Writing about Gurus: Insiders vs. Outsiders, and Other Problems

Whenever I publish a critique of a guru or the guru principle in modern yoga, either by referring to my personal experience (with Michael Roach and others) or by analyzing public events and documents (John Friend, Kausthub Desikachar, Joshu Roshi Sasaki) through the lens of my personal experience, I receive several – sometimes dozens – of emails from those who are invested in my target in some way.

Roughly three-quarters of the emails are grateful, coming from ex or nearly-ex devotees. Usually, these correspondents will corroborate my analyses. If they’re nearly-ex they usually express profound relief that someone has described plainly for them what they had been intuiting. Sometimes they will write in with stories about the teachers I’m critiquing that are far worse than anything in the public record. These stories haunt my inbox: the correspondents don’t want to go on record, whether for fear of community reprisal or because they’re just not ready to expose themselves psychologically. I’m not an investigative journalist, and wouldn’t know how to corroborate what they say, and a part of me wants to lay it all down. But their messages make me shiver: You have no idea of how bad it is, you’re only scratching the surface of what that fucker is like.

I also receive many heartbreaking emails from distressed family members of devotees, who are grateful for a more inside look, and who will often add their stories of how their son or daughter or partner changed under the influence of charisma and spiritual extremism, usually quite quickly, into someone they no longer recognized.

The remaining emails attack my views, or me personally. Some correspondents need to express outrage, some try to convert me, and some plead with me to just leave their teachers alone – it’s a free country, if you don’t like what he does well then it’s just not for you, everyone’s an adult here. If only. All of my attackers call me ignorant, generally for four reasons: (1) I can’t know what the guru’s intentions are, (2) I can’t understand the true brilliance of his methods, (3) I haven’t sufficiently surrendered myself to a guru to understand the magic of the bond, and (4) I have no idea how many people he has saved from despair with his insight and charity of heart.

Having been enmeshed in several cult environments before I snapped out of it, the first three accusations roll off my back. I don’t want to surrender myself any more than I already have, and I’m confident that I understand the intentions (complicated and unconscious though they may be) and methods of authoritarian control at work in the shadows of charismatics.

But the last accusation gives me pause. I am aware, it’s true, of hundreds of people who say that their gurus helped them to grow, and to grow up, illuminated hidden resources within them, and encouraged them with the feeling of being loved “unconditionally”. I’m still friends with some of these folks. Moreover – and this is where it gets complex – I remember their story and its feelings from my own life, and I remember defending those feelings from other questioners and critics.

I remember a friend writing to me after I’d been with Michael Roach for about a year. (This was before email: he actually typed up a letter and mailed it, which seems an incredible labour of love to me now, but that’s what we did.) He wrote something like: I don’t really know what it feels like to really believe in something or to believe someone has your answer, so I don’t know what you’re going through. But I want you to know that you’ve changed. I don’t recognize you in this piety and certainty you seem to be affecting. I think it shuts you off from other people. I think you’re running away from something, and I don’t know how to talk to you anymore.

I was hurt by the letter. I found it judgmental, intrusive, and a little simpering. But I didn’t take the time to really let it sink in any deeper than that. I immediately wrote back with a passive aggressive thank you and some smug self-affirmations. But I folded up that letter and kept it on my altar next to the portrait of Michael Roach, and now I think of it as one of the sweetest acts of kindness ever paid to me. I miss that friend.

Those who earnestly defend their gurus are often kind enough to empathize with the personal disenchantments I detail in my writing, and will often agree with much of my critique. But they will also implore me to consider the possibility that for some people – they offer themselves as evidence – the guru-student relationship can be a thing of beauty. Some seem to want to save (or re-save) my soul. They will say that if I simply look and practice hard enough, I will find a True Guru, and see the Truth of the Guru Model finally. They obviously have no idea how narcissistic and patronizing their attempted interventions are. I don’t take it personally.

But others are truly gracious about it: they stick to their own experience while respecting mine. And I find myself looking at them across a deep chasm that I’d like to understand better, because I can feel that its shadows conceal rich data about how we encounter, conflict with, and learn from otherness: the otherness of people, stages of life, cultures, and time itself. In that chasm, I think we can see the pain of how we individuated from our parents, how we deal with our own psychological growth, how we use trauma to evolve by focusing either on healing or rebelling against its conditions, and how we are continuing to process our thrownness into the postmodern condition.

The chasm (across which that old friend sent that brave letter to me decades ago) has two structural aspects to it. First is the insider-outsider conundrum that has stymied anthropology, religious studies, and many other social sciences throughout most of the last century. This problem is the tension between two general forms of evidence that can be gathered. To use the anthropological terms, “emic” evidence consists of the beliefs and feelings that the subject within the studied culture expresses as their experience. It must be taken in the spirit of what Douglas Brooks describes as “scholarly charity”: an affirmation that people speak their reality clearly, for themselves, and that we must consider their speech on its own terms. “Etic” evidence morphs emic data into analysis, by comparing it with other emic sources, in order to draw out broader comparisons, and to eventually form theses regarding how a broad category of social organization works.

These two forms of evidence should strike a balance between the private and the cultural, walking the near-invisible line between what distinguishes us and what connects. But for the most part the data sets come into conflict because of the variant attitudes of the researchers. Those who are inside of a culture or religious tradition often claim that outsiders cannot understand the subjective truths of their context. Those who are on the outside say that insiders cannot communicate their experiences impartially. The insider and outsider look at each other across the jagged thresholds of faith and irony, each saying, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” I’ve literally stood face to face with former friends who are still devotees of a guru I’m calling out, and we’ve said exactly these words to each other. Then we stand and stare at each other, frozen and a little forlorn. I’m always unnerved by the impasse. It doesn’t seem like it should be that way. We had been friends, after all.

