When the Rug Gets Pulled Out

What happens when our spiritual path undergoes unexpected, seismic shifts? Do we need a teacher or can we craft a path that reflects our unique being? Can an organized structure be helpful, and when is it no longer?

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"Entering Salem" sign with cemetery in background on a rainy day

“We cannot even lay the foundation. The whole thing keeps shifting under our feet and under our seat. The rug is being pulled out from under us completely, simply from the experience of working with ourselves. Nobody is pulling it, but we find that the rug constantly moves.” –Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche on the groundless nature of the spiritual journey

The proverbial rug can be pulled out from under us at any time in our lives, in all too many ways—through relationships, family, health, social upheaval, and our spiritual paths. Often we look to our spiritual path as a source of stability and solid ground amidst the pain and suffering we face in our lives. Good psychological/spiritual paths will indeed pull the rug out from under us when we need it, but they will also nourish and nurture us. When things do start to feel groundless, it can occur in a greater context of healthiness and care.

My own path became groundless in a way that I didn’t expect over the past several years. I haven’t shared anything publicly about the transition I have gone through, and this finally felt like the right time. I write this 1) as an offering for anyone interested in exploring the question of organized spirituality/religion vs. a more personalized approach, 2) as an offering to people in the Shambhala community who may have felt the rug pulled out from under them recently, 3) for myself, as a way of telling my story and expressing my experience.

It was in my freshman year of college that I was introduced to Buddhism and was amazed and inspired that there was an alternative way of being in the world that involved living in a conscious way rather than sleepwalking through life, which is what I observed in most people around me. From there, I read lots of books and visited different meditation centers before eventually finding a home in Shambhala in 2003. I loved the quality of “blazing wakefulness” that I felt was palpable in the centers, the teachings, and teachers. It felt energetic and fierce, with a magical pulse that I hadn’t sensed in some of the other traditions I had explored.

After a few years, I dove in fully, head-first. My yearning for spiritual awakening had always been central in my life, and now Shambhala had become the primary vehicle for that. I was attending programs and retreats regularly at both the Boston Shambhala Center and Karmê Chöling, a retreat center in Vermont. In 2007, I moved to Karmê Chöling to live there and work on staff. I was living the dream—my path, my life, and my work had become inseparable. I was living, eating, sleeping, and breathing Shambhala, 24/7. The intensity of the environment, surrounded by fellow practitioners doing deep inner work, was a powerful catalyst for transformation—which was, of course, almost always difficult and painful.

In 2011, I moved back to Boston and became the Executive Director of the Boston Shambhala Center. Tasked with moving the community forward in its vision of “creating enlightened society,” I instead found a community divided and wounded. A newer, inspired generation and a disaffected generation of longtime practitioners faced off in a longstanding conflict centered around Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s approach and vision and its perceived contrast with that of his father, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who brought the Shambhala teachings to the west.

"Entering Salem" sign with cemetery in background on a rainy day
Photo by Dan Glenn

This is where the gory details matter less and I want to bring my own experience to the fore; I don’t intend for this to be an in-depth look at the particular problems and issues with that community, but rather at the questions, struggles, and pain that can arise from being intimately involved in an organized spiritual community. During this time as director, every day felt like a battleground. I was stuck in the middle of an impossible conflict, feeling like I couldn’t manifest the central organization’s vision nor could I satisfy or support the local community. By the end of my three years in the role, I had reached a place of profound burnout. In the final year and the years that followed, I descended into the underworld and went through a Dark Night of the Soul experience that completely changed me. In many ways, I now feel like a completely different person than I was just a few years ago. The Dark Night of the Soul phenomenon is a terrifying and powerful process that deserves its own written exploration, to say the least, and I plan to write more specifically about that soon. It’s hard to separate out this element of my experience from what I want to focus on here, but my intention with this piece is to explore what it means to be part of an organized spiritual community and structure, and the benefits and drawbacks of that.

In this regard, it is remarkable what hindsight and a bit of distance can do for one’s perspective. After years of being an unquestioning, faithful devotee, I began to question what I had long-assumed was simply “the way things were” when it comes to the spiritual path. Of course you need to find a teacher, a guru. Of course you need to follow in the footsteps of those who have walked before. Of course you need mentors and guides to tell you what to do next, and a “sangha” or community to set you straight if they think you’re off-base.  Of course you need to follow a single, narrow path that has been laid out for you. Or…do you?

