The following is an interview between Chris Cowan and Natasha Todorvic, and Geoffrey Falk. Geoffrey is the author of a book called Stripping the Gurus, which Susan Blackmore described as a "...gripping and disturbing book [that] should be read by anyone who finds themself revering a spiritual teacher."
I grew up south of Winnipeg,
in a country house with an extensive library, thanks to my mother’s
passion for gardening and my father’s do-it-yourself interests in
nearly everything else. From carpentry, masonry, and David Bohm’s
Causality and Chance in Modern Physics, through various Rodale press
books on organics, to Do You Really Need Eyeglasses? to The
Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (a book related to the more recent
Da Vinci Code fiction), plus Velikovsky’s writings and other assorted
classics of what I now recognize as medical, scientific and religious
quackery. Nothing from a skeptical perspective, but since that field
didn’t actually get going until the ‘80s, it’s understandable.
I actually remember, in
what must have been my late elementary school or early junior-high years,
reading Do You Really Need Eyeglasses? This was around the time
that I started wearing those myself--either from too many re-reads of
Robin Hood and Treasure Island or from something else over
which I had no control. So, I decided to put that book’s claims to
the test, and announced to my mother that I was going to be staying
in bed all day one Saturday (for the purpose of “palming” my eyes,
the recommended technique for improving one’s eyesight).
Well, that experiment lasted for roughly half an hour. Sleeping in is one thing, which I’ve always loved to do; but it turns out that you can’t really stay in bed all day Saturday even if you want to. You’d miss the “Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner Hour,” for one.
My mother had been a missionary
in Europe prior to her marriage, bringing some culture (and a collection
of dainty teaspoons) back with her. After a few years of that overseas
work, though, one of the local community members cruelly told her that
if she was quitting that calling it was because she “didn’t love
Jesus enough,” or some such stupidity. That suggestion really devastated
her--she actually spent some time in the hospital as a result. That
is, in a medical hospital; but the problem obviously wasn’t physical.
Following that, she took over the family chicken farm, after her own father had moved out to the more temperate climate on the West Coast of Canada to convert the heathens there.
Most of her brothers and
sisters actually continued on with missionary work until their retirements.
While mowing my absent uncle’s lawn one summer while in my early teens,
I vividly remember Aunt Helen--she was staying in his house while on
her furlough--enticing me with an eagerly accepted offer of a 7-Up and
vanilla ice cream float, only to ask me point-blank whether I was doing
drugs! She did her missionary work in Panama, though, so I suppose it’s
understandable that she would have been concerned.
So, if you’ve ever seen
the movie Napoleon Dynamite, that’s exactly where I grew up,
except with fundamentalist religion on top of it. Tupperware and all.
(My mother actually used to host “parties” for that.)
With their varying degrees of commitment to orthodox Christianity, my mom and dad had evidently worked out a deal with God ... or the Devil ... that us children only had to attend church every third Sunday until we were eighteen. And so we did, never taking it too seriously, and certainly never believing that Jesus was the one true Savior or that Christianity was the one true religion.
The family, further risking our collective eternal souls, also made intermittent trips into the city to check out lectures on spiritualism and Kirlean photography--the purported capture of human auras on film, which is actually just corona discharges of electricity, i.e., nothing parapsychological. We also had occasional readings done by supposed mediums--a Mrs. Howse in the Charter House Hotel, for one. From her, we learned that we were “very old souls,” and that I “would be successful at anything I put [my] mind to.” :)
Through my mother’s initial bout with cancer, and my father’s “heart disease” (i.e., misdiagnosed back pain) around the same time, we got in touch with a naturopathic doctor in Winnipeg. And so, from a “meat and potatoes and potato chips and soft drinks” family, in short order we became a “carrot cake and granola” one--cutting-edge evangelists to the surrounding community on the importance of diet and vitamin therapy.
