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 loathed the movie Whiplash. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll spoil it for you here.
An embittered genius jazz band conductor for an elite New York school emotionally and physically abuses and gaslights the mostly young men in his band, constantly.
Who knows what happened in his own history for him to be this way but it was probably brutal. He plays the boys off of each other in a dominance hierarchy in which everyone pays tribute upwards. The administration knows it, the faculty knows it. Nobody stops him. The school believes he gets results, rather than that they are a selection facility for talent and privilege, and that results can be and are arrived at in many different ways.
The narrative centres around one boy, a drummer, who we watch manage the trauma of this relationship. He does everything he can to please the abuser, including rehearsing maniacally until his hands bleed. The euphoria of music, plus the flow states of his toxic effort, afford him and viewer a kind of spiritual bypassing relief.
But of course the abusive teacher cannot be pleased by any of the drummer’s efforts. Why? Because then he would lose his power.
Accurate depiction of abuse? Yes. Good movie? No, because the writer-director chickens out at the end through a cascade of rationalizations that pretend to show that the abuse was all worth it. He avoids the more obvious, less Oscar-worthy answer, which is that some children survive horrible things with remarkable resilience, while others don’t.
After the abuser wields every trick of power in the book and betrays the drummer in the most epic way, the director then has the boy finally surrender to the abuser and the “process” in a moment of communion through the ecstasy of music. It’s a very Christian apologetic, really, with glory and pain not only contingent upon each other, but that contingency throbbing with an (homo)erotic charge.
Who is caught in the crossfire? The woman, of course. The drummer’s partner appeals to his emotional core, and so she must be discarded. Such an old story: somato-psychodramas between men feed the roots of the misogyny tree. Demeaning women comes to be accepted by patriarchy as an insignificant form of collateral damage.
The pseudo-resolution of the film orbits around the faulty premise that abusive teaching can produce empowered learning. Is there any data for this, or is it merely the best story we think we can tell?
Is it such a prominent story because it’s untrue? Do we have to keep repeating it to convince ourselves it’s meaningful?
I don’t buy it. Abusive teaching can be correlated with certain performed results, but only through a battery of other factors coming together.
We have to name the process: saying the band leader got the drummer boy to show his “essence” – which is what the entire denouement of the movie tells us – is a trauma response designed to relieve cognitive dissonance.
This culture conflates communion with survivorship, which is why brothers-at-arms war movies are a staple. We didn’t actually need to go to war to find out who we really are. Rather, we were sent to war and we found out how we each improvise survivorship according to our privileges and wounds. Except for those of us who didn’t survive, and who therefore didn’t get movies made about them.
Although – the dead were in those movies, really. They were the bit characters who had their heads shot off in order to show everyone else what dangers the survivors survived. That’s the thing about triumph-through-adversity narratives. They require sacrificial victims. In Whiplash, the director throws another kid under the bus to illuminate the resurrection of the hero via contrast. That the sacrificial victim is black adds another disturbing layer.
This is all on my mind because of yoga, of course. In response to a description of teacherly abuse on the Yoga and Movement Research board, someone commented to the effect that the teacher involved was difficult, full of contradictions, but that, like fire, being around him could be “incredibly transformative.”
Sorry, but “transformative” is not the appropriate word. If dude were able to pull himself up short in the middle of his intrusions and say “Wow, there’s my anger management problem pouring out again, full force. I think it has something to do with intergenerational violence and my need to offload my repressed humiliation onto younger men. I’m really sorry” – that would be transformative. Anything less is just a cycle of abuse with chaotic results narrativized by (partial) winners who need to make sense of winning.
I believe the comment also betrays something unintended. It puts the old-school yoga teacher in the category of artist. It suggests: “He’s a genius, but he can burn you.” This has been used as a framing device for guru-types forever.
Of all of the problems with this model, this is perhaps the most pernicious. Maybe it hangs around precisely because of vestigial Christianity, and we can’t stop making sense of things that way.
I’ve never met any, but I believe that spiritual geniuses — unlike artists, who I know a bunch of — would be those who figure out how to not burn others with the coals of their past.
