Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Power Abuse in Spiritual Communities



If you flip over any half dozen rocks out there in the spiritual world, you'll find a scandal. Yes, the Catholic Church has been the major player in recent years, but no one seems immune, and clearly the plethora of problems shows just how challenging it is for humans to handle power in a healthy way.

Over at Integral Options Cafe this morning was a reprinted article that is in process for an upcoming issue of Tikkun magazine. (Tikkun is an excellent mag by the way for those interested in reading articles spanning across religious traditions.) The post this morning had to do with the on-going, unresolved abuse allegations which center around Andrew Cohen and the Integral/Evolutionary Enlightenment crowd. Among those linked with this group are well known teachers Genpo Roshi and Ken Wilber, which is why there seems to be a fair amount of attention (in the blogosphere anyway) being paid to this scandal.

What's so interesting in my view is how the same kinds of issues keep getting played out in such diverse spiritual communities. Money, sex, and power abuses almost always seem to be linked in some form or another - it's almost as if these three are the holy trinity of a spiritual community gone bad. We've seen it in the Catholic Church, in evangelical mega churches, in New Age groups, and even in Buddhist communities.

My own sangha got a taste of all this several years ago, and it's still, in some ways, recovering. Just as you can see with the scandals in these other communities, our sangha split into factions. There were ardent supporters of the former teacher who left the community to join him. There were those who were stunned by the whole thing and dropped out of Zen all together. Others strongly condemned the teacher's actions, but wanted reconciliation. And still others condemned the teacher completely, and wanted nothing to do with him again.

Much of it was left unresolved. There were efforts on both ends towards some kind of reconciliation, but ultimately the sangha moved on, and the former teacher moved on. It was kind of like the way a cracked romantic relationship ends: neither side has owned completely their part in the destruction yet, but both realize it's time to stop adding to the misery. Often, this comes after false departures and returns, or demands of departure from one party that are agreed to by the other party.

One of the challenges I have seen, not only in my own sanghas' case, but also in reading accounts of what has happened in other places, is knowing what actually has happened. Emotions get so riled up, and stories spill from the actual truth to a felt truth which has some validity, but makes sorting out what happened really challenging. This sadly makes it that much harder to pin down abusers because they can easily speak to the over-inflated parts of people's stories, and minimize and deny the rest.

Furthermore, many of us, whether in the middle of such situations, or outside of them, fail to see how the distorted social environment itself plays into both the actual abuse, as well as our perceptions of abuse. You know something isn't right, and because of that awareness your radar is heightened to the point where most everything feels like a mechanism of abuse. To this day, I honestly don't know for sure how much of what I heard in my community was a true account of events, and how much was colored by the pressure of the environment we had been practicing in together. Whatever happened though, what is clear to me is that the social environment of our sangha had spun off center, making healthy spiritual practice impossible.

I'm really trying to refrain from simply pointing the finger at our former teacher and calling him out as a bad guy. Why? Because that's what we humans always do. We point at those with the most power, say they're "evil" or "responsible," and then dig in our heels. And either these people go on abusing their power, like former U.S. President Bush and his buddies did, or we get rid of them, and another comes along at some point to replace them.

I firmly believe that those in power positions have a heightened sense of responsibility in situations. When things go wrong, and they have been at the center of those things, it's theirs to own, no matter what others involved contributed.

At the same time, if we simply stop at holding the leaders accountable, we never get at the roots of power abuse in the first place. And if the work of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo taught us anything, the social environment in any given situation has as much, and probably more, power than any individual within that situation.

In Zimbardo's famous experiment, which was originally designed to be a simulated prison situation, the following occurred:

The experiment quickly grew out of hand. Prisoners suffered — and accepted — sadistic and humiliating treatment from the guards. The high level of stress progressively led them from rebellion to inhibition.


This sounds a bit like what Andrew Cohen and others are being accused of. However, the prison experiment, and the allegations against Cohen, for example, are extreme cases. And I'm convinced much less actual abuse can occur in a given situation, and still lead lots of distorted behavior and emotional states coming from those involved. Once the line between healthy use of power and unhealthy use of power is crossed enough times, the perceived possibility of more abuse often is the most powerful element in the situation.

If we are really serious about diminishing the amount of abuse in spiritual communities, and actually developing and/or maintaining healthy power structures and dynamics, then we must move beyond blaming leaders and seeing their removal and/or downfall as the end of the problem. Even if we could hold every last abusive leader, spiritual, political, financial, etc. responsible for their actions, we wouldn't be rid of the roots that will bring the next power scandal. I'm all for holding people accountable, but until we come to grips with the power of social environments, and group dynamics, there will continue to be plenty more miserable abuse stories in the future.

7 comments:

Chong Go Sunim said...

Tough issue, Nathan.
I've thought a lot about this too. One of the main things I feel is that as practitioners, it's disasterous to try to make someone else our savior. Or to paraphrase my teacher, to abandon our own, inherent upright center, and chase after outer things, whether material or emotional.
"No matter how beautiful a flower on someone else's tree might seem, you can't graft that onto your tree. Instead, water and feed your own root, and flowers will naturally bloom on your own tree."

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Excellent post, Nathan. Much to chew on, from a variety of perspectives. I'd like to grab 3 quotes from your post and ask further questions.

"It was kind of like the way a cracked romantic relationship ends: neither side has owned completely their part in the destruction yet, but both realize it's time to stop adding to the misery."