That wholistic doctor was also practicing iridology and muscle-testing--the idea that holding a sample, or even just thinking of, some food or drug, will affect one’s strength measurably. (There was enough of the scientist in my father that he hoped to objectively test that claim via spring-scales from the lab in the high school where he taught, but was stymied in that plan by being unable to find appropriately strong ones.) For that, and for some relatively trumped-up charges like working in his office in his stocking feet, the same naturopathic physician was being hassled by the local College of Physicians and Surgeons for his purported lack of medical knowledge. Perhaps that was not without reason, in hindsight, but at the time we all certainly sympathized with him in that “witch hunt.”
Anyway, it turned out that
the doctor in question was also running the Ananda meditation group
in Winnipeg--for the northern California ashram founded by J. Donald
Walters, former vice president of Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship.
He will have mentioned Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi
during one of the summer evenings when we had him and his family down
for fresh strawberries, but I didn’t track him down and pursue that
further until after my mother’s death from a recurrence of her cancer
a number of years later, when I was in my third year of university.
When I finally did read that “classic” book, however, during my first summer away from home while working at a fishing lodge, I had no difficulty in believing that every word in it was true. In part, that was due to the high regard I had for the doctor in question--I would have taken very seriously any book or spiritual path he might have recommended. But mostly it was just because I wanted to believe all of the fairy tales, had been fairly disgusted with the materialistic emphasis of the introductory philosophy course I had aced the previous year, and had no idea that any paranormal claims had ever been tested and found to not be what they were cracked up to be.
So, I did what any good “seeker of Truth” with God-realization as a newfound goal would have done: Signed up for the SRF Lessons, attended their annual Convocation later in the same summer, and took kriya initiation first by mail and then in person in L.A. in the autumn of 1988. And swore off drugs, alcohol (even while working throughout the ’80s as a bartender at the lodge), and other assorted pleasures. All because my perfect Divine Guru, and God, “wanted me to.”
As another former follower of Yogananda lamented, “It makes me wish that I had gotten involved with a tantric sex cult instead of SRF, to at least have had some fun being brainwashed.”
On the bright side, although
I had previously planned to switch to a vegetarian diet even just for
animal-rights reasons, Yogananda’s endorsement of that menu was what
finally provided me with the impetus to act on those ideals, switching
nearly “cold turkey” on the flight down to the Convocation in 1987.
So I spent my twenties immersed in tofu, meditation, and the extended writing of my first book on Eastern philosophy and metaphysics (which I started in the summer of 1989). And through all that, doing relatively menial labor--including a year at an organic food store, where I started as a cashier and ended up re-programming the cash registers.
That store actually had a female shaman on its Board of Directors. In her astral journeys, she had “seen” that employees were stealing from the store, and that the next manager of that enterprise would “walk out of the woods.” Of course, neither of those statements turned out to be even remotely accurate. (The imagined theft of produce, though, did have certain points in common with Yogananda’s “Cauliflower Robbery” chapter in the Autobiography.)
I was told that the same shaman’s advice, to a co-worker who had paid for her services, was that the latter needed to learn to “lie more.” That client, in turn, was herself able to “talk to the herbs.” That is, one day in the store, while walking past the bulk herbs’ section, she heard some of the desiccated product there crying out psychically in fear. With no dearth of compassion for dried plants, she explained to the herbs-in-jars where they were and how they had come to be there, thus calming them down.
Her sister was clinically schizophrenic. A residential member of the Ananda community, too, it turned out.
Working in that community-owned
store in environmental and dietary ways to “make the world a better
place” was basically the last “real world” job I could imagine
having any meaning for myself. But, it turns out that the people in
such environments who have the least tolerance for being told how they
should behave by authority-figures in the “patriarchal hierarchy,”
etc., are also invariably the ones who most want to dictate to you how
you should live, what words you should use in political correctness,
and what thoughts you’re allowed to think while still qualifying as
“part of the solution” rather than “part of the problem.”
So, after a year of that, I applied to SRF’s Hidden Valley (HV) ashram, to be allowed to stay there as a resident volunteer. I had already spent a month there over Easter in 1996, and was now seriously considering the idea of staying there permanently.
Yes, I was sincerely contemplating
becoming a monk. “God and Guru wanted me to.”
