Laying Down the Guru’s Tools, for a While – A Response to Christopher Wallis

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.– Audre Lorde

Christopher Wallis asked me to respond to his eloquent piece on gurus-gone-bad, and how to stay away from them. I’m happy to do just that with this short post.

(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.)

Wallis starts out with a much-needed, apology-free censure of abusers, asserting that “no excuses can be made for any teacher who ignores the principle of consent.”

He then interrogates some of the stripped-down claims of Hatha literature that suggest the technologies of practice are sufficient in themselves for waking people up to goodness. True to his training and commitments, he uses a Tantrik view to do this, arguing that practice cannot promise virtue without the correct philosophical backing. He then makes some nice connections between Tantrik “god-realm” delusions and aspirational capitalism, revealing a dark feedback loop: we can be rewarded with power from the act of wanting power, whereas in an ideal yogaland, we’re rewarded with insight if we empower others.

His advice for the student who wants to avoid sociopaths sounds common-sensical. Look for everyday kindness and groundedness in the teacher. Try to assess the motivations of the teacher. See if those motivations are pure.

My main problem with this argument is that its rape-culture-aware understanding of consent (good) obscures a basic power imbalance in the economy of spiritual transformation (confusing). Here’s the thing: by definition, teaching spiritual transformation affords little room for consent, according to any contemporary usage of the term. This is because the fundamental agency of the person to be transformed – variously described as the small self, limiting ego function, dreaming self, etc. – is exactly what the process says it is bypassing, changing, waking up, or even annihilating. There is no more consent in the spiritual teacher-student relationship rooted in the transformational model – even if it’s benevolent – than there is in the parent-child relationship. (Which brings up the old question of the extent to which spiritual pursuits, for good or ill, are repetition compulsions that explore our formative powerlessness.)

To be fair, Wallis’ Tantrik view has a subtle take on transformation, which does as much as it can to deflate the inadequacy narrative of spiritual seeking, by which a person works to birth a better self out of the wreckage of a worse self. According to the Shaivism of Wallis’ training (if he’ll forgive me for being a little simplistic here) there is no better self to gain, but rather an essential, always-already there awareness to realize and then integrate. We don’t transform; we awaken to what we already are.

That’s all fine on the level of content. But abuse in spiritual pedagogy happens materially on the level of form and interpersonal power. It involves who has the keys, who reads the texts, who’s got the initials after their name, who knows the commentaries, who got to sit at the guru’s feet and for how long, who holds the transmission. (Beyond this lies the shadier questions about who we put in the front of the room according to the idols we need to worship or smash.) Whether the student is annihilating the small self or waking up to the already-present ground of awareness, the pedagogies of yoga have always invoked a hierarchy of knowledge and experience. The practice is said to have literal power felt to be held in literal hands that can bestow it upon you, always in a downwards direction.

I’m not saying this power dynamic can’t work for some people some of the time, any more than I’d say that being a child is somehow a negative thing in itself. But if the transformation relationship is felt to work, it will probably be because it treats a wound other than that of inequality. If it treats inequality, it will be because it’s conscious of the inequality it enacts. Appealing to notions of consent without rigorously evaluating how inequality renders consent problematic means we’re only pretending to talk about consent, because we’re leaving power out of the equation. (Power and inequality emerge through intersectional differences of age, gender, race, educational status, institutional position, neurotypical privilege, etc.)

Recent history makes this more than a semantic complaint. Relationships of spiritual mentorship – which are parent/child in nature to the extent that the aspirant, like the child, does not know the world into which they are being initiated – are slowly giving way to therapeutic relationships of attunement and intersubjective modelling, in which consent is ongoing, can be withdrawn, and most importantly, informed. Informed consent means that two equal subjects who are aware that they impact each other discuss the framework and limits of the work to be undertaken together and the purpose for it, along with its desired outcomes, safety mechanisms, and external controls (regulations, peer review, ombudspeople, etc.). This is completely foreign to most spiritual models, which generally hold that the process and content of transformation cannot be known by the aspirant, because if it could, there’d be no need for practice and effort and surrender. Ain’t no such thing as informed consent in the temple, or the meditation burrow, or around Mount Kailash, or in the zendo, or when hanging around Muktananda. Consent doesn’t emerge from religion but from therapeutics. It’s as new to spirituality as it is to patriarchal capitalism.

