In the ashram1, spiritual advancement was measured by the position of the person within the organization.
All within the organizational hierarchy got feelings of specialness and authority from position and proximity to the leader.
Self-Realization Fellowship claims2 that the organization will always be guided by God-realized people, and that disciples can always be assured of the direction of their leaders.
At the SRF Headquarters, the ashram atop Mt. Washington in Los Angeles, people got promoted on loyalty and obedience to the guru-leader and the President of SRF. Obedient disciples were rewarded with position and higher rank within the organization.
Diagram of the ashram spiritual-corporate hierarchy
A spiritual-corporate caste system: This spiritual-corporate hierarchy, which I am familiar with from the SRF ashram or monastery, mirrors the horrific Indian-Hindu caste system: the Guru-Master is the highest or Brahmin caste; the Pretenders to Throne, close disciples, are the Kshatriyas (warrior) class; the Ministers are the Vaishyas (merchants or landowners); the Servants represent the Shudras (subordinates to all the other upper castes); and finally, the Untouchables are the lowly, outsiders of this hierarchy.
Climbing the Spiritual-Corporate Ladder
The guru, infallible Master-leader is at the top of the power pyramid. The Master-leader has absolute authority over everyone within the organization. To question the infallibility of the leader is seen as a sign of egoism, of disloyalty and disobedience to the leader and organization.
Seldom is there open, honest communication between disciples within the hierarchy.
There is underlying fear of punishment that keeps everyone in line: fear of being withheld any rewards and attentions, of displeasing and being banished to a remote outpost, or of even being expelled or excommunicated from the ashram. Disciples within the hierarchy are starved for attention and affection from the leader. Rewards of position and rank are seen as a sign of pleasing the leader and of spiritual advancement.
Directly below the Master-leader is an inner cadre of elite disciples. This small, close circle, sometimes referred to as “advanced” disciples or directors, are one among them who is likely to someday inherit the spiritual mantle and the entire organization after the Master-leader is no longer physically present.
Below the inner circle of elite disciples are ministers and administers who filter, interpret, and communicate the Master-leader’s commands and “teachings” to rank and file, lower-level disciples.
Persons furthest from the Master-leader, those at the bottom of the ladder, are either new members or considered not spiritually advanced enough to rise to positions of authority within the organization.
The lower-level disciples, the majority of followers, are seldom able to be near the Master-leader, who typically is aloof and indifferent to their survival, needs, and problems. Despite the apparent indifference of the Master-leader, most disciples are convinced that spiritual blessings of the Master-leader trickles down from top to bottom of the organizational hierarchy.
Loyal and obedient disciples are willing to sacrifice all, even life, to uphold the Master-leader and the hierarchical organization.
All persons outside or disloyal to the hierarchy are considered either inferior, not intelligent, or not spiritually advanced, and are likely lost in ego, delusion (Maya), or evil.
Position within the organization, climbing the spiritual-corporate ladder, generates feelings of specialness, power, and authority for the disciples.
1 The Self-Realization Fellowship Monastic Order has half a dozen ashram centers in Southern California. It is in these that I lived for more than 14 years as a renunciant, monastic-disciple. For a brief description about me and why I left read my About page.
2 Supposedly said by Paramahansa Yogananda, according to Mrinalini Mata, current President of SRF as quoted in Transcendent In America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements as New Religion, Lola Williamson, NY University Press, 2010, p 63
In this post, we explore three definitions of cults and speculate about the extreme psychological dependence between leaders and followers of yoga meditation groups. Next, we examine the leader/follower behaviors and attitudes of submission and psychological enslavement through processes that include yoga meditation techniques. Finally, we discuss ways followers may escape psychological enslavement to these leaders and to meditation processes.
Let’s begin by exploring three definitions of cults that apply to many yoga meditation groups.
Definitions of Cults
The term cult is often used pejoratively, to refer specifically to “a quasi-religious organization using devious psychological techniques to gain and control adherents” (Collins English Dictionary)1.
