Tag Archives: yoga

Betrayed by Sacred Sex?

This post is a response to the article “My Tantric ‘Awakening’ Turned me Off Sex” by Janet Hardy. link here

Although this is a response to an article written over two years ago, I feel that it highlights some of the timeless misconceptions and pitfalls around what we term “sacred sex,” “sex magic,” or “sexual energy work.”

First, I want to thank Janet Hardy for writing this article and her book “The Ethical Slut.” It was very influential in expanding my perspective on relationships and sexuality.

I’d like to start with several quotes from Janet’s article to frame my response:

“In the spirit of research, we added tantra and other quasi-religious practices into the mix and took classes in those, too.”

“Of the little that has been written about kundalini-awakening-or-whatever, the vast majority has been written by people I frankly think are kind of weird.”

“Maybe it’s also because she does not share my aversion to the language of, well, woo-woo.”

“ . . . they frame their knowledge in a faux-Eastern haze of abstraction and mysticism that makes absolutely no sense to me and does not fit in with the way my world works.”

It’s with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight and 20 years of stumbling my way through various systems of sexual energy work that these quotes make me think, “uh, oh.” While I admire Janet’s pioneering spirit, it seems that she began her Tantric exploration with very conflicted feelings.

I, too, have a major problem trusting the language around spiritual practices and the mind-sets of a lot of people leading the charge. Just as, in my own work, I advise people to steer clear of health care practitioners whose models of health and language do not make sense to them, it is even more so the case with the models found in transformational work such as Tantric, Taoist, or Kundalini Yoga. Otherwise, there is little common ground for communication and frustration may arise when assistance is needed.

It’s easy to forget that practices that are intended to bring about personal transformation can result in, well, transformation, and that these effects cannot be predicted, as they are the result of opening up to forces over which we have no control. That’s supposed to be part of the fun, by the way.

It is one thing to study an esoteric discipline from the perspective of an uninvolved researcher, and quite another to engage in the practice and lay oneself bare emotionally, physically, and psychologically. I can only imagine that the contrast of being vulnerable in this way and trying to maintain the critical viewpoint of a sex researcher created a tension in which something had to give. And, if the vulnerability is deep enough, it is the mind’s conditioning around sexuality that crumbles.

Vulnerability has the potential to undermine the mind’s agenda and take us to a place that we could never have foreseen that is entirely based on feeling. If you don’t follow sensations and feelings to take you more deeply into the unknown, then all you’re left with is what you think you know about life, yourself, and sex.

Like a lot of people, I was drawn to sexual energy practices in search of more intense orgasms and a deeper level of intimacy. Without a doubt, the techniques found in these disciplines can have numerous profound, practical benefits such as increased sex drive, ejaculation control, deeper intimacy, and an expanded range for sensual pleasure, just to name a few.

Over time, though, it became obvious that I was courting a presence in my life that was digging its own channels and rewiring my fuse-box. Although it’s a phenomenon virtually unknown to the Western mind, the raw energy underlying sexual desire, romantic relationships, procreation, fantasy, and fetishes can be liberated from these customary contexts and experienced as an independent force.

In other words, the impulse underlying sexuality can be teased from the clutches of the conscious mind and allowed a broader expression in aspects of one’s life seemingly unrelated to sex. This untethered impulse has its own intelligence and does not give a hoot about whether we want to live a quiet life in the country or a rowdy city life as a dominatrix. This experience of sexuality as a non-contextual form of energy can provide a perspective on how sexuality has been mercilessly crammed into societal agendas, stunted by cultural and religious shame, and hemmed into a corner where it is beaten back into submission if it acts out too much.

Transformational work involves the real possibility of sacrificing everything we own, have worked for, and think we know about anything. When this really sinks in, then it’s like “Um, can I change my order, please?,” but by then it’s too late to stuff the genie back in the bottle. If you don’t want to risk the chance for something different and unexpected to barge in on your life, then it’s best not to take that first step toward dismantling yourself.

Whether Janet was conscious of it or not at the time, something beyond her researcher’s mind was asking for acknowledgement. If you keep knockin’ on that door, someone you’ve never met before may eventually answer it. And, if you don’t learn how to dance with that stranger, they can make your life hell.

This isn’t a topic that is discussed very often in sexual energy work, because it kind of takes the shine off the peak experience aspect and it’s difficult to describe why it’s desirable. However, if one is sincere about transforming one’s life through sexual expression, it can manifest an agent of sabotage not chosen by the rational mind to break us out of rigid ways of thinking, believing, and behaving. It can catalyze the surfacing of repressed character traits, strip away illusion, and retrieve a depth of feeling that is long lost to most adults. It can become the teacher that so many of us look for Out There.

We often forget that a sacrifice is required in order to acquire certain knowledge or experience. When it comes to sexual energy work, the heart will demand its sacrifice and unfortunately, when the sacrifice occurs on its own without our conscious participation, then it’s often viewed as a punishment or a source of regret that requires healing or repairing. In Janet’s case, she didn’t like the form of the knowledge or the sacrifice: the earth-shattering orgasm or the disappearance of her sexual desire.