The emic-etic problem is deepened in my case by my position as a turncoat (though sometimes I feel like a double-agent): I’ve been an insider-experiencer, and now I’m an outsider-analyst. In many ways, I’m looking at myself across the thresholds of an old faith, and a new irony.

Of the various stories I tell myself about my transition from insider to outsider, I mostly plot the change along a developmental arc that expresses satisfaction at being unburdened of what I now consider to be adolescent yearnings and crises. Of course, as soon as I express it this way I infantilize insiders. Worse, if I compare the devotion I felt towards a charismatic to the love of an enabler, I cast an even darker aspersion upon the insider. I’ll admit that sometimes I’m so angry at the abuses and power dynamics of religious authority and the charismatic mirage that I take actual pleasure in demeaning believers – if not in print, then certainly in my heart. But then I remember what it felt like to be attacked or alienated for my own devotion – which part of me needed at the time – and I soften, and try to imagine another way to dialogue.

The second structural aspect to the chasm is entropic: it’s much easier to criticize the guru publicly than to praise him. My correspondents who are still devotees of the gurus I take down cannot publicly (except occasionally in comment threads) defend their teachers without seeming to reveal either their psychological privilege, their naiveté, or a callous disregard for the sentiments of those who have felt stunted or abused by those same teachers. “I Can’t Really Explain It, But I Had a Good Relationship With Guru X, Who Others Call an Abuser” will not be a winner in the blogosphere. So the terms of engagement seem really unfair. The devotee who’s examined their guru honestly, reconciled himself with the guru’s flaws, acknowledged that the guru hurt others, and yet must testify because his heart demands it that his guru helped him immeasurably – this complex devotee is in a very lonely place. Who can understand his story of gazes, tears, and shivers up the spine?

But perhaps there are many who live in this lonely place, unaware of each other. Is it such a different place, after all, than where we find ourselves when we are torn about our parents, when we see their sins and cruelties with utter precision, and at the same time remember what seemed like, and maybe even was, tenderness? And what about those of us who received an ersatz love and intimacy in childhood, conveyed through power and judgment? There are so many people whose parents abused them — consciously, unconsciously, subtly, overtly — and who love them still, not only by overlooking or forgiving their cruelties, but because for them, parental cruelty equaled attention, and attention equaled love. The journey towards distinguishing love from abuse is excruciating.

(Of course I’m doing it again: infantilizing the devotional insider by comparing her to an abused child. I’m not quite sure how to get out of this maze. I know it will help if I remember that I must always listen more deeply, more closely.)

When I showed my essay on Leonard Cohen and his disgraced guru Joshu Sasaki Roshi to a friend, he acknowledged the connections, the insight. And then he paused for a long time, and said “But it’s clear that something precious passed between those two men. We don’t know what it was. We know that they loved each other, in whatever way they were able. Can you write about that, too?”

The radical inside me grit his teeth. Must we really spend more time on the stories of privileged geniuses? Does the world really need another poetic speculation on the homoerotics of spiritual power? Would my poetic queries into Leonard Cohen’s burning-cigarette-heart be silent acts of violence against Sasaki’s victims? Does my attention make powerful people more powerful, and their stories more important than the stories of those they oppress? A big part of criticism is remembering what a “sin of omission” is: concentrating on Cohen omits too many other voices. McKenzie Wark writes: “If there is one abiding purpose to psychoanalysis, it is to make bourgeois lives seem fascinating, at least to those who live them.”

But then the novelist within me stirs, the one who wants to write all the stories, to gather all the hearts within me: the privileged who don’t see it, the unprivileged who do, and everyone in between. The novelist dreams to harmonize emic and etic, to be flexible with allegiances, to give and withdraw sympathy in a rhythm that bends towards equal parts transparency and strangeness.

I could definitely write effectively about that dark love between Sasaki and Cohen, by returning fully to my insider mind. But for how long can I stay there? The core demand of novel-writing is schizophrenic. Two voices must be in constant dialogue: the one who is intimate with people with the one who is intimate with things and systems. One who zooms in and one who zooms out. This mirrors, of course, the schizophrenia at the heart of writing philosophy, which always involves internal dialectic. You can’t make a claim without considering its counterpoint. The voice that becomes etched in text is covering over the silenced voice of disagreement.

In novel-writing, add to these two voices the further splitting of the voice by history. When I write I write as the forty-one year-old me, uncomfortably atheist, who just moved house with a new baby, but also as the thirty-five year-old me, in a different house and family with different rules, and the twenty-eight year-old me, enthralled with Michael Roach, the twenty-six year-old me, manic-depressive novelist, and many others, including the eight year old choirboy who trembled under the stained glass when he heard the soprano line soar. These are my characters, my perspectives. I want my characters and perspectives to interact with each other. I want for them to love and hate and be indifferent, but to never ignore or silence each other.

The necessity of holding novelistic space for many voices combines with another thought that might make writing about the guru issue and religion in general richer, if not easier. It’s a thought about therapeutic process. It’s not enough to be open to other voices. We also need caregiving skill.

About ten years ago, my main asana teacher explained the principle of the asana prop with his usual concision: If you’re going to take something away from a person that they’ve been depending upon, you’d better give them something to take its place. The context was the teaching of forearm stand, and “taking away” internal humeral rotation from the student. You can’t just take away a gesture that’s been protecting their hearts for who knows how long by telling them to activate the scapularis and scalenes. Telling them won’t do. You have to give them props: a strap to bind their upper arms at shoulder-width, and a block to separate and stabilize their hands.