The adherents of so-called cults are followers of the group’s leader(s).
In Traumatic Abuse in Cults: A Psychoanalytic Perspective2, Shaw, a psychoanalyst and former Siddha Yoga ashram resident, gives the following definition of a cult:
A cult is largely based on the personality of its leader(s).
The cult group leader(s) claim, explicitly or implicitly:
To have reached human perfection;
To have unity with the divine [god or cosmic intelligence];
To be exempt from ordinary social limitations and moral restrictions.
Using Shaw’s definition of a cult, it is not difficult to see the extreme dependence and abuses that can occur for the followers of these groups.
In The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, Kramer and Alstad3 define:
A cult is a group with a leader who is considered by followers to be unchallengeable and infallible.
Kramer and Alstad say that a cult is a group led by a person(s):
Revered as God’s unique vessel, or as a manifestation of God, or as the god-force;
Often is the group’s founder, not merely an interpreter but the creator of Truth;
Exercises absolute authority over group with few if any external constraints, with free reign over the group.
In Cult Attraction is Not a Problem of Logic4, Stein contends:
“The process of retaining followers is really where the core of the brainwashing and control process takes place”.
Stein gives characteristics of the processes used by many yoga meditation cults, which include:
Controlled by a leader or leadership group that is charismatic and authoritarian.
Closed system. The inner structure of the group is isolating and steeply hierarchical.
Use of processes to break-down and retain followers, such as sleep deprivation, control of relationships, lack of privacy, control of information, diet and so on. [Especially regular, intensive practice of meditation techniques].
Shaw, Kramer and Alstad, and Stein all described the cultic characteristics of many yoga meditation groups.
Methods Used by Cultic Meditation Groups
What is needed though is not to label certain groups as cults. What is most important is recognizing the methods used by cultic groups, the processes that lead to destructive behaviors and psychological enslavement, so that we may learn how these groups operate and to avoid or escape enslavement to them.
Process of Submission and Psychological Enslavement
There are seven steps of submission to leader(s) and enslavement of the follower. Inside yoga meditation groups, the given meditation techniques are a key component that helps anesthetize followers into submission and enslavement by the leader(s).
Seven-steps of submission/enslavement to cultic leader(s):
Follower relies on teacher, guru, philosophy or religion to validate “reality” of experiences and methods, especially of meditation practices.
a. Follower accepts the underlying premise that “there is something wrong, missing, or corrupt within me, which is beyond my awareness and control.”
2. Follower understands the leader(s) are, explicitly or implicitly, perfect, infallible, and unchallengeable. Leader(s) is supposedly a vessel of Truth or divine-manifestation.
3. Follower isolates, closes to outside, avoids conflicting inputs. Submits to authority of leader(s).
4. Follower engages in processes of meditation practices, sleep deprivation, diets or fasts, control of information, control of relationships, and so on.
5. Follower eventually discovers disturbing or unethical behaviors of leader(s), and that the processes (of meditation, methods) do not seem to live up to the promises.
6. Follower is unwilling to question or doubt the promises and processes of the leader(s). Rather the follower assumes: “There IS something wrong, missing, or corrupt within me, which is beyond my awareness and control”.
7. Follower then redoubles efforts to submit to leader(s) and keeps on with processes, that includes meditation practices.
This seven-step process often repeats in an endless loop. Submission and psychological enslavement continues until the follower questions or doubts the underlying premises and promises of the leader(s) and the methods, such as meditation. By questioning and doubting the leader(s), followers may be able to break away from their psychological enslavement.
Two ways followers may escape psychological enslavement to leader(s):
Attain the same, exalted status of the leader(s). A follower-turned-leader gains absolute authority over followers. The so-called “escape” from psychologically enslaved-follower to enslaver-leader only shifts from being the enslaved to the enslaver within the hierarchical, cultic system. Becoming an exalted leader then only perpetrates, and doesn’t break one away, from the system itself of psychological enslavement.
