This excerpt from a 2014 “dharma talk” by disgraced former Dharma Ocean founder Reggie Ray provides a textbook example of how the terror of disorganized attachment – as analyzed by cult survivor and researcher Alexandra Stein – can be framed as a spiritual necessity.
This theme is especially prominent within the Trungpa mythology. Pema Chodron reveals it here.
There’s not a lot of analysis required, but I’ll add some notes in red to the transcript. Ray succinctly provides a perfect vignette of the terror-euphoria cycle that characterizes the trauma bonding that Stein argues is central to cultic coherence. Of course this is not his framework. He’s telling the story as a kind of hero’s journey that has the secondary advantage of justifying a continuation of these dynamics within his own circle.
And so we have this very ambivalent reaction, I think, to the path, very ambivalent response, which I myself often felt with Rinpoche. I would spend time with him, I would sit down to dinner with him or a more likely lunch at the picnic tables in Tail of the Tiger and he would be sitting there. I would come downstairs, Oh, I’m sure he’s there. He’s having lunch. And of course nobody’s sitting around him and there’s a reason for that. So, you know, um, you know, I’m in Chicago in graduate school and I come and visit and I think, okay, this is my big chance.
“Ambivalent” is a misleading framework here. In the literature of Klein and others, ambivalence refers to a maturation beyond idealization, through which a person can come to understand the blending of good and not-good qualities that characterize the psyche. Ray goes on to describe extreme idealization, and being terrified.
So I sit down next to him, Rinpoche, and suddenly I am overcome with terror. And I’m not exaggerating. I start [hyperventilating]. You felt like your clothes were totally stripped off at all times and you try to say something like, Hi, Rinpoche.
The stripping off of clothes, used here as metaphor for spiritual transparency, is ironic given Trungpa’s serial sexual abuse, including the criminal act – around that time period – of having W.S. Merwin and Dana Noane forcibly stripped of their clothes at a party at the Boulder temple in 1973.
And the amazing thing was, I think it was his field of awareness. You saw this pitiful, pathetic, terrified little person basically trying to get a handle on them and you’re trying to manipulate him and you’re trying to get him to acknowledge you and all I said was, Hi, Rinpoche and all of a sudden my whole thing is totally exposed and then of course the big problem is lunch has just started.
Note that the student in fear is labelled as “pathetic” and “pitiful” – as if this were there nature state of original sin – instead of someone responding reasonably to psychosocial stress.
And I would start to sweat and I would more than anything I wanted him to like say back Hi, but he didn’t, he would just turn slowly and look at me and I many times thought I’m either going to faint or I’m going to die. Those are the only two possibilities. It was so hard being around him and it was so hard being around the community for the same reason. Somehow we created a situation where everybody’s mask was basically, I wouldn’t say it was off, but it was falling off all the time and you kept trying to put it back on and I could falling off.
Note the absence of any question as to why Trungpa doesn’t give a response. What appears to be callous neglect is framed as transcendent wisdom.
At Tail of the Tiger, there was this long driveway and I used to take the bus up and they would drop me off. At the end of the driveway. And the minute I got off the bus, I would start to feel like throwing up and I would feel like throwing up from that moment until I got back on the bus three or four days later, a week later, whatever it was. But here’s the ambivalence, which I think we all feel. I would, um, I get away from him because I spent half my time trying to be closer to him and the other half trying to get away from him.
Here Ray discloses that he was violently ill whenever he was close to his master. He’s describing what Stein analyzes as the state of “fright without solution” that provokes disorganized attachment behaviours. To quote:
[Disorganized attachment] responses occur when a child has been in a situation of fright without solution. Their caregiver is at once the safe haven and also the source of threat or alarm. So, when the child feels threatened by the caregiver, he or she is caught in an impossible situation: both comfort and threat are represented by the same person — the caregiver. The child experiences the unresolvable paradox of seeking to simultaneously flee from and approach the caregiver. This happens at a biological level, not thought out or conscious, but as evolved behavior to fear. The child attempts to run TO and flee FROM the caregiver at one and the same time… However, in most cases the need for proximity — for physical closeness — tends to override attempts to avoid the fear-arousing caregiver. So usually the child stays close to the frightening parent while internally both their withdrawal and approach systems are simultaneously activated, and in conflict.
