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.
Matthew, what identities do you lead with?
It’s a great question. I think they shift and are shifting as we speak, but for the most part I work as a cultural critic within the yoga and meditation or Global Buddhism industries, and I do that sort of parallel and on top of being a trainer, a teacher trainer for programs in Canada and internationally. And those two, those two identities have a strange sometimes fractious relationship that I’m sure we’ll get into in a bit. But I’m trying to make it work and I’m heading more into investigative journalism too, with regard to the abuses and abuse patterns that I am witnessing and bearing witness to and in Yoga and Buddhism communities.
I think if those professional identities have merit, it would be because I’ve learned a couple of things about my own identity that make my blind spots clearer. I would say that I’m being getting more and more clear day by day on what it means to be white, male, heterosexual, cisgendered, and well-housed and well-supported by family and in a country with socialized medicine and in a relatively safe neighborhood and these types of things, has really put the content of my work into focus and has allowed me to see where I have to constantly work to see the positions and try to listen into the feelings of people who don’t share all of those advantages. So, one big a part of that has been in recognizing, especially through the work that I’ve done on Ashtanga yoga and the tragedy of Pattabhi Jois having assaulted his students for over 30 years, is that I had to learn how to write, not just as an analyst of cults or high-demand groups, but also as somebody who understood what it meant to listen to victims of sexual assault, which is not something that I’ve personally experienced. And I had a lot of help with that. There’s a particular set of skills that go along with creating victim-centered narratives, and for a white man, I’m endeavouring to learn those skills. There can be a lot of challenges and that’s why I reached out for a lot of help and I’ve received it from my editors at the Walrus, but also my interview subjects for pieces like that, who have been so extraordinarily brave and clear with me about what it is they need from reporting on their experience. Yeah, I think, that begins to open that door.
I think the question that so many listeners probably had — I know I had as you started to describe your work was “How as a white dude did you learn about your blind spots and your privilege?” So thank you for anticipating that question and, so many things to your teachers, your interview subjects and, and your editors and I’m sure there are many others you didn’t note, but for doing that work, to help you see what is so hard to see it and it’s made invisible to you as a white dude. So how did you come to know so much about cults? Maybe you want to even define what is a cult? What’s a high-demand community or are they the same thing? Like, can you talk about that a little bit? That’s very compelling.
The definitional qualities of the language are pretty poor actually. There is a certain amount of consensus within the cult analysis literature about what the social mechanisms of high-demand groups are – the “high-demand group” is a synonym for the cult. And I like to switch up the words because the word “cult” itself can be really inflammatory and isolating, especially for, for people within communities that are being investigated or examined and who haven’t left them. Nobody wants to think of themselves as being part of a cult. But “high-demand group” is a little bit more digestible in a sense that many more people on the inside of an organization are going to be able to say, “Hm, yeah, I do actually acquiesce or serve, a high number of requests.” And there can be an opening there, just language-wise, for being able to examine one’s relationship to a group. So in terms of the social psychology, there are certain markers that analysts look at and they, there’s tools for measuring. So Cathleen Mann has something called the MIND model, which is based upon levels of manipulation. – it’s all acronyms, right? – Manipulation, Indoctrination, Negation of individual self-sense and agency. And then Deception. Steve Hassan has the BITE model, which is Behavioral control, Information control, Thought control and Emotional control. And there are earlier examples coming from analysts like a Michael Langone who described the sort of three pillars of the cultic organization as being deception, dependence and dread of leaving.
Now, I feel the problem with those models for looking at what a high-demand group is tend to other the group itself and really obscure the fact that there are many areas of our lives in which we engage in toxic social dynamics in group-think or herd behavior. And we don’t necessarily think of those as being as damaging as belonging to the People’s Temple. And for sure most of us don’t die in relationship to or because we’re involved in the groups that were involved in.
But at the same time I’ve been looking for awhile for seeing what the relational quality is within the high-demand group and how it relates to the members’ previous relational strategies. And I came across just last year, the work of — the new work, the innovative work — of a woman named Alexandra Stein, and she uses attachment theory, which exactly which is being used by basically every psychotherapist in the world, to one degree or another to describe what a in a group sense happens to the member in relationship to their fellows and to the leaders of a high-demand group. Her basic premises that the main thing that a group does and that perhaps defines a high-demand group, is that it begins to rewire a member’s attachment patterns towards the “disorganized” so that they wind up in a very charged and hypervigilant, but also sometimes even ecstatic state, running towards the very source of care – quote unquote care – that is terrorizing them.
And so her work has really helped me understand that it’s much more beneficial to think about the types of relationships that we engage in our everyday, their everyday lives and try to assess their health, rather than, thinking of the high-demand group has some sort of monolithic, sealed, bubbled-off organization that you get a secret password into and then you’re suddenly on the inside and you can’t get out. It’s not really like that. The boundaries of the boundaries of high-demand groups are usually fairly porous. So looking at the relationships that are formed, I find, is a lot more effective and a lot more, a lot less stigmatizing as well to people who find themselves wrapped up in these situations.