So without any meta-analysis of the structural power dynamics shared by abuse situations and the principle of transformation via a guru-student relationship, I find Wallis’ post a bit of a backdoor apology for systems woefully vulnerable to abuse, and I don’t think it will help people who are caught up in cults or manipulated by power addicts. I’m not saying that he doesn’t see and address power in pedagogy here and elsewhere, but he’s not talking about its role as being foundational to abuse — regardless of whether it feels beneficent or accords with an approved view.

Wallis’ implication is that a tradition can be self-correcting if somehow everyone just had better education within it. Unfortunately, this isolates power in a single loop, while weighting responsibility towards the student within that loop. In more than a decade of watching people extract themselves from abusive yoga/meditation environments and then metabolize their experiences, I can’t think of a single person who managed it solely by learning higher or more accurate or nuanced teachings from the same alleged system within which they were caught. (I say “alleged” because a key feature of harmful groups is that their systems are self-generated and self-supporting, and always have less to do with spiritual content than brokering social power.)

What seems to help a lot of yoga people discern their way out of abusive yoga communities is to get the feckin feck away from other yoga people and yoga ideas, at least for a while. Often they benefit most directly from swimming against the yoga stream: exchanging self-inquiry and self-correction for interpersonal work or feminist studies that target both the psychology and materiality of the patriarchal wound.

The chips can fall in many different ways. If they were postural yoga devotees, they might seek out Contact Improv and Axis Syllabus. If they were devoted to Tantric Buddhism, they go back to school for social work. If they were in top-down authoritarian communities, they take a new interest in things like local democracy, they study up on Robert’s Rules for how to facilitate tense meetings. Through various externalization and pro-social gestures, they allow themselves to ask what exactly it was they were yearning for after all, why they thought other people know more or are better than them, and, most importantly, why they thought that inner work alone was was going to protect them and heal everything. Inner work, after all, is as easy to exploit by the charismatic teacher as outer work is exploited by capitalism.

Many report they feel they’ve progressed when they can sense their slightly sore original face emerge from beneath the forced yoga smile.

From what I’ve seen, believing that there is a beneficent yoga-learning hierarchy somewhere out there — a place where grounded and generous beings offer the keys to transformation with no ulterior motives — doesn’t generally lead people to evaluate the basic wounds of inadequacy, abandonment, or trauma that helped draw them to a cult to begin with. Finding a better Dad may not teach you how to abandon the positions of childhood.

I want to repeat that I’m not saying beneficent pre-modern-style teacher-student relationships aren’t possible (even if today they must be infected by a degree of postmodern irony, but that’s another story) or that spiritual communities rooted in transformation narratives are inherently abusive, or that meaningful, enthusiastic, informed consent is always possible in instruction – and certainly not in parenting, despite best intentions.

I’m saying that getting away from toxic gurus by choosing better gurus supposes that a change in content can address what might be a problem of form. It supposes that the toxic guru really was interested in spirituality and not just power, but that they got it all wrong. But if they weren’t interested in spirituality at all, perhaps the wounds they inflict can’t be dressed by spirituality.

For the abuse victim, it may matter less that the new guru is grounded and that his content feels liberating, than the possibility of living for a moment in world shorn of the magic to which only a few have access, where people learn and heal by acknowledging how equally lost they are together, and where nobody believes that they have an answer any more complicated than listening.

14 Comments

  • First I want to thank Matthew Remski for his thoughtful response to my post despite his packed schedule. In fact, I think his response is exceedingly important, both in terms of what he says and in terms of the underlying assumptions that need examining. It helped clarify my as-yet unpublished analysis of the serious systemic problems in modern yoga, and I would like to respond to his response here that we may continue to move the conversation forward.

