Talking with Carmen Spagnola about Attachment, High-Demand Groups, Responsibilism, and Grief (Transcript)

Carmen Spagnola asked me some awesome questions for her fascinating podcast series on community in the shadow of collapse.

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)”

Are Cult Members Stupid? Are Cult Recruiters Evil? (Let’s Talk About Viruses Instead.)

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.

 

 

 

Shrine of Devotion, Betrayal, or Indoctrination? An Internal Shambhala Email, Annotated

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”

The Unbearable Smugness of “I Got Mine-ism” Amongst Cult and ex-Cult Members

The Smugness of "I Got Mine-ism" Amongst Cult and ex-Cult Members

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 Philip Deslippe​ 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”

Pro-tips for Yoga/Spiritual Abuse Gaslighters

Pro-tips for Yoga/Spiritual Abuse Gaslighters:

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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?”
  3. 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.”
  4. 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”.)
  5. Memory is a part of consciousness. You really want it to be dirty?
  6. You can also cast doubt on their future in general: “What exactly do you hope to get out of this?”
  7. Or, in particular, being sure to predict their future unhappiness: “What satisfaction can you extract from a old/senile/dead man?”
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. Put more simply: you can appeal to the language of spiritual unity to explain why telling stories about abuse is divisive.
  11. Remember to always conceal your personal need to avoid consequences behind an abstract wish for collective peace.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. 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?
  17. Remember that the intentions of the teacher/guru/organization were ALWAYS good.
  18. Remember that your intentions are ALWAYS totally neutral. You have nothing at stake in how that teacher/guru/organization is portrayed.
  19. On the other hand, the accused, even if dead, has a lot at stake: “He has a wife and children. Think of them!”
  20. If you ever doubt the intentions of teacher/guru/organization, remember that people are always flawed. What’s important are the teachings.
  21. 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.
  22. Suggest that the need to be heard and seek justice creates more cycles of karma.
  23. 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.
  24. 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.
  25. 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!
  26. 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.

 

____

If you appreciate this satire/not-satire, please consider supporting the International Cultic Studies Association.

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

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

One of the hardest questions I get asked by friends or family of people in cults is about how to talk with them about their experience. How do you have a conversation with someone who you think is being deceived, who has become dependent on a power structure you suspect is harming them? What if they say they’ve never been happier, and you can’t shake the gut feeling that there’s something off? There’s never an easy answer.

So much seems to depend upon the trust you share with the person, how well you make them feel heard, the state of their basic life-resources. In all of the stories I’ve heard about people extricating themselves from cults, there never seems to be any single decisive factor that pried them loose. But often, people will say that a key exchange with someone helped them change course.

I once had an exchange like that.

In 1999, a good friend of mine wrote to me about my immersion in the cult of Michael Roach. I recently found his typewritten letter during a closet clean-out, and read it again. And again. I’m retyping it out here with minor edits to protect anonymity.

Though I didn’t fully absorb them then, these words haunted me for the entire year between receiving it and leaving Roach. Today I can’t believe how lucky I was to have such a friend who could write them to me.

I hope you enjoy my friend’s kindness and subtlety, how he unfolds his argument slowly, with wit and pathos. How he takes me seriously, and tries to imagine and validate my inner life, even as he feels alienated from it. How he avoids the question of cultism and possible abuse for just long enough to have space in the end to back away from it with cheerful melancholy.

I hope you enjoy his self-awareness, humility, uncertainty, and bravery. Beyond his many salient points, perhaps it was his modelling of these virtues that made the deepest impression upon me.

(The opening reference is to an audio tape of Robert Thurman, probably teaching elementary Tibetan Buddhism. I’d sent it to this friend as a way of explaining what I was into. Or justifying it: Thurman was a lot more mainstream-able than Roach.)

____

April 16/99

Dear M,

Thanks for the tape, I’ve listened to it and found it both fascinating and puzzling. Thurman seems to fluctuate between academic instruction and personal inspiration. It’s all new to me.

I have to admit I find your increasingly devoted, if not feverish, attachment to Buddhism somewhat frightening to me. It makes me feel simultaneously apart from your experience and intrigued.

What does it feel like to actually believe in something? Really believe? I admit I have never truly believed in anything — all religions make me feel like an outsider, someone looking in on a transcendent experience, never one of the blessed (?) the inducted (?) the knowing (?).

So, when I hear of you growing more and more a part of something that appears to loom so large in your minds and hearts, I figure, well, there he goes — in a couple of years, or shorter, he’ll be off to some austere place (mental or geographical) where only the fellow enlightened can reach him. Essentially, it feels like you’ve already begun to pack for a figurative (or real) Tibet. I will miss you greatly.

By now you’re probably reading the above as et another instance of my relentless negativity, my self absorption — but, as true as that may be, I do still feel what I fell, which is that you are disappearing, or, to be more precise, changing shape.

That in itself is, of course, good and should be accepted by anyone who loves you, except that the catalyst for this change appears to me to be an all-encompassing, and excluding religious practice. I celebrate your new found happiness and clarity, but will the vehicle for this change ultimately make me and others that love you but who do not follow the same practices irrelevant?

Will you begin to see non-Buddhists as unenlightened, backward, and no longer necessary for your happiness?

Finally, and this is perhaps the most contentious of my concerns, I just fundamentally distrust and worry about people, especially people I love, who see their redemption (? wrong term, I’m sure) as coming through a single person, a “teacher”. I have always been suspicious of anyone who would set him/herself up as a teacher of intangibles, of ultimately unknowable things.

