“A Hamster Wheel of Self-Help.” Conversation with Rachel Bernstein on IndoctriNation Podcast (Pt. 2)
Here’s Part 2 of my conversation with Rachel Bernstein on her IndoctriNation podcast. Part 1 is here.Please consider supporting her work by subscribing to the podcast via Patreon.
Rachel Bernstein: 00:04
Welcome to IndoctriNation, a weekly conversation series about protecting yourself from systems of control. I am your host, Rachel Bernstein. Welcome to part two of my interview with Matthew Remski. He is the survivor of two yoga-related cults and is now the father of two with his partner. He’s also an instructor and an author. He has some very interesting insights and has done a lot of research. I look forward to having you hear him speak about his experiences and also how to get past a lot of what he went through and some good guidelines for others who have been through those kinds of experiences. Let’s talk to him now.
Rachel Bernstein: 00:47
So you were involved in [Michael Roach’s] group for how long?
Matthew Remski: 00:49
For just over three years. Okay. And then he took six or seven of his female students into retreat for three years, a private retreat. And that was started in 2000. That meant that he was kind of like out of the picture, but also he did a number of things at the end. I got fairly into, doing some of the… I said earlier that I had stopped writing, but I started writing for him actually, which was, I think was even more detrimental to my mental health. So one of the key things that happened was that I was, that I realized, I’ve written an entire book for this guy based upon transcripts from his long-winded talks. And I’ve actually made him sound good and he’s not even going to do anything with it. I realized this was a pattern: that everybody was getting these meaningless, dead-end tasks that were incredibly time intensive and labor intensive and really determined that people would be emotionally focused upon him. Then the projects would go nowhere. There’d be no final result. Even within the group, there was this sense of, Oh yeah, he’s helping you burn off your aspirations or your selfishness or he’s helping you see where your own narcissism is preventing you from understanding the nature of reality and so on. So there were explanations for that as well.
Rachel Bernstein: 02:34
Yeah. Explanations, justifications, they usually happen so that they can kind of uphold the idea that he is someone who is necessary in our lives in ways that are obvious to us and also ways that are not. And it keeps us from really seeing that were being used, um, that it’s this hamster wheel actually.
Matthew Remski: 03:08
I really like how Janja Lalich talks about “bounded reality” [correction: “bounded choice”] where there’s nothing that’s disconfirming. So if he gives you a task, you accomplish the task for the good of the Dharma worldwide or whatever. And if you don’t accomplish the task you’ve paid some sort of penance. But there’s no, there’s no universe in which you can say, Wait a minute, you just wasted my time. You just manipulated me and stole my labor.
Rachel Bernstein: 03:36
The closed system: you can’t get outside information.
Matthew Remski: 03:41
And any result confirms the nature of the system.
Rachel Bernstein: 03:45
And anything positive is because of him anything negative is because of you. That’s built into it. Yeah. Nice little things sprinkled on top of all of it. Thanks! Thanks for that. Like I needed something else to make me feel bad about me! So then through the help of a friend got involved in this next group. So tell me about your experiences there.
Matthew Remski: 04:20
Endeavor Academy I think still exists, but I don’t know how many people still live there. I’ve lost touch with the people who are still there. I’m still in touch with through social media with three or four of former members who were in residence there. It’s in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin. And it was founded by a guy named Charles Anderson who died in 2008 and so that would have been like five years after after I had left. And he was a recovered, well, not-quite-recovered, dry alcoholic, Alcoholics Anonymous, Blue-Book-thumping…. But also his main text was A Course in Miracles. And I think that what impressed — I mean I actually fell for this, which even though I was deceived, I still give myself a side-eye about this one.
When I first walked into one of his sessions, which would just be him teaching extemporaneously and often in a sort of of garbled, jazzy, scatty kind of way. He was quite a wordsmith and bullshit artist. He looked straight at me and he said, Oh, I see the Buddhist has arrived! And then he took his sock and he smacked me across the head. And there’s this conversion story in Tibetan Buddhism where one of the saints, Marpa, takes a sandal and hits Milarepa over the head with it. I found out later that that somebody had given some intel to him, right? I thought he had just intuited that and he said: You are free as God made you, so what are you going to do? Meditate about that?
And you know, there was something very compelling, not just about the deception but about this line, which he would feed to everybody, which is you are, as a human being, a perpetual tangle of doubt and uncertainty. Can you just get over it already? Like you’re not doing yourself any favors by contemplating or by meditating. Just understand that: you’re standing in the light of God right now or whatever. This was his pitch: Because I’m certain about who I am. You can be too.
So there was something, to this day there was something compelling and existentially impressive about that particular turn that I haven’t seen in any other set of exchanges. Maybe this sounds familiar to you, but the thing is that he was really a one-trick pony. Like that was the one cognitive challenge to people’s anxiety or depression that he could offer. And then everything that was built around that was, you know, financial, emotional, physical, sexual exploitation. So it took me about a year to recognize that. And then I think as is common with, with a lot of people’s experience, it takes a lot longer to leave than you want. That’s because it’s hard to find anybody to talk to. It’s because you’ve invested a lot already. It’s because what are you going to do outside anyway?
Rachel Bernstein: 08:33
You doubt yourself. I’ve heard people say that, by and large — and I’ve seen this with the former members that I work with — that they were unhappy for a very long time before they took action to leave. And still some are kind of half in, half out. They’re just… it’s a process. Sometimes it takes longer for different people. Certainly. It’s interesting you talk about his way of being with you and being on the stage and even though you saw that he was this one trick pony and it became that if you’re a hammer, everything is a nail. Like it all is sort of the same everywhere. think that there is something about someone being very sure, and that’s what works in sales.
Matthew Remski: 09:20
He was a salesman.
Rachel Bernstein: 09:21
Yeah. So he was confrontative and he also seemed insightful and psychic to a certain degree, even though he had gotten intel, which often happens. But I think the fact that he had this kind of challenge for you and also said that he was someone who had benefited from this and he is someone who is these things, and you can be this too. It is like every sales pitch wrapped into this perfect little package, so, you know, it made an impact. It’s every technique of influence all in this couple of sentences.
Matthew Remski: 10:00
He wrapped it up and tied it in a bow and he did it in a way that was alternating – and this is where I find Alexandra Stein’s work so incredibly useful — really sharply alternating between the seemingly loving and the absolutely wrathful. Putting one in the very confused position of “Oh, am I receiving love at this point or am I being dismissed or am I being abused? How can I tell those apart? Is one the function of the other? Does one depend upon the other? Yeah. So he was particularly good at that.
Rachel Bernstein: 10:46
It’s a very controlling thing to do. It’s something that I’ve talked about in the past about intermittent gratification. So you kind of wait around for it to feel good again for the person to be happy with you. You then learn that you need to stay there. You can’t abandon this because there might be a payout soon. So if you can learn how to do it right, then it’s going to feel really good. Cause when it feels bad, it feels bad and it’s right in front of people too. So you kind of want to have that resolution that’s in a public way in front of people.
Matthew Remski: 11:25
At Endeavor Academy — this gave me a little bit of insight moving into researching Ashtanga yoga — is that the feel-food drug that was on offer every day was fairly regular. There was an inconsistency for sure in whether or not Charles Anderson was going to love you or abuse you. So that, as I understand dopamine systems, that kind of uncertainty really jacks up the pleasure principle when it hits.
But then there was another mechanism which was called “session”. That was every morning from about 8 till 11. He would start by giving like a rambling sermon about, about the Course in Miracles or, you know, whatever he was thinking about. That would last for about an hour. Then he would have Mitch, one of his main students, play music, like really loud club music. And then we would all get up and Kundalini jitterbug all over the room, arms raised, jumping as high as we could, barking like dogs, smashed in together.
And when I came across this line in Stein’s book, I think she gets it from Hannah Arendt, she talks about like an “airless compression” between people within a totalitarian system. That was exactly it. Like we actually had a mosh pit dance party, which sounds great in some ways, but it was every single day, and you basically had to go, and it was intense physically. It was intense psychologically, and there was so much exertion involved that there was this feeling of like almost blankness for the rest of the day. So there was this stimulation like pseudo-euphoria.
When I saw a hidden camera stuff, footage in Wild, Wild Country where they captured some of what was going on in either in the Oregon ashram or in Poona in India where — did you see that? Where there was the group that sort of fly on the wall group therapy sessions that were, that were violence, you know, physical and sexual assault, you know, cast as therapy encounters. But the daily experience — now that might have been the most intense, pockets of that activity — but the daily experience where people were doing this kind of shaking and speaking in tongues and screaming and crying and all of this extroversion…
I really wish the filmmakers had actually interviewed people about what the impacts of that shit was. Because I know from personal experience that it’s an extremely effective control mechanism that, that nothing matters. You overload yourself with that kind of endorphin rush for a couple hours in the morning, you can’t think for the rest of the day. You’re going to be blank, you’re going to do what you can socially to get by. But really there’s going to be a glaze between you and the next person.
Ever since then, contemplating what the impact was on me. I’ve been fascinated in especially the bodily tactics of high control groups, and that shows up in the work that I do on Ashtanga yoga because the people who ended up being subjugated and assaulted by Pattabhi Jois were also involved in intense, intense physical activity that really lowered their defences. So yeah, that’s a point of fascination for me.
Rachel Bernstein: 15:51
Yeah, I think that there are a couple of things that are really interesting about it. One is that it does take you into a different headspace. There’s no question it exhausts you and exhilarates you at the same time. It sends you also off balance. But also it’s this: when it’s done in a perfunctory way, then it is not something that feels authentic. You’re pushing yourself to do it. Which means that it could have been beyond what your body could tolerate. You might’ve already come from a place of being underslept or underfed and it’s just depleting you more and more, but it leaves you in a confused state because there’s a rush and kind of a giddiness around it at times. And so I think just, it’s another way to keep people off-balance.
Matthew Remski: 16:43
It’s also terribly addictive because if there’s, you know, certain endorphin opiate release, at a high level, at a regular time per day, and that’s also involved in a kind of social contact, but it’s blindered, or it’s not an intersubjective social contact. There’s this sheen between people. It’s like you’re, you’re using each other for the contact high, but you’re simultaneously isolated. It’s really hard to break away from that. And I think, I think it was that daily experience that I held onto longest, actually, long after I realized that Charles Anderson is just, just babbling. Long after I realized that, you know, so a bunch of people are going personally bankrupt, taking out credit card loans to pay for his bullshit. Like I still, I hung onto that, that bodily experience because that was a really powerful drug.
Rachel Bernstein: 17:49
A very powerful drug. Right. And your body accommodates and acclimates to something that happens on a regular basis. So at that time of day, you know, your body can start to crave it or miss it and whether or not it’s healthy anymore. Yeah. And that becomes a confusing message for your system as well. I think also anything that’s done in that multisensory way also has more staying power within our systems afterwards because it was just more input from the experience. But yeah, it’d be interesting to talk to you more about that. And to expand on that. I think to bring us to Ashtanga yoga: first of all, how did you leave this group and then start doing your other research?
Matthew Remski: 18:34
In about 2003. One of the things that Anderson would do is that as that he would finish up session and he would tell Mitch to put the dance music on and, and then he would go upstairs. It was this old hotel, if anybody knows the Wisconsin Dells, it’s like filled with old mobster hotels that are kind of like falling in and you could buy them up in the 80s or whatever for cheap. And so he’d go to his upper room, and his, you know, the inner circle plus the kind of sycophants-du-jour would run up the stairs after him. And I remember, I don’t know why I went up one day, but I remember I was the first one there for some reason. And I knocked on his door and he said, Yeah.
And I came around the corner and it’s just like 1970s-80s hotel room. Totally sort of nondescript. And you know, you open the door and turn the corner and the bathroom is right to the right, just as it would be in a hotel room. And I looked in and I saw him just like, yeah, looking into the mirror, like, What the hell am I doing? He didn’t say that, but it was like: I’m exhausted.
And then I said, I said, Old man? That’s what we called him. And then I literally saw him put his face on back again. He turned, and then he was like, he did his googly eyes and he did his “I see who you are.” But I fucking saw that guy become his persona. And something something snapped in my brain. Something similar happened with, with Michael Roach. So that’s been key for me is to realize that…. To just see this veil crack.
And so anyway, I can’t remember, it wasn’t that long afterwards that I was like just edging away and trying to pull my roots out without breaking them and withdraw, without being amputated and preserve some friendships and preserve the relationship that I was in at the time. And so then there was a long period of waiting on tables and learning yoga and wandering and as I said, I came into yoga because I found it to be a recovery space. I could feel my body as mine again. I remember the first time I rolled over after a class, I looked at my hand and I went, oh, hello, I’m here and I’m, I’m okay. And, and so there was something about, there was, there was something about the very simple instructions that were very powerful to me and, you know, but honestly, it didn’t take that long before I started hearing about, about some toxic dynamics.
I just didn’t want to know though. I didn’t want to hear that much about it and maybe, you know, about eight or nine years into my teaching career, owning two studios by that time, I started to hear more and more stories about not only sexual misconduct and financial shenanigans within various yoga organizations, but then really specifically, “Oh, you know Pattabhi Jois, who is probably responsible for more responsible for the global expansion and commodification of yoga practice then anybody else except for Mr. Iyengar — this guy was understood to be a sexual predator and that he got away with it.”
And that stayed on the level of rumor as far as I was concerned, except that in 2010, one of the women who he assaulted named Anneka Lucas finally published about it 10 years after the assault happened. And you know, people didn’t look at it very carefully, and it kind of disappeared on the website that it was on went under and it took, you know, me actually realizing that I was ignoring the story of a friend of mine. Her name is Diane Bruni here in Toronto. And she had been aware of the sexual assault. She was part of the Ashtanga Yoga world. You know, she told this story and I just, I realized at a certain point that I had not wanted to hear it. And then when I realized that, I was like, Nope, I’m gonna figure this out cause this is extraordinary.
I was particularly taken aback by the fact that it was a mainstream story. I was fearful. I was fearful of the fact that this was not, we’re not talking about some weird leader of some weird group that I was in Wisconsin. We were talking about somebody who had had more influence over this global industry than almost anybody else. And that some key ways in which the postures are practiced, namely that teachers and students have been operating in these spaces of implied consent with regard to touch, that teachers have felt free for the last 20 years to just touch people’s bodies even though they have no training whatsoever in manual therapy or whatever. But that all comes from that guy. And others, but very strongly from that guy.
And he was adjusting people. He was adjusting women, primarily, so that he could sexually assault them. And he was adjusting men, I would argue, primarily so that he could physically assault them. People do say they had wonderful experiences being, being adjusted by him. But then, you know, if you scratch the surface, they’ll also describe being hurt or being an utter terror and, you know, somehow willing themselves to, to feel better about it. So I dug up Anneka Lucas’s story and then another writer on another journalist named Elizabeth Kadetsky said, “You should try to get in touch with Karen Haberman, ’cause she might have a story to tell. But Karen Haberman has changed her name.”
I had to do this detective work to find her. I phoned her out of the blue. If people look her up, she’s actually become, through her own activism, one of the most prominent voices in the yoga reform movement, even though she doesn’t really care about the yoga world anymore.
So about three years of making connections like that, slowly put me in touch with a total of 16 people who gave testimony as to having been assaulted by Jois over a 30 year period. And I think that, just to return to like my main fascination is that this is somebody with like mainstream, mainstream, mainstream influence. I remember when I pitched the feature article that got published to The Walrus, my pitch line was this is the Harvey Weinstein of Yoga. I said, except that nobody thought of Harvey Weinstein as being a spiritual master. But what I really wanted to convey to the public and in part through this book was that, you know, in an unregulated industry in which people are seeking physical, emotional, and perhaps therapeutic and sometimes spiritual benefits, we have to look at where the material comes from really carefully. We have to look at who’s behind it, who’s created it, what kind of, what kind of power dynamics have created this teaching structure that has now spread across the world. So this is not to say that everybody who’s engaged in modern postural yoga is somehow abusing people. It’s still going to be a minority, a very small minority. But hopefully the work starts to expose that minority. And
Rachel Bernstein: 27:29
That would be really quite wonderful because you know, I hear about different yoga organizations run by people who were brought up on different charges, others where it really stays under the radar and you don’t really know about them until you get involved. And then it turns out, you know, Oops! The leader thinks he’s the messiah, like it wasn’t in the brochure.
Matthew Remski: 27:54
Right. Yeah. And there’s a basic safety issue involved too with regards to the dishonesty of groups that harbor abuse histories. So some of what I’m doing, not only in the book but also as a consultant, is trying to figure out and then also call out people who are basing their authority for their spiritual content upon an organization that has an abuse history, but not being clear with that and not showing the public: Okay, well this is how I’ve actually understood it, or this is how I’ve interrogated the power dynamics, that I actually don’t want to replicate.
You know, some of your listeners would probably know of a popular writer here in Canada named Doctor Gabor Maté, who’s a GP but has written a lot about trauma and adverse childhood experiences and addiction and stuff like that. He has a program that he collaborates on with another teacher and it seeks to bring Yoga practices into his addictions recovery program, or he lends support to a program that’s called Beyond Addiction. And the yoga portion is provided by members of the Kundalini Yoga Group. And, you know, this is a group with a really problematic history that — because I don’t think Dr. Maté investigated it — they just sort of get a free pass into providing services ostensibly for traumatized people. And then anybody attending these programs, however, can Google “Kundalini cult” or “Kundalini Yoga abuse”. And then suddenly they realize they’re in a training program in which somebody is promoting the benefits of the ideas and the practices they got from somebody who was clearly either unethical or an abusive person.
And then we have to wonder about, Okay, well what else are they passing on? Or has that history been digested in any kind of transparent way? So I think that’s going to be a big growth industry actually: people in the Yoga and Buddhism worlds figuring out: Oh, I learned this stuff and some of it was really helpful to me and I teach it, but I also learned it from a very problematic place and from a problematic person, you know, whose failures conscious or unconscious — and perhaps their crimes — I certainly don’t want to either rationalize or normalize or elevate or just not look at. So yeah, I think transparency is going to be the keyword of the next 30 years of the Yoga and Buddhism worlds.
Rachel Bernstein: 30:59
And I think it’s a very important thing also for there to be some sort of system of checks and balances. You know, with so many of these groups that don’t have a kind of an overarching governing body, then anything can happen without oversight. And so how do you set that up without it being kind of a police state? But still where there’s somebody to call if something happens and that they do something to protect you. I feel like that needs to be more set in place and I’m glad that you’re, you know, you’re talking about this transparency. What’s also interesting, I’m sure you found is that some people care about that more than others. When they hear that there’s a group that has kind of a checkered history or a leader that has a checkered history, they might say, that’s enough for me to not want to be involved in other people saying, yeah, but the practice really feels good. Or I really like it.
Matthew Remski: 31:51
And the dividing line might be really trauma awareness, either of the person’s own history… Nobody has an easy go of it, but if you don’t identify as having a trauma load, you might be in that latter category of like, well, I’m going to take what I can. But if you do know a little bit of what you carry, then I think that transparency is going to be more important. And I think it means that those who are aware of their trauma loads are really the canaries in the mine for everybody else. To use the phrase of a friend of mine, Theo Wildcroft, who says that in order to create a really safe space it has to be safe for the most vulnerable person there. It would be good if we could start holding ourselves to that ideal.
But it’s difficult because Yoga and Buddhism, like life coaching, are all unregulated. And they’re resistant to regulation, not just because people want to continue to be under the radar, but also because at least in the yoga world, the discourse is heavily Americanized. There’s a very characteristically American approach to keep your hands off of my spirituality: this is my private stuff. That’s a factor too.
Rachel Bernstein: 33:24
Right? So how does strike a balance so that it’s not tampered with and there isn’t so much of that kind of regulatory force where it doesn’t work anymore as kind of a spiritual endeavor. Because it’s too tense, but also that there are safeguards because that has been lacking. I’m really glad that you’re pinpointing the problems, the pitfalls. And I am curious as we finish up: What have you found, what have you found that you’ve learned just in terms of the vulnerability that we all have and why we might have it. I know we touched on it a little bit, but you’ve done so much research and you’ve talked to so many people. I’m just curious about your insights as we finish up.
Rachel Bernstein: 34:17
This book that’s coming out just wouldn’t exist without the bravery of the women who were able to find a voice to speak about how they were abused within this group. Learning how to listen to that experience has, I almost want to say, it’s become a kind — it’s suggested a different type of spirituality to me. When I tried to put myself in the place of somebody like Karen Rain who has taken 20 years to recover from these daily assaults, I realize something about how much care people actually need and how much support they need. Not care directly from me. But structural support and how important it is for people to be believed when they describe their trauma experiences and how important it is for people to be advocated for.
When the prevailing ideology of the culture is to blame the victim for having been so stupid, for staying, or to foster this belief that your freewill and your common sense should have just turned you away from that toxic environment and why didn’t it? These are all really ignorant responses that lead me back to something that Anneka Lucas actually told me in the first interview that we did with her about her story. And this has always stuck with me. She said “I believe that we can recognize the trauma of other people to the extent that we recognize that we ourselves have been traumatized.” That’s become a mantra for me.
So by listening to Karen, in making a lot of mistakes, you know, screwing up a lot, interrupting her or you know, whatever I’ve done over the last couple of years of interviewing, I have been able to understand something more about my own experience and I’ve also stopped being afraid, I think, of the fact that the traumatized person is somehow a danger to my sense of order in the world. My friend Theo Wildcraft says that society regards the trauma victim or the cult survivor, we could say also, as a contagious. If you really take on their story, if you really go into: Oh, this is how you were completely overwhelmed, this is how you were totally taken over and this is the profound material and perhaps unchangeable effects that you’ve experienced. If you really go into that as a listener, you might both have to connect with your own experience of that or you might have to start asking questions about the whole thing. You might have to start asking questions about all of your relationships, about all of the systems of power that you participate in. And I think that’s very profound and I’m not so scared of that any more. I wouldn’t say I’m free of the fear of questions, but I’m certainly more free than I have been.
Rachel Bernstein: 37:34
That’s all very beautiful. And I think it’s so important that we’re talking about people who have been through trauma and then they’re retraumatized by being sequestered in that kind of group of people who might do us harm or might give uncomfortable insights that we’re not quite ready for many things, but it is very true. And to not be afraid of it, to be able to kind of protect yourself along the way. Finding ways to do that so that you can invite their experiences into your world and their pain into your world without taking you over. I think it’s a nice way of finding that balance of connection to other people in the world and their experiences. Beautiful. I can’t wait for people to read your book. I mean, I wrote down some phrases as you were talking. I can see that you’re a wordsmith. I wrote down, “Kundalini jitterbug” and “sycophants du jour”. They were great. And when I hear one of those little nuggets, you know, I have to write it down. But that is a, it’s really great to be able to talk to you. I know you have many more stories, so hopefully we can, we can speak again and not only more stories but more insights and just in terms of your own way of kind of navigating so many different realms and worlds and trying to be open to things and, and that in healthy environment that’s wonderful and inunhealthy environments, you’re damaged and hurt and you can be deprived of openness, which is really a such a crime to the people who are just there with their open mind and open heart. But thank you so much and tell people also where they are going to be able to find your book.
Matthew Remski: 39:10
So the book is being published by Embodied Wisdom Publishing, but the announcements for it will be all over my Facebook page. I’ve, there’s an author’s page and there’s my personal page. But my website homepage is going to have a preorder button for it. It’s just my name is matthewremski.com And it’s March 14th that it’s dropping. And then who knows? There’s a whole storm after that. I don’t know what my life was going to look like after that, so we’ll see. Yeah.
Rachel Bernstein: 39:44
Busy. Yeah, it’ll be, it’ll be and good. And you’re going to, it’d be, you’re going to be hearing a lot more of people’s stories, you know, and it’s good to be prepared for that ahead of time, but it’s really wonderful, you know, it’s a nice thing to not feel that your experience was so sort of terminally unique and that you don’t have to feel isolated with it. It happens.
Matthew Remski: 40:06
And that’s where I just have to thank you again because, because you’re, the sharing of the stories that you do is so profoundly helpful. And it’s part of a kind of a golden age I think in that is dawning in cult studies and research and transparency so you’re a big part of that. Thank you so much for your work.
Rachel Bernstein: 40:24
Thank you. Thank you for your nice words. It was a pleasure to talk to you.
Matthew Remski: 40:27
All right. All right. I’ll talk to you soon. Thanks a lot Rachel.
“Those Wounds Are A Kind Of Ink.” Conversation with Rachel Bernstein on IndoctriNation Podcast (Pt. 1)
I’ve been an avid follower of Rachel Bernstein’s IndoctriNation podcast for a year now. She’s doing something very unique and healing in the cult-studies sphere: using her therapy and counselling chops to create really intimate and relaxed interviews with survivors and researchers. I’ve learned a ton from it. Please consider supporting her work by subscribing to the podcast via Patreon.
So I was honoured to be invited on as guest, and wasn’t surprised to be as at-ease as her other guests sound. This is the first part of our conversation.
Rachel Bernstein: 01:18
I want to welcome Matthew Remski to the show today. I am so happy to have him on. He and I had been dialoguing back and forth about a project that he is working on that he’s going to talk about, and also about his experiences and that he is really wonderful at doing community education and good prevention work. So it’s an honor to have you on today.
Matthew Remski: 01:41
Thank you so much Rachel. Actually the honor is mine. Your podcast has been really helpful for, so many listeners, but for me personally, it’s been a really healing thing to be able to see how all of the threads tie together. So thank you for all of that.
Rachel Bernstein: 01:57
Oh, you’re welcome. You’re welcome. My pleasure. I’ve been enjoying doing it and so it’s been fun also because then I get to meet people who are doing this kind of work and talk to you also about your own particular experiences. And so as I often start, I know you’re busy with your book and all of that, but what do you do at other times?
Matthew Remski: 02:17
At other times? That’s a good question. What’s new for me is that — actually, this is very new, so it might be premature to say — I have made a commitment to start taking care of myself a little bit more concertedly. Especially after finishing up with this book that’s about to be published in March. It’s taken about three years, and it’s taken a toll. And you know, at a certain point I realized Oh, I’ve really trained myself to sleep no more than four hours at a time. And, and I’m not exercising as much as I should. And, I’m really fulfilled by this work, but it also feels compulsive. And, so yeah, I’ve slowed down a little bit. I’ve decided not to take on any new work for the next two months. I’ve got two months before the launch date. There’s still a bunch of book details to take care of, but I’m not taking on anything new, trying to spend a little bit more time with my family. We have two little boys.
And also just really taking stock of the fact that working in the cult analysis field as I have been doing has been stressful in a number of ways related not just to the material and to the energy that it takes to hear the stories and to begin to put them together and to process, but also how they trigger my own memories. And so that’s been a strange thing to realize that I’ve been doing this work not only to do the work because I think it’s the right thing to do, and because I have some facility with it, but also because it’s been personally meaningful to me and there has been some recovery aspects in there. But also it’s re-triggered in certain ways and actually it does, you know, I might talk about it later, but there’s a project that I’ve actually had to put on hold a little bit because it’s directly related to one of the groups that I was in, from 96 to 2000.
Rachel Bernstein: 04:23
I want to hear your history. Just talking a little bit about that, about being re triggered. Something that I talk to my clients about is taking the material in bite size pieces. You know, just chewing on a little bit, checking in, seeing if you’re okay. Just sort of keeping sure that you have people around. Daytime is probably easier to do reading also just in general when you feel like you might get triggered. But just to stop when you feel like it’s getting to be too much, put it down. You actually have a really nice way of presenting that in the book that I got to.
Matthew Remski: 04:58
Well that’s the thing, isn’t it? This whole section on self care while reading this book, very somber advice. I hope it is useful for readers, but I think it was maybe proofing that section for the third or fourth time that I was like, Oh, I haven’t done any of these things. I do have outside support and I have, you know, I have access to good reality checking, but yeah, it’s when this material becomes a job and something else takes over, self care is hard to negotiate. I’m sure you find that yourself.
Rachel Bernstein: 05:35
Yeah. And I was thinking as you were reading over it and going over these wonderful ideas that you were sharing with other people for how to manage the information and you hadn’t done any of it yourself. I have that a lot when I’m giving sage advice clients and I’m thinking “That’s actually not a bad idea!”
Matthew Remski: 05:52
And it might’ve been something that you actually did a number of years ago and it worked you and we can forget that stuff too.
Rachel Bernstein: 06:01
And also I think the time feels limited. Like we want to use our time for the other, and don’t think about using those things for ourselves cause we’re crafting how to help the other person. But it is a really good opportunity to check in and make sure you’re doing self care along the way. I’m always curious about what prompts people to have their experiences and then turn it into an opportunity for education and prevention and why that was important for you.
Matthew Remski: 06:31
I didn’t decide for it to be important to me. I think it emerged out of a re-adoption of writing practice as a kind of self care practice after, well, a number of years after I left the second group that I was in. In both of the cults I was recruited into, there was a real emphasis placed upon techniques for meditation and contemplation that would empty the mind or somehow rewrite your thoughts with mantras or with the ideology of the group, or that the empty non-conceptual state of whatever-whatever was actually the ideal state for the human being to be in. So that was really valued. And prior to that I had been a compulsive writer from my early teenage years. And one of the biggest realizations of how deeply I was influenced by these two experiences was that I probably stopped writing for a decade.
That’s kind of astonishing for me to think about because writing is not just about content production or research for journalism. For me, it’s also about the creation of an orderly world that I can begin to contemplate with a kind of safety and distance. And so, you know, when I finally started writing again, first of all, I felt blank. And I knew that wasn’t right and I had to… and there was something about the screen too, you know… When I had stopped writing, I had been using a laptop and then when I started, you know, well there’s the laptop and it’s updated, it’s a new version, but it’s still a screen and there’s something very bright and aggressive about the screen that was difficult for me to connect with. When I called up a new document and it was blank, that kind of reinforced this feeling of blankness that I had from the meditation practices and the various cognitive distorting techniques that had been used.
Then I had this — I don’t know how I figured it out… I think actually it was watching my stepdaughter drawing — she’s an incredible artist — and I realized: Oh, I actually want to write with my hand, something material. And I got a big notebook and I began to write that way again. Just sort of personal, internal stuff, but I did it in cursive and there was something about connecting the words together. Is cursive an American word? Connecting the words together, and then I would challenge myself to not let the pen leave the page. And that created a kind of like internal consistency to the fact that I had a voice. And so it started taking off from there.
And then I kind of got back into some of the types of writing that I had done before as a cultural critic and as a theorist. And I did some yoga philosophy as I got into the yoga world. At a certain point when I began realizing that this apparently benign culture was not only totally unregulated, but it was also filled with its own sort of cultic patches. I just started teaching myself how to report on that stuff and I don’t have any journalism training, but I’ve had some really good mentors and I feel like I know how to do a lot of it now. But because writing was always like part of a recovery process for me, it’s not like I could ever say that reporting or doing journalism on cultic dynamics was going to be objective or unbiased from my point of view. Like there’s two things: I can’t extract myself from a material that I cover, but I also realize that that if I did, I think I would amputate content of a lot of it’s passion. I feel like I’m playing a little bit of a line there where I am personally invested in, I am healing wounds by writing about cultic dynamics. But at the same time, those, those wounds are a kind of ink.
And so then the final, the final problem, which may be coming to a resolution or it might be short lived, is that I’m realizing I just don’t do have to do so much of it. I don’t have to do it so fast and I don’t have to keep on top of everything. Yeah.
Rachel Bernstein: 11:44
It’s nice. It’s nice when you realize that, that you can keep kind of a things in balance, kind of a good homeostasis that you don’t have to feel pressured. I like the idea of writing in cursive. I think there are a lot of people of a certain generation who don’t know what that word means, but I think it’s starting to come back.
Matthew Remski: 12:05
Hopefully. And I wanted to write to Janja Lalich about it because she has a whole bit and one of her books about how a recuperative writing can be for the cult survivor and for many of the reasons that I’ve discussed, but I just wanted to flag that little bit for her. I don’t know if she’s heard that before. That there was something kinetic or somatic about it for me as well.
Rachel Bernstein: 12:38
It makes sense. Also the curse of that. It’s this continuity, and that you, I think you want to be able to feel more connected to your story, to you, especially when you’ve been in situations with a lot of meditation and a lot of feeling disconnected and in ways that I’m sure you’re going to talk about.
Matthew Remski: 13:02
Well if you have a beautiful page and you have ink and you’re connecting your letters and your words together, there is a real bias towards “first thought, best thought”. And you know, it’s just really, really easy to use the delete key on the laptop or the desktop. And I think that there’s a discouragement from editing and that was really important because I think I was taught over six years or so and then in the aftermath afterwards to basically distrust everything that I thought,
Rachel Bernstein: 13:32
Okay, and so the healing part for you about being able to get it out and, yes, journaling, writing, also having your information be your information. That no one else has access to it, right? Until you decide that they have access to it in the end. That they’re not going to be able to use it in the same way that it was used before: usually against you or forced out of you. Just being able to have some control over what is your information I think is very important.
Matthew Remski: 13:59
Absolutely. I mean the first high-demand group that I was in was led by a guy who is still around. His name is Michael Roach. I don’t have any problem naming him because I’ve written about him in a number of different places. He’s still doing his thing. People can look it up that part of his community fell apart when one of his students died because, well that’s a long story. But it was severe institutional neglect involved and a failure to care for this person.
But one of the practices that he had us do in this kind of neo-Buddhist set of rituals was to journal, but in a confessional sense. The journaling would be a six times a day that write down your relationship with one of about 200 vows that you had taken. And they’re standard vows, they’re not vows to him, but their vows that he interprets, and some of them are about: Did you think ill of your teacher or did you speak poorly of your colleagues? Or were you basically a critical thinker? And so the writing that I was able to do was confessional, right? So it was kind of like the thing that was precious to me was was actually flipped and inverted, and that had a lasting impact. I think my tendency for a while was to think about primarily what the reader wanted to get from me rather than rather than representing my own, my own internal agency.
Rachel Bernstein: 15:54
Yeah. And that writing is so much about: Are you keeping to the rules and it’s also so formulaic, right? Which is really not how writing should be when it really comes from the heart. But that wasn’t at all about your heart. It was really like you were making sure that you were going over the checklist and doing things right.
Matthew Remski: 16:16
Well, that’s one of the, one of the things, I mean, you said, you say that that’s not about your heart. That’s true. And I think one of the most deceptive things about cults that take on religious content is that they will tell you that it is about your heart, right? I don’t know that the political cult or the psychotherapy calls is able to do that, or the business cult is able to do that and quite as cynical or ironic a way. So your instincts often get scrambled, I think, in these situations is the thing that you are told to do that’s for your own spiritual care is actually the opposite of what you need for spiritual care.
Rachel Bernstein: 17:04
And it happens in almost every group and also the reason for it is turned around also to lower your defenses to doing it if you feel like it’s for your benefit. It also gives you this false sense that your leader is this benevolent person who is helping you get more in touch with you.
Matthew Remski: 17:31
Right. Yeah. Which is something that I believed for, you know, I would say the first year or so of my recruitment into Michael Roach’s group. There was something very personally attractive to me about him. And it had to do with the fact that I think I identified with him as somebody who had, you know, separated off from his family and had completely changed his culture and had basically become fluent in Tibetan, although we’re not quite sure about that. And had created a kind of like alternative fantasy-avoidant life that I admired at first and that, and that gave me a sense of relief from other emotional stresses and relationships. So it was quite a shock to realize that this guy actually isn’t capable of caring for others. Or at least not in a way that isn’t grandiose or self-serving or programmed in some way.
Rachel Bernstein: 18:54
And I think that brings as to this next point about this idea of being able to write about these things with no, you know, really portraying that there’s no blame, no shame that you were saying that if you realize that the person who was the puppeteer basically is someone who has a personality disorder, someone who really has a deficit, someone who’s really a troubled person, then it, it helps take it off of you, right? A lot more where you say: Oh, I got into this well oiled machine of manipulation. I didn’t know what was happening. And, and this is something that can happen to people. And so tell me a little bit about that message, about not feeling shame, not blaming. I’m sure that sensitivity for you probably comes out of having been treated that way or assumptions being made about you and how you were able to turn that around for people, for their perceptions.
Matthew Remski: 19:58
I think that the moment where the penny dropped was in working on this book early on, I interviewed a researcher named Cathleen Mann. And she just said over the phone, she said, you know, “No one joins a cult.” I said, wait, what do you mean by that? And she said, “People delay leaving organizations that misrepresent themselves.” And I can’t remember what the rest of the interview was like because I was just stuck on that. I was like, “Oh deception is the kicker here. It’s the thing that actually really does — I would say from the perpetrator’s side as well because it’s very difficult to the extent to which they’re deceiving themselves, and that’s a deep possibility — but you know, from the victim/survivor standpoint, the fact that there was no defence against you being given credible, wrong stuff.
Like there is no defence against you being falsely impressed by a show of authority. It happens to everybody. The people that I was with in both of these groups came from all walks of life, all levels of education. There was no bullshit detector that these guys couldn’t get around in some way. Now, there was a lot of people who didn’t buy in. Of course they would come a couple of times and they would leave. But for those of us who stayed, we stayed because we were deceived and that utterly deconstructs the shame of the lost time, the sunken costs, the cognitive dissonance that you have to recover from. I think that was a very, very powerful idea.
And then I must’ve, I must’ve cried three or four times reading Dan Shaw’s beautiful book, Traumatic Narcissism. It’s speculative because it’s psychoanalytic and he’s going from personal experience but then reporting on his client reports, but you know his portrayal of the leader as somebody who is utterly terrified that their extraordinarily fragile sense of self is not going to be fed in precisely the way it needs to be in order for them to survive… There was something very tender about that.
But I also find that that’s a private bit of therapy for me too, because as an activist journalist, I don’t want to focus on that too much. Because one of the things that happens with these charismatic characters is that they get all the limelight. I also find that like when I’m studying, when I’m researching Pattabhi Jois, who this book is about, coming out in March, that one of the biggest obfuscating questions to really making it public and driving home the fact that this guy sexually assaulted women for 30 years straight in public, in his yoga classes… people would always say, Well, you know, what was his intention? You know people would say, Well, did he have an erection?, Or: What did he really mean? And I’m like, we’re spending a heck of a lot of time talking about the intentionality of a predator. And not a lot of time at all talking about what the survivors actually have to say.
Dan Shaw’s work has been really powerful for me in relieving the stress of the animosity that I bore towards the two leaders of the groups that I was in. But at the same time, you know, sometimes people have to feel animosity to be for to get free.
Rachel Bernstein: 24:04
Yeah, I think so. Especially after being in situations where you’re not allowed to have anger and resentment and animosity. Where your ability to really protect yourself and have the spectrum of your emotions that are built into your system, but that there happened to be some that threatened that fragile ego of the leader. And so they’re demonized, or you’re diagnosed as having something wrong with you if you exhibit them or feel them. All the more reason for you to be able to then share this proof that you were a free person by saying, This really pisses me off. And I have right to feel that way. It’s a gauge about how wrong it was and how something did happen to you that was not okay. And I think it’s a very important thing to have that register.
Matthew Remski: 24:59
There’s a story that’s coming to mind that is actually really beautiful and to me as part of this process of being able to be angry. So the bare bones of my history from 96 to 2000, I’m in Michael Roach’s group, and then as you know, not uncommon with people who are in high-demand groups, when that was severed, because I realized this person is not who they say they are and they are manipulative, and all of the things that I could see very clearly all at once. I had nothing. I had my relationship. I didn’t have a career, I didn’t have money. I had a friend back in Vermont who had said, Oh, Endeavor academy in Wisconsin was where I had one of the most profound experiences of my life. I can’t remember where I phoned him from, but it was like a pay phone somewhere. And I said, How do I find this place? And, you know, a few months later I’m in another group.
That goes till 2003 or so, and then like yoga was something that was just sort of around. The boom started to happen in around 2003, 2004. And as I got out of the second group, you know, here’s this like unregulated industry that’s kind of related to the spiritualities that I’ve been studying and you know, you can get a training in it and 200 hours and you know, open a yoga studio. And so I was like, okay, well that’s, that’s what I’m going to do. And not knowing at all how much I would have yet to learn of course. When I started getting back into my own body, my own flesh through the yoga postures and breathing, this was great, and you know, I didn’t really see it first that this is an environment in which this stuff happens as well. That’s part of the reason that it took me so long to begin to see cultic dynamics in the yoga world, because I had come to yoga as a recovery phase.
But one of the things that I did is I got more and more into yoga and Indian wisdom culture as I started studying things like Ayurveda and Jyotish or Vedic astrology. And I had a teacher, who is a peer of mine. He’s my age. We share a background. We share a lot of characteristics and what I’ve realized since is that he too was coming out of high-demand groups at the same time and in this thrust towards: Let me find something authentic for myself, within this same field…
He had like highly educated himself in Sanskrit and in a number of texts and he had become a really good independent scholar of Indian wisdom culture. But also a very devotional person, and that’s where we were different. Our relationship was very close and then there was friction between us. And then I started publishing not well-researched pieces, but \ blog pieces on the creepy feeling that I would get when I went to a particular yoga ashram. There’s a restaurant here in Toronto called Annapurna that has been open since like 1970-whatever where devotees of Sri Chinmoy work for pennies on the dollar, a serving very low protein food, but smiling like all the time. And I think I wrote something snarky about Annapurna.
And so my friend, this guy who was teaching me, he was just incensed like: These, are good people. They haven’t hurt you. They’re not doing anything wrong to you. You are turning them into children. Why are you so insulting? And we were standing on the street and I said Look, there’s something off here. There’s some power dynamic that is not right. There is something that feels wrong to me.
