Tagged: monasticism

loyalty in cult family

Loyalty in cult-family

Extreme groups like Amish, Skinheads, and Self-Realization Fellowship Order promise followers “paradise”. Promises of “paradise” come in various forms: a heavenly afterlife by following tradition, spiritual enlightenment by meditation practice, or superiority over others by violence.

Below we compare the underlying psychology within three extreme, cult-like groups:

Skinhead promise of paradise

Christian Picciolini was born and raised on the southside of Chicago in a working-class neighborhood called Blue Island, the birthplace of the American white power skinhead movement.[1]

One day at 14 years old I was standing in an alley and a man came up to me an essentially promised me paradise. He promised me that I wouldn’t feel powerless anymore.[2]

That man was Clark Martell who in 1987 co-founded the Chicago Area SkinHeads, also called Romantic Violence, the first organized neo-Nazi white power skinhead group in the United States.[3]

Martell promised me that I had something to be proud of. And that if I were to join him and his movement I would leave a mark on the world and find my purpose.

Did Skinheads deliver on their promise?

At first it felt like a family. There was a lot of acceptance. Here you have a bunch of broken people who enjoy each other’s company because we were all broken in some way. But quickly it turned into a dysfunctional family. It was after a while each person for themselves movement. There was no loyalty, only people with an agenda they wanted filled. They used others as pawns.[2]

Picciolini, after 8 years as a Skinhead, left the group. He co-founded a non-profit–Life After Hate–which helps people leave hate groups.

Amish in tradition and fear

A former Amish man testified on camera[4]:

I was Amish. It was a simple life. We were a unified people that shared one thing: Tradition. Within the Amish Order we all had our part: The older, the younger. From the outside we looked good. We looked satisfied. But on the inside we were confused, unsure, scared.

I lived in a society that was based on fear: The fear of hell. Each day I had questions and uncertainty about my life’s purpose. The elders told me not to question but to obey the teachings of the past. I tried to live at home but my reality was defeat. I had to hide my feelings for the sake of acceptance.

“Loyal” gods in Self-Realization Fellowship Order

My story.

In Self-Realization Fellowship the guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, promised to show us we were gods. In a secret ceremony disciples vowed their complete loyalty to the guru and his organization, SRF. Then the guru initiated disciples into Kriya yoga meditation techniques. Meditation and being loyal to the guru would show us we were gods. In its Service Reading #39, SRF teaches: “To such a God-sent Guru [e.g., Yogananda] the disciple must always be loyal throughout his lifetime and through future incarnations until he finds redemption.”

Did SRF and Yogananda deliver on their promises?

At first, there was a sense of certainty, purpose, and acceptance. The guru and SRF made promises and had the answers. They made us dependent on them.

The monks were broken people. We all had been disappointed and disillusioned with the world. Promises made us willing to give up everything, to follow and obey forever the guru and SRF.

But after the honeymoon wore off it was a different story. There was no loyalty, only loyal followers and those who were labeled disloyal. Each person was loyal for their own self-preservation. Everyone’s true thoughts and feelings had to be hidden for fear of not being accepted. Any person could at anytime be branded as disloyal, shunned, or ostracized within the community.

I lived in fear. People had to accept their “training” without question. Abuses were easily excused and justified. Towards the end of my decade and a half within the Order, a few monks and I discussed our fears of fanatically “loyal” monks who might assassinate other monks who they considered disloyal. That kind of “loyalty” and fear was the last straw. All four of us monks in that conversation left the Order within the next several months.

There was no loyalty except to persons who said or did what SRF and its leadership wanted. Their promises were empty.

Loyalty in cult-family

At first members of Amish, Skinheads, or SRF Order feel like they are part of a family. Members of the in-group feel accepted into the community. People outside the group don’t understand them, even ridicule them. A persecution or messianic complex drives followers of these groups to bond even closer together. However, the loyalty is to the leaders, tradition, or ideology–not to the individuals themselves as human beings. Any deviation from the tradition, guru, or institution is seen as disloyalty. Fear takes over. Some eventually leave the group.

These examples illustrate some common themes of groups like the Amish, Skinhead, and SRF Order:

  1. Leader or tradition that promises certainty, purpose in life.
  2. Feeling, at first, of acceptance and family.
  3. Dysfunctional group held together by fear.
  4. Hiding of one’s feelings and living in fear of being found out.
  5. Eventually, fortunate persons, leave and are able to help others leave.

