Category: Monasticism

Goodbye Summer 2011 image

Leaving God and Monastic Order

Monastic life was supposed to be an exalted path to self-realization, spiritual enlightenment, and God. But the pain of feeling “stuck” was greater than my fear of leaving the Order. I had to get out.

Reasons why I left the Order and left God was the focus of my conversation with Scott D. Jacobsen, Editor at Conatus News, and Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing.

Our conversation was published on Patheos / Rational Doubt1 blog. With permission from Rational Doubt editor and cofounder of The Clergy Project2, Linda LaScola, my interview with Scott Jacobsen is reposted below.

Scott Jacobsen: You published the story of your personal transition from being part of a monastic order called the Self-Realization Fellowship Monastic Order to not being a part of it. The story is on The Clergy Project website, dated May 27, 2015. You were known as Brahmachari Scott. Now, you’re just Scott (me, too). For those leaving monastic orders, what are important things to keep in mind?

“Scott” creator of Skeptic Meditations: It was a big deal to leave the Self-Realization Monastic Order (the Order or SRF) after 14 years. It was a pivotal decision in life. I joined the Order when I was 24, expecting to be a monk for the rest of my life. I took vows of loyalty, obedience and chastity. All, purportedly, for finding God and self-realization. My justification for being a monk was that purpose. But it was complex.

For reasons as complicated as life can become, I felt out of place. I realized the monastery was not for me. This wasn’t the end, though. In the most important ways, my journey unfolded when I chose to come back to the world.

Before leaving the Order, I spent months acclimating myself to the outside world. It was like dipping toes into cold water before the plunge.

Instead of attending the regularly scheduled monastic classes, I joined a local Toastmasters club. I practiced public speaking. Rather than turn my doubts and fears inward—as I did for decades, I visited an outside psychotherapist, and confided my hopes and fears to her. Before seeing that psychotherapist, I spent years weighing the pros and cons of staying in or leaving the Order. I built an underground support community of trusted current and former monastics, church members and biological family.

At the time, I had a motto:

I’m not moving away from anything. I’m moving towards something.

Something great, I hoped. I did not know, but I felt I was moving towards something great based on a vision. I was developing a plan for a new life. That energized me. The pain of feeling “stuck” was greater than my fear of leaving the Order. I was one of the lucky few. I escaped. When I say “escaped,” I mean physically and psychologically.

Many monks from the Order I lived with still live in the monastery. Many others left. However, some of those who left still psychologically stuck within the Order. The monastery is still with them. It is more important where one resides psychologically rather than physically, in my opinion, speaking now from over a decade of experience. Some people have the privilege to move. Several monks stayed in the Order who were instrumental in helping me become who I am today. For me, leaving the Order was about moving towards, rather than away, from something.

What are some expected difficulties—personal, familial, and professional—in transitioning out of a monastic order?

The difficulties included learning how to reintegrate into society. We had extremely limited access to the outside world. The monks were allowed to watch one movie a month, and even that was censored. The Monks’ Library contained only censored materials: books of saints and yogis, the LA Times newspaper and magazines like National Geographic and Sports Illustrated. Access to the internet, during my tenure, was blocked or filtered and our phone calls were monitored for ‘billing’ purposes. We were charged for long-distance calls, which discouraged outside contact. Censoring of our exposure to the world, we were told, was for our own spiritual development.

Life inside was like a cult.

Upon re-entry into the world, I felt woefully inadequate in practical matters of daily life.

To transition, I learned how to be an adult, and to be assertive, to negotiate and pay my bills. I had to reintegrate into society, rebuild my life, relationships, and start a career. When I left, I had no job, no home and no family to live with. I had to prove to myself that I could make my way in the world. Within two years of leaving, I enrolled in university and graduated with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree while working for a corporation.

 

I was intrigued by your description of monastic life on The Clergy Project website:

…monks didn’t just sit all-day chanting, praying, and navel-gazing.

Monastery routine consisted of meditation, classes, recreation, 9-to-5 jobs: ministering to a worldwide religious congregation at the Self-Realization Fellowship churches, temples, meditation centers and groups, and spiritual retreats. Each monk received $40 per month cash allowance, room and board, paid medical care, and all-you-could-eat lacto-ovo vegetarian buffet.

You were working in rather extreme conditions. What was running through your mind? What is the insight gained since you left about monastic life, e.g. working conditions?

I was convinced by church doctrine and the spiritual mythologies. They stated that renunciation and self-sacrifice was an exalted path to God, self-realization and spiritual freedom. However, a few years after leaving, I was able to step back and take a stern look at the conditions of the Order.

In the monastery, I lived inside a closed, cult-like system. SRF is a Hindu-inspired meditation group.

