These views are my own
I am very lucky to have friends in my life who hold me to account for mistakes that I have made, so that when I face accusations I can rely on their help to distinguish real mistakes from habituated self-shaming.
I have not published anything here for several months as I have been dealing with something very challenging in my personal life. This post is a return to regular writing, and I wish to begin with a bit about what's been going on in my life.
A few months ago, a former romantic partner of mine wrote a medium post critical of the Monastic Academy (a Buddhist spiritual community where I am currently a resident). The person's name is Shekinah Alegra and central to her post was an accusation of sexual assault. She did not name the person she was accusing of sexual assault, but it is clear to me that these accusations were directed at me.
Shekinah and I were in a romantic relationship for much of 2021. It was a relationship that enlivened me and helped me to write in the way that I did in 2021, but it ended very badly. Towards the end of the year I returned from a backpacking trip and Shekinah told me that she had slept with another man while I had been away. We had some agreements about this but Shekinah did not honor them. After mulling it over for a few weeks I decided to end the relationship. Soon afterwards Shekinah wrote the post accusing me of sexual assault more than a year prior.
I have discussed the details of the event that Shekinah now describes as sexual assault with the people in my life who I trust most to hold me to account, and have concluded that sexual assault is a completely inappropriate way to describe it. There are some very significant facts that Shekinah omitted in her essay that I will not describe here as I do not wish to turn the beauty of the relationship that erupted between us into an energy source for a needless fight.
For this same reason -- not wanting to turn a past romance into a public fight -- I have not responded at all to the accusations until now. But the accusations are now hurting the spiritual community that I am part of, because together with the accusation of sexual assault, Shekinah's post accuses the Monastic Academy of covering up this alleged sexual assault. This I will respond to directly because I think it's important that anyone considering visiting or collaborating with the Monastic Academy can incorporate some facts that have not previously been written about.
At the time of the event, I was executive director of Oak (the California branch of the Monastic Academy), and Shekinah was visiting for a one-month training program. I had made specific monastic agreements not to engage sexually or romantically with others in the organization, and I broke those agreements by engaging with Shekinah, so I informed and apologized to the community. Upon hearing about this, the head teacher, Soryu Forall, informed the internal leadership group and board of directors the next day, informed the whole community within about a week, spoke one-on-one with external donors within about two weeks, and wrote a very frank account of the whole episode in the quarterly report the next month, which is published on the website and sent out to supporters via hard copy. Shekinah describes this as a cover-up, but it seems to me like the exact opposite of a cover-up.
Around the same time, the head teacher asked Shekinah and I to write a letter clarifying the status of our relationship and our intention to stay in or leave the community. This is important in a monastic setting because when a whole community has agreed not to have romantic or sexual relations with each other, any breach cannot be left in an ambiguous state or else everyone will question whether the rules still apply to anyone. Shekinah describes being coerced into signing a letter, but when I reflect on the conversations between us I cannot think of a way that I could have explained more gently why we were being asked to write such a letter, nor made it clearer that it was up to her whether she did so or not. Shekinah was not an employee of the organization and was nearly at the end of her one-month visit, so there was little room for implicit leverage.
Shekinah describes being forced to leave the organization, but in fact she simply came to the end of her pre-agreed one-month visit. The agreed-upon dates are quite unambiguous in the emails from before Shekinah's visit.
Shekinah makes many specific accusations in her post, but does not give very many details about specific events that gave rise to these accusations. I and others at the Monastic Academy have been considering these accusations almost non-stop since they were published. It has actually been very difficult to think clearly as an organization about what parts of Shekinah's accusations we can take responsibility for and what parts are mischaracterizations. It is extremely tempting to incorporate everything that Shekinah says into a kind of uncalibrated personal and organizational shame, especially due to the sexual core of the accusations. There is a strange aura around sexual accusations against a spiritual organization: from the perspective of the accused it can seem at times just logically impossible that any response other than total personal shame could be warranted. But this makes no sense; of course we have to apply discernement to accusations, taking responsibility for what we can and saying no to the rest. The more I look at what happened, the less I believe that Shekinah is pointing to some darkness deep within the heart of the Monastic Academy, and the more I believe that her accusations are straightforward mischaracterizations.
I have the sense that whole lives are regularly lost to episodes like this, and I can now see exactly how that could happen: public outrage incorporated into uncalibrated self-shame, leading to disconnection from one's friends and then a whole life lived in the vicinity of a tight ball of grief and sadness, henceforth choking off all real connection that threatens to go beyond a carefully managed exterior layer. It's not so easy to avoid this fate; it seems to be just what happens by default. The hard part is that we need to not just say "yes" when accused of a mistake we really did make, but also "no" when accused of a mistake we have not made. I have found this exceedingly difficult to do for accusations of a sexual nature.