Would you say then that from an attachment model, it’s easy to get in but hard to get out? There’s this sort of courtship wooing period that lowers defences and orients you towards this. Like: “Oh, this feels like a secure attachment figure. This feels safe, that feels soothing, et cetera.” And then just in those moments there’s something jarring happens. But your system has been kinda lulled into the safety. And so it’s hard to extract from that because it actually feels good as it’s happening in a way.
It can feel wonderful. And I think the premise of it’s easy to get it in hard to get out is quite apt in the sense that as your relational patterns begin to change, towards this highly charged exchange in which you are constantly looking for the replenishment of the initial love-bombing that you received from the leadership or the leader themselves of the particular group. And while you’re having that fail as well, at the same time, what the group tends to do is it tends to eliminate outside safe havens. And so it becomes very common for a group member to really believe that the only place that they can be safe is in a place where they’re being harmed. And that’s the double bind that, that Stein starts to describe, and that I’ve seen in just hundreds of pieces of literature and hundreds of, of interviews with, with subjects who are either within or on their way out of groups like this.
So you publicly shared about having been in two different kinds of high-demand groups to different cults and, and left them. So as you were coming across this research, was that like… there must have been quite a lot of recognition after the fact of what was happening and perhaps that’s very reorganizing for you. But can you talk a little bit about your experience of finding yourself in that situation and how you managed to extract yourself?
Right. Yeah. Well thank you first of all for saying, “finding yourself in that situation” because that’s, that’s exactly what it is. Because usually the language is “Why did you join? Why did you, why did you go, why, why did you get messed up with that guy? Why did you start believing those things?” And, two sort of key points in my post-involvement research came in the form, well, one one was encountering Stein’s theory and realizing that it’s not just about how I formed really dysfunctional relationships under false pretences and they were highly charged in those particular involvements. But before that I spoke with cult researcher Cathleen Mann by phone and she said one sentence that relieved an incredible amount of shame and guilt. And for her it was an everyday observation. She said, “People don’t join cults, they delay leaving organizations that misrepresented themselves.”
You could say that to a woman for example, who had suffered from sexual or domestic abuse for years and years at the hands of a spouse, and I think it would ring similar, right? Like: you didn’t sign up for that. You didn’t get married to that person for that, you delayed leaving for a bunch of different really good reasons, something that was not as it seemed. And that you were also gaslighted about. You were also told as you were being harmed that you weren’t being harmed, for instance. So there’s been a couple of key moments that were really powerful.
But rolling back before that, even before, while he was in the first high-demand group, which was the Asian Classics Institute, which was founded by Michael Roach… so this is 1996 to 1999. I got a letter that I’ve written about from a friend that was like this. I still have it. I think it’s type written and it says: “I know I’m worrisome and I know that I’m neurotic and I don’t have my life sorted out, but, and there’s a part of me that’s really envious of you for having found the way, the truth and the life. But, I’m wondering if there’s a part of you once you’re finished with your Buddhist enlightenment fetish that will still have time for somebody like me.”
And this is a really, this is a really close friend of mine and I remember reading it and kind of dissociating as I read it and thinking, “Oh, that guy, he’s sweet but like he doesn’t get it. He doesn’t get what I’m going through. And, and I understand his concern.” But I didn’t actually.
And years and years later I realized that, that it was contact like that with somebody who knew me in my former life who had a relationship with me outside of the demands and the logic of the group who loved me. I’m not because of where I was placed in the group or how much I knew about the group or how much I love the group but loved me because of a number of other reasons. That contact was a kind of reality check upon the rest of my commitments and even though, and even though it didn’t like spring me out of jail, it did sink in somewhere and I think it gave me the capacity to hear the next little hint from somebody like that, that somebody dropped that, “Oh, there’s an outside world where you are loved for other reasons and, there’s an outside world where you can be secure and not reliant upon this machine that you are, that you are wrapped up in.”
And so those were, those were really, really precious moments. And yeah, I think too, that, that my previous learning in my, I don’t want to say like academic study because I just really went to college for two years, but it was an effective two years, and I read a lot cultural and literary theory when I was there. And I returned to that after I got out of the second group, and suddenly, Luce Irigaray and Helene Cixous and then Foucault — and specifically Foucault’s analysis of power – really began to speak to me in a way that I could understand because I had had this visceral experience of having been in a control group.
Would you say that as a white man, you would’ve been a younger man at that time. But, was that shocking? Was that the first time that you realized like, oh my god, like on the one hand I hold a lot of power in the society and on the other hand, even still I managed to find myself beguiled and duped.
It’s such a great question. I think that no, there was about 10 years between me being able to use even the cultural and literary and subaltern theory that I loved to be self reflective. I really just externalized it. I used it to critique The Man in the form of the cult leaders that I’ve been involved with. But It did not sink down to the level of, “Wow, it’s actually a shitload worse for a bunch of other people, and let me start to take a look at that.” So I feel that there were two moments for that. One was around 2004, 2005 when I started reading somebody who might be controversial to your, to your listenership, but at the time I found his writing really powerful. Derek Jensen.
