(adapted from Facebook entries that reflect on the intersection between yoga/spiritualism/wellness crowds and COVID-19 conspiracy discourse)
Yoga Culture Can Train Us to See Conspiracy
The intersection between yoga/spiritualism/wellness interests and conspiracy discourse makes sense.
The history of yoga/spiritualism/wellness is a history of understanding the conventional as illusory, or bankrupt. Society itself is typically seen as a conspiracy against the inner self.
More recently, the yoga/spiritualism/wellness world exists in part as a response to scientific materialism, and a rejection of biomedical objectification.
It gives a lot of people a renewed sense of agency in relation to their bodies and ways in which meaning is made.
Yoga/spiritualism/wellness also rebels against the caste structures of bureaucracy and professionalism.
It rebels against the gatekeeping that invalidates intuition and minimizes body memory.
Through meditating on principles like karma, yoga people can rightly claim foreknowledge in current fields of study, like trauma.
Through meditating on principles like renunciation, yoga people can also develop a keen sense of where social conditioning is inauthentic, limiting, or exploitative.
When yoga/spiritualism/wellness isn’t conveyed by cults, it really can push back against authoritarianism. Where it does not victimize, it really can nurture survivors.
But COVID-19 doesn’t care about any of these things.
It’s not going to work to displace a generalized spiritual feeling of distrusting convention and rationalism onto this crisis.
And public health people care that yoga/spiritualist/wellness people don’t die, or endanger others. Like everyone, they might not have all the answers, but they’re practicing too, in ways that we may write epics or sutras about one day.
If Conspiracy Discourse Intersects with Cultic Behaviour, How Do You Help?
There are a number of ways in which those who have been recruited into social media conspiracy discourse behave like high-demand group (i.e. cult) members.
Two caveats, however:
- Conspiracy discourse rarely has visible leadership, whereas most cults do.
- Conspiracy discourse that spreads online is unlikely to enforce a key aspect of cultic control — behavioural control — except in the broadest sense of “You must be online most of the time.” Other than this high demand, it’s implausible that an online group could control food, dress, sexual activity, sleeping hours, etc.
Questions of leadership and online vs. IRL aside: if conspiracy discourse maps onto parts of the cultic template, it might mean there are ways of helping recruits you know and care for, or at least showing them that consensus reality is not as threatening as they feel, or have been told to feel.
I see four qualities in social media conspiracy discourse that approach or the standard of thought or information control (cf. Hassan), by which a group cannot admit outside data or sources of authority that would disturb the ideology:
- Black and white, all-good/all-bad thinking;
- Unshakeable belief in a grand civilization narrative;
- Inability to distinguish charisma from evidence;
- The willingness to absolutely isolate oneself from consensus reality.
I see three qualities that meet the standard of emotional control (again Hassan), by which a group enhances bonds and compliance:
- Extreme hypervigilance. The group takes great pride in being constantly and uniquely awake to the highest truth of things.
- Frenzied defensive certainty expressed through endless comments, tagging, link-dumping.
- Affect of pious devotion that must remain impervious to evidence.
Cult analysts mostly agree that the person who has been recruited is extremely difficult to communicate with. Their new value system obstructs all former closeness, understanding, and generosity. But Hassan and Alexandra Stein and others suggest that if you knew the person outside of their cult behaviour, you can actually play a role in helping them remember that part of themselves.
In other words: if you had a relationship with the person pre-cult, you are keeping their pre-cult self accessible, perhaps even alive. This means that nurturing the relationship, despite how despicable their views are, can be important — and that you’re in the position to do it. Stein says that the cult member is in a disorganized attachment relationship to the group, which has offered a “false safe haven”. The antidote is the real safe haven of the secure attachment.
But simply considering this might be impossible if they are spreading falsehoods about COVID-19 and 5G, and you’re immunosuppressed, and/or you just can’t even. Their behaviour is directly and palpably endangering you, and maybe the best thing is to block them.
But if you value the relationship —again, not saying you should — and Stein is right that the person presenting cultic behaviour is acting through an attachment wound and/or trauma bond, it literally cannot be repaired through dismissing, abandoning, patronizing, or humiliating them.
Maybe “Oh wow, I hear that you’re scared, and I am too” can go a long way.
Ignoring Direct Testimony is a Form of Silencing
Generosity dictates seeing the person engaging conspiracy discourse, or the subtler versions (“I’m just asking questions no one is allowed to ask”) as earnestly trying to be helpful, defend the vulnerable, nurture intuition and personal agency, and see through the illusion of an abusive civilization.
But there’s a moment when that earnestness turns a corner and is revealed as either a deception, or as immature, or as self-centred. I’m seeing this a lot.
It happens when someone posts a conspiracy theory doubting the existence, power, or origin of the virus, citing an indirect source. Then a friend, obviously triggered, posts a comment like:
“Please stop posting misinformation. My (partner, sibling, child) is a front-line health worker and this information endangers them.”
“Please stop posting misinformation. My (partner, sibling, child) is terribly sick (or has died) from this disease, and your post will endanger others.”
“Please stop posting misinformation. I’m recovering from this disease and I don’t want anyone else to get it, because it’s the worst thing I’ve ever been through.”
The key moment is when the OP doesn’t respond to that comment. What that shows is either that they value their idea over the direct testimony of the commenter, or that they believe the commenter is lying.
Valuing an ideology over testimony is at the root of systemic abuse.
We might consider the non-response to be a form of survivor silencing.
Conspiracy Discourse is Not Pessimistic Enough
The paranoia conceals an unreasonable hope.
The iconography of warfare and cast of evil and angelic characters presents a morality play in which, if Bill Gates (or whoever) is outed and defeated the truth will be known and the world (righteousness/purity etc) will be restored.
In this light, the pandemic is a chapter in a necessarily heroic narrative that places the underdog truth-tellers – the brave few who get it – at the centre of a transcendent revolution.
This is not pessimistic enough, in my view, because there really are no grand heroic narratives in the age of climate collapse.
To my eye, what’s happening now is basically what we have going forward, unevenly distributed: one unsolvable crisis after another rolling around the globe and intersecting, with little to rely on but the ability to discern solid sources of information, the capacity to strengthen secure attachments, and willingness to listen to the indigenous, who have been here before.
A non-grandiose framework is not depressive. Within it, there are innumerable loving, nameless actions, compromised by blindspots and anxieties, but also enriched by good instincts and earned resilience.
Somatic Dominance: Climate Collapse & The Spectre Of Cultic Yearnings | convo with Patrick Farnsworth
I had the deep pleasure of speaking with Patrick Farnsworth, whose excellent podcast “Last Born in the Wilderness” has enriched my life over the past year. Here’s the episode. Lightly edited transcript below (minus intro/outro). You can support Patrick’s freelance work here.
So you were making all these connections I hadn’t made. I’m just starting to understand that these types of things that you’re discussing, while they make sense within the context of yoga, but you’re trying to bridge these different subjects together. You’re trying to make it more understandable and approachable for people that are outside of yoga. This isn’t just a phenomenon within yoga itself. But we can learn a lot from what you’ve at least explored in your research and in your particular experiences within this world.
Thank you for that. And it’s heartening to know because I think that is a bridge that I’m starting to try to build. I think that experience in history is showing within modern yoga and Buddhist groups that when we have aspirational communities, especially fronted by charismatic leaders in uncertain discourses or uncertain times, that the potential for cultic dynamics to emerge is really, really strong. And so as I see social power gathering in certain sectors of eco activism I’m concerned, about some of those behaviors began to develop as well. And I think that the last 50 years of spiritual seeking in a globalized modern sense has a lot to offer to eco activism, especially if we view it through a critical lens. So yeah, I’m really happy that you’re glomming onto that connection. And I hope we can unfold it.
Yeah. And I think just to make this note before we delve into your work more specifically in your journey, which I think is really interesting but just to make this connection for people, because for a long time, I just want to say this, is that when people become aware of these crises, the global climate crisis, for instance, it comes originally I think as a very data-driven thing. It’s like this is the data. This is the information, the science that surrounds it. More and more I’m at a point in my work at least where I’m still covering that and talking about that. And it’s important to keep up with that. But the ways in which people on a mass scale — we live within mass societies — and we have to acknowledge the ways in which large scale societies are going to react to these crises in real time. And so it’s really crazy when you really think about how there are people who have this agenda. You know. It’s about creating really unhealthy toxic environments that are really about their own, I guess, their own ego and their own, you know what I mean? Like really toxic behaviors, you can even say toxic masculinity in many cases. It is so strange to me because when we think of yoga, we think of this peaceful, loving, self affirming environment where people are there to better themselves, right? And something quite the opposite to happen in those environments often. And I find that really interesting. And so for me, what I want to say here is when it comes to my work and my end of it, with exploring the edges of this time we’re in, I really want people to be psychologically, emotionally, spiritually prepared for what human beings are going to do in this time. And it’s not something we can be adequately prepared for in any real sense. But when it comes to building communities and forms of resilience, um, we really have to be wary and be on the lookout for these signs of culting behaviors, cult-like environments, more and more. Yeah.
Right. One bridge between global yoga and Buddhist communities, because I also study Buddhist communities and I was part of a Buddhist cult from 96 to about 2000, — part of the premise of that content, that discourse is the notion of waking up to something and as you describe with regard to collapsology, there is a waking up that takes place in the form of education and there’s a waking up that takes place in the form of psychological realization or existential maturity. I think that, you know, the interview that you did with Dahr Jamail and Barbara Cecil expresses that kind of turning point where we have this polymathically skilled journalist and world traveler who is able to say, enough data has been produced and now I’m waking up to something deeper and that turn from living in the sort of rational, descriptive world of the facts that are happening on the ground to what does this mean on an existential level is something that, that particular turn has been the commodity of modern yoga and global Buddhism over the last 50 years.
The same language has been used to describe, you know, waking up from conventionality or waking up from your bourgeois Potemkin village life or waking up from normalcy. And so there’s a real overlap. It’s almost as if you know, new age spirituality, going back to the Human Potential Movement has primed this discourse of waking up to something. And so there’s a lot of lessons to be learned from how communities have, quote unquote, woken up to the nature of reality or to the need for compassion or to the thin veneer of superficiality that neo-liberalism provides, to waking up to, Oh my God, the world is actually dying. There’s a bridge there. There’s a similarity in discourse that we can learn a lot from because as Buddhist and yoga communities have marshaled that language and have talked about waking up and have theorized about what it means or tried to, you know, design societies around its principles… they’ve done some good things and a lot of bad things. And ecological movements can learn a lot from that.
I completely agree with you on that. Yeah it’s interesting cause I think there’s a lot of for me this queasiness or wariness of this language around being woke or being awake, which I know that in yoga and Eastern spiritual traditions and Buddhism, that’s kind of the premise: enlightenment. You know, you can achieve some sort of enlightenment. And I think the way it can be presented to the West is it is a commodifiable thing. It’s something you can go to retreat in Maui and you can attain something like that, you know, by spending six weeks with some guru or whatever. It’s always been a bit perplexing to me because I don’t think, there aren’t the connections made that I think that need to be made when it comes to the fact that you feel like you have to go to this, this Island that was colonized by Americans, you know, and you go there to have this little spiritual retreat. I don’t think those connections are often made by those that are participating in it. It’s like the materiality, the material conditions that we’re a part of are not really addressed. And to me, it kind of reinforces this idea, this false dichotomy between the split between spirit and matter. Maybe you could speak to that a bit, but this idea that what’s happening in the world isn’t really, that’s not gonna, that’s not gonna liberate you. You have to be liberated through your own will to wake up and be enlightened and to detach yourself from everything that’s happening around you to elevate yourself above it and…
Yeah and yet, and yet it will take material, resources and, and those will have consequences. But somehow, I mean the thing about the thing about the last 50 years of global Buddhism and yoga is that it in some ways, it’s provided a way for the neoliberal vision of freedom through consumerism to be spiritualized so that you know, you can convince yourself that you need to go to Costa Rica to find yourself. And if you, and if and if you drink fair trade coffee, but you also soak in the heat and the humidity of the jungle, that there will be some internal transformation that will create a new self that will then radiate back out into your urbanized, global, North environment and will change everything for the better. Like that’s the sort of subtext. I think it was about five years ago that I first had a conversation with this independent researcher named Brian Francis Culkin who researches gentrification in specific locations, especially Boston. We started talking about like, how did the modern yoga studio emerge? Like how did it, how did it come to be? And he pointed out that the yoga studio in the modern urban, global North setting only really comes into existence through the process of gentrification. In fact, it’s often on the leading edge of gentrification.
Naomi Klein in No Logo opens, in the first few pages she talks about one of the first major yoga studios in Toronto actually being established in the beautiful old warehouse space that used to be the home of a garment manufacturer in the garment district in Toronto. That was available for lease because free trade agreements in the mid-nineties sent all of those manufacturing jobs to Vietnam. Suddenly in global North spaces, we have these gorgeous brick buildings with hardwood floors and white walls and they’re empty of all of their machinery and nobody’s making anything in them anymore. And so people moved into them and begin these practices that are about remaking the self, right? And they’re usually wearing the yoga clothes that are made by the people whose labor got outsourced in Vietnam, who couldn’t possibly afford to go to those yoga classes.
