Self-torture: the Ultimate Defense Mechanism

There are times when anger isn’t just a passing mood but something that weighs on you night and day. Whether you’re maliciously attacked, shamefully denied by someone who was supposed to be there for you, or simply neglected by a loved one, the pain runs deep. Our choice is simply to fight or fly, but we like to think we’re more sophisticated than that.

You want to explode like a volcano, but you prefer to keep the peace. After all, knee-jerk retaliation just makes things worse. There’s always reasoned confrontation, but that’s risky; it’s hard to balance tact and honesty. Passive indifference looks like the easy compromise. Run it through your mind: it seems peace-loving and high-minded. You like it, and decide the best defense is non-reactivity.

While you keep up a brave face, however, your emotions are pressing on you. The upset is still there; it doesn’t evaporate. If no outlet’s available it’ll find an inlet — to your subconscious. What began as simple anger is inflated by anxiety.

Repressed emotions take an insidious toll. They tear you apart and you don’t even know it.

We gravitate towards the familiar even if it’s painful

You may recognize this tortuous cycle. A family member makes a joke at your expense, then laughs condescendingly when you feel slighted. Next time it happens you keep your feelings to yourself, nursing your resentment. An opportunity arises and you return the insult. You’re not consciously looking for it. It’s indirect; you hide your motives even from yourself. You pretend innocence.

This is passive aggression, born in families everywhere. You might call it a relationship, but it’s more of a codependency.

Humans gravitate towards the familiar. Even if it’s painful we choose to go where we’ve been before. We know we can cope there, and feel safe. Having chosen silence, the prospect of speaking face-to-face is intimidating. We grow entrenched. Complacency is easier than honesty, so we find a way to rationalize dishonesty. The more we hide from it, the more the pressure builds.

The bad feelings grow stronger, and yet and we don’t know why, but like physical pain emotional pain is telling us something.

How do we believe a lie we tell ourselves?

The ego evolved as a rational intermediary between our instinctive selves and the social world outside. Not acknowledging our feelings is not mere ignorance; it’s deceit. It ties us up in gluey strings of self-justification. Compounded by unaddressed feelings, self-deceit makes us act out of sync with our needs. We become irrational, and eventually self-destructive.

It’s often thought that self-destructive behavior indicates self-hatred. In fact, it’s usually about avoidance, the least demanding of all possible defenses. The results are similar: finding society too complicated, we seek isolation; or we deprive ourselves of comforts; or we indulge in eating, shopping, drinking, sex or drugs. Our self-image is highly adaptable, and for that very reason it can go haywire. We’re on the run. In this state, the thought of sitting down for a few minutes to breathe quietly unsettles us.

Denial is weird. How do we believe a lie we tell ourselves? Somewhere inside, surely we know. Perhaps that’s why breaking through takes a third person — someone objective, whether a friend or a professional. First though, you have to be open to the possibility. You need to be ready.

Real empathy requires integrity, and integrity takes time

For all its apparent simplicity, readiness is a quasi-mystical state. No one can talk you or trick you into it. It’s always the logical thing to do, and yet logic can’t lead you there. One day you simply decide that you can’t live the lie any more. It’s not a foregone conclusion. Some people never face it. They suffer until they die. Really.

If you’re graced with readiness you’ll taste freedom at last, but that’s just the first step. You need to consolidate your clarity. You’re not just making a rational decision, you’re countering an emotional habit, embarking on a process of change.

At this point you may want to share your good fortune. This is tricky. If you need others to get it and they don’t, you risk a reversal. Real empathy requires integrity, and integrity takes time.

The lesson is tough: you can’t save anyone; you can’t change anyone; you can’t fix anyone. What you can do is to live from one moment to the next with all the integrity you can muster. By freeing yourself you become an example. Who will get it and who won’t? Can’t say. Just be satisfied with your own step forward. The best thing you can do for others is to become clear in yourself. Everything good follows from that.