Yeah, what a controversial figure. I have also read a lot of Deep Green Resistance but not so much of his particular writing, but others, Lierre Keith.
There was something about his…I found it easier I think… Okay: So what I feel that we’re exploring, Carmen, is how does one start seeing relational power and being self reflective about it, even if one has been exposed to something like a high-demand group that has been completely screwed over your agency and exploited you. So the reason Derrick Jensen was really effective for me – and then he went on to adopt a bunch of views that I don’t agree with and that I think are really unfortunate to scuttle a whole movement over – I think there’s an opening page in one of his books where he says: “Every morning I have to wake up and make a decision about whether or not I’m going to write more criticism or if I’m going to go and blow up a dam. And I have to make that decision every morning and I’m not quite sure how to do it.”
And I was like, Oh, here I am… I was way far away from that question. I was like: “I have to wake up every morning and try to figure out how I can be the best yoga teacher I could be for a bunch of people in Cabbagetown Toronto in a very segregated neighborhood…. And like so there was thIs kind of call from the wild: Look at what your choices are and look at how enmeshed you are in trying to make consumer economy look good and, and feel spiritual. And so that kind of got a little ball of I think profitable self-hatred rolling back then.
And then really it was the eruption or the sudden visibility, let’s say, of the literature that poured out of the Black Lives Matter movement. And I think specifically – and I feel like really embarrassed, I don’t know how you can avoid being embarrassed about knowing that there was a moment as a white person that you realized that you hadn’t heard of “The Talk” before. I think by that, of course, by that point, my son Jacob had been born and, and I don’t know whose description of The Talk I came across, but I think it changed the direction of my life, like within about five minutes.
Maybe we should pause because some people are like “What Talk is he talking about?”
So The Talk is common within POC culture, commonly understood in POC cultures as being the moment where the parents, the caregIvers sit down with the 11, 12, 13 year old, a young black boy and or a person of color, and tell him how not to be killed by police officers. Tell him how not to get in trouble with the law. Tell him how to avoid systemic racial oppression. But the killing part was what I focused on.
And I think around the same time… I’ve written about this as well… For a number of reasons going back in my past, I have this overwhelming, almost uncontrollable rage response In the face of bullying. And I’m driving the car with my partner Alix and with Jacob and there’s construction in the road and there’s this big burly white cop in the intersection, he’s directing traffic and he’s got aviator glasses on and I don’t understand his hand signals and he starts swearing at me and I can’t hear what he’s saying, but he’s turning red, swearing at me and something broke inside as it does periodically for me, like, I would say once every two or three years, something like this happens.
And I pulled over the car with my family inside and I got out of the car and in the middle of traffic I almost ran-marched straight up to the guy, myself turning purple saying, you don’t have the right to swear at me, give me your badge number. And I think in the aftermath of that, I remembered The Talk and I was like, it didn’t occur to me for a moment that I should be physically afraid of him. It didn’t occur to me for – now this is in Toronto, so it’s not in Chicago or it’s not in a handgun city. But I did something that was the automatic and like completely unconscious reflexive performance of entitlement and I did it and it felt good and I got to have the feeling of it feeling good.
Not only was I not afraid of doing it, but doing it, I could feel good and I could feel like I was less repressed and I could feel like I had… And so there was actually this … like not only could I do it, I could feel therapeutic about it and so, and I could get back at the guy who did that thing to me in the… Like I could enact a kind of a kind of primal justice, upon my own, certain circumstances of my childhood.
I’m very familiar with the world of male violence, but it has never, it is always played out in like ostensibly equal or even playing field, and, and so that was a pretty stunning moment to realize what had happened there.
And then a much subtler moment made me understand that like the form, shape and sensation of actually being in my body of having my body, as vulnerable as sometimes I feel, has nothing to do with what my partner feels when she realizes that she can’t walk to the bus stop in our neighborhood at 3:00 in the morning. And we had this argument about it because I was going out to the airport and I was going to take an early flight. And I said I’ll just walk out to the, to catch the nighttime bus. And we’re in the East End, in the Upper Beaches and close to Victoria Park station, which is sometimes known for drug activity and so on. But my attitude is “This is my city, I can do this.” And not only should I not be restricted by fear, but also, why should I cede that territory to assaulters, right? Like why should I, maybe I would be the person — so there’s a little bit of white knight fantasy going on there too — maybe I should be the person who’d be good, walking down the street.
And so anyway, I’m having this conflict with my partner about whether or not I should do this because she doesn’t feel that that is a safe thing to do and I’m realizing we have irreducibly different experiences of being human beings.
I think between those two things… I would say that those two things — the charging of the cop and, and being, being told by my partner what her experience is in a way that, that I could finally listen to her, I could finally hear…. And we’re just talking about walking to the bus. It’s not anything incredibly dramatic, but it carries this load of trauma behind it. Those two things actually I describe now as spiritual awakenings. I studied yoga and Buddhism for more than 25 years and I didn’t learn so much about the nature of my existence from anything else, as much as I did from those two conversations. Those two incidents.
