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Day 22: Jian Ghomeshi reminded me of being exploited by my Buddhist teacher

Svea Vikander, "I had never believed"

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Jian Ghomeshi went to trial this month. And so, in a way, did Canadian women. The Ghomeshi trial is not only about a man who violated the four women pressing charges, but about whether we, as a society, trust women who tell. 

It's personal for me. Today and every day of February, I am sharing my own stories of sexual harassment and violence. Today is day twenty-two, in which I share my experience of being groomed for sexual exploitation by a therapist and Buddhist monk. If you're joining us now, may I suggest that you start at the beginning, by reading my introduction here. And remember, practice self-care. The Ghomeshi scandal has one hell of an undertow. 

***

In 2007, I traveled to Sri Lanka alone because I was in a terrible place emotionally, wanted to practice meditation intensively, and was a big M.I.A. fan. This is the story of the first monastery I stayed in; for the record, the second was much better. 

I was 23 years old and reeling from a series of deep personal losses. I needed an escape from the bartending job that was quickly turning me into an alcoholic, and I was running from a mess of destructive relationships. I had a degree in psychology and was close to finishing a diploma in psychotherapy, but things had gone sour over the last few years. I thought about killing myself a lot of the time.

I chose Rankling Retreat Centre (not, unfortunately, its real name) because it was run by Bhante K, a renowned Buddhist monk respected for his training as a therapist and as a dharma teacher. Reading about their retreat schedule (up at dawn, meditating for most of the day, eating vegetarian meals, spending the rest of the time in "noble silence") I felt a warm glow within me: here was a place I could, as I told my friends, stay out of trouble. I was looking for solace and a place to be alone. My mother loaned me the airfare and I arrived in Sri Lanka on June 6, 2007.

I felt good when I first visited the centre. It was a beautiful place, rustic and nestled in the forested mountains near Kandy. I met some of the nuns, who were retirement-aged women with sweet voices. I met Bhante and he greeted me with warmth and humour. I felt that it would be a safe place for me and although I was the only Westerner there, they seemed happy to have me. I gave them my passport and money for safe-keeping, as the kuti (cottage) in which I was staying did not have a good lock. We installed a mosquito net above my bed.

Not long after that, I was hacking at the safe with a knife, trying to get the lock open. Failing this, I left with six dollars and a stomach flu, running down the hillside. Disoriented, I asked the people I came across if they could direct me to the nearest town, where I thought I could probably convince the employees of a guest house to let me stay. The following is a piece I published in 2009 about the relationship that unfolded in those intervening three weeks. 

Any fleas, any fleas?

He lifted my arm and looked closely. Touched a freckle.

They are this size, but when you pick them up, see legs!

Touched other freckles, asked about them, touched the flower on my hair elastic. Where did I get these flowers and why did they never fade? I took out the elastic to show him the flower was glued on, that I bought it like that. And I turned back to the computer screen but he touched my hair.

***

They called me Nelum because they kept calling me Lydia, the other white girl who had been to the nunnery. In Sinhala 'Nelum' means 'Lotus', the most sacred flower of Buddhism. They called Lydia 'Water Lily,' which is pretty good, too.

A few days after my arrival, Bhante the head monk -- an old man, well-regarded as a therapist, with a shiny head and kind eyes -- sat me down for my first dharma talk. I listened to his lesson about the four insights, asked insightful questions, tried to impress my new teacher. At the end I thanked him. I opened the door to put my shoes on. Then he asked me why I was there.

I said I was sad and he said he could tell. I was sad because I loved people but didn't love them well; I was sad because so many men wanted only my body -- or worse, for me to love them. I had lost people. Sobs and breaths, stopping and starting. Bhante got up to get me a kleenex. His fatherly face was warm and loving, pure concern.

Don't worry, you are safe now.

You are so innocent.

You are in safe place.

Don't be sad because now you have a good friend.

I understand you, you are so special.

These things will not happen again, no more troubles.

You are safe.

I let myself believe and realized that I had never believed any of these things before. I stood up to put my arms around him and felt that warm and safe embrace. I felt my grief and hope and knew that my life was changing for the better. He held me and as the tears rolled down he reached out with his right arm and shut the door.

 

 

Belief soon turned to doubt. Suspicion. I'd made a living of being looked at. And anyway, a woman knows when she is being looked at in that way. I told him I was worried and he was offended.

Don't make it difficult.

You had so many problems before.

Do not make another problem here.

So I hated myself for being paranoid. This time I cried because I was unable to be loved, because I interpreted every kindness as sexual, and I was so alone and so confused in this hot country of warm touch and smiles.

You have Sri Lankan skin.

For so long I waited for you in my life.

You should stay here with me. I know you will.

Early in the morning there was another storm. He came to my kuti offering a warm mug of tea. His maroon robe was wet in patches as he sat wearily on my bed. I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt and yesterday's underwear. He reached under the covers and put his hand up the shirt, touching the bare skin of my back, my breast.

He was crossing the line. He had crossed the line a long time ago. It hurt but I wanted him to offend so that I could trust myself again. Justify those hard-won suspicions. I felt nothing, not aroused and not repulsed. I was in that mug of tea, I was watching it happen, I was caught in the mosquito net, I was under the bed. Like any happy lover, he was being cute, giggling as he explored my body.

 

Svea Vikander, half-lotus

 

Any fleas?

Any fleas any fleas any fleas?

I took his hand off its course, held it in my own. "You can't be my teacher" I said, "You can't be my teacher, I have to leave now. I have to leave." And he gave me the usual begging and apologies. I was guilty, sympathetic; disgusted. I ran away.

I sat at the front of the bus. Like all public Sri Lankan buses it was decorated with Hindu and Buddhist images, a shrine of bright plastic flowers and blinking lights. I took the elastic from my hair and looked at the flower glued on it. It was fraying now, a bit floppy, but still intact enough to be ripped off. I just nestled it in with the other flowers and it blended in perfectly; it shook a little as the bus jostled around another hair-pin turn.

***

Other details of this story: Before I ran away I picked up one of Bhante's therapy textbooks and opened it to a chapter on ethics in the therapeutic relationship; I left a note saying he should read it. Before I left I called my mom in Canada and told her what had happened. She was so angry she could hardly speak and her curses traveled thousands of miles to land on deaf ears, because I defended him. A guide at the guest house that took me in when I couldn't afford to pay for a single night offered to have the teacher killed. The guide was a kind man, and violence was his language.

This experience seems so far from my life now. I miss the woman I was, who believed in magic and redemption. But I don't miss the intense vulnerability, the beacon of light shining to potential abusers: pick me, pick me, pick me. 

***

Svea Vikander is a Swedish-Canadian radio host and therapist currently residing in Berkeley, California. Find her on twitter (@SveaVikander) and Instagram (@SveaVikander). 

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