Enlightenment, Service, Celebration

Art of Living was an easy thing to slip into for me, as I was raised with a lot of eastern spirituality in and around my family. The problem, as I see it, is that Art of Living says one thing in the outer circles to draw people into a seemingly benign set of values and beliefs, and gradually changes the meaning of these words as you get drawn further and further toward the “inner circles” (reminds me of this, actually…).

I wanted to look at three basic articles of faith (or catchwords) in the Art of Living universe and see how this happens.

1: Enlightenment

The basic premise of any meditation practice is that it alters your state of mind in a positive way. Art of Living markets the kriya and other yogic practices as methods to reduce stress, calm the mind, and improve your daily life from the inside out. A quick and easy way to relax, rebalance and slowly train the mind to let go of petty botherations– sounds great!

Later on though, your practice becomes the method by which you pursue enlightenment– and I mean pursue enlightenment. Rabidly.

During my time in Art of Living I realized that everyone around me desperately wanted to get Enlightened, but I really wasn’t sure what it meant to any of them. More strange still, I began wanting it, and I didn’t know what it meant to me. I realize now that the logic goes something like this: Guruji is Enlightened (more Enlightened than anyone else on earth has been in thousands of years), and he has come to show us the Way. Since what I want is to be close to HIM, and to become more and more like HIM, I want to Get Enlightened. (Honestly, for most of us I don’t think this is any loftier than why I suddenly got into all the bands my crush was into in high school, or developed a passion for dancing when my boyfriend was a wonderful waltzer. When we’re in love, we mirror the beloved in hopes that it will earn their love in return, and that it will make us seem more beautiful.) Sri Sri gathers to him people who must be special somehow– maybe if I got more enlightened I’d be one of those people. I really, really think that hope is at the core of a lot of devotees’ practices.

What is Enlightenment according to AoL, why do people want it, why does Guruji subtly suggest he offers the WAY to it, and isn’t all this desire for some glorified indescribable state of equanimity rather counterproductive? Why all this feverishness to be rid of feverishness? These are questions I can’t entirely answer, but would love to hear others’ thoughts on the matter.

Ultimately, there’s no need for a Guru without the belief that there is a higher state of mind to reach, your guru has reached it, and that you want to get closer to That State, Whatever It Is. Gradually the purpose of meditation stops being relaxation and de-stressing, and becomes the cultivation of Divine Consciousness to the extent that Sri Sri has supposedly mastered it. We the faithful come in for some yoga and we end up waiting for Godot.

2) Service

Again, a seemingly altruistic and hard-t0-disagree-with point: we should serve others.  It’s pretty easy to say “I’m for service!”, rather like the ease of saying “I’m against cancer” or “I’m for puppies”, and the overtures about seva remain general and goody-goody until you spend a few hours in satsang.

Sri Sri will tell the story about how a young man wanted to do service, and so he stood all day at a street crossing waiting for a blind person or an old woman in need of help getting to the other side. How foolish! (and the chorus, I among them, would gleefully giggle) Service is always there, there are many kinds, even doing your job with an attitude of service or raising your children with an attitude of service is seva. Brilliant.

And, in all honesty, that idea really opened my heart and gave me a new outlook on daily life. I am still grateful for the idea that all things can become seva if you are acting from an attitude of loving kindness.

But at the end of satsang, the sales pitches start. Make a sankalpa. Tell all your friends. Thank the person who brought you here, and bring 5 new people. Do everything you can to “Spread the Knowledge”. To a newcomer, spreading knowledge seems like a good thing. It’s easy to overlook the THE. Gradually, though, contrary to what Sri Sri himself says– it isn’t everybody’s knowledge, it’s the Knowledge of His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankarji, Guru of Joy. Service is spreading HIS knowledge, HIS teachings, and bringing others to THIS path.

I remember a rather sickening time when I stopped telling friends they should try whatever meditation seemed like a good fit, vipassana or zen or a movement meditation like tai chi– and started only telling them why kriya was so amazing. Afterall, it was Seva.

3: Celebration 

Again, how can you possibly be against smiling and dancing and music and a One World Family? (although, having read Not Without My Sister, that phrase no longer seems quite so innocent. I’m skeptical now of anyone insisting we are all a Family– it is a beautiful idea, but less beautiful when you remember how a lot of people feel about their family)

The idea that life is to be celebrated, that the mystery of existence is a wonder to be experienced and not a problem to be “solved” is a beautiful notion. One of the things I found most appealing and attractive about Art of Living is this attitude of celebration, teachings about “the beautiful I Don’t Know”, and the emphasis on happiness as a practice and a discipline rather than an occasional perk of life or the result of infinite riches, limitless sex, and endless youth sold to you by That Corporation Inc.. I think this is a valuable awareness to cultivate, and I wish more people approached life with the attitude that their happiness is their responsibility and their practice, not the job of the world to provide. Also, coming to understand that happiness can arise completely independent of the satisfaction of desires was a wonderful aspect of my time as a devotee.