This key thing that, that Culkin really helped me understand is that like the modern yoga space is exists because of paradigmatic changes in labor and the meaning of the body, in globalization through the ascendancy of technology and finance, and through the transformation of the urban landscape into the monotone of gentrification. And what’s amazing about that passage in No Logo is that like, I know the people who founded that yoga studio in 1996 in Toronto, like they’re my friends and their lease only lasted for a few years and guess who moved in afterwards? A dot-com company who could afford the latest rent. And so where did the yoga studio go? It went out West on Queen Street, farther out to the leading edge of gentrification at that point, and now it’s running out to the end of its lease. So anyway, yoga studios have like five year leases and then they have to move out to the leading edge of wherever the city is continuing to gentrify.
But the upshot of this is that what yoga practitioners don’t realize is that they’re participating in the kind of embodied neo-liberalization of the actual city and then they’re participating in this practice, and especially if they professionalize into it, they’re kind of participating in a way of making all of the aspects of new liberal economy — the fact that it works on flex time, the fact that it’s gig economy, the fact that it’s all about self motivation and self responsibility — all of these themes are embedded into this practice by which you’re supposed to take care of yourself and seek your own betterment, make yourself healthy, you know, become a better citizen. If you’re a woman, you’re supposed to be wear even more hats and be a feminist at the same time while you’re leaning into your postures and making more green shakes.
And so there’s all of this, all of these demands placed upon the person who basically is creating no product, but the aspirational self. And then yoga discourse and Buddhist discourse gives a kind of spiritual aspect to that. When those themes started to come together together about five years ago, I started to develop this political economy, analysis of the body and modern yoga as being— what is the person actually bowing down in front of? It’s not nature anymore. It’s not tradition particularly. It’s a kind of manufactured sense of individual freedom that is at the heart of the neoliberal project. That’s not all that’s going on. That sounds terribly cynical, but I mean that’s a big part of the story. That’s why the yoga world has exploded at the same time that we’ve seen this proliferation of the effects of globalization.
Well you make this point in the video, I did see of you talking about this subject to some in some depth, but you were saying as we see the neoliberal project really take off globally, that’s when we start seeing global carbon emissions rise. Global climate change is really taking off — that’s exactly when the global yoga popularity phenomenon really started to take off. They’re tied together.
And nobody really thinks about the fact that the global yoga economy booms in relationship to cheapening air travel and deregulated credit. All of the yoga communities that I have known and been involved in, especially those that develop into high demand groups — they’re all, everybody is overspending on their credit cards. Everybody is flying to this retreat and that retreat and accumulating trainings so that they can become even more self-actualized. The tie-ins are pretty, clear. And I think Brian said, you know, yoga is the de-facto spirituality of neoliberalism. It demands that people be flexible and receptive. It demands that people lean in, it demands that people become more self responsible. And I think particularly for an 80% female practice population that has like real grave implications for whether or not yoga is actually feminist.
That’s a great point. I never thought of it that way. I mean, drawing that connection there. Absolutely. So, you know, this is something I’ve also explored with psychedelics because that’s kind of my little foray in my personal life into spirituality or whatnot since leaving my, you know, religion that I grew up with behind as a teenager. But, you know, having my first psychedelic experiences, I just sort of took for granted that — let me just say this, with yoga obviously if done in the right way, the right context, it’s just like any sort of physical activity or spiritual practice if done properly. It’s really beneficial for the individual. And if done in a community context, it’s probably really good for the community as well. Right? And that’s what I think attracts people to it. They sense that, okay, this is obviously they feel better when they do it. It challenges them. There’s a lot of things going on. And the same thing for me with my psychedelic experiences.
So then I just took for granted that everything that was happening within the sort of growing popularity, again with psychedelics, that that was the case. But as I started to delve more deeply into it, the same phenomenon is happening with say, the ayuasca industry where you have people in the global North going down to Peru or other places in South and central America and engaging in this sort of theater that’s put on for them to sort of heal them of their very legitimate concerns about trauma. And obviously I think our population is pretty severely traumatized in general, right? So it makes sense why people are seeking it. But in a way it’s perpetuating things that have been going on for centuries, which is a form of colonialism. And it’s manifesting maybe as neo-liberalism or what have you, but, uh, people need to be conscious of this and have sort of political and social consciousness that I don’t think is often encouraged in these settings. There again it’s focusing so much on the individual self actualization, and is perpetuating this neoliberal ideal, uh, in the society and the people participating in it.
Let me just say that the parallel between the explosion in like ayuasca spirituality or the ayuasca economy and the global yoga economy, I think shares an aspect of the global North’s search for authenticity in the face of its rootless white settler status. And so one thing that I’ve become very aware of, not just through personal experience but through a lot of observation and research, is that the concept of looking for something authentic, close to nature, of-the-earth, from-a-location is like an obsession for people who feel, rootless and kind of erased from their location. People who grew up in subdivisions that look like the next subdivision or people who know that this Whole Foods has exactly the same stock as that Whole Foods. And when you don’t know where you are from and you have some maybe unconscious understanding that being from a place means that you can have some sort of reality or some sort of touchstone for actions that have integrity. Then global South becomes this sort of place where identity and rootedness and plant medicine and tradition can become very attractive to the point of fetishization.
You know, like this became super clear to me when, — I’m here in Montreal actually. I just finished, working in a training program here at a yoga school —and in this same city, maybe three or four years ago a person who has since become a friend of mine named Dexter, who’s Sri Lankan by background and is trying to like reconstitute the Buddhism that has been nurtured by his family lineage. Although, you know, they’re there in the diaspora and, and it’s hard to do that. It’s hard to figure out where that tradition is for the family now. They’re a super active political activist and agitator an ecological activist. And this is somebody I really, really admire, but there’s something about their connection with Indian wisdom culture that for me is kind of abstract still, even though I longed to be closer to it. Anyway, they were in this class three years ago and I’m at the front of the room and I’m supposed to be giving sort of like a learning outline for looking at this particular yoga text. And, they put up their hand and they say, you know, “What I want to understand better is why do you people,,” looking at me and around the room because the rest of the room was mostly white, “Why do people insist on playing with our old stuff? Why are you so interested in like playing with our old things?” And I said, “Oh, can you, can you say a little bit more about that?” Because I could feel myself start to sweat. And they said, well, you know, it’s like, “Don’t you have your own old things? Don’t you have your own culture, your own antiquities? I don’t even have access to my culture’s antiquities. Why do you have such an interest in them? I mean, aren’t they already in your museums?” And I’m like, Oh boy.
I realized at that moment that like having grown up Catholic, that for a large part of my teenage years, I was like fascinated in Catholic esotericism. I wanted to know everything that I could know about Hildegard of Bingen and the herbal blends that she made while she’s singing her heavenly songs and whatever. And like John of the Cross and I was so interested in that stuff. And then it just kind of all fell away because I was generally betrayed. I felt betrayed by the institution of the Catholic church and so it made me understand that when I am with my friend Dexter, like I know that they’re from somewhere, like I know that they have some thing, the culture of the identity is informed and shaped and like forever altered by oppression and colonialism, but they’re from somewhere. And I don’t feel like I’m from anywhere. And my attraction to Buddhism and yoga was in part about this, the emptiness of rootlessness that I think is part of the phenomenon of being white.
That adds another layer of weirdness to traveling down to the jungles of South America to find the shaman who’s going to administer ayauasca or traveling to South India so that I can stay in a Tibetan monastery for six weeks and try to learn something from somebody who comes from a totally, completely different experience of life than I do. But I want the realness of their experience. I want the locale, the connection to the earth. I want all of the things that they have and that paradoxically, my culture has stolen. And so it’s an amazing thing to contemplate, uh, and then to bear witness to its lives. It’s not like I can solve these things, but I can I can certainly stop being a consumer of them and start being a critic of my own participation.
I’m very sympathetic with this. We’re both white and we both are talking about this. And I think white people need to have this conversation in general because whiteness itself is a social construct. There’s a historical dimension to it that needs to be acknowledged and addressed and all of this. I’m sympathetic with because I feel it in myself that rootlessness you’re talking about that lack of… I don’t know where I’m from. I don’t know what traditions do I have to draw upon here? You mentioned people that are practicing whatever they’re practicing, they have at least something to draw on, even if it was, you know, through centuries of colonization and oppression and all the horrible things that come with these things. They, at least it seems to, to us that they have something like tangible that they can draw on. And for us it’s deeply, it’s just, it’s not there.
It’s not there because I think we want it to be everywhere. That’s not just the settler mindset and psychology, but it’s also the sort of casual imperialism that comes along with it. It’s like, Oh, I can go anywhere. How did I travel to India in 1997? Like, how did I do that? Who gave me the credit card? How was I able to be off work for that amount of time to be able to try to find myself in somebody else’s country? Part of privilege is its invisibleness to you, right, is that you don’t know how you got the opportunity to kind of walk around the world as though you owned it. And that comes with a price that you then sort of try to I think outsource onto other people At least in my case.
Yeah. I, I have a lot I could say about that. Maybe I’ll tell you about it after regarding something. But I do want to shift gears a bit just because I like, it’s so funny…
We got to talk about cults, right?
Exactly. Yeah. We got to get into the nitty gritty here. It’s always how it goes though. It’s like once you get into the flow of it, I never want to disrupt that. That’s kind of the magic of doing these podcasts is like, okay, well here we are. This is, I’m not going to try to disrupt this flow at all. But I do really want to get into the culting what you’ve explored within these yoga communities. So there’s a few like terms I’m going to throw out and I really want to delve into them. So you talk about cultic dynamics, trauma bonding, another term that you use is somatic dominance. No, these are all different. They’re all connected of course. But you know, reading your work, I didn’t really get, cause when I think about going to a yoga class, got a group of people, they’re all, to me what just looked like really intense poses and stretches and you have a person there who’s the teacher, the instructor who’s guiding you through that. And it’s always, to me seemed very like very chill. It’s difficult, it’s hard. But nonetheless, people are there to try to better themselves and you sweat it out and that’s it. You, for me at least has revealed a whole world of, I wanted to say crazy, but that diminishes it. But this sense of like there’s a lot going on in yoga that I’m completely oblivious to.
So I want to say this first. This’ll be my first question for you. This maybe will frame it a little better. So we’ve talked about neoliberalism and the way in which yoga has exploded globally and all that ties into all the things that that ties into. But if you could make this really simple comparison. So yoga is a very old practice. I don’t know how old it is, but I assume it’s been around for a very, very long time. And if you could compare, say the way in which yoga is practiced in the modern context in the Western world versus what it may have been like to exist in its original context, the pre modern context and that way we can have a framework to work within and then from there, delve into the abuses and the, the power dynamics and all of that that come up in the modern context.
It’s a great place to start. So first of all, if we’re speaking in pre-modern terms or pre 20th century terms, we have to speak of a plurality of yogas and yoga traditions and streams of practice. In general terms, if people are practicing physical postures and breath work and meditation practices prior to the 20th century they’re doing so not in group class format, but in individually instructed, oral instructions, oral instruction transmission: “Here are six or seven poses for you to do. Go away and do them on your own and tell them, come back and tell me what you’ve learned about yourself.” The primary mechanism of learning within the pre 20th century period would have been interoception or, the practitioner’s internal capacity to feel sensations. The sensation of breath, the sensation of bodily orientation in a strange position or a novel position. The sensation of warmth during a breathing exercise. Internal sensations would have been the primary focus and the practices would have done it and been done primarily in isolation. And they would have been done gently. So one of the things that’s come to light in modern research into medieval Hatha yoga would be that the refrain in most of the texts is that the postures are to be performed sanaih, sanaih, or gently, gently. That’s a refrain in a bunch of key texts. And so this whole notion that yoga postures should be strenuous or people should be sweating really hard, or teachers should be climbing on them to prove the power of mind over body or something like that, that has nothing to do with anything prior to the 20th century.
With regard to adjustments or the notion that the teacher would touch the student that has no history prior to the 1930s, probably at all. Nothing whatsoever. There’s nothing traditional about it. What happens? Uh, it to change. All of that is a series of geopolitical, post-colonial and technological changes, that begin to globalize yoga, but according to a particular modern framework. What begins to happen that Indian innovators and modernizers who generally are anti-colonialists and making plans for a new nationalist culture, a new national, ethos — because independence comes in 1947 — begin to think of physical education and physical culture, especially as influenced by Europe, as a way to reinvigorate the Indian body politic. And what happens then is they don’t want to simply import the gymnastics from Sweden or the bodybuilding from Germany or the things that are quite popular actually at the time. They don’t just want to do what the YMCA is teaching in various Indian cities because weirdly, they’re there. So what they do is they look back into their own medieval history for you physical practices that have some relationship to Indian culture, to indigenous culture. And these postures begin to make their way into group class formats that also end up becoming demonstrative in the sense that many of the early Indian yoga teachers of this period — primarily Krishnamacharya, who ends up teaching Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar, who then go on to globalize the entire industry — he’s paid actually by his patron to promote yoga through demonstrations and performances to school boards, town councils, and city squares and stuff like that.