On the bright side, it was that nine-month stay that got me permanently out of watching television, to do productive things with my spare time rather than just being passively entertained. And I did meet a few worthwhile people there--maybe 20% of the whole, though among the official monastic “leaders” it was mostly just the ones in blue shirts (i.e., the novices) that I found to have anything resembling real humility. And, if the particular short-tempered, oppressively negative, visibly neurotic supervisor with whom I had to deal for the final six months hadn’t gotten me tied up into such a tight ball of stress that I literally still haven’t recovered from that, I would never have found the SRF Walrus board online, and never posted my story there.
In short, if there is one person who is to credit for unintentionally setting me on the path to showing our world’s gurus to be fools, and their ashrams to be prisons whose power structure corrupts the leaders and drives their followers to despair, it was him.
Of course, while in that environment, I was explicitly told by other managers of the work I was doing there that when I had meditated more and become more spiritually advanced (like them), I wouldn’t feel the need to be creative in writing books and music. That is, I would just “serve Master’s work” by donating money and labor to it, without presuming to do anything original or truly creative in life.
When I left Hidden Valley in the summer of 1999, it actually took me several months to “decompress” and realize just how ridiculous the environment there was. Half a dozen viewings of the South Park movie in theaters at that time was actually very liberating for me, after having been for so long in the artificially “holy” ashram environment, curtailing my tongue and sleeping with “hands outside the sheets,” etc. Writing a fifteen-page letter of complaint to SRF’s president, Daya Mata--which I am sure she has never read--also helped a little.
I have also tried various other means of getting over my experiences at Hidden Valley. Even prior to that sojourn, actually, I had several “remote healing” sessions with graduates of Barbara Ann Brennan’s spiritual healing school, paid for half a dozen appointments with several different “Reiki Masters,” and had a number of “healing sound” sessions with a therapist in Winnipeg. With all of that having no effect at all on me, of course: For all of my previous abilities to believe “six impossible things before breakfast,” I’ve never been good at fooling myself into taking “expectation effects” as if they were real. That even goes back to the naturopathic muscle-testing, which I explicitly never trusted or found particularly convincing.
Until I got well into writing
Stripping the Gurus in early 2004, though, I still thought that
Yogananda was everything that he and SRF claimed him to be, and that
it was just his organization that was a mess. And along with that, I
still accepted all of his paranormal claims, as to the existence of
deathless Himalayan avatars and the like. (If I hadn’t still been
credulously believing all of that, I would never have, in mid-2002,
entrusted my life’s savings, as the sole investor for my first book,
to a publisher who thinks that leprechauns are real. That is, if I hadn’t
still been thinking, at that point, that no one could be so deluded
as to simply imagine such things and then take those imaginings as real
... I’d be $40,000 [Cdn., incl. interest] less poor right now.)
So, no surprise that I continued
looking for auric healers who could actually do the work they claimed
to be able to do, in clearing emotional energy blockages and the like.
Thus, the autumn of 1999
found me visiting a weekly gathering of prospective spiritual healers
in Winnipeg, hoping for positive effects from their (free) efforts.
And guess what: In that
context, one of the men ahead of me, shortly after sitting down with
one of the handful of people doing healings, broke down and wept openly,
obviously for having a lifelong emotional-energy blockage cleared.
“Ooh, I want that healer! He can really do the work! I want him!!” And as luck would have it, I did get the same five or ten minutes with him as “Weeping Man” did.
The mind, of course, is
a powerful influence. In terms of one’s own expectations of healing,
I mean. For the actual, objective healing of another person, in the
kind of thing which would pass double-blind testing ... not so much.
So, predictably, I again
didn’t feel a thing, inside or out, from that “healing.”
Significantly, my reluctance to talk afterwards in the group about what I had “experienced” during that brief session was interpreted by the healers themselves as being due to something like my being “emotionally closed.” They did encourage me, though, saying that I would gradually “open up” in future sessions. None of which psychobabble, of course, addressed the real reason for my reluctance, which was simply that there was nothing for me to talk about, in terms of the (non-existent) “effects” of their sincere efforts.