If the sacrifice is a loss of desire for sex, then other areas need to be examined to see where your sexual energy has been funneled, and know that it will return one day, albeit fundamentally altered. What else is being intensely inspired within you? Where is there renewed momentum and passion? Is there a pursuit or activity for which you’ve previously had intractable resistance that now presents little or no inhibition? Although the scientist who proposed the law of conservation of energy probably wasn’t thinking about bangin’ the missus at the time, it nevertheless applies perfectly to sexual energy: It isn’t lost, it is simply transformed.

I also have gone through periods of disinterest in “normal” sexual activity as the result of cultivating and channeling sexual energy. As always, the first thoughts are of a worst-case scenario (“Omigod, it’s gone and it’s never coming back!”), because the mind hates anything that deviates from the standard script. During those periods, though, I’ve written two books and made numerous recordings of my own music, two things I’d never been able to accomplish before.

I had the benefit of years of watching sexual energy work create other dramatic changes in my life, so I eventually knew that a loss of desire was just another turn in the road. It was reassuring to me that I did not feel depleted on any levels and that this was solely a change in the outward expression of an impulse. It was critical for me to realize that this was something I’d asked for, whether I liked the presentation or not. And, it really helps to have an understanding partner, of course.

If this phenomenon is misinterpreted as sexual dysfunction and attempts are made to resolve it through medication or hormone supplementation, this will short-circuit the change that is trying to occur in that person’s chemistry and may create health problems where none previously existed.

When one’s attention is exclusively devoted to getting help for something that isn’t a problem in the first place, then it exhausts all the vitality that has been liberated and could have energized another area of one’s life. Identifying it as a problem only serves to separate oneself from the experience and massage the egos of the so-called experts who want to “help.” There is no intervention required here, because the intervention has already occurred in the form of the unknown. Janet literally changed her internal circuitry and that is where the power of vulnerability lies. What is it that Janet needs to recover from–an encounter with herself?

Honestly, most of us are not prepared to let go of the notion that we have control over our sexual impulses and expression until it becomes painfully evident that we are not in control. As long as the sexual impulse remains embedded in the habitual context of sexual activity then the mind can sustain the illusion of being in the driver’s seat. Our vain attempts over millennia to twist the irrepressible drive behind sexuality into something acceptable, predictable, and manageable is truly astounding, and a testament to its incredible potency.

This is one reason that, for centuries, only emperors and high priests were privy to sexual energy practices. We wouldn’t want Joe or Jane Six-Pack discovering a source of vitality that made him or her equal to the boss man, would we?

Yes, I can sit here alone at the computer and create what I call an “energy orgasm” out of nowhere: no sexual fantasies, pornography, or tactile stimulation. Nothing but a simple mental focus on my body that creates a powerful movement of energy. I could make it last for quite a while and even cause some involuntary shaking and flailing about. Most people would not remotely consider this a sexual experience, but that’s precisely the impulse that is being channeled.

And your response may be, “So what’s your point?” And you’d be right. There is no point. This is just how I prefer to live my life. I feel that unless I actively beckon forces into my life that may humble me when I least expect it, I will never know what it’s like to get off the hamster wheel.

Systems, models, and techniques are not ends in themselves, especially when it comes to transformational pursuits. They provide a context within which the mind just might trick itself into recognizing that it really knows nothing. The mind thinks it knows what S&M or Kundalini is and then it becomes an expert on the subject, and vulnerability goes out the window in order to preserve one’s status as an expert.

Aspiring to be a Tantric master, for example, is a delusional goal that misses the point. No one can master sexual energy. A person might, however, be able to get his mind out of the way sufficiently to experience sexual energy in its naked ferocity, and in the process recognize that she is being used by something and not the other way around.

James Rolwing, DC, is the author of the e-books “Multiple Orgasms for Men Made Simple” and “Activate Your Inner Physician.” Available at http://www.amazon.com.

How to Join a Cult, Get What You Need, and Move On

The term “cult” has been applied throughout history to groups that pose a threat to the existing establishment because they encourage independent thought and action, or a loyalty or commitment to someone or something other than the accepted authority. The word is utilized with precision by that same accepted authority and its supporters to stigmatize such groups, or by those who consider joining a cult as a pursuit to which only the gullible and weak-willed need apply. The lucky recipient of the term is almost exclusively a group or organization that promotes personal or spiritual growth.

Over the last 30 years I’ve been involved with no less than five groups or organizations that American culture would likely classify as cults, and I have not regretted my participation in any of them. My time in some was brief, while others lasted years, but all of it was valuable. So, in this post I’ll be using the word “cult” with great affection. I’ll also be using the abbreviation GMT (guru, master, teacher) to cover most of the bases in describing the person who calls the shots in a cult.

It is not my intention to trivialize the trauma that can result from unquestioned allegiance to a charismatic authority figure, but that could easily describe a considerable range of cultural icons and their relationship to their entourages, fans, students, and hangers-on: athletic coach, politician, CEO, rock star, motivational speaker, government bureau, Hollywood celebrity, talk show host.

