Tuesday, July 24, 2018
Critical Devotion: A Second Letter from Miriam on Shambhala
I have wondered if there was another letter in me. The first letter, and the following piece came out like a birth and afterbirth - I wrote them quickly, while still in the full pain feeling strength of the beginning of the situation. Since then, I have noticed my feelings dulling a bit, not because the situation has gotten less intense, but because my need to feel so deeply has modulated itself. Not to mention the fact that more complex emotions and thoughts are layering on top of each other now.
But then a student told me how helpful the first letter was - in fact, she and other remote Shambhalians (those without centers near them) had used it as basis for a conversation about what is happening, and others wrote their own letters after reading mine. I realized I do have some things to say, but mostly I have confusion to report.
Why should I report confusion? Because if I do it clearly, others will possibly see their own confusion mixed in mine. And, even more likely, others - or even I - will see the wisdom mixed in the confusion, because that is how wisdom and confusion roll. So here is a mix of experience, emotion, and thought, offered to you in order to help you find some resonance and consolation, clarity, and direction. Please take what you can and leave what you can't; it's not offered as debate, really, more as a sense of what a leader/teacher in Shambhala is thinking and feeling about all of this.
In a conversation with a meditation student this morning, she offered that this situation is like a muddy river - which is an analogy we use a lot in meditation instruction in Shambhala. Our minds often seem more like muddy rivers, but when we sit, the true nature of the water begins to reveal itself: clear, so long as we let the mud not disappear but settle into place. This situation won't settle for awhile - we are going to be in a muddy river a long time it seems, but that doesn't mean we can't work with our minds. In some ways, that's the main thing we can do now.
If you haven't read the first letter, please do. Respect the time and effort I put into writing these and see the context. May they all be of benefit.
1. War Zone/Apocalypse
A couple of weeks ago, a senior teacher told me I am now living in a sort of war zone. I blinked. What on earth could he mean? He explained how it was for him, when he lived through CTR's death and also the awful incidents around the death of VROT. The situation was constantly changing, with very little predictability. Important people would suddenly drop power or be put out of power, and news hit like bombs, blowing apart communities. Infighting, confusion, mass chaos. Ergo, war zone.
A few days later, without my repeating that line, an Acharya I was speaking to repeated the same thing. Clearly there was some resonance here, as these two teachers don't even know each other.
I've never lived in a war zone, so I am reluctant to use it as an analogy. But metaphorically, it does feel accurate. Definitely we are in a deep, long-term crisis. The main message my teacher meant to impart was to pace myself. Titrate my energy. Be careful. This is not a sprint - it is a marathon. War zones are full of unexpected land mines about to go off, a feeling of constant assault and random violence (to psyche, if not to body). In fact, recently a female pastor covered in tattoos put up a pithy video stating #metoo is an apocalypse, and it is actually very good news. The traditional meaning of that word was to peel back the skin and see what is really underneath. It's short. Check it out.
The overall message I have gotten from all my teachers (and there are many in Shambhala) is to expect that most everything will change, and most likely, it will not change in ways any of us can expect. Expect the unexpected. What we can work with when so much is out of our control - like if the Sakyong will come back or not, if leaders we trust will take over or not - is our own minds. It is not all we can work with - plenty of victims of many teachers in our lineage are speaking up and need support, and we have to rebuild - but it is the key ground underneath all of this groundlessness. This is a sense of being with mystery, with not knowing, with the deep shock this kind of bomb - or sets of bombs - reverberates through a huge community.
And while we are working with the impact of this groundlessness/war zone/holding pattern, we can also, at the same time, question how we got to this place, question our devotion, question our place in the situation, question why it took so long for all this to come out, question if we trust any of our teachers at all, and more. We may not find answers yet, but it is ok to seek, so long as we don't take refuge in quick answers.
I have come to think of this as Critical Devotion: commitment to staying with the situation, but not blindly; commitment to community and vision, with healthy skepticism about power dynamics and structural issues.
2. "It's never fucking been ok!"
