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On Marc Gafni
Context: This morning I spent several hours reading Facebook posts commenting on the December 25th story on Marc Gafni in the New York Times. They included links to public statements by several key Jewish organizations and calls for a culture-wide reckoning by members of the international integral ecosystem surrounding Ken Wilber and other integral leaders. There were so many posts full of emotions running high! Shortly before all this publicity I had signed a statement declaring my decision not to work with Marc; this was also signed by Stephen Dinan, Craig Hamilton, Jean Houston, and many other evolutionary teachers. One of them, Andrew Harvey, recorded an eloquent statement about Marc, and about the denial of shadow in contemporary spiritual culture. All of this landed in 180,000 inboxes, including mine, this afternoon. (Note: if the dates seem wrong it’s because it’s taken me a couple of days to finish this piece. In the meantime there have been more articles and online conversations.)
I’ve long had strong feelings about Marc, and the complex issues raised by his engagement with leaders in integral and evolutionary spirituality. I personally decided to stop working with him in 2011, and came to see him as pathological. While I sincerely pray for his healing and redemption, I think communities of practice do need to bar him from functioning as a spiritual leader within them. I’m glad that lines are being drawn, and I’m lending my name to help that happen as unambiguously as possible.
I’m writing this blog as a member of the integral community, and as a teacher and leader who has been repeatedly asked to weigh in. We have no formal elders or wisdom council, so there will be no official integral response. This leaves everyone who is interested in integral evolutionary philosophy, spirituality and practice on their own to discern amidst an avalanche of strong perspectives. I feel an impulse not to say anything, to “rise above the fray”, since it tends to muddy all participants. All I can offer is my own perspective. I am not all-knowing. I will do it imperfectly. And others will disagree. So this will probably anger people I care about. I won’t be benefited. I’m writing this out of a sense of moral responsibility to do what I can to bring clarity here. I hope my bearing witness will be of service.
The Current Controversy
What’s caused this scandal, this viral outpouring? It seems that Marc Gafni did nothing recently to provoke this. There’s no accusation of any new bad behavior. It’s all a result of an article in the “paper of record”. That’s what seems to have provoked a firestorm of condemnation. Marc and those sympathetic to his leadership have been mostly quiet. They may seem somewhat dignified by comparison with the fevered tone of the opprobrium that’s being heaped on him. Some of those attacking Marc tell hair-raising stories of psychological control and abuse. Many ugly dynamics come into play. Male authority figures (especially spiritual teachers) accused of sexual misdeeds are often “guilty until proven innocent” in the court of public opinion. Sexual misconduct can be the “new witchcraft” of our contemporary Salem witch trials. Many who have spoken up seem to buy completely into a narrative of victimization. And the tone of the critique seems to have no room for complexity, nuance, or shared responsibility.
From what I understand (unconfirmed rumors) Marc himself has not only been remarkably productive lately, continuing his scholarship, writing, teaching, and community-building activities, he’s been more magnetic, warm, funny, compassionate, charming, and winning than ever—even more balanced and dignified. To hear him tell it, he’s the victim. All of this is sourced in personal and professional resentment, envy and malice. Even the accusations from nearly forty years ago are gross exaggerations. He feels confident that those who know him will stand with him. His reputation is certainly badly damaged, but he will just keep doing his good work, and those with discernment will appreciate the insights, the evolutionary inspiration, the group celebrations, the shared love and ecstasy. And he will continue. And if I were to talk with Marc, I imagine that he would be enormously persuasive, and I would begin to wonder if perhaps he is not entirely right.
On both sides of the controversy, we are invited to examine the record. And if we look at the evidence supplied, we will find lots of historical detail to support both points of view. His victims will tell stories of mind control. His supporters will show that the victims were lovingly related to him long after his abuses had taken place. It’s “he said, she said” isn’t it? How do we get to the bottom of this?