My purpose, with hindsight, is to provide a few hard-won guidelines for evaluating one’s participation in a cult that I wish someone had given me a few decades ago. A lot of it will sound like common sense, but common sense can often go out the window when you have found your ideal cult.

With the psychological and emotional weight of apocalyptic scenarios that are presented to us daily—destruction of the environment, climate change, water and food shortages, global economic collapse, J-Lo’s wardrobe malfunctions, or an imminent World War III—we may see a surge in the popularity of cults. As we increasingly witness the corruption of previously trusted institutions and systems, people will naturally seek the perspective of a non-mainstream source to make sense of a frighteningly chaotic world.

Is it risky to join a cult? Of course! It’s also risky to get married, have a child, submit to a “routine” surgery, take out a loan, have unprotected sex, drive a car, quit your job, move to a new city, or simply haul your sorry ass out of bed in the morning. The common thread here is that we trust that the results will be worth the risk, and without risk we never learn anything new about ourselves or about life.

Arriving

A logical starting place is the question: Why do you find yourself considering joining a cult at this time in your life? Your motivations will consist of a mixture of conscious and unconscious drives, and these will shift and change over time. In fact, uncovering your true motivations for joining a cult should be a cornerstone in the foundation of the journey itself.

It is reasonable to assume that you are attracted to a cult in the first place because you feel your life is lacking something. However, the mind can spin a sense of lack in a thousand different ways. A good rule of thumb may be: If you are not there to experience something different about your life, then you are there to ensure that your life stays the same.

The personal/spiritual growth industry is one of the biggest perpetrators of lip service around, because the majority of us are not sincerely interested in infusing our lives with any tangible change. Rather, we want our lives to stay the same in a different sort of way. I do not feel this is a cynical observation, just a realistic one, and it can be corroborated by observing our own behavior, the behavior of others, and the general history of humanity.

The crux is we aren’t willing to pay the price required to willingly allow the unknown to enter our lives. That price may be letting go of a relationship, friends, a career, financial security, reputation, or all of these. The most difficult sacrifices, however, are the beliefs and identities that comprise the image we have of ourselves.

We are conditioned to cling to routine and habit as sources of comfort, stability, and sanity, even as we loathe the predominance of those same elements in our lives. Consequently, a significant percentage of the other cult members are there for reasons other than growing, maturing, or transforming and are pursuing an alternative agenda unbeknownst to themselves, and one of those people may be you.

My own initial motives involved a curiosity about the limits of human consciousness, a craving for mental and physical self-discipline, and a desire for practical tools that would serve those aspirations. I was in search of peak experiences and believed that an accumulation of them would culminate in some sort of consistent wakened state. Essentially, I wanted to make my life one long drug trip without having to rely on drugs.

After several years of involvement, though, I realized I was using the language of spirituality to delude myself into thinking I was growing or waking up, and that having a well-defined spiritual path was a way for me to feel superior to others. I believed that because I could drive a shit-load of energy up my spine, assume various hatha yoga poses, and talk the esoteric talk that I had become someone other than the self-absorbed prick I’d always been. At that point I had to decide whether to continue with the sham, give up entirely, or begin deconstructing myself for real.

Certainly, you want to find an environment and a GMT that make you feel welcome. However, if you’re there for no other reason than it makes you feel good, then you’re already on thin ice and better off at home on the couch with a pint of Haagen-Daz. At best you’ll be quickly disillusioned and leave, and at worst you’ll be road-kill somewhere down the line, because we all know that feeling good is an ephemeral state and not a reliable long-term indicator of a situation’s integrity.

My first suggestion, then, is to have a motivation other than—or in addition to—the sensation of being high on life that accompanies being in the GMT’s presence or hanging with the other cult members. Even if your initial reason turns out to have been a total delusion, at least you judged your experience against something concrete. You can also take solace in knowing that you exposed your own delusion, which is significant in itself and may compel you to periodically rediscover the purpose of your involvement. This keeps the experience fresh and interesting.

A common misconception about cults and GMT’s is that they operate in a rarefied realm where our family dynamics and past traumas will not pollute the atmosphere. If you don’t come down to earth from that fantasy on your own, someone else will be happy to assist you in that free-fall, solicited or not.

To that end, it is a good idea to have a friend or two among the members who have been around the block and have moved beyond the initial honeymoon, star-struck phase of involvement. They may provide you with a sober point of view on what is actually happening around you and be honest enough to inform you when your focus is misguided.

A familiar motivation is to find community or the family you never had. If pursued too blindly and persistently, this agenda will likely get you into a lot of trouble from projecting your desire for siblings or parental figures onto the other cult members and the GMT. Without exception, we all do this in any group setting. The extent to which we recognize that we’re doing it, however, will dictate how creatively we can use our time in a cult.

If you’re using the GMT to gain the approval you never received from your parents, it is likely to be expressed through the persona of the good student, which serves as a replacement for the good son or good daughter identities we are so fond of repeating on unsuspecting victims throughout our lives. Striving to be the good student was my way of sustaining my self-image as someone who didn’t make waves, avoided confrontation, and preferred to think the best of people and myself because that just makes the world a hell of a lot simpler.