— Stein, Alexandra. Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017. Loc. 894
And when I would get away from him. Um, even during seminars, you know, you go through these, you know, periods cause he hung around the house, you know, he, he was in the dining room, he was talking to people, he was, he was there. So it was in your face a lot of the time. And it was a very small community at that time. Very, very small. And, um, what I would do is after his afternoon talk, he would talk after lunch in about to, um, during the warm weather. There was, uh, it was a Hill up in, back. And I, like many of us I had a little tent cause the farmhouse couldn’t like, couldn’t sleep very many people. And um, about two o’clock or three I would go up and I go to bed for the night.
Personal anecdote: in both of the high-demand groups I was in it was very common for the stress of the group meditations and activities to be so excruciating that group members would try to disappear for as long as they could avoid their service work. Dead-to-the-world naps or hour-long weeping jags were common. We would whisper to each other that “the transformation is intense” or “these practices go so deep” or “I’m converting so much right now.” For the most part, however, I believe we were trying to recover, and unwittingly sharing the group’s propaganda amongst ourselves to reassure us that the cycles were spiritually appropriate.
But then I would wake up the next morning and I would be in a different place. And suddenly the feeling of being completely suffocated by my own vomit and my own shit and the feeling of, uh, incredible, overwhelming anxiety all the time, which really I felt that much of the time when I was in the in the first year, first year or two, um, it would be completely gone. And I would get up and you know, you know how it goes because you go through this too and look outside and it’s an unbelievable day you’ve ever seen. And you look at the mountains and you smell the air and um, you, you feel the warmth of the sun and you feel so open and you run into parts of yourself that you didn’t even know where there. Beautiful parts and inspired parts and open. And you look at people’s faces and you see them and you feel the tremendous sense of their sacredness and you feel love for them.
Stein describes a paradoxical moment of relief when the nervous response to cultic stress collapses into fold or fawning mode. She writes:
Giving in – dissociating and ceasing to think – is experienced as relief. In my own experience I remember well this sensation: overwhelmed with confusion and exhaustion, the thoughts that were trying to enter the cognitive part of my brain just could not make it there and they fell back out of consciousness. Simultaneously I stopped struggling and decided to commit myself more fully to the group even though I disagreed with it. That too felt like relief – I didn’t have to fight anymore. In fact, as we shall see later in more detail, key regions of the brain that connect emotional (largely right brain) and cognitive processing (largely left brain) are shut down in the disorganized and dissociated state.
I can report from interviews with and reading the testimonies of students of Jois, Iyengar, and others that the relief portion of this trauma-bond cycle – especially if it is also contrasted with the physical pain of yoga practice or sitting in meditation for long periods of time – can be amplified into euphoria.
And so then when lunch came, I go back into the dining room and Oh, Hi Rinpoche sitting there and no one’s sitting around him. And I would go through the whole process again. And that is the nature of the journey. And you know, at that time and later I used to think, well, is there some way I can get out of the journey and be up here and look down at myself being completely freaked out and be okay with it? And the answer is actually no. The thing about the journey is it is all consuming. We, um, many times, you know, uh, those of us who meditate would like to orchestrate our own enlightenment. We want to be in charge of what happens on our journey. And it’s understandable because that’s how we work as humans. But there’s one place where it doesn’t work. And this is it.
Ray concludes by framing the spiritual journey as a beneficent and necessary terror-euphoria loop that is to be repeated over and over again. Most disturbingly, he openly names the loss of personal agency that is central to traumatic experiences as being a positive development. Not only does he present the trauma-bond rhythm as a spiritual path, he equates the traumatic loss of agency with enlightenment.
Given Ray’s training and capacity to reframe the traumatic experiences he describes as necessary, it’s little wonder that Dharma Ocean’s dynamics go on to produce this extensive testimony of abuse.