But that doesn’t really add up. Where there’s this much smoke, there has to be some fire. It seems like nothing since the Holocaust has united the Jewish community as much as Marc Gafni has. When have 300 rabbis agreed about anything? Isn’t the integral community being tested? Are we so bound up in our complex perspectives that we can’t cut through the confusion to make a basic moral judgment and protect our own vulnerable members?
Either/Or — Drawing a Line
In this situation it seems important to include both a strong “either/or” moral stand and a deep “both/and” nuanced view. In other words, more is needed than deciding that Marc Gafni should not be a leader in the integral spiritual community, or any other community, for that matter. Nor is it sufficient to notice all the other complex issues at play. We have to grow into holding BOTH both/and AND either/or perspectives here. We have to be able to hold both nuanced and polarized perspectives.
First, I will speak from my own experience about why I won’t work with Marc.
When he was publicly accused in Israel in 2006, I presumed there were two sides to the story, and extended my hand in friendship. I tried to put an arm on his shoulder and accompany him through the process of exploring how he had somehow participated in creating hurt for others, and how now that was perhaps unjustly coming back around to hurt him. I wanted to compassionately help him learn whatever he needed to learn and do his own deep work. He could reckon with his shadow, learn how to love better and be redeemed. I liked him. I could feel his pain. I could see that there was much animus directed toward him, and I thought he deserved care. I didn’t want him to be alone.
But he wasn’t up for that kind of friendship, or that kind of work. He never showed any curiosity about those questions, or his psychological dynamics and shadows, or any sincere interest in gleaning the moral lessons of his life. Those were the conversations I tried to have, again and again, for years, but they were never forthcoming. He redirected every discussion back to the injustice of the accusations against him. The story was always about his victimization, and he was always only defensive. He was not receptive but active, recruiting me to see it all his way.
It didn’t feel healthy. I remember trying to give him a back massage in 2006 right after his first scandal broke. I was shocked. His body was eerily tight, utterly unable to relax, not even aware, seemingly, that relaxation was a good thing. It seems to me that he has remained tightly wound, utterly committed to defending himself, feeling under attack. I understand that his parents were holocaust survivors. Perhaps he was raised in an environment with a constant sense of threat. My heart goes out to him. I would love to see him broadly forgiven and redeemed. But what I needed then, and still need, is to see his heartfelt grappling with moral and spiritual issues, to see him bowing to a higher principle, truly surrendering to God or goodness or care or to a process of ongoing learning and growth.
Slowly, over time, I came to a clear moral apprehension. This wasn’t an analytical mental process. It was a process of heart discernment. Even though Marc can be incredibly loving, sweet, affectionate, thoughtful, generous, fun, playful, witty, warm, creative, insightful, and magnetic… I couldn’t locate him as a fellow devotee of a higher truth. I couldn’t trust him. He seemed to have chosen a kind of dark refusal.
I think he’s a ronin, “a samurai without a master.” He has great powers,. But I cannot trust him because I do not see his devotion and surrender to a higher divinity, morality, set of values, true teacher, or even a group of friends and mentors.
Marc can be disarmingly charming, incredibly warm and affectionate, and devotedly attentive to the people he chooses to lavish his attentions on (many of whom are among the important creative thinkers I most respect). But in my view he has used them, and everyone around him, to constellate a version of the authentic natural integral evolutionary cultural movement that places him at its very center. This is a terrible distortion—he was never at the very center of this movement. He was always an opportunist, exploiting the integral evolutionary ecosystem to gather power, credibility, and exciting new ideas to engage with to further his personal ambitions. He can make things happen, including high-energy events. But they are subtly changed by his way he shows up. The intelligence or love that they were supposed to be about are no longer at the dead-center. Subtly, they become all about him.
Those motives present a performative contradiction—the integral evolutionary vision cannot be furthered as an act of narcissistic self-aggrandizement. It has to be about service to something larger than oneself, something no one can possibly own or dominate, something that activates and liberates the creative cooperative agency of a diverse network of free autonomous creative human beings. Integral evolutionary culture is characterized by a growth into authentic mutuality, aided by a new kind of more selfless leadership.