And the argument escalated and it was like, it was one of the most beautiful June days I can ever remember in my life. And this is a friend, and it’s hard to make friends after you come out of high-demand groups. And I had made this friend and we were yelling at each other at the top of our lungs on the street corner, under this beautiful shining sun. And then it was just, it was like, Screw you! and Screw YOU!
And then I got on my bike and when I got home I had a mystically quiet, still, warm experience of: Oh, I can be angry about what happened to me, and I don’t have to believe anything that anybody wants me to believe anymore. And I’m not beholden to anybody and I’m just here. I remember it was almost like… I was wondering whether people ever converted to being atheists and they felt some mystical experience, right? Where all of this stuff that they had formerly believed in just kind of melted away. And along with all of the feelings of guilt and shame that kept them trying to appease whoever they were serving at the time, you know. But there was something about the rage, under the sky. We could have been locked up, right? And so there was something about that surge of rage that I was able to share with a friend.
Rachel Bernstein: 32:06
I think it’s very, very powerful for a lot of reasons. Sometimes it’s also cumulative. so sometimes you kind of deposit it on a friend really from a lot of different things. But a friend could say, Oh, whoa, you know, slow down, sparky. Let’s, okay, let’s try to figure out where this is coming from. But I think that, you know, what is really important about that, I mean, it’s also ironic that he said that you’re talking about them like children because Sri Chinmoy I actually called his followers boys and girls, and he was the father. At the same time being able to have your anger. Then when you were saying that you wonder if people who become atheists have that moment: I think anytime you have something that feels like an epiphany that comes with this openness to a new idea that also comes with relief. Yes. You’re going to have that moment that feels transcendent, and feels really good in the way that it connects with our brains and the chemicals that are released. So yes, I, I’m glad that you had that. Sounds like it was a really good, important and kind of watershed moment.
Matthew Remski: 33:21
It was absolutely a watershed moment. There was, as I said, this falling away of the guilt and shame that kept me in an appeasing or deferential relationship to this whole series of structures. But then also this sense as I sat in my study and this sun was coming through the window that I was okay. Like I didn’t have to work at this internal self anymore. Like I was just okay, No more mantras, no more studying, no more trying to figure out the patterns of the stars. No more trying to hone my intuition so that it could mirror that of the charismatic master. I just didn’t have to do it. It was very relieving. Then there’s other cycles of stress that started up as part as part of the recovery process.
Rachel Bernstein: 34:23
And then the freedom, also stress that comes with a certain amount of freedom that you are not used to, that has its own stressors that I think people are not quite ready for, even though it’s better to be free than not. But still, it’s good to have a little prep for how that feels at first. I’m just curious also before this Michael Roach’s group, so just in like little bite-size piece, tell us a little bit about where you grew up and your family and kind of what was leading you potentially into your first group. And then I want to certainly hear more about the experiences that prompted your book.
Matthew Remski: 35:03
I grew up here in Toronto, middle class background. I think a very defining feature of my childhood was a very retrograde orthodox Catholic boy’s school education that featured a lot of physical and emotional abuse. I think that one way that I’ve very naturally normalized it was through spiritualizing it. So I remember associating very clearly the gore of Catholic iconography with a sense of the necessity of suffering. That was a very early equation for me. There was something too about, as boys, we were all to sing and to make music. So it was Saint Michael’s Choir School here in Toronto. And one of the things that I think also made its way into my wiring was this connection between aesthetic beauty and pain, or aesthetic beauty and cruelty. Pretty typical Catholic stuff, but I think ramped up in a way for somebody who grew up in the 70s that I think was kind of odd. Especially in Canada for the most part Catholic schools just weren’t like that. This was a real throwback. So that kind of set me apart.
My mother had master’s degree in English and was an English teacher in high school. And so I was surrounded by, you know, great books, and I read, Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen way too early. And then I heard him sing “Joan of Arc” when I was like 15 years old at three o’clock in the morning on the CBC. Whenever that album was released, with Jennifer Warnes. And you know, here’s this like male voice talking about consuming the heroine in bursts of love and light. I would like to blame the late Leonard Cohen for further spiritualizing or rationalizing my Catholic ideology. Because, because that was, that was a really potent moment for me where it was not just that it was virtuous to associate beauty with pain, it was also aesthetic, it was also beautiful. I was early to leave home. I went through probably a number of bouts of undiagnosed clinical depression and then I had a series of idiopathic major seizures over the period of about six months when I was 21 or 22. Um, and I associated those seizures, uh, two with a kind of mystical experience. This is something I’d love to talk to Yuva Laor sometime about because I know he does a lot of study on the relationship between the charismatic figure and religiosity and epilepsy.
Rachel Bernstein: 38:58
If anyone wants to study temporal lobe epilepsy and what it does. I mean it is fascinating.
Matthew Remski: 39:07
It’s funny, listening to your conversation with him reminded me of Geschwind Syndrome because I don’t have a diagnosis but I map pretty closely on to two of the three common characteristics. And one is hyper religiosity, but it’s not of the type that is like devotional, but you know the person will present like an outside interest, intellectual interest in things religious. Then the other thing is hypergraphia or nonstop writing. So this is a period of six months or so that the seizures took place and hey haven’t happened since, but something happened during that time. It was also a time of profound social isolation. And that’s kind of the bridge into, you know, into the group for sure. Thin social ties, living away from home in a different country.
TO BE CONTINUED…
The moderators at r/ShambhalaBuddhism kindly invited me to do an AMA on March 20, 2019. Here’s my opening comment, followed by the questions and answers that I worked on for about a week prior to the event. I’ve edited slightly and left out secondary exchanges. The whole thread can be found here.
Two things off the top:
Firstly: I’ve worked on these answers throughout the week, as they’ve come in. The reports from An Olive Branch were released yesterday. I’ve scanned them but not in enough detail to better inform my answers where appropriate. If it’s useful, I may return to these answers later to add citations from the reports. On first glance, it’s clear that the reports offer compelling evidence for what many Shambhala survivors have been saying for about a year now: that the organization’s dubious claims to spiritual lineage are eclipsed by the shadow of intergenerational trauma and abuse. Shambhala members are going to have to start asking whether the former was a fiction that functioned to cover over the latter.
Secondly: a comment on positionality. Predictably, my credibility has already been targeted by a meme, published Saturday by #oceanoftruememing on Instagram. It’s so strange and goofy that I’ve made it into my Facebook profile picture.
The meme is incoherent, as I’ve come to expect from cult apologists, who are not to be blamed for not being able to think clearly.
It makes me out as a critic of hierarchy, but suggests I can’t be trusted because I don’t have the proper credentials. Therefore: if I was higher on the credential hierarchy, I’d be more trustworthy as I criticized hierarchy. Erm. No amount of sadhana will make this make sense.
If you pull hard enough on this thread of fixation that high-demand group members have with credentials, you’ll wind up at an intractable knot of anxiety about whether anything they themselves have been taught is valid or useful. The yoga and Buddhism worlds are wracked by authority crises: this is not an “unfathomable” mystery, given the prevalence of cults. It’s a lot easier to attack whistleblowers than to look seriously at the foundation of your beliefs and commitments, than to begin to imagine how deep a deception might go.
oceanoftruememing is correct: I. Have. No. Credentials. Why? Because I lost six formative years of my life in cults, and about a decade after that recovering from them. I’m sure I could have been an academic. But while others were doing grad school in Religious Studies departments that taught them to study cults as “New Religious Movements” instead of social dominance hierarchies, I was living in them. That’s where I work from. So for the record: I am not a dharma teacher, a meditation guide, a psychologist, psychotherapist, or an academic. I am a cult survivor who has spent about a decade trying to recover and research and understand what happened to me and so many others. And I’m privileged. My cult-related stress disorders did not inhibit my work and personal life as much as those suffered by many people I know.
Question 1: Is there any future for Shambhala?
Do you think there is any future for Shambhala after such institutional betrayal has taken place at the highest levels of the organization?
Is the future of Shambhala to simply dismantle it and go elsewhere for spirituality, or as some have begun, to engage a reform movement divorced from Shambhala International and engaged in a thorough critique of its founder while continuing its methods?
What role does Naropa University play in all this, given that they have divorced themselves from Shambhala several years ago but still have many overlapping people involved in both Shambhala and Naropa, and that Naropa was founded by Chogyam Trungpa?
Thank you for referencing the work of Jennifer Freyd, which is invaluable in this context. You can read about her research into institutional betrayal here.
Freyd’s preliminary findings on institutional courage are here.
The first thing to say in response to this big question, as well as every other on this page so far, is that survivors of institutional betrayal should be at the front of the line to answer. If they aren’t, the question may encourage a bias towards preservation instead of reform or dissolution. It may draw out answers that prematurely focus on repair instead of reparations. I’m not a survivor of Shambhala institutional abuse or betrayal, so the very structure of this AMA has me speaking out of turn. But I have been personally victimized by similar groups and so I’ll speak with a qualified solidarity that can say:
If spiritual organizations with abuse histories truly listened to their survivors, they would actually learn a thing or two about the actual spirituality the organization has failed to convey.
I believe that no-one in the world knows more about the possibility and danger of spiritual language, concepts, and yearnings than the person who understands that that most precious part of themselves has been manipulated. Yoga scholar Theodora Wildcroft says that trauma survivors are the canaries in the coalmine of the culture. Narrowing her metaphor, I would say that survivors of spiritual abuse are the canaries in the coalmine of the spiritual endeavour. More than anyone, they know where the lies are, and isn’t the whole point of spirituality to stop lying to ourselves?
Okay. So what can be preserved? Throughout the crisis communications, Shambhala representatives have consistently relied on the assumption of shared values, practice goals and emotional affect amongst community members as a fallback source of reassurance. They do this by continuing to silence survivor’s voices with their own concerns for institutional continuity. Simmer-Brown provides consistent examples here. This single line from her recent post should win a gold medal for genteel selfishness:
“And now, the conduct of the Sakyong that has surfaced is definitely threatening the future of the terma.”
Note the passive construction “that has surfaced”, which avoids naming or crediting survivors who spoke out. Note the implication that the real victim of Mipham Mukpo is not the women he assaulted or the Kusung he bit and battered, but the content she is paid to teach.
Beyond Simmer-Brown’s convolutions, apologist blogs, newsletters and comments have been steeped in the rhetoric of faith and connection, even as they address a growing realization of deception and criminal neglect. Many hold up Trungpa’s era and intended legacy as a source for potential renewal. They haven’t been listening to Leslie Hays.
Apologist language functions for some people as a familiar and reliable buffer against the unthinkable: that the organization is and was fatally flawed from inception, and that only a veneer of lies and platitudes has ever held it together.
But I’m not sure how transparency, let alone reform, would be possible without at least thinking the unthinkable.
All Shambhala members have to now grapple with the question of what exactly Chögyam Trungpa had to offer beyond a charismatic mirage of care, confounded by addiction and trauma-related mental illness, and punctuated by interpersonal violence. Today’s Shambhala members have to ask what Trungpa’s most prominent followers were actually supporting, beyond their idealizations of him, the contact-high they got from his grandiosity, and, tragically, their likely addiction to the disorganized-attachment-loop chemistry of seeming love and actual danger flowing from the same presumed caregiver.
When the hagiographies of Diana, Hayward, and Midal are fully deconstructed, what will members conclude about one of Trungpa’s root liturgy coming out of a beer-soaked “retreat” in Bhutan, his phallic “Ashe” stroke revelations being fuelled by cocaine, and his teachings on “spiritual materialism” belied by arguably the most materialist display of pageantry in New Religious Movement history? How will they read Leslie Hays’ forthcoming account of Trungpa “channeling” the mythical kings of Shambhala to help him with daily decisions about regalia design and table manners?
For decades, the smartest talking heads in the room have spun these facts into rationalizations for crazy wisdom. That’s not going to wash anymore.
Similar questions came up all the time in my discussions with Ashtanga practitioners about how to deal with or understand the abuses of Jois and what they mean for his method and those who enjoy it.
Here’s an ugly example of how intractable the problem is: one of Jois’s survivors (Karen Rain, who is emerging as one of the most prominent voices of reform in the yoga world) suggests that Jois may have rigged the series of postures — supposedly sacred and ancient — so that the women practicing them would be in more vulnerable positions more of the time. In other words: this physical liturgy, to which all kinds of mystical benefits are attributed, might actually have emerged so that he could assault more women.
Let’s think about that in Vajradhatu or Shambhala terms: what part of the neo-Buddhist liturgy that members have been practicing might have come from Trungpa’s own obvious need to benefit sexually and financially from his followers? What aspects of that liturgy were then used to serve the silence required by that abuse? In this world, what is Vajrayogini sadhana really about, folks?
This leads to your last question. The influence of the front organizations that legitimize Shambhala as a secular/humanitarian institution MUST be fully studied. Hannah Arendt wrote that the front organization is any seemingly legitimate business, publishing house, or academic institution that provides social cover for the totalitarian group. They often function as “transmission belts” for recruitment, i.e.: you’re not going to get the explicit Shambhala download as an undergrad at Naropa, but hey, here’s someone passing out flyers for the next Warrior Training. It’s just a few blocks away.
Naropa has to be studied as a front for Shambhala. So too does Shambhala Publications, because although they loudly state that they are not technically related to Shambhala International, their entire back catalogue is the Trungpa & Co. library.
Assessing the overlaps between the group and the fronts will take a long time and several PhDs, if anyone is brave enough to supervise the topic. But it’s important, because the impact of entire disciplines like “contemplative psychotherapy” (emerging from Trungpa’s dubious ideas around exposure therapy, but which has of course developed since then) are pervasive in new-age therapy culture. I’d love to see data on how many people graduated from Naropa in CP and then went on to counsel how many people in the apolitical Shambhala values of nurturing sadness, disappointment, tenderness, openness, and many other dispositions that are ill-equipped to form firm boundaries, resist abuse, and foster structural analysis.
A former Ashtanga person asked me in an interview: “How do we avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater?” She was wondering whether the revelations of institutional abuse in the Ashtanga world meant that she had to abandon her beliefs and practice?
After the thousandth time hearing that question, asked with such pain and sincerity , it suddenly occurred to me that the baby isn’t the Ashtanga series — or the Shambhala curriculum or the Scorpion Seal. The baby isn’t the posture, the mantra, the visualization, mandala, the kusung, or the Kalapa house help.
The baby is you.
You are the baby, and if you had a nice bath for a while that’s because you enjoyed the water. But if the bathwater is now dirty, it’s time to get out and dry off. The baby is the goodness you came with, not the “basic goodness” propagandized by the cult as its proprietary content.
But then there’s a darker aspect to consider relating to false attribution of value: maybe the baby embodies the privilege you came with.
If you had a good experience in the cult, how sure are you that it wasn’t a continuation of the male or white or class or intellectual or academic privilege you’ve enjoyed all your life, now framed as spiritual virtue?
To what extent did the cult tell you what the culture at large was already telling you — that you’re special and deserving and smart and can save the world through the goodness of who you naturally are?
Maybe one of the reasons that cults really like to recruit middle-class educated people is because their sense of entitlement can easily be transferred over into the spiritual domain, while their relative sense of invulnerability will blind them to the trauma the cult is causing.
I can’t prove this, but I’m willing to bet that many of those who emerge from a cult feeling mostly unscathed are coming from backgrounds of privilege. And as they reintegrate into the larger society they will hold the party line familiar to every apologist for the middle class: Everyone’s fine, things unfolded as they should, lessons were learned, I still have my 401ks. But if you have PTSD, you don’t say these things.
Question 2: Shambhala and neoliberalism.
I know you’ve touched on this in some blog pieces but speaking a bit theoretically, I wonder what conclusions you’ve reached about if or how yoga and meditation play a role in the property-ization of everything (and especially the body/mind) under neoliberalism.
I think you might be referring to these notes:
I’m not that up on “property-ization” as much as “privatization”, but I’m sure they’re intrinsic. It’s an enormous topic; I’ll try to keep my remarks focused.
IMO, Shambhala’s liturgy and metaphysics present a sophisticated turn on neoliberal spirituality, in which every answer to every structural issue (if it is ever raised) is reduced to the need for enhanced self-improvement efforts.
It’s sophisticated because it inverts the typical consumer affect, and makes members and potential members believe that it’s not about consumption. Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism is a best-seller, after all.
Lululemon dictates tyrannical happiness. Shambhala advocates immersive melancholy. Chip Wilson wants you to lean in to your triumphant self-actualization, while Pema Chödrön, perhaps in echo of Trungpa’s own radiant depression, invites you to lean in to your brokenheartedness.
They are parallel in the sense that the product of both is neither data nor material good, but the reimagined self. They are parallel in that neither provide, nor even gesture at, a structural analysis of health and wellbeing and what prevents it. Both offer pictures of “enlightened society” without analyzing power. Citizenship in both costs a lot of money.
Neoliberalism, like the cultic, is rooted in lies disguised as empowering paradoxes, such as:
The world is one, but you’re on your own, and it’s all up to you.
Abundance or basic goodness is freely available, but you have to actualize it personally, and if you don’t, screw you.
The specific Shambhala takes on these paradoxes include preaching ephemerality while maintaining a fetish for material accumulation and preservation. Or appealing to a pre-Buddhist shamanistic eco-world of coherent oneness (dralas), while offering no publicly visible support to environmental or indigenous causes.
I’ve often wondered whether creation-stage Tantric visualization, as taught within Shambhala and other neo-Tibetan groups, is pathologically ill-suited to a culture that wants us to believe in limitless growth and the myth of the uninhibited individual. It’s a spirituality that wants us to prepare for Tantra by “driving all blames into one”, and then fantasize it by dreaming of a glittering palace or refuge field. What’s the overlap between mandala visualizations and commercials for Sandals resorts?
Shambhala’s neoliberalism is additionally sophisticated in that Trungpa left an elaborate, though symbolic, bureaucracy which seems to yearn for the orderliness he may have never experienced himself internally. (This is a familiar theme: charismatic leaders often seem obsessed with acquiring the exact conditions they cannot fathom having themselves.) So on the surface, Shambhala seems to offer an institutional framework, a structural analysis of human behaviour and relations. But this is confounded by the persistent reversion to personal practice as the baseline of Buddhist participation and identity. It looks like a kingdom, but everyone is all alone.
The relative absence of institutional support or accountability in Shambhala seems to be unconsciously rationalized as a comfort with “groundlessness”. Lack of care is conflated with a kind of desirable altered state. If you’re sufficiently sad and tender about the suffering of the world as it is concentrated and microcosmic in the group itself, you’ll apparently be fine.
Gilles Deleuze has the opposite take: that the gaseous and unrooted quality of transnational late capitalism is dissociative and homeless. So it’s almost like Shambhala took the basic psychosomatic dissociation of the age and tried to rebrand its depression and anxiety as insight into the heart.
They were too smart to make it look too idealized. They don’t use the language of Lululemon to sell you meritocracy and self-responsibility and the idea of an invulnerable body. They’re going to tell you to invite in your sadness, your woundedness: take ownership of these ungraspable things, meditate on them until you are resolved that the world is a melancholic but beautiful place where you can pay to nod off to sad haiku.
To speak to an earlier point, this is not a spirituality of resistance or revolution, even though it sometimes appropriates that very language. Meanwhile, the most basic orderly precepts for Buddhist living in any historical sense — the very precepts that would provide moral anchoring — are nowhere to be found. Buddhists aren’t supposed to drink, right? Does anyone remember this when they get nostalgic over the years-long frat party that was Vajradhatu?
So if you feel that you float alone through this globalized datascape, blown about and disembodied by the winds of marketing and banking, Shambhala seems well-equipped to catch you, love-bomb you, and say, Lean into that confusion and overwhelm, that’s where your treasure lies. I wonder if this is like using an opiate to overwhelm dissociation.
Question 3: How do we talk to each other?
I often feel very uncomfortable within the expressing my feelings and vision about the current situation with Shambhala and the Sakyong.
How could we avoid hurting each other ? How could we stay out of schism and polarization while still maintaining our intuition, critical intelligence and integrity towards our dharma practice?
Wishing us all love, clarity, liberation and inspiration.
Such a hard question. I hope my answer conveys the empathy I feel when I read it.
To start, I think group members have to take care with the first person plural. “How could we avoid hurting each other?” doesn’t identify who the “we” is. The sad fact is that group members have vastly different experiences based upon privilege and abuse exposure. Let’s consider also that people enter and leave groups along different timelines and arcs.
One of the things that high-demand groups do really well is to get members to use the first-person plural, to reinforce the notion that everyone is doing the same thing and feels the same way. They don’t. And often they have neither the opportunity nor language to share their differences. The group doesn’t want them to, and enforces a monochrome view through the elevation of jargon which is never fully explained. In a way, the abstract premise that experience is unitary and shared within the group is reinforced by unquestionable yet entirely vague terms like “basic goodness”. Everyone is supposed to nod in unison, but are they sharing meaning?
Alexandra Stein (a hero of mine) has this to say about the fractured “we” in the cultic organization:
“Contrary to public perception, the key experience of membership in a totalist group is one of isolation, not community or comradeship. The follower is isolated from the outside world; he or she is isolated from an authentic relationship to others within the group – allowed only to communicate within the narrow confines of the groupspeak and rigid rules of behavior; and, due to the dissociation that is created, the follower is also isolated from his or her self, from his or her own ability to think clearly about the situation.” (Stein, A. 2017. 21.)
What about polarization? I believe polarization is inevitable not only where group members have already been triply-isolated as Stein describes, but where the stability of the organization has been built on a shifting set of divisions between those who (consciously or not) enable abuse, and those who suffer it. The schism has already happened, but it hasn’t been visible, because the survivor’s stories have been suppressed. I don’t see any way around conflict when we’re talking about trying to reckon with crucially different experiences of the same organization. I think it’s incumbent on those who (think they) have benefited from a group to take a seat when the survivors of that group begin to speak. Patience is required. As painful as it is to listen to stories that stir waves of disillusionment, no real resolution will come before those stories are heard.
Oftentimes well-meaning members will use their training in “right speech” or “peacemaking” to pre-emptively call for unity or cohesion. I think the task there is for the peacemaker to really ask what the cost is of trying to dodge that discomfort, trying to prematurely mend open wounds. What’s so pernicious about Shambhala jargon is that it weaponizes even this language of leaning into discomfort to promote some kind of post-cognitive blur. Some have figured out how to turn medicine into poison through overdosing.
It also pays to reflect on how the manipulation of spiritual virtues often plays a more active role in silencing victim’s stories to begin with. When I was maintaining Michael Roach’s version of the Tantric vows I was asked to confess to myself any negative or even doubtful thoughts I had about him, six times per day. In that world, merely thinking that something was off in his relationships with women half his age was punishable with a kind of psychological torture. In cases like this, the sense of “we” being all on the same page, or all in this together is coerced.
So how to maintain integrity? This might sound strange but perhaps a diversification of views and expectations is a good place to start. That might mean adding more diverse values to your excellent wish list of “love, clarity, liberation and inspiration”, such as: renewed agency, permission to feel rage, ability to demand accountability, and the opportunity to receive resources.
Question 4: Dharma and social justice.
What affiliation/experience do you have with Shambhala?
How would you characterize the relationship between dharma and social justice?
What advice do you have for those in this community who are reeling from their experience in Shambhala and may feel like they’re de-programming from a cult experience?
I went to a Shambhala programme once at Karme Chöling, and Shambhala literature and members were always hanging around my own neo-Buddhist cult (Michael Roach).
The programme creeped me out. I remember feeling stiff and thinking that it was compulsory to sit up straight and affect a Mona Lisa smile. The liturgy was intensely theatrical in a way that I now associate not with artistry or even magic, but rather false self-ery and defensiveness. I was more attracted to the cult of Michael Roach at the time, maybe because it felt more hippy, less institutionalized. Perhaps it was a timing thing: Roach in those days felt more like Vajradhatu than Shambhala — but inverted, so that faux puritanism was the value, instead of libertinage.
But the groups shared metaphysics and practices, so I’m familiar with what Shambhala members are doing when they do sadhana and keep samaya. The basic neo-Tantric visualization of an idealized world that includes and transforms everything is familiar territory for me. I now recognize that it is extremely vulnerable to bypassing.
I don’t see any concrete and actionable relationship between “dharma”, as practiced by people in Shambhala, for example, and social justice. Obviously the skills and values of social justice as developed from centuries of resources by BLM and #metoo workers, for example, are only nominally foreshadowed by medieval or ancient Buddhist ethics. Nobody who earnestly and effectively practices social justice today got their tools from the Vinaya, from Shambhala, or Rigpa, or Michael Roach, or Pema Chdörön, or Jack Kornfield, or Michael Stone. They got those tools from feminist and subaltern activists who have built a mountain of value largely invisible to the mainstream. Following in the great tradition of new age plagiarism, content producers in modern global Buddhism and yoga are now pilfering that work.
I’d go further and say there’s a real danger in conflating dharma with social justice. One alarming thing that’s coming out of the Shambhala crisis communications right now is a kind of “wokewashing”, where a seemingly newfound concern about racism or colonization or misogyny or patriarchy is being used to deflect, abstract, and change the subject from more obvious issues of institutional abuse. Of course Shambhala and every Global North organization should tackle its white supremacy issue, but there’s no excuse for doing that at the expense of delaying the creation of a reparations fund for people who have been abused in the organization, for example.
Sorry: you don’t get to bypass the stories of Buddhist Project Sunshine with trending virtue-signaling designed to make your donors feel like they’re on some progressive moral high ground.
Having said all of this, there are POC activists in or around Shambhala who really are bringing the goods, and they’ve been doing the work for a long time. They are not virtue-signaling, but virture-generating. I don’t know much about Rod Owens, Angel Kyodo Williams, and Professor Smalls, for example, but it’s clear that they and others are adding immeasurable value to the de-cultification process by showing how it’s intersectional with anti-oppression discourse and the decolonization work that would start to unravel what it means, for example, for Shambhala to have commodified and gentrified Tibetan culture to the extent it has.
There’s something dharmic about Shambhala turning to POC wisdom leaders during a crisis, but also something a little strange about asking them for guidance through a largely white mess. I’m concerned that white liberals find it a little too easy to perform deference to POC activists or indulge in feelings of contrition and piety that avoid the nausea of the cultic. Yes: the issues are all connected, but the wisdom of POC activists shouldn’t be used by cult people change the subject. Isn’t this just another theft?
As to your last question I want to state clearly that I am not a trained therapist and I’m not giving out personal advice. I can, however, share thoughts from my personal experience, my beginner’s understanding of cult analysis literature, and from what I’ve gathered from hundreds of interviews with high-demand group members.
If an ex-member of Shambhala is using the language of cult recovery, that might be a positive first step. Cult recovery discourse can be invaluable for learning about undue influence and restoring agency.
But it also can be cold comfort. Literally. That’s because there’s a large clinical chunk of it that was developed in the early days of the Cold War, and then amplified in the anxious aftermath of Jonestown.
The best support an ex-member can use to supplement the literature is that of secure and trusting relationships, especially with family, if possible, and friends who know them outside of the group context. This can take a lot of work, especially if the group caused or encouraged alienation from family or former relationships. Many groups actively seek to destroy the intimate relations of members.
Remember all those supposedly “crazy wisdom” stories of Trungpa or Tom Rich having sex with whoever they pleased? And now Mipham Mukpo as well. That criminality is never just about narcissistic predation and domination. When the victim of clerical sexual misconduct is intimately partnered at the time, the betrayal that occurs when they are seduced or coerced into sex with the leader also functions to damage or sever the powerful emotional bonds that can serve as a safe haven against the demands of the group. Controlling sex — whether forcing people to have it, or depriving people of it — is cultic tactic 102. (Deception is 101.) If the group can dominate and control the most vulnerable part of your somatic relationality, the eros that dates back to nursing and cuddling, it’s got you.
Securely attached relationships formed outside of the group can provide valuable reality-checking, exposure to language beyond jargon, and emotional expression beyond the group’s legal sentiments. No resource on this is better than the work of Alexandra Stein. If you go to her website she also does qualified recovery counseling. Rachel Bernstein is also excellent, and her podcast IndoctriNation is a powerful resource. You can also call her office at 818-907-0036 for an appointment.
Question 5: How do we heal?
What do you suggest for people that left Shambhala already?
How can we unclutch from it?
Depending upon how long you were involved, the ties can go super deep. In some cases it’s not just the ideology or the practices or even the relationships both real and fantasized with leaders that have to unravel. It’s also major life choices, marriages, career moves, choices to have children or not. There can be huge financial commitments and repercussions.
It’s not just members unclutching from it sometimes, but members figuring out how to get the claws of the organization out of their flesh.
As above, I’ll reiterate that forming or repairing relationships to people outside the group is so helpful.
Also I’ll add that some of the “clutching” — if you feel you’re doing that — can be correlated with cognitive injury. If you’ve been speaking and hearing the “loaded language” (Lifton) of the group for years, your capacity to think and imagine independently might be limited. I’m not a neurologist obviously but it seems clear that is not just a habit or bias in many cases: it’s seems to be an actual form of brain damage. If you’ve ever listened to a group apologist continue the same tape-loop of jargon despite tons of new information coming their way and thought: “They must be insane” — you really might be on to something. Indoctrination is no joke.
In Take Back Your Life, Janja Lalich has a lot of good material on what helps with cognitive injury. Simple things like reading newspapers, listening to NPR, noticing when you use a group term and using a thesaurus to come up with an alternative.
It’s all a lot of work. And the fact that you have to do it might give rise to resentment. Cultic dynamics steal your time and energy and creativity. They destroy families and life savings. It’s valid to be enraged about that.
Question 6: Shambhala and Diamond Mountain.
What do you see as the main points of similarity and difference between Michael Roach/ Diamond Mountain and Shambhala? Can you speak to the question of where it is important to distinguish a given group’s particularity from the ways in which it fits into a larger or more universal dynamic? Thinking of a recent discussion here about The Guru Papers.
Kramer and Alstad really broke the code with that book. If anyone hasn’t read it, please do. They managed something really difficult: they wrote in purely theoretical terms about desperately real modes of manipulation. They didn’t work journalistically to name names, yet they managed enough detail to keep it riveting.
Cult analysis literature provides short and snappy tools for seeing patterns.
However, models are not people, and people will resist being squeezed into them. Rightly so. It doesn’t work to say “All these groups are the same.” Much more effective to say: “We can see similar dynamics at play at Diamond Mountain and in the Kalapa Court.” Don’t give apologists the opportunity to say: “They’re tarring all spiritual seekers with the same brush.”
What I try to do is to maintain a double view. Zoomed-out, the patterns shine. Zoomed-in, the details speak to unique landscapes of yearning, hope, and disillusionment. Those details are super-important for those recovering from the group. Like the peculiar artifacts of a dream, they illuminate how the pattern played out, how it made sense at the time.
On the level of the pattern, we can say that both Trungpa and Roach deceived their students in similar ways. They maintained pretenses of lineage and historical cohesion, even though they were relentless innovators. They hid their power plays over students behind Tantric justifications. Both bricoleurs, they freely borrowed and remixed from incoherent sources. The only coherence they offered wasn’t theirs; it was provided by the mass transference of their followers.
On the level of detail, the differences are significant, and may speak to the types of followers that each were able to recruit. Trungpa’s Buddhist cred was infinitely more plausible, though inflated by the idealizing orientalism of his followers. Roach’s apparent fluency in Tibetan and self-reported monastic training gave him some street cred, but the orientalism of his followers was aspirational: I loved Roach not because he was mystically Eastern, but because he had somehow become mystically Eastern. He traded in his blue jeans for the robes he wound up defaming. Trungpa seemed to have gone in the other direction: leaving his robes behind for a bizarre mashup of Warhol and Downton Abbey. Roach retreated from the postmodern, even as he spun a syncretic web. Trungpa overtly embraced and perfected pomo sensibility.
The details are endless, and endlessly fascinating. And they give a lot of grist for the mill of apologists who want to say that every situation is absolutely unique, and that No! Of course the BITE model doesn’t apply here! Religious studies people can do this too, though they are generally exercising the type of scholarly generosity geared towards preserving respect for religious sensibilities, as well as access to interview sources who might be insulted by cult analysis language.
Finally, we have to consider that no group is monolithic or hermetically sealed, and that clinical categories might persuade us otherwise. I often speak to the issue of what “Ashtanga Yoga” is (that we can sensibly speak of it as having structural patterns and features comparable to those in other groups) by referring to the maps of California during wildfire season. Think of the subculture as the whole state. It’s not all on fire, and it is possible that when the fires have passed that the unburned patches will be the immediate source of renewal.
Question 7: Lineage, enlightenment, trolling.
Question 1: “Lineage”, “Enlightened Society”, and “Enlightenment” were these big-word justifications for much in Shambhala. Still we can see that the interim board is keeping loyal to SMR because he is the only Shambhala lineage holder.
Q1 part 1: My view on enlightened society is pretty negative, I think it was never something that was really happening in Shambhala and was primarily a justification for lots of misappropriated funds and labour. What are your thoughts on “Enlightened Society”?
Q1 part 2: Lineage I am feeling ambivalent about. I think the general idea is that the teachings are to come from a legitimate source that somehow can be traced back to Padmasambhava or the Buddha, therefore not made up, and also to ensure that the teacher had proper training and education in real Buddhism. I guess going forward I would still like to believe that the teachings are connected to the Buddha or Padmasambhava in some way, and that the teacher was well trained, but I have also seen it used as an unjustified appeal to authority. It has been very dissapointing to see “lineage” used to justify continued loyalty to an abuser, to justify covering up the abuses to begin with, and used to legitimize this teacher who is now obviously not embodying any of the qualities the org projected of him. It has also been used to value SMR over the well being of the average member. I don’t quite understand some of what you have said about “post lineage”. Could you explain how you think people should navigate the balance between trying to find someone who’s teachings and training come from a decent source versus the attached baggage and magical thinking that have come along with “lineage”?
This lineage thing is very tricky because we have the 16th Karmapa who claimed that Trungpa was a Mahasiddha and then Penor Rinpoche who claimed that Mukpo was Mipham. Now Penor might be easier to dismiss because he made several other questionable “identifications” such as Steven Seagal being a Tulku. But nearly everyone in Tibetan Buddhism treats the 16th Karmapa as a super enlightened being. Michael Roach was denounced by the Dalai Lama but we see that Trungpa and Mukpo have not been. For many this might lend some legitimacy to their “lineage”.
Q1 part 3: As for Enlightenment. Do you believe it is a real thing that a person can achieve? If no, why? if yes, what do you think it is and how do you think people can achieve it?
Sorry that is a very long and involved 3 part question. If you can’t answer the following in addition to the above that is ok. Most interested in the response to the above.
Question 2: Another question I have, and if this is too personal feel free to not answer, is that you probably receive a lot of hate from various loyalists from various cults. Does your partner ever worry about this? Has this ever resulted in negatative in-person confrontations or threats via mail?
I appreciate what you have done very much. The analysis you’ve offered has been very helpful in me understanding the dynamics at play in Shambhala. Thank you for putting yourself at risk for the benefit of others in this way.
Question 3: Before the Kusung report some people were dismissed as being racist for their “excessive” anger towards SMR. Shambhala also had many classes followed by Buddhist project sunshine about power privilege race and gender but was not talking directly about its own monarchy and guru dynamics. You’ve documented that this happens in some abusive yoga groups as well. Would appreciate any insights you have Into this.
Q1 part 1: “Enlightened Society” sounds like what Derrida would have called a “transcendental signifier”: a term with strong emotional valence and social power, but very low definability. I think the fact that you’re puzzling out what it means to you, even though it is a ubiquitous term in the culture, and presumably you’ve been contemplating it for a while, shows that it is used more to communicate power and manufacture consent rather than to share information and care.
Q1 part 2: A solid history of lineages in global Buddhism is beyond my education. So too is the political landscape within which the endorsements fly. But I do know that terms like “lineage” and “tradition” can be a manipulated concept for the reasons you describe: to historically validate an innovation. In the yoga world, and in Ashtanga particularly, the Sanskritic ideal of “parampara” has been weaponized to consolidate social power within the Jois family, though they present no evidence of preserving anything beyond the innovations and business model of the late patriarch.
She applies the concept to the yoga world in describing how three pillars of vertical authority have all been contested to the point of crumbling:
- We now know that historical claims made by yoga entrepreneurs are mostly overstated.
- We now know that medical claims made by yoga entrepreneurs are mostly overstated.
- We now know that claims of moral or spiritual authority made by many yoga leaders are bankrupt.
In this landscape, Wildcroft asks — how to people find and validate practice? Through communities and peer networks. We’ve moved from siloes to rhizomes. We’re learning from each other. AMA on reddit is a good example of that.
Q1 part three: I don’t feel my personal opinions about enlightenment are that interesting, tbh. They also change with my mental health circumstances!
Q2: Thank you so much for asking. I have been defamed consistently for over three years. Here’s the most recent example, presented through a rebuttal made by my publisher:
Forget about what this attack claims about me. When the defamatory statement says that my book on Jois “adds nothing to the conversation”, it effectively erases the voices of the sixteen women Jois assaulted who offered their stories to the book. It’s saying that because my credibility is in question, so too are the stories of the women.
Thank you especially for asking about the impact on my partner. That’s extremely thoughtful. No one has asked me that publicly before and it gives me the chance to say that while cults of course wreak havoc in the lives of individual members, their effects radiate outwards into family and community life. In a few weeks I’ll be hosted alongside Alexandra Stein for an event in London presented by the Family Survival Trust — a non-profit dedicated specifically to supporting the family members of cult victims.
The families and friends of whistleblowers are likewise targeted in circles that extend outwards. In our own circumstance, one of the worst examples of this is provided by a certified Ashtanga teacher who has suggested that I write about abuse in the yoga industry because it’s my kink, and has harassed my wife online and via email. I don’t want to speak for my wife’s experience, but generally I can say it’s been difficult for her, and that she left social media in part because of the hostility.
In at least two cases I have lost employment over trolls harassing my hosts. Additionally, my colleagues have been targeted as well, guilty by association with me.
Personally, the attacks have taken a toll on my physical and mental health. It’s been so constant and casual that for years I failed to identify it as cultic abuse. Defamation and harassment are odious and illegal. I’m not disclosing this for sympathy but to show a little bit of what’s at stake for whistleblowers. It’s far worse for survivors.
Q3: “Wokewashing” is a real thing. I hope I’ve said enough above!
Question 8: Why can’t dharma communities help their victims?
Why are yoga and meditation communities so powerless to help people who have been harmed by those very same communities?
I think we must ask whether practice techniques can fix the problems they often serve to bypass or cover up. The fact that leaders like Simmer-Brown ask Shambhala members to “keep practicing” while offering no concrete policy initiatives that centre the testimonies and needs of Shambhala survivors is a big clue as to how this works, and what the priorities of high-demand groups and their leaders actually are. No part of the Shambhala curriculum helped mitigate the abuses of Trungpa and the alleged abuses of Mipham.
Modern yoga and Global Buddhism are vast industries that presume to offer physical and emotional care for practitioners. They are self-professed wellness and healthcare platforms. Yet neither are regulated, and with the exception of the smartest Yoga Therapy practitioners, neither employ tools like scope of practice or informed consent.
No high-demand group wants to admit to its failures of care, and that would be the first step in helping those it has harmed.
A last point here, extrapolating from Jennifer Freyd’s work, is that it might actually be a good thing that survivors of institutional abuse have to seek outside the group for healing and redress. Her research shows that asking the institution that abused you or enabled abuse for help might be retraumatizing. We see this in the stories of the women Larry Nassar abused being additionally betrayed by his employers when they sought to take action. I’ve seen this retraumatization happen up close as people who Pattabhi Jois assaulted have sought acknowledgement from senior Ashtanga teachers and have either been ignored, patronized, or co-opted into a false reform discourse.
Question 9: Performing vs. modelling reform.
Several teachers that remain in Shambhala seem to have stepped away from teaching Shambhala Buddhism and are instead teaching some mix of Buddhism and social justice (ostensibly to reclaim some legitimacy?) Yet, they still remain under the Shambhala umbrella. What do you make of this?
I hope my comments on wokewashing above are helpful.
I don’t know which teachers you’re referring to, but nobody who cares about transparency or spiritual care should regard Shambhala content or networks as a resource to be scavenged but as a liability to be mitigated.
Two women who Pattabhi Jois assaulted over long periods of time — Karen Rain and Jubilee Cooke — are about to post a groundbreaking article about what survivors of abuse in spiritual communities need. One of the stunning but also obvious things they suggest in it is that if you were educated in a method or community with an abuse history, your shingle is stained, and you really ought to consider upgrading your training with an organization that has taken care of business.
You should be able to show the public how you have acknowledged, understood, and sought to repair the harm and injustice of the school you rely on for validation, if that’s what you’re doing. I also take this to mean that if you come from an organization that has acted out intergenerational trauma under the guise of “tradition” or “lineage”, then I’d like to see your training in trauma care from a legit educational institution before you start offering meditation retreats. Deal?
Some examples for perspective:
- If you made money running the recording studio where R. Kelly cut hit tracks, I want to see your workplace sexual harassment policy.
- If you made your name in US gymnastics as a trainer, I want to know whether you’re a mandated reporter of child sexual abuse.
- If you’re a Catholic deacon, nun, or priest, and your job has anything to do with children, I want to know who you’ve made yourself accountable to outside of your clearly criminal church.
