Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Yet Another Spiritual Sex Scandal? Screw It.


Only a little over a year ago, it was John Friend. Last fall, it was Kausthub Desikachar. Today, the New York Times published a long article on the latest "sex scandal" to hit the yoga and meditation communities, this time involving the 105-year old Buddhist teacher Joshu Sasaki:
Since arriving in Los Angeles from Japan in 1962, the Buddhist teacher Joshu Sasaki, who is 105 years old, has taught thousands of Americans . . . Mr. Sasaki has also . . .  groped and sexually harassed female students for decades, taking advantage of their loyalty to a famously charismatic roshi, or master.
 . . . Women say they were encouraged to believe that being touched by Mr. Sasaki was part of their Zen training.

The Zen group, or sangha, can become one’s close family, and that aspect of Zen may account for why women and men have been reluctant to speak out for so long.

Many women whom Mr. Sasaki touched were resident monks at his centers. One woman who confronted Mr. Sasaki in the 1980s found herself an outcast afterward. The woman, who asked that her name not be used to protect her privacy, said that afterward “hardly anyone in the sangha, whom I had grown up with for 20 years, would have anything to do with us.”

 . . . Among those who spoke to the council and for this article was Nikki Stubbs, who now lives in Vancouver, and who studied and worked at Mount Baldy, Mr. Sasaki’s Zen center 50 miles east of Los Angeles, from 2003 to 2006. During that time, she said, Mr. Sasaki would fondle her breasts during sanzen, or private meeting; he also asked her to massage his penis. She would wonder, she said, “Was this teaching?”

One monk, whom Ms. Stubbs said she told about the touching, was unsympathetic. “He believed in Roshi’s style, that sexualizing was teaching for particular women,” Ms. Stubbs said. The monk’s theory, common in Mr. Sasaki’s circle, was that such physicality could check a woman’s overly strong ego.
Since I wasn't personally impacted by this scandal or any of the others, I haven't felt like it was my place to say much about them. (I wrote one post revisiting the Amrit Desai scandal at Kripalu in light of the Anusara debacle, and one that vented my personal feelings about JF a bit, but until this post, that has been it.) But the combination of this Times article and some of the comments I saw about it on Facebook revived my feelings of irritation about the way these scandals are generally discussed in online and print media. 

Not surprisingly, the print stories tend to be basic reporting combined with whatever is most sensational and attention grabbing. Of course, in a word, this means sex. 

Online, I've seen some excellent writing about the Ansuara scandal, and particularly admire the roles played by YogaDork, Matthew Remski, and Bernadette Birney. But when it comes to discussion, on the whole I've seen a lot more venting, gloating, scapegoating, denying, minimizing, and blaming the victim than reflection and learning. This is discouraging, and a wasted opportunity for collective growth.

While I don't pretend to have any answers, I wanted to share some of the thoughts I had after reading the Times article this morning, in the hope that others may find at least some of them useful:

1. It's never simply about sex. That's what everyone tends to focus on, of course. But there's always so much more involved. What I find most troubling is that LOTS of people in these communities knew that these behaviors were occurring - often for years or even decades - but either kept silent, were shut up or forced out, or rationalized and legitimated the abuse. What does this reveal about the culture of the organization? 

Consider also that these same insiders who knew what was happening were most likely also the ones most seriously invested in the supposedly deep, spiritual aspects of the scene. What does it do to individuals and communities when they are simultaneously trumpeting their light and hiding their shadow? It's a disturbing picture, to say the least. 

2. It's never simply about one bad man.  This follows from the point about widespread insider knowledge of abuse. But it bears repeating. Yes, the leader bears exceptional responsibility. But without supporters and enablers, he would not be in a leadership position to begin with. So, in a sense, the real problem is the culture of the community, particularly the central, "insider" part of the organization.

3. "Lineage" is no guarantee of anything. Kausthub Desikachar is the grandson of Krishnamacharya, who was the Guru of B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois. You can't get more central to any sort of meaningful yoga lineage than that. And yet the details about his abusive behavior are shockingly bad. Mr. Sasaki had his own impressive lineage in the Buddhist tradition. John Friend didn't have a real lineage, so he made one up, proclaiming himself the Chosen One of Shiva-Shakti Tantra. None of it mattered when it came to preventing abuses from occurring.