In Ayurveda, a similar principle applies. If the client has a repetitive behaviour that fatigues their vitality, the first thing to recognize is that they need that behaviour; they’re using it in some way. Their entire organization of prana has become dependent upon that caffeine, that nicotine, that dieting, that overeating, that over-exercise, those six orgasms per day. You can’t take away any one of those supports with meaningful results without replacing it with something else. The habit of three glasses of red wine per night can begin to be replaced with a strong cup of tea made from cinnamon, hawthorne berry, fennel seeds and cloves.

And there I go again – comparing guru devotion to kinetic weakness or addictive behaviour. This is an etic gesture, and dark in tone. For the etic to really carry empathy – and what is scholarship but empathy with a method? – it must acknowledge that it reduces or strips the emic. If etic data is going to take something away from the emic experience – and it will – it is only just that it offers something in return. This is where I have failed my devoted friends so far, by not pivoting quickly enough into novel mode, and by forgetting a primary . If a person says their love and resilience has come from a type of relationship my critique wants to eradicate because on the whole it seems to hurt more people than it helps, what can I offer as reparation?

But in reading over this, it’s becoming clearer to me that the model of novel-writing really does challenge the emic-etic divide. While literary theorists have made the point that fiction writers must take care to not appropriate the voices of others, novelists do it all the time, out of necessity. The very task of writing about someone else necessitates that insiders and outsiders switch places. For either to claim the other has no right to write about what they see and feel about themselves or anyone else is absurd: you might as well deny or turn off your theory-of-other-minds circuitry. More than that: the gift of fiction is the understanding that all voices are necessary, and that transparency in life comes as much from how they clash as from how they harmonize. The emic and the etic need each other, and can abide within the same voice, at war, or at peace.

It’s too bad that by definition we cannot conceive fiction to be real. It mends so many divisions.

The categories of insider and outsider do not hold, it seems. Even the artisans of the etic should recognize, through the example of the novelist, that they are making emic gestures constantly: choosing, from within their blindered culture, exactly what they will focus upon, and how. The final subject of anthropology must be that strange and rare tribe: anthropologists. Perhaps then the interdependence of faith and irony would become clearer.

For now I’ll end with this. The notion of offering a substitute for the relationship or system we deconstruct points to the larger question we all face as we move together in the great life-arc from inside to outside, from the womb of innocence to the outer dark of wisdom. As time takes away our support – our idealism, our enchantments, our parents, our health – what hard-to-accept gifts does it give in return? What blocks and straps and soup and jokes and stories and kinship can we offer each other on this road that leads away from dependency?



Special thanks to all my correspondents, to Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad for the reading, and to Alix Bemrose for the conversation.


A good resource:

The Insider/Outsider Debate. Edited by Thomas N. Headland, Kenneth L. Pike, and Marvin Harris. http://www-01.sil.org/~headlandt/ee-intro.htm?iframe=true&width=100%25&height=100%25.


  • In a way, Remski has become the anti guru guru, and it seems there is a developing awareness of the irony and responsibilities of such a position…Yet there I go again, identifying him to be a victim of his discontentment of his own projections. How do I get out of this? Well if “it’s” in him then it must be in me. (There I go again, labeling him as some designed ripening of my own karma).

  • I find it hard to believe that the intellect that wrote the above was ever “enmeshed in several cult environments,” but I guess it is true, that it can happen to anybody.

    As a tantric and yogic dilettante rather than a devotee I’ve always been able to maintain distance from gurus, but it may be more attributable to my asthmatic personality rather than any wisdom or intelligence. Sometimes weakness is an advantage.

    In reading your writing, Matthew, I find your ability to listen and question refreshing–much more so than some that share your point of view. You’re winning some of us over, but precisely because you seem to have the ability to listen.

    I continue to worry (I’m also hermetically recursive) about what I might be missing. Is there a technology beyond charismatic storytelling that a guru might have?

    But there is also my asthmatic’s “anxiety of influence.” I try to remain balanced and not fall into overgeneralization (guru = bad; maybe, but has it been really been the case in comparison with any other student/teacher relationship), yet I will not give myself over to another.

    I have to laugh about what is sometimes not funny; perhaps it is even tragic. With that I’ll turn you over to my asthmatic personality guru, Mark Corrigan: “It’s easy being a freak:”

  • Matthew, thank you for taking the time to work these issues through so beautifully and share your reflections freely with all who might be interested. It is a great gift and I know that many, many people appreciate it. I certainly do.

    That said, I will quibble (once again). I think that you pose a false dilemma when you ask, “If a person says their love and resilience has come from a type of relationship my critique wants to eradicate because on the whole it seems to hurt more people than it helps, what can I offer as reparation?”

    Of course, no one’s critique is going to eradicate these relationships. Your analysis of why they occur reveals the reasons for that already, so there’s no reason to belabor that point. Therefore, since you don’t have the power to eliminate the relationships, you have no responsibility to provide a replacement for them. Neither move is in your power (or anyone else’s). We can build up alternatives that appeal to those that want them, offer critiques to those who want to hear them, offer support to those who want it, etc. But that’s all.

    What your reasoning suggests is that you’d *like* to have the power to eradicate the relationships and offer something better in their place. This place of desire is the really interesting place to investigate more deeply in all this, I think.

    What does it mean to see such problems so clearly – and also see our limitations in terms of effecting change clearly as well? This applies to so many issues . . . I hate so many things that are happening in the U.S. and the world today and would love to change them, but all I can do is my very little bit. This is a difficult realization and one that many people resist.