The darker side of this becomes clear when you get in towards the middle, where the only time people seem to really be happy or celebrating is when guruji is nearby. It’s as though all their joy and wonder lives in this little man, and leaves with him when he goes. I’ve never seen people so stressed out as they are at the ashram before or during one of His visits–or so depressed as they are after he leaves. It becomes all about HIM being happy with them , and not about being kind and gracious to one another.

Also, it was my experience that happiness, or the outer signs of it, became a sort of measure for your spiritual stature– so if you weren’t happy about something, that could easily be used against you to undermine a legitimate grievance. “Oh, he’s full of complaining mind” could be said to belittle and discredit  a man with a legit complaint– and it often is.

You can see this easily in the blogosphere– the people who argue that these critical blogs shouldn’t exist suggest that we are all small minded, unhappy people with an axe to grind otherwise we wouldn’t be focused on the “negative” and saying so many “bad” things about AoL.

Being unhappy doesn’t make you unspiritual– it might mean you’re not being dispassionate, but there are times when dispassion isn’t appropriate. I am passionate about people not being sold a false set of goods, and I am passionate about young girls not growing up believing their guru will take care of their whole life if only they’re good enough, that they are always safe from sexual predators in HIS house, that HE knows them completely better than they do and he will choose a perfect husband for them and that the best life for them is that of a teacher spreading HIS knowledge. I care about that, and I would prefer to be passionate about injustice and warning others of the dangers in cultic situations like AoL, rather than ‘dispassionately’ go about MY life and not say a word.

Ultimately, Art of Living takes out the nuance and complications of life. It answers questions like, “what is enlightenment?” with pat replies like “follow me and find out!”, or “How can I be happy?” with “How can you be unhappy?!? You ARE joy!”. For a while it makes everything better, simpler, and easier to digest. But there IS nuance to life, there are shades of grey, and even service can have a dark side (like when people are used as full-time volunteers to raise money for an organization that operates as a business and claims religious tax exemptions, meanwhile not disclosing how the funds are used.) Wouldn’t it be better to let those people realize only THEY can find their own bliss, rather than pretend a guru can lead them to it?

Maybe I’ll never be Enlightened. Maybe I’m not serving a Divine Avatar. and maybe I’m not always as full of wonder and joy and generosity as I could be. But at least I’ll never pretend I’m enlightened, or be a dupe for a narcissistic sociopath with a messianic complex– and meanwhile, on my grumpy days, I’ll practice happiness and get better at it.

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Whole, Human, Healing

The process right now seems to be one of reclaiming all those ever-so-human parts of myself that Art of Living subtly urged me to deny, purge, or breathe away. Most prominent in the last couple of weeks, once the morbidity and bleak terror of nothingness seemed to wane a bit, has been anger. I’ve been getting angry at the silliest things and part of me is kind of enjoying it.  Sometimes there isn’t any identifiable reason; I just prowl through the world with a fire in my belly wanting anyone to do anything to deserve a punch in the face.

I hardly recognize myself when I think of the joyful bouncy loving girl most people think of me as– but it’s still me! And dammit, I like having my rage back. I even like having my doubts, depressions, anxieties and insecurities back. I prefer owning these things about myself and my life to writing them on a scrap of paper, throwing them in a basket, and trusting to that fellow in the doti to sort it all out for me and make me perfect like Him.

In Art of Living I was encouraged to surrender all worries and fears to the divine. Great. I was also told, many times, “just be happy. Celebrate.”– OK, that will require some unpacking, but we’ll go with it. But 6 months after my experience of sexual abuse in an art of living ashram, when I told my Swamiji how angry I still was, he told me, “I know– but you cannot be angry.”

What I am sure he meant was that for my own good, it was best to let go of anger and live in the present, not dwelling on what had happened and not letting anger poison my heart. In this way, he was spot on. But what part of me heard was that anger wasn’t Okay, and that to advance on this path, anger has to go. So I became completely alienated from my own feelings of anger, even when there was a good reason for it. Feeling that expressions of “negative emotions” were unenlightened and would betray all of my hideous flaws, I distanced myself from any expressions of anger, rage, frustration. Instead, those emotions got turned inward.

Is this Swamiji’s fault? No, of course not– but the Art of Living dogma encourages us to “just be happy” all the time, to practice joy and celebration because these are spiritual ways of approaching life, and other things are just “emotional storms”. We look to Sri Sri as an example of a Perfect Person, someone who is never angry. Remember this? “A Master is never angry, even though He might show anger.” (anyone smell a rat?)