 4. We need to get over our romanticized fantasies of the "Mystic East." This extends and elaborates the lineage point above. To be sure, serious learning about Eastern traditions of yoga and mediation is incredibly valuable. But that's different from the still widespread sense that there is some innate, essential, mysterious spirituality that channels only through those who have a natural (or manufactured) connection to India, Japan, or some other Eastern Land. This is romantic fantasy and supports the suspension of critical thinking that facilitates abuse. And while abusive charismatic leaders hail from all cultures and traffic in all sorts of obfuscating symbolism, the trope of the "Mystic East" remains a central problem when it comes to the yoga and meditation scenes.

4. "Enlightenment" is a problematic concept in need of critical scrutiny. This blends over into the "Mystic East" problem to some extent for obvious reasons. But it's also distinct in that it really is possible to shift consciousness dramatically through assiduously cultivated meditative states. But it's one thing to cultivate states of deep meditative absorption when you're alone in the proverbial cave. It's another to do it when you're living in a community and/or the everyday world. Scandal after scandal - not just these three but a much longer history of the same - show us that people who are exceptionally adept at meditation may be shockingly horrible when it comes to other people. So if we are interested in what it really takes to live an enlightened life, we need to develop a much more multifaceted concept than our essentially one-dimensional visions of cosmic consciousness can carry.

6. It's facile to lecture others about "not giving away your power." Over and over again, I see online comments about we can prevent these scandals from recurring if individuals will simply realize that they should "never give away their power." This is just the flipside of the "one bad man" theory: call it the "one weak woman" problem.

Honestly, I find it quite offensive. I think a lot of it comes from other women who want to insist to themselves that they could never be so vulnerable. But we are all vulnerable in some way - if not to being sexually preyed on, then to something else. And women who are sexually preyed on typically have some deep wounding that makes them vulnerable in this way (sexual abuse in childhood, etc.). This will take a lot more to change that than dismissively telling them to stop being so weak. Really, this is simply blaming the victim. And I'm sick of hearing it.

7. We should expect complex interpersonal dynamics when it comes to highly charged teacher-student relationships. Psychologists are trained to expect issues like transference and counter-transference to come up in their practice as a matter of course. And they learn techniques to work with these dynamics responsibly and productively. Why aren't yoga and meditation teachers studying their example and adapting it to our situations? We should be, but it's very rare to do so.

8. It's past time for some feminist consciousness-raising. It is not OK to sacrifice vulnerable women to the predations of powerful teachers. No matter how much else these teachers have to offer - and it may be a lot - it's not acceptable. Period.

9. Women abuse power too. Too many complex issues to go into here, but it at least needs to be noted. Plus, it seems like the new romantic trope arising to replace the "Mystic East" (which definitely has a strong male bias) is the "Divine Feminine." I have the same skepticism toward the "Goddess" talk that floats around, if it's taken seriously at all. This is just another easy fantasy.

While the ways in which men and women abuse power are likely to follow different patterns, there is no question that this is a human problem that involves everyone, regardless of gender.

10. It's past time to develop new methods of teaching and learning that are rooted in democratic values. While this is happening in some quarters, it doesn't seem well-understood or established. But it seems clear that new models need to be developed if we don't want to keep reading the same dispiriting headlines, over and over again.


27 comments:

  1. There's so much that can be said about any of your points -- and I agree with them all -- but I do want to take this opportunity to address this one in particular:


    6. It's facile to lecture others about "not giving away your power." Over and over again, I see online comments about we can prevent these scandals from recurring if individuals will simply realize that they should "never give away their power." This is just the flipside of the "one bad man" theory: call it the "one weak woman" problem.

    Honestly, I find it quite offensive. I think a lot of it comes from other women who want to insist to themselves that they could never be so vulnerable. But we are all vulnerable in some way - if not to being sexually preyed on, then to something else. And women who are sexually preyed on typically have some deep wounding that makes them vulnerable in this way (sexual abuse in childhood, etc.). This will take a lot more to change that than dismissively telling them to stop being so weak. Really, this is simply blaming the victim. And I'm sick of hearing it."

