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Women Who Sleep with Their Gurus ... and Why They Love It

http://www.wie.org/j26/women-who-sleep.asp?page=1

 

by Jessica Roemischer

 

 

 

 

“Kiss me . . . here,” he said with a thick Korean accent, pointing to his lightly pursed lips. He turned to make sure no one could see us as we stood just inside the front door of my house, out of sight of the neighbor who, only a few dozen feet from us, was making her way to the car. And in the private and highly charged space he created between us, although I had been far more physically attracted to other men in my life, I felt an intrigue and affirmation I had never before experienced.

I had met him just ten days earlier. When my turn came, I entered the serene atmosphere of the large open room in the meditation center that was sponsoring his visit. It was my first private audience with a spiritual teacher. Sitting on a raised dais bathed in the warm light of late afternoon, he exuded a quiet equanimity, a mysterious and powerful depth, and a penetrating clarity and insight that seemed to transcend the temporal confines of the present, reaching far back in time and far forward into the future. And there I was, kneeling before him, as he brought that power and wisdom to bear . . . on me.

What he proceeded to say so directly penetrated me, so thoroughly resonated with my own deepest knowing, that it seemed to meld with the very cells of my being. He read my deep past; he anticipated far ahead into my future. “You have done no harm in past lives and have no heavy karma to make up for,” he reassured me. “But now you must overcome all your fears. You have high spiritual ability and the chance to be a spiritual teacher in this life and to help many others through the spiritual practice I can give you.” Dams and locks in my psyche that I had not even been aware of suddenly opened, and I was flooded with the mysterious sense of my own karma—an overarching destiny and purpose that had shaped a long succession of lifetimes. A vast universe arose in my awareness, and with it a feeling of infinite potential. In that moment, the vacant and gnawing space I had grown used to living with since my youth was filled with inner knowing and certainty. And what had been a long-evasive spiritual possibility suddenly became real. In the presence of this one man, I found myself overwhelmed by unconditional love and the deepest peace I had ever known.

A week later, he asked if he could stay with me for a few days in the small house I occupied in the mountains of upstate New York. I had only one bedroom, I explained. But he insisted that he would sleep on the futon couch in the living room. On the second night, I was suddenly stricken with a bout of food poisoning, and from the bathroom I heard him ascending to the second floor. He told me to lie back on my bed. Through a mysterious combination of deep guttural chanting and hand movements in the air above me, he miraculously and almost instantaneously alleviated my discomfort. Then he took my hand in his. “You don't have to worry anymore, Jessie,” he assured me. “I will help you if you ever get sick. I'm the best health insurance you can have. May I lie next to you . . . here?” He motioned near my prone body. In a strange mixture of relief, flattery, and confusion, I said, “Okay.” And that was the beginning of my special connection with this powerful and charismatic shaman, yogi, and Zen master.

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“How can women be victims when we want something?” said Mary, my former women's studies professor from college, who had since become a trusted friend and confidante. Infamous for defying prevailing feminist viewpoints, she was the first person I turned to when I decided to write this article on the subject of women who have been sexually involved with their spiritual teachers. And true to form, in her one short rhetorical question, Mary upended entirely the pervasive and unchallenged image of the innocent woman fallen victim to the abuse of spiritual authority. “Enlightenment, security, spiritual power, and affirmation,” she continued. “I mean, sex is a small price to pay. And whatever the extent of the flirtation or sexual involvement, you enter this relationship of intrigue, and you're the special daughter or the special wife. You experience 'number one life,' as they say in the Asian tradition.” It was hard to argue with her logic. Indeed, as I reflected more deeply on my own past with my Korean teacher, I knew she had captured the very essence of my experience.

Now, given the many sordid and scandalous details revealed about well-known gurus during the last two decades—details of sexual excess, psychological manipulation, betrayal, and deceit—Mary's was clearly a novel and controversial perspective, one that refocused attention on the woman's active role in these relationships. “We women do have a strong and unspoken investment in seeing ourselves as victims,” I observed, “as unsuspecting agents or innocent players in an unfolding event beyond our control.” Mary agreed with me: “And that perspective has, in one form or another, become such a basic tenet of our time and culture, of our postmodern worldview, that we are often unaware of how much it has colored our perceptions at the most fundamental level. But it's time for women to go beyond that. Because if we are really honest with ourselves, in most cases, there's a lot more to the picture!”

That's exactly what I began to find as my research unfolded. As one contact led to another and I interviewed ten women who had been sexually involved with prominent and revered teachers, I discovered that this phenomenon has been more pervasive than I ever imagined. And not only that, it has been the product of age-old motivations and choices that have been surprisingly consistent as women became involved with their Hindu sages, Tibetan lamas, Indian yogis, Asian Zen masters, South American shamans, and the new generation of Western teachers who followed in these traditions. And that's not even to mention the untold numbers of rabbis, priests, ministers, and therapists.

Considering the subject in light of my past experience and what these women shared with me, and illuminated by the insights and views of a noted anthropologist, a psychologist, a well-known author, and a feminist who I also consulted, I found myself compelled by a new and liberating perspective on this sensitive and confusing issue. “Plenty of exposés of corrupt gurus have already been done,” I said to Mary in conclusion, “but what I'm really interested in is why we women almost always say yes.”

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SLEEPING WITH THE KING

“If your husband's a doctor, then you're special. If you're with Mick Jagger, you're special. If you're sleeping with your Tibetan lama, you're special. It's seen as a status symbol,” explained Catherine* over the phone one afternoon. “It gives you status, and it plays into women's sexual identity. Women identify themselves based on who they sleep with!” Having been the consort of a prominent Tibetan lama, Catherine was speaking from firsthand experience. And with this conversation, I entered headlong into a series of disarmingly candid and illuminating dialogues with women who have slept with their spiritual teachers.

“You want to align yourself with a man who has the kind of power that you want. And in this case it's dharma power!” said Annie, a student and former lover of one of the most influential Japanese Zen masters to bring the Buddha's teachings, or dharma, to the West. Another woman, Linda, told me: “It was powerful to think that I was intimately involved with the principal disciple of one of the world's great Indian yogis. He was very charismatic and he had exceptional powers that not every human being was manifesting, which confirmed my belief that there was something more in the unseen world that was possible. What attracted me to him was that so many other people were attracted to him, because when others recognize a greatness in the person you're involved with, that affirms you even more. You think, 'Well, this says a lot about me,' whether it does or it doesn't.”