My sangha had a community meeting a couple of weeks ago. Our center director, a beautiful and clear woman of color, set up a lovely container, and a few of us met ahead of time to really set the tone. People were vulnerable and real, honest about their feelings. Lots more than expected noted that they are survivors of sexual abuse/sexual assault from their lives outside of Shambhala. As of yet, none of our current members has named themselves a victim of any teacher at our center or even from a Shambhala teacher in another location.
Our center is small and warm. Others with more problematic centers are struggling to stay connected to the teachings now. So I know we are lucky. Our Shastri is devoted and kind. Our center director is direct and organized. Our sangha is honest and dedicated. After we had a long check-in, wherein everyone could say how they felt, our center director and a couple others described the call with Kalapa Council (this was just after the call), then asked if anyone had questions.
It was late. We had started at 7 and it was 9pm. I felt myself raise my hand even though I partially didn't want to. I was taking notes and it burned in my eyes that earlier on a woman had said she was triggered by the photos of CTR and SMR on our shrine. She suggested we take them down. As it wasn't the nature of the check-in to cross talk, no one else mentioned it. So I brought it back up. Mentioned that I knew some other centers had taken them down, temporarily.
Hands shot up with questions or statements. There were a few agreements that the photos were triggering, then a folks who supported taking them down because even though they weren't bothered, clearly some folks really were. Then a relatively new member asked a completely relevant and innocent question: "Do we take both down? Is what CTR did with his students ok but what SMR did not ok?"
A senior male student asked if she wanted responses to her question, and she said she did. He went on to try and carefully explain the generational differences between the 60's/70's and now. He said clearly from this now moment, how CTR interacted with his female students can seem abhorrent to some of us and qualify at times as clergy sexual misconduct. However, then, at that time, it seemed ok. He went on to give an example which triggered some of the folks in the room - so many of us survivors of sexual abuse in other contexts! - and my alarms went on high. I kept transcribing but I felt something rising in me. Finally, the man speaking said something in a glib manner, something I doubt he would have said, and in this way, except it was late and we were all tired. He said, "At that time, everyone was ok with it." and out of me, as if I were channeling a fire from at least half the people in the room, I screamed at the top of my lungs, "It has never fucking been ok!" and ran out of the room bawling.
There's so much to work on here. I am glad I received and stated what I said; many people thanked me afterwards. I am not happy that we were so close to the edge when we decided to take down the photos, even if only temporarily. And in the kitchen, after, bawling so hard in the sink that I burst a blood vessel in my forehead, I said to two people who came to support me, "All these years, I have told myself somehow, this was ok. It's never been ok for me."
It would be easy to blame "those who thought it was ok and were wrong" but it is not that easy for me. There is complicity for me even in survival, even in trauma response. It is time for me to own the parts I have played in keeping ourselves connected to this karma. I am not solely responsible, by any means, but nor do I think the abusers are, either. It's complex. We can hold people accountable for their actions and also own that we build this society - all society - together.
3. The Role of Dissociation
The story in #2 points to something key - in order to get by as a member of Shambhala the last 15 years, I have had to stuff my feeling that I have never been ok with the sexual relationships CTR had with his female students, nor VROT with his male students. This is just my opinion. I am not trying to convince you nor should you try and convince me back that they were ok. However, I have watched as those of us who don't feel ok with it have turned ourselves inside out trying to resolve the fact that we aren't/weren't ok with it, and some of that has included telling ourselves that SMR isn't the same. So that's a dangerous hiding game to play with ourselves.
Recently a meditation student of mine came to the conclusion that they may leave Shambhala; they aren't sure yet. However, when their mother, who is a member of Tergar, engaged them in discussing what's happening with SMR and Shambhala, they were shocked to hear their mother say, "Well, I *know* Mingyur Rinpoche (head of Tergar) would NEVER do anything like that." My student reflected back to their mother that this is EXACTLY the kind of thinking that blinded them to the real complex teacher right in front of him the whole time (SMR) and contributed to the shock and shame they felt once they heard about what was going on.
Trauma, sexuality, secrecy, and alcoholism are all a part of my lineage, like much of North American society. But so are dissociation and enabling, denial and codependency. As a friend said on the phone the other day, we can have some positive shame about this - not toxic shame, the kind Brene Brown speaks of - but positive shame. Enough acknowledgement that we are apart to not immediately separate ourselves and try and go find some place where this shit doesn't exist. Because that place does not exist.
