Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Problem with Gurus

Geoffrey D. Falk. Stripping the Gurus: Sex, Violence, Abuse and Enlightenment. Million Monkeys, 2009. ISBN: 0973620315.

This book is available online, for free, and it is actually quite informative and entertaining.  It presents a number of anecdotes illustrating what typically goes wrong when one person surrenders his moral authority abjectly to another (a demonstration often referred to "faith" or "obedience" in my experience).

Reading Falk releases a cascade of conflicting emotions in me.  On the one hand, I want to believe in the guru-disciple relationship: for many years I assumed it as a given, taking the word of my parents, my religious leaders, and my martial arts instructor as law (and worshipping them as its administrators).  In the case of my parents and my martial arts instructor, this blind, absolute faith proved harmless; in time, I grew to the point where I no longer needed the crutch of someone telling me exactly what to do in crucial situations (e.g. in the bathroom, in the car, in the sparring ring), and they stepped back to let me "do my own thing" without any fuss or recrimination.  Their goal was to make me a fully fledged individual (like them, but not eternally under their thumb: in fact, if I had continued requiring constant supervision to perform "like a big boy," they would have regarded their teaching time as wasted).  I was safe trusting these people absolutely because they trusted me back and did not take undue advantage of my youthful gullibility (in taking them for gods when, as they would tell you, they are just human beings like everybody else).

On the other hand, my religious experiences with the guru-disciple relationship have not turned out well.  This goes back at least as far as puberty, when I joined the Aaronic priesthood and became personally answerable to my local LDS bishop.  My bishop was a family man--kind, interested, and good--and he did his best to help me grow up righteous.  Unfortunately, this meant interrogating me regularly about my sexual proclivities, which I was very uncertain about (having scarcely any practical experience with them).  I was gradually becoming aware (1) that sex existed, (2) that it was part of my life (whether I wanted it or not), and (3) that if I had anything to do with it before marriage, I was hell-bound (not because I would actually go to Outer Darkness, though that was ultimately a possibility: meantime, I would be unable to fulfill my public duties as an Aaronic priesthood holder; everyone would notice my failure to perform and conclude that I was a miserable sinner).  The latter point (3) was especially distressing, since I was always in doubt as to what inroads precisely sex was allowed to make on me before marriage.  Could I have a wet dream?  What if I rolled over at night and something happened?  What if I woke up in the middle of something happening?  What if I woke up touching myself?  What if ... ? I had just experienced a very emotional conversion to the "truth" of my religion (the Mormon equivalent to "getting saved" as a born-again Christian), and religious observance was very important to me.  I wanted to be a good Aaronic priesthood holder.  I did not want to fail in my public duties, and I was not willing to lie just to go through the motions: for me (as a very sincerely religious person), that would the ultimate sacrilege.  I took the church's nebulous prohibition on premarital sex (of any kind) very seriously, and thus I found myself confessing repeatedly to my bishop, the "judge in Israel" with authority to handle such matters before God and the faith community.

I was told that confessing to the bishop, repenting (which might involve formal discipline, like having my ability to participate in public ceremonies revoked), and being forgiven would make me feel better, would improve my moral standing (as an individual and a member of the LDS community), would make me a better person.  Unfortunately, all I got was several years of agony, wherein I would go running to the bishop every time I had a wet dream or any other unusual sexual experience whose "appropriateness" struck me as being in question.  While this occasionally did result in momentary happiness (when the bishop happened to say something like, "Oh, don't worry about that"), relief was never lasting: sex was still out there to destroy me.  And there were times when I came close to being disciplined; I felt scared and powerless (since I could not make the sex go away), as well as humiliated (since I was constantly letting my community down and having to confess my awful sinfulness to the good bishop, who just wished I could be a good little boy like everyone else: I was really, really naive).  I desperately wanted to control my sexuality "appropriately" -- so I dutifully did everything my bishop told me (pray, study the scriptures, don't think about girls) and even tried to read Spencer W. Kimball's Miracle of Forgiveness on my own (not an exercise I recommend to anyone trying to cope with intense shame, guilt, or fear).  None of this helped, at all (except insofar as the scriptures occasionally distracted me with a story that was not my own, though I still felt personally condemned every time any sexual misdeed was denounced).  It was like pouring endless rounds of saltwater on an open wound that never healed.  Instead of learning to control myself and be responsibly comfortable with sexuality, I learned to react with abject shame and fear every time anything reminded me of sex.  I learned to mistrust (and even hate) myself: what abiding worth could I possibly have if I was unable to avoid continually tumbling in the direction of sexual sin, the sin closest to murder (a closeness that was drawn to my attention repeatedly in church meetings especially for youth)?