Notes

1 Life After Hate. Staff. Accessed on Aug 20 2017 at https://www.lifeafterhate.org/staff

2 The Center for Investigative Reporting. Hate on the march: white nationalism in the Trump era. Reveal broadcast. Aug 19 2017.

3 Clark Martell. Wikipedia. Accessed Aug 20 2017 at  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clark_Martell

4 Amish: Shunned and Excommunicated. Mission to Amish People. Accessed on Aug 19 2017 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hgU7hiBczjI&list=PLv3ujCEQ-THhKEp6ty81eFlAhcG6j4wcP

monks ashram weekly routine

A Monks’ Ashram Weekly Routine

“If I lived in a monastery I’d be happy and peaceful praying and meditating all the time.”

A monastic routine teaches lessons in self-discipline, contemplation, and obedience. But a rigid routine, based on unlivable ideals also has many pitfalls and dangers.

In this post, I share the daily routine of a SRF (Self-Realization Fellowship) monk: the spiritual activities, individual duties, and group activities expected of monks within the SRF Order. Though the ashram routine being discussed is founded within a Hindu-Christian religious ideology and an extreme monastics renunciate lifestyle, any closed system–political, social, religious–is likely to have similar risks and dangers.

Monks’ Ashram Weekday Schedule

The typical weekday schedule of an SRF monk consisted of:

  • 6:00 a.m. Gong rings, arise for private meditation in your bedroom
  • 7:00 Group meditation in Monk’s Chapel
  • 8:00  Vegetarian Breakfast served in Monk’s Dining Room (Silence)
  • 8:30-12:00 Office work in Monk’s assigned department
  • 12:00-12:30 p.m. Meditation (Silence)
  • 12:00-1:00 Vegetarian Lunch served in Monk’s Dining room (Silence)
  • 1:00-4:30 Office work (continued)
  • 4:30-5:30 Recreation (group or individual physical fitness)
  • 6:00-7:00 Group meditation in Monk’s Chapel
  • 7:00-7:30 Vegetarian Dinner served in Monk’s Dining Room (Silence)
  • 9:00 Private meditation
  • 10:00 Lights Out (Silence)

Everyday there was a strict rule of silence–no talking or noise–between 10 p.m. to 8 a.m., and during all meals and meditations and all day Sundays. [Read my post Ashram Silence.] During my first 5-7 years inside the ashram, I was quite self-disciplined in forcing myself to get up by six in the morning. and in following the monastic vows and rules of the Order.

Later, after 10 years or so, I realized that the monks who lasted that long or longer inside this cloistered system had managed to carve out their own routines. When a monk felt reasonably secure in his seniority or status in the ashram he can take liberties with his schedule; whereas the younger, newer monks feel the need to follow all the rules and vows or they may be reprimanded, or worse, asked to leave the Order. Fear often motivated monks to follow the weekly routine.

Monks’ Weekly Evening Schedule

Monday evenings – Private Spiritual Study of lessons and books published by SRF.

All monks were expected to read the SRF Lessons, books, or lectures in the privacy of their own room. Studying non-SRF books was discouraged.

Over the decades I was in SRF and was a monk I’d read most of the same books and lessons numerous times. Of course, I often learned something new each time I reread the same books. However, there was much more I could’ve (and eventually secretly) learned by reading non-SRF approved books. [Read my post Secret, Underground Library of Monks].

Once per month, on Monday evening, the monks would gather at 6 p.m. as a group in the Monks’ Office conference area and watch a movie: a film that was typically rated G or PG, and on top of that was often edited and censored prior to screening. All movies were first censored by a 3-5 person Monks’ Movie Review Committee. Films that were particularly popular among the monks included Raiders of Lost Ark/Indiana JonesStar WarsStar Trek, and so on.

Tuesday evenings –  There was class on a topic related to monastic life, such as obedience, loyalty, simplicity, chastity, devotion, meditation, prayer, and so on.

Typically, classes were lectures given by a senior monk. In the ashram monastery the longer a monk was in the Order the more supposedly spiritual the monk was. Anyway, during classes in my first 3-5 years in the ashram I wrote copious notes during lectures.

These classes didn’t really encourage “learning”. Rather the underlying message was always about following the guru–obediently. The ashram system was based on an authoritarian teaching model based on the time-honored Eastern tradition of the guru-disciple relationship.