If you leave, leave because you know this isn't the right place for you, because you have thought it through. Don't leave hoping you will find a clean and clear lineage, or some place where power issues, and systemic western societal dynamics (white supremacy/patriarchy/ableism et al) don't exist.
If you stay, don't stay because you think we can fix this in exactly one specific way. This is it. The work is here, right now. Get connected to real human beings (not just on Facebook, more on that later) and yourself, and set in for the long haul. Remember, this is a war zone. We can aim for victory over war, but there's still a war we are aiming over.
4. Danger of Dissociation and Privilege
One of the things which has become very apparent during this entire month is the severe gap between victims' experiences and those who were trying to help them. Assuming intentions are best, the gap between how victims have reported receiving help and how those who helped them are so dramatically dissonant as to draw a lot of suspicion. People are pointing to cover-ups, claiming victims may have been paid, pointing to a sense of devotion to guru as blinding people's ability to see clearly or autonomously.
However, I am not entirely sure that's the issue, or the only issue. What I keep hearing and experiencing here is very similar to what I experience in patriarchy at large. Male-identified people often seem flummoxed by victims' reports - not just in Shambhala, but all over this #metoo movement, and long before it. For centuries, people who have been oppressed have said, "You didn't help me one bit," or, "What you offered as 'help' was WAY off the mark." Oppressors, or those in oppressor positions (even if they themselves didn't offer direct oppression) become completely lost - if not then victim-blaming or denying the importance of a victim's claim - when the victim gets enough power/backing/social support to call out what actually happened to them.
In this article published recently about former Shambhala teacher Lodro Rinzler, it is very clear that though the Acharyas quoted claim to have tried and helped "Amy" as best as possible, what they offered wasn't good enough, or even anything she would ask for. (Full disclosure - "Amy" is a good friend of mine, so I know the great extent to which there is a discrepancy between how those in charge and "Amy" experienced this situation). How can this happen? How can a victim then wait five years and choose to report it anonymously to the media? How can it be that those who offer help believe they did well enough, when the victim doesn't? It is clear in many reports Shambhala leaders are completely perplexed as to how what they offered didn't appear to help the situation. See, in particular, the 2011 case in Project Sunshine Report #2. This is not just a Shambhala problem, but it is a consistent pattern we have to explore.
It can happen in so many subtle ways, including a basic priority of how to handle victim-centered trauma: listen to the victim, believe them, and offer them what will help them feel resolved. Instead, Shambhala, like many organizations, offers a process some of our leaders put together which may help in some circumstances, but not in the highly loaded or charged cases of sexual abuse, murder attempts, or other violent acts people have been reporting. Abuses of power, overall, are not well handled by representatives of that power.
And as some have pointed out, Shambhala, at 10,000+ members, has hundreds if not thousands of trauma-informed therapists and caregivers, yet those who carry out these procedures are often not trained in handling these kinds of situations. I know a lot of Desung, a lot of Kasung, I know a lot of Acharyas, Shastris, Center Directors. I am not denigrating them. I am simply saying that just because someone is in power doesn't mean they know how to handle the delicacies of situations like these. And, in fact, the higher up someone's power is, the more likely they can't see all the nuances, are actually dissociated from seeing them, and are more likely to cause harm than good.
5. Devotion and Not Knowing
There are so many things we don't know, we will never know. All the victims could report immediately to Olive Branch or a third party investigator (lots of people feel the investigators Shambhala hired are, by nature, not third party since Shambhala hired them; the jury is out for me on this), and we still wouldn't know everything. Sakyong Mipham could, as some have asked him to, send an email immediately depicting exactly how he felt all these situations went down - add to that all the other teachers and leaders whose victims are now stepping forward. Even if every ounce of information were made public, we would still disagree on how to move forward, what the significance is, and there would still be so many gaps between understandings of the situations (see #4). Early on, my colleague Dr. Shanté Smalls warned me about the danger of fact-finding missions and the distraction from feeling and deeper understanding they can cause. I now understand them more fully.