Indeed, that was exactly how I had felt. My Korean teacher had been the most highly realized man I had ever encountered. He was different; he stood out. And in his presence, events unfolded with uncanny synchronicity, transmitting the sense of another dimension, an alternate and mysterious reality that intersected with the ordinary in ways that evoked the numinous world he inhabited and the spiritual powers he could manifest. Wherever we went, his penetrating and powerful presence was noticed and often drew attention. In his company, by association and physical proximity, I felt simultaneously special, protected, and spiritual.

“Women love men who are at the top and have for at least four million years, and they continue to everywhere in the world,” explained anthropologist and author Dr. Helen Fisher, her evolutionary view on sexual attraction providing a refreshing and vast perspective on the most intimate realm of human experience. “In a study of thirty-seven societies, it's been established that women are attracted to men who have status, power, education, and resources. I think it's a brain mechanism, a brain appetite or tendency that has developed because a man who has status, class, education, and influence is more likely to be able to provide for children. So women have inherited a biological taste for what in anthropology we call 'big men.' And if a woman is looking for spiritual guidance, the spiritual teacher is the one with all the resources.”

In the case of my own teacher, I had never met a man who was so well equipped to fulfill both my spiritual longing and my longing for security. For some mysterious and inscrutable reason, which only he seemed to fully comprehend, this great shaman and Zen master had felt obligated to take care of me, to shepherd me to the distant lands of my own spiritual potential and safeguard me throughout the journey, conveying to me a divine possibility and a deep security beyond anything I had ever experienced. “I am protecting you with my aura,” he told me a few months after we met. “And because you are physically protected, you can relax and trust, and this will accelerate your spiritual progress.”

Annie, now a Buddhist teacher herself, spoke about how women's spiritual search has been intermixed with our age-old craving for security, position, and influence. Echoing Dr. Fisher's view, she said, “A woman who wanted to be safe and secure, let's say in caveman times, would match up with a man who could provide her with that security. Even though this is the modern era, these are very atavistic, very, very ancient forces at work here. And though I hate to admit it,” she continued, reflecting on her relationship with her Japanese Zen master, “I'm sure I was getting off on being powerful. I was the one sleeping with the teacher. That was the ego part—it was a feather in my cap. On some level, I'm sure I thought I was hot stuff.”

For women on the spiritual path, a relationship with our teacher adds an additional and ultimately compelling element to the long-standing benefits of becoming sexually involved with a powerful and influential man: spiritual enlightenment. “He deeply acknowledged the spiritual capacity that I knew existed,” said Leslie, who was in a relationship with a prominent American spiritual teacher. “So I thought, 'Wow, I can have this all together in one package: mentor, lover, father.' I knew he favored women who were attractive, and that boosted whatever image I had about myself. All the attention made me feel special, like Radha—a spiritual goddess. I mean, this teacher had power; he had money. He was charismatic, and if you were the woman at his side, that had to mean something about you as well.”

In one of the first and most notable studies of sexual transgression between women and their teachers, doctors, or therapists—Sex in the Forbidden Zone—author and psychiatrist Peter Rutter writes, “When a woman meets a man—as mentor, healer, protector—who has the connection to the world at large that she yearns for, all that she might become is for a moment in his hands.” He describes how all the women he spoke with for the book “felt they acceded to sex as a way of maintaining a relationship that had come to have extraordinary importance in their lives and seemed to them to open up new and boundless possibilities for the future.” When I spoke with him one afternoon, he elaborated: “What this means is to have your future potential recognized, as well as your specialness as a human being. You know, it's really, really powerful stuff. And so the male mentor holds this, and he's using personal, social, and transpersonal power.”

The experience of that transpersonal, transcendent power in the presence of a spiritual mentor was evocatively described by Diane, who had sexual relationships with a number of her teachers: “When you are in the presence of someone with a very, very deep connection to Source, God, whatever you want to call it, and you have something inside yourself that you're trying to get to, and you see it there in front of you, you're like a kid with candy. You want to taste it at a depth that you don't believe you have yourself. And God, you want more and more of it!”

Bestselling author, columnist, and former executive director of McCall's magazine Dalma Heyn told me: “While women have historically chosen 'alpha males' for pleasure because they were most likely to deliver it in all its myriad forms—sex, power, money, children, and esteem in the community—in the spiritual context, you're talking about a man who has been elevated in her consciousness to the highest realm. My analogy is of a king, but a king who has a god in him, the spiritual king. He's not only a great guy, he's not only wonderful and smart, but he'll take care of her spiritual life. Good Lord. I mean, that's the sexiest possible alpha male there is!”

 

 

HOLDING THE CARDS

Security, specialness, and enlightenment—we've been more than willing to use our attractiveness and sexuality to procure these. And the more women I spoke with, the more I realized that while our teachers may have been the ones to initiate the relationships, we women harbor a deeply ingrained, age-old understanding that our attractiveness, in whatever form it takes, gives us the power to control and manifest outcomes—something we bring to the spiritual path a priori, and often unconsciously. Simply put, we know that there is an inherent power in being the ones who can say “Yes.”

Dr. Fisher illuminated the biological and anthropological reasons why women are able to exert such extraordinary influence and control through sexuality. “There's no question that women have an enormous amount of sexual power,” she said, “because they are the custodians of the egg, and take nine months to bear a baby. And they are the primary caretakers of the very young in every culture in the world. So women are exceedingly valuable, because they are the ones who will rear a man's DNA. As a result, around the world people tend to regard women as the giver of sex. The woman bestows the gift, and the man gets the gift if he plays his hand right. But she holds the cards.”

In her book, Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women, Christina Hoff Sommers critiques some of the overarching feminist viewpoints that have emerged during the last twenty or thirty years—particularly the view that women are, by and large, victims of male abuse and exploitation. From that perspective, she concurred with Dr. Fisher: “Human psychology is just too complicated to be reduced to a simple power differential: woman equals victim equals oppressed. While it's true that the mentors have power,” she said, “women have their own power to attract the mentor. So as much as there's the mentor-student dynamic, there's the male-female dynamic, where there's known to be attraction. And for a woman, being young and beautiful is charismatic, as being older and powerful and wise is for a man. So both parties bring their attractions to the relationship, and it's uncertain who has more power.”