The guru-disciple relationship systems is based on unquestioning obedience to the teacher-master. [See my post Guru Dictates the Questions and Answers]. We were taught that the guru knew what was best for us, even if we thought otherwise. After all, we were led to believe that our guru was all-knowing, all-loving, an enlightened master. Who were we to question his teaching? Despite the rhetoric that the monks were family inside the ashram, each monk was more or less isolated in how to apply what was taught. Not a recipe, in my experience, for productive, long-term learning, growth, or fulfillment.

Wednesday evenings – Private Spiritual Study.

Same as above Monday evening’s Private Spiritual Study.

Thursday evenings – Three-hour group meditation in Monks’ or Main Chapel.

Thursday evenings the monks were expected to skip dinner (fast)–no food was served, except sometimes there was a watery soup. Then at 6 p.m. the monks were expected to meditate as a group in the chapel from 6 to 9 p.m. I learned that many monks took a nap before the long meditations to try to prevent themselves from sleeping or nodding off during meditation. For the problems of monk’s sleeping in meditation, read my post on Sleepitation.

Friday evenings – Open schedule.

Friday night’s no particular group events were scheduled, but once or twice per month, there was an optional group shopping trip to one of the local malls. Monks were expected, when leaving the monastery grounds, to keep in pairs to avoid getting into trouble–tempted by “maya” (cosmic illusion or satan)–or into activities inappropriate for an SRF monastic who had taken vows of loyalty, obedience, chastity, and simplicity. SRFers are taught “environment is stronger than willpower”. In other words, if we live in a world of maya (cosmic illusion) we cannot trust ourselves unless we surround ourselves with other SRF members or better yet SRF monastics who think these same thoughts like us.

Monks’ Ashram Weekend Schedule

Saturday – Open schedule – extracurricular ashram duties such as cleaning rooms and ashram community areas and doing yard work.

Cleaning of monks community areas included: chapel, courtyard, library, barber shop, laundry room, and so on. Haircuts were given by another monk assigned to them. The monk barbers were trained to cut hair by a former monk who, after he left the ashram, ran a successful hair salon.

Sunday – Silence all day and night.

11 a.m. -12 p.m. Sunday sermon/service in monks chapel

3-9 p.m. Six-hour meditation in monks chapel

(6 p.m. – Soup, salad, and baked potato served in monks dining room–if you weren’t at the six-hour meditation. Sunday was a day of fasting, except for monks who wanted some fruit during the day or soup and salad in the evening.)

Pass the Tofu, Please: Ashram Dining

Strict lacto-ovo vegetarian. No alcohol or stimulants were served. Once a month, for a special occasion, Chai Tea was made and served by a monk from India. The cliche about Friar Tuck loving his food is true. One of the few acceptable fleshly pleasures for the monks was food. Sweets especially were relished in great quantities with gusto. However, dessert was officially served only once a week during a lunch. [Read my post Seductive Pleasure of Monks].

Meals were served buffet-style. A monk could pick and choose, do “all you can eat,” fast or abstain entirely from eating. Only during special holidays or ceremonies were monks expected to join the group during meals. Food was both seen as a base necessity–to feed the body temple for God–and relished as one of the only “pleasures of the flesh” to be indulged with discipline in the monastery. Monks sometimes joked as they heaped large portions of food on their plates, “Food: it’s the last thing to go”–the last physical desire to overcome on the spiritual path to avoid rebirth and to attain godhood.

The Monk’s Dining Room had enough chairs and tables for about 30 persons. There were 80 monastic residents at that time at the Mt Washington Ashram Center. Monks cycled through the dining area in shifts or waves. Or, they grabbed food on plate and went outside to eat in silence the ashram courtyard.

School’s Out For Recreation

For the sporty and competitive, like me, this included group sports: basketball, volleyball, soccer, tennis, or gym. The monastery/ashram had its own courts and sport facilities on the grounds.

Many monks were hyper-competitive. Group sport was an outlet for an otherwise “go along, to get along” culture. (Most of the monks realized the ashram had a “false” harmony–a surface illusion of harmony–while underneath the surface where many deep individual and group frustrations, angers, and passive-aggressions. Sports was for some, an outlet of their aggressions). I recall ashram basketball, volleyball, and soccer games where monks got injured, elbowed in the eye, or knocked off their feet by highly-competitive and aggressive monks.

