What It Means to Care

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I can’t stop reading the blog Beyond Growth right now.  The site’s authors describe their work “a collaborative blogging project focused on critiquing and expanding the personal development field.”  Um, yes please.

One of the best things I read on the site was in the comments section, and I keep going back to re-read it.  The author, Duff McDuffee, was calling out a particular personal development course and center in his post for some potential unethical behavior.  In his experience as a past course participant, the coursework involved “aggressively humiliating/shaming the client’s psychological defense mechanisms” for the purposes of inducing an emotional breakdown or catharsis (also termed an abreaction).

In case you are not already aware, this is an extremely common course format in a certain corner of the personal development world.  Many people experience such workshops as life-changing events–I certainly have in the past–but the real benefits of such workshops in the long term are dubious at best.

One of the organizational leaders of the center Duff critiqued responded to his post, asking for more specific feedback about how Duff would recommend the center change its practices.

First of all, it is a huge step that an organizational leaders of this center even wrote back.  It shows a level of care that is often depressingly absent in personal growth centers.

Duff’s response in the comments section was articulate, and in my opinion, right on the money.  I am obviously quoting below at length (and even so, I don’t include all of his comments), so once again, here’s the link to the original post.

If I were to make requests, they would be to advertise the relational practices (at least what I’ve observed them to be) as highly aggressive and likely to bring up traumatic past events, to specifically filter out people with any history of abuse or PTSD through the use of an intake form, and to avoid using these techniques on anyone who does not give verbal or written consent.

Even better would be to seriously consider the potential harm of these techniques and consider abandoning them altogether in favor of a different philosophy and methodology.

Encourage and create a system to support critical feedback in your community especially with regards to techniques, group dynamics, safety, and consent–listening to and taking seriously the content of such feedback without engaging in emotional processing…Consider creating a way of allowing anonymity when giving such feedback.

Make your financial accounting transparent, and encourage the same for [your partner organizations]. This will help prevent financial corruption and keep accountable with your community.

Encourage a community of critical thinking. Above all, do not allow intolerance of minority groups or opinions within your community. Avoid all green-shaming, as in “those guys are just green,” or any other versions of this. Encourage rational-mind thinking–do not demonize the mind in favor of emotions, the heart, emptiness, or anything else or you’ll end up with a cult-like groupthink.

Create an explicit policy for ethical violations from community leaders and teachers, especially with regards to sexual relationships, money, and dual-relationships of all kinds. Enforce this policy.

Learn the laws regarding psychotherapy and group psychotherapy in the state of Colorado, as well as “certification” in any methodology as regulated by the Department of Private Occupational Schools. Make sure you are in compliance with the law. Hire a lawyer to help you to do so.

To anyone involved in a personal growth organization who may somehow read the above…this is it.  This is what your critics are asking for.  This is what it looks like to care about your participants.

This Is What Innovation Looks Like

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I was re-reading several of the posts on this blog the other day and felt frustrated that the basic tone has continued to be, “Here are examples of how things get screwed up in spiritual communities.”  While I am interested in understanding those group dynamics (obviously), my real interest is finding a workable response.  How can we re-imagine the model for spiritual events and communities that takes real relationships and human psychology into proper account?

The UnRETREAT is one exciting example.

I don’t know the people who put on this event, and I can’t vouch for its quality or success.  But, really, check out this paragraph from the retreat website:

Come and learn from enlightened teachers without the usual dependency and submission inherent in traditional power structures, and even feel free to lead a teaching session yourself. At the UnRetreat, it’s up to you to decide when and what you will learn and practice, supported by an innovative structure that promotes your best intentions. As part of a community of like-minded individuals with great conversation (and even greater food), the UnRetreat is an opportunity to explore deep spiritual realization in the only way that makes sense: as fellow human beings taking the same journey.

If this sounds as awesome and intriguing to you as it does to me, download the Unretreat Details on the site for a full treatment of the following principles:

  1. The standard retreat model has implicit aims that are incompatible with the individual and group intentions for holding a retreat
  2. Self-motivated, self-organizing individuals and their interactions are more important than the perpetuation of a retreat tradition
  3. A working practice is more important than ʻgetting with the programʼ
  4. Teacher/student collaboration is more important than hierarchy and rules of engagement
  5. Responding to change is more important than following a plan

Again, I don’t know much about this group or this event, but I find these ideas very inspiring.  This is innovation.

Blowing the Whistle

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I believe in changing organization from the inside.  I really do.  But the fact of the matter is that becoming a whistleblower rarely works out.