2. Doubt the leader(s) and question the processes of meditation and so on. To escape enslavement, the follower questions or rejects the premises that “there is something wrong with me”. The doubting follower challenges the premises that the leader(s) are perfect and infallible. During the process of questioning and doubting the follower challenges the promises of the leader(s) and processes, such as meditation methods. It may take a long-time, if ever, for many serious followers to break away from their psychological enslavement.
While I was a decade and half in the ashrams of the Self-Realization Fellowship Monastic Order, I began a years-long process of questioning and doubting the leader(s) and their promises.
During my last two years in the ashram, I had what I would call “self-realization” experiences–psychological liberation and enlightenment insights–that required no validation from leaders.
The psychological enslavement to cultic leaders noted above is not limited to people who live inside ashrams or meditation centers. (I know former SRF monastics and lay members that remain psychologically enslaved to the leader(s), to the promises and the processes that include meditation techniques).
As more former followers, like myself, speak out about their experiences inside these groups with these kinds of leaders, we will educate others. As more people recognize these manipulations, methods, and processes, my hope is that others will find meaning in their own experiences and break away from psychological enslavement.
I welcome your critiques and comments. Through your feedback I learn and grow, and improve these posts.
1 Cult definition, Collins English Dictionary. http://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/cult
Should some devotees continue or stop wasting time in meditation practice? Or, is faith in meditation, in a guru, or in perseverance–despite insignificant results–a virtue?
This post examines long-time meditation practitioners who continue despite little or insignificant results.
Many gurus and their institutions claim that meditation is a science, that if practiced correctly meditation brings empirical results.
One such claim, that is extraordinary, can be found in a quote by Paramahansa Yogananda, guru of Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF):
“The yogic science is based on an empirical consideration of all forms of concentration and meditation exercises. Yoga enables the devotee to switch off or on, at will, life current to the five sense telephones of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Attaining this power of sense disconnection, the yogi finds it simple to unite his mind at will with divine realms or with the world of matter”.1
Some devotees may practice meditation for decades and have little if anything to show for it, let alone “empirical” results to speak of. These meditation practitioners may often rationalize and justify away their lack of significant results.
Walter, practiced meditation for forty-three years
“Although he [Walter, a disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda and SRF devotee] had been practicing meditation for forty-three years, he expressed uncertainty about how much progress he had made….I was curious why he had stuck with the practice for so many years if he was not seeing results. He replied…’If I don’t meditate, I miss it….It’s seeing the world as consciousness, not as physical reality.’” p. 9
“Seeing the world as consciousness” is a seemingly profound statement, but is vague and vacuous of comprehensive meaning. Is Walter merely justifying his decades of meditation practice as-is rather than examining the actual results from the time, energy, and money he invested into meditation?
Bryan, after decades of meditation, “It’s just not what I expected”
“Bryan’s dramatic mystical experience occurred continuously over a period of two to three months. They happened before he started meditating….He puts forth tremendous effort to follow the daily disciplines he has learned through Self-Realization Fellowship, yet he does not feel he has gained control over his experiences. I [Bryan] kept asking, ‘Where’s some dramatic stuff? Where’s the beef?’…’It’s hard. In hindsight I know what I’ve gotten back; it just hasn’t been what I thought it would be. Meditation has made me a much calmer person. It’s helped to be in the present moment. And this is a lot. It’s just not what I expected.’” p. 165
The meditation practice and particular worldview that is often taught with it, such as in SRF, may be difficult for many devotees to question or to not stay attached to. Psychologists call the tendency in people to be attached to their investments, despite heavy losses, the sunk-cost bias2. It may take a person years to give up on poor investments. The greater the loss of the investment often the longer it may take a person to let the investment losses go.
After thinking critically about my experiences with meditation practice and in SRF I realized that the results I got from meditation practice were insignificant compared with the great investment of my time, energy, and money.