My last contact with any of these claimed healers came in mid-2001, after moving to Toronto, when I flew back to Winnipeg over a weekend for a $100 session with a highly recommended woman, there. She adjusted my aura, had me do a variety of visualizations, and was actually very impressive in her (non-paranormal) ability to tell whether I was “linearly focused” or “non-linearly visualizing.”
Still, I again didn’t feel a thing, inside or out, from all that ostensibly profound “energy work.”
Finally, she placed her hands across from my stomach, and “directed energy” into the associated chakra.
“Can you feel that?” she said.
She moved her hands closer.
“Can you feel the energy now?”
Still no. Sorry, but I’m
really not good at imagining things myself and then taking them as if
they were real. Yes, I wasted more than a decade of my life taking
other people’s imaginings as if they were coherent statements
of reality, but that’s different. It’s being credulous, gullible,
daft, and the many other things which drive one’s need to believe
that there’s more to life than just what is physically measurable,
but it’s still not the same thing as being unable to distinguish one’s
own imaginings from the real world. Reality, as they say, is the stuff
which doesn’t go away when you stop believing in it. For all of my
past acceptance of other people’s delusions, I’ve just never had
difficulty with my own “reality-testing.” That was true even when,
as a child, I would get so lost in books that I’d forget I was even
reading them, instead just seeing the action and hearing the characters’
voices in my own mind, completely contented in that “inner world.”
So finally, she placed her warm hands directly on my abdomen.
“Can you feel it now?”
Yes, I can feel it now. Body heat I can feel. That, at least, is real.
A couple of years earlier,
shortly after my time in HV, I had a reading done by a highly recommended
trance medium of my family’s acquaintance. The kind, elderly woman
in question claimed to be able to receive, from her spirit guides, the
winning numbers for lottery tickets; and I had reason, based on other
people’s credulous testimony, to believe that she was telling the
truth. Indeed, one could beat that lottery system on a regular basis
only through “inside information,” e.g., via clairvoyance. (Of course,
I have since come to realize that if one were to have an undisclosed
source of funds, one could purchase large quantities of tickets, and
simply discard the non-winning ones, thus giving the impression....)
Bottom line: if she wasn’t “real” as a medium, probably no one was.
On the day of the reading, the spirit purportedly speaking through her in that trance said that he was “99% certain” that my grandfather would be dead by the coming Christmas.
“He” also said that
someday I’d “have everything I wanted,” and that I’d “never
be out of work.” Indeed, there were apparently two jobs already lined
up for me, with the first being a “stepping stone” to the second.
More intriguing, he saw me working at one of those future positions “down south, by the
water,” with a very slim,
very long-haired woman, with near-ivory skin, who “enjoys getting
things done almost as much” as I do, and who would respect and depend
heavily on me in that context. And there was a chance, he said, that
the woman in question and I would be more than just friends....
That was in the summer of
1999. Needless to say, I have not consciously or intentionally done
anything to mess up that projected golden future.
Nevertheless, my grandfather lived for another four and a half years beyond that point, passing away in early 2004, in his mid-nineties. Hardly unpredictable--old people die, eventually.
I was unemployed from mid-2003
until early 2006--a period of two and a half years, during which I lived
off of credit cards, and wrote Stripping the Gurus.
And I’m still waiting to meet that spectacular woman.
You’ve got to believe
in something, right?
2. We’re also curious
about what produces the “guru-addicted personality.” Can you speculate
a bit about those you’ve met that might fall into this description?
I was looking online for
some additional “help” in answering this question--since I’m definitely
not a “guru-addict” myself!--and was surprised to find how little
information, even just in speculation, I could turn up.
I found one psychoanalytic
book which reasonably related the insistence that “one’s personal
guru is infallible”--a slightly different, but certainly not unrelated,
issue--to the “longing for an omnipotent caregiver” or “wonderful
Other.” But then it went on to cite, as one of only two examples of
that, how “more than 900 people willingly drank cyanide rather than
face the fact that their leader, Jim Jones, had blundered.” (That
same book, by the way, was feted as being one of “the best psychodynamic
resources” available, and “an ideal text for serious students of
psychoanalytic approaches to psychopathology.”)
