Leaving Symptoms: Binge Eating and Fear of the Void

It’s nearly two weeks since I announced to my friends and family that I’m Leaving art of living. (See, I can play the Unnecessary Capitals Game too!). In addition to lots of emotional ups and downs that I can compare essentially to any breakup I’ve ever been through, there are symptoms occurring physically (and of course psychologically) that I was not expecting. The first and most noticeable has been binge eating.

I have never had this problem before, not like this. I sometimes overeat; I put too much on my plate and then I finish it because it’s there– I strategically avoid buffets because of this compulsion to “get my money’s worth” and “clean my plate!”. But in the last 10 days I have been eating and eating, not from hunger or even from boredom, but out of a nebulous anxiety and a deep fear of emptiness.

What this reminds me of most is my experience of marijuana. Now, as a young woman dedicated to my Hippie Heritage, I considered it a duty to my culture to experiment with pot when I was 18 and living with my first stoner roommate. I had never tried the stuff before because I was afraid of liking it too much and turning into a loser, but I had this intense conviction that I *should* like it. After all, I was a neohippie with a crazy name and crazy parents, a former vegan living with my pet rat and doing yoga and a massage certification course in an uber-hippie university town. How could I NOT like pot??

But the fact is, I can’t stand the stuff.

When I got high (I tried about 5 times in total, all without success) I experienced a total inability to engage mentally. I couldn’t join a thought to any logical next thought; I couldn’t follow a simple conversation or the plot of a cartoon. I felt anxious and disconnected and completely ungrounded; I felt unable to express myself, unable to think or feel, and unable to get away because it was all happening inside my head. I had no connection to anything sensual, no real feeling of having a body at all. But I ate. I ate and ate and ate, I stuffed my face with anything available, unable to taste it, unable to register any sensual experience in anything at all– but I ate because I was desperately trying to get grounded, to re-embody, to end the nightmarish resoundingly anxious emptiness I felt.

To be perfectly honest, that’s very much like why I have been binge eating this week. Giving up SSRS as my guru and Art of Living as my spiritual community and the ashram as my Home has left a horrible emptiness at the center of my internal life; that emptiness is one of the most frightening things I have ever faced. I wonder if this emptiness is akin to the silence he always praised– only when I practiced silence under his tutelage, he was always there in my heart, watching appraising applauding critiquing or Celebrating my “silence”; there was no silence in that silence.

Now, it feels empty and terrifyingly quiet. I believe this was the very emptiness I came running and screaming to Him from. I sometimes think that our primary mythologies function most beautifully when they function in terms of facing that Void. Now, I have nothing to replace him with. Now in my heart there’s “no there there”. It’s almost a malevolent emptiness– like The Nothing in “The Neverending Story”…

So, I’ve been binge eating; before I admitted to myself and my family I was leaving AoL, I also self-medicated my depression with quite a lot of alcohol. Thankfully I’m not drinking like that now, and I’m sure the overeating will pass soon, now that I understand it better. Ultimately I think if there is a cure or solution to this sensation (besides a subsequent experience of Sartre’s nausea, and developing an existential eating disorder) , it is in greeting that Nothing as mine, as my own playground and kingdom and temple. One day, soon I hope, I shall hold my head high as Queen of that Void. One day. Soon, I hope.

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What a CU*T!

Let’s talk about the C-word. C-U-L-T.

Having been born into a spiritual community, I’ve always been very sensitive about the C-word. In my case one parent’s cult is another parent’s religion, and I have a hard time getting enough distance from both of them to have my own opinion. Thankfully, this blog isn’t really about that. But after many years of avoiding the C-word, I think it’s time to reclaim it and define it for myself.

When I first joined Art of Living, I felt very strongly that the western world had become ridiculously cult-phobic, paranoid about brainwashing and mind control and all those ridiculous things. Abuses and out-there drug-induced craziness in backwoods communes, Nikes and kool-aid and SWAT teams descending on WACO, and everyday pedophilia scandals in the Catholic church– these are my impressions just off the top of my head of why people have a very hard time trusting “gurus” of all shapes, sizes, colors and costumes. Now we have “personal development” psychotherapy groups like Landmark/EST, Lifespring, Scientology/Dianetics; Multilevel Marketing schemes like Amway, Herbalife and others, Bible-based groups like the Twelve Tribes,  Mormons, The Family, and Jehova’s Witnesses;  all of these joining the likes of Siddha Yoga, Osho, TM and Art of Living in modern academia under the rubric of “cults”.

Are these all cults???

