Humanity owes a lot to Rudolf Steiner.
Born in 1861, he introduced bio-dynamic farming, anthroposophical medicine, he designed 17 buildings (three of which have been listed amongst the most significant works of modern architecture), advocated for important social reform, and gave us perhaps his most enduring legacy — the Waldorf education system.
He was also racist.
He believed that white people had an “intellectual life” while black people had an “instinctual life.” He believed in a racial hierarchy, and believed you can climb the hierarchy from black to white, through reincarnation. In other words, if you were a good black person, perhaps you could be reborn white in your next life.
All that is to say, Steiner was both a visionary who created important systems for our collective evolution, and someone who held beliefs that we now recognize as racist, deeply hurtful and untrue.
So what do we do about that? The post #metoo world has brought us to a place where we need to reckon with useful systems built by imperfect people. Sometimes, as in the case of Steiner, those imperfections cannot be ignored, and so to move on in a good way we need to publicly recognize them, so others can trust the necessary learning and reconciliation has taken place.
Many Waldorf schools have taken this on, and from what I can tell, have done a nice job of embracing the contributions Steiner made, while explicitly rejecting the parts of his philosophy that no longer serve us. This San Francisco Waldorf school provides a good example in their Statement on Steiner.
“Waldorf education espouses principles of respect for human dignity. Any narratives or indications made by Rudolf Steiner that are in contradiction to these principles are not the basis for Waldorf education and we unequivocally denounce such statements.”
And yet, this kind of honest reconciliation isn’t easy, and often takes many generations to implement. Rudolf Steiner has been dead for almost 100 years, but what if he were still alive? What if the folks that ran the Waldorf schools were his friends or family? Would they be able to issue such a matter-of-fact statement rejecting part of his life’s work? Or would they not say anything and hope no one notices?
Enter Baba Dez
Baba Dez is a Neo-Tantra teacher who started a school called the International School of Temple Arts in 2007. ISTA (International School of Temple Arts) has grown, changed and expanded since its inception, and today it holds trainings around the world for folks exploring the intersection of sexuality, shamanism and spirituality.
I’ve heard a lot of good things about ISTA trainings, and many of my friends have had wonderful experiences. I also have close friends whom I respect and love that are involved in the organization, whether it’s as teachers, organizers or assistants.
Before I continue, I want it to be clear about my intentions. I believe ISTA as an organization is doing a lot of good and I personally would like to see it continue to grow and help people. I’ve chosen to not to attend any of the trainings, so I have no comments or criticism at this time about the curriculum, or any of the teachers.
The reason I’m writing this is I’m one of the many folks that have been around the Neo-Tantra community for a while — that care deeply about this work — and are waiving our hands in the air, trying to understand why ISTA can’t be honest and transparent about its founder, Baba Dez, and the influence he has had on the ISTA culture and it’s trainings.
One needs to merely whisper Baba Dez’s name in circles of people who have been around the Neo-Tantra community to hear stories of his gaslighting, manipulative tactics and sloppy, misuse of power with women. Even within the ISTA teaching collective there are many people who believe he shouldn’t be teaching or involved with the organization.
A few years ago I wrote an essay called Spiritual Gaslighting: Why Sexual Predators Love Tantra and decided initially to use a picture of Baba Dez as the featured image in the essay 1. That was followed by many women coming out of the woodwork to share their stories about Dez, both publicly on Facebook and privately through emails to me. Some of the stories I heard were absolutely heartbreaking.
As if that weren’t enough, there was also a personal story from a woman I’m very close with sharing about a recent experience she had with Baba Dez where, after saying “no” to sex with him, he told her if she wasn’t so wounded, she would want to have sex with a conscious, awake man like him.
His behavior is a problem within the context of him being an average man on the street, but when you add the fact that he founded and built the curriculum for the largest and most successful Neo-Tantra school in the world — it makes his behavior even harder to reckon with.
Reckoning & Reconciliation
Fortunately, ISTA as an organization has done a lot of reckoning. After years of Baba Dez directing ISTA, Baba Dez stepped down as the director and shifted power to a group of experienced teachers (the lead circle), but kept himself on as a teacher. Then more recently, some folks within ISTA thought it would be a good idea for Baba Dez to retire, so he agreed, although he plans on returning to teaching next year.
ISTA has also done some important self-inquiry around what it’s meant to have the habits and character traits (both helpful and harmful) of a man like Baba Dez woven into the fabric of their organization. There are people inside ISTA actively working to get the organization to adopt trauma-informed best practices into their curriculum, as well as transparent reporting and a restorative justice model for when issues arise, even though those voices are still being met with a lack of action inside the organization.
Their curriculum has been changed and calibrated over the years, and there are now some protocols in place to prevent teachers from having sex with students. This is something that has historically been (and continues to be) a significant source of conflict, although it varies from training to training, because each lead teacher gets to set their own rules when it comes to how teachers engage with students.