Of course, the people who drank the cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid in Guyana actually did so at gunpoint, after months of sleep-deprivation, malnutrition, and “false alarms” regarding a supposedly impending violent attack on them. And if you read Deborah Layton’s Seductive Poison you will find that many of them would have left the isolated, guarded community had they only possessed the means to do so: They knew Jim Jones wasn’t the “savior” they had once believed him to be. Even the followers who lived in the nearest town in a group house, after all, refused Jones’ order to drink.
Then, I came across some thoughts from one of Sai Baba’s former followers, which I think are accurate as far as they go:
“People who desperately need to be under protective guidance are ready to surrender their critical thinking and moral autonomy to gain inner peace. It seems to me that it might be a similar psychological mechanism to chemical drugs. The reasons for people becoming drug addicted might be very similar to the reasons for becoming guru-addicted.”
So, I went to Wikipedia
to clear up my understanding of what “addiction” in general is:
“Addiction is not a disease
but rather a habitual response and a source of gratification and security
that can be understood only in the context of social relationships and
experiences.... Addiction is characterized by the repeated use of substances
or behaviors despite clear evidence of morbidity secondary to such use....
Addiction is often applied to compulsive behaviors other than drug use,
such as overeating or gambling.... In all cases, the term addiction
describes a chronic pattern of behavior that continues and is perceived
to be hard or impossible to quit at any time.... Addiction is often
characterized by an ongoing effort to use more (drug or behavior), tolerance,
and withdrawal symptoms in the absence of the stimulus. Many drugs and
behaviors that provide either pleasure or relief from pain pose a risk
of addiction or dependency.... Instead of an actual physiological dependence
on a drug, such as heroin, psychological addiction usually develops
out of habits that relieve symptoms of loneliness or anxiety. As the
drug [or behavior] is indulged, it becomes associated with the release
of pleasure-inducing endorphins, and a cycle is started that is similar
to physiological addiction. This cycle is often very difficult to break.”
The dependency of many devotees on their gurus (and pandits) would obviously fit closely with many of those criteria.
I then started to further wonder whether there was any difference between “guru-addicted personalities” and “religion-addicted” ones in general. And I couldn’t see how there could be. On the contrary, it seems to me that members of both groups suffer from exactly the same excessive need for social sanction for their beliefs, tendency to elevate people they admire to “infallible hero” status, need for acceptance from their then-great heroes, and need to belong to a “saved” in-group. The psychological comfort (and yes, endorphins) which one’s meeting of each of those needs confers would have to be the same in both groups.
Whether you’re one of
Jehovah’s “chosen people” or one of Sun Myung Moon’s comparable
selected few obviously makes no difference in terms of the psychological
dynamics involved in that “specialness.” Likewise, you may be safe
in an ashram from the demonic maya outside; safe in the Catholic
Church from the influence of Satan “out there,” at least so long
as you confess your every mortal sin (including masturbation) on a regular
basis; safe in Jonestown from the “snipers” in the surrounding jungle;
or safe in a “second-tier” institution from the “attacks” of
the purported 98% of the world which is “first-tier”--and which
supposedly cannot, even in principle, understand you, until its (“Mean
Green”) members evolve to your own high perspective. In all of those
cases, you will have the same need for a “safe sanctuary,” even
if the intensity of fear you feel at those mostly-imagined “persecutions”--and
the corresponding degree of “protective” closure of the community
from outside influences and questioning--may differ.
Whether or not the organization is led by a living guru makes little difference in either of those (specialness and safety) regards.
The fact that the cult-studies and cult-exit-counseling fields are brimming with persons who were born into “safe” religions, left those to join reportedly destructive cults, and then returned to the religions of their youths, only substantiates those points. Worse, it simultaneously skews the perspectives and theories of those same fields.
Look at it this way: Cult
leaders, if they deign to formulate theories as to what a cult is, will
invariably set up those criteria so that their own group isn’t at
risk of being categorized as a cult--being either blind to their own
abusive manipulations, or deliberately overlooking or suppressing those.