In fact, many of the women I spoke with clearly articulated an awareness of their own sexual power and the ability they knew they had to attract men. “I think we all grow up with strategies that we've learned for feeling safe and secure in the world, and special,” said Annie. “If you're born attractive, then you learn to use your femininity as a way of getting what you want. I was reasonably attractive and bright, and I knew from fairly early on that if there was someone who I really wanted to fall in love with me, I could bring it about. I'm very adaptable, and I knew how to match energies with people and adapt to a situation, so it wasn't hard to make my dharma instructor fall in love with me.”

“In my case,” said Diane, “I have to tell you, there were several teachers, and all of them were different. I think the Buddhist was somewhat innocent, and to some degree, he knew his power. But he was also curious, because somewhere I pushed buttons in him. He wasn't a sexual being, and I helped him out with that. At the same time, he helped me spiritually. So, who do you blame? Of course, what it comes down to can be an abuse of power, absolutely, and it is up to the teacher to draw that line. And while I really do believe it is the teacher's responsibility to act appropriately, I think that as adults we all have a responsibility for our actions. I mean, he's human, too, right? And here's this young, little twenty-four-year-old babe-ette . . . What are you supposed to do? Really!”

If we're honest with ourselves, seductiveness is second nature to women, and we begin cultivating our ability to attract surprisingly early in life. Some of my earliest, most vivid memories of attraction and seduction, at age fourteen, resulted in my first kiss—with the twenty-six-year-old handyman who took care of our home, shared my love of music, was physically desirable, and was older and experienced. And while it is true that he approached me, in a timeless moment I can remember like it was yesterday, what I now realize is that for months prior to that, I had been deeply intent upon him. I expressed that intent in a myriad of ways—from making sure I bumped into him in whatever corner of the house he was working to sitting at the piano and playing melodies into the stillness of the afternoon, knowing he would hear them. At that young age, and even earlier, I instinctively knew how to pull him toward me, the way a young kitten instinctively knows how to hunt its prey—that deep impulse having been preprogrammed into the very structure of its cells and psyche. The fact that it didn't lead much further than that kiss, I now see in retrospect, was ultimately due to his discretion rather than mine.

“There's power in female sexuality, and women have been aware of this and used it to their advantage, although we hard-line feminists always want to say to our disadvantage,” said Sommers. “But that is disrespectful of women, and it understates reality. Because in love affairs, first and foremost there is a man and a woman. And then there's the status and the background of the people, which also come into play. But fundamentally, you have two people. Of course, we're talking about a woman who is an adult. I'm not talking about a girl who is underage—that's a totally different situation—but a woman who is eighteen or twenty-one. I think she has to be viewed as a responsible moral agent making choices, because to view her as passive, easily manipulated, and exploited is to assume that she is somehow helpless and weak and ineffective as a human being. I do find that patronizing. We should not tell young women that that's always the scenario when they may know deep down inside that it's something quite different. So I'm really arguing against a one-size-fits-all approach to evaluating love affairs between spiritual mentors and students. I think that there's a lot more going on that has to be sorted out, and it could very easily turn out that the woman held most of the cards.”

Women's strong attraction to influential men can sometimes lead them to circumvent what would ordinarily be considered taboos to intimate relationship, including great disparities in age. Recounting the sexual relationship with her eighty-four-year-old teacher, Linda told me, “I was eighteen at the time, and although he was pretty vital as far as physical relationships go, it was not nearly as wonderful as those I'd had before or have had since. But it served the purpose of making me feel special and affirmed. In fact, over time the relationship actually became a kind of obsession. I felt that I got a spiritual power from being with him. And actually, he asked me to legally become a vice president of the organization.”

Indeed, a woman elevated to the highest status in a spiritual community through a sexual relationship with the teacher can reap the benefits of being most favored, most powerful, and most spiritual. As Heyn acknowledged, “That's the prize in that community, and I think that it's the most compelling possible situation a woman could be placed in.” June Campbell, author of Traveller in Space, has spoken openly about her experience as the sexual consort of one of the most renowned Tibetan teachers to come to the West, a yogi-lama who was purportedly celibate and whose holiness was widely recognized and revered. When asked in an interview in 1999 what motivated her to perpetuate the relationship for a number of years, she replied, “Personal prestige. The women believe they too are special and holy. They are entering sacred space. It produces good karma for future lives and is a test of faith.” As Dr. Fisher concluded, “[sex] has always been an extremely powerful tool that women have, not just in the spiritual world, but in the business world, the academic world. I mean, think of the wife of the President of the United States—she didn't get there by election!”

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WOMEN'S LIBERATION

“Whatever did happen between you and your Korean teacher?” my friend Mary asked me one afternoon. “Well,” I said, “in those first months with him, during his occasional trips to the United States, he would visit me and sleep with me in my bed, and we'd just hold hands . . . and occasionally kiss. But at a certain point, he seemed to catch himself. During one of his visits in the early stages of the relationship, he said he thought it would be better if he slept on the couch in the living room. That's it—that's all that ever happened.” “Really?!” she responded with surprise. “It's true,” I said. “And knowing that he had made a clear decision to uphold his role as monk and teacher, something suddenly dropped away, and I was left with myself, and with the question of whether or not I really wanted enlightenment for its own sake.” “If he had asked you to have a sexual relationship with him, do you think you would have gone for it?” she pressed. “Well, Mary, given what I wanted at the time, I can say quite confidently that if he had proposed it, there's no doubt that, like all the women I've spoken with recently, I would have said yes.”

Guru and disciple, man and woman, sex and spirituality, revelation and romance—as was clearly evident from my own reflections, and from speaking with so many other women about their experiences, it's been all too easy to get our circuits crossed. Annie, from her viewpoint as a teacher, shared her understanding of how our yearning for transcendence can be confused with the attraction to sexual intimacy. “You're seeking several things,” she said. “You're seeking to be seen and known to the bottom of your being and to be accepted as you are. And you're also seeking to transcend who you are as an individual and merge in the only place that true merging is possible, which is in the universal mind, in the universal awareness, where complete intimacy is possible with all things. But we tend to mistake that for the only kind of intimacy we have experienced, which is sexual intimacy.”

