Saturday, July 18, 2009

Cartwheels in a Sari (Part Three)

While Jayanti's book is ostensibly about "growing up cult," it's also at least as much about how difficult it is to leave the Center.

Which leads me to write about another unconventional theory of mine: that implicit in joining the Center -- or any other spiritual path -- is the notion that some day, you should leave it.

When you think about it, this notion doesn't sound as if it should be controversial. Would you, for example, go to college intending to remain a perpetual student with no intent to ever graduate? No doubt, there are some people who do that very thing, but I think we can safely say that they are the exceptions to the rule. College is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

The same is true of the Center. The goal of discipleship isn't to be a disciple (or at least it shouldn't be). The goal is to be a master, by which I mean the goal is to become a person who has developed some sense of mastery over oneself (and not necessarily a spiritual master with disciples of one's own).

Despite their similarities, the path of yoga is not as apparently formulaic as college. One doesn't join the Center with a class schedule and firm end date in hand. Likewise, on the path, one cannot easily compare one's progress to the other students (at least not accurately). People that join the Center after you may, in fact, be "ahead" of you in class. Making things even more obscure, you yourself may not have a true sense of how close or how far you are from graduation.

Nevertheless, I think we can say that if your goal in treading the path of yoga can be defined even loosely as gaining self-mastery, then a fundamental prerequisite must be the weaning of the disciple from the master. Mustn't it?

Unless I'm wrong about this -- "and I'm never wrong" -- a question that next arises is this: why did Guru make it so hard to leave? In other words, if at some point in one's personal development one must wean oneself from one's guru, then why did Guru do everything in his power to dissuade disciples from leaving? (Just for the moment, let's leave aside those disciples that Guru actually kicked out of the Center.)

Let's face it, as Jayanti so eloquently documents in Cartwheels, Guru stacked the deck against those of us who considered voluntarily leaving the Center. First, there was the promise of becoming persona non grata -- we'd lose contact with most, if not all, of our friends. Second, and far more intimidating, was the specter of cosmic retribution -- one's own soul, Guru often said, would punish you for leaving the Center.

All things considered, one would be hard pressed to argue that Guru actually wanted his disciples to leave. That, however, is exactly what I'm suggesting. Making it hard for disciples to do so was an integral part of the process.

Remember what process we're discussing here. We're not discussing any vague metaphysical concept like "God Realization" or "samadhi." Instead, we're discussing what I think we can agree would be -- or should be -- a practical, tangible, easily identifiable prerequisite to any such "mystical" enlightenment. That is: becoming independent, learning to stand on one's own, learning to make decisions for oneself without leaning on Guru for support.

In other words, you're not likely to realize God if you haven't even got the strength to make day-to-day decisions for yourself.

If that is indeed the process -- that eventually one must wean oneself away from one's guru -- then Guru's behavior in this regard might make sense. Consider an alternative. What might have happened had Guru acted in a more humane way when a disciple approached him about leaving? What if Guru had had an open door policy for ex-disciples, where they could have come and gone as they pleased, with no negative consequences?

In fact, what if Guru had actually made it easy to leave, encouraging disciples to experiment with branching out on their own, with the promise that they could always return to the "nest," they could always return to the safety and security of the Center if things didn't work out?

Had that been true, the Center -- to be sure -- would have been a nicer place.  There's no doubt about that.

It also might have fostered a kind of spiritual codependency, which in the long term could have undermined -- or at best slowed -- the very process of becoming spiritually self-reliant that is prerequisite to any sense of "enlightenment" worth having in the first place.

Like it or not, Guru's way put a premium on becoming truly independent, because it was the only way one could voluntarily leave him.

I hearken back to my own internal struggle to leave. At its height, my choice -- as I saw it then -- was a stark one. I could remain in the Center -- the "golden boat" as Guru called it -- and be unhappy (to put it mildly). Or I could leave the Center and face retribution from my own soul in the form of some affliction like cancer. That's honestly how I conceived my options at the time: unhappiness or death.

I chose death. Not that I was sure that I was facing death, but I thought it a possibility. I remember literally telling myself -- out loud -- that I'd rather leave the Center and die than remain a disciple any longer. From that stroke of independence, everything else followed for me (although it came in fits and starts). In the end, I was able to leave on my own terms.

Not everyone, however, had the same experience. It's difficult, for example, to imagine any disciple trying to break free of the Center who faced a more challenging set of circumstances than Jayanti. Jayanti wasn't just faced with losing friends, she faced losing her family. And Guru wasn't just a guru she had picked out of the spiritual marketplace as most of us did. In a very real way, Guru was Jayanti's father figure, the source of her identity, the center of her life -- for her whole life. She knew very little else.

