A cautionary tale where New Age spirituality meets American capitalism amid accusations of abuse.
Over the holidays, the New York Times ran a punishing profile of Marc Gafni, an ex-rabbi who reinvented himself as a New Age spiritual leader.
A founder of the Center for Integral Wisdom and organizer of the Success 3.0 Summit, Gafni has built a New Age brand around two trademark concepts—Unique Self and Outrageous Love—which, like much of “Integral Theory,” seems to draw from psychotherapy, Eastern and Western religious traditions, and philosophy. Or as his website’s biography puts it, “[Gafni] teaches on the cutting edge of philosophy in the West, helping to evolve a new ‘dharma,’ or meta-theory of Integral meaning that is helping to re-shape key pivoting points in consciousness and culture.”
There’s also reason to believe that Gafni is a sexual predator. At the Times, religion journalist Mark Oppenheimer (a friend and mentor of mine) lays out the allegations in detail, which include assault, statutory rape, emotional abuse, and exploitation of the counselor-student power dynamic. “My personal opinion is that Marc Gafni has a pathology,” Rabbi David Ingber, a former associate of Gafni’s, told me.
Because Gafni writes books about crying and makes statements about “love intelligence and love beauty,” it’s easy to read his story as a straightforward tale of hypocrisy: a spiritual leader pledges universal love, even as he assaults girls and manipulates his followers. Cue the disgust.
That’s not an inaccurate read, but what’s so striking here is that none of the allegations are new. Scandal has followed Gafni for years. The most serious allegation—repeated, nonconsensual sexual contact with a middle school-aged girl, when Gafni was 19 and 20—happened years before he became a New Age leader (Gafni has said that the encounters were consensual, and that the girl was “14 going on 35”).
Oppenheimer’s piece isn’t so much an exposé of a predator as it is a challenge to the communities at the intersection of the business world and practitioners of Integral Theory that continue to enable him. And Gafni has a nose for influence’s nodes: he has connections to Arianna Huffington and to Phillips Exeter Academy, the elite prep school where he’s lectured and led a faculty retreat, and he’s forged a close partnership with Ken Wilber, the prominent spiritual leader who first developed Integral Theory.
His most noteworthy partnership, though, is with John Mackey, the founder and co-CEO of Whole Foods Market. Mackey chairs the executive board of Gafni’s Center for Integral Wisdom, and he’s involved with the Summit 3.0 conference. Until last week, Whole Foods had a series of videos posted on its website, each featuring a dialogue between Mackey and Gafni, and an interview with Gafni features prominently in Conscious Capitalism, the 2013 book that Mackey co-authored with marketing professor Raj Sisodia.
While Whole Foods isn’t culpable for any of Gafni’s alleged crimes, it’s worth recognizing that the very same values that animate this melange of American capitalism and New Age spirituality appear to enable someone like Gafni to remain a spiritual leader.
“One of the great cathedrals of the spirit”
I strongly recommend that you read the following paragraph aloud, preferably with a friend who does not serve on the board of a Fortune 500 company:
“The world of business is becoming one of the great cathedrals of the spirit. Businesses are becoming places in which meaning can be created, in which mutuality begins to happen. Business is the force in the world that is fulfilling every major value of the great spiritual traditions: intimacy, trust, a shared vision, cooperation, collaboration, friendship, and ultimately love.”
That’s Gafni in 2012, in an interview with Mackey and Sisodia for Conscious Capitalism. Conscious businesses, according to Mackey and Sisodia, are “suffused with higher purpose” and “leavened with authentic caring.” Examples include Whole Foods Market, Southwest Airlines, Starbucks, and, somewhat mysteriously, Amazon.com, which is known for using underpaid temp-style labor in its warehouses and allegedly mistreating employees at its home offices.
You don’t have to be a Marxist to question whether these institutions are “fulfilling every major value of the great spiritual traditions.” At the very least, that sentiment might seem alien to wage laborers, or to anyone who enjoys work but doesn’t think of it in quite such lofty terms, thank-you-very-much.
While Gafni may just be flattering a patron, his style of philosophizing does dovetail with a certain libertarian streak in American capitalism.
Although they’re often associated with the political left, spiritual leaders like Gafni have more in common with Ayn Rand than Noam Chomsky. Like Rand, there’s an emphasis on the individual as the source and conduit of authority. Thinkers like Gafni place enormous weight on the imperative of creative energies acting through an individual (in Gafni’s pseudobiology, the “evolutionary force”), and they frame self-expression as an ultimate good. In this style of thought, social change originates by liberating individual consciousnesses, not reforming social structures.