Attachment to delusion and self-torture is bizarre and incomprehensible, but it’s human. Don’t be fooled by the apparent normalcy of the world, or by the suggestion that life should be rational. Maybe it should be, but it just isn’t. That’s the sticking point, and until we accept it there’s no moving forward. We choose habit over freedom by default, and gradually inch our way out to extremes. The best way to change is to catch ourselves while we’re being defensive before it turns into self-destruction — and let go of the habit. It takes resolve, but first of all it’s a matter of self-trust.


Never Mind

Driving past little Pine Lake in Hudson the other day, I was listening to the oboe’s baleful lament in Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, and recalling my mother. Just a few years ago she’d stood on this shore staring at the red-tinged foliage and a nearby heron, still as a statue — both Mum and the bird, that is.

She was rapt, taking in the view for the last time — taking in viewing for the last time. We knew there wouldn’t be much more. Alzheimer’s had her brain, though not entirely; she knew what was coming.

In the space of twenty yards I was intersected by the music, the memory and the scene. My eyes welled up. Mum’s at rest now, but that moment is seared in my memory. It’s not just about her; in the death of our parents we see our own mortality — a mortality I flirted with too freely while she was still alive. I still feel guilty for almost inflicting my own death on her — too recklessly and too often.

It seemed to me on that day that she was trying with all her might to imbibe it all, to get enough and finally let go; but eventually, turning away with a little sigh, she smiled and said, “Oh well! Never mind.”

As I pass through the middle years and am faced ever more bluntly with my own transience, I also find more acceptance. It’s not always like this; some people grow more fearful. That’s a shame, for life is to be lived, and the less that remains, the sweeter it surely is.  I thank Mum for that grace.

If you want to pass down some useful insight to your children, live life to the full, not necessarily without fear but without flinching, with your heart wide open. No need to say a thing. They’ll get it.

The Intimacy of Loss

I love my wife, so it stung the other day when she said, “Hmm … You’re going to have trouble letting me go, aren’t you?”

She’s not walking out on me. You see, she has multiple sclerosis (MS), and she’s referring to the day she can’t walk any more. She’s convinced herself that she can’t handle the guilt of ruining my life, and expects me to leave when she says so.

I knew Caroline had MS when I married her. I also knew I loved her. And I knew from experience what it was to live in a loveless marriage, hoping against hope that if you work hard enough at it, things will turn around. Of course, there is an element of work in marriage, but it’s got to start with chemistry.

I fell in love because of our chemistry. Yes, physical chemistry—she’s a real beauty—but I’m not talking about that, either. We care about the same things, like honesty and depth and clear insight. And we don’t give a damn about the same things, like having loads of money or achieving great, big visible success.

Still, we live well, eat well and enjoy fine wines. However, Caroline’s turning into a bit of a homebody as her legs grow less reliable. Her car’s being fitted for a hand-operated brake. She had a bit of a scare recently, so it’s time.

They say you don’t die from MS, you live with it. Well, they can say what they like. Those are words; we live with the reality. Most of the time Caroline’s full of life, charged up by her work as a personal life coach and filled with the satisfaction of seeing eye-popping changes in her clients’ lives. Still, MS is a chronic, degenerative illness. She’s gone through all the scary attacks of temporary blindness, vertigo, and electrical storms in her body, weakness, profound fatigue and inexplicable pain.

She avoids medications. They’re no cure and the side effects suck. Her mood is usually good, amazing actually. She has a bright outlook on life, and is a great wife and mother.

When I say she inspires the hell out of me, I’m not just being polite. Being with her has changed my life. Caroline’s commitment to honesty isn’t just a matter of telling the truth to others, it’s about telling it to herself, about uncovering fear and the denial that follows hard on its heels. She’s never afraid to scrape away the shiny surfaces to see what’s underneath—like my hollow silence when she tells me to let go.

We had that conversation the other night because I, not she, was down. I was feeling bad for her, and for us. She was stuck in bed and our holiday wasn’t going to happen as we planned.

She’d had a cold for a week, meaning that on top of the regular symptoms, she gets fever, extreme fatigue, and other complications. With MS, the tiniest bug can throw the immune system into a tailspin and make symptoms last much longer. You can only imagine how frustrated, depressed, and cranky that makes you.