Yeah, they sound like very focusing and locating events. And I want to repeat and amplify what you said about the co-occurrence of feeling embarrassed in a way, once you realize actually what has happened. I think that that goes hand in hand… there’s just no way to become aware of those blind spots, in a way that feels like graceful and comfortable and there’s no way to, as a white person, listening to this podcast even, who’s just learned what The Talk means, and that POC means people of color. There no way to receive this education and this information in your body without it feeling uncomfortable and sometimes dissonant. So I want to kind of acknowledge — anybody who’s even listening to what you’re talking about — who’s feeling, some somatic response right now. Like: “Oh my god, I didn’t know this stuff, I’ve never thought about that.” Because guess what? We’ve all — anybody who’s offering you some information you haven’t heard of, had to go through an uncomfortable, self reflective moment.
Just to connect a couple of themes here: one of the things that was so moving for me in learning about the role of deception on a social dynamic level as key to the functioning of a high-demand group is that it really depersonalizes the event of involvement. What Cathleen Mann is saying — I’ll come back to waking up in a social sense in a moment — but what Cathleen Mann is saying about deception and the fact that you didn’t join the group but you delayed leaving is very much pertinent here.
I did not choose the indoctrination of my gender and my racial privilege. It was something that I didn’t see happening. It was completely, utterly invisible and normalized to me. And because of that my embarrassment can be relieved. My guilt can be functional, to the extent that it’s useful, but then I don’t have to let it be some sort of personalized, “Oh, I better go to therapy for this to clean up my internal landscape” kind of thing. You can get over the guilt response by recognizing that you were deceived into thinking that your situation was normal. It’s not, it’s not. It never was — normal to you, yes — but not normal in the capital N sense.
So thank you for that. Thank you for that reminder. That’s good medicine for the self-loathing that can come along with it. Now you’ve written very extensively about high-demand communities and cults and, and we’ve talked a lot about your strong critique of yoga communities, particularly with regard to sexual abuse and assault. Recently a lot of your writing is focused on a real-time critique of the unraveling of the Shambhala Buddhist meditation community. You called it an industry earlier and you not only blog about this, but your work’s been in these really high profile publications like The Walrus, like yoga international, Huffington Post, et cetera. So I’m curious, what is most egregious for you in light of all this from the perspective of your other role as a yoga teacher trainer? Like how do you stay in relationship with yoga and the wider yoga community in light of all this?
That’s such a great question. It’s very hard to answer, but I’ll give it a shot. I think that what is most egregious about institutional abuse and high-demand group dynamics in yoga and meditation communities is that people come to these methods, techniques and gatherings of people with a lot of wounds and with very tender aspirations. And are betrayed in a way that I think is a lot more sophisticated than the ways in which abuse, betrayal happens in non-spiritual or, or let’s say in political high-demand groups.
I say that and then I hesitate because I think people who have been members of political cults will say that they were equally betrayed and deceived and so on. But there’s something particularly egregious about being offered spiritual or therapeutic healing and being given the opposite and then being told that you were still being given spiritual and therapeutic healing. So, there’s just an ugly, ugly irony there.
And, I think in yoga / buddhist high-demand groups, and in groups where we see institutional abuse and betrayal, we’re also looking at an industry as I call it, that has risen up in the age of neoliberal self-care and responsiblism. So these are environments that exist in part, not only because of the excesses of consumer capitalism, not only because a certain layer or slice of the population has a room on their credit card to be able to do workshops and retreats, and they can do international travel and whatever it takes to “take their practice to the next level” like that. That is all there. There’s an economic freedom there that is characteristic of late capitalism and allows people to do it. But the techniques and the methods themselves are also being offered as a substitute or they’re being slid into the gaps in what’s been torn away in terms of basic liberal democratic ideals of the social contract, that have been eroding for the last 40 years.
So this is much more of a problem in the States than it is in a place like Canada. And one of the things that I always like to say when I’m in training programs is, “Be more careful with the charismatic American yoga teacher then with the charismatic Canadian yoga teacher because the charismatic American yoga teacher is offering what they offer within the context of complete social contract decay.”
Just taking healthcare for an example. Most yoga teachers that I know in the States, are self employed and marginally insured if insured at all. And what that means is that practice and self-care for them can take on an even more evangelical charge. Not only because they need it because they have no other healthcare support, but they also are moving in environments in which people are looking for answers that the society has not provided and they’re made self-responsible for those answers.
And add to that scenario in which yoga and meditation begins to become like an ersatz form of health care and self-regulation and then is commodified by various management styles to increase productivity. Add to that the spectre of an unregulated industry that is rife with institutional abuse and, and you really have an interlocking series of problems.
This thing that we went to for self care because we told ourselves from the 1980s onwards that the nanny state was a bad thing, is actually unregulated. And because it’s unregulated or in part because it’s unregulated, charisma is the primary coin of its leadership. And that means that opens the communities themselves that offer these tools to real vulnerabilities of relational abuse.
