Tagged: Self-Realization Fellowship

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.

Sleep Paralysis In Yoga Tradition

What is sleep paralysis? How is the experience interpreted in yoga tradition?

Every night we suffer from sleep paralysis. But we are not always aware of it. Sleep paralysis occurs while we are half awake and half asleep and we can’t move.

“Always when I’m going off to sleep. It’s pretty much the same”, Ted, a 35 year old British psychologist described his experiences of sleep paralysis. “My eyes are open and I get the sense something in the room is happening. Then a shape gathers. A presence. I can feel its weight. I have multisensory sensations. I feel like my body is floating. I can’t move it. I try to make a sound in my throat. I can’t. As I keep struggling to cry out, eventually scream out and that wakes me up and then I can move my body.”[1]

As I was thinking about writing this post, I kept hearing readers tell me, “You don’t know that sleep paralysis is similar to yoga meditation experiences. Who are you to speculate on the traditions and experiences of yogis, saints, and mystics?” I had my doubts about writing this post. While what I write may not adequately address all aspects of sleep paralysis and interpretations, I feel it is important anyway to write this article.

In between sleeping and waking, in this “threshold consciousness”, are a variety of mental phenomena that includes lucid dreaming, hallucinations, and sleep paralysis. I assert the sleep paralysis may be, in yoga tradition, what is interpreted as union with god, soul, or spirit. But more on that later. First, let’s return to what happens in our body during sleep paralysis.

What Happens During Sleep Paralysis?

While sleeping, your body alternates between REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep. One REM and one NREM sleep cycle lasts about 90 minutes. First is the NREM sleep cycle which takes as much as 75% of your overall sleep time. During NREM sleep, your body relaxes and rejuvenates itself. At the end of NREM, your sleep shifts to REM. Your eyes move rapidly, dreams occur while the rest of your body remains very relaxed. During REM your muscles are “switched off”. If you become aware and interrupt before the REM cycle is finished, you may notice you cannot move or speak. This is sleep paralysis.[2]

In Something Wicked This Way Comes: Causes and Interpretations of Sleep Paralysis Chris French, Professor and Psychologist at University of London, identified three psychological factors in the experience of sleep paralysis:

  1. Intruder — The person may sense a presence, hear voices or strange sounds, and see lights or visions. In a word–hallucinate.
  2. Incubus[3] — The experiencer may feel pressure, be unable to voluntarily control breathing, may panic creating a feeling of suffocation or difficulty breathing.
  3. Unusual body experiences — Sensations of floating, flying, or hovering, and out of body experiences. Proprioception, self-orientation within the body, is missing or out of order.

Sleep paralysis may evoke feelings of bliss or terror. The experience may be interpreted differently by different cultures or traditions. In Hinduism, Viśvarūpa is Sanskrit for “sacred terror”. Whether the experience is terrible or joyful is irrelevant. It’s the tradition and the interpretation that frames it as either sleep paralysis or sacred yoga.

How is sleep paralysis experience interpreted by yoga meditation tradition?

Narada prostrating before Vishvamurti, Public Domain.
Narada prostrating before Vishvamurti, Public Domain.

Yoga Tradition and Sleep Paralysis Experience

Famed yogi-guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, taught his students a “Definite Technique of Attaining Ecstasy:

“As you are falling asleep each night, keep your eyes half-open and focused at the point between the eyebrows; consciously enjoy in a relaxed nonchalant way the state at the border of joyous sleep as long as you can hold it without falling asleep, and you will learn to go into ecstasy at will. . . Try to remain in this state from five minutes to one hour, then you will know about yoga: conscious communion of your soul with God.”[4]

The practice of the yogi-guru’s technique (above) could result in what Western medicine and psychology says is sleep paralysis. Yogananda interprets sleep paralysis experience as “yoga: conscious communion of your soul with God”.

Another aspect of sleep paralysis which overlaps with yoga tradition is samadhi. Samadhi is by tradition the supreme goal of yoga (union or communion with God).

Let’s examine some similarities between so-called yoga samadhi and sleep paralysis.

Similarities Between Yoga Samadhi and Sleep Paralysis

When compared with sleep paralysis we find many similarities between yoga samadhi experiences, which include:

  • Immobilized body, unable to move
  • Altered or heightened awareness
  • Heard voices, sounds
  • Saw shapes, visions
  • Sensed presence
  • Disabled physical senses
  • Labored breathing
  • Panicked to breathe, speak, or move
  • Felt terror[5] or bliss (depending on experiencer interpretation)
  • Sensed floating, levitating
  • Hovered, outside, or “above” the physical body

To be aware is to experience. No awareness, no experience. After awareness of experience comes interpretation.

