The Private Story
What’s the opposite of life affirming?
Catharsis isn’t always healing.
That was a surprise to the people at Kripalu Yoga Center in the Berkshires who ran a bizarre mixture of Ashram Light and “Inner Child” pop psychology called “Inner Quest Intensive.”
Luckily, though, they didn’t have to be all that surprised. If you keep coming back to your beliefs, surprises can go away quickly, lost in the habits of your own dogma.
My sister doesn’t know what to do to help me, but she wanted to, really wanted to. That’s why, after three demurrals, I got the hard sell for Inner Quest Intensive.
“It’s not for me,” I said.
“Body oriented process isn’t so useful for trannys, because we have an odd relationship with our bodies,” I said.
“Eastern religions want to break the ego, but then they have something they want to replace it with,” I said.
“The men and the women sleep on the floor in different rooms. Where do the trannys sleep?” I said.
“This group is too large, I will be invisible,” I said.
“No, No, No, No, No.” I was told. “You always do this, judge things before they happen, and that cuts you out of so much.”
It turns out that I was right. It was that bad.
When you have less than 24 hours to gear up, things move fast. Or at least they did until 5 PM when I was waiting in the parking lot for my driving partner, who had an unbreakable doctors appointment.
I knew that things were going to be odd. Her partner had called my cellphone when I was driving down. I asked what he wanted, and he wanted to chat. I told him I was driving illegally and illegally using the cellphone, and that the phone had a high per minute cost. He still wanted to chat. I asked him to get to the point, and he decided that the connection was bad and hung up.
It was about 5:50 I found out what he wanted. He wanted to tell me what was wrong with me, how I had been rude at his home, how I was “so smart that I am 10 steps ahead and that puts me two steps back,” how I had been talking to people about my reservations and that was a bad thing, how I hadn’t respected his partner, how I had been rude on the phone. He had lots of things to tell me, it turns out, so I started repeating them back to him to tell him I heard them.
That just seemed to confuse him. He wanted me to humble myself or to fight, not just to hear his words echoed back. Maybe they even sounded harsh to him when I echoed them, in a way he couldn’t hear when he said them. He wasn’t listening, didn’t want to engage me, so my mirror was disconcerting.
I had to make a choice. To perform guy, I should just say “Fuck You” and drive off. But that would be a disservice to his partner, who needed a hand. I chose to, although he didn’t understand, perform woman, trusting that his indirect ravings were just an attempt to be protective about his partner. I chose to let it pass, staying quiet.
“Look, he’s all quiet now, but he’ll start talking the minute you drive off,” he said, referring to me. I shoulda decked him. I shut up.
We ran into Kripalu, and then there was check-in. They asked me for the payment.
I don’t have money. I have medical debts, lots and lots of medical debts. My sister was paying for this, and I assumed that was taken care of.
No, it wasn’t, he told me.
Me, and my crutches and my brace moved out of the building, looking for my sister, who was on another workshop this weekend. I was loping along to where we passed her, trying to grab my cell phone and sweating.
The guy comes out, now a long way behind me.
“XXXXX!” he yells. I don’t turn. He yells that name a few times more, and I realize he’s calling me. “We have the card in the record! I didn’t see it!”
I lope back, now hot and bothered, late for the start, beaten up by a boyfriend and harassed by a clerk.
And then I get handed my name badge. There it is, “XXXXX” right there. God, that’s a name I don’t ever use anymore. If I have to, I use my initals. Gender Neutral, you know.
But my sister has made the reservation, and here I am, branded as XXXXX, on crutches in a Yoga center, smelling of body funk, and ready to sleep on the floor with the “other” men.
Could this get any worse?
Oh, yes, it could.
In the next moment, George pulls me aside, into a small office for a chat.
“Your friend called and said that you were transgender, and I want to know what you want us to do about that.”
God. What did I want to do about that?
I knew what I wanted to do — I wanted to show myself as I know myself in the workshop, but between sex-segregated sleeping on the floor, 15 hours a day of togetherness, 3 minute showers in a shared bathroom and the injunction to surrender jewelry and makeup, I knew that wasn’t going to happen. There was no choice to present as I wished, and somehow, going as some androgynous creature in tights and a beard just didn’t cut it for me.
But now, now, now, now, this man, this earnest and nice man wanted to have a sensitive chat about what I wanted and needed.
I mumbled, I blathered, I said it would be fine.
He then lead me and my crutches up the stairs. Not the elevator, but the stairs. You see, they don’t get many handicapped people at a Yoga center. . . .
Could this get any worse?
You know the answer.
Her name is Aruni, and she was the workshop, the ever present voice at the front of the room. She is a lesbian, and she knows that, but she is also butch, and that she doesn’t know. She’s married to her partner, somehow, and is a parent because they have a dog.
This is a woman who thinks having a dog is the same as raising kids? Yup. That was the right answer for her, and it would be the right answer for us, those of us who were surrendering our illusion of control. Right, surrendering our illusion of control to bolster her illusion of control.
I knew in a moment that my sister had lied, that this was what I expected. She probably didn’t even know that when she did it, she just felt that it was important to say that I didn’t know everything. That, of course, is the answer to so many things: What you say you know is blocking you, so you must be wrong. You don’t really know what you know.
