also stages in the awakening process. These are the ones I’ve been able to identify:

    1. Waking up out of the belief that your thoughts, memories, self-images, or stories define, delimit or describe you; in other words, waking up out of the dream of selfhood and into the wordless realization that the contents of thought have nothing to do with who you really — and fundamentally — are. Seeing clearly that there is no ostensive referent to the ‘I’ thought — that ‘I’ points to nothing at all, unless it’s pure being. These are experiential realizations, not conceptual ones.

    2. Waking up out of the dream of separation. By completely shedding the belief that there are subjects and objects, one awakens to the truth of seamless unity with all that is.

    3. Waking up out of conceptual overlay — no longer projecting your concepts of things onto things. This is intimately connected to #2 above, and I don’t think they can happen separately.

    4. Waking up out of the belief in objective reality. This is too impossible to explain, and certainly is even weirder than it sounds.

    So you see, Remski missed the point when he said that the word ‘awake’ adds nothing to the statement “You can be awake and still be a jerk, or you can be awake and be integrated.” — because spiritually speaking, without awakeness, there’s nothing to integrate. That is, more accurately, it is integrating the stages of awakening that is most thoroughly life-changing. Until then, depending on the ‘strength’ of awakening, you can flip back and forth between your new mode of perception and the old one, and the old may even reassert itself permanently; and more importantly, prior to integration, your awakening doesn’t really benefit anyone else.

    Having said all this, Matthew is absolutely right when he he says this word — this claim, if it is made — has social capital in certain ‘spiritual’ circles, and is complexly wedded to issues of transference and countertransference in those circles. That’s exactly why people who’ve gone through the awakening process are very unlikely to declare themselves ‘awake’ or, god forbid, ‘enlightened’.

    But Matthew is right when he suggests that we shouldn’t be concerned with whether anyone else is awake, because we can’t know that with any certainty. As for the claim that awakening discourse is phallogocentric, it depends on who’s talking; but awakeness itself is, if anything, yoni-centric. In the sense that connects you to source (or helps you realize your connection to source, since actually you can’t ever be disconnected) and it tends to make humans softer, gentler, and kinder, once they’ve integrated it.

    I promise that I am being completely honest and not playing a game when I say there’s no reason anyone *ought* to be interested in this awakening thing. Unless they can’t help it.

    So hopefully this helps make this “unexamined” category a bit more examined.

    • allise

      This response is very long, and I have not finished reading it.. but I’m going to comment now, and then continue on. My first response to this is that Wallis is very very defensive. And I thought Remski was not at all confrontational. So there is THAT. The over-defensive reply suggest something…. And now I have but one thing to say thus far. The time I commented to Wallis on his ‘blog’, asking how in the heck I could be involved with his world view, as I was absolutely not a player in the notion of some ‘true self’ other than the carcass that I ‘really’ am here, on planet earth. Wallis??? Please. Telling me that this reality isn’t real??????????? Of course you’re tetchy.

      • Allise, I would be happy to respond to your question if I could understand it. Please clarify what you were/are asking.

        Interesting that you found my response defensive. What it felt like in me was — enthusiastic. Caring about responding to as many of Matthew’s valid points as I could — and even then I didn’t get to respond to all of them.

        best, CW

        • allise

          Hello Christopher. I read the first few paragraphs and I felt your response was ultra defensive. So maybe later, you become somehow enthusiastic. I don’t know. I cant get past the first few paragraphs this month.
          — About 6 months? ago, I posed a query on your newest? blog, asking you if it was possible to be a student of tantra if the individual (me) did -not- believe or entertain as serious, the notion of soul/s of any kind, and didn’t feel that this world we live in is somehow a smoke screen. You, Wallis, never did answer, so I took my question down (after a week or so).
          [Not on your FB page, but on your new ‘blog’ where you said you welcomed questions. So I gave up and decided -you- didn’t really exist….]
          — Carrie, just read the first few paragraphs of the Wallis response, and then sit with them. I was off-put. But then, there’s my little history of trying to communicate, and feeling that my query was somehow not an ‘in-group’ type of thinking….
          PS: I’m sorry you don’t understand what I’m saying. I hope this helps.