All right, well, and what you’re talking about is the yoga version of what my husband and I have started referring to as the “Netflix Breaking Bad Genre”, where people start doing unlawful things because their healthcare bills are out of control, like in Breaking Bad or this new Good Girls. Like there’s this whole kind of genre of Americans who can’t get out of hospital debt. And so they get into a life of crime and that becomes sort of funny but also very normalized. And these charismatic like thugs or gang leaders like reclaiming of agency, and it’s this empowerment narrative. I’m like, “Oh my God, you guys!”
But the other thing that you said a few minutes ago that just lit me up with delight and I, as I’m thinking about it, I can’t quite tell why, but I’d love for you to say more about it was when you said the phrase “self care and responsiblism”. Because it sounds like something that I see everywhere, but I can’t define it, but I’m delighting in it. Can you just clarify that?
It sounds like it’s a virus that you want to be able to look at under the microscope and as far as I know — I came across the term first in a fantastic essay that maybe we can link to called “This Is Not Your Practice Life,” which is a critical review of how Lululemon uses marketing — sort of vague orientalist, triumphalist, individualist marketing language — and attaches it somehow to yoga theory in order to sell lifestyle products in a particular vision of what ends up being an entitled positionality. It’s by two Canadian sociologists, Lavrence and Lozanski.
As far as I understand it, responsiblism is the neoliberal programming of the citizen to self-monitor and to always as the first line of inquiry to say, “What could I be doing better?” And: “How can I be more fit in a whole bunch of different ways?” Fit for a gaseous economy, fit for the precariat, fit for all of these changes that are coming. “How can I learn to surf and roll and flow the chaos that we’re just going to be taking as a given because there are no guarantees anymore, right?”
So, here’s a mindfulness app for you to take care of yourself wIth. We’re going to do a yoga class on break at Google headquarters, and here is the Lululemon manifesto that gives you 18 points of self directed activity that you can do everyday to make sure that you can afford $90 yoga pants. As if that works.
So responsiblism as far as I know is a very broad indoctrination technique, that tells the neoliberal consumer that they are in charge of their destinies. And of course the shadow side of that statement. The thing that people who self-identify on the alt-right will say in public is: “And that means if you fail, it’s your own damn fault if you’re not getting by, if you’re not succeeding.” But what I like about that term is that it’s very broad based and it’s abstract and I can see it in a systems theory way, but I also feel it as a container containing a number of layers related to some of the privilege issues that we’ve brought up before.
And as I’m speaking about it now, I’m thinking about how powerfully gendered this principle would be. That levels of responsiblism of foisted upon women in the multiple rules of labor that they’re asked to perform is going to add another sort of depth to the self-monitoring, and then to intersect that with issues of race and class. It’s going to get heavier all the way down in terms of the social hierarchy. It’s going to cost you more. The less privilege you have, the more your responsiblism or the society’s demand that you be responsible is going to cost.
Hey, so thank you for bringing this to the collective again as well. Because one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you about a high-demand groups is because when I think about converging emergencies, like the chaos that can come from social change, the environmental crises that we’re seeing. I think about sort of the big umbrella term of “collapse”. Often the antidote or solution or one of the medicines we can turn to is community. And “community” is sort of tossed around as this thing like, “Oh, it’s so important. We need connection and community.” People don’t talk so much about how freaking hard it is, right? Like, “Oh yeah, I’m just gonna like spring up a community around this, whatever.” Right.
And it often is a bit capitalist, like we paid to be part of let’s say a retreat. I lead these things. So I understand. I’m seeing this fully recognizing the hypocrisy and irony of charging for the things that I do because I’m trying to find and create and renurture a revillaging process. But the thing is I really do believe in the importance of revillaging as a notion. I really do believe we have to reconnect to the importance of community and that we have to do the attachment repair work required to tolerate more obligation to each other and this compassionate care for our neighbor. Which I think is, like you pointed out, kind of the difference between the American charismatic yoga leader and the Canadian. Canadians have a certain amount of social safety net still in place where we do have this fundamental structure based on our belief in a compassionate responsibility and obligation to our neighbor.
But I do sometimes worry that there’s a blurry line between a high degree of personal and relatIonal and ethical obligation to each other and then these high-demand cult communities, and I say that having been a person who has, for instance, gone to extended programs, quote unquote schools, that are about, I guess you could loosely call it revillaging or maybe “ancestral repair” or trying to cope with the melancholy of being displaced white settler, all that kind of stuff.
And, and what I find is I’m like, holy shit! People that I consider extremely well-educated, informed, literate, on top of things, kind of capitulating to these high-demand — I don’t know what you’d even call it. It’s so atmospheric, right? But it’s like suddenly it’s like, wow, everybody’s kind of dressing alike and there’s a way of speaking and if you don’t speak that way, like if you don’t speak that way then you’re kind of on the outs. And if you ask certain questions then “You’re asking the wrong question or I’m going to answer your question that you should have asked”… this kind of like mental Aikido, like, how do we, how do we know?
