Abuse in spiritual circles

Following what goes on elsewhere on this world and the ‘integral Blogosphere’ in my German blog on June 12th I published a post called “Houston, we’ve got a problem”.
It is clear that abuse by spiritual leaders & gurus is a difficult topic; one that raises eyebrows and much more than that. And whoever raises this topic has got to deal not only with applause from all kinds of quarters that one surely doesn’t want it from, critique and stunning silence from quarters that one would like to have emotional support from, and the accusation that it is actually all about oneself and one’s immature look on things.

So let’s take it from the beginning: On my travels in the internet I stumbled on this piece of info “Cohen Collaborator Gafni Removed For Sexual Misconduct“. It is about Rabbi Gafni, a much celebrated spokesman of the Jewish Renewal movement, who also is in high esteem of Ken Wilber and prominently featured in his Integral Institute (I-I). The sexual misconduct (abuse) is not just one of these Internet-rumours, it is a fact that has been admitted openly by Gafni himself: He writes: “Clearly all of this and more indicates that in these regards I am sick. I need to acknowledge that sickness and to get help for it.” I find that courageous, and want to honor him for that.
What struck me, though, was that even now his work is still plugged on the I-I site with such works as “The Mystery of Love”, “The Ultimate Erotic Art” or “The Kabbalah of Surrender”. I don’t mean to say that theses teachings are not valid regarded on their own. But it does seem a bit – tasteless? Especially to the women who have been at the receiving end of the ‘misconduct’.

Also on the same I-I website there is a lengthy discussion about ‘integral ethics’ between Wilber and Roger Walsh which I found quite inspiring at the time I listened to it. So what then to think of Ken Wilbers reaction in his blog to the case of Gafni? It has ten numbered paragraphs. In #1 he says that indeed something happened that is not quite kosher. And in #2 he immediatly starts bashing the ‘mean green meme’ people for how they react pathologically. In #3 he says that Gafnis behaviour is pathological (something strange between the order of pathologies here, don’t you think?) to then says in #4 that Gafni has admitted to being sick in his letter. In #5 Wilber states that Gafni therefor is not fit as a teacher at the Integral Center until he has undergone therapy (which makes me wonder all the more how he is still fit to teach, for instance, “The Kabbalah of Surrender” at I-I). In #6 to #9 the therapy is thouroughly mentioned, and in #10 Wilber is saying that Gafni should nevertheless be allowed to write. And finally, in the very last paragraph of his statement Wilber finds words for the women, saying that his heart goes out to them.
I do understand, and appreciate Ken Wilber’s support for his friend Marc Gafni. Nevertheless it seems to me that mentioning these women only at the very end says something about ‘integral ethics’ in the practise of one of its proponents.
Maybe I wouldn’t have spent this much time on this happening if it wouldn’t have coincided with reading extended reports by former students of Andrew Cohen about his teaching-methods. Sure, ex-students can and will reinterpret what happened for them, once they leave their teacher behind, and not always fevourable. But what is astonishing is both the consistency of these renderings and the loving way in which most still regard their former teacher. These are, among others, stories (undenied by the defenders of ‘the faith’) of Cohen ordering senior students to slap others in the face as hard as they could for being ‘ego-ruled’ or other things that he didn’t see fit in his community, extorting great sums of money from people in deep distress, sending a student to a prostitute against his will, forcing a father to tell his teeange daughter about the sexual escapades of his mother from long years back to break her attachement to her, and so endlessly on. And all of this, you could have guessed, to help his students overcome the ‘ego’. (And Andrew Cohen is a good buddy of Ken Wilber who, remember, doesn’t have a problem in severly criticising the ‘mean green meme’ for reacting pathologically to the Gafni-incident; there does seem a great difference of ethical standards at work here which I, and maybe that’s my fault, have not found a way to reconcile).

And the story goes on: Wilber is not only criticised for being buddy-pal of Andrew Cohen but also by many others for flaws in his work. And recently he has greatly ranted “Wyatt Earp style” – his way of headlining his verbal bashing: The Unbearable Lightness of Wyatt Earp – against his critcs. Then he explains it away in “On the Nature of Shadow Projections in Forums” where he says (quite rightly, I think) that if something hurts us it is because there is a disowned part of us projected out there. But let’s look at this matter in a simpler way.