This is not to say that a cult cannot be a valuable source of supportive relationships implicit in family and community, and foster a sense of belonging and being appreciated simply for who you are. That source of emotional and psychological stability should, however, also contribute to the development of an independent spirit and not just blind loyalty to the pack.

The GMT is there to challenge your illusions about everything, and your willingness to accept that challenge will give you an idea of the basis for your involvement. If you’re there primarily for community and stability you may hold all the more strongly to those illusions and find yourself judging the GMT as a disruptive influence to your connection to the other members.

Ideally, a cult is somewhere you can feel safe, but cannot hide, either. It should be place where you can make yourself vulnerable without fear of humiliation or reprimand. At the same time, it is an environment that may cause you to realize that any situation is only as safe as you know your own mind.

If you do not learn some extremely unflattering truths about yourself through your participation, then you are not paying attention. Over time, I got a good look at some of my less admirable qualities: cowardly, passive-aggressive, elitist, emotionally abusive, willing to look the other way regarding questionable behavior as long as my needs are met, just to name a few.

Looking back, you will inevitably be embarrassed by some of your behavior and naiveté, but that can form the basis for a newfound humility and empathy. The challenge is to face these perceived failings without falling into chronic self-loathing, which is just another mental strategy to avoid emotional maturity. Learning to accept yourself as you are involves embracing a lot of orphaned attributes that you kicked to the curb early in life in order to fit in and feel accepted.

Danger, Will Robinson!

The following are some cautions and pitfalls when considering a cult that can spare you a lot of grief if you recognize them in time. Some will be obvious upon your initial exposure, and others only become evident after some degree of involvement.

If you are required to refrain from certain activities and habits in order to become a member, this should give you pause. While you may not care, for instance, if you have to give up red meat or alcohol in order to join, you may still consider whether there is a worthwhile reason for the restrictions, and not just to make you a powerless child who cannot make her own lifestyle choices.

Is it tithing or highway robbery? If you are asked to surrender your life savings as a demonstration of your commitment to a non-material focus, it will likely pad your cult’s wallet instead.

If you are required to cut off communication with your family and friends, or if there is any indication that you cannot leave whenever you want, that should send you running for the exit.

If you’re required to perform any type of demeaning ritual acts that will prove you’re worthy of membership, then you are better off pledging a college fraternity because at least free beer may be forthcoming.

If the cult does not provide a means for moving beyond the cult and the GMT in the form of tools for self-growth, that is a red flag in my book. I’m referring to techniques for increasing awareness of energy flow, releasing repressed emotions, improving mental focus, developing intuition, getting and staying grounded, and fostering a connection between mind and body. Without such tools, to flog a well-worn cliché, how will the student ever become the teacher? If the lack of these aids doesn’t seem to faze you, then you may be on the path of the “eternal seeker,” which is analogous to someone who collects advanced degrees and never pursues their practical application.

However, those same tools for self-growth can be used to reinforce your current situation rather than to find a way out of it. For example, meditation can easily serve to suppress feelings and emotions. So, the way you use the tools is as important as their availability.

If you do not have the self-discipline to eventually use the tools in a moment-to-moment context to have an embodied experience of the principles underlying them, then your mind will only associate spiritual or personal growth with the setting of retreats, workshops, or classes.

You can attend workshops and classes till the day you die, all the while convincing yourself that each one is moving you further along a track of progress, and it is really just the mind whispering the lie that waking up is about acquiring more knowledge. The mind will make a habit out of anything in order to preserve its primacy and avert its un-doing, and your precious spiritual path is what’s for dinner. It, too, can easily become just another rote exercise consisting of an obsessive focus on regular attendance at workshops and classes.

If the GMT espouses only love and light and characterizes certain emotions and feelings as bad and others as good, this indicates a lack of wholeness and maturity. Unfortunately, the New Age movement has been riddled for decades with so-called teachers who peddle a Pollyanna, rose-colored version of the human condition. In reality, the splendor of humanity is more than matched by the horror of humanity and a GMT worth his or her salt will encourage you to find both equally within yourself.

If you are honestly looking for a visceral experience of the truism, “the entire universe resides within you,” you do not get to cherry-pick which universal aspects to embrace based on your preferences.

Beware of the cult that tries to sell you “enlightenment”—a word whose regular abuse has consigned it to a status of utter irrelevance. The notion of enlightenment now occupies the same level of credibility as the 72 virgins promised to suicide bombers after their glorious demise, or the hackneyed version of heaven with harp-toting angels. It is yet another Eastern concept of substance—similar to hatha yoga—that has been watered down during its transoceanic voyage to the West.

The Western portrayal of enlightenment resembles yet another pain-free state of reward for being good and virtuous, and a refuge from the baser aspects of being human. Our humanity is presented as something to transcend rather than fully experience, when we’re not remotely aware in the first place how it feels to be fully human. How can you transcend what you haven’t experienced yet?