And at the same time, people begin taking photographs and as they take photographs, photography becomes the primary way in which yoga, the idea of yoga is communicated in a transcultural sense. Then we have this transition from the pre 20th century focus on internal bodily sensations to the 20th century, focus on what does the body look like in the posture. And in order to do that, or as that happens, all of these elaborate notions related to bodybuilding, related to gymnastics begin to evolve, that transform the yoga body into something that must perform a virtue through symmetry, through strength, through balance, through all of those sort of physical practices that are now the bread and butter of the industry.
That leads to what I call the landscape of somatic dominance, where the teacher is telling the student how exactly they must organize their bodies in space in order to be good, in order to be true, in order to be awake or enlightened. And then that domination becomes internalized in practitioners as well to the point where people begin trying very hard to perfect postures when these are, these are completely new ideas that have nothing to do with anything that yoga was about prior to the 20th century. And the somatic dominance also becomes explicit through training protocols that involve corporal punishment if there are children involved. And also other forms of physical discipline, including physical adjustments where teachers are manipulating students’ bodies deeper into postures that they can’t attain themselves. And that leads to injury. But it also provides cover for physical assault. And then in the worst cases it provides cover for sexual assault.
So that’s the book that I just published, about how Pattabhi Jois, who was a student of Krishnamacharya, comes out of this environment and then sexually assaults, his students pretty much every day of his working life for about 30 years. And how that’s enabled, covered over whitewashed. And that happens because of cult dynamics, which is the other thing that emerges in this modern period is that we go from very small groups of practitioners kind of learning about postures together to the entrepreneurial and charismatic model of leadership that we see in the modern yoga world.
Just to break this down a little bit, so I think, I don’t know if I said this at the actual beginning of the recording or before…. This is why I wanted to talk to you. I wanted to get this deeper understanding. So I think it’s become more commonly understood that sexual abuse and assault and just bodily violation or you know the violation of someone’s boundaries is far more common within yoga classes, then maybe people would even even…
It’s actually the norm.
It’s actually the norm. And that’s so upsetting, right? I mean, I can’t express how upsetting that really is and especially if you are a yoga practitioner like yourself. So this my question for you. So you’ve been doing this for a very long time. What I find more, almost more disturbing than the actual abuse that I’m seeing is the ways in which people rationalize gloss over, just completely excuse it. Because I see this in family dynamics where you have an abusive father, abusive whoever, and the family just sort of, well, we don’t want to cause any problems. Let’s just pretend it doesn’t exist. And we see that all kinds of group dynamics.
Or it goes farther than that. It goes, let’s pretend that it doesn’t exist. It can flip into well, actually these are signs of love.
Yeah, that’s incredibly disturbing.
And one of the cult researchers that I cite in my book and that I really appreciate as Janja Lalich who describes that particular flip in terms of… her phrase is “bounded choice” or “bounded reality” where the basic premise is that anything that the charismatic leader does is reinterpreted to be of benefit to them, to the group member or to the student or the client or whatever. So if they physically injure you, they’re teaching you something about your body, about the vulnerability of your body. If they sexually assault you, then they’re freeing your psychological hangups that have to do with sexual trauma. If they financially abuse you, then they are helping you get over the illusion that money is worth something. So there’s a number of ways. The ways of abuse rationalization or well-documented within the cult literature and they’re part of the M.O. of how groups like this end up working. I think I interrupted you.
No, I think I was just sort of pointing to… I think I was just saying something about the documentary that came out recently on Netflix about Bikram yoga. And it was interesting watching that because all the interviews they were doing with, with the women that were assaulted by him, and the other people that were there that knew what was going on, but they just, like you said, they rationalize it. They even see it as, Oh, he’s being loving. And how he is as you say, with the body posture corrections or, or touching the body, you know, when you’re writing, for instance, I read this where I think you mentioned an injury that you had where somebody pushed you into a pose more deeply and actually, you know, you injured your back. And you, I think you maybe even said that you rationalized the injury.
Absolutely. The premises of the implied consent space or those somatic dominance space is that the teacher has ownership over your body, but also mystical insight into what your body needs. And so you ostensibly abdicate agency and autonomy at the door. Like that’s the way it’s been over the last 50 years or so. I do want to make the point though, that that’s changing in the culture through some very powerful new social movements that are gaining some traction. Not enough and not fast enough, I don’t think. But, so I’ve had the personal experience of a senior teacher within the Iyengar world, which is kind of like the, I dunno, Harvard of yoga, without warning and without explaining why he was doing what he was doing, he torqued my spine in a very sort of sharp and acute fashion, to the point where there was a sound of Velcro ripping all the way up my spine. It happens so quickly and it’s so sharp and we can have paradoxical injury or pain responses, that give us mixed messages. So in my interviews with practitioners — as you know, I compiled my book and I’ve done other research projects — It’s not uncommon for the practitioner to say that it felt pleasurable to be assaulted in such a way that they would be flooded with adrenaline ori nternal opiates. What I remember is feeling this rush of warmth throughout me, as I fell to the floor actually. And my first thought was: I actually hope he comes back and does that to me on the other side.
And it was by reflecting on that, that I could really understand the capacity within those spaces for what’s known as trauma bonding, or the capacity of a victim of physical violence to actually feel neurologically that what’s better to do in a given circumstance spontaneously is to seek more care from the abuser, or to fawn in front of them or to immediately believe, because the cognitive dissonance is so radical, that what they’ve done is actually loving instead of dangerous or violating. So yeah, that’s a very clear personal experience for me. And I think it’s replicated in many of the elite environments of yoga practice all over the world, especially amongst those who professionalize into the industry because they have to do like really hard trainings with very charismatic people.
But let me turn to why does this person have power in the room? Because that’s where we get closer to the pervasion of cultic dynamics in yoga and Buddhist communities. And I think it’s super important for people who are doing ecological activism to start looking at this carefully. Because in the yoga and Buddhist worlds, there are no scopes of practice. There are no codes of informed consent for why people teach certain things or why teachers suggest interventions for students. There are no regulatory agencies. There are no tests for competency. And so in unregulated environments, the only thing that has real currency is charisma. The only thing that allows a figure, usually a male figure in the yoga and Buddhist worlds to rise to some kind of prominence is the social phenomenon of charisma. And this is not a personal quality of the individual. Uh, it is a social phenomenon. It’s a way in which people respond to a particular kind of activity within a bound group.
And so what I hope my particular study of charismatic leadership and the cultic dynamics that surrounded in the yoga and Buddhist worlds is helpful for as we move deeper into collapse awareness is that we’ll be able to see that in the field of climate crisis discourse, the same kind of landscape applies. There is no sort of measurement for competency. You can’t get a degree in, in collapsology where, where you have peer-reviewed support. There are no regulatory agencies that give you permission to talk about collapsology in a legitimate or a safe way. And if somebody begins to lead a social movement in eco activism that you know, has ethical issues or becomes abusive of its membership, where’s the accountability going to be? It’s kind of like a wide open field, a wild-West field. And I hope that some understanding of what’s happening in a similar field — which is also about waking up to reality, which is also about self regulation, which is also about apparently trying to form healthy communities — I hope that data from that experience over the last 50 years will be useful here because what I see emerging in the movements that I think you and I are like very interested in and that we’re proximal to is we’re seeing the rise of charismatic figures. I’m not saying they have negative intentions. I’m not saying that I distrust any of them, but I am saying that we’ve got to be aware of the power of the charismatic phenomenon in leadership situations. And we have to be aware of how cultic dynamics function so that we don’t tear each other apart as we try to actually, you know, come closer together in community at the end of the world.
That is absolutely what I wanted to draw on in this discussion with you because I see it happening in small ways, I suppose, or an isolated cases. Like you say, there are charismatic figures. I’m not going to name particular people. It’s not really useful. But the point of that is just to say that it’s a couple of things I can see happening here. Within these doomer communities and groups, there’s a lot of amazing support groups, people that are just trying to help process the unfolding process of accepting and coming to terms with what’s happening and what the implications are for the future and all of that. But it’s become really interesting to me. I’ve been really reflecting on this more and more in my life. I grew up in a religious environment in which the apocalypse was a very real thing that within my lifetime, Jesus Christ will come back, the second coming is happening, the anti antichrist will be coming within my lifetime. All of these things, right? I was from a very young age, told this and then.
I did not know that Patrick, I’m sorry.
No, it’s okay. No, it’s just, it’s fine. It’s something that’s incredibly common and I think in the United States, there’s a lot of that happening in general. But what I thought was interesting is that, you know, that was really deeply imprinted in me. So I wonder how much of my interest in the apocalypse is tied to this religion.
Now you just mentioned that you’re not comfortable naming names, but if you’re comfortable with me talking about a particular figure, I’d like to do so, not in a way that like impugns them, but I think it’s really good to have concrete examples. So I’m going to talk about Roger Hallam for a moment who I’ve never met, but who has risen to a kind of prominence within Extinction Rebellion. And here’s what I’ve noticed: he is incredibly compelling for me to listen to. I could listen to him all day. I mean, I’m not sure about that, now. There was a time where I was like: I want to listen. I want to listen to this guy speak. I want to be inspired by his gritty, existentialist realism. I want to soak up his Welsh-green-thumb-organic-farming wisdom, right? Like, I want all of this. I want all of this stuff. And I know because I’ve been in many different groups, that the power of that capacity for articulation and to inspire people is at the heart of why people gather.
Now, here’s the thing, is that when I step back a little bit and I look at the three demands of XR: Tell the truth: that governments have got to declare climate crises, that we have to commit to net zero carbon by 2025, and that we’re going to put citizen assemblies in place in order to make all decisions and depoliticize, this apolitical issue. Um, so great. At first I go, Oh, they actually have a plan, right? Or they actually have a series of policies. But then when you go and dig a little bit deeper and you look at the first principle of “tell the truth”, and then you start looking at how the group has mobilized the research of Chenoweth in a way that’s inaccurate…. In a way that applies an argument about civil disobedience in the overthrow of oppressive regimes and tries to apply it to liberal democracies, for getting people to vote differently or something like that. And you realize that that doesn’t work. And then you realize that the second premise, that we have to get people, we have to get governments to go net zero by 2025 just ain’t gonna happen. Like it’s just not anywhere close to being reasonable to believe that that’s going to happen. And as an aspirational demand it’s okay.
But here’s the thing: how many young people are super-gluing their hands to train rails or whatever in the belief that the Chenoweth research is validly applied in this discourse, and in the belief that it will be possible for net zero to be achieved by 2025. If young people are stirred by charisma to make unreasonable or uninformed choices, we have the beginnings of cultic dynamics. Because what happens is that people are actually deceived by what’s going on. They may not understand that the demands are aspirational. They may not understand that the decision-making process of XR is not transparent. They may not understand that they’re not actually engaging in a community dialogue in which everybody has their cards on the table.
Whenever I’m in an XR environment, and I have a question about policy that I ask, what invariably happens is that the group leader will say, “I can communicate with you about that privately.” I’ve had that answer over and over and over again. And that’s a red flag for me because, because cultic dynamics emerged in secret. They emerge when the membership doesn’t know what the leadership is doing. Does anybody really understand how “holocracy” works or how the decision-making process of XR is actually being deployed? I haven’t met anybody who’s given me an explanation for that and I’ve asked a lot of questions. And so what we have to understand about cultic dynamics — and I’m not saying XR is a cult, I’m saying that these dynamics can begin to emerge where there’s a lot of social charge around a particular issue and where there’s charismatic leadership — cultic dynamics begin to emerge when people do things because they’re deceived.
Do you really need to tell the 19 year old person to get arrested while chanting “We love the police?” While they’re being kettled or while they’re being deprived of their wheelchairs or while they’re not being allowed to go to the bathroom. To what extent do we have middle-aged charismatic figures telling young people to sacrifice themselves on dubious pretences. Also when the money is not transparent — like everything that XR does is, is crowdfunded, right? — I actually appreciate a lot of this movement, but I just want to communicate to the listeners that when you don’t feel that a group is being transparent with you and when there is charismatic leadership at play, follow your instincts and ask really good questions. And if you don’t get answers, then there’s something fishy going on. And if there’s something fishy going on, there might, there’s probably manipulation. And people are probably ending up committing to things that then produce sunken costs, cognitive dissonance, and then they don’t feel like they can back out of. And the three gateways for cultic analysis or standards for assessing cultic dynamics would be deception as to what the group is doing and what the leaders actually want, dependence that people have upon the group, whether it’s emotional, financial, psychological or whatever, and then a dread of leaving. Like, what would you give up if you left? So I hope that that cult analysis language is destigmatized enough through conversations like this that we can honestly look at the health of our communities as we form them in resistance, in the quest to nurture resilience.
