Cultural Differences

 

Another rambling to help me identify my stories and attachments, my temporary stuckness. And as always, the advice may appear as for someone else – they, but is really for myself. When that is more resolved, and there still appears to be something to do about it in the outer world, I am able to do that in a more effective and less reactive way.

With what happened over the last couple of days, I can’t help creating stories about cultural differences as well.

The practice is brought to the west by a non-westerner, and the origins of both are non-western as well. So there is most likely a good deal of cultural baggage there, maybe not so much in the practices as in the structure of the organization.

The early eastern teachers and gurus coming to the US comes to mind. They grew up and were trained in a particular culture, and knew very well how to navigate and function in that setting. But coming to the west, there was a clash in many different areas which had different forms of fallout, from minor annoyances to complete crash & burn.

Many of these problems were created through expectation from the teacher. Expectations reasonable in their own culture, but a time-bomb in the west: Unquestioned allegiance to authority. His (because they were mostly men) authority to make decisions in many areas of the life of their students. Taboos, secrecy and in-groups. No questioning of the decisions or behavior of the teacher and (sometimes) other senior folks. And so on.

All of these seem apparent in this situation as well. There is clearly a main teacher, a guru, although they often create a public appearance of an egalitarian and democratic structure. This teacher has full authority and his decisions does not appear to be questioned. He gives advice to his students about decisions in their lives not related specifically to the spiritual practice (work, relationships, studies and so on), and sometimes tell people to leave if they don’t follow the advice. There is a strong in-group. There is a great deal of secrecy. There are several taboo areas which students are not supposed to bring up or question.

Maybe it can be summarized in a few words: Authoritarian (patriarchal) and opaque. And this naturally means trouble in a culture that is used to, comfortable with and strongly support democracy, a more egalitarian approach, and transparency.

Limited authority

In our western culture, people generally will not accept secrecy, nor unquestioned authority. We know far too well what that can bring about.

Of course, there is a natural authority in terms of the spiritual experiences of a long-term practitioner and teacher. And this needs to be honored. But that does not mean that this authority extends to other areas, such as how the organization is run, how the students are to live their lives when not at the center, and so on.

There is a natural hierarchy in terms of the spiritual maturity, but an equally natural – in the west at least – democracy and system of checks and balances in the organization.

Example

And then an example of how silly this can appear in real life. The internet and early books about this particular form of bodywork are abundant with a (brief) story about its origins. It is out there, including in their own publications. Still, the official policy is for anyone involved to not acknowledge this story at all, even if directly asked about it.

The reasoning is apparently that this very brief origin story would make people get caught up in the mythology around it. I can completely see the validity in that concern, and the need to take that into account in how they talk about it. Some discernment is clearly in place.

But if the solution is to suddenly deny even the existence of the previous story, then that is a solution that creates far more problems than it is meant to solve. It may work well in authoritarian cultures where you are not expected to question authority, but in the west, it is bound to backfire. And it does, as I have seen again and again in this particular case. In our culture, we tend to get very suspicious of secrecies and deception, we want to know the truth, we want transparency, and in case of apparent deception people typically react with frustration and sometimes with anger and rejection.

Another solution, which seems much more reasonable to me, is to acknowledge the (very brief) original story – just mention where it comes from, and leave it at that. For the vast majority of people, that would be completely satisfactory. It would allow people peace of mind, and not give reason for trying to mythologize around it. If that is all that is said, and nobody knows anything more, then there is really no material to mythologize with. It would be simple, easy, transparent, and appropriate to the western mentality.

But if there is a taboo around bringing this issue up, which there seems to be, then this can never be discussed openly. People cannot voice their concerns or bewilderment over it, and there is little or no opportunity for this policy to be adjusted to be a little more aligned with the culture and expectations of the people meeting it.

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