Spiritual Anarchy and Fallen Gurus

Anarchy Flower (detail)
Yep, we’re going there.
The yoga community has seen an awful lot of corruption in the past few years, and I know I’m not the only one who’s noticed.

Bikram Choudhury was recently accused of rape, and his teachings in general have long been a source of conflict in the yoga community. Kausthub Desikachar has been revealed as an abusive sociopath and disavowed by his teachers. John Friend has apparently committed fraud and alienated most of his students. Some would say these are sad times we live in, but I say: Welcome to reality.

Yoga teachers or any other type of teachers are not enlightened beings sent to earth to show you the way. We experience lust, fear, confusion, and all those other complicated human emotions. And we can be corrupted. Absolutely anyone with any amount of power or influence over others is capable of becoming too comfortable and too greedy.

We know that the practice of yoga can give people incredible mental and physical benefits, that we feel more peaceful when we practice and so on, but that doesn’t mean we become perfect. Never assume that anyone, even the most saintly teacher, is perfect. Never blindly follow. Open your eyes and consider what you are being told and reject what doesn’t ring true.

Lots of leaders and teachers in every field (politics, religion, and even science) try to boost their own authority by essentially invalidating your perceptions. They say, “I know better than you, and you should listen to me without question.” That way of teaching is dangerous because while it may impart some valuable ideas, it also invalidates the student’s primary source of knowledge — herself.

The Catholic church says if you don’t accept all the official beliefs of the church you’re not really Catholic. Of course, I know plenty Catholics who pick and choose which of the church’s teachings are most helpful and applicable in their lives, and I think it’s a perfectly reasonable thing for them to do. They practice birth control. They accept their gay children. They don’t go to church every Sunday. That’s ok in my mind. It’s their religion, and they get to practice it the way they want.

Yoga is the same way. You get to decide what you believe and how to practice it. If a teacher tells you some philosophy that doesn’t jive with your reality, ignore it. If you’re asked to do a pose that doesn’t work in your body, simply decline. This is your life, and you get to live it.

I guess you could say I believe in a certain kind of anarchy. We participate in society to prevent mob rule, but it’s essential that we do not become sheep, too easily lead to slaughter. There is no person who has real moral authority over you. No teacher, preacher or political leader has any moral authority that you cannot have over yourself. All of them can be wrong and should be subject to frequent questioning.

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White Smoke

B&W Rosary
White smoke rising. As everyone in the world knows by today, it means there’s a new Pope. I was raised in the church, attended 14 years of Catholic schooling (pre-k through 12), and at age 15 decided I didn’t want to be Catholic anymore. It wasn’t that I stopped believing in God, but what the church taught didn’t jive with what I believed God was like, so I set out to find a better religion. I ditched anything mainstream right away because I felt the need to rebel completely, to almost wash myself of my old beliefs. I started studying Wicca, but it didn’t ring true for me. I definitely liked the ideas about being connected to nature, but I felt that its answers as to the nature of the universe beyond earth were not sufficient. I began to call myself pagan in a general sense, while I tried to study every religion I could. Eventually, I stopped calling myself anything but a “seeker.”

My beliefs about God and the nature of the universe are constantly evolving, and they now incorporate little bits of truth that I pickup wherever I can. And I’m very happy with this continuing change. But sometimes, like today, I look back at the church and almost wish I could believe again. (My inner critic is telling me you are all going to hate me for being so weak as to admit this.) The truth is, life was easier when people told me what to believe, and beloning to the church was a source of comfort.

I remember defending the church’s sexist teachings about women. This was all before I even heard of priests molesting children. Our media refers to this as a “sex scandal.” No, sex scandals happen between politicians and prostitutes. The catholic church’s greatest crime is systematic child abuse, and we look the other way because to really address this head on would be to admit that the church is a purely human construct and we have been beating ourselves to death because we can’t live by the rules of a bunch of grumpy old perverts, or as Stephen Fry called them, sexual bulimics. Even if I could believe in the teachings of the church again, I couldn’t turn a blind eye to the abuse.

And still. And still. And still.

When I heard there was white smoke yesterday, I felt something. My inner seventh grader who still wishes the world followed the elegant flow chart of morality laid out by the Catechism, glanced up hopefully from her rosary.

“Just maybe,” she thought. “If I keep praying.”