I feel like my comment about my own personal history with this, I just want to clarify something really quickly, which is just this: I really want people to acknowledge something about the climate crisis and the existential despair dread that comes with it, that it actually can produce something like, it sounds very strange, but a religious experience. And that’s something that I wanted to just acknowledge. And so particularly with the climate crisis, it’s absolutely real. I’m not discrediting, I’m saying, you know, I’ve made my opinions and my thoughts on it very clear. But I do want to acknowledge that I do get the sense from people that this is like a truly an apocalyptic in the religious sense subject for many people. Um, whether or not you’re like a God fearing person or whatever. It’s not about that particular side of the religious experience.
But it does say something about our general view of human beings and human nature. And I think that our view of human nature can often be so skewed as to make room for what you mentioned there with Extinction Rebellion or other people and other groups that can make space a certain kind of politics, a certain kind of group dynamics, power dynamics that if not adequately addressed, and like you said, having more of this, normalizing the language around cult dynamics, culting behaviors, then we could actually identify it and we can speak out against it and we can then do what we can as activists as those that are conscious of this to steer people away from very abusive group dynamics that don’t really get us anywhere except to just confuse and I guess maybe lead to some sort of abuse as well within these these contexts. It’s something I’m very much on alert now because I think we are shifting right now. I could say that, you’re aware of the data. I feel like we have crossed very specific tipping points just in the past year or two. So I think we’re heading into a state here in the next several years of accelerating change and we don’t know what that’s going to look like or feel like exactly. But we can certainly make an assessment that it’s probably not going to be good for certain.
I just want to honour the fact that you’re transparent about this tendency, within yourself, but also in the general discourse that climate collapsology proposes a kind of spiritual doorway for people. And that’s super important to understand because, I acknowledge that too, it means that for me as well, like it changes everything about my life yet again. And at the same time, I know that once people walk through that doorway, they are in a sociology that has vulnerabilities attached to it, and we’ve got to be really aware of what kind of discourse we’re moving out of and then into.
So one example that is really interesting for me in terms of this transition from a data-driven discussion to a psychologically drip driven discussion is watching what’s happening with Positive Deep Adaptation, and the group inspired by the work of Jem Bendell. So he releases this paper. It’s been downloaded half a million times. I’ve never met him, but that is a charismatic event. He becomes a charismatic figure now suddenly, or at least very quickly. The implications of that paper provoke intense… that’s what the paper is about too. It’s like: I’m familiar with data and I’m an academic and I think that we’ve got to make a transition as data crunchers to this emotional reality that our rational appraisal of things has almost suppressed. And so that’s embedded in the paper. And then people have those responses to the paper as well. And then suddenly he’s catapulted into this position in which it’s almost expected that he’s supposed to provide some sort of psychological wisdom for people. And then he starts doing interviews where like he’s talking to Joanna Macy and they’re talking about feelings and spirituality and how to cope.
And what I’m seeing is that certain climate figures are becoming spiritual leaders. And that might be appropriate. There might be no other way for it to happen. But what I want to say from my experience in the yoga and Buddhism worlds is that when you move into a kind of spiritual leadership, there’s all kinds of things that you want to be aware of because it’s a really vulnerable environment. And the first thing to be aware of is like, what’s your scope of practice? Like what’s your actual expertise? You know, if you’re going to start talking about psychology or psychotherapy or Buddhism in an online format that’s very performative because there’s 50,000 people watching you, what kind of training do you need to do that in a safe way? How are you going to manage aspects of your charisma?
Like, this is something that I want to talk more to Dahr Jamail about because as soon as he starts getting into what he got into with the interview that you did with him, I’m like: people are gonna flock to you, dude. As a kind of sage and I think you’ve earned it. Like, that’s my impression so far. I think you’ve earned it, but I don’t know if there’s anything in your background or your education that’s gonna provide you with, that’s going to prepare you for the amount of bullshit that gets sent your way and the amount of transference and the feelings that that’s going to produce. And whether or not that’s going to be gratifying to you in ways you’re unconscious to.
It’s like: there’s nothing I love more than listening to how he has oriented his life and how his story is going. I’ve never met him in person, but I love this guy and I can imagine that so many other people do as well. And that’s something that I hope he really gets support with because when a lot of people start loving you, weird shit happens. And so, I hope that all of these people, I hope that all of these people get reach out and get support from psychotherapists and people who know, understand group and cultic dynamics and start educating themselves on how do you diffuse that stuff because it’s going to be super important.
You know, the rules would be: Don’t ever speak out of your expertise, ever. Do not speculate. Never ever come close to doing anything that’s deceptive. Make sure your money is completely transparent. If you’re going to sell something, you know, be very clear about why you’re selling something. If you’re going to start leading group classes in something or hosting, talking circles or something like that. Be aware that people train in doing group therapy for years before they’re allowed to do it legally. This stuff isn’t a joke. And then there’s a whole bunch of like really earnest people who are moving into this kind of spiritual territory. And I’m here to tell you that fucking landscape is a mess. And it has been, and it has been over the last 50 years, so I don’t think it needs to continue that way, but, but we can certainly learn a lot, that’s for sure.
I was just smiling and laughing about Dahr in particular. I know him pretty well at this point. So I will say, he’s the one, for instance, I mentioned my interview with Milton Bennett. He’s the one that hooked me up with that guy about culting in particular because Dahr is very conscious of this. And doing his own work in journalism for as long as he has and seeing just this whole spectrum of human nature, the human condition — I’ll speak confidently as his friend that he’s very much in tune with what you’re saying. I hope he listens to this episode and appreciates what we’re saying right now because he and I have had numerous conversations about this very thing.
He is such a great example of the power of integrity becoming potentially becoming a charismatic phenomenon. It’s just like, here’s a guy, he speaks in full paragraphs, right? Broad, beautiful, you know, late-Texan accent that’s been like burnished by all his world travels. And so there’s something super compelling about listening to the guy and that is power, and power makes for responsibility. And so, I’m really happy to hear that he’s tuned into that and not surprised too cause like, you know, he’s super smart.
That’s the thing, right? And that’s the real challenge that I would pose on an individual level to those in these positions that they kind of get thrust into. It’s of course a combination of personal decisions they make to get there, but it’s also thrust upon them and it’s absolutely imperative that it’s your sacred responsibility to not fuck over people in their vulnerabilities, in their most vulnerable space. Like nothing is more reprehensible to me and more disgusting, then when I hear about these yoga practitioners you mentioned taking advantage of women in particular, but human beings in a very general sense in their most vulnerable spaces, literally the most vulnerable physical position they could be in.
Understanding trauma on a certain level, it really deeply, it’s repulsive and even makes me feel almost violent in my reaction to it because it’s really the worst thing a person can do. It’s one thing to be able to work with somebody and be abusive on almost a level playing field, if that makes sense. Like you’re you and I’m me and I’m going to be abusive. It’s another thing when you take advantage of people in these very vulnerable spaces, which is what these people do. And so I think, just to tie this into the climate crisis and the very vulnerable spaces that people are entering into, if you are a person that is engaging with this material on a spiritual level, on a scientific level, however you’re doing it I or anybody in my work that I respect, if we sense that you’re a snake oil salesman or that you’re trying to take advantage of people’s vulnerability, I promise you that we’ll call you out publicly. Like it has to be done.
Matthew, you’re so good at that. I read this article that you published about going to, I think it was back in 2017 I wish I could remember the name of it. You went to a yoga class, in the capacity of writing your book and being a journalist, you were like, you experienced trauma-bonding and you witnessed it in a group dynamic and that person, that yoga practitioner was calling you out and abusing you in front of everybody. And like I have no patience for that shit anymore or ever. I mean, I guess I’ve come to a place personally where I’m like, I have no patience for that. So I think specifically in the work that I’m doing with this podcast, in my own capacities with it there has to be a point where you have to call people out in a good way. I mean, there’s a way to do it where it’s appropriate, but there’s a way to do it where you’re able to articulate and point to this very specific reasons why these people are taking advantage of others in their most vulnerable states. That is not your responsibility. That is not what you’re supposed to be doing right now. And so I just want to say that clearly now that we’re talking about this particular subject, that that’s my, that’s my end of it.
And the vulnerability of the yoga posture that the person is in and then is assaulted… I think there’s a real analogy there. It’s a microcosm of the sort of catatonic, sometimes paralyzed and fetal position of grief and despair that many people feel themselves to be is all the time in relation to climate collapse. People are, people are super vulnerable and the leaders that they reached to have to be like, exemplary and their ethics and in their standard of care. And one thing that I want to… I don’t know how much more time you have, but I wanted to make sure too that I highlighted the, the potential vulnerability of how Buddhist and yoga discourse might start to enter — I think it’s already started to enter —eco-activism. I mean, there’s some good parts to that. So I think the work of Joanna Macy is really effective and it’s been helpful for so many people. Catherine Ingram is also well-learned in Buddhism, and I think she uses that in a really good way.
But I want people to know that Buddhist communities over the last 30 or 40 years have been racked by scandal and abuse. And most of that is unacknowledged or unresolved. And so when Buddhist teachers start showing up in ecoactivist spaces, providing wisdom or knowledge or what have you, some of that might be really useful, but I want people to be aware and vigilant to the fact that if organizing principles begin to grow around these figures, you want to look carefully at where they’re coming from. Because when Buddhist communities fall apart because of abuse crises, those teachers have to go somewhere. They’ve got to work somewhere else.
And what I’m starting to see is some of those folks showing up in eco-activism circles because that’s where they can sell their books or their programs or their meditations or whatever. And so just take things with a grain of salt, right? Like, I don’t wanna, you know, make people freaked out about everybody else because there’s enough horizontal hostility. But, you know, if somebody is claiming to have answers with regard to community health and critical thinking, take a look at where they’re coming from because, you know, if they belong to the Shambhala community or the Rigpa Buddhist community or something like that, then you know, you will want to know what kind of work they did to recover from the compromise of that institutional abuse.
I would ask this of you actually, if you could maybe provide something. So this could fit really easily within these Buddhist communities, yoga communities, and in these eco activist circles as well… When it comes to these dynamics, you mentioned, if there are things that maybe very specific signs of things that people can look out for. Because we’re talking about it in pretty general sense. We have some specific examples that are may very particular to yoga practitioners specifically with body and consent and boundaries and all of this, but maybe within a more general sense. So if people can have a takeaway, I guess you could say from this discussion of like what to look out for, both in positive ways. I think you mentioned something about Extinction Rebellion in a general sense: transparency is extremely important in these group settings and in these organizations. I completely agree. Look out for that, have respect for that. Try to embody that. If you are in fact leading a group, be very transparent in what you do know and what you don’t know. Don’t pretend to be something you’re not. Don’t pretend to be an expert in something you’re not. But as far as like abusive, potentially abusive, um, group dynamics, I mean, what can you point people towards?
A very simple model for looking at a group dynamics from a cultic studies perspective would be Steve Hassan’s BITE model where he describes the elements of behavioral, informational, thought, and emotion control. There are lists of examples that he provides where you can pretty easily sort of assess whether or not the group that you’re involved with is asking you to behave, asking you to control any of those aspects of your experience. Cathleen Mann has a model called the MIND model where, uh, she describes the group dynamics of manipulation, negation and deception. And then the “I” I’m forgetting, that’s embarrassing, but you can look up Cathleen Mann and the MIND model.
Probably the most breakthrough text that I’ve come across in terms of de-stigmatizing normalizing and making more accessible, the whole cult studies genre is Love Terror and Brainwashing by Alexandra Stein where she uses the principles of attachment theory to describe how cultic organizations rewire members for a disorganized attachment, which in the simplest terms is really the confusion between love and terror.And this speaks a lot to the capacity for cultic groups to nurture trauma bonding where members are actually always feel compelled to move towards the abuser because they also believe that the abuser is providing love or an answer or a safe Haven. So there are resources that people can look for.
You’ve really skillfully summed up the need for looking at transparency. The transparency also should be about where the leader is coming from, what their background is and what they actually have competency in speaking about. In the yoga and Buddhist worlds, it’s really hard to suss out who knows what because often people are quoting from Sanskrit or Pali or Tibetan and it’s hard for most people to know whether they’re competent or not. So I think that that climate science can actually be manipulable in the same way. People who have research positions where they have a certain level of education can be automatically endowed with a kind of authority that lay people can’t really assess. So that’s something to look at too.
If people become more aware of the processes of idealization and transference and countertransference — that’s very helpful that if you get involved in a group where the leadership or the ideology is framed as being total or all-good or unquestionable. That’s really difficult if you can’t ask questions openly, if you can’t offer critique in a way that’s received with openness. These are red flags.
I wrote this article about how Buddhist organizations and yoga organizations over the last 50 years have been plagued by abuse histories. I think it was the title was like, if you’re an eco-activist looking to Buddhism for answers, here’s some things to be aware of. And it wasn’t about Buddhism, it was about Buddhist organizations and about how many of them have failed their members in terms of safety and protection. I posted that article to Positive Deep Adaptation and there was nothing but, “Hey, thanks. That’s really good information. Wow. That really opened my eyes to something. I’m really grateful for that. That’s really cool.”
