Spirituality and Sadism

When someone invites you to come to a “spiritual” lecture, you never know what kind of a trap you are walking into. There are so many different types of cons.

In 1978 I was in graduate school at the University of California, Irvine. I was studying the language of ecstasy and peace – the way people speak when they are in the midst of experiences of meditative rapture, bliss, and transformation. I was interviewing meditators of all kinds, all traditions, all religions, and making notes.

Probably in 1979, a woman moved into an office two doors down from mine, let’s call her Bobbie. She kept inviting me to go to her Tibetan Buddhist lectures, and I kept refusing. I was traveling a lot, teaching meditation workshops around the United States and Canada, and also doing a lot of interviews.

One reason I was not interested was because this woman had no aura. She looked dead inside, just a walking husk of a person, with no vitality at all. Her forehead was perpetually wrinkled in exhaustion from her self-hatred. There was no meditation in her aura whatsoever, no vitality, so I did not want whatever she was up to. And I had already interviewed hundreds of people who had failed at meditation. I was vert interested in people who were thriving in meditation and were healthy in their approach to this ancient practice – people who instinctively knew how to customize the classic teachings to fit their individual nature.

But one evening, I happened to be done working, and Bobbie was lurking in the hall when I walked out. “Come on, my teacher is in town. Come meet him. He is a very important lineage holder at Naropa, the Buddhist University in Boulder.” This was the first I had ever heard of Naropa.

So I said Okay.

I never thought about it at the time, but in the 70’s and 80’s, I walked around looking impossibly naive and enthusiastic, because I was doing two or three hours a day of meditation, yoga and pranayama. One of the side-effects of being born again is that you look like you were born yesterday. You feel like you were freshly born. If you do a yoga practice that suits your body type, you are suffused with prana. with To some people, that made me look like an easy mark, ignorant and gullible .

I don’t have a photo of me in 1979. This was me four years later, in 1983. Still looking enthusiastic and, maybe to some people, gullible.

The location of the Buddhist lecture was near John Wayne Airport, just a few miles from UCI. Conveniently, the lecture room was right next to the airport bar. The man giving the talk droned on and on about Buddhist theology for a long time. It was an incredibly boring lecture. But I listened attentively.

After the lecture was over, Bobbie asked me if I would like to join her and the teacher in the bar.

We found a table and the teacher ordered a tall drink – Long Island Iced Tea, which I remembered because it was such a weird thing to order. The woman ordered a martini, and I got a beer. They settled in, started drinking and started to smile and loosen up. They started out with a grey pallor, but as they drank, color came into their faces.

The man drank for awhile, thirstily. Then he gave me a meaningful look. He looked me right in the eyes for a minute.
"So," he said, "Are you just a spiritual vampire that goes from group to group?”
Another deep, meaningful look.
“Are you a dilettante, just dabbling?”

This wasn’t what I was expecting – I had a slight hope that after giving the boring lecture the guy would open up. So I let that go, fortunately very quickly, less than a heartbeat. For a fraction of a second, I thought about protesting, saying something like, your girlfriend here has been after me for half a year to come to one of your events. I came here just to honor her and you. Then I realized this would be lame, and would also play into whatever game they were setting up. So I rode that little impulse and turned it into something else. I went completely, utterly still, and just watched the two of them.

Actually, taking his attack and examining the possibility – it had never occurred to me that there were spiritual vampires. I knew that often, people who meditate have a lot of energy – they shimmer. Meditation is feeding on infinity. The thought never crossed my mind that instead of going to the source and feeding from infinity, some people would just feed on the meditators. Hmmm. Why not just meditate?

Hmm. I also knew, from many years of training, that if a spiritual teacher accuses you of something, it is most likely a distraction technique. The teacher himself is doing that very thing, and the attack is to put you on the defensive. This is a well-known, and very effective technique.

So I took a breath. So far we are a couple of seconds into the encounter.

I let time slow down a little, and glanced at Bobbie. She snuggled closer to the guy, and spread her legs a little, and her nostrils flared. She was getting ready to enjoy watching someone get roasted and devoured (game on, let’s murder this guy and then go get a room and have sex.)

This was slightly interesting. Something is going on here, in this little booth in an airport bar.

I looked at him, and he was waiting for me to have a response, and was already gloating. Why is he gloating? I asked myself – oh, he had this moment rehearsed. He thought his little attack would stun me.

I kept on being silent, not moving, just studying, decoding their racket. This is why she has been pestering me to come to a lecture for months. In her mind, she thinks she is the bait, the honey trap, the seductive female that leads the fresh recruits to the predator-male so that he can feed. The situation and alcohol has made her feel beautiful, powerful.