    (Positional statement: I write as a lifelong yoga practitioner of European descent who has studied and taught the subject under consideration here for the last 15 years, and who has experienced both formal discipleship with an Indian guru and informal studentship with Western meditation & yoga masters.)

    1. No one can doubt that the attempt to transpose the traditional Indian guru-disciple model to the West has for the most part been an unmitigated shit-show with much pain and trauma for many concerned. I agree with Remski’s implicit argument that in general it doesn’t work for Westerners to enter into discipleship to Indian gurus (or to other Westerners who position themselves as gurus). If such Western disciples are lucky enough to escape actual harm (and frequently the harm is unintentional on the part of the Indian guru, who often doesn’t realise how his Western students are perceiving the relationship), the guru-disciple paradigm, when transplanted to our very different cultural environment, generally is not successful in empowering the disciple to achieve equality with the guru, nor does it create conditions in which spiritual awakening is substantially more likely.

    And we should remember that the express purpose of the guru-disciple relationship, traditionally, is *precisely* to empower and equip the student to become the guru’s equal. So if that’s not happening in either Indian or Western contexts, we must ask what has gone wrong.

    This is one thing that has gone wrong: the traditional view of the teacher as a vehicle for transmitting the wisdom of a whole lineage has been replaced (in some quarters) by a view of the teacher *her- or himself* as a paragon, as exemplar, as someone whose personhood somehow instantiates the nebulous idea of ‘enlightenment’, inevitably leading to pedestalising, and even deifying, of the teacher/guru. As the greatest living scholar of classical Tantra (Alexis Sanderson) has said, Westerners do not easily grasp the principle that “The practice of seeing your teacher as an embodiment of Lord Shiva (i.e., God) does not require you to believe that he actually IS Shiva.” In other words, the teacher is not in fact any more divine than anyone else is, though traditionally, s/he is venerated by a disciple as the touchstone through which the disciple receives the tradition. But such veneration isn’t personal, is certainly not for the teacher’s benefit, and should never be distorted into elevating the teacher above oneself (in terms of his intrinsic personhood), since that makes it less likely that the disciple will attain the self-realisation that the teacher is pointing toward. Here I’m only addressing some basic misunderstandings around the traditional model, NOT proposing that we should retain the traditional model intact (see the next point).

    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. But again, I do not suggest that the traditional model is a good one for most Westerners.

    2. Remski: “Wallis suggests the problem can be addressed through improved teaching content; I argue that it also to has be addressed through a change in form.” Actually, I argue that the problem (of the disempowering student-teacher relationship) must be addressed through BOTH education (‘improved teaching content’) and a change in form. Specifically, in my own teaching work, I present myself not as a guru but a ‘deshika’ which literally means ‘guide’. I consistently place the weight of authority on the collective wisdom of lineage, not on myself. Furthermore, my expertise in yoga traditions and ability to read primary sources is placed in service of the student’s goals, without normative discourse on my part of what those goals should be, and without imperative instructions (IOW, I offer the student tools and possible insights, I don’t tell them what to do). Finally, I hold a therapeutic space in a limited way by listening, empathizing, and reflecting back to the student what I hear as important to them, validating their values while providing nuance or critique from the perspective of the traditional Tantrik view, again without a normative slant (such as the implication that they ‘should’ hold the same view). Whether I succeed in all this, or to what degree, is best articulated by my students. I invited Matthew, if he ever wants to, to poll them about whether they have found our teacher-student relationship empowering and non-coercive. I feel confident that the vast majority have.)

    3. This ‘deshika’ model, is, I think, a more effective and less dangerous model for 21st-century Westerners. It 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, places reverence on the teachings rather than the teacher, and is wholly non-coercive and as non-normative as possible. The “basic power imbalance”, in this model, is no different from that between a university professor and his student, or between a doctor and her patient. Though there are important issues around the difficulty of establishing informed consent in those cases as well, no one proposes that the model itself should be junked. A good doctor won’t tell you what to do, but rather explains your diagnosis and gives you options, then you decide. You are the final authority, as it should be in your relationships with your teachers as well.