I'm extremely grateful to have found myself in connection with some spiritual teachers and friends who have helped not just with the "yes" part of this equation, but also the "no" part. My own teacher, Soryu Forall, has been shockingly clear in this discernment. I have also sought the guidance of a Christian friend who has lived for many decades according to an extraordinary vow of stability, as well as a Buddhist nun of many decades who visits the Monastic Academy from time to time. I did not understand what spiritual expertise was until the past few years, but I see now that this episode would have left me completely lost but for the guidance of these guides who have made it the purpose of their lives to set up a kind of unmistakable integrity so that when all basis for clarity is lost and I'm just spinning in the hurricane, their voices still carry clearly through the darkness and I can follow it back to the ground. I'm not sure how I came to be in connection these extraordinary guides -- it's certainly not that I knew to seek them out. I can only really account for it as a kind of grace.
Thank you for reading this post. I have written many versions of it over the past months and am glad to finally have it out here. I am grateful for the existence of this community here on LessWrong and I look forward to more writing over the coming months. I hope you are all safe and well.
Sad to hear that an end of a relationship had such an unfortunate fallout, as if the pain of splitting up is not enough.
Stuff happens to the best of us... and it's understandable. No one is perfectly rational and it sometimes feels impossible in the moment to honor our precommitments. That said, there is a price to be paid later for breaking them, and delaying the payment tends to compound the interest quite significantly. I wonder if that's something that happened. Should you have, say, stepped down and distanced yourself from the organization the moment the "monastic agreement" was broken, the debt may have stayed commensurate to the misdeed.
After finding and reading the relevant reddit thread and the medium post (which you didn't link, why?), I feel like the post is at least a little disingenuous, and the whole organization gives a strong cultish vibe. Apparent financial considerations, lack of transparency, severe gender imbalance, lack of expertise and poor understanding of the issues and vulnerabilities that novices face upon engaging with the organization look like significant red flags. While it's impossible for someone who was not there to figure out what really transpired, it is pretty clear that the setup was ripe for the new people getting hurt pretty badly, and I am quite surprised that not more people came forward about their pain and trauma after being a part of the Monastic Academy. But then it took a long time for the darkness in several of rat-affiliated orgs to bubble up into the public view.
The lack of compassion for your ex in your post, while understandable, is a sign that the lessons of the incident have not been taken seriously.
It is hard to see the events you are describing as anything other than a clear pattern of leader worship and resulting abuse of trust. I hope the branch will not attempt to shrug off the events as an isolated incident and continue its practices as business as usual.
Well just so you know, I actually did step down right after the incident. It was a bit of a mess because I stepped down informally the day after I told the community what had happened, then we decided that this action was hasty and hadn't given the board of directors time to make their own assessment, so we reversed it, then about a week later the board of directors agreed that I should step down and I did so. You can imagine how on edge everyone in the org was at a time like this. I certainly had no real power from the moment I first stepped down.
But why would it be good for me to distance myself from the community though? In general I have the sense that when you make a mistake like this you should stay and help and do your best to face the consequences, plus it was all so psychologically terrible that I really benefited at that time from structured spiritual practice.
I didn't link them because both they are both so emotionally charged and at the same time invoke all the maximally triggering stuff (gurus, sexual assault, cover-ups, and so on) that it's very hard to read them and stay sane. I see in your comment that you start with quite an understanding tone and then by the end you're talking about this darkness that lies at the heart of various rationalist orgs. The meme complexes in Shekinah's post do give this very strong suggestion of a kind of sexual darkness in the hearts of various men, but it's more like a very powerful subtext than something she really argues for.
I want to flag a few things here that I dislike about this comment. So let me say before I do that... like, I don't gel with what might be called "the meditation scene". I'm divided on whether that's more of a "y'all just don't communicate in the same way as me" thing or more of a "one of us is actually just wrong in a deep way" thing.
So like, I'm about to be super critical of something you wrote, where you're defending yourself against accusations of malfeasance.
I want to be clear that I'm not directly talking about the accusations. Which is not to pretend that this isn't some kind of attack. The criticisms I'm about to make do, I think, have some bearing on how I think we should think about the accusations. But I don't want anyone to come away thinking like "philh's criticisms seem valid, so I guess Alex must be in the wrong here".
And I want to leave open the possibility that "the thing that caused you to write in such a way that philh wanted to critique" is standard meditation-scene stuff or something; that if we understand that thing, we'd decide that actually my criticisms should have approximately zero bearing on how we think about the accusations.
I don't think I believe that, but I think there's at least a chance of it that's worth noting.
To disclaim my background knowledge. I'm pretty sure I read Shekinah's writing shortly after she first posted it here, as well as the comments here. I don't remember many details, and I don't remember reading a reddit thread about it. I haven't reread it since. I think it did lower my opinion of Monastic Academy, which I think was already not high. I'm trying not to let that flavor this comment, but I'd be surprised if I completely succeeded.