If I slap you in the face, and then say that you respond angrily because you project your shadow on me, than not only am I right, of course, because the anger is in you after all, but I am also being very nasty at the same time if I am an authority (rightly or wrongly) to you. Because deep down you know I’m right and are thus utterly helpless. The Wilber question is in this case, “Are you mature enough to get my lesson?” If you are, you didn’t need it. And if you aren’t, not only will you not get get my meaning this way but you will probably also be estranged enough to henceforth scheme behind my back to slap me back in some way.

Well, all of this looks confusingly (not convincingly!) abusive to me. I can’t understand this anymore. Here is Ken Wilber pleading for his friend Gafni: Give him a chance to rehabilitate. Then Ken Wilber has no problem whatsoever in supporting a guru that is very clearly quite violent in his teaching methods. And now he strikes out with verbal furor against his critics (punching some old friend, Frank Visser, wickedly hard who has the audacity to be a harbour to critiques of his work he doesn’t approve of – read Visser’s answer here) and then blames the people who cry ‘ouch’ for projection their shadow on his rant. (An insightful comment on the cultic attitude of Wilber in this regard here)
It is too early for any kind of conclusive learning from this situation for me. But it seems to be time to question the basic teachings where such behaviour comes from. As it looks to me these are the top 4 questions on my agenda:

  • What is the effect of the prolonged distancing of the observer (“I am not his body; I am not these feelings; I am not these thoughts; etc”), the prolonged ‘neutral witnessing’ of the phenomena inside/outside in a ‘mirror of pure consciousness’?
  • What is the effect of the trans-ethical’ stance that regards all human values as merely relative, and only the Spirit as absolute?
  • Are so called higher levels of evolution (yellow, turquoise etc. in SDi language as used by Wilber and his adherents) right in using all kinds of violence to raise lower levels up to their standard?
  • Is the non-participatory nature of the ‘pure witness’ in situations and phenomena in ‘the world’ – which will eventually dissolve according to Wilber et al in non-dual One Taste – maybe a cause for the kind of abuse we have recently seen in the integral world of Ken Wilber?

7 Replies to “Abuse in spiritual circles”

  1. Dear Mushin, here is an article from the WE? site on how nondual teachings can be understood – and misunderstood.

    http://whatenlightenment.blogspot.com/2006/03/some-common-misunderstandings-of-two.html

    It is no accident that traditionally, nonduality material was only supposed to be taught to qualified persons who had made a commitment to use the material honestly for facing the present moment, and not use the teachings to support dissociation /denial/trivialization of pain.

    The qualified person had also made a commitment to live ethically, which meant never to abuse nonduality philosophy to justify false arguments that ethics are irrelevant or that ‘enlightened teachers’ are beyond the judgement of ordinary folk.

    Here is a personal hunch. I am wondering whether many of us come to Asian spirituality carrying feelings of personal shame. Some of us may leave Christianity because it contstantly triggers our shame and gives so few ways to investigate this.

    The Asian spiritualities offer a wealth of ways to investigate painful states of mind.

    But-some dont want to stay close enough to their personal pain and shame to investigate thier roots. Instead, they may be attracted to teachers who offer distorted applicatoins of nonduality for narcotic purposes.

    One common trap is to feel we have reached nondual realization just by mastering certain philosophical/rhetorical evasion tricks. We become verbal escape artists, using nonduality to trivialize any situation that is too painful for our liking.

    The distorted applications of nonduality turn it into a mind game that gives quick relief from shame by trivializing situations of which we feel ashamed, letting us argue that all this is illusion or that its the other persons’s fault.

    This type of sophisticated rationalization can give a kind of intellectual orgasm and a rush of power that’s seductive. If it causes other persons to go off balance the power-rush can be even sweeter.

    If we dont have the nerve to behave this way ourselves, we can get a vicarious thrill from cheering when someone else gets away with these word-games. Some of us cheer for favorite gurus the way others are current cheering for their nation’s soccer teams in the World Cup.

    The test of practice is whether one feels distant from/superior to others, rather than feeling deeply connected with all beings.

    Without kindness, without empathy, it may be that nondual realization may have dazzling ‘ice palace’ quality but may lead to an individual becoming verbally adept, socially charismatic but chillingly indifferent to the pain of other persons.

    The person can hide the heartlessness behind a facade of brilliance but the lack of heart comes out when someone reports they are in pain–especially if they report harm from a guru!