Last week when I finally admitted to myself that I was Leaving Art of Living, I was completely overwhelmed. I still am, but those first few days were very confusing and psychologically all over the map! Here’s a snippet from a journal entry from Leaving Day 2, written over about 20 minutes:

Dear Guruji: I am sorry, but you’re Not Jesus.

I have the right to disagree with things you say. I have the right to see the logical inconsistencies in Art of Living’s platforms. When so many people I have loved, gurus and men and even politicians, have taken advantage and “practiced on my credulous simplicity”, I have the right to become guarded and maybe even cynical for a while. I have the right to use my intellect to protect my innocence and my love for life. I have the right to choose whom I love based not only on their charming qualities, but also on how they treat me and whether or not they have actively earned my trust.

I have these rights, and though my mental muscles have mildly atrophied under your loving guidance, these right cannot vanish no matter how often they are waived. And so I say, You’re Not God Any More Than I Am.

Now, that’s a lot, because you are entirely and utterly hewn from raw god just like I am. But you got greedy, My Dear! You decided to claim Extra Godness, and you became a Golden Calf!

I feel betrayed, like I went home with Ghandi and woke up next to Chairman Mao.

I feel to blame, because obviously something in me wanted Chairman Mao, or else I would have seen through his Ghandi disguise.

I feel more ready to blame myself than to blame you. I feel ready to jump to your defense, infantilize you or pathologize you and certainly feel sorry for you, because surely no normal human being could pretend to care for so many people without any ability to sincerely connect with them.

I feel afraid for how much I am like you, for how much I hunger for attention and unconditional love, and how I could easily go into the guru business and believe my own hype for a while. I feel nauseated when I realize that as Your student/teacher, the responsibility for my student’s would fall on you, but all of their active love and devotion would be showered on me as your representative–and how attractive that was to me. (Like in the Milgram electric shock experiment…)

I feel elated. I feel “Excited AND scared!”. I feel furious and sad; I alternate between a an incensed and righteous rage and a deflated, self-doubting defeatism. My own psyche is so wound up in knots and so unmoored that when I defend you I attack myself, when I defend me I attack you, and all this does is weaken my ability to discern. I feel like it must have been my fault, and I feel like blaming you completely because you’ll never come to justice and so at least I’ll have the satisfaction of demonizing you in my heart.

I have become a fundamentalist divided against myself! There are no shades of gray, only repeated infinite tessellations of black and white. While I was meditating, you brought M.C Escher in to redecorate my psyche! Sneaky Guru!

I read that this kind of confusion is normal in the beginning. I am horrified to notice that my short term memory and ability to spell have deteriorated to a shameful degree. Sometimes attempts to use my intellect or follow an argument feel like trying to build a house out of cold porridge.

I was a little out of my depth, and pretty alone with all those feelings roaring and  pouring and rushing and gushing and  dripping and draining and reeling and keeling and banging and clanging and, well. i’m sure you know what i mean.

I emailed Janja Lalich, whose book had helped me not go completely crazy for those first few days. I needed someone to talk to, so I asked her if she knew anyone near me she could recommend. She sent me into the fabulous mind and company of Alex Stein, another author, sociologist and Ex cult member who graciously agreed to meet for tea and a chat.

We talked for two and a half hours, and I’m sure more of the revelations that came out of that conversation will be coming up again. But one thing really stuck with me: when I rather weakly and desperately asked, “but how do you know the difference? How can you tell?” Between a genuine movement and a cult, she gave me a fabulous answer. Here is her basic 5 checklist as I remember it– without these things it isn’t really a cult:

1) charismatic leader who is the ULTIMATE authority in the group.
2) strict hierarchy based on the LEADER’s decision who goes up and who goes down. Everything decided by the leader, acted out by a close inner circle
3) thought reform programs which can include long meditation, chanting and singing, mantra or interrupted thought meditations, day-long lectures in controlled environments
4) isolation. this can include geographic isolation but also thought/verbal isolation, IE jargon that only the ‘initiated’ understand
5) absolutist/totalist teachings. WE provide THE answer. (religious, economic, political, personal.)

I found this list so helpful and empowering! I had been on the lookout for more outlandish stereotypical excesses-of-the-seventies Red Flags: incomprehensible pseudo-spiritual jargon (AoL barely requires fluent english!), forced or public sex or multiple wives or guru-dictated marriages etc, blatant declaration of the guru’s superiority of enlightenment, etc etc– I was looking for the things you only see once you’re on the inside, once your loyalty’s been tested, once your devotion has totally rooted itself in your psyche. I didn’t realize how sneaky the organizations had gotten. Thinking back on my recruitment, I realize that other warning signs were there but they were very very well disguised; by the time I started seeing red flags in earnest–well, by that time I was so in love I didn’t care. Not until I had to consider recruiting children four and a half years later.