Well, anger can be a healthy response to a bad situation. It can be a sign that something needs to change in your life, a way of setting solid boundaries and limits, or it can be unhealthy and abusive– but just because it isn’t pretty doesn’t mean we can just meditate it away, or even that we should. I wanted to be the perfect little devi for my Swamiji and not be angry, but I couldn’t.

Is it AoL’s fault that I wanted to eradicate my “negative” emotions in order to be more deserving of love? Of course not. But the AoL philosophy is dangerous because it erodes confidence in one’s own natural emotional responses. I want my anger to be there when I need it. I want to be  open to the whole spectrum of my emotions so that I can listen to what they are trying to tell me. I don’t want to breathe them away, get giddy from an excess of oxygen, and then try to pretend that everything is hunky-dory.

Now my anger is reintegrating itself into my psyche as the iron curtain between the parts of myself I accepted and the ones I thought weren’t spiritual enough drops. So, just like I rolled with being depressed and didn’t kill myself, I’ll roll with being irrationally furious and I won’t punch people in the face. Promise.

Unless they really, really deserve it.

Part of me kinda hopes someone will…

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When It Gets Worse

“Of comfort no man speak.
Let’s talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow  on the bosom of the earth.”
Richard II (III.ii.144-7)

My thoughts get darker. I dwell on death, and the more-or-less imminent deaths of those I love. I feel ridiculous, like somehow I postponed that moment in early adolescence where mortality sidles up next to your thoughts, becoming your lifelong companion; it never really mattered much to me before. I’m not afraid of dying, but I am afraid of watching everyone around me die and never feeling any sense of what we are all doing here. I’m afraid of having lost forever any faith in the comforting notions I was raised with, that reincarnation is really only an extension of the first law of thermodynamics, that we’ve all spent eternity dancing together and will, in some way, continue to do so. I grew up believing that I have a soul, that it is immortal and infinite, the unfathomable egoless animating principle of this personality I know as “me”; I have never really given much thought to the possibility of there being only this and then Nothing, Void, Abyss and Oblivion. To die, to sleep, no more.

So why can’t I stop thinking about it now?

I suppose I take things to extremes. Having no guru, does it then follow that I must abandon all former notions of god, of spirit, of something that lasts beyond this life? And what need have we for that beyond beyond, for the faith in something more? What is it in me that has suddenly begun to feel that this isn’t enough? 

I am not enjoying life the way I used to. I am not finding it meaningful, or even so exciting and sweet as it was wont to seem before. Is this some flaw in me, some essential lack? Perhaps I need something to worship. Perhaps I need something to love and call my god. Perhaps I just need someone to hold onto so I don’t choke and drown in this thickening mist.

I am told this is normal. I frighten myself with thoughts of my own death, of causing it or simply letting it happen. I feel lost and adrift and then out of nowhere some stranger’s kindness or a beautiful story hits me in the gut and I can almost taste life again. Laughter is soaked into my soul like rain on desert sand– needed, but not enough.

I will get through this.



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Scenes from Hamlet

Most people who take the AoL course learn some “knowledge points” which are a mix of common sense and over-generalization, do some hyperventilating, make long and embarrassing eye contact with a stranger or two and then go their merry way back to leading their own lives. They might even be better for it. Some do the course, gain something from it (or not), and that’s all there is to it.

What makes us different? Why does one person immediately see a scam to be avoided, another a practice to sample, and someone like me, a place to fall completely in love? Is it possible that many people carry on with their daily lives believing implicitly that life is worth the living of it, that the world will remain solid beneath them, and never once need faith in some god? How does the Absurdity Monster not eat their brains?

(there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.
there’s some divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.
what is a man, if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed?)

I found the answers in Art of Living, until I didn’t. Everything I was told I believed, until I couldn’t. And all of my reservations I faithfully suspended–until they grew so heavy the suspension snapped. And before that last thread could hold no longer, I was madly and totally and blissfully in love.

(When we love, how much are we only loving what we wish were true? Oh you gracious gods, how terrifyingly alone one can feel.)

I believed in bhakti yoga. Now I don’t know. I do believe that giving oneself over entirely to a religious leader of any persuasion is often an act of self-abdication, an act ultimately counter to self-realization (whatever that means).  If it is an act of love, it is an act of the kind of love that often comes from fear

( I am afraid of making the wrong choice I am afraid of loving the wrong person I am afraid of wasting my life I am afraid of being alone I am afraid of a meaningless existence I am afraid of being green and becoming old and never being ripe I am afraid of never knowing truth I am afraid of losing I am so afraid of losing and I am afraid I am alone I am afraid)

or from an innocence one is unwilling to surrender, or a consuming desire for something to give yourself to utterly, or a need for an ultimate authority, or…

(please! just give me anything I can point to and say, “yes, THAT” and never let my heart falter or mutiny please anything but a gnawing agnosticism with its rotund and dangling ellipsis, For there is nothing neither good nor bad but…

Stop. Let me simply be faithful and good and satisfied somehow. please. )

and if those longings seem to be answered by a guru, a political leader, a lover, a gospel–answered totally, leaving no room for doubt, asking only your complete devotion–who can be blamed for diving headlong, passionately enacting a suicide-pact of Psyche and Sophia?