So firstly I want to flag that this observation is consistent with the world you assert, where Shekinah's writing and the associated commentary suggest things in a way that makes it hard to read them and maintain a grip on what is and isn't asserted, what is and isn't true, and similar things that it's important to keep a grip on. (To paraphrase in a way that I hope roughly preserves what you meant.)
In that world, declining to link those things is... well, I don't love it; I prefer not to be protected from myself. But I think it's understandable, at least.
But it's also consistent with a different world, where those things are straightforwardly revealing of failures on the part of yourself and/or Monastic Academy, and Shminux is just correctly picking up on that. And in that world, declining to link those things seems likely some mix of deliberate dishonesty and motivated cognition.
(This is not to take a position on which of these worlds is more likely; nor to say that those are the only possible worlds.)
Secondly, I want to flag that this specific phrase... seems like kind of a strange thing to pick out from Shminux's comment? When I read that phrase in your post, especially combined with the earlier "it's very hard to read them and stay sane", it comes across sort of conspiracy-flavored? Like Shminux is extrapolating from the things-you-didn't-link to some vague darkness that has no concrete features nailing it to reality. Obviously you don't explicitly say that's what Shminux is doing, but, well, it's a very powerful subtext that I pick up on.
But when I go back and reread what Shminux wrote, that's not at all how it comes across. It sounds like they already believed in this darkness, it was already a part of their world model, and now they're using it as a "well, that tracks I guess" with one detail of what they've inferred about Monastic Academy. They don't give any concrete detail about this darkness, but like, that seems fine because it's not about the darkness.
Thirdly I want to flag that Shminux seemed to make several criticisms, and none of them were particularly about sexual darkness in anyone's heart. Like, it sounds like you're saying you didn't link to those things, because they suggest-without-saying... something that Shminux didn't bring up. Which feels not-super-relevant.
A fourth thing I want to flag is that Alex said two weeks ago he was intending to reply more, and has not done so. Which means he hasn't replied to any of the things I wanted to flag. The one thing he replied to was basically an aside, separate from the main point of "you've explained your observation, but here's another possible explanation for it".
I want to flag this for the same reason as I wanted to flag the others. It seems to me that Alex's comments have a substantial amount of the "it's hard to read this and stay sane" thing.
To explain this flag in more detail: I think that if a person reads this discussion and doesn't track carefully, they might see that: "Alex replied to something philh said. He gave a different explanation for his behaviour than philh suggested, and then followed up in more detail. His explanation seems reasonable." And they might lose sight of: "but the thing Alex replied to was an aside. The main point of that flag is still open, and so are the other flags."
And this person might see: "Alex appears cooperative and non-defensive here, and has said he'll reply further." And they might think: "there's no need to reach any conclusions now, I can wait until I know more". And if they notice that Alex didn't reply further: "oh, well, maybe he just forgot, or got busy, or...." And they might simply stop thinking about it, and fail to reach any conclusions.
I don't claim to know what's happening inside Alex's head. But it does seem to me that his writings have these effects.
It's possible this is a fairly normal level of "hard to read and stay sane"? I may only be picking up on it because he accused Shekinah's original letter of doing the thing, and that primed me to look out for it, or something. This doesn't feel like it's the case to me, but it might be.
Even if that is the case, it seems worthwhile to point out these effects explicitly.
I don't want to make this mistake myself. It's important not to jump to premature conclusions, but it's also important to be able to reach conclusions eventually. I've now reread the original letter, along with this comment thread and Shekinah's follow up.
There's no obvious reason for me to share my conclusions. I have no relationship to any people or organizations involved here. But given my previous comments, especially the preamble to my first one... it feels like some kind of failure mode for me not to share them. Like I'm saying "here is how we do things" and then not caring whether we actually do the things. So with that in mind:
I now believe we're in substantially this world. Alex raped Shekinah. OAK/MA attempted to cover this up. Shekinah's original letter made this much clear. Alex is some combination of lying and delusional about the situation.
I don't know all the details, but I don't expect those particular conclusions would change if I did.
Having no connection to this situation, my sense is that there's nothing particular I should be doing with these conclusions. Alex is unwelcome at any events that I run, but since we live on different continents he was unlikely to anyway.
Well no I definitely did not rape Shekinah. I don't think even she accuses me of that in her post.
It's been quite a difficult few weeks at this end, which is why I haven't replied more to your comment. I see the following points in your comment:
The paragraph that goes "So firstly I want to flag that this observation is consistent with the world you assert... But it's also consistent with a different world, where those things are straightforwardly revealing of failures on the part of yourself and/or Monastic Academy" where you critique my non-linking to Shekinah's medium post
The part where you critique my talking about "this darkness that lies at the heart of various rationalist orgs" in response to shminux's post
The part that goes "I want to flag that shminux seemed to make several criticisms ..." where you mention that I didn't respond to all of shminux's points
I believe I have responded to (1). Given that you've apparently decided that I'm definitely a rapist ("I now believe we're in substantially this world. Alex raped Shekinah."), are you interested in further dialog on (2) or (3), and are there any further points that I've missed?