The confusion between spiritual aspiration and sexual attraction has a physical origin as well. According to Dr. Fisher, who has been doing extensive groundbreaking research on the brain chemistry associated with romantic love, the universal human experience of romance relates to certain brain circuits linked to heightened energy and motivation and a craving to win a particular mating partner. And Fisher conjectures that those same brain circuits are also activated in spiritual experience. “I think it's the same dopamine circuits in the brain, because you can feel real elation, energy, and focused attention.”

While it may be hard for a woman to discriminate between a spiritual and a sexual impulse, particularly in the presence of a powerful spiritual teacher, must a woman necessarily default to her more primitive instincts if that teacher's motives prove to be corrupt? Is it true that, as Heyn says, when the teacher “doesn't help her with reaching for her higher good, doesn't allow her to sift through her socially constructed impulses in order to reach her 'freedom impulses,' she's bound to fall back on older, less-evolved 'desires'”?

Certainly, if a spiritual teacher transgresses ethical boundaries, it's far more difficult for a female student to make her way through the confusing maze of her biological and social conditioning toward real spiritual freedom. And yet, something does seem to be evolving in women's consciousness. These ten women were surprisingly willing to speak about their sexual relationships with their spiritual teachers—in many cases, for the first time. And even more significantly, they often expressed a liberated interest in seeing the choices they had made in a new way, increasingly free from the limiting notions of victimhood. “We're looking to awaken the Buddha within us,” a woman named Maryann explained, reflecting on the long-standing sexual involvement she had with a prominent Tibetan lama, “but this unconscious push to follow what we've been deeply conditioned to pursue is something we're just beginning to become conscious of. I think spiritual women really need to think about their lives and what's most important and then take responsibility for everything they do.”

“Suppose you have a spiritual mentor,” Sommers said. “He's celibate, and you get into this kind of situation because you trust him. Then he makes a pass at you. An autonomous, independent woman would just tell him, 'No,' and walk out. That can be done. We're not talking about rape—we're talking about something else, because she wants to enter a relationship. So I do think it's very different from saying he exploited her. I think they exploit each other in a situation like that.” Diane concurred, reflecting on her many relationships with her teachers: “When you have a thirst for God and a teacher has a thirst for God, there's an opening between you. But boy, you don't want to create karma!”

“I believe that nearly every woman who is ready to work at it can act with equal power to men in determining how they will treat her at the sexual boundary,” Peter Rutter told me. “And in my very sad experience,” he continued, “sexual enactment in a mentor-student relationship, although it's a natural temptation, will destroy what you came for, and it could set you back a decade or two in your seeking. When you add the possibility that the woman may eventually, if all goes well, ascend to an equal status in the spiritual tradition, that raises the ante on spiritual transformation. Not only is there the possibility of transforming one's own personal wounds or personal limitations, but there's the new possibility of women rising in the culture to a position of equality with men. And that makes the stakes of the spiritual relationship even higher for women.”

“Young women today are the freest generation of women in history,” Sommers said, “with more opportunities and higher aspirations. To tell them they're the underdogs, to tell them they are victims, to impose on them this grim philosophy that was appropriate for an era long gone by, is wrong. They should have a sense of their power, and of what they can accomplish, and finally, a sense of ethical philosophy—they should be morally grounded. Far more women are now becoming spiritual mentors themselves. We'll probably begin to see young men falling in love with their mentors, creating a sort of moral paradox.”

“The whole evolution of humanity,” said Dr. Fisher, “has been the evolution of the prefrontal cortex—that's the part of your brain right behind your forehead. It's the part of the brain with which we do our rational thinking, and it's connected to many brain areas. You can control anger. It's hard to control jealousy, but you can slowly get over it. You can control fear. We're an animal that assembles data, puts it into patterns, weighs the alternatives, and makes decisions about our lives. So we are capable of rising above biology.”

“Wouldn't it be liberating for women not to carry around with them this sense of having been ruthlessly exploited, and to understand that they got involved in a fairly familiar dynamic that goes back to the beginning of time?” Sommers commented. “It just might make it a lot easier to get over it. I mean, it's not surprising. It's politically incorrect to say this, but it's so anthropologically predictable!”

All this being said, many would still disagree. In fact, the prevailing feminist view of women as fundamentally disenfranchised and unable to fully assert themselves is so ingrained in both men and women that it is often unconscious, and it is reflected throughout contemporary life, from college campuses to public policy to pop culture. Heyn suggests that we shouldn't oblige a woman to take the higher ground, because “if we do, we're just adding huge freight to the culture's already impossibly high moral expectations of women.” But why can't we expect women to be able to take responsibility for their own personal and spiritual lives, even in the face of a corrupt spiritual teacher? As Sommers said, “If you take away from women the idea that they are moral agents responsible for their behavior, you diminish them as human beings.” Granted, it is a tall order. It's edgy. It's demanding. In fact, according to Sommers, it's nothing less than a leap to a new “third stage” of feminism.

But many of us women have never been in a better position to make that leap. We have unprecedented freedom to opt for our higher good, for the higher good, having reaped the benefits of the first two stages of feminism—the first of which gave us equal rights, and the second of which gave us a deeper understanding of the truth of women's victimization at the hands of men. Women now have the freedom to go beyond instinct, beyond social and biological conditioning, a freedom that comes from seeing our deepest drives, motivations, and impulses in a vast anthropological and evolutionary context. In that, we can reach for a higher morality that doesn't bind us but rather frees us and that we can now embrace in light of a genuinely new possibility. That possibility is a new women's liberation born of taking responsibility for our spiritual journey beyond self-serving desires, facing directly and honestly into what we have brought to the situation, and consciously disengaging the age-old structures that no longer serve us. And who knows what effect this kind of autonomy and independence will have on men, including spiritual men and mentors? As poet and social critic Matthew Arnold said more than 150 years ago, “If ever the world sees a time when women shall come together purely and simply for the benefit and good of humankind, it will be a power such as the world has never known.”http://www.wie.org/j26/women-who-sleep.asp?page=5

 

 

 

 

 

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Women Who Sleep with Their Gurus ... and Why They Love It

http://www.wie.org/j26/women-who-sleep.asp?page=1

 

by Jessica Roemischer

 

 

 

 

“Kiss me . . . here,” he said with a thick Korean accent, pointing to his lightly pursed lips. He turned to make sure no one could see us as we stood just inside the front door of my house, out of sight of the neighbor who, only a few dozen feet from us, was making her way to the car. And in the private and highly charged space he created between us, although I had been far more physically attracted to other men in my life, I felt an intrigue and affirmation I had never before experienced.