          • Thanks Allise. I guess I didn’t respond because I didn’t understand your question then, or maybe I didn’t even see it. I think it’s hard to response to your question because we would have to unpack the assumptions it makes. Classical Tantra does not in any way hold that the world is an illusion, unreal, or a smokescreen of some kind. Not sure where you picked up that idea — perhaps from Vedānta? They’re two different traditions for sure. Can you be a student of Tantra if you disbelieve in the soul? Well, sort of no, but then again Tantra defines ‘soul’ in such a way that no one could really ‘disbelieve’ in it. Your ‘soul’ is your power of awareness, by which you’re seeing these words right now. So I doubt you disbelieve in that. So far, then, your perspective is not incompatible with classical Tantra.

            all the best to you.

    • Thank you Christopher for being so thorough and following through with this. Repeating the length of response runs the risk of a different type of phallogocentrism, so I’ll make some brief points here and suggest a pause. I agree with your opening to point #2: our experiences make us as ships passing through the night, in some ways.

      However: I’m not as cynical about spiritual life and teaching as he thinks. And I’ve had more than one guru. Roach turned out to be a hot mess, but I’ve had other relationships that were more complex. And although I’m wary of rationalization, I wouldn’t change what I’ve been through. I wouldn’t “do away” with the premise of spiritual teaching. I’m just really interested in what it might look like outside of the sadomasochistic paradigm that has dominated world religions since time out of mind. That begins with being aware of that paradigm.

      Yoga people have to be really careful about claims that sound evidentiary. The entire marketing edifice of the culture is built upon overreaching claims of efficacy. What does “I’ve seen the work of Byron Katie help people enormously” mean? According to what measures and followups? How is it different from “shoulderstand stimulates glandular health”? We have to look at why we may want certain things to be true.

      Side-note on Byron Katie: if we propose that her universalist
      “Work”, which she prescribes to everyone is good for anyone, we should look really carefully at how it works out in her public performance. Somatic violence takes many forms. With her, it’s in the controlling gaze and the silencing discourse. I’d like to know more about whether Adyashanti is doing something substantially different — since Wallis cites them both as comparative. This is a whole discussion that Christopher and I have started privately by phone — the violent somatics of expertise. The theme covers so many things we don’t talk about, from author’s photos to how a dais is decorated, to how many or how few words the teacher uses, to their smile and especially their gaze. I hope something good comes of it.

      Calling me cynical about whether he has the oversight support to manage the innovation of an entirely new pedagogy for his tradition doesn’t get him off the hook of the problem: that the institutional roles that he cites for comparison — doctor and psychotherapist — have peer-driven processes for limiting scope. I’m not ad-hom-ing Wallis by asserting he has an unconscious drive for power. I’m just asking: who will tell him when it looks like he does?

      The diminishment before the guru consists in Wallis describing himself as lazy in relation to spiritual work. I’d like to know more about that. I don’t get the sense of Wallis as being anywhere near lazy in anything.

      “Legacy of guru abuses” is just a frank shorthand for the hot mess of Shaiva Tantra in the globalizing period. Saying Wallis has “inherited it” may be going to far. But come on, he’s coming out of Siddha Yoga, and that’s a complex place to come from, whether Liz Harris had the best angle or not. We all come from complex places, of course.

      What Wallis spends most time on here is something I’ll spend just a moment on: whether awakening is associated with a distinct experience or not, it is narrativized as a paradigmatic shift in the experience of living. And when that shift becomes a litmus test for the kind of authority with which someone can speak, the discourse has built a power mechanism into its very foundation — a mechanism that will unconsciously impact all conversants, and, I believe, cannot resist the sadomasochistic paradigm.

      All this said, I’ll close for now by saying that I respect Wallis’ position and work for its complexity and passion, and I hope to discuss these intimate things with him for many years to come.

  3. To say this discussion is more then a bit about perspective, doesn’t do it justice. As so many of these differences in points are beyond words. As even in the fact that I disagree with Allise, I do not find Wallis’s response defensive at all.

    Interesting. I’ve enjoyed the banter.

  4. Enjoyed all of this discussion very much. Thanks to all.

    Bob W.