For example, here is an excellent podcast about Cynder Niemela, who was in charge of employee satisfaction metrics for Countrywide Financial before they were purchased by Bank of America.  After conducting an employee satisfaction survey in which dozens of employees made very specific allegations of fraud occurring within Countrywide, Cynder prepared a detailed report for senior management regarding the employees’ concerns.  From the tone of this post, you can already guess what happened.  Her report was doctored to make negative results read positive, fraud allegations were removed, and Cynder was fired.  Later of course, the widespread fraud inside Countrywide became public knowledge.  Bank of America still maintains that Cynder was fired for being “combative” and “difficult to work with.”

I’m sure she was combative.  Trying to point out a problem to people who have a vested interest in not acknowledging that problem creates an inherent conflict.

When I was in a cult, there was a lot of problematic behavior that I witnessed–and participated in–that I didn’t say anything about.  Unlike Cynder, I was trying to be a good group member and didn’t want to be combative.  But I did try to speak out a few times.  Here is one example of things went when I tried to blow the whistle:

  • One of the younger male leaders (who we’ll call John, because that’s his name) was pressuring almost all the younger female followers to have sex with him.  The pressure was never physically violent (to my knowledge), just aggressive and persistent.  And because in any cult, high value is placed on doing what you are told to do by leadership, almost all the women gave in.
  • This was sex many of the women didn’t want to have.  I know because a lot of them were my friends, and at that time, I was also assisting the person in charge of handling complaints with spiritual leadership.  So women started coming to me, asking if they were “allowed” to say no to sex with John.  Or if they were allowed to set boundaries about the kind of sex they wanted to have and not have.  Or if it would help then more spiritually to just say yes.  (I’m not exaggerating–this is how you start questioning yourself when you are in a cult.)
  • I brought all of these complaints to the top organizational brass in charge of handling “issues” with spiritual leadership.  I was told, privately, that the women were allowed to say no, and if they asked me I should tell them that.  That’s it.  No action, not even a discussion, about the fact that a spiritual leader should not be coercing congregation members into having unwanted sex.
  • I went to other leaders, and tried different angles.  This could be a legal issue, I said–someone could bring a suit against the organization as an accessory to rape.  I was told that I had a problem with John’s sexual behavior, maybe I should just talk to him myself.  I tried a version of that by having a close friend of John’s talk to him about the complaints.  Shocking exactly no one, his behavior did not change.
  • Years after I finally left the group, I heard from friends that John was finally fired when he had sex with a teenage girl in the congregation and her parents threatened legal action.  What kills me is that I’m sure most of the organizational leaders felt proud when John was finally removed, proud of the stand they took against unethical behavior when it was “discovered.”  Right, because no one saw this scenario coming from about 10,000 miles away.

I know, all this is very textbook cult behavior.  What is interesting to me though is that, re-reading it, I could easily change the context to a corporate environment or a regular church or non-profit or whatever and the story would be equally believable, and even tired.  I have written in this blog about the importance of individual people speaking up and speaking out about unhealthy dynamics in their groups and organizations, but the reality is that lone wolves speaking out against corruption rarely make much of an impact.

There are so many more examples of this.  Here’s a great This American Life about a priest who tried to speak up in the Catholic Church.

Where does all this leave the average individual engaged in society, and therefore likely part of many different “groups”?

The answer for some is to be inherently suspicious of any group, to be wary of belonging, and hold some stereotype of “rugged independence” in the highest regard.  But I really think this idea just sidesteps the need for serious answer by avoiding the original question.  I don’t have a complete answer myself, but am chewing on the following ideas:

  • Speaking up alone is rarely as powerful as speaking up as part of a group of at least 2 other people.  It is important to build a coalition of dissent.
  • Refuse to keep your experiences or opinions confidential.  You don’t have to tell other people’s secrets, but you are welcome to tell your own to whomever you want.
  • Be clear on what can and cannot be compromised.
  • Seek advice outside the group from people you respect.  “In group” thinking can often only be exposed from the outside.  If it would feel like a betrayal of the group to seek outside advice about an internal problem, that in itself is actually the biggest problem.  If your goal is truly to seek help and not to needlessly gossip, where is the betrayal?  What are you trying to hide?

Ordinary People

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I have been thinking a lot lately about what’s commonly called “the banality of evil.” Basically, it’s the idea that harmful acts are not committed primarily by sociopaths or others who are mentally ill, but by ordinary people who, for a variety of reasons, do bad things.