Paradoxically, Marc’s unique sins are exaggerations of failings common to many of us human beings, including genuine teachers and leaders. He loves attention, accolades, and the sound of his own voice. He wants to charm and persuade. So do I. So do many of us. But he stands out. He has an uncanny ability to think ahead strategically. He was always many chess moves ahead of me—and everyone else around him. And he has enormous personal energy and ambition, working hard every day, networking and reading and writing and teaching and executing each move in his greater strategic plan. Is that evil? No. No one is perfectly pure, and I’ve seen all of these egoic qualities in people I admire and respect.
But Marc is more formidable than the ordinary ego. He uses his power of seduction and persuasion to gain associates, and then builds networks of loose and strong alliances from which bigger projects (that showcase him) can emerge. He can overwhelm the people close to him, energetically, psychologically, intellectually, and sexually. This is why his ability to “make stuff happen” is almost supernormal, even despite his damaged reputation. In Marc’s case, these formidable capacities seem to turbocharge his ordinary egoic impulses, and they become something far more dangerous than ordinary human foibles.
This is what I think drives people so crazy. That’s what I think is behind the over-the-top animus directed toward him by the Jewish community. I think he is the source of it, even though it seems to oppose him.
The egregious violations I saw firsthand were not primarily sexual. What in my experience has been most outrageously diabolical is his unique way of getting inside people’s heads and subtly casting a spell on them, and then using that influence to influence or manipulate others. To be used in this way is a form of abuse. To add sexuality to it, is even more hurtful. So my heart does go out to the women involved. He’s been able to work this magic with many influential individuals and thus afflict whole communities. This is the phenomenon we are dealing with. This is why I am writing this blog post. This pattern has long needed to be countered, and now that it is “going viral” I will take the opportunity to point to what I can recognize about the underlying phenomenon.
I am now confronting some uncomfortable questions:
- Why didn’t I speak out publicly until now?
- In what ways was I intimidated? In what ways was I too, perhaps in a lesser way than his primary defenders, drawn into his hypnotic spell? In what ways did I imagine that he had a kind of power I should “handle with care?”
- How can I simultaneously condemn Marc Gafni’s narcissism and endorse integral evolutionary spirituality communities where he has been a leader?
- How did he co-opt these communities surrounding such powerful philosophical and spiritual frameworks?
- How can the precious wisdom gems at the center of these enterprises be protected and defended?
- If I had “blown the whistle” on Marc earlier, what would have happened? Would my condemnations have cast doubt upon the leading edge of cultural evolution and some of its key figures, such as Ken Wilber and John Mackey, who Marc is effectively using as “human shields”? I didn’t want that. Or would I have simply been ignored like Marc’s other most vocal critics? So what can be learned now?
- How can I stand against Marc without lending strength to a strain of righteous piety that reminds me of Kenneth Starr and Linda Tripp? I want no part of our pious puritan postmodern sexual McCarthyism. Since I appreciate not only Apollonian but also Dionysian streams of spirituality, how can I condemn Marc’s sexual manipulation without also empowering the narrow conservatism that tends to censor the ecstatic and tantric dimensions of spirituality?
- How can I point to this moral issue without colluding with victimology? Or being seen as reactive myself, seeming shrill and bent-out-of-shape like his other accusers have sometimes seemed to me?
I am asking myself all these questions now, fiercely, and the process is humbling. I don’t have all the answers. I am a practitioner and I am still learning. (I hope we all relate to this in that spirit!)
Not exactly in my defense, but to provide some perspective, I should also say that Marc’s energy presented me with a daunting communications challenge, and required a greater level of skill and energy than I felt confident I could bring to the task, given that I would be operating on a game board in which Marc himself would be playing—given that he’s a grand master in positioning and spin.
But the fact remains that I somehow allowed myself to be intimidated. I smelled a rat and yet I went along with his presence in our community. I spoke to my friends, including most of Marc’s main supporters, and to students when that seemed appropriate, but only privately.