Good; we see that we both have power and, thus, responsibility in the abuse: it's not just "them" abusing "us."

"I'm really trying to refrain from simply pointing the finger at our former teacher and calling him out as a bad guy. Why? Because that's what we humans always do. We point at those with the most power, say they're "evil" or "responsible," and then dig in our heels."

This grabs me a bit... Because I wonder, 'how does "that person" get to be in power'? Going back to your relationship example, it seems that both parties exchange power here and there, unless one party mistakenly gives and gives more without receiving in return until... abuse. As a 'survivor' (an odd label for me to wear) of an abusive relationship, I feel it necessary to take responsibility for giving her the power in the first place - my mistake. In a good teacher-student relationship something like this must still, I think, pertain. A student, no matter what, must retain the strength and wit to reject a teacher's inappropriate moves, be they sexual, doctrinal, or otherwise.

"I'm all for holding people accountable, but until we come to grips with the power of social environments, and group dynamics, there will continue to be plenty more miserable abuse stories in the future."

Hear, hear. This is a topic that should be discussed regularly by all of us. Realizing the screwed up nature of our environment, I hope we can find forgiveness in place of blame, and real movement forward instead of power-politics.

Chris said...

Great post. Thanks for exploring this difficult subject with a balanced perspective.

Nathan said...

Hi Justin,

First of all, sorry to hear about your past abusive relationship, and glad that you've taken some wisdom from it.

"This grabs me a bit... Because I wonder, 'how does "that person" get to be in power'? Going back to your relationship example, it seems that both parties exchange power here and there, unless one party mistakenly gives and gives more without receiving in return until... abuse."

I think one of the challenges here is that the very structure of most spiritual communities is that there is someone, or a group of someones, who are established as power brokers. And usually the rules of the game are for students to defer some power to their teachers. So, there's an imbalance in play no matter what.

I support provisional power imbalances that allow teachers and students to work together using the wisdom and experience of the teacher as grist for awakening. However, it seems that, pretty often, what ends of happening is that the provisional nature gets lost in all the flowery language about wonderful teachers and ancestors, and in the structure itself, where the teacher has final say on nearly everything.

Newcomers walk into a zen center, church, or other spiritual community, are told so and so is the leader, and that these such and such rules are what the community follows, and then, most often, they go along with it all until they either leave, die, or become a powerful leader themselves. And newbies that buck the system are put in check either by the teacher or longtime students - the gatekeepers of community culture. If the newbies stay around long enough, they become gatekeepers themselves. This isn't true of every community, but certainly many.

As Chong Go said, it's disasterous for people to make another into a savior figure, but when you think about it in terms of Buddhism, until someone starts to really digest the teachings, they tend to be too cloudy to have such awareness. And if "cloudy people" enter sanghas where the leader or leaders are all-powerful, it's all the more likely they will simply imbue those people with savior-like qualities.

So "A student, no matter what, must retain the strength and wit to reject a teacher's inappropriate moves, be they sexual, doctrinal, or otherwise." Yes, but how? Where are these skills being taught?

In my view, it's not enough to just tell people they have buddha-nature, and then go on with the day. I've been privileged to have some conversations with our current teacher, and other sangha leaders and members about these issues because we had to. The mess of our situation required them. But it seems smarter to me to instill direct discussions and teachings about holding one's own in a student/teacher relationship before scandals occur. To prevent them.

I think I'll write another post about some of this later.

Thanks for the comments all.

Nathan

Algernon said...

Good post on an important topic.

My school went through this in the 1980's, before my time. Although I wasn't there, I am close with one of the people directly involved, and have heard a diversity of views on what happened. (It's a bit like "Rashomon," so many viewpoints.)

One thing that emerges, overlapping the various views and opinions after the fact, is that the trust was damaged (many people left, many stayed but are still healing) less by What The Teacher Did than The Cover-up and Silence. And the latter was the work of a community, not one person.

Chong Go Sunim said...

"But it seems smarter to me to instill direct discussions and teachings about holding one's own in a student/teacher relationship before scandals occur. To prevent them."

Hi Nathan,
Are you thinking about something like a statement/code of ethical conduct given to newcomers? One that would include what's appropriate, or not, from other students as well as the teacher? Such as appropriate teacher-student boundries, ala the American Psychological Association?
As I recall, the Rocester Zen Center years ago put out a very strong statement about ethical standards. It was pretty impresive.
With preventing problems in mind, that sounds like it might be useful.

When the situation's gone disfunctional/codependent, I don't know what to do, if the teacher involved and the senior members won't stand up and call it out. This one really gets me worked up.

I think there's been a fair amount said about this already, but perhaps something about how to choose a teacher, which would include some of the warning signs/characteristics of a cult. I don't remember these off the top of my head, but a couple were a "teacher" who tries to create/ reinforce dependencies, or seeks financial or sexual control over students.

Nathan said...

Chong Go,

My community has developed an excellent code of conduct/grievance policy based on what happened, and also with guidance from leaders of sanghas that also had serious transgressions occur in the past.

I think what's more important to me is ongoing conversations about how power dynamics can impact our practice in communities, and what a healthy teacher/student relationship might look like.

The problem with senior members and teachers not calling out dysfunctional situations is that they are so in the middle of it, they rarely can see outside of it. And I think part of that arises because the teaching itself gets unbalanced and so people think they "know what they're doing," when in fact they don't. Or they know, but are afraid of the potential consequences. It's takes a brave person or group of people to step out and say things are screwed up.