(Oh I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space…)

I miss certainty. I wish I had never tasted it. This freedom frightens me. How pleasant it was to surrender, how much pleasure it gave to pull with all my might and trust that someone else would do the driving. How I loved feeling that every day I did kriya brought me closer to …Something.

(and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?)

The one and only necessity is to believe that life is worth living. The rest is chaff and sprinkles. That single beatitude must stay. I must hold on to that, at all costs. Sometimes I feel it slipping, and that frightens me. That way madness lies.

(Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar?)

The rest is…

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow–

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(Our Good Doctor told me I ought to share this on the front page. Some musings from the last comment thread. Doctor’s orders.)

My mother has told me stories of when she was in her guru group, how she and others would drunkenly dance in the streets and play in traffic, in her heart believing her guru was protecting her– and she wasn’t alone! This kind of literal thinking is obviously very, very dangerous. People in Art of Living have a mystical belief that no harm can come to them as long as they’re in RS’s presence in a similar way. Again, it’s the inability to think metaphorically that kills the sense in most scripture I think.

In a very short amount of time I came to think and believe that Guruji was always looking out for me. Indeed I sometimes felt he knew everything I was thinking. It’s the kind of confusion that occurs when the metaphor of the guru as the gate becomes confused with a literal idea of Him as Godhead— which Sri Sri encourages constantly. If he didn’t, I would have been more than happy to take the blame myself for getting carried away with magical thinking and would have worked hard to discipline myself into remembering the myth as metaphor not as literal Truth– but when I realized just how completely central to that myth-making he was, I couldn’t pretend it was my fault anymore.

The more I read up on cults the more shocking it is to me how little the content matters at all. I’m reading Alex Stein’s book now, “Inside Out” — her story of getting sucked into and breaking out of a political cult in the midwest, and if you substituted “revolution” for “enlightenment”, and “cadre” for “seeker” it’s basically all the same stuff!

Cults in general evolve over time into the same formula, because it’s the same ingredients going into the same oven. I honestly believe that most gurus start out as mostly genuine, hoping to help others and also enjoying the attention. But the likely sociopaths among them start believing their own hype, believing in themselves AS The Attainment, The Godman, IT– and slowly the cult mentality grabs hold of them as deeply as their followers.

I feel sorry for cult leaders. it might seem like they lead the high life but can you imagine never being able to be completely honest with anyone, even yourself? Having to perpetually perform, to receive mindless adulation and call it love, to remove yourself from all real intimacy and crown yourself king of your deluded band and call that eternal glory?

I feel sorry for him, I truly do. I see pictures of him when he first started out and my heart still leaps into my throat– I still think he was astonishingly beautiful. Maybe that’s just his charisma, I don’t know– but maybe he had something precious and delicate, and maybe it died when people first called him “master”.

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Neverland, Transcendent Nipples and Bitches I Didn’t Punch

Saturday afternoon we three merry travelers piled in the car for a weekend adventure to the colorful and many-angled Bilbao. It was my first time in Spain! And that very night we cheered as Barcelona triumphed over Manchester United in the Champions League. Sharing a pitcher of sangria, lots of pinxtos, and keeping in “good company” (by which I mean of course fans of Barcelona) is lentil soup for the cult-Leavers soul!

The evening continued with raucous celebrations in the street (the locals are Athletics fans, enemies of Barcelona but they sure weren’t rooting for England…!), which seemed all the more magical after watching the torturously beautiful Pep Guardiola lead his myrmidons to glorious victory. More wine, more pinxtos (“I can do whatever I want now that I’m not going to Teacher Training! I can enjoy myself on an evening out without feeling guilty or spiritually bankrupt! I make my own choices and there’s no magic man who knows my every move and will judge me unworthy if I enjoy some wine with my friends.”–sample of my internal monologue)

–and more *gorgeous* Spanish men. Wow.

[On a side note, I like Spain. A lot. ]

Eventually my wandering eye couldn’t stop returning to a stunningly beautiful curly-mopped spanish fellow and my sister more or less mocked me into boldly walking right up to him and asking, “Do you speak any English?” to which he responded, “a little bit!” and so the adventure continued. Our band of three became a band of six, including my beautiful “I’m a singer in a Basque band” Eneko and his shorter (more interesting but less pretty) friend/guitarist Pedro and their creepy fascist friend from Austria. He and my sister spent a good part of the evening arguing in Spanish; I spent a good part of the evening flirting in English. We were having fun.