The followers—consciously or unconsciously—buy into false premises taught by the church. Once one believes the false premises, it becomes easy to surrender to the work and spiritual routine for hours, days, weeks, months and years. You hand over control to teacher, guru, church or religion.

SRF puts a premium on meditation techniques as the highest way to spiritual development or self-realization.

Examples of some of the premises3 we believed:

  • You are unaware. Meditation is the way to unbroken awareness. If you are not fully aware, keep meditating.
  • You are one with God, but don’t know it. Meditation is the path to God. If you don’t know God, keep meditating.
  • You are asleep and don’t know it. Meditation is the way to wake spiritually. If you are asleep spiritually, keep meditating.

Now, I look back and regret having spent precious years in the pursuit of the Order’s false premises. But, better late than never, I outgrew them.

The Scientific American article was the linchpin to becoming an atheist within your social circle, friends and family. What seems to be the main reason for transitioning out of monastic life?

There’s so many reasons why I left.

Mostly, I needed to change and grow. The Order wasn’t about change or growth. Lord knows, I tried. Ultimately, the church and its leader were about perpetuating the “revealed” teachings of the teachers. I was lucky; I saw through the false premises of the church. I never regretted leaving it.

There are local agnostic, atheist, humanist, and freethinker organizations to provide support for people. How can friends and family give support?

Family and friends play a vital role in supporting people like me who leave extreme religions or cult-like groups.

My family accepted me. I can not think of anything special that family and friends can do that is different that what true friends and family do: laugh, care, and do things together. Naturally, different friends and family serve different needs for us. It was most helpful for me to connect with a variety of people from different cultures or worldviews. Having a good therapist helped, I did not become a burden for friends and loved ones with my issues.

You created Skeptic Meditations as well. It is a general resource on skepticism with a blog. How can people become involved with Skeptic Meditations?

I created Skeptic Meditations to critically examine the supernatural claims of yogis, mystics, and meditators, and to muse and critique my experiences inside the SRF/the Order.

Christians have many resources to question and doubt, if they choose. After coming out of the Order, which is a Hindu-inspired meditation group, I found precious few resources for people like me who had left Christianity and questioned Eastern religion, especially yoga meditation. Skeptic Meditations explores the hidden, sometimes darker, side of yoga, mindfulness, and meditation.

Thank you for your time, Scott.

I’ve enjoyed your questions and chatting with you. Thank you.

After our interview was published, I asked Scott Jacobsen his reasons for founding In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing.

Jacobsen: Whether religious leave or irreligious find religion, I want individuals to have the freedom to choose the path for their own lives. Often, danger comes from restriction of belief, conscience, and movement of people caught in unhealthy communities, which are often religious or cultish, or outright cults”.

Scott D. Jacobsen, interviewer and founder of In-Sight, may be contacted at Scott.D.Jacobsen@gmail.com.

Question for readers: In your own life, in what unhealthy communities may you have been “stuck”? What did you do to leave, to learn and to grow after leaving the group for your better life?

Notes
1,2. Patheos / Rational Doubt is a blog where the public and non-believing and doubting [religious] clergy can interact. Contributors include founders of The Clergy Project, including Linda LaScola, and both “out” and “still-closeted” members of a private forum. Active or former clergy-persons who no longer believe in their faith in God, Higher Powers, or supernatural can learn more about The Clergy Project private forum.

3. Read my post Duped by Meditation? for an explanation of false premises peddled by many meditation teachers and groups.

The Ashram: Spiritual-Corporate Caste System

In the ashram1, spiritual advancement was measured by the position of the person within the organization.

All within the organizational hierarchy got feelings of specialness and authority from position and proximity to the leader.

Self-Realization Fellowship claims2 that the organization will always be guided by God-realized people, and that disciples can always be assured of the direction of their leaders.

At the SRF Headquarters, the ashram atop Mt. Washington in Los Angeles, people got promoted on loyalty and obedience to the guru-leader and the President of SRF. Obedient disciples were rewarded with position and higher rank within the organization.

Diagram of the ashram spiritual-corporate hierarchy

Spiritual Corporate Ladder

A spiritual-corporate caste system: This spiritual-corporate hierarchy, which I am familiar with from the SRF ashram or monastery, mirrors the horrific Indian-Hindu caste system: the Guru-Master is the highest or Brahmin caste; the Pretenders to Throne, close disciples, are the Kshatriyas (warrior) class; the Ministers are the Vaishyas (merchants or landowners); the Servants represent the Shudras (subordinates to all the other upper castes); and finally, the Untouchables are the lowly, outsiders of this hierarchy.

Climbing the Spiritual-Corporate Ladder

The guru, infallible Master-leader is at the top of the power pyramid. The Master-leader has absolute authority over everyone within the organization. To question the infallibility of the leader is seen as a sign of egoism, of disloyalty and disobedience to the leader and organization.