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hello kitty and my mortality

Hello Kitty Invite Front

I love tattoos. I love them so much. I love chicks with tattoos — they’re so cool looking.

I have a few tattoos, but I intentionally got them in places where they could be hidden — first because I was a kid living with my parents and didn’t want to see the look on my poor mom’s face when she saw it, and later because I  had to have a job and was worried about what prospective employers might think. But I recently committed what some would call career suicide by walking away from a perfectly good (yet perfectly boring, mind-numbing, and soul-sucking) job to pursue something I haven’t even fully defined yet. Personally, I think accepting that job in the first place felt like suicide. But this? This feels like resurrection. And yes, it provides opportunities and freedoms that I’ve been wanting for some time. That includes tattooing.

Now that I have the freedom to do it, I’m at risk of going off the deep end. I already wanted this circuit heart on my forearm and was thinking of using some of my sister’s art work to create a half sleeve. Plus, I want the first yoga sutra somewhere, probably on my back so I don’t have to constantly answer curious people who want to know what it means. I don’t like explaining myself, especially to strangers.

All these tattoos have some personal significance in addition to the aesthetic appeal. However, the other day, I got my first impulse to get a tattoo just because. And you won’t believe what it is … it’s kind awful.

I want the Hello Kitty logo from the Sanrio store bag.


In pink.

Sooooo cute, right? Also totally awful, right? Ugh. I’m completely torn. I mean, who does that?

Hipster kids do it in Brooklyn and Austin, and I’m not one of them, not that I’m a hipster hater but that I sincerely am not that cool … or that young. I turn 30 in a few months. I’m too old to get a tattoo that’s ironic or “just because.” I’m too close to that age at which things actually start to wrinkle and sag, and as much as my ingrained insecurities already have me critiquing my flabby bits, just think about 10 years from now. I’ll be 40. FORTY!

Hello Kitty

You can’t have a Hello Kitty tattoo when you’re 40. Except that, actually, you can. I can. And no one can stop me. They can judge me all they want, but I should be used to that by now. That is, I fully expect to be judged for everything I do, say, and think (oh, hello there, Catholic schooling!) so I might as well do fun stuff. Why not get tattoos?

There is a long pause in the writing here where I take several swigs of my drink and chew my pen thoughtfully.

This isn’t really about tattoos and Catholic guilt, though. It never is. If it were that simple, I’d be covered by now.

It’s about permanence and impermanence, I guess. Sorry to get deep on you without warning, but you’ll learn to expect this from me. You see, I have this idea that I will be forever young. Like most people (I think), I still see myself as some sort of timeless adult-child hybrid. I’m still the same person I was pre-puberty, but with years and experience added — I leveled up. And now that I’ve earned the right to do, say, and be whatever I like, to wear my skin however I want, I’m faced with the cold reality that this canvas won’t last forever.

Mortality’s a bitch.

When I picture that forearm tattoo, I think of it on my grandmother’s arm — her skin like paper that’s been crumpled up and smoothed out again. The last years of her life, she stayed indoors all the time. After growing up on a farm and raising five kids in a noisy little house, she grew ghostly pale alone in her silent home. She never even pierced her ears. Her skin was unmarked and white as her hair. I imagine my circuit heart on her arm. I can’t let that image go. One day, it will be wrinkled, faded and blurred. And then one day it won’t matter.

Except that it will. Because it’s mine.

Hello Kitty Tattoo

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against martyrdom

Against Martyrdom by Durght

Our friend the martyr is finally
making his ultimate sacrifice.

May he choose to embrace the afterlife
and go on free as a ghost.

The myths the myths the myths are meaningless.
Don’t set yourself on fire, girl, just because the witches did.

The myths the myths the myths — They don’t stand on their own.
They are fingers pointing at the moon; not who we’re meant to be.

If I could tell you one thing, give you one gift,
it would be the knowledge:

You get one shot.
You get one shot.
You get one shot.

Take a good look at the altar where you’ve lain your heart.
Look closely at the dagger poised for crude dissection.
And where will the blood drain?
To whose fertile fields will it fall?
And where will you be when the crops grow? And who will they feed?

If I could give you one thing,
a gift too great for me to give,
it would be this:
the nerve to live.

