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Monday, May 27, 2024

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CultureExamined LifeExamined Life: Power, patriarchy, and the imperfect guru

Examined Life: Power, patriarchy, and the imperfect guru

Buddhist teacher Noah Levine is dismissed from Against the Stream because of sexual misconduct. Now the organization is folding. Why does this song sound so familiar?

It’s the end of an era, albeit a very short one.

In 2014, Against the Stream (ATS) Buddhist Meditation Society—an organization founded by counter culture Buddhist teacher Noah Levine—opened a local center in San Francisco, offering a beautiful new space on Folsom Street that soon became one of the most popular places in the city to practice meditation. ATS’ mission revolved around the notion of acceptance of all people, especially folks in recovery from substance abuse and others who felt they didn’t fit in with the more mainstream Buddhist communities. But this past weekend, after a 5-month independent investigation conducted by an attorney specializing in workplace harassment, ATS deemed, in an email to its community at large, that there was substantial evidence to conclude that Levine had violated the ATS Teacher’s Codes of Ethics by way of sexual misconduct. 

The letter stated that the board of ATS removed Levine as a teacher. However, as a result of the controversy, which started in March after a woman accused Levine of assault (other accusations followed, though the details of them have not been made clear), the organization has lost teachers and tremendous private funding, and has gone financially belly-up. After only four years, the heavily attended San Francisco center is closing, along with all other centers and affiliated ATS groups. In the year of its 10th national anniversary, it looks like Against the Stream will be completely dissolved, a devastation to practitioners, teachers, and support staff of the organization. Levine has been denying and continues to deny all allegations of misconduct. In a statement he made during an August 27 Facebook Live video, he says that he has been promiscuous in recent years, and has slept with a married woman. But he also states that this behavior has been entirely outside of the spiritual community and does not represent misconduct. 

With his tatted arms, prior life of addiction, and rough-and-tumble je ne sais quoi, Levine, now 47, became a cult figure in the growing meditation scene after the success of his first book, Dharma Punx. He later wrote the book Against the Stream, which led to the opening of his meditation centers where practitioners assembled, and ATS-branded jackets that said “Meditate and Destroy” were sold and purchased. He also created a national nonprofit AA-like recovery program called Refuge Recovery, as well as a for-profit substance abuse treatment center under the same name in Los Angeles, both modeled after another book he wrote called Refuge Recovery. Through ATS, Levine, who is the son of the late Buddhist teacher and author Stephen Levine, is credited with bringing Theravada/Vipassana (Insight) Buddhist teachings to a whole new generation of practitioners, and for saving the lives of countless people who got caught in the throes of addiction. And now, he’s also credited for engaging in sexual misconduct with women.

This is obviously not the first story we’ve heard about the sexual misconduct of prominent teachers in Eastern spiritual communities who have reached so-called “dharmalebrity” or ”yogalebrity” status. In the Buddhist world alone, there’s been a trail of sexual misconduct by former male “gurus,” including Joshu Sasaki (Zen), Chogyam Trungpa (Shambhala), and the current scandal involving Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche (Shambhala). In the yoga world, we’ve witnessed the same behaviors with Amrit Desai (founder of Kripalu), John Friend (founder of Anusara), Bikram Choudhury (founder of Bikram Yoga), and, most recently brought to light, Pattabhi Jois (founder of Ashtanga). For most of these teachers, the allegations made came from women embedded in their spiritual communities; in Levine’s case, it’s still unclear how much of the allegations were from students versus non-students. (As a note, there is an additional criminal investigation underway being conducted by the LAPD.)

A quick scouring of social media in the ATS community right now shows a mix of anger, grief, and absolution. Some people want to take Levine down, others want to forgive him in light of all the people he’s helped, and others want to leave the door open to forgiving him at some point—but not yet. Some believe he did great harm; others believe he shouldn’t be judged for things that went on outside the sangha (Buddhist spiritual community). The conversations are intense, and creating a rift in a community that was once brought together in the name of compassion and wound-healing. 

A big question at the fore is around what constitutes sexual misconduct. Though there was an initial allegation of nonconsensual sex, many of the allegations have revolved around this teacher’s behavior on dates and on dating apps. A line of defense from both teacher and students has been that Levine is only human. Which is true. And it’s also true that all of the teachers above, including Levine, chose to take leadership positions in systems that specifically revolve around ethical codes of nonviolence, wise speech, and wise sexuality; to teach doctrines that support a human being’s ability, through dedicated practice, to refrain from responding unskillfully to distracting stimuli and urges; and to teach about the importance of upholding community values, in part by modeling them in their own lives. So, inside the sangha or out, why do teachers keep betraying their own supposed values when it comes to the treatment of women?

It comes down to power. 

