December 29, 2011

Wet, Hot, Wild & Surprisingly Deep: An Interview with Shyam Dodge

I didn’t expect to like Shyam Dodge’s Wet Hot & Wild American Yogi at all. The title seemed inauspiciously hackneyed; the cover art way too self-consciously and garishly camp. But after reading two exceptionally interesting posts by Shyam on EJ, I got past my initial turn-off and ordered it. And I’m very glad that I did. Because after reading it, I felt like I’d unexpectedly stumbled across some rough-cut emerald half-buried in the mud. It’s that surprising, that incongruous – and that good.

 Although I still hate the title, I found “Wet Hot & Wild” to be a brilliant little gem of a work. At only 155 pages, it’s a quick read. (I devoured it in two nights). But it’s unpredictably full of beautiful phrasing, evocative imagery, pitch-dark humor, and stop-you-in-your- tracks insights. And, it has surprising wisdom to offer.

“Wet Hot & Wild”  is an unconventional memoir, written to prioritize organic emotional immediacy over traditional narrative structure. In vivid jump-and-cut prose, Shyam writes about being born into his parents’ devotional ashram in Hawaii (later transplanted to SoCal), stepping into the role of mini-bodhisattva at five, suffering the trauma of his father’s sudden death at 21, being “officially” proclaimed an enlightened guru by the leader of another L.A. cult at 25, abandoning gurudom in favor of authenticity and a girlfriend a month later, coping with being shunned by his family and community as an apostate, following his girlfriend to a creepy Tantric sex temple in India, and . . . it just goes on from there. (That’s only the first chapter.)

 While all this may sound simply lurid and crazy, it’s not. On the contrary: this short book with the stupid title really moved me. It’s disturbing, intriguing, unusual, and inspiring. I found myself thinking about it a lot after I’d finished it. So I started writing Shyam a message just to tell him how much I’d liked it (ah, the wonders of social media!) – only to find myself moved to request this interview instead. Shyam graciously agreed to discuss his work (which currently includes studies at Harvard Div School) – and so, here we are.

Carol: I feel like I should apologize for introducing this interview by dissing your title and cover art – I don’t want to hurt any feelings. But I thought the issue was worth highlighting because it presents an interesting puzzle. At first, it struck me as simply a colossal marketing blunder. I couldn’t figure out why the book would be packaged in a way likely to turn off potential readers who might love the content (e.g., me) and, conversely, disappoint those who were in fact looking for a lite story about an ex-guru’s Tantric sex romps.

But then it occurred me that there’s one important way in which this seeming incongruity is incredibly effective: that is, it destroys the possibility of reading you as some sort of post-guru Guru. Because to me, the book communicates a lot of spiritual wisdom. But its packaging cuts off any chance of putting you up on that dharma teacher pedestal at the knees. Seen from that perspective, it’s a really interesting move. And it makes me wonder: After all you’ve been through with cults, charismatic gurus, being anointed as enlightened, and so on – how do you see the role of a spiritual, dharma, and/or yoga teacher? What are the possibilities, pitfalls, and responsibilities that come with stepping into such roles?

Shyam: Well, first of all, I want to thank you for your observations. I really cannot think of a higher compliment than your valuing the content of the book so much as to not only critique the disparity between the book’s content and its packaging but engage in the kind of penetrating analysis your observations and question demonstrate. The content and packaging are incongruous and intentional, for the very reasons you hit upon above.

After breaking my monastic vows and publicly relinquishing my position as a guru I had not entirely given up on the possibility of continuing to be an arbiter and teacher of spirituality and meditation in this post-guru phase of my life. My entire identity and self-understanding was based upon being a spiritual authority. If you spend nearly twenty years, since you were five years old (as I was), actively pursuing enlightenment and submitting to an intensely orthodox Hindu tradition, as well as finding consistent validation from the community you are a part of, it is extremely difficult to conceive of, let alone construct, an identity outside of the role of “spiritual master.”

After leaving my tradition I continued to teach workshops and meditation intensives in the larger world of American and European yoga. Needless to say, I persisted in carrying many of the teaching methods of the guru tradition, as it was the basis of my religious education, into this post-guru phase.