Can we imagine justifications for NOT doing these things? Of course. People will say: “But I still produce sick music, bro!” “But I have a good track record in helping gymnasts overcome injury.” “But I know the gospels really well, and they offer relief and guidance for all mankind.” In the yoga and Buddhism worlds, the justifications are the same: “But the holy dharma! I teach the holy dharma! People NEED the holy DHARMA!”
But who cares what you love to do, and how do you know what anyone needs? I want to know that you’ve nailed down the basics of not abusing or enabling abuse.
We’re getting to a point at which virtually everyone who has professionalized in yoga or Buddhism has to reckon with the fact that large parts of their education come from a new age equivalent of Oral Roberts University, and their teaching certificates are like degrees in creationism or faith healing. The question now is: are they going to bury that, or get square with it? It took me ten years to come out as a cult survivor in my bio note, ten years to own that I learned some of what I learned from sociopaths, and to show what I was doing about that. I was hiding from that history because of a reasonable shame but also for a terrible reason: I didn’t want my professional image to be obscured by illegitimacy. And yet: what was I building that profession on? Shame is an appropriate personal response to recognizing your cultic recruitment. But it is not a responsible professional disguise.
Sometimes I wonder whether the tyranny of happiness and good vibes that can turn the yoga and Buddhist worlds into Stepford conventions are actually a reaction formation against held secrets. “Look at us! Everyone’s fine!” Smile smile, blink blink.
There are countless people now in this same conundrum. How will they get clear on the identity and autobiographical crisis of owning a cultic past? I think the transparency statement will soon become the new personal inventory amongst yoga and Buddhism teachers. If it doesn’t, how will future practitioners be able to trust what they learn, and the relationships they learn it through?
Here’s where we get into the problem of secondary harm. When yoga and Buddhism teachers aren’t clear about where they’re coming from, they can radiate deception outwards, causing damage and wasting people’s time. I wrote about two examples of that here:
TLDR on the article: one of the examples shows how two Women’s Studies professors did months of fieldwork on a yoga service programme in NYC and concluded that the programme “has inspired a confidence that a feminist-informed social justice orientation to community engagement emphasizing ethics of care, commitment, shared power, and mutual political vision is indeed possible.”
So what was the programme? It was “Urban Yogis”, run by one of the Jois family’s staunchest representatives, someone who has done nothing to address the abuse history in public, even while he continues to professionally associate with the Jois brand. Did the scholars know about the abuse? No. They were deceived by omission. So let’s think about how many undergrads, especially women, will read that article and get all excited about the feminist values of Ashtanga Yoga. This is not to say that positive reform isn’t possible, but at this point the premise is absurd and abuses people’s time and emotional energy.
Question 10: Do dharma groups attract the vulnerable?
It seems to me that Buddhism, Yoga and other “alternative” religions and therapies naturally draw a lot of people with a history of suffering, abuse and general ill-adjustment to society. This is very risky, because on the one hand traumatized and ill-adjusted people might benefit a lot from those traditions, but on the other hand they might be easier targets for abusers and charlatans. Also, they might add a lot more neurosis to organizational dynamics than “healthy” people. How can a sangha be welcoming to those in need, but at the same time not be compromised by the neurosis they potentially bring into it?
(I did my best not to be offensive here, but English is not my native language, so it is difficult to appraise how some words might be triggering.)
I think you did really well with a very sensitive question.
I’m imagining you know it’s sensitive because focusing on the mental health profiles or prior histories of abuse victims is irrelevant when we’re seeking clarity on criminal acts committed against them. It can easily veer off into victim-blaming territory. Also I must make clear that there is NO evidence in the cult research that suggests that there are solid predictors for who is recruited. Recruits come from all socioeconomic and educational backgrounds, and likely from a wide range of scores on the ACE. The people I was with in the two cults I was in came from all over. Racial diversity was low (which has led me to wonder about where and how cult dynamics intersect with race) but every other category was extremely diverse.
That said, I think we can find a sensitive way to acknowledge the fact that group members are often recruited at points of “situational vulnerability” — after having moved, after an illness/divorce/accident, between jobs or careers. Also, anecdotally, especially in the US, there is a high degree of antipathy towards conventional medicine and therapy, given the predatory costs. I’m wondering whether future research will show that yoga and Buddhist groups attract higher-than-average numbers of people with untreated mental health issues by promising self-regulation in markets where citizens are deprived of health care. Of course that research would have to measure the positive effects against the negative. But if we’re talking about the negative impacts being on the overall culture of the group, however, that would be additionally difficult to analyze.
Question 11: The “guru” is out of scale.
Do you feel we are in a unique moment with regard to the worship of celebrity? In other words, what sort of cultural or societal antecedents and trends interest you in this whole affair?
I feel like that’s a very broad question but maybe I can pull on one thread that pops out in relation to cultic dynamics in global yoga and Buddhism.
The postmodern transnational spiritual leader that emerges in the mid-late 20th century (lots of factors involved here, including the 1965 Immigration Act in the US) seems to have only an imaginary connection to prior forms of spiritual leadership indigenous to South Asia. I can’t see how any of the intimate protocols that governed premodern guru-shishya bonds or samaya vows could survive the scale made possible by first cheap print and then cheap international travel, and now online virality. Cultic groups manipulate the nostalgic/romantic/orientalist appeal of that intimacy and deceive members into believing it’s on offer. I’ve heard people describe having “personal” relationships with Amma, Sai Baba, Gurumayi, Pattabhi Jois, Mooji, Trungpa, Mipham Mukpo, Sogyal Rinpoche, Michael Roach, Adyashanti, Byron Katie.
This is delusional. None of these people are thinking about you when you’re not there. Or even when you are. It’s not reciprocal. And if they’re “traumatized narcissists” to use Daniel Shaw’s term, they actually exist by erasing you.
One of the women who Pattabhi Jois assaulted repeatedly and who offered her incredible story to this book had this to say:
“I’m not even sure he knew my name. I didn’t get any sense that I was an important student that he was transmitting something to. That was not the experience. It was more like I was a piece of ass in an open position that he could dry hump. That’s what it felt like to be the receiver, and then the chorus of interpretations of that morphing it into something else, as a special thing, was just incredibly confusing for me.” (PAAIC, p.4)
In neurological terms, any leader who has more than 150 followers would find it impossible to have the kind of full and rich communication with each of them that I imagine any kind of “traditional” samaya would demand. Our brains aren’t built for more. Check out “Dunbar’s number” for more on that. Beyond 150, the leader will begin thinking symbolically and generically about students, rather than personally. Any buffer against them treating students as objects is weakened. I wonder if that’s why so many of them look glazed over: if there are too many of you, the celebrity leader can’t even see you when you’re standing in front of them. They dissociate to avoid the barrage of attention, to become anonymous amongst the anonymous masses. The icing on the cake is when group members interpret that blankness as some sort of altered or mystical state.
In some cases, however, deception regarding bonding can comes from the top, and it’s effective. I remember the first “private” meeting I had with Michael Roach, which meant that it was with him and his “sangyum” (they didn’t use the term) who was about half his age. It was the only time I remember him looking me in the eyes. That brief contact seemed so precious that I built a one-sided bond out of it that survived the fact that he never met my eyes again in three years. Everybody spoke about Roach as though he was so accessible, approachable, close. That would only ever have been true for a shifting handful of people who surrounded him constantly, working day and night.
All that said, I don’t in any way want to foreclose the possibility that smaller-scale, more intimate, perhaps more premodern learning relationships still exist in global yoga and Buddhism, and that they work well, and actually fulfill the promises carried by the indigenous (and still sacred to many) terms “guru” or “lama”. That’s not my experience nor my research focus, so I don’t know a lot about it. But I hope if those learning contexts do exist and are functional that the students who benefit from them step up and describe them in accessible ways, because of course we need good modeling.
Question 12: Success stories?
What examples of best practices for ethics, accountability, and atonement can you point to / describe for teacher authorization and organizational governance that could serve as a role model for a reformed Shambhala to aspire towards?
This is beyond my scope if we’re talking about global Buddhism It’s really a question for Professor Ann Gleig, who specializes in this area, and who might be a good AMA guest.
In the yoga world, Kripalu is often held up as having made a decent re-organizational recovery after sacking Amrit Desai, but more research needs to be done there. I’ve heard that the dynamics weren’t entirely horizontalized, which makes sense: I think it’s extremely hard for any charismatic model to flatten out without simply expressing a routinization of what came before. Everyone who is primed for leadership in a charismatic or high-demand setting will have gotten there through a certain amount of mimicry. When there’s a power vacuum at the top, who’s ready to step in?
The most interesting story going on in yogaland right now pits alleged sexual predator Manouso Manos against his lifelong peers in the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States. I wrote about it here:
TLDR, from the end of the report:
“IYNAUS standing firm and posting their statement in the face of [legal] intimidation [from Manos] marks an extraordinary moment in the history of modern global yoga in which an older paradigm of top-down leadership is firmly challenged by public-service models of governance and accountability.
“It might be the clearest and most public example yet of what yoga scholar Theodora Wildcroft has identified as an increasingly visible shift into a “post-lineage” era, in which practice and accountability are negotiated and nurtured by peers, rather than dictated and avoided by charismatic personalities.”
Most of the yoga world has utterly failed to even approach reform with integrity. In the worst cases, schools like Jivamukti have used quick-fixes like offering consent cards for adjustments while cynically positioning themselves as leaders in trauma sensitivity — not long after settling a sex harassment suit against one of their teachers.
I reported on that here:
Recently, Jivamukti co-founder David Life was on FB musing about how Jivamukti is only using them “as insurance against litigation”, because “litigation is the issue in the States where abuse is a testy issue.” Well, he should know.
So what we have is something even worse than apathy: organizations pretending to do the work as they brand-wash. Just think of what they’re stealing from those who spent more than a decade trying to say: “Hey look, consent cards should be a thing.”
Sorry I don’t have better news here. I just don’t think organizational reform can truly come from within dharma organizations that have abuse histories related to power that were covered over by dharma-content. Outside influences are crucial, and the best ones on the horizon might have their impact as yoga and mindfulness work moves into the public health sector, which will prompt new levels of professionalism and accountability.
I realize many are worried about McMindfulness, secularization, and the bureaucratization of practice, but my question for them is that if dharma organizations can’t ensure public safety and accountability to the same degree that psychotherapy colleges or public schools can, do we really have a choice? If all the Acharyas and Shastris had been mandated reporters for sexual abuse from the 1980s onwards, would Shambhala be in the position it’s in now?
Question 13: Academic insight, academic collusion.
Can you say anything about how “academia” shapes your own position and the manner in which you are received by others, including negatively? I can’t help but notice that you are in some very productive dialogues with some interesting academics who share your overall view but that some other academics associated with some of the organizations or cults you have criticized/critiqued have received you negatively. Maybe also relevant to speak to the seemingly contradictory roles of Simmer-Brown as both a scholar subject to peer-review while also an “acharya” in Shambhala.
As a twice-dropout, I’ve been awfully blessed in the yoga world by the scholarly generosity of Theo Wildcroft, Mark Singleton, Jason Birch, Jacqueline Hargreaves, Jim Mallinson, Andrea Jain, and others. They answer long and surely irritating emails from me on a regular basis and really embody scholarship as public service. I couldn’t have done half of what I’ve done without them.
But the academic/practitioner dual identity can pose a lot of problems when the person is involved with or belongs to a high-demand group. That can have true cultural impacts at certain scales: see above for notes on Naropa as a front organization for Shambhala International. In the example of how the efforts of two academics were manipulated by omission into boosting Ashtanga as a feminist practice, we can see out even scholars outside of high-demand groups can be impacted.
In terms of individual cases, you bring up Simmer-Brown. I too would like to know how exactly can someone bound by samaya also be bound by peer-review? Is it a matter of switching hats? How can there not be a conflict of interest that deprives her academic students of critical distance? I understand that the insider-outsider debate has been dealt with in detail in Religious Studies over the decades and that many have developed past that dichotomy. But the split remains plain when group members gain social power within the group, in this case academically, and then function to legitimize the group to the general public.
Can scholarship even cover over the most important data at hand? Let’s consider Holly Gayley’s scholarship (this is not an attack on her person) on “Sangyum”, for example, in this paper (Religions 2018, 9, 179; doi:10.3390/rel9060179):
Gayley provides a well-researched review of the concept and practice of the “secret consort”, beginning with premodern sources, ostensibly relevant against the backdrop of contemporary abuse scandals. Gayley spends a fair amount of space reporting on Sogyal Rinpoche’s abuse (not her word) of the tradition, but only has the following to say about Trungpa’s engagement of it. Trungpa remains the spiritual head of the community she teaches in from a mixed position of devotion and scholarship:
“In North America, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1939–1987) was unique in naming seven women as sangyum, who served as his companions and personal representatives toward the end of his life. They remain respected members of the Shambhala community, given prominent seats at events and addressed with the title Sangyum before their names. In addition, Diana Mukpo, whom Trungpa Rinpoche married in England after disrobing in 1970, received the title Sakyong Wangmo, a royal designation from eastern Tibet. Still today, she and several of the sangyum teach advanced trainings in the Shambhala teachings based on terma that Trungpa Rinpoche revealed in the late 1970s. The public nature of these contemporary women’s roles—from Tsering Chödrön to Diana Mukpo—has given them a stature that illicit trysts, tantric or otherwise, do not. Nonetheless, by their own accounts, the role is not an easy one to navigate.”
But Trungpa didn’t just “name” them. He seduced many into sexual relationships of questionable or no-consent, including Ciel Turzanski, reportedly at or before the age of 15 — same age Diana was when they first had sex. “They” do not all remain “respected members”. Ciel is deceased and Leslie Hays hasn’t attended events for years, and more recently she’s been ostracized and defamed for describing the abuse of her spiritual “marriage” to Trungpa.
So what’s going on here? How does this research and historicization and academic gentility contextualize and normalize a crucial aspect of the very group Gayley has ethnographic access to? Was it part of Gaylely’s scope to interview any of these women? If not, why not? As teaching staff in Shambhala, and based in Colorado, I can’t imagine that Gayley wouldn’t have access to those interview opportunities. The timing is so important if unintentional and unlucky. The publication data says it was submitted in April of 2018, but Leslie Hays starts disclosing her experience on Facebook before it was published in July.
I’m careful here to say nothing about Gayley’s character or intentions but rather to point at the impact of a paper like this: that is flattens her own community into a textual artifact rather than a living network. I hate that I have to give that disclaimer, but ad hominem is so normalized in this landscape that people do it, see it, and feel it everywhere. I think it has something to do with the intimacy of the content. We’re fighting over what we love, and how we have been betrayed.
So there’s direct scholarship, generated from with the group, which provides a cover of legitimacy for the group. But I also think we also have to consider the influence of other academics who lend abusive organizations credibility — and this is weird — whether as apologists OR reformers.
Here’s a post I wrote about a social sciences prof who publicly attacked Ann West, whose sexual assault complaint against Manouso Manos has forced him to his knees and his oversight organization into a whirlwind of reform. The prof uses academic and social justice language to claim that West is in part driven by white supremacy. The prof, Manos, and Ann West are all “white”, although West’s heritage is Roma.
The TLDR here is that it doesn’t seem to matter how well-trained someone is as a scholar or whatever: the cultic will override it, and force the weirdest things out of their mouths.
Totally different example: how does Associate Professor Shanté Smalls (St. John’s University English) drop all of the rules of academic rigour to drag me in the comments on that meme? How is she using the legitimacy, if not the responsibility, of her scholarly position to discredit an outsider’s analysis? I don’t care if she psychoanalyzes me or calls me mediocre or a parasite, or the Bernie Sanders of white Buddhism, which is pretty funny. I’m interested in her disinterest in the facts about someone who is interrogating the spiritual organization that she’s teaching seven trainings for this spring.
Professor Smalls writes that I’m using my moment to be opportunistic. She mocks me for having been in the cult of Roach. She speculates that I’m writing about Shambhala because I failed to “heal” Roach’s community.
The facts are that it’s neither shameful nor discrediting to have been in Roach’s cult. I broke the Roach story in 2012, and because I haven’t been part of his cult since 2000, it’s not mine to heal, which an absurd demand. My “opportunism” has covered Shambhala, Rigpa, Iyengar Yoga, Anusara Yoga, and Asthanga Yoga all in the same way. It’s like calling a weatherman opportunistic because he says: “Hey look there’s rain.”
I feel this is important because the power Professor Smalls holds as an academic competes with that of Simmer-Brown — even though they might be anathema to each other — as the remnants of the Shambhala demographic figure out who has moral and intellectual authority and who to listen to. I believe they deserve care from scholars who don’t make things up.
That said, Professor Smalls is totally right that I and every other white person has to do the work of dismantling white privilege as we dismantle the cultic. They are connected, and I look forward to what she has to say about that in the future.
Above all, transparency about positionality is key. Because it’s not just academic-practitioners who can fail to be clear about the hat they’re wearing. The confusion can run the other way as well, with non-academic practitioners and teachers learning how to adopt academic language and mannerisms to such an extent that their students are very confused about their training. In the worst cases, this contributes to deception.
When I met Michael Roach, his apparent fluency in Tibetan was really impressive. I think the consensus generally is that his language skills are legit, and that he really did accomplish at least some of the memorization work demanded of Gelugpa training, even if he wildly exaggerated the time he actually spent enrolled at Sera Me monastery. I’ve also heard legit Tibetan scholars speak highly of his ACIP work in preserving texts. However.
But was he really a translator? If so, how exactly did he turn Prasangika philosophy into a prosperity and “spiritual relationships” gospel? I’m not stupid, and I was earnestly impressed by what turned out to be a performance of competence in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and culture. When he had to move on to the yoga world to gather recruits, of course he published a translation of / riff on Patanjali. When I was in his group, we all believed he was a Sanskritist as well. He’s not.
This kind of overreach takes more benign forms as well. My late friend Michael Stone was a compelling commentator on Buddhist and yoga ideas. I’ve met a number of his students who believed he was a translator as well — that he was reading in Sanskrit and Pali and even Japanese. He wasn’t, but I don’t remember him ever saying aloud: “I’m not a Sanskritist, so I’m relying on what this real Sanskritist is saying here…”. And I think that added to the pressure I believe he felt in having to be exceptionally smart or accomplished, and we all know now that pressure was the last thing he needed.
Question 14: Cancelling Vajrayana?
Do you see anything of value or worth preserving in Vajrayana Buddhism as a whole?
I don’t think anyone is going to cancel Vajrayana. In global terms, it’s a strange, compelling, beautiful, problematic part of Indo-Tibetan heritage. But it still has indigenous practitioners. I certainly don’t think global consumers disenchanted with what may be its bastardization through cultic groups get to decide what it’s worth. They’re free to walk away from it as they came, as seekers, but also consumers.
If they are still under undue influence, however, they are not free to walk away. And this I believe highlights something important: that while Vajrayana’s power systems might be easily exploitable by the cultic, they are not necessarily cultic per se. One useful axiom from the cult literature is that the content of the cult doesn’t matter: the power patterns do. That’s why religious, political, psychotherapeutic, business and athletic cults all operate the same way. As Cathleen Mann told me: I don’t care what you believe as an adult. I care about how you treat others.
I’m fairly sure that the Vajrayana practitioners of Howell, NJ, with whom I took samaya vows binding me to Khen Rinpoche Lobsang Tharchin were mostly well-served by meditating on his nature as inseparable from that of Vajrayogini. I’m sure it gave them some relief in life, and I never got the sense that the group was anything more than devotional and nerdy and had a relationship of mutual respect and support with the Mongolian refugees that KR was sent there to serve. Michael Roach came out of that environment, but I don’t have any sense that he was taught to deceive or control others there.
I do have a Julian Jaynes-level question about the premodern vs. contemporary neurological makeup of the practitioner — especially with regard to irony and skepticism. It seems to me that premodern Vajrayana has to be in some way predicated on a nervous system that tends towards credulity. I’m not sure how I could have grown up in the 1970s and completely abandoned the rational materialism, feminism, and postmodern theory of my formative years to remain a steadfast devotee of anything, even though it gave me relief for a while. So I have questions about how other people do it. Lyotard’s famous definition of the sentiment of our age is “incredulity towards metanarratives”. What could be a larger, bolder, more grandiose metanarrative than the Shambhala mandala? Who is more of the modernist Great Man of History than Trungpa, according to his press? He is a hero, a titan of singular and unique achievements that can never be replicated. He is divine in that sense.
I’ve seen some devotees circumvent the credulity problem with comments like “chanting is good for the Vagus nerve”. Yes, and so is reciting Shakespeare or rapping along to Digable Planets, I’m sure. There’s a lot more going on than sound and rhythm.
What do you have to do to your brain to believe all this in a sustained way? I understand believing in it for a while as an antidote to postmodernity. I remember the relief of the contact-high I got from Michael Roach’s self-certainty. But I really wonder how credulity in the Vajrayana vision — the primary requirement of creation stage practice, as I understand it — can be sustained without the application of strategic dissociation. Because the world just isn’t Vajrayogini’s mandala.