    So, I think that what we can offer is the usual stuff of acceptance, compassion, engagement, etc. – except made more real, and less platitudinous than usual. And that, I feel, is pretty much it. But, on the other hand – that’s a lot.

    • Thank you Carol for the kind words. It is a little puffy and belaboured to suggest I can eradicate anything, but I should say that what I left out of the email calculus that begins the post are the many notes I’ve received from people — especially in the Michael Roach circle — who said that my articles were pivotal for them in terms of the longevity of their devotion. Otherwise I take your point, which really reveals a confusion in my life I doubt I’ll ever resolve: am I a critic or a therapist? As for the power to offer something better, I don’t think I want it, but I’ll keep checking in with that. I guess we all have to negotiate the pride and despair of how much and how little we can do.

  • I very much appreciate your introspection and honesty on this subject. I think it’s a very complex issue and I have many many thoughts on this:

    I believe the discours is often additionally charged because of the element of shame. Many of us are ashamed to have fallen for a guru, even ashamed for the desire to follow someone and surrender completely. This infantile desire may or may not be pathologic, in the end we have to work with what is there. The desire to surrender and trust someone completely, be it a parent, a lover, a teacher is something we can acknowledge and accept and even cherish in ourselves, whether we act on it or not. We can be kinder with ourselves and accept that sometimes we ignore warning signs or behave inauthentically because we prefer to keep the romantic notion of the other, be it the guru or the lover, intact.

    There is a leap of faith in surrendering that can be transformational in itself and doesn’t need to be connected to the trustworthiness of the subject of our faith. If we tie our faith to the trustworthiness of the other, we might deprive ourselves of the transformational power of surrender. Which is a completely valid choice but it should be conscious one.

    I’m not big on surrendering myself, I’ve tried but I’ve always been too pragmatic about it: Gurus are people, people disappoint other people in different ways and on different scales. To expect anything else from them, to expect perfection is fooling ourselves.

    Of course those that deceive and lie and hurt others should be exposed and society should be kinder on victims. That goes without asking.

    • Shame is such a valuable addition to the equation. Not only for the conflicted devotee, I would say, but for the one who rebelled. Growth and criticism alike seem to involve at least some portion of patricide.

  • Thank you, Matthew!!

    This is a very important and necessary discussion for us in the yoga/Ayurveda world. Your article reminds me of my own journey, the challenge of watching dear friends align themselves with teachers who are manipulating them, etc. But it also reminds me of the story of Kripalu Centre, and the journey from the guru model to an experiential, inquiry-based holistic education centre. The community of teachers, the centre, and a now growing legacy of inquiry-based books and teachings has survived a guru crisis, and offers one model of people taking responsibility for their own spiritual and psychological growth. I mention this not because I think it is the only model, but because it is an amazing transformation by people wanting to preserve community, but under very different circumstances. I feel safe when I go to a workshop taught by a Kripalu teacher, and know that “my experience will be my own experience”.

    Further, I believe people are drawn to charismatic gurus, because they have an ability to crystallize a strong community of seekers. This is something that seems otherwise so challenging for independent, gnostic yogis — to create, or find a sense of grounding in community. Really, I think it is partly what we seek – groups of like-minded people who live close enough that we can practice yoga and ayurveda together in regular and meaningful ways. Hence the popularity of long-term residential facilities, or ashrams, and the draw by yogis, in particular in the guru model, to drop out of mainstream society and ‘move in’ with the guru and guru-bhai. Which of course only further entrenches the myopia in the case of insular communities if there is manipulation or estrangement from the wider community.

    So, the task seems to be to create more participatory, group-led, community-based yoga organizations that allow us to truly be a community within our wider community, to share more regularly and meaningfully perhaps with each other, and with the rest of our society. Shobhan Faulds gave a great talk on this which is recorded in which he speaks about moving from insular, utopian community to a less centralized community (non-guru-model) that has a synergistic relationship with wider communities in which it exists. Excellent talk.

    I realize this is a very complex issue, but today what came up for me is the above.


  • I realize there are a lot of false teachers out there, but what of the possibility of real gurus with real realization still existing? What if your guru hardly even speaks and has no “charisma” or false charm you speak of? What if your guru insists on you doing your own work and not being dependent on them? What if your guru has given you specific repeatable techniques that allow you to verify many of the more esoteric aspects of this ancient knowledge? What of all the ancient texts lauding the importance of having a guru to help you not get lost in all of this garbage?

    • What if indeed! These would be and are important additions to the story, and I hope you and others more qualified than I will write them. I look forward to how these reports would go beyond the simplicities of hagiography to speak to the uniqueness of mentors who rise in a post-faith world.