I just looked at the two of them, staying at ease and yet studying their moves.

“What’s the matter, can’t you handle my scrutiny?” he finally said.

SCRUTINY. I had heard that word before, from people describing what their cult leaders had said as they tried to destroy whatever spirit of independence, rebellion, or self-worth was left in the member of their meditation cult. This was starting to be funny. These two deluded souls thought they were scrutinizing me! The boring, droning evening was starting to get interesting.

I just let his attack sail right on by, and kept gazing at him with amused interest. I realized that I was supposed to be shocked by what he said and by his “deep, meaningful gaze.” This must have worked for him in the past. People come to his lectures, sincerely wanting to learn about Tibetan Buddhism and spiritual practices, and they get HIM, and he gets to beat them up and stand there, dominant, howling, drinking their blood.

Oh, I finally got it. The plan was that the two of them would gloat as they tore me apart, and after it was over, they would walk away laughing then go to his hotel room and have sex.

Duh, I felt a bit stupid. I was slow on the uptake here. This was clearly a well-practiced routine they had developed. The reason the woman had been so persistent in inviting me was not just to be another body in the lecture room – she wanted to see me being dominated, beaten up by her man, and then maybe I would become a submissive member of their cult. At the very least I would be fresh meat for him to conquer while she watched and got turned on. Stupid for me to have fallen for their game so far – to get me there in the room, then in the booth with them, outnumbered.

So I kept on being still and silent and watching as they tried to discern the moment when they could strike. In that moment, they were both predators ready to pounce. They were looking at me and their venom glands were secreting what they thought of was just the exact chemical to paralyze me. He was very cool and she was almost salivating. They were enjoying the fact that I seemed to be shocked into silence by the "penetrating insight" of what they guy had just said to me.

So I just gazed at the guy peacefully. Then I started laughing.

He was as shocked as if I had slapped him. His mouth dropped open. This was not going according to plan.

I kept on laughing for awhile and then I said, “I am sorry,” I said, “I just can’t play your sadistic little alcoholic game. It is so grandiose, and so sad.”

“I don’t know anything about you,” I continued, “but if I had just the last few minutes to go by, I would say that you have modeled yourself on an alcoholic spiritual teacher, who has been playing the domination-submission game successfully and getting away with it. Maybe he is really clever. But wherever you are from, it is a sick system.” I did not know at the time that this was exactly the kind of group he was from, a Tibetan meditation group with a brilliant alcoholic lama. The group later became famous, and infamous, for the depth of insanity and degradation they sank to.

"Look at you two. LOOK AT YOU. What are you, 40? Already you're a couple of dried-up old alcoholics, playing sadistic drinking games that you call spirituality. There is no vitality here, in your bodies or your teaching. You have a debased notion of what the dharma is."

They were still shocked into silence – I had turned the tables on them temporarily.

I realized, I need to get out of here, so I put some money on the table and walked away from my tiny victory while they were still speechless. The woman was mad and was trying to generate some venom for a next attack.

I walked away because I know that I am not street smart enough to stay in such a fight – I'm not mean enough. I have too much sympathy for the Devil. I tend to feel compassion for people, even if they are out for my blood, and that slows me down. That booth was their turf.

Also, I do not believe in the “humiliation process” in the first place – the forced breakdown of someone's identity. I’d been through it, years before these two dufus dharma vamps had ever heart of meditation, and wasn’t impressed with the outcomes, in anyone - the teachers or students.This breakdown process does have a role in basic training for the military, and in the induction phase to a monastery or ashram. It also has a role in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, in which it is essential to more or less murder the person's addictive ego so they can be reborn as a new person who has a chance at recovery. The military is probably the most skilled at it – they tear you down and then rebuild you as a proud member of your unit. Cults and thought-control groups use the breakdown method to dominate their members emotionally, mentally, and financially. You can get people to sign away their life savings to you. That’s how churches and spiritual centers have such good buildings.

I don’t judge the military for using the humiliation process. But in my experience, therapy groups and meditation groups that used it are always sick. Get away. Now. I had seen this again and again since the 60’s.

Fortunately for me, these were not very skilled predators. Usually spiritual predators are not so obvious and not so clueless. He was not thinking fast enough to come up with something that would “hook” me.