They did the ground rules. The arrogance showed in the moment they told us what the “group agreement” was, which were the rules we had to follow, but never told us what their agreement was, what rules they would follow.
I was so peeved I crossed my “slave name” out on my name badge and wrote in my simple truth: “Resisting calling to the point of self-destruction.”
And then the music started, with Michael Jackson. Was there really a need to play a song by someone whose lifestyle of abuse seems to overshadow his music? Of course, though, no one on staff had actually been around the whole Michael Jackson mess this winter, they were on the yoga mat.
We got our taste after this: this was to be a weekend of horribly bad “Women’s Music.” If it was sweet and sappy, and played by someone Tran, we were going to hear it.
They moved the gentlemen out of the women’s bedroom, and to our own site. It was a cramped room full of yoga funk that sickened me. I rolled out my mat, dropped my crutches and pulled the comforter up over my head, and then I did what I was to do all weekend: I sobbed. Flat, quiet sobs, wracking my body, gracefully covered by my bedding, or so I hoped until the cover slipped and I saw everyone looking at me.
I was the guy on crutches and the one who was sobbing. One staffer came up and asked me my name. I said “No Comment.” He asked if I needed something for the pain, and I told him it wasn’t physical. He let me go.
Thankfully, that was only the first I saw of the kindness of the staff. As volunteers, they were very caring, and very committed to safe space in a way I never saw from the person on the microphone.
I went quiet, and as a thunderstorm swept by the windows, I spent the night thinking and not sleeping. I thought about how I have learned to resist my own fragility, how these people were missionaries, sure they were spreading the right answer rather than visionaries who lived in doubt. I thought about my own knowledge, and how people were so quick to dismiss it, and I dreamed of death. Lovely, comforting death, however it came, from drowning or electrocution or poison. How could I die here? I had already told my parents separately that if there was an accident, they shouldn’t feel sad about me. How could there be an accident?
I comforted myself with thoughts of being beaten to death by a mob with baseball bats, the blows thudding against my flesh and breaking bones, opening up hemorrhages, the pain so sharp at the point of impact but turning to a dull roar as my battered body began to shut down, just accepting the powerful hits with the surrender of flesh. In my mind, I saw myself blacking out, as a gurgled blood into my last breath.
That calmed me down some, and I got a bit of sleep.
Yoga the next morning, next to our rolled up bedding, was truly uncomfortable. I was without sleep, on a crutch, and was one of the 23 gentlemen that they were honored to have here. I was here, I was out and I was in, I was messy and disconnected, and these people really believed that by entering my body, I would find catharsis that lead to healing.
Healing, though, takes resolution.
Much of the work was in dyads with a kind of silent listening to the drone of Aruni on the mic, the ever-present drone of this lesbian who had been here since the beginning and knew the answers.
I had to sit across from the guy who slept though Yoga as he told me that his deepest and most vital feelings were about being tired. The questions were expository, and I thought, well, now or never. In my second time to talk, I disclosed my trans nature.
That’s when of course, he raised his knees up and started to hug them close to his body. “This is safe space because we say it is,” they kept saying. Is that really all it takes?
The next question I was asked was simple: “If you could trust the knowledge in your heart, how would you honor it this weekend?” I knew damn well what the knowledge was. I knew how to honor it. I got up and left the room.
Nicholas came out, the men’s Yoga instructor, and sat with me. We talked about the challenges, the sobbing, the getting there, the whole thing. I finally felt heard, at least a little bit, and I went back in. I sat on the floor in my backjack and sobbed. I was getting good at this whole sobbing thing.
My sister paid what I considered big bucks for this workshop. Could I really bail?
I could even if they did take the car keys. But I knew that my failure could easily be seen not as a triumph of me knowing what was good for me, but a failure to have an open heart and an open mind. This was hell and didn’t feel healing to me, but I was in the judgment of others. To leave was to fail them, so I had to prove that they were wrong by trying.
This is, of course, a classic trans phenomenon. One young tranny was afraid the Clarke would deny her funding for surgery because she had failed so many times — her mother had put her into foster care, she had been in juvenile hall and more. It turned out, of course, she was the perfect candidate because all the other possibilities had failed. Trans expression was the last resort, the last step before certain death, and that is the only way it can be true.
So now, I had to commit, to do my best, and prove that it wasn’t my failure to try that was the problem, it was the system that failed me. I couldn’t check out on them, they had to check out on me.
I sat though the workshops, and continued to be erased in so many ways by the assumptions of normativity. We were all men or women, right? And when we read the grace at meals, beans and rice only, we affirmed that we created this body for ourselves. Not a creation myth that transpeople tend to choose.
To me, hell is a place where people trying to be nice erase and destroy you. It’s easy when evil people come after you, because you can hate them. Its hard when well intentioned people erase and destroy you in their attempt to be loving. You can’t fight them and you can’t let them kill you. That is, of course, the issue with my family, and it was the issue at Kripalu. Nobody wanted to destroy me, but they really believed if I just worked their system to move away from the wacky mind and into the knowledge of the body, I would be healthier.