If you are like me, you will repeatedly run into the assumption that a reward awaits you contingent on “right” behavior and thinking. It’s one example of how our enormous sense of entitlement as Americans insinuates itself into a context ostensibly concerned with selflessness. If the only reward turns out to be that you feel more alive than you ever have, would that be enough?

My last GMT asked, “Do you want to have a life before you die?” and that was good enough for me to hop on board for seven thrilling years.

GMTs

Why are we conditioned to be so disconnected from ourselves that we need permission from another to simply be who we were born to be? Instead of pondering this unanswerable question, it’s more fruitful to consider the purpose GMTs serve: We view them as someone who has found the thing in his/her life that is missing in ours. They provide us with a model for a life based on something other than fear, and encountering that impels us to look inward for that same experience. Bearing in mind this function of a GMT as a force that catalyzes self-examination is very important, because our unfortunate inclination is to use them as an object of worship to corroborate our feelings of inadequacy.

A skilled GMT can demonstrate the power of surrender, vulnerability, and witnessing one’s mind, elements for living a fulfilling life that are extremely rare in any mainstream context. By making yourself vulnerable to a GMT you open the door to glimpsing the forces that truly determine your life’s expression, as opposed to the delusions of control and free will under which we hazily operate. If you cannot make yourself vulnerable to the GMT, ask yourself whether that is because you don’t trust him or her, or because that’s where you draw the line as far as wanting to know yourself.

GMT’s are often intimidating presences, but are as deserving of your compassion as they are of your respect, because they willingly set themselves up to be targets of criticism, blame, comparison, and suspicion and that is not an easy mantle to assume.

The roles of a GMT are varied and complex: parent, psychotherapist, authority figure, friend, confidant. Being a GMT requires the self-discipline and awareness to be non-reactive, ruthless, neutral, detached, humble, vulnerable, and have the discernment to sense when each quality is needed. You will probably find your GMT everything from confounding to adorable in the span of a couple of minutes, because they act as a model for the paradoxical in human nature. It is no wonder that so many of them go off the rails.

If you’re on your fourth GMT in two years because the previous three did not pass muster, you’re probably looking for someone who does not exist and even if they did would teach you nothing. What are they going to do if you find them, show you how to be a perfect human being, which is the antithesis of a whole human being? Checklists are useful when shopping for a used car, but not a GMT.

A GMT is, above all, a human being with all the accompanying faults and desires. If she/he claims to be anything other than a human being—e.g. a saint, the reincarnation of a past teacher, an ascended master—I recommend politely excusing yourself. If too much energy is wrapped up in celebrating how awesome the GMT is, then you are involved in a personality cult. A GMT can only do so much to deflect such unwanted adoration, so it’s up to you to determine if he or she appears to bask in and encourage such behavior.

If you are exclusively attracted to GMT’s who are no longer alive, but have a large following, you may be avoiding the confrontation with a live GMT that could shake you to your core and initiate the unraveling of your life. It practically ensures a difficult route to finding the teacher inside you because you can never measure up to a beloved GMT whose memory is preserved, protected, and exaggerated by a legion of devotees. It can be a convenient device to stay small and convince yourself that you’re growing at the same time.

There is no one GMT who will be all that you need, nor will he try to fill every void in your life. And that’s a blessing, because if she did it would make it that much easier to fall asleep in a dependent relationship.

If you find yourself wanting to be your GMT’s buddy, it may be an indication that you are a bit power-hungry yourself and believe that close proximity to the big cheese may rub off on you. This makes it harder on the GMT because they have to deal with that projection as well as others you may have. It is their job to destroy your illusions about yourself and we usually don’t acquire friends based on their willingness to call us on our shit.

This is further complicated if you enter into a sexual relationship with the GMT. If the cult practices the conscious cultivation and channeling of sexual energy, it may ensure a mutually agreed-upon, grounded focus for the experience. In that case, a sexual relationship with a GMT is not inconceivable.

Otherwise, pursuing an emotional and sexual relationship with a GMT is likely a big, fat neon sign that your cult involvement is motivated by something other than a desire to grow up. We Americans are generally not capable of staying emotionally detached in a sexual relationship (I know I’m not), and emotional detachment is likely what the GMT will bring to it. If you bring attachment rather than detachment to such a coupling, there is likely to be pain, misunderstanding, and feelings of betrayal. Indeed, this has precipitated the downfall of many a GMT, and caused disillusionment for countless cult members.

If you feel you have been betrayed by the GMT, you have to ask yourself whether they acted the way they always have, but that this time you took it personally, or whether they truly behaved like an insensitive asshole. It is critical to recognize your own contribution, because no one is innocent in such a scenario. After all, you chose to make yourself vulnerable to an individual you believed could help you discover who you really are, when in fact that information can be known by you alone.

When an event is perceived as a betrayal, it is usually an indication that it was not a good fit in the first place or that one or both parties stayed too long in a situation that was clearly over, but neither had the courage to end it.

This is where you are on a knife’s edge in a cult: It is no easy task to balance surrender, vulnerability, critical thinking, and monitoring your feelings, but it is possible. Staying receptive to a variety of different sources of information will give you a fighting chance to maintain a grounded perspective.