Walk Away

If you ever find yourself in such a situation, you might consider just walking away without saying a word, within seconds, and not looking back. You can't win. You are bringing a knife to a gunfight. You are outgunned and outnumbered before you even begin. It’s an ambush. The only possible way to win is to not be there, and if you are there, get out of Dodge right now.

One of my martial arts teachers was asked, “What strikes would you use if you were attacked in a dark alley?” The teacher laughed and said, “First of all, I would NOT go into a dark alley!”

Just by being in that bar with those two, I was kind of in a dark alley. It was a dumb move.

There were a couple of reasons why, that night, I had the relaxation and responsiveness to catch on quickly to what Bobbie and her boyfriend were doing and walk out, before they wounded and weakened me. Mainly, they weren’t very good and what they had to offer was sort of pathetic pseudo-Tibetan-Buddhism. Also, neither of them had really meditated in their lives – I could see from their dead, grey auras. They had chanted maybe, maybe played some mental games, and had some wonderful alcohol-inspired insights of grandiose emotions, but actual meditation? No, there was no evidence at all that they knew the way to rest in the self.

If I had been seeking to learn about meditation, I might have been vulnerable to them. My life was so rich and my meditations were so rewarding that I had no holes for them to fill. Another was that for ten years, I had already been around innumerable cult come-ons and cons, and had developed some degree of immunity, and had survived much more cunning and dangerous “spiritual” predators than these two. Southern California in the 1960’s and 70’s was totally infected with therapy cults, meditation cults, yoga cults, Christian cults, and workshop cults. They all wanted to “break you down’” “rip your face off,” “rip you a new asshole” “slay you spiritually,” “reduce the primary ego,” and then get you to drop your defenses and give them your credit card number or write a check. Most of them made millions of dollars and then self-destructed. The cult leader left town with a huge wad of cash and the followers staggered around and tried to get over it and move on. This had happened over and over and over and over and over. You can research it for yourself.

If I had kept on talking to these Tibet-oholics, I would eventually have given them something to beat me up with. I was in their arena, and this was a well-practiced con game. They had an entire tradition behind them – they were not just going to break me down and get sexually turned on by it, but they felt the inner applause of their Tibetan teacher, who had done this kind of thing to them. I could tell that their teacher had to be an alcoholic, and later I found out that he was. And they felt they were acting with THE FULL AUTHORITY OF TRADITION. They had no doubt that what they were doing was part of their tradition. There was no guilt, no remorse, any more than drunken frat boys hazing the new members felt guilt. The whole thing was sanctioned by tradition.

Years later I found out that their teacher was indeed an alcoholic, and that the system he set up was very sick indeed. He was also brilliant and gave many wonderful insights. He died quite young, age 50 or so, of alcoholism. The successor he appointed was advertised widely as THE FIRST ENLIGHTENED WESTERNER. In whatever the equivalent of YOGA JOURNAL was, in the early 80’s there were ads and articles about him. How exciting. The first enlightened Westerner, recognized by this Tibetan as his successor. Over the next couple of years, this successor gave AIDS to many of his students before he too died. On meditation courses, he invited men and women into his room, fucked them in the ass, and gave them HIV. When asked about it, he said, print, “Because I am enlightened, having AIDS will be good for their evolution.” When I read this, I said, Spiritual Fascism has come to America - again. His meditation center should be burned to the ground, a fence put around it, and a gravestone placed in the ashes saying, “This is the death of the notion of enlightenment in America.”

There are many variations on the sadism game, and it has many names, for example "Rip your face off," "Bust the ego," or "Break through the character armor." Versions of the game are adapted for each type of workshop, self-improvement seminar, spiritual training program, ashram, and even some yoga and meditation schools. This is immensely successful because if a person stays there and takes it, they become weakened and are more susceptible to the next con, which is to give your credit card number and sign up for more groups.

In some workshop programs, such as those held at hotels near airports, you should expect that before you walk into the room, the “assistants” will already have your credit report and an estimate of how much money they can soak you for. Many workshop and seminar businesses hope to get $50,000 or so out of each person over a period of several years. All charged to your credit card.

To understand why and how "spiritual" groups fall into using such tools, it helps to understand gang initiation rituals and kinky sex. You can look them both up on the internet.

The Ritual Beat-Down

In some gangs, it is traditional to give a newcomer a beating. Ten guys or girls will circle the new member, and beat and kick them to a pulp. This is the price of admission. Military training does it differently – you are broken down by lack of sleep and intense workouts. Milder forms of this are in fraternity hazing. The general pattern is, dominant members of the group inflict humiliation and emotional and/or physical pain on the plebe. This forms a certain type of bond. Human beings are social animals, and for better or worse, we have an instinct to bond with the abuser. We also have an instinct to try to establish our place in the pecking order. When you submit to a beating, physical or emotional, you are at least PART of the pecking order. You may be at the bottom now, but eventually, if you survive, you will be able to inflict beatings on other people. In gangs, the beatings are physical. In workshops and spiritual training, the beatings are mental and emotional. You attack the person's basic identity.