Question 16: How to talk to true believers.
I have had a lot of conversations in recent months with “true believers” (people who remain loyal to the teacher or teachings they cherish in spite of all the evidence that they are members of a dangerous cult). It’s a little frustrating sometimes, because their blind spot seems so obvious to me. The trouble is, you can’t just say to a person, “Look, here is your blind spot,” because that puts them on the defensive and the conversation goes downhill from there.
What techniques have you developed to engage such people, without making them feel like they’re under attack? What signs are there that there is just no use, that the person is not ready for the conversation? Is there a way to end it gracefully, without hard feelings? And what about the openly aggressive trolls who are not interested in conversation at all, but who merely want to shut you up– Any insights on dealing with them?
Such a hard question. To reiterate some points from above, it really seems to depend strongly on the strength of your prior relationship to the person, or on your capacity to present and model secure attachments. This is punishingly difficult online. It’s often chaos.
I try to make distinct strategic choices. I’ll communicate differently based upon whether I really am trying to forge a relationship or whether it feels more important to speak truth to power in public. When I engage the latter, I try my best to stick to the facts at hand. At this point, ex-Shambhalians or reformers have extraordinary documentation to cite, and cite, and cite. It’s always less provocative to point at evidence rather than confronting the emotional jargon directly.
I’d also say that there’s a strong possibility that whoever you’re talking to has been traumatized by the group, whether they know it or not, and that they’re defending a wound, or a gusher of shame and humiliation. They may not be defending the group so much as trying to push down the revelation of a personal tragedy that might feel like it will wash them away. If they’re attacking you, it might be because they feel they’re dying. With that in mind, gentleness is always helpful, but you may not be able to manage it. I’m sure as hell not.
It’s also really valuable to look at whether the language of critique you are using is accessible, or whether it shuts the group member down. I’ve got a section in my book that goes to some length to describe the liability of using the word “cult” in conversation, given how shameful, isolating, othering it can be. Here it is:
Those broader dynamics are often referred to with a popular but problematic term. The word “cult” is not only imprecise: it can be inflammatory and marginalizing. Even lifelong cultic studies researchers are conflicted about using it. In certain quarters, it might itself be classified as a form of “loaded language”, employed to dismiss entire religious or political groups out of hand.
Lalich and Landau provide a list of helpful synonyms for “cult”. They describe concerning groups as “high-demand”, “high-control”, “totalistic”, “totalitarian”, “closed charismatic”, “ultra-authoritarian”, and “self-sealed”. The term “self-sealed” is related to Lalich’s work on “bounded choice”, which she uses to describe an environment in which every occurrence is interpreted to suit the needs of the group or its leader. “When the process works,” she writes, “leaders and members alike are locked into what I call a ‘bounded reality’ — that is, a self-sealing social system in which every aspect and every activity reconfirms the validity of the system. There is no place for disconfirming information or other ways of thinking or being.” (Lalich, Janja, and Madeleine Landau. 2006. Loc 226, 665.)
The notion of “undue influence” is another useful framework. Undue influence is a legal concept dating back over 500 years, applied to assess whether a contract formed between a person with more power and a person with less power is truly consensual. As we’ll see, non-consent is a core theme of the Jois event. Throughout this book I’ll alternate synonyms for “cult” to soften any impression that we’re speaking about a precise phenomenon. We’re not. We’re talking about patterns and relationships. (PAAIC, 14-15)
Question 17: Mainstreaming critical thinking.
Hi, first I want to thank you for doing this work. I’m a political economy student and yoga teacher (conflicting) and did a research project on race/class/gender inclusion in yoga (and yoga under capitalism/patriarchy) and your articles were very valuable to me. Any advice for someone looking to lead a discussion group on these topics in a studio setting?
I’m hoping to make it to Portland for your upcoming training, are you open to having people only come for a portion of the training?
Thoughts on cultural appropriation (or maybe you can direct me to talks you’ve already done on this BIG question)?
And tied [a] great question [from above], is there a way to keep teachers and studios accountable while allowing them to operate as a business under capitalism? Seems the values of yoga conflict with the status quo. How to treat yoga as a commons while valuing teachers for the work they put in?
Thank you for the kind words. I’m fresh out of marketing advice for this content! I just try to foster strong IRL relationships with studio owners and YTT directors and work from there. But the industry is contracting. At the same moment that critical content is emerging the workshop economy is collapsing. Sometimes it looks like the webinar is a good avenue, but that too is very competitive landscape. But in straightforward pedagogical terms, I think the material is best served with data that frames the questions clearly and then Socratic exercises for nurturing diverse answers.
You can come to anything you want, just run it by the host!
Cultural appropriation is really another AMA, I feel. In yoga, Andrea Jain is a must-read, and Susanna Barkataki’s Honor Collective Project offers a number of really great perspectives. Try to be wary of white virtue-signaling in this area, especially when it comes from people tied to high-demand yoga groups that claim they’re preserving indigenous practices. See if there’s evidence for that.
Yoga under capitalism is a paradox, and another huge question. And as I’ve mentioned above the only positive pathway forward wrt accountability might lie in the demands of professionalization into public health and education sectors.
Question 18: Separating the teacher from the practice?
A dialogue I’ve encountered a lot lately when talking about sexual misconduct is that the leader is separate from the practice. Ex) Satchidananda’s translation of the Sutras is still valuable despite his misconduct. Or Ashtanga is still a valuable practice despite Pattabhi Jois’s sexual assault.
Seems like every school of yoga has been involved in some power or sexual misconduct, can a practice really ever be separated from its founders?
I hope that the first answer, up top, esp the baby+bathwater remarks, is useful here.
One enormous problem with separating practice from founder is this so often relies on a fiction regarding the ancientness of the practice itself. Practices associated with charismatic leaders bear their psychosomatic echoes. When you practice Iyengar Yoga with one of his senior students, you literally feel his body — not just his method — in yours. Can we really separate out the authoritarian by-rote pedagogy of Bikram from the somatic echo of his dominance over other bodies?
Practices are practiced by people. People communicate them. They don’t float above people in the ether, and stay there when the people are sleeping or dead. If you were a direct student of Trungpa who still thinks that he was some sort of supernatural person, you’ll likely feel that in your tissues. If you don’t believe that, ask yourself what it would feel like to have Larry David record the audio book for Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Or Gene Simmons.
Whatever yoga is, whatever Buddhism is, I don’t see how you can pluck it free from the relationships through which it is communicated.
Question 19: Does practice make you a better citizen?
I wonder if you can say something also about Thich Nhat Hanh as good example (or not) of the fertilization of dharma and social justice?
No, I’m afraid I don’t know much about TNH or Plum Village.
In the abstract, I think with any community my first question is whether or not there’s a presumption that practice is coherent with or supportive of particular political values. Be Scofield pretty much slam-dunks this as false, arguing that whatever sublime/unitary experience that the practice values cannot be reliably channeled into any specific political position not dictated by the surrounding culture. This is how we get Zen warrior monks and Nazi yogis. So I tend to think about dharma practice and activism not as mutually exclusive but as unreliably linked. The best personal answer I have is that practice enables resilience in the face of dread.
I addressed some of these points here:
Question 20: Dialoguing.
Is there a pubic figure within the broader world of mindfulness, meditation, yoga, etc with whom you would be most interested to do a public dialogue? Roach?
Ha, that’s unlikely.
It’s a great question, because it makes me see how I’ve divided (or the investigative journalism practice of the past 3 years has divided) my world up into colleagues that nurture me with questions, and then people I want hard answers from. I can think of a bunch of people I’d love to interview, but I’m not going to telegraph the names!
Outside of that binary, I think it would be cool to sit with Ganesh Mohan and ask him about his take on the Krishnamacharya legacy. Or to sit with Lama Rod Owen and talk about the intersections of the cultic and racial and gender injustice. Or to talk with Donna Farhi about the under-researched feminist arc in modern yoga history that attempts to reclaim agency.
Question 21: Heteronormativity.
Do you see a relationship between Hindu/Tantra heteronormative values of “sacred masculine/feminine” and how that has been used to suppress women and sexual assault scandals today? Is Yoga inherently patriarchal? Tied to other questions, do you think “sacred masc./fem” energies pose any value as a metaphor? The more I dig the worse it gets. These are big, would be happy just to have suggestions of other authors to look into.
If you haven’t read Roots of Yoga by Mallinson and Singleton, it gives the slam-dunk answer on cultural and historical misogyny in Hatha Yoga. TLDR: it’s patriarchal.
You’re totally on to something with the heteronormativity of the legacy, although we should be clear that there are nonbinary devotional forms and all kinds of gender trouble in the Puranas. But are these aspects well appreciated in the global marketplace? I don’t see that, and my gut says that that is because the heteronormative aspects of Tantrism, for example, allow otherwise liberal Boomers and even Gen Xers to backslide comfortably into a binary familiarity. They get spiritual permission to be conservative. Think about the gendered symbology of Ayurveda, for instance, or whether “goddess” culture is an orientalization of a throwback vision of being able to perfect all “feminine” (especially nurturance) roles at once.
I’ve done a lot of podcasts, but this one is different. Tiffany and I have known each other for many years, and we were able to record at her dinner table with the Edmonton winter held at bay outside the window. I was exhausted and just off a plane but that somehow helped make me focused and relaxed and a little unguarded. Also, Tiffany doesn’t fuck around. Thanks for the all the hard work you do, Tiff, and for your friendship.
Here’s the recording, which is episode 2 on her new series with Elliot Kesse. You can support their work here. I’m posting a cleaned-up transcript below.
Welcome to Where’d My Chakras Go? A yoga podcast for the rest of us, with Elliot Kesse and Tiffany Rose. So I am here with Matthew Remski and Elliot is not able to join us unfortunately, but we will be discussing some of the topics that Elliot had requested. So maybe Matthew can just tell us a little bit about yourself?
Sure. Thanks for inviting me Tiffany. I’ve been teaching or I guess involved in yoga since about 2003, and that followed two three-year stints in yoga related cults. And how that happened is a long story, but coming to yoga itself was really wrapped up in trying to recover my sense of agency and autonomy after those experiences of control — of social control. And that really started with being able to feel my own body as my own, being able to feel my thoughts as my own. So I plunged right in.
Also, I’d lost a lot of time in my late twenties and early thirties, wrapped up in these two cultic organizations. The yoga industry was booming when I got out and it seemed like a fortuitous fit and, there was a training that I could go to and there wasn’t a yoga studio in the little town that my ex partner and I were living in at that time. So, things just seem to fall into place to put me in this strange position of studying a lot of yoga and then beginning to teach it a little bit too early, but in a very intensive way. I started out with 25 classes a week or something like that. There’s a lot of people who ended up doing that in the early 2000s I think.
I eventually continued to study in subject areas like yoga therapy and Ayurveda and more esoteric subjects like Jyotish or Vedic astrology and palmistry and the spatial arrangement thing called Vastu. And that was all really enriching in my life. I’ve continued on from there, but it’s really taken me about 10 years to swing around to recognizing that the primary value that I found in this to begin with was tools to access some sort of internal sense of constancy or agency, and capacity to feel like a single self and that’s been really important to me. And then it’s also directed how I’ve begun to look at how systems of social control developed within yoga environments as well. I think a lot of your listeners will probably know that I do a lot of work on yoga and Buddhist cults now in my writing. So that’s a little bit about me.
So you live in Toronto and you have two children and you’re married to Alix who is just starting to move into her own practice and the boys are both in school now, so this is kind of a transitional time for you as well, hey?
Right. Yeah. Alix is starting her psychotherapy practice and supervision as you say, the boys are both into school, little Owie is only in preschool. He says “pee skoo”. Then I’ve got this book coming out in March and I have no idea what’s going to happen after that because there’s going to be a lot of people I think who appreciate it and there’s gonna be bunch of people who really hate it. And I think it’s going to bring my engagement with yoga training work into a different area because up until this point I’ve been doing YTT modules in or facilitating YTT modules in history, philosophy and culture. But I think especially the conclusion of this book is going to put me into the zone of — or at least I’d like it to put me in the zone of — starting to talk about community health and, and safer spaces. Not just in terms of affirmative consent or informed consent or all of the amazing anti-oppression work that I’ve been exposed to and I’ve started to learn about, but also in terms of how do people actually form relationships in yoga and Buddhist communities, and what’s the role of charisma, and how do you know that you’re in a bounded-logic group, and how do you know when you’re being asked to do things through mechanisms of undue influence, and how do you know that the person’s actually giving you care instead of trying to control you? Those are very pressing questions to me because the last, especially three years of work that I’ve done in the writing and journalism that I’ve published have all focused on that in various yoga communities.
So you’ve kind of had this sort of archetypal position in Yogaland as like the evil sort of villain that just picks apart everything that’s good, and things that everybody loves, you know, you’re just there to shit on it. Did that happen intentionally or was it just sort of, did it just sort of evolve?
Well, I think, I mean to me, thinking critically about one’s internal life and how one consumes spiritual ideas is a form of spirituality. I think we — I don’t want to speak for everybody — but it seems to be a common thread that we take our spiritual aspirations really seriously, and to the extent that we do that, I feel like it’s really good to interrogate where they’re coming from and what kinds of wishes they’re fulfilling within us and what they make us more receptive to and what they make us more blind to. So I’ve always felt in the critical work I’ve done around yoga and injuries or the difficulty in telling apart trance states and dissociative states in meditation or how smiling and seemingly beneficent and communities can really hold these daggers of betrayal — all of that work to me has actually been a form of spirituality.
Because I think that one recurring pattern in my life is that when I learn something, it’s through some type of disillusionment. I don’t think that’s necessarily true for everybody, but I think it’s underrated. I think disillusionment as a growth process actually underrated. The trick is (and this is where I think I fall down and where people, perhaps people who are critical of what I do don’t get enough from me) which is that disillusionment really has to be healed by some form of re-enchantment. And so I’m working on that part, but it’s hard because all of my critical work is also wrapped up in the wounds of having been a cult survivor.
And so trying to find the pathway between criticism and productivity can be a real challenge, but it’s something that I think I want to keep working on for sure. I feel responsible to that. When people engage in my work and they feel depressed or more cynical or low, that’s a burden for me. It’s a burden for them! But I think it poses a responsibility. It gives me a responsibility. I don’t want to shy away from that.
I used to have this like almost-avoidant and dismissive attitude of “Oh, well, you know, I can just describe a problem and if you don’t like it then, you know, suck it up.” But that’s not where I’m at anymore. I think being in a really supportive relationship makes me understand how that can’t be where I am anymore. Trying to do well by my sons makes me understand that I really don’t want to be there anymore. I do want to do more to look at positive solution-seeking.
Is it you that says, are you quoting somebody that says something like enlightenment is the end of… what’s it?
I think maybe what you’re pointing to is that I had a teacher who gave this, I think probably eccentric etymology for “moksha”. He suggested that the first part of the compound word was shared with the name of Mohini,one of the divine feminine figures who has said to distract the yogi from — in this very misogynistic system of course — distract the yogi from his other-worldly concerns. And then the “ksha” is related to space element. And so his really beautiful explanation… I don’t know how other Sanskritists would find it, but he used to say that he thought of moksha as being “the end of infatuation”.
And leaving two cults was about two different types of infatuation coming to an end. Understanding that the bodily autonomy and, the real blessing of newfound interoception that I got from asana when I first started… really began to slide over into a kind of anxious ableism. When I realized that that was true, that was another end to infatuation. There was an infatuation that I had with physical capacity or even a capacity to sense things internally. You know, I think interoception is wonderful, but it can also be fetishized as, as some kind of core anchoring thing that will always bring you into the present moment and solve all problems and stuff like that. But it’s just another faculty and it has its uses and then it has its abuses as well.
And in fact, like for someone like me or people who have extreme chronic pain or maybe body dysmorphia or things like that, intense focus on interoception can sometimes be damaging, right? It can be harmful for people to feel like they’re trapped in their sensations or like they have to be tied to those internal sensations or else they’re not practicing yoga.
And that’s, and that’s a harder story for you for you to tell. I think it’s a lot easier — what I’m saying about interoception as being this wonderful grounding or agency-enhancing thing is a common yoga narrative. And then along comes Tiffany and says, “Wait, wait, wait a minute, wait a minute! When I go inside and try to find relaxation or peace or security and internal sensation, maybe I find the opposite. Maybe I just don’t find that at all.” And that in itself is a breaking of a kind of infatuation to just have that statement out there somewhere that, “Wait a minute, not everybody has that. Or not everybody does that. Or not everybody works that way.” It breaks this illusion that we’re all starting from the same place or that we all share something irreducibly in common. I think it gets us out of thinking that what we can share is an ideology instead of what we can share is a relationship where we’re actually continually learning about things that we just can’t understand about each other.
Doesn’t that make teaching harder though?
Like when there’s no common bond that we can kind of preach to. Then Actually have to start teaching in relationship.
And for people who maybe are closed down to relationship or maybe even like you were saying that closed down to a relationship to themselves. It makes teaching yoga a lot harder. I think
It does. It’s certainly harder to describe. It’s harder to market. It’s harder to feel evangelical about.
Well, there’s no flashing lights with that, you know?
No, there isn’t. This is a weird thing. I mean, when we hear the hopeful, hope-laden in statement in yoga culture or literature or marketing, we’re hearing two things. We’re hearing something earnest and yearning from the perspective of the teacher who’s marketing or the student who’s consuming. But we’re also hearing the potential for a kind of aspirational bypass where we’re somehow asking ourselves or other people to do and accomplish and feel more than they are able. And that brings up the whole problem of what happens when they don’t.
Do you think that…. I’m just kind of thinking this out loud, like, because I think that there’s so many teachers who are really wanting to do right. They’re really wanting to feel like their classes can be inclusive of everyone and that they are accessible, right? But with the current way that yoga is consumed in North America, it’s really difficult to remain profitable if that’s your livelihood and not sell hope. Right? So how do you, how do people who are really trying to be trauma-informed and inclusive and accessible, how do they compete with the evangelical, hopeful Lululemon crowd?
Yeah, I don’t think they compete. I think they offer something different which is: if there’s hope on offer, it’s the hope of, of inquiry or curiosity or a period of time out or a period of care or nurturance. I don’t see how they’re going to compete. I mean in a way, they’re antithetical so they can’t compete.
I think part of what we’re talking about is how can people make livings. And I think that when I consider what I know about your story and the story of so many other people who do this really sort of a in-depth trauma aware and non-commercialized work, I think of how I’m seeing this growing divide structurally between commercial and public service models. Where I see a hopefulness not in terms of marketing marketing solutions, but hopefulness in terms of the possibility for people like you and your colleagues for perhaps making more of a living over time or a better living over time is in the increasing movement of yoga into public health circumstances where the funding is assured because the population is known to simply benefit from what’s being offered.
That’s what I see with the work of people in the Yoga Service Council. And a little bit in the Accessibility Yoga Movement as well, that people are getting really good at, or better anyway, at figuring out where to pursue public funding rather than private commercial, consumer-based funding. So I’m very interested in that and that change in that movement.
One of the really great experiences that I had with you this year was at the Accessible Yoga Conference in Toronto. We had the privilege of presenting on a panel together there and you and I sat in on a session together at New Leaf foundation and I remember halfway through it, we were sitting beside each other and I was kind of a curled up in my chair and I had my knee in my chest and I was rocking a little bit and I remember you looking over at me and saying. “This is really good, hey?” And I remember thinking like, yeah, I feel very comforted. I’m like almost like rocking myself. Like I just feel very safe and comforted.
And that kind of work that they’re doing, I found a lot of hope in that and it was something that I hadn’t really been exposed to until then and just listening to them speak about the work that they do and the way that they approached it really gave me hope for yoga. Did you feel that way when you were listening to them?
I totally did. And I think it’s not just because of their content, which is top notch — because their content is not that much that far off from yours and it’s not going to be that much far off from anybody in yoga service. Where I find the comfort in just meeting people like that is in seeing how they have learned to approach the public infrastructure for support and to carve out their niche in it. And, I don’t know the New Leaf people personally that well, but that support is something that I know is a huge part of everybody who’s deeply invested in yoga service throughout North America is really trying hard to work on.
I was really struck sitting at the Yoga Service Council conference I think two years ago and I was speaking with a woman named Mayuri. I think her organization is called Little Flower Yoga and she trains teachers how to give 20, 30 and 40 minute yoga classes to grade school kids and she works in Manhattan. I think her partner is a public school teacher and so they’re sort of networked in the school system in a way. And she not only developed her training and by knocking on doors got her programs and her teachers into eight or nine public schools, which took three or four years, and they were able to pay out of discretionary spending for that. I think that’s how her business got going and I think she’s set up as a nonprofit as well. But she taught herself all how to do that, coming out of a non admin or nonprofit background. But the thing is there was one point at which, I think last year, Deblasio, the mayor of New York announced through the education department that they were making $20,000,000 available to the boroughs of New York public schools for wellness programs that would include yoga and mindfulness sessions or something like that. And so who’s on the phone the next morning, knowing who to call to get in on that funding is Mayuri. That is so cool because now she has networked her… she’s going to be able to leverage all of these teachers who she has trained into a new field that in terms of public money is still only being funded to a drop in the bucket. This has nothing to do with commercial yoga economics at all.
