Reflections on 30+ Hrs of Mediated Conversation with ISTA Leadership

January 24, 2024

In the spring of 2022, myself and a handful of concerned friends joined a public conversation, centered around former students of ISTA trainings that experienced being harmed, abused or abandoned, as a result of their participation. ISTA (International School of Temple Arts) is a world-wide organization started in 2007, that holds trainings for folks exploring the intersection of sexuality, shamanism and spirituality.

For a detailed overview see this useful timeline of events, but the result of the public outcry and subsequent commotion was a proposed set of conversations between ISTA and volunteers from our group. We decided to organize ourselves under the title 3SC (Safer Sex-Positive & Spiritual Communities) and in January of 2023, four members of 3SC and four leaders from ISTA engaged in a mediated dialogue with a professional mediator that lasted 12 months and consisted of 30+ hours of meetings. These are my personal reflections from that process.

The Disappointed/Delighted Dichotomy

This month, we (ISTA and 3SC) released a joint statement. It represents the completion of our work together, and when I look back on what we’ve accomplished I have two seemingly contradictory feelings — I’m both disappointed that we didn’t accomplish more, and happy with the changes that have been made. Cara and Lalita (two other members of the 3SC mediation team) expressed this sentiment too.

If you would have told me two years ago that this is how I would feel, I probably would have questioned your sanity. Even now as I write this I don’t know how to reckon with it, but it feels undeniably true.

I’m disappointed that we weren’t able to do more for the victims that were harmed, because their experience is what set this all in motion. There has been real, no bullshit, harm done — and regardless of how many people had good experiences, the stories that we collected just weren’t able to be given the attention they deserved on an individual basis. We did our best to work toward having those stories help inform policy changes, and in some cases we were able to help with closure for past participants, but that process is still ongoing, and we’ve only been able to help a small fraction of the people who have been harmed.

Sitting with that disappointment, what’s also true is that things have now been put in motion by ISTA that have been stagnant for years, and there is a new opening for healing and growth that I was previously very doubtful of.

This journey for me with ISTA started many years ago, when many of my close friends attended ISTA trainings. Having been around the NeoTantra community since 2010, I understood that many ISTA facilitators had poor reputations, and that the organization had loose guidelines around teachers having sex with students, which paved the way for certain teachers to abuse their power and subsequently gaslight students who felt harmed. I had personal relationships with a handful of ISTA teachers, so after hearing enough stories I approached them in an attempt to understand their side of the story. What was really going on with this organization? Could things be as bad as they seemed from the outside?

Unfortunately, I was met with blank stares and shoulder shrugs. The famous whistleblower Upton Sinclair once wrote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” In the case of ISTA, we could add “status” or “sense of purpose” to the equation. What was clear to me, and many others, was that the folks benefiting from this organization were not wanting to rock the boat. Let’s be honest, working with ISTA is a good gig — a dream job for some teachers, so I understand why those folks wouldn’t want to risk what they had. Furthermore, ISTA has a growing community of people around the world, so questioning the validity of what they are doing and calling out the bad apples is not the best way to get invited to the potlucks and play parties.

That’s why the last 18 months have been so surprising. The conversation ISTA is willing to have now, versus what they were willing to have ten, five or even two years ago is miles apart.

Over the last year and a half they’ve released announcements addressing issues such as implementing an accountability process, re-thinking their governance structure, providing a 3rd party mediation service for past participants, introducing an integration program post-trainings and arranging for a more accessible feedback portal. Just the fact that they would even mention these things publicly is a big departure from where they’ve been.

That’s not to say that they’ve completely turned the page on their problems, but I believe it’s worth celebrating that they’ve begun to replace denial and gaslighting of their public critics with listening and transparency.

Conflict and Conversations

This brings me to my conversations with the ISTA leadership. Initially I was skeptical of how this would go. ISTA was having problems because folks were writing letters to the venues hosting their trainings and getting events canceled. There was a lot of angry people, some of whom wanted nothing short of burning everything down.