This challenges a common notion that people are basically “good people,” or “bad people,” but rarely both, and that if you associate with “good people,” you can trust them not to do bad things.  This habit is based on some sound moral reasoning…we want to know who we can trust and we don’t want to constantly have to re-evaluate our trust in those same people.  That would be exhausting, and also hinder the development of closeness and vulnerability in relationships.

We also know that we ourselves and the people we love have made plenty of mistakes—big mistakes—and these mistakes do not make us evil.

But that doesn’t mean that mistakes are not really mistakes.  Just because you judge someone to be a “good person,” that doesn’t make it ok to minimize or down play the effects of their hurtful actions.

For a powerful example of this, check out this photo from the amazing Project Unbreakable.  A woman is holding a sign that says, “It’s not like I don’t believe you. It’s just that when I’m with him…I sort of forget?  Like, it’s hard to to imagine he did what you said.”  This was the response the same woman received from her friend, when the friend accepted an invitation to a dance from the boy who raped her.

Like, it’s hard to imagine he did what you said.  Why?  Why is it hard to imagine that ordinary people can do terrible things?

Cognitive dissonance is of course one big reason.  Our brains feel like there is an inherent contradiction between liking someone, and believing that same person has done something bad.

What that means—and I think this is important to consciously recognize—is that our brains are NOT hardwired to deal with the complexity of human behavior how it really goes down.  In reality, people are not all good are all bad.  They are both.  And if we want to directly address deviant behaviors in society, we have to acknowledge who really does the bad stuff.  The answer is often that it’s our neighbors.  Our friends.  Our next date to a dance.

To combat the powerful of force cognitive dissonance in my own head, I am trying to become more honest with myself about my actions and how they impact others.  I am working to throw away the idea that I can be fundamentally good (and therefore worthy of love) or fundamentally screwed (and therefore rightly despised).  Really, I am working with the idea that I am not fundamentally anything, except alive.  And in this life, I can do good things, and bad things, and learn from all of these actions.  I can admit to my own mistakes and have compassion for myself, without pretending that my screw up didn’t really happen, or doesn’t really matter.

I want to have a forgiving heart, but I also want to have an honest one.

Democracy vs. Dictatorship

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I recently attended the Buddhist Geeks Conference in Boulder, CO—an awesome TED-inspired event focused on meditation, Buddhism and technology.  One feature of the conference was the creation of “unplugged sessions” where participants suggested topics for, and then facilitated, small breakout discussions.

Ron Crouch of Aloha Dharma suggested the topic “Creating a Dharma Students’ Bill of Rights” to govern the student teacher relationship.  I was, unsurprisingly, attracted to this session.

First of all, I love that Ron suggested the topic himself as dharma teacher, rather than as a previously burned student.  The conversation that followed in our breakout was engaging (I thought I might the only person to attend—not the case!), but it felt like we were just getting started when our 45 minutes was up.  That seemed to be the result with a lot of the breakouts though…they ended up being mainly a forum for raising great questions and sending people off to start brainstorming solutions….

So I have been thinking for the last few weeks a lot of about models for healthy student/teacher relationships.

When discussing spiritual students and teachers, the details of relationships gone bad can be so juicy that it can be hard to rise above the “And then what happened?” level of titillation. On this blog, I know the writing can tend toward the abstract, but part of that is on purpose to avoid making these ideas seem like they only apply to one group or one path.  I really do think we need some strong, generalized models for how to run a healthy organization, similar to how there are handbooks now on how to have a revolution.

So one generalized idea I have been chewing on lately is that student/teacher relationships and especially spiritual communities need to be modeled on democracies rather than benevolent dictatorships.

People say that they hate dictatorships, but, in practice people love the idea of a benevolent dictator.  Like the Dalai Llama.  Or the King of Shambhala.  A benevolent dictator is like a human stand-in for a loving God, or the parent you always wanted.  Someone who you can trust completely and who will take care of you and lead you with care to spiritual freedom.  Who wouldn’t want that?

Further complicating matters, if the teacher-as-dictator is basically benevolent and the student can trust her, then real spiritual progress can be swift, especially at the outset.  If you steadfastly follow a teacher’s directions, there are real benefits to be gained.  And devotion to the teacher cultivates feelings of love and service that can translate to all other relationships in your life.

