June 22, 2012

The Dark Side of Spirituality: The Guru Papers Unmasks Sacred Cows!

A Map to Spiritual Empowerment

The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power is essential reading if you are interested in questions of power, shadow, authority, spiritual growth and freedom.

Why do spiritual communities so often go sour? Why has the guru tradition spawned so many tragedies and scandals? What might a sustainable 21st century spiritual philosophy look like?

Originally published in 1993, the book is available for the first time in an e-book format on June 19th, 2012.

Since being published The Guru Papers has been widely acclaimed and is considered the ‘”go to” book for recovering cult members, families of cult members and anyone wanting to understand the shadow aspects of spirituality or the broader issue of hidden authoritarian power.

As a work of spiritual philosophy, the book is a masterpiece of lucid reasoning. It is written in easy-to-follow language and encourages a deep consideration of the path to genuine freedom and self-acceptance.

Along the way, authors Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad insightfully discuss how spirituality has co-evolved as an expression of human culture, and how the symbolic activities of language, symbolism and mythology have given rise to a complex web of symbolic abstractions, psychological maneuvers, moral codes and authoritarian power structures.

But don’t let the heady subject matter discourage you—this is a pragmatic and down-to-earth guide to understanding several of the central spiritual questions with which we all wrestle.

Below is a short trailer for their excellent  interview with Antonio Sausys who featured them on his show Yogi Views as controversy raged over the John Friend/Anusara Yoga scandal:


Authoritarian Power

While Part One of the Guru Papers does focus in on the problems with the guru model in particular, the book is also concerned with how the guru model is a variation of the kind of authoritarianism we can see on every level of society, from politics to religion to the family to intimate relationships.

This provides for potent meditation, genuinely life-changing food for thought, and a real shot in the arm of bracing clarity for the yoga community.

Central to their thesis is that we need to find ways to go beyond authoritarian mental conditioning and systems if we are to truly grow up as human beings and survive on this planet together.

Though there have been many communities organized around the guru-disciple model, and though so many of these have gone horribly wrong, The Guru Papers does not focus on any particular communities. It does not name names, or make any personal critiques. Rather, it seeks to illuminate the underlying problem—that of giving away one’s power to an authority figure.

The book makes a case for authoritarian power structures as explicitly being ways to enforce control over people’s minds. I have never come a cross a more comprehensive treatment of both the various methods of enacting “spiritual” control and disempowerment, and how various belief systems and philosophical strategies make this possible.

The irony of course is that as seekers, we are in search of freedom, healing and personal awakening, but the very structure of the guru-model itself prevents such aspirations from being attained. In their place it exploits vulnerability and the need to belong, and assuages our existential anxiety by using ever more sophisticated forms of abstract belief to create a sense of having found an ultimate spiritual truth.

This “truth,” however, comes at a cost, and the authors masterfully point out how philosophies based on abstract conceptions of “oneness” and “non-duality” are often actually variations on familiar religious themes that encourage in-group identification and psychological fragmentation, while perpetuating an unwillingness to see reality for what it is.

The Dialectic

What then is this reality? Well, it is dialectical. Central to the lucid philosophical analysis here is that we human beings struggle to both comprehend and accept the dialectical nature of existence. In this life, there is always a blend of opposites: meaning and randomness, change and continuity, causation and free will, victimization and responsibility, joy and suffering, individuation and merging, oneness and multiplicity, control and surrender, selflessness and self-centeredness, competition and cooperation, unity and diversity.

Simply put, whenever we deny one side of the dialectic by over-identifying with its opposite, we have lost the plot.

The above statement is not as simple as saying, “Yea man—it’s all one,” or “It’s all perfect.” This would again fall into the pervasive and subtle dualism that denies half of the dialectic. Notice that if “it is all one,” this negates multiplicity, and if it is “all perfect,” this denies imperfection and distorts the reality of suffering. Not to mention the dualism hidden in dividing reality into oneness and illusion (or Maya)—that’s two things: spirit and matter, the spiritual and the mundane.

The point is that we are as much individuals as we are members of a collective, and both matter. We cannot sacrifice our individuality on the altar of the collective, nor should we just egoistically ignore the collective in the name of self-realization.

Likewise, healthy spirituality should be as much about being present to our true feelings of anxiety, grief, isolation, anger or powerlessness as it is about getting in touch with gratitude, communion, forgiveness and empowerment.

In becoming more comfortable with this dialectic —this recognition of the inseparable nature of opposites, we can think more clearly, live more honestly and come to greater self-acceptance.

Life and death are two sides of the same coin, and systems of thought that either deny death or make us yearn for death and deny life are essentially distortions of reality that promise us otherworldly rewards as a way to gain worldly control over us.

Why All The Fuss About Gurus?

The 1970s and 80s saw an influx of supposedly enlightened gurus from the East riding the wave of counter-culture, psychedelic-infused fascination with Buddhism and Yoga.  They promised  direct spiritual experiences to those who would become their disciples.