    I think you are spot-on that at least some of this comes from others (women who are more likely to be the targets of such predatory behavior as well as the men who think they would be "upright" and speak up rather than maintain silence) because of the distastefulness of admitting that GIVEN THE CONDITIONS they too could fall into such behavior.

    This has been shown by experiments such as Milgram's as well as real-life evidence in the case of the "Strip Search Prank Call Scam" dramatized in the film "Compliance." NO ONE thinks they'd do what people in these situations do, and yet over and over again people DO because we are conditioned beings. This is one of the points I am making in my series "All Beings Are Without Blame."

    The only way to change this situation is to change the structural conditions that lead to such exploitation.

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    1. Hi Frank - Thanks for your comment. I always value hearing your thoughts and am grateful to have this online forum where you and others can help me think things through.

      I think there's a lot to the dynamics of not wanting to admit vulnerability. And, right in line with the teaching in your series, it makes sense that this is so big in the US right now as social conditions are newly harsh and scary. Many people don't want to admit to themselves that they feel vulnerable. Or they want to try and buy invulnerability through arming themselves with lots of guns.

      I came across this Ted Talk recently and found it very relevant to this topic - highly recommended: http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html

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  2. Carol, thanks for this articulate, reasonable, and thought-provoking post. Have you considered sending it to the NYT or other 'mainstream' media?

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    1. Thanks, Shelley. I don't think the Times would take it, but I appreciate the compliment!

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  4. Thanks for the post. I totally agree with the points. I also have strong feelings about number 6. Sometimes people who have been brought up in a supportive environment where they have always been allowed to make personal choices and have their opinions be respected since childhood take it all for granted. They cannot understand that without this kind of positive upbringing and culture, sometimes an individual never becomes a fully independent critical thinker. It's not like once we hit a certain age we all suddenly become fully competent at thinking for ourselves and adapting fully to our ever-changing societal standards.

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    1. So true. Thanks for your comment!

      I do want to add, though, that I am skeptical that the voices telling victims that they were at fault for "giving away their power" are in fact "fully independent critical thinkers." Rather, I think that their dismissiveness - and really, unthinking lack of compassion - stems from a deep defensiveness on their part. They want to shut out any possibility of identifying with someone who could be taken advantage of in this way. Why? There's something deep inside driving this insistence that they are invulnerable to any of these sorts of problems, and that any "grown-up" person would be too.

      None of us are really independent and invulnerable - that it a myth, particularly in American culture. And it's destructive in that it blocks insight, compassion, and discernment.

      That's not to say that we're all equally vulnerable to sexual abuse, of course. But, if we are not open enough to other people's realities, experiences, and personal histories to imagine why they might be so vulnerable, it speaks to deep insecurities of our own.

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  5. Thanks for this reasoned discussion of the power dynamics that seem to be such a part of the spiritual/yoga scene. This kind of abuse of power has always been a part of the culture, and as you say, none of us are completely immune. I also have a hard time with the victim blaming that was so prevalent during the heat of the JF scandal. Yes, it's true that many people who get involved in a spiritual community are looking for an authority figure to give them the answers, thus making them vulnerable, but the ultimate responsibility lies with the leader. Always.

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    1. Yes, thanks, Charlotte. We should not shy away from the "R" word - "responsibility." If you are going to take it upon yourself to be a yoga, meditation, spiritual, or religious teacher, you are shouldering a HUGE responsibility and none of us should let ANYONE off that hook.

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  6. And here we go again...Sometimes I just dismay at the sheer volume of sexual exploitation we read about these days (child pornography, trafficking, etc) and always somehow even more sad when perpetuated by those of power/authority/trust over vulnerable others - "for their own good." yuk. Or the perpetuaters/followers think: "they wanted it/they need it" (double yuk). Or worse still: the thought doesn't even cross their mind that they could be harming someone - perhaps at deepest levels: spiritual trust/self/world. Not to mention the ripples it seems to spill outward to future others from that moment of betrayal, as histories will attest. It happens in human authority/trust relationships everywhere: Catholic priests abusing parishioners and the leadership that covered it up, recent scandals at elite private schools where male teachers abused young male students, University sports programs (ex: Penn State), camp counselors, babysitters, beloved relatives, pyschiatrists 'crossing that line' with their patients...
    As I wrote regarding your post on Friend - A story as old as time.. unfortunately, and not one that should shock us - even as we are shocked. If only everyone were well-balanced, not needy, not vulnerable. If only everyone had good parents, a high self esteem, a sense of self worth and a lot of healthy relationships. But of course - that is not the case -