But the shadow looms large, especially over time.  Consider specifically that:

  • Dictatorships are based on control, and controlling other people feels good.  Even teachers that are suspicious of the power and control can easily become overwhelmed with pleasurable aspects of just getting people to do whatever you want them to do.  Nothing else in life works like that…it can be dangerously intoxicating. And people rarely give up control once they have it, even when the positive results start to taper off.
  • A parent/child dynamic is created.  The benevolent dictatorship is a great model for a parent.  When your kids are little, they need mom and dad to tell them what to do and make all the decisions in the children’s best interest.  But as a student, stepping into this style of relationship with a spiritual teacher not only brings up all your unresolved issues with your biological parents, it also casts you in the role of perpetual child.  When do you get to grow up?
  • Spiritual progress often stagnates.  As mentioned above, forward movement can be swift at first, but often dramatically levels-off after a few years as student is never able to full internalize the teachings.  Doing so would necessarily adapt the teachings to make them the student’s own, thus threatening the ultimate authority and control of the teacher.

Contrast this with a student/teacher relationship based on democratic principles.  While in a dictatorship, final authority rests with one or two people, in a democracy the basic human dignity of all members is actively acknowledged, and multiple sources of authority are respected.  More specifically:

  • No one person has all the answers.  Meditation teachers are expected to teach meditation and model presence, not act as experts on romance, child-rearing, finance, or career strategy. Teachers encourage students to seek help from various authorities in their lives, depending on the topic at hand.
  • Disagreement is allowed.  Because mutual respect is in place, students do not need to feel afraid or ashamed for not understanding or simply disagreeing with their teacher.  Teachers in turn are interested in student self-realization, not obedience, so students are allowed to be who they are and hold the opinions that they want to hold.
  • It is easy to lodge a complaint.  Students have a designated space or system where to bring concerns. Outside mediation is sought in serious cases, because it is understood all communities, even “enlightened” ones, have their own blind spots that can be hard to see from the inside.

Really, the importance of that last point cannot be emphasized enough in my opinion. All organization have blind spots.  All of them.  In this way, the metaphor of the group as a sort of meta-individual really becomes clear.  We all know we have blind spots as individuals–that’s one big reason why we seek help from spiritual teachers and communities in the first place.  It’s hard to really look at yourself from a distance, or exercise anything like objectivity.  And in pretty much exactly this same way, it is hard for an organization to look at its collective self objectively too.  Outside perspective is critical.

There’s Still Plenty to Talk About

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The first several posts of this blog were written as part of a personal creative push last fall, partly inspired by NaNoWriMo, but mainly inspired by the thoughts that kept churning inside my head about spirituality, group dynamics, sex and power.  I wanted to get those thoughts out of my brain, so I could stop feeling bothered by them.

While all my writing was posted online and obviously public, I did basically nothing to cultivate comments or readership and didn’t share the posts with anyone close to me.  I wanted some time to make sure that I really did want to open up this discussion with people I know personally.  I questioned whether my interest in these topics is just evidence of my hang-ups about the past, about my inability to just move on.

And that might be true.  But the more I continue to delve back into spiritual practice and community, the more I feel like the conversation I want to have is an important one.  The conversations I do hear, or more honestly, overhear, could be higher quality and better informed. For example:

  • Within spiritual communities, everyone seems to have a personal history with bad student/teacher relationships or know someone who has such a history. Even still, the main advice to students is, “Be careful what group you join and what teachers you follow.”  Look for these warning signs.  There is very little acknowledgement that communities can start out helpful but become destructive if members stop thinking critically and group think takes over.  Choosing a community is not the last decision you make, it’s just the first one.  Where are the articles with bullet points on how to speak up when you notice unhealthy dynamics inside your current group?
  • There are so many awesome websites exploring the issues of sex and power exchange and what it means to consent.  These topics need a wider audience in general, including inside spiritual communities.
  • The teachers that are actively engaging with these topics are not actively engaging in a public conversation, online or off.  Jack Kornfield has some some of the best writing on these topics, but not enough people are going to read to the end of his books to get to the good stuff, no matter how skilled of a writer he becomes.
  • The conversation needs to expand across traditions and disciplines, so that we can learn from each other’s mistakes and successes.  As soon as we dismiss issues as “problems inside the Catholic Church” or “issues with Zen teachers,” we lose an opportunity to learn more about human dynamics in general.

My goal with this blog is to get this conversation moving, not to monetize it, but just so I can participate in it.  I find these topics both interesting and important and I’m tired of working it over and over in my own mind.  So if you are reading this, welcome, and let me know what you have to say.

Setting the Stage

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In response to the obvious fact that spiritual teachers sometimes abuse their positions of power, there seems to be a response emerging that might be summed up as:

  1. Spiritual teachers are just human beings and we have to stop pretending they are otherwise.
  2. As students, we have to take responsibility for our own practice and our own behaviors, instead of projecting high expectations on a teacher, only to later feel victimized when the teacher lets us down.

