The toxic power dynamics of Oneness

The Guru Papers

The title is misleading. Kramer and Alstad started writing a book about problems in guru-disciple relationships. However, they realized two things: such problems are partly due to common “spiritual” misunderstandings of meaningness; and guru-disciple power dynamics are similar to other relationships of authority, with many of the same problems.

So they wound up writing a brilliant analysis of popular spirituality, which comes to many of the same conclusions as Meaningness. Their book also has many insights into authority in general. They intended to expand those into a much larger work titled Control; but it got out of control and they abandoned it.

In the 1970s, young Americans were naive about gurus. They also deliberately suspended disbelief, because they were desperate for solutions to the disintegration of the Western systematic mode of meaning. By now—probably even by 1991 when The Guru Papers was published—everyone understood at least the basics of the power issues in the guru-disciple relationship; so maybe the title aspect of the book is no longer as relevant. Mind you, gurus keep blowing up in sex/power/money scandals, which still seem to take many people by surprise, so maybe not. Anyway, the book is pretty good on guru problems, but that’s not the reason I got it.

I got it because it contains the best discussion I’ve encountered of contemporary American spiritual monism (“All Is One!”). A large chunk of that is available online, and I recommend it highly. But the book turned out to be relevant and interesting on lots of other topics, and I recommend reading the whole thing.

The remainder of this post is the notes I took while reading the book. I didn’t intend to publish them, but on re-reading, I think they may be useful for some readers. Even without significant editing, they seem to summarize the book quite well.

The notes

All page numbers are from the 1993 paperback edition. There’s a Kindle edition now, but not when I bought the book. I’ve linked some points in the notes to pages I’ve written on the same topics.

4 “moral certainty… justifies control. A primary function of moral certainty is that it gives [someone] the right to tell people what to do. It is also used as the basis of self-control. This is why … moral certainty… [has] greater emotional appeal than the specific beliefs in which the certainty is grounded. But the beliefs are necessary in order to maintain certainty. Consequently, such beliefs are very resistant to change…”

24–25 “the major extant world religions all promulgate a “renunciate” morality…. [and] present self-centeredness…. as the villain… one must surrender one’s will to … God … which usually involves some kind of self-sacrifice”

25 Renunciation used to semi-somewhat work as a basis for morality; it did restrain some bad behavior; but it’s no longer functional

27 “certainty [is] more relaxing and comforting than living with ambiguity.”

41 Renunciation was basically the only way you could do any serious spiritual practice historically, because role expectations were so rigid that you had to “drop out” of society

42 “The appeal of renunciation is that to the extent one can do it, it does bring control over emotional states. This “dropping out” really amounted to “dropping into” other socially sanctioned roles … devotee, monk, [etc]…. It offered an oasis from the grind of life and an opportunity to explore…”

43 Guru scandals are often blamed on the individual guru’s imperfection, but the real problem is with the structure.

45–6 “Often a large component of spiritual seeking is the desire for a place of no conflict, where a benign, all-powerful intelligence is taking care of things, and not incidentally, where one feels immortal again. … This means that what many people are seeking in the name of spirituality is not really to grow…a journey into the unknown. What is actually being sought is a return to the known.”

47 Gurus who claim omniscience seem more powerful/credible than those who admit uncertainty

47 “Enlightenment is conceived of as a static and absolute state…”

49 Exhilarating sense of becoming a “part of a well-oiled machine” experienced in team sports

49 “Surrender is so potent precisely because it shifts control to an arena that is free, or more free, from one’s inner dramas and the conflicts involved in personal decisions.”

53 Spiritual growth is traditionally presented as “getting rid of the aspects of oneself that are disliked or disapproved of. … That’s why many people need to believe in saints. … giving hope that others, too, can at least become better, if not perfect.”

54 “Surrender to Christ and to a guru have similar dynamics, as they both bring about feelings of passion, a sense of purpose, and the immediate reduction of conflict and tension.”

55 “Surrender to a guru brings instant intimacy with all who share the same values. … many feel alone and disconnected. Acceptance by and identification with the group induce a loosening of personal boundaries. This opening … brings purpose, meaning, and hope.” “… quick, one-dimensional bonding…” “…. being totally cared for …” “feels like being protected by God”

61 “What many people crave nowadays is a sense of connection or union with something they consider sufficiently profound to give their lives meaning. The very act of surrender initially brings this about.”

