In April, 2012, Ian Thorson died near the site of an ongoing three year Buddhist retreat in Arizona. His wife, until recently the leader of the retreat, watched as he became more and more ill, waiting until too late to call for help.
I caught part of an interview with the author on NPR a week ago, and i had to pick up this book, because…well, I wanted to find out if the author had an explanation for how people who belong to organizations like the one Ian Thorson belonged to, end up giving up their autonomy so completely as to die for their belief.
I should probably back up.
For most of a decade, I studied extensively in a school of yoga called Anusara. I took thousands of hours of classes, went to weekend workshops and weeklong trainings around the country—I had an extensive network of people I was acquainted with as a consequence, all across the US and even in Europe and Asia.
Anusara Yoga was founded by John Friend in 1997, and became well known in the overall yoga community, though, I should say, not always entirely positively—there are rivalries even in the yoga community, and Anusara was making a big name for itself, and some thought it was doing so by inappropriate means. Regardless, Anusara teachers were responsible for things like some of the large yoga in Central Park events, and were early players in the Wanderlust festivals and the like. John Friend was featured in the Planet Yoga feature in Vanity Fair in 2007, profiled in other venues, and so forth.
I never spent a huge amount of time with John—unlike my teachers, who had been there when Anusara was small enough that everyone knew him fairly well—though I did study with him for a couple of hundred hours over several years, and when he did an event in our area in 2009, we had him—and all the other Certified Teachers who were attending—over for dinner at our house.
Just a year later, cracks started to show in the Anusara community; some senior teachers had some hard discussions with John about how he was conducting his personal life at the annual Certified Teachers retreat (which was also held in our area), and though it was tense, it seemed to go well.
And then midway through 2011, the exodus began—a trickle of senior teachers started to distance themselves from Anusara and John. There was some scuttlebutt of inappropriate disciplinary action being taken against some of them. Rumors started to circulate. And then, in February 2012, allegations of personal and business impropriety started to surface, and all hell broke loose.
Ultimately, none of it really surprised me. Although I had maintained an affiliation with Anusara for several years, I’d never pursued a more formal relationship with much fervor—although there were many things I loved about the school, and I dearly loved the community that it represented…well, John Friend had eaten at my table, and I was not terribly impressed. And when the truth started to come out, I quietly resigned my affiliation and kept teaching just as I had been, and kept attending classes with my teachers, and kept up with the people I knew from the community, etc.
What startled me were the number of teachers—some of whom had been teaching longer than John Friend—who, upon dissolving their relationship with Anusara, found themselves admitting that they had long disagreed with one or another part of the Anusara system, but had never wanted to voice their disagreement. I was not a senior teacher by any measure—at that point I’d been teaching for 5 years, and some of these people had been teaching for 20 or more—but I never felt willing to give my free will and my good sense over to someone else’s keeping. I think that was, at an unconscious level, part of why I never went for teacher certification; I was never going to set aside my own sense of what was right to satisfy someone else’s notion of what I should be doing.
Which brings us back to Ian Thorson, and, in some ways more interesting, and more important, to the story, Michael Roach.
Because while Ian Thorson is the one who died, it was Michael Roach and his ex- (and Thorson’s then-) wife Christine McNally who set the stage for his death. With their brand of rah-rah Buddhism—that, I have to say, displays a lot of the same tropes as John Friend’s rah-rah Yoga—they created an environment that encouraged the credulous, the lost, the seeking to give themselves over to whatever they were told to believe. The improprieties and irregularities were all there for those that chose to see…but so many choose not to.
I just don’t understand, and the author doesn’t have any answers, either. But I’m ultimately not surprised—these sorts of behaviors on the part of humans have always been among our most baffling ones.
Anyway, the book presents a lot of interesting background on Buddhism, specifically the Tibetan kind, its long and strange relationship with the West, the odd and often sad ways that spiritual leaders play out their stories, and the tragic and ultimately unnecessary death of Ian Thorson. It’s an worthwhile read; not exactly uplifting, but if you’re anything like me, the myriad of ways that humans approach the question of whether there’s anything other than what we can see and taste an touch, is endlessly interesting.