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.


  1. Wow, I feel like the person who wrote this post was a different person from the one I grew up with. I don't mean that at all in a condemning way - I just feel bad that I was really completely clueless about all the pain and heartache you were going through. I am so sorry I wasn't there to talk with you and maybe help you through some of those unnecessarily tough times. You were a bit distant from the rest of us, being the oldest, but we all idolized you... even as a "guru," I dare say. Certainly as a "good" person - much better than the rest of us scalawags, as Mama told us frequently. This makes me wonder how you would go about raising yourself differently if you had yourself as a child. My own experience with sex/masturbation was at first confusing, along the same lines as you have mentioned, but ultimately quite different - very private and personal (I never even dreamed of speaking to the bishop, for instance), and eventually resolved to my pleasure and satisfaction between me and the Lord. So, any thoughts on how you're going to tell your kids different?

  2. Hey, this blog has changed since I've last been here. Ads for house loans and Christian Mingle'n'Single? Comments needing to be approved? Is somebody turning into a big deal here?

  3. Ruth, I have always moderated comments (though I have never turned any away: I do not generate enough traffic to attract spam). The ads are more for amusement than anything else: I was curious what things Google would think resonated with my ramblings.

    As for raising kids, I think the best way to approach sex is to be honest about it (as a good mentor: Mom and Dad were actually good sources of info; it was going to the bishop all the time and listening to what I heard at church that screwed me over). You figured things out OK without being interrogated regularly, and you are not the only one.

  4. "Every time hierarchical power is exerted, people get hurt."

    I seem to recall lots of hierarchical power being exerted over your wonderful sons the last time we visited, and people (i.e., your sons, although they did resemble stressed-out baboons at times) were helped. If you were oblivious to the dangers of touching a hot furnace, handling a touchy dog, or falling through the banister railing from the upstairs room, their mother, thankfully, was not.

    Maybe less anger and more humor is in order here. You have matured in many ways, but it seems to me that you have still not accepted responsibility for your own neurosis and weakness and immaturity. These bishops did the very best that they could under trying circumstances to help you learn and move forward, and to act as if they violated you when they were actually taking time from their families and other duties to try to assist you is to present a very one-sided view of the situation. To act as if you were raped seems beyond the pale, and your use of profanity is disappointing to me. (In present-day America, you could probably get a lawyer to take your case, of course!)

    As a physician I see your youthful equivalent in my office every working day - many older than myself, by the way. Their absolute faith in me and what I represent is tremendously frightening and challenging, and I try my best to 'do no harm' while helping them to assume more responsibility for their own health and well-being. What President Packer says about a little knowledge being a dangerous thing is certainly true in my medical practice. What is most frightening is how little collective knowledge there seems to be these days, even among the so-called medical experts.

  5. My masturbation was quite intentional. I would literally cry afterwards because I felt so terrible. Masturbate. Cry. Pray. Masturbate. Cry. Pray. (I creates a horrible mental image) Since then, I've learned to be a Mormon on my own terms; it's the means by which I grow into myself, not a mold I try to fit into--a means of becoming something I'm not. I'm a first time visitor, btw. I quite like your blog.

  6. Hoosier, I think we actually agree more than we disagree. However, I do not think that toddlers are the same as teenagers or adults. If my sons still need me to change their diapers and micromanage everything they do when they are 10, 15, 25, or 30, then I will not be happy (even if extenuating circumstances make the service necessary: my goal as a parent is help them become self-sufficient, not to keep them permanently under my thumb, even if they have to spend some time there when they are young and helpless). As I said to someone else recently, obedience may be the first law of heaven, but it certainly is not the last.

    Maybe this will help clarify where I am coming from with the anger. I am not angry at any of my bishops as people: they were good people, and I appreciate their wishing me well and taking time to help me (as they thought). I am angry at the office of bishop, at "authorities" who pretend that a layperson can cure the "problem" of human sexuality by applying and/or enabling pathological guilt (the pain I felt because I felt impure) and shame (the pain I felt because I was always letting the community down and coming in danger of losing my status as a functioning member). My anger is a natural physiological reaction. I know it is not entirely rational, but I am not entirely rational. As with any animal, if you put me in a cage and then yell and throw things at me long enough, I become jumpy, paranoid, defensive, and (yes, eventually) angry. My anger does not evaporate when you tell me that the cage and the torture are for my own good. Good intentions do not always lead to good results. Wishing that certain theories worked in real life does not change the fact that they do not always work (even if your name is God).