Duff McDuffee pointed this out to me first on a Facebook thread. When Alex Jones — Infowars conspiracy theorist and hawker of survivalist protein powders — gets on a roll, the content of what he says is secondary to the state he embodies. He’s not communicating something to be understood, but rather broadcasting a trance state.
The content supports the transmission of this state only to the extent that it helps defamiliarize whatever hold on consensus reality he and his audience have. Yes, he is talking about aliens here, but this only underlines the alienating experience of a body that needs to transcend its pain and confusion.
You can watch a bit of the following with the sound on to get a sense of this intersection of content and somatics. But then you can mute it and just watch what he does with his body. Or: what his body does with him.
Gazing off to the right and up. Conjuring the completeness of his vision by caressing an invisible sphere in front of him face, as though the sphere were his face, perfected. Leaning with his eyes into the vastness or the void before him. The conspiracy theories seem rooted in the conspiracy of his being bodily possessed.
And — maybe the most important detail McDuffee pointed out: when Rogan interrupts the freestyle in any way, Jones’ primary goal is not to answer the question, let alone hear it. His goal is to maintain the self-enclosed-but-extroverted trance state. He needs to get back on that train as soon as possible, perhaps because it’s where he feels most at home, most protected.
A comparison to Trump here isn’t lazy: when we ask why he can’t stick to the teleprompter, something similar might be happening. Reading from the teleprompter, like taking in Rogan’s question, would stop the trance train.
Reading the teleprompter would be like being distracted from masturbating, which may tell us something about the adolescent anxiety informing it all, not to mention the overwhelming intersection between alt-right spaces and porn.
Other things that interrupt masturbating? Oh, you know — evidence, citations. Those little facts of external reality that call us into responsibility, that tell us our pleasure is not the only thing that exists.
Jordan Peterson rides a similar train, only in first class, and tenured. This modestly-titled clip is typical of his in-person somatic strategy, marked by constant repetition: pacing, hand gestures, head-tilts, the pretence of making eye contact. Again: try watching for a minute with the sound muted.
Back in June I went to one of his public lectures. It was sold out: 500 people, $30 each. $15K gross on a regular Tuesday night. Crowd was 90% white. Lots of buzz cuts, ball caps and sun glasses amongst the men, who made up maybe 70% of the crowd. Amongst the 20% of the crowd who were over 40, the vast majority were men. Going for a pee was like being at an NHL hockey game in 1978.
As Peterson strode onto the stage, the guy beside me yelled out over the applause, “There he is, there he is!”
The lecture was a stream of folksy megalomania: one long off-book, beyond-scope-of-practice-for-clinical-psychology digression after another of his alt-right sweet spots. He held out for 107 minutes before substantially addressing the published topic for a 2-hour event — The Tower of Babel (appropriately), and The Flood. And the actual substance he got to seemed designed to avoid distracting anyone from the mystery of himself. A key slide cited a banal remark from Mircea Eliade on the ubiquity of flood narratives (1:47:59). No citation provided.
It was like he wasn’t even trying to conceal the fact that he’s not interested in the content.
Why should he? Nobody was there for the content, advertised or otherwise. They were there to commune with Peterson’s body, his performance of radical bravery, his fragility and grievances. Their adoring gaze on him was only broken by thrilled shudders elicited by phrases like “cultural marxism”.
Okay, full disclosure:
I know what this stream of loghorreic bliss feels like. Both of the cults I was in in my late 20s / early 30s were led by men whose social and somatic power hinged on being able to flip into these states at will.
In both organizations, I progressed far enough up the hierarchy to be invited to give sermons to entry-level members. The content was spiritual revelation, and I was to mimic the guru.
Before it felt terribly wrong — which was pretty quick — it was exhilarating. The format was “dharma talk”, or “satsang”. The premise was that I had something deeply subjective yet universally applicable to share. I could feel myself “filled with the spirit” of the guru. No other resources were needed. I opened my mouth, and something “inspired” poured out, fast. I created a wall of sound around myself that gave some kind of relief. I felt as though I was within a ring, but also rising above myself.
I’d had experience with this before, albeit “secular”. As a young poet and novelist, I would give readings from my work around town. (That was “social media” in those days.) I remember feeling that the microphone was like a gun-shield, and that if my text could fire out and overwhelm the room, my brilliance would be clear to everyone. My presentation style was loud and fast. I inflated myself with every inhalation.
