Originally posted March 16, 2012
Also published on elephantjournal.com under the name "The Cult of Personality: Sex, Evolution & The Death of Guruism"
Yes, yes, yes…another article deconstructing the John Friend/Anusara yoga sex scandal. But not really. My focus is less on Mr. Friend specifically and more on the bigger picture and forces at play. Like any painful episode in our lives (and any pleasurable one for that matter), I try to look beyond the circumstances, avoid playing the ‘blame game’ and peer into the heart of what’s happening on a deeper level and, hopefully, discover the lesson to take away from the experience.
The title of this article is not meant to make light of recent events. During my time as a yoga teacher, I knew many good people who taught in the Anusara style and they positively influenced me. I am sorry for those who are suffering the loss of their spiritual foundation and wish healing both for them and for Mr. Friend. Elena Brower, one of the former senior level teachers of Anusara, put it eloquently in her recent article in the Huffington Post when she said, “Now I stand for forgiveness, and the possibility that John can deliver, one by one, the necessary well-wrought apologies. That he can true up his past and truly heal -- in honor of his family, his school, his teachers, and his students.”
When the story first hit mainstream media, William J. Broad of the NY Times proposed that it was Hatha yoga’s ability to heighten sexual experience by making the “pelvic regions…more sensitive and orgasms more intense”, as well as its original intention to “speed the Tantric agenda”, that lead to a myriad of sexual indiscretions in the yogic world. He goes on to rail against ancient Tantric practices, noting that “the rites of Tantric cults, while often steeped in symbolism, could also include group and individual sex. One text advised devotees to revere the female sex organ and enjoy vigorous intercourse. Candidates for worship included actresses and prostitutes, as well as the sisters of practitioners.” To suggest it was some sort of spiritually-induced Viagra that lead to Mr. Friend’s unmaking is (how to put this tactfully) dumb as hell. (Side rant: Seriously dude. Thanks for contributing another layer of shame to our already closeted sexual expression, especially that related to feminine desire).
Maia Szalavitz from Time challenges his argument, stating that many men in positions of power, from John Kennedy to Newt Gingrich (neither of them yoga gurus), have used their status as a means to commit sexual impropriety. She concludes by noting that the issue at hand revolves less around uncontrollable arousal and more around “men, women and power.”
I lean heavily in favor of Ms. Szalavitz’s perspective on the issue with one minor adjustment: I think this goes beyond sex and money and men and women and is simply a matter of power—specifically of people choosing to give their minds over to someone or something outside of themselves so that they don’t have to think or wrestle with difficult decisions. Some people also choose to hand over their power in an effort to gain approval and to feel like they belong somewhere.
Why do we do this? For all the noise we make about our ‘freedoms’ and ‘rights’ and how we want to be ‘masters of our own destinies’, we tend to choose bondage more often than not. The bottom line answer is FEAR. We fear the unknown, and so we make up excuses as to why we don’t need to venture out into it. We fear our own power and the level of responsibility that comes with that, and so we make up stories about how we are victims and how ‘other people’ have left us powerless. We fear that which we can not explain, and so we make up gods or adhere to oversimplified dogma to make sense of it all. We fear being alone or cast out of society, and so we morph ourselves into people so far removed from who we really are in order to feel loved and accepted.
I say all of this not out of scorn or condemnation, but in utter compassion. I can understand why we do these things, for I have done them many times myself. It keeps us feeling safe and sane. It’s a way to get our immediate needs met. It’s a survival mechanism.
And it is evolutionarily outdated. There was a time when most human beings’ daily focus was to survive—like for real. As in, we were going to freeze to death or be a hungry lion’s dinner if we didn’t build a tight shelter or make some serious weapons. The daily grind didn’t consist of a bagel and a subway ride to the cubicle, but of hard labor in the hot sun and a 3-mile-long walk to the closest water source. So when weird, mysterious shit happened, like eclipses and droughts, and someone told us the way to protect ourselves was by following some code or set of rules, we did it because our lives were on the line. Not many people had the time to focus on figuring out scientific phenomena, since the majority of the day was dedicated to serving the basic needs of food, water, procreation and excretion. And if we questioned the status quo, we faced the possibility of banishment, which wasn’t just about hurting our feelings, but could be a death sentence. The family unit was our tribe—our protection against outside threats. Homeostasis kept us alive.
Fast forward a few hundred years and up a few levels on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Now we don’t need to hunt and gather for our next meal—we can just pick up the phone and call the local Chinese delivery guy. Clean water flows from indoor taps just a few feet from where I’m sitting. Heating and air conditioning keep us from dealing with harsh climates. We can hop on a plane and arrive (relatively) comfortably anywhere in the world within twenty-four hours. The world is connected in ways we have never experienced through the internet and knowledge is shared in the click of a mouse. We find Toyota, Apple and Coca-Cola even in the poorest of countries.
