Sunday, January 08, 2017

The Karma of Spiritual Hucksterism

Sedona has no major churches, no relics, no established holy sites. But what it does have are “vortexes” – a series of unmarked points around Sedona’s various cliffs that locals and visitors alike imbue with new-age significance. 
Where that significance comes from – like the actual number of vortexes in Sedona, which varies from guide to guide – is subject to debate. Locals cite legends about the area’s sanctity to local Native American tribes. However, Sedona didn’t become America’s new age capital until the 1980s, when a US psychic named Page Bryant identified the vortexes after a vision. These vortexes were places where spiritual energy was at its highest point, where you could tap into the frequencies of the universe, where you could, by closing your eyes, start to change your life. Spiritual seekers across the country listened. In 1987, Sedona was host to one of the largest branches of the Harmonic Convergence – a new age synchronised meditation – when 5,000 pilgrims came to get in touch with the universe at the Bell Rock butte, believed by many to be a vortex. 
Now, among the juniper trees, you can find strip-malls full of crystal shops, aura-reading stations and psychics. At ChocolaTree Organic Eatery, shiva lingams – statues normally associated with Hindu temples – stand against the walls; next door, a UFO-themed diner called ET Encounter (formerly the Red Planet) serves Roswell-themed burgers and old Star Trek episodes play on the TV. Every other office along the state route running through town offers a “spiritual tour” of the vortexes. The national forests are full of small cairns people have left as spiritual offerings. These are regularly removed by forest service rangers in order to preserve the site’s ecological integrity. 
Near the centre of town, the McLean Meditation Institute avoids the language of what owner Sarah McLean calls the “woos” – those locals who take their magic and their crystals a bit too seriously – by offering mindfulness and meditation classes that, though influenced by eastern traditions, are geared toward the spiritual and the just-plain-stressed alike.

Now I always get intrigued by stuff like a "McLean Meditation Institute," as I've been doing the practice for about 25 years or so myself.   Mindfulness is a pretty marketable thing these days; it's bigger than Jazzercize was in the 1980s.  So if you haven't already clicked on over to there, let's see just who Sarah McLean is and what's with this "Institute." Her bio page states:

Sarah McLean is a contemporary meditation and mindfulness teacher who has been inspiring people to meditate for over 20 years. With kindness and humor, Sarah shares her secrets to creating a successful meditation practice and how the it can lead to increased self-compassion, clear communication, and a more peaceful life.

Sarah first learned about meditation while training in the U.S. Army as a Behavioral Specialist to help soldiers address Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. After the Army and college, Sarah took a nine-month mountain bike journey from Europe to Asia seeking secrets to peace and fulfillment. When she returned, she began her daily meditation practice and studied mind/body health with Dr. Deepak Chopra. She worked with him as the Program Director for the Chopra Center for Wellbeing in California.

After eight years, Sarah took a sabbatical to seek the origins of meditation. She lived in a traditional ashram in South India for six months, and was a two-year resident at a remote Zen Buddhist monastery for two years. In 2001, she settled in Sedona, Arizona and founded the McLean Meditation Institute, a center which offers meditation and mindfulness classes, weekend meditation retreats, and a 200-hour teacher training program.  The Meditation Teacher Academy® is a licensed, post-secondary educational facility that trains meditation and mindfulness teachers worldwide.

Sarah is a popular facilitator at retreats for the Chopra Center, Esalen Institute, and many world-class destinations. She has been interviewed on national television, featured in a variety of award-winning movies, and her work has been touted in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times. Her best-seller, Soul-Centered: Transform Your Life in 8 Weeks with Meditation (Hay House), has inspired study groups worldwide. Her upcoming book, The Power of Attention: Awaken to Love and it’s Unlimited Potential with Meditation  (Hay House) is due out in February 2017.

So evidently Ms. McLean was a "Behavioral Specialist" in the Army, did a nine month bicycle  trip  in order to be "seeking secrets to peace and fulfillment," became "Program Director" for Deepak Chopra, and then did a two year residence at "a remote Zen Buddhist monastery." So many random:

  • Where is that "remote Zen Buddhist monastery?"  Presumably she must have taken vows, if indeed she attended said monastery. 

  • Why would there be "secrets" to peace and fulfillment?  A secret is something hidden from other people; but secrets in order to be secrets must have been hidden by someone.
  • What's the connection to Deepak Chopra, a wellspring of woo?

It's that last bit that intrigues me.   Chopra's wooishness and spiritual huckestering is well known, and has been well criticized, and deservedly so, over the years.  (Just look at his website!)  As a guy that's done Zen for about 25 years, Chopra's schtick bears as much similarity to my practice as "Professional wrestling" bears similarity to Greco-Roman wrestling.  That is to say, Deepak Chopra is woefully unqualified in the area of expounding on "spirituality" - which I'll take as a "way to live."

What about Sarah McLean?  Well, let's go back to the McLean Meditation Institute site.  I'm immediately put off by the corporate (stock?) photography.  I realize that's an esthetic criticism, but I would submit,  like 茶道,書道, 武士道, 生花 there is probably ウェブ道 - the Way of the Web.  Moreover, the imagery is conveying information: this looks like a white woman thing and the meditation thing looks dodgy.  It's fine that there's practices centered around women of course,  but I suspect it's more exploitive of women then benefitting them.   As for meditation the images do not seem to be practicing it in a way that we Zen folks can relate to, to put it mildly.  The models look fairly blissfully asleep.  That's not what we do.

Moreover,  there is the implicit quid pro quo of having "more peace" and "less stress" as a result of a meditation practice.  And there's the "guided meditations."   Now I know that a couple of Zen folks of reasonable repute (and ill repute) have done "guided meditations,"  but I remonstrate. The whole problem with these two things combined together is that if you're actually ever going to transcend the sufferings of conflict and "stress" you will have to clear your own path, and walk your own path, not some that hinted by some teacher.  A BIG part of Zen practice - and Zen practice, if practiced deeply enough is every damn thing you do - a BIG part of Zen practice is understanding and acting both in the understanding of Mind or Buddha Nature and having to urgently deal with diarrhea (or equivalent) at the same time.  A guided meditation won't do that for you.

Another issue with their "meditations" is the more peace and less stress pitch itself.   While with kōan practice the "point" is eventually to be able to convey an understanding of the relationship between the Absolute and Relative related to the  kōan,  you can't do that unless you're deeply focused on the kōan  itself and only the kōan, without any "gaining idea" as the Sōtō folks say.  You have to deal with the stress and lack of peace yourself.

I have many more things to say about this organization. (E.g., they seem to have swiped Deepak Chopra's swiping of Transcendental Meditation.)   But the main thing I would conclude is that they are probably doing damage to people by making them dependent on either their organization or teaching ineffective techniques and purposes or both.   I bet they are doing well though sucking the teat of the Corporate Mindfulness craze, and that's bad in the short term. 

But, here's what I'd like you to takeaway from all this: You don't need them.  You can do this yourself.  Thich Nhat Hanh's "The Miracle of Mindfulness" is a good start.  Save yourself time and money.  And if you get serious, seek out someone with longstanding credentials in a longstanding organization, which probably does, yes, mean you have to find an explicitly religious group.