Editing Spiritual Teachers for Grammatical Honesty

Cancelling the “First Person Plural Omniscient”

This elegant experiment — and its haunting consequences — arose out of a conversation I had with my partner and a mutual friend (both psychotherapists) after the death of our late friend Michael Stone, a young Buddhism and yoga teacher who died suddenly of a fentanyl overdose, while struggling with mental health challenges.

At that time, we were all contemplating the paradox of how he had been so adept at speaking to and for the spiritual relief that he himself, in hindsight, so desperately needed. How was it, we asked, that he was able to speak in collective terms so compellingly, even as he was so alone.

Our friend remarked that they’d come to understand Michael’s content better was by listening to his podcasts and reading his books and replacing his use of the first-person plural with the first-person singular.

Here’s a brief example, from The Inner Tradition of Yoga.

When we let go of the continual construction of a self or even the need to be a “somebody,” then we are free to be who we are. When we are completely ourselves, we forget about needing to be the center of our perceptual world and thus we can take in others and our environment with greater sensitivity, compassion, and openness.

Rendered in the singular, it sounds much different:

When I let go of the continual construction of a self or even the need to be a “somebody,” then I am free to be who I am. When I am completely myself, I forget about needing to be the center of my perceptual world and thus I can take in others and our environment with greater sensitivity, compassion, and openness.

It’s hard for me to read the edited version and not hear the hidden story of the friend I knew: what he yearned for, what seemed always out of his reach. How, because it was beyond reach, he could speak of it with such passion. And how he both hid his challenges and augmented this passion into universalized advice by hiding behind the plural. People resonated with what they heard as universally-applicable comments. But from where I stood, he was mostly talking about himself. My partner tells me that in her psychotherapy work, she has been trained to look for this pattern, in which the “we” can be used to neutralize or distance oneself from a personal disclosure.

This experiment with Michael’s language is very personal. Because I knew him fairly well, I feel a certain confidence — this is not to say ease — in psychologizing here. But the experiment also offers a template for examining the function of the “we” in other works of popular modern spirituality, written by people I do not know and would not psychologize. Michael’s usage of what I’ll call the First Person Plural Omniscient (FPPO) was not unique to him. It’s part of the New Age spirituality patois. When I look, I see it almost everywhere.

Running this test with multiple examples yields some insights, I believe, into how charismatic speech functions in New Age popular spirituality. (For scope here, I’m referring to books and authors published by businesses like Shambhala Publications, Hay House, Sounds True, etc.)

What do I mean by “charismatic speech”? Here’s an incomplete list of what it does:

  1. The voice assumes universal applicability of its ideas.
  2. The voice assumes knowledge of limitless subjects.
  3. Because the voice’s ideas are universal, they can seem to apply to any situation.
  4. The voice has no scope of practice.
  5. The voice never discloses personal details or positions. It doesn’t need to, because it assumes the power to speak for everyone.
  6. By not disclosing personal details or positions, the voice evades psychological ownership.
  7. The voice tends to erase differences of race, class, and other categories of privilege. As such, it aids and abets the broader neoliberal landscape that demands “we” be colourblind, for example, or that “we” all live and breathe on a level playing field.

Below are a few more examples.

Charles Eisenstein: “The Coronation”

Eisenstein’s viral essay, ostensibly about COVID-19 (but not really, and filled with logical fallacies), makes liberal use of the FPPO. Text analysis of the essay shows that “our” is the most-used word in the the 9000 word sermon.

Here’s the opening graf, in FPPO:

For years, normality has been stretched nearly to its breaking point, a rope pulled tighter and tighter, waiting for a nip of the black swan’s beak to snap it in two. Now that the rope has snapped, do we tie its ends back together, or shall we undo its dangling braids still further, to see what we might weave from them?

Here it is, corrected:

For years, normality has been stretched nearly to its breaking point, a rope pulled tighter and tighter, waiting for a nip of the black swan’s beak to snap it in two. Now that the rope has snapped, do I tie its ends back together, or shall I undo its dangling braids still further, to see what I might weave from them?

Here is the closing graf, in FPPO:

Already we can feel the power of who we might become. A true sovereign does not run in fear from life or from death. A true sovereign does not dominate and conquer (that is a shadow archetype, the Tyrant). The true sovereign serves the people, serves life, and respects the sovereignty of all people. The coronation marks the emergence of the unconscious into consciousness, the crystallization of chaos into order, the transcendence of compulsion into choice. We become the rulers of that which had ruled us. The New World Order that the conspiracy theorists fear is a shadow of the glorious possibility available to sovereign beings. No longer the vassals of fear, we can bring order to the kingdom and build an intentional society on the love already shining through the cracks of the world of separation.

And, corrected:

Already I can feel the power of who I might become. A true sovereign does not run in fear from life or from death. A true sovereign does not dominate and conquer (that is a shadow archetype, the Tyrant). The true sovereign serves the people, serves life, and respects the sovereignty of all people. The coronation marks the emergence of the unconscious into consciousness, the crystallization of chaos into order, the transcendence of compulsion into choice. I become the ruler of that which had ruled me. The New World Order that the conspiracy theorists fear is a shadow of the glorious possibility available to sovereign beings. No longer the vassal of fear, I can bring order to the kingdom and build an intentional society on the love already shining through the cracks of the world of separation.

