February 10, 2012

On Knowing What is Meant By Goodness: The John Friend Controversy, with Respect.

I have never met John Friend, but I have learned more from him in the past two weeks than I have in all the anusara classes I’ve attended over the last seven years. As profound as the practice of physical asana is, this controversy is yet another reminder that how we move through this life, this ocean of preciousness, how we open our hearts to love and how we express that love to those around us is where our practice truly lies.

I am not here to cast any stones. For many years, I lived my life in a mire of confusion that resulted in unconscious action and pain for myself and for those around me, even those closest to me. There — but for the grace of my teachers, and this practice, and my community of friends, and my connection to the Divine, and all the structures of accountability that I have painstakingly built in my life, and my recognition that I need such structures in order to be living the life of goodness that my heart truly wants, and my willingness to surrender to the simple wisdom of many much wiser than me on this path — go I, once again.

All these structures that I have built and surrendered to, out of necessity for my own spiritual survival, are the fundamental core of what it takes for me to practice goodness. The higher we are in terms of power and responsibility, the more structures of support we need.

A recurring theme in the alleged emails from John and in his response to the allegations of misconduct is the theme of goodness and alignment to goodness — goodness in intent, goodness in practice, goodness in the universe, and the universe itself — in fact — as a manifestation of goodness. Goodness is something that those of us on the spiritual path hold in high regard. But, just as in the path of following the heart, there is much confusion about goodness, what it is, and how to practice it.

The first step on the path of goodness is the true recognition of the reality of goodness. It is easily possible to argue, and it often is, that goodness is a human invention, that we human beings create moral and ethical codes of behavior, and that goodness dwells solely within the realm of social construct.

Yet as we start to work less from our heads and more from our hearts, we start to know that goodness is something far deeper and more inherent to the structure of this divine universe and to our innate structure as human beings. Goodness is as much a reality as the fundamental principles of alignment of the human body, and just as we bring health and wellness into our lives when we are physically centered, so we bring goodness into our lives when we are living in spiritual alignment.

It is quite easy to misinterpret some of the deepest spiritual teachings and take them to mean: “It’s all good.” This is not a true understanding of Tantric cosmology. While everything may indeed have its ultimate source in the Divine and all may be a supreme manifestation of this divine reality, we can go a long, long way off course in this life and cause a tremendous amount of pain and misery if we trick ourselves into thinking that there is no distinction in quality in how we conduct ourselves.

Just as certain combinations of notes make chords that uplift and others create discord, so certain behaviors are in line with goodness and some are not. There are real forces in this universe of harmony and joy and uplift and there are forces of confusion and disharmony and violence and pain that draw unhealthy hearts like a magnet. There are ways of being that bring smiles to the eyes of children, and there are ways of being that result in conflict among men.

We need not concern ourselves philosophically with whether at some sub-atomic level its all one and the same; we need concern ourselves with what our true hearts already know: There is a right way to be.

All spiritual traditions recognize what behaviors are in line with goodness and what are not. As much as we like to gripe about the “rules,” there is a simple fact at work. These are not just arbitrary human rules — they provide a direct lens into how spiritual reality works.

It is completely impossible, for example, to be spiritually clear when we are engaged in lying.

नास्ति सत्यसमं तपः The greatest spiritual discipline is telling the truth.

We cannot possibly transmit from a place of genuine openness of heart when we have to keep secrets or cover things up and then consequently are required to spend an inordinate amount of time doing maintenance to protect untruths. One drop of such behavior clouds the clear waters of our hearts immediately. Within this reality, our intention towards goodness matters very little. Our behavior creates the field of our hearts; so our behavior is everything.

Our way of working with our behavior does not have to be begrudging adherence to rules. It can and should be the process of honest discovery of the true workings of our hearts.

Imagine if we were to sit down with our truest, most heartfelt friends in a beautiful garden for tea and have a truthful discussion about our lives. Would we ever come out of such a discussion thinking that it’s in our highest interest to lie or cheat or engage in behavior that could lead to confusion and hurt?

Our tendencies towards negative behavior tend to shrivel in the light of that which nourishes us most – good company, true community, meals shared in a spirit of equality, co-operation in daily tasks.

If we are in touch with our hearts, then children are also excellent barometers of goodness. If we would feel uncomfortable explaining our behavior while standing before the knowing eyes of a child, then it’s probably not a good behavior to be engaged in. And if it does not pass the test of tea with a true friend in the garden, then it’s probably not in line with goodness.

This means, of course, that we have to have true friends. And here is where the heart of the practice of goodness lies.

At a certain point in my life, I had to recognize that my work towards goodness could not be a path that I walked alone in which I set all the rules myself. I had to work to build structures in my life that steered me towards goodness.

All of us need to have people in whom we place great confidence and trust, people who are committed to walking a good road. We have to have teachers who know more than we do about the path we walk, who follow it, and who keep us honest. We need to strike a balance between the will of our own hearts and the times when we need to be told exactly what to do, even if we don’t like it.

Personally, I know that I need to have my foolish lion cub’s mind put in its place with regularity.

Luckily, I have teachers who I know, reliably, will do just that. Yet when we look at many of the gurus who have been engaged in sexual, political, and financial scandals, they have no systems of accountability in place and they no longer answer to a teacher. This is a profound misalignment.

Our practice is to construct our lives so that there is literally no place in our hearts for a lie to hide. If our practice is taking us away from that fundamental transparency, that place of the perpetually clear reflection, then we are putting ourselves in danger.