In particular, I taught a six week intensive in the Midwest, about a year after I first left being a monk, which made me confront the ethics of my teaching methods. Through dharma talks, one-on-one sessions with students, and other forms of yogic/Vedic ritual I found that I was merely perpetuating the very same dysfunctions of the guru tradition that I had left and was now trying to reform. This was an incredibly heavy realization to come to. Not only was I continuing to hold my students’ idealizations of “the enlightened spiritual prodigy” but I, as a teacher, had not constructed or learned a healthier alternative teacher-student dynamic.

In essence, I was continuing to psychologically enslave my students in a relationship where they were dependent upon me as both conduit for divine grace and as a kind of spiritual autocrat who had control over their internal lives. This is the basis for the guru tradition. Gurus are the spiritual authorities gifted not only with privileged mystical insight but are also the gatekeepers for the divine. Essentially, the representatives for the divine on earth, who act as intermediaries for the rest of humanity. While, I was not overtly practicing this educational model it was implicit within my teaching methods.

I engaged with my students as if I had some special insight into their innermost being, which I alone had access to. Not only that, but I could somehow divinely intervene in their spiritual development by rapidly processing and pushing past their interior boundaries through the power of my unique personality. I was presenting myself as a kind of potent catalyst for spiritual change and evolution. I was forceful. I was charismatic. I was highly trained. And I could hold another person’s gaze longer than was humanly natural. My students, in the Midwest, described me as “walking love.”

My advertisements for workshops, at that time, were of me with long guru-hair, smiling with supernatural love and “knowingness.” I basically looked like Paramahansa Yogananda.

I ended the six week intensive in the Midwest two weeks before it was scheduled to finish both due to a family emergency (which is briefly discussed in the book) and because of my own dawning revelation that I was not holding appropriate space for my students precisely because I had yet to process my own experience in the guru tradition. I was simply perpetuating the very same sickness I was seeking to heal.

When I wrote the book (a year after the Midwest revelations) I had come to the conclusion that I never wanted to be a guru again, even a “post-guru Guru.” I had come to realize how dis-empowering that educational structure was for the students I was teaching and how isolating it was for me. By continuing to be a kind of guru, I was taking the power necessary for real spiritual growth away from my students by enabling them to project their idealization needs upon me, while erasing my own humanity by continuing to hold those “spiritual” projections.

Still, I had something to offer in sharing my personal history and the insights I had come to. I chose the silly title and book cover in order to hobble my own tendency to invite and sustain the “spiritual” idealizations of others as well as guard against the impulse of spiritually curious people to overly idealize someone with my kind of pedigree. I wanted to satirize my own tendencies toward messianic pretense. Self-deprecation has immense value in this regard (although, in retrospect, I might now choose a less provocative title and book cover).

Moving on to the second part of your question.

Abuses of power by spiritual teachers is incredibly common, I believe, precisely because the metaphysics often support such behavior.

If the teacher has access to some invisible supernatural domain, which is outside the purview of most “normal” people, then it only makes sense that the power dynamic will be vertical with the spiritual teacher resting upon an unimpeachable pedestal of unhealthy idealization. Add that to the vulnerability most sincere seekers bring to teacher-student relationships, especially in spiritual contexts, and you have a recipe for dysfunction.

The power dynamics of the guru tradition are very different than other educational systems. This is because both the expectations and what is actually at stake is much greater for the student than in other domains of learning. No one expects their high school English teacher to answer and fulfill all of their existential longings and questions, nor do they expect them to have supernatural insight into the universe as well as their innermost being (at least I hope not). But these are the expectations inherent to the role of the guru or enlightened master. This idealization of supposedly “enlightened beings” is, again, underpinned by a metaphysical model that privileges the insights of the guru as being supernatural and beyond the ken of most “normal” humans.

But, if spirituality is not privileged in this way and is actually grounded in the reality we all live in, this earth, this body, then there are no “gurus” who have a kind of privileged insight inaccessible to others. If our spirituality is naturalized in this way then spiritual authority rests within each individual.