At 3 AM or so all the bars were closing, so our new friends led us to one of the only places left open–a disco. A very loud, crowded awful smelly noisy cheesy sweaty awful no good very bad disco.

(it’s in these small moments you know your love was never meant to be).

It seems that life conspires to bring me back to the “club-scene” once every three to four years so that I can retreat to my ivory tower comfortable in the knowledge that what the young people do for fun has not in any way improved. I hate clubs. But I love adventures! So we stayed for a round of drinking and moving-ever-so-slightly-from-side-to-side-to-painfully-loud-American-music. We were all pretty drunk. My sister and I mixed parts of our Malibu Pineapple and Rum Lemonades for a kickier flavor to the shock and consternation of our suddenly conservative hosts (again, it was never meant to be) and we all smiled and laughed and

and then suddenly I felt someone touching me. I felt in a sea of people in total chaos I felt someone I felt something and it felt wrong and invasive and

I slammed my hand down on the hand of a young woman trying to get into my handbag. I clasped her fingers in mine, I raised her hand up off my purse and looked her dead in the eye. I cocked my head to the side in a classic baboon challenge and I squeezed her hand, hard. No words would come to my mouth. She looked surprised, but she certainly didn’t try to deny anything or feign innocence. She and her friend slowly drifted away through the pulsating crowd, looking for another likely rube.

Elated and proud I realized that something in me has changed. One year ago, I would have gotten home and discovered my camera was missing.

I’ve spent my life as a perfect mark; credulous, naive and more invested in finding good in the world than in watching my own back. I have been scammed, pickpocketted, lied to, manipulated, conned, and boondoggled. I’m not stupid, but I’m almost willfully ignorant of just how many people out there are ready to take me for a ride. One time at the canadian ashram someone stole my Ipod out of my coat pocket during one of Sri Sri’s visits. One time at the german ashram an ayurvedic doctor sexually assaulted me. And I still believed I was safer there than anywhere in the world; I believed it because it was my guru’s home and anything bad that happened was just my perfect guru taking my bad karma– I should be grateful, it probably would have been worse if it happened Out There.

I’ve believed men when they said they loved me more than they’ve ever loved a woman and that’s why they didn’t treat me well. I’ve believed the woman in the street who told me their abusive husband is beating her, the shelters are full and she just needs 20 dollars to get a hostel bed (I’ve believed that woman like 3 times). I’ve believed an international cult leader and spiritual “teacher” when he told me we were part of a world-changing movement bringing spirituality and a smile to every corner of the globe for an ever-so-modest-fee which is really a charitable donation to lots of good causes. I believed my Swamiji when he told me my purpose in life was “bringing human values to the children of america” and I believed that my guru knew what was best for me even if it might mean giving up my lifelong dreams and passions to serve Him because I was one of the lucky few who could see him for what he was and would be– a light-bringer, a master, a saint.

Why did I believe these things?

Simply because I wanted to, and the world was a scary place without a glorified parent-god-guru figure watching my every move, protecting me, knowing loving guiding me–but never quite letting me grow up, graduate, pack my things and move out of the womb. (“A Womb with a View”, as Joseph Campbell has it!)

No one graduates from Art of Living. This is not because it’s a perfect path with everything you need for the rest of your life, and it isn’t because the knowledge is so deep and transcendent; it’s because it’s neverland, a place where all us orphans run away to hide from the scary grown up world of death and taxes. Being a savvy adult is unwelcome there, and so there’s no threat of ever being forced to grow up; what is best is innocent credulity, obedience and absolute faith in Peter Pan.

“I won’t grow up, I will never even try,
I will do what Peter tells me, and I’ll never ask him why.

I won’t grow up, no I promise that I won’t,
I will stay a boy forever!
And be banished if I don’t.”

In Leaving Art of Living, I have left Neverland. When I was little I never understood how Wendy and the boys could have ever made that decision; now I see it’s inevitable, and good and beautiful to live, to age, to ripen and to die. I accept the world’s imperfections; I accept the thieves the treachers the liars the drunkards the villains the knaves, and I accept that in venturing forth I am daring them to try their luck. I’m ready to hold my own out there, to leave the Great Womb and find out what I really believe in, what really makes this life feel profoundly worth it. I wasn’t ready before, and so like a spiritual marsupial I crawled into Sri Sri’s pouch, instinctively found his transcendent avataric Nipple Of Light, and suckled my way to a nascent adulthood. The womb is good, and even Art of Living has its uses– just don’t stay there forever.