Then I posted it to Extinction Rebellion Buddhists page and there was a discussion about whether or not they were going to delete it — a long discussion about like whether my article was disrespecting the Dharma or something like that. That’s not a good sign. Like, you’re kind of proving my point guys.
And so if there’s resistance to critique or if people want to privatize difficult discussions, move them offline, or situations where they’re out of the public eye, that’s a red flag. If there seems to be a concentration of social power that’s gathering around an ideology, you know, start asking questions, right? Like: Did you want to belong to a human community or did you want to belong to an activist community? You know, does it make sense to really pour money into somebody’s online platform who’s located in England when you don’t even know who your neighbours are? You know what I mean? So yeah: think locally, be aware of the impact of charisma, demand transparency, make sure that you can ask questions, and then you’re probably going to be more confident that you’re in a power-sharing environment, instead of a manipulative environment.
My little thing I would say is: Be an anarchist question authority. You know, just question everything. I mean, obviously there’s a point where that’s obnoxious and not really helpful, but just be aware that we live in a very peculiar time. This is very peculiar time that we’re in. Just have your wits about you. I know it’s difficult. This is a very difficult time to be alive, I would say for its own very specific reasons, but have your wits about you and there’s plenty of people like I think you and probably many others that you’ve cited as well that provide the tools and the frameworks to understand these things. And so I just asked people to.
Hopefully, hopefully a little bit, yes.
Well I think your, your writing is beautiful and that you come from a deeply compassionate place. And I imagine for you it was as much a personal journey as anything else to come to terms with these things. So I do admire you for that. That does take strength and courage. You are calling out people very specifically for their abuses and abusive people act abusively. So when you start to really talk openly about it, it creates all kinds of blowback. So I do want to say I admire you for that courage that you have demonstrated in that.
Thank you Patrick and just returning the compliment. I think you’re doing great work. It’s a great podcast, amazing series of people. And it’s changed my life for the better. So thank you for that.
Stories of abuse and betrayal tremble beneath the veneer of spiritual groups. Silently. For decades.
The veneer functions like money does in the Epstein world to write the laws, conceal the truth, and dispose of the evidence. Spiritual groups don’t have Epstein-level money, but they have other shiny objects to distract and confuse. They have stories of extraordinary men, spiritual transformations, and a coming enlightened age.
One type of question I often field is “what makes the Jois story a yoga story?” or: “What makes the Rigpa story a story about Buddhism?” I counter the deflection of this question by saying “It’s true: these are rape culture and high-demand group stories.”
Then I add: “But it’s important that we see how they play out in environments in which they are explicitly not meant to happen: places where vulnerable people come to be protected from abuse.”
But there’s another reason I believe stories of spiritual abuse are important to investigate and understand. In some cases, the group has an outsize impact upon the broader culture, usually through having found a way to conceal its origins, manage its image, and secularize and popularize its techniques.
I’m not talking about groups like Scientology, which unduly influence celebrities who carry a lot of social power, but which also have a hard time commodifying their core content. (One test here is that Dianetics has always been published in-house, while much of the “advanced” literature is hidden altogether.) With Shambhala, for example, the core content is sanitized, legitimized, and monetized through institutions like Naropa and a number of spiritual/self-help books that became touchstones in the 1990s neoliberalism that believed it was progressive.
That core content is a group effort. More importantly: the group effort conceals itself through the presentation of individual genius. Nowhere is this more efficient than in the spiritual book industry.
Spiritual books are marketed on the basis of the awakened personality and the intimacy of the author’s written “voice”. The public ends up thinking they’re encountering the realized presence of Pema Chödrön on the page, for example. That page, and the buzz around it, gets her onto Oprah.
But Chödrön’s ascent to Oprah isn’t driven by her personal wisdom or virtue. She gets that gig because she has risen to the top of a high-demand group as a spokesperson.
“A Hamster Wheel of Self-Help.” Conversation with Rachel Bernstein on IndoctriNation Podcast (Pt. 2)
“Those Wounds Are A Kind Of Ink.” Conversation with Rachel Bernstein on IndoctriNation Podcast (Pt. 1)
I’ve been an avid follower of Rachel Bernstein’s IndoctriNation podcast for a year now. She’s doing something very unique and healing in the cult-studies sphere: using her therapy and counselling chops to create really intimate and relaxed interviews with survivors and researchers. I’ve learned a ton from it. Please consider supporting her work by subscribing to the podcast via Patreon.
So I was honoured to be invited on as guest, and wasn’t surprised to be as at-ease as her other guests sound. This is the first part of our conversation. Continue reading ““Those Wounds Are A Kind Of Ink.” Conversation with Rachel Bernstein on IndoctriNation Podcast (Pt. 1)”
The moderators at r/ShambhalaBuddhism kindly invited me to do an AMA on March 20, 2019. Here’s my opening comment, followed by the questions and answers that I worked on for about a week prior to the event. I’ve edited slightly and left out secondary exchanges. The whole thread can be found here.
Two things off the top:
Firstly: I’ve worked on these answers throughout the week, as they’ve come in. The reports from An Olive Branch were released yesterday. I’ve scanned them but not in enough detail to better inform my answers where appropriate. If it’s useful, I may return to these answers later to add citations from the reports. On first glance, it’s clear that the reports offer compelling evidence for what many Shambhala survivors have been saying for about a year now: that the organization’s dubious claims to spiritual lineage are eclipsed by the shadow of intergenerational trauma and abuse. Shambhala members are going to have to start asking whether the former was a fiction that functioned to cover over the latter. Continue reading “reddit AMA: 21 Questions on Shambhala”
I’ve done a lot of podcasts, but this one is different. Tiffany and I have known each other for many years, and we were able to record at her dinner table with the Edmonton winter held at bay outside the window. I was exhausted and just off a plane but that somehow helped make me focused and relaxed and a little unguarded. Also, Tiffany doesn’t fuck around. Thanks for the all the hard work you do, Tiff, and for your friendship.
Here’s the recording, which is episode 2 on her new series with Elliot Kesse. You can support their work here. I’m posting a cleaned-up transcript below.
Welcome to Where’d My Chakras Go? A yoga podcast for the rest of us, with Elliot Kesse and Tiffany Rose. So I am here with Matthew Remski and Elliot is not able to join us unfortunately, but we will be discussing some of the topics that Elliot had requested. So maybe Matthew can just tell us a little bit about yourself?
Sure. Thanks for inviting me Tiffany. I’ve been teaching or I guess involved in yoga since about 2003, and that followed two three-year stints in yoga related cults. And how that happened is a long story, but coming to yoga itself was really wrapped up in trying to recover my sense of agency and autonomy after those experiences of control — of social control. And that really started with being able to feel my own body as my own, being able to feel my thoughts as my own. So I plunged right in.
Also, I’d lost a lot of time in my late twenties and early thirties, wrapped up in these two cultic organizations. The yoga industry was booming when I got out and it seemed like a fortuitous fit and, there was a training that I could go to and there wasn’t a yoga studio in the little town that my ex partner and I were living in at that time. So, things just seem to fall into place to put me in this strange position of studying a lot of yoga and then beginning to teach it a little bit too early, but in a very intensive way. I started out with 25 classes a week or something like that. There’s a lot of people who ended up doing that in the early 2000s I think.
I eventually continued to study in subject areas like yoga therapy and Ayurveda and more esoteric subjects like Jyotish or Vedic astrology and palmistry and the spatial arrangement thing called Vastu. And that was all really enriching in my life. I’ve continued on from there, but it’s really taken me about 10 years to swing around to recognizing that the primary value that I found in this to begin with was tools to access some sort of internal sense of constancy or agency, and capacity to feel like a single self and that’s been really important to me. And then it’s also directed how I’ve begun to look at how systems of social control developed within yoga environments as well. I think a lot of your listeners will probably know that I do a lot of work on yoga and Buddhist cults now in my writing. So that’s a little bit about me.
So you live in Toronto and you have two children and you’re married to a partner who is just starting to move into her own practice and the boys are both in school now, so this is kind of a transitional time for you as well, hey?
Right. Yeah. My partner is starting her psychotherapy practice and supervision as you say, the boys are both into school, little Owie is only in preschool. He says “pee skoo”. Then I’ve got this book coming out in March and I have no idea what’s going to happen after that because there’s going to be a lot of people I think who appreciate it and there’s gonna be bunch of people who really hate it. And I think it’s going to bring my engagement with yoga training work into a different area because up until this point I’ve been doing YTT modules in or facilitating YTT modules in history, philosophy and culture. But I think especially the conclusion of this book is going to put me into the zone of — or at least I’d like it to put me in the zone of — starting to talk about community health and, and safer spaces. Not just in terms of affirmative consent or informed consent or all of the amazing anti-oppression work that I’ve been exposed to and I’ve started to learn about, but also in terms of how do people actually form relationships in yoga and Buddhist communities, and what’s the role of charisma, and how do you know that you’re in a bounded-logic group, and how do you know when you’re being asked to do things through mechanisms of undue influence, and how do you know that the person’s actually giving you care instead of trying to control you? Those are very pressing questions to me because the last, especially three years of work that I’ve done in the writing and journalism that I’ve published have all focused on that in various yoga communities.
So you’ve kind of had this sort of archetypal position in Yogaland as like the evil sort of villain that just picks apart everything that’s good, and things that everybody loves, you know, you’re just there to shit on it. Did that happen intentionally or was it just sort of, did it just sort of evolve?
Well, I think, I mean to me, thinking critically about one’s internal life and how one consumes spiritual ideas is a form of spirituality. I think we — I don’t want to speak for everybody — but it seems to be a common thread that we take our spiritual aspirations really seriously, and to the extent that we do that, I feel like it’s really good to interrogate where they’re coming from and what kinds of wishes they’re fulfilling within us and what they make us more receptive to and what they make us more blind to. So I’ve always felt in the critical work I’ve done around yoga and injuries or the difficulty in telling apart trance states and dissociative states in meditation or how smiling and seemingly beneficent and communities can really hold these daggers of betrayal — all of that work to me has actually been a form of spirituality.
Because I think that one recurring pattern in my life is that when I learn something, it’s through some type of disillusionment. I don’t think that’s necessarily true for everybody, but I think it’s underrated. I think disillusionment as a growth process actually underrated. The trick is (and this is where I think I fall down and where people, perhaps people who are critical of what I do don’t get enough from me) which is that disillusionment really has to be healed by some form of re-enchantment. And so I’m working on that part, but it’s hard because all of my critical work is also wrapped up in the wounds of having been a cult survivor.
And so trying to find the pathway between criticism and productivity can be a real challenge, but it’s something that I think I want to keep working on for sure. I feel responsible to that. When people engage in my work and they feel depressed or more cynical or low, that’s a burden for me. It’s a burden for them! But I think it poses a responsibility. It gives me a responsibility. I don’t want to shy away from that.
I used to have this like almost-avoidant and dismissive attitude of “Oh, well, you know, I can just describe a problem and if you don’t like it then, you know, suck it up.” But that’s not where I’m at anymore. I think being in a really supportive relationship makes me understand how that can’t be where I am anymore. Trying to do well by my sons makes me understand that I really don’t want to be there anymore. I do want to do more to look at positive solution-seeking.
Is it you that says, are you quoting somebody that says something like enlightenment is the end of… what’s it?
I think maybe what you’re pointing to is that I had a teacher who gave this, I think probably eccentric etymology for “moksha”. He suggested that the first part of the compound word was shared with the name of Mohini,one of the divine feminine figures who has said to distract the yogi from — in this very misogynistic system of course — distract the yogi from his other-worldly concerns. And then the “ksha” is related to space element. And so his really beautiful explanation… I don’t know how other Sanskritists would find it, but he used to say that he thought of moksha as being “the end of infatuation”.
And leaving two cults was about two different types of infatuation coming to an end. Understanding that the bodily autonomy and, the real blessing of newfound interoception that I got from asana when I first started… really began to slide over into a kind of anxious ableism. When I realized that that was true, that was another end to infatuation. There was an infatuation that I had with physical capacity or even a capacity to sense things internally. You know, I think interoception is wonderful, but it can also be fetishized as, as some kind of core anchoring thing that will always bring you into the present moment and solve all problems and stuff like that. But it’s just another faculty and it has its uses and then it has its abuses as well.
And in fact, like for someone like me or people who have extreme chronic pain or maybe body dysmorphia or things like that, intense focus on interoception can sometimes be damaging, right? It can be harmful for people to feel like they’re trapped in their sensations or like they have to be tied to those internal sensations or else they’re not practicing yoga.
