I am sitting at the back of a meditation hall at a children’s camp just north of Malibu in Southern California. It is 9:40 AM, on a warm May morning. Approximately 200 students are here, waiting to hear a dharma talk by a revered Buddhist teacher. This weekend, six hundred people – triple the current number – will flood this small, oceanside arroyo for a Day of Mindfulness.
I have read many of this teacher’s books as they have been published, and I have practiced the meditations. I am at this five-day retreat to gain direct experience of this teacher whose prose and poetry I find inspiring for its clarity, gentleness, and elegant, simple grace. But today, for this talk, the teacher is ten minutes late.
And Now, Ladies and Gentlemen …
Presently the teacher arrives, ushered through a side door by a brown-gowned entourage. As the teacher ascends the small stage at the front of the hall, we all stand and bow, palms together, hands before our faces. After returning our bow, the teacher’s helpers place what looks like a small electronic recording device in one jacket pocket and attach a microphone to the lapel. They repeat the process with the other pocket. Then a third device goes on top of the one in the first pocket and a second microphone is attached back on the first lapel. This twenty-first-century ceremony is performed without a word. Finally, after some additional equipment is adjusted and it is determined that the video camera is operating properly, the presentation is ready to begin. But first, two children who have been sitting at the front of this gathering, girls of nine or ten, are permitted to leave the hall and go outside and play.
Throughout these preliminaries, I am practicing two mindfulness exercises. The first, called Evenly Hovering Attention, was taught to me by the daughter of two Gurdjieff students, Dr. Kathleen Riordan Speeth. In this exercise, my head slowly swivels and my eyes survey an arc of approximately two hundred degrees as a I take in the whole panorama around me. The practice is to observe mindfully, as best one can, without judgment. A very difficult practice in fact, for my mind is perpetually distracted. It asks, for example: “Why are those two children here? Why are they now allowed to leave? And why are there only two? Are they the teacher’s?”
The second mindfulness practice is one taught to me by a student of the legendary behavioral psychologist, B.F. Skinner. I have a loose rubber band around my wrist. From time to time as I feel myself becoming drowsy, I stretch the rubber band with my thumb and forefinger and snap it against my wrist just hard enough to get my own attention.
The room is hot on this Wednesday morning. Two hundred people are too many to stuff into this hall – the sign at the front of the room says, “Maximum Capacity: 153” – and our collective body heat is oppressive. This particular dharma talk is to introduce the first of the “Fifty Verses on the Manifestation of Consciousness.” Less than half an hour after the talk begins, I scan the room and find exactly the opposite being manifested. The majority of the people present are either slumped on their chairs, benches or zafus (cushions), chins on their chests and their eyes closed, or else they are staring straight ahead, transfixed in a manner my daughter used to demonstrate at those infrequent times she was allowed to watch TV.
“Do not worry about falling asleep,” the teacher tells us. “Better to fall asleep than to try to use intellect to grasp these teachings.” Immediately, my antennae go up. Wrist-snapping is no longer necessary. I have heard this exact same assertion before: from Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Werner Erhard and Baba Muktananda. From several of these notorious, abusive teachers, these exact same words, in fact.
At a Dharma Discussion later that same evening, I present my experience and my concerns to a panel I assume are this teacher’s Senior Students.
“During the talk I found myself growing sleepy and I felt as if I was being hypnotized. The room was hot and crowded. And I had to do a lot of work to stay awake. Now, it troubles me to be attending a talk that purports to invite me to manifest consciousness – to wake up, as it were – while in fact I am being put to sleep.”
My concerns are met with the following responses: “Well, you just fell asleep.” “The teacher told you it is better to fall asleep than to try and use your intellect.” “The teachings are very important, but sometimes very difficult for the western mind to understand.” When it starts to become clear that I (and apparently others in the room) am not satisfied with this response, I am reluctantly asked to elaborate on my experience.
“The teacher was talking very slowly, very softly, repetitively, with long pauses in between. From time to time they would sing verses that sounded unintelligible. I could not understand them. It felt like a hypnotic trance induction. Whether you are aware of it or not, these are many of the same elements used to induce a trance state. And it was not just me. When I looked around the room people either had their eyes closed completely, or they were staring straight ahead, glassy-eyed, transfixed and unmoving.”
To this elaboration I receive a single short reply: “Go and talk to Senior Student X. He is a hypnotist. He can tell you all about hypnosis and trance.”
I elect not to talk to Senior Student X. My experience is my experience. My perceptions are my perceptions. They are, in fact, based upon extensive reading, research, discussion, and real-life training. Senior Student X will only confirm my experiences and perceptions or offer me evidence or argument for them being incorrect.
A Molehill Out of a Mountain
So what’s the big deal about one more dry, incomprehensible lecture experience? Who among us hasn’t been put to sleep in some of the finest university lecture halls in America?
This country has a history of well-meaning and genuine spiritual teachers being surrounded by eager American students who soon coalesce into an extensive, dynamic, growing community. Too often, one day members of such communities do wake up, do manage to manifest consciousness – too frequently to a group dynamic and an organizational pattern that they were completely unaware had been abusing and exploiting them – perhaps like the frog who started out in the pot of lovely, cozy, lukewarm water.
The next day I participate in an outdoor walking meditation. I feel like it’s being led by a kind of Pied Piper. As it comes to an end, I can’t help but notice the long, dark shadow that stretches out behind the teacher, a shadow not unlike any participant at this retreat might cast on this sunny day. But on this day, I am particularly curious about only one. It may turn out that this teacher’s shadow awareness is sufficiently clear and integrated that its harmful aspects never become manifest in this dynamic and expanding community. In that case, it could fall upon the senior members of the community to act out this harmful side, in much the same way children frequently act out the shadow of the “Model Parent” in dysfunctional nuclear families. This pattern has been replicated in at least a dozen notable spiritual groups that I can readily recall.
On the back of the pickup truck I drove to this retreat is a bumper sticker. It reads: “Is it best for the children?” It is a verbal template that Alice Walker has suggested be applied by decision-makers in government, schools, businesses and other organizations. Is it best for the children to purport to teach them to manifest consciousness, to pay attention, to wake up, through methods that, inadvertently or deliberately, put them to sleep? I have the same trouble with that approach that the people of Hamelin Town had. It is decidedly NOT best for the children.
Originally published in The Whole Earth Review under the title “My Difficulty with Dharma Talks.”