It wasn’t unique. Many of the men I worked with and loved nurtured a similar affect. One of them, the now-famous Christian Bök, was then famous for reading his language poems so loud and fast that he literally foamed at the mouth. But Bök was self-consciously performing a kind of mania, mimicking the machine-like virality of language itself. Most of the rest us were just trying to emote, without receiving anything. As with punk rock, I think it was very hard for us to find the line between catharsis and aggression.
I haven’t lost my taste for holding forth, though it has declined to the extent I own my general shame. And to the extent that writing helps me sublimate an impulse I believe flows out of a deep wound. When I lecture now, I feel distinctly inadequate, and I try to respect and treasure this rather than overcome it.
I emailed a friend and veteran psychologist about the phenomenon of speed and overwhelm in speech. She wrote back:
In psycho-traumatology the concept of “pressurised talk” is considered symptomatic of a cry for help that went unanswered. It’s a new addition to the fight-flight-freeze-submit roster. And it’s helped me sit with many traumatized people who fill their hours with a wall of words. Simple, ongoing listening, with facial & gestural attunement (rather than the frustration, disbelief or boredom that this defence is unconsciously intended to re-create) slowly works its wonders. It seems that it is dangerous for them to allow a pause or moment of reflection. “Going inside” means losing your constant, necessary vigilance against the world.
I talked about Peterson with another friend. He remarked that Peterson sounds like he’s trying to speak while someone is throttling his neck.
I hear it too. He’s always running out of time. Why? Because things are always so bad, culture is always dying, the world is always ending. Patriarchy always holds the apocalypse over our heads like some fantasy of ultimate violence: wait till your father gets home.
Peterson’s fans have pointed out that he sounds like Kermit the Frog, which lets them fantasize about his archetypal resonance with Pepe the Frog.
Again, it’s not about data, or content. It’s about free association, rhythm, dream states, and the passions unleashed by all three. Which is why it makes sense that another alt-right babble-mouth Mike Cernovich compares himself to a DJ:
I would say that I pay more attention to what DJs do and how DJs manage their gigs and their fan base than anybody in traditional media.
Alex Jones has the same throttled, pressurized voice. So does Tony Robbins, though he powers through it. So did the late great B.K.S. Iyengar. So does Michael Roach. So does Trump, though in a less obvious way: you can hear all of his vowels bottlenecking through jaw tension.
This might be a weak correlation. Jones’ voice also sounds soaked in bourbon, while Robbins lives with acromegaly. And of course vocal strain or awkwardness does not imply traumatized charisma.
My gut telling me there’s something more going on with these guys might be more of the same self-centred speech, but I’ll risk it:
Yes, they speak through the feeling of being choked, of having to overcome attackers. They also speak through the strain of the pubescent boy’s voice. as it breaks into a dangerous vision of manhood they feel it’s better to dominate than change.
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.
People are talking about whether Jim Carrey has had a spiritual awakening.
He says he has. He’s been with the right people, like Byron Katie. Eckhart Tolle put him on TV to talk about it. Continue reading “Come On. You Have No Idea Whether Jim Carrey is “Awake”.”
A few months ago there was an interesting thread on Yoga and Movement Research Community about the difficulty in establishing medical causality for yoga injury. The debate was vigorous as always, but this time reached a pitch that suggested to me that there are many things beneath the surface.
What I’ve learned in talking with the medical people who treat yoga-related injuries is that they are cautious about attributing exact causation to any particular moment or movement. They know that there are simply too many pre-existing injuries, repetitive stresses and loading patterns at play to pinpoint a particular action definitively as the cause of a new injury. Continue reading “Talking About Yoga Injuries Can Be a Way of Talking About Other Things”
One of the hardest questions I get asked by friends or family of people in cults is about how to talk with them about their experience. How do you have a conversation with someone who you think is being deceived, who has become dependent on a power structure you suspect is harming them? What if they say they’ve never been happier, and you can’t shake the gut feeling that there’s something off? There’s never an easy answer.
