Seems just yesterday that we were hearing about the Sedona sweat-lodge debacle, though it goes back to 2009 already. It’s still far too soon to be hearing any kind of news like this again. (Never again would be good. In Arizona or anywhere else.) No clear-cut case of mismanaging a sweat, this, however. All sorts of bizarre turns to the story, and many unanswered questions, which sound like a movie script in the making.
The rescuers had rappelled from a helicopter, swaying in the brisk April winds as they bore down on a cave 7,000 feet up in a rugged desert mountain on the edge of this rural hamlet. There had been a call for help. Inside, they found a jug with about an inch of water, browned by floating leaves and twigs. They found a woman, Christie McNally, thirsty and delirious. And they found her husband, Ian Thorson, dead.
The puzzle only deepened when the authorities realized that the couple had been expelled from a nearby Buddhist retreat in which dozens of adherents, living in rustic conditions, had pledged to meditate silently for three years, three months and three days. Their spiritual leader was a charismatic Princeton-educated monk whom some have accused of running the retreat as a cult.
…aaaaand, a leader who had been secretly married to McNally before she married Thorson, in violation of his monastic vows (and disturbing on many ethical fronts). I’ve known of Geshe Michael Roach peripherally for years; his book The Garden: A Parable came highly recommended to me a decade ago and I enjoyed it. Then there was the coverage in 2008 of his highly controversial– and supposedly celibate– close-quarters intensive practice with McNally; they lived in a yurt together in Arizona and committed to never being farther apart than 15 feet from each other. This arrangement caused Robert Thurman, a friend, to urge that Roach renounce his vows and disrobe (he didn’t), and earned disapprobation from the Dalai Lama. And then, in 2009, Roach published The Diamond Cutter, a business management book that raised eyebrows about how the monastic was meeting the marketplace (not that one can’t be a Buddhist and run a business). One Amazon reviewer, deeply troubled by what he (or she?) called “the principles of Social Darwinism … twisted with Buddhist philosophy” in Roach’s book, quoted this passage:
The greatest business people have a deep inner capacity – they hunger, as we all do, but perhaps more strongly – for a true spiritual life. They have seen more of the world than most of us; they know what it can give them, and what it cannot. They demand a logic in spiritual things; they demand that the method and the results be clear, as clear as the terms in any business deal. Often they have dropped out from an active spiritual life – not because they are greedy or lazy, but simply because no path has measured up to their demands. The Diamond Cutter was literally made for these people – talented, tough and savvy… The wisdom of The Diamond Cutter says that the very people who are attracted to business are exactly the ones who have the inner strength to grasp and carry out the deeper practices of the spirit.
As a Buddhist, I find these words troubling too, but regardless of religious persuasion, I think most people would have difficulty swallowing them hook, line, and sinker. We wouldn’t be in this recession if not for the endless greed of Wall Street. Corporate America seems a tad low on the display of ethics, don’t you find? (But I guess it remains to be seen how Roach defines “greatest business leaders”; they seem to be in short supply, whereever they are.) Not having read the book myself, I’m not in a position to debate its merits. So let’s go straight to the full-tilt troubling nature of McNally’s letter, written three days before she was found dehydrated and her husband dead. A few words come to mind: simplistic, delusional, unhinged, loco, woo-woo. Waving off concern about the three stab wounds her husband received at her hand, which ultimately led to their expulsion from the retreat, with a highly unbelievable “the knife slipped” excuse, and then going on the offensive about the wrongs done to them? Whoa, nelly. Regardless of different points of view on the events in question, the tenor of her letter screams mental illness and spiritual bypassing of the highest order. “Come on! These are a group of people who have been in retreat for a year. They can’t even walk normally any more, they are so lost inside their minds.” Pot meet kettle?? Matthew Remski, who last month published her letter as well as the initial response from Michael Roach, had this to say:
McNally’s letter is profoundly disturbing in many ways, showing what I believe to be the depth of her spirituality-induced delusions of grandeur, magical thinking, denial, and Stockholm Syndrome symptoms. The idea that this person in this state was teaching Buddhism or leading anyone through anything as extreme as a medieval-style three-year meditation retreat is absurd to me.
Hard to argue with his assessment; harder still in light of the further details he furnishes about Roach’s community, of which Remski was once a part. Apparently the lessons of the ’60s and ’70s, when guru worship and spiritual dysfunction roiled many a newly established American sangha (mostly Buddhist and Hindu) have not been learned well enough. Here’s hoping the wider Buddhist community, both Western and Tibetan, pays heed to the many concerns and suggestions for reform that Remski outlines in his extensive blog post. As he notes, there are still 35 people who are only about halfway through the 3 year, 3 month, 3 day retreat in Arizona who have been caught up in very unhealthy community dynamics. McNally, whose designation as lama by Roach already seemed highly suspect, was the retreat director, and the dubious nature of her mental state even before she was ejected from the community suggests that the practice container for this group is not the robust, healthy one it should be. Remski’s account and McNally’s letter paint a disturbing picture of enmeshed, enabling dynamics not just between the couple who left but between Roach and the board of directors as well. Long retreats have been successfully conducted for millenia; is this one upholding dharma or inhibiting it?