Recall that the description in the original letter was:
The thing Shekinah describes here is rape, legally and ethically, whether she uses the word or not.
There is more I'd like to say here. There are questions that I don't really know how to navigate, around respecting Shekinah's agency and privacy and right to self-definition. But having that conversation with Alex seems disrespectful. So anyone who isn't Alex is welcome to PM me for further thoughts.
You have not. In a previous comment I pointed out that you responded to an aside, in ways that made it easy for someone not paying attention to think you had responded to (1).
Critiquing your non-linking was simply not the point of that flag. The structure of the main thing I was going for was: "you provide explanation A for observation X. But B would also explain X." And the reason I was saying this was something like: it's easy to see an explanation, check that it makes sense/is consistent with the available evidence, and then assume it's true. I think we more reliably arrive at true conclusions if we keep in mind that there are other possible explanations, and pointing out another possible explanation helps with that.
I do think you're a rapist, but "definitely" is coming out of nowhere here.
Probably not super interested.
But, to be clear... this is only partly because I think you're a rapist? It's also because this is a frustrating conversation for me even completely ignoring that.
I said, early on, that I wasn't directly talking about the accusations. That was true, and for the most part it's still true. I have now directly spoken about the accusations. But none of the things I flagged were directly about them; and the things I flagged are not primarily why I believe them.
But like, I specifically said that you didn't address point (1). And then you said you thought you'd addressed it, without even acknowledging that I said you hadn't. So...
...combine that with the multiple other ways, in this thread, that I've pointed out where I think you've essentially "missed the point", zero of which you've replied to...
...I really don't see this being a productive conversation? Especially not for the amount of effort it's taking.
And then there's the fact that, yeah, I think you're a rapist and I feel kinda weird having a semi-polite conversation with you on what's kind of a question of procedural norms? Especially in this particular comment thread.
All that said: I do think the questions "is Alex a rapist" and "are Alex's comments bad in the ways I think they are" are different questions. You get to defend yourself on the second even if you're guilty on the first.
(And obviously you get to defend yourself on the first question too. I'm not having that conversation in public, but I'd be potentially open to a private conversation through a mediator we both trust, if you happen to want that.)
So like, if you think your comments are not bad in the ways I think they're bad, and you want to put in the effort to defend them... I don't promise a reply, and conditional on a reply I don't promise an effortful one. But I do think you should feel able to do that.
Something I wanted to say was: in Shekinah's followup post, she does use the word rape to describe the experience. For example, she says explicitly "This incident of sexual assault meets the federal definition of "rape"". And in reply to a commenter saying "What you’re describing is unambiguously rape", she says "I straightforwardly agree".
I was hesitant to say this initially, because although it's already linked in this comment section, I didn't know for sure if Alex had read it. If he had not, then by saying the above, I'd essentially be directing a rapist's attention back towards his victim, which seems like a bad thing to do in general. I have since been in communication with Shekinah, and she has given me the okay to say it.
She also tells me that in private conversation with Alex, before he blocked her, she made him aware that she considers it rape. She has given me the okay to share this, too.
Yeah I am also very pessimistic about having the core argument about sexual assault on the public internet so I agree with not trying to resolve that part right here.
Got it! Sorry! I really thought you were directly critiquing my non-linking to Shekinah’s post. I think I read your comment in the midst of feeling wrongfully accused about stuff and didn’t read as carefully as I should have.
Ok so yeah I really agree about keeping in mind that there are other possible explanations, and the value of that for not over-weighting the first plausible explanation found.
It’s hard though. In this particular case you might point out an alternative explanation for my actions, and I might respond “yeah but I remember reasoning in such and such a way”. That could be introduction of new evidence, too.
Yet memories about intentions and mental states quickly become extremely fuzzy. Sometimes it’s better to go based on concrete actions taken.
I won’t expand on (2) or (3) for now then. Just noting this for readers who are evaluating my helpfulness/unhelpfulness on this thread (which I support readers doing btw!). Sorry it was such a long time between comments. I may not have come back at all if you hadn’t pointed out my long absence, so thank you for doing that.
Thanks for taking the time to write this comment philh.
Yup this is a good paraphrase of what I meant.
Yup. Well I try to write in a way that conveys a point as straightforwardly as possible, and I judged that linking to the medium post would hinder that goal. I may have been wrong about this but I wouldn't say that I was trying to protect the reader from themselves (and I agree that trying to protect readers from themselves when writing on the internet is rarely helpful).
[Meta: I'm now going to try to compare this to some imperfectly analogous situations and I want to flag that using imperfect analogies in the context of accusations of sexual assault is kind of dangerous because the non-rhyming aspects of the analogies can appear kind of flippant or rude if taken to be rhyming aspects.]