It seemed like it would have taken endless tiresome hours of being embroiled in fruitless dispute, rolling around in the mud with him. So I was stymied. I take some solace in the fact that it doesn’t seem that any new victims of sexual abuse have surfaced since 2011. But this does seem to be a public relations disaster for integral evolutionary culture.
Marc’s thrusting of himself into the integral community has been, for me, a nightmare and even a violation. All we really have is our awakeness, clarity and purity, the “ring of truth” in our more adequate perspectives. And he has been, from the beginning in my estimation, a source of impurity, taint, and distortion. Yet I have mostly felt strangely neutralized in my impulse to address the problem. I have been intimidated. I have been ineffective.
Marc has continued to charm and persuade people and raise his profile, yet again, in our community, further compromising our reputation. Until now I have not felt it was possible to make an effective public statement. And now, suddenly, it’s unavoidable.
In a sense, we’re all his victims. This includes the Jewish community, especially the living post-conventional ecstatic Dionysian mystical stream of Jewish mysticism. It certainly includes the integral and evolutionary communities. The effect of his presence among us is not unlike Donald Trump’s in the current election cycle. He’s scandalous! Fascinating! Click bait! As a result, deeper and crucial considerations are obscured.
The victim narrative is too easy, too convenient, and very incomplete. We are all autonomous adults. No matter how smart , talented, and tenacious Marc Gafni might be, the only power he has over anyone is the power we have given him. If he has compromised our community, it’s up to us to reclaim it. It’s our responsibility to draw a clear line if we want greater goodness and moral intelligence. That’s my intent. But I’m not at all claiming to be a moral paragon. It’s not just darkness that repels me. Too much piety also makes me ill.
Both/And—The Evolution of Justice
For me, some of the most important features of this phenomenon reside in the nuances, the things that easily tend to get completely lost in a conversation that focuses only on a couple of narrow issues—whether he can be trusted or not, or perhaps whether our community should have come together and somehow protected people from him sooner.
What I read this morning were a series of intelligent, passionate, and necessary online conversations, the process through which a community finds its way to discernment about an unusually brilliant, talented, powerful and dangerous person, and the many knotty issues raised by his behavior. I agree with the need to call him out, and I’m delighted that it’s happening at last.
But the phenomenon amounts to much more than a simple “good/bad” polarity; it is both a watershed moment in our community moral discernment and an occasion for more nuanced perspectives.
There is much baby worth not throwing away with the bathwater. Marc is talented. He’s really good at everything he does. So many of us have fond memories of the loving spaces he has convened, and of loving exchanges with him. It makes sense to me how he is beloved to the people to whom he unreservedly devotes his support and affection.
He’s also shown, in bitter irony, excellent judgment in his taste of contemporary philosophies. He made a beeline from Jewish mysticism to what I believe are the most important and critically useful philosophical ideas of our time. But this, in my opinion, is another reason he’s dangerous. His unexamined shadow compromises everything he associates with, so it’s undermining those remarkable philosophical ideas and this community of practice and inquiry, not serving them. They are the victims I’m most interested in defending.
His primary victims are especially his best friends. Many of the people who have chosen to work with him, from Ken Wilber to Sally Kempton to Mariana Caplan, Barbara Marx Hubbard to Brett Thomas, Sam and Barbara Alexander, Zak Stein to Clint Fuhs – all are friends for whom I have great affection and enormous respect. Although I don’t know John Mackey or Michael Beckwith, I have great respect for them too. I hate to see their names and the ideas they stand for tarnished by this entanglement.
I made a different call than they did in relation to Marc, at least so far, but I am in a lifetime conversation with these people. They will offer perspectives that might in the future influence my view. I certainly don’t resonate with those who offer a more general moral condemnation of the integral and evolutionary communities and all Marc’s supporters.
I am grateful that Marc never fully seduced me and cast his spell on me. He has a remarkable capacity to create a “reality distortion field” suffused with playful affection, resilient humor, innovative ideas, generous acknowledgment, creative energy and generative magnetism. I understand how so many good people have been swayed. They may have been fooled, in my opinion, but they are not fools.
