Disasters & Denial
I remember the tsunami. I was privileged to see it on TV from the comfort of my living room, and from the safe window of my computer screen. From a great distance it was terrifying, up close it must have been the scariest thing imaginable—if it didn’t kill you. So much water washing away everything in its path—buildings crumbling like they were made of toothpicks, cars swept up in the swell like rubber duckies in a giant’s bathtub, human beings engulfed in nano-seconds, swallowed by a massive expanse of liquid darkness.
I remember the video of John Friend being interviewed by an adoring acolyte. No, seriously—I am not just being critical or mean, she addressed him as if he knew all the cosmic answers, like – John Friend please explain how, if the universe is a perfect expression of divine love, tsunamis are possible? She sat in her meditation posture in earnest anticipation.
The wise one didn’t bat an eye, but went on to give what, to my mind, is the classic (and woefully inadequate) New Age set of answers about the karma of “those people,” earthquakes not being “bad” per se, and, in a moment of particular callousness, explaining how a building falling on your foot would cause pain, but it was only your mind’s desire for things to be different that would cause you to suffer.
Turns out its all good then huh?! Light and love and lucky us for having good karma. Sparkle…
This moment actually inspired my first ever Elephant Journal piece—and I was critical of not only Friend’s handling of it, but also of that patron saint of magical thinking, Masaru Emoto.
The “Messages From Water” charlatan suggested that if enough people meditated on it we could render the waters around Japan free from the radioactive waste being belched out of the Fukushima nuclear plant. Yeah, right. Maybe if we all visualized it, an army of Tinkerbells would appear and clean up all the other debris too!
Now you may just think I am being judgmental here. I mean isn’t spirituality about making ourselves feel better and coming up with ways not to be victims but to see the higher truth? Why would I wanna shoot that down, right?
Well, I think there is a powerful (but mostly avoided) step into adult spirituality that has to do with facing the shadow and letting go of child-like fairy tales that lull us into the sleepy trance of unreality in the name of “being spiritual.”
The fairy tale stuff actually creates what I call the “psychological u-turn” that returns us to the spirituality of a 5 or 6 year old instead of moving forward – but to move forward and develop adult spirituality we have to deal with the Shadow.
The Shadow is a term for everything we deny about reality because we don’t like it. The poet Robert Bly uses this wonderful analogy for Jung’s idea of the Shadow: we have an invisible bag that we drag behind us into which we put everything we have learned is unacceptable.
The Catholic Church puts sexuality in the bag – and we see how well that works out.
Culturally, men in general often put vulnerability in the bag, a lot of women put their anger in the bag.
Spiritual folks tend to put what I call the Big 3 in the bag: suffering, injustice and death.
Depressing, huh -why wouldn’t one want to avoid these topic —isn’t spirituality about freedom and love and immortality?
Well, the thing is there are perhaps two kinds of spirituality:
1) Spirituality that encourages us to adopt beliefs that distort reality in order to make us feel better.
2) Spirituality that suggests that we face reality in all its shadow and light with courage, compassion and curiosity and learn to tolerate our true feelings.
The line between the two is actually quite easy to see, if not easy for many of us to accept. Part of the reason for this is that there has been a powerful and well-meaning trend toward relativism that makes it hard for many of us to be realistic about what is true or false, real or fantasy – and that makes spirituality a very confused mess so much of the time!
When we develop the ability to accept that suffering, injustice and death are indeed part of reality we actually become stronger, more resilient, more integrated human beings. The less we need to either deny, rationalize or put some metaphysical spin on these aspects of life the more we can be honest and truly compassionate with ourselves and others. The less susceptible we are to seeking the magical answer, enlightened guru, or metaphysical belief system that makes it seem like there is no shadow, only light!
Tsunamis happen. Earthquakes happen. Innocent people are the victims of terrible events that have no real meaning. Evil people often prosper and noble people are often oppressed. This is the nature of the world we live in.