Though the book doesn’t engage in this kind of specific history, the gallery of gurus included characters like Baghwan Shree Rajneesh (later called Osho), Mharaj-ji (or Prem Rawat) the boy guru from India, Vajrayana Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa, Adi Da Samraj (formerly Da Free John), an American, but a student of Indian guru Muktananda.

Osho had a fleet of Rolls Royces, wore outrageously expensive designer robes and diamond studded hats and bracelets and when asked about his sexual exploits with devotees laughed and said “Yes, it is true: I am the Blessed One!” His group, from behind walls protected by Uzi-toting guards ended up poisoning several people in a town close to their compound in Oregon, contaminating eight salad bars with salmonella infecting 751 people, with plans to infect the town’s water supply, so as to incapacitate voters and swing a county election toward their candidates.


Prem Rawat encouraged complete submission to his divine authority, and had “Premmies” donate their cars to him, because they wouldn’t need such things any more. At his peak he was a multi-millionaire with property all over the world, and flashy sports cars. A massive party in the Houston Astrodome in 1973 announced him as the “Lord of the Universe” as he appeared on stage sitting on an elaborate throne wearing a crown straight out of Star Trek.


Chogyam Trungpa had scandals swirl around him regarding sexual misconduct, alcoholism and drug use. He also appointed a successor who, while knowing he was infected with HIV had frequent unprotected sex with students—one of whom died.

Adi Da Samraj, hailed at times as the most realized being in history by philosopher Ken Wilber has so many court cases pending against him for sexual assault and physical violence that (prior to his death in 2008) he had to isolate himself and a core group on a Fiji-an island, donated of course by one of his devotees.


Adi Da’s teacher, Muktananda, was accused of rape and the sexual assault of young women under the guise of “checking their virginity.” Former students who claimed to have witnessed these acts allege that they were subject to death threats. Muktananda’s successor Gurumayi apparently had her henchmen lock her brother in a room and beat him with a stick until he agreed to turn over the entire multi-million dollar international business of Siddha Yoga to her. Muktananda originally named them both as his heirs.

Ken Wilber, by the way, maintains close relations with and public endorsement of Andrew Cohen, a contemporary American guru who actually blogs on Elephant Journal. Former students of Cohen (including his mother who wrote a scathing book about him called “Mother of God”) accuse him of physical and verbal abuse as well as financial manipulation. William Yenner, longtime friend and student of Cohen has also published American Guru, A Story of Love, Betrayal and Healing —former students of Andrew Cohen Speak Out.

Of course, we shouldn’t leave out the bizarre Christian cult led by Jim Jones that ended in 1978 with 900 followers dead in a mass suicide in the jungles of Guyana. It is from this event that we get the term “drinking the Kool-Aid,” as this was the poisoned drink they all shared as a way to depart what they saw as a spiritually corrupted world.


The opportunism, materialism, sexual manipulation, and cultish dynamics that were so often the rule rather than the exception with these teachers no doubt led thinkers like Joel and Diana to do some serious work on understanding and communicating the dynamics of unhealthy power structures.

But even now after the first few waves of charlatan gurus in the early decades of Eastern influence, the underlying beliefs and conventions of the guru model remain a ubiquitous feature of our spiritual zeitgeist.

In a way, the  The Guru Papers e-book couldn’t come at a better time.

Think about it:

* This year’s John Friend/Anusara Yoga scandal. (Small potatoes by true guru standards, but worth looking at through this lens.)

* The death last year of perhaps the world’s most famous guru, Sai Baba. He called himself a god-man, proved it by doing cheap magic tricks that were exposed by running video footage in slow motion, and spent his free time molesting his devotees young sons. Sai Baba left an estate valued at $9B.

* The ongoing pedophilia charges against the Catholic Church —now adding up to $2.5 B in court-ordered payouts.

* Last year’s sentencing of New Age teacher (famous for being part of the mega-selling Oprah-endorsed DVD “the Secret”) James Arthur Ray to 2 years in prison for negligent homicide.

* The recent tragic death of Ian Thorson involving Geshe Michael Roach‘s Diamond University.

* The new documentary film, Kumare about a man who pretends to be a guru,

* Revelations regarding sexual abuse suffered by boy-monk Kalu Rinpoche, believed by Tibetan Buddhists (but not himself) to be the reincarnation of a venerated Tulku.

* My own friend Shyam Dodge’s harrowing tale of growing up in a guru cult and being declared enlightened himself at 21, only to receive death threats after leaving the group. His ensuing experiences with a Tantric cult that uses teenage runaways as “sacred prostitutes” is also quite sad.

* Most of all, the ongoing threat of extremist Islamic terrorism and its death cult of suicide bombers that has changed all of our lives since 2001.

If these types of events make you feel as unsettled as I think they should, if they create in you the urge to understand more deeply what often goes so badly wrong in spiritual communities, and what the seeds of such rotten fruit could be, then this book is for you.

It is a bracing, illuminating, well-written, comprehensive, brilliant look at what needs to be grasped and corrected in order for spirituality to live up to its promise as a force for healing, genuine growth and responsibility and positive change in the world.

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