The mind was the problem and the body the answer. I thought about where I would rather be, on the set of the brain-centric Charlie Rose show or the body-centric Jerry Springer show, and I knew that I didn’t agree. To heal takes discipline, and that can only be done using the mind, which can understand that even as we stay in the moment we have to make choices that aren’t about this moment, but about seeing a context, moment after moment, and what will serve ourselves and our world.
It wasn’t working. I felt erased By the end of the day, I grabbed one of the sick on nametags and plastered it over my issued tag. I stuck it on, but I left it blank. Just call me crutches, thank you, my hallmark feature in a world where half the people were yoga instructors doing their required training.
The time wore on, and it was time for the men to leave, and me with them. We entered our room and saw candles set on the floor. I sat and was told that we were going to do men’s circle. I sat though one speaker, and then I got up and left. This wasn’t a place for me.
I went to the big carpeted studio next door, took a pillow and went to sleep, me on the big dark floor, my crutches next to me.
Nicholas came and woke me gently, and we talked about the day a bit, his grace helping. I was willing to stay there, but he led me to a room reserved for challenges, and offered me a bed. I took it.
I slept, alone.
It was the next day that the biggest crash happened.
We were to lie on the floor, and feel the truth in our body. My partner was originally going to be the guy who tightened up when I disclosed, but I passed on him. I got Dan, the good staffer that I said “No Comment” to and whose body was broken in some way, waking with a cane.
We were to feel our body, from the toes up and deal with body memories as we lay on our backs, ear-to-ear. I was choosing not to go into my history, to talk about, for example, how my feet feel better in heels, how they want cute shoes. Still, I was getting crap from the front. “Women,” Aruni said, “think about when you first shaved your legs. Or men, you can think about the first time you did.” Ah, yes, there was that choice. Women, Men and . . . . nothing.
It was the genitals that got me. It’s puberty that kills trannys. Before that you can go to bed and wish you would wake up different, but after puberty does it’s work, you know that’s never going to happen. My inner sexual life is open now, and there I am always a woman, but I know how that doesn’t and never really can match my outer body. I have never been and am never going to be Cynthia Nixon (Miranda Hobbes in Sex And The City) in this lifetime, no matter how much I want it or feel that kind of energy in me.
I started sobbing, big dry sobs, wrenching cataclysmic sobs, but in silence so as to respect the experience of others. I felt my mouth dry and I wondered if I could open up the back of my throat in a way that would choke myself, to die right there on the floor. I sobbed and I sobbed and I sobbed. Jennifer came and sat near me, as I realized later, and when Aruni said that there was a gift for us on our right side, a gift that would allow us to see who we really are, I knew what it was.
Jennifer said “Your mirror is right here” and I gasped “I knew it was a mirror, and I refuse.” The sobs got stronger and she expressed concern, so I turned to her, stopped sobbing and said “I can stop right now if you want.” She was surprised at my control, but energy and body control is something trannys have to have – that denial and disconnection from feeling was an easy trick in my mind.
I sobbed and I sobbed and Dan came over. “XXXXX, is there something you want to tell me?”
I knew he was being kind, so I kept my eyes closed and choked out “I have told others here that I am trans-identified. We have a different relationship with our bodies. We often feel betrayed by them.”
“Are you saying you feel betrayed by us?”
“No, I only feel erased by your assumptions of normativity. I feel betrayed by my body.”
He touched my shoulder and I went on sobbing. It seemed like forever, but it was probably only about 25 minutes, though an entire nap session for the group.
As I came back, my head light and swimming, my mouth dry and raw, Jennifer asked if I wanted to talk. I tried, but when she asked me if I had community like she saw the weekend before in Ft. Lauderdale, I knew she didn’t get it. “LGBT is not the same thing,” I said, as she was loving but blank.
“Look, I am here,” she said. “You can talk to me. What do you want to be called?” I told her. I said the word “Callan.”
The day passed. I gave up a bowl of rice for some sleep, and then got called back into the meditation and the session on the works of that great spiritual healer, the one who wrote “If You Can Feel It, You Can Heal It,” Mr. John Gray, the author of such notable books as “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.”
We were going down the feelings iceberg, we were told, deeper and deeper, staring with anger, moving through fear and resentment, down past unfulfilled needs and to understanding, forgiveness and gratitude.
In my group, I got to be the father of two women, one a dead alcoholic and the other a cruel bastard. Added to the battering husband and distant father I had been already, I felt rather challenged. I did take a moment to check in with Nicholas, and he got the point immediately — in a world, especially a world of women, it’s easy to get typecast as all the other men in their lives. Still, in saying people had to be cast cross gender in these things — with three people in each group, there was no two gender combination that allowed everyone to have a male as dad and a female as mom. When she said “We in this room are past gender,” she said it twice, and I took it as an attempt at a message, but one without much weight.