For thousands of years, society has known that power corrupts. Now, science has proven that power actually alters the structure of the brain. While it’s easy for most of us to see that a short-term feeling of power can make us less sensitive to our environments, according to recent studies reported in The Atlantic, holding a long-term position of power in society actually creates “functional changes” in the brain that make people less empathetic and less risk-averse. Even if someone rises to power as a result of admirable desires to do good in the world, the very attributes that helped bring them into a position of power (let’s say, emotional sensitivity and an ability to connect with others) are frequently lost when that position of power is achieved. We’ve all heard the expression “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Now the neuroscience bears it out. 

So are some male teachers entering the field of spiritual teaching because they want to have power over others? Or does the amount of power they are given, as they rise up the ranks in their status, change them in ways that turn them into abusers? 

Because the system of patriarchy has already put men in a place of power in society before they even step into a “power position” in an organization, it’s not an easy call to make. It’s likely that the brains of any privileged group already have some power-influenced brain dysfunction. That being said, if we look closely at many of the abuses in these systems, they happened after a teacher reached a certain level of popularity that made them feel utterly invincible. And the people and structures around them—colleagues, followers, book publishers, and now social media channels—help to maintain that illusion.

I’ve known many a modern spiritual teacher who “changed” after becoming seen as an “important teacher.” Suddenly, the once humble and articulate talks about monitoring one’s ego and checking one’s reactive impulses become an avenue for the teacher to strengthen their own ego and become blind to their own reactive impulses. When the teacher’s financial wellbeing comes into play, the situation becomes further complicated. What began as a love affair with the dharma—the philosophy and practice of the tradition—turns into concerns over how many students were in the room, how many books were sold, and how many people signed up for such and such retreat or training. As the mailing lists and the book sales grow, so does the mirage of importance, and with that, these teachers—consciously or unconsciously—try to maintain status through various avenues, including sexual harassment, inappropriateness, or abuse.

It’s important for there to be teachers. Without them, there are things we can’t see about ourselves. The meaning of “guru” is often translated as “one who dispels darkness.” But we have to get smarter about how we create modern spiritual community, and how we monitor our teachers. As a community and a society at large, we have to understand, deep within our bones, that no matter how much light a person sheds on the lives of others, no one is invulnerable to becoming altered by power. The Buddhist teachings, themselves, tell us that all things—including the human mind—are impermanent and always changing. We would do well to put some of our faith and trust in a good teacher, but we are foolish to do so without restraint. The teacher, no matter how charismatic or perspective-changing for the student, is in a human body with a human mind that is perhaps trained in some way, but still vulnerable to deep dysfunction.

As someone positioned as a teacher in the local yoga/mindfulness communities, I, too, feel broken about the dissolution of Against the Stream. What’s heartbreaking about this particular betrayal is that Levine positioned himself as a leader not only in the world of modern Buddhism but also in the world of social justice. And yet, at least according to the reports, he still took inappropriate actions that negatively affected others. 

Moving forward, we need better structures in place to check the power of the teachers and leaders of the community. These structures need to consist of a diverse group of people who have nothing to lose or gain by outing someone in a powerful position. Each spiritual community needs to have specific guidelines about what is and what isn’t permissible in the community, and the teachers should be held to the very highest of standards—inside, but also outside, the community as they are setting an example for students as both a teacher and as a lay person. More women need to be in positions of spiritual leadership, and more men need to step aside so there is room for them. All leaders should be monitoring one another closely and holding one another accountable for anything that might even suggest a slip in conduct. (While not all sexual misconduct is out in the open, someone else usually knew it was going on and chose to ignore it.) As a culture, we also need to let go of the fallacy of savior. We can learn from our teachers, but ultimately, as each one of these situations reminds us, we have to save ourselves.

One of the many wonderful things about ATS as a community is that they actually did have specific rules of conduct (which Levine had been part of engineering), as well as a board of directors that was willing to enter into this investigation. In another, less principled community, the incidents may have continued to be buried under the rug. (Though Levine has said that he believes the board did not handle the situation well, and believes their verdict to be unfair.) 

At the end of the day, a much-loved organization is dissolving. From the looks of it right now, the other ATS teachers will continue to offer their teaching, just not under the umbrella of ATS. Also, Levine currently plans to keep teaching meditation at his Refuge Recovery treatment center in Los Angeles, as well as on retreats and via livestream. There’s no doubt more details will continue to surface as time goes by. For now, it’s an incredible disappointment for many that it’s the end of an era for Against the Stream. Hopefully it’s also the end of an era for the age-old power structures that enable spiritual teachers to cause harm—intentional or no—to the very communities they claim to serve.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Karen Macklin
Karen Macklinhttp://www.karenmacklin.com
Karen Macklin is a writer, life & leadership coach, and yoga & mindfulness teacher in California.

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