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Beware the Guru

Beware the Guru

by AYS Founder James Brown

Note: This article was written in February 2013, shortly after the Vatican’s announcement that Pope Benedict would be stepping down. A highly edited version of it was published on The Huffington Post in May of last year. We are re-posting it now, as a UN panel investigating torture questions a Vatican envoy on the church’s response to reports of sexual abuse.

“I’ll tell you”, said she, in the same hurried passionate whisper “what real love is. It is blind devotion, unquestioning self-humiliation, utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole world, giving up your heart and soul to the smiter”. ―Miss Havisham, from Charles Dickens “Great Expectations”

When you believe against yourself, in favor of the object of your devotion, as Havashim did, you’re likely already doomed. Yet, there is something about many of us that seeks something perfect, whether it’s a lover, a guru, or a celebrity. We cling to this idea that, somewhere in nature, is an all-good, perfectly benevolent being.

Equating true love with blind devotion did not work out very well for Miss Havisham, nor does it tend to end well for the rest of us. When you believe against yourself, in favor of the object of your devotion, as Havashim did, you’re likely already doomed. Yet, there is something about many of us that seeks something perfect, whether it’s a lover, a guru, or a celebrity. We cling to this idea that, somewhere in nature, is an all-good, perfectly benevolent being.

Ultimately, though, we find that this fantasy being does not exist, as did the subjects of HBO’s new documentary: Maxima Mea Culpa: Silence in the House of God. It chronicles, in horrifying detail, and from the point of view of the victims, what can happen when we tell ourselves that some people are beyond reproach.

With most spiritual practices, there are those who inhabit roles of authority. They are there to teach by example and to show us how to live. We exalt those who fill the roles, in part, because endorsing them validates us. And, since they will presumably satisfy our desire to understand the workings of the universe and our places in it, we sometimes entrust our paths to them, and that is where the trouble often starts. History is rife with examples of the misery that ensues when we blindly surrender our spiritual paths to other people.

Within the culture that allowed men to molest children with impunity, priests were held in such high regard that questioning their godliness was rejected as un-Catholic. Anything else would demolish the hierarchical worldview of congregant to clergy to God. One striking scene in the documentary shows a victim arguing with a defender of his molester. The victim implores her to understand why the former priest must go to jail, as the defender insists that it is anti-Catholic to suggest such a thing. To her, whatever happened couldn’t have been rape, because a man of the cloth did it.

The need to believe in the benevolence of clergy can be so consuming that even the victims sometimes struggle to keep their victimizers in high regard. One of them said that he, as a child, felt special because the pastor had chosen him, out of all the many boys, as the object of his molestations. Even in the boy’s eyes, priests couldn’t be cruel.

A less well-known example of blindness to the guru is that of Pattabhi Jois, the Indian yoga teacher who introduced Ashtanga Yoga, a popular and athletic form of practice, for several decades before his death in 2009. He was, by many accounts, a brilliant teacher, lauded as a pioneer whose teachings have improved countless lives, including my own. Yet, it is equally true that his libido hadn’t been supplanted with chastity. This was often publicly displayed, as in a widely circulated photograph of him giving a hands-on adjustment that is unnecessary at best. In it, he has each of his middle fingers firmly and simultaneously planted upon the most private parts of two women. I’ve done the same pose a thousand times, and I have taught it for years. There is no good reason to touch there.
When I saw that picture, I posted it on my Facebook page, asking if it was really him, my teacher’s teacher. It was. Right away, several of my colleagues demanded that I remove it, saying that it was disrespectful of me to publish such a thing. I was disappointed that the perverse placement of his hands was ignored, while sharing the picture was considered heretical. But it got worse.

In response to the post, a long-time student of Jois did something similar to the defenders of the molesting clergy. She conjectured that the accusations of his inappropriateness came mostly from women with histories of abuse. She wrote, “I think it’s unfair to post a picture when you don’t really know” And, “Ever meet a women who was raped or molested as a child? I was not. When Guruji (Jois) adjusted me, I experienced it as from a clean place. I met women who experienced it differently and who had a previous experience – which gave them an entirely different spin on being touched.” With that, she not only redefines an imprisonable offense as a misperception by those who feel unclean, she also preserves her own constructed reality about the goodness of the finger-banging guru. I am neither a woman nor a victim of sexual abuse, yet I find it disgusting.