I did my interactions without being explicit. For me, the most interesting thing was that the “healing” which was to exist deep at the bottom of the “iceberg” was the hardest part. My anger is around being the one who always is the one who has to hold the understanding, forgiveness and gratitude while others avoid the healing. It’s all topsy turvy for me, but how can holding the healing be at the center of my pain? It’s easy, oh so easy, for someone who learned early that they had to be the healer to get others beyond kicking with their own power. “Stupid” was my nickname in my family until I was 13, when it became “Stupid, Oh The Shrink Told Us Not To Call You That.”
After I did my piece, I did disclose to my triad. “I am trans-identified, that’s the challenge not seen,” I said. That went by them so fast that one even thanked me later, saying “There are few men as gracious and connected as this gentleman,” too which I could only reply “Well, there are reasons for that.”
After a blind-walk where a Japanese woman tried to lead me up a wet slope and I felt on my ass, filling my brace with mud, the day ended in a frenzy of inner child joy, or at least the kind of inner child joy that was experienced by a nascent lesbian sent to Girl Scout camp. We got to take bits of paper with animals on them and make the sound of that animal to find our group, and then dance to more banal dyke music. These were people who really believe that their path to healing is the path for everyone, the missionaries.
Me? I was more and more sure this wasn’t the place for me, not this chapel and not this world. I continued to slip away.
Nicholas asked me about where I would sleep, and I notice he called me Callan. He had heard though the grapevine, and I was honored.
I’d stay, try another day.
I didn’t start sobbing again until next morning in Yoga. I sat though the meditation, but I then looked to find Jennifer.
“I don’t know if I am more sick of sobbing or not sobbing,” I said, a profound statement about my life that wasn’t heard. But I sobbed anyway, and Jennifer didn’t know what to do.
“Can you try to do the work, say what you want to say to your child?”
OK, OK. In came Neil, a very tall and very handsome young man in his white Yoga clothes, the uniform of the staff. I thought, well, just go.
I did my work, telling my inner child to run, to do what she could while she was still young enough to be pretty, strong enough to be resilient and naive enough to enthusiastic.
I felt bad because I pulled this guy from his work, but when he went on a tear at a distant father, I could see it was valuable. He told me that he had work to do later, and it turns out that he had to do the next demo when he had to speak to his father.
He thanked me, told me I was the perfect person for him to do this with. He told me how brave I was. God, I hate that. It’s a way to separate ourselves from others: you are the brave one. It’s good to be affirmed in brave choices, but the moment we become the poster child for bravery, we are disconnected. Aruni did this to a woman who has metastases cancer, telling her how brave she was, and what an inspiration at the end, in front of the group. I went up to her later and hugged her and told her I would be praying for her. I said that I always hated being called brave, but that I thought her choice to claim life while she had it was great. “After all, we are all dying, you just have a better idea about the schedule, so we all have to make the choice to live life while we have it or not,” I said. She smiled and agreed.
As we came into the last night, there was some sharing. I made a joke with Nicholas about my sharing, and he encouraged me to do it
I went back to my little room, got some sleep, and when I woke at 5:30 I pulled out a pen and started writing. What would I say to this group? Could I say it in the 90 second soundbytes that seem to be the only way available?
You may know me as the one with the crutch, but as the staff has come to know, this weekend is very interesting and challenging for me because I come from a very different healing tradition. Like any healing tradition the goal is to "come together or unite," the definition of Yoga, and "the highest form of practice is observing the self without judgment," as Yogi Kripalu taught you. Our focus, though, is on moving through those walls of illusion that separate "them" from "us," moving though the walls between one world and the next, between this world and the underworlds.
The Kripalu tradition is represented in India by the Yogis, but my tradition is represented by the Hejra, those who honor and connect with divinity by walking though the walls of illusion that seem to separate men from women.
Anthropologists tell us that the tradition that those who walk between sexes & gender roles also walk between worlds has been found in almost every native culture at almost every time. These shamans seem to have played an important role in the success of the group because otherwise they would have been bred out over generations. But we still exist, are still born even in modern western cultures which do not value these traditions.
"In cultures where gender is rigidly bi-polar, rituals of gender crossing remind us of our continuous common humanity” said anthropologist Anne Bolin. We know that even today priests still wear dresses and many holy people are androgynous.
My tradition is different because we believe not just in the truth of the body, but in the truth of the spirit. For me, I don't ground in the mother earth, but in mother moon, taking a celestial look at connections beyond history and biology.
When you study it you will find that my healing tradition of the shamans who cross worlds, even the world of men and women to remind us all is connected even if we see separations that comfort or scare us, is rich and long. In this culture today, though, my healing tradition has been lost, been erased and devalued. Those who hold this calling are seen not as those with a gift to be developed and nurtured, but as those with a mistake that needs to be corrected or erased.
In this weekend we have spoken a great deal about how the magical knowledge we had as kids has been erased and damaged, but it cannot be destroyed. For those of us who are transgender identified that knowledge is pounded out of us by a system of gender that tells us there are only two ways to be, and that the fact of our genitals has determined our life, not the fact of our spirit.
Everyone feels the pressure of gender but only a few so acutely that we have to walk though the no man's/no woman's land that separates our human hearts.
I was talking about the issue of being out, where and when and how we choose to expose ourselves. I said that the issue to me was not to be out or to be in, but to be wild and tame. Where are we tame enough to fit in, to be appropriate, to honor the space, and where are we wild enough to stand out, to be bold, to honor the spirit?