Most monks chose solitary or individual fitness activities like walking, jogging, hatha yoga, or gardening. Walkers or joggers were permitted to venture outside the walls but only on prescribed paths and preferably with another monk. As noted above, monks were to avoid going anywhere without the company of another monk.

Group Meditations

Mandatory. Weekly schedule had built-in 4 hours of weekday meditation, and on weekends up to 10 hours meditation. 24-30 hours of individual and group meditation every week. While ashram routine was helpful with establishing habits and ensuring time each day to practice meditation, most of the monks–as far as I could tell–struggled with the monotony of practicing the same techniques, in the same way, with the same people, day after day, year after year. The irony was we were taught by the spiritual teachers that we were practicing meditation to find every new joy. There was seldom joy and little new in these monotonous individual or group meditations.

Monks’ Living Quarters

The monks’ living quarters consisted of ashram units or blocks of individual dorm rooms. Rooms were basic: typically approximately 10×15 sq feet. Four walls with an entrance door from the unit hallway with communal bathroom and toilet shared by 4 or more monks in a unit. Each monk had their own room within the unit. Each room contained a single bed–called a yogi-bed, a wood plank with a mattress on top–a dresser, desk, and small closet. Maybe a bookshelf. Otherwise, each monk was on their own to furnish their bedroom.

Senior monks got the best rooms–the most quiet, not adjacent to the courtyard, kitchen, or phone room–or rooms outside the ashram walls within homes, private residences with swimming pools, in the neighborhood adjacent to the ashram. During the time I was in the ashram no personal phones, computers, or TVs were provided or permitted.

The monk’s ashram unit hallway had a wall phone. The wall phone could be used for personal calls. The monks would be billed monthly for all outbound calls which discouraged calls with anyone outside of the ashram system. With phone, internet, TV, and other communications restricted, monitored, and discouraged, the monks lived in a physically and ideologically closed system.

Monks’ Cubicles: Working for the Guru-Man

Every monk was assigned duties within a department. From 8:30 to 4:30 he was expected to serve SRF worldwide organization. Departments included: Temple, Center, Editorial, Publications, Purchasing, Telecommunications, IS, Personnel, Garden, and Office of President. During my fourteen years in the Order I served in four different departments. These jobs were not unlike any corporate cubicle job. However, no salary was paid. Monastics supposedly dedicated their hands, hearts, and minds wholly to the guru’s work–without monetary compensation.

Our office duties consisted of ordinary paper pushing, answering phones, emails, and attending meetings. Nothing remarkable. In fact, most monks that I knew found their office work unfulfilling. It was bureaucratic and tedious. There was little a monk could do without first obtaining permission from their superiors or authorization from the Office of the President. Monks, as far as administrative work, were replaceable drones, cogs in a machine. The work was not meant to be creative or productive, but to follow orders and to “keep the teachings pure” for SRF by protecting the image and “divine dispensation” of guru, Paramahansa Yogananda.

Psychologists have field day in the ashram

Some people might romanticize the life of a monk: thinking that it’s filled with peace, contentment, and brotherly love. There may be moments of happiness, but like everything else in life it was far from perfect. A monastic routine could reinforce self-discipline, contemplation, and persistence. But rigid routines, based on renunciation and unlivable ideals have many pitfalls and dangers.

During my last few years in the SRF Order, psychologists visited the ashram. They were not SRF members and were invited at the behest of the ashram leadership. Pairs of psychologists came into the ashram and conducted several workshops for monks and nuns. This was the era of the Spiritual Life Committee. Apparently, many monks and nuns were found to be psychologically impaired: several cases of monastics needing medical and psychological treatment for panic attacks, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and several scandalous outbursts of sexual misconduct.

The psychologists told us that the lifestyle of a monastic was one of the most stressful professions, along with Air Traffic Controllers, Police, and Firefighters. Why did these psychologists say monastic lifestyle so stressful? Living 24/7/365 with the people you live, work, and play with: your superiors, your peers, those who have ultimate authority to judge, punish, or reward you. Also, the pressures of being “perfect”–unlivable ideals–monastic rules and vows, the constant observation by other monastics and SRF members in the churches, temples, and meditation centers who were told–implicitly or explicitly–that the monks were representatives of God and guru.

Aint a saint?

