Accountability Or Apologia? Reading Between the Lines When Yoga and Buddhism Leaders Issue Crisis Statements
Many of today’s leaders in yoga and Buddhism built themselves through online marketing. This means that when abuse in their communities is revealed, they must be prepared to make online responses. It’s good to be able to see where the responses are continuous with the marketing: this may give clues as to how earnest, considered and educated those responses are.
The speed at which it all happens is both terrible and revealing. Terrible insofar as it suppresses sober second thought. Revealing because it lays bare microdynamics of cultic control that in the pre-digital age were invisible outside of the group. Today we can watch cults get penetrated by reporting and instantly try to circle the wagons. It’s easy to see the crude damage control of the attempt to discredit victims or reporters. What’s harder to see is how the reporting can be deflected by selective acknowledgement or yes-but statements. Whatever the responses are, they play out in the open field, like some kind of cult-exit obstacle course reality show.
We have to learn the difference between structural change and rebranding. Especially as people are getting better at co-opting and monetizing discourses around trauma-awareness and justice. There’s a lot of leaders in the Shambhala org right now who will be ramping up the trauma awareness language and dusting off their Naropa psychology chops. But if they don’t simultaneously call for the Sakyong to be removed and the org to be investigated independently, they are abusing that language and those tools. This may not at all be their fault. They may be under the illusion that those values actually came from the Trungpa legacy, instead of having been co-opted by it.
I’ve learned a lot about this through discussing the responses to the Jois revelations with Karen Rain. She’s really good at sniffing out when sober accountability pivots into self-inflation, what-about-me-ism, and wagon circling. She had to learn that in order to determine whether a space or encounter was safe. Here are some tips that have evolved from our conversations:
1. Look at the narrative arc of an acknowledgement statement. If it starts out expressing empathy for victims but then shifts to reaffirm the value of the abuser’s legacy, ask yourself “Why are those two things together?”
2. Look for self-aggrandizement in the statement, distinguishing how the speaker is so much more careful than the disgraced leader. This misses the point.
3. Look for the gambit of psychologically distancing oneself from what happened with statements like “I never saw him as a Guru.” If the person has materially profited by association, internal semantics aren’t that important.
4. Suss out the knee-jerk reasoning around “separating the teacher from the teaching”. It’s not so simple. It’s probably impossible. And chances are good the speaker is economically or socially dependent on the teaching structures, so the reasoning is highly motivated.
5. If the org lied about the teacher, ask if it also lied about the teachings. There’s usually pretty strong overlap.
6. Tune in to minimization and false equivalencies. “We’re all human.” Yes, but not all of us run or enable cults and break harassment, assault, and labour laws in the service of “crazy wisdom”.
7. If the speaker has family connections within the organization, imagine that for as much as they’re speaking about the org they are also negotiating a family crisis, with all of its compromises, in public.
8. Relatedly, if the speaker has logged many years in the org, their statement will always be a complex tight-rope walk between public discourse and in-group messaging. Be aware that with the latter task the speaker has to position themselves within a quickly-devolving social and economic landscape, often re-negotiating long-term relationships or finding out that old friends weren’t actually friends at all. They’re under a lot of stress. They might be looking for new jobs, or tuition costs of going back to grad school without health insurance. Don’t expect clarity.
9. Look for how the boundary blur between private and public selves drives the speaker into an unconscious narcissism. Mainstream yoga and Buddhism runs on the en masse commodification of the confessional voice, on the marketing of vulnerability and openness. This is at the heart of personal branding – it’s *personal*. When there are structural or institutional responsibilities at hand, however, your personal journey isn’t the thing to centre. This is hard to learn if you’ve been paid for the performance of personal transparency. Bottom line: if you make money from a wealthy yoga or Buddhism brand, you don’t get to have JUST a personal take on the issue. This is because your personal take is automatically becomes social guidance for your closest followers. “These are my personal views only” doesn’t cut it. If you are successful as a spiritual teacher it is because a lot of people want to have your personal views as their own.
10. Tune in to how a group will change the channel. Fundraisers are always a good idea. Who can argue with raising money for a great cause? Members can be enthusiastic about a cause and not recognize that it can be a subtle form of brand-washing, if internal problems remain unaddressed. It’s a lot harder to raise money for outside consulting and independent ethics review.
11. If the speaker references the wisdom of the in-group as a tool for restorative justice, read up on what Jennifer Freyd describes as “Institutional Betrayal”. Victims of Catholic priest abuse don’t need sermons delivered by people wearing the same robes as the abuser. They need victim’s services.
12. If a speaker is not reaching for independent resources to understand what has happened and how it can be rectified, there’s little chance that either will occur. This is because a primary mechanism of cult dynamics is information control. The speaker got into the mess they’re in by having shut out independent resources to begin with.
13. If the speaker can’t seem to avoid “yes but” pivots, you have to question whether they really are “finding comfort in uncertainty”, or “owning their vulnerability.”
14. #13 becomes extra complicated if “finding comfort in uncertainty” has actually been mobilized to encourage members to do nothing at all. We have to ask when and if meditations on “No Mud, No Lotus”, on “Full Catastrophe Living” or on “When Things Fall Apart” are being used to pacify and reabsorb the member on the edge of leaving by saying: yes we’re all flawed, all flaws are the same, let’s work on these flaws together. Again, Freyd is excellent on this.
15. Look at how the commenters respond. Try to feel into statements like “Oh _____, I’m so glad you’ve come out with such as wise and compassionate statement and view. It really puts my mind at ease in this difficult time.” This might be an entirely earnest reflection, but it is also a sign that the regrouping part of the original statement has done its work. Order cannot simply be re-established. It has to be changed.
I’ve taken a lot of criticism for pointing out stuff like this. Usually I’m told that it’s not good to shame people who are trying to make accountability statements. I get that, which is why I try to identify trends instead of naming names. It’s not easy to negotiate a personal crisis in public. But that’s part of the problem. The whole yoga/Buddhism industry has to recognize the difference between private revelation and public care. This is a challenge for any privatized religion. Holding a public statement up to critical analysis is not incompatible with nurturing personal empathy for its speaker. Ideally, these positions should nurture each other.