Seldom is there open, honest communication between disciples within the hierarchy.

There is underlying fear of punishment that keeps everyone in line: fear of being withheld any rewards and attentions, of displeasing and being banished to a remote outpost, or of even being expelled or excommunicated from the ashram. Disciples within the hierarchy are starved for attention and affection from the leader. Rewards of position and rank are seen as a sign of pleasing the leader and of spiritual advancement.

Directly below the Master-leader is an inner cadre of elite disciples. This small, close circle, sometimes referred to as “advanced” disciples or directors, are one among them who is likely to someday inherit the spiritual mantle and the entire organization after the Master-leader is no longer physically present.

Below the inner circle of elite disciples are ministers and administers who filter, interpret, and communicate the Master-leader’s commands and “teachings” to rank and file, lower-level disciples.

Persons furthest from the Master-leader, those at the bottom of the ladder, are either new members or considered not spiritually advanced enough to rise to positions of authority within the organization.

The lower-level disciples, the majority of followers, are seldom able to be near the Master-leader, who typically is aloof and indifferent to their survival, needs, and problems. Despite the apparent indifference of the Master-leader, most disciples are convinced that spiritual blessings of the Master-leader trickles down from top to bottom of the organizational hierarchy.

Loyal and obedient disciples are willing to sacrifice all, even life, to uphold the Master-leader and the hierarchical organization.

All persons outside or disloyal to the hierarchy are considered either inferior, not intelligent, or not spiritually advanced, and are likely lost in ego, delusion (Maya), or evil.

Position within the organization, climbing the spiritual-corporate ladder, generates feelings of specialness, power, and authority for the disciples.

Notes

1 The Self-Realization Fellowship Monastic Order has half a dozen ashram centers in Southern California. It is in these that I lived for more than 14 years as a renunciant, monastic-disciple. For a brief description about me and why I left read my About page.

2 Supposedly said by Paramahansa Yogananda, according to Mrinalini Mata, current President of SRF as quoted in Transcendent In America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements as New Religion, Lola Williamson, NY University Press, 2010, p 63

Former Monk, Joy After Leaving Ashram

Ninja Midia, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Ninja Midia, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A young monk ignored the scare tactics used to keep him inside an ashram. Describes pain and joy of going back home.

Below is a message received from a former Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) monk1:

Your recent post, Abandoning Family for a Guru, resonated deeply with me.

When I entered the SRF Encinitas Ashram, I did not tell my parents until after I was already inside. I’m sure not telling my parents before entering the ashram hurt them.

My dad recently sent me a large folder of letters I had mailed to him around the time I entered the ashram. I should go through those letters and try to find the letter where I informed my parents I had joined a Hindu-inspired monastic order in Encinitas. (My parents raised me in a mainstream Christian church).

Eventually my parents came to visit me at the ashram. Our meeting was a bit heart-wrenching. The feelings could probably not be duplicated unless we were visiting family in prison.

I was also allowed, was given permission by the monastic superiors, to occasionally visit my parents at home. At the end of those visits, a part of me never wanted to return to the ashram.

A number of years ago, one of my sisters took all my dad’s slide collection–decades of family photos–and had them converted onto CD’s. When I reviewed the family photos, I was shocked by my absence from them. It wasn’t just during the years when I was in the ashram. Prior to that, when I was age seventeen I moved to London and soon after moved to Hawaii. But all those holiday celebrations when the family gathered, so often I was not present. Missing.

Today, both my parents are 92 years of age. We have a close relationship. I just finished drafting a Wikipedia page about my dad, an early pioneer of computers. My three younger sisters and I somehow all survived to be over age 60. Today, I cherish them all, and we talk frequently on Skype.

The monastic bonds of love were not as strong. In the ashram there was talk of divine “fellowship”. Indeed I felt a kind of brotherhood with my fellow monks while fighting spiritual battles together in the trenches. The brotherly love, though, was often laced with fear.

The SRF monastic community often used scare tactics to get monks to stay inside the ashram. We were indoctrinated that life outside the ashram, out in the world, was terrible, and that when you leave “you grab the tail of the cat, you get the whole cat.” Meaning that if you choose to leave the ashram, you get caught in the claws of a supposedly evil and dangerous world outside the cloister.

I love cats, and so ultimately the scare tactics didn’t work. I eventually left the SRF Monastic Order and found that life outside was wonderful and fulfilling.

Life after leaving the ashram was not always easy for me. I confess I had to do some hard work on myself to get to where I am today. (But I won’t discuss those details now as it’s a bit too personal).

Several years after leaving the ashram I met the woman of my dreams. We recently celebrated our 30-year wedding anniversary. We have love everyday in our home.