I have many happy memories from my youth.  I also have many unhappy memories, times when I wished I could end it all by castrating myself physically (as I read that some of the early church fathers did) or committing suicide (when I figured I was already headed to Outer Darkness as an all-but murderer).  My parents shared a few of these sad moments, and they did their best to make me see that I was crazy.  My church leaders shared a few of these sad moments, and they did their best to make sure that I continued to suffer indefinitely (not because they meant to hurt me, but because they genuinely thought that all of this anguish was somehow good for me, that my sinfulness would be washed away in the pangs of "godly sorrow").  I went to my parents, and they said, "Don't be ridiculous."  I went to my religious leaders (including that bishop, whom I honestly never want to see again, not because he is a bad person but because I have so many bad memories of sitting in his office, telling him things he did not need to know), and they said, "Confess. Repent.  Go and sin no more."  Tragically, I listened to my leaders over my parents.

Somehow I managed to get off on a mission in spite of my recurrent lapses into sexuality.  (If I remember correctly, my dad got really exasperated with my doubts about worthiness and said something about real people having to live normal lives in spite of wet dreams: the work of the world still needs doing, even if you might have accidentally masturbated, moron!  Good for him.)  There, I managed to avoid having too much to do with sexuality: it was still around, but the increase in other stressors put a sudden (and surprising, to me anyway) damper on its power over me.  I was still intensely religious.  I still believed in my leaders absolutely.  Though I had long since started distancing myself from my parents and my martial arts instructor, I was still tied to my church leaders' apron-strings.  When local leaders, mission presidents, and visiting General Authorities told me to spend 60 hours proselytizing every week, I did.  When they promised baptismal success if we were righteous, I believed them.  When nothing happened in spite of our best efforts (i.e. our numbers remained very unimpressive), I should have concluded that I was still a miserable sinner ruining God's plan with my incorrigible wickedness, but I did not.  Instead, I started thinking, and something inside me snapped.  I was tired of feeling ashamed, guilty, scared, and powerless around my religious leaders.  I was tired of having my best efforts never be enough for them.  I was tired of being the miserable failure who couldn't do anything really good for God because he might have accidentally masturbated.  I was tired of "authorities" giving me plans that did not pan out and then blaming me for the failure.  Slowly, I stopped listening fearfully to the authorities.  I started looking at life for myself and asking myself honestly what I thought about it.  The apron-strings began to come off.  It would take years for them to be removed entirely.

I still remember the last time I confessed anything to an LDS bishop.  I was a graduate student in my mid-twenties, getting ready to be married in the Salt Lake temple.  Thinking innocently about marriage and everything it involved, I found myself one day in the art library of my institution.  I pulled a random book off the shelf, opened it up, and confronted a painting of a pregnant nude (by Lucian Freud).  It was like a dash of cold water to the face: I did not know what to think, and the old panic welled up.  Would I be unworthy now to be married?  Would I have to spend the next several years explaining to everyone over and over again why I could never have a normal life?  (Ha!)  I went in to see my bishop--another kind, interested family man--and told him about the painting (but not the rest of my life).  He smiled, said that it was normal for me to be thinking about marriage at this point of my life, that there was nothing wrong with enjoying beautiful art, and that was that.  As I left his office in a painfully familiar rush of adrenaline, I thought to myself, "I am never going to play this game again.  I am not going to burden this man or any man with my private neuroses, no matter what calling God has given him.  I will not take a friendly mentor and turn him into an almighty guru."  The apron-strings went really slack that day.

Today, I think there is an important difference to be made between mentors and gurus.  The mentor knows that he has limitations.  He does not speak the absolute will of an all-knowing God.  He just tells you where he is been so that you can take his wisdom as a road map (if you want to).  If you are really young or naive, he might have to control you a bit (especially at first, as anyone with toddlers knows), but his goal is always to set you out eventually on your own.  He never demands respect for ideas that don't work.  The guru, on the other hand, believes that he has transcended whatever limitations he may have.  He does speak the will of God.  When he speaks, you listen or go to hell.  He will always want to control you.  If you give him your fear, your guilt, your shame, then you have put yourself entirely in his power, and he will ride you into the ground.  Even if he wants to do you good, his "guru-ness" (the mantle of authority that Boyd K. Packer likes to talk about) will not let him: that is what they mean when they say that power corrupts, not that it turns people's heads (though it can do that too), but that it inevitably leads to people getting unnecessarily hurt.  Every time hierarchical power is exerted, people get hurt.  (This actually makes good biological sense: I refer you to Robert Sapolsky's work on stress in baboons.)  The mentor knows this and tries to help prepare his protege for inevitable blowback.  The guru ignores this, whether ignorantly or maliciously, and leaves his disciple naively, nakedly vulnerable.  By refusing to take full and permanent responsibility for another person's morality, the mentor (no matter how he might express himself verbally) is demonstrating love.  By claiming absolute devotion, the guru (no matter how he might express himself verbally) is demonstrating contempt.  I am done learning from people who despise me, people whose teaching always boils down to "F*** you!" (though they are not always aware of it).  I let them do me (only metaphorically, thank goodness) for years, and I cannot recommend it.  It is bad.