The notion of “creating your own path” was always generally frowned upon in Shambhala. Chögyam Trungpa adamantly discouraged in students from “spiritual shopping” in the 1970s—the message was that if you’re always searching, always jumping to something new, you’re bypassing the hard work. It’s too easy to squirm away, to avoid one’s ego being decimated. There is absolutely a lot of truth to this. But as I began to explore new traditions, I saw that there were a lot of people who were quite wise and respectable who were “piecing together” wisdom traditions in a way that fit their own unique disposition. It’s too dangerous! I thought to myself. It’s blasphemous! And yet as time passed, my perspective slowly began to shift. What had once seemed completely erroneous started to look like the preferable route.

Now would be a good time to clarify that I don’t believe there is one “right” way for everyone. When I say “preferable,” I mean preferable for me, now, at this time in my life. It is impossible and dangerous to try to be prescriptive with the spiritual path. It is a very personal journey, and that can include being involved with an organized, structured path for parts of or the entirety of one’s life. I would not have reached the point I am at—which I feel very good about—without having been deeply and intimately involved in the Shambhala tradition and practices.

But what I thought was going to be just a little “space from it all” and “recovery time” after my intense directorship just kept extending further and further. I couldn’t conjure up the enthusiasm to go back, to get involved again. I tried, but it just didn’t feel right. I was more drawn to exploring other traditions—first Jungian and archetypal psychology, then shamanic traditions, then Gnosticism, then Western esoteric and occult traditions.

The further I went in my explorations, trusting my intuition, “following my nose” as I tumbled down a rabbit hole I never expected to be falling through, the more exciting and alive these explorations felt for me, and the more uninspired I felt with the idea of attending a Shambhala retreat or event. The rug had indeed been pulled out. I would never, ever in a million years have imagined being in this place five years earlier.

Photo of author wearing shirt which reads, "Read a Grimoire"
The new me prefers to read a grimoire (shirt by The Blackshelf)

I thought that I was just going to “find my path” and “follow it.” Walk it to the end. Be guided by my teacher. I was so dedicated. I was so deeply engaged and passionate about Shambhala. It was everything to me for many, many years. I thought I would spend my life serving in leadership roles in the community, doing the “next” retreat I was told to do, and do the various sadhanas (meditation/visualization/invocation practices) I’d been given. Though I did find that power remained in my personal connection to many of these practices when I would do them on my own, overall I just kept feeling that on a deep, gut level, nothing in me wanted to reconnect any further than that. It was not even for any logical “reasons,” per se. I just had to trust my own inner compass.

My interests have continued to evolve and have gone through many shifts, and often swiftly, over the past few years. My explorations have involved a lot of reading and podcast listening, and some assorted hands-on experimenting, but the latter has been minimal. Mainly my “practice” has been allowing a deep, alchemical transformation to occur within me as I lead my life, and to not resist it or even try to direct it. I have had to allow a darkening to move through my bones and my entire being. Over time, on a practical level, I began gaining confidence in actually engaging with various energetic and magickal practices from different Western esoteric, occult, and magickal traditions. A big part of that was finally realizing I didn’t have to wait for someone to tell me what to do, as had become deeply ingrained in me.

Part of my burning out and pulling away had to do with my own personality, my own particular karmic makeup and disposition. What I went through in the director role at the Boston center was often hellish, but it catalyzed a deep inner transformation in a way that honestly nothing else could have. Funny how these things seem to work.

In that sense, it had to do with me. I can own that—my own need to try to please, accommodate, make people happy, avoid conflict was a big part of why it was all so hard and why I burnt out. I had to confront my own need for belonging, as well as my susceptibility to groupthink. But there was also something just completely impossible about the situation, about working in governance/leadership in a non-profit spiritual organization (which I did for seven years, between Karmê Chöling and Boston).

I am, in part, writing this now because there have been recently allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and other leaders in Shambhala, that have hit the community hard The ground has been suddenly pulled out from under a lot of people, and many are feeling like something and someone they deeply trusted and relied upon turned out not to be what or who they thought it was. One of my deepest struggles throughout my own process has been with the notion of having a teacher or guru who you hold as your ultimate spiritual authority. My perspective has slowly over time shifted to one of honoring personal intuition and oneself as the ultimate spiritual authority (occult author Mitch Horowitz wrote a beautiful piece recently that really resonated with where I’m at right now in my own journey, on “anarchic magick,” which I highly recommend; this talk by Erik Davis and Jennifer Dumpert exploring similar themes is also really fantastic). Of course, the notion of having a guru in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition is ultimately for the purpose of connecting to your own inner guru, your own inner wisdom—so thus, it is a path of externalizing the source of wisdom in order to ultimately recognize and completely trust your own. So, in this sense, as long as the relationship between teacher and student is healthy and serves the purpose of cultivating the student’s inner wisdom and strength, it can be tremendously beneficial.