This isn't just an issue for transgender identified people, it is a challenge for all of us in this world, It's just that those bold enough to be more fully themselves can open the space for others to follow, trusting and showing their hearts rather than following along to feel hidden and obedient.
My regret here is that I don't have my vestments with me, that I can't show you beyond the words of my traditions to more of my practice, my personal practice is also in my words and in the healing heart I always bring with me.
I ask of you one thing: to always be as tender with those who have this challenging gift of a heart that crosses sex and gender boundaries as the staff here has been with me. To have your heart pounded and erased because people see only your body is very painful, and few of us have the time and the energy to do the work to find our own individual spiritual practice.
The trans road, like the road of any shaman, is one that is very personal, moving you away from the group to a personal journey, and in this world where we want to believe that things are either sexual or they are not, entering the Eros of our heart even when that challenges the expectations placed on our body can be very, very difficult. We learn to hide behind masks, even those of transsexuality, drag and cross-dressing. Making ourselves manifest in a way that allows us to be present with ourselves feels dangerous.
I have sobbed for the energy blockages here, cried deeply, but my challenge has always been how to live authentically in a world that has little place left open for people like me. That is far from a simple challenge for any of us, even though those open hearted enough to be called here to Kripalu.
You are here as healers, and I thank you for being here and creating a space where spiritual paths can cross and where we can share the knowledge and tenderness we have opened to others. It is truly a gift, and I accept it with gratitude.
I hope that you will accept the gifts of people like me as you continue in your journey, knowing that what you open to and affirm to others, even others called to another path, is what you open to and affirm in yourself.
The road to enlightenment leads right past gender, but it always by finding the safety, inside or outside, to be wild enough to express our authentic self that we take another step.
Thank you for being here and being with me.
I gave this to Nicholas after Yoga this morning, telling him its what I would say. He suggested that I share with the group, and I said I would be willing to do that, but that he should read it first.
He really believed I should share, but I really knew my sharing was too long and too far off the agenda to fit into Aruni’s vision.
I went into the big room found a marker, and wrote “Callan” on my nametag. I thought about this process — being given a family name, scratching it out, leaving the space blank and then claiming a name, and reflected how this was my life.
I did the session in the morning, what we would say to our inner child, and the piece about being connected to Moon Mother made sense. We may all have the same father, but some of us are children of the earth and a few of us children of the moon, and some children of other places. We are here together because we are all children, with learning and work to do, and it’s OK that we have different mothers, different traditions, a different heritage.
I had done the work they asked of me, all that catharsis, but even as the session was winding down, I knew that catharsis wasn’t always healing unless resolutions could come, that simply feeling it can’t heal what keeps getting pounded by a system that wants to make us disappear. I knew the map of scars across my body and soul, but these were people who could not read that map, and that meant only one thing — the odds are I would get more scars.
It didn’t take long.
Aruni did the piece where they talk about what you can do at home. Everyone talked body, no body talked about creation. Near the end I raised my hand, and I sensed some resistance to call on me. I wanted to say that you have to expose yourself to see yourself, that you have to make art and watch it.
I did get called on, me with my big new nametag, and when she addressed me for the first time in the session, Aruni said “XXXXX?”
Bang. I got out the start of my piece before she grabbed it quickly and took back control, seemingly relieved that the shit didn’t hit the fan.
There it was, the cycle of the name tag back to center, the “real truth” erasing me even in this space that was “safe because we say it is.”
I had one little treat, though. Some guy had mentioned the men’s circle, and Aruni felt the need to apologize for this secret meeting that Nicholas hosted, saying that this space was feminine. She then went on to honor the men with “all she knew about men,” proceeding to grunt like on Home Improvement. At the end, when Aruni was getting her love pats, the men started grunting as she had, and you could see Aruni start to tense up, and George had to quickly ask for a nice om to stop the masculine power from shaking our leader in safe space.
Needless to say, nobody asked me to speak. When the meeting broke, I got my manuscript back from Nicholas, who said “Being a shaman is a hard path.”
“No shit,” I said “But I didn’t choose it.”
“Yeah. When I read the scriptures, I see those chosen by God often had a very hard time. Do you have support?”
“There aren’t many of us, but I have found a few. Its all I can hope for.”
“Do you draw?” Nicholas asked me
“You should try. Your pen on the paper, you are close. And read about the moon in Yoga,”
“I will,” I replied. “Thanks. You know, don’t you, that Aruni calling me that name was very visceral to me, very strong. I don’t think it was intentional, but it felt bad.”
“I know. I felt it.”
I thanked him, threw away the evaluation and went to the cafe where I could get Potato Vegetable Hash. My sister came in, from the other program and heard me telling a friend about the messes in the program. I felt badly, but as we left, some people from the session engaged me, and I talked about my experience, and as they agreed with me, she started to believe it wasn’t all my stuff.
We went out and a group of people saw me, the one with the crutches. and they shouted “Goodbye! Goodbye XXXXX!”
“That was nice,” she said.
“They got the name wrong,” I said.