Are long-time meditation practitioners too invested to quit or at least to question the value of continuing to meditate as-is? What other excuses or arguments might devotees have to try to convince themselves or others that they are not wasting precious time in meditation?
No True Meditator Argument
At this point, I’m guessing that some devoted meditators who read this will invoke the No True Scotsman3, or, what I will call the No True Meditator, argument to try to rationalize why they may not, nor anyone else may not, get significant results from meditation.
The fallacious No True Scotsman (No True Meditator) argument may go something like this:
Walt: Meditation practitioners will get tremendous results of concentration and realizations.
Tom: Then why are there so many meditators who don’t get results?
Walt: They were never true meditators.
Tom: What’s a true meditator?
Walt: Only those who get results.
Question for readers: What other reasons or arguments are there for why some long-time practitioners don’t quit meditating when results are insignificant?
1 Autobiography of a Yogi, Chap 26: The Science of Kriya Yoga, Paramahansa Yogananda (Self-Realization Fellowship)
3 No True Scotsman, also known as No True Christian, and what I’ve taken the liberty to call here the No True Meditator argument or fallacy that is described as “when a universal (“all”, “every”, etc.) claim is refuted, rather than conceding the point or meaningfully revising the claim, the claim is altered by going from universal to specific, and failing to give any objective criteria for the specificity.”–Logically Fallacious, http://www.logicallyfallacious.com/index.php/logical-fallacies/136-no-true-scotsman
A 20 year insider investigates the worldviews and practices of Hindu-inspired meditation movements.
In Transcendent in America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements (2010, New York University Press) Lola Williamson explores the worldviews, mystical experiences, and guru-disciple relationships of Hindu-inspired meditation movements (HIMMs) and examines three famous gurus and the organizations they founded: Self-Realization Fellowship of Paramahansa Yogananda, Transcendental Meditation of Maharishi Maheshi Yogi, and Siddha Yoga Dham Associates of Swami Muktananda.
She interviews followers of these organizations who have 20+ years of tutelage under these famous gurus. These three organizations combine Hinduism with Western values that form a hybrid, new religion that Williamson calls HIMMs.
Williamson, at the time she began writing this book, had participated for 21 years in Siddha Yoga and saw herself as a devout disciple of Gurumayi, the guru-successor of that movement. Before that Williamson was involved for 10 years in teacher trainings with Maharishi in Transcendental Meditation.
As Williamson investigated these movements to write this book she learned of disturbing accounts of abuses and organizational dysfunctions that were endemic to many of these groups.
She and many followers of HIMMs felt it was necessary to distance themselves from rumors of scandals and negativity that was reported by persons who left the ashrams and the organizations.
In 2005, Williamson abandoned this book project and quit Siddha Yoga because of the “cult-like atmosphere pervaded by many of the movements”.
In 2007, she resumed writing of this book that offers a unique perspective on HIMMs from both inside and outside.
Two perspectives, insider and outsider, reveal bits of reality in different ways, like the lame man riding on the shoulders of the blind man.
Williamson, as an insider understands the “heart” of the tradition and what makes the HIMM faith attractive to its followers. Outsiders, on the other hand, like Williamson [and myself included], may provide a different perspective and a willingness to examine and critique abuses.