Okay, you said so many things there and I want to make sure I don’t miss any of them. But like you’re really onto something with affect, with understanding somatic affect in a group. And there comes a point I think where anybody involved in an aspirational community or movement might step back and say, “Why am I mirroring everyone around me?” Or “What is that thing that that person does when they walk in the room and everybody kind of like mimics it?” And “What are the key words here?” Like if we recorded everything that we said for the day, and then we ran it through an AI for indexing the top words, do we really know what those words mean?
I’ll give you one: “grief-soaked”. Like, do people talk like that normally? Like there’s these like dogwhistle terms that you’re like, how come that, particular turn of phrase is like everywhere? All of us.
I’m very happy to say that that is not in my circles. I have not come across that term. But the ennui with which you say it, I believe that it’s a huge feature of the west coast life. And I empathize, I’m really, really sorry for your grief-soaked life!
I think that key word thought experiment is really important because, my bet is that is that if you’re in an aspirational community and there is a, word that comes up, a term that comes up over and over and over again, and you see it at the top of that index, of that top of that usage list, prevalence list. My bet is that you’re not really going to be able to define it. And, and my bet too is that because of its indefinability it’s going to stop most conversations, because there’s going to be a group assumption about what it means to be “grief-soaked”, for example.
But I think the word “community” itself is kind of like that. It gets used so often. In such a charged way, with so much freight that it always feels like there’s a capital C at the beginning of it. And this is where I go right back to my college days. And I remember how Derrida described the “transcendental signifier”: the word that it has been used so often and is invested with so much cultural power that it is, first of all, undefinable. But secondly, it’s designed to cast a spell over the group of its users who are asked to believe that everybody shares the same definitIon for it.
And when you get things like that, we’re not talking about community as something that has, I don’t know, necessarily local real world roots, but something that is invested with a kind of mystique. And as soon as that happens, then we have the commodification problem that you’re talking about. And especially in yoga communities — I’m going to use the word — “community” itself is kind of a buzzword for the effective branding of shared interests. You’re using the word “revillaging” and I’m sure there’s a huge literature behind it. But what I’ve noticed in the groups that I move amongst is that is that there’s a huge difference between the people that you do aspirational activities with when you are white and heterosexual and middle class and the people that you end up spending time with if you have a regular job as a transit worker or if you drive a cab or if you go to the community center for your fitness needs.
So as I think about “community” and community in my own life, I’m starting to ask questions about “Why do I want to find likeminded people? Why? Why do I want to find people who will mirror my own elevated posture and language back to me? Why do I want to be validated by people who think that I have good ideas?”
Why am I not spending more time talking over the back fence with the guy who — I don’t know what my neighbor does for a living, honestly. I know his name. I know how many children he has but I don’t know his world. He’s white and straight like I am. So if, if I want to learn more than that, I know that I’m going to have to break out of the segregation of my neighborhood. And so I try to do that, but when I do, like I play handball at the community center with know, guys who work as security guards and bus drivers and only about 20 percent of the community centre is white and — it might be vicarious, I might be like a class tourist in a way when I go there — but I also have the sense of I’m trying to actually form bonds with people in which I’m not trying to sell them shit, including myself. And that is totally different from most of the experiences that I’ve had in, in yoga and meditation communities over the last, over the last 15 years.
So what have you learned? About how one might avoid the culty path and cultivate the community path. It sounds like there’s something about geography,real time, something like that. Could you — if you had any advice for somebody who was thinking, “Oh, I do want a sense of belonging”, after they’ve gone through those questions of, Well why do I want people just like me? Do you have any advice for if you’re now moving into wanting to be in community, what they watch for so that it doesn’t get too culty?
I think the red flag is the somatic charge, to me anyway. It might be different for other people. I don’t know if you knew my late friend Michael Stone…
I’ve heard of him posthumously.
Right, so , very, very complex and moving figure and a tragic death just over a year ago. And I mourn him and I miss him. And I’m not bringing him up in the context of a high-demand group, but I am going to suggest that people who were drawn to him were drawn to something radiant, drawn to something charismatic. They were drawn to the crackle in the room when he spoke. That was his. It was his voice. It was his body. It was his brilliance or his improvisation.
So he just comes to mind when I, when I think about what do we want to be aware of in aspirational communities in terms of the capacity for power imbalances to grow, because that’s where it starts. When the leader is felt to be, is asked to be, performs as if they are some sort of special person. And when they do that, because they are invested with a kind of internal value that you really can’t verify.
It’s not like the leaders of yoga and meditation groups are going through peer review or something like that. The academic model is actually pretty smart when it comes to “Oh, did you have something original to say and can you back it up?” But nobody who heads an aspirational community has to do that. And we should think really hard about that. What does that mean? It means that in the absence of authorization structures, that charisma, that crackle, that brilliance, which is not bad in and of itself — and going back into premodern times, would have been the only thing that really adhered groups together in these ways — that becomes the only value of validation.
The primary coin of the realm of the high-demand group is charisma. And so I would say for the person who runs into the aspirational group: just ask yourself who’s the person who seems to want to be at the front of the room? And who is behaved deferentially towards, who opens their mouth and then everybody goes, mm, okay! Who enters the room and makes everybody else sit up a little bit straighter either wanting their attention or wanting to embody whatever that person has or seems to have because often they’re performing rather than embodying. Those are some starting points.