Analogy: I wrote a while ago about optimization. The post had a lot of connections with dynamical systems. I didn't link much or discuss much the connections with dynamical systems, beyond a general nod in the direction, because I judged that it didn't help to illuminate the topic very much. By doing so I wouldn't say that I was protecting the reader from themselves, but I was making a judgement about how to present the thing in a straightforward way. Now one might say that dynamical systems was the most important thing to link because the whole content of my own post was building on top of that foundation. But just as with my non-linking to Shekinah's article, I mentioned the existence of the dynamical systems literature in my post, and anybody who wanted to look it up could easily find the relevant content via a google search. I had the sense that linking it explicitly would suggest that the reader ought to either understand the main concepts at the other end of the link or else not expect to understand my own post, neither of which was true w.r.t. dynamical systems in that post or w.r.t. Shekinah's article in this post.
[Am intending to reply more to your further points. Thank you again for taking the time to go into this.]
Hm. This feels like a different reason than you gave before though?
That is, I think I understand the reason "I didn't link them because ... it’s very hard to read them and stay sane." And I think I understand the reason (paraphrased) "I didn't link them because they aren't prerequisites and I didn't want the reader to think they were". But I don't think they're the same reason, and it appears to me that you've switched from one to the other.
Yeah right. I actually spent quite a while considering this exact point (whether to link it) when writing the post. I was basically convinced that if I did link it, many people would jump straight to that link after reading the first ~paragraph of my post, then would return to read my post holding the huge number of triggering issues raised in Shekinah's post, and ultimately I'd fail to convey the basic thing I wanted to convey. Then I considered "yes but maybe it's still necessary to link it if my post won't make any sense without reading that other post" but I decided that it wasn't really a necessary prerequisite, so ultimately I didn't link it.
In the dynamical systems example, it's not just that it's not a necessary prerequisite, but that if you go to the wikipedia page for dynamical systems and just start learning from scratch about dynamical systems with the intention to do it quickly and then return to the previous post, then you'll end up kind of frustrated at the hugeness of the topic because it's not really something you can learn in a short time, and then you'll return to the post about optimization in a state of mind that is already bubbling with oodles of concepts that will make the simple point of the optimization essay not easy to digest. That's my sense of it, and this is the way that this example is similar to the not-linking to Shekinah's post.
Context for this discussion
Alex doesn’t link to Shekinah’s original letter. Here it is. In response to this post, she has also written a second post explaining why she defines her experience as sexual assault. Alex blocked Shekinah from contacting him or commenting on this post, which is why I am replying here instead of Shekinah.
I have been Shekinah’s friend for years before encountering the LessWrong community. I have never met Alex, and have no personal connection whatsoever with Monastic Academy.
Alex had access to the first draft of this comment throughout the writing process, and had access to the final draft for several days, as well as notice that it would be posted, prior to my posting it in public here. He and I exchanged some polite messages during this period. Shekinah had access to the evolving draft of this comment throughout the writing process. Shekinah explicitly consented to me posting it. Alex and Shekinah both had the ability to comment on it, although only Shekinah did.
Editorial approach in writing this comment
Because my memory is limited and I was not a witness to any of the incidents that Alex and Shekinah discuss, I think the best thing I can do here is to gather and align their descriptions of the major events from their public writings. Therefore, I will lean heavily on verbatim quotes from Alex and from Shekinah. Shekinah has suggested I might contribute my impressions of our first discussion on her return from Monastic Academy. Those are in a footnote at the end of this post.
Alex says that “Shekinah makes many specific accusations in her post, but does not give very many details about specific events that gave rise to these accusations.” Shekinah disagrees, saying that she provided “quite a lot of detail in [her] letter,” which is “about half an hour long.”
To try and address the issue of concrete details about specific behaviors, I will be focusing on text that supplies details about specific events giving rise to Shekinah’s accusations. Some text regarding meanings, motivations, and impressions will be retained, either because it is contained in an otherwise detail-heavy passage, or because I believe that the specific impression is particularly pertinent.
I will be putting in bold text language that describes specific actions (or specific actions that were left undone). I will not be putting in bold text descriptions of meanings that were conveyed in language, unless specific quotes or paraphrases are included. These are my editorial choices, and I hope these choices are the right ones.
Alex says that “There are some very significant facts that Shekinah omitted in her essay that I will not describe here…” I do not know what facts he means, or what they are relevant to.
One of the challenges here is that we are dealing with a problem of feelings, perceptions, and psychological impacts. Detailed descriptions of what physically occurred may be insufficient to describe “what happened,” or to properly evaluate the morality of people’s behaviors. For both Alex and Shekinah, the interpretation of what they experienced occurred in a complex context. Yet both sexual assault and mischaracterizations of sexual assault can occur in complex contexts.
Here, I have attempted to provide the quotes, links, and outside information that seems most relevant to parsing the central claims made both by Alex and by Shekinah. Much of their original posts have been left out, but the texts of both posts are publicly available. I have made editorial choices about what to emphasize and include. My intention is to make it easier for concerned readers to navigate these two posts, and to compare and interpret their texts, while being as transparent as possible about my friendly relationship with Shekinah.
