Heaven or Hell: The Problem with Devotion

Abstract illustration of Buddhist idolsOn mornings when I’m lucky enough to have free time, I go to a yoga class taught by an excellent teacher, named Mark. Many of his students have been studying yoga for years and are pretty advanced. Today we began as usual with warm ups, accompanied by Mark’s explanations and his questions. Mark’s teaching practice is a bit unusual—he generally asks the class questions, some rhetorical, some not, as he explains the theory behind the practice.

The man on the mat next to me, whom I’ll call Harry, answered all Mark’s questions right away, with military precision.

“Why do yoga?”

“To stretch!” Harry shouted the answer like a cadet answering a drill sergeant. I expected him to say “Sir, yes sir!”

“Very good. Other reasons?” Mark asked the class.

“For stress!” Harry said.

“Can you make yourself relax?” Mark asked.

“YES!” Harry shouted.

“No!” Mark answered. “You can’t ‘make’ yourself anything. You focus on your breathing, and that helps you relax.”

I wondered how Harry took this correction. He shouted his answers, expected to be right, but the tone of his voice sounded almost sycophantic—Harry clearly worshipped Mark, and I hoped he didn’t feel embarrassed about being corrected in front of the entire class. Harry didn’t actually need much yoga instruction, but he wanted to feel close to Mark. This is one reason why some people prefer taking a class to doing yoga asana at home on their own.

Then Harry tried to redeem himself by asking Mark questions, like a teacher’s pet looking to show off and score points. I’m an old teacher’s pet myself, but still I was getting irritated at what was turning into a lengthy private conversation.

I soon forgot about Harry and Mark and concentrated on the asana of that moment—revolved triangle.

Then Mark added a new element to his rap.

“Are you in heaven or in hell?” he asked the class.

By now we were on to ardha chandrasana, a difficult balance pose, and I thought, “Heaven or hell. Hmm.”

Without pausing, Mark answered himself, “If you’re idealizing someone, then you are putting yourself in hell.”

So he wasn’t talking about the pose we were doing, he was talking about Harry!  Harry was already in hell—that’s why he idealized Mark—not the other way around. And if he wasn’t in hell before, I was pretty sure he was now. Harry might need to discuss this privately.

Did Harry want Mark to be his guru? Bad idea. Mark didn’t want to be anyone’s guru; he wanted to steer clear of that entirely. The guru/devotee relationship can be rich and generous, but it can also cause lots of problems.

People who are uncertain of themselves, regardless of their abilities, seek reassurance. Sometimes a few kind words can have a wonderful effect, but other times this isn’t enough, and so some folks, people like Harry, for example, develop strong idealizing ties toward someone they see as more powerful, like a parent, a teacher, a boss, or a friend. Because they don’t know how to find their own inner strength they try to borrow power from someone else, to help fight inner battles.

Harry is struggling with addiction, and he needs help and protection, but Mark doesn’t have the answers for this kind of problem. He’s glad to teach yoga, and is very good at it, but he is not qualified to work deeply on the emotional level and he knows it. Harry needs professional help of a different kind; Mark needs to find softer ways to let him know.

Idealization is a normal feature of loving others and of individual development, although sometimes it can go awry. Next month I’ll write about how idealization works between parents and children and between friends and romantic partners, too.

Related articles:
Growing Up and Relationships: What’s Wrong With Me?
In Praise of Praise: On the Right Use of Influence

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lynn Somerstein, PhD, NCPsyA, C-IAYT, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Lana

    Lana

    May 15th, 2012 at 3:53 PM

    I kind of feel sorry for people like Harry. They are very much looking for someone in their lives to look up to, and so often that person is either not up to the challenge or is not willing to put in the effort.

    I would like to think that if I had someone reaching out to me in this way that I would at least give it a shot. I might not have all the answers but I would also hate to think about how my refusal to be a friend could hurt this person too.

  • Tonia s

    Tonia s

    May 15th, 2012 at 4:54 PM

    I have never been one of these people who needs approval from someone else, or any kind of validation that I am doing good things in life. Thank goodness! This man did not sign up to be a role model- he simply wants to teach his yoga class. If this participant Harry needs something more then maybe he is looking in the woring places. I wish that people like this could find that validation within them selves and not have to feel like this is something that they need form others. It does not matter what another person says to you or thinks of you if you are essentially ok with who you are. Obviously most of us have to take a long journey with some twists and turns to get to that place. But with a little effort we do. I hope that anyone in this position can find the strength to take that tough journey because the destination is so much better than you could have ever imagined!

  • shayne

    shayne

    May 16th, 2012 at 5:43 AM

    Yoga can sometimes be my therapy.
    But I in no way expect my teacher to be my therapist.
    There are people far better than she to help me navigate my emotions.
    She helps me get in touch with my physicality and get in shape in a physical way.
    When I want to shape up mentally and meotionally then I will seek help from someone who has been trained in that area.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    May 16th, 2012 at 9:00 AM

    HI Lana- I feel a little sorry for Harry too- he needs a hand, but not everyone is able to give a hand, and it’s better not to if you don’t feel totally able. That doesn’t mean knowing all the answers, as you say, but being able to give.
    Thanks for writing!

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    May 16th, 2012 at 9:02 AM

    Tonia, you sound like a yogi who has been on some long journeys- hats off to your strength and wisdom.
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • BRAD

    BRAD

    May 17th, 2012 at 12:22 AM

    It’s never a good idea to depend on others to feel good about yourself. While praise and accolades are good, dependence on others’ views is not only not a good practice but can be detrimental to a person’s growth.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    May 17th, 2012 at 6:33 AM

    HI Shayne-
    Good thinking. Yoga teachers are not doctors or therapists, they are yoga teachers. I’d never ask my dentist to help me with down dog, or my doctor to spot me in a headstand.
    Thanks for writing!
    Take care,
    Lyn

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    May 17th, 2012 at 6:35 AM

    You’re right, Brad, although praise feels good, it’s best to value yourself from the inside out.
    Take care,
    Lynn

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