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:
- The small print about “informed consent” as applied to spiritual/transformational relationships (it means nothing without a defined scope of practice),
- his reframing of “guru” as “guide”,
- his dismissal of psychoanalytic discourse,
- 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.