Ole P. Larsen at an isa event
I am at a party in Koh Samui, Thailand, at the residence of my “spiritual teacher” (for want of a better phrase), Ole Larsen. At some point during the party, I am sitting in a chair and Ole walks over to sit beside me. While I don't recall whether we conversed about some topic in particular, I am clear about what he did next. He undid the buttons on my long, navy dress, put his hand inside my knickers and wriggled his fingers into my vagina. What happened afterwards is a blank in my memory. I do not remember how I reacted, or if anyone else at the party saw what he did. For the next decade, however, I questioned myself as to the purpose of his actions. What lesson was he trying to teach me?
Ole P. Larsen founded the isa Experience (now rebranded as the Waking Up Weekend) in 1977. It is a seminar that provides, as the website states, “a warm and safe space where you will receive a wealth of practical information and experiential learning tools. The result you create is a clear roadmap for personal empowerment and self-awareness.”
When I first participated in the isa Experience in 1995, I was living in Berlin in the aftermath of a relationship breakup, my immune system completely depleted from overwork and lack of sun, and on the verge of becoming an alcoholic. After attending the seminar, I was blown away by the idea of ‘waking up’ to the realisation that I had the power to take charge of my life; not only could I see my past from a whole new perspective, but I could also ‘create’ the kind of life I had always dreamed of living. For the next twelve years, I committed to ‘working on myself’ through the framework of assisting (a network of isa graduates who supported each other on their life journeys, as well as agreeing to organise and run the future seminars). During this time, I learned to accept and embrace the many challenges my life presented (through relationships, family, career, money, health, spirituality) and own responsibility for the person I wanted to be.
So when the incident with Ole happened in Thailand, I no longer viewed myself as a poor, downtrodden victim of circumstance. I had coordinated many of the isa seminars and had had several conversations with Ole himself, specifically about my challenges with men and sex in romantic relationships. By then, I was in the habit of asking myself different questions, and what initially came to my mind was the following: “He's the teacher, so he must be trying to teach me an important lesson,” and “For what purpose have I attracted this experience into my life?”, and even “Well, what he did wasn't really that big a deal! Other women have been through far worse.”
And here's where the rub between truth and ‘waking up’ becomes murky! Because haven't women for centuries been taught to assume responsibility in precisely this way when arrogant, egotistical men abuse positions of power? Haven't we been blamed for flirting and “asking for it”? Haven't we been pushed to feel shame and guilt and embarrassment for being “so stupid as to put ourselves in this situation”?
I did not talk to anyone about the fact that Ole sexually molested me —let's call it what it was, instead of substituting inane words like ‘experience’ or ‘process’ to make his actions more palatable— for over a decade, not even during the entire time I was in a relationship with Denis. It was only through talking about it for the first time with a therapist last summer that I realised the significance and consequence of what he did. Not long after returning from Thailand, I decided to stop assisting. At the time, the other assistants assumed I was ‘quitting’ working on myself in order to be with Denis, with whom I'd just started a relationship, a belief that was firmly reiterated to me by the then UK facilitator of the Experience. What I now know, thankfully, is that I stopped because Denis was my escape. Because some part of my spirit was wise enough, even then, to know the line of integrity and trust had been crossed and that I had to get out!
“Why didn't you say anything at the time?” I have been asked. The most honest answer would be that like the rest of the people in that room, I worshipped my teacher, and thus did not even have the thought to question his actions. In fact, I had been silent on a previous occasion when Ole verbally abused a dear friend of mine, simply because I was not the one on the receiving end. Fortunately, insight and realisation do not emerge for our convenience; there is no right time to speak up. We must simply have the courage to tell the truth when it becomes clear. Writing this blog, I feel not only that it is my responsibility to speak my truth, but that those who are closest to Ole, who choose to take on the mission of disseminating their teacher's “hallucination”, in his name and spirit, also have a responsibility to not brush aside the odious aspects of his personality (supposedly for the greater good, because so many people benefit from attending the weekend, etc…), and particularly so in the context of running a seminar that claims to be about self-awareness and waking up! Collusion is cowardly, and precisely what allows the abuse to continue according to the teacher's whim –because I am not so stupid as to imagine that I am the only woman to have been sexually molested by Ole Larsen.
Of course, there are spiritual traditions in which sexuality is used to enable self-actualisation, however, these methods are applied in highly specific situations, with explanation and mutual conversation, by rare teachers who know what they are doing. Ole is not one of them. He has never talked with me about what he did (I doubt he even remembers), and we have only to look at the example of Western Buddhist communities, where scandals have exploded in recent years, to understand our own deluded trust in such ‘gurus’ and their sycophants, who have known about and conveniently ignored sexual abuse and misconduct for decades in order to hold onto their power and influence in the organisation.
“Why say anything?” someone else commented to me. “Ole is an old man now and no longer directly involved with the seminar.”
The truth about life is that we are all going to grow old and die. I have reflected for many months about what it means to have compassion for the fact that Ole is on his own individual journey of life, and, just as I have done, he too has made mistakes. Well, if what he did was a mistake, then I am truly disappointed that not even an apology (at the very least) has been forthcoming since I wrote to him six months ago about what he did.
It is through the most “negative” experiences of my life that I have always learned the greatest lessons. This one, in particular, has shown me that no teacher or facilitator, however enlightened he or she may be perceived, can ever substitute the work I must do to learn to listen and trust in my own wisdom. And more importantly, when a teacher believes he is above and beyond the humility required of his students, sadly, the game is lost for everyone.