For instance, you become aware you can feel or control your “breathing”. Terror sets in. You panic. You gasp for breath. Or, you feel detached from your physical body. You feel bliss or terror.

I had panicked during yoga meditation. My awareness just landed on “not breathing” after feeling “outside” my body. I panicked and gasped for air. Coming back to voluntary control of my body.

An American-born swami-monk lectured around the world about the blessings of yoga meditation. The first time he practiced his guru’s yoga meditation technique, he told audiences he panicked when he became aware he was “not breathing”. Gasping finally resulted in sucking air into his lungs. Immediately the swami said he was brought back into his body consciousness.

Personal experiences like these are anecdotes, not proof the phenomena are objectively real. Returning now to the anecdotes reported by yogis and experiences of sleep paralysis patients, let’s examine the differences.

Differences Between Yoga Samadhi and Sleep Paralysis

Differences between sleep paralysis and yoga samadhi, includes:

Sleep Paralysis Yoga samadhi
Very common. More than 3 million US cases per year.[6] Legendary, mythical claims and anecdotal stories not well-documented nor verified by independent researchers.
Reproduced, well-documented by independent researchers in various lab experiments. Not reproduced, not well-documented by independent research or lab experiments.
Mechanism fairly well-understood for how and why physical and psychological phenomena occurs during half awake, half asleep state. No “samadhi” or superconscious awareness has been clearly explained in a verifiable, credible way. No scientifically known mechanism for how and why a superconsciousness exists or is actually different from non-supernatural brain states, such as sleep paralysis.
Recorded durations of seconds or minutes. Said to last minutes, hours, days, years, or for eternity (when one reaches godhood or cosmic consciousness). No well-documented cases from independent researchers or experiments.

What can sleep paralysis teach us about yoga traditions?

When we compare sleep paralysis and yoga samadhi experiences we find many similarities. Not all phenomena related to so-called yoga samadhi and sleep paralysis experiences are the same. Paramahansa Yogananda’s “Definite Technique of Attaining Ecstasy” seems to be yoga method to induce sleep paralysis. The ecstasy or experience that Yogananda and yoga tradition may interpret as supreme yoga–union or communion with God–physicians and psychologists may call sleep paralysis.

Have you experienced sleep paralysis? Yoga “samadhi”? What do you think of similarities or differences between the interpretations by yoga tradition?

Notes

1 Professor Chris French, Something Wicked This Way Comes: Causes and Interpretations of Sleep Paralysis. Presentation at Psychology Department at Goldsmiths, University of London, Oct. 11, 2009. Accessed Aug. 30, 2016, https://vimeo.com/11459308.

2 “Sleep Paralysis”. WebMD, accesssed Aug. 30, 2016, http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/guide/sleep-paralysis#1-3.

3 “Sleep Paralysis”. Rationalwiki, accessed Sep. 1, 2016, http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Sleep_paralysis. In Medieval Europe demons called incubus were said to attack women and succubus to attack men, usually sexually. Different cultures interpret differently but usually mythologically the experiences of sleep paralysis, altered awareness, and yoga samadhi.

4  Paramahansa Yogananda, Self-Realization Fellowship Lesson 154. Yogananda refers to “conscious” sleep throughout his yoga lessons, “The soul may use its intuition together with life force released from bodily activities during the relaxation of sleep to project true visions on the screen of the subconscious. Visions may show events to come, as the soul can use its intuitive power to “photograph” future happenings. But a vision does not appear until sufficient energy has been relaxed from the heart and from the ordinary waking consciousness (as in sleep) to project it”, Lesson 73. And, “This detachment of the mind from body consciousness [during yoga meditation] is similar to that experienced in sleep, except that one remains consciously aware”, Summary Lesson.

5 “Visvarupa”. Wikipedia, accessed Sep. 1, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vishvarupa. Bliss and terror are bedfellows in Hindu mythology. Viśvarūpa is Sanskrit for “sacred terror”. In the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu bible, Lord Krishna reveals to his chief-disciple, Arjuna, the Viśvarūpa experience. Arjuna is terrified by Viśvarūpa, said to the universal form of Hindu God(s).
6 “Sleep Paralysis”. Mayo Clinic and Google Search, accessed Aug. 30, 2016,  https://g.co/kgs/3Vw3IB.