I’m out now. This is my life. My body. My choice. My desire. My truth. My faith. My soul.

My camera in my purse.

Bitches, beware. Next time I will so totally punch you for that.

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What if there is no afterlife?


My thoughts exactly, Hobbes.

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Dammit Jim, I’m a Doctor not a Theologist!

In the comments thread of “Fairytale” our good Doctor posed some questions that I thought would be better addressed in a full post. I’ll quote his questions in italics, then respond to them below. Of course, I can’t “answer” them, but I’ll approach them as best I may.

The Doctor writes:

@TAOL (BTW – what do you prefer to be called?)

You can call me Boadicea. I like it. It has that pagan je ne sais quoi. I’d probably also respond to the Artful Dodger. 😀

it seems you are alluding to some innate tendency for human beings to deify other human beings and go as far as to worship them as gods.

Actually, what I was talking about was the innate human activity of worship itself, our seemingly timeless and universal practice of worship— this need we have as a species (and seemingly have had as far back into the cave of our ancestry as the dim match of our sciences makes us able to gaze) to find ourselves in relationship to divinity and the cycles of life, to respond to our conscious experience of life and foreknowledge of death and terrible awe of the cosmos with some form of worship. Some individuals might think they don’t worship anything; I tend to think along the lines of, “your God is your ultimate concern.” That which we love, devote ourselves to and cherish above all else is our god. Devotion is a natural state for the human soul; without a god, or God-Concept, or a context for worship of some form in our lives we fill the god-shaped hole however we can, with celebrity or wealth or a preoccupation with youth, sex, fame, power etc. Without something to be devoted to people experience a terrible alienation. [As an aside, I think our society has outgrown the religions of our past; our old mythological constructs no longer relate to the cosmos we find ourselves in (especially in the west)– yet we have no alternative paradigm, no structure for worship, no culture of faith or work we can give ourselves to fully without forsaking either our rational minds or our longings for greater purpose. This leaves us hungry and lost, torn between culturally confused virtues of individualism and obedience, faith and rationalism, discrimination and acceptance. These virtues can be balanced, but we lack guidance in this. Of course we fell for a guru with a good pitch and a twinkling eye. Of course we woke up next to a phony. Of course we’re vulnerable to con men and cults and constant chicanery. Our whole society is vulnerable in this way, leading to a reactionary fundamentalism on one side, a hazy but stalwart agnosticism on the other and in the middle a slothful and ignorant inertia. Nobody knows the answer to the question of life– or at least, nobody has yet experienced an answer they could express in words, so that others could hear and understand. ]

What I was trying to describe in my story and in my response to Anonymous’s more literal reading of it was how we make our gods out of ourselves, out of our very nature. We reach into ourselves and pull out our light and call it God, we pull out our darkness and call it Evil. We come to know ourselves in this way, just as we come to know ourselves in the maddening high of believing you’ve met your perfect love, and in the horrible agony of losing that illusion. Everyone needs to have their heart broken to know what it is to be whole; some people go to a guru for this, some go to the girl next door. There’s nothing wrong with this; it’s perfect.

I believe projection is largely responsible for my relationship to SSRS as my guru; I believe I outgrew that relationship, just as I outgrew my first love affairs and my old size 5 jeans. A mature love cannot be based on mirror-gazing, mask-making and rib-removing– but that is what Ravi Shankar asks of us, and that is what we often long to do, and that is what I did willingly, even joyfully, for four and a half years. And that is what I cannot do now and hope I will never fall back into doing again.

What I really want to get to is simply, how does one tell a true guru from a fake one? In other words, how can we protect ourselves from being manipulated into believing a human being is God, whilst at the same time still being open to the possibility that there exist out there genuine souls who have attained God-realization or enlightenment? And what specifically separates those of us who fell victim to SSRS/AoL from those who could from the outset what it was really all about?

What’s the hurry? I understand the need to make sense of your experience, your rapid and total conversion and your resulting state of dizzy disbelief– but take your time. You’re in a place of infinite potential even within your doubt and natural desire for certainty. Don’t worry about finding a true guru, or even believing it’s possible. Concentrate on things you know you can name and feel and live and adore. Concentrate on your values, your sense of integrity and honor, your desire to protect the vulnerable and most importantly your ability to discern what is true for you. If we think of god-realization as something to be attained we have already misunderstood; if we believe we should strive for more peace, more relaxation, more love and more joy– we are lost to ourselves in the instant. Go into your solitude and love what you find there; true guru is what takes you back to that place. If you find that in a man woman or saint, or a view from a mountain or a strain of music that has a dying fall, simply enjoy it. Rest, rejoice and love this life, love the questions for their very imponderable unanswerability as you would love a partner for their infinity for how they can be new and beautiful and strange and other and yours and not yours. Is this not how we must love our very lives, if we are to live them fully and die happily knowing we have been a lover of god?