  5. In over 40 years on the spiritual path with an Indian guru, the words awakening, or enlightenment, have rarely, if ever, been uttered among my yogi peers, be they monks or householders. We just want to become more human, more loving, more integrated–but this, as Matthew points out, can be a messy enterprise. Thus I applaud you Matthew for picking it all apart, as these words can easily be traps, easily be false pedestals of spiritual grandeur. What has been emphasized in my circles, rather, has been the sadhana, the struggle, the effort at integration, the search for becoming more human. But all that other shadow stuff is also there, manifested in both newcomers and older folks. Still, as I applaud your effort at being the sand in the oyster that often produces peals of insight, I also feel a sense of–so what? We can deconstruct everything, until nothing is left but the project of deconstruction and the avalanche of questions that keeps coming. The intellect, the mind, the ego, is an important tool in uncovering dogma, in digging up hidden and suppressed emotions, in confronting projections, in looking at what we have disowned. But that processes must be coupled with an inward gaze into silence, where, in my experience, only mantras, or breath work, or sunsets, or love of the other, can bring us. Thus the awakening, which may happen in small doses every day, once a year, in big and small ways, these rays of insight which keeps us inspired and heart-centered. So, yes, to some extent you have been ships passing in the night, but it’s been and will continue to be an important conversation. But at the end of the day, the unspoken cannot be deconstructed, even understood or expressed clearly with words, and it is towards that everpresent silence yogis are moving, knowingly or unknowingly. It is the eternal seacrh or pull that keeps us moving onwards and inwards.

  6. Thanks to both of you Matthew and Christopher for going so deep into this conversation. It is illuminating to chew on the different angles and approaches.

    Contrary to other comments, I respect Matthew’s courage to compare the power imbalance between teacher and student to the power imbalance that was at the center of each and every one of our lives the moment we emerged into the world. The power imbalance between child and parent has the potential to set the stage for relationship between the individual and any other individual or group where a power imbalance may be present —be it knowledge-based, physical, environmental, having to do with seniority, experience, or age. It is irresponsible not to recognize it and thoroughly understand its pitfalls. Do we need to do away with it? We can’t.

    At the risk of edging towards victim blame, I offer the following because I don’t see much about the responsibility we have as students as we enter into the dynamic of teacher-student relationship, and whether the community as a whole has a responsibility in the safety dynamic if the student is confused. Perhaps I missed some comments on FB.

    We are faced with these power differentials everywhere. I know this is not the point of the conversation, but rather the intrinsic structure and potential pitfalls of the intrinsic structure of the student-teacher relationship as it is represented in spiritual traditions and as it seeps into modern yoga. Remski is challenging the pitfalls of the model we’ve inherited. Willis is arguing that if done right, the dynamic is useful. A question about ‘awakening’ and what ‘awakening’ is also came up, and how its enigmatic nature separates student from teacher and gives the teacher an ‘out’. In parenting we call this ‘deferring to the higher power’. “If you do that, the cops are going to come knocking at the door/God will not love you.”

    I think we have to examine assumptions of the student in relationship to community as well as the community’s values as well.

    As a mother of daughters coming into puberty, it is my responsibility to teach them about the joys of their emerging sexuality, and also about the potential risks. Though I wish the world were a benign and safe place for all of us, and in theory, certain conversations should not even have to be shared between my daughters and myself, I see it as my job to explain to them the reality and potential for abuse and abuses of power as well as the more pleasurable possibilities that await them. It is my job to educate my daughters so that perhaps they can steer clear of danger. Whether they will be successful will be determined by a number of factors, luck being perhaps one of them. But the same should not be limited by ignorance of the world we live in.

    My assumption as a parent in a family unit with its own power dynamics is that my community (legally, ethically, culturally) upholds my same desire for the safety of my children that I do, and then adds another layer of mutual (societal) support for them. The ways in which my community does not support this effort (shame, puritanical values, violent objectifying pornography, sexism, marketing, avoidance, blame) serve to undermine my efforts and their safety. My requirement for my community is also that there be safety nets for the children in my community who’s parents are not teaching their daughters about the dangers of their emerging sexuality. And that these nets are present in our schools, our social policies, etc…

    I’m using sexual transgression as an example not because there is always a sexual component to these student-teacher imbalances (though often obviously there is) but because it is one of the easiest vulnerabilities to see clearly, and perhaps the one in which we most commonly agree (vulnerable populations should not be taken advantage of sexually…be it by a loved one or friend, in a dark alley, at the workplace, in a yoga studio, in a school, church, or ashram, etc…)

    As a community, in a less than ideal environment, we have agreed culturally to do our best to protect our children by teaching them that certain kinds of sexual behavior among certain individuals should not happen ever because of the confusing nature of the power dynamic (whether consent is given or not) and that if they find themselves in the midst of a confusing situation and something has happened the shouldn’t have (whether consent is given or not – including when they are under the influence of alcohol) that safety can be found in both their own conviction and understanding of what we would consider their natural human ‘right’ not to be violated, AND that as a community we will do our best to protect them, to validate them, to support them in releasing shame and embarrassment, and to support them in making better choices (one might use the word ’empowerment’ to minimize future risk).