She hates feeling weak, mostly because she wants to “be there” all the time, in the best way possible for the rest of us, especially me. She loves me. Actually, we’re pretty goofy when it comes to our affection for one another.

I ask her what she means by letting her go. She looks me coolly in the eye and says, “I mean, when I can’t function any more, of course. I want you to move on.”

What the hell am I supposed to say to that? What would you say?

I almost blubber, but that’s no way to be there for her—or is it? I tell her she can’t possibly know what awaits her. She raises an eyebrow. She knows all right.

I recognize the moment of indecision. I pause, breathe, and return to the present.

Funny, after eight years as a Buddhist monk with the finest Tibetan teachers and forty years of practice, I sometimes feel I should have a leg up on life’s sufferings. To be floored by a moment like this disables all I learned—the meditative techniques, the philosophy, the calm sense of stability.

We fall back on the only thing we ever have—any of us, any time, anywhere. This moment. And in this moment we’re together, even when it’s painful. We broaden each other’s bandwidth.

People cling to belief systems, religions, and fantasies escape moments like this. But I’m not about to tell Caroline that we’ll meet again in paradise and experience eternal youth in some flowery meadow. So in this moment, I explain to Caroline that I’m already letting go—not of her but of the feelings we get stuck in.

My knee-jerk tendency is to wrap myself up in negativity, to indulge in the guilt of being healthy and the powerlessness of standing by helplessly—to suffer intently out of dumb solidarity. Thankfully, my training gets me past that. I can let go. She sees it in my eyes and lets go too, not of me, but of fear and sadness. Acknowledging those feelings enables us to recognize they’re not permanent, that they’ll pass. Once you’re there, letting go is just another step.

Can the sadness return? Yes of course, but we can still take this moment, and we’re better primed next time to let go of the negativity again. It’s special and tangible. The heart opens, and out of it flows the immense presence of this moment. It brings one more shared insight into inexplicable life. This is as intimate as it gets.

I remind her of what she means to me, not lovey-dovey clichés, but real wake-up calls. I tell her that when she gets down on herself for being unable to cook or do chores, she forgets what purpose she’s brought to my life—all the focus, the encouragement, and frankness.

Caroline coaxed me out of my isolation and brought me down to earth. She raised four fine children and has given her clients a sort of attention they never experienced before. None of this is trivial.

It’s not as if she doesn’t already know this. The real fear isn’t losing her body; it’s losing her purpose.

That fear of what she can’t do traps her in the illusion that she’s facing up to reality. But in fact she’s turning away from the reality of here and now. By reminding her of that I break the spell; she recalls where that negativity comes from, wakes up to the presence of fear, and finds the moment once more.

From the day I came into the picture she’s expressed all her feelings, good and bad. From her example I’ve learned not to keep them in. A partner’s there to share your life with, to listen to how you’re feeling, preferably without judgments or abstract solutions.

Don’t edit out the hard parts. If you have to do that, where’s the partnership? It’s off her chest. She’s back, and here we are sharing one more moment together. What else do any of us ever have? The challenge is to make it real.

This post first appeared on the Tiny Buddha website in January 2012

Why Celibacy is Perverse

I was taught and trained by Catholic monks and nuns for twelve years. Later on, I became a monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. I have experience of celibacy.

I took my vow willingly, and for several reasons. First, it was the price of admission to the spiritual elite of Tibetan Buddhism. Secondly, ignominiously, I hoped to escape the agonies of love and my social ineptitude. Thirdly and more hopefully, I craved the payoff promised by my teachers: increased meditative energy, greater clarity, Enlightenment with a big, beautiful capital E.

After eight years of celibacy I landed back in the real world with the emotional maturity of a teenager. This affected not just my ability to relate to women but my relationships with everyone, and with life itself. I was half a man. It took me decades to grow whole. Many of the former monks and nuns I knew were, and some still are, similarly damaged. You might blame this on the celibate life, but more likely these are the reasons they adopted it in the first place.