We have a wonderful daughter who often visits us. She brings joy with her and is the love of our lives. In six months she finishes a Ph.D. program, with a doctorate in statistical genetics. I’m one proud dad.

Last night, my wife and I attended a holiday party and everyone talked of family. I left the party feeling joy. (I don’t drink, so that wasn’t the reason). Today. we shared our fairly lame party pictures on Facebook, we tagged each other, and enjoyed our shared memories.

I can’t remember ever feeling that good during my ashram days during or after gatherings in the monastic community. The monks would meet and then just go back to their solitary rooms and meditate.

Every morning I walk for an hour as the sun comes up and I am filled with gratitude. I love living in the moment, the life I’ve chosen, and have been given.

My wish is that monks who live inside an ashram, who wonder what it’s like on the outside after leaving, that they could know the love and joy that is possible in this world.

Notes
1 This former monk asked to remain anonymous for personal reasons. I have obtained his permission to use his story in this post. While this former monk and I did not know each other inside the SRF ashram–he left a decade or more before my entry into the ashram–we recently had a pleasant in person meeting sometime after he first contacted me through this SkepticMeditations website.

Unholy Silence, Hollow Men

donna.dark, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
donna.dark, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

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 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.

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.

Notes

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

Food, the Seductive Pleasure of Monks

Vermeer_van_Utrecht_Man_eating_noodels-minFood, not sex, was the seductive pleasure of celibate monks.

At 10:00 P.M. the Monks’ Refectory walk-in pantry and refrigerator was locked. The fruits, nuts, and groceries were only to be consumed according to a strict daily quota for each monk: 2 bananas, 2 apples, 2 tablespoons of yogurt, 1 glass of milk, and so forth. Seasonality impacted quotas: peaches, plums, and watermelons, in the late Summer, and when bananas or other foods were going to spoil the quota was increased or posted as “OS”, meaning “open season” or all you could eat. This was a community of ascetics obsessed with food.

No wonder–with the many rules and restrictions around diet–that highly coveted food stuffs were hoarded. Occasionally, the monks were allowed to go to the market and bring home “personal” items.

In the refectory’s over-stuffed “personal” items refrigerator were rich and sweet perishable foods, such as Jiffy, crunchy peanut butter; organic, raw cream; Smuckers jams, clotted creams and jellies. When a monk opened the “personal” freezer door out fell tubs of ice creams, flavors of chocolate, vanilla, rocky road, mocha chip, Cherry Garcia, or Chunky Monkey.

Seeing initials marked in black Sharpie pen on-top of a food container was supposed to warn a hungry monk, “Don’t touch my grub. This food is mine!”.

We often joked: Somebody could leave a $20 bill on the kitchen table, every monk would pass by, and nobody would touch it. But, leave an unmanned package of chocolate chip cookies on the counter top, and within minutes the sweet morsels would disappear, and all that would be left was empty torn wrapper. Monastics were efficient at rationalizing contradictions. “Borrowing” another monk’s personal food was… well… it just happened, quite often and uncontrollably.

Virtually everything a normal, healthy guy (or gal) craved was “renounced” when he took monastic vows. Food, particularly sweets, provided monks with an outlet after days and years of deprivation, meditation, and prayer.

Excerpt from Give My Thy Heart: An Introduction to the Monastic Order of Self-Realization Fellowship–

Diet: The diet in the ashrams is simple but ample. Renunciants eat no meat, fish, or fowl[1]; nor are they permitted to smoke or drink alcoholic or stimulating beverages[2]. (Use of drugs in any form, except for medication temporarily prescribed by a doctor, is of course strictly forbidden). Balanced meals are prepared according to general rules for good nutrition, but the subject of diet is not given undue importance[3]. Three meals are served daily at regular hours–except on Sundays[4], which is a day of partial fasting.

Notes
1 Self-Realization Fellowship requires monastics, and recommends to it’s followers, lacto-ovo-vegetarianism.

2 Indian Chai Tea, made with black tea, was a particular favorite among the monastics. Chai, made with black tea, was served at most special events such as Monastic vow ceremonies, commemoration ceremonies honoring one of their gurus or saints, and anytime the monks could whip up a cup or pot of the deliciously sweet, spicy brew. Coffee was seldom served or seen in the monastery. I heard of senior monks who brewed coffee in their bedrooms using personal coffee makers. These monks were considered rogue, but apparently senior enough monks were beyond reprimand of the rules.

3 The “subject” of diet may not be given undue importance. But food and eating it was certainly the most discussed topic in the monastery, aside from the emphasis on spiritual/religious concepts and activities.

4 Sundays in the ashram/monastery had another set of rules around diet, and lack thereof. I plan to write a separate post about Sundays in the ashram, that will include descriptions of the fasting and austerities.