And yoga people are not in these circumstances having to worry about overhead or any of the things that you just went through with your studio over the last several years. So when I going back to sitting with New Leaf, the comfort that I feel is these people had figured out how to interface with the public health world. That means that comes with responsibility. That comes with “I’m going to have to have informed consent policies for all my workers. I’m going to have to have trauma informed training. I’m going to have to have good HR policies. I’m going to have to have all of these things that the commercial yoga world is totally shit at, and they’re just going to have to be a matter of course, and people are gonna have to be trained to a certain level that will allow them to be accountable to their public health positions.” And it’s like, it’s just a totally different world. And so I feel very, I feel very — it’s not what I’m professionally doing, but just as an observer and as a cultural critic and as a somebody who does journalism of this stuff sometimes, and I’m really fascinated to look at how that’s working.
I’m just going back to the conference. You gave the closing address for the conference and I had to jump on a bus to get to Montreal so I didn’t get to hear it, but I did watch the video. And I think I cried, which is really hard to get me to do so. But I think one of the things that really touched a lot of people in that address with you talking about how you too will one day become disabled. And I’m wondering if you can share a little bit about that.
Jivana, and — I’m a little bit embarrassed that I can’t remember the activist’s name that he cited in his presentation during the conference, but it’s somebody famous I think in California who was at the center of the disability rights movement from maybe the seventies or something like that — I think his one of his statements was, “It’s not like you’re not going to need these services. We’re all in this together.” And it’s kind of like a more visceral and material framing for all of the old ascetic and Buddhist realizations around mortality, old age, sickness and death. So there’s picture of the guy in his wheelchair saying, “You’re going to be somewhere like this.” And and then I was in his class a little bit later and,
Jivana’s class right. And I think he asked us to, — he’s got this great way of, “Let’s see how you can do Tadasana or a mountain pose, but, imagine that you need to have your full body in contact with a wall. Or let’s see if you can do tree pose on a chair. And he’s got all this amazing teaching around, “What is the posture actually? If you have an internal visualization of it, and that’s meaningful to you, is that the posture?” All of these ways of picking apart an ableism that is so pervasive, it’s invisible to people like me who, you know, I don’t see myself as being physically disabled.
So there was one point where I just burst into tears because I realized that he was giving me an end-of-life practice, or a later-on-in-life practice or something like that. He was actually preparing me for something in a way that nobody had ever prepared me for in a yoga class. When I got into yoga and I was doing asana obsessively, it was more like, “What secrets does this body hold that I can stretch out of it? And how can I break this open to find what’s inside?”
And Jivana’s doing something different. He’s like, “What’s already inside that can be felt and accepted as your condition or what your condition will be when you’re perhaps not able to stand or you’re not able to see or you’re not able to feel all of these things that you associate with yourself.” So there’s something very profound about that and it just kind of like, it added to this row of dominoes that have been falling around me or within me around what it means to not see your own privilege.
For me, that started with, I don’t know, several years ago. Actually, it came up this morning as well because I arrived here in Edmonton at 9:30, which meant that I had to leave the house in Toronto at 3:30 in the morning. And several years ago, Alix my partner said that she wanted me to take a cab to the bus stop we live in. We live in a neighborhood where if you want to catch the bus to the airport — like the bus that costs $3 instead of paying 60 bucks to take a cab at that time — you know you have to walk through a kind of lonely patch. And it’s a little bit of a sketchy area. And actually there were just two shootings this past week in the area. And so a couple of years ago, I was going to take one of these trips. I was probably coming here and she said, “Can you just take a cab to the bus stop?” And I was like, I was insulted. And I was like. “No, I’m not gonna, I’m not gonna.” I got all proud and huffy and stuff like that.
It took this argument, I’m ashamed to say, to break through this layer of absolute unconsciousness around what it actually meant to be female and in a body and in this part of the city, and thinking about walking at that time of night. And it kind of like overwhelmed me. I was like, “Oh, you live in a totally different world than I live in. And I haven’t seen that before. And I have to start taking care of that. Like I have to start taking care of you. Not in a paternalistic way, but taking care of the fact that I don’t even understand how much benefit I have here.”
It’s funny because I stayed with you during the conference and I, one night I went out and I was up until midnight and I had to navigate my way back to your house and I remember you asking me because I walked from that bus stop to your house and it was about midnight or 12:30 and I remember you asking me if I felt unsafe and I said no. And I thought about that and you know, I think probably what that is, you know, as a trauma survivor, I tend to feel safe in unsafe situations and unsafe in safe situations. So for me, I just kind of…
It can be scrambled, right?
Yeah. I puff myself up and put my head down and just walked to your house without even giving it a second thought. But, you know, it didn’t probably even occur to me that I might be putting myself at risk or in danger or that I should have maybe taken a cab or something like that. I just wandered through the streets of Toronto by myself.
Yeah. And like me asking you that and me asking you that comes from… I mean, it’s funny because there’s a potential for paternalism in there too, right? Where I’m going to be protective towards Alix or towards you as a guest and maybe over-compensate in some way and so these questions about empowerment and equality that come up. But really listening — I think the main point about privilege is just really letting it sink in: that we live in different worlds. And that was one of the first big things that, that I think really started to, it changed my spirituality in the sense that like the infatuation now that I am interested in ending or interrogating in myself is the infatuation that I have with forms of privilege that I can’t even see.
Because that infatuation — not understanding what it means to be male, or male-identified, not understanding the advantages of being white, not understanding the advantages of being considered to be able-bodied — that those are all barriers to empathy and communication and activism. Because they make a person feel like that the world is just, should be okay and navigable by everybody.
And so I’m in Jivana’s class and this, this other sort of penny dropped which was, “Oh, I’m not looking at the world as… I’m looking at the world through ableist eyes, and I’m doing that in physical terms. I’m doing it in psychological terms. I’m doing it in cognitive terms. And if I can stop doing that or if I can, I can start questioning that a little bit, I’m going to see and invite others into, or I’m going to see other people a little bit more clearly and I’m going to be able to care for things a little bit better or at least I’m going to make fewer boneheaded remarks. I’m going to cause less harm and that’d be a start.”
So we talked a little bit about disability and the, the Accessible Yoga conference, and one of the things that we talked about before we were recording was — and Elliot talks a little bit about this too, as someone who is physically disabled — that oftentimes there’s this binary around disability where we think of disability only in terms of physical disability. And one of the things that I try to talk about is how we can be disabled in other ways, right? I think when talking about internalized ableism and how we don’t always see how, how people may be disabled in certain ways or how we might have blind spots. One of the blind spots I think that I see a lot in Yogaland is around people not really understanding neurodivergence. I think you don’t really speak about this very often, but I know when I did an Ayurveda training with you, you shared about in your twenties something that happened to you, that you kind of realized that there was some neuro divergence in your life. Do you mind sharing about that?
No. Not a lot to say except that during a period in my early twenties of real emotional stress and alienation and probably like — I think I’ve been undiagnosed clinically depressed at several points in my life and it was just never in my culture or it wasn’t in my toolbox to seek out therapy. That wasn’t part of where I came from. So, that’s why I think I remained undiagnosed. But yeah during a period of really severe stress, I had a series of really explosive seizures where I lost consciousness for fairly long, I don’t know how long, but fairly long periods of time. And they were physically violent enough that I would wake up on my or I came to on the floor of my apartment with like the bookshelves toppled over. So something had happened or I’d be physically injured in some way.
And I went for testing and there was nothing found so I did whatever the EEG tests that were typical. They did a sleep deprivation test and things like that. The neurologist who saw me felt the things were, that the experiences were anomalous or they could be stress-related. But one thing that emerged out of that was every once in a while, like I sort of like go back into, I’m thinking about or researching how people experience seizures because one feature of what I experienced was that — or at least the way I narrativized it was that — the physical sensations were associated with some sort of mystical experience.
So I was in university then for religious studies, I was reading all kinds of mysticism. I was in classes where I got my first exposure to yoga philosophy and Buddhism and other things. And I think Tantric thought as well. But the story that I had ready-made for me to apply to these physical experiences I had was that something transcendental was happening to me. And so after that period, my fascination with things religious and spiritual just seemed to increase, as did my obsessive writing. And so there’s this weird thing which I haven’t been diagnosed with but seems very resonant. It’s called Geschwind Syndrome. And I think it’s a subset of a particular type of epileptic condition where — and I should say just right upfront that I haven’t had seizures for a since that period, so this is really going back 25 years now — but I think they flipped something in me or they turned something on… Geschwind Syndrome is marked by not just the seizures, but two very clear characteristics. One is hyper-religiosity, but it’s not the type of hyper-religiosity that is devotional. It’s a hyper-religiosity that is simply intellectually interested in religion. And then the other thing that people with Geshschwind Syndrome have or typically present is hypergraphia or endless writing, obsessive writing. And that’s certainly very resonant with me.
Because you’ve described yourself as almost addicted to, writing.
Sure, for sure. Yeah. Because, for various reasons, that’s also been like a way of internally parenting myself when I do various types of writing. So not all of this is like this. I can write pseudo-academically or whatever and I can write in a kind of reporting format. But when I really need care, my instinct has always been to write about something. And what’s fascinating is that as soon as it begins to appear on the screen or the page in front of me, it’s almost like a hologram. Almost like like there’s a person there that I am dialoguing with and who is caring for me enough to listen to what I’m saying and faithfully reproducing it.
Alix actually told me about this thing DW Winnicott says, which is that sometimes a person can turn to their intellect for care. And that’s certainly been true for me for writing. So it’s a very hard thing to describe except that when I get into the flow of it, I don’t feel like I’m alone. However I have to be alone to do it!
And so that makes — I struggle with accepting care from other people because I’ve developed this really sort of iron-clad way of doing it for myself internally and that all intensified after the seizure experience. The other symptom that, or thing that people with Geschwind Syndrome present with is atypical sexuality, and that doesn’t really resonate with me, but often they say two out of the three things is good. So that’s been interesting to me.
I want to learn more about that so it can be more transparent about that because I think that if my writing becomes more prominent or you know, if this book does really well or something like that, I want to be really clear with myself and with my readership that writing is not just a profession or a skill for me. It has a therapeutic aspect to it. It has a compulsive aspect to it. And that means that I have to take responsibility for dumping on other people when I write and you know, you can have the kind of avoidant hand-wiping attitude of “Well I’m just gonna produce my content and people can do with it what they will.” Or you can say “No, if you do something that’s compelling and people follow it, then you have responsibility towards them.” And so yeah, I wanna learn more about that part of myself which is so large, it’s hard to see.
One of the things that, that I hear a lot when I talk to other yoga people about you is, you know, I think it comes out of intimidation to be honest. People are intimidated, by some of the big words that you use when you write. But there’s a lot of like, “Oh, he thinks he’s better than everyone,” or “He thinks he’s smarter than everyone,” or “He’s so negative or judgey. And certainly like, you’re probably one of the smartest people I’ve met. But I mean, I don’t personally find you intimidating. But I’m wondering, and somebody asked me this about you. Somebody asked me a couple of weeks ago like, “I wonder why Matthew didn’t become a cult leader?”
Some people say that I have!
Some people say that you have, some people say that —
I’m like: “Show me the people.”
Where’s the money? Well, I mean, I think some people think because, you know, like myself and some of some of our other friends that we have in common will come to your defence when you’re being dog-piled on for things. I think that we get accused of being Rembots or that we’re in the cult of Remski or whatever. But like because you kind of have the brain that you do. I mean, it certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibility that you could have at one point created some kind of a cult if you wanted to.
Yeah, you’re totally, you’re totally right. Okay. So, so the first thing that comes up when you, when you asked that is that I stopped doing classes that I was… Well, I mean, a lot of things happened that ended up closing up my last studio that I owned in Toronto with my ex partner. Like the main thing being that the relationship ended. I ran courses in Ayurveda and I had a small following and there were a lot of people who really liked what I did and… But there was also… I would do, Ayurvedic health education appointments, for which there’s no licensing or no accountability structure. And it was only when I started to go to psychotherapy myself that… then certainly when I met Alix and she comes from a psychotherapy family and she was going to start studying psychotherapy herself, I was like, “Oh a regulated industry means that there’s a huge interpersonal training component that really should be in place before you’re visiting with people alone and talking with them about their diets and their relational lives and all of the things that come up in Ayurvedic health education.”
And I stopped doing those appointments because I realized that I did not know how to understand — or I started to begin to understand what was happening in things like transference and countertransference. And that happened through my own therapy, also, as I said with starting to learn about Alix’s world. And I realized that I did not know how to… there was nothing in the training in the yoga world or the yoga therapy world or in the Ayurveda world that I had encountered that really gave me a clear understanding of how to understand the power dynamics of the relationship of a personal meeting like that. And so I just stopped doing it because I realized I didn’t understand it.
So when I think about like why, if I’m a charismatic person and I have interesting and unique content, why I didn’t go forward and want to accumulate power or something like that socially with people in real life. I think about that. I think there’s something in me that said, “No, wait a minute, I’m over my head here and I don’t know how to do this.”
And there’s a lot of people out there in this world who also don’t know how to do this and they’re doing it and they’re hurting people, because we started to hear those stories as well. And so I guess the notion that I would manipulate people interpersonally just fills me with such dread and guilt and shame that that would be possible.
Can I tell you a story?
Yes, you can.
So the first time you ever came to my studio in LaCombe it was packed. So there was like, I don’t know, 30, 40 people in the room. It was all women. And LaCombe is this tiny little city in central Alberta and it’s I think the most churched community in Canada if I’m not wrong. And it’s also a guaranteed conservative stronghold. Anytime there’s an election, it’s always a conservative community.
And I remember watching you teach meditation to this room full of women, at the studio. We had just opened. I think we were maybe open for four or five months. And I remember watching the women were sitting down and you were standing up and you were talking about meditation and I just remember their faces watching you talk with…. they seem to be just full of like this weird wondering. It’s probably, they’ve probably never seen somebody like you before or interacted with somebody like you before. And I remember thinking after a while after they’d asked questions and you were talking about meditation and how to claim agency in your own body. I remember thinking, “These women are asking him for permission to exist.”
I remember being so blown away by that and wondering how you were navigating that because I’m sure you picked up on it and in some ways
And I wondered like, how is he going to navigate this? They’re asking him to just give them basic permission to breathe and like they don’t even know that they can breathe.
Right. And what does it mean to stand at the front of the room as a man? And have it be okay that you’re the person who’s going to do that. It’s just so…
That is so weird.
It’s so bizarre and it’s, I think it’s very unhealthy and I just don’t think it’s a good. I just don’t think it’s a good dynamic. There’s too many,.. like at that point, at that point, I can feel, I can feel the countertransference, right. So: Dude’s from the city. A totally different background from anybody I know. He’s gendered differently in some ways —
Yeah there’s some sort of femininity about him.
Right. So I know that there’s something new or odd or attractive about me and I’m like, and it just makes me uncomfortable, My immediate feeling is I’m uncomfortable and there’s a power dynamic here that is artificial or it’s overriding, not overriding but competing with whatever the basic content is of saying a few things about meditation.
So we’re running out of time, but I really want to get into your book and I really want to get into the other thing we want to talk about, but I wanted to, I want to kind of dive into this a little bit because this is something I’ve personally had to navigate because I was raised in a cult. And certainly male authority has more power for me than female authority.
And I think when you and I first met because we’re both cult survivors, I think there was a really strong pull that could have gone into countertransference for me anyways, I don’t know about, for you, but for me there could have been a really strong sort of like glomming on to you as some sort of, you know, teacher figure or something. And at one point there was something we were talking about, and I was asking you what you thought and I think you said, “You know, I’m just telling you this as your friend, right?” And I remember hearing you say that and thinking, “Okay, yeah, you’re right, like, this is just like two people sharing information. This isn’t you some kind of supernatural being telling me something that I needed to hear.”
I hope that like saying “friend” implied like equal.
Yeah, it did, it did, it totally diffused…
Because that can be a weird word too.
No, it completely diffused it for me and really brought me back down to earth and kind of cemented the relationship that I feel like I have with you. But I know that for me in certain circumstances, because those deeply ingrained patterns are so embedded that it’s almost impossible for me sometimes not to need that in order to hear something.
It’s tragic, totally fucking tragic.
It is. I had this dream one time that I was, I was an elephant in an elephant sanctuary and I really wanted to be out in the wild. And I remember the elephant me crying and wanting to be wild and having this realization that I had to stay in the sanctuary because I couldn’t survive in the wild. And like, that really spoke to me about, you know, I was born into dynamics, so my patterning is from birth and it’s so, it’s not so easy to untangle. And so my whole journey now has been, you know, what do I need to embrace and work with and what can I, what can I get rid of. And so when I, when I had that realization about you at my studio and I saw the way that these women were watching you, I had this realization that I’m this whole city that I was opening the studio in felt like an abusive relationship to me. It felt like an oppressive and abusive relationship where, and you know, I’m, I’m saying this knowing that maybe some of the people from my studio are going to be listening to this, that there were women in this community who had never experienced agency and who had never had the chance to really be in their own bodies and to make their own decisions. And I wonder, you know, with you saying, well, that’s wrong. I shouldn’t be teaching these people, but I wonder if there are things that you could say to someone like that that wouldn’t be heard from anyone else other than a man.
Yeah. I really don’t know. Like, it’s a really sort of prime example of privilege meeting an old paradigm that seems to want it or need it or something like that.
Well we talked about this a little bit when we talk about, the ways that people can go into practices that are harming and so like practices like BDSM where, where people are addressing their trauma through, through physical harm to their bodies or physical harm. Maybe harm isn’t the right word, but from hurting themselves. And how that, some people find that as a pathway to healing. And I wonder, you know…
Yeah — If there’s informed consent and if there’s all kinds of safety procedures and all that, right? I don’t know how to answer that question of what does it mean to be in the front of the room as a man with a lot of women listening to you very intently. And the dynamics that creates and echoes. I don’t have a personal answer for that except to say it doesn’t really work for me, and I’m not comfortable with it.
That said, I’m here in Edmonton, I’m going to facilitate a YTT module. It’s going to be mainly women in the room, but it’s going to be different because I’m not going to be teaching techniques or practices. I’m going to be giving basically a seminar in critical thinking. And so it’s not about instructing people towards their higher selves or giving them some sort of spirituality or pretending in some way that there was something inside me that is worth sharing. Those things are not really part of that kind of instruction. But I do know that leading a retreat for or like leading a group class in an 80 percent female practice population… I just don’t know how personally I would feel comfortable given everything that I’ve learned about sustaining those dynamics.
And so everything that I’m doing now is to try to move towards just offering a content rather than practices. And coming out of this book, I’m working on modules for community health. I’m thinking about going to, I guess it wouldn’t be graduate school because I didn’t graduate, but I don’t know, doing what I need to do to become a licensed counselor for people who are navigating their way out of cults. Because I’m doing that like a dozen times a week anyway and I’m doing it for free and I should be paid for it, but I also should know how to do it better, and not just have informal conversations with people. And so I’m just moving away from the charismatic power dynamic that is kind of at the center of how commercial yoga works and that is exacerbated by this structural sexism that you point out.
I mean that could lead into a whole conversation around men teaching yoga and what needs to happen around that for sure. But I’d like to finish off with talking about your book and maybe some cult dynamics in yoga land for sure. So: March, you’re book is going to be out?,
Yeah, March 14th. We’re in the thick of production whirlwind and there’s a thousand little details and decisions to be made along the way and we’re setting up online resources. And, there’s a workbook that is at the end of the book that I’m hoping will be a resource for teacher training programs. The book’s called Practice and All Is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics, and Healing in Yoga and Beyond. And it comes out of three years of a tracking the stories of the survivors of Pattabhi Jois’s sexual assaults, which he got away with for 30 years because he was enabled, I argue, by a number of factors including including key cultic dynamics of information control and image management and rationalization and pyramid-like structures, where power just floats to the top and, you know, information leaks down to the bottom and get suppressed and silenced.
And feels like a good time. Like it took three years to do. And because I’m so personally invested, not in Ashtanga yoga, but in cult literature and cult recovery I didn’t realize until I pretty much finished the draft how exhausted it had made me and how much it had, caused my physical and mental health to deteriorate. I feel that slowly I’m recovering from that. And it kind of feels like an exciting time now because, there’s going to be a shitstorm when it’s released, but I kind of know what’s coming and I’m a little bit more relaxed into the decisions I’ve made around, how I’ve analyzed things and who I’ve called to account in the book and that sort of thing. So I’m feeling good about it and I also just don’t know what’s going to happen.