When your GMT honestly tells you or demonstrates who they are, you need to pay attention! If they behave in ways you find difficult to accept, you may only hear and see what reinforces your idealized image of him/her. You are there to find the GMT within yourself and not to clean up the one in front of you. If you find yourself wishing the GMT would change or grow in certain respects, then it may be time for you to leave the cult.

Leaving

Any GMT will tell you that your path is ultimately a solitary one and only you can navigate its crooked turns and cul de sacs. This may sound mercenary, but you are using the GMT to get to yourself and at the point you trust yourself as much as you trust him or her, then it is time to leave. This does not preclude feeling immense gratitude for whatever valuable experiences you have had there.

It is important to frequently reflect on why you are participating and how you have benefited thus far. It requires a balance of critical thinking and honest evaluation of your inner state. Simply put: “Am I happy here? Do I feel fulfilled here? Is there something I’m not getting from the GMT that is important to me?”

The external expression of your life will also tell the tale: Have you still not found the courage to leave a loveless marriage, reconnect with your estranged family, refrain from self-destructive behaviors, find a career that is worthy of you? A consistent sense of numbing familiarity is a sign that either you are not using the cult to honestly examine how you’ve created your life, or that this particular cult is not for you. This is not an easy separation, but the longer you stay for the wrong reasons the harder it is to leave.

You will need to trust your own answers to these questions, because ultimately you have to rely on how you feel to guide you and not what the community or GMT may tell you, because it is naive to assume that they always have your best interests in mind. Every last one of us is functioning with a stunningly incomplete knowledge of who and what we really are, so it is easy to allow others to make such decisions for us.

It goes without saying that a cult is one hell of a place to observe the power of collective agreements and beliefs, and you will witness your own tendency to either take them on or challenge them. At times, the group-think will make it difficult for you to form your own impression of what is right and meaningful. And, if you’re lucky, you’ll experience the uncomfortable recognition of our mental default mechanisms that have ultimately led us to the brink of our own extinction.

One of the most useful pieces of wisdom ever given to me by a GMT was, “the purpose of a spiritual path is to exhaust the student,” but I never fully got it until I reached that exhaustion. At that point, the notion of spirituality collapsed and blended with every other category of human experience intended to make one person feel more special than another. It was actually a source of enormous relief and gratitude.

I realized what I had invested so much time and energy in was the slim opportunity to find a departure point, and not a security blanket of spirituality in which to wrap myself. And, if you do experience the dissolution of your spiritual path, it means that you’re free to create instead of seek.

Abandoning the search for meaning can release a tremendous amount of bound-up energy and invigorate your life in unexpected ways. It can result in some deep despair as well, of course, but if your practice has not prepared you for this, then it was never really intended to put you in touch with the full range of your humanity.

Although we tend to idealize the search for meaning as a noble pursuit, actually pursuing it can expose it as a major cause of human suffering. It’s not meaning itself that is the problem, it’s what we do with meaning once we’ve found it. We can’t be content with it on our own; we need a consensus to agree that this one is better than any other meanings. It becomes another source of separation instead of unity, another identity to protect, and a basis on which to dismiss others in comparison.

Because of our vastly overblown opinion of the human species, it cannot be enough that we exist simply to fully express who we were meant to be as individuals. No, good heavens, there must be some overarching meaning to all this that reflects our inherent majesty.

After your cult experience, if you trust your own definitions of “spiritual” or “sacred,” and know that it’s okay if those definitions are continuously evolving and self-contradictory, then you have a way of being that is rooted in feeling and personal experience instead of dogma, ideology, or a tired narrative that was recorded millennia ago.

Joining a cult can be an attempt to drop out of mainstream society, but what you learn is that you can never escape your own mind, and that it is a reflection of the collective mind in all its messy glory. You can, however, become intimately familiar with the workings of your mind, and therein lies your chance to rediscover what a cult and GMT can only point you toward.

Meditation is Not the Problem

This is a response to the Atlantic Monthly article, “The Dark Knight of the Soul.” (http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/06/the-dark-knight-of-the-souls/372766/?utm_source=Mic+Check&utm_campaign=2f3ff84205-Mic_Report_6_26_2014&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_51f2320b33-2f3ff84205-285410933

This article in the Atlantic Monthly highlights a clinic in Providence, Rhode Island where Dr. Willoughby Britton, “an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the Brown University Medical School receives regular phone calls, emails, and letters from people around the world in various states of impairment. Most of them worry no one will believe—let alone understand—their stories of meditation-induced affliction. Her investigation of this phenomenon, called “The Dark Night Project,” is an effort to document, analyze, and publicize accounts of the adverse effects of contemplative practices.”

This article deserves serious examination because if the demonization of meditation becomes the next fabricated trend in pathologizing and treating normal human behavior, then it might just signal the beginning of the end for the spirituality/personal growth industry in this country.