Dominance and Submission Games

Type dominance submission guru into a search engine. Look at what you get. This is another essential element to appreciate when encountering any spiritual group or self-improvement seminar. You will find people who become sexually aroused by mental or emotional spanking. They require someone to be humiliated in order to get lubricated to have sex. It's a form of foreplay, and someone has to be the Master, and someone else, or a group, has to be the Slaves. In the back of free newspapers, and probably in many places online, you will see ads for people wanting to match up – a dominant seeking a submissive, or a slave seeking a master. There are many codes, indicating what type of foreplay, what type of sexual position, what kind of a theme is being sought. If you ever are around organized spirituality, you should develop your own "field guide" to the types of predators and prey in the church, ashram, yoga center, seminar, or meditation school.

Probably all spiritual groups, meditation schools, and seminar businesses are run by cartels of dominants and submissives, who use the pretext of teaching to have an endless supply of fresh blood. People who enjoy their work can be good at it. Just because the teacher or the teacher's assistant get off on humiliating someone or busting them, does not mean they are not good at what they do. The problem is that whatever the group is called – this workshop series, that guru, something something meditation, that is just the name of the nightclub. The theme of the party. The words are bait to get people to come, and a kind of camouflage so that society does not catch on. This is great for people who are matched, sexually and emotionally, to the type of abuse and sexual slavery that the group specializes in and seeks to train you for. But if you actually just want to learn some skills, learn how to meditate, you are in trouble.

The problem is that many people actually want the teaching that is advertised, as opposed to what is delivered. Most people who come to take a workshop have a job, a life, friends, ambitions, a love life, bills, relatives, a spouse, children. They don't need to be spanked. The last thing they need is their ego reduced or broken. They don't need to run up huge credit card debt in the name of "Success!" Life is spanking them enough as it is. Anyone who loves, anyone whose heart is open, gets plenty of pain just by witnessing the world.

The Dominatrix

A friend of mine had been going to a workshop series for a year, the kind that has free introductory evenings, then an expensive weekend intensive, then really expensive week-long seminars in gorgeous locations in Hawaii and the Bahamas. He had racked up $55,000 in credit card debt and was about to declare bankruptcy, because the cult's promise that his "investment" in these workshops would soon pay off in extra business was not working out. So I went to one of their free seminars, held at a local hotel. It was really good. They had devised a series of nifty exercises based on hypnosis, NLP (Neuro-linguistic Programming), and the general format developed by Mind Dynamics in the 60's, EST and LifeSpring in the 70's, and The Forum in the 80's. Their timing was superb and the trainers were funny.

Toward the end of the day, one of the good-looking women assistants came over to me and started trying to seduce me into signing up for their intensive. She ran game after game on me, in a very charming way. I kept having a curious image in my mind when I was looking at her, and especially when I would look away.

Finally, I said, "I have this image of you with a whip. Maybe wearing high heels. And something about black leather."

"That's me. You got me," she said.

"What?" I said, genuinely puzzled. I had no idea what my image meant.

"I am a dominatrix. Or I used to be. I worked as one," she said, cheerfully.

"What is a dominatrix?" I asked. Still clueless. I had never heard the term.

She explained the concept to me a bit, and I was amazed again that I had gotten to be 40 without ever knowing that there was a whole profession, a type of prostitute who specialize in dominating, inflicting pain and humiliation. And furthermore, that dominatrixes are especially popular in Washington, D.C. The politicians go to these prostitutes to be spanked and whipped for being such bad boys, taking bribes and selling out the country. Then they lick the boots of the dominatrix and get to come.

Without the dominatrix, she said, America would be run by corrupt, lying men who are also sexually frustrated. A dangerous combination. When the politician grovels at the feet of his Mistress and confesses, "YES, I am nothing but a lying whore, taking money from corporations," this is the ONLY time he ever is telling the truth.

