in Monasticism

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.

Marco Castellani, Flicker, CC BY-SA 2.0

Marco Castellani, Flicker, CC BY-SA 2.0

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 silencing the outgoing 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.

Gisela Giardino, Flicker, CC BY-SA 2.0

Gisela Giardino, Flicker, CC BY-SA 2.0

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.


Featured image by donna.dark, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

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

Leave a Reply

  1. Scott,

    It is so good to hear your opinion on this issue. You speak very negatively here both again the practices and the psychological abuse of monks. Which contrasts with your comment a few posts ago where you said, “I don’t blame SRF, the organization or its people, for tricking, wooing or enlisting me. I take full responsibility for choosing to enlist myself.”

    It is good to hear the opinions of a monk who was duped for 14 years judge right-and-wrong in an organization and people who they once depended on for meaning.

    In this post you said,

    “The appeal of Eastern wisdom for Westerners comes in the form of gurus, spiritual masters, and divine authorities.”

    I’d be careful generalizing. Many Westerners go to Eastern religions to escape authority — forms of pop Zen are very much like that. You are assuming that Indian Guru worship is what everyone does. Attraction to Daoism, for instance is very different for many Westerns — another “Eastern wisdom”.

  2. Thanks for your feedback on my posts, Sabio.

    The Zen pop followers you cited in your comment seem to fooling themselves if they think they are escaping authority. Are most of these practitioners seeking some kind of enlightenment from Eastern authorities? It’s giving up one box for another ideology in Eastern guise of a zen master or a dalai lama leader?

    Wisdom and wonder seems to be everywhere for those who care to see. It’s the unquestioning belief in any authority that I broadly or generally refer to in my post as “gurus and masters”. I’m not railing against the gurus per se but the mindset of the followers of the gurus.

    I’m developing my stance as I go, as I write. Thanks again for your feedback. It challenges me to clarify my thinking.

  3. “Wisdom and wonder seems to be everywhere for those who care to see.” – I like!

    One doesn’t need to believe in anything or follow any system, conceptual or disciplinary, to share the truth of that statement. Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

  4. Scott,

    I must disagree.

    Indeed, some (depending on personality) want a master (Zen, Yoga, Tibetan) but changing ideology is different from seeking a personal authority. Think too of the Mindfulness movement which has almost no “Master” mentality. All to say, your generalization is wrong in my opinion.

    Next, “Eastern Wisdom” is a weird phrase. As the West, in the East there are tons of different philosophies — each has their materialists, their hedonists, their mystics, their theists and much more. There is not ONE EASTERN WISDOM. There is no Eastern Wisdom — but we hear that phrase blown about blithely very frequently.

    Even seeking authority is not bad. We seek it in our parent to start (a good reflex), then in our teachers, our books, our methods and much more. We can’t test everything ourselves. So, “authority” in itself is not bad. But the dangerous qualities I listed in my “Cult” post help you to put a check on authority so that we can use it wisely. Authority MUST be open to question, for instance.

    And don’t worry Scott, I obviously know what you wrote here: “I am developing my stance as I go, as I write”

    We all are, eh? 🙂

  5. Both the East and the West share in equal portions of wisdom and stupidity — that goes for the South, the NorthWest, the Middle East, the South-South-West and everywhere else. No?

  6. @Sabio: Yes. I agree with you: authority is not bad, wrong, stupid, or evil. You say “Authority MUST be open to question”. Yes, and we all (the followers or observers) MUST be open to questioning all authority. It’s a two way street. Not everyone gets that and that’s the space I intended to play in with this post. Always deeper nuances and angles, and I thank you for pointing them out.

  7. @Uwsboi14: Thanks for your comment. Yes, as long as we are willing to question authority and admit no one has all the answers we are likely to remain open to wisdom and wonder. Cheers

  8. This post is heart-rending for me. “A good monk is seen and not heard.” Just like abusive parenting… How can one learn anything in such an environment except more fear and more evasion?

  9. @Uwsboi14: To be a good monk required a strong desire for humility, self- or ego-transcendence, and saintliness. When a person has a “higher” calling, as we naive monks used to say, we gladly accepted the essence of religious and mystical teachings–that we are nothing and god is everything–AND the guru or spiritual master is the guide to self-realization and ego-transcendence. I don’t see how we can easily decouple the “abusive” authoritarian attitudes from the aims and ideals of yoga meditation.

    I appreciate your observations and experiences.