I recall that, a couple of weekends ago when it was time to go to my partner's sister's house for a Memorial Day/college graduation party, I felt a dip in my mood and was somewhat reluctant to get out of the house.
Then I remembered that it was on Memorial Day weekend in 2003 that I met X, which then began my adventure with Amma and all that has gone along with that. Like a similar dip in mood that I had felt last March (or perhaps the one before), when I reflected on the time of year at which the dip was happening, it occurred to me that that was the time of year in 2005 when my friendship with X finally came to an end.
I guess one could say that noticing such changes in mood and then getting on with my life anyway is part of healing and moving on.
A couple of months ago I read about a sex scandal in the Amma organization, involving a former filmmaker from Finland. This devotee was, until recently, Amma's chief promoter in Finland, where she evidently has quite a following, including members of Parliament who are open about their devotee relationship to Amma, their use of the mantra they were given by her, etc. Evidently this former filmmaker, who had trained to teach Amma's IAM meditation technique and who spent at least part of his time as a resident of Amma's main ashram in India, had become sexually involved with a number of younger women and had infected at least one of them with a particularly virulent form of herpes.
Granted, the agent of the scandal wasn't Amma herself or one of the more visible swamis, but still it was someone in the organization who had considerable visibility, at least regionally. What was telling about the response--or at least suggestive of attitudes within the upper echelons of the organization--was the fact a very cold, non-committal press release was issued by one of the ashram attorneys, and that references to this devotee's connection with the Amma organization began to disappear from the official Amma websites. Those who have written about the scandal did not know if anything had been done by the organization on behalf of the young woman who had been affected and who had been the whistleblower, but it was assumed that she had simply been discarded.
This incident came to light last summer, which happens to be the first summer that I did not attend an Amma program. My partner was taking two courses in graduate school plus working full time and I didn't feel like going on the retreat by myself, particularly since it has become awkward to run into former friends and/or their friends or relatives at Amma's programs. I also recalled that, last spring, I had read Janja Lalich's Take Back Your Life, which is one of the more popular cult recovery self-help books. Perhaps--in the spirit of "actions speak louder than words"--there was a connection between reading that and my hesitation or reluctance to go to Amma's summer programs last year.
With my curiosity piqued by last year's sex scandal, I indulged my curiosity and overcame my former resistance to joining the Examma Yahoo Group. I did so under an alias email address so as not to be obvious to people on the list who might know who I am or--more realistically--might know people in the org that I also know. Over the course of several weeks I have read all 1800+ entries in the group, which has been online since 2007, I believe. I learned that Amma's primary astrologer left the org last summer. I also read a post that purported to be by Amma's close personal assistant for 20 years, who fled the org by night in 1999 and who may eventually publish a book about her experiences. Lots of questions were raised about the org's lack of financial transparency as well as other issues pertinent to devotees and to the people who are served by Amma's charitable activities. Claims of exaggeration of the extent of the charitable activities are common, as are claims that some of the projects are at least partly subsidized by the Indian government (which is typically not revealed to devotees, Western or Indian). There are also allegations of the Amma organizations ties to the right-wing Hindu nationalist organization RSS, etc.
Some links from the posts in the group dealt with the psychological effects of dealing with high-demand, high-manipulation organizations. Among these was the phenomenon of "depersonalization," which I know I experienced, most acutely after X raged at me in the car on the way to and from a visit to Masjid Al-Farah in the summer of 2004. As I read this material (or reviewed it, if I had read it or similar material in the past), some things began to fall into place and to make more sense than they had in the previous several years. It is probably significant that I am not in acute emotional or psychological distress now (but see below about last night's insomnia). Since I'm not spending my time wrestling with churning feelings or seeking to find immediate ways out of my distress, it is probably easier to witness the process of impressions coming together and beginning to make more sense.
I began to understand more clearly why I had likely been so dissatisfied with the therapy, bodywork, etc., that I had been seeking out to supposedly help me with my healing process. It seems to me now that I had already become so "unboundaried" and so inflamed psycho-neurologically that any kind of intrusive or manipulative or New Age approach was precisely the wrong thing for me at that time, even though I may have been drawn to some of those approaches in the belief that my spiritual experiences would be better understood in those contexts than in more standard contexts. What I see now is how important it is for me, after having been manipulated and after having become hyper-emotional, to immerse myself in intellectual and physical labor, and physical exercise, and to refuse to worry about things like my "heart" contracting and all that kind of shit. Here and there, in the therapy that I did, there were some useful elements. For one, the triangulation involving X and my first therapist and me forced the issue of a separation from X, which was necessary for my healing. Second, the hypnotherapist (my second therapist) expressed some puzzlement as to why I seemed almost to be exhibiting signs of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). There do seem to be specific forms of PTSD that are associated with cult involvement or former cult involvement. It's likely that I had been "culted" and that inexperience in dealing with clients who exhibit typical signs of the phenomenon had resulted in my therapists' being less effective than they otherwise might have been.