The sex drive is built in to our animal body, but
there’s also the mammalian drive for intimacy

I admit I was concerned on the day of my ordination, but I was also blessed with great powers of denial and rationalization. If others could do it, I figured, it couldn’t be that hard; it must get easier with practice.

We sanitize eating and defecating, but you can’t do that with sex. We dance around it with courtship rituals and legal agreements, but the act itself reduces us to our animal nature. For those who need to maintain the illusion of being a rational, chosen species, that’s problematic.

Civilization’s most crucial virtue may be non-violence, but celibacy is its toughest. The enemy is within, never really vanquished — and it doesn’t end there. The sex drive is built in to our animal body, but there’s also the mammalian drive for intimacy. We need to connect, to trust and to love. It often scares us.

If celibacy is pure, then sex must be dirty

Which moves some people to thwart those drives. It’s certainly a sacrifice — but is it healthy, and where on earth does purity come into it? If celibacy is pure, then sex must be dirty. Catholicism supposedly sanctifies it within marriage, but that’s just a way of buying off the laity; the priesthood remains de facto superior. The other Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Islam, mostly consider celibacy unnatural.

Asian religions place it in even higher regard. For Buddhists and Hindus celibacy not just a source of moral purity but also of meditative prowess. In the tantric traditions, to lose semen is to squander spiritual energy. Women, of course, are hardly in a position to retain their semen, but that’s of no matter in misogynistic cultures.

For the first time, celibacy is under general attack because it’s become public knowledge that many ‘celibates’ aren’t avoiding sex at all. Some are evil and duplicitous about it, but many are basically decent people unable to master their own drives and tortured by guilt. Add to that the burden of having to be paragons of virtue, and you can only imagine the toxicity they exude. The communities in which they operate have built-in safeguards against discovery that are only somewhat less effective in these days of total exposure. They continue to encourage denial and spread deceit.

Celibate teachers think they’re sublimely qualified to lead
sexually whole people on their quest for the purpose of life

When scandal does finally erupt, people like Cardinal Keith O’Brien and Father Tom Donovan are simply characterized as failed, weak individuals. The recent  exposés of teacher Sogyal Lakar and Sasaki Roshi, and the revelations of the abused young Kalu Rinpoche reveal as much unchaste havoc in Tibetan and Zen Buddhism as in the Catholic church. Some commentators claim the issue is not about sex at all, but about mistreating people. This is a weak attempt at apologetics. When shrouded in guilt and secrecy, frustrated sexuality fosters bad behavior. The two are connected.

The blame falls rightly on the priests and cardinals, the Tibetan and Zen masters who can’t keep their libido to themselves, but to close the case at that point is an abdication of responsibility. Both those who attack and those who defend these individuals restrict the debate to the assignment of blame and, at best, mechanisms of prevention. No one questions the practice of celibacy, or its sanity. It’s so ancient an institution that to challenge it threatens catastrophe for the traditions that enshrine it.

Celibates shove a part of themselves into the
shadows and then claim to pursue the light

Whether the target is one person or a whole complicit community, you never hear anyone within these traditions suggesting that celibacy is a sick idea, that spiritual teachers and leaders need to experience intimate relationships. Sometimes intimacy goes wrong and sometimes it’s a celebration of life, but what do celibates know of this? Those who promote abstinence for ulterior motives, as I did, who spin it as a source of purity or of power, shove a part of themselves into the shadows and then claim to pursue the light. They think they’re sublimely qualified to lead sexually whole people on their quest for the purpose of life.

In a recent interview with Piers Morgan, the Dalai Lama portrays sexual thoughts as ‘dirty,’ and makes wisecracks about marriage being troublesome. He’d be wiser to cite his lack of experience and say, ‘no comment,’ rather than describe marriage in such a cartoonish way, but he really doesn’t have that freedom. The monastic tradition he represents is a society founded entirely on celibacy. He’s as cornered as the pope.