Important Note: Teachers having sex with students is a complex topic, and I’m not drawing a hard line between right and wrong — I don’t believe that line exists. Not only can the line between teacher and student be (at times) hard to distinguish, but there is real, legitimate healing and transformation that can happen inside these relationships.
That being said, it seems as though the wisdom of “the person that really wants to be the president, probably shouldn’t be the president” applies here. The teachers who avoid sleeping with students because they realize how difficult and problematic it can be are probably the ones who could actually do it, while the teachers who embrace sleeping with students are probably the ones who shouldn’t.
Big, institutional-level change is not easy, so it’s significant that ISTA has come this far. Regardless of how Baba Dez’s personal behavior has hurt people, he was able to build a school that has helped thousands of people have a better relationship to their sexuality, and that’s meaningful and significant. So how does this organization truly move forward? What’s in the way?
Owning Our Shadows
I believe ISTA as an organization is afraid to publicly own its shadow, and that fear and defensiveness is not only putting them at odds with the greater Neo-Tantra community, but it’s weakening the potency of their work. In the core values from their website, it’s stated: “we want to develop what works, let go of what doesn’t and stay on the evolutionary edge”.
The psychologist Nathaniel Brandon famously said, “you can’t leave a place you’ve never been”, and I believe the evolutionary path forward for ISTA is not simply letting go of the past, but actually owning it. Baba Dez is still listed as a lead teacher on their website, and internally there are still people wanting him to return to teaching. Not only that, but thanks to the culture Baba Dez helped to establish, many other Neo-Tantra teachers (mostly men) have been attracted to ISTA, and have played out the same, unconsciously destructive patterns.
For ISTA to reckon with Baba Dez is important, but the real work is digging up the toxic influence he has had on the organization as a whole, then flushing it out — which can only happen by first coming to terms with him as a founder.
I’ve spent many years in conversation with teachers, facilitators and leaders inside ISTA, many of whom I’ve had friendships with for over a decade, and from what I can tell — we shouldn’t expect there to be a public statement any time soon. Furthermore, if there is a public statement, the ISTA culture is so full of flowery, indirect, bypassing language that I have no confidence it will address the issues at hand in a way that creates anything but more turmoil.
Instead of waiting, I decided to write what I’d like to see them say. My hope is that it moves some people inside the ISTA organization to see they don’t need to continue being secretive and defensive, rather — they can own their shadows, be forthcoming about their progress and help the greater Neo-Tantra community rebuild trust in their process for growth and transformation.
These words are my own, and I am in no way affiliated with the school. I’m also writing this statement assuming that ISTA would choose to initiate a public, and independently-held restorative justice process for Baba Dez (and other teachers who have received significant complaints), as a way of addressing this issue both publicly, and in a way that allows for ISTA to check itself as an organization, which has not yet happened.
What I Wish ISTA Would Say (In My Own Words)
As an organization deeply committed to understanding and practicing transformation, we believe that owning our shadows is an essential part of our growth. Whether that’s personally or as a collective, recognizing the ways our shadow has run counter to our mission and values, then acknowledging them and finding a new path forward — is a practice we are continually working on and humbled by.
The International School of Temple Arts was founded in 2007 by Baba Dez, a man who worked tirelessly to start and run a school that could expand consciousness and sacred sexuality across the globe. Baba Dez believed in a world where love can flow freely between everyone, and for many years he and other ISTA teachers interacted with students in a way that in some cases, caused (and continues to cause) harm to the people involved. The complexities of power dynamics, the lack of trauma understanding, and the personal shadows of teachers like Baba Dez are something we now see were contributing factors to students being harmed, misled and abandoned.
In an effort to restore faith with our greater community, we have chosen to permanently and publicly retire Baba Dez Nichols. We are also prepared to permanently retire any other teachers who have consciously and unconsciously abused their power, and are unwilling or unable to take full responsibility for their actions.
We recognize that while the behavior of individual teachers must be addressed, ISTA as an organization also needs to self-assess, so for that reason we will be working with outside teachers and facilitators in conjunction with our internal team to examine the ways in which ISTA may be running harmful systems and practices.
We are eternally grateful for the work and dedication it took to start this mystery school, and we wish to honor that by continuing this work with the same commitment to transformation and growth as it was started with.
P.S. For anyone who has had a bad experience with Baba Dez or any other ISTA teacher, there are people here to help. A small group of experienced and respected teachers and practitioners (not affiliated with ISTA) have convened to collect information, as well as find support for those who need it. They have created a way for folks to anonymously report any issues with ISTA trainings, it can be found at https://bit.ly/ReportISTA
There is also a Facebook group, led by the same group of teachers and practitioners, which has become a great resource for those wanting to share their story and receive community support. That can be found by clicking here.