Through the course of reading the posts on Examma and reflecting on my own experiences of the past several years, I felt myself inclining toward the uncomfortable, tentative conclusion that I am highly susceptible to the manipulations of charismatic people who lack a fundamental sense of empathy. Whether this includes such people as Nurbakhsh or Amma, I can't say, because I simply haven't spent enough time in close personal contact with such people. But that in itself is something that bears some examination: the people who appear to have been the agents of the most powerful initiatory experiences that I have had are simply not people with whom I have been able to have any significant personal communication. The picture that emerges from the Examma group is that a number of the people who have made the necessary sacrifices of time and money to try to have a more personal relationship with Amma have tended to find themselves on a downward spiral of disappointment, disillusionment, bitterness, and brokenness. On the other hand, trying to remain at a "safer" distance while remaining an active devotee (and perhaps satsang member) can still divert time and attention from activities and relationships that really do require quality time if they are to remain healthy. From the posts in the Examma group, it appears that many devotees, or spouses or partners of devotees, have experienced faltering or failed relationships in connection with their (or their spouse's or partner's) involvement with the Amma org, and there have been numerous incidents of emotional affairs, or even actual sexual affairs, among devotees breaking up marriages and relationships.
As I reflect back on my formerly close friendships with devotees (especially X and Y), I can see more clearly the highly manipulative nature of thier behavior, and the inevitably painful outcome of having any significant personal contact with such people. It is still a mystery to me why attention from such people would initially have the effect of wiping away my feelings of dissatisfaction with work and with other aspects of my life, but I suppose that that might be the attraction of such things as heroin as well, and heroin clearly puts one on a downward spiral eventually. I have noticed that such people seek to separate their friends (or lovers) from their pre-existing social support networks, and to increase their emotional dependence on themselves (by creating enticingly mysterious private frames of reference for shared experiences, no matter how trivial those experiences may actually be in themselves), and then--once their mark has become sufficiently vulnerable--BAM!, they project the depths of their self-loathing onto their "loved ones," now that these "loved ones" have so few places to turn for healing and for the restoration of some kind of sanity and common sense to their lives. It is as if these people set themselves up to be small-time gurus or cult leaders, which may be in part why they are attracted to environments in which they may hope to learn further ways in which to practice their "craft," as well as easy marks on which to prey.
People on the Examma list have asked others when the turning point came for them when they realized that things were not as they hoped they would become, or when red flags started revealing themselves. For me, despite the ups and downs I had had with formerly "close friends" among the devotees, I think that my mother's death was a significant turning point for me. During the final stages of my mother's illness, a number of people in the satsang (including Y, on occasion), said and did some of the "right things." Following my mother's death and funeral, however, the starkness of the experience began to open my eyes a bit more. I noticed that the satsang seemed to have a status quo to which it clung, and in the early stages of my grief I began to feel invisible or even shunned (by Y in particular), evidently because I wasn't exhibiting the demeanor that others wanted to see. I also began to notice, following my mother's death, both in the Amma organization and at work, that when others appeared to be playing on my vulnerability, my rage would flare up with an intensity that I probably hadn't experienced since I was a child or adolescent. In any event, while trying to remain faithful and loyal to the idea of being an Amma devotee and an active satsang member, there were times when I came home from satsang feeling profoundly hurt and disappointed, and feeling that I probably would have felt much better if I had stayed home in my familiar surroundings, spent time eating at home with my partner and/or with his friends or family, and doing my spiritual practices at home. Another turning point came for me when, after having declared the need for a "hiatus" from satsang, I returned and had a private conversation with the satsang leader and her husband. When I referred to the behavior of X and Y as contributing factors to my dissatisfaction with my experience of the Amma organization, it was as if I simply wasn't being heard. I also recalled how the satsang leader had badmouthed rock/pop/ambient musician David Sylvian (a former Amma devotee) and sided completely with his ex-wife with respect to their divorce. I, on the other hand, have found Sylvian's music to be a helpful guide in imagining myself both inside and outside of the org. I think his work has had a positive impact on my ability to let go of some of the supposedly "special" nature of active involvement in the org, and to rebuild my connections with other aspects of my work and personal life. Most recently, on my last visit to satsang (several months ago), the satsang leader's brother-in-law informed me that "people" (nameless, of course) had been asking if I had been coming to satsang regularly, and he told them that he assumed that I simply hadn't been as interested in coming. My whereabouts and priorities are none of their goddamnfucking business!!! That's just not right: who says we're not in a cult?!