Definition of rape in the state where the sexual incident occurred
Alex and Shekinah’s first sexual encounter, which Shekinah considers to be sexual assault, occurred in the state of California. Legal definitions of sexual assault are not identical with moral definitions, but I think that legal context is highly relevant here. I am not a lawyer, but I will be leaning on verbatim quotes from lawyers and law services here.
According to RAINN, California defines “consent” as “positive cooperation in act or attitude pursuant to the exercise of free will. The person must act freely and voluntarily and have knowledge of the nature of the act or transaction involved.”
In defining sexual assault and rape, RAINN says that in the state of California:
According to the website of lawyer Eric M. Davis, California has no statute of limitations on sexual assault.
Description of the sexual incident
Shekinah’s description of the event that she characterized as sexual assault was written as follows:
Alex says that “I believe that her accusations are straightforward mischaracterizations,” and “that sexual assault is a completely inappropriate way to describe it.” He does not supply any additional details to explain why he holds this belief. Alex also does not claim that he received affirmative consent from Shekinah prior to initiating this sexual encounter.
Descriptions of the monastery's response to the sexual incident and relationship
Another accusation Shekinah made in her Open Letter was about the circumstances of the letter the monastery had asked/pressured her to sign:
The way Alex characterizes this same experience is as follows:
My conversations with Shekinah after her return from the Monastic Academy
I picked Shekinah up from the train station on her return trip from her experience at the Monastic Academy, and listened to her for hours as she processed her experience with me. This was about a year and a half ago. My memory is that Shekinah was very distressed, both with regard to her experiences one-on-one with Alex, and even more so with the way it was handled by other authority figures at Monastic Academy. I’ve also discussed this incident with her several times since then, both before and after the breakup of her relationship with Alex, and since the first drafting of this response.
My interpretation of Shekinah’s feelings about Alex and the first sexual incident between them is that it has taken her considerable time to parse her feelings and articulate them. When she first came back from Monastic Academy, she was simultaneously processing this sexual incident, the treatment of herself and Alex by Monastic Academy, her romantic feelings about Alex, her broader concerns about the organizational failures she perceives at Monastic Academy, her distress about being separated from Alex, and the traumatic experiences that occurred prior to her time at Monastic Academy that the meditation had brought up. In my opinion, it’s only natural that she has needed some time to figure out how she feels about this incident, and how best to articulate the events being discussed to others.
Because it has been a long time, I cannot remember the specific language she used during our conversations. Her feelings about Monastic Academy have been consistently negative, and the main reasons for that negative impression have been in connection with the way they treated her during her stay at the Monastic Academy.
I'm strongly disinclined to delve into the matter of consent in the sexual encounter, as it primarily pertains to (alleged) misconduct by Alex/Koshin (who I don't really know), whereas the accusations of organizational malfeasance (e.g. a cover-up) pertain to all of MAPLE/OAK/CEDAR (where I do know several people, and which I'm just going to call MAPLE going forward).
In particular, I'm noticing that Koshin described having been asked to write a letter with Shekinah, describing their relationship status and intentions, while Shekinah described having been pressured into signing a letter which Soryu had instructed Koshin to write. Shekinah also described various statements in the letter in a way that leaves it ambiguous whether or not those statements were included in Soryu's instruction to Koshin.
My own experiences with MAPLE track more closely with the interpretation that the statements in the letter were not included as part of Soryu's instruction to Koshin, and since Shekinah does not describe interacting with Soryu on this point, I don't really see any support in the provided texts for the interpretation where Soryu included those statements in his instruction. I'm open to correction, but for now I'm going to work forward from the assumption that Soryu did not provide such detailed instruction.
In Shekinah's account, she was clearly uninvolved in the drafting of the letter, and Koshin's account provides no conflicting information about her involvement. So given the assumption already made, it looks very much like Soryu asked for a formal account of what happened, and Koshin wrote his account and got Shekinah to co-sign it.
Shekinah describes having felt "pressured by leaders" to sign the letter in question, and to do so in front of the community. From what she writes, it sounds like the reason she didn't want to sign the letter is because she believed its contents to be untrue. I don't know what steps were taken to ascertain Shekinah's belief in the truth of the statements she describes herself as having been pressured to sign. That said, my experiences don't track with the idea that any leaders within MAPLE would encourage someone to sign something that is not true.
However the narrative of a cover-up, and of organizational malfeasance more broadly, seems to rely on an acceptance of the premise that the organization was involved in ways like this, which there's no evidence provided to support. I certainly see mistakes being made, but I don't see a reason to believe that those mistakes were bigger than trusting Koshin to engage Shekinah adequately in the process of drafting the letter that she would later sign (to ensure that the text of the letter reflected her understanding of the truth of the matter), or trusting Shekinah not to sign off on statements that she believed to be untrue. As far as I know, the rationale for the signing being done in front of the community may have been an effort to promote honesty rather than compliance (and promoting honesty tracks much more closely with my experiences with MAPLE than promoting compliance does).