No one is pulling any synchronistic, scale balancing strings to make it all turn out fairly, and there is no magic spell, special guru or ritual practice any of us can do to somehow change these facts.
We can do our best to love one another, to have integrity, to keep growing and healing and learning, to engage in practices that allow us to be more clear headed, open hearted, liberated and regulated in our embodied existence – and these things DO have powerful repercussions in our lives, relationships and community.
They are well worth engaging in without unreasonable beliefs about how they will supposedly change the laws of the universe, make one able to control reality with one’s thoughts, or confer magical powers!
So if we accept that at bottom either spirituality is about distorting reality or learning to work with it in unconditionally honest ways, genuine wisdom and honest integrated adult spirituality is born of the second form, while I observe that the first form wreaks havoc with our ability to think clearly, feel deeply and love fully, all while sincerely painting on the mask of nice shadow-denying spirituality.
…Which brings us back to John Friend. Listen, I am sure the guy’s a genius. He obviously influenced many smart and sincere people, and must have a pretty damn good system of asana, as well as a brilliant business model.
I was also very pleased to see that one of the fastest growing perspectives on yoga was based not in the dreary old uptight dualism of Patanajali, but in a vibrant neo-Tantra – this is in my opinion a positive step forward in the evolution of this beautiful yoga experiment.
But here’s the thing: unless we have spiritual philosophies that guide people into doing real shadow work, learning critical thinking and engaging in the kind of inquiry that produces truly integrated human beings and communities, these kinds of scandals and betrayals will continue.
Why? Because we create spiritual communities based on a fantasy, rooted in an ungrounded philosophy and based on a child-like idealization of a charismatic leader.
Integrated spirituality should actually address these pitfalls and help us heal the need to idealize, be grounded in reality, and wake up to the gift of honest, courageous awareness beyond the unsustainable bliss fantasy.
It’s a tough sell, I know.
Most spiritual seekers have learned that critical thinking is the enemy, and that having faith in unreasonable things is the way to become enlightened.
But look at all this enlightenment:
* Sai Baba’s $9B estate and career long preoccupation with molesting young boys in between doing dime store magic tricks to prove his divine identity.
* Rolls Royce collector Osho‘s community poisoning the water supply of a nearby town on election day to try and gain influence over local government while stockpiling guns.
* Muktananda’s scandals and the Shakespearian drama that ensued when he tried to leave the Siddha empire to both Gurumayi and her brother Nityananda.
* Chogyam Trungpa‘s alcoholism, sexual philandering and the criminal behavior of his HIV-infected regent.
* Adi Da Samraj (hailed by Ken Wilber as the most realized being of all time) hiding out on a private island near Fiji because of the number of legal cases against him for fraud, violence and sexual assault.
And this is how the enlightened Holy Ones behave, the heroic gurus that millions strive to be like…
Time for us to grow up, no? There is no such thing as perfect human being. “Enlightenment” is a mythic symbol that refers to certain states of consciousness and is usually weighed down with the baggage of metaphysical preconceptions.
There is no one in touch with some other world who has been sent to guide us there. We’re just people on a planet floating through space, trying to utilize our potentials to live intelligently, compassionately and in alive relationship to creativity, wonder and beauty—and that is so far beyond enough!
The sooner we realize that spiritual practice can be a vehicle for real personal growth and healing, the sooner we let go of the superficial magical fantasies and Disney-esque beliefs, the sooner we can break this cycle of charlatanism, cultish organizations, shadow denial, and the ironic turn-around that always seems to happen when all the focus is on light and love and bliss, until the shadow bites us in the ass.
One of the key areas of shadow denial is sexuality.
The age old dualistic religious struggle between spirit and flesh (unfortunately well represented in yoga by Patanjali) encourages a denial of our sexuality so as to attain to a “higher” realization of disembodied immortal bliss.
Basically sexuality is cast as a curse tying us to the icky body that eats, shits and dies, and spirit is seen as unencumbered by those fleshy chains – so the ideal of the celibate monk, nun, sadhu or sannyasin is part of the confused baggage of being “holy.”