“I also realized that some people use Hindu-style meditation and the philosophy accompanying it to escape from facing hard truths about themselves or about people and events around them”- Williamson [For example, see my post Abandoning Family for a Guru]
Beliefs and Practices of Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements
Paraphrasing from Transcendent In America here are some of the beliefs and practices common to HIMMs:
1. Strong commitment to meditation as a means to attaining inner peace, and ultimately, to attaining a state of consciousness described by practitioners variously as liberation, enlightenment, or unity consciousness;
2. Belief that the guru of the movement has attained this state of liberation and serves as their guide;
3. Initiation into a deep, personal relationship with the guru, who is the center of charismatic authority;
4. Each HIMM sees itself as a sort of “family” centered on the guru;
5. Share common beliefs such as karma (natural law of retribution) and reincarnation and the ideal of “enlightenment”;
6. Share common lifestyle; purity is necessary for attaining enlightenment and adherence to dietary restrictions, most are vegetarians and try to avoid stressful situations or “negative” thinking;
7. Seek a balanced life that combines self-effort with a sense of ease, often limiting exposure to popular “worldly” culture or entertainments often viewed as not helpful to spiritual evolution;
8. Belief that self-reflection aids spiritual growth, may include introspection, psychotherapy, or participation in human potential groups;
9. Share common rituals (eg. chanting, meditation), myths (eg. ascending chakras in an astral spine service as a ladder up to samadhi, awakening of kundalini or serpent energy), and metaphors (eg. yoking the five senses to the “chariot” of yoga meditation–an allegory from the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture);
10. Conceive of HIMM practices and beliefs as more than or greater than “religion”, that it’s a universal, spiritual approach to life available to anyone irrespective of faith tradition.
The are several problems, says Williamson, with this interwoven system of meaning used by people who participate HIMMs.
Problems with Beliefs & Practices of Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements
According to Williamson, there are several problems with the beliefs and practices of HIMMs, including:
HIMMs do not adhere to “universal” beliefs nor practices
A. First, the notion that the beliefs and practices of HIMMs are universal actually disregards the fact that many religious practitioners do not believe that “God” dwells within a human being or that union with God is possible or even desirable.
B. The notion that differences in religions can be transcended if everyone where to experience unity consciousness is a particular dogma or belief system of HIMMs, even if it arises out of personal experiences.
C. Essentially, followers and gurus of HIMMs are asserting that unity among religions would be possible if everyone accepted the HIMM worldview or practiced the HIMM forms of meditation.
HIMMs adhere to dogmatic beliefs and ritualized practices, like other religions
D. HIMMs compare the inner depth of their religious system to the outer expressions of others. To outsiders, though, that observe HIMMs, the particular rituals, practices, and dogma appear as forms like any other religion, for only the external can be observed.
E. Rituals most valued by HIMMs center on practices of meditation and initiation into its methods. Traditional Indian Hinduism, like traditional Asian Buddhism [See my post From Monastic to Domestic Mindfulness], reserved the initiations and practices of meditation exclusively for monks and renunciates, not for householders as is touted by HIMMs as a way to recruit people from all walks of life.
Transcendent In America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements as New Religion questions and discusses, from both insider and outsider perspectives, the problems, beliefs and practices of Hindu-inspired meditation movements (HIMMs).
In the above article I summarized and paraphrased what Williamson noted is the system of meaning of people who participate in HIMMs, including: strong commitment to meditation as way to peace and liberation or enlightenment, initiation into a guru-disciple relationship with a charismatic authority, share common beliefs such as karma (retribution), reincarnation, dietary restrictions, and a set of Hindu-inspired but Westernized rituals and myths that are similar externally to any other religion.
Some problems with HIMM’s beliefs and practices, paraphrasing Williamson in Transcendent in America, include: adherence to a dogma that meditation is universal when actually only if other religions believe like HIMMs do that god is within all human beings and that god may be found in their forms of meditation practice. Traditional, Indian Hinduism reserved meditation practice for monastics. HIMMs promote meditation as a necessary and desirable practice for people from all walks of life.
Question for readers: Have you ever considered yourself a participant in a HIMM, as outlined above? Are there other key components (not included in the lists above) that more clearly represent the system of meaning, practices, and beliefs of participants in HIMMs?
1 In defining HIMMs, Williams says, “There is a qualitative difference between people who have been raised in a tradition in which the rituals, the foods, the prayers, and the ethics are second nature, and people who have incorporated only parts of a tradition into their religious style. This is why I use the term ‘Hindu-inspired’ rather than ‘Hindu’ to describe Transcendental Meditation and similar movements….Western traditions of individualism and rationalism also influence the style and ethos of these movements.” p 4 Transcendent in America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements (2010, New York University Press). On p 25 of The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009, Penguin Books) Wendy Doniger says, “The books that Euro-Americans privileged (such as the Bhagavad Gita) were not always so highly regarded by ‘all Hindus’, certainly not before the Euro-Americans began to praise them.”