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Someone who was here is no longer. Your best friend, your brother, the guy in the apartment down the block, a coworker, someone you don’t even like that much. And you grieve, not always because you loved them but because your world has been altered without warning. A person has been removed from your life like a planet from a solar system. Even a really far off planet. What would we do if Mars ceased to exist? Pluto? One of Jupiter’s moons?

And then there is the funeral, the embarrassing public struggle to justify what happened in terms that allow us to continue living in this world.

“God works in mysterious ways.”

“He’s in a better place now.”

“We should be grateful for the time we had with him.”

Our biggest questions are ones we can’t even poke with a stick, much less answer. Sometimes funerals help. Other times, they just bring up more questions, like Sam’s funeral did.

Sam did not want a Christian funeral, but his parents wanted him to have one. At the funeral, family and friends sat in the pews for nearly a half hour listening to recorded religious and classical music until the priest called to say he would not be there because he had a flat tire or something. This was an oddly pleasant surprise to Sam’s closer friends.

Some of us later speculated on whether the priest actually had a flat tire. Maybe he caught wind of the fact that Sam was a practicing Pagan and an openly gay man who also happened to be HIV positive. Maybe it really was car trouble of some kind. Either way, it’s what Sam would’ve wanted. Instead of a preacher talking about him being up in heaven with Jesus, a handful of friends and relatives stood up and talked for a few minutes each about Sam, how they knew him, and why they loved him. I don’t remember any of what was said.

The night before the Christian funeral was Nov. 1. Our small circle of friends had a strong Pagan bent, and knowing of Sam’s faith, we held a service of our own. I volunteered to lead the ritual. It was thundering outside as we began, and Renee said, “Sam, stop being so dramatic.”  But all good rituals are 90% drama, so we dimmed the lights and lit candles for effect. We made small offerings to the deities, and we did our meagre best to honor Sam’s memory. Each of us took a turn talking about him.

My story was that he introduced me to all these people. We’d all worked at the student newspaper together, and when I started, I was shy and confused about what my job was. I had no business being a copy editor or a reporter. Sam befriended me, let me smoke his cigarettes, and introduced me to Caren who would become one of the best friends I had throughout college. Others told about arguments they had with Sam, going to the bar with him, or trying to support him through his loneliness and fear.

A 28-year-old guy with HIV experiences a lot of loneliness and fear, I imagine. It doesn’t help if, since the moment you came out as gay, your parents have refused to acknowledge this part of your identity. It doesn’t help if your family is constantly trying to bring you to a church or a counselor that wants to convince you you’re not gay. Isolation upon isolation upon isolation. And still, Sam did his best to reach out to people — people like me who felt a little lost and confused and who just wanted someone to listen and be with us for a minute.

I call it stray dog syndrome. Any sad person could come up to him and ask for directions or a cigarette or a place to crash for the night, and Sam would give it to them without question. That kindness at his core was what we all loved about Sam. When Kyle Johnson showed up outside his shoddy off-campus apartment building asking for a smoke, Sam gave it to him and then sat and listened to his sob story about how he ended up homeless, penniless and strung out at 20. Sam gave him a place to stay for the night, let him take a shower and have a meal. It was an incredibly generous thing to do — the kind of thing many of us wish we could do for our fellow human beings but realize we shouldn’t because that’s how a person gets killed. This is not foreshadowing. You already know how it ends.

Caren was furious when Sam told her he’d let this derelict stranger stay the night. She said he looked sketchy and out of sorts. Plus he stole things and ate all of Sam’s food. After Kyle crashed on the couch a couple times, Sam did what he should’ve done from the beginning, which was to say the guy couldn’t keep coming over, eating all this food and stealing stuff. Then there was a fight, and Sam died. He was strangled to death. Kyle probably didn’t plan to murder Sam, but he was on drugs and in need of money, and there’s really no explaining the logic of a person in that situation. He stole Sam’s car and some other things from the house and was on the run until they caught him in January.

We learned of the death on October 31, 2005. We think it actually occurred on October 26.

We searched for explanations. Sam was sick and probably getting sicker. He hadn’t been seeking treatment. The most important people in his life had all but rejected him, and he had chosen to make a family of us instead — us and anyone else who needed him.

When Caren called to tell me he was dead, I made the noise you think people make when they find out someone’s been murdered. It was a guttural animal sound that I have not made before or since. It is the sound of a faraway planet being wrenched out of the sky.

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