This list is more comprehensive and also very helpful, but I love the brevity and simplicity of a checklist you can count off on one hand!

Stay tuned for What a CU*T Part II, where I –maybe– look at why art of living fits all these requirements for cult status, and how they hide it during the first phases of recruitment.

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Note to Self

“Love God, and do what you will.”

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With apologies to The Lovin’ Spoonful…

I came to Art of Living as a secular spiritualist searching for a meditation practice to help me recover from polycystic ovarian syndrome and its unsettling side effects; a beloved teacher and a community of kindred were blissful bonuses. Ultimately I believe I was searching for a deeper source of meaningfulness in life. I’m still searching for that.

I believed RS when he said things like, “there’s no such thing as my wisdom or your wisdom. Wisdom is wisdom, isn’t it?” and essentially answered questions about how one could become more devoted to Him,  “Fuhgeddaboudit!”. I found this reassuringly humble and endearing.

So one of the biggest loudest neon screaming red CULT flags (on fire) was when I started hearing Christ claims from his followers. I tried to laugh it off as some aolers being a little kookie. (Ok, I’ll fess up. I actually thought he might really be Jesus there for a couple weeks during and just after my trip to the ashram. I am not. even. joking. –“he is far gone, far gone: and truly in my youth I suffered much extremity for love; very near this.” ) But a responsible leader takes responsibility for his or her followers. He wasn’t just allowing the christ claims to flourish–he was encouraging them. I personally find this unethical.

On a sillier note though, it got me humming a catchy little tune which some of you might recall from your halcyon pre-cult-deprogramming days.

“You Didn’t Have to Say You’re Christ, I would have liked you anyway”.

ok I think that’s all you really needed to hear. but the sad fact is, I actually wrote the whole song. I’ll spare you and put it in a comment. 🙂 Ukulele cover on Youtube doubtless to be expected…



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A Card Carrying Member of the Rank and File Dissenters Club :-D

First of all, I want to say a heartfelt thank you to everyone over at Beyond the Art of Living for welcoming me into the community of dissent and encouraging me to express myself and stay safe.

Traffic on this little blog has increased and it took a little while but I figured out why! The lovely folks at BAoL have added me to their blogroll, specifically right there at the bottom of the “Con-AoL” list.

As I said to my family, “I feel like a Not Ready for Prime Time Player”!

The thing that amused me was to be on a list called “Con-AoL”. It sort of makes me feel like I’m on a blogroll titled Against My Ex-Boyfriend or The Other Side of Your Friends in College.

I was lucky enough to see just enough of Art of Living to disgust me and probably damage me quite a bit, but nothing so horrendous as to throw me into the opposite position of thinking Art of Living is evil incarnate. I think they are unethical, to be sure. I think that groups like them should be exposed to sincere examination, public inquiry and potentially legal action. (Hell, don’t we all?) Most of all right now though, I’m hurt on a personal level. Losing my faith in Art of Living and Ravi Shankar is kind of like breaking up with a fiance when you realize you’re really never getting married, combined with the sudden disappearance of Puff the Magic Dragon.

I’m heartbroken, but I’m not here to Argue pro or con. I’m just here to talk about my experience, and why I loved art of living but finally had to break up with Him because he was hurting me.

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an open letter

Following is a letter I wrote to the father of two girls whom I met in a YES course as an assistant last year. It was my favorite seva assignment ever, and just what I always wanted to do–teach kids knowledge in a fun and loving atmosphere. Being a kids AoL teacher was something I considered to be part of my purpose in life, something I was made and meant to do after I outgrew my more “egoic” ambitions. After working with these girls and the rest of that amazing group of kids for a week, I decided that this was the year and that TTC was my “sankalpa” for when Guruji was back in the summertime. Hell or high water, TTC here I come! Everyone I knew in AoL said, “Of course! It’s about time! You’ll be a brilliant teacher, you could help shape the entire program!”

But those girls opened my eyes to the frightening responsibility of shaping young minds. After a week, they were ready to believe anything and everything I said about Sri Sri, a man I’d barely ever spoken to once or twice, a man I knew nothing about first-hand, a man I worshipped with all my heart for absolutely no reason other than my feelings– which I now see were deeply manipulated and heightened by the group. I thank god for those girls and their innocent credulity– it was like looking in a mirror and seeing my own lack of discrimination in the face of an attractively fantastical reality. Only I was not 11 years old, I just decided to act like it! ‘Be child-like, not childish!’