“Yes, but they appreciated you, and that should be enough.”
Yeah, maybe it should, but as I took off the name badge, I looked again at what I wrote that first night.
“Resisting Calling To the Point Of Self Destruction.”
Catharsis is not always healing.
In fact sometimes, when it’s in a place where people know that their answers are the only right ones, it’s downright life destroying.
Yeah, that’s the opposite of life affirming.
It’s been a week to relive Kripalu.
On Tuesday, Scientific American Frontiers had a program on stress. When they started showing the relaxation exercises, the yoga based breathing and such, my heart began to pound in a very scary way. I turned off the TV and tried to enter the breath – there is always the breath as Swami Kripalu told us. As I did, the pounding got worse, and my even as I tried to deepen my breath it turned faster and more shallow, the anxiety rising like a skyrocket.
I remembered the old science fiction story about the copy writer who took an overdose of the chemical in joy gum when he was testing it, and was now allergic to it while the rest of the world chewed away and got so mellow that inertia set in, while he had to watch. The good stuff turned to poison because of a bad reaction. Yeah.
On Thursday, I told Zoe part of the Kripalu story. Interestingly, it is only the second time I told the story out loud. The first was when I sat in on Karen’s session with Pastor Bob, helping her explain her experience. The phone rang and I didn’t get to finish the story, ending it with “. . . and then it got worse.”
Every other time I told the story was not with breath, but with fingers, typing text into a text editor or chat window. That’s the way to capture feelings, not to feel them.
Today, Saturday, I was thinking about what I had told Zoe, putting together the conversation we had about “Inner Quest Intensive” at Kripalu, stories about being offered a cookie as reward, being read children’s books badly, and being offered stuffed animals for bedtime, and the conversation we had about her history with the Roman Catholic Church. We spoke of how the church infantilizes both church members and clergy to keep centralized control, to be always in the role of parent to children ready to follow.
Of course, it clicked to me, infantalizing their followers is exactly what Kripalu set out to do in “Inner Quest Intensive.” Take them back to their childhood and re-parent them in the proper Kripalu style. They wanted me (and the rest of us) to be children, removed from our own choices and placed into theirs.
The power was always at the head of the room, sitting on the guru bench surrounded by flowers and plants. We were always on the floor in front, gathered like children awaiting a story.
I’m sure they didn’t think they wanted to infantilize people in order to remove adult critical thinking and gain power. I’m sure that they believe that by forcing people to face their childhood they could reconsider how they face things as adults. Of course, the people in the Roman Catholic Church don’t think they infantilize for power and control, either.
For me, though, as I drove today, I thought about how they worked to keep me silenced in the session so they could not be challenged, how they really wanted to me to deny my hard won adulthood in favor of their responsibility-relieving feel good childhood.
This all sounds like an intellectual treatise, but like the pounding heart triggered by someone telling Alan Alda to enter the breath, it triggers a very visceral response in me. I want to take those fuckers and not be nice and appropriate, but take them apart rationalization by rationalization, power game by power game. Kathy believed that the good thing about Kripalu was that it gave me something to push against, but instead, it gave me someone who had an entire context set up to dis-empower and inhibit the strength in individuals, replacing it with the cookie cutter solutions of the faith.
The Public Story
Kripalu Center Inner Quest Intensive
1-4 May 2003
Callan Williams, © 2003, All Rights Reserved
If you want to run a cool spook-house, you need a cool place to do it. And an old seminary that sits alone, high on a hill in the picturesque Berkshires, overlooking a lake is perfect. It soars just like what it was built to be, a 1950’s era Jesuit seminary made to take men out of the world and remold them. The building replaced a previous mansion that fell to flames, and with its fireproof concrete and rigid lines, it could help create warriors to save a world from the flames of hell.
Today, it serves a very different purpose. It’s the world headquarters of the Kripalu Yoga fellowship. Kripalu moved in 1983, 13 years after the Jesuits moved out. They came with a guru, but due to some indiscretions he left in 1994, and today they pride themselves on being the first ashram started on a guru-disciple model to “transition to a new paradigm of spiritual education.” According to their website, “Kripalu honors all traditional and contemporary spiritual teachings that support the individual’s direct experience of Spirit.”
Inner Quest Intensive, is the flagship program, a weekend seminar required as part of the certification as a Kripalu Yoga Instructor. IQI, as it is called, dates back to the early days before the paradigm changed, and that makes it one of the programs, if not the program that is at the core of the Kripalu experience. It is a ritual where Kripalu people bond in the sacred traditions of the place, one that must be passed through to achieve true Kripalu-ness.
The central elements of this peculiar chamber of horrors is an odd mix of faux Ashram life and 80s style Inner Child work, all wrapped up in the synthetic experience of Girl Scout Camp. Just like any hazing, the older campers come back as volunteers to help take the staff take the new crop through the essential rituals, to assist in the sacred and secret initiation rituals, all designed to take you out of the everyday and confront you with the biggest scariest monsters of your life: your family. If this can’t convince you that with solidarity in Kripalu you are now strong enough to face them, nothing will.