Anyway, that workshop business was very successful for a few years, mainly because the teacher had a dozen really good-looking women, most of them lesbians, all of them shameless about using their skills and attractiveness to recruit people of both sexes to come and play with them. It slowly faded away because the founder made enough millions to go into real estate investing and he retired. This was a relatively benevolent cult because the people running it were happily rejoicing in their power, money and sex. They weren't mean, at heart. Consequently, after a year of being involved with this cult, the typical member would be broke and somewhat tired, but well-fucked, and by damn, they had a wild year of adventures. Now it is time to declare bankruptcy and get back to work.

This also shows the value of hiring a professional. At least one of the girls had actually worked as a dominatrix, and she enjoyed it and knew how to do it right. In the workshops, she would abuse someone just the right amount to get an effect, then stop. She knew how to observe. If you go to one of the many workshops that proliferate across the United States in which the group leader attacks the students or "busts" them, you will often see what amounts to an unskilled person practicing medicine. The leader does not have the observational skills and training to criticize the person accurately, and in any case, a large group situation is rarely a good context for humiliating someone.

The only lasting damage from this workshop cult was probably their transmission of eating disorders. The founder of the group seemed to have a Doctor Strangelove - type food fanaticism, in which he was obsessed with colonics and food purity. Food purity is a weird name for the set of ideas which basically says that all food is disgusting and toxic except for these, approved ones. Whatever they are – green algae and sushi, or zucchini and wheat grass juice that has been put in a blender. These ideas are addictive and the practices are damaging to the body. Once you start messing with your digestion, the main result is often bad digestion, with all that implies. You lose the ability to eat what you like and not be troubled by it. And the weaker your digestion gets, the more you feel that food actually IS toxic because you can't digest it. A certain percentage of people who are exposed to the ideas of food purity will develop lasting borderline eating disorders. By the way, a very funny movie about food fanaticism is The Road To Wellville, which you can get on DVD. Starring Dana Carvey, Bridget Fonda, Matthew Broderick, John Cusak and Anthony Hopkins. The story is based loosely on the life of John Kellogg, the guy who invented corn flakes.

One great thing about the movie is that it is basically true, and it takes some of the guilt off of California for being the center of health food wackiness. When you learn about Kellogg, you realize that people were being insane about colonics and fantasizing about "magic foods" such as graham crackers way back in the late 1800's and early 1900's, in Michigan. California, and especially Los Angeles, is not to blame. At least not alone.

The movie is based on the very funny book by T. Coraghessan Boyle.

I only learned about all this because I became friendly with several of the girls. There is no such thing as real friendship in such groups, because all relationships exist to be exploited in service to the cult. And everything is subject to change depending on each person's rise and fall in terms of status, money, and the favor of the leader. For example, the group leader would break up some of the lesbian couples by inviting one of them to travel with him for a year and be his special assistant. But the girls liked to be seen by me and we would run into each other at the same dance clubs. I was just seeing them on the various dimensions they lived on, not judging.

Every cult is different, and each person taking their workshop or training has different weaknesses and strengths and responds to the manipulations in unique ways. That being said, some organizations do really deep damage to people, leaving them emotionally scarred for life and deeply depleted.

Los Angeles, where I live, is full of people who have had the emotional/spiritual equivalent of a bad facelift. Have you ever talked to someone who has had a face lift, and can't make any expressions? Their face looks smooth because the nerves have been cut or injected with Botox. An analogous process happens to people who have had their "ego" operated on by the workshop leader or guru. When they "rip the person's face off" they also rip all the connective tissue and millions of nerve connections, that never really grow back.

An opposite, but equally damaging, result is the spiritual equivalent of a chemical face peel. The pink skin underneath is unprotected, vulnerable to infection, and easily burned by the sun. Some people have both: they are numb and unable to express themselves properly, and also oversensitive. This is actually a very common result of being involved in mind/body workshops, especially ones in which the doctrine involves ego-busting. Women in particular are vulnerable to this.

Almost all groups are beneficial to a certain extent. Just know when to leave. And remember the story about the frog in water. If you drop a frog in boiling water, he will jump out. But if you gradually increase the heat, he will stay there and adapt, until by the time he is alarmed and wants to jump out, he is too weak to move. I would say about half the people I started meditating with in the 60's, who have joined various guru cults, are now too weak to leave. It has been too long, and they have done too much that undermines their ability to live independently.

This is why I am really grateful to Maharishi for giving us advance notice in 1974, saying basically, "It's been nice, having all you free spirits running around teaching Transcendental Meditation. But the party's over. I want the movement to be an army, marching in step. I want people to be able to walk into a TM center anywhere in the world and the same words, exactly, are being spoken." Because he had said this so blatantly, and turned the TM movement so quickly from a lively creative institution to a militaristic one, I was able to jump out.