And that’s, and that’s a harder story for you for you to tell. I think it’s a lot easier — what I’m saying about interoception as being this wonderful grounding or agency-enhancing thing is a common yoga narrative. And then along comes Tiffany and says, “Wait, wait, wait a minute, wait a minute! When I go inside and try to find relaxation or peace or security and internal sensation, maybe I find the opposite. Maybe I just don’t find that at all.” And that in itself is a breaking of a kind of infatuation to just have that statement out there somewhere that, “Wait a minute, not everybody has that. Or not everybody does that. Or not everybody works that way.” It breaks this illusion that we’re all starting from the same place or that we all share something irreducibly in common. I think it gets us out of thinking that what we can share is an ideology instead of what we can share is a relationship where we’re actually continually learning about things that we just can’t understand about each other.
Doesn’t that make teaching harder though?
Like when there’s no common bond that we can kind of preach to. Then Actually have to start teaching in relationship.
And for people who maybe are closed down to relationship or maybe even like you were saying that closed down to a relationship to themselves. It makes teaching yoga a lot harder. I think
It does. It’s certainly harder to describe. It’s harder to market. It’s harder to feel evangelical about.
Well, there’s no flashing lights with that, you know?
No, there isn’t. This is a weird thing. I mean, when we hear the hopeful, hope-laden in statement in yoga culture or literature or marketing, we’re hearing two things. We’re hearing something earnest and yearning from the perspective of the teacher who’s marketing or the student who’s consuming. But we’re also hearing the potential for a kind of aspirational bypass where we’re somehow asking ourselves or other people to do and accomplish and feel more than they are able. And that brings up the whole problem of what happens when they don’t.
Do you think that…. I’m just kind of thinking this out loud, like, because I think that there’s so many teachers who are really wanting to do right. They’re really wanting to feel like their classes can be inclusive of everyone and that they are accessible, right? But with the current way that yoga is consumed in North America, it’s really difficult to remain profitable if that’s your livelihood and not sell hope. Right? So how do you, how do people who are really trying to be trauma-informed and inclusive and accessible, how do they compete with the evangelical, hopeful Lululemon crowd?
Yeah, I don’t think they compete. I think they offer something different which is: if there’s hope on offer, it’s the hope of, of inquiry or curiosity or a period of time out or a period of care or nurturance. I don’t see how they’re going to compete. I mean in a way, they’re antithetical so they can’t compete.
I think part of what we’re talking about is how can people make livings. And I think that when I consider what I know about your story and the story of so many other people who do this really sort of a in-depth trauma aware and non-commercialized work, I think of how I’m seeing this growing divide structurally between commercial and public service models. Where I see a hopefulness not in terms of marketing marketing solutions, but hopefulness in terms of the possibility for people like you and your colleagues for perhaps making more of a living over time or a better living over time is in the increasing movement of yoga into public health circumstances where the funding is assured because the population is known to simply benefit from what’s being offered.
That’s what I see with the work of people in the Yoga Service Council. And a little bit in the Accessibility Yoga Movement as well, that people are getting really good at, or better anyway, at figuring out where to pursue public funding rather than private commercial, consumer-based funding. So I’m very interested in that and that change in that movement.
One of the really great experiences that I had with you this year was at the Accessible Yoga Conference in Toronto. We had the privilege of presenting on a panel together there and you and I sat in on a session together at New Leaf foundation and I remember halfway through it, we were sitting beside each other and I was kind of a curled up in my chair and I had my knee in my chest and I was rocking a little bit and I remember you looking over at me and saying. “This is really good, hey?” And I remember thinking like, yeah, I feel very comforted. I’m like almost like rocking myself. Like I just feel very safe and comforted.
And that kind of work that they’re doing, I found a lot of hope in that and it was something that I hadn’t really been exposed to until then and just listening to them speak about the work that they do and the way that they approached it really gave me hope for yoga. Did you feel that way when you were listening to them?
I totally did. And I think it’s not just because of their content, which is top notch — because their content is not that much that far off from yours and it’s not going to be that much far off from anybody in yoga service. Where I find the comfort in just meeting people like that is in seeing how they have learned to approach the public infrastructure for support and to carve out their niche in it. And, I don’t know the New Leaf people personally that well, but that support is something that I know is a huge part of everybody who’s deeply invested in yoga service throughout North America is really trying hard to work on.
I was really struck sitting at the Yoga Service Council conference I think two years ago and I was speaking with a woman named Mayuri. I think her organization is called Little Flower Yoga and she trains teachers how to give 20, 30 and 40 minute yoga classes to grade school kids and she works in Manhattan. I think her partner is a public school teacher and so they’re sort of networked in the school system in a way. And she not only developed her training and by knocking on doors got her programs and her teachers into eight or nine public schools, which took three or four years, and they were able to pay out of discretionary spending for that. I think that’s how her business got going and I think she’s set up as a nonprofit as well. But she taught herself all how to do that, coming out of a non admin or nonprofit background. But the thing is there was one point at which, I think last year, Deblasio, the mayor of New York announced through the education department that they were making $20,000,000 available to the boroughs of New York public schools for wellness programs that would include yoga and mindfulness sessions or something like that. And so who’s on the phone the next morning, knowing who to call to get in on that funding is Mayuri. That is so cool because now she has networked her… she’s going to be able to leverage all of these teachers who she has trained into a new field that in terms of public money is still only being funded to a drop in the bucket. This has nothing to do with commercial yoga economics at all.
And yoga people are not in these circumstances having to worry about overhead or any of the things that you just went through with your studio over the last several years. So when I going back to sitting with New Leaf, the comfort that I feel is these people had figured out how to interface with the public health world. That means that comes with responsibility. That comes with “I’m going to have to have informed consent policies for all my workers. I’m going to have to have trauma informed training. I’m going to have to have good HR policies. I’m going to have to have all of these things that the commercial yoga world is totally shit at, and they’re just going to have to be a matter of course, and people are gonna have to be trained to a certain level that will allow them to be accountable to their public health positions.” And it’s like, it’s just a totally different world. And so I feel very, I feel very — it’s not what I’m professionally doing, but just as an observer and as a cultural critic and as a somebody who does journalism of this stuff sometimes, and I’m really fascinated to look at how that’s working.
I’m just going back to the conference. You gave the closing address for the conference and I had to jump on a bus to get to Montreal so I didn’t get to hear it, but I did watch the video. And I think I cried, which is really hard to get me to do so. But I think one of the things that really touched a lot of people in that address with you talking about how you too will one day become disabled. And I’m wondering if you can share a little bit about that.
Jivana, and — I’m a little bit embarrassed that I can’t remember the activist’s name that he cited in his presentation during the conference, but it’s somebody famous I think in California who was at the center of the disability rights movement from maybe the seventies or something like that — I think his one of his statements was, “It’s not like you’re not going to need these services. We’re all in this together.” And it’s kind of like a more visceral and material framing for all of the old ascetic and Buddhist realizations around mortality, old age, sickness and death. So there’s picture of the guy in his wheelchair saying, “You’re going to be somewhere like this.” And and then I was in his class a little bit later and,
Jivana’s class right. And I think he asked us to, — he’s got this great way of, “Let’s see how you can do Tadasana or a mountain pose, but, imagine that you need to have your full body in contact with a wall. Or let’s see if you can do tree pose on a chair. And he’s got all this amazing teaching around, “What is the posture actually? If you have an internal visualization of it, and that’s meaningful to you, is that the posture?” All of these ways of picking apart an ableism that is so pervasive, it’s invisible to people like me who, you know, I don’t see myself as being physically disabled.
So there was one point where I just burst into tears because I realized that he was giving me an end-of-life practice, or a later-on-in-life practice or something like that. He was actually preparing me for something in a way that nobody had ever prepared me for in a yoga class. When I got into yoga and I was doing asana obsessively, it was more like, “What secrets does this body hold that I can stretch out of it? And how can I break this open to find what’s inside?”
And Jivana’s doing something different. He’s like, “What’s already inside that can be felt and accepted as your condition or what your condition will be when you’re perhaps not able to stand or you’re not able to see or you’re not able to feel all of these things that you associate with yourself.” So there’s something very profound about that and it just kind of like, it added to this row of dominoes that have been falling around me or within me around what it means to not see your own privilege.
For me, that started with, I don’t know, several years ago. Actually, it came up this morning as well because I arrived here in Edmonton at 9:30, which meant that I had to leave the house in Toronto at 3:30 in the morning. And several years ago, my partner said that she wanted me to take a cab to the bus stop we live in. We live in a neighborhood where if you want to catch the bus to the airport — like the bus that costs $3 instead of paying 60 bucks to take a cab at that time — you know you have to walk through a kind of lonely patch. And it’s a little bit of a sketchy area. And actually there were just two shootings this past week in the area. And so a couple of years ago, I was going to take one of these trips. I was probably coming here and she said, “Can you just take a cab to the bus stop?” And I was like, I was insulted. And I was like. “No, I’m not gonna, I’m not gonna.” I got all proud and huffy and stuff like that.
It took this argument, I’m ashamed to say, to break through this layer of absolute unconsciousness around what it actually meant to be female and in a body and in this part of the city, and thinking about walking at that time of night. And it kind of like overwhelmed me. I was like, “Oh, you live in a totally different world than I live in. And I haven’t seen that before. And I have to start taking care of that. Like I have to start taking care of you. Not in a paternalistic way, but taking care of the fact that I don’t even understand how much benefit I have here.”
It’s funny because I stayed with you during the conference and I, one night I went out and I was up until midnight and I had to navigate my way back to your house and I remember you asking me because I walked from that bus stop to your house and it was about midnight or 12:30 and I remember you asking me if I felt unsafe and I said no. And I thought about that and you know, I think probably what that is, you know, as a trauma survivor, I tend to feel safe in unsafe situations and unsafe in safe situations. So for me, I just kind of…
It can be scrambled, right?
Yeah. I puff myself up and put my head down and just walked to your house without even giving it a second thought. But, you know, it didn’t probably even occur to me that I might be putting myself at risk or in danger or that I should have maybe taken a cab or something like that. I just wandered through the streets of Toronto by myself.
Yeah. And like me asking you that and me asking you that comes from… I mean, it’s funny because there’s a potential for paternalism in there too, right? Where I’m going to be protective towards my partner or towards you as a guest and maybe over-compensate in some way and so these questions about empowerment and equality that come up. But really listening — I think the main point about privilege is just really letting it sink in: that we live in different worlds. And that was one of the first big things that, that I think really started to, it changed my spirituality in the sense that like the infatuation now that I am interested in ending or interrogating in myself is the infatuation that I have with forms of privilege that I can’t even see.
Because that infatuation — not understanding what it means to be male, or male-identified, not understanding the advantages of being white, not understanding the advantages of being considered to be able-bodied — that those are all barriers to empathy and communication and activism. Because they make a person feel like that the world is just, should be okay and navigable by everybody.
And so I’m in Jivana’s class and this, this other sort of penny dropped which was, “Oh, I’m not looking at the world as… I’m looking at the world through ableist eyes, and I’m doing that in physical terms. I’m doing it in psychological terms. I’m doing it in cognitive terms. And if I can stop doing that or if I can, I can start questioning that a little bit, I’m going to see and invite others into, or I’m going to see other people a little bit more clearly and I’m going to be able to care for things a little bit better or at least I’m going to make fewer boneheaded remarks. I’m going to cause less harm and that’d be a start.”
So we talked a little bit about disability and the, the Accessible Yoga conference, and one of the things that we talked about before we were recording was — and Elliot talks a little bit about this too, as someone who is physically disabled — that oftentimes there’s this binary around disability where we think of disability only in terms of physical disability. And one of the things that I try to talk about is how we can be disabled in other ways, right? I think when talking about internalized ableism and how we don’t always see how, how people may be disabled in certain ways or how we might have blind spots. One of the blind spots I think that I see a lot in Yogaland is around people not really understanding neurodivergence. I think you don’t really speak about this very often, but I know when I did an Ayurveda training with you, you shared about in your twenties something that happened to you, that you kind of realized that there was some neuro divergence in your life. Do you mind sharing about that?
No. Not a lot to say except that during a period in my early twenties of real emotional stress and alienation and probably like — I think I’ve been undiagnosed clinically depressed at several points in my life and it was just never in my culture or it wasn’t in my toolbox to seek out therapy. That wasn’t part of where I came from. So, that’s why I think I remained undiagnosed. But yeah during a period of really severe stress, I had a series of really explosive seizures where I lost consciousness for fairly long, I don’t know how long, but fairly long periods of time. And they were physically violent enough that I would wake up on my or I came to on the floor of my apartment with like the bookshelves toppled over. So something had happened or I’d be physically injured in some way.
And I went for testing and there was nothing found so I did whatever the EEG tests that were typical. They did a sleep deprivation test and things like that. The neurologist who saw me felt the things were, that the experiences were anomalous or they could be stress-related. But one thing that emerged out of that was every once in a while, like I sort of like go back into, I’m thinking about or researching how people experience seizures because one feature of what I experienced was that — or at least the way I narrativized it was that — the physical sensations were associated with some sort of mystical experience.