Nevertheless, she was driven to choose death, too. Literally running to the local subway station with the intent to throw herself in front of a moving train, only an observant stranger pulled Jayanti back from the precipice. Then, Guru kicked Jayanti out of the Center himself. "His freeing me was his greatest unwitting act of compassion," she writes.

I realize that most of you -- my readers -- may scoff at this notion that Guru secretly wanted his disciples to grow and become independent, while all the time engaging in behavior meant to keep the disciples down and subservient. Let me, however, leave you with one final thought: Guru knew from his own personal experience how scary (and how liberating) it was to leave one's spiritual community and the concomitant boost to one's independence and self-confidence that results with such a break.

Ironically -- or not -- Guru himself left the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, which had many of the same superstitions about leaving its protective environs as the Center later had. It's also no secret that Guru left the Ashram without permission of the Mother, that there was some bad blood as a result, and that Guru left behind family members.

On top of it all, Guru left the Ashram with a woman!

It must have been a scary time for him, and yet in spite of it all, Guru stepped out from the mighty shadow of Sri Aurobindo and became an independent man.

In the video above, two great friends passing in time. Nadira, just starting her journey. Sudhir, approaching the end of his. July 2008.


Anonymous said...

You wrote the following:

"I realize that most of you -- my readers -- may scoff at this notion that Guru secretly wanted his disciples to grow and become independent, while all the time engaging in behavior meant to keep the disciples down and subservient. Let me, however, leave you with one final thought: Guru knew from his own personal experience how scary (and how liberating) it was to leave one's spiritual community and the concomitant boost to one's independence and self-confidence that results with such a break."
But the fact that he sent squads of male disciples to Halifax to bring Ranj*** back to NY, after she met with her lover, points to quite a different reality. She was certainly putting in a strong bid for "independence".

Alo has been watched and handled for decades by 2 disciples - she's watched pretty much 24/7. Rudra testified that one of them closes in on Alo when she engages in conversation with "outsiders". How had he honored her independence?

I too made the mistake of assigning a cosmic meaning to everything the Guru did. I think you're reaching for something that didn't exist.

Y. said...

Even assuming the facts you suggest (i.e., "squads of male disciples" sent to retrieve Ranjana), I think it's safe to say she wasn't kidnapped.

Ultimately, everyone stays in the Center voluntarily. Certainly, as first among equals now, Ranjana is free to leave.

As I've written myself, I too made a first failed bid to run away, before Guru tracked me down and talked me into returning (using both disciples to help and expending quite a lot of cash to do so).

This is the point -- because it's so hard to leave, being able to do so necessarily cements one's personal sense of independence, and that this is something Guru knew from personal experience himself.

Anonymous said...

I like your overall thesis here, but I think it's incredibly naive to suggest that people stay in the center voluntarily, or even return voluntarily. It's incredibly fortunate that you had the independence and presence of mind that you did, but overall, everything about your guru sounds like a classic situation of exerting control over another. Nothing about his behavior suggests true spirituality, love or compassion, not equality, and certainly not service to others. What, then, is the real purpose and foundation? It sounds like there was a meanness of spirit that is unforgivable in a spiritual leader claiming to be the next incarnation of God, and even you write of it repeatedly in your posts. Where was the compassion when someone was ill or dying? What kind of spiritual leader pushes sick and terminally ill people to the periphery and then ultimately out of the fold? A false one, I say. I would be willing to believe he wanted to push people to independence if he actually let them go when they left, the way he mostly let you go, but that clearly isn't the case for a lot of other people. To banish someone on the brink of suicide and to take it to the next level by ordering her mother to throw her out of the house, and ordering her brother and friends and extended family to completely shun her is totally unacceptable. It is unethical and immoral for an ordinary person, but for a spiritual leader? For someone claiming to be next to God, if not God Himself? You are too generous in letting your guru off the hook here.

Y. said...

I don't disagree with anything you write.

How could I? You write explicitly what has been at least implicit throughout the blog. What was this strange paradox that was Guru?

I take it from your comment you weren't in the Center and perhaps never met Guru. From my experience, there was something extraordinary in the man. He manifested in a very real, very tangible way -- to me anyway -- a powerful light and energy. I found it to be transformative.

Even those who are in hindsight very doubtful about their own experiences in the Center generally acknowledge that they experienced something profound in the Center (even if they attribute it to just clean, disciplined living).

So, with that as context, it's a real conundrum to look at Guru from that perspective and also acknowledge -- as we must -- that he engaged in all sorts of unethical behavior with his female disciples (as just the worst example).