Chögyam Trungpa: Too many books to list

Although his English was very good, Trungpa was not a native English speaker. This should not be forgotten in the consideration of his constant use of FPPO. It’s possible that there are translation issues involved here. Regardless, the relentless FPPO has impacts. In this paragraph from The Myth of Freedom and the Way of Meditation, the FPPO obscures a poignant scene of self-referencing:

Original, in FPPO:

… We leave our homeland, our property and our friends. We give up the familiar ground that supports our ego, admit the helplessness of ego to control its world and secure itself. We give up our clingings to superiority and self-preservation…It means giving up searching for a home, becoming a refugee, a lonely person who must depend on himself…Fundamentally, no one can help us. If we seek to relieve our loneliness, we will be distracted from the path. Instead, we must make a relationship with loneliness until it becomes aloneness.

Corrected:

…I leave my homeland, my property and my friends. I give up the familiar ground that supports my ego, admit the helplessness of ego to control its world and secure itself. I give up my clinging to superiority and self-preservation… It means giving up searching for a home, becoming a refugee, a lonely person who must depend on myself… Fundamentally, no one can help me. If I seek to relieve my loneliness, I will be distracted from the path. Instead, I must make a relationship with loneliness until it becomes aloneness.

Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times

Pema Chödrön, the beloved Buddhist self-help writer, is truly Trungpa’s student, not only in affect, but in terms of her own use of FPPO. Consider the following grafs from her bestseller:

Original:

“We are like children building a sand castle. We embellish it with beautiful shells, bits of driftwood, and pieces of colored glass. The castle is ours, off limits to others. We’re willing to attack if others threaten to hurt it. Yet despite all our attachment, we know that the tide will inevitably come in and sweep the sand castle away. The trick is to enjoy it fully but without clinging, and when the time comes, let it dissolve back into the sea.”

Corrected:

“I am like a child building a sand castle. I embellish it with beautiful shells, bits of driftwood, and pieces of colored glass. The castle is mine, off limits to others. I’m willing to attack if others threaten to hurt it. Yet despite all my attachment, I know that the tide will inevitably come in and sweep the sand castle away. The trick is to enjoy it fully but without clinging, and when the time comes, let it dissolve back into the sea.”

Original:

We think that if we just meditated enough or jogged enough or ate perfect food, everything would be perfect. But from the point of view of someone who is awake, that’s death. Seeking security or perfection, rejoicing in feeling confirmed and whole, self contained and comfortable, is some kind of death. It doesn’t have any fresh air. There’s no room for something to come in and interrupt all that. We are killing the moment by controlling our experience.

Corrected:

I think that if I just meditate enough or jog enough or eat perfect food, everything would be perfect. But from the point of view of someone who is awake, that’s death. Seeking security or perfection, rejoicing in feeling confirmed and whole, self contained and comfortable, is some kind of death. It doesn’t have any fresh air. There’s no room for something to come in and interrupt all that. I am killing the moment by controlling my experience.

Original:

Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know
… nothing ever really attacks us except our own confusion. Perhaps there is no solid obstacle except our own need to protect ourselves from being touched. maybe the only enemy is that we don’t like the way reality is now and therefore wish it would go away fast. But what we find as practitioners is that nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know. if we run a hundred miles an hour to the other end of the continent in order to get away from the obstacle, we find the very same problem waiting for us when we arrive. It just keeps returning with new names, forms, manifestations until we learn whatever it has to teach us about where we are separating ourselves from reality, how we are pulling back instead of opening up, closing down instead of allowing ourselves to experience fully whatever we encounter, without hesitating or retreating into ourselves.

Corrected:

Nothing ever goes away until it has taught me what I need to know
…nothing ever really attacks me except my own confusion. perhaps there is no solid obstacle except my own need to protect myself from being touched. Maybe the only enemy is that I don’t like the way reality is now and therefore wish it would go away fast. But what I find as a practitioner is that nothing ever goes away until it has taught me what I need to know. If I run a hundred miles an hour to the other end of the continent in order to get away from the obstacle, I find the very same problem waiting for me when I arrive. It just keeps returning with new names, forms, manifestations until I learn whatever it has to teach me about where I am separating myself from reality, how I am pulling back instead of opening up, closing down instead of allowing myself to experience fully whatever I encounter, without hesitating or retreating into myself.

I believe the FPPO elicits a spectrum of impacts. At best, it offers banalities via poetic abstraction, and wastes people’s precious time. But at worst, these impacts intersect with and arguably enable the self-centred, hypnotic, jargon-y, totalistic speech at the heart of cultic dynamics, where the voice of the leader is universalized and seems to come from everywhere.

I hypothesize that learning how to detect the FPPO can be a powerful tool for examining the banalities of the privileged on one hand, and resisting the totalizing jargon of a cult on the other. But more importantly: it may give readers some insight into what many content-producers in the spirituality world might be up to: telling their followers how they are wounded, and how they should do what they themselves yearn for, and may find out of reach.

Investigative journo: conspirituality & cults. Co-host at http://conspirituality.net. Bylines: GEN, The Walrus. More @ http://matthewremski.com/wordpress/

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