    Remski claims that in the traditional model, “The practice is said to have literal power felt to be held in literal hands that can bestow it upon you, always in a downwards direction.” There is some truth to this statement with reference to the traditional model, but in the ‘deshika’ model teachers give teachings and practice, not power — the student empowers themselves through their relationship with the practice and through wrestling with the teachings while always asking “how can I verify the truth-value of this teaching for myself?”

    4. This is perhaps the most important point — Remski implicitly claims that the whole orientation of traditional yoga is inimical to the principle of consent, prone to abuse, and dangerous to our Western sense of personhood and personal autonomy because the “fundamental agency of the person to be transformed is exactly what the process says it is bypassing, changing, waking up, or even annihilating.”

    This is exactly why is it non-beneficial in the extreme to cling to the old New Age saw that “all the great paths and teachers are saying the same thing.” They AREN’T. In classical Patañjalian-style Yoga, as Remski well knows, personal agency is indeed negated by the teaching that our fundamental self is a wholly inactive witness-consciousness. But in Tantrik Yoga we see the opposite teaching — that our fundamental being is pure awareness AND agency (bodha and kartṛtva). In Tantrik Yoga, nothing is more central to the process than increasingly accessing your innate power of autonomy (svātantrya-śakti). The most basic presuppositions of the path are different from classical Yoga, with radically different social and psychological consequences.

    Remski claims that “there is no more consent in the spiritual teacher-student relationship rooted in the transformational model than there is in the parent-child relationship.” But this is exactly the point — the perception of yoga as a science of personal growth and transformation is a Western perception deriving almost entirely from the lamentable conflation of yoga with the American self-help industry. A teacher who says or implies “I will help you transform yourself into the best version of you, the person you were always meant to be” is NOT conveying traditional yogic values. In all forms of yoga, the concern is not to transform oneself but to become fully connected to the intrinsic value of your innate being. Transformation of one’s behavior comes about organically (and slowly) as a result of integrating the implications of this realisation into every aspect of everyday life — not out of an inherently problematic desire to be “better.”

    So my attempts to critique the transformational model (in which the teacher holds the keys to transformation) are intimately linked to a more empowering and accountable model of teacher-student dynamics. Remski thinks that I put too much onus on the student to be discerning, and not enough on the teacher to be moral, but I find this naive; there will always be unethical charlatans posing as teachers, gurus, or coaches, and no amount of pontificating about it is going to make them disappear. Therefore, for the student’s own safety, they must take on the responsibility of discernment and critical thinking.

    5. I agree with Remski that someone traumatized or wounded by an abusive cult-like environment ought to just GAFIA (get away from it all) for awhile. For their own mental health, they should *not* seek to heal the wounds of relationship with an unethical/abusive teacher by seeking a better more ethical teacher. (“Finding a better Dad may not teach you how to abandon the positions of childhood,” as Remski wisely quips.) They need time away from the triggers of their trauma, time to heal, only subsequent to which would it be beneficial to enter into studentship again. My post was not aimed at springing people out of abusive environments, but at 1) helping to educate them about the fact that charisma, power, and impressive personal presence are not the primary measures of attainment, and 2) that yogic empowerment, if not grounded in View teachings, often just inflates the pre-existing ego structure. (Kinda like the character “Titan” in the movie Megamind.)

