Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf: mournful reflections on eros and pedagogy
This is a 'classic article' from my legacy website.
Please note that while I still consider my current work to have evolved out concepts and frameworks that I present in this piece and others, I have greatly departed, in both thinking and tone, from the kind of dualist social/racial justice discourse I embedded this piece of work within.
I consider my current work to be fully dedicated to embracing the nondual nature of the cosmos, never hardening into essentials of good or bad, right or wrong.
I feel like this piece is a bit of an exorcism.
I do not know where it is meant to go, but I’m following my intuitive breath, even as it feels quite 'bad' to wade into these waters.
The subject of pedagogy, transference, and eroticism has something that I’ve been tracking in my life quite intently for the last few years.
To be sure, this isn’t because I’ve had romantic-sexual connections within present or former pedagogical or even practitioner-client relationships myself. I wish I didn't feel like I need to defend myself in such a way to engage in this conversation, but I also think its kind to myself to do so given the understandably emotionally heightened cultural environment we are in.
At the same time that this transgression isn't something I've directly participated in, I’ve definitely had pedagogical dynamics slip into some of my intimate relationships in an uncontained way. Transparently, I feel like this has been a mistake each time, with my lack of capacity showing through what quickly became codependency.
On the other hand, I've also had what I presume to be sexualized transference or projection come towards me in community, both in the forms of adoration as an idealized attachment figure and contempt as a failed surrogate parent.
I’ve also watched from close up, more than a few teachers, mostly men, get entangled in the sexual charge that pedagogical dynamics can bring. In all cases, I’ve seen this happen in what we may commonly call cult-like dynamics: it starts with an intense adoration for a teacher who can do no wrong, then a perceived or real violation, followed by a period of mobs flipping between dissociative denial and grieving acceptance of the teacher's fall from grace.
Observing these incidents so close to me, I’ve been terrified that could be my tomorrow. It’s undeniable that I’ve become a unique explorer of something that is referred to as cultural somatics and there is more and more asking of me to share, or *cringe* even teach, what I’ve learned through my last few years of practice.
The thing is: I’m a single, lonely, middle-aged (sometimes non-binary) man. And sadly, birthing the work I have been doing over the last while has also meant the dissolution of many of my closest relationships through conflict, betrayal, and frankly, my own lack of skill to work through difference.
For reference, I often joke that the mistake I’ve made is that I’ve become a teacher before I became happy.
So naturally, it is hard for me to emotionally distance myself from the fate that has followed the esteemed (mostly male) teachers around me.
Part of me trying to work through this problem has been to embrace that pedagogy is inherently erotic, if we accept that: “Eros is the energy of information desiring to pass from one soma to another.”
Of course, this isn’t a new idea. bell hooks has spoken so beautifully to it already.
But as a man, particularly, there seems to be a potency of taboo at the line where eros transforms into sex. This is especially true in a post-MeToo era where there has been so much unearthing and sensitization to abuses of power by men in positions of power.
Sitting with all my confused feelings about this, I’ve also feel like I started to notice a contradiction at the core of Western pedagogical systems. For starters, I feel like I am starting to see the confusion isn’t just perhaps mine, it is something that is directly embodied in the structure of our teaching bodies.
If you look at our common expectations of spiritual teachers, to be outwardly perfect beings invested with the special power to approve and disapprove our capacity as practitioners, via providing trainings that lead to certification and other forms of professional recognition, you see that our image of them is laced with powerful potential to inflame disowned childhood emotional needs. This of course can trigger powerful romantic-sexual attraction, on both sides of the pedagogical dynamic. It certainly doesn't help that many devout practitioners who become teachers are driven by a powerful longing for closeness, but the imperial tools by which they may share their insights into relationships and the human condition often have the effect of isolating them from their own communities.
Simply put, our post-colonial systems for passing down spiritual information is tightly bound with measures that amplify power dynamics when power differential is something that we are so innately sexually enticed by. It’s a recipe for disaster.
Coinciding with these thoughts of mine around pedagogical power dynamics has been looking at the relational complexities of doing healing work within small purpose-driven communities. When I initially attended school to become a therapist there were lengthy discussions about our ethical boundaries as practitioners, which included measures such as distancing or even hiding from our clients if we see them 'in the wild'.
Fast forward a few years later when I actually started practicing, I began to notice what I felt was like an innate non-sustainability of such a model. Being able to disappear from our client’s lives makes sense when you think about therapy in the context of middle class urban white folk who can disappear into the innate anonymity of big city life. This same luxury doesn’t exist for queer/poly/BIPOC/justice-oriented communities like mine.
It feels clear to me that we need a different system for us to work in.
I want to be a therapist, coach, consultant, teacher, what-have-you, but I also want to be a student, client, friend, and colleague. In an almost a childish tantrum, I refuse to be the former without the latter. Of course, every practitioner I know manages this complexity through a variety of strategies, but the reality is that I think most of us are deeply stressed out with a feeling of carrying the burden for the rest of our communities.