The divine we are looking for is then located in our own body, our own breath, in our humanity as being inseparable from the natural world. Teachers, then, can act as facilitators for the authentic process of their students, not as divine intermediaries. This requires both public education, so that appropriate expectations are set for spiritual teachers, as well as educational reform to reflect this more horizontal teacher-student dynamic.

Obviously, there are even more complex ethical concerns at stake here as well as many more nuances in how to effectively advance such an educational model. But, I think, this reinvesting in the body, in our humanity, as being the source and basis for spirituality is the first step towards developing healthy models for mind-body therapists and teachers. It is, as Mary Parker Follet said, about having “power with” rather than “power over” your students. This happens, I believe, in the simple articulation of locating spiritual authority in human nature, rather than in some unseen supernatural dimension. This makes spirituality immediately communicable, shareable, and knowable for anyone at any time free of any need for divine intermediaries.

Carol: Well, I’m relieved that I didn’t offend you with my take-down of your book title and cover! Your explanation of its genesis makes perfect sense. I remain a little concerned, however, that your self-engineered take down may have been a bit too effective, turning off potential readers who don’t manage to get past the self-deprecating packaging. (That said, there’s also a way in which it makes your story that much more fascinating.)

What I really loved about the book (which is replicated in your comments here), is your ability to tell this really unusual and very personal story in a way that weaves in so many bigger, and more abstract, ideas and issues. So, for example, your description of the pitfalls of post-guru Gurudom makes me curious about how you understand the more general psychological and spiritual dynamics at play in that experience.

From my perspective, the psychological tendency to idealize a guru-like figures is not limited to metaphysical religious systems: you see similar dynamics with charismatic political leaders who are entirely secular, for example. And of course, psychotherapists are trained to work with the interplay of transference (that is, having clients project powerful subconscious feelings onto them) and counter-transference (i.e., their own tendency to respond unconsciously, and therefore inappropriately, to these projections) as a matter of course.

Graphic: Transference & Counter-Transference

It makes sense that the situations you describe here and in your book – cults, ashrams, and seminars organized around a guru-centric metaphysical system – would intensify this general tendency toward transference and counter-transference. By the same logic, it would seem that what happens in such settings tends toward the anti-therapeutic. A good therapist seeks to develop a relationship that harnesses the power of their client’s transference to his or her healing process. The guru, however, tends to perpetuate or intensify the power of a hierarchical relationship that feeds off unchecked idealizations.

So my question is: What’s the uniquely “spiritual” part of your story? In your book, you make many casual references to experiences well outside the established boundaries of Western psychology: ecstatic states, the ability “to hear and answer my students’ prayers,” a magical healing ritual conducted by Elvis impersonator in Thailand, etc. And beyond such Siddhis-like examples, your book is infused with (what at least to me reads like) a deep faith in the transformative power of love.

Is it possible – or even useful – to parse out the more generalizable psychological versus spiritual dynamics that your story in part represents? Or are those categories too clunky and baggage-laden? If so, what would a better theoretical language be?

Shyam: First of all, I want to thank you for clarifying how unhealthy power dynamics occur in secular, not just religious, domains. As you said, and as I attempted to highlight in my initial response, metaphysical systems have the tendency to intensify those unhealthy dynamics. I think you made a very important distinction between what the role of the guru is seeking to achieve versus that of the trained psychotherapist. The guru is imparting wisdom and insight from a divine dimension to their students, which in order to work requires a hierarchical relationship, and is therefore didactic and totalitarian in nature rather than process oriented. Whereas, the trained therapist, in the Western psychology model, attempts to harness (hopefully), as you said, “the power of their client’s transference to his or her healing process.” This is a very key distinction, in my mind, which is often overlooked. Transference can have profound transformational power if dealt with appropriately. And I think that Western psychology can offer a lot of very important insights into contemporary mind-body therapy.

I think this is a good segue into your question about experiences that are outside Western psychological boundaries. In my mind, Western psychology is very good at defining and categorizing developmental stages in personal and cultural growth. Asian contemplative traditions, on the other hand, are very good at implementing rituals and practices that induce altered states of consciousness. Both traditions have remained largely ignorant of each other until very recently. And there is good reason for this.

The altered states achieved in meditation are not dependent upon developmental maturity in order to be experienced. And, developmental growth is not necessarily dependent upon achieving altered states of consciousness. But, I think, that both traditions ignore one another at their own peril.