    6. Lastly, the teacher’s motivations for teaching are important, since all too often someone becomes a teacher so that they can hide their insecurity under a mantle of authority (whether earned or not) and engage in hierarchical relationships where they automatically have the upper hand from the get-go. Such teachers are often uncomfortable in environments where their authority is not recognized. I know, because I was one of them. Teaching initially allowed me to find a voice and a self-confidence which was otherwise lacking, and to have a role I felt competent and comfortable in, unlike some other areas in my everyday life. As I matured, however, I grew out of the sense that expertise in any area, even spirituality, conferred specialness or superiority. This allowed me to move into a new phase of teaching (about five years ago) in which I no longer held students at arm’s length, but forged more personal connections with them — connections in which I can allow myself to be human, including owning my mistakes. Such relationships, I’ve found, are more beneficial to the student than the traditional model in which the teacher tacitly enables the unstated assumption that he is ‘better’ than the student or at least more free of flaws. The teacher might be more awake to his fundamental being (s/he better be, if s/he wants to facilitate the student’s access to the same), but this confers neither superiority nor hegemony, as anyone who is really awake knows. (The conflation of the Indian idea of being ‘awakened’ and the Western idea of sainthood is another reason for the shit-show of guru-disciple relations in the West. Someone might be both awakened and saintly, but the first does not necessarily imply the second.)

    In closing, though I agree with Remski about so much, I disagree thoroughly with his proposition that informed consent is nearly impossible in the spiritual teacher-student dynamic — indeed, I’m staking my whole life on the proposition that it is possible.

  • This really is a great conversation, and I believe, a very important one.
    Mathew’s insights and skilful dissections of the relational dynamics and structures of student teacher interactions in the modern ‘yoga studio’ shines a much needed light on what is a potentially complex interaction; one of great value to students and teachers alike. Mathew’s own experiences of teachers and yoga groups that he describes elsewhere, (J. Brown podcast series), provided, for myself at least, a contextual background to this debate and some valuable insight into the development of the modern yoga paradigm in the US/ West. Chris, on the other hand, provides both through his words and his example as a teacher/student/scholar and practitioner of the Tantrik Yoga traditions, a very valuable counterpoint to some of Mathews observations. We seem to be entering a new phase of our collective relationship with the yogic/ tantrik traditions, with scholars, teachers, academics and practitioners all entering the discussion and bringing valuable insights. Open, public conversations such as this will hopefully ensure we don’t ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ as we adjust our understanding and relationship to these traditions, which I believe, still have the potential to radically transform the way we live and the type of world we live in despite some of the problems discussed here.

  • So many good points here made by both Matthew and Christopher but unfortunately I don’t have the time right now to address all of them. I will however address what I perceive to be the crux of the issue.

    “This is one thing that has gone wrong: the traditional view of the teacher as a vehicle for transmitting the wisdom of a whole lineage has been replaced (in some quarters) by a view of the teacher *her- or himself* as a paragon, as exemplar, as someone whose personhood somehow instantiates the nebulous idea of ‘enlightenment’, inevitably leading to pedestalising, and even deifying, of the teacher/guru.”

    THIS. There is such a huge chasm between the traditional understanding of “guru” in South Asian cultures and what post-modern westerners understand as “guru”. Motivational speaker Tony Robbins is considered a “guru” over here folks! Mere “yoga teachers” are considered “gurus” over here. More on that here; http://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/03/yoginis-time-to-woman-up-toongi-dasi/ Guru carries more gravity in South Asia and is considered in the context of a larger, much more conservative (oops! post-modern westerners don’t like the c-word, do they?) cultural paradigm.

    Since sex scandals are mainly what’s being addressed in the subtext of this discussion, has it ever occurred to any of the western “yogis” here to take note of the socio-sexual behaviors of Indians when they go to India for their “yoga retreats”? If you do you will notice very little divorce, very little dating, a lot of arranged marriages, large, close and intact family units and generally gender segregated social dynamics. If you just open your eyes a bit there’s no way you could honestly walk away with the perception that sex outside of the context of a very socially sanctioned marriage is in any way acceptable to the traditional South Asian cultural dynamic that birthed the idea of “guru” in the first place. So if your “guru” is trying to fly his freak flag with you, tell him that you have to discuss it with his conservative aunties and uncles first.

