That Time When I Was in a Cult and Got an Incredible Letter from a Friend

That Time When I Was in a Cult and Got an Incredible Letter from a Friend

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.)

____

April 16/99

Dear M,

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,

X

Suggested Additions to Adyashanti’s Anemic “Post-Election Letter”

Suggested Additions to Adyashanti’s Anemic “Post-Election Letter”

 

Spiritual teacher Adyashanti published the following Post-Election Letter to his Facebook page on November 19th. It was formatted as a caption to the photograph below. Since posting, it has been shared 1.7K times amongst his almost 57K followers. Continue reading “Suggested Additions to Adyashanti’s Anemic “Post-Election Letter””

Meditation and a Basket of Phones

Meditation and a Basket of Phones

My kind host for a meditation weekend in Coeur d’Alene emailed ahead to ask about protocol for the weekend. One question was about mobile devices. The logistics part is simple, but the question also brings up a lot about what meditation might mean and engage with moving forward in our evolutionary storm.

Etiquette first: ringers and vibrate functions are best turned off for a weekend like this. Going further to block cell data would seem to be reasonable if you want to really internalize.

On the other hand, access to texting can put the mind of an anxious caregiver – for children or the elderly – at ease. And nobody would ask the on-call surgeon to turn their pager off.

For those willing to experiment, it’s interesting to see what limiting device usage on off hours contributes as well. Many people sense a serene envelope open up in time when they fast from data. Perhaps they remember the feeling of knowing something instead of being told something. Continue reading “Meditation and a Basket of Phones”

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

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

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

In my previous post, I offered a positional statement:

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

I’ll expand that to say:

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

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

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.) Continue reading “Laying Down the Guru’s Tools, for a While – A Response to Christopher Wallis”

The Meditation-as-Conversation Sutras

 

It was impossible to get a conversation going. Everybody was talking too much.

– Yogi Berra

 

A while back I posted this article about meditation. It suggested that if we think of meditation as an internal conversation, we can stop wondering about the best techniques or the true self or ultimate states, and start asking about what kinds of conversations are useful, and what good conversations feel like. I argued that the tension between our private practice and our social reality might be softened if we model our internal dialogues upon what we desire from our relationships.

But the article was terribly long, and terribly long articles can feel like one-sided conversations. So I thought this shorter and (I hope) more conversational version might help. It’s still in beta mode.

 

____

Continue reading “The Meditation-as-Conversation Sutras”