As I have been peeling away the layers of my experience over the last several years, I have also been examining the sense of obligation I felt to remain affiliated with a spiritual group and to pursue some form of prescribed daily spiritual practices, dating all the way back to my initiation by Nurbakhsh in March of 1992. I realized, during the course of this examination, that I have felt under obligation in a particular way for a full 20 years after having been "imprinted" by that first initiation. Yes, I have tried to be open to the idea of finding a spiritual teacher and of affiliating actively with a spiritual group, but maybe I just can't get this to work for me, at least not in this lifetime. Maybe I just have to be unapologetically selective about what I feel works for me and let the rest go, indefinitely, without worrying that I'm doing myself some kind of major disservice. It seems to me, on the other hand, that if I don't take this more independent approach, that I may in danger of wasting a tremendous amount of time.
Finally, my academic job continues to have its challenges. I was tapped at the end of the academic year to chair a search committee for an adjunct position. I have not been tapped to serve on any search committees in the 9 years that I have been at this job, although I had served as chair of more than one search committee in my previous job (which is one of the reasons why I left it, since as a vulnerable untenured assistant prof, I was being saddled with work that the senior faculty simply refused to do). I resented the imposition, particularly so late in the academic year, but carried the search to a successful conclusion with comptence and style. I just hope that this doesn't make me appear to be an easy mark for exploitation in the future. In any event, I saw the student evaluations for last semester when I went to campus yesterday. The graduate students gave me glowing evaluations, but the freshmen gave me mediocre evaluations and the tone of some of the comments was among the most hateful that I've ever received. I tried not to let it bother me, and I made sure to exercise and to do spiritual practices after I came home, but I had several bouts of insomnia last night. Ultimately I was able to resolve each one and to get back to sleep, but I noticed that my third chakra (manipura) felt almost as inflamed as it had when I had formerly had problems with former friends X and Y. This, in a word, was "not good." At one point, however, I asked myself why I wasn't reciting my mantra. I began to recite my mantra silently and then drifted off to sleep, only to have a strange dream in which I approached a dark and somewhat forbidding doorway, knowing that I was entering the realm of Dhumavati (the hideous widow goddess). Once in her "realm," I lost a sense of the boundaries of my body, but began to "see" myself surrounded and suffused by a black, liquidy energy that had silvery specks in it. I evidently began to shout during this dream, and I remember being unsuccessful in trying to raise the pitch of my voice, as if in an attempt to match the "frequency" of the energy in which I found myself. I woke up when my partner told me to stop shouting, and when I did I noticed that I actually felt quite a bit better than I had before, and even somewhat sexually aroused. It was a bit of a weird experience, but at least it's better than remaining stuck in uncomfortable feeling states.
Over the last several months, I've been focusing more directly on Kali and Shiva, and have gradually been relinquishing the idea of Amma as necessary mediator to the deity (or deities). I have noticed a decrease in the amount of conflict I feel with respect to my spiritual practices and to a sense of obligatory social affiliation around them, and an increase in clarity of thought and feeling. A number of people on Examma have mentioned that there came a point where their insistence on putting Amma first (before themselves and before the deity or deities of their choice) began to feel like more of an obstacle than a help. Others consider this to be a sign of positive growth, and an indication that the relationship with the guru may have served its purpose, pointing out that in traditional Hindu contexts it is uncommon for gurus to retain their disciples for life. Along with this has come an increasing awareness of reappraisals of left- and right-wing political ideologies at several levels of society in a number of places around the world, and a desire to seek out information that may help me to make more informed choices in the process of defining and refining my own relationship to issues of power, labor, etc. In general, I've been aware of a relaxation of fears around Shadow. This leads me to think that at least some of the backlash I received from some of the students may have been due, in part, to their not being able to handle being exposed to the directness of someone who is actively dealing with Shadow. Their critique--some of which is highly distorted and even completely fallacious--may have been a crude reaction to something in their environment over which they felt they had little control. Of course, had they followed my recommendations and instructions more carefully, they would inevitably have improved their academic performance and they wouldn't have had anything "against" me. I have, after all, been teaching since before they were born, so I think I have a pretty good idea of what is reliable, and of what works effectively within a given period of time at a particular level of instruction. Too bad that that actually requires some honest work on their part, which is something that seems extremely alien to some of them.
In any event, if dealing with Shadow is indeed what is going on, and if some people seem to feel threatened by that, in the spirit of being patient with myself, I can only hope that I will gradually learn better how to contain what is going on and that its effects will appear to be more subtle over time.
Om Kreem Kalyai Namaha,