Withdrawing from the world is appealing when there is a sacred, enlightened state to withdraw to.
Inwardly, the SRF (Self-Realization Fellowship) monks lived in quiet desperation. Silence was an escape from external and internal disorder. Escaping through meditation and comforting beliefs was not a healthy model for survival. The very obedience to silence was considered sacred and automatically created it’s opposite, an unhealthy un-sacred1.
Outwardly, the SRF monastics imitated the holy ascetics, mystics, and saints and gave onlookers the impression that they were contented, blissful, and mirrors of the divine.
As I began writing this exposé on the quaint SRF monastic rituals of outer silence, I more fully understood the authoritarian rule of silence was unholy and oppressive.
Desperation in Withdrawal, Silence
The renunciants were expected to obediently suffer in silence, “A good monk is seen and not heard”, preached Brother Premamoy, the Postulant House-Brother (Father-Superior) who ran the bootcamp that shaped the young, impressionable minds who were eager to follow in the spiritual master’s footsteps into the SRF monastery.
The film Song of Bernadette was shown every year or two to the monks and was referenced in classes given by the senior monks. The Catholic nun, Bernadette Soubirous (Saint Bernadette of Lourdes), was admired by the monks for her silent suffering from painful cancer of the knee as she scrubbed the filthy cloister floors on her hands and knees.
To suffer in silence was glorified. To meditate in silence was the ultimate escape from personal responsibility and we called it seeking spiritual enlightenment or self-realization.
The SRF monastics and congregations liked to quote Sister Gyanamata, a revered SRF nun and direct disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda: “We make too much of feeling, even admitting that the right kind of feeling is very enjoyable. What does it matter how you feel? Bear your lot as long as it is the will of God that you should do so”. These sentiments overtly and subtly stifled the monks from voicing their needs and encouraged unhealthy silence.
Afraid to speak out about what was really going on in our minds and hearts, the monks I knew lived in quiet desperation. Helpless and hopeless that the ashram would ever change its dysfunctional, non-sacred ways, we were forced to “bear our lot…”. Monks I knew were diagnosed with PTSD (Post-Tramatic Stress Disorder), stomach ulcers, and mental and emotional disorders. (Scores of monastics, like myself, eventually left the Order to escape an unhealthy, authoritarian power structure designed not for individual’s self-realization but for the aggrandizement and self-preservation of the leaders and the SRF organization). While in the Order, suffering in silence made it easy to escape for four to six hours a day in silent meditation–wishing, hoping, and praying that the next incarnation, the afterlife, and enlightenment would come and that the guru would save us.
Silence is the speech of hollow men
On Sundays the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) monastics refrained from speech from the time of waking to the time of retiring in the evening and devoted the entire day to meditation and practicing the presence of god. [See my post Spiritual Duties and Rules of Conduct of a Resident Disciple of the Monastic Self-Realization Order]
The intent of Sunday silence was to dedicate the entire day especially to god, and to redouble efforts to practice of the presence of god, and to forego any activities that would interfere with interiorization of the mind. Each Sunday the monks were expected to retreat further from the world into the inner sanctum of non-verbal silence, all-day fasting, and six-hour long meditations.
In addition to Sunday silence, on each day of the week the monastics observed periods of silence during all meal times and before 8 AM and after 9 PM.
Withdrawing from the world is appealing when there is some enlightened state to withdraw to. There is nowhere to escape when there is internal and external disorder. The appeal of Eastern wisdom for Westerners comes in the form of gurus, spiritual masters, and divine authorities. Escaping through comforting beliefs is neither healthy nor sacred. Indeed, that escape is unhealthy and non-sacred. The appeal of enlightenment in the silence is an authoritarian tool to get us to renounce personal responsibility and to be an unquestioning follower.
1 This post was influenced in part by The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, Frog Books. Berkeley: CA. 1998. Paperback