  • Matthew. I wouldn’t say I’m “more qualified” than anyone, but have had my experiences with a few what I would consider authentic teachers which I don’t feel a need to validate here in some public way. It wouldn’t really change or do much for anyone. We are drawn to what we have earned and what we need. In general they don’t have large followings or put on big parade. They often write very little (not always) and are more concerned with proper experience and growth than anything. Your comment about the “simplicity of hagiography” already shows some doubt in the entire thing. Perhaps when I have practiced for another twenty years I’ll be able to venture something more that will appease your intellect, though I am more interested in finding out the truth of these matters.
    Given your experiences, I am not surprised on your doubts as you have seem to have some healing to do around the issue. It’s like someone with an abusive father, which causes a lot of people to follow teachers that are not in their best interest quite often actually…I call it the “daddy syndrome” as I see it time and time again. Sure there is a lot of dark stuff that happens around teachers with some power, though you come off as very biting around the whole issue as if good people with some degree of realization don’t exist. Most any proper text written by a sage or any teacher worth their salt will speak of the importance of a realized teacher to guide you through this whole process. Those who can do without one are few and far between. They also warn against false gurus as well as quack Ayurvedic physicians (which is now coming in droves too) so the problem is not new by any means. For some reason people in this day and age can’t accept the fact that there are real teachers and don’t know what to do with it. Most people don’t want it. We love our egos so much, our little viewpoints, our big words and theories. So we twist all these teachings to meet our own fancy as if we know better. It’s just plain arrogance.
    I mean if your trying to put John Friend on a list of “gurus” who have fallen, it shows how off the map all this is in the west. It’s a complete joke. Not to say you think he was spiritual, but anyone who would even consider him a spiritual teacher got what they deserved. It was a big lesson for the western spiritual audience and shows how clueless a lot of it is ( there is some good stuff happening no doubt). Even someone with more integrity like B.K.S. Iyengar is far from enlightened. Yet people spend so much time following his methods as if they are somehow spiritually progressing from leveling their pelvic floor while keeping their toes extended and inner arms rotated out in shoudler stand yet again. As one of their “top” representatives has chided , the only thing that being in asana class will help you with is staying out of trouble.
    It really boils down to karma as far as the teachers we get and anything else in life. I notice people with the harder lot tend to dismiss karma, and the most westerner “yogis” are quite dubious of the concept. I find this ridiculous since without karma, there is no point to Yoga proper. We are where we are as culture. That’s fine. I’m as American as anyone. But I see a lot of people close off to these ideas as they have been presented and it is unfortunate because there are much deeper practices out there that gets passed off as inaccessible or esoteric or ancient, which just isn’t true. They have a science behind them. You can still be a “householder” and achieve much if you follow the steps. Ok, I’ve said enough. Peace.

    • Avoiding the simpler and more abstract forms of hagiography means naming names, describing experiences, and cataloguing effects. If you are actually interested “in finding out the truth of these matters”, not to mention having the charity to actually help those you dismissively psychoanalyze from the golden zafu, you would simply say: “I saw teacher X do Y for me under Z circumstances, and this is how it helped me, and this is why I think it might help you.” Anything less is empty posturing that no false modesty (20 more years to disclose what you’re defending in the abstract?) can disguise.

      In all of my writing about “gurus” (self-named or named by others, and understanding that whether they are “authentic” or not is impossible for anyone to assess, because we’d have to agree on some standard of the “authentic”) I have been utterly transparent about my wounds and how they colour my critique. I’ve named names and places. I’ve not only done this for those who have fooled me, but for those who have really blessed me. Do you really think it’s sufficient to reply with abstract reifications and sweeping dismissals of a whole culture of practitioners who are every bit as earnest as you are in their desire to improve their lives and the lives of others?

      There’s a shadow side to everything, including the critique of the critique. There are many, myself included, who struggle with what you deride as the “daddy syndrome”, but what I would call a trauma response to the authoritarian, and they struggle by fighting back, with varying degrees of success. And then there are others who respond to authoritarian trauma by doubling down, loving authority, becoming company or military men themselves, confusing force with love, apologizing for it, justifying it, lowering themselves before it with a false humility that conceals the abuse they long to offload down the line to others.

      How many of the “yogis” you defame have you broken bread with? How many views and understandings of karma do they hold? How do they parse their individual karma from the collective, i.e., their socio-political circumstance? What good work have they done within themselves and their communities? What do they struggle with? If they were to have the incredible fortune to meet the saints your merit has conjured, would they learn as much about empathy as you have?

  • Fair enough. The most recent example ( i.e. last week) and perhaps mundane I will give is my main teacher had recently given my loved one a job mantra. She has been looking for work for well close to two years at this point and has come up dry through and through. By what you may pass off as dumb luck was offered one five days after reciting said mantra,phone rang literally the minute she stopped her recitation, and it happened to be ideal in so many levels that it is not even funny. I’ve seen this happen with other disciples as well, so I’d be hard pressed to call it a flop. This is only one small example. There are many more stories I could say but it is just gossip and more of a waste of my energy than this is already becoming.
    See you have to have a connection to that teacher, or the whole thing doesn’t work and just sending someone there doesn’t guarantee anything. There is a shakti from the lineage when such things are given. You might critique this with other teachers, but that’s how it works – take it or leave it. There are precise steps to follow before even working with a mantra properly that you have to know too. You can’t just pick it up out of a book and recite it. That does very little. You can’t just go and ask for “blessings” and be given something, especially if it isn’t in your bag to begin with. You have to be open and do your own work. Which is part of the reason I don’t care to draw attention to them, nor liter their name with my own tackling of modern yogic culture. That’s my bag, not theirs and I don’t wish to send some research trips their way. Their not interested in proving anything nor doing anything outside of God’s will. Their not trying to bolster their cred with some certification or amass a larger following or blow the minds of people.
    Just as the scriptures say, “when your ready, the teacher appears”. Yea I know that’s too “abstract” for you, but it’s true. There are subtleties beyond logic and a lot of depth in these “abstractions” which is why I refer to them and not “specifics” which is gossip in my eyes. The truth isn’t really complicated – we are in spades and so is your writing. Perhaps that is why you struggle with this stuff so much. Devotion is hard for me too.
    As far as your questions, I don’t even know how to answer them quite frankly. What they have to do with the issues I brought up is a little unclear to me as they have little to do with spirituality or why modern practitioners feel the need to pretend like all of the ancient recommendations are no longer valid.Instead of actually engaging with my concerns, which are genuine, you chosen to throw back socio-political circumstances and knock my lack of empathy? Sure I’ve “broken bread” with them, they’ve helped their communities in both gross worldly ways and ways that you or I may never comprehend.
    Look, I don’t think I’m that special or live on a “golden zafu”. I don’t even think I’m that spiritual at all quite frankly – far from it in fact as you can see from my posts. Nothing to hide here either. Just tired of the invention around these subjects and people with no real depth pandering some opinion out of a book they read, or tip they got from some workshop since they need to make a living off of spiritual subjects. That’s all.