Some of your listeners can quickly Google a guy named Adyashanti. I don’t know anything about how this guy runs his groups. I don’t know how he runs his personal relationships, so I’m not going to say that he runs or is part of a high-demand group. But ask yourself: What gives a person, especially if they’re white and male and in their sixties and somewhat handsome — what gives a person the authority to sit on a chair in front of a room of 300 people who are quietly gazing at him, waiting for the next thing that he’s going to say, not because he’s reading it from notes, but because it’s coming out of his innermost selfy-ness or whatever? What put him there, what put him there? And if you really asked that question, you’re asking about group power dynamics in a very profound way and I think it might be a bit of a vaccine.
Thank you. Very good. Very good advice. Thank you Matthew. Locating this in the larger planetary context of climate change because that’s kinda my jam these days. I mean, it has been for over a decade, but this episode is part of — I guess you could loosely call it a mini series where I’m really centering this part of my life in terms of “collapse awareness” and, and how myself and my guests are approaching adaptation to changing climate. Do you think much about the converging emergencies of climate change and social chaos and collapse in your own life?
It’s a great question because it highlights for me of a very basic and daily split that I think I experience, which is — So do I think much about it? Yeah, I think much about it. In what part of my brain? In the part of my brain that I have a quarantined off into “Don’t know what I can do, and I’m going to keep doing what I know how to do well and hope that it helps that other part.”
But I don’t often see the concrete relationship between those things. I have the sense that the professional work that I do in yoga and buddhism communities is — even though I try to reach out into the accessibility movement and do as much work as I can and service organizations and I love the Yoga Service Council for example — at the same time I feel like I’m in a fairly rarefied world that has little social and political impact on the things that actually really matter to me, the bodies of the people around me.
And so this brings up the question of like is there a relationship between between yoga and meditation and internal work and self regulation and social change? And the person who’s educated me most on that is a woman named Be Scofield, who probably about six or seven years ago, finally, totally cleaned my clock in some debate about whether or not yoga and meditation practice made you a better citizen. And the answer is no, it doesn’t. Training to be a better citizen and learning from marginalized people makes you a better citizen. That’s the answer.
But one of the pernicious things about the industry that I work in is that it runs on this premise practice will somehow make you into a more effective, more progressive person. Not everybody believes that, but that’s a strong undercurrent. And that’s just totally wrong. It’s distracting. So I live with this split. I’m the earner in our family of four now and I, I know this industry fairly well and I can, I can consult in it and I can write about it and I can interview people within it and I can shed light in certain areas.
But I do wonder about its portability and I hope at some point — in my wilder imagination, I sometimes tell myself that doing this work has given me the skills to be able to write the book about the intersection of the alt-right and high-demand groups as expressed through the ascendancy of somebody like Jordan Peterson. And then I tell myself that will be more useful politically, that will reach a larger audience. That will be, that’ll have more of an impact. I’m kind of thinking in that direction, trying to unquarantine that part of my brain that is utterly, absolutely paralyzed and terrified by, by every single bit of climate news that I come across.
Well, one of the constellations that I see if I can make a connection for you is that often when there is an experience of dissolution or turmoil socially, it creates opportunities for more zealotry and deification of gurus. And it would not surprise me if the kind of neoliberal, late stage capitalism project actually did give rise as things get worse to more of that responsiblism and more gurus and more of this spiritual cleansing through capitalist opportunities. And so I’m going to nudge you in that direction because I do see a very direct correlation between climate change, social turmoil, and the rise of gurus.
Yeah. Just a small point of order. I try to not use the word “guru” because it will have for some people a neo-colonial echo to it, and what it’s usually applied to in yoga and Buddhist communities is a leader who is at best parroting some aspect of an indian wisdom tradition. And a number of people have pointed out in a critical way that the term itself is probably best analyzed as a product of globalization rather than as something that accurately describes the leadership. So I just wanted to throw that in there.
I thank you for the nudge and I will say that attending Peterson’s events is definitely like attending the charismatic revivalism any one of a number of high-demand groups on a somatic level, on a trance level, on an epistemological level. People do not show up at his events to be given a set of critical thinking positions or tools. They show up at his events to bask in the social dynamic of a kind of revivalism of regressed sentiments. And so thank you. Thank you for the nudge.
I don’t know how to generalize it. I don’t really want to be like the person who’s the sniper from the gallery and says and says, okay, well, this person is popping up, let’s roll out an analysis. It would be nice if I could think of a book proposal that gave some sort of fundamental education that was readable and digestible in what does it feel like to start to drift into a high-demand group and what to do about it. I think that would be really cool.
Yeah, I’d like that you’ve just seeded that right there. Now we’ll keep watching for it. I really have appreciated you connecting the dots between the work you’ve done, with the yoga community, meditation communities and drawing those parallels over to the rise of figures like Peterson and your analysis of him in particular. I can’t help but notice that not only are there similar experiences of people that like I’m shocked, I’m surprised that they are gravitating towards his work or reposting his work, but they’re often the same people that are in other grief-soaked communities.