But make no mistake: this is a teachable moment, a developmental opportunity. Our community needs a way to protect itself from talented sociopaths with histories of unprocessed shadow and violating others’ hearts, souls, and bodies.
This is a function our gathering hasn’t yet developed. A justice system is an inherently conservative function, which requires formal structures the integral and evolutionary communities don’t yet have. Such structures first emerge in response to a need, and push forward the creative dialectic of cultural evolution. This is part of the necessary “negation and inclusion” of the previous stage of embodiment. In this spectrum of polarities, the conservative justice function is one half of an indestructible polarity, always in creative play with an inherently liberal, creative function.
Like Marc and many of his allies, I tend to embody the other half, the innovative creative impulse. This is where he has made his contributions. Perhaps our community will have to evolve, now that our life conditions may be beginning to require this conservative justice function to emerge. I just hope it doesn’t suppress the aliveness of our gathering. Let’s remember, the rest of us have for the most part spontaneously abided, from the heart, to sincere ethical standards. Let’s not institute a repressive TSA security system at the entrance to our ecstatic gatherings!
A big part of what bothers me most is Marc’s "reckless driving.” He aspires to leadership and to have a major impact on the most advanced thinking of our time. Those are high aspirations. But look: his actual impact has been to damage the credibility of ecstatic spirituality, integral spirituality, and evolutionary spirituality. He is detracting, not adding. This is because his extraordinary powers are linked to extraordinary shadow. Thus, everything becomes all about him. But it’s not. It’s about the values and expanded awareness that have attracted all of us to the conversations we’re engaged in together.
Reflecting More Deeply on My Experience
Marc Gafni brought a unique combination of eloquence, psychological acumen, brash obnoxiousness, intellectual brilliance, charisma, resilience, sheer energy, and ambition to the integral community. He’s multitalented. He performs his teachings like a great (if narcissistic) thespian.
Still, we must appreciate that this is a complex dynamic. I don’t know about his careers in Judaism, but in the integral evolutionary world he really did notice some of the most important “next new” distinctions and then articulate them forcefully in a way that sparked insights in thousands of people. He did convene amazing gatherings. He did treat many of the people he was working with really well. He often would spark creativity, and communicate love and warmth to his colleagues, in ways that have made them his willing defenders. I never heard him say a bad word about anyone. He was remarkable in his ability to consistently transmit joy, affection and certain forms of kindness.
But he would also often turn his evocative exciting insights and teachings into advertisements for himself. He would frequently use others to legitimize himself, and then take up center stage, tainting the transmission with his inflation, perverting the goodness at the heart of the movement. He did do so by frequently generating private conversations, “just between you and me”, and he’d avoid explicit agreements about money and then make sure that disparities in understanding were settled in his favor. And he really would arrogate the ideas of others, and work hard to convince people to defend him or keep their experience secret, even when this was costly to them psychologically, emotionally, and/or professionally. He really did show very little capacity for self-transcending care for the happiness and emotional well-being of his lovers and friends.
He would tell one person one thing, and say something contradictory to another. He was the master puppeteer, and his victories made sincerity seem like it was for saps. When someone was important to him, he made himself irresistibly charming and supportive—the friend their hearts had always yearned for. He engaged in regular energy exchange arcs of mutual support, and cast his insidiously astutely tailor-made hypnotic “spells”, through which he captured so many people.
I always felt like Marc was trying to “work” me, to get something from me, to position me within his great initiative. He seemed to want to be endorsed and embraced by anyone with some degree of visibility, so that he could be the central leader of the whole movement. He appealed to my own narcissism, once telling me that Ken Wilber was like Freud, and the rest of us, including him, could be like Jung and Adler. He drew my attention to the “favors” he did for me, and signified that I should do them for him in return, warning me in words I could only interpret as a threat: “I can be positively medieval.” That happened at a time when Marc dominated Integral Spiritual Experience, the largest regular integral gathering. To my lasting shame, I bit my tongue and cooperated with him.