I had met him just ten days earlier. When my turn came, I entered the serene atmosphere of the large open room in the meditation center that was sponsoring his visit. It was my first private audience with a spiritual teacher. Sitting on a raised dais bathed in the warm light of late afternoon, he exuded a quiet equanimity, a mysterious and powerful depth, and a penetrating clarity and insight that seemed to transcend the temporal confines of the present, reaching far back in time and far forward into the future. And there I was, kneeling before him, as he brought that power and wisdom to bear . . . on me.

What he proceeded to say so directly penetrated me, so thoroughly resonated with my own deepest knowing, that it seemed to meld with the very cells of my being. He read my deep past; he anticipated far ahead into my future. “You have done no harm in past lives and have no heavy karma to make up for,” he reassured me. “But now you must overcome all your fears. You have high spiritual ability and the chance to be a spiritual teacher in this life and to help many others through the spiritual practice I can give you.” Dams and locks in my psyche that I had not even been aware of suddenly opened, and I was flooded with the mysterious sense of my own karma—an overarching destiny and purpose that had shaped a long succession of lifetimes. A vast universe arose in my awareness, and with it a feeling of infinite potential. In that moment, the vacant and gnawing space I had grown used to living with since my youth was filled with inner knowing and certainty. And what had been a long-evasive spiritual possibility suddenly became real. In the presence of this one man, I found myself overwhelmed by unconditional love and the deepest peace I had ever known.

A week later, he asked if he could stay with me for a few days in the small house I occupied in the mountains of upstate New York. I had only one bedroom, I explained. But he insisted that he would sleep on the futon couch in the living room. On the second night, I was suddenly stricken with a bout of food poisoning, and from the bathroom I heard him ascending to the second floor. He told me to lie back on my bed. Through a mysterious combination of deep guttural chanting and hand movements in the air above me, he miraculously and almost instantaneously alleviated my discomfort. Then he took my hand in his. “You don't have to worry anymore, Jessie,” he assured me. “I will help you if you ever get sick. I'm the best health insurance you can have. May I lie next to you . . . here?” He motioned near my prone body. In a strange mixture of relief, flattery, and confusion, I said, “Okay.” And that was the beginning of my special connection with this powerful and charismatic shaman, yogi, and Zen master.

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“How can women be victims when we want something?” said Mary, my former women's studies professor from college, who had since become a trusted friend and confidante. Infamous for defying prevailing feminist viewpoints, she was the first person I turned to when I decided to write this article on the subject of women who have been sexually involved with their spiritual teachers. And true to form, in her one short rhetorical question, Mary upended entirely the pervasive and unchallenged image of the innocent woman fallen victim to the abuse of spiritual authority. “Enlightenment, security, spiritual power, and affirmation,” she continued. “I mean, sex is a small price to pay. And whatever the extent of the flirtation or sexual involvement, you enter this relationship of intrigue, and you're the special daughter or the special wife. You experience 'number one life,' as they say in the Asian tradition.” It was hard to argue with her logic. Indeed, as I reflected more deeply on my own past with my Korean teacher, I knew she had captured the very essence of my experience.

Now, given the many sordid and scandalous details revealed about well-known gurus during the last two decades—details of sexual excess, psychological manipulation, betrayal, and deceit—Mary's was clearly a novel and controversial perspective, one that refocused attention on the woman's active role in these relationships. “We women do have a strong and unspoken investment in seeing ourselves as victims,” I observed, “as unsuspecting agents or innocent players in an unfolding event beyond our control.” Mary agreed with me: “And that perspective has, in one form or another, become such a basic tenet of our time and culture, of our postmodern worldview, that we are often unaware of how much it has colored our perceptions at the most fundamental level. But it's time for women to go beyond that. Because if we are really honest with ourselves, in most cases, there's a lot more to the picture!”

That's exactly what I began to find as my research unfolded. As one contact led to another and I interviewed ten women who had been sexually involved with prominent and revered teachers, I discovered that this phenomenon has been more pervasive than I ever imagined. And not only that, it has been the product of age-old motivations and choices that have been surprisingly consistent as women became involved with their Hindu sages, Tibetan lamas, Indian yogis, Asian Zen masters, South American shamans, and the new generation of Western teachers who followed in these traditions. And that's not even to mention the untold numbers of rabbis, priests, ministers, and therapists.

Considering the subject in light of my past experience and what these women shared with me, and illuminated by the insights and views of a noted anthropologist, a psychologist, a well-known author, and a feminist who I also consulted, I found myself compelled by a new and liberating perspective on this sensitive and confusing issue. “Plenty of exposés of corrupt gurus have already been done,” I said to Mary in conclusion, “but what I'm really interested in is why we women almost always say yes.”

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SLEEPING WITH THE KING

“If your husband's a doctor, then you're special. If you're with Mick Jagger, you're special. If you're sleeping with your Tibetan lama, you're special. It's seen as a status symbol,” explained Catherine* over the phone one afternoon. “It gives you status, and it plays into women's sexual identity. Women identify themselves based on who they sleep with!” Having been the consort of a prominent Tibetan lama, Catherine was speaking from firsthand experience. And with this conversation, I entered headlong into a series of disarmingly candid and illuminating dialogues with women who have slept with their spiritual teachers.

“You want to align yourself with a man who has the kind of power that you want. And in this case it's dharma power!” said Annie, a student and former lover of one of the most influential Japanese Zen masters to bring the Buddha's teachings, or dharma, to the West. Another woman, Linda, told me: “It was powerful to think that I was intimately involved with the principal disciple of one of the world's great Indian yogis. He was very charismatic and he had exceptional powers that not every human being was manifesting, which confirmed my belief that there was something more in the unseen world that was possible. What attracted me to him was that so many other people were attracted to him, because when others recognize a greatness in the person you're involved with, that affirms you even more. You think, 'Well, this says a lot about me,' whether it does or it doesn't.”