I long ago declared myself unable to follow Christ within the Catholic Church, or Buddha under the constraints of any Buddhist tradition. It was the only decision for me, but there are those within who are able to rise above it. Thomas Merton comes to mind, and Gendun Chopel. Unlike the Dalai Lama, these were not institutional leaders but low-profile monks who maintained their integrity and pushed the envelope in ways that are not available to those at the top. Where are their modern-day equivalents?

P.S. As some people have noted here and elsewhere, I was imprecise in this post with my examples, Neither Sogyal nor Sasaki were ever bound by monastic vows, so their abusive behavior can’t be blamed on failed celibacy. I included them because they are nevertheless examples of what happens when sexuality is disconnected from one’s spiritual and moral practice.


When Empathy is Dumb

When you’re chronically ill, healthy people can put you on the defensive. It’s not because they’re healthy but because they’re awkward. They grab your hand guiltily and say, “It’s okay. Everything’ll be all right.” They think they’re being empathic but they’re not. They’re just scared to admit that everything will not be all right.

It’s more like an attack of narcissism. For the healthy, happy and successful, suffering people are an uncomfortable reminder that none of us can expect to feel good or safe for long. Modern culture glorifies the ancient delusion that human beings are destined for happiness. As if evolution has an agenda…. It’s nonsense, but it’s ingrained.

If you want to change your motives, be
mindful of your motives, not your breath.

I always felt bad for the afflicted, but that wasn’t empathy, which joins us to others; it was pity, which distances us from them. Really—how can a winner truly console a loser? After years of trying and failing at empathy, living with my wife Caroline and her multiple sclerosis taught me this upsetting realization and moved me forward.

Empathy isn’t just a gooey feeling. It’s an acquired skill, and it takes a light touch. At first I was horrified by my insincerity, filled with self-disgust. I pledged to never be that way again. That didn’t help at all. No motivator is more useless than neurotic guilt.

What helps is mindfulness, but only if it’s intelligent. An astonishing number of meditators believe that watching the breath for hours will magically make them more insightful and loving. They’re dreaming. If you need to change your motives, be mindful of your motives, not your breath.

The idea that life must have a point is a fiction;
the sense that it’s urgent is a neurosis.

Then there’s the paralyzing double bind of contemplating how you should behave. Proper mindfulness focuses simply and unambitiously on how you are behaving. Next time you feel the urge to declare that everything will be all right, drill down through your stack of motives. Are you saying it for the other’s benefit, or for your own?

We think we’re giving them hope, but hope’s a virtue only if it’s realistic. Besides, what’s at work here is not hope at all. It’s fear. When you subconsciously believe that happiness and success are everyone’s birthright, the possibility that life won’t necessarily serve us is too awful to bear. It’s irrational and rather pathetic, but the young actually hope (and almost believe) they won’t get old, the healthy that they won’t fall sick, and the rich that they won’t lose everything. The incontrovertible fact that everyone ages, gets sick and dies has negligible impact on the way we live.

By accepting your own dilemma you recognize everyone’s

We can change, but not by sheer willpower. Mindfulness steps us away from consoling rationalizations to quietly observe what we’re actually doing, feeling and thinking. It’s not guided by hope, but it’s not hopeless. It’s fearless.

The idea that life must have a point is a fiction; the sense that it’s urgent is a neurosis.  That doesn’t mean nothing counts. We know from experience that we find deep purpose in touching and being touched. We need not just to feel but to feel with others (which is what compassion means). Deep down, we all prize empathy. Once you get past your rationalizations it’s self-evident.

To have lasting results, mindfulness must turn you back to the realities you turn away from. By accepting your own dilemma you recognize everyone’s. Then real empathy simply happens. Once you get over the initial shock it’s strangely consoling. To face fear is to negate it. You see that your condition doesn’t define you. Empathy frees you to be a force of nature, not limited by your fears but empowered by an open heart.


Sick Love

Once again, scandal hits the Buddhist press. Zen master Joshu Sasaki Roshi, described by his cine-biographer Don Farber as a “remarkable living treasure,” has been exposed as another sexual predator. Even more shockingly, his prosperous community knew it for decades and did nothing, all the while recruiting more students. Only now that the 105-year-old Sasaki…

Joshu Sasaki, founder of Mount Baldy Zen Center in California and the Rinzai-Ji order of affiliated centersOnce again, scandal hits the Buddhist press.