    The bottom line is that the “guru” phenomena reached the west in a big way around the time of our Sexual Revolution. Those would be “sisyas” were recently “liberated” from 1950’s morals and family values and eager to experience “sacred sexually”. The Indian “gurus” had seen nothing like this back home, where very likely the only women they had close interactions with were their family members, and by Goddess were they ever ready to let loose of their traditional, conservative (there’s that word again!), South Asian brahmachari/ghrihasta binary model. http://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/04/dont-copy-india-toongi-dasi/

    There is a shashtric prescription that says the guru and sisya both must study each other for one year before accepting each other. Character, morals, ethics, integrity, sadhana, sincerity, these are all what are to be examined – in both directions.

    Its not that the potential sisya is meant to be an air-headed passive receiver of just any ol’ thing. You have to research the sampradaya (specific sect to which the potential guru is claiming to belong), her or his guru-parampara (lineage of previous gurus), examine these teachings and see if your would-be guru’s words and behaviors correspond to her/his own tradition’s values. You also have to consider whether or not that specific tradition’s values and practices truly speak to you. There are many traditions to chose from, after all. Go slow and do the foot work before committing.

    If one is not willing to do all this, fine, but then do not call what you are doing “yoga” and don’t call your mere yoga teacher a “guru”. Just call it what it is; “exercise” and “exercise instructor”. Indians, by the way, are getting fed up with all this cultural appropriation as it is. But that’s a whole other topic! Of course this means you won’t get to sound exotic, multi-cultural or superior to the “ignorant masses” around you but you can still distinguish yourself by being “gluten-free” or something, right?

    • This conversation reflects which I have had in melbourne with my own teacher/guide/guru. I’d say they were well-informed.

  • I greatly appreciate the work of both Remski and Wallis in general as well as the dialogue above, which touches on a theme very dear to me… Based on the limited perspective that I have from my own experience, I have a couple of comments.

    True to the model of awakening that my current teacher seems to espouse, (which in my understanding involves waking up each split-second rather than some kind of one-time realization where no more practice is ever needed), my interactions with him involve the same kind of moment-to-moment assessment of something akin to what we seem to be discussing, that is, consent. Like most students, I’m not perfect and sometimes grasp at salvation… Having been thoroughly duped by a psychopath masquerading as a guru when I first started practicing yoga, I have fully experienced the painful effects of unknowingly entering into a strong power dynamic with the wrong person. However, after spending 9 years with somebody who seems to genuinely study, practice and care for others (and who, in my opinion fulfills the qualifications expounded by Wallis), I am slowly learning, in spite of my very intense admiration, adoration and admittedly occasional idolization of my teacher, how to trust myself and also another being in a very meaningful way.

    Wallis discusses portraying one’s self as a guide rather than guru, and although I feel my teacher also does this and it is helpful, that in itself would not suffice to render the potentially dangerous dynamic inoperative. In fact, I don’t think there is anything a teacher with integrity can do except watch the student, throw them back to themselves when they are giving their power away, and be very careful about what they do or teach them when they are less than grounded. In my case, I’ve had hundreds of frustrating interactions with my teacher because he invents various ways of sneaking away when I’m wavering. What I am gradually discovering is that even when I superficially believe that I’m sure of my convictions and underlying intentions, I’m usually not. On those occasions where I really am, we have deep and meaningful exchanges. I can feel the difference in myself, and I am very grateful to him for not exploiting the power he certainly has had over me while I’m learning to find my own center.

    I don’t get the satisfaction of an initiation (which I would certainly have jumped into right away, regardless of whether I had fully understood the implications or been prepared in any way), but I feel I end up with much, much more… a real and honest relationship with myself, the teachings, and with him. I therefore believe in the potential of the teaching relationship with all of my heart, and hope that all of us who teach will continue to exercise care and compassion at all times with all of our students. Consent (or what it means to me) is not given once or in an obvious manner that can be elicited, so better to err on the side of conservatism. This whole process can’t be rushed. A student who is truly interested will look everywhere and stick around if they feel they’re in the right place. I suspect that real teachers are exceedingly rare, so the rest of us (students and teachers) need to keep practicing and do the best we can…

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