Indeed, that was exactly how I had felt. My Korean teacher had been the most highly realized man I had ever encountered. He was different; he stood out. And in his presence, events unfolded with uncanny synchronicity, transmitting the sense of another dimension, an alternate and mysterious reality that intersected with the ordinary in ways that evoked the numinous world he inhabited and the spiritual powers he could manifest. Wherever we went, his penetrating and powerful presence was noticed and often drew attention. In his company, by association and physical proximity, I felt simultaneously special, protected, and spiritual.

“Women love men who are at the top and have for at least four million years, and they continue to everywhere in the world,” explained anthropologist and author Dr. Helen Fisher, her evolutionary view on sexual attraction providing a refreshing and vast perspective on the most intimate realm of human experience. “In a study of thirty-seven societies, it's been established that women are attracted to men who have status, power, education, and resources. I think it's a brain mechanism, a brain appetite or tendency that has developed because a man who has status, class, education, and influence is more likely to be able to provide for children. So women have inherited a biological taste for what in anthropology we call 'big men.' And if a woman is looking for spiritual guidance, the spiritual teacher is the one with all the resources.”

In the case of my own teacher, I had never met a man who was so well equipped to fulfill both my spiritual longing and my longing for security. For some mysterious and inscrutable reason, which only he seemed to fully comprehend, this great shaman and Zen master had felt obligated to take care of me, to shepherd me to the distant lands of my own spiritual potential and safeguard me throughout the journey, conveying to me a divine possibility and a deep security beyond anything I had ever experienced. “I am protecting you with my aura,” he told me a few months after we met. “And because you are physically protected, you can relax and trust, and this will accelerate your spiritual progress.”

Annie, now a Buddhist teacher herself, spoke about how women's spiritual search has been intermixed with our age-old craving for security, position, and influence. Echoing Dr. Fisher's view, she said, “A woman who wanted to be safe and secure, let's say in caveman times, would match up with a man who could provide her with that security. Even though this is the modern era, these are very atavistic, very, very ancient forces at work here. And though I hate to admit it,” she continued, reflecting on her relationship with her Japanese Zen master, “I'm sure I was getting off on being powerful. I was the one sleeping with the teacher. That was the ego part—it was a feather in my cap. On some level, I'm sure I thought I was hot stuff.”

For women on the spiritual path, a relationship with our teacher adds an additional and ultimately compelling element to the long-standing benefits of becoming sexually involved with a powerful and influential man: spiritual enlightenment. “He deeply acknowledged the spiritual capacity that I knew existed,” said Leslie, who was in a relationship with a prominent American spiritual teacher. “So I thought, 'Wow, I can have this all together in one package: mentor, lover, father.' I knew he favored women who were attractive, and that boosted whatever image I had about myself. All the attention made me feel special, like Radha—a spiritual goddess. I mean, this teacher had power; he had money. He was charismatic, and if you were the woman at his side, that had to mean something about you as well.”

In one of the first and most notable studies of sexual transgression between women and their teachers, doctors, or therapists—Sex in the Forbidden Zone—author and psychiatrist Peter Rutter writes, “When a woman meets a man—as mentor, healer, protector—who has the connection to the world at large that she yearns for, all that she might become is for a moment in his hands.” He describes how all the women he spoke with for the book “felt they acceded to sex as a way of maintaining a relationship that had come to have extraordinary importance in their lives and seemed to them to open up new and boundless possibilities for the future.” When I spoke with him one afternoon, he elaborated: “What this means is to have your future potential recognized, as well as your specialness as a human being. You know, it's really, really powerful stuff. And so the male mentor holds this, and he's using personal, social, and transpersonal power.”

The experience of that transpersonal, transcendent power in the presence of a spiritual mentor was evocatively described by Diane, who had sexual relationships with a number of her teachers: “When you are in the presence of someone with a very, very deep connection to Source, God, whatever you want to call it, and you have something inside yourself that you're trying to get to, and you see it there in front of you, you're like a kid with candy. You want to taste it at a depth that you don't believe you have yourself. And God, you want more and more of it!”

Bestselling author, columnist, and former executive director of McCall's magazine Dalma Heyn told me: “While women have historically chosen 'alpha males' for pleasure because they were most likely to deliver it in all its myriad forms—sex, power, money, children, and esteem in the community—in the spiritual context, you're talking about a man who has been elevated in her consciousness to the highest realm. My analogy is of a king, but a king who has a god in him, the spiritual king. He's not only a great guy, he's not only wonderful and smart, but he'll take care of her spiritual life. Good Lord. I mean, that's the sexiest possible alpha male there is!”

 

 

HOLDING THE CARDS

Security, specialness, and enlightenment—we've been more than willing to use our attractiveness and sexuality to procure these. And the more women I spoke with, the more I realized that while our teachers may have been the ones to initiate the relationships, we women harbor a deeply ingrained, age-old understanding that our attractiveness, in whatever form it takes, gives us the power to control and manifest outcomes—something we bring to the spiritual path a priori, and often unconsciously. Simply put, we know that there is an inherent power in being the ones who can say “Yes.”

Dr. Fisher illuminated the biological and anthropological reasons why women are able to exert such extraordinary influence and control through sexuality. “There's no question that women have an enormous amount of sexual power,” she said, “because they are the custodians of the egg, and take nine months to bear a baby. And they are the primary caretakers of the very young in every culture in the world. So women are exceedingly valuable, because they are the ones who will rear a man's DNA. As a result, around the world people tend to regard women as the giver of sex. The woman bestows the gift, and the man gets the gift if he plays his hand right. But she holds the cards.”

In her book, Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women, Christina Hoff Sommers critiques some of the overarching feminist viewpoints that have emerged during the last twenty or thirty years—particularly the view that women are, by and large, victims of male abuse and exploitation. From that perspective, she concurred with Dr. Fisher: “Human psychology is just too complicated to be reduced to a simple power differential: woman equals victim equals oppressed. While it's true that the mentors have power,” she said, “women have their own power to attract the mentor. So as much as there's the mentor-student dynamic, there's the male-female dynamic, where there's known to be attraction. And for a woman, being young and beautiful is charismatic, as being older and powerful and wise is for a man. So both parties bring their attractions to the relationship, and it's uncertain who has more power.”

