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:
EMICS AND ETICS: 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.