A point of order. I think it's unfair to ascribe naivete to me. I suspect this is just a turn of phrase on your part, but it's often received (especially in written dialog) as off putting.

To your point, though, I think you're wrong. The Center was voluntary. That's just a fact. And there's a reason for reminding ourselves of that. When we as ex-disciples forget that our discipleship was at all times voluntary, then we begin to refuse to take our share of responsibility (or blame if you will) for our own actions.

It's the worst disservice to assert the flimsy pop-science of "mind control" (which you don't do, I'm just saying). It really cultivates weakness and victimhood. Convenient for those disciples who engaged in unethical behavior themselves at the bequest of Guru or those that merely facilitated Guru's wrongdoing (because they avoid the moral responsibility of their actions), but bullshit nonetheless.

To the extent that what you're saying is that I don't acknowledge how HARD it is to exert one's personal will, to stand up to Guru, then you may have a point. I'd argue that I do understand how hard it is -- I lived it and wrote about my evolution on this score as you've no doubt read -- but it may very well be true that I don't show enough sympathy to those of my brothers and sisters who have had more difficulty.

I'll try to do better on that score, but my earlier point still stands -- better to err, I think, by taking full responsibility for one's actions than to play the victim and blame the mind-controlling Guru.

Does that make sense?

Enjoying Doing Cartwheels said...

I absolutely love your blog! I think what your doing is really fantastic and I really admire your views on Guru and the Centre. I am a relatively new disciple and have a lot of the same doubts that are expressed on here. I often struggle with things Guru has said or done. But I remember one day he was with a group of disciples saying prayers. After a while he stopped and explained why he was saying them. When he said 'free me from jealousy' he did not mean this for himself, he was already free from jealousy. He was saying it for the benefit of someone in the room. As was the case with all the prayers. Some would mean nothing to one person but deeply affect another. He also said some things he said would affect us negatively, maybe cause frustration or doubt. This was also for our benefit, as it brought up an issue for us to deal with. Either we needed to rethink an old belief, let go of some negative feelings, or (and he never said this of course) maybe realise that our own truth about a matter spoke more strongly to us than his words. We would then be a little bit closer to self realisation.
Buddha said "Even give poison to those whom it will help. But do not give even the best food to those whom it will not help. If it helps others, You should even bring temporary discomfort." This does not mean we should harm others on a 'helpful' whim. I think it shows there is a lot we will not understand until we ourselves are realised.
If we try to look at an enlightened being with our mind and work out there thoughts and feelings like we do with each other I think we make a big mistake. They can only be understood by looking with the heart and the soul.
I know a lot of people expected Guru to always be kind and compassionate outwardly, but we can't yet see the inner reality. We don't always know what we need to hear, only what we want to hear. We have free will and we choose how to react to what people say and do to us. Everything is open to interpretation.
I think it often happened that a disciple would hear Guru say something, assume what he meant and then stick to it to the point of resentment. After listening to him speak it was common for some people to have heard things that others completely missed, either misunderstood or simply didn't hear.
Every experience is tailored to each individual soul. So telling stories about how Guru has treated people will never really make sense to others who didn't need that experience. I am not saying dont tell the stories, your blog is fantastic, and I am very excited to read Jayanti's book. I am saying just because you dont understand something doesn't mean it is 'bad' or sinister, it is just beyond your understanding. It is a lot easier to be humble and accept you don't yet have the ability to know God's Will.
I believe if a disciple was trying to leave and Guru wanted them to stay it was because they weren't ready. It is tough to be a spiritual being in this world and easy to get distracted, or sadly as is so often the case, bitter.
I considered leaving the Centre not long ago. It is a lot simpler now Guru has passed. I dropped all contact with the Centre and stopped meditating on the transcendental. And it felt great. I felt free and like I could reconnect with who I truly was without outside influence. It felt like I was my true self again. And then my love and affection for Guru and the Centre returned. I was able to see all the good He had done for me and how my misinterpretations had been what was upsetting me. All I needed to do was change my perception of peoples actions and remember to always listen to my heart above all other voices. Even Guru's. And I also think he would be proud.

I am really glad I found your blog. It is wonderful to have a place to share views which dont have to be censored to other disciples approval. Thank you

Y. said...

Thank you for the very kind comments.

I'm glad you found the blog and hope you share it (at least with those you feel you can trust!). I agree with you almost entirely and love the quote you attribute to the Buddha. The path of conscious, personal development is a complicated and, at times, confusing and contradictory one. Personal humility -- which I think of as self-awareness of one's own limitations -- is key.