Indeed, SRF devotees/members often assumed that the monastics were “saints”. Or at least some or many were saintly. While inside the order the way to “advance” in the was to please the superiors, to make the church look good. There was much pressure on monastics to please what seemed like the arbitrary wills of spiritual leaders who seldom talked directly with the monks (the average monks saw the President, Sri Daya Mata, and other high ranking church leaders (VP Sr Mrinalini Mata, GM Uma Mata, VP Ananda Mata) only once or twice a year at a Satsanga (group spiritual lecture). A most unimpressive organization, in terms of leadership and organizational effectiveness. It was a “spiritual” hierarchy of bureaucracy. Read my post The Ashram: Spiritual-Corporate Caste System.

Is living in a monastery a happy peaceful affair of praying and meditating all the time?

Monastic routine–including praying and meditating–is founded on the ideals of increasingly handing over control to unchallengeable authorities. These authorities propagate the virtues of renunciation and self-sacrifice. Presumably followers are required to sacrifice their selfish impulses to attain the superior or higher states of selflessness, enlightenment, samadhi and so on. In short, a follower’s concerns with their own interests becomes the source of their own problems. Self-centeredness (ego) becomes the villain to be sacrificed, slain, destroyed.

Once one’s self-trust is undermined its fairly easy to allow oneself to be manipulated and controlled by authority. It’s not necessary for any of the individuals within the monastery to consciously manipulate or control others or to allow themselves be manipulated and controlled by others. All that is required is to follow the routine and ideals of the monastic order.

Yes, outwardly the ashram routine allowed for plenty of peace and quiet time for prayer and meditation. A superficial vibe of peace, harmony, and happiness was present. But underneath the surface, inside the hearts and minds of monks was much anxiety, fear, even psychosis. The irony is that the ideals that lead one into a monastery, to pray and meditate all the time, are the very source of their problems. Going “within”–using meditation techniques and monastic routines–are following outward systems, promulgated by spiritual authorities. When we look outward (to renunciate or monastic systems, practices, or techniques) for validation we are barred from self-knowledge. We then are enslaved to routine and validation from authority.

Notes

Special thanks to Scott D. Jacobsen, Editor at Conatus News, and Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing for his editorial assistance and comments prior to publication of this post. Without Scott’s help and encouragement this post would not be published.

Featured image credit to amanderson2, line of monks, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

ashram silence

Ashram Silence

Every Sunday, in the SRF (Self-Realization Fellowship) Order, the monastics had a strict rule of observing silence. On this weekly day of silence, we refrained from speech. This was from the time of waking to the time of retiring to bed in the evening. The idea was in silence monastics would devote the entire Sunday to contemplation, meditation, and practicing the presence of god (basically praying).

Sunday silence was intended to dedicate the entire day to god, to the redoubling of efforts to the practice of the presence of god, to forego any activities interfering with a direct and personal experience of god. In addition to Sunday silence, monastics on every weekday observed periods of silence before 8 AM and after 9 PM  and during all mealtimes. This post focuses mostly on the all day of silence on Sundays.

Each Sunday, the monks retreated further from the world into the inner sanctum of non-verbal silence, all-day fasting, and six-hour long meditations.

Loved and hated about ashram silence on Sundays

What I sometimes Loved about Sundays in the Ashram

  • Free time: If I had no work or duties, I had more free time to relax and read independently.
  • Focus: The silence encouraged deeper concentration in the 6 hour-long meditations.
  • Quiet: Peace and quiet was a welcome change after a hectic week of ashram duties.

What I often Hated about Sundays in the Ashram

  • Fasting: No food, other than fruit, was made available on Sundays. I often was hungry.
  • Guilt: If I wasn’t spending at least 6 hours in one sitting in meditation, I often felt guilty.
  • Sermons: Every few weeks, I was called for public representation of the SRF temples.

Ashram silence: Map of obedience

Silence can bring peace and healing. It can also control and manipulate.

“A good monk is seen and not heard”. I was taught this along with all SRF monks. Keeping quiet, above all, meant obedience to rules and vows of the Order. Silence was a map of obedience.

Silence can be valuable. But valuing silence as superior to one’s thoughts minimizes the value of one’s thoughts. Silence, we are told, is a path to enlightenment. Silencing our thoughts becomes a way of following and thinking someone else’s thoughts.