In addition to the personal grappling that I have gone through, I witnessed first-hand the unbelievable amount of projection that people place on the teacher. Most often it’s very extreme in either direction: either the teacher is perfect and idolized and his every word is to be heeded without question, or the teacher is oppressive and we must rail against him and fight for our freedom. As the director of the center, I fully and wholeheartedly embraced the former perspective and often dismissed out of hand the disgruntled latter types. I never would have imagined reaching the conclusion that reality is not so black and white.

When a spiritual community is so completely centered around one person, it can easily become problematic. To his credit, Sakyong Mipham has very much eschewed the role of a traditional guru as time has gone on, particularly with newer students coming in, and has made the focus of Shambhala its societal vision—creating a society based on embracing humanity’s inherent goodness, wholeness, and sanity. However, it often felt to me like—and I as much as anyone embodied this perspective—we were all propagating some kind of abstract vision, and doing it because Sakyong Mipham told us that this is what Shambhala was about. Of course, the vision itself is deeply inspiring and a notion that we hopefully all would want to get behind and work toward. So again, it’s complex.

In that sense, as I pulled further and further away from Shambhala, I found myself wanting to make it black and white. I wanted to figure out the answer: either it was a cult and everyone involved were sheep, or my pulling back was the kicking and screaming of my ego, terrified of its own dissolution. After many years, I began to feel more comfortable with the ambiguity and grey areas: that these are profound teachings, that people bring their own issues and experiences, wisdom and fallacies to the path and it’s different for everyone, and that Sakyong Mipham is both a wise, brilliant teacher and an ordinary human (that human side has been more than revealed this past week—and although this is not anything I ever witnessed or heard about during my time in the community, I believe the victims and I find the reports disturbing).

Book binding with title Witches Still Live

Had I written this a few weeks ago, I probably would have concluded by saying that anything is possible—that I would have never expected to be here a few years ago, and thus I would never close the door on reconnecting with Shambhala if that were what I felt called to do by my inner daimon. The allegations and trauma that have been unearthed in the past few weeks in the community do feel for me like a “last straw,” in conjunction with simultaneously feeling increasingly comfortable with and inspired to move forward with my path as a kind of gnostic occultist. I also want to acknowledge that my own process occurred before the abuse allegations were revealed, and I know that for many people, a situation of abuse like this being uncovered is far more traumatic than much of what I have been describing. I hope, though, that part of what has come through in my writing is that a cataclysmic shift of any nature in one’s spiritual journey can be confusing, traumatic, and can take years to process and unfold.

I sense that our world is moving away from gurus and organized, hierarchical religious or spiritual paths. Raising our gaze and looking around for just a moment after having our heads buried in liturgy reveals a potent movement toward the divine feminine, shamanic practices, and witchcraft spreading swiftly and fiercely, particularly in the face of the dying of patriarchal society and white supremacy, which happen to be displaying one hell of a death rattle at the moment. Perhaps organizations will adjust, and we’ll begin to see more non-hierachical ways of being in community emerge, ways of being that wholly support and empower women, indigenous people, people of color, queer people, trans people, disabled people, and ways that don’t encourage silence or deference in the face of abuse. Perhaps there are ways of being in spiritual community that allow for individuality rather than subjugating the individual for the sake of the functioning of the organization. Perhaps we can create spiritual organizations that don’t require us to go bankrupt trying to pay for retreats, and that overtly reject capitalism as an ugly, oppressive system that should be outwardly challenged rather than replicated. Or perhaps some of us will decide that the life of the hermit, the solitary witch, is best for us, writing and casting our spells from the shadows and doing our best to disrupt the systems of oppression that exist in this world through whatever means we can, enjoying the beauty and wonder of what remains of the natural world, and opening up to fully becoming who our daimon knows us to be. It’s up to each of us to trust ourselves, trust each other, and know what’s best for ourselves at any given point in our lives, and to know that that will surely change as we do.