My only quibble is with something implicit in your comment, which I would characterize as a willingness to defer to spiritual authority (be it Guru, the Buddha, or any other "realized" soul). I don't like this because I think (and I wonder what your take is) that you'll never grow out of this sense of deference; the masters will always be above you.

I don't agree that we're prone to mistake by engaging in rational analysis. While it's certainly true that there's more to life and understanding than the logical, linear mind, that very faculty has a lot going for it and it is wildly under utilized by most devotees.

Finally, I'm personally uncomfortable with the notion that Guru should be immune or even partially immune from criticism for engaging in mean, questionable, or downright unethical behavior. I realize you're not necessarily arguing that position, but that's the down side of taking the "we'll never understand a relized soul" attitude -- it leads to an evasion of hard thinking. If nothing else, we must consider ourselves truth seekers (no?), and sometimes the truth hurts.

Let me know what you think. I hope you'll read through the rest of the memoir and keep commenting!

Enjoying Doing Cartwheels said...

I must admit I have never actually witnessed Guru being critical or controlling so I am speaking from a vague point of view about all 'unethical' treatment. I do take a stand that not many agree with.
When we interact with others, I believe, they are always there to serve us. Easy to believe when they are kind and supportive, hard to grasp when someone is insulting you or refusing you of something. I truly believe it wouldn't be happening to you if there wasn't something to gain out of it. These moments may be challenging and sometimes very painful but they are all part of our own person evolution. Now whether Guru knew his actions were what were best, I have no idea. I choose to believe he did. I will keep it in mind that I don’t know what it was like to be on the receiving end of this treatment. I try not to have an opinion on something I don't know a lot about.

I do have that eagerness to bow down to a spiritual authority. It is a huge part of Guru's teachings. I don't like it but sometimes it is hard to know which thoughts are mine and which have been overly influenced by Guru or other disciples.
He also very confusingly suggests that when we don't like something it may be our 'lower vital' or 'undivine forces attacking'. And that 90% of the time what we think is our heart is actually our mind. I don't think these ideas are helpful at all and it really creates a huge divider between the mind and the heart, as if the two cannot coexist.

I agree that rational analysis is a great thing and is very hard to keep a value on while in the Centre. Reading back my own comment I see how I have made the mistake of separating the mind and the heart. I think what we really need is to look with the mind and the heart and form an idea based on the input of both (not to say that you didn't).

I do think it is so important not to put your master on a pedestal and shrink your own self worth. That is not beneficial to anyone. I view Guru and I as equals who have something to learn from each other. I don't believe he would have come to earth if he did not have room for more spiritual progress. Another risk of putting him on a pedestal is disciples then expect perfection. I very much doubt perfection is possible in this lifetime. Maybe on the next level of existence Guru will work through his control issues.

I think that at some point in everyone's spiritual progress they will (Oh God, I hope they will) realise their own value and wisdom. That what they admired and worshiped in their masters was in fact their highest selves communicating to them through a third party. I believe our souls are always trying to communicate with us and sometimes they use other people to do so. Once we learn to communicate inwardly and clearly with our own soul, our need for a master diminishes. Sri Ramakrishna said “A disciple’s relationship with his master only exists as long as the disciple is unfamiliar with God”.

I have a lot of sympathy for those who feel they have been wronged by Guru, because of the pain they are holding onto. To quote Buddha again, "Holding onto anger is like holding onto a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else. You are the one getting burned". I know a lot of people don't agree with me about why 'bad' things happen but I don't think anyone could disagree that we all need to find a way of understanding things that allows us to let them go.

I would not say Guru is immune from criticism. I simply want to question who benefits from the criticism. Questioning is great, it is key to finding truth. I just don't think the truth will be found through criticising others actions or motives. If we do that what we find may indeed hurt us. If the truth feels painful I would suggest looking again. The truth really will set us free, not cause more hurt.
I think we need to focus more on ourselves and less on others. "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone".

Y. said...

I agree with you -- in one's personal journey it seems that "making lemonade out of lemons" is a very useful motto. It's a thread that runs throughout this memoir now that I think about it. I'm always reminded of something Swami Yogananda's guru, Sri Yukteswar, said (paraphrasing): "There is not a sin in the world that I have not committed, thus I can identify with all men." In other words, not only do your mistakes and hardships make you stronger, they also offer you the chance to widen your sympathies for others.

I do believe there is a risk, though, of looking back at events -- in this case negative events -- and weaving those past events into a cohesive narrative with the benefit of hindsight, which makes it all look preordained or fated. Perhaps they were, but rigorous awareness of this fallacy (if that's what it is) seems important. (This is something I thought a lot about as I reconstructed my memories for this blog.)