So sex goes in the shadow bag.
This of course bears terrible fruit, as evidenced in recent times by the Catholic church’s almost $2B and counting payouts to the victims of pedophile priests. (Go ahead, try putting a karmic/metaphysical/perfect universe/silver lining spin on that one – I dare ya…)
But in terms of the alternative/New Age scene the drama usually plays out on the stage of an idealistic Utopian community becoming cultishly incestuous and turning all Lord of the Flies along the predictable channels of power, sex, money and drugs.
This often happens because there is one charismatic leader deemed somehow especially spiritual and the projection of holiness ignores the fact of his (usually, but sometimes her) human imperfections, needs and the sick cocktail of impossible pressure combined with unreasonable gratification heaped upon this fearless leader.
In psychological terms, the guru can perhaps be understood as someone with deep seated unmet needs for “narcissistic mirroring.”
You know, that phase we all go through as kids when it is quite important to feel like we are the center of the universe and our every feeling, thought action and desire are of profound importance to our parents, teachers and siblings.
Someone who does not internalize enough of that feeling of self-worth may well spend the rest of their lives trying to capture that feeling, and being a guru, or rock star or actor or plain old prima donna is one way to try and fill that hole.
Little wonder then that it can never be enough and the misbehavior around drugs, sex, money and power so often lurks behind the scenes. It’s like the insatiable plant-monster in Little Shop of Horrors shouting—feed me!
The flip side of this dynamic is something psychologists call “unresolved idealization needs.”
You might remember that time as a kid when you would fight anyone who didn’t accept that your Mommy was the prettiest, your Daddy the strongest and your parents together the smartest people on the face of the planet.
Or the way you felt about your first grade teacher and later about your first love. When we are little, we idealize those we look up to and imagine them to be all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing on an almost impossible superhuman level.
If this need to idealize goes awry through trauma, abandonment or betrayal, we may find ourselves as adults seeking out situations in which we can idealize a guru figure as being in effect God’s representative on Earth, or damn close to it.
This sets up the perfect lock-and-key fit between students with a need to idealize and guru figures with a need to be worshipped. Unless the teacher is doing their own work around the inevitable pitfalls of such a position and the students are being guided into their particular work so as to not act out their unconscious needs, the whole thing keeps doing its dance until it blows up in everyone’s faces.
Perhaps just like Anusara just did…
So I want to suggest a way forward. It has to do with my favorite word: Integration.
The step into adult spirituality I described above is a simple one, but not easy – embrace the limitations of being human. Accept that we die at the end, accept that there is no magic formula, accept that no guru is gonna save you from yourself and just do the work.
Day by day be interested in really growing, really healing. Ask the difficult questions, sit with the difficult emotions. True spiritual depth is hard won, and it is forged in the fires of a real willingness to dig in the dirt and be humbled by your own imperfections.
Embrace the body, your feelings, your desires and sacralize your own humanity rather than buying into the self-negating idealism of pure spirit, or eternal bliss or pretending to be happy all the time with that vacant cultish stare that demands too long eye contact and always carries the suggestion of far away ultimate truth.
Know that it takes a deeper kind of faith to see the pain and suffering of the world and know that life still has meaning, and in fact love, beauty, reason, wisdom etc are more valuable precisely because they are not guaranteed and their opposites are powerfully present in the real world.
Tsunamis happen, scandals come and go, none of us is getting any younger, and the world keeps spinning, 2012 prophecy or no, because you know what? No-one really knows what’s gonna happen next – and that’s what makes the game worth playing!
Oh, and one last thing – don’t buy into the idea that we shouldn’t talk about the shadow, that it is “unyogic” or “judgmental,”because this just perpetuates shadow denial and keeps us from growing, learning and healing as a community. Speak mindfully, but don’t bow down to the thought-police, especially if they are quoting scripture to shut you up!
Editor: Brianna Bemel
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