Fear of living without a map is the main reason people are so insistent that we tell them what to do… Not only does the map isolate us from responsibility, but it’s also a social talisman. We can tell our friends and family that we’ve found a good map, a safe map, a map worthy of respect.
— Seth Godin, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?

Ashram silence was “a good map, a safe map, a map worthy of respect”. Silence itself was not the problem. There’s much to love and hate about silence. The silence, though, born of  fear of living without a map–an authority to take responsibility for us–is the problem. The ashram silence was worthy of respect. It is an example of living in fear, in keeping quiet, and following orders.

Notes

Special thanks to Scott D. Jacobsen, Editor at Conatus News, and Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing for his editorial comments prior to publication of this post.

Featured image by Dan Taylor, Shhhh, Flickr, CC by 2.0

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.

How to program disciples to a guru’s worldview

Disguised in political, spiritual, or mystical garb, a psychological contagion breeds self-mistrust, guilt, and makes one susceptible to authoritarian control.

The Guru Papers present a series of remarkable essays that challenge “unchallengeable” authorities and the age-old human quest for saviors, mystical enlightenment, and the guru-disciple relationship.

The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power is a book by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad. This post outlines the book’s main thesis. First, are two-to-three paragraphs about the two authors background in yoga, academia, and hippy culture. Next, we explore why this book is more than about gurus, but encompasses authoritarianism in politics, society, even love relationships. Richard, a former disciple and I share our personal anecdotes about the harms of surrendering to a guru. Next to last, is a critique of the book and conclusion, followed finally by a brief announcement.

Guru-buster authors

Joel Kramer started teaching yoga in the late 1960s at Esalen, a new age, hippy retreat nestled on rugged bluffs overlooking California’s Big Sur coastline. Born in 1937 on Coney Island into non-observant Jewish family, Kramer graduated in philosophy and psychology at NYU and Columbia, and later moved to Berkeley in 1963. Swept up in hippy counterculture, in the mid-1960’s he also lived with psychedelic-guru Timothy Leary in Millbrook, New York. Kramer continued to teach yoga around the world and at Esalen into the 1980s. He eventually stopped teaching yoga after students kept treating him as if he was their guru. His first book, The Passionate Mind: A Manual for Living Creatively with One’s Self (1974), is a collection of his talks influenced by the teachings of J. Krishnamurti, who as a child was groomed by the Theosophical Society to be a World Teacher but later rejected the organization, to independently lead his own spiritual-intellectual followers.

Diana Alstad, Kramer’s life partner since 1974, was born in 1944 in Minnesota into a Lutheran family. Before discovering yoga, she received a PhD from Yale in 1971, was professor of humanities at Duke University, and taught the first Women’s Studies courses at Yale and Duke. Alstad co-founded New Haven Women’s Liberation in 1968, and was on the board of the Veteran Feminists of America from 1998 to 2004. Her article “Exploring Relationships: Interpersonal Yoga” (Yoga Journal, 1979) created a foundation for the Yoga of Relationship by extending Kramer’s yogic approach to the social arena, a modality they continue to teach.

Together, Kramer and Alstad, wrote two books: The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power (1993) and The Passionate Mind Revisited: Expanding Personal and Social Awareness (2009).

More than a book about gurus

More than just a book about gurus, The Guru Papers unmask the philosophical and psychological dangers of surrendering to anyone who positions themselves as knowing what is best for others. Religion (including Buddhism and Hinduism), meditation, 12-step addiction programs, and even the concept of unconditional love are revealed as tools for authoritarian control. Gurus, as the epitome of unchallengeable authority, pervade society, politics, and religions. How so?

At the heart of most spiritual and ideological worldviews is a moral code of self-sacrifice, what Kramer and Alstad assert is a “renunciate worldview”. This renunciate worldview includes voluntary self-control and is the means of authoritarian manipulation of its followers. Being “good” requires sacrificing self-interest to some “higher” authority or power, which conveniently is defined by the guru, Church or State. The guru, then, in this context is any unchallengeable authority: whether political, ideological, or spiritual.

Looking to saviors or holders of special wisdom as the path to lead humanity (or oneself) to salvation or survival, argue Kramer and Alstad, is childish. People who distrust themselves, argue Kramer and Alstad, willingly surrender and obey authorities who promise salvation and survival. Manipulation is easy when disciples surrender and obey a higher authority who claims to know what is best for followers.