64 “Having a mini-[mystical]-experience gives hope that grander ones will eventually occur.”

66ff “Guru ploys” – tactics for keeping disciples in a state of submission

70 “Since those without self-trust look for certainty in others, power is just there for the taking by anyone who puts out a message that tells people, with certitude, what they want to hear.”

71 “Detaching from possessions, relationships, and even one’s identity can at first make one feel better because they are the usual sources of psychological pain.”

73–4 On the claim that normal methods for evaluation of truth-claims do not apply to “higher” (“spiritual”) truths. “…critical faculties are disarmed…”

75 Abuse of paradox as a strategy for disarming reason (notably in Zen)

86–87 Attraction of moving up in a spiritual hierarchy; gives some power to people who were generally pretty lame before they joined the cult

91 “sexuality, if left unfettered, risks putting people out of control – and more importantly, out of religion’s control”

92 Celibacy gets people to commit to the guru/hierarchy rather than to lovers

102 Explicitly contra Sutric Buddhism, their view is that absolute selflessness is impossible [and, they argue later, undesirable]

103 If “control” is taboo, then actual control is exerted covertly via rights, duties, or supposed altruism (‘just doing what is best for others’)

104 Egolessness has to be a central virtue of hierarchic spirituality, because you’d be insane to surrender to someone who was self-interested. So guru has to claim to be selfless.

124 Purity orientation. Wanting to believe that someone (maybe a divine someone if not a guru) has a direct line on truth is closely connected with desire to believe that perfect purity is possible. Perfect purity is not possible, so purity orientation inevitably leads to self-mistrust. Since it’s obvious that perfect purity is not possible in the real world, religions create myth of a separate, pure, spiritual world; and this is the basis of much harm.

128ff Analysis of A Course In Miracles. Hardcore rejection of reality in favor of fantasy world of perfect purity. Total rejection of one’s own ability to reason; all actual experience is rejected as illusory.

130 A Course In Miracles is a bizarre mash-up of the nouveau sinless, guiltless Christianity with Hindu monism. This entails numerous, massive logical inconsistencies.

131 What those have in common is a renunciate morality (even if that’s covered in syrup).

132 A Course In Miracles as salvation from a divided self

133 Denying reality can make you feel better. But does this lead to a better world? No, because denying destructive, selfish tendencies does not actually make them go away. It doesn’t make death, isolation, and pain go away, either.

133–4 Maintaining denial actually requires constant surveillance of the thing you are pretending isn’t there. This deepens the internal splits that renunciation promises to heal. It requires the construction of a covert inner authoritarian to keep control over the “bad” stuff you reject. This inner tyrant is probably not strong enough to do the job on its own, so you submit to an external authority whose job is to strengthen the internal tyrant.

138 The “you create your own reality” meme requires that you totally create every aspect of it; otherwise, the question “how much control do you actually have” arises, and that’s what the meme is designed to prevent your having to confront.

139 “You create your own reality” can actually be valuable initially in getting you out of victim-think; opening you to new possibilities for action; letting go of blaming others; and in connecting you with a community of positively-oriented people instead of victims, bringing new life and energy and possibility.

141–3 Logical/philosophical problems with subjective idealism.

144 Connection of total responsibility meme with karma theories.

145 Historical origin of total responsibility theory in rejection of psychoanalytic determinism.

145 If everyone creates their own reality, your problems are not my problem; you created them, in order to teach yourself a valuable lesson. How convenient for me not to have to deal with your stuff.

145 “Why is there a lower self at all, or a higher self that needs to give the lower self a lot of painful lessons?”

146–8 More on problems with karma

149 “Control is fluid and ever-changing” [i.e. nebulous]. “to be human involves being both in control and out of control.”

149 The total responsibility stance “generates guilt and feelings of failure when reality obstinately resists the hoped-for omniscience.”

149 Total responsibility stance requires perfect causal isolation of individuals, which is untrue and attempting to live according to it is harmful

165 Moderate revision of traditional religion can’t work; if you remove renunciation, the whole structure collapses. There’s nothing much left

167 Analysis of fundamentalism as a response to the divided self. It’s motivated by fear of internal anarchy; that without external restraint, you couldn’t maintain control over evil parts of yourself, which would run amok. Fundamentalism actually deliberately makes this pattern worse, by reinforcing ideas of internal evil and undercutting self-trust.