How does perception of another person become so skewed that we are incapable of seeing their shortfalls? Yoga philosophy provides a handy vocabulary that puts it in context. The framework is made up of five kleshas, or pains from disease. Viewed through this lens, our tendency to assign super-human qualities to mortal beings begins, along with a whole slew of other painful experiences, when we lose faith in our own personal access to the divine. In the system of yoga, this ignorance of the true self, called avidya, or not seeing, is considered to be the root of all human suffering.

When we disconnect from the infinite, we forget who we are and then have to fill the vacuum that is left where the self once was. So, we replace it with a manufactured ego-self, called asmita- or, the I-maker. Asmita replaces your vast, timeless inner being with a finite version of you, made of thoughts, relationships, and things. Because this new self is made up of constituents of the manifest world, it is highly unstable and ultimately unreliable. So, we do everything we can to shore it up.

Once that facade of a self is in place, we become attracted and attached (raga) to those things that support the new self-made identity. Likewise, any perceived threat to the ego-self is repelled; this tendency is called (dvesha). These forces of attraction and repulsion can compel us to insist that our identified master is good, that the priest only molests the special ones, and that identifying the guru’s touch as inappropriate is all a misunderstanding. Otherwise we would have to confront the truth that we’ve put our faith in the wrong place.

Finally, after dividing the world up into those things that support the ego-construct and those that could destroy it, we tenaciously adhere (abhinivesha) to the whole house of cards because we know that the entire thing, built upon an illusion as a response to our loss of access to the true self, cannot exist beyond the duration of the body’s life. So, now, instead of being enlightened, we are tense and scared, or just blissfully ignorant.

In this context, we can see how and why we seek out seemingly unflawed people. And the attempts to rationalize or cover up their harmful actions makes a bit more sense, as efforts to protect the ego-self. Deep down we all know that, if we condemn the priest or spiritual teacher, the middleman that represents our conduit to eternity, we are eternally screwed. So, we make up anything to keep the priest holy and to keep the guru enlightened. The worst damage is done when we shift our worldview to an inaccurate, binary viewpoint of godlike beings and the rest of us slackers.

We’d learn more about ourselves if the we seek teachers who are people, just like us, but with a bit more knowledge and experience. That would prevent the pitfalls of guru-worship and it would empower the student to see an achievable path for themselves. And it allows the teacher to make some mistakes without risking dismissal. In that context, we can honor Pattabhi Jois for creating a brilliant method of practice, while agreeing that his own teaching methodology had some weaknesses. With a figure like Lance Armstrong, humanizing him might let us reject his cheating with cycling, but continue to honor his cheating of cancer, for which he did raise half a billion dollars. And Pope Benedict, who has had access to more information about allegations of priest-abuse than any other person in the church’s history, can still teach us something.

By abdicating his papacy, Pope Benedict may have done something truly revolutionary: he said he was a tired old man. Although many believe he is closer than any of us to God, he behaved as a human being Monday and recognized that he is too old and feeble to do his job well. In a way, he professionalized and modernized the office of the pope by leaving it. His decision to hand over the reins invites respect for a man, rather than the more traditional worship of a pope as superhuman. Yet, when lightning struck Saint Peter’s on the same day, a photo of it went viral,
presumably as a sign of God’s fury at the pope’s act of humanness.

The best teachers are the ones who don’t pretend to be anything but human. And the spiritual guides who are most worthy of respect are the ones that show us how to find the infinite from within a finite, human existence. If they take advantage of their role, and of our tendency to look away when they falter, by indulging their potential to harm, they have a long way to go before they deserve to lead. If, as yoga philosophy would have it, all human suffering is based on blindness to reality, we move further away from liberation when we exalt any human as anything other than human, as Havisham did, because it is simply not accurate. We do ourselves a favor when we, with open eyes, separate the teacher from the teaching, and when we remember that we have the same potential for liberation, and for bondage, that any other person has. Only then can the steps that we take on our own path, while they may follow the lead of another, take us toward knowing the true and perfect inner self that is wrapped up inside a messy and beautiful human shell.