I am not saying telling stories isn't important, and owning what harm we have caused isn't significant. I am simply saying we need to keep room for the excessive number of gaps we are encountering. They are an inherent part of this situation. If we insist on closing all the gaps, we lose a lot of the mystery and real energy that exists in such a transformation. Again, as my colleague Aarti Tejuja so well explained in an early Facebook post, and I riffed on in my previous letter, working with feminine energy - not femininity/women, necessarily - means allowing for not knowing. It doesn't mean we throw up our hands and give in, realizing we can't know anything. There's a lot we can know. But also a lot we will never know.
Secrecy is one thing. I get that. But insisting on knowing all the facts right now isn't a remedy for that. As someone who identifies more and more as a mystic (see Ken McLoed's first video for a lovely explanation of the various reasons one comes to Buddhism, and the following videos for more on the levels of devotion in Vajrayana Buddhism), I believe in the need for not knowing on a conscious/rational level. It leaves room for mystery and magic, and it also leaves room for different kinds of knowing - especially, intuition, and the direct experience others have which we are not yet familiar with.
There's a lot we already know, and that other folks have known for a long time in their intuition/experience - people of color who have been speaking up a LONG LONG time, while still being devoted, about the power dynamics in Shambhala and how toxic they are. Women who have spoken up and been silenced - even if not with money, even if not by SMR - by the social dynamics and dissociation of our miniature version of the larger complex and confused society.
We can be devoted and still question. We can stay dedicated and not know. So many of us are survivors, if not thrivers, and our traumatic response is to demand all information be out in the open. Believe me, I hear you. I definitely hear you. But in the long run, answers are not all we need. We also need to listen to and trust our intuition, turn to those who have been facing these kinds of confusions and oppressions head on for years without any support, and be willing to not know everything. There can be an entitlement in searching for immediate answers and solutions. Let's not fall prey to that.
6. White Feminism
There's a closely related issue here. I've been studying White Feminism lately closely with a couple of amazing folks on the internet (mainly on Instagram): Rachel Cargle, Leesa Renee Hall, Sonya Renee Taylor, and Ericka Hart. These women - all black - are committed to working with all people, and in some cases, specifically white women, to unpack racism inside ourselves. Decolonize our minds. One of the things I have been schooled in strongly lately is understanding more deeply, without shame, how often white women, as a group, and White Feminism, as a belief system (which can be upheld by anyone, not just white women) have thrown anyone not like them under the bus: women of color, men of color, trans or gender non-conforming folks, non-normatively abled folks, and so on. In particular, there's a long, disgusting history of white women pushing black women out of the picture in order to survive. This is not pretty and white women like me need to turn towards these histories and look at them full in the face.
I mention this because right now, quite a few people of color in Shambhala are, now that the shock has worn off a bit, really feeling how they have been the canaries in the coal mine. People of color, gender-non-conforming folks and, to a lesser extent, queer people have for a long time felt squelched out of the tight silos and tubes our path has created by unconsciously mimicking larger American white society.
Most of the victims of the sexual misconduct reported in the last few months are white women. And white women are, now, understandably, outraged. White men, too, are mad. We are all standing up and throwing a fit, demanding people step down, etc. There is nothing wrong with this and you will find our People of Color allies standing right with us. However, understandably along with that there's some resentment. Why did it have to come to white women being harmed for us to pay attention? Why wasn't it enough that People of Color have experienced systemic racism in Shambhala? Why now and not before?
This is both an unanswerable question - karma is karma, and here's where we are - and also an important concept for especially white women to wrestle with. We can value our suffering, feel for our sisters, and, at the same time, recognize where we have limited our scope, dissociated others' suffering we couldn't relate to.
It is still happening now. White women, especially, in our sangha are asking how these reports coming out have anything to do with fighting anti-racism. That connection, that intersectionality is completely opaque to them. If you are one of these people, insisting there's no connection between patriarchy and white supremacy, please, gently but immediately, go find one of the women above and let yourself sink into study. We need you now more than ever.