Along similar lines is the question: is there anything in the vedic scriptures which would help us to test a guru to see if they are genuine?

Again, I say go within to where you hear clearly, as clear and wild as a glacial spring that something is beautiful, that someone is kind, that life is worth living no matter what. The core of your truth is in that place; the more you dwell there, the less you will need any scriptural tests. You simply will know if this person is for you, or not. And that is really all you need to know or can know. A genuine guru, like all other things, is in the eye of the beholder.

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Well. It’s just over a month since I officially Left, and I feel lots of conflicting and confusing things now, but not one single time have I felt I made the wrong choice. I am more certain than ever that leaving AoL was one of the best decisions I have ever made, and that what good I gained from my AoL experiences are best experienced outside of the group.

I’ve been reading up a lot on cult mentality, and highly recommend Janja Lalich, Margaret Singer and Robert Jay Lifton as companions through Leaving a cult. It helps you feel a little less stupid and a lot less alone. More than anything educating myself is helping me feel stronger and more capable of discerning between cults and relatively benign communities.

Yesterday this came in handy, if only to help me see something beautiful and sad.

I am visiting my sister in the south of france, and yesterday she, her boyfriend and I went for a day trip to a little medieval fort town nearby. After a picnic and a stroll through the local cemetery– all of us reflecting on how we felt the absence of a time and place to reflect on death, mortality, and the shape of life’s cycles in our urban isolated lifestyles–we came upon the quaintest cafe imaginable. It felt just like home– hippy quaint, as it were. They sold home made cookies, whole grains and home grown veggies, yerba mate and a damn good cup of coffee. The entire place was full of that hand-made touch; it felt warm, cozy, special. It felt like all my favorite cafes and boutiques back home.

Best of all was the elderly couple running the place. Miriam and Israel (German and French, respectively) greeted us warmly, pulled up some benches to their service bar and we all started talking over coffee and macaroons. Gradually we learned that they were part of a community of about 15 families, all committed to working living and worshiping together as part of a traditional kibbutz. It sounded amazing– so wholesome, wholehearted and dear. We talked on and on about our ideals of life; Miriam especially waxed eloquent in her truly impressive english all about the deep togetherness and intense love this lifestyle required. She spoke of us each being puzzle pieces, part of a whole, threads in a tapestry that can only be seen in its glory when we all come together and share our lives, our blood our salt our laughter. She nearly brought me to tears; she spoke of meaningful life so beautifully, and I am so hungry for that.

Soon though certain things started to… alert me to the possibility that this was not as it appeared, a tiny utopia hidden in the fortress’ walls. They mentioned other communities, other Tribes in California and England and Massachussetts and, and… She handed my sister a pamphlet on peacemaking, and me a newsletter. They had a plethora of prepared materials, and when I glanced at the newsletter I had this awful feeling, like a cold shudder mixed with heartburn. Lots of capitalized jargon, lots of feel-good words like community and Movement. Lots of totalitarian tidbits, little cult hors d’ouevres, just what a Leaver needs to see to be certain what she’s dealing with. The Twelve Tribes. Well…at least their glorious leader was Jesus and not some contemporary glory hound… at least they look happy, right?

But I need to say this. I need this to be understood.

Miriam looked at me hugging and petting my sister; she saw how I adore her completely and utterly– I even told her how I really feel, that god gave me my best friend for my very first birthday, and no gift could ever compare to that. My sister means the world to me; we squabble often, and I cherish that too. I cherish having someone so close that sometimes it’s too close, so close that sometimes I even resent it. She saw this and she asked us how far apart we are and… this look came into her eyes. A look of tears, a look of deep longing, sorrow and doubt. I knew she must have a sister and must miss her, terribly.

So I asked. Yes indeed she has a sister, and several brothers. But she hasn’t seen them in a very long time– there’s no leaving the group, you see. You couldn’t have a functioning group if all the time this person went off, then this person went for a week over there, it wouldn’t work– she said. And I saw her certainty cover over her grief, like an owl’s second eyelid.

I asked many more questions about her family. It sounds as though they had a hard time accepting her choice but that ultimately they all came to terms with this being her life, and it taking her away from them. I respect that, I respect her choice and I respect her life.

But I still feel it is wrong, I feel it in my marrow that it is wrong to ask a person to choose between family and god, between sisters and service, between earthly and spiritual connections of the heart. As if our sinews were not part of our soul– as if being born to our family was some terrible trick of the Almighty. To separate people from their kin and to program them to believe (as I learned from some research today) that anyone not in your community cannot be Saved, that there has not been a true Christian since the gospel of St. James in AD 44… well my god, what kind of poverty of faith is that? What kind of love can you give to a god so dark and distant? She had that look in her eyes when she talked about love and community, though– I know that look. That was the look of rapture I so often had in my own eyes at satsangs, or when I tried to tell someone else how beautiful my life had become thanks to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Miriam’s faith and grief are haunting me today.