I fear the possibility of cultish servility — although I hardly think of such an ancient and resonant religion as a cult. But that does not mean that there are not charismatic people within Buddhism who are seeking followers to dominate.

I guess it all boils down to personal psychology — as a recent victim of a massive abuse of authority and trust, I’m afraid to see my friends potentially falling under the sway of another persuasive personality.

Call it projection (accurately), call it melodrama (possibly) — but I ask you to please keep a small part of yourself open to questions and the tiny voices of disquiet all intelligent people carry inside them as protection against fraud.

Know that I love you, and that this little diatribe has been brewing in me for awhile, and is not easy to write.

I admit I’m always confused, but sometimes I’m also very perceptive.

Am I losing you? Is the world? Please accept my love,

X

“But He’s Not Erect”: Rationalizing Videos and Lies

"But He's Not Erect": Rationalizing Videos and Lies

This post might mark a shift of this blog into firmly opinion-column/commentary territory, as a lot of what I’m working on now beyond book projects is mostly higher-stakes investigative journalism, and when I publish on a corporation like Jivamukti, for example, it needs to be on a U.S. site with a U.S. server, because libel laws in Canada are pretty stiff. Here I can be sued on the premise that I’ve harmed a company’s reputation, even if the reporting is accurate. Because the major paying publications in the U.S. yoga world have turned down these articles and I have no independent liability insurance I’m grateful to Be Scofield at Decolonizing Yoga for taking them on.

I’ve published four articles on the now-settled sexual harassment case against the Jivamukti Yoga School. One about what the plaintiff actually had to say after the school essentially called her a liar, one on how JYS and other yoga groups use silencing tactics when complaints emerge (including the failure of the Ashtanga world to address the open secret of their guru’s sexual harassment), one on how the case has provoked a powerful discussion about the need for trauma-sensitivity training in yoga culture generally, and a fourth on how JYS and Michael Roach, the charismatic and controversial American Buddhist leader, exchanged both form and content from 2003 to 2012.

This post is about a side-issue that’s emerged in the online dialogue surrounding these articles. Continue reading ““But He’s Not Erect”: Rationalizing Videos and Lies”

Spiritualized Narcissism as Trauma Response: A Review of – and Meditation on – A Death on Diamond Mountain by Scott Carney

(This article first appeared in Yoga International.)

It begins with your family

but soon it comes ‘round to your soul

— Leonard Cohen

 

____

 

On April 22nd, 2012, Ian Thorson died in a cave in the Arizona desert.

The Cochise Country coroner ruled the cause of death as dysentery-induced dehydration. But members of the cult that effectively chased Thorson into the wilderness without the psychiatric help he needed still search for his cause of death in the garbled neo-Buddhist jargon of their leader, Michael Roach.

Due out tomorrow, journalist Scott Carney’s tangled probe into the tragedy points in a different direction: towards the dangers of spiritual striving. He begins A Death on Diamond Mountain with the question, “How much should someone strive to know their own soul?”

Full disclosure: I broke the news of Thorson’s death to the global media on May 4th with the first of three hasty, mostly accurate, and highly emotional polemics against the cult of Roach. I worked from local news reports, Roach’s deflective justification for the terrible decisions that drove Thorson to his cave, and my own vivid memories of the three years I spent in Roach’s community. So for me, reading through Carney’s book is like seeing old photos from novel angles in an album that I didn’t assemble, reading captions that stray from my own narrative just enough to make me doubt my recollections and illuminate the agendas that form them. This I know for sure: I’m too close to the story and too embroiled in how it has unfolded to have cleanly approached what Carney has succeeded with here. Continue reading “Spiritualized Narcissism as Trauma Response: A Review of – and Meditation on – A Death on Diamond Mountain by Scott Carney”

Boycott Satyananda’s Literature and Methods Until Reparations are Made for Sexual Abuse

 

TRIGGER WARNING: descriptions of child rape, sexual assault, violence against women and children, cult abuse.

 

____

“Sri Swamiji [Satyananda] always loved children, and children loved him. In fact, I may call myself his first love, although I know that many others have loved him and he has loved many other children before me.” — Swami Niranjananda

“You can take even the worst possible rogue as your Guru…. You should never look into the defects of the Guru. You must deify the Guru.” – Swami Sivananda, Yoga in Daily Life

“The next day, Akhandananda came up to me and said, ‘How are you feeling?’  And I said, ‘I’m very confused.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about your mind.  Your mind belongs to me.'” — Royal Commission witness Jyoti (104:10908)

“The ashram was the kind of place where, if you scream, no‐one comes.” – Royal Commission witness APR (106:11099)

“You would only have to look at Yoga for the Young, which is a book that we were very involved in – all of us are in that book, and all my drawings, and the other kids did drawings and we all contributed to that book – that book was still sold by Satyananda Ashram years later, after people knew that some of us were sexual abuse victims.” – Royal Commission witness Alecia Buchanan (104:10899)

 

____

Why I’m Writing

Something extraordinary happened in a Sydney conference room last week. A vast swath of the modern global yoga movement went on trial. Or pre-trial, as it happens.

Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse heard testimony from over a dozen witnesses who resided at Satyananda Yoga Ashram at Mangrove Mountain from the mid 1970s through the late 1980s, including eleven who were children or young teens at the time. The ashram was founded to spread the practices of yoga. But without exception, the former child residents told harrowing stories of pervasive physical and sexual abuse. Continue reading “Boycott Satyananda’s Literature and Methods Until Reparations are Made for Sexual Abuse”