7. A Hard Thing to Say
This is the hardest, most tender, and longest-term part of this letter I have been working on. I have struggled through many conversations with many people, trying to figure out why this particular dynamic, which is so tiny, has really triggered me. So please know as I write about this to you, I am also feeling tender, unsure, and worried about its impact. We can work through this together.
One of the most common responses I have heard, especially from friends who are not vajrayana students, but involved in Shambhala, is that they aren't angry at the Sakyong. They aren't impacted by what he did, aren't personally upset by it. But they are upset "on my behalf" or "on behalf of those he has hurt, eg all my friends who are close students of his."
Allyship, I can tell you as the wife of a trans woman, is tricky as hell. My friend and trans ally to the max, Helen Boyd, loves to say allies are some of the most dangerous people you will meet: we know a lot, we are close to the situation, but we also can take on roles of pity or speaking for victims when we shouldn't.
Here's what I hear when someone says they feel angry/upset on my behalf. I hear "I am not invested in this situation except for you," "If it weren't for your discomfort, I wouldn't be feeling anything," "I risk nothing by being upset about this because it's not me who is really upset." This was drilled home to me when someone said in regards to me and others she knows that she is "Pissed that my friends are devastated," then named myself and a few other people present. Only that friend had not asked me once how I felt. Not once. I didn't feel devastated, in fact. It felt like she was assuming a lot and feeling based on that.
Later, I spoke with another friend a bit further outside the situation and we finally came to an analogy I could understand it in - white anti-racism. She and I both do this work, and we realized that if either of us said something like that about, say #niawilson (#sayhername), we would be acting as pitying, dissociated allies. I need to be so fully invested in black women's lives, in this case, that I actually feel the pain myself. I cannot just fight for black women on behalf of black women. I have to fight for them because they are also in me, because their deaths are deaths of women, are deaths of people I love and care for. When I am only directly touched because it is someone I identify with, and even then, only directly touched when it hits my own investment or devotion, then my allyship isn't allyship.
It is pity, a near enemy of compassion.
This is so hard to say. I know we do the best we can, all of us, to feel in an incredibly intense world. However, we can do better than to feel on behalf of someone. We can feel ourselves. Chances are, the friends who have said they are feeling angry at the Sakyong because of what he is doing to me and others, by their own estimation, are actually just angry at the Sakyong. So say that. Just be angry. Just feel. Be careful of how stories can actually separate us, dissociate us from the pure feeling that drives solid allyship.
8. Importance of Connection/Limits of Facebook
Yesterday, an article came out about Lodro Rinzler (linked below and above, and also here). Debate around Lodro article came up almost immediately in a couple of Facebook groups - Shambhala Office of Social Engagement and Societal Lhasang (posting in the Shambhala group is on hiatus while the facilitators take a much-needed break). I watched with interest, and got notifications on all the posts because, as I said, "Amy" is a good friend of mine and I posted the original links.
Most of the responses were shock, sadness, or anger. But then, sometime mid-morning, a woman posted, her emphasis here, that this was not assault, but the case of "A VERY BAD DATING EXPERIENCE." I almost couldn't believe she would say that. I gave her the benefit of a doubt, but then she went on to justify her claim, stating quite bitterly she didn't know "The Shambhala culture of no mistake would lead to public stoning if we made one slip up." I stepped out of the exchange and let others step in with legal definitions of sexual assault and more. I was shaken and knew from my hardening heart and speeding pulse that I best not engage. Too close.
This is so hard. On the one hand, I get to connect with many people I know and also don't know in Shambhala on Facebook. What amazing connections I have made or re-made. But to have a debate like that about a close friends' experience with someone I don't know? Uh-uh. No thanks. The woman then deleted the part of the conversation she was involved in. Connection will happen on Facebook, and good challenges, but there are limitations to the kind of healing online connection can offer.
Later that night, someone started what seemed to me an even more bizarre argument: she was contending the extreme other end of the spectrum. Though "Amy" uses the phrase "sexual assault" and the article and others discussing it used those same terms, she was insisting on using the word "rape." Others had used the term casually - as one person pointed out, it is "easier" to say "rapist" than "person who committed sexual assault," and I gently called folks on it. This provoked this new respondent to school me on the fact that this was, in fact, legally classified as rape.
