Dr Duncan Riach


Everything is my guru (including the internet trolls)

An image of Gollum from “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” from Warner Bros.

I’ve been struggling a lot with trolls recently. They show up and try to spoil the party. They tell me that I’m pompous, or a psychopath, or unfaithful to my wife. They tell me that I should stop teaching people to use meditation to be more successful in life, and that I should meditate more (or differently), be more humble, develop compassion, help others, and learn what it’s like to be poor. The trolls have lots of prescriptions for my life: be wiser, less cliche’d, and more giving.

Most of the time, I cannot understand what they are responding to. Often it seems that they didn’t read my article, or they read it and completely missed the point of it. Sometimes they seem to see me as someone who is my diametric opposite. Most of the time, these people who barely know me seem to think that they’re my therapist, or my closest friend. It’s never about them; it’s always about me. They even tell me that: “It’s all about you, eh?”

Yesterday I felt hurt. I had been called a manipulative sociopath who is out of touch with the feelings of the people around him, and who is selfishly womanizing his daughter behind his wife’s back. When I take those attacks personally, they hurt. They hurt because they’re not true. They don’t have any relationship with my life. In reality, I’m doggedly loyal, pained by empathy, and non-adaptively selfless.

Here’s the thing, I already have a lot of exposure in the world, and I’m going to have more, a lot more. I am realizing that I have to learn to deal adaptively with this trolling, internally, or it will destroy me. Today I remembered a realization I had at a recent meditation retreat.

While performing my introspective-practice-of-choice (Vipassana), I became aware of an intensely dysfunctional relationship that I have with gurus or teachers. I have spent my life looking for someone to guide me, to give me the answers to life, to help me end my suffering.

I have been initiated many times, into many different traditions. I even went to India and sat in a dim room in Varanasi with a “guru.” We sat together, just me and him, for two hours per day for three weeks. One of the pithy nuggets of wisdom that I remember him telling me was, “Men should not have sex with other men.” Alrighty then. I’m a man who is not interested in having sex with other men, but I believe that other men should do whatever they wish with other consenting men.

Another time, after I had had a certain experience in meditation, I shared it with a teacher because I wanted to put it in context. The response to my vulnerable share was an angry assertion that, “You can’t have experienced that because it would mean that you’re a saint!” Yet again, I was taking direction from someone who is less free than me.

In reaction to this fruitless search for a guru, and also because I have been hurt by people who I have placed in spiritual authority over me, I have been through a reactive period of pushing away all teachers. I believed that I did not need to place anyone above me, as my guru. I believed that I have my own guru inside of me.

In that recent meditation retreat, all of this struggle about internal versus external authority came to a head, and what emerged was a realization that everything is my guru. Every experience in every moment is my guru. Reality is trying to show me something about itself all the time. I must be pretty important to the universe, because it’s continuously conspiring to liberate me from suffering.

So now I came to applying this realization to these trolls and what they write. People don’t walk up to other people in the street, and say, “You walk funny! What’s wrong with you! You need to meditate more and learn to be humble! Look at how arrogantly you’re cocking your head! When did you stop beating your wife?” People don’t do that on the street because it’s embarrassing. On the internet, people have certain amount of anonymity and insulation from normal social feedback. They think they look less crazy when they act out their reactions in written words.

And it became very clear to me that every time someone approaches me with a disparaging, negative frame, which feels shitty to me, it’s a sign that they’re having a reaction. They are in an emotional reaction and acting out. It’s nothing to do with me. I write very vulnerably, and people reading it feel all kinds of emotions. Sometimes it’s challenging.

I was once trolled by a guy who told me to stop airing my “dark poetry.” It didn’t seem dark to me. I was just revealing my inner world. I understood more clearly when he called me and told me that my sharing of my feelings led to him feeling that he had to tell people about being sexually brutalized as a tiny infant. He said, “How does that make you feel!?” With tears in my eyes, I told him that I felt compassion for him, and that I cared about him. I was not disgusted by him, as he had expected me to be.

I’m used to sharing my inner world. It takes courage, and it feels risky. I do it because I believe that it’s one of the most powerful things I can do to heal the planet. I can set an example. I can show that there is nothing to be ashamed of. When people get triggered and come back at me with shaming words, that’s because they’re a triggered and acting out. It’s nothing to do with me. I don’t have to take on the projections. I don’t have to dim my light. I am dedicated to shining this light into the world.