I know many people are naturally alienated from their families; I believe that one of the wonders of modern life is the families we create for ourselves out of friends and a slow collection of kindred spirits as we forge lives far from the homes we were born to. But I know Miriam loves her sister and misses her, and I know her cult won’t let her go home even for visits; I know that after 30 years she still believes that is right and good, and that after 30 years her heart still hurts. I saw it in her eyes.

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One night as I lay not knowing why I wept I plunged my left hand into my chest and removed one of my ribs. This I fashioned in the image of a man, a man with long hair and wondrous kind sparkling eyes who told me he knew why I wept. “Little one, of course you have been crying, because you felt you were alone. But I am here now, and so you shall never need to feel alone or afraid again. I shall love you, protect you, cherish you. Only trust me–am I not a part of you? We belong to each other. Listen to me, love me, do as I say. We shall be so happy.”

I found him some clothes, for he was naked and I was ashamed of his nakedness. From the white sheets of my bedclothes I fashioned him a long, flowing robe. Long nights we sat together as I stitched intricate gold trimmings into the hem which touched his precious little feet. I had never been so happy.

When his robes were finished–how my fingers ached, striving for the beauty that would be worthy to touch his precious little feet!–he asked me to bring my closest friend over to meet him.

“Why, beloved?” I asked, “Are we not perfect only us, together as you said?”

“Are you not happy, now that I am here?”

“Oh yes, my beloved. Never so happy.”

“And isn’t it right that such joy be shared?”

I quickly agreed, yes of course it would be selfish not to share this perfect happiness. He told me to tell her that he had come from the mountains, that after a silence of a thousand years he came to me in a dream and then I rescued him, brought him to the world to share what he had found in his thousand year quest for perfect truth. I added my own flourish–that I had woken him with a chaste kiss! His true origin would be our little secret. I promised.

My friend came to seem him. Soon her friends came. My house was crowded with faces I had never seen, my food all eaten, many of my bowls and plates left dirty or broken. I was always cleaning now, never any time to see my Beloved except in the early hours of the morning, when even the bright eyed young men had been sent to bed.

I had never been so happy.

Soon my house was too small. I offered to again use my flesh, plunge my hands into my bones to build a hall worthy of Him. He said no, No–you must never use that power again or you should be terribly hurt, and I can’t let that happen to you.

Instead we gathered from each true devotee, all of our strong pillars, two of their back molars with which we built the foundation of the hall.

When the foundation was built, investors saw that our vision would become real due to Beloved’s Grace, and they flocked to help. Only this time, they did not give teeth or bones or even sweat–they gave coins.

Beloved said, “They are not as strong as you, my dear. They are weak and so they give money.”

“Beloved, if they are weak as you say, why do you spend so much of your time with them and not with us?”

“Because they are weak they need me more, and I must go where I am needed.”

The hall was finished! Or so they said–the contractors had stolen the insulation from inside the walls, so it was very cold in there. Often others complained of the cold. I did not care one bit for the cold, let the cold do to me as it may. When I could sit in an ocean of kindred gazing at Him as He sat on the throne we made for Him, I had never been so happy.

I am old now. I live in one of our Centers, and I work cleaning up after our dear guests–still cleaning after all these years! Beloved says I have a gift for housekeeping. I love making everything nice and cozy for the young families who come Home for courses, it makes me so happy. When Beloved came to teach last summer, He smiled right at me! I knew in my heart He was as happy as I was to be together again after all this time, even for a moment. But then the minders hurried Him along to teach the others– it was a very important course, one He says will stop this horrible war if we practice well and faithfully. I pray for that with all my heart– I know He will lead us to an era of peace, love and unity. He has come to us to show us the way. I may not live to see it, but it will be my legacy to all my grand nieces and nephews. We’ve never met–my sister and I lost touch many years ago–but I keep their pictures on my nightstand and I pray to Beloved for them every day and I know they will see that perfect world Beloved is bringing for them and their children, and their children’s children. They will be so happy.

The last time Beloved spoke to me was three years ago today. He hugged me–oh, the Bliss!–and then he smiled and said, “Remember? Our little secret!” and put his finger to his lips in a gesture of Silence. I couldn’t remember any secret, and I felt so stupid until I realized he must have meant the Silence that I have found in his care, the knowledge that has given meaning to my life where there was none, the precious secret he shared with me and our Family and that we will now share with the whole world. We all have that truth within us, Beloved says, we all have that power– I thank Beloved every day that He came into my life to help me find mine.

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