I remember breathing a huge sigh of relief as I felt the change in the psychic field at Merrill Hall at ISE3. Marc had co-led the first two events, and they had been remarkable in many ways, primarily due to the interwoven talents of Diane Hamilton, Sally Kempton and Ken Wilber. However, the volume was occasionally dialed up beyond my pain threshold, infected by Marc’s frenetic narcissistic energy in a way that to me felt diabolical. The beauty and goodness and truth of Integral consciousness and spirituality still shone through. They were luminous events. But there was this strange torque in the field from Marc’s unhealthy relationship to his own identity, and his centrality to the events. The purity of the integral transmission was subtly compromised.
During Marc’s 2011 scandal, Robb Smith decided that Integral Life would no longer work with him. Robb asked Jeff Salzman and me to join Diane Hamilton in anchoring ISE3 at Asilomar, and the field clarified. I felt like we all were able to take a deep full wholesome breath. Although the previous two ISE occasions he led had been better attended, very high energy, successful events at the level of spiritual entertainment, that swirl of energy had hidden the aftertaste of Marc’s manic agenda. I realized then that I couldn’t countenance it anymore. It was a moral compromise. It cut to the core. It was like willingly adding a toxic chemical to the ambrosia of integral evolutionary truth.
Cynicism Is the Worst Poison
What bothered me most as I read the Facebook posts was the way this scandal has fed people’s tendency to become cynical. People are quick to generalize, and it’s easy to lose touch with our best selves.
Very destructive attitudes easily take root through scandal like this. And I could see them in various posts. Stated more baldly, they expressed attitudes like, “The whole integral enterprise is bullshit.” “There’s no such thing as spiritual sexuality.” “All gurus are con-artists.” “Ken Wilber’s philosophy has no moral core.” These and similarly cynical attitudes are poisonous.
There were serious issues with Genpo Merzel and with Andrew Cohen. Many integral teachers have had lessons to learn; it’s true. But neither of those individuals should be equated or conflated with Marc Gafni. What can be learned? It’s hard work transcending ego and evolving consciousness and culture. But these are not failures; they’re lessons. They’re not a valid basis for cynicism.
Sanctimony too hides an underlying cynicism. Victimology is at root profoundly cynical. We are asked to care and pray for the women. I don’t disagree. But we—and they—are not doomed to being victims, persecutors or rescuers. We and they can escape the drama triangle. That’s each of our responsibility. We are creating our experience.
What shall we create? In gathering our energies and making our choices, I suggest we not draw on cynicism; it’s a toxic ingredient. It’s worth renouncing thoroughly even as we draw a bright moral line about this particular individual at this particular time.
Back To Marc
It’s worth remembering a core teaching from Neem Karoli Baba, a guru worth remembering with a sense of reverence: “Never put anyone out of your heart.” So that goes for Marc Gafni too. It seems far-fetched to expect him to become interested in learning, to repent and atone for his manipulation. But he needs a route to redemption as much as anyone. Let’s not forget that even as we draw a clear line. We don’t have to put him out of our hearts, and we don’t have to keep him in our lives.
In conclusion, I want to address something to you, Marc: What can be next for you? Here’s what I suggest: Find a real master, a true teacher or teaching or community that you can surrender to and serve. Your career as a ronin, a samurai without a master, is not a happy story in the end. You need someone you cannot outsmart, someone who won’t enable and empower you, someone who sees through your bullshit brilliance and narcissism.
You need a master who can actually help you go through a process of Teshuvah. That word is usually mistranslated as “repentance,” but it really means “return” – a return to God and, especially, a return to the person you were meant to be. There is more to spirituality and leadership and integral evolutionary consciousness than you already understand. Be a devotee of what you don’t know. Your brilliance and charm could still be beautiful; they can have a contribution. But you need to go to the very root and really be transformed. Your destiny is not to stand at the very center of a movement. Find someone who can really master you and who you are willing to surrender your whole life and work to. Learn to be a devotee. May this touch you.