It’s far harder to let yourself grow up and to earn your own wisdom by living your own life, artfully or no.

The Letter:

Dear Mr. J—–,

Hello from Europe!
I just wanted to get in touch with you and your lovely wife with what will probably be surprising news, but I need you to understand because otherwise I’m sure S—- and D—– will be very confused.
Since all of us were together at the ashram I have decided to leave Art of Living. When I first became involved 4 and a half years ago, Art of Living seemed like a wonderful community that I would want to be a part of for the rest of my life. In the last year or so, though, I’ve become aware of a much darker side of AoL and actually your family was instrumental in my decision to leave.
You see, your daughters embraced me and loved me (as I love them, very much) and were so ready to believe anything and everything I said. My heart was full of devotion to Ravi Shankar and we shared that together. But I later came to realize that given my experiences in Art of Living, I just didn’t feel morally responsible recruiting children into the organization, and encouraging them to believe everything they’re told about Sri Sri.
The more one gets involved in AoL, the more one sees that there is a lot of unhealthy stuff that happens there. Also, people are told things like Guruji is the reincarnation of Jesus and Krishna and Shankara, that serving him is a once-in-a-millenia opportunity, and many other things that could derail a young person’s entire life if they are taught to believe that when they are young, faithful and looking for something to dedicate their lives to. I nearly gave up all my personal ambitions because I believed Ravi Shankar was going to change the world and that I should help him do it. I don’t want your daughters, or any children, to throw their lives away because someone like me encouraged them to believe things about a teacher I’ve barely even spoken to more than once. Art of Living looks wonderful from the outside and feels great at the beginning, but it can break your heart or steal years of your life if you’re not careful.
So please, Mr. J—, be very careful bringing your family further into Art of Living. It’s a beautiful place to be, and the community is full of very many loving people, and Sri Sri teaches lots of beautiful knowledge. I loved my time there and I very nearly became a teacher because I loved spending time sharing knowledge with beautiful people like your daughters. But I’ve met and read testimonials from too many people who came out of 10 years or more with AoL having gained very little knowledge and/or having spent all their money, who were threatened or abused for leaving– and even I was sexually assaulted while at the German Ashram by a person who was NOT removed from the organization, whom I’ve recently discovered may have subsequently assaulted other young women. I’ve also met many young people who were raised in Art of Living, and their ability to choose for themselves what they want in life is very underdeveloped. These are all things I couldn’t stand to know your daughters were at risk for, especially not because of me.
I hope you do not feel offended by me sharing this information with you. I hope you have much joy and happiness whatever you decide, and that you and your family will remember me as I will always remember you, with love and devotion and big smiles!
Lots of love to you and your beautiful family. Namaste.
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Ends Begin, Leavings Arrive

It is hard to write about the decision to leave Art of Living because I still don’t really how it happened. I don’t know why I woke up one morning this week and wrote in my journal , “it is clear to me now that this break from Art of Living is not a break. I am not going back.” And yet I have come to this point,  a strange foggy landscape with jagged edges emerging violently from a blurry mist. Clarity and confusion embrace and merge with the fury of parting lovers, consuming each other on the periphery of my cognition, leaving me entirely unable to discern where one began and another seemed to end. Clarity and confusion– indeed which has begun, and which has ended?

I have become helpless, a child. That was my unchosen choice 4 years ago. I cannot really remember who I was before Art of Living, because to be honest I don’t think I was a truly whole person yet. That’s why it was so attractive. A sheaf of ready answers, a set of glorious and shiny substitutions for experience, wisdom, self-reflection and rigorous self-study. At 21, just on the brink of an actual adulthood, I renegged. I tried to get a refund. The secret deal was this: I willingly trade discrimination for devotion, a rational world for magical thinking, a life of seeking answers to a life of self-inflicted infantilization and believing what I’m told, my rational capacity for an overwhelming array of addictive emotions– and a life of my own for a life of Belonging to You.

There are so many threads, like a fraying circular tapestry– all of them tangled and worn yet seemingly deeply woven into to the fading image at the center. And whose is that fragmenting face? Is that Ravi Shankar Himself grinning at me, or maybe my beloved Swamiji whom I will miss more than anyone or anything? Or are those the infinite eyes of of my own soul peering back at me behind the mask of the guru, a mask which Love itself has worn for four long years?

There’s so much to untangle, so much to sort through. But ends must begin somehow, so I’ll try to find at least one thread to unravel and start from there.

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