Zen master Joshu Sasaki Roshi, described by his cine-biographer Don Farber as a “remarkable living treasure,” has been exposed as another sexual predator. Even more shockingly, his prosperous community knew it for decades and did nothing, all the while recruiting more students. Only now that the 105-year-old Sasaki has retired from public life and the danger of implosion has passed has the community found the courage to speak about it, and even then from the improvised anonymity of the newly-created Osho Council of Rinzai-ji, no personal names mentioned.

What shocks me is the shock. Does anyone still believe that Buddhist communities are inherently different, that their asymmetrical power structures, particularly in the Japanese and Tibetan traditions, should somehow be immune to human failings?

the guru-disciple relationship belongs
to a different time and culture

More to the point, are we only now finally realizing that the guru-disciple relationship belongs to a different time and culture? Sasaki’s students at his Zen Center in California are not untutored feudal vassals but modern educated citizens of liberal democracies, trained in at least rudimentary scientific impartiality and encouraged through years of schooling to think for themselves.

We do not need to wonder why men in positions of unrestrained power behave badly. We know why. What we need to understand more clearly, what should concern us at least as deeply if not more, is how that power is so freely granted to them by the very people they abuse.

My eight years as a Buddhist monk were relatively benign, but I emerged from them shattered by uncertainty. My personal psychology was a factor, but the Buddhist communities in which I lived exerted a powerful social force in which my guilelessness was well nourished.

What led me to Buddhism? I was dissatisfied with my birth culture, which assured me that it was best because it brought freedom, but I knew that was spin, a play on words. It wanted us to settle for freedom of choice as a cheap replacement for freedom of spirit, which is so devilishly elusive.

The truth is that freedom of choice is burdensome

Just making choices is hard enough. Once upon a time your ancestry determined your career, your parents selected your spouse and your geographic circumstances dictated your diet and lifestyle. Today we get to decide all those things, and more. Every day we make a hundred choices, a thousand. Teenage school pupils, few of whom have any notion of what to do with their lives, are forced to make long-term academic choices they barely understand. They know one thing though: that it’s stressful, and that that’s just the beginning.

The truth is that freedom of choice is burdensome. Most people simply submit to the pressure and get on with it. Some of us question the status quo and conclude that this is nuts, that our society is bamboozling us, dressing up fast food as nutritious and advertizing fast life as glorious. Far from bringing relief, these insights compound the stress. No surprise then that some people will go to great lengths to be free of this stress, to find someone else to make their decisions, someone they can trust.

When dispirited, we seek to raise our spirits. The same society that has us trapped in its freedoms offers conciliatory pleasures and distractions. Once we’re through with those however, we turn to pursuits that are more ephemerally spiritual. This deliberately vague word defies definition. It’s more about what it’s not: not materialistic, not conventional, not rational.

Meditation, philosophy, no-mind and non-dual emptiness
are guaranteed to make us feel way cool and special

That’s when things get complicated. It’s when we grow vulnerable in the most unhealthy ways. We’re tempted by communities that embrace us with hugs and gushing love, with namastes and tashi-delegs, by teachers said to be living Buddhas, by systems of meditation, philosophy, no-mind and non-dual emptiness guaranteed to make us feel way cool and special. We’re even promised magical powers and omniscience. Who knows what’s possible and what’s not?

The paradox is that Buddhism appeals to the most educated among us because of its reputation as scientific, objective, atheistic and non-religious. None of these are traditional appellations of Buddhism. They are modern spin, the urgent rationalizations of Westerners who turn to Buddhism after having rejected their own inherited culture and beliefs.

Like self-help gurus, Buddhist teachers today know what we want. To reel us in they promise escape from stress, peace of mind. We want to stop the inner chatter, stop the angst, stop the pointlessness, stop the torment…and to belong.