2 Responses to Beware the Guru

  1. Mike d June 2, 2018 at 10:18 pm #

    I read this article years ago around the same time I saw that photo you speak of. It took me a while to reconcile with what I saw in the photo, and I wasn’t even a kool-aid drinking Ashtanga cultist. Certainly, Pattabhi Jois didn’t seem as devious as a man like Bikram …

    I just saw devoted Ashtanga practitioners around me who weren’t having this conversation. Discussion about “assists” would about the brilliance with which Jois performed them. I ended up putting that strange photo out of my mind as a result of these Ashtanga practitioners. There are several famous Ashtanga teachers of the world who spoke positively in this regard of his adjustments and brilliance as a teacher, for years. That’s all you ever heard …

    I come from an Iyengar background and sometimes have had a hard time understanding what exactly was brilliant in Pattabhi Jois, especially when I compared him to such a well-spoken and methodical pedagogue such as Iyengar. Iyengar was quite eloquent in his speech and writing and very scientific in his instruction. Still, I accepted from Ashtanga practitioners that it’s more about experiencing the brilliance of Jois and the energy he commanded to recognize his brilliance. And I say all this with complete appreciation for the Ashtanga method and admiration for the lineage that owes much to the teachings of Krishnamacharya, as does Iyengar. In fact, I see the Iyengar and Ashtanga systems as more similar than most people care to admit. Still, in both these systems I’ve always recognised their own shortcomings as well. Though I practice principally Iyengar yoga, I can say that I recognize flaws in the system I practice and in the man where many devoted followers refuse to see. I’m not arguing for one system over another here as they both, in their own ways, have there merits. And I respect both.

    In any case, I’m very much glad that all of this (assault allegations as evidenced by pictures and videos circulating and victim’s testimonies) came out now recently. What with Karen Rain ‘s testimony and Matthew Remski ‘s “Walrus” article. It kind of brings me some closure to these feelings about Jois, the man, that I was having trouble reconciling because I felt I couldn’t ask about those accusations for a long time. No one was talking about it, and there were always the explanations, “in the video he doesn’t have an erection, it wasn’t sexual but an honest adjustment in the practice, etc.”

    Now, we can see in some of the circulating video that even in adjusting men, what was called brilliance in execution seems outright dangerous and surely leading some to injury. But, of course, the video reveals ever more indications of a perverse pattern at work in how Jois was approaching women.

    It’s certainly minimizing to victims’ stories for people to continue referring to the allegations as a problem in the “adjustments” as if it was poor judgement in regards to solely providing an adjustment in an asana. They are clearly disturbing attacks and assaults toward people (women) who didn’t know how to deal with the problem because of the power imbalance (as you bring up the need to beware of the guru) and the culture of people surrounding Jois that, as in your example, served to silence such accusations. The whole thing is very unfortunate.

    While I’m happy to read the thoughts of some well known Ashtanga teachers around the world attempting to grapple with this issue now that people are looking at it with a more sober outlook. Some of the attempts, such as from Gregor M, are very enlightened on the matter. While others such as Kino M, while being apologetic and at times not showing signs of truly grasping the severity of what Jois was doing to women, one must commend her for trying to talk about such an uncomfortable topic about a man she clearly loves and respects tremendously …

    But I am disappointed with the lack of the rest of the senior Ashtanga teachers of the world from speaking up. As I am disappointed with Sharath from not attempting any sort of official statement on the matter. I appreciate Manju Jois for making perhaps the only comment from any member of the family to date on the matter in a brief statement apologizing for anyone who was victimized by his father’s inappropriate adjustments, though he still is sort of using the vocabulary of “inappropriate adjustments” which is vexing as we’re not calling it what it is …

    Karen Rain is right, there should be a call for reinventing Ashtanga without Pattabhi Jois. For acknowledging his input, but not assigning guru status onto him, by acknowledging what transpired as being incredibly wrong, and continuing a lineage of practice that really owes much to Krishnamacharya as well if we must look to old Indian yoga masters.

    I truly hope there will one day be some sort of statement from Sharath in Mysore.

    I remember finding this article years ago and feeling shocked about what I was reading. Something that seemed such a bog deal. And yet, no one else was talking about it …

    I wonder what your outlook is on the matter with the new developments from Karen Rain and her ‘me too’ testimony, that sort of finally made this a real issue to grapple with.

    I would love to read your thoughts on the matter, James Brown.