The heart-mind divide is one that must be bridged. My thinking now is that the conscious division of these elements of our psyche is important as we take up the path of yoga, so that we as its practitioners may ourselves learn to differentiate the different influences upon us. In the end, though, it seems we must integrate them -- body, emotions, and mind -- into a functioning unit that is not at war with itself.

Regarding sympathy for those who have been wronged, you quote Buddha and the importance of letting anger go. In theory, I agree, of course. But it often takes some "processing time" to get to that place of letting go. In the practical world, I'm always afraid that such stock attitudes about the pain and anger others are feeling lead one to become dangerously cold hearted. I had lunch with a few "graduates" of the Center (as we like to think of ourselves) the other day, and I remarked how very ironic it is that disciples are some of the most heartless people (a category I would have included myself in). This is why another canard -- karma -- is so insidious. How easy it is to blame others for their circumstances when we all "reap what we've sown in the past." At some point, it seems the benefits of true acceptance -- without judgment -- of the pain and suffering of others outweigh any supposed risks of "lowering" our consciousness.

Just to add to that an observation of my own: those who were most directly harmed by Guru appear to be the least angry. Sundari, for example, seems devoid of anger altogether.

Finally, to the point about the value of criticizing. In a general way, I guess I agree. We often make a distinction for "constructive" criticism, but I'm not convinced it's a helpful one. But, I would say that open and fair "discussion" of Guru's behavior is vitally important. In other words, if a prohibition against criticism means that some topics of discussion are off limits, then I cannot agree.

This isn't about casting stones. It's about trying to discover as much information as we can about a man who demanded unconditional surrender from us (in some cases for decades) and who apparently did not always keep up his end of the bargain. The questions this raises are important to me.

For example, if Guru had sex with Sundari, what does that mean? Was he not realized? Or does realization mean something radically different than what I had once thought? Those are big questions for my personal development considering the place Guru and the path play in my life. Right?

These are questions that cannot be avoided.

Enjoying Doing Cartwheels said...

Before I respond I really need to understand what you said about Guru having sex with a disciple?

I had heard things but assumed they were bitter people making up stories to ruin his reputation. Is this something you know as a fact? Or have heard as a rumour? Do you trust her word?

If that is true that raises A LOT of questions about what enlightenment means and whether he really was.
I can't imagine how he could have been who he was as an ordinary human?

"Does realization mean something radically different than what I had once thought?"

This sums up my thoughts on the matter quite well

Y. said...

Oh, I'm sorry. I assumed you had gone through most, if not all, of the blog.

To read things in context, you might start here and read the following posts in order.

In their own words, you can read Sundari's post followed by Bihagee's post.

It's a lot to digest. If you'd prefer to carry on our conversation via email, that would be fine too. My email address can be found in my profile.


Did Enjoy Doing Cartwheels said...

Ok now I have had sometime to get sad, get mad, complain, doubt, lose faith, regain faith, lose it again, and all those other fun things. I would like to recount a story I read by a (I hope) Guru named Shantanand Saraswati.

A king's daughter was taking a stroll in her garden with her mother. She noticed one flower which was just budding, another which was in full bloom, and yet another which had dried up and fallen. She pointed this out to her mother. The mother said that the three flowers summed up the whole story of life and if she wanted further enlightenment, she should find a guru.
The girl began to search for a good guru. An imposter came to know all this, and posed before her as a very learned guru, so the girl requested him to intiate her into the true knowledge. The imposter asked her to give him all her money, which she did at once, then he took her to a lonely place and tied her to a tree. Then he went away, telling her that he was testing her, and that she was to reman like that till he came back and untied her.
She remained tied up, uncomplaining, for a long time, such was her faith in the guru. The god, Vishnu, was impressed by her devotion. He sent the saint, Narada, to untie her, but she refused, saying that only her guru must untie her. Then Vishnu sent Narada to find the imposter. He was found and brought there. Vishnu ordered him to untie her at once, and the false guru and Vishnu both stood before the girl. Even then the girl wondered whether she should salute the guru first, or Vishnu, because it was the guru who had been instrumental in bringing Vishnu to her. Thus even the false guru can provide us with enlightenment, provided the disciple is fully devoted to him.

I am in NO way trying to justify his actions, a guru should never indulge in something he warns his disciples of, no exceptions, but ultimately it is completely up to the disciple to reach enlightement. If that is what they so choose.

I hope you enjoy this story. It was of great comfort to me :)