We need to know our place and to constantly be reminded of it.

This place is directly illuminated for us in the sacred relationship that Christ and the bhaktins were very well aware of: the triangle that exists between self, and other, and the Divine.

The greatest mistake that a human being can make on any path – material or spiritual – is to energetically situate themselves at the top of this triangle. As we accumulate any type of power in this life, it is easy to confuse our positioning in relationship to others and to the Divine, usually at our peril. It takes profound diligence to always return the focus of such power to the highest place, and that highest place – while its energy infuses us and nourishes us – is not us.

Many of the Tantric traditions encourage the development and manipulation of internal and external forces for the purpose of spiritual union with the divine. Such traditions awaken and stoke our solar fires and can offer a quick path to spiritual union, if we know how to walk them right. Very few people alive on the planet today know how to do this.

I grew up among the traditions of Tibetan Tantra. By the time I was 22, I had received dozens of Tantric empowerments and was engaged in all kinds of practices of energetic manipulation. I practiced tummo, the Yoga of the Inner Heat, without proper instruction or guidance. I practiced the Yoga of the Clear Light and the Yoga of the Wrathful Armor and the Yoga of the Black Goddess. I dabbled in sexual Tantric practices with partners who I was not fully committed to and engaged in all types of spiritual curiosity. I did all these practices without ever finishing my foundational practices, and I suffered directly for it.

I have rarely seen those who engage in the yogic practices of energetic manipulation do so from a place that is completely free from the desire to foster and build their own personal power, which is why I generally steer my students away from those teachers who claim to be transmitting Tantra unless I am absolutely certain of their lineage, and why I even steer away from complicated pranayamas, in favor of a practice of simple devotion, and service, and surrender.

In my case, the biggest consequence of such misguided spiritual manipulation was not the harmful effect that it had on others. The biggest consequence was the vastly mistaken alignment it put me in, in relation to myself, to others, and to the world. I began to believe that I was someone and that I was in control of something. Thinking that we are in control of forces beyond our control is a sure road to the opposite of goodness.

When we start to spiritually and emotionally manipulate sexual forces, the potential for confusion reaches its apex. As I look back on my life, the sex I had without preciousness, the manipulations I entered into in order to get it, the confusions I created from those manipulations – none of these were the road of goodness. How many times did I ignore the messages of my heart because I wanted to manipulate someone into sex? And how did the lifestyle of manipulation deeply effect my heart and my sense of the world? Just as a prostitute has difficulty ever believing that a man could have pure intent because she lives in a world in which all preciousness is devalued, so did goodness in my world become less of a possibility the more I engaged in manipulation.

As sure as I am that there is a right way to walk in this world, so do I know that sex without emotional attachment is not a human reality. So do I also know that sex with someone who lives within the commitment of marriage is not – and can never be – aligned with goodness. Someone always suffers. This is how reality works.

We cannot dwell in the waters of this world without making ripples until we become a whole lot lighter. No one I know is there, least of all me.

We are not at the top of the triangle. We are a small part of this universal fire, but we are not the sum total of it. We are candles on the edge of the forest fire. We don’t decide what goodness is, any more than we decide when the first frost comes or how the apple tree blossoms or when the greater fire takes us back into its blazing breast.

After many years, I feel like I have begun to get the faintest sense of how to walk the road of goodness. And the place it starts and returns to is simplicity and humility.

These qualities are paid a lot of lip service in our culture but rarely practiced. We value them on paper, but we still look for what we perceive to be the brightest lights, and we often gravitate towards the people that weave complex and enticing tapestries for us rather than re-align us with the most straightforward truths.

The lights of true goodness in this world often are hidden in the care of the simplest people, those who do not live on pedestals. Just as the profound foundation of yama and niyama is often skimmed over or dismissed so we can get to the “good stuff,” so the wisest of us carry great treasures and often dwell in anonymity.

If goodness looked like the humblest of all men, would we stop and pay attention? Would we slow down and connect with their hearts long enough to recognize them?

It matters little what others do on their road to spiritual union – what seeds they plant and what roadblocks they cast in their own way. What matters for us is a thorough, genuine excavation of all that stands between us and goodness, and this starts with asking ourselves if we really want it.

Goodness is not an easy road. Would we want goodness, for example, if it meant a life of no great notoriety? Would we practice goodness if no one was watching?  What if goodness dwelt in the most banal, boring precepts of daily living? What if those hidden springs are exactly where we are meant to soak our hearts?

There is a song in Brazil that explores what it truly means to live a good life. It’s called Dilema Da Vida, or Dilemma of Life.

“I have loyalty in every word I speak

And that which is true I don’t know how to deny

I prefer to be a bridge for those who pass by

Or to serve as a ladder for all those that climb

And if I don’t arrive at the same place that many others do

I’ll serve as a support for those who are falling

I don’t want to be the one at the top

I want to serve those at the bottom

I don’t have greed, I don’t want riches

I desire only to fulfill my duty

And the one who rules all of nature

Will deliver to me exactly what I merit.”


I wish only goodness for all of us. For John, for the Anusara community, for the yoga community, and for this world of seven billion beating hearts.

In the name of the Lord of all Illumination, who in my heart sits forever and always at the top of the triangle.

Jyotisham pataye namah



Read 15 Comments and Reply

Read 15 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Josh Schrei  |  Contribution: 1,900