Like any program that wants to take you out of the habitual to break down the individual ego, from brain washing to rushing a frat, they have something with which they want to replace the old you. In this case, though, it’s a mush of liberal new-age ideals that offer little more than a temporary high, with the illusion of a simulated community which can help you though an emotional roller coaster of their own creation.
The mechanics of the four-day workshop, which starts Thursday evening and ends after noon on Sunday, are the essence of faux Ashram. Much like entering a jail, your personal belongings are taken from you and locked away – watch, car keys, wedding ring, cell phone and so on.
Clocks are covered and you are told that you have no time, and this is to take away your illusion of control. Your illusion of control may be weakened, but, of course it also solidifies the staff’s illusion of their control, solidify the belief that they know all the right answers and have all the tools that will help – a belief they would be more than happy to have you join them in.
You are sheparded about at all times, to the sleeping quarters (women sleep in the soaring brick and concrete main chapel where the session are held, men down the hall in another yoga room) and to the meals. Food is are ascetic to say the least – rice and broth and oatmeal and fruit in at the first meal, rice and beans and salad at all other meals, served with hot or cold water, chamomile or peppermint tea bags.
Day starts around 5:30 with rolling up sleeping mats, half the group catching an instant shower, and a yoga session. It continues with sessions until about 10:30, when the meal can be served, because the “aliens” as at least one person in another workshop called us (they are always hidden!) can only eat after others have been pushed out of the dining chapel.
Like any good Masonic or neo-Pagan ritual, the intimation is that the rituals to be taught are shrouded in antiquity, in the five thousand years of Vedic teachings that Yogi Kripalu passed onto this community, but once you find that the most scared text is pop-psychologist John Gray first (1993) book “What You Can Feel, You Can Heal: A Guide To Enriching Relationships,” you know that’s not true. “Let’s go down the iceberg of healing!” – certainly not an image the southern Indian Vedic traditions would have embraced.
The core tool, the central mirror in the funhouse, is the “dyad” where two people sit across from each other (on the floor, of course – the floor and “back-jacks” are the standard) and speak in turn, one speaking and the other intended to remain impassive and non-responsive. This technique is at the heart of the sessions because it allows the feeling of therapy without any real engagement, without the danger of people acting in ways that might not be good.
“The container is strong enough to take it,” say the assistants, and it is because the container is designed to defuse any but inner conflicts, to dump problems back onto the individuals. Like any boot camp, there is no room for challenge or debate, no room for questions or doubts. The true answers are in front of you, and if you can’t get it, the only choice is to, in the Kripalu vernacular, “Check Out,” leave the program. If you fail, it is your checking out on them, not the program’s failure to address you.
The person at the heart of the workshop for the last few years is “Aruni” Nan Futuronsky, one of the original Kripalu people who is now a director of programs. Futuronsky, who regularly describes herself as an ex-high school teacher, is an out lesbian woman, “married” to another woman, who also leads Kripalu’s “Lavender Spirituality” series.
It’s Nan’s particular viewpoint that shapes “Inner Quest Intensive” to be what it is. From her banal and thoughtless choice of music, including Michael Jackson (who might well upset some who have been abused in their lives) to Cris Williamson (a lesbian who refuses to allow trans people into her shows), to her incessant and endless amplified patter (even while you are trying to bring the focus inside, as when you are doing bodywork), Futuronsky defines the workshop. She qvells over the title of the decade old John Gray book at the heart of the curriculum – “Brilliant! If I could write a book with a title that good!” – never seeming to know that it is a phrase Louise Hay used in her ground-breaking book “You Can Heal Your Life” a decade before. Still, its easy to gloss over so much if you know that there is no way people can challenge you without “checking out.”
Futuronsky’s sweeping Kripalu definitions of truth can easily leave people and priorities in the cold. She asked if any people were parents, and then included herself in that because she and her partner have a dog. For a friend, who was less than a month beyond losing a child, this was not sensitive. When it was revealed that the men had their own circle in the evenings, Futuronsky felt the obligation to make excuses, brag about what the women had (a harp) and grunt, saying that was all she knew about men. In a perfect circle, in the goodbye ritual, which contains a special time for Futuronsky to get her strokes, the men started grunting in unison, and when the facility manager saw how the grunting spooked Nan, he quickly called for a sustained “om.”
It may well be true that lesbians who have a sexual awakening at Girl Scout camp fetish it forever. Futuronsky admitted that at least one of her exercises, where you get a slip of paper and have to make the noise that farm animal makes so you can find others who have the same animal, where then you have to be the animal with them was learned at Girl Scout camp. Certainly many of the other “reward” exercises, where you were asked to find a “bunkmate” and share notes from your childhood – most yukky food, best food, biggest prank – or were eventually rewarded on the last night with a cookie from an “angel”, could come directly out of the camp leader’s handbook.
Is inner child work the most effective therapeutic technique around? Today, even few pop-psychologists still carry on the inner child tradition, having found that while it indulges pain and victimization, it doesn’t provide an effective base for change. Now, the intent is to help people focus on possibility and reflection, not just indulgence.