So I was in university then for religious studies, I was reading all kinds of mysticism. I was in classes where I got my first exposure to yoga philosophy and Buddhism and other things. And I think Tantric thought as well. But the story that I had ready-made for me to apply to these physical experiences I had was that something transcendental was happening to me. And so after that period, my fascination with things religious and spiritual just seemed to increase, as did my obsessive writing. And so there’s this weird thing which I haven’t been diagnosed with but seems very resonant. It’s called Geschwind Syndrome. And I think it’s a subset of a particular type of epileptic condition where — and I should say just right upfront that I haven’t had seizures for a since that period, so this is really going back 25 years now — but I think they flipped something in me or they turned something on… Geschwind Syndrome is marked by not just the seizures, but two very clear characteristics. One is hyper-religiosity, but it’s not the type of hyper-religiosity that is devotional. It’s a hyper-religiosity that is simply intellectually interested in religion. And then the other thing that people with Geshschwind Syndrome have or typically present is hypergraphia or endless writing, obsessive writing. And that’s certainly very resonant with me.
Because you’ve described yourself as almost addicted to, writing.
Sure, for sure. Yeah. Because, for various reasons, that’s also been like a way of internally parenting myself when I do various types of writing. So not all of this is like this. I can write pseudo-academically or whatever and I can write in a kind of reporting format. But when I really need care, my instinct has always been to write about something. And what’s fascinating is that as soon as it begins to appear on the screen or the page in front of me, it’s almost like a hologram. Almost like like there’s a person there that I am dialoguing with and who is caring for me enough to listen to what I’m saying and faithfully reproducing it.
My partner actually told me about this thing DW Winnicott says, which is that sometimes a person can turn to their intellect for care. And that’s certainly been true for me for writing. So it’s a very hard thing to describe except that when I get into the flow of it, I don’t feel like I’m alone. However I have to be alone to do it!
And so that makes — I struggle with accepting care from other people because I’ve developed this really sort of iron-clad way of doing it for myself internally and that all intensified after the seizure experience. The other symptom that, or thing that people with Geschwind Syndrome present with is atypical sexuality, and that doesn’t really resonate with me, but often they say two out of the three things is good. So that’s been interesting to me.
I want to learn more about that so it can be more transparent about that because I think that if my writing becomes more prominent or you know, if this book does really well or something like that, I want to be really clear with myself and with my readership that writing is not just a profession or a skill for me. It has a therapeutic aspect to it. It has a compulsive aspect to it. And that means that I have to take responsibility for dumping on other people when I write and you know, you can have the kind of avoidant hand-wiping attitude of “Well I’m just gonna produce my content and people can do with it what they will.” Or you can say “No, if you do something that’s compelling and people follow it, then you have responsibility towards them.” And so yeah, I wanna learn more about that part of myself which is so large, it’s hard to see.
One of the things that, that I hear a lot when I talk to other yoga people about you is, you know, I think it comes out of intimidation to be honest. People are intimidated, by some of the big words that you use when you write. But there’s a lot of like, “Oh, he thinks he’s better than everyone,” or “He thinks he’s smarter than everyone,” or “He’s so negative or judgey. And certainly like, you’re probably one of the smartest people I’ve met. But I mean, I don’t personally find you intimidating. But I’m wondering, and somebody asked me this about you. Somebody asked me a couple of weeks ago like, “I wonder why Matthew didn’t become a cult leader?”
Some people say that I have!
Some people say that you have, some people say that —
I’m like: “Show me the people.”
Where’s the money? Well, I mean, I think some people think because, you know, like myself and some of some of our other friends that we have in common will come to your defence when you’re being dog-piled on for things. I think that we get accused of being Rembots or that we’re in the cult of Remski or whatever. But like because you kind of have the brain that you do. I mean, it certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibility that you could have at one point created some kind of a cult if you wanted to.
Yeah, you’re totally, you’re totally right. Okay. So, so the first thing that comes up when you, when you asked that is that I stopped doing classes that I was… Well, I mean, a lot of things happened that ended up closing up my last studio that I owned in Toronto with my ex partner. Like the main thing being that the relationship ended. I ran courses in Ayurveda and I had a small following and there were a lot of people who really liked what I did and… But there was also… I would do, Ayurvedic health education appointments, for which there’s no licensing or no accountability structure. And it was only when I started to go to psychotherapy myself that… then certainly when I met my partner and she comes from a psychotherapy family and she was going to start studying psychotherapy herself, I was like, “Oh a regulated industry means that there’s a huge interpersonal training component that really should be in place before you’re visiting with people alone and talking with them about their diets and their relational lives and all of the things that come up in Ayurvedic health education.”
And I stopped doing those appointments because I realized that I did not know how to understand — or I started to begin to understand what was happening in things like transference and countertransference. And that happened through my own therapy, also, as I said with starting to learn about my partner’s world. And I realized that I did not know how to… there was nothing in the training in the yoga world or the yoga therapy world or in the Ayurveda world that I had encountered that really gave me a clear understanding of how to understand the power dynamics of the relationship of a personal meeting like that. And so I just stopped doing it because I realized I didn’t understand it.
So when I think about like why, if I’m a charismatic person and I have interesting and unique content, why I didn’t go forward and want to accumulate power or something like that socially with people in real life. I think about that. I think there’s something in me that said, “No, wait a minute, I’m over my head here and I don’t know how to do this.”
And there’s a lot of people out there in this world who also don’t know how to do this and they’re doing it and they’re hurting people, because we started to hear those stories as well. And so I guess the notion that I would manipulate people interpersonally just fills me with such dread and guilt and shame that that would be possible.
Can I tell you a story?
Yes, you can.
So the first time you ever came to my studio in LaCombe it was packed. So there was like, I don’t know, 30, 40 people in the room. It was all women. And LaCombe is this tiny little city in central Alberta and it’s I think the most churched community in Canada if I’m not wrong. And it’s also a guaranteed conservative stronghold. Anytime there’s an election, it’s always a conservative community.
And I remember watching you teach meditation to this room full of women, at the studio. We had just opened. I think we were maybe open for four or five months. And I remember watching the women were sitting down and you were standing up and you were talking about meditation and I just remember their faces watching you talk with…. they seem to be just full of like this weird wondering. It’s probably, they’ve probably never seen somebody like you before or interacted with somebody like you before. And I remember thinking after a while after they’d asked questions and you were talking about meditation and how to claim agency in your own body. I remember thinking, “These women are asking him for permission to exist.”
I remember being so blown away by that and wondering how you were navigating that because I’m sure you picked up on it and in some ways
And I wondered like, how is he going to navigate this? They’re asking him to just give them basic permission to breathe and like they don’t even know that they can breathe.
Right. And what does it mean to stand at the front of the room as a man? And have it be okay that you’re the person who’s going to do that. It’s just so…
That is so weird.
It’s so bizarre and it’s, I think it’s very unhealthy and I just don’t think it’s a good. I just don’t think it’s a good dynamic. There’s too many,.. like at that point, at that point, I can feel, I can feel the countertransference, right. So: Dude’s from the city. A totally different background from anybody I know. He’s gendered differently in some ways —
Yeah there’s some sort of femininity about him.
Right. So I know that there’s something new or odd or attractive about me and I’m like, and it just makes me uncomfortable, My immediate feeling is I’m uncomfortable and there’s a power dynamic here that is artificial or it’s overriding, not overriding but competing with whatever the basic content is of saying a few things about meditation.
So we’re running out of time, but I really want to get into your book and I really want to get into the other thing we want to talk about, but I wanted to, I want to kind of dive into this a little bit because this is something I’ve personally had to navigate because I was raised in a cult. And certainly male authority has more power for me than female authority.
And I think when you and I first met because we’re both cult survivors, I think there was a really strong pull that could have gone into countertransference for me anyways, I don’t know about, for you, but for me there could have been a really strong sort of like glomming on to you as some sort of, you know, teacher figure or something. And at one point there was something we were talking about, and I was asking you what you thought and I think you said, “You know, I’m just telling you this as your friend, right?” And I remember hearing you say that and thinking, “Okay, yeah, you’re right, like, this is just like two people sharing information. This isn’t you some kind of supernatural being telling me something that I needed to hear.”
I hope that like saying “friend” implied like equal.
Yeah, it did, it did, it totally diffused…
Because that can be a weird word too.
No, it completely diffused it for me and really brought me back down to earth and kind of cemented the relationship that I feel like I have with you. But I know that for me in certain circumstances, because those deeply ingrained patterns are so embedded that it’s almost impossible for me sometimes not to need that in order to hear something.
It’s tragic, totally fucking tragic.
It is. I had this dream one time that I was, I was an elephant in an elephant sanctuary and I really wanted to be out in the wild. And I remember the elephant me crying and wanting to be wild and having this realization that I had to stay in the sanctuary because I couldn’t survive in the wild. And like, that really spoke to me about, you know, I was born into dynamics, so my patterning is from birth and it’s so, it’s not so easy to untangle. And so my whole journey now has been, you know, what do I need to embrace and work with and what can I, what can I get rid of. And so when I, when I had that realization about you at my studio and I saw the way that these women were watching you, I had this realization that I’m this whole city that I was opening the studio in felt like an abusive relationship to me. It felt like an oppressive and abusive relationship where, and you know, I’m, I’m saying this knowing that maybe some of the people from my studio are going to be listening to this, that there were women in this community who had never experienced agency and who had never had the chance to really be in their own bodies and to make their own decisions. And I wonder, you know, with you saying, well, that’s wrong. I shouldn’t be teaching these people, but I wonder if there are things that you could say to someone like that that wouldn’t be heard from anyone else other than a man.
Yeah. I really don’t know. Like, it’s a really sort of prime example of privilege meeting an old paradigm that seems to want it or need it or something like that.
Well we talked about this a little bit when we talk about, the ways that people can go into practices that are harming and so like practices like BDSM where, where people are addressing their trauma through, through physical harm to their bodies or physical harm. Maybe harm isn’t the right word, but from hurting themselves. And how that, some people find that as a pathway to healing. And I wonder, you know…
Yeah — If there’s informed consent and if there’s all kinds of safety procedures and all that, right? I don’t know how to answer that question of what does it mean to be in the front of the room as a man with a lot of women listening to you very intently. And the dynamics that creates and echoes. I don’t have a personal answer for that except to say it doesn’t really work for me, and I’m not comfortable with it.
That said, I’m here in Edmonton, I’m going to facilitate a YTT module. It’s going to be mainly women in the room, but it’s going to be different because I’m not going to be teaching techniques or practices. I’m going to be giving basically a seminar in critical thinking. And so it’s not about instructing people towards their higher selves or giving them some sort of spirituality or pretending in some way that there was something inside me that is worth sharing. Those things are not really part of that kind of instruction. But I do know that leading a retreat for or like leading a group class in an 80 percent female practice population… I just don’t know how personally I would feel comfortable given everything that I’ve learned about sustaining those dynamics.
And so everything that I’m doing now is to try to move towards just offering a content rather than practices. And coming out of this book, I’m working on modules for community health. I’m thinking about going to, I guess it wouldn’t be graduate school because I didn’t graduate, but I don’t know, doing what I need to do to become a licensed counselor for people who are navigating their way out of cults. Because I’m doing that like a dozen times a week anyway and I’m doing it for free and I should be paid for it, but I also should know how to do it better, and not just have informal conversations with people. And so I’m just moving away from the charismatic power dynamic that is kind of at the center of how commercial yoga works and that is exacerbated by this structural sexism that you point out.
I mean that could lead into a whole conversation around men teaching yoga and what needs to happen around that for sure. But I’d like to finish off with talking about your book and maybe some cult dynamics in yoga land for sure. So: March, you’re book is going to be out?,
Yeah, March 14th. We’re in the thick of production whirlwind and there’s a thousand little details and decisions to be made along the way and we’re setting up online resources. And, there’s a workbook that is at the end of the book that I’m hoping will be a resource for teacher training programs. The book’s called Practice and All Is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics, and Healing in Yoga and Beyond. And it comes out of three years of a tracking the stories of the survivors of Pattabhi Jois’s sexual assaults, which he got away with for 30 years because he was enabled, I argue, by a number of factors including including key cultic dynamics of information control and image management and rationalization and pyramid-like structures, where power just floats to the top and, you know, information leaks down to the bottom and get suppressed and silenced.
And feels like a good time. Like it took three years to do. And because I’m so personally invested, not in Ashtanga yoga, but in cult literature and cult recovery I didn’t realize until I pretty much finished the draft how exhausted it had made me and how much it had, caused my physical and mental health to deteriorate. I feel that slowly I’m recovering from that. And it kind of feels like an exciting time now because, there’s going to be a shitstorm when it’s released, but I kind of know what’s coming and I’m a little bit more relaxed into the decisions I’ve made around, how I’ve analyzed things and who I’ve called to account in the book and that sort of thing. So I’m feeling good about it and I also just don’t know what’s going to happen.
Yeah. Because there’s always kind of like the things you can’t really predict, right? Like your work over the last few years, you know, you’ve really kind of dug into exposing the unhealthy dynamics in Yogaland. And I think through that work and through the work of others that are less visible than you, like Theo and myself and other trauma informed teachers, we’ve seen this language and this movement become co-opted. And so it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out with your book as well.