167 Why is fundamentalist certainty appealing? Because surrender to it actually does (temporarily) end internal conflicts by tipping the internal power balance. This frees up a lot of energy, and in a social context creates powerful bonds with people who have made the same move.

168 Since the fundamentalist system is itself the highest value, it’s totally OK to violate any rules in order to protect the system. Mass murder is fine in service of the Cosmic Plan.

170 Religions have to put themselves outside of history—eternal and unchanging.

172–180 Analysis of the new-model nicey-nicey Christianity.

185ff On Satanism. Similar analysis to my black magic series on B4V.

189 “When anything is made sacred (higher), one can always justify sacrificing what is not sacred (lower) to it.”

205 “A truly whole person is one who can integrate the diversities within being human without denying any of them. Just as “good” people attempt to deny the cravings of the animal with them, satanists must deny their empathic caring aspects.”

205 Analysis of communism as a renunciate system (one sacrifices one’s individual desires to the good of The People, i.e. the state). Exceptionally clear failure of renunciate morality, because it didn’t have the excuse that cosmic justice would be enforced in the afterlife.

218 “self-centeredness must be acknowledged as a real part of being human that is ineradicable, necessary, and even valuable.”

218 “justifications for the … abuse of power … often come from a pretense that denies self-interest.” In other words, the tyrant is doing everything for the good of The People.

218–9 “Puritanism involves always trying to get better (purer) – a never-ending task without respite, given that purity is defined in a way that denies the essential worth of being human…”

219 In talking about “internal parts” there’s a danger of over-reification of them

222 Internal splitting into “goodself” and “badself”. The badself has no moral authority (unlike the goodself, which gets external reinforcement), so it has to fight for power (vs. goodself) by various devious, morally illegitimate means.

(The analysis here is similar to Bly’s Little Book On the Human Shadow.)

223 “But the goodself is not as benign as its espoused values make it seem. Authoritarianism is usually masked by lofty ideals…”

223 “often in relationships one person’s goodself can try to control another’s badself, setting off a reactive battle for control between people.”

223 “The goodself embodies both the dominant and submissive aspects of the authoritarian personality. Since it uses external authorities to bolster its power over the badself and other people, it is conditioned to submit to authorities. The goodself then is dictatorial, judgmental, structured, often a puritanical harsh taskmaster; and above all it is fearful—fearful that without always maintaining control, one’s life would unravel.”

224 “This kind of inner division usually relegates much of self-centeredness and carnality to the badself, thereby distorting and exacerbating them. It also suppresses spontaneity, creativity, and enjoyment for their own sake because these expressions often undermine the goodself’s control mechanisms.”

223 “…suppressions ensure that if what is inhibited ever does break loose, it tends to go wild. This in turn confirms the worst fears of the goodself, verifying its need to keep in control.”

223–4 “A non-fragmented person could treat guilt simply as information that a discrepancy exists between one’s values and behavior… a divided person’s goodself uses guilt as a driving mechanism to remain in control.”

224 “Work and accomplishment, and the rewards and praise they bring, are mechanisms that can keep the goodself in control.”

226 The badself is “needed human expression that does not have an adequate voice–i.e. a historically well-articulated alternate set of values capable of validating needed expressions of carnality and self-centeredness.”

(This is why tantra is so important, I think—it’s perhaps the only religion that says carnality and self-centeredness are OK and necessary and in fact positive goods much of the time.)

226 Because it has no ideological support, “the badself’s route to power is subversion, seduction, and casuistry to sabotage the goodself’s rules.”

226 “People so divided both cage themselves and reactively try to escape their cage… ‘shoulds’… guarantee a life of conflict.”

226 The badself is obviously childish in trying to get around rules, but the goodself is also far from adult.

226 “The badself exerts a powerful allure–that of spontaneity, shameless self-indulgence, cutting loose, throwing caution to the wind, and other taboo enticements, including forbidden expressions of sexuality. Breaking out of the goodself’s boundaries can release a charismatic energy that is seductive to others…”

226–7 The mythic-archetypical outlaw hero offers “an outlet for a repressed culture by igniting a safe collusion with people’s badselves. Thus society put forth a double message: “Rebellion is bad and dangerous,” on one side; and “Rebellion is not only exciting and exhilarating, it is freedom,” on the other…. The double messages society puts out … fragment its members”

227 “Groups easily form around eliciting and reinforcing either the good or badself; these alliances serves as a mechanism to bolster the control of that side.”

