A Fishy Tale

Apropos of Bithika O’Dwyer, please enjoy “A Fishy Tale” — a short, funny documentary about Doctor Who in the 1960s. Full title: “A Fishy Tale: Making The Underwater Menace.” Memorable quotes:

“I’m a comic book. None of this makes any sense. It is entirely insane.”

“Of course it wasn’t believable! It was completely balmy, wasn’t it?”

“I wasn’t impressed.”

“It seemed to me sort of bizarre and fragmented.”

“This is a bit of a dog.”

“It is pretty awful.”

“It’s rubbish!”

“They must’ve got the giggles.”

“It was disgusting, and dirty, and smelly.”

“I just find it quite grotesque, actually.”

“It doesn’t entirely work. In fact, bits of it don’t work at all. It’s frequently a bit dull.”

Bonus: French subtitles, so you can learn how to say “Don’t forget your Long Johns” in the language of love:

Now, class, répète en français, s’il vous plaît:

Vous n’allez pas me transformer en poisson!

Mastering that phrase is the key to your survival should you ever be captured by French-speaking Atlanteans!

Special appearance by “Blind Lemon Troughton” in the market scene:

Patrick Troughton a.k.a. “Blind Lemon Troughton”

All in all, one of my favourite Doctor Who documentaries — far better than the underlying story.

Polly in the temple, from “The Underwater Menace”

Note: If the embedded video doesn’t play, watch directly on DailyMotion here.

See also full DVD release available from Amazon.

* * *

Bithika O’Dwyer: A Tale of Two Psyches

Making sense of the psychological split which some apostates appear to exhibit

As discussed previously, people often write detailed accounts of their lives while with a spiritual group. These accounts tend to reflect a thinking, feeling individual who is living out their spiritual choices, consciously reaffirming those choices day after day, year after year. But later, after exiting the spiritual group, the same individual may supply a “captivity narrative” in connection with participation in a so-called “ex-cult support group.” The captivity narrative may seem contrived, formulaic, and scripted in comparison to the same person’s prior narrative describing spiritual experiences with uniqueness, and in detail.

This phenomenon suggests a psychological split in someone who was once a spiritual seeker, but who later adopts a hard apostate stance. Comparing their written statements over a period of decades, we may find two mutually exclusive world views and contradictory sets of alleged facts, as if the accounts were written by two different people. Hence, “a tale of two psyches.” Such is the case with Bithika O’Dwyer, whose public apostatizing seems intended to provoke controversy and raise matters of public concern. I respond to those matters here and elsewhere, and with as much sympathy as I can muster (though not always as much as I should like).

Not that her case is unique. Apostates sometimes make a great show of breaking with their former faith group by posting lewd or hateful material on the Internet. Such “testimonials” are then collated and used as part of a degradation ceremony belittling spiritual groups and portraying them negatively to the general public. This technique is used by anti-cult groups to create a set of “alternative facts” about spiritual groups running counter to the facts established by bonafide scholars of religion and by spiritual practitioners themselves. The intent is to suppress, harass, limit the civil rights of, and discourage participation in minority faith groups.

In this vein, I have been critical of attorney Joe Kracht of the Lawton law firm of San Diego for conducting Internet show trials of deceased spiritual figures where he is both judge and jury, exculpatory evidence is suppressed or ignored, and no genuine defence is permitted.

Where spiritual figures or groups are prosecuted in absentia by Internet demagogues, the so-called “evidence” often consists of an emotionally charged apostate testimonial which, though fictional, is designed to push people’s hot buttons and work them into a nativist lather. The evidence being suppressed or ignored is that same person’s prior written statements extolling the spiritual figure or group in question.

To a well-grounded legal mind, the fact that the same person tells two completely different stories is first and foremost an indicator that this person is not a reliable witness. But should one find it necessary to judge which of two conflicting stories is most accurate, only an idiot would assume that the most recent story must be the most accurate. When all the evidence is considered (rather than being suppressed or ignored), the story which is told most consistently over an extended period of time, and which also comports with generally known facts, tends to be the most accurate.

So one way to debunk false accounts which raise matters of public concern or threaten to infect the popular imagination is to produce the same person’s more voluminous and persuasive accounts written over an extended period, which dramatically contradict her (more recent) apostate testimonial. See, for example, “False Salon Story: What was said at the time,” which debunks the claims of Celia Corona-Doran (a.k.a. Suchatula Cecilia Corona) by referencing her prior statements.

I started the Digital Citizens project on Scribd.com to house such accurate source material debunking false claims. You can read the Digital Citizens Mission Statement here. Some key points are:

Digital Citizens helps bring to light and make available evidence which is being suppressed elsewhere. This material is relevant and necessary to resolving public controversies which have been artificially manufactured through the circulation of material containing false depictions of spiritual figures and groups. This leads to other adverse effects in society, such as making minority spiritual groups the object of hatred and harassment, or contaminating the prospective jury pool where such groups are targeted for civil litigation. The net effect is to curtail the civil rights of minority adherents, in contravention of the U.S. Constitution as amended by the Bill of Rights.