One of the obvious sources of confusion regarding meditation is that the word itself is used to describe a variety of different approaches and techniques. Across all these techniques, though, meditation is nothing more than focusing one’s attention. The critical aspect that differentiates one technique from another is what is receiving the focus, and the spirit in which the focus is being transmitted.

Due to the limited scope of a blogpost, I’m only going to contrast meditation practices that are health or relaxation-oriented vs. those that might be described as contemplative or transformative.

As we know by now, meditation can be used quite effectively as a relaxation tool, a means to lower blood pressure or pulse, and to counter the effects of stress. This is a very useful reminder of how we can program our physiology via our attention, and if it were adopted by a majority of people it could, for example, put a big dent in the ridiculous over-prescribing of blood pressure medication. A person might conceivably use meditation solely in this practical role for her entire life, because the mind has clearly established a specific agenda and it will not stray outside the set protocol if it’s to achieve that goal.

However, if someone begins to discover a persistent sadness that accompanies her relaxation protocol, she might think that she needs a new technique or that her execution is flawed. In such an approach to meditation, thoughts, feelings, and emotions may be regarded at best as annoyances to the task at hand, but not as useful sources of information in themselves. If there is a clearly defined agenda driving one’s motivation to meditate, then the mind will do its damnedest to suppress, rationalize away, disregard, and minimize any incoming information that conflicts with this agenda, just as Scrooge initially dismisses Marley’s ghost as “an undigested bit of beef.”

Generally, this approach to meditation, while having practical value, doesn’t encourage an attitude of exploration and discovery beyond the specific physiological results that are being sought. As such, it can coexist quite well with the baseline rigidity of the mind without much fuss.

Let’s contrast this with a meditation practice that is intended to cultivate a state of contemplation or witnessing of the mind itself, which is the type of practice that I’ll be referring to for the remainder of this blogpost. If a person undertakes such a practice, then he has already recognized on some level that there is something lacking in his life. All that remains is to discover what that “something” is and establish how much he’s willing to sacrifice in order to rectify it. In some circles, this is known as a spiritual path.

With this type of meditation practice one is usually encouraged to combine a point of focus with an attitude of vulnerability and surrender. (Already, we can see how the ramifications of such a focus might differ greatly from the limited goals of a relaxation/stress management model of meditation.) Since our culture at large actually discourages vulnerability and surrender and equates these with weakness, our initial efforts at understanding and putting these qualities into practice can be very painful and clumsy. The attitude of a contemplative practice is the opposite of how we live our lives most of the time, which is in a fiercely guarded state where we’re terrified that we may not be right about everything.

Because we begin a meditation practice with all of our social conditioning solidly in place, there are some underlying assumptions we bring to the table that are hidden to our conscious minds until we encounter our resistance to letting go of these same beliefs. Then we hold on for dear life.

I feel the number one assumption is the belief that we can know anything, including assuming that we know what a human being is. But if we assume we know what a human being is, then we think we know what the mind is. Next, if we know what the mind is then we know what meditation is, and so we know what to expect and what not to expect. Because, gosh, we sure don’t want any surprises.

When vulnerability and surrender meet these beliefs head-on, something’s gotta give. In attempting to reconcile these conflicting forces by allowing our rigid beliefs to soften in the face of being vulnerable to the possibility that we might be wrong, we gradually become aware of the power of quiet destruction that we’ve beckoned into our lives. Indeed, we would never have consciously asked for this, because something else—something other than our discriminating mind–has drawn us onto this battlefield.

Meditation can potentially devastate our illusions, identities, agendas, and roust our skeletons from their closets, regardless of what we thought our intention was going into it. The misperception that a meditation practice will necessarily be an enhancement of one’s present life situation rather than a force that may cause its disintegration is often one of the first sacrifices in achieving any depth in one’s practice. In our current 2014 environment, in which we’re conditioned to regard constant bombardment by external stimuli as normal, the impulse to look inward is an inherently subversive act.

Here are a few quotes from the article by clients who are said to be recovering from meditation:

“I had a fear of being thought of as crazy,” he says, “I felt extremely sensitive, vulnerable, and naked.”

David explains that he finally felt awake. But it didn’t last. “I started having thoughts like, ‘Let me take over you,’ combined with confusion and tons of terror. I had a vision of death with a scythe and a hood, and the thought ‘Kill yourself’ over and over again.”

“Psychological hell,” is how he describes it. “It would come and go in waves. I’d be in the middle of practice and what would come to mind was everything I didn’t want to think about, every feeling I didn’t want to feel.”

And there you have the prevailing American perspective on spirituality and personal growth: If I don’t get it just the way I want it, then there must be something wrong with the technique, my teacher, or me.

The difficult periods of meditation, feeling like we don’t enjoy anything anymore or that our life is meaningless, is a way to get us to STOP doing what we’ve always done, because the inherent emptiness of our old life is being shown to us. For a lot of us, our internal dialogue simply never makes it to an audible level because we censor it so completely, precisely because it includes such disturbing material. When someone feels depressed, panicky, anxious, or hopeless as a result of their meditation practice, it is alerting them to a whole level of repressed emotions and feelings that have not been allowed to see the light of day. The fact that they are now at the surface where they can be acknowledged means that there is finally a possibility for healing.

