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.


About theartofleaving

Former devotee and member of The Art of Living organization reflecting on the process of joining and leaving cults, abusive relationships, and sundry obsessions. Trying to draw the line by connecting the dots.
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5 Responses to Enlightenment, Service, Celebration

  1. Doreen says:

    Your post made me think, especially the point that it is the chase after enlightenment which creates the need for a guru. Personally I could never relate to the idea of striving for enlightenment. I just wanted to be happy in my daily life, and I wasn’t, and there was a part of me that thought, delusionally, that SSRS could just hit me with a magic wand and make me happy. (Where did this delusion come from? Me, of course, but it was supported by the company of some similarly deluded people in AOL. And in retrospect I encouraged their delusions too). Looking back I can see how my relationship to AOL then, while giving me occasional hits of bliss from courses and satsangs, actually detracted from my day-to-day happiness and and kept me in a place of feeling of stuck. Once I started taking more responsibility for making life decisions that worked for me, I found that I was automatically fundamentally happy.
    I now find that overall, the actual knowledge available in AOL – when you remove the chaff of AOL culture – and the AOL practices enhance my enjoyment of my life, just like eating fresh food, getting good sleep, and doing some exercise do. But I am miles away from the culture of chasing after SSRS and striving for an elusive goal and a mystical solution to problems I may face. I’m fulfilled living a normal life.

  2. You am I says:


    very well articulated indeed.
    The problem with enlightenment sellers is that they don’t give you the zen byte upfront :
    “before enlightenment , chop wood, draw water …after enlightenment , chop wood, draw water”

    the idea must not be to join a new utopian family at the cost of your own, but to come back and see your own family and friends with new eyes

  3. Peaceful Warrior says:

    I think it is also a matter of degree to which things are pushed. Striving towards a goal is a good thing in my opinion…whether it is to seek enlightenment, or just to be more self-aware, or better oneself. I don’t think it is bad. But – they way you go about it makes all the difference. Especially if one is feverish about it – it makes for an unpleasant journey. Goal and journey are related. Goal provides direction, but journey is what it’s all about really. Feverishness spoils all that.

    Same with seva. While it is a good idea to spread knowledge, and help make other people’s lives better – as soon as it becomes about you reaching your assigned target, and not about helping others one loses it. The idea is fine in principle, but in practice it becomes perverted in AOL. Ultimately the idealistic person who genuinely wants to do good is the one to suffer.

    There is some dark force operating in AOL which perverts genuine healthy spirituality. Personally I think the principles are fine – but execution is not fine in AOL. For me, the benefits of knowledge are best experienced outside the organization.

  4. Java Flava says:

    I was in the AOL morass for nearly a decade until I awoke to the realization that no “enlightened master” can magically grant you liberation. All these organizations like AOL pretend to do just that, while propagating their leader’s cult of personality in the guise of bringing happiness and meaning into others’ lives.

    Pity, they often have a lot of good stuff to share, but it’s completely hidden by the rampant proselytization and the projection of the impression that theirs is the only true path. Oh yes, this applies to many wildly famous religions too. I can just picture Jesus shaking his head in pity right now, thinking “I gave these people practical teachings, and now after two millennia, I’m a cult leader!”

  5. Zeff says:

    I like the picture of beautiful flowers on your blog. Certain seeds, when attended to produce flowers.
    Our memory is like seeds too, and what sprouts on the mind is result of which memories get attention.

    There is always plenty of weed to hijack the garden. And some weed is beautiful and medicinal, yet why don’t we want our garden full of it?

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