    • You precluded my being able to address your concerns, because you asked a rhetorical question:

      “But what of the possibility of real gurus with real realization still existing?”

      I said “Tell us about it”, and out comes the story: some evidence of your guru’s power is the claim that Sanskrit words, uttered enough times, reorganized the economy of your hometown to open up a job for your friend. (More evidence would be “gossip”.)

      Setting aside the fact that there’s no way on earth you could ever establish causality here, no matter how much confirmation bias you rack up, consider for a moment the incredible narcissism of the claim and the intention behind it. How about a mantra to refreeze the Arctic sea ice, or to materialize sandwiches for the homeless of Los Angeles? Haven’t you ever noticed that most of the mystical siddhis of the puranas and esoteric yoga are to effect self-help? Perhaps mantras that actually help people help others are not your teacher’s specialty, but if he’s fluent with them as well, it would only be ethical to send us his way, because we obviously need all the help we can get.

      And I do mean all of us, which is what my questions are about. In your last comment, you smeared “most people”, and “westerner yogis” as being uninterested in real pedagogy, or in the causal flow of their actions and experiences. Or was that the mantra for the pompousness siddhi speaking? I have lived and worked amongst yoga and meditation practitioners of varying levels of experience and commitment for over a decade, and I’ve seen that the vast majority are open and doing their work, at their own pace, in their own time, some with teachers and some without. I see no lack of earnestness and sometimes an even overly-anxious desire to get to the roots of things, whether that means memorizing shlokas at the foot of a pandit, or singing kirtan or going to psychotherapy. Not everyone’s going in the same direction, but virtually everyone is doing their work.

      I actually remember some of the feelings you express. Under the influence of first the catholic church and then a few charismatic gurus, I remember thinking that everyone else was failing. I understand now that it actually came from terror: I was making a mental sacrifice of others to appease a jealous god, and to cover my own uncertainty.

      I’ve heard this hostile and presumptuous sanctimony before, and I remember nurturing it in myself. It sounds like this: “everyone’s doing it wrong, we’re screwing up a precious thing, nobody has faith anymore, where are the morals of the kids these days? asana yogis are idiots, I’m so disgusted at my culture, I wish everyone would just give up their little ego games and see the truth.” At some point you have to ask yourself just how isolated you want to be and just how bad it feels to smear people you’ve never met and books you’ve never read, versus the possibility of recognizing that whatever tradition you’ve inherited has changed in ways small or great with every single transfer across time, culture, and language, that invention is rife in the telephone game of oral culture, and that despite all odds everyone’s doing the best they can. That would be empathy.

      Back to mantra: I find it a shame that your story completely misses the potential of mantra beyond the stage in which magical thinking could be psychologically necessary (ending around age 5) or ethically acceptable. The sounds are beautiful, seemingly onomatopoeic to their themes, and they really can displace patterned internal chatter with shimmering objects of focus. As such I have experienced mantra reshape my psyche as any exercise in CBT does. If that’s what happened to your friend — that the mantra settled her heart in some way, making way for the self-confidence that allowed her to present strongly at an interview — then we’re talking about something that we could test. But it’s plain unethical to omit that subtlety, and give the impression that the world will conform to our wishes when the right person blesses us with the right spell.

      I’ve felt mantra stabilize my reverie and opened doors to the contemplation of the sun, moon, planets, and various types of natural energies. It has filled me with memory of how pleasurable it was to learn to speak, while giving me the pleasure of learning to speak newly. As I listen to my son beginning to vocalize, I learn a little more about what mantra helps me to recall. And I agree with you: it should be learned from someone who has heard it and can feel it. Mantra begins in conversation.

      So you’re protecting your teacher from exposure, even though he has so much to offer. You just want to let him do the will of God in his hiding, which apparently includes doling out new job and maybe new car mantras with strange parsimony. You are definitely special to be in his presence. But the cost of admission seems be a such a cruel view of the world and your fellows: I don’t know how you can stand it.