    The test of any spiritual practice and spiritual community is to witness how they deal with vulnerability–particularly Buddha’s Big Three of Sickness, Old Age and death.

    If a guru prefers the company of young, attractive, vibrant persons, if persons who report illness or relationship betrayal are jeered at and ridiculed for being inferior enough to feel pain and bleed–

    that’s a sign that a community’s spiritual practice and nonduality are being employed in a dissociative, pain-avoidant manner.

    A teacher who has this kind of vulnerability-avoidant/pain-avoidant bias may be quite brilliant and even helpful here and there.

    But the risk is that this persons’s teachings could cause students to take on the pain avoidant biases of the teacher. They may grow in certain areas but not in others.

    Worse, talents in one area may conceal an ongoing heartlessness. Over time this difference may become more severe. A practitioner may feel more need to cling to areas where he or she feels strong, and more and more fearful and avoidant of the heart/vulnerability dimension which has been neglected.

    (No need for a prompt reply. All this is complex)

  2. Dear Soba,

    thank you for the link. I can now access that discussion.

    I like this: “Its up to the practitioner whether to use the teachings to assist in facing the present moment, or using them to dissociate from the present moment.”

    There seems to be an easy element of dissociation available in how the Dharma is being taught here in the West, and maybe it is also in the mixture with Advaita-Vedanta as it is being made popular by Stasang teachers, etc.

    I guess the notion of group-pressures at work – in how to interpret one’s experiences is important in regards to what is going on with Wilber etc.

    But in my view, more and more it is the art and science of being simply present, and what has traditionally and in the modern world come out of this in teachings and methods that needs a close examination.

    As with the 4 questions I’m looking at closely in my life and thinking I keep stumbling on the notion that what seems to be lacking in the ‘old school’ of spirituality is something like ‘participatory presence”. There seems to be something very dissociative (a word in English?) in the ‘mirrorlike presence’, and not only there but in the whole path as it is being taught mostly (as far as I know).

    Much Love,
    Mushin

  3. Dear Mushin you may be able to access the second Integral Naked discussion thread by going to the What Enlightenment? site

    http://whatenlightenment.blogspot.com/

    then go to the right hand side bar with the list of links. There’s one for the discussion thread on the old IN naked forum. Its the one I tried to copy.

    Dharma practice doesnt have to be an ‘opiate of the people.’

    Its up to the practitioner whether to use the teachings to assist in facing the present moment, or using them to dissociate from the present moment, just the way one can use food to refresh and enliven body and mind, or gorge oneself into a stupor.

    If you guys want a terrific book which grapples with ways Buddhist teachings are supposed to serve compassion and social justice and ways these teachings can be perverted to deny pain, ignore injustice and shut down compassion, go get a copy of Stephen Asma’s book The Gods Drink Whiskey. Asma taught Buddhism at a school in Cambodia. He lived in an entire nation traumatized by genocide.

    Asma’s book is very entertaining and it corrects a lot of common misunderstandings of Dharma–and introduces the reader to some wonderful people–and some wonderful books.

  4. Hi Mushin,

    I too wonder. Thanks for asking the tough questions here.

    I also loved Soba’s response. My gut tells me that Soba is onto something in terms of the following analysis:

    “One has the thrill of feeling special, a community of like minded folk is available to validate ones escape, and one gets to dissociate from painful situations and feel powerful by classifying them according the whatever catagory is fashionable at the moment.

    This community appears to thrill to powerthe power of maps, the power of assigning catagories, the power of gurus.

    Rather than equipping practitioners to face their anxieties, this system may a way to avoid pain by exercising intellectual power.

    It may be that persons already in flight from the pain and vulnerability of being human are attracted to this material and that practicing these methods entrenches this predisposition, rather than assisting them to recognize it.”

    Thank you both.

    With Respect,
    David Jon

  5. Dear Soba,

    thank you for your comment to my questions. It’s a pity that I can’t get contact with the second link you provide as I would have loved to see this discussion unfold, and the responses of people.

    A long time ago I realized that I was on my spiritual journey to reach just such a lofty state as my ‘heroes’ because I wanted to be invulnerable. That stopped some of my crazyness and my nullafying (is that a word in English?) of my knowing how vulnerable I sometimes am, but it didn’t make me see through the what the teaching transports: A paradox!