So I really appreciate that you are casting the net a little wider because it’s a social and human dilemma because it is about attachment and it is about our bodies. It’s about how we feel when we’re basking in the glow of the mystique. So talking a bit about bringing that back into the body and into how we feel, I’m curious how you personally cope with the big emotions like grief and rage. I appreciate you sharing the survival rage response of like charging out of your car. Because I’ve broken like that too. I literally screamed into a room of people at, at a big conference — we were doing a deep democracy process — and just the amount of like latent and overt whIte supremacist thinking, I just got so disregulated, I literally screamed into the room, “I don’t want to hang out with idiot white people anymore.” I was supposed to be one of the facilitators, but it like psychologically broke me. And, , afterwards was like, I’m very sorry what I said was ableist, but I can’t say that my sentiment feels any different.
So you walked it back like a little bit.
Only to one person. I couldn’t walk it back in the room. I just couldn’t. I mean I stayed in the room, but yeah, one person said, “I don’t appreciate being called an idiot because I’m white.” And I said, “You’re right. That’s an ableist thing to say. And it’s not because you’re white. It’s because of how you’re thinking and you’re being right now.” She said because of the color of my skin. I said, “It’s not because of the color of your skin. It’s because whiteness is a way of being in thinking anyway.” So it was kind of a whole thing. I generally, I have other tools that I use to try to cope with rage and sometimes it just sort of like busts out. So in you’re not as extreme moments. How do you cope with grief and rage?
Sometimes I honestly wonder whether I’m not and I wonder whether I will follow in the footsteps of my grandfather and my uncles who developed heart disease very suddenly at a certain point. Because I think as being male-identified, I have been trained to sublimate a grief and rage into work. And I’ve been trained to substitute intellectual work for emotional work and I’m no stranger to therapy and it’s been an incredible blessing in my life. And of course I’ve done a fair bit of yoga and meditation and I’m no stranger to introspection. But you can never really know, can you, how you’re dealing with this, this thing, which is inseparable from daily living.
I’ll just say to the listeners that Carmen sent this question ahead and I was really taken aback. I was like, wow, that’s an amazing, really, really thoughtful question. And so I wanted to thank you for asking that. Nobody’s really asked me anything like that before. What I’d say is that the rage I feel I’m able more or less to discharge through, really intense physical activity. Handball has been really helpful and there’s something about playing handball with guys who don’t give a shit about yoga and meditation that is specifically really helpful. And, especially playing handball with – I don’t even know his last name, I call them Handball Dave, but he’s the guy who, who texts everybody and make sure that we’re there on time.
When Michael died, I went out to Pender Island for the funeral. And so I missed a couple of week and all he said when he came back he said. “I missed you grasshopper.” And I said, “Yeah,” and I felt like I was going to cry. I was right on the edge. And I said, “Yeah, a friend of mine died.” And there was a pause and I felt awkward and I felt like I should say how, right? Like, I shouldn’t just leave it hanging. And I said, “Yeah, he was my age and he died of fentanyl poisoning.”
And Dave just looked at me completely blank, totally stony faced, and then he paused, like he didn’t say anything, but he looked straight at me. And then he just handed me the ball and he said, “It’s your serve.”
And this is not like a revillaging moment. You’re not going to have this interaction on Hollyhock. There was something normal and repressed and undressed-up and un-therapeutic and non holding-spacey but holding-spacey at the same time.
So that was powerful. He allowed me to feel what I was feeling but not to perform what I was feeling. Something like that. Who knows what the hell he was thinking. I’m, projecting onto him as much as I would project onto a therapist, I’m sure.
But with grief: I spend most of my time interviewing people who have been abused by high-demand groups. And I’m not a therapist. I don’t get to go to a supervisor and ask them how I’m doing. I go to my own therapy, but you don’t get a lot of time with that. And I think I do another splitting thing to deal with grief. There’s the part of my brain that is, that is I’m quarantined off, with the echoes of Derrick Jensen, wondering why I’m not blowing up bridges. And then there’s a part of my brain that I can trip over into and just think about my children.
Think about their faces and their hands and their hair and their jokes and little Owie learning how to talk, and Manitoulin Island. Sometimes it feels dissociative, but sometimes those two worlds are together and I can… And I can also fall asleep with a feeling of grief, but also not only holding my children but also thinking about my partner and whatever incredibly smart thing she said that day or the way she is able to ask me the right question at the right time or reflect something back to me. I don’t know how I’ve learned how to be able to do that. Maybe meditation has something to do with it, but I can go to that place. I can go to that place of secure attachment, and rest there for, for a while, at least a while.
And then Alix was also telling me, as I told her you were gonna ask me this question, she said, “Well, you also eat a lot of cookies.” And I said, yeah, that’s true.
These all seem like very legit responses, so thank you. Thank you for sharing all of that. Matthew, thank you for everything you’ve shared in this episode. This has been good food for me to me to. Better than a cookie. So thank you so much for being on the show.
Thank you so much. thanks a lot.