227 The goodself is often destructive, using “purity” as a justification. Lynch mobs, law-and-order vigilantes, theocratic oppression.

228 The goodself and badself both need each other to justify their existence, so they unconsciously collude to create conflict. Becoming aware of this is the way to defuse the hostility and eventually heal the split.

229ff Analysis of addiction as a way the badself escapes the goodself.

252 “being fragmented makes it nigh impossible to tell the difference between what one really wants and “shoulds,” which are often mistaken for true desires. Conflict, resistance, procrastination, and guilt can be indications of a divided self that acts differently than it thinks it ought.”

253 “Becoming interested in seeing the nature of the game… curiosity… a respect that acknowledges the importance of each [self] can be the beginning of a more healthy inner dialogue.”

262ff Analysis of idealized theories of love: as selfless, unconditional, immeasurable, etc. These are impossible to live up to because they deny vital, necessary, positive functions of the psyche. Attempting to live up to them messes up relationships in several predictable ways.

263–4 Unconditional love is a real experience, but it’s inherently impermanent. It occurs only in particular contexts. In the moment, the context seems irrelevant, but over time the context is crucial. Explicitly, this is similar to mystical experience, which seems timeless and unconditioned in the moment, but actually cannot be protracted and depends on all sorts of conditions. See also p. 287 on this.

265 Ideologies of love that tie it to self-sacrifice. “This fosters masochism and martyrdom”

270 “Love has an energy that breaks open the boundaries of the self, and in doing so is a connector that brings joy and meaning beyond self-enhancement.” From this one can mistakenly conclude that selflessness by itself can produce love.

273 Ideals of pure love are entirely individualistic—you supposedly can love someone purely, regardless of what they do, or any other aspects of context. Some may conclude that “the worse a relationship is, the more one can prove one’s purity and love through sacrifice.”

274 The idea that love ought to be entirely separate from power and control is wrong. That would make love “pure”; and this is the same conceptual move that separates “the spiritual” from “the mundane.” (Or “mission and materialism,” in my terms.) However, “Attempting to purify love by eliminating power does not do so, but instead makes the way power is expressed less conscious and more covertly manipulative.”

274 Dominance and submission dynamics in love and in authoritarian cults.

275 “what feels like unconditional love is really a function of a context that is conditional on submission.”

279 It’s normal for adolescents to try to escape all forms of control, but insisting on this in adulthood is to remain a perpetual adolescent. “intimacy in adult relationships contains both the exercise of power and the desire at least sometimes to control the other.”

279 Traditional roles minimize conflict by setting rules for who controls whom in what ways. As these roles break down in contemporary society, power struggles are inevitable. (p. 283: “there are no formulas”) More on this on p. 299 too.

280 “To be open to a person, the world, whatever, is to be affected by it, which means one’s feelings are somewhat out of one’s control.”

281 You can’t entirely control your emotions. The more open you are to others, the less control you have.

284 Positive values of control in an intimate relationship. Willingness to do what the other wants can take you into unknown territory and this can be transformative. “Transformation comes from the interplay of control and surrender.”

286–7 Dominance and submission; sadomasochism; addiction to abusive relationships.

288–9 In non-traditional relationships, you have to take an engineering attitude [my terminology] to “is this working”. This involves “measuring” [their terminology] which is taboo in idealized theories of love.

290 “Once self-centeredness is acknowledged as a reality, the issue becomes how to deal with it intelligently.” More on relationship engineering.

292 “Forgiveness” as an aspect of idealized love. Depending on what is meant by this, it’s often stupid and self-destructive.

292–3 Defense mechanisms are valuable; that’s why we have them. We need boundaries. You have to decide intelligently how open to be at any given time. “You should always be maximally open” is idiotic.

294 “Understanding and empathy are more valuable in softening boundaries than ideals”

294 “becoming comfortable with ambiguity, which allows more freedom to change. The difficulty is that living with such ambiguity involves being aware of one’s changing boundaries and their effects. In contrast, set boundaries need less attention…”

295ff Religious justifications for unconditional love.