New Age thinking is very diverse, but it’s easy to see why this particular strain would appeal to the arch-capitalist set. For one thing, it jibes with an entrepreneurs-as-social-heroes mentality—only instead of being “winners” or “job creators” they’re creative minds unlocking a better world, their ideas transforming the texture of reality. For another, it affirms, rather than polices, the expression of desire (sound familiar?), and it does so within a pleasingly vague moral framework that doesn’t offer much by way of fixed ethical demands.
In the case of Marc Gafni, it’s easy to see how these same values—the emphasis on individual authority and creative energies on the one hand, and the reflexive affirmation of desire on the other—can be used to justify troubling patterns of behavior.
Really, it’s all about that energy. In a follow-up to his Times piece, Oppenheimer observes that many of his interviewees drew on “a New Age belief that Gafni is sometimes overwhelmed by his own sexual energy” in order to justify their continued support. Ken Wilber himself told Oppenheimer that “Marc has a lot of Shakti”—or energy—adding “I don’t think he understood the impact it had on people.” Another Gafni collaborator, the HarperCollins editor Adam Bellow, explained that “Marc is a powerful receiver and transmitter” of erotic energy.
Any kind of community can tolerate behaviors it should not, though a number of New Age leaders, including Deepak Chopra, have moved to distance themselves from Gafni since the Times article came out. Still, that ethic of personal authority and cosmic consciousness remains a significant teaching for many New Age leaders, a teaching that seems especially ill-equipped to address transgression.
David Ingber, the rabbi who knew Gafni back when he was a leader in the Jewish Renewal movement, has started a change.org petition to put pressure on Gafni’s institutional partners. Ingber told me that Gafni has found “safe haven” in the New Age world, though the problem, he said, would apply to any “highly evolved” community. “In black-and-white communities where morality is conventional and right and wrong is clear, he would have no place,” said Ingber. A certain kind of open-mindedness, on the other hand, can tip over into moral blindness.
“Strictly a personal relationship”
That moral blindness certainly seems to have extended to John Mackey, and arguably to Whole Foods as well.
Mackey has built his career on values-oriented capitalism. Whole Foods justifies its high prices by appealing to customers’ moral sensibilities, instead of openly selling itself as a place where affluent people can shop alongside other affluent people. Conscious Capitalism, the manifesto for this philosophy, chronicles many of Mackey’s admirable efforts to provide good working conditions for his employees (or, in Mackey’s and Sisodia’s preferred phrasing, team members).
Yet while Conscious Capitalism concentrates on unfolding universal consciousness, purpose, and values, it rarely talks about ethics. Mackey and Sisodia want businesses to be more conscious—to serve the progress and energy of the universe, and to find their higher purposes—but they talk quite a bit less about wanting business to do what’s right, and they don’t really tangle with the difficulties that emerge when some people try to exercise undue power over their fellow human beings.
Since the Times story broke, Whole Foods has worked to emphasize that the relationship between Gafni and Mackey is separate from Mackey’s role at Whole Foods. “John Mackey’s involvement with Marc Gafni and the Center for Integral Wisdom is his personal business,” Whole Foods’ spokesperson Michael Silverman wrote in an email to The Cubit.
That message echoes what Mackey posted on the Whole Foods website, in place of seven blog posts featuring videos of him in conversation with Gafni:
“My involvement with Marc Gafni and the Center for Integral Wisdom is conducted strictly in my personal life and does not represent an endorsement or support for either Mr. Gafni or the Center for Integral Wisdom by Whole Foods Market. With that said, I have decided to remove the video interviews I participated in with Mr. Gafni, and am doing so to be consistent with the position that this is indeed strictly a personal relationship. All of them can still be found on the Center for Integral Wisdom site.”
It’s difficult to take this statement seriously. When the CEO of a company includes a link to videos of himself in dialogue with a spiritual leader on his company’s website, it’s not exactly a ringing un-endorsement. Mackey’s glowing words about Gafni—accompanied by a brief description of Mackey’s position at Whole Foods—remain on Gafni’s personal website as well. In addition, Whole Foods—the company, not simply the CEO—has been the main sponsor of Gafni’s Success 3.0 Summit, and Mackey remains the chairman of the executive board of the Center for Integrated Wisdom.
It’s also worth noting that Mackey has again and again emphasized the relationship between the success of a conscious corporation and the psychological and spiritual life of the company’s leadership. From Conscious Capitalism:
“A business cannot truly evolve, learn, and grow if its leaders—particularly the CEO—are not learning and growing as well. Companies can become blocked from essential organizational evolution if their founder is psychologically and spiritually stuck.”
One can sympathize with Mackey’s dilemma: the very language of this statement, with its emphasis on spiritual evolution, seems drawn directly from the writings of Gafni and his fellow travelers in the New Age movement.
It’s harder to sympathize with Mackey’s reaction, which so far has mostly been silence, combined with an uncharacteristic and self-serving separation of his individual conduct from that of his company. In this case, the capitalist corporation seems awfully selective about the extent of its consciousness.