Image: Father Yod of the Source Family.
Yesterday, I learned something new about cult leaders from Philip Deslippe, a whip-smart Religious Studies scholar who focuses on the history of modern yoga and new religious movements.
He once interviewed an attorney who handled a number of high profile cases against cults. The attorney said that from his experience, leaders follow clear patterns:
At some point they realize how desperately co-dependent they are in relation to their students. They begin to regard their students as idiots, children, incompetents. They begin to loathe them not only for their immaturity, but even more intensely because they are dependent on that immaturity, that devotion, for their daily bread. They’re trapped. Some drink themselves senseless, others take drugs, hide out under mountains of cash, or think help. Some manage to kill themselves.
What impresses me about this analysis is that we’re always aghast when we hear of cruelty and abuse flowing downward from a spiritual leader. We can’t believe its inconsistency with their apparent spiritual mission. But what if instead of pathologizing it we considered a simpler answer: it’s an economy of loathing.
Sogyal Rinpoche punching a nun, Trungpa sexually assaulting public figures in a temple, Osho staring blankly at his followers from the window of his Rolls. Iyengar ranting about how students who have touched his feet for a decade are ignorant fools, and then hitting them, Michael Roach giving people meaningless unpaid tasks and joking with the inner circle: “Of course we’re in cult.”
The pattern I’ve seen seems to be that the cruelty increases in direct proportion to the “success” of the guru. Is power its own addictive feedback loop? Yes, but so is loathing. How can the guru not loathe himself, when he sees he’s propped up by the very people he’s broken? Then, if you’re a crazy wisdom dude like Sogyal or Adi Da you fold that very corruption back into the the content of your teaching: of course the world is an absurd illusion for you. What else do you know?
They hit their students, sexually dominate them, starve them, steal their labour and money, mock them. These are all morbid actions, but they also acts of retribution against the terms of their shameful imprisonment, which they blame on their students, and cannot own for themselves. And the most incredible part of all is that as the loathing escalates, so does the devotee’s need to say it is something else, all the way up to love, in order to stand it.
This is not a post about humanizing cult leaders, although everyone is human. They were all little boys once. It’s a post about standing outside the cult mechanisms in our lives to see that fantasy and idealization are the opposite of love, and that when directed en masse at a leader whose charisma flows out of some ungodly wound, a downward spiral ensues that belies the upward spiral of the group’s self-narrative.
Of course there’s another side of the loathing economy. A a part of the devotee secretly loathes the guru as well.
Because devotion is inseparable from fantasy and idealization, it must have a conflicted core. How can you love someone who towers above you in grace and humanness? How can love a person who builds his presence before you on the premise he knows you, knows your nature, knows the nature of the world? How can you really love a saviour, when the first thing a saviour must do to be a saviour is to concretize your sense of inadequacy?
My guess is that the tension holds true in both the flesh and the abstract. Who can truly love Jesus, whose nature excludes you from communion with God? Who can truly love Krishna, who knows enough about the universe that he can reverse your reason and moral doubt and send you off to war? That we eroticize both is a clue to how hard it is to really love them.
The shadow cast by fantasy and idealization is that of your presumed failure. The guru sits there and pontificates, and you are seduced. The secret of seduction is that “seduction” means: “being led away from yourself.” If you pay attention you can feel it happening. The body is running away from him as fast as it can. But the socialized self co-opts that kinetic energy, and aims you at his feet.
The disillusionment, already built-in to the structure of fantasy and idealization, becomes a little more palpable when the devotee subconsciously realizes their fantasy and idealization can’t be fulfilled. Somewhere they feel they don’t actually love the leader, or perhaps never did. But they’re in so deep they force themselves to. The leader smells the lie he brought on himself, and lashes out.
Really sorry this post is dark. I still believe that the more we can see this clearly, I believe, the less it will happen.
Christopher Wallis responded to my response to his article on guru-abuse prevention – check his comment here. We’re having a cordial exchange about an important topic — how strange for Yogaland! — and a lot of folks have seemed to appreciate the themes explored so far, so I’ll respond again. Wallis was kind enough to direct message with me to clarify certain points, so I’ll refer to those as well.
In my previous post, I offered a positional statement:
I’m writing here as a non-Indian yoga practitioner who has interacted with echoes of the Indian guru-shishya system that have been borrowed, adapted, appropriated, or manipulated during the globalization phase of yoga.
I’ll expand that to say:
I’m not qualified to comment on the content of Wallis’ religio-philosophy, so I’ll confine my focus to what he says about its pedagogy. My content ignorance may blinder me to some subtle mechanism of integrity that’s second nature to him. Or it may be a strength, insofar as spiritual content so often obscures the structure of material relations. I don’t know. Also: I’m writing as a two-time college-dropout who cycled through two cultic environments and spent the better part of the last decade healing from it in part by informally researching what cults are and how they work, and the last few years formally researching the shadows of yoga pedagogy for a book that started out as being about injuries but every day is becoming more about the embodied effects of patriarchy in modern yoga and how people reach out of them. I’ll let Wallis share as much about his own background relationships beyond his formal bio as he wants, but for now it suffices to say that we come at the guru problem from very different angles, which makes friendly dialogue all the more useful. Continue reading “Guru or Guide: What’s the Scope of Practice? A Second Response to Christopher Wallis”
For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.– Audre Lorde
Christopher Wallis asked me to respond to his eloquent piece on gurus-gone-bad, and how to stay away from them. I’m happy to do just that with this short post.
(Positional statement: I’m writing here as a non-Indian yoga practitioner who has interacted with echoes of the Indian guru-shishya system that have been borrowed, adapted, appropriated, or manipulated during the globalization phase of yoga.) Continue reading “Laying Down the Guru’s Tools, for a While – A Response to Christopher Wallis”