    Here is a rendering of it:
    “There is no difference between the ordinary mind and Buddha Mind.” This is a statement by Zen Master Bankei. But I could use quite a few other from the canon of ‘perennial philosophy’ which Ken Wilber and Cohen and many, if not all of the modern Masters or Enlightened uphold as true. Now then that would mean that there is no difference between THAT (I’ll use this expression to signify the Buddha Mind, the Non-Dual, the Absolute, etc.) in an enlightened being and the victim of abuse. Actually it would mean, if the Enlightened One honors THAT – and that is an assumption, of course, as he might not honor it – he would also do so honor THAT in the victim, which would be the basis of compassion.
    If we assume this is somewhat true than either abusive teachers are not grounded in what they claim to be grounded in or there is something untrue about this teaching.

    I have suggested in my German Blog that maybe in Advaita, Buddhism etc. we are dealing with a ancient extacy producing technique and a teaching that comes from an old patriarchal society (this would account for the harsh treatment in all these traditions, so your thought of a narcotic might be not so far of the mark (although I find this too similar to the old Marxist adagio of religion as the opiate of the people). Nevertheless I think it is quite okay to honor this teaching as a long time companion of humans in their development from per-egoic times (some 7000 years ago) to what we are now – moving towards a democracy in heaven?: See “Why God does not need a Throne” which marks the beginning of my development in this direction). So it has served as as a repository of the ‘spiritual’ as ‘astrology & alchemy’ are precursors to (trans-)psychology.

    So yes, I do think that the Wilberian adaption of perennial bullshit tranbsports something of the old patriarchal partyline… or to but it more flippantly, “I don’t want to be integrated without being consulted!” …

    Much Love,
    Mushin

  6. I have wondered whether Wilber’s belief system has the effect of distancing its practitioners from their sense of human vulnerability by serving as a kind of narcotic. One has the thrill of feeling special, a community of like minded folk is available to validate one’s escape, and one gets to dissociate from painful situations and feel powerful by classifying them according the whatever catagory is fashionable at the moment.

    This community appears to thrill to power–the power of maps, the power of assigning catagories, the power of gurus.

    Rather than equipping practitioners to face their anxieties, this system may a way to avoid pain by exercising intellectual power.

    It may be that persons already in flight from the pain and vulnerability of being human are attracted to this material and that practicing these methods entrenches this predisposition, rather than assisting them to recognize it.

    The interested reader should go to both of Wilber’s Integral Naked sites

    (new version)
    http://in.integralinstitute.org/public/forums

    and the older site that gives this thread discussion of Wilber and Cohen

    http://integralnaked.org/forum/tm.asp?m=33803&p=1&mpage=1&tmode=1&smode=1&key=&language=&cookieCheck=888943458

    Take the time to read these threads and see how many of the correspondants quickly avoid the pain by taking quick refuge in hyper intellectualization. Very few are able to stay focused on such matters as cruely, harm being done, betrayal, and ethical issues.

    Underneath it all, there seems a deficiency of kindness, of metta. Saddest of all, the deficiency is rationalized as evidence that one is becoming more highly evolved.

    I’ve wondered whether in this circle, one way to prove you’re becoming highly evolved is to defend the crazy cruel behavior of certain enlightened teachers. That way, you get to participate in their specialness. One doesnt even have to live under the authority of these people–all one has to do is stand at a safe distance and prove one’s high state of evolution by defending the right of gurus to do as they please and to see beauty in behavior that ordinary unevolved peasants consider cruel and crude.

    So it seems high time to ask, Mushin has done these four questions:

    **What is the effect of the prolonged distancing of the observer (I am not his body; I am not these feelings; I am not these thoughts; etc),

    **the prolonged neutral witnessing of the phenomena inside/outside in a mirror of pure consciousness?
    What is the effect of the trans-ethical stance that regards all human values as merely relative, and only the Spirit as absolute?

    **Are so called higher levels of evolution (yellow, turquoise etc. in SDi language as used by Wilber and his adherents) right in using all kinds of violence to raise lower levels up to their standard?

    **Is the non-participatory nature of the pure witness in situations and phenomena in the world – which will eventually dissolve according to Wilber et al in non-dual One Taste – maybe a cause for the kind of abuse we have recently seen in the integral world of Ken Wilber?

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