Something that has emerged out of this anguish has been some initial thoughts of how we can shift our common framework for relationships to a model that is more able to hold dual, triple, and quadruple relationships. As an experiment around this, for the last year or so, I’ve been inviting select people into a protocol agreement with me that recognizes each party’s self-responsibility in juggling multiples roles in relationship.
One unique aspect of this protocol is a section that specifically speaks to relationship with power dynamics such as student-teacher and client-healer: “[i]n this PfR (Protocol for Relationship), we explicitly understand client-healer, student-teacher, and other relationships with so-called power dynamics, as being temporary containers and the baseline of relationship to be an equitable adult-adult relationship where we are equally responsible for holding our own emotional material.”
I’ve found great peace of mind in entering into these agreements. It’s profoundly relieving to be able to be in relationship with people in my close-knit community, knowing that we are not entitled to project our childhood emotional needs on each other. We are able to take our hats off, become friends and colleagues again, or even switch them and reverse practitioner-client or teacher-student roles. It feels whole and deeply nourishing to be able to do so in such a transparent fashion.
Taking my learnings from this experiment, I’ve been also shifting what I see as the goal of cultural somatic practice. When I first began thinking about cultural somatics I tended to look at the role of the individual to be initiating co-healing between them and the cultures they belong to. I still hold that goal but I've also started focusing more on the growth of the individual's capacity to fulfill adult responsibilities within a community, with the most basic responsibility being the management of projections coming from individual and cultural trauma material.
Defining this responsibility has felt critical. After all, what we call white supremacy, misogyny, and other systemic oppressions, are manifestations of a network effect of projected emotional material on to the bodies of others. I feel, without defining trauma healing and owning of emotional material as a universal basic responsibility, there may be no case for the kind of liberatory healing we desire deep down.
This experience has made me realize a critical thing: that my work in the field of cultural somatics has been driven all along by my desire to be held by a community that has a deep capacity for self-responsibility that is supported by fluency in somatics and animism. This infantile longing isn't something that can be stamped out by any kind of spiritual sublimation and it would be self-defeating to transmit what I've been developing in a way that would cut me off from my core emotional needs.
At the same time that it has felt enlivening to embrace my own desire within my practice this way - my website is called Selfish Activist for a reason after all - I’ve also been noticing a whiff of new danger. I’m realizing that setting a collective baseline (with appropriate exceptions as always) to be an equitable adult-adult relationship, might mean making the liminal zone where the eroticism of pedagogy becomes romantic and/or sexual, come more alive.
I have yet to pass through, or even take a step into, this place.
I’m not sure if I ever will or want to.
But witnessing its existence soberly, even through the bad sensations it brings up for me, is a bit like realizing that the only thing that keeps you safe while being a pedestrian is that we have commonly agreed to not drive cars on sidewalks.
My body freezes and shudders a bit when I confront that.
In undoing this freeze a little bit, which you also might be experiencing, I want to share with you, some poems crafted by my ancestors.
“On seeing my master for the first time:
Having met you thus,
For the first time in my life,
I still cannot help
Thinking it but a sweet dream
Still glowing in my dark heart.
My master’s reply:
In the dreamy world,
Dreaming, we talk about dreams.
Thus we seldom know
Which is and is not, a dream.
We can only dream as we do.”
These are waka’s (和歌), or short poems, exchanged by the 18th century Japanese zen monk Ryokan (良寛), well-known for his solitary artistic life, and Teishin (貞心), a nun who is commonly assumed to be the only student Ryokan ever took in his life. They were compiled by Teishin into a volume named “Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf (はちすの露)”, after Ryokan’s death.
The culturally codified power dynamic between the pair is undeniable, evident in the reality that Teishin’s career as a spiritual practitioner is largely referred to in the context of her relationship to Ryokan. Moreover, Teishin was in her 30s when she met Ryokan, who was in his 70s and died shortly after they met.
Whether Ryokan and Teishin were also lovers is a matter of great speculation left with us. It is undeniable though that their passion for each other touches the line where the ordinary eros of pedagogy becomes something more.
I leave you with their last exchange, because honestly, I do not know how to end this piece myself.
“At the end of the year, my friend wrote to me that my master had suddenly fallen into a critical condition. Shocked, I went to him in haste, but I found him seated on his bed in a state of relative ease.
He welcomed me with:
Every day and hour
I have been waiting for you.
Now that I see you,
Seated at peace near my side,
I have nothing else to wish for.
Not unlike the dews
Fading fast behind the grass
We all can stay in the world
No more than a passing dream.
I decided to stay with him and nurse him in his sickness, but he grew weaker and weaker and it was obvious, even to me, that he had only a few more days to live. I wrote:
To life or to death,
I should cast a cloudless eye,
Faithful to our vow.
Yet, at this last leave-taking,
How can I restrain my tears?
By way of reply, my master recited to me the following lines in a quiet voice. They were not of his own making, but he liked them well enough to repeat them from time to time:
Maple leaves scatter:
At one moment gleaming bright,
Darkened at the next.
My master died on 6 January 1831 at the age of seventy-four.”