    But if all the news of sexual exploitation is depressing.. a profound silence would be even more so. A story as old as time..to be sure.. but now - better that we speak to it - rather than bow our heads in avoidance or disgust. It does - has - and will happen. We need to call it out when it does and move toward the Light of Knowing/Understanding rather than the dark of Ignorance/Fear.

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    1. Great to hear from you again!

      The question of to what extent the incidence of sexual abuse has increased in all these arenas you mention (as well as, of course others) - versus the extent to which we simply know more about what's happening now because it's being openly discussed rather than hushed up - is a disturbing, but important one. That said, it's impossible to know the answer to it, because until recently, people simply DID NOT TALK about this publicly.

      The question is then how to take this new openness and do something constructive with it. Because the steady stream of bad news can be SO depressing. You just feel like throwing in the towel on the human race. It can also generate a lot of furious anger toward men in general among women who have been hurt in some gender-related way (which is many, if not most) that is indiscriminate and destructive.

      I agree with your call then to move toward the light of knowing/understanding - although it can be very hard to accept and deal with in a positive way, that's the task we face if we want to move forward.

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    2. Yes, I actually don't believe the incidence of sexual abuse is on the rise.. As I said "tale as old as time..."
      But - as you point out - we ARE hearing about it more - given relaxed cultural/social mores on media reporting such topics, increased awareness/acceptance of topic as stories get out and shared, and cultural vindication (of sorts) when victims are heard and not blamed / and compensation won (in courts), and/or programs put in place to prevent. Certainly these "advances" are but a drop in the bucket given the scope of such abuse worldwide..but a drop in the bucket will draw other drops (ie: US news of abuse in catholic churches emboldens others in other countries to speak up or speak out..etc.) We must not grieve over the one drop for its paucity. But see it as a first "right" step. Nor wring our hands over "increased knowledge" of sexual abuse of power - in yoga communities or others.
      That was my point.. Though sad news when one hears of it, we must not avoid, nor turn away, nor make excuses. We must look these instances square in the eye - no matter how discomfiting.. For isn't this the essence of correct practice? To observe. (not to judge) To just observe at first. And then to take right action towards the victims..and the perpetrators. (for,if embroiled in such circumstances, are we not ALL victims and perpetrators in some sense?) It is not always comfortable to observe - if one observes oneself (yet again!) acting in anger, selfishness, or greed; drinking, smoking, or eating to cover pain; etc. etc. It is REALLY uncomfortable to observe sometimes... and yet on both micro (self) and macro (societal) levels - it is the first essential component toward change. It is the first step. Tale as Old as Time. But Evolving - as all things are always. And if we can manage our own personal (or societal) discomfort in observing (taking in news without a closed heart/mind of judgement) our response to sexual abuse may move ever more toward "Right Action" and not toward a deformed response to original "Wrong Action" (blame the victim, call the perpetrator "an aberration/monster," blame the group, blame the framework under which they meet, etc.).

      May our calm observation of "what is" open our eyes and our hearts.

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  7. nice article! but why the pic of Guru Nanak?

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    1. I figured that the vast majority of readers who have no clue that this is an image of a specific person. (I would not have myself.) I wanted something that symbolized a need to move on from fixed understandings of tradition. Having his hand up in that wave struck me a something of a wave goodbye and something of a benediction. And the background is very traditional, Eastern, and exotic to the Western eye. So it was supposed to symbolize a benevolent gesture toward moving onward into new territory.

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  8. Excellent analysis, constructive discussion.

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    1. Thanks for reading and commenting! Much appreciated.

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  9. Thank you for this excellent and insightful article, Carol. One of the best things I've ever read on this topic.

    Bob

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    1. Hi Bob - Glad that you're still in the blog loop here; always great to hear from you.