On an even more basic level, MAPLE's error may simply have been to have seen an applicant so damaged by her past experiences as to be unable to see the people around her as anything other than threatening figures demanding compliance, and not to have told that applicant "sorry, you're not ready to train with us".
As I mentioned when doing so, I've made a couple of assumptions based on my experiences with MAPLE, or on what seems to me to be common sense. These assumptions may be wrong, and I hope that if they are, someone can provide the missing details to illustrate how, so that they can be corrected.
To know whether or not a letter that claims that the experience was consensual is actually telling the truth, Soryu would need to have actually cared enough to find out what the truth happens to be.
It seems he decided that knowing that isn't important to him and thus didn't speak to Shekinah. The lack of caring about the truth enough to have that conservation is one of the particularly troublesome parts of this episode.
Yeah thank you for this.
Basically what happened is that Soryu asked us to write a letter together (on a phone call with me), then I told Shekinah that we had been asked to write a letter together, that she wasn't obliged to, that we could write it as we saw fit, and she said okay. Then I wrote a draft and asked Shekinah what she thought, whether we should change anything etc etc, and she said no it's fine, and then we signed it.
I found this here. The most relevant paragraph is:
Which leaves out many facts Shekinah has reported, some of which are disputed but others of which you (Alex) have either confirmed or not denied. Most obviously the description of you both being "trainees" and the obfuscated reference to a "position of leadership", which I don't consider an accurate description of "executive director".
As a note to other readers, I contacted both Shekinah and Alex to let them know that I've written a response to this post.
I am a friend of Shekinah's, and discussed these events with her both immediately after she returned to Seattle from the Monastic Academy, and several times since then.
If I publish this post, it will be leaning heavily on verbatim quotes from both of their articles. No information about the facts of the situation will be included beyond what is contained in those quotes. I also pull in some verbatim quotes about California law.
To be very clear, there are no "juicy tidbits" forthcoming from me. I don't have any. I will only be highlighting what seem to me to be relevant quotes from Alex and Shekinah in their public writings. You can glean anything I might post from their own words and a Google search about the laws of California.
This response will be published only with Shekinah's consent, and only after Shekinah and Alex have both had an opportunity to read and comment on it.
If I publish this post, it will be under my pseudonym.
Mod note: this post and comment section previously used Shekinah's legal/professional name, and not the alternative name she used in her Medium post. She asked me to pass along a request to Alex to change that, which he has done, and I have also edited the comment section to change all mentions of her name.
A question that sounds combative on the Internet but which I'm asking honestly.
Why did you think this post was appropriate for LessWrong?
Among other reasons, LessWrong is an audience that Alex writes to, and perhaps the most sensible audience for his Alignment thoughts. More than that, it's a community, a small community too. I'd read the accusations against Maple/Oak/Alex but not heard anything from him. If he hadn't posted here, it's unlikely I would have seen this - and I do care to see it.
So I do think it makes sense to post here. I appreciate the bravery required to post it.
Yeah, as Ruby said, this is a community that I care about and publish in, and is where Shekinah linked and discussed her own post. I also want to stand for the truth! I've been in this org (Maple) for a while and I think it has a lot to offer the world, and I think it's been really badly mischaracterized, and I care about sharing what I know, and this community cares a lot about the truth in a way that is different to most of the rest of the world. IMO the comments on this post so far are impressively balanced, considerate, epistemically humble, and just generally intelligent. I can't think where else to have such a reasonable discussion about something like this!
(Good question btw!)
Did Soryu encourage you to write this post?
I had nothing better to do, so I decided to also go read Shekinah's medium post. I don't think you did anything wrong (except maybe get in the habit of doing some foreplay?), but I do think that Shekinah was incredibly unprepared for that level of retreat intensity. Having your first retreat as a beginner meditator be a month-long where they ask you to do things like a 16-hour yaza is likely to be... explosive. I think you guys should either spell out more clearly the training you do on your website, or increase the minimum experience level of the people you'll accept, a prior 10-day retreat like goenka's might be a good start.
And as always, shame is a pattern of body sensations, to be seen as empty and impermanent just like everything else...
> I think you guys should either spell out more clearly the training you do on your website, or increase the minimum experience level of the people you'll accept
Data point: this was my (much milder) experience at MAPLE, OAK's parent org. I thought it would be too challenging for me, they assured me it would be fine, it was indeed much too challenging for me.
I read your blog post, and I think part of the challenge was the lack of an appropriate framework through which to see the structure of the retreat, which they really should have given you. For instance, you're supposed to be meditating during the busywork you do, because eventually you're supposed to enter a meditative state during all parts of everyday life. Once you can enter some state during sitting meditation, you try it in walking meditation, then you try it with a mindless task like sweeping the floor, then with a slightly more involved task, until you get to doing everything in a meditative state, and life itself becomes your meditation.