In fact, many of the women I spoke with clearly articulated an awareness of their own sexual power and the ability they knew they had to attract men. “I think we all grow up with strategies that we've learned for feeling safe and secure in the world, and special,” said Annie. “If you're born attractive, then you learn to use your femininity as a way of getting what you want. I was reasonably attractive and bright, and I knew from fairly early on that if there was someone who I really wanted to fall in love with me, I could bring it about. I'm very adaptable, and I knew how to match energies with people and adapt to a situation, so it wasn't hard to make my dharma instructor fall in love with me.”

“In my case,” said Diane, “I have to tell you, there were several teachers, and all of them were different. I think the Buddhist was somewhat innocent, and to some degree, he knew his power. But he was also curious, because somewhere I pushed buttons in him. He wasn't a sexual being, and I helped him out with that. At the same time, he helped me spiritually. So, who do you blame? Of course, what it comes down to can be an abuse of power, absolutely, and it is up to the teacher to draw that line. And while I really do believe it is the teacher's responsibility to act appropriately, I think that as adults we all have a responsibility for our actions. I mean, he's human, too, right? And here's this young, little twenty-four-year-old babe-ette . . . What are you supposed to do? Really!”

If we're honest with ourselves, seductiveness is second nature to women, and we begin cultivating our ability to attract surprisingly early in life. Some of my earliest, most vivid memories of attraction and seduction, at age fourteen, resulted in my first kiss—with the twenty-six-year-old handyman who took care of our home, shared my love of music, was physically desirable, and was older and experienced. And while it is true that he approached me, in a timeless moment I can remember like it was yesterday, what I now realize is that for months prior to that, I had been deeply intent upon him. I expressed that intent in a myriad of ways—from making sure I bumped into him in whatever corner of the house he was working to sitting at the piano and playing melodies into the stillness of the afternoon, knowing he would hear them. At that young age, and even earlier, I instinctively knew how to pull him toward me, the way a young kitten instinctively knows how to hunt its prey—that deep impulse having been preprogrammed into the very structure of its cells and psyche. The fact that it didn't lead much further than that kiss, I now see in retrospect, was ultimately due to his discretion rather than mine.

“There's power in female sexuality, and women have been aware of this and used it to their advantage, although we hard-line feminists always want to say to our disadvantage,” said Sommers. “But that is disrespectful of women, and it understates reality. Because in love affairs, first and foremost there is a man and a woman. And then there's the status and the background of the people, which also come into play. But fundamentally, you have two people. Of course, we're talking about a woman who is an adult. I'm not talking about a girl who is underage—that's a totally different situation—but a woman who is eighteen or twenty-one. I think she has to be viewed as a responsible moral agent making choices, because to view her as passive, easily manipulated, and exploited is to assume that she is somehow helpless and weak and ineffective as a human being. I do find that patronizing. We should not tell young women that that's always the scenario when they may know deep down inside that it's something quite different. So I'm really arguing against a one-size-fits-all approach to evaluating love affairs between spiritual mentors and students. I think that there's a lot more going on that has to be sorted out, and it could very easily turn out that the woman held most of the cards.”

Women's strong attraction to influential men can sometimes lead them to circumvent what would ordinarily be considered taboos to intimate relationship, including great disparities in age. Recounting the sexual relationship with her eighty-four-year-old teacher, Linda told me, “I was eighteen at the time, and although he was pretty vital as far as physical relationships go, it was not nearly as wonderful as those I'd had before or have had since. But it served the purpose of making me feel special and affirmed. In fact, over time the relationship actually became a kind of obsession. I felt that I got a spiritual power from being with him. And actually, he asked me to legally become a vice president of the organization.”

Indeed, a woman elevated to the highest status in a spiritual community through a sexual relationship with the teacher can reap the benefits of being most favored, most powerful, and most spiritual. As Heyn acknowledged, “That's the prize in that community, and I think that it's the most compelling possible situation a woman could be placed in.” June Campbell, author of Traveller in Space, has spoken openly about her experience as the sexual consort of one of the most renowned Tibetan teachers to come to the West, a yogi-lama who was purportedly celibate and whose holiness was widely recognized and revered. When asked in an interview in 1999 what motivated her to perpetuate the relationship for a number of years, she replied, “Personal prestige. The women believe they too are special and holy. They are entering sacred space. It produces good karma for future lives and is a test of faith.” As Dr. Fisher concluded, “[sex] has always been an extremely powerful tool that women have, not just in the spiritual world, but in the business world, the academic world. I mean, think of the wife of the President of the United States—she didn't get there by election!”

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WOMEN'S LIBERATION

“Whatever did happen between you and your Korean teacher?” my friend Mary asked me one afternoon. “Well,” I said, “in those first months with him, during his occasional trips to the United States, he would visit me and sleep with me in my bed, and we'd just hold hands . . . and occasionally kiss. But at a certain point, he seemed to catch himself. During one of his visits in the early stages of the relationship, he said he thought it would be better if he slept on the couch in the living room. That's it—that's all that ever happened.” “Really?!” she responded with surprise. “It's true,” I said. “And knowing that he had made a clear decision to uphold his role as monk and teacher, something suddenly dropped away, and I was left with myself, and with the question of whether or not I really wanted enlightenment for its own sake.” “If he had asked you to have a sexual relationship with him, do you think you would have gone for it?” she pressed. “Well, Mary, given what I wanted at the time, I can say quite confidently that if he had proposed it, there's no doubt that, like all the women I've spoken with recently, I would have said yes.”

Guru and disciple, man and woman, sex and spirituality, revelation and romance—as was clearly evident from my own reflections, and from speaking with so many other women about their experiences, it's been all too easy to get our circuits crossed. Annie, from her viewpoint as a teacher, shared her understanding of how our yearning for transcendence can be confused with the attraction to sexual intimacy. “You're seeking several things,” she said. “You're seeking to be seen and known to the bottom of your being and to be accepted as you are. And you're also seeking to transcend who you are as an individual and merge in the only place that true merging is possible, which is in the universal mind, in the universal awareness, where complete intimacy is possible with all things. But we tend to mistake that for the only kind of intimacy we have experienced, which is sexual intimacy.”