    If my bishops had approached me with compassion instead of judgment, maybe things would be different. The thing is, they did have compassion, but they had no idea how to relate to me effectively. They knew nothing about mental health, nothing about counseling, nothing about human sexuality (except how the plumbing works and how their own life played out). But, because a guru called them and set them apart, they felt obliged to humiliate me in the name of love, for my own good. They lovingly beat the crap out of soul (and I joined in religiously, until finally I realized the whole charade was ridiculous). I hate that. I never want to do that to anyone else.

    As for the larger epidemic of ignorance in society, I think a lot of it comes from unquestioning reliance on authority. People look to gurus when they should look inward and examine their own souls. For the most part, the gurus are content to let everyone go on treating them with exaggerated deference, even when they really mess things up (for everyone, including themselves). Yes, people can and do hurt themselves when they attempt to think, act, and be for themselves, but they learn from those mistakes much better than from errors which the gurus give them in the form of absolute truth (which does not exist outside of historical context). When I do something dumb and the result is bad, I say, "That was silly. I won't do it again." When I do something dumb because the guru told me too and the result is bad, I am supposed to say, "That seems bad, but I know it is really good. Maybe if I keep doing it, all my problems with it will go away miraculously and everything will be wonderful." Obedience to the guru is a switch for turning off my mind; sometimes, e.g. with toddlers, that kind of switch is necessary. But other times it is definitely not. I think most of us keep it flipped on far too long.

  7. "To act as if you were raped seems beyond the pale,"

    It is rape! Like Hermes said, not by a man, but an office, and I would add, an institution. After all, the bishop is just following word for word what he reads in his Handbook. Hermes gave his heart and soul over to a system that systematically "beat the crap" out of him. That's precisely how I feel. Maybe Hermes had a "neurosis", but that neurosis was preyed upon and exploited by the Church. There is a psychological disorder called Scrupulosity characterized by pathological guilt about moral or religious issues. I wonder how many Mormons have it.

    I can say, with confidence, that the Brethren only made my "sexual impurity", so-called, worse. It made me feel like a pervert. It made me feel unworthy to date. Heck, it made me feel unworthy even to interact with members of the opposite sex. And if you'll allow me to wax sociological, it gets even worse. It doesn't occur to you, as a teenager, to direct that frustration, that anger, to the Church, whose leaders we hold in such high regard. No, we direct anger towards the object of our weakness, our lust. It's often the young, unassuming women we blame and dump our anger and frustration on.

    I don't know how old you are Hoosier, but I don't think you know how it felt to belong to the "Porn Generation". It's the mid-nineties, and pornography is all-of-the-sudden free and easily accessible to every 13 year old boy who knows how to turn on a computer and has a dial-up Internet connection. Where were the Watchmen on the Tower? WHERE THE HELL WERE THEY? Oh...there they are. A little late to the game...with the soft...healing words of the Redeemer. Wait... No... It turns out all they can think to say to a young man who has barely discovered his sexuality that pornography really REALLY pisses God off.

    I know the Church has betrayed its heritage and crucified its founder, Joseph Smith. That is, I know in its race to win the respect of evangelical protestants, it has adopted the protestant work ethic wholesale. Nevertheless, actions have causes that extend beyond the individual. The scandal of Mormonism, if anyone had bothered to notice, is not polygamy, it's pornography.

    The boy was raped for godsakes, and your asking for more humor. Well I say more anger--righteous indignation that is. And profanity? Seriously? "First cast out the beam of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote of thy brother's eye."

    The only cure for sexual impurity is at-one-ment...with God, with one's body, one's soul, the young women he interacts with... And this, while the Brethren were teaching the opposite, ...a doctrine that led to belittlement, anger, guilt, frustration, self-loathing, and utter loneliness. And need I remind you, for the third time, we're talking about Deacons. Kids, really.

    Hermes, this is a great blog. Keep fighting the good fight. You're on my blog's list of "Blogs that I like." To be able to speak sharp words without hypocrisy is such a gift. Your blog is a blessing to me.

  8. Arkwelder: Easy, tiger. Hoosier (whom I happen to know personally) didn't have my (our) experience, so he understandably isn't ready to take my (our) word as gospel truth and run with it. They didn't put him in a cage and throw things. He was never raped. Give him a break! (And be glad that not everyone who deals with gurus gets screwed by them. Like it or lump it, this is true.)

    Hoosier: I was thinking of some things to say about profanity, but I think I will save it for a later post. It is a really interesting topic.

  9. I realize I'm in the middle of a family feud of sorts, and I do have my own blog to gripe on. However, I want to summarize here by saying there is a very serious problem when one has to circumvent the "Lord's Anointed" to come unto Christ and be healed of sexual impurity. Anything else I have to say on the matter I'll say on my own turf. Thanks for the opportunity to speak my mind.

  10. No problem, Arkwelder. I agree with your summary and appreciate you stepping in to confirm that I am not the only one out there who was crushed by the system. Thanks for your interest.