I’ve been following this story about a couple who were expelled from a yoga retreat in Arizona and instead of going home they went and hid in a cave to continue with their retreat. Half of the couple, Ian Thorson, died in the cave from malnutrition and dehydration. The retreat, at a facility called Diamond Mountain University, was for a period of three years and they’d been at it since 2010. The participants are sworn to silence and seek the usual things that come from spiritual revelation. There is a pair of interesting interventions from Matthew Remski on Elephant Journal, and a good summary from the New York Times.
The story isn’t a happy one and is causing quite a controversy amongst those who have investments in yoga retreats and all sorts of holiness. I can’t say that the theological issues have moved me, from where I sit enlightenment doesn’t seem that different to wealth, or enormous pectorals, or trophy wives, or the capacity to drink a carton in a single sitting. Something else grabbed my attention, the bathos I guess. The great overblown seriousness of the enterprise (three years!) and the shocking shoddiness of the end, it’s almost laughable.
There are a number of angles being pursued to explain, or apportion blame for, Thorson’s death and the distress of his partner, Christie McNally. The charismatic and randy leader of the retreat, Geshe Michael Roach, is at the centre of these as either the person to whom blame is directed or as the person deflecting responsibility away from the Diamond Mountain University. There’s a domestic violence aspect involving McNally stabbing Thorson in the weeks prior to their expulsion, possibly as a self defence. There’s McNally’s prior relationship with Roach (celibate in very special yoga-Buddhist-Geshe ways apparently).
There’s also the issue of whose responsibility the care of retreatants was, was it Roach’s? The Board of Diamond Mountain University? The other retreatants? This has been the thing I’ve looked for when reading about the story. It would appear that enlightenment in this context is a self directed activity, not something done in conjunction with others. Almost as if enlightenment was a journey on which there should be no company. Indeed Thorson is described in various slightly creepy ways, a bit more intense than intense, a man beholden to his search for the undefined.
Some reports have mentioned that a cache of snack foods was found outside the cave, unopened. Some reports have mentioned that Thorson and McNally were drinking from contaminated snowmelt. If you die of malnutrition and dehydration and there’s food just outside there’s something wrong. In this regard the journey is a fetish, an acceptance of one’s own failure to recognise a place where one might rest awhile, and take comfort from being. Thorson’s death must have been restless, buffeted by the literality of being Ian Thorson, but so must his life have been if he sought whatever he sought so much that he forwent eating and drinking.
This is the terrifying thing about Ian Thorson starving to death in that cave. Where many of us chastise ourselves for not doing enough to pursue enlightenment, the spiritual and immaterial, Thorson dedicated his whole entire life to these, enduring all sorts of self-imposed privations in order to proceed further on his journey. And he died a death that directly resulted from his pursuit of enlightenment. The bathos of Thorson’s death is not a matter out there; far off in the hermitude of an Arizonan desert cave, it is right here, all the time.
What struck me about Thorson’s wasting away was that the gesture of selfless dedication and determination is entirely common. I see it all the time, in family and friends and workmates and in people at the bus stop: the pointless dedication to work, to families, to duties and obligations, to responsibility and ambition, to something. And the something will eat us; consume us in a terrifyingly passive autocannibalism until all that remains is the end of the journey. No enlightenment, no ascension, no heralded arrival in a promised land.