Scott Edelstein has good writing on the first point, while I think Hokai Sobol has the most interesting perspective on the second.

I agree with both of Scott and Hokai and I think their writing is worth further reflection.  However, what I feel is missing from the discussion is some open acknowledgement of conditionality, of the process that leads up to abuses of power in spiritual communities.

There seems to be an underlying standard narrative on how abuse actually happens that is overly simplistic…something like:

  1. Teacher seems awesome, makes students feel awesome
  2. Students follow teacher’s instructions and try to please the teacher
  3. Teacher surprises students(s) by asking for sex or drugs
  4. Student(s) provide sex or drugs, and that goes predictably badly
  5. Students feel abused and victimized

Based on this simple narrative, the suggestion seems to be that students should not be surprised when they get to step 3 and that they need to feel empowered to “Just Say No” when the teacher asks for something inappropriate.

The problem with this narrative is that it implies, even if subtly, that the teacher’s inappropriate request manifests out of nowhere.  As though the teacher is not already 99% sure, but the time the words come out, that the student is going to give them what they want.

But of course things tend not to spring up out of nowhere.  Words and actions tend to emerge in an environment that will support them.  In others words, I think teachers manipulate their students when the stage has been set for manipulation to be successful.  Teachers make inappropriate requests when they feel confident their request will be granted.

I think there are 5 main conditions that “set the stage” in this way and can lead to a student/teacher relationship becoming unhealthy:

1)   Small boundary violations – A student feels uncomfortable with a particular practice, or something else the teacher asks for.  The student is encouraged to push past their boundaries or personal limitations and just do it.

Unspoken Message: Even when you might feel like you should say no to your teacher, it’s often better for your spiritual growth if you say yes.

2)   Student gives credit / teacher takes credit – The spiritual progress of the student is attributed to the expertise of the teacher and/or the teacher accepts credit for the student’s growth.

Unspoken Message:  You will not succeed without your teacher.

3)   Teacher gets many small comforts – Students provide their teacher with a special chair, cushion, cup, candle, bathroom, entrance, food, gift, or anything else not normally provided to a community member.

Unspoken Message: The teacher has special needs that we as students have the job of fulfilling.

4)   Students who ask critical questions characterized as “resistant” – Openly questioning or disagreeing with the teacher is treated as an example of how the student is stuck, or at least “not open” to receive teachings.

Unspoken Message: If you are serious about spiritual life, you will manage your doubts privately and avoid challenging your teacher.

5)   All actions of the teacher seen as a potential spiritual lesson to the students – Ordinary human activities of the teacher, such as eating, walking, talking, etc., are examined by students for spiritual insight or examples of the teacher’s enlightenment.

Unspoken Message: The teacher is always in a position to help you spiritually, no matter what (s)he is doing.

What is striking is that almost all of these conditions have also been held up as good advice for how to walk the spiritual path successfully.  Who hasn’t heard that it’s important to value your teacher’s help, to follow their instructions, to watch how they lives their lives, to let yourself be pushed past personal boundaries?  Indeed, pushing past boundaries is a cornerstone of spiritual growth.  What is left of the student/teacher relationship if all of these conditions are rejected?

By the same token, is it really hard to understand, in this mental environment, why a student would doubt themselves when faced with an inappropriate request from a teacher?  It’s not so easy to “Just Say No,” when it’s not clear anymore what you are saying “no” to.  Are you refusing to participate is one activity? Are you being unnecessarily resistant? Are you saying no to spiritual growth?  Are you saying that you are not really a serious student?  Are you betraying your teacher?

I don’t know the right answer—all I know if that if we do not examine these conditions and understand the context they create, we as students will continue to be surprised and therefore feel victimized when the same conditions give rise to abuse.

I also think there is a lesson here about conditionality in general.  After all, it’s not that abuse is totally happening or totally not.  It happens and doesn’t happen, in big ways and in small ones. But overall, unhealthy environments tend to develop slowly over time.  If we don’t examine the small mental shifts we make along the way and the conditions we become part of and party to, then it can be easy to lose an independent perspective.

I agree it’s unfair to simply blame teachers for not being perfect.  But it is also unfair to tell students to just grow up and take more personal responsibility.  There is more going on than can be fixed by blanket admonitions.  There is a deeper look to take at the conditions we foster together and the effect those conditions have on our minds and our relationships with each other.