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  10. "new methods of teaching and learning that are rooted in democratic values"...would seem to eliminate the power head or guru element.If there is no deviant power tripper then no one gets hurt.

    Democracy; a group comes together and appoints a governing body of the people to serve the people.

    How will the disparate spiritual seekers come together? Not an argument but samskara. :)

    I have been sexually or emotionally preyed upon by men in power several times. Most of them were doctors. I deflected their advances and their bullshit but I never pressed charges. I understand how women can be subjugated by a complicity between themselves and culture. I knew my complaints would go nowhere. However, I recognized a predator and ran.

    So while cutting off the head controls the problem, what is interesting is the disfunction of ego or emotion or self awareness that allows us, men and women, to be victims. I am no psychologist but for me, this is and has been the problem and the question.

    Is this our nature? And does enlightenment mean evolving that? Big questions and glad you are instigating them.

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    1. Important questions with no easy answers.

      Without the charismatic leader to inspire and build a circle of followers, how do we come together?

      Here's two ideas: 1) we can still have inspiring leaders, but situate them within structures where there are checks and balances on their power. Some progressive-minded people are doing this already - they set up their own balance of power system without giving up the leadership role.

      2) have enough of a critical mass of good teachers with something to offer than together they form an enticing package deal. I think many yoga studios do this successfully to some extent. But it would be cool to see more co-teaching models develop and move out beyond asana.

      This is difficult financially, however, as there are more people to coordinate and ask for their time but not much if any more money to compensate them with. (This just sabotaged a "21st Century Yoga" co-teaching event that I hoped would happen.)

      Another question you raise is: even if you prevent the abuses from occurring, how do you address the underlying vulnerabilities that are still there?

      My view would be that these problems arise primarily due to problems in past relationships, usually within the family of origin. The more that there could be a community forum for building healthier relationship patterns, the more healing this would be.

      That said, some people are going to seek out and find an authoritarian guru no matter what. And who knows, some of them may benefit from that at least for some period in their lives. But no one benefits from continued abuse and violation of trust. So, even in the absence of democratic structure, there can still be much more and much less supportive and healing environments created.

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    2. Physician heal thyself, Dr. Horton. You've been one of the most consistent -- and shameless -- intellectual apologists for American yoga in recent years. It's rather hard to take your faux-disgust with a straight face? I suspect that you've been naively hoping against hope that these unpleasant "episodes" which merely reflect the deep pathologies in the yoga movement will somehow disappear in a hail of feel good propaganda, including your own. This is the Janus face of yoga - always has been, always will be, I think. It's endemic to the very enterprise. There are a lot of healing modalities out there besides yoga, and it's time that people implicated in the yoga industry stopped pretending that they were the "first among equals" - largely due to their own eager marketing.

      If we eliminated those inherently dark aspects of Eastern yoga that probably don't belong in the West anyway - call it, for a lack of a better word, the Tantra -- it might be possible to have it evolve into something other than an ever-looming public health epidemic.

      How much did you discuss these aspects in your book celebrating 21st century yoga as the greatest thing known to man (and woman) since the vacuum cleaner?

      If yogis don't want to consistently write about yoga's long shadow, those who've all but sold their souls to yoga are likely to keep living in this shadow.

      You might start by writing honestly about your own guru, Anna Forrest? Or are you too much of a Guardian to see straight?

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    3. SJL: Why don't you read "21st Century Yoga" yourself and see? My answering that question for you certainly won't hold any water on your end.

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    4. Stewart J. LawrenceFebruary 16, 2013 at 1:00 PM

      I tried. It's unreadable. I was hoping against hope that you might bring serious scholarship to the topic. There's time - you're young.

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    5. I would gently suggest that a determined effort to define any highly diverse philosophical or spiritual movement only by its worst aspects is every bit as misleading and untruthful as ignoring or whitewashing those aspects. Carol's approach, refreshingly, shows greater intellectual and spiritual sophistication and wisdom that either of these extremes.

      Most of us certainly don't agree with any of your characterizations of her work. 21st Century Yoga is a collection of many writers, not Carol. For a more in depth view of her own personal encounter with yoga, I highly recommend her own memoir: Yoga PH.D. http://yogaphd.com/

      Bob

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