For most of the people at Inner Quest Intensive, it was exactly what it was designed to be: a feel good experience. As body centered yoga teachers in a fast world, they hadn’t taken much time to examine their own lives on any level, let alone a sustained three days. For them, this is a revelatory and exciting feel-good experience, often so much so that they want to come back. Of course, the program is designed to create that bonding experience without any of the mess of community – the injunction to social silence means that difference & conflict are made invisible while shared hardships are very visible. It feels like you have shared in dyads, but with no real feedback, has any real sharing happened?
There were cracks, of course. The men talked about how shallow the workshop felt, how bad the music was, and even about how people facing challenges, like metastasized cancer or the suicide of their son seemed to be given short shrift by the relentless feel good attitude that deflected hard challenges into instant courage, allowing a pat on the back to replace real compassion. Not engaging real and messy challenges has always been a key to maintaining orthodoxy.
My own personal experience at Inner Quest Intensive was unique. I am transgender-identified, and went not because I thought it would be good, but because my sister thought it would help me find my footing by seeing that a community of people could appreciate my gifts. It was instantly obvious to me that a sex segregated workshop with no personal time would not allow me to express my transgender nature with the standard symbols. Add to that the fact that my sister used my family issued name on the name tag, and things got odd. I spent the first night in the men’s room sobbing, and things got worse from there.
In addition, I have a sysdesmotic screw in my ankle to help fuse the bone to replace the ligament I tore on the ice, so I was in a brace and crutches. I could tell people at Kripalu weren’t used to dealing with people on crutches when the George, the facilities manager, led me up the stairs rather than up the elevator after pulling me aside for a little chat, triggered by a call from a concerned friend who also took the workshop, but ended up “checking out.”
Luckily for me, Nicholas, the one who led the men off to bed (and their secret men’s circle, started a few years to give time and space that respected men since the main meeting didn’t) and woke them with yoga, embodied compassion and understanding. He made it easy for me by finding me another bed, listening to a complaint or two, and reading the statement I would have made to the group. He first encouraged me to share it, but after reading and consultation with other staff, they chose not to have me share. I was not surprised. With up to 75 people in every session, the sessions are inherently automated, and the assumptions of normativity tend to cover the real challenges that people are having.
I did raise my hand to share in one of the last sessions. Futuronsky had asked about what people could do after they left, and people were coming up with ideas like gardening and yoga, but one were choosing emotional or mentally reflective activities like journaling. Futuronsky did offer therapy and recovery programs (her tradition), but when I raised my hand, she pointedly called me by my family name rather than what was on my nametag, and held her breath while I spoke. I suggested that people need to expose themselves to see themselves, and said that I need to listen to advice I give to others, because I usually need to hear it. I was going to go on to say that making art was one of the best ways to expose yourself, but she cut me off cold, and my contribution was over.
My personal experience of being in a body centered culture, where the blessing we were forced to read before dinner said “I chose this body,” where the mind was denigrated as wacky, and where we were told to look in a hand mirror and see our true self – our body, was a sense of abuse. I went though the body memory exercise and sobbed for a long time, but for me sobbing was constant and deep.
While the dogma said that my sobbing released energy blocks in my body, I felt that the sobbing was from the kind of erasure I was experiencing in their own doctrine. When we went around the circle and gave a four-word summary of our experience, mine was simple: “Catharsis is not always healing.” This is the lesson that has caused many psychologists to leave using inner child work – feelings released without any way to empower change can be burdens to carry rather than burdens shed. In fact, studies of holocaust survivors have shown that many who did not relive their experience were happier and more successful than those who indulged the abuse and pain.
Unfortunately, those who believe in victimization, who think we need to face our father and mother in projection, entering the abuse, really do believe that catharsis is always healing. But many have learned that reliving emotional trauma is an easy way to create emotional rollercoaster in a new-age amusement park, ups and downs that are thrilling but that eventually leave us feeling good and strong, like we have survived something dangerous when it was no more risky than riding Disney’s Space Mountain. We are end up right where we started, but with a buzz that keeps many coming back for more.
At the end of the weekend, Nicholas wanted me to know that they really cared about follow-up, and said that Futuronsky’s e-mail address was in the packet they offered. How he ever could feel that I would see Futuronsky as safe space is beyond my understanding. I did have a friend come up from the city three days after I left Kripalu because she was afraid that I was even more self-destructive than when I went to the workshop, which was true.
The packet also included guidelines about how to communicate about the workshop, because they found that giving the specifics of what happened in the sessions “didn’t capture the experience.” The catalogue is vague about the content of the workshop, and I am sure they prefer it that way, just the same as the kids who run the Halloween Spook House at the mall don’t want you spilling the secret that the guts are just pasta in red jello. I didn’t bother to pick up the packet to learn how I should behave and speak from here on out.
As someone who is string in their own beliefs, which are not body centered, who is transgender identified and who was handicapped, my personal experience of Inner Quest Intensive was very, very negative.
Kripalu is selling their own brand of enlightenment, and since they have been successful at it, why change? It seemed obvious to me that Futuronsky has not been out and about finding newer and more effective techniques, but is comfortable in giving a classic Kripalu experience, ersatz community, body without mind, bad music and all.
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