  • Regarding the mantra. Like I said, it was a very mundane example but the most recent of late and on the top of my mind so that’s why I gave it. You seemed to overlook that part. In general we wouldn’t ask for such favors as no, most mantras are for God realization or clearing psychological blocks of which I have plenty of stories about too. If you want to call that “self-help”, that’s fine. Sometimes a bit of help in the daily life with mundane things is required to get on with your practices and that is about it. Real spiritual practice does not have much to do with “helping” or saving the world. Those are actually quite rajasic/worldly activities. Sure feeding the poor is a great thing to do, but it is a very worldly activity through and through and might be a byproduct of yogic practices ( like the famed “yoga butt”) but is not the goal. While some yogis do work on this level to a certain degree (i.e. Amma), their main focus is on NOT returning to this world. Why you keep coming back to how they can help this world is beyond me. That’s not what these practices are for really. Yes that implies ideas of a soul and karma and all that other stuff that you don’t seem to want to accept about what these disciplines teach – which is fine – but your just missing the point entirely. If you think that’s selfish than that’s just your own ego making up stuff once again, not mine.
    And for the record there are in fact stories of saints getting together to help the world through subtle means and practices(i.e. ending WWII) when appropriate. Whether or not you want to accept that or the fact that there are things you know nothing about and reality is something you don’t actually understand is up to you. Can you produce results one-hundred percent of the time? Can you help all the people all the time? Can anyone? No. It’s okay.A teacher can’t really shift around what a person has come to live in this life for the most part, so your attacks and requests for help are just hopelessly misdirected, uninformed, and plain out ignorant. As discussed in our other conversation, no I don’t care to bring the teacher into this. This isn’t an advertisement for them. They are quite public with a small following and if you are looking for a teacher sincerely, you’ll find them when you need them. If you don’t have any faith in that statement then you won’t. That’s how it works.
    The rest of your comments regarding mantra show further how you are self-interpreting your own experience with mantra and shows a complete lack of understanding of the power inherent in the Sanskrit language. There is so much depth to it that if you don’t really understand, or at the very least respect Sanskrit for what it is you will not be able to enter into these disciplines properly. I’m sorry but it is not just reshaping of thoughts or “magical” thinking, you’re just wrong. I don’t know the extant of your knowledge or real experience with this topic, but given all of your other comments it seems pretty superficial at best. There is an entire detailed science behind it and is a whole other debate, but if you want to completely dismiss thousands of years of yogis who speak of and practice mantra siddhi, feel free. I could as easily dismiss the western medical practice since they have never ever helped me alleviate any of my medical problems as well as having failed many of my loved ones countless times but that would be plain ignorance on my part.
    Regarding me bashing everyone else in our culture as being “yoga idiots” and what not. That is the whole reason this conversation started. Yes it is upsetting to see what is happening in the so called “yoga” and “spiritual” world. I’m not saying that my teacher or my path is the only way, or that there aren’t some good things going on ( which is what I said if you’ve been reading my posts and not just reacting to them) – but the invention around this stuff and what is being called “yoga” is just plain ridiculous and in many cases disease forming. That’s all. Yes there has been some changes in yoga technology and I’ve studied the history extensively. I understand what’s going on in the western culture and it’s largely materialistic and not spiritual. Pretty simple. Facts are facts. But historically these practices have been based on deep deep insight and years and years and years of practice under lifelong masters before someone would even think about going out and teaching or claiming to know anything about this stuff. It’s also for this reason that there were very few teachers as well as practitioners. Yoga is not for everyone really – we’ve all got our place in life and our own peculiar paths to health which may or may not involve yogis, another reason it is stupid to want to send people to my teacher. Now someone pays a few hundred bucks, does a month in Bali, and can claim to know what yoga is about? Come on. Your intelligent enough to see the ridiculousness of the situation, no?
    Yes I feel isolated from the yoga community the more I do my practices and see the magic of this stuff as it is meant to be practiced, the more I don’t want anything to do with the whole western scene nor even talk about it any longer. To be quite frank I was more full of myself when I was into the western yoga culture than now – you’re really misreading me or misunderstanding yoga or both. My ego has been quite humbled with what I thought I knew, and realizing how I know zip about this stuff after eighteen years. The fact that I see people with far less knowledge spreading all sorts of stuff, yes it is frustrating. I’ve made some good friends along the way and continue to do so, like I said there are good people out there trying.
    But you are putting it out there in such a public way and informing people in “creative” ways that it deserves to be challenged, in fact your asking for it. Most people don’t know jack about this stuff so you get all these gushy comments, people trying to be “nice”, and no real conversation. No I wouldn’t bring this up to some poor kid who just wants to take an asana class and is naive about the whole affair. I just feel sorry for them more often than not. Makes me sad. They hopefully won’t go try and sell their version of yoga and further bring people down their own half baked ideas. But I get it. You’ve put your whole life into it, and now your ego is being challenged so you are getting angry and upset since you haven’t had any real depth with this stuff. And I’m sorry but years and teachers names don’t mean a thing quite frankly without genuine depth in spiritual practices (why I don’t consider myself much evolved in these regards). People can make the same mistakes for a looong time and just get even more and more confused with this stuff which is exactly what is going on. Simple Ayurveda logic. Like increases like.
    I’m sorry but my garbage man is more real and knows more about spirituality than most of the people I’ve come across in yoga studios or other similar venues. Him I can connect with. The land I can connect with. The trees I can connect with. Children I can connect with. I think I’m doing all right. But this conversation is getting to be a huge energetic drain as we are just attacking each other more or less. I don’t see it getting anywhere fruitful and think we can just agree to disagree though feel free to get in some last words in case there are any flaming embers left that you want to blow out. Peace to you and your family, fatherhood will develop (or test) your yogic skills faster than any of this nonsense we’ve gotten into.

    • It’s true: fatherhood beats yoga for realization any day of the week. It’s the second time around for me, so I have some sense of where it’s taking me, but I’m sure I’ll be surprised in both joy and anguish. Strange power for such a “worldly” activity, no? I’ve been wondering why Patanjali, Svatmarama, Gheranda, and even Krishna in the Gita have nothing to say about it. The Upanishads ride on father-son dialogue, and I find that warming. And Caraka says that a man without a child is like a picture of a lamp, and I love that.

      Now you’ve compared helping others with sculpting buttocks. You’ve claimed that an alleged batterer of her disciples (who had no guru of her own) is someone who actually uses charity to save her own skin, and that this is admirable. You’ve suggested that yogis ended WWII (haven’t heard that one before). You’ve elevated a hopelessly deterministic worldview: that even if you’re blessed to meet the guru, he can’t really help you. Add to this the glorification of Sanskrit over the dozens of ancient Indian languages (not to mention all the others) through which people have honed their devotions.