The epitome of surrender and authoritarian power is the guru-disciple relationship. Kramer and Alstad argue that the guru-disciple relationship demonstrates “what it means to trust another more than oneself”[1]. When people distrust themselves they are easy prey for manipulation. In the guise of self-realization or spiritual liberation for the follower, the guru demands complete surrender of disciples.

Anecdotes: Guru, agent of truth or spiritual thief?

My personal anecdote: For 14 years I lived as a renunciate disciple in the San Diego and Los Angeles ashrams of famous guru-yogi Paramahansa Yogananda. The yoga-meditation guru proclaimed, “There is complete surrender, there is no compulsion, when a disciple accepts the guru’s training”[2]. According to the Self-Realization Fellowship, the guru’s worldwide organization, the guru is a living embodiment of truth and “an agent of salvation appointed by God in response to a devotee’s incessant petitions for release from the bondage of matter”. And, the guru is supposedly the best of givers. I believed these claims all for decades, until I stepped outside the system of beliefs and challenged the so-called “truth”.

Richard recently became a former-disciple of guru-Yogananda and a subscriber to Skeptic Meditations blog shared: “It’s very satisfying to reconnect with myself again. I am taking voice [singing] lessons. . . The guru’s professed connection to God steals from the disciple the disciple’s own experience of life. It is the worst kind of spiritual theft. The disciple’s own spiritual experiences are stolen from him and instead credited as blessings from the guru-god. The disciple can own nothing. And when one can’t own anything, not even oneself, the connection to life and others is completely severed.”

Under the guise of objective truth

Under the guise of objective truth, assert Kramer and Alstad, the seeker finds “the age-old ploy of authoritarian indoctrination: A worldview is presented by an unchallengeable authority as the truth to be found. Then practices are given that reprogram and condition the mind to that viewpoint”[3]. The guru-disciple relationship dismantles self-trust–instills doubt in follower’s own senses, intellect, and feelings–and reprograms disciples with the guru’s worldview through indoctrination, esoteric teachings and meditation practices.

Critiques and conclusions

The Guru Papers is a patchwork of essays sketched by the authors in 1984 “as a dalliance”. The book has a few irritating flaws. The chapters titled Satanism and the Worship of the Forbidden and The Authoritarian Roots of Addiction “dallied” perhaps too long into Satanism, 12 step programs, and Alcoholics Anonymous. The footnotes referencing Control throughout the book were a planned but unpublished text by the authors. Why did the authors keep these footnote references to Control? To tease and confuse? Publish Control or abolish the dead-end footnotes. But, overall the author’s writing style and tone are straightforward, conversational, and non-technical.

The assertions of Kramer and Alstad are clear, compelling, and incisive. The Guru Papers’ main thesis is that much of humanity or society is deeply conditioned to seek and to obey unchallengeable authorities. And, that surrender and obedience is what keeps humanity from the intelligence needed for solving human and world problems. Will humanity ever get “outside” or “higher” help? Not likely. The solution, say Kramer and Alstad, is moving beyond childish following of authoritarian saviors and for individuals to take personal responsibility for solving world and human problems. The Guru Papers unmask and decode authoritarian power which pervades society, love, and daily life.

Announcement for Skeptic Meditations subscribers

June through July 2016 I took a “sabbatical” from blog posting for personal and professional reasons. After two and half years of regular posting of blog articles, I felt it was time to step back and to stew–creatively and intellectually–on what might be next for you, me, and Skeptic Meditations. My hope is that I’ll be able to post new content regularly and get your feedback.

You have discovered, during my two month sabbatical, several new pages were added to Skeptic Meditations website: including new Home, new Start Here, and new subscription/follow options. Check these out, if you haven’t yet. Please don’t hesitate to float me your comments or emails when you discover anything that could be improved, challenged, or elaborated on by your own comments and critiques.

Scott

Notes
1 The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, Frog Books, 1998, p. xiii
2 The Role of a Guru in One’s Spiritual Search, Self-Realization Fellowship website. What is one searching for anyway? The guru-authority instills the desire for the objects of the search. Then sells the disciple the methods (meditation, lessons, and trainings) to gain and keep followers. What proof that the guru is a holder of special wisdom? “Wise” words and extraordinary promises (sometimes claims of miracles) are typically all that is offered.
3 The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, Frog Books, 1998, p. 128