Yeah. Because there’s always kind of like the things you can’t really predict, right? Like your work over the last few years, you know, you’ve really kind of dug into exposing the unhealthy dynamics in Yogaland. And I think through that work and through the work of others that are less visible than you, like Theo and myself and other trauma informed teachers, we’ve seen this language and this movement become co-opted. And so it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out with your book as well.
Right? Well it will be. And what I was really grateful for in working with, with my editor at the Walrus, is that she really guided me through the nuts and bolts of creating a victim-centered narrative or a survivor-centered narrative. And that’s the most important thing about this book to me is that at the heart of it I’m learning to listen to what people like Karen Rain and, and Anneke Lucas and Marissa Sullivan and Jubilee Cooke have to say about their experience and really trying to grasp what it was like and how difficult it has been to hold it and to name it and to manage and to then disclose it and then to deal with all of the blowback.
And my editor also with Embodied Wisdom Publications has been excellent in helping me to really keep the book focused on a survivor’s voices. And that’s key because as we’ve seen in the last six months or so as people have tried to address… as the yoga world… I would say the yoga administrative or bureaucratic world has tried to address the issue of institutional abuse in yoga schools and amongst yoga teachers, they’re not inviting survivors to the table. In event after event, panel after panel, the people who are not invited are the people who actually have done the most work. And this was true back in March or something like that of 2018 when all of the luminaries of the world gathered for their confluence in San Diego. And they actually had a panel discussion on, “Well, what do we do now that we’ve realized that the leader of our method was a 30 year sexual predator?”
They didn’t use those terms, but they convened a panel where they basically discussed, “Well, what does this mean to us as faithful people? What does this mean to us as devotees?” They didn’t reach out to Karen Rain and say, “Can you come and tell us what we should do in relation to survivors of our guru’s abuse? We’re here and we’ve made our careers because we actually either turned a blind eye or enabled him.” They didn’t, of course, they didn’t do that.
There was a similar meeting in London where again, none of Pattabhi Jois’s actual survivors were invited to participate. It was a closed session, but Theo was invited to it and she reluctantly agreed, I believe, I think I can say that on her behalf, to be the person who was going to speak for survivors as the trauma-sensitive person. But you know, they had a Jois devotee on the panel. And it’s like — if you’re going to actually tackle it, you actually have to listen to the people who were impacted and you have to let them drive the story. Because where are you going to be otherwise other than in one realm or another of brand reframing or management or brand washing.
What my hope is that people will start listening to what Karen Rain says as being central to the narrative of modern yoga. That she has as much to say about what it means to learn about yourself and to deal with suffering and to deal with trauma and to understand what kind of support one needs as any yoga expert does. I just want to see people like people like her become the real community leaders. Having said that, I know that that’s not what she wants! I think what I wrote my book is that is that at a certain point people in Yoga culture will be more interested in what Karen Rain has to say about her experience in yoga than they’ll be interested in what Pattabhi Jois taught. And at that point, I think we’ll all be practicing more yoga actually.
Amen. All right. I think we’re done. Thank you so much. I really appreciate you being willing to do this. I know you’re exhausted and you need to have a nap. So thank you so much for your time.
“Feminist-Informed” Ashtanga and “Trauma-Informed” Kundalini: How Cultic Deception Can Harm Academics and Therapists
High-demand groups hurt members and their families directly in physical, emotional, and financial ways.
That harm is contagious.
In this post I’ll look at two instances in which the primary tactic of the high-demand group — deception — radiates harm outward, wasting the time, resources, and emotional labour of well-meaning people who come into contact with the group and wind up promoting it, even as it belies their values. One comes from academia, and the other comes from the mental health world.
The 2016 article “Yoga As Embodied Feminist Praxis: Trauma, Healing, and Community Based Responses to Violence” (1) by Beth Catlett and Mary Bunn is built on meticulous fieldwork that assesses the efficacy of yoga programming in communities living with and recovering from violence. Bunn’s contribution comes from her work with Project Air, a non-profit bringing services including yoga instruction to HIV-infected survivors of the Rwandan genocide. Catlett’s focus is on the Urban Yogis programme for marginalized youth in Queens, New York.
Urban Yogis, as Catlett and Bunn report, is co-directed by an anti-violence activist named Erica Ford, and Eddie Stern of Ashtanga New York. Interviews with Stern and time spent in his service classes impressed the scholars with his humility and altruism, and dispelled their reservations about whether the patriarchal structure of Ashtanga Yoga could really serve a pro-social mission.
“Our engagement with the Urban Yogis program,” they conclude,
“has inspired a confidence that a feminist-informed social justice orientation to community engagement emphasizing ethics of care, commitment, shared power, and mutual political vision is indeed possible.”(2)
Had Catlett, Bunn, and their editors known about the active and unresolved abuse history in Ashtanga yoga when they began their research? If they had known, would they have chosen to highlight an Ashtanga yoga community in a book about feminist-oriented social values?
By email, the scholars vigorously confirmed they hadn’t known.
“Our starting point,” they wrote,
is always to listen to, and take seriously, the voices/experiences of those who have experienced violence and abuse — this is the way that we can learn about the ways that power operates in institutions, and these voices are important to inform our work to dismantle unjust systems of power, privilege, and oppression within such institutions.
We knew nothing of these experiences of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment at the writing of our chapter, and therefore, this new information about the abuse of power within the ashtanga community is something with which we will have to grapple as our work moves forward.
But why didn’t they know? Was the research naïve, overcredulous? Perhaps. But it’s also true that certain high-demand nodes of the Ashtanga yoga world hid crucial facts.
Stern himself plays a role in that story through his editorship of the propagandistic book Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K Pattabhi Jois Through the Eyes of His Students, The volume’s co-editor, Guy Donahaye, recently distanced himself from the book, writing:
Since his death, Guruji has been elevated to a position of sainthood. Part of this promotion has been due to the book of interviews I collected and published with Eddie Stern… which paints a positive picture of his life and avoids exploring the issues of injury and sexual assault. In emphasizing only positive stories it has done more to cement the idea that he was a perfect yogi, which he clearly was not.
By burnishing his image, we make it unassailable — it makes us doubt the testimony of those he abused. This causes further harm to those whose testimony we deny and to ourselves.
How then, does Stern become cited as a facilitator of “feminist-informed social justice” in the yoga world? How does he come to occupy that space to the exclusion of one of the hundreds of people, mostly women, that have been teaching consent-based trauma-sensitive yoga to at-risk populations for years?
Consider the enthusiastic undergrad and Master’s students who will read Catlett and Bunn’s essay and come away with a partial view of the method and community under discussion. Will there be a correction issued? Who will see it?
And how will Jois’s victims feel about reading feminist academic accolades to their former male colleague who has yet to publicly acknowledge the abuse? Months of fieldwork by two feminist scholars are now of questionable value, not because they don’t have productive observations to contribute about yoga service in general, but because their good will was confounded.
Trauma and addictions recovery specialist Gabor Maté works closely with a Canadian organization called Beyond Addiction, which offers a yoga-based training programme “for individuals seeking to develop healthy habits and overcome addictive behaviour, for health professionals and yoga teachers who work with addiction.”
The yoga community providing content for the program is 3HO: the “Happy, Healthy, and Holy” organization founded by Yogi Bhajan in 1969. Recent scholarship has shown that Bhajan’s postmodern “Kundalini” blend of Tantric Yoga and Sikhism has few historical roots in any stream of Indian wisdom tradition, despite the community’s lofty claims.
More importantly, anyone who Googles “3HO abuse” will find that the organization settled two lawsuits against Bhajan, including one case of rape and confinement brought by a woman who entered his harem of “secretaries” at age eleven.
Did Maté do a basic background check on the organization he’s promoting to his platform of 100K Facebook followers? Should he be concerned that a person with a trauma load might come to one of his 3HO-related trainings, do that Google search halfway through it, see that the Kundalini instructors he’s collaborating with still quote Yogi Bhajan without reservation? Should he be concerned if that person feels both triggered and betrayed?
“Dr. Maté is well aware of the possibility and actuality of abuse in any spiritual or medical culture,” wrote his assistant in response to an emailed request for comment.
That’s just not good enough.
Bottom line: if you’re going to platform a yoga community, method, or personality — especially with the altruistic intention of using those resources to help vulnerable people — do your research. Prepare to find out that that community, method, or personality has likely failed its vulnerable members and followers — and in the worst cases, traumatized them.
Then: work out how you’re going to relate to that community, method, or personality with transparency, integrity, and justice, in such a way that the patterns of harm, enabling, or bypassing stops with you.
(1) In Berila, Beth, et al. Yoga, the Body, and Embodied Social Change: an Intersectional Feminist Analysis. Lexington Books, 2016. 259-275.
(2) Ibid. 267.
Talking with Carmen Spagnola about Attachment, High-Demand Groups, Responsibilism, and Grief (Transcript)
We talked about the intersection of aspirational and high-demand groups, getting over the guilt and shame of privilege-recognition, the somatic affect of charisma and how it leads to weird group habitus and the paradox of having to “market” things like community.
Carmen totally cracked me up when she described some of the well-intentioned jargon taking root in the deep ecology / revillaging circles she runs in. We talked about how highly evocative but undefinable terms like “grief-soaked” can brand a newly-commodified activism while also shutting down real-world convos. No, people probably don’t really talk like that. And when they do, there’s probably a little bit of trying-to-sell-shit-to-each-other going on. And loaded language is always a red flag for high-demand dynamics.
My favourite bits were when she asked me about how I stay connected to yoga practice while studying high-demand yoga groups, and how I manage rage and grief. This made me think about how I don’t actually know how well I’m taking care of myself — I mean, how would I? — even after all these years of yoga and meditation. Also it allowed me to describe how I have to split my brain in several ways in order to quarantine off certain things to get on with it.
I found the process of stumbling through answers to those two difficult questions was quite healing. Continue reading “Talking with Carmen Spagnola about Attachment, High-Demand Groups, Responsibilism, and Grief (Transcript)”
I was speaking with the survivor of a high-demand group. They described having been recruited by a family within the group that had offered them a job.
In time, the requirements of the job began to blend with the requirements of the group. Within a few months, the subject found themselves thinking that they were somehow still in the job, but had also become intrinsic to the centre of the group. This felt both special and strange. Ultimately they went on to suffer abuse at the hands of the group’s leader, from which they’ve spent the rest of their lives recovering.
In essence, the person I was talking to described being deceived, which is cult tactic 101. She showed up for a job, was asked to begin to interact with the group as an implied condition of ongoing employment, and was told that the group’s leader would offer her enlightenment. It wasn’t true.
They asked me:
So do you think that the family had planned all along to bring me in, and for those things to happen to me?
I could hear the tenderness of the question. Behind it was the terrible thought that perhaps this family, with whom they had bonded, had purposefully and callously betrayed her.
This was a question about evil.
I offered that neither of us could have a real clinical insight into the family. Even if we did, I said, it wouldn’t resolve the question of their intentions. We can never fully say why people do things, or whether they’re doing things in good faith, or with full agency.
I always find it easier, I said, to focus on impacts.
But the feeling of the subject’s question twigged something inside me.
There was a horror to it, a shame, a sense of claustrophobia. And contagion.
Can people really be so awful?
These are all feelings that also exude from the more common question that survivors ask. This would be the self-accusatory question: “How did I fall for that?” Or, “How could I have been so stupid?”
The self-accusatory questions show the internalization of the victim-blaming that fuels the wider culture. Which, in its most domesticated state, serves as the basic logic of neoliberalism.
It touches the root of a primal shame: Why did I deserve that?
Self-blame is bolstered by various legal, economic, and journalistic conventions that don’t have the tools (and perhaps don’t want them) to investigate the difference between consent and informed consent, or situations of trauma in which the fold response can broadcast false consent.
The things you said yes to because saying yes was safer than saying no.
Okay. So when this feeling of shame comes over the ex high-demand group member, here are two facts that cannot be denied:
1) They didn’t deserve it. Nobody deserves to be lied to and abused.
2) There are no predictors for why they got drawn in. There is no research to suggest there’s a particular “vulnerable type” who is more prone to recruitment. Nothing protects a person against deception. It doesn’t matter if you had an abusive childhood. (That wouldn’t be your fault either.) There are many people who have had abusive childhoods don’t wind up in cults.
Having wound up in a cult can feel like a personal failing. But it’s not. It’s more like having been infected by a virus.
According to Stein’s model of cult-as-disorganized-attachment-machine, part of the infected member’s condition is to believe that the source of the sickness is also the cure.
So let’s bring this back to the subject’s question: “Do you think that the family had planned all along to bring me in?”
That first, pragmatic answer still holds true: there’s no way of knowing.
But can we say anything else — something that sounds a little less like a shrug — to relieve the burden of having to ponder a terrible betrayal?
If we use the virus metaphor, perhaps we say that the subject got hired into a contagious environment. Perhaps the family didn’t even know they were infected. They were part of the group, after all, because they too, at some point, had been deceived.
The main difference between the subject and the family that hired her may have been that the family had incubated the group virus for long enough that they themselves were contagious in their daily actions. They may not even have recognized they are symptomatic.
My point is: wondering whether recruiters are evil shares space with the victim-blaming impulse. Both depend on the premise that personal agency — and therefore, the capacity for informed consent — remains intact in relation to a cult, even though the cult runs on deception. Both depend on the premise that personal choices are the prime movers of cultic involvement and action, rather than a kind of social contagion.
A good metaphor gives us space for working on the questions of the heart. But as much as cult-as-virus idea might relieve the survivor of self-blame — and, if they want to go there, the traumatic conviction that they were betrayed — it has a hard limit. A virus does not excuse criminal activity.
And, as an amorphic, amoral, depersonalized thing, the virus shares characteristics with the chaotic and naturalistic forces of “karma”, by which criminality has so often escaped scrutiny and accountability in yoga and Buddhism groups.
But if we don’t take it too far, there’s another reason to like the metaphor. It might let us think of cult awareness education as a kind of vaccination programme.
Reading a good cult analysis book is actually a lot like getting a sharp pinch in the arm. (Here’s an amazing bibliography.) It stings, burns, maybe swells a bit. You know the vaccine contains tiny bits of the virus itself, suspended inertly in the medium.
Every good cult book I know has been written by someone who had to develop their own antibodies.
So: a few regular, highly-researched shots in the arm. It should be enough arms to offer herd immunity to those who don’t have access to the information. It’ll be good to keep up to date, and pay the experts to watch for mutations.
A source forwarded the following email, sent by a Shambhala leader to volunteers and residents at Vermont’s Karmê Chöling, the Buddhist retreat centre founded by the organization’s “root teacher”, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, in 1970.
The email follows up on a group meeting of volunteers and residents to discuss whether the portrait of Ösel Mukpo, now accused of forced confinement and sexual assault, should be covered or taken down from the altar in the staff shrine room. The letter indicates the same questions are being asked about the photographs of Trungpa.
Core teaching content is delivered in Shambhala shrine rooms, as well as group liturgies, ceremonies, and empowerments. These events often involve generating deep feelings of love and devotion towards group leaders, and the teaching content. At this moment, shrine rooms throughout the organization are surely fraught spaces for many members, who may suddenly feel they are sites of personal and institutional betrayal.
What is at stake in this discussion is whether those who have been sexually assaulted (statistically one in four women who enter that room), along with those who bear other traumas, will be asked to meditate in a space presided over by the image of a credibly accused assaulter. Because the staff shrine room altar is the focus, this is also a workplace issue.
I’m posting it below with a few brief notes in red because I think it might be useful for members to track in real time how cognitive dissonance emerges and is managed by power structures at crisis moments in yoga and Buddhist communities. I believe if members can be supported in seeing this clearly, recovery time will be hastened. Continue reading “Shrine of Devotion, Betrayal, or Indoctrination? An Internal Shambhala Email, Annotated”
I’ll preface this post by saying that, in accordance with the clinical research, I do not believe there are strong correlations between prior life experience and the likelihood that a person will join or stay in a cult (or “totalist”, or “high-demand” group.) What follows is a speculation, based on memory and anecdote, on why people who are already inside such a group may be more prone to the kind of enabling and moral harm that Facebook friend Joseph Teskey has described to me as “I got mine-ism” (IGM).
IGM is a defensive strategy by which a member who has not (or believes they have not) directly experienced abuse or institutional betrayal within the group deflects stories of abuse within the group by immediately self-referring, saying things like: “I don’t know about other’s experience; I find/found the teacher/teachings to be profoundly helpful in my life.” The statement is usually couched within an unwillingness to act on behalf on victims or mitigate future harm. Continue reading “The Unbearable Smugness of “I Got Mine-ism” Amongst Cult and ex-Cult Members”
It can be really hard listening to stories of abuse, especially if they implicate people or institutions that you love and benefit from. If you ever feel that strange tingle, followed by the urge to say:
Wow, that sounds like an intense and difficult experience; if you want to share more about it, I’ll listen…
…the following reminders can really help:
- Encourage all accusers to only talk about the here and now: “There’s only the present moment.” (They’ll thank you for this wisdom later.)
- Another angle is to relieve them of the terrible burden of history: “But that was so long ago. Do you really want to rehash that?”
- Or, remind them that history is also precious, in the memories of other people — innocent people, people they should care about: “But he’s been dead for years. Think of what this will do to those who really loved him.”
- Or, remind them that history is incomprehensible: “He came from a different time. He lived through unimaginable things. He’s a survivor.” (This is particularly important to tell the person who is calling themselves a “survivor”.)
- Memory is a part of consciousness. You really want it to be dirty?
- You can also cast doubt on their future in general: “What exactly do you hope to get out of this?”
- Or, in particular, being sure to predict their future unhappiness: “What satisfaction can you extract from a old/senile/dead man?”
- Remember that because Truth is Real and there is no separation and all that, literally anything can be re-framed as love. That’s right — anything.
- The only limit to your reframing capacity is fear, and fear is the root of the accusation to begin with. You are hearing the accusation because you haven’t fully accepted the power of Truth.
- Put more simply: you can appeal to the language of spiritual unity to explain why telling stories about abuse is divisive.
- Remember to always conceal your personal need to avoid consequences behind an abstract wish for collective peace.
- Remember that accusers want revenge. You know this is not healthy for them. It’s your job to save them from the mental and moral hell of revenge. Somebody must do it.
- Remember: you got exactly what you needed from that teacher/guru/organization. It/they transformed you. Don’t let any victim or their snowflake victim mentality take that from you. Nobody can disempower you.
- Also, remember how hard you worked to always see the good, then and now. All the sunken costs you gobbled up, all the humiliation you smiled through, how many goddam mantras you had to say to dull the pain of cognitive dissonance. You repressed that shit like a mofo. Don’t let anybody steal that work from you.
- Make sure to question the “intentions” of people who want to share their stories of abuse. Intentions are everything. And the intention to be divisive is reflective of a divided self.
- The Law of Attraction says that talking about abuse invites more abuse. But you don’t need the LoA to know that. Just look at what happens when you do it. Do you really want to subject yourself to abuse?
- Remember that the intentions of the teacher/guru/organization were ALWAYS good.
- Remember that your intentions are ALWAYS totally neutral. You have nothing at stake in how that teacher/guru/organization is portrayed.
- On the other hand, the accused, even if dead, has a lot at stake: “He has a wife and children. Think of them!”
- If you ever doubt the intentions of teacher/guru/organization, remember that people are always flawed. What’s important are the teachings.
- Whenever you say the word “teachings” aloud, pretend it has a capital letter. Teachings. Go ahead and say it again. Louder. You can do the same thing with the words “perception” (as in “it’s just your Perception“) and Forgiveness.
- Suggest that the need to be heard and seek justice creates more cycles of karma.
- Explain that no one needs justice if they can pretend to have equanimity. You can practice the facial expression of equanimity by gazing into a mirror while gently massaging your anus with an oiled finger.
- When you look at the accuser with the gaze of equanimity, your eyes should be slightly unfocused. This will give the person the feeling that you are listening-but-not-listening, seeing-but-not-seeing. If they ask Where the fuck are you anyway I’m saying something important!, you can breathe deeply and reply that you’re listening to and looking at them through the lens of non-judgement in that field where Rumi is posting to Facebook with one hand and massaging his anus with the other.
- If you’re doing all this noble work through email, make sure to sign off with “Love and Light”, so that your intentions are crystal clear!
- If it’s in person, make sure to offer the accuser a hug. They might recoil, but don’t back down. If they step back, step towards them, saying something like: “Let’s just take a moment to join in the present.” When you do hug them, count to at least ten, and then five more for good measure. Breathe deeply and let out a sigh. Show the accuser how warm your chest is, how human you are, how it’s like you’re the same person, which means it’s all going to be alright. If they pull back, hug a little tighter. Make them feel like it’s best for them to relax into it. Besides, they might just be smelling your poopy finger. That’s not gonna kill them.
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