  2. Stephen Parker PsyD August 15, 2016 at 12:23 pm #

    The spiritual path is a razor’s edge say several of the Upanishads. I have always been very wary of this idea that somehow guru should not be dangerous. Guru is always dangerous because we seek with it’s help deconstruct our sense of ourselves and de-condition our mindfield, to become, as it were, ultimately naked before the Divine. Self-identification (aham-kara) runs deeper than any of us can know. And for quite a long time on the path, 45 years so far in my case, we need the help of an observer external to that self-identification to enable us to get out of that trap. One must always do this alone, guru or no guru. But no one can find their way out by themselves.

    Gurus can never be made safe. Just as therapy or medical treatment will lose its effectiveness if the danger on the path is taken away (I have practiced as a psychologist for 34 years.), if a guru is not dangerous s/he is also ineffective. One must test (and be tested). My own guru said over and over again, “Test me all you want. . . When you have finished testing, then you trust.” And this comes from someone who toyed with time and space. So trust was pretty necessary because the tests can sometimes been terrifying.

    We project our perfectionism on our teachers in the same way we project our unmet emotional needs on a therapist. In the therapy biz we call it transference. 90% of all of my guru’s disciples interacted on the basis of transference; very few were actually capable of relating to him as a spiritual guide. It took me 25 years to work my way through that labyrinth. (And perhaps I am not through it yet!) That voice of perfectionism within, as I tell my teacher training students is not the voice of God or Guru; it is the voice of the Devil, lacking any clearer way to put it. Humans can become perfect, but not through our own efforts alone. It is always a collaboration with grace, whether there is a physical guru involved or not. That is what allows us to escape our self-identification.

    This is not offered as an apology for genuine misbehavior (when we are capable of ascertaining that that is actually what has happened). Genuine misbehavior should earn all of the appropriate consequences. In fact, if anyone privileged to transmit something of the guru to students misuses that ability for their own selfish ends, claims any power as their own, the guru will answer swiftly with a withdrawal of those abilities. Whatever moves through one as a teacher is not ours to use or keep or even own. It is only a gift of grace to us and to our students.

    So gurus will always be dangerous. Do, indeed, beware. Not because the danger is some unusual or contemporary situation. They always have been dangerous and always must be. And subjecting genuine spiritual relationships to the constraints of the therapy biz assume suggest is a bad idea. For those who wonder about this, I suggest the book The Dangerous Friend. I was not Trungpa’s disciple but he is a wonderful case in point. He had no attachment to his reputation. When he became too famous and could not move to do his work he would intentionally wreck his reputation by, for example, drinking sherry during his lectures until he fell off the dais. People said he was a drunk. People said he was a womanizer. I met one of his closer disciples once who described to me how the first thing he said to her was, “Are you going to sleep with me?”–Not because he wanted to, but because he could see that the questions was there in her mind. He never made an advance. But with the question he did precipitate a process of self-examination that enabled this disciple to root that projection out of her mindfield. It is tough, grubby work to be a disciple and come to terms with yourself. When the end of Trungpa’s body came, like all great masters, he left the body under his own conscious control. I have heard from the witnesses. He was, within the story about his misbehavior, untouched by it.

    And a note about asmitā. When Patanjali uses a different word for something he always indicates a different idea. The parsimony of the ancient grammarians is rivaled only by the precision of modern mathematical physics. Asmita is not the self-identification of ego that binds us to our samskāras; it is not a synonym for ahamkāra. It is the slightly ignorant misconception of the power of the Seer (Purusha) for the witnessing power of buddhi. This is one subtle difference between Samkhya and Yoga. In the Yoga system asmita accompanies the highest of the samādhis with wisdom (samprajñāta) (YS I.17). It is experientially the pure experience of “am-ness” without I. It is the highest “experience” one can have because beyond this point there is no such thing as experience because there is no mind. It is utterly beyond limited personal self-identification, but is the experience of the entire manifest universe as one’s mind/body, an experience of Īśvara as creator, but not yet the highest Being (or non-Being if your are a Buddhist–these are just words). Only when buddhi realizes, “Oh, I am only a mirror; I am not the light.” can the discriminative wisdom (viveka-khyāti) dawn. Then the next step in meditation is into dharma-megha, the dawning of omniscience at the threshold of entering the highest samādhi, the asamprajñāta.

    So it is helpful to alert people to the danger of guru. It’s also important to realize that it has been and must always be so. And it is absolutely correct to look for a guru who doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a regular person, a spiritual friend (kalyāna-mitra, to use Buddha’s term). When it mattered, my own guru and my principal teacher never spoke to me as a teacher, only as elder spiritual friends.

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