I got in touch with "Amy," who was quite triggered by this debate. *I* was triggered by the debate. I tried to ask for her to acknowledge the words a victim uses as being part of her empowerment, and my interlocutor completely barreled ahead, refusing to show any mercy. Again, I disengaged and backed away.
When I felt the aggression arise in me, I backed away.
And this is what I want to leave you with.
It is hard - SO HARD to discern when anger or aggression are useful - skillful and clear, honest and opening - and when they are damaging. But my sole strongest guide is my body. If my body hardens, if my heart rate is racing, I stop responding (if I am on social media). If I am in person with someone or on the phone, I ask for a pause, or say I need to stop the conversation for now. This is essential. If what you have to say is crucial, it will still be there when you are done. I know this means you might miss a chance to "school someone" or "call them out," it also means you get to keep your bodhicitta, your human connection, as Tara Mandala teachers say in this video (also linked below).
And that goes for responses to this post. If you feel hot and bothered by something I said, I ask you to sit with it before responding. I spent a week on this post, going over every part of it, carefully considering what I said. Just because it is the internet and you are here right now doesn't mean you have to respond right now. Especially if something I am offering challenges you, please sit with it before outright rejecting it. And if you come to some kind of clarity or a perspective you feel I have missed, then please offer it. But offer it as an invitation rather than a rejection.
And in terms of what to do next? I don't know, but a lot of us are working hard behind the scenes to see if we can't start again in powerful ways. Check out SOSE and talk with your people. Get imaginative. Now's our change to envision how this - which is currently some bizarre but actual manifestation of Enlightened Society - can catalyze us into a vision more of us feel attuned with. Restorative Justice/Truth and Reconciliation are the strongest recommendations so far for healing.
Why? Because we cannot simply push away those who have caused harm. I am not suggesting they stay in power, clearly. That was clear in my first letter. However, condemning others without seeing their Basic Goodness is equally problematic.
We don't have to re-invent the wheel. The seeds of Enlightened Society - and even some of its plants - already exist all around us. Time to grow more and harvest together, within and outside of Shambhala. If it feels scary to tell people outside of Shambhala what you need and feel - which is true for a lot of us, because we feel shame - take that slowly and carefully, and lean into those inside of Shambhala you trust. But know people outside this situation can relate too, and look for those who can offer what you need. Here's a great podcast from NYC Shambhala by Dr. Shanté Smalls, on Holding Space and Healing Harm.
Most of all, ask for what you need. When you post feelings on social media, ask for the kind of support you need. When you call a friend weeping, tell them what you need for support. If you aren't sure what you need, then say that. Be open to this experience inside yourself. Keep feeling. Don't shut down, if you can help it. And when you do shut down, take a break, which is natural, stay connected to yourself and others who can help. That is essential. Study and learn what you do not know (see amazing black women above in #6, as well as this amazing study list on undoing patriarchy)
Like in my first letter, I am offering resources, most of which are also embedded above in context:
Directly relevant to current situation:
Podcast/talk by the incredible Dr. Shante Smalls
Video addressing Shambhalians from Tara Mandala teachers:
Lama Rod Owens addresses working with Sexual Misconduct in Shambhala
(Findable on his Facebook page - two separate events at 3 hours each)
Reporting to follow:
Joshua Eaton reporting on ThinkProgress, including recent article about teacher Lodro Rinzler:
On Tibetan Buddhism and Clergy Sexual Abuse:
What Went Wrong - from last fall by a former Tibetan monk who became a psychologist. https://tricycle.org/magazine/what-went-wrong-tibetan-sex-abuse/?utm_source=Tricycle&utm_campaign=552ad1d0e7-Healing_Abuse_Special_Newsletter_07_13_2018&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1641abe55e-552ad1d0e7-307929173
Sexual Abuse in the Sangha...Again (2003)
HHDL on Ethics in Tibetan Buddhist Teacher/Student Relationship
Undoing Patriarchy Syllabus:
Vajrayana in Modern Times (Ken McLeod):
On Restorative Justice and Breaking the Abuser/Victim Binary