    It doesn’t always play out this way of course, but I think most of us would not argue with the values represented here and the responsibility of the community to those values.

    Perhaps what should be added to this conversation about abuses of power and the potential for those abuses, is that the nature of learning something, anything at all, is supported by the wisdom and experience of those who have come before. 2nd children often walk sooner/potty train sooner than their first to come siblings. They see the potential for their own maturity, and move towards it more quickly as it is modeled by someone even more like themselves than their parents. We must have teachers and mentors wherever we go. Even towards ‘enlightenment’. In the process of growth we will experience power imbalances and face potential dangers, be it harassment in the workplace, abuse in a family unit, or abuse in an ashram. So as Matthew dismantles the nature of the power imbalance….I am reminded that that power imbalance is present EVERYWHERE. It cannot be eliminated. Whether or not you decide to follow a guru, or worship a yoga teacher, it is everywhere, and it is our responsibility to examine our relationship to it.

    Of course it is not the victim’s responsibility to keep themselves out of harm’s way. In an ideal world the world would be set up protect the vulnerable, and all such victimizations would be minimized. “Awakened” beings and those with moral convictions would not transgress.

    First our parents harbor us, then we move out into the world and hope that the values our parents instilled are present in the greater community, and that the community will harbor us. And at the same time, we become our own ‘harbor’ (internally) offering ourselves the protections that we once received from our parents.

    The structure of how we learn yoga (from a teacher) is not the issue regardless of the depth of vulnerability that we experience. Regardless of how much we choose to give ourselves over to ‘the guru’. Regardless of whether we ‘lose ourselves’ in the process of letting go and can no longer make the prudent, safe, decision on our own. Regardless of whether the one we ‘give ourselves over to’ is a Charleton. The onus is on the community to uphold the values that keep our fellow members safe. And if the community does not rise to the task. Then it is up to each and every one of us to offer protection to others where it is not being given, and to ourselves.

    I don’t think anyone would argue that I have a responsibility to educate my daughters about the potential dangers associated with sex given our current cultural reality. This is an act of activism. And in the face of any community that is abusing power (however subtle) it is up to us to become active: We must require transparency, engage in honest inquiry, utilize legal means, boycott when appropriate, and by all means speak out and share the experience with everyone else. Each teacher needs to be held up to an explicit (not intrinsic, not assumed) agreement between teacher and student. The greater community needs to uphold that agreement. Each student needs to go into every relationship including an intimate relationship knowing that the potential for abuse is there. The question should be: How do we get each student to that place?

    Finally, it is not until the abused stand up and insist upon this enforcement and this transparency that change will happen. No study of scripture is going to eliminate the rise of a teacher confused by their own power potential. As teachers we do not know the unhealthy history of the student that lends them to transference. As students we do not know the unhealthy history and/or process of incomplete yet charismatic ‘awakening’ in the teacher that enables abuse. The assumption by both teacher and student needs to be that both the teacher and student will be confused at various moments in the process. The safety net has to be the community. And the community needs to prime the student (unfortunately) to be prepared to recognize abuse and be reassured that they will be supported by the community to stand up, get help, and speak out. If there is no community the student needs to make a responsible choice…a risk assessment. I know. It is not the victim’s fault. The victim should not have to do this work. The community should not have to hold the burden of this check and balance, but power imbalances are intrinsic, we need to become aware of that, and we need to make conscious choices about how to keep one another safe.

    Awakening is neither here nor there if basic safety cannot be guaranteed: “You can be a jerk, or you can be integrated.”

    As a community we need to engage in responsible action. In this messy and confusing situation that we find ourselves in (life), we need to do more than examine the set up. We need to take action.

    At the expense of our bliss? Yes. At the expense of our own ‘awakening’ at the feet of the same guru? Yes. Even when it’s inconvenient or it shakes our world view? Yes. At the expense of losing our job? Yes. The world is full of tricky situations that interrupt our enjoyment and that interfere with our goals, beliefs and desires. But as we say to our children these days in every activity we expose them to: Safety First.

    Judith Lasater is right in expressing that until we are willing and able to stand up and say clearly to every other student in the room “this teacher just touched me inappropriately and I’m leaving now for that reason”, that we will start to require better teachers for ourselves. In that action we lay the foundation for no student accepting less for themselves. I want a teacher, but I want integrity and integration more. And if I find myself in an unexpected situation, and the student next to me cannot stand up for herself, it is my job to stand up for myself (and indirectly the rest of the class) and say. “This teacher just touched this person inappropriately, and that is why I am leaving now.”

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