      Perhaps the most important thing to say here is that not only the yoga you describe, but also your attitude towards it, is one path among many, and an increasingly marginalized one. If a teacher really explores this, dependency upon them is reduced. You speak as if yoga practice/philosophy in general is somehow clear about the role of helping others, articulation of the soul or the function of karma, but what characterizes the whole culture from its root is vigorous debate, even about the most essential things. Whose version of ahimsa is correct? Mahavira’s or Krishna’s? Is one doing yoga, and the other not? One thing that I’m not seeing in your narrow interpretations is something that lies at the heart of the Indian spirit, something you can feel even now as you visit — “there’s always room for one more on the bus”. Are you aware of how opened-armed Indian philosophies are? That debate lies at the root of jnana yoga? That India welcomes into its discourse the very viewpoints that deny the validity of the Vedas and the sacredness of Sanskrit? My experience of yoga isn’t as provincial, because I’ve practiced for years with Buddhists (some of whom recite their mantras in Tibetan (!) and believe their entire task is to save the world), and I’ve recently started to learn about the Carvakans…

      Of course I don’t know “how reality works”. This can’t be even framed as a question! Between the two of us, I think I’m holding the space of uncertainty: about reality, what people should do, and what the gifts of yoga might be. Because for me it’s not about credulity and submission. It’s about learning, and by definition, learning does not know what it will find, or who the learner will become. This also means that I’m clear about what I dismiss. The list is simple: authoritarianism, provincialism, magical thinking, spiritual bypassing, historical blindness, Hindutva propaganda, the failure to recognize consciousness as a evolute, the narcissism of the ascetic. Beyond these, yoga is a free-for-all for me: I value mentorship experiences as highly as you do, and I’ve seen people do great work on their own.

      I certainly don’t feel “sorry” for any “poor kid who just wants to take an asana class”. It’s this comment in particular that sheds brighter light for me on some of the energy behind your critique of innovation. I might be wrong here, of course, but since you’re so free in analyzing what my experience must be, here’s what I hear. Your story is: it’s all gone to shit. People are making things up, and the true path is being lost, because the true gurus are being ignored. But I also hear an ambivalence in your argument — as if there’s a part of you that enjoys the failure of others, enjoys the isolation that your razor’s edge brings. Your critique of my faithlessness and secularity is ironically nihilistic. You say it’s a waste of energy, but a waste of energy you passionately engage with. I know I enjoy deconstructing things, but you seem to love the destruction itself.

      For me it’s not a waste of energy at all to defend the approach I’ve evolved, with teachers and tradition, without teachers and tradition, against teachers and tradition. I welcome the criticism. It clarifies the communication problems for me — especially the problems I try to raise in this post — and this is gold to a writer, so thank you.

  • You haven’t been reading my posts, or at least reading what you want out of them. Yes I recognize my path is one amongst many and is not necessarily for others. No my teacher is not interested in dependence on them. Yes I am aware of all the debates in the history and philosophy of these subjects. No Buddhism is not in line with what I have been talking about nor have I ever been interested in it much.
    To put this into your world a little more perhaps.If you are going to be a medical doctor or trained psychotherapist worth their salt the amount of training is mind boggling. Even then there are still plenty of practitioners who do good work and others who don’t. There are debates and growth and different camps. It is the same with these disciplines, there’s no difference. The only thing is that the training in the west is pretty much a sham, I’ve been through a lot of it as have you and there is so much lacking. I mean there is practically no clinical training for a subject like Ayurveda, and have any of these “yogis” ever been in samadhi let alone seen anyone in it? This stuff is every bit as serious and detailed as any science. If people were going out and practicing psychotherapy or claiming to be an MD when the only test was sending in some questions through mail ( a la David Frawley’s “certifications”) or training with some dude who happened to be popular enough to make some cash training other “practitioners” the world would go nuts. That’s pretty much what I’ve been trying to get at, and I think you’d agree on some level. Thank you for engaging on all this, however much of a roller coaster of a conversation it has been. Peace.

  • Your situation as insider/outsider, both and neither, brings such an interesting complexity to the subject. I would consider myself a comfortable atheist who is critical of organized religion/faith-based hierarchies, and maybe authority in general. When I was attending a Shiva Rea training in Venice, California last year, there was a special lecture and Darshan night held at Exhale. Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswati came in and sat on a stack of pillows on the stage, while his assistant (a young, white American girl) both answered questions from the crowd. He was funny and quiet and charming, and his advice, while often referencing “God”, was more about approaches to inner peace, and how to tread lightly in the world. I found the collective excitement surrounding the night to be a bit off-putting and uncomfortable. Since when had yoga training turned into sitting with hundreds of Californians at the feet of an Indian man in orange robes? But after the talk was finished, he went into a side room to hold Darshan, and I went in and sat down to watch out of curiosity (I didn’t know what Darshan was). I sat on the floor of this crowded room and watched him for about 15 minutes. He had a family at as his feet asking him for guidance when he just looked up from them, turned his head and locked eyes with mine from across the room and gently touched his heart. I immediately broke into tears and there was a feeling of complete and utter joy in my heart. I can’t explain it. I left that night feeling so shaken up–it was profound. What it revealed to me is that if a rather critical, hardened, atheistic person such as myself can experience such a swift questioning of everything in a moment of such subtle interaction, who am I to judge these seekers? That one brief encounter shook my steadfast critique, and I’m left with… I don’t know what. Wherever you’re going with this, Matthew, I’ll be reading with interest.

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