Have I personally experienced depression, white hot rage, thoughts of suicide, and intense fear and anxiety as a result of meditation? Yes, and I continue to do so, but it’s not “a meditation-induced affliction”! It’s opening the door of my mind’s cluttered attic, finding out what’s inside and learning to cope with being a more fully-feeling human being in a world that is increasingly determined to produce robots, to feel as human as possible without going insane. Meditation is simply the vehicle by which I give myself permission to do so.

Does it help to have someone to talk to during these difficult periods? Of course! But that person certainly doesn’t have to be a mental health professional that is poised to tell us that there’s something wrong with having normal human feelings. A person is much better off not embarking on a meditation practice if he isn’t willing to risk discovering that there is something other than his mind, and that it has nothing to do with his individuality or agendas. Because the mind doesn’t appreciate being deconstructed, to put it lightly, it may view its obliteration through the lens of a mental and emotional breakdown and cause one to seek intervention so that it can abort the process of transformation and preserve its dominion. Mission accomplished.

With the widespread use of antidepressants and other mood-altering aids, as well as suffocating social pressures such as political correctness and public shaming, we are driving our collective emotional selves deeper and deeper into inaccessibility. Our rapidly shrinking outlets for honest emotional expression doesn’t squelch our need to find that expression; it does, however, mean that an encounter with our true feelings is more likely to be unexpected and precipitated by events seemingly beyond our control. Meditation can certainly be a way to counteract this trend and intentionally enter into an interaction with our deeper selves, so we don’t have to wait for life to beat the stuffing out of us for us to feel something.

We make the mistake of believing there’ll be a straight line from desiring change in our lives to seeing evidence of change, and this linear way of thinking about personal growth or transformation is yet another mental construct that can fall apart in the face of a meditation practice. The difficult truth is that it may require years of opening ourselves up to repressed fear, depression, or rage that is standing between our current, unsatisfying life and something quite different and much more honest. Until we’re willing to really feel the pain that has drawn us toward meditation in the first place, we’ll continue to look anywhere else for change except where we almost certainly need to go.

In our “you can have it all” culture, we think we can subject our mind to the rigorous examination of a meditation practice and still believe in the American Dream, still keep our failing marriage together, and still hang on to our miserable, high-paying job. We want to be connected with the whole universe and all humanity except for that person over there that doesn’t smell very good. It’s like thinking you can open Pandora’s box just a smidge. When we permit ourselves to get away with this degree of internal haggling, it’s no wonder that we rarely see the change in the world or in ourselves that we passionately claim we long for. We persist in the contradictory line of thought that we want change, but we want it to feel familiar so that it doesn’t scare the shit out of us.

We advocate taking risks in order to experience life fully, but we stubbornly maintain that we can take risks and control the outcomes at the same time. If we need intervention to recover from glimpsing the reality of our inner state, then what’s next?

The clinic featured in this article is the latest twist on American health care’s fine tradition of killing the messenger, whether it’s in the arena of physical or mental health. In this case, meditation is seen as the problem rather than the means by which a person recognizes some truths about her emotional and psychological self, just like an orthopedist who tells a patient that’s experiencing pain while jogging to stop jogging, while the real issue is the patient’s badly misaligned pelvis. It also reflects western medicine’s inclination to confuse the qualities of a healing process with the pathology itself.

“Many people in our study were lost and confused and could not find help,” Britton says. “They had been through so many doctors, therapists, and dharma teachers. Given that we had so much information about these effects, we realized that we were it.”

Cool! Let’s create a brand new affliction and just happen to be uniquely positioned to treat it. Et voilà, the expert is born! In the guise of the helper or healer, we once again have someone who wants to short-circuit the process of healing, in this case the disintegration of the ego, the big daddy of them all. And, let’s just happen to be associated with an Ivy League university medical center so that our research will have brand name cachet, bountiful funding, and a fast track to publication.

I get seasick just trying to make sense of someone researching the adverse effects of meditation on the mind. It’s like a husband who is cheating on his wife that hires a private investigator to prove to himself that he’s cheating on his wife. Well, the brain may give up some of its secrets to researchers, but the mind has very little interest in revealing itself. We simply can’t reliably study the mind with the mind. It’s like a dog chasing its tail, but much worse because at least a dog will eventually get exhausted and lose interest. But our misguided and relentless efforts to understand the mind results in entire belief systems, institutions, and social structures that only serve to prevent us from accessing anything beyond the mind. As a result, we only discover what the mind is willing to give up without risking the existing order of things.

Meditation, however, provides us with a perspective from which we can actually witness the mind without trying to understand it, which in my experience is the only way it will reveal its secrets, strategies, machinations, and most importantly, how it creates and perpetuates what we perceive as reality. Unfortunately, the price that one pays to have this experience is in the fine print and rarely provided up front. We don’t realize we’re asking for the destruction of those parts of us that are just distractions from seeing ourselves for who and what we really are, and now we want our old life back. Guess what? Your old life is what you were asking to be freed from.