Some of us were helping run a Facebook group started in June 2022 called “Issues with ISTA and Highden Temple Trainings”, where people could come, share their stories and get a sense of solidarity with other survivors. I was skeptical when ISTA approached us. I wondered if they were only interested in trying to make the bad press stop, instead of doing the self-inquiry and cultural changes that were needed. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case.

My experience of the group of ISTA faculty that showed up to the conversations (KamalaDevi McClure, Raffaello Manacorda, Crystal Dawn Morris and Rich Priddis) was overall positive. There was a sincere desire to listen for what they didn’t know, as well as a willingness to push back if they didn’t agree with something we said. The process culminated in one of the ISTA leaders (Raffaello) and I collaborating to write the joint statement I mentioned above. He and I worked together for 8-10 hours and it was cordial, vulnerable and I believe together we produced an effective and honest statement.

Do I still see major problems with ISTA? Yes. And yet the progress they’ve made in the last 18 months is significant. When I look back at the hundreds of hours I’ve invested in this project, I’m glad I did it, which is not something I was sure I would say when it started.

Moving Forward

A common question we (3SC) have gotten lately is “what was the result of your mediation with ISTA?” We compiled a list, but it’s just the beginning. Moving forward, here is what I see as the most significant change that has been made.

I believe that now, ISTA has an increased capacity to listen and self-correct.

At the end of the day, while there have absolutely been important policy changes made, the kinds of changes ISTA needs to make and implement are big and take time. We aren’t coming out of these series of conversations saying “it’s all better now” because it’s not. The toxins are still in the body, but the difference is now there are better systems in place to address and clear them.

War and Peace

Hopefully you enjoyed the symbolism of the picture I used for this essay. If you weren’t sure, it’s a shot from the set of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy” where the hero (Batman) and the villain (Bane) are relaxing together after the cameras stopped rolling.

One of the things I find fascinating about superhero narratives is the essential role of the villain, and this movie (The Dark Knight Rises) is a quintessential example of how the villain actually serves the hero.

In the movie Bane defeats a lethargic, depressed Batman who had lost his way, and instead of killing him — he sends him to an underground jail where only one person had ever escaped from. Batman then escapes, but only after facing his deepest fears, and returns to Gotham to save the city.

I get it, this sounds dramatic with me telling you that we helped ISTA become the hero it needs to be, but what I really want you to see in this metaphor is that this process isn’t always pretty. Our antagonists force us to confront our ugliness and force us to either grow or die, and the way it happens can be messy, cruel or even violent.

In hindsight, I see that the peacemaking we (the 3SC mediation team) were able to do was made possible by the people who were far less diplomatic than us. The scorn from survivors who had been hurt by ISTA was real — punches were thrown, windows were broken and law suits were subsequently threatened. It was not a coordinated effort on our part, but I see now that it was all necessary.

How do I know that it took a high degree of conflict and significant media pressure for ISTA to listen? We tried the other way. In fact, I’ve been trying since 2017, but many other voices have been beating that drum for a long time, some since ISTA’s inception. Thank you for doing that work, even though it may have seemed fruitless at the time.

The predatory faculty that existed within ISTA was always an open secret, even within the organization. As happy as I am to now be seeing changes, both to the personnel and the culture, I also feel sad and angry that it took more than 5 years after the #metoo movement for ISTA to begin to clean up its act.

When problems persist for too long, life gives us signs. Sometimes it’s a whisper, sometimes it’s a punch in the face, and sometimes it’s a 4-alarm fire and it’s too late to do anything but evacuate the building. ISTA has done mountains of good in helping people transform their relationship to their sexuality, and yet it’s also left too many traumatized bodies in its wake.

If we want organizations like ISTA, we need them to be better. I hope that through our efforts, and the efforts of countless other people, we’ve helped lay the foundation for that to be possible.

For more information about the accountability process and other upgrades being made within ISTA, please visit: https://ista.life/accountability-update

For more information about 3SC (Safer Sex-Positive & Spiritual Communities), please visit http://3sc.community/

If you feel aligned with the work we (3SC) are doing and want to get involved, we could use your help (especially if you’re good at web design). To reach out please visit: https://3sc.community/get-involved


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