At some point in this search for refuge we abandon our hesitation and believe that the guru is especially able, both in ethics and in skill. He is wiser. We trust him. The community assures us. We see their sincerity, feel their love for him and are touched by the same love for us. They want us to bathe in it too. They call him a ‘living treasure,’ and assure us of his credentials. If he’s Asian, all the better. All the easier.

Can we really be so simple? I was, but not in isolation. I was desperate, arriving in the nick of time into the friendly, loving arms of the community. They taught me that to doubt is disloyal and unspeakable; that they—that we—were righteous and sincere.

We sometimes slice our awareness into layers. It’s strange. Everyone knows what it is to know at one layer that you’ve sacrificed self-reliance and compromised your integrity, while at another to assure yourself that your decision will have to do; that doubt is unbearable. Believe with the community and you’ll share in their love and security. You’ll also be committed to their righteousness.

In the words of Alan Watts, “When you confer spiritual authority on another person you are allowing them to pick your pocket and sell you your own watch.”

The mentor relationship deteriorates the minute you abandon your discernment, the instant you stop taking your own risks.

The Osho Council of Rinzai-ji, the anonymous group that apologized for Sasaki Roshi and his silent lieutenants, is now committed to, “an ethics policy to ensure that the kind of misconduct that we failed to address properly in the past will not occur again.” It may be well-intentioned, but is it realistic? They’re apparently not too sure, for they append their statement with the following caveat, “—and will be dealt with properly and swiftly if it does.”

Sexual scandals attract attention because the hurt is so great, the damage so indelible, but they are only the tip of the iceberg. Even when sexual propriety is maintained, the asymmetry of the guru-disciple power arrangement sets up loyalties that favor personal fealty over truth and integrity. It is undemocratic. It is illiberal and misguided. This feudal power relationship has been dragged into the modern world in the guise of romanticized Orientalism. It is in profound contradiction to all the Buddha taught about working with your own experience. It takes not just the charisma of a clever teacher but also the active collusion of those who buy into it. The price of admission is a bit of existential doubt and a brief phase of personal weakness. Once you’re in, the door closes hermetically on any lingering doubts.

There is natural community, not contrived to support your fondest wishes but to commiserate with on life’s hard byways

No one is eternally strong. Everyone is at times overwhelmed by self-doubt, sadness, depression, anxiety or angst. When spirits are low and we turn to spiritual solutions, our judgment may be not just poor, but vacant.

I loved the Buddha’s teachings. I found them invaluable and still do. However, I mistook Buddhists for the Buddha and lost my way. Still, I was lucky and my eyes opened one day to the contrived righteousness of communal life. I understood that it was time to move on. Technically, I was free, under no physical and only gentle psychological pressure to stay. However, it took me a full year to extricate myself, to let go of my need for love and validation from this group, to give up the image of myself on a holy and righteous path and return to the plain truth that purity is an illusion, that there is no security and that I had to pursue my mundane way alone.

That in fact, I’d been alone all along.

There is life after a spiritual community. There is such a thing as natural community, not contrived to support your fondest wishes but to commiserate with on life’s hard byways. There is no preexisting group out there waiting for you. Real community forms organically, spontaneously. Prepare yourself for it by traveling light. People of like mind are not found in any particular monastery, school or social group. It’s rare to meet others with whom we truly commune. We know that. You know that. Locking yourself into a gated community, pretending you’re safe and sound, is a sure way to not bump into anyone intimately.

Get out there, vulnerable and honest. Admit you’re alone on your path through life and you’ll sooner or later meet fellow-travelers. You’ll share your insights as equals. Some of them may for a while become mentors or guides. Bear in mind though, that relationship will deteriorate the minute you abandon your discernment, the instant you stop taking your own risks.

Otherwise, how will you know when they’re speaking nonsense, as from time to time we all do? How will you realize that they’re manipulating you, as they might if they see you can’t hold your own? They might even be doing it because they love you.

How would you know what sort of love that is?

Stephen Schettini is a Montreal author and blogger. He offers one-on-one guidance by Skype or by phone to those feeling the need to distance themselves from a community or teacher.