I was talking with a friend yesterday about how we both seem to “self-gaslight.” When we are being attacked, we hear critical statements, and even though they don’t land in our reality, we give them excessive air-time in our minds and hearts. We question: Am I really a sociopath? Do I really want to have sex with my adult daughter? Am I really pretending to be a saint by making up a story of a spiritual experience? Did I somehow hallucinate that? Am I really somehow fundamentally broken in a hopeless way, where all the steps I’ve been taking that seem to reduce my suffering are really just me deluding myself, and I’m really unhappy and lost? And on and on and on.

So what are the trolls, on the internet and in real life, tying to teach me? More accurately, what is the experience of being trolled trying to teach me? What is the growth edge for me? The growth edge for me is to learn to not give a fuck what other people say. Ironically, it’s to be a little more sociopathic, a little less empathic, and a little more protective of my feelings, my energy, and my time. I need to act like I respect and value myself a little bit more.

When someone takes the time to attack me, they’re doing it because their buttons have been pushed, and they’re trying on some level to get me to feel their pain. They’re doing it in a very dysfunctional way. Instead of revealing their hurt and pain explicitly, and owning it, they’re implicitly trying to communicate it by hurting me. As an insanely sensitive introverted empath, I am like a finely tuned feeling instrument. They come in and start banging on my keys, wanting to hear my notes of pain. Each bang leads into an internal echo chamber of introspection, and an attempt to try to make sense of it.

“What’s the lesson here?” I ask. What am I missing? How can I extract the goodness from this? I am finally learning that even if there is a kernel of truth in what is being presented to me, it is being presented in a way that is almost impossible for me, or anyone else, to hear. The reality is that it’s an expression of their own pain, directed outwardly, projected onto me.

My lesson is to understand that: “I pushed their buttons,” and they’re not taking responsibility for their emotional reactions. There’s nothing I need to do. I don’t need to respond or explain, or try to help, or try to guide them to take ownership of their reaction. I can just leave it. This is what my wife Cindy keeps directing me to do, and it’s been almost impossible to do up to this point.

Friends read what trolls write and tell me that these people just look insane. I’m beginning to understand that even by responding, I’m validating their activity. The only hope for them to take responsibility for their actions is to let it not land. Ultimately, it’s not adaptive for them to project onto me, and it’s not helping them when I accept and try to identify with their projections.

Some people are going to say that by me rejecting the trolling feedback, I’m being a hypocrite and not walking my talk. I’ve had people (trolls) say that I seem to not be following my own advice in that I’m not taking responsibility for my part. For example, someone says that I’m a sociopath, and I say, “I suffer from too much empathy.” That’s apparently me not taking responsibility. When someone sets up a straw-man in my place, such as telling me that my method of meditation is physical exercise, and that this is misguided, I am supposed to own that, and explain why it’s good to meditate by exercising. I actually once found myself arguing that position, for example, a position that doesn’t even resonate with me.

Here’s the crux of it: take responsibility for your emotional reactions. When I get trolled, it tends to hurt. When people don’t get me, it hurts. When my actions intended to help, such as this vulnerable writing I’m creating, is seen as arrogance, that hurts. I can share that, or I can realize it internally and ignore and move away. When you read this, and have an emotional reaction, and you don’t own it, but instead act out by attacking me, that’s your issue. I don’t have to accept that. I can come back to my feelings and own those.

I don’t need to keep presenting my face to be punched. When I do that, I’m complicit in the punching. When someone comes at me with all “you” statements, it’s very unlikely that I’m somehow going to be able to support them in turning their attention round to a healing “I” perspective, to an emotional ownership and integration perspective.

The core of the lesson is to get that not everyone out there is yet interested in owning their emotional reactions. Many people are still trying to resolve the inner conflict and disintegration by externalizing those conflicts. They have not yet realized that all the integration happens inside, and that all the conflicts are really inside. Everything that is troubling and everything that is enjoyable is really inside of us.

The the trolling is teaching me to not get pulled out of myself by people trying to guide me to more (or different) happiness, or other practices, or to somehow to just be different. The trolling is teaching me to be bold and assertive with my inner-truth, and to follow my inspiration to share it.

The paradox is that I need to bring my attention back to my inner-troll, my inner-gas-lighting sociopath; the part of me that relentlessly puts me down, misunderstands me, and discourages me. I need to understand and have compassion for that part of me, and allow it to let go. I don’t need to accept the invitation to externalize and perpetuate that conflict.

Thank you to the 99.9% of those who read my articles who see me and value me and what I provide. Thank you for letting me know that I am inspiring you and supporting you. Thank you for utilizing what I have to offer, and sharing your own stories and feelings. I intend to focus more and more of my attention on you.

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