The confusion between spiritual aspiration and sexual attraction has a physical origin as well. According to Dr. Fisher, who has been doing extensive groundbreaking research on the brain chemistry associated with romantic love, the universal human experience of romance relates to certain brain circuits linked to heightened energy and motivation and a craving to win a particular mating partner. And Fisher conjectures that those same brain circuits are also activated in spiritual experience. “I think it's the same dopamine circuits in the brain, because you can feel real elation, energy, and focused attention.”

While it may be hard for a woman to discriminate between a spiritual and a sexual impulse, particularly in the presence of a powerful spiritual teacher, must a woman necessarily default to her more primitive instincts if that teacher's motives prove to be corrupt? Is it true that, as Heyn says, when the teacher “doesn't help her with reaching for her higher good, doesn't allow her to sift through her socially constructed impulses in order to reach her 'freedom impulses,' she's bound to fall back on older, less-evolved 'desires'”?

Certainly, if a spiritual teacher transgresses ethical boundaries, it's far more difficult for a female student to make her way through the confusing maze of her biological and social conditioning toward real spiritual freedom. And yet, something does seem to be evolving in women's consciousness. These ten women were surprisingly willing to speak about their sexual relationships with their spiritual teachers—in many cases, for the first time. And even more significantly, they often expressed a liberated interest in seeing the choices they had made in a new way, increasingly free from the limiting notions of victimhood. “We're looking to awaken the Buddha within us,” a woman named Maryann explained, reflecting on the long-standing sexual involvement she had with a prominent Tibetan lama, “but this unconscious push to follow what we've been deeply conditioned to pursue is something we're just beginning to become conscious of. I think spiritual women really need to think about their lives and what's most important and then take responsibility for everything they do.”

“Suppose you have a spiritual mentor,” Sommers said. “He's celibate, and you get into this kind of situation because you trust him. Then he makes a pass at you. An autonomous, independent woman would just tell him, 'No,' and walk out. That can be done. We're not talking about rape—we're talking about something else, because she wants to enter a relationship. So I do think it's very different from saying he exploited her. I think they exploit each other in a situation like that.” Diane concurred, reflecting on her many relationships with her teachers: “When you have a thirst for God and a teacher has a thirst for God, there's an opening between you. But boy, you don't want to create karma!”

“I believe that nearly every woman who is ready to work at it can act with equal power to men in determining how they will treat her at the sexual boundary,” Peter Rutter told me. “And in my very sad experience,” he continued, “sexual enactment in a mentor-student relationship, although it's a natural temptation, will destroy what you came for, and it could set you back a decade or two in your seeking. When you add the possibility that the woman may eventually, if all goes well, ascend to an equal status in the spiritual tradition, that raises the ante on spiritual transformation. Not only is there the possibility of transforming one's own personal wounds or personal limitations, but there's the new possibility of women rising in the culture to a position of equality with men. And that makes the stakes of the spiritual relationship even higher for women.”

“Young women today are the freest generation of women in history,” Sommers said, “with more opportunities and higher aspirations. To tell them they're the underdogs, to tell them they are victims, to impose on them this grim philosophy that was appropriate for an era long gone by, is wrong. They should have a sense of their power, and of what they can accomplish, and finally, a sense of ethical philosophy—they should be morally grounded. Far more women are now becoming spiritual mentors themselves. We'll probably begin to see young men falling in love with their mentors, creating a sort of moral paradox.”

“The whole evolution of humanity,” said Dr. Fisher, “has been the evolution of the prefrontal cortex—that's the part of your brain right behind your forehead. It's the part of the brain with which we do our rational thinking, and it's connected to many brain areas. You can control anger. It's hard to control jealousy, but you can slowly get over it. You can control fear. We're an animal that assembles data, puts it into patterns, weighs the alternatives, and makes decisions about our lives. So we are capable of rising above biology.”

“Wouldn't it be liberating for women not to carry around with them this sense of having been ruthlessly exploited, and to understand that they got involved in a fairly familiar dynamic that goes back to the beginning of time?” Sommers commented. “It just might make it a lot easier to get over it. I mean, it's not surprising. It's politically incorrect to say this, but it's so anthropologically predictable!”

All this being said, many would still disagree. In fact, the prevailing feminist view of women as fundamentally disenfranchised and unable to fully assert themselves is so ingrained in both men and women that it is often unconscious, and it is reflected throughout contemporary life, from college campuses to public policy to pop culture. Heyn suggests that we shouldn't oblige a woman to take the higher ground, because “if we do, we're just adding huge freight to the culture's already impossibly high moral expectations of women.” But why can't we expect women to be able to take responsibility for their own personal and spiritual lives, even in the face of a corrupt spiritual teacher? As Sommers said, “If you take away from women the idea that they are moral agents responsible for their behavior, you diminish them as human beings.” Granted, it is a tall order. It's edgy. It's demanding. In fact, according to Sommers, it's nothing less than a leap to a new “third stage” of feminism.

But many of us women have never been in a better position to make that leap. We have unprecedented freedom to opt for our higher good, for the higher good, having reaped the benefits of the first two stages of feminism—the first of which gave us equal rights, and the second of which gave us a deeper understanding of the truth of women's victimization at the hands of men. Women now have the freedom to go beyond instinct, beyond social and biological conditioning, a freedom that comes from seeing our deepest drives, motivations, and impulses in a vast anthropological and evolutionary context. In that, we can reach for a higher morality that doesn't bind us but rather frees us and that we can now embrace in light of a genuinely new possibility. That possibility is a new women's liberation born of taking responsibility for our spiritual journey beyond self-serving desires, facing directly and honestly into what we have brought to the situation, and consciously disengaging the age-old structures that no longer serve us. And who knows what effect this kind of autonomy and independence will have on men, including spiritual men and mentors? As poet and social critic Matthew Arnold said more than 150 years ago, “If ever the world sees a time when women shall come together purely and simply for the benefit and good of humankind, it will be a power such as the world has never known.”http://www.wie.org/j26/women-who-sleep.asp?page=5

 

 

 

 

 

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