In exactly the same way, the leaders in cult studies cannot bring themselves
to admit that the same weaknesses which made them susceptible to becoming
psychologically “trapped” in one or another recognized cult are
also what brought them back to the “safe” religions of their childhood.
who themselves have been through reportedly destructive groups typically
like to imagine that they would never have believed that their leaders
there were “Saviors of Humanity” or the like had they not been “brainwashed”
(i.e., coercively persuaded) into accepting that perspective through
deliberate manipulation on the part of the community leaders. (They
also tend to emphasize how persons will get involved with destructive
groups at low and vulnerable points in their lives, neglecting to note
how the need for meaning in life can be felt just as strongly when one
is “on top of the world,” and one still finds that there is something
missing. Consider how the Beatles came into contact with the Maharishi
... and then followed that up with George Harrison’s endless involvement
with the Hare Krishna’s and SRF even after his disillusionment with
TM®, to the point of chanting “Hare Krishna” for protection from
knife-wielding attackers even when such chanting only enraged his assailants.)
When such persons “escape”
from one or another closed, destructive community, to be free to believe
whatever they want, and then choose to believe that they’re still
one of the Chosen People, or that Jesus and Mary are everything they’re
claimed to be in salvational terms, they’ve just exchanged one set
of fairy tales for another. Such people, I am convinced, are psychologically
“addicted” to religion every bit as much as are others who complete
the Yogananda-Sai Baba-Ammachi cycle, for example, obviously feeling
the need to have an “all-knowing, divine” guru in their lives, whatever
the specific reasons and motivations may be for that.
If religion (even in its “alternative” forms) is indeed the opiate of the masses, it comes complete with its own (existential and social) withdrawal symptoms, to keep you hooked--all of which is basically implied even just by Voltaire’s statement that if God (and “perfect gurus”) didn’t exist, we would (and do) create them. “Even if my present guru turns out to have feet of clay, the next one will be the real thing”; even if all the religions I’ve been a member of are false, there’s a true one out there somewhere, etc.
And, since the guru nearly
always frames himself as being the source of all the good feelings one
initially had in his presence, and as the divinely ordained channel
for all bliss-experiences and enlightenment, there is powerful incentive
to keep going back for more, even if getting your hits from a different
“dealer.” (And if you don’t think that meditation, like drugs,
can function as a form of escapism, think again.)
As to people I’ve met who would fall into the “guru-addicted personality” category, there is one in particular, and it actually makes me quite sad to think about it. Because he was, and is, one of the most all-around exemplary individuals I’ve met in my life--you couldn’t meet this person, be the least bit sensitive to such things, and not recognize that there was something very unique, in a very good way, about him. If I had to list “near-saints” I’ve met in my life--people who were simultaneously strong, tender, compassionate and trustworthy--only two or three come to mind, and he’s one of them.
We both ended up in Toronto after our respective, overlapping HV stays; he got in touch with me through my website; and we got together several times after that, exchanging Christmas greetings and going for walks in the park together. He had, by his own testimony, even been “attacked” by other SRF members for his suggestion to them that the current organization is less than perfect, and was correspondingly very tolerant of my own attempts at exposing the psychological abuses there, even though he would undoubtedly have (naïvely) wished to rehabilitate the group rather than destroy it.
I sent him an email regarding the release of Stripping the Gurus (with its gathering of the existing dirt on Yogananda) back in April of 2004. I haven’t heard from him since, and would be surprised if that’s a coincidence: To him, even if the organization is fraught with reported abuses and cover-ups, Yogananda is still, and will always be, everything which he and his organization claimed him to be. So, Babaji the “deathless Himalayan avatar” is real, Yogananda’s ability to walk on fire was an outcome of his high spiritual state (as he claimed) rather than of known laws of physics, and everything narrated in the Autobiography of a Yogi must have happened exactly as the guru presented it. Because if it isn’t true, the guru was lying; and the guru doesn’t lie. Ever. On the contrary, all good things in your life come from him.
As one song which the good Christian waitresses at the lodge used to sing “around the campfire” put it, “If there’s anything good/That happens in life/It’s from Jesus.” Or from Yogananda. Or Sai Baba.
Same shit, different pile, as they say back on the farm.