301ff Chapter on “Oneness, Enlightenment, and the Mystical Experience”

303 “Traditions that made an ideology out of the concept of Oneness created a morality that denigrated or made unreal the individual self with its individual interests. Any worldview that denies either the reality or importance of the individuated self ends up defining virtue as selflessness, which is achieved through self-sacrifice. When renouncing self-interest is the spiritual path, we define the morality as renunciate. Renunciate moralities have neither eliminated nor diminished self-interest, but have often made its expression more hidden and thus corruptible.”

304–5 Nice summary of the Oneness view.

306 Hidden dualism within Oneness view: Oneness is better than, and separate from, multiplicity.

306 “If unity is valued more than diversity, the inevitable result is the attempt to get to unity by negating or in some fashion lessening the value and importance of separation.”

306–7 Spirituality seen as re-identifying with Oneness instead of your self. “This results in making people’s concerns with their own individual lives the source of all problems. In short, this is the East’s way of making self-centeredness the villain.”

309 “Creating a special category called the “enlightened state” is itself a manifestation of an accumulation mentality, becoming the ultimate goal to achieve through accumulating merit and partially enlightening experiences.”

309 “The experience of unity feels timeless, but the concept of enlightenment turns a timeless moment into an “all the time” fixed identity that continues over time.”

310 “a spiritual path from the lower to the higher”

310 “Enlightenment is the way hierarchy is brought in by viewing a few individuals as special channels for, and greater manifestations of, this underlying unity.”

313 “Denying change in the spiritual realm is basically a fundamentalist stance used to protect the sacred and tradition. But perceiving deeply is a process that is necessarily historically embedded, for each epoch has its particular illusions that must be pierced.”

314 Boundaries are necessary, even if they are semi-permeable. Trying to make sense of life while denying this just causes confusion.

318 Sacralizing Oneness makes it inevitable that sacrificing one’s self (individuality) to it will be demanded.

319 “The danger in holistic thinking lies in not giving separation an equal place”

319–321 Refuting “the total interconnectedness of everything.” Most things don’t affect most other things.

320 “Often favoring such holistic horizontal thinking has within it an anti-hierarchical political agenda” (which they don’t agree with; they think hierarchies are necessary and useful).

321 “Freedom needs some degree of separation to operate.” (So you don’t have to be causally affected by everything.)

322 Against Buddhist “interconnectedness” bullshit. This metaphysics is always timeless and nonspecific. What’s connected with what?

324 “Once unity or interconnectedness is made sacred, a category is created that is not sacred—individuals and their individual concerns.” This as a basis for renunciate moralities.

325 “renunciate religions are all based on accruing and stockpiling spiritual merit and are accumulative to the core.”

345 Monotheism supplanted polytheism partly because it had a more coherent, reliable ethical system. Tribal, poly gods do whatever they want and favor their own families; there are no principles there. Monotheistic universalist absolutism does create a basis for cross-tribal trust relationships that were important in building large diverse societies.

348–54 Another chapter on Oneness, this time as contrasted with monotheism. General analysis is that it is more abstract, and more abstract systems are more powerful. (I don’t think this is quite right.)

350 “As the most abstract of all religious concepts, Oneness is therefore the most impervious to direct challenge.”

351 “Hindu Oneness accentuates permanence and so acted as a foundation for perpetuating the caste system.”

350–1 Covert dualism in Oneness view: between sameness and difference.

351 Abstracting the sacred from nature allowed religions to denigrate the latter.

352 Hierarchies within the abstract system mirror and justify social hierarchies of priestly (and sometimes secular) power.

359 Devaluing thought leads to uncritically naive thinking, and to unconsciousness of all these dynamics

361 Earliest sacrificial systems sacrificed material objects (food e.g.) Then renunciate moralities came up with long lists of more abstract rules to follow. The final development is valorizing self-sacrifice as such, as a general way of being. This is, of course, extremely helpful to rulers.

364 Cooperation and competition are not opposed to each other; most social activities involve both, woven together in different ways.

365 “If one values cooperation over competition, then it is very easy to remain unconscious of the competitive element.” Cooperation isn’t selfless; it’s usually aimed at personal benefit.

366 “Having one’s own spiritual advancement as the focus of one’s life is totally self-absorbed”