Yes, I am aware that a startling number of the world’s population continues to live in abject poverty. However, this is not for lack of resources or technology, but is a result of the very fear of which I speak. This fear that tells us food and love and money and sex and safety are scare. This is the fear that drives our greed, our hoarding, our need for approval, our instinct to kill the competition, to cling to homeostasis and color within the lines. The fear created by what Seth Godin calls the ‘lizard brain.’
And the way we often appease the lizard brain is by finding a home for its fear within structure and sticking to that. Giving over responsibility for our thoughts and our psychic growth to something outside of ourselves. It’s a lot easier (and less messy) than actually thinking for ourselves and making big, public belly flops while trying to discover our authentic voice. But soon we begin to identify with this external structure and even idolize it, looking past any warning signs that may suggest that the façade hides a lack of integrity. And, to me, it is this identification, idolization and dependence on validation given to something outside of ourselves that makes something a ‘cult.’
When most people think of a cult, the images that usually pop up are of secret sex clubs, human sacrifices, spaceships and Kool-Aid induced mass suicides. And in Mr. Broad’s NY Times article, he was quick to dismiss the validity of Hatha yoga based on his judgment that it was a spin-off of a ‘Tantric cult.’ However, my belief is that we are surrounded by thought-replacement machines—many have simply passed the tipping point of social acceptability, and so we give them names like religion (the Bible tells me so), media (CNN tells me so) and celebrity (Paris Hilton tells me so). You have people addicted to diet cults (Atkins says I can’t eat this), beauty cults (I have to have this kind of mascara/haircut/designer outfit) and political cults (I will only vote for this candidate because he/she is Republican/Democrat/Libertarian/Green).
You get the idea.
And there exists a certain breed of people just as insecure and afraid of their shadows as we are. But their way of managing the lizard brain is through surrounding themselves with worshippers to make up for their lack of self-confidence. Whether the number of ‘devotees’ be one or one million, it doesn’t really matter. In Brooks Hall’s recent elephantjournal.com article, she quotes The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power by saying that a guru is “a metaphor for anyone who manipulates under the guise of ‘knowing what’s best’ for them, whether leaders, mothers, or lovers.” She goes on to say that since many of us grew up in authoritarian homes, we had to depend on some ‘other’ to make decisions for us and consequently are “crippled by self-mistrust.”
And this is why it is so common for us to turn a blind eye to our own personal ‘cults’ when we know in our deepest core we are living a life out of integrity from what we really want. Our desires are clouded with this self-mistrust, lizard-brain fear and samsaric grooves so deep that we don’t even think to question the status quo.
Please note that I am not saying there is anything wrong with any of the aforementioned groups. We also don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Jesus had some pretty cool things to say. Media keeps us relatively well-informed of current events. Wanting to wear the latest designer dress doesn’t make you a mindless, Barbie-automaton. And I do hope that the wisdom within Anusara yoga finds its place. But it is when we abdicate our power and personal authority to these ‘cults’ and to the ‘gurus’ that run them that things get dicey. The band Living Colour put it perfectly in their song ‘Cult of Personality,’ when they sang “You gave me fortune/You gave me fame/ You gave power in your God’s name.”
And now, in a totally transparent moment of irony, I am going to quote the Buddha. He says, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” This is a teaching that resonates deeply with me on many levels. First it acknowledges the Buddha’s own humanity. He doesn’t claim to be one ‘who knows best’ and levels the playing field by standing next to his students, rather than reigning supreme over them. Second, it creates the space for multiple perspectives and for the possibility that all of them are equally valid (which, for me, is a huge indicator of spiritual evolution). And finally, it offers us the freedom to experiment with life. Rather than taking what we see and hear at face value, we now have permission to go out, test it, make stupid-ass mistakes, learn and create—for it is oftentimes in our ‘mistakes’ that we make fantastic discoveries beyond our imagination, which contributes to the evolution of humanity.
And so, this is our challenge as a species. To grow. To evolve. To think for ourselves and ask the tough questions like “Who am I?” and “What do I want?” And it will be through this rigorous inquiry (and very many dark nights of the soul, no doubt) that we can begin to walk more confidently through life, ok with who we are and without the need to try to force others to be something they are not. Then, hopefully, the prevalence of ‘cults’ and ‘gurus’ will fall away. We will simply see each other as people and things like yoga and religion and culture won’t be ideologies we fight over, but edges we are curious to explore. Teachers won’t be omniscient gods we worship, but ordinary human like us who maybe a have a different perspective and a few extra years of experience. We will participate in a free exchange of ideas. If a teaching resonates with you, great! Add it to your toolbox. If not, drop it. It may not serve you, but it might prove invaluable to someone else on their journey.
Ultimately it’s up to us whether or not we choose a life of freedom or of bondage. Freedom is certainly not an easy pursuit (I am certainly far from achieving it), but it seems the only satisfying way for me to live now. Each day I meet my fear and each day it is a practice to listen to ‘the one who knows’ who lives in my heart. But if each of us begins to play for our own personal freedom, then maybe the gurus of old will no longer need to act like they have all the answers, but can offer true guidance inspired by Living Colour’s words, “You won’t have to follow me/Only you can set you free.”