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Harsh Master

In spiritual practice, as in any other discipline that permeates the entirety of a human life, a guru or teacher often, or perhaps always, appears to the student in impenetrable and ever morphing form, much like the hallucinatory phantoms of one’s dreams. As soon as the student grasps the nature of his mentor, the shape changes, and all that’s left is illusion, unmasked desire, emptiness.

When I began practice, about fourteen years ago, I knew only one thing: I wanted to suffer less, and I felt a pull toward yoga asana and Buddhism that has not wavered to this day, despite my inconsistency of practice and discipline. For reasons probably unimportant but still mysterious, Eastern practices penetrate my mind, my understanding, my yearning to see less misery in the world, far more than my actual spiritual inheritance, which is the High Anglican Church.

Sadly, Western yogic practices, particularly asana practices, have become in large part a form of exercises to most people, with a bit of “relaxation” or “mindfulness” (a now completely meaningless term thanks to people like Ariana Huffington and tech executives looking for the next tool to elevate their portfolios) thrown in at the end. For many people, the most difficult asana of all, savasana, or corpse pose, has become a mere cool down, or reason to leave early. What is tragically missing from most Western practice is the slow, painful sacrifice of one’s small egoic self, and the faith that once that sacrifice has been made life will go on, but in a form totally foreign to the practitioner.

What is required for the cultivation and deepening of such faith, or shraddha, is a teacher or, if one is lucky, a guru. Part of the definition of a guru, or a teacher who inspires profound inner work, is complete and total trust on the part of the student and, on the teacher’s side, what in Buddhist practice is called “right action.” A guru with great insight, or prajna, often knows the student better than the student knows himself. Such knowledge, at least in my understanding, must be accompanied with great tenderness, great compassion, or karuna.

I don’t have a guru: I have gained whatever understanding I have of spiritual practice from the guidance of a very small handful of truly great Western teachers, namely Richard Freeman, his wife Mary Taylor, to a lesser extent Tias Little, and now, exhibiting a power that continues to grow in my life, the brilliant Manouso Manos. Having what one might call guides instead of gurus is problematic, even when those teachers come from the root of the same lineage. One receives inconsistent information, often, and one also can never truly develop the asymmetrical yet utterly intimate relationship required for the guru to transmit whatever wisdom he or she has gained to the student.

Less than two weeks ago, I spent a week with Manouso Manos in San Francisco. During the course of the hours I spent with this difficult and complicated man I felt myself alternate between an almost somatic hatred and a love bordering on sexual. Manouso is the first teacher I’ve encountered who presented enough power and pull that, despite his often cruel and crude manner of teaching, made me yearn to stay at his side, and caused confused grief when I wasn’t.

Manouso Manos has the gift of sight, in the same manner great poets have, except that his vision has to do with the perception of bodily, mental, and spiritual patterns. One feels while practicing in front of him, even, eerily, if his eyes are looking elsewhere, that one’s very skin is transparent, and the history, trauma, and stories contained within that skin are absorbed by him as easily as a child’s book of fables.

Practitioners who study with Manouso learn more with him about alignment and the subtle effects of asana in two hours than they might learn in two months with other, even quite competent teachers. He has an astonishing ability to teach physical sensitivity to his students, as well as the capacity to show his students the infinite interconnectedness of tendon to bone, bone to muscle, muscle to flesh, flesh to the world, the world to Brahman; under his guidance the body is the way out – of patterns, of suffering – as well as the way in – to meditative awareness and profound intelligence.

He is a gift to many, myself included. Manouso, however, has a shadow side: he is cruel, sometimes ridiculously so. He has a powerful sexual energy that as a woman I find both distracting and confusing and, oddly, induces within me an old and sadly familiar sense of guilt. I found myself wondering during my recent days with him if perhaps I had been a man, or a very old quiet woman, he might not have been quite so angry with me.

And angry he indeed was: after two days of fairly peaceful instruction, Manouso, for reasons I still do not comprehend, turned on me. He became fierce, judgmental, overly watchful; he raised his voice and for five days spoke to me in nothing less than a scream from across the room. He humiliated me, and made me sob, often to the point of needing to leave the room, multiple times a session. He accused me of arrogance, he told me I was not present or focused. His adjustments became frequent and rough, usually accompanied by a sneering comment or two.

Never have I been treated in this manner. And never did I learn so much so quickly, particularly about pranayama, which is an art and technique so profound, so difficult, so fraught with danger, it seems almost unteachable. But Manouso teaches it, and he teaches it with the sort of single pointed accuracy that draws one within minutes to a transformative, almost disembodied state.

How does an ardent student, a student devoted to the investigation of the layers of samadhi (roughly, enlightenment), make peace with a teacher who has everything to offer but little gentleness with which to give it? Or, more accurately, that gentleness is buried within an almost sadistic form of transmission, possessing no regard for the personal vulnerabilities of the student?

I love Manouso Manos. Perhaps I am a bit in love with him, especially given the rather submissive nature of my personality. I also despise him, and the way he treated me. It felt personal, loveless, unnecessarily cruel.

Was the cruelty unnecessary? Clearly he caught me: my practice is a mess. I think constantly of his teaching. My pranayama practice is unrecognizable from what it was a month ago. But I am unsteady, and I don’t recognize myself in anything, which can also be seen as depression. I have no clarity.

Notions of clarity, however, can easily be judgments, patterns, and opinions that help to mask and hide one’s daily self from the inner still-point, or soul, or Atman, or god or goddess – the name doesn’t matter – that is the essence of spiritual yearning and practice.

As I write these words I am reminded of Rilke, and the horrible breakdown he suffered just before the revelation of the magisterial Duino Elegies came to him while walking the winter-clouded paths outside of Trieste. Surely it was a visitation of his greatest Self that came to him, guided him to creative survival and sanity after the long, aching spell of wordlessness. Did Rilke first have to be stripped of all the faces and masks that supported his days before the visitation finally came?

So we practice and practice and practice, not expecting, of course, genius to emerge, but searching, indeed, for some manner of serenity, or emptiness, or kaivalyam – absolute liberation from the poisoned seeds of attachment that lead to repetitive ruin. The hand that leads us there might be feather light and have an Apollinian glow; or it might be calloused from the beatings it has had to give. I suspect I have arrived at a point in my practice in which I can ignore the quality of the touch, as long as it helps to reshape and widen my vision.

Rilke reminds us: “Every Angel is terror. And yet,
ah, knowing you, I invoke you, almost deadly
birds of the soul…”
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