Right? Well it will be. And what I was really grateful for in working with, with my editor at the Walrus, is that she really guided me through the nuts and bolts of creating a victim-centered narrative or a survivor-centered narrative. And that’s the most important thing about this book to me is that at the heart of it I’m learning to listen to what people like Karen Rain and, and Anneke Lucas and Marissa Sullivan and Jubilee Cooke have to say about their experience and really trying to grasp what it was like and how difficult it has been to hold it and to name it and to manage and to then disclose it and then to deal with all of the blowback.
And my editor also with Embodied Wisdom Publications has been excellent in helping me to really keep the book focused on a survivor’s voices. And that’s key because as we’ve seen in the last six months or so as people have tried to address… as the yoga world… I would say the yoga administrative or bureaucratic world has tried to address the issue of institutional abuse in yoga schools and amongst yoga teachers, they’re not inviting survivors to the table. In event after event, panel after panel, the people who are not invited are the people who actually have done the most work. And this was true back in March or something like that of 2018 when all of the luminaries of the world gathered for their confluence in San Diego. And they actually had a panel discussion on, “Well, what do we do now that we’ve realized that the leader of our method was a 30 year sexual predator?”
They didn’t use those terms, but they convened a panel where they basically discussed, “Well, what does this mean to us as faithful people? What does this mean to us as devotees?” They didn’t reach out to Karen Rain and say, “Can you come and tell us what we should do in relation to survivors of our guru’s abuse? We’re here and we’ve made our careers because we actually either turned a blind eye or enabled him.” They didn’t, of course, they didn’t do that.
There was a similar meeting in London where again, none of Pattabhi Jois’s actual survivors were invited to participate. It was a closed session, but Theo was invited to it and she reluctantly agreed, I believe, I think I can say that on her behalf, to be the person who was going to speak for survivors as the trauma-sensitive person. But you know, they had a Jois devotee on the panel. And it’s like — if you’re going to actually tackle it, you actually have to listen to the people who were impacted and you have to let them drive the story. Because where are you going to be otherwise other than in one realm or another of brand reframing or management or brand washing.
What my hope is that people will start listening to what Karen Rain says as being central to the narrative of modern yoga. That she has as much to say about what it means to learn about yourself and to deal with suffering and to deal with trauma and to understand what kind of support one needs as any yoga expert does. I just want to see people like people like her become the real community leaders. Having said that, I know that that’s not what she wants! I think what I wrote my book is that is that at a certain point people in Yoga culture will be more interested in what Karen Rain has to say about her experience in yoga than they’ll be interested in what Pattabhi Jois taught. And at that point, I think we’ll all be practicing more yoga actually.
Amen. All right. I think we’re done. Thank you so much. I really appreciate you being willing to do this. I know you’re exhausted and you need to have a nap. So thank you so much for your time.
“Feminist-Informed” Ashtanga and “Trauma-Informed” Kundalini: How Cultic Deception Can Harm Academics and Therapists
High-demand groups hurt members and their families directly in physical, emotional, and financial ways.
That harm is contagious.
In this post I’ll look at two instances in which the primary tactic of the high-demand group — deception — radiates harm outward, wasting the time, resources, and emotional labour of well-meaning people who come into contact with the group and wind up promoting it, even as it belies their values. One comes from academia, and the other comes from the mental health world.
The 2016 article “Yoga As Embodied Feminist Praxis: Trauma, Healing, and Community Based Responses to Violence” (1) by Beth Catlett and Mary Bunn is built on meticulous fieldwork that assesses the efficacy of yoga programming in communities living with and recovering from violence. Bunn’s contribution comes from her work with Project Air, a non-profit bringing services including yoga instruction to HIV-infected survivors of the Rwandan genocide. Catlett’s focus is on the Urban Yogis programme for marginalized youth in Queens, New York.
Urban Yogis, as Catlett and Bunn report, is co-directed by an anti-violence activist named Erica Ford, and Eddie Stern of Ashtanga New York. Interviews with Stern and time spent in his service classes impressed the scholars with his humility and altruism, and dispelled their reservations about whether the patriarchal structure of Ashtanga Yoga could really serve a pro-social mission.
“Our engagement with the Urban Yogis program,” they conclude,
“has inspired a confidence that a feminist-informed social justice orientation to community engagement emphasizing ethics of care, commitment, shared power, and mutual political vision is indeed possible.”(2)
Had Catlett, Bunn, and their editors known about the active and unresolved abuse history in Ashtanga yoga when they began their research? If they had known, would they have chosen to highlight an Ashtanga yoga community in a book about feminist-oriented social values?
By email, the scholars vigorously confirmed they hadn’t known.
“Our starting point,” they wrote,
is always to listen to, and take seriously, the voices/experiences of those who have experienced violence and abuse — this is the way that we can learn about the ways that power operates in institutions, and these voices are important to inform our work to dismantle unjust systems of power, privilege, and oppression within such institutions.
We knew nothing of these experiences of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment at the writing of our chapter, and therefore, this new information about the abuse of power within the ashtanga community is something with which we will have to grapple as our work moves forward.
But why didn’t they know? Was the research naïve, overcredulous? Perhaps. But it’s also true that certain high-demand nodes of the Ashtanga yoga world hid crucial facts.
Stern himself plays a role in that story through his editorship of the propagandistic book Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K Pattabhi Jois Through the Eyes of His Students, The volume’s co-editor, Guy Donahaye, recently distanced himself from the book, writing:
Since his death, Guruji has been elevated to a position of sainthood. Part of this promotion has been due to the book of interviews I collected and published with Eddie Stern… which paints a positive picture of his life and avoids exploring the issues of injury and sexual assault. In emphasizing only positive stories it has done more to cement the idea that he was a perfect yogi, which he clearly was not.
By burnishing his image, we make it unassailable — it makes us doubt the testimony of those he abused. This causes further harm to those whose testimony we deny and to ourselves.
How then, does Stern become cited as a facilitator of “feminist-informed social justice” in the yoga world? How does he come to occupy that space to the exclusion of one of the hundreds of people, mostly women, that have been teaching consent-based trauma-sensitive yoga to at-risk populations for years?
Consider the enthusiastic undergrad and Master’s students who will read Catlett and Bunn’s essay and come away with a partial view of the method and community under discussion. Will there be a correction issued? Who will see it?
And how will Jois’s victims feel about reading feminist academic accolades to their former male colleague who has yet to publicly acknowledge the abuse? Months of fieldwork by two feminist scholars are now of questionable value, not because they don’t have productive observations to contribute about yoga service in general, but because their good will was confounded.
Trauma and addictions recovery specialist Gabor Maté works closely with a Canadian organization called Beyond Addiction, which offers a yoga-based training programme “for individuals seeking to develop healthy habits and overcome addictive behaviour, for health professionals and yoga teachers who work with addiction.”
The yoga community providing content for the program is 3HO: the “Happy, Healthy, and Holy” organization founded by Yogi Bhajan in 1969. Recent scholarship has shown that Bhajan’s postmodern “Kundalini” blend of Tantric Yoga and Sikhism has few historical roots in any stream of Indian wisdom tradition, despite the community’s lofty claims.
More importantly, anyone who Googles “3HO abuse” will find that the organization settled two lawsuits against Bhajan, including one case of rape and confinement brought by a woman who entered his harem of “secretaries” at age eleven.
Did Maté do a basic background check on the organization he’s promoting to his platform of 100K Facebook followers? Should he be concerned that a person with a trauma load might come to one of his 3HO-related trainings, do that Google search halfway through it, see that the Kundalini instructors he’s collaborating with still quote Yogi Bhajan without reservation? Should he be concerned if that person feels both triggered and betrayed?
“Dr. Maté is well aware of the possibility and actuality of abuse in any spiritual or medical culture,” wrote his assistant in response to an emailed request for comment.
That’s just not good enough.
Bottom line: if you’re going to platform a yoga community, method, or personality — especially with the altruistic intention of using those resources to help vulnerable people — do your research. Prepare to find out that that community, method, or personality has likely failed its vulnerable members and followers — and in the worst cases, traumatized them.
Then: work out how you’re going to relate to that community, method, or personality with transparency, integrity, and justice, in such a way that the patterns of harm, enabling, or bypassing stops with you.
(1) In Berila, Beth, et al. Yoga, the Body, and Embodied Social Change: an Intersectional Feminist Analysis. Lexington Books, 2016. 259-275.
(2) Ibid. 267.
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. Continue reading “Talking with Carmen Spagnola about Attachment, High-Demand Groups, Responsibilism, and Grief (Transcript)”
I was speaking with the survivor of a high-demand group. They described having been recruited by a family within the group that had offered them a job.
In time, the requirements of the job began to blend with the requirements of the group. Within a few months, the subject found themselves thinking that they were somehow still in the job, but had also become intrinsic to the centre of the group. This felt both special and strange. Ultimately they went on to suffer abuse at the hands of the group’s leader, from which they’ve spent the rest of their lives recovering.
In essence, the person I was talking to described being deceived, which is cult tactic 101. She showed up for a job, was asked to begin to interact with the group as an implied condition of ongoing employment, and was told that the group’s leader would offer her enlightenment. It wasn’t true.
They asked me:
So do you think that the family had planned all along to bring me in, and for those things to happen to me?
I could hear the tenderness of the question. Behind it was the terrible thought that perhaps this family, with whom they had bonded, had purposefully and callously betrayed her.
This was a question about evil.
I offered that neither of us could have a real clinical insight into the family. Even if we did, I said, it wouldn’t resolve the question of their intentions. We can never fully say why people do things, or whether they’re doing things in good faith, or with full agency.
I always find it easier, I said, to focus on impacts.
But the feeling of the subject’s question twigged something inside me.
There was a horror to it, a shame, a sense of claustrophobia. And contagion.
Can people really be so awful?
These are all feelings that also exude from the more common question that survivors ask. This would be the self-accusatory question: “How did I fall for that?” Or, “How could I have been so stupid?”
The self-accusatory questions show the internalization of the victim-blaming that fuels the wider culture. Which, in its most domesticated state, serves as the basic logic of neoliberalism.
It touches the root of a primal shame: Why did I deserve that?
Self-blame is bolstered by various legal, economic, and journalistic conventions that don’t have the tools (and perhaps don’t want them) to investigate the difference between consent and informed consent, or situations of trauma in which the fold response can broadcast false consent.
The things you said yes to because saying yes was safer than saying no.
Okay. So when this feeling of shame comes over the ex high-demand group member, here are two facts that cannot be denied:
1) They didn’t deserve it. Nobody deserves to be lied to and abused.
2) There are no predictors for why they got drawn in. There is no research to suggest there’s a particular “vulnerable type” who is more prone to recruitment. Nothing protects a person against deception. It doesn’t matter if you had an abusive childhood. (That wouldn’t be your fault either.) There are many people who have had abusive childhoods don’t wind up in cults.
Having wound up in a cult can feel like a personal failing. But it’s not. It’s more like having been infected by a virus.
According to Stein’s model of cult-as-disorganized-attachment-machine, part of the infected member’s condition is to believe that the source of the sickness is also the cure.
So let’s bring this back to the subject’s question: “Do you think that the family had planned all along to bring me in?”
That first, pragmatic answer still holds true: there’s no way of knowing.
But can we say anything else — something that sounds a little less like a shrug — to relieve the burden of having to ponder a terrible betrayal?
If we use the virus metaphor, perhaps we say that the subject got hired into a contagious environment. Perhaps the family didn’t even know they were infected. They were part of the group, after all, because they too, at some point, had been deceived.
The main difference between the subject and the family that hired her may have been that the family had incubated the group virus for long enough that they themselves were contagious in their daily actions. They may not even have recognized they are symptomatic.
My point is: wondering whether recruiters are evil shares space with the victim-blaming impulse. Both depend on the premise that personal agency — and therefore, the capacity for informed consent — remains intact in relation to a cult, even though the cult runs on deception. Both depend on the premise that personal choices are the prime movers of cultic involvement and action, rather than a kind of social contagion.
A good metaphor gives us space for working on the questions of the heart. But as much as cult-as-virus idea might relieve the survivor of self-blame — and, if they want to go there, the traumatic conviction that they were betrayed — it has a hard limit. A virus does not excuse criminal activity.
And, as an amorphic, amoral, depersonalized thing, the virus shares characteristics with the chaotic and naturalistic forces of “karma”, by which criminality has so often escaped scrutiny and accountability in yoga and Buddhism groups.
But if we don’t take it too far, there’s another reason to like the metaphor. It might let us think of cult awareness education as a kind of vaccination programme.
Reading a good cult analysis book is actually a lot like getting a sharp pinch in the arm. (Here’s an amazing bibliography.) It stings, burns, maybe swells a bit. You know the vaccine contains tiny bits of the virus itself, suspended inertly in the medium.
Every good cult book I know has been written by someone who had to develop their own antibodies.
So: a few regular, highly-researched shots in the arm. It should be enough arms to offer herd immunity to those who don’t have access to the information. It’ll be good to keep up to date, and pay the experts to watch for mutations.