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This Is What It’s Like To Be Raised By A Domineering, Self-Styled Spiritual Guru

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My father’s long shadow — there it is. And when you look somehow beyond him, you gain glimpses of even larger shadows as they echo down through the generations. Deep patterns of thought and behavior we never choose and which might still direct our choices even now. The pains, blame and anger of the Holocaust, the Great Depression, the desperate scarcity, degradation and shame.

I didn’t speak with my father for what would be the last 10 years of his life. I visited him at his deathbed, entirely without dignity, but ultimately it was a weak version of reconciliation. There was no fight left in him. He was a baby really, hungry for death all of the sudden, and my brother and I changed his diaper. The bowel movements were excruciating and he would scream, as so much of his lower torso was a blockage of cancerous tumors and swollen organs.

To say he was a difficult man is like saying the sun is hot. He was proud. His pride ran so deep — it was a blazing tangle of insecurities. There was no in-group, no tribe for him in this world. Dad had one of the fastest and sharpest minds I’ve known, obsessed with perfection in details, grammar, syntax, tasks in carpentry and impish inventions for subverting every imaginable system of authority. He never waited in lines. Forgiveness rather than permission was as foundational to him as piety is to priests. And he never apologized, for anything, ever. I never saw him weep or admit to having made a mistake.

He was good at assigning blame, and terrible at taking responsibility. His words were crafted to convince listeners that he was far too enlightened for such a spiritual dark age. Many others probably thought him a self-parody — a megalomaniac. His madness granted him immunity to any information that contradicted his own superiority. It was a crushing burden of self-delusion, frantic in its expressions.

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And yet, imagine him at 26 years old. He’d discovered LSD and fancied himself a pioneer of the counter-culture. He rode a 300cc Honda Superhawk with his pet squirrel monkey Booboo perched on the tank in front of him, living in tropical Coconut Grove on Mary Street. He was playful, particularly with young children. Sitting at the side of waves of gurus fresh from Asia, he was maybe a new kind of Peter, certainly an apostle, self-styled inevitably as a messiah to be persecuted for his mind-blowing insights into the dark recesses of his devotees’ minds.

But in time, as I grew, these revealed themselves as ploys for his own elevation, efforts to undermine the self-esteem in those around him. If their love was pure and true, his entourage was to remain in awe, dependent on him entirely. If they grew self-reliant, they were to be cast out. If they questioned the authority of his metaphysical insights, it was a sign of arrogance and delusion.

He was an apostle, self-styled inevitably as a messiah to be persecuted for his mind-blowing insights into the dark recesses of his devotees’ minds.

My father subscribed to the blind obedience school of spirituality and loved sharing parables that reinforced these values. I cannot imagine him ever respecting another person. Needless to say that didn’t work out too well for him, as he bled away so many kind people who found their own bearings and graduated along their own paths and were lost to him. He did not know much kindness from the strong-willed.

Imagine my mother at 19, run off from a troubled family in Cincinnati, on her way through Miami to a Peace Corps posting in Haiti. She was sidetracked at Florida’s southern tip. My parents fell in love, tripped on acid while reading passages from the W.Y. Evans Wentz translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. They cast old Chinese coins and read The I-Ching so as to know the future.

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Their first shop was called I-Ching and eventually it became a pioneering gallery of Asian antiquities. They benefited, for instance, as antique Japanese netsuke, small functional sculptures in ivory or wood, transitioned from keepsakes brought back by G.I.s from Japan, traded for cigarettes or maybe at most a few hundred dollars, to a global fetish, with official societies and extensive cataloguing. Netsuke now routinely sell in the 6 figures. My parents saw fortunes raised and lost.

By the time she was 20, my mother had me to take care of. By 1979 she would have 3 of us. What a crushing burden for her, both all that responsibility and my father’s dictatorial ways. Amazing she broke away at all, but that is what happened when I was 7. Our Temple of Yoga community disbanded, many finding their way to Santa Cruz and what would become Mount Madonna Center in the mountains over Capitola.

The less time I spent around my father, the stronger I felt and the more self-determination I discovered. I needed distance to become an independent adult.

A small taste of authority seemed to make my father mad. By the time I was in college, he knew I no longer respected him. I feared in so many ways I would slide into his behaviors. So I stayed vigilant. And I gained distance and had epiphanies, particularly on a Buddhist studies program in Bodh Gaya, India when I was 22.

I found fallibility, a deeper sense of humanity and the value of compassion. I discovered the levers through meditation to allow gentle transitions from undesirable patterns to new habitual tendencies more conducive to harmony and happiness. The less time I spent around my father, the stronger I felt and the more self-determination I discovered. I needed distance to become an independent adult.

Flickr (Moyan Brenn)

But I still found strange ways to abdicate responsibilities, and subconsciously created endless means of self-sabotage. I turned down leadership roles I could easily have handled, even as an entrepreneur, for 10 years as co-founder of my own business. Would more responsibilities chain me? Could I imagine I had something of value to share or teach? Could I embody the insight that leaders need permission and this is gained through deep empathy and a powerful hunger to see those around you thrive?

So here I am at 40. Maybe I’ve finally figured out how to let go the largest obstacles I’ve placed in my own way. To be vulnerable, fallible and visible and to test, through my actions, if my perspectives or knowledge are of use to others. My father is 3 years in his grave. My daughter will only know him through stories. There are happy ones and valuable skills he taught me and that is mostly what I’ll share. Perhaps finally, I am ready to move out of his shadow and discover what I’m capable of achieving with a community of peers I respect and admire. Here in better light, all things are possible.

Raman Frey has authored the introductions to two artist monographs, written extensively on art and is currently co-authoring a business book, Bigger Pie with ReTargeter CEO Arjun dev Arora. You can find more of his writing at www.ramanfrey.com. You can find more Medium posts here: