Between the Extremes

Between the Extremes


In 1984, followers of the spiritual guru Osho (Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, 1931-1990) sprinkled salmonella bacteria into the salad bars of ten restaurants in Oregon, sickening 751 people. A few years earlier, Osho had left his commune in India due to pressure from authorities and purchased a defunct ranch in the Pacific Northwest. Thousands of his students moved in, but the land wasn’t zoned for that volume of habitation. They ran into more trouble with the law because of it, and had to find ways to conceal how many people were actually residing there.

Hiding the expansion of the community was difficult as their numbers grew because they wore highly visible red robes – plus they built an airstrip, restaurants, and fire department on the property. It probably didn’t help that they occasionally drove into town in a Jeep with a machine gun mounted on it. They clashed with locals, government officials, and environmental groups, but eventually hit upon a solution: this would all be legal if they could establish the ranch as a city.

There was considerable resistance from the community, however, and this is what led to the salmonella plan. Through what has been called the largest domestic act of bioterrorism in the U.S., they hoped to incapacitate enough voters to secure wins for their own candidates in the upcoming county election. But despite the sickened population, local voter turnout was high enough to keep Osho’s supporters (AKA “Rajneeshees”) from succeeding.

During this time, the guru was observing a long period of seclusion and had ceased contact with all but a small number of close attendants. However, his devotees bought him a collection of 93 Rolls Royces, and each day he would slowly drive one of these luxury cars down a long dirt road where they waited to catch a glimpse of him.

About a year later, Osho himself reported the salmonella attacks to the authorities. The attacks, it turns out, were just the most visible expression of a chaotic fanaticism that had developed in a portion of his followers. Osho claimed they acted without his knowledge or blessing; they said he sanctioned it.

It’s difficult to discern the truth from all the stories, partly because his form of teaching came with an apparent delight in shocking people. He enjoyed cursing, had an irreverent sense of humor, championed free love, and proposed such offensive measures as euthanizing disabled children. He was both scorned and revered. Many intelligent people regard him as one of the greatest contemporary spiritual teachers, and probably millions would credit him with making a positive impact on their lives.

When most people encounter such a button-pushing issue or figure, they feel compelled to take a side. We like things to be black and white. If we can frame something in terms of good and evil or right and wrong, it makes our lives easier. It feels good to have strong, unwavering convictions. But the truth doesn’t usually conform to such convenient categories. Almost everything falls somewhere along the gigantic spectrum between the extremes. And accepting this requires the work of deeper contemplation and possibly the discomfort of admitting that our position isn’t completely correct.

A recent study showed that people who know the least about a subject are the most likely to take a strongly polarized position on it – perhaps even a zealous, foaming-at-the-mouth position. The corollary to this finding is that the more we really understand a person or issue, the more neutral our position becomes, and the more accepting we tend to be of different viewpoints.

In the case of Osho, my opinion is that he was charismatic, brilliant, enlightened, and also manipulative, self-serving, offensive, and extremely eccentric. I also think, as is so often the case with powerful people, he attracted followers who believed they were living in accordance with his teachings and acting on his behalf without really understanding what he stood for. They were intoxicated by his mojo and used that feeling of power to justify their own convoluted drives. My intention isn’t really to pick on Osho and his disciples as much as it to point out the dynamics that occur on the inside and outside of such a phenomenon, which I’ll summarize here:

Tapping into power tends to amplify not just the presentable aspects of ourselves, but our shadow side, too. It partly explains why so many high-level teachers, artists, and executives end up sleeping with their students and employees, or succumbing to some other vice. Perhaps it’s why a guru might enjoy having 93 Rolls Royces. And it’s also why many traditions, such as yoga, emphasize purifying or balancing one’s mind, actions, and senses before attempting the practices that are likely to unleash a bunch of energy. (Did your yoga teacher introduce you to the yamas and niyamas that traditionally come before undertaking asanas or “poses”?)

Potent ideas tend to be degraded as they are transmitted through human minds. It’s like the children’s game operator. Moreover, we like latching onto such ideas – whether we find them enticing or horrible, or both – and running with them, even though the trajectory they carry us on may not be altogether healthy for us. And again, we favor positionality, even though (or maybe because) it implies conflict. That is, taking a fixed, polarized position necessarily engages us against the opposite position. In order to maintain such positionality, we’re best served by keeping ourselves ignorant.

In light of all these analyses of human behavior, I offer you this homework assignment for the week: Innocence. Be innocent, open, and humble. Feel the compulsion to take positions, and instead, be innocent, go deeper, and learn more.

Be well,

Dr. Peter Borten


P.S. For those who haven’t encountered any of Osho’s teachings, I’ll leave you with an excerpt from Undone Tao, a series of talks he gave on one of my favorite books, the Daoist classic, Dao De Jing:

“Enlightenment is not a search, it is a realization. It is not a goal, it is the very nature of life itself.

As life is, it is enlightened. It needs nothing to be added to it to improve it. Life is perfect. It is not moving from imperfection to perfection. It is moving from perfection to perfection.

You are here to attain something – that is functioning as a barrier. Drop that barrier. Just be here. Forget about any purpose. Life cannot have any purpose; life is the purpose. How can it have any other purpose? Otherwise you will be in an infinite regress: then that purpose will have another purpose, then that purpose will have another purpose… Life has no purpose and that’s why it’s so beautiful.

Hindus have called it leela, a play. It is not even a game. Now in the West, the word “game” has become very important. Hundreds of books have been published within two, three years with the word “game” in the title: The Master Game, The Ultimate Game, Games People Play, and so on. But there is a difference between game and play. Hindus have called life “play,” not “game,” because even a game has something as a purpose: a result to be attained, victory to be achieved, the opponent has to be conquered. When play becomes a game, then it becomes serious.

Grownups play games, children only play. Just the very activity is enough unto itself. It has an intrinsic end; there is no goal added to it. Life is a leela. It is a play. And the moment you are ready to play, you are enlightened.

Then you start a totally different way of life. You start being playful. You start being alive moment to moment with nowhere to go. Whatsoever life gives, you accept it with deep gratitude. Grace happens to you.”

  • Tammi
    Posted at 22:12h, 17 October Reply

    Thank you for sharing this incredible story and understanding. I just had a HUGE a-ha.

  • Carter Tracy
    Posted at 22:48h, 17 October Reply

    Very well said. A little harsh on Osho, but your insight and compassion are clear. I didn’t know about the salmonella scandal, though knew the rest. Still I have been profoundly moved by his writings and his movement-based meditations.
    I appreciate the definition of “leela” and the framing of playing versus gaming – an essential disctinction.

    • Peter Borten
      Posted at 16:27h, 18 October Reply

      Thanks, Carter. I’m glad to hear you’ve benefited from his work, and I’m also glad to have provided something of a challenge with regard to the topic of positionality. And, yes, PLAY!

  • Alex
    Posted at 23:03h, 17 October Reply

    Thank you for these beautiful words. Actually just what I needed to hear today, and opened up space for me to consider how best to collaborate with others.

  • Alexa Robbins
    Posted at 23:08h, 17 October Reply

    Impressive and deeply insightful article. Thank you! I’ve studied Osho’s teachings and am both attracted and repelled. We in the west seem to have difficulty accepting a both/and rather that either/or perspective in individuals and collective systems. To hold the shadow and light simultaneously is possible if we stay in our innocence.

  • Regis McDonald
    Posted at 01:15h, 18 October Reply

    Don’t even know where to begin to respond this apologia for this narcissistic cult leader’s criminal behavior. Totally ok with taking a fixed position on this Rolls Royce driving guru and landing on the side of “Nah….not going to give this guy a pass”. Would suggest you spend some time reading Matthew Remski’s work on cults, gurus and how they both function in yoga and in spiritual communities. This article and take on this person is not helpful to the many who were harmed by him.

    • Peter Borten
      Posted at 15:25h, 19 October Reply

      It’s difficult for me to understand how you interpreted this article as an apologia for a “cult leader’s criminal behavior.” Nowhere did I suggest that poisoning people is okay.

      The point of the article was to examine our tendency to take polarized positions, and our unwillingness or disinterest in seeing a bigger picture because it takes more work to accommodate a more complex understanding.

      I specifically chose Osho and specifically highlighted this scandalous event in order to make this point. And your response, and the one below, illustrated it well.

      This is a man who has been dead for 25+ years. No action needs to be taken to assess the nature of his influence & determine if intervention is necessary. We’re just looking back at the past. And you can either choose to see just a small segment of what happened or you can be willing to see more.

      The fact remains that many, many, many people claim his work had a positive impact on their lives. People who never lived in his compound (and people who did) so they weren’t brainwashed.

      As for Remski, while he has done some meaningful work, he is prone to this same form of black-and-white thinking. As a former cult member, he is sensitized to behavior he regards as cultish, and has an agenda of identifying and vilifying those he believes are guilty of it. Those he dismisses in his writings were, like Osho, much more than the cultish behavior he focuses on, and that’s the point of this article.

      Again, it’s one thing to identify an active cult, led by a living guru, who is causing harm to followers. In such a case, what’s important is to stop them from encroaching on the liberties of others – which is no one’s right, even if they’re offering good teachings. But when making a historical analysis like this one, there’s no “giving them a pass” or “withholding” a pass, except in your own mind — these are just subjective interpretations. Because … they’re dead.

      I’m sorry you found the article offensive; my intention was something very different than how you seem to have interpreted it. I truly want to help people understand the difference between their interpretations and the truth.

      I wish you the best.

  • Kathy Redmond Hamlin
    Posted at 10:21h, 18 October Reply

    I agree Regis. This article has a huge moral and logical failing. Ego, greed, gun violence or threats of violence and harm to others, WHETHER INTENTIONAL OR NOT, are not ok. Suffering is inevitable, but neutrality regarding those who cause such suffering in the way this community did is a perversion of the concept. Leadership/guruship implies great power for the guru and brings great responsibility for what one teaches and how they do so.
    Innocence and play are surely something to strive for, and those are NOT what Osho and his followers were doing. There is a difference in holding shadow/light in my MIND versus manifesting shadow in the world. Take the rise of the Third Reich and the slaughter of the innocents there for example. NOT DIFFERENT except in magnitude.
    Repulsive no matter what.

    • Peter Borten
      Posted at 15:27h, 19 October Reply

      Hi Kathy.
      See my response to Regis above.
      Then, if you could help me understand the “huge moral and logical failing” of the article, I would be happy to engage in a dialogue about it.

      It seems that you two – and perhaps other readers who haven’t commented – believe that I’m saying, “If we acknowledge the ‘good’ qualities of something, they can negate or ‘cancel out’ the ‘bad’ qualities.” I’d like to clarify that I didn’t say that, nor do I believe it.

      What I see happening is that people often feel very strongly that when something/someone has harmful qualities, we should make a summary judgment about it, by sort of “rounding down,” so that we can simply say, “This is entirely bad.” Furthermore, we should refrain from noticing other qualities that don’t fit with that judgment, even if they exist, because (1) it’s a good way to punish the bad person/thing (2) mentioning the good qualities makes the issue less clear, and it might weaken our case of the ‘right’ judgment (i.e., condemnation).

      As I see it, there is no mandate to summarize complex phenomena in this way, reducing them to simple judgments. It’s worthwhile to be able to assess many variables in order to know when and how to ACT – especially when it’s necessary to prevent harm – but that’s not what we’re doing here, or the great majority of other instances when we engage in such black-and-white thinking.

      Be well,

      • Regis
        Posted at 21:11h, 21 October Reply

        Again, happy to make a “summary judgment” on gun toting, salmonella spreading, rolls royce driving gurus. You would do your readers a service to include this link for those tempted to go down the “there is good to be found even with the bad—just free your mind and look harder” argument. A not dis-similar argument was made by current WH occupant/others for white supremacists mowing people over in Charlottesville–“there are good people on both sides”. Do you advocate looking for the good in white supremacy teachings? I am sure there are people who will attest to how they have benefited greatly from them.

        The comment thread on this Facebook post is instructive as well.

        I happily stand with the people who have been harmed.

        • Peter Borten
          Posted at 16:13h, 26 October Reply

          I wouldn’t say I’m making an “argument” that there’s good in the bad people. It’s just a fact. We all get to choose whether to ignore it or acknowledge it. And it’s not even a hard thing to find in someone like Osho. As we’ve already discussed, huge numbers of people have benefited from his teachings. It doesn’t invalidate the experience of those who were hurt to acknowledge that others had/have a positive experience of him. But it does seem that you’re trying to invalidate the experience of those who have had a positive experience.

          I, too, stand by people who have been hurt. It’s my life’s work, actually. And from what I’ve seen, casting the perpetrator (or perceived perpetrator) as a one-dimensional villain may be useful initially – if it helps the victim stop blaming themselves, for instance – but it has its downsides, such as reinforcing a shallow, disempowering narrative about how the world works.
          If we endeavor to go further, recognizing the multidimensionality of these “perps” opens up new levels of understanding, growth, and evolution.

          And as for white supremacists, I wouldn’t specifically advocate looking for good in their belief system, which is just the misguided product of confusion, hurt, fear, separation, and anger. But would I advocate looking for the good in the people themselves? HELL YES. Anyone who is dedicated to real healing, or even just reasonable diplomacy, should answer yes to that question.

  • Uncle Bill
    Posted at 12:53h, 18 October Reply

    You amaze me.

  • Charley Yancey
    Posted at 13:29h, 18 October Reply

    Life is play…love that. Thank You

  • Kate
    Posted at 14:26h, 18 October Reply

    Recognizing the complexity in humans and in life, both the dark and the light co-existing, is an achievement. But in some people, the dark outweighs any light.

    • Peter Borten
      Posted at 16:31h, 20 October Reply

      Agreed on the first statement. As for the second, perhaps, though I think the recognition of this minuscule light in such “dark” people changes everything. It changes them and it changes us. And if we’re committed to the truth, and to healing ourselves and our species, such recognition is essential.

  • Sheri
    Posted at 21:04h, 19 October Reply

    I read this yesterday and felt I needed to take a day to ponder on my thoughts. I was a teen during that time, in the middle of it in Oregon. So you can imagine the negative things that I heard, but being a teenager, I had more important things to think about.
    Now that I look back on it , see that it was highly volatile.
    I was raised by a semi conservative family. I say this because my parents had a deep faith, but we didn’t go to one set church. They taught me to accept people at where they were, not judge what they ware or how they look.
    I wish I had been more conscious of the teachings. It reminded me of the time the Rainbow family came to our ranger station to ask for a permit to hold a gathering. My dad invited the leaders to our house for dinner and we had an amazing time. They mentioned how the teachings and rules they had were not always kept by their followers and not to judge them by these actions. I learned a lot that evening and would love to attend a gathering.
    Thank you for sharing this insight into his actual teachings.
    I also thought about how many religions teach about being child like and I think that I have mistook the meaning. I have always been taught that means blind faith. I don’t think that now.
    I homeschool my kids and not once did they ever take anything a face value. They are full of questions and what ifs. When I said they had cowlicks they admonished me for letting cows lick them. So now I look at child like to mean to learn, question, research…. until I have an answer that I can understand.
    Sorry this got so long, I just really felt I needed to share it.
    Thank you!

    • Peter Borten
      Posted at 16:33h, 20 October Reply

      Thanks for sharing, Sheri! What good stories. I appreciate your willingness to reflect and reframe.

    • Tara Lukasik
      Posted at 07:59h, 26 October Reply

      Thanks again for everything you both are doing let’s me know what you need from me?

  • Judy Pariser
    Posted at 03:34h, 20 October Reply

    Oh my. I had to read that twice, and then take a picture of it, so that can read it again tomorrow.

    I was fascinated with Osho’s words and see the wisdom in his teaching… and at the same time am horrified by some of his beliefs and practices.

    Genius is just a minuscule separation from lunacy… kindness from mean spirited behavior … anger from joy… truth from a lie… pain from pleasure. We are all but one step from “the other side,” no matter how narrow the path we try to follow.

    Thank you for sharing this – you have given me quite a bit to consider!

    • Peter Borten
      Posted at 16:35h, 20 October Reply

      Yes, Judy. You said it well. Such dichotomies aren’t as different as people think – nor mutually exclusive – and the more we can simply acknowledge reality without the need to take fixed positions, the more free we’ll be.

  • Jessica Ada
    Posted at 15:21h, 21 October Reply

    I’ve been following you for awhile and–side note–love Dragontree products. The timeliness of your letter is amazing.

    I live in Santa Rosa, CA, a community that has recently suffered what the news called a firestorm. My family and I were evacuated for over a week along with many friends and neighbors. As we watched our community burned and traumatized–so many homes and lives lost–we wondered if we would have a home. We are now settling back into our home and feel overwhelmingly blessed and guilty. Our bit of neighborhood is an island with devastation less than a quarter mile south of us. It will take a long time for our community to heal.

    Wildfires are the epitome of light and dark. I have full knowledge of the cleansing properties of wildfires. I understand the necessity of burning and allowing for regrowth and a revived landscape. It is difficult to embrace the light and the dark of what has happened, yet I still smiled and laughed with friends and embraced through tears as we waited–the act healed and helped us move through the pain. I am amazed at the outpouring of love from my community and equally amazed by my own outpouring.

    I’m not sure if I’m ready to “play” or view this particular event as leela, but I am embracing the light and dark of it and hoping to play soon.

    Thank you for your words and the reminder that life is play and that all this running around “playing the game” doesn’t matter as much as the simple act of embracing a friend and experiencing laughter through tears.

    • Peter Borten
      Posted at 19:49h, 26 October Reply

      You’re welcome, Jessica, and thank you for sharing your story and process. Yes, we’re not always able to see the big picture in the midst of demanding events like this one, but even pulling just a bit out of total immersion in one’s emotions and survival thoughts can make such a huge difference – not just for you, but for those around you.
      Be well,

  • Diane Whitbeck
    Posted at 18:23h, 22 October Reply

    I read this article with great interest. I have always been one of those people who can see the point/value of each extreme. This has made me a good negotiator, because by seeing both sides, I can find the one commonalty, even if it is tiny, that allows me to lead both sides to the middle ground and a state of calm acceptance instead of angry divisiveness. Once, the only thing I could identify that both parties possessed was that both were alive and breathing common air, so we started there!

    Great article, and I truly wish that more people were aware of the harmful effects of positioning themselves at either extreme of the spectrum regarding any aspect of their lives. Gray is a much more complex and flattering color to wear than either black or white. Thanks for your insights!

  • Peter Borten
    Posted at 19:50h, 26 October Reply

    Thanks, Diane. Beautifully said & I’m glad the world has you.

  • Rebecca Dumais
    Posted at 17:22h, 30 October Reply

    Thank you for sticking to your position even when others where attacking you for doing so. So many people will back down when faced with such opposition. I think the basis of this article is very well thought out. It would do the world a lot of good if people were to take a closer look at what you are saying, especially in these times of political unrest. We are all to willing to be judge and jury without looking at the whole picture. Very rarely is a person or idea all good or bad but we feel so much safer when we can stand on our side of the fence without ever looking at the other side closely. Often because the monsters lurking there hide within ourselves, too.

    • Peter Borten
      Posted at 05:23h, 19 November Reply

      You’re welcome & thank you, Rebecca. Yes, I had been seeing so much of this, especially in the world of politics, and it’s been all the more obvious in the weeks since writing this article. I also happened across an apt quote: “The less people know, the more stubbornly they know it.” It just happened to be said by Osho.

  • Breezy deWolfe
    Posted at 01:38h, 01 November Reply

    Mostly, I am touched by your clarity…your article on OSHA, who, regardless of the insanity that surrounded him, or that he may have reveleded in(seriously, he paraded a car? Have you been to suburbia? Some people find that their height. His words dont claim that place, just his followers. His words touch me often. I find no man(in the gender neutral way) as my god. They are who they are, and it is so easy to pass judgement on things that aren’t his teachings…so yeah, thanks Peter. Your brief summery of a human man with insight, was fair.

    • Peter Borten
      Posted at 05:24h, 19 November Reply

      Thanks, Breezy, and you’re welcome.

  • D.G.
    Posted at 14:13h, 06 November Reply

    Truly appreciating your insights. Please cite the study noted in your article:
    “A recent study showed that people who know the least about a subject are the most likely to take a strongly polarized position on it – perhaps even a zealous, foaming-at-the-mouth position. The corollary to this finding is that the more we really understand a person or issue, the more neutral our position becomes, and the more accepting we tend to be of different viewpoints.”

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