To speak from personal experience, many long-term practitioners and teachers of meditation, while very accomplished in contemplative practice, are often developmentally stunted in their psychological maturity. It’s also true, however, that a lot of profound psychological growth can happen due to and in light of experiencing altered states of consciousness.

In my own life, I know how much certain meditation practices enabled me to further dissociate from difficult emotional and psychological material, which only served to stunt my growth as a person. At the same time, many profound experiences in meditation have given me further insight into my own psychology that has aided my developmental growth. So, they can be complimentary systems if properly integrated.

Now of course meditation is not only about achieving altered states of consciousness. There are many meditation methods that marry psychological practices with the cultivation of an aesthetic experience of ordinary life. Nonetheless, even some of the most nuanced traditional meditation practices have the tendency to offer very little psychological insight, due to a lack of developmental awareness, while either over-emphasizing the aesthetic experience and/or dissociation.

Integrating Western psychology and Asian mind-body practices might serve to not only enrich both systems but bring greater clarity into the teacher-student dynamic.

This leads me to addressing the other issues you raised. One thing to keep in mind is that I’ve grown in my own thinking since the writing and publishing of the book. To a certain extent I was simply narrating, secondhand, many of my father’s experiences and describing, firsthand, some of my own mystical experiences with little commentary. Today, I would employ current research in neuroscience and psychology to explain many of my more “far out” experiences (so, no, I don’t believe that I actually heard peoples’ prayers). That being said, such an interpretation does not devalue the experiences themselves. Quite to the contrary, it confirms the reality of such experiences by grounding them in the body via brain states.

I think that a new language is emerging due to advances in neuroscience. It is capable of documenting and scientifically describing what is happening in the brain when people have so-called mystical experiences. This goes a long way in enacting the shift towards a nature-based understanding of spirituality, as I gestured to in my first response, and is capable of revolutionizing our understanding of spirituality and metaphysics. It also may serve to further integrate Western models of consciousness with Asian experiential-based practice traditions.

This discussion of a more naturalized understanding of spirituality helps in beginning to answer the question of what might be “uniquely spiritual” about my story. I believe that spirituality is about becoming more human, not less. In order to experience a greater wholeness in myself I had to leave being a celibate monk, leave behind the notion of classical spiritual enlightenment, and allow myself to become more vulnerable. This transition into becoming more deeply invested in human life required both a radical openness as well as clear thinking.

I believe that my story, as told in the book, narrates this shift. I do believe in the transformational power of love, of being human. Honest communication and taking the risk to love and be loved in the face of impermanence and death is at the heart of spirituality for me. So much of my asceticism (celibacy, etc.) was due to a fear of impermanence. This speaks to not only a profound fear of death but it is also a fear of life—for it is life denying. In order to guard against death, I rejected life itself in the form of militating against my own physical body via spiritual detachment.

Spirituality, to me now, is about investing in this life, this world, and in the value of myself and other people. This is an ethical decision, rather than a metaphysical belief, and it articulates a profound philosophical shift. The question is no longer “what is the meaning of life?” but is much more vitally “what should I do with this life?” This kind of spirituality, which is rooted in the reality of the body, elicits an interpersonal experience we can all share in. For it is about what we do in the world, not how we escape it. And it therefore generates an ethic of intimacy, which is really what I had been hungering for all my years of being a monk and a guru. It is also why I left those religious roles in the first place: to be able to know myself and meet other people in a way that was both genuine and kind – free of spiritual idealizations.

In this regard, the uniquely spiritual part of my story has to do with the healing in myself and my family. How we reopened to love and began to trust each other through emotional and intellectual honesty.

I hope, in some way, this response serves to answer your question, at least in part.

Carol: Shyam, this is a beautiful response, and certainly one that resonates very deeply with me on a personal level. While there’s many other questions I’m interested in asking, I feel this is a great place to conclude. So, thanks so much for your time – I’ve really enjoyed this exchange, loved your book, and look forward to reading much more of your work in the future!

Shyam: Thank you, Carol. It’s been such an immense pleasure discussing these things with you.

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