2 In future posts I intend to explore some of the abuses and dysfunctions of HIMMs as described by Williamson in her book.
3 Adapted from p 34 of The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009, Penguin Books) Wendy Doniger
When I entered the SRF Encinitas Ashram, I did not tell my parents until after I was already inside. I’m sure not telling my parents before entering the ashram hurt them.
My dad recently sent me a large folder of letters I had mailed to him around the time I entered the ashram. I should go through those letters and try to find the letter where I informed my parents I had joined a Hindu-inspired monastic order in Encinitas. (My parents raised me in a mainstream Christian church).
Eventually my parents came to visit me at the ashram. Our meeting was a bit heart-wrenching. The feelings could probably not be duplicated unless we were visiting family in prison.
I was also allowed, was given permission by the monastic superiors, to occasionally visit my parents at home. At the end of those visits, a part of me never wanted to return to the ashram.
A number of years ago, one of my sisters took all my dad’s slide collection–decades of family photos–and had them converted onto CD’s. When I reviewed the family photos, I was shocked by my absence from them. It wasn’t just during the years when I was in the ashram. Prior to that, when I was age seventeen I moved to London and soon after moved to Hawaii. But all those holiday celebrations when the family gathered, so often I was not present. Missing.
Today, both my parents are 92 years of age. We have a close relationship. I just finished drafting a Wikipedia page about my dad, an early pioneer of computers. My three younger sisters and I somehow all survived to be over age 60. Today, I cherish them all, and we talk frequently on Skype.
The monastic bonds of love were not as strong. In the ashram there was talk of divine “fellowship”. Indeed I felt a kind of brotherhood with my fellow monks while fighting spiritual battles together in the trenches. The brotherly love, though, was often laced with fear.
The SRF monastic community often used scare tactics to get monks to stay inside the ashram. We were indoctrinated that life outside the ashram, out in the world, was terrible, and that when you leave “you grab the tail of the cat, you get the whole cat.” Meaning that if you choose to leave the ashram, you get caught in the claws of a supposedly evil and dangerous world outside the cloister.
I love cats, and so ultimately the scare tactics didn’t work. I eventually left the SRF Monastic Order and found that life outside was wonderful and fulfilling.
Life after leaving the ashram was not always easy for me. I confess I had to do some hard work on myself to get to where I am today. (But I won’t discuss those details now as it’s a bit too personal).
Several years after leaving the ashram I met the woman of my dreams. We recently celebrated our 30-year wedding anniversary. We have love everyday in our home.
We have a wonderful daughter who often visits us. She brings joy with her and is the love of our lives. In six months she finishes a Ph.D. program, with a doctorate in statistical genetics. I’m one proud dad.
Last night, my wife and I attended a holiday party and everyone talked of family. I left the party feeling joy. (I don’t drink, so that wasn’t the reason). Today. we shared our fairly lame party pictures on Facebook, we tagged each other, and enjoyed our shared memories.
I can’t remember ever feeling that good during my ashram days during or after gatherings in the monastic community. The monks would meet and then just go back to their solitary rooms and meditate.
Every morning I walk for an hour as the sun comes up and I am filled with gratitude. I love living in the moment, the life I’ve chosen, and have been given.
My wish is that monks who live inside an ashram, who wonder what it’s like on the outside after leaving, that they could know the love and joy that is possible in this world.
Notes 1 This former monk asked to remain anonymous for personal reasons. I have obtained his permission to use his story in this post. While this former monk and I did not know each other inside the SRF ashram–he left a decade or more before my entry into the ashram–we recently had a pleasant in person meeting sometime after he first contacted me through this SkepticMeditations website.