Another thing is that intellectual progress is not the point of a meditation retreat, you're not supposed to think through your issues, you're supposed to be observing the bare reality of your senses in intimate details, preferably from the time you wake up until the time you lose consciousness at night with unwavering focus. The discomfort also serves a purpose: if you observe the feelings of discomfort with interest, and completely let go of any expectation that they will get better, the discomfort changes in nature, and the pain stops being a problem.
It's a real shame that some retreat centers have a cultural aversion to explaining anything to participants. Maybe it comes from zen, which uses the state of confusion and uncertainty as a teaching tool, but I've seen it happen in other retreats (like Goenka's) too, and it really doesn't mesh well with a rationalist view.
Wow I think they did even worse at that. I didn't emphasize this because it wasn't a big pain point for me relative to being cold and hungry, but the meditation instruction was absolutely unhelpful for me (and I've gotten helpful instruction elsewhere, so it isn't just a me thing, although clearly it works better for some people).
> if you observe the feelings of discomfort with interest, and completely let go of any expectation that they will get better, the discomfort changes in nature, and the pain stops being a problem.
I understand that there are ways this can work really well for people but jesus christ the failure modes on that are numerous and devastating.
I really agree with this. The reason spiritual communities can go more quickly and more disastrously off the rails is because they are aiming to tinker with the rules by which we live at a really fundamental level, whereas most organizations generally opt to work on top of a kind of cultural base operating system.
I would generally find it unwise to tinker at all with one's operating system except that our cultural operating system seems so unable to address some really really huge and pressing problems including, seemingly to me, all of x-risk.
I think part of what the rationalist community has done well (that incidentally I think EA has done less well) is be willing to discard some of the cultural operating system we inherited, in a deliberate and goal-oriented way.
Yeah thank you for the note.
Just so you know though it was actually a 7-day meditation retreat within a one-month stay at the monastic community (and for the non-retreat weeks of the program we spend time meeting with each other, using computers, going shopping for groceries and such, in addition to 1-2 hours sitting each morning and evening). It's true that the residents did a long yaza on one night of the retreat but it wasn't required, though yes still quite a lot for someone who hasn't sat a retreat before.
It was an intense retreat, and it's true that Shekinah didn't have prior retreat experience. One of the things that we've changed since then is making it more difficult and explicit for folks to enter the more intense parts of the training. But it's complicated... the most intense retreats in my experience are the ones that are sublime and simple and don't involve any big experiences at all but just open you to something so simple that you can't ever quite forget it. You never really know what that's going to happen for someone, and in any "consent" process most everyone will say yes they want to do this, but the aftermath of such happiness can leave one's carefully arranged life in disarray.
This is one reason I think it's so valuable to live full-time in spiritual community while doing periodic retreat, but as we are learning with Shekinah and others, it's difficult to know what to do when folks come and have quite powerful experiences and then decide later that it was all a big trick of some sort. The grief and sadness that arises in this case is just enormous. You feel as if you've been tricked into believing, just for a moment, that everything you ever dreamed of is completely feasible, only to have it ripped out from underneath you upon returning to the heaviness of day-to-day drudgery. Then people get mad. What to do? Sign a disclaimer? Require people to renounce their whole lives before starting the training? It's so hard. We do have a way to do this now but it's such a band-aid. Would love to write/discuss more on this.
Ah, I see, if it was just 7 days of actual retreat then this is much more reasonable, I'm glad you clarified. Regarding the post-retreat crash into daily life, the thing that worked on me to help me deal with those crashes was to hear someone say "look, a retreat environment is a very special circumstance, you'll get to places in your practice that you couldn't get to with a daily 1 or 2 hours of practice, revelations that you are sure to be permanent will end, and once the retreat ends your practice will fall back down, but it will fall to a better level than pre-retreat. Over the years and the retreats, you'll eventually get to a place where daily life itself becomes the practice, and then you'll live your life from a place of grace."
I can definitely see the immense benefits of a live-in spiritual community, but I think it might also create an artificial divide between "normal life" and the spiritual life. It might make people believe that they require a community to achieve insight, instead of the community merely being very supportive. You can perfectly well do walking meditation while shopping at walmart, and you can do metta while looking at your crazy boss. I remember crying of joy when I realized that queues, traffic jams, being put on hold on the phone, etc. no longer had the power to bother me, all these were simply opportunities for practice. Shinzen Young in particular is really great with this framing of "Life as Practice", and I think it's doing marvels to minimize the post-retreat crash, because, in effect, the retreat never ends, it just gets a bit more challenging. There's also the fact that people have much more free time than they believe, I've personally managed a 4h/day practice in normal daily life, it just required some sacrifices. So unless I'm misunderstanding your community, it might be that people are getting the impression that it's impossible to get awakened without renouncing their whole lives, yet impossible is very different from merely quite hard.