So much seems to depend upon the trust you share with the person, how well you make them feel heard, the state of their basic life-resources. In all of the stories I’ve heard about people extricating themselves from cults, there never seems to be any single decisive factor that pried them loose. But often, people will say that a key exchange with someone helped them change course.
I once had an exchange like that.
In 1999, a good friend of mine wrote to me about my immersion in the cult of Michael Roach. I recently found his typewritten letter during a closet clean-out, and read it again. And again. I’m retyping it out here with minor edits to protect anonymity.
Though I didn’t fully absorb them then, these words haunted me for the entire year between receiving it and leaving Roach. Today I can’t believe how lucky I was to have such a friend who could write them to me.
I hope you enjoy my friend’s kindness and subtlety, how he unfolds his argument slowly, with wit and pathos. How he takes me seriously, and tries to imagine and validate my inner life, even as he feels alienated from it. How he avoids the question of cultism and possible abuse for just long enough to have space in the end to back away from it with cheerful melancholy.
I hope you enjoy his self-awareness, humility, uncertainty, and bravery. Beyond his many salient points, perhaps it was his modelling of these virtues that made the deepest impression upon me.
(The opening reference is to an audio tape of Robert Thurman, probably teaching elementary Tibetan Buddhism. I’d sent it to this friend as a way of explaining what I was into. Or justifying it: Thurman was a lot more mainstream-able than Roach.)
Thanks for the tape, I’ve listened to it and found it both fascinating and puzzling. Thurman seems to fluctuate between academic instruction and personal inspiration. It’s all new to me.
I have to admit I find your increasingly devoted, if not feverish, attachment to Buddhism somewhat frightening to me. It makes me feel simultaneously apart from your experience and intrigued.
What does it feel like to actually believe in something? Really believe? I admit I have never truly believed in anything — all religions make me feel like an outsider, someone looking in on a transcendent experience, never one of the blessed (?) the inducted (?) the knowing (?).
So, when I hear of you growing more and more a part of something that appears to loom so large in your minds and hearts, I figure, well, there he goes — in a couple of years, or shorter, he’ll be off to some austere place (mental or geographical) where only the fellow enlightened can reach him. Essentially, it feels like you’ve already begun to pack for a figurative (or real) Tibet. I will miss you greatly.
By now you’re probably reading the above as et another instance of my relentless negativity, my self absorption — but, as true as that may be, I do still feel what I fell, which is that you are disappearing, or, to be more precise, changing shape.
That in itself is, of course, good and should be accepted by anyone who loves you, except that the catalyst for this change appears to me to be an all-encompassing, and excluding religious practice. I celebrate your new found happiness and clarity, but will the vehicle for this change ultimately make me and others that love you but who do not follow the same practices irrelevant?
Will you begin to see non-Buddhists as unenlightened, backward, and no longer necessary for your happiness?
Finally, and this is perhaps the most contentious of my concerns, I just fundamentally distrust and worry about people, especially people I love, who see their redemption (? wrong term, I’m sure) as coming through a single person, a “teacher”. I have always been suspicious of anyone who would set him/herself up as a teacher of intangibles, of ultimately unknowable things.
I fear the possibility of cultish servility — although I hardly think of such an ancient and resonant religion as a cult. But that does not mean that there are not charismatic people within Buddhism who are seeking followers to dominate.
I guess it all boils down to personal psychology — as a recent victim of a massive abuse of authority and trust, I’m afraid to see my friends potentially falling under the sway of another persuasive personality.
Call it projection (accurately), call it melodrama (possibly) — but I ask you to please keep a small part of yourself open to questions and the tiny voices of disquiet all intelligent people carry inside them as protection against fraud.
Know that I love you, and that this little diatribe has been brewing in me for awhile, and is not easy to write.
I admit I’m always confused, but sometimes I’m also very perceptive.
Am I losing you? Is the world? Please accept my love,
Enough people have asked me my thoughts about Byron Katie and “The Work” that I’ll give a few here in relation to the following video.
In it, Katie “helps” a woman understand that her fears of the Trump administration are unwise, with an undercurrent of “deluded”. Katie does this using several techniques of charismatic dominance. This is ironic, to say the least. Continue reading “Byron Katie’s Domination Technique: a Case Study”