Eventually, if we to function as writers, there comes a time when we must put down the craft book, close out the browser with its carefully curated bookmarks, and put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. We must take time away from the experts and breathe life into our fictitious worlds. This is an obvious truth and yet one I resist time and again despite feeling a nearly unbearable urge to write.
I’ll begin after one more article, I tell myself, one more class. I’m like the child at bedtime who, eyes drooping and head nodding, insists on another trip to the bathroom or a glass of cold water.
If the truth is evident—that at some point we need to learn to write through actual writing—why can it be so difficult to turn from passive to active learning?
Sometimes it’s a case of simple fear in that we believe we aren’t up to the present day’s task. Perhaps we will be required to use a technique we haven’t yet mastered. Maybe we don’t know where we are headed and haven’t built up a tolerance to the discomfort of uncertainty.
Or maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe we are due to tackle a head-banger of a sex scene and suddenly realize it will be read by our mother and the sniffing ladies from her coffee group. (Or worse, by our well-meaning fathers who don’t read a word of fiction otherwise, but who vow to be supportive.)
Lately, however, I’ve increasingly wondered how much of this resistance isn’t retreat into pure habit and conditioning.
For instance, many of us work in careers where we’ve been taught to follow established processes and do all we can to avoid unnecessary risk. This makes sense. Generally speaking it’s unwise to promote creativity in airplane mechanics, surgeons, or nuclear power technicians.
Then there are those of us who come from families which teach deferral to authority. Perhaps we’ve absorbed the my house, my rules mentality and have unconsciously extended that model to our writing teachers, equating their approval with security. (In some families, succumbing to an authoritarian mindset can be the only way to ensure psychological or physical survival.) X knows best, we think. If I adopt X’s mentality and techniques, I can be guaranteed a good result.
Automatic and Unconscious Deferral to Authority
It’s this last situation I wanted to talk about today in the context of the movie Kumaré , which is one of the most powerful treatises I know on the limitations of authority.
Have you seen this movie? If not, be warned that spoilers lie ahead.
Kumaré is part reality entertainment, part documentary, part ethical quagmire. It follows the path of Vikram Gandhi, an independent filmmaker of South Asian ethnicity who was raised in New Jersey.
During Gandhi’s early adulthood, he reports taking note of the Western world’s fascination with all things Eastern. Our tendency to romanticize his parents’ culture causes him to ponder several questions: How easy would it be to pass oneself off as a guru in America? If successful, what would be the consequences?
To that end, for the sake of cinematic exploration, he adopts a pseudo-Hindi accent, grows his hair and beard. He develops a basic spiritual dogma he calls the Mirror Philosophy. It is both generic and inoffensive enough to sound plausible. [”1) REFLECT, 2) ENVISION, 3) BUILD A PATH, 4) ENACT…5) UNVEIL”] By the time he arrives in Arizona as Sri Kumaré, his accoutrements include saffron colored robes, and two ardent and equally ersatz followers. Their role? To provide a patina of legitimacy and act as seed crystals to his pool of potential devotees.
You can probably see where this is going…
Yes, in an incredibly short amount of time he acquires a gaggle of disciples. Their backgrounds vary. A number are obvious “marks” in the sense they live on the fringes of society and seem cognitively vulnerable. But his group also includes the outwardly privileged and those whose occupations would seem to require a goodly amount of skepticism and intellectual rigor—lawyers and engineers, for example.
We watch as Gandhi leads them through a mostly benign and helpful set of practices. I see nothing wrong with creating a loving community, teaching meditation, modeling deep listening, or propagating the physical practice of yoga, for instance. Nor do I argue with the teaching of his core spiritual principle, which is that we must value and pay attention to the still, small voice within. It’s remarkably similar to the oft-discussed writing philosophy of Take what works and discard the rest.
In time, Gandhi himself benefits in a spiritual sense. In an example of making-it-by-faking-it, he enjoys the intimacy of the community. He admires the generous, gentle persona of his Sri Kumaré alter-ego and vows to become more like him.
Beneath it all, however, runs an undercurrent which made me deeply uncomfortable.
There are the scenes in which his subjects bare their souls to him much as they would with any trusted counselor. Their emotional vulnerability is simultaneously breath-taking in its courage and cringe-inducing because of their audience’s unworthiness.
Then there are scenes which verge on the mocking, that contain the outright bite of satire. At times Kumaré‘s devotees come perilously close to enacting these lines from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.
Brian: I’m not the Messiah! Will you please listen? I am not the Messiah, do you understand? Honestly!
Girl: Only the true Messiah denies His divinity.
Brian: What? Well, what sort of chance does that give me? All right! I am the Messiah!
Followers: He is! He is the Messiah!
Brian: Now, f*** off!
[silence] Arthur: How shall we f*** off, O Lord?
Finally, there is the palpable tension created by the film’s dramatic irony. We know we are watching a scam be perpetuated, but Gandhi’s followers are fully invested. They appear to be thriving under his tutelage. We cannot help but dread the fallout of his upcoming “reveal” in which he plans to explain his deception, and that it was supposedly all concocted for their edification.
After several false starts to his confession, which owes something to the delayed appearance of a guilty conscience, the deed is done.
Three psychological patterns emerge in the survivors.
1. The utterly devastated:
As with the Milgram electrocution experiment we discussed before, Gandhi’s film subjects had NOT consented to the forced insight provided by his film. They thought they were embarking on a path of spiritual guidance and support. Instead, they earn unwelcome and irrefutable evidence of their gullibility. (I am the kind of person who will wholeheartedly embrace a fraud. I can be suckered at the most personal of levels.)
Though it’s been years since I saw this film, I still wonder about this group’s woundedness and how they handled it since Gandhi appeared to have made no provisions for their subsequent welfare. Did they retreat from spiritual endeavors forever? Did they seek another authority figure to handle the damage inflicted by this one, potentially perpetuating a cycle of dependence? Or did they ultimately come to be more like the people in the next two groups?
2. People who wanted nothing to do with him, but appeared to be psychologically okay:
As I understood this group, they were ultimately fine with their own behavior and vulnerability and suffered no loss of dignity. As far as they were concerned, if anyone should be feeling a sense of shame, that would be Gandhi. (Ironically, this group’s judgment seemed to cause him the most emotional pain while they came the closest to embodying the principles his Kumaré persona taught.)
3. The people who readily forgave him at all levels, both spiritual and personal:
This third group puzzles me. I haven’t decided if they are an extremely generous and spiritually advanced subset of those in #2, or if they were repressing their own needs for the sake of the camera. Were they truly that fast at turning a perceived betrayal into learning? (Haha, you sure got me. That’ll teach me for being so trusting.) Or were they the type of people who would remain in a marriage fractured by infidelity when they really desired monogamy?
Regardless, the commonality between the last two groups—the people who appeared to be getting through the experience with intact psyches—was this: They had remained within their integrity. They took responsibility for their own actions. Whatever activities they undertook, albeit upon the advice of a faux guru, still held spiritual validity for them.
Which brings us back to writing and the tendency some of us (i.e. me) have to displace actual writing by the search for the right teacher or the right class or the best process.
Please don’t misunderstand, Unboxeders. Unlike the world of mockumentaries, I doubt that there are any teachers or instructors who perpetuate willing fraud as they provide writing advice. (Business advice might be another matter.) If anything, the world is filled with earnest, well-meaning people who give away their time and tools for free, or at the cost of the time they could be spending on their own fiction. I myself owe a great debt to many here at WU, not to mention the wider online community.
That said, there are limits to what we can accomplish through passive learning. Deep down, I think we know when its time to venture out onto the page, to become vulnerable, and to invest our time and spirit in active exploration. We can take the tools offered by our teachers with us, but it is ultimately up to us to test their validity via willful experimentation.
That way, if we ever find success–good–it is ours, and if we find failure–good–that is ours, too. The point being, whatever the outcome, we’ve assumed personal responsibility for and joy in the journey.
I believe this to be practice for an excellent life.
That way, if the day should come when we are approached by a charismatic, slick, staff-wielding saffron-wearer, we shall be prepared. While others are being rocked by their fraudulence, we’ll be intact and ready for action. “Eh,” we will be able to say. “I checked that out two years ago and it didn’t pass the sniff test. But here is what did work for me. I know because I test-drove it.”
Now I’d love to hear from you, Unboxeders. Do you find yourself avoiding writing by seeking out one more learning opportunity, one last guru? How do you balance the desire to learn from others with the need to grow experientially?
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!