The corrective measure of uploading exculpatory evidence is a lawful purpose and protected form of speech. Where Person A purposefully manufactures a public controversy by attacking the character and reputation of Person B through the circulation of hateful or salacious material, the public has a right to view other material authored by Person A (or concerning Person A) which speaks to his or her credibility. In such cases, the public’s right to know trumps other interests. Uploading of such material deemed necessary to resolving matters of public concern constitutes fair use of existing source material.

In keeping with these principles, I am today uploading to Digital Citizens the document “Bithika O’Dwyer Testimonials” which contains a representative cross-section of material authored by or concerning Ms. O’Dwyer during the period when she was a member in good standing of Sri Chinmoy Centre — a period comprising roughly 1979-2014.

This makes compelling reading for anyone who was taken in by the type of hate material circulated by Joe Kracht. Obviously, the most compelling witness testifying against Bithika O’Dwyer is Bithika O’Dwyer! One half of her (apparently) split psyche is far more consistent and reliable than the other, and the accompanying photos underscore the truthfulness of her contemporaneous accounts describing a spiritual life with which she was abundantly happy. To quote Ms. O’Dwyer from “Beauty is my Light”:

As a woman, I have everything I need to progress — I believe that I live a truly modern life. I have many older sisters and a very beautiful and supportive spiritual family. I hope that I may grow into women half as beautiful as some of them. I treasure their joys and their sorrows, and the more generations that are included in our family the more special the bonds of love and friendship. I have projects to work on within my own community — a business to support myself independently (which means a lot to me), musical and artistic projects, fun projects like plays and games, and always colour, decorations, abundance. This path is a garden where you can find a representative of everything and everyone under the sun, thriving and living side-by-side with even diametrically opposed aspects in harmony. I am not given to “fluffy” gratitude — when you grow up with spiritual terms, I think you come to the point that you have to really redefine some of the terms again for yourself, or the language can become cliched; but I know that in my future births, I shall look back on this life as the turning point. Wherever I go from here, I know that I have been so deeply altered by these 26 years, that my destiny has been rewritten. I know that I now believe in the “impossible” dream — of a divine life on earth. I have as many incarnations as it will take to manifest that dream, but that belief is so priceless. I know I shall personally honour Sri Chinmoy’s sacrifices to bring this truth to me for all my days, for all eternity.

Bitihika O’Dwyer and Sarada Crowe, running in a Joy Weekend event, October 2004.

Ms. O’Dwyer wrote such positive accounts both before and after Sri Chinmoy’s passing (which occurred in 2007), and she remained an active member of Sri Chinmoy Centre until 2014.

Why does someone leave a well-organized spiritual path with no history of abuse? We cannot always know the reasons to a certitude, but we discussed many possible reasons in Part 1 and Part 2. Such reasons are augmented by They Came Only To Go: The Birthless and Deathless Chronicles of Himalayan Absurdity.

I would not publicly speculate about the motives of a private person by name; but apostasy is not a private, personal decision. The apostate makes a great public show of her newfound rejection of faith, and actively (even aggressively) seeks to persuade others to abandon their faith and attack their former faith group. Those who take an active public role by posting hate material on the Internet (thus provoking controversy) may lose some expectation of privacy in the bargain. The harms caused by circulation of such hate material are tangible harms for which one remedy is to shine the light of truth on false claims made by the apostate.

That said, I genuinely admire Bithika O’Dwyer for her spirituality, her creativity, her intellect, and for all the good she did during an extended period of her life when she defined herself primarily as a spiritual seeker. Pointing out the inaccuracy of her later claims is not a pleasant task; and in spite of feeling an ethical necessity to do so, I have put it off repeatedly.

What I would add to previous discussions is that in reading Ms. O’Dwyer’s spiritual chronicles, we can observe some unique aspects of her own nature and struggles. She is clearly a sincere spiritual aspirant, and her own way of relating to the spiritual quest is a highly dramatic one. She’s prone to ecstatic highs and despondent lows, and this creates for her a sense of the spiritual life as a series of dramatic encounters with the Guru and his teachings. This is not true of everyone. Some people have a more steady, easy-going nature, do not experience such dramatic highs and lows, and are able to progress in a more natural way, with less inner conflict and less of a sense of themselves as players in some Grand Drama.

One of the subjects we tackled in Part 1 was the many mundane or prosaic reasons why people leave a spiritual path, and why they sometimes disguise these mundane reasons with an over-the-top “atrocity story” which simply isn’t true.

In the case of Ms. O’Dwyer, my personal belief is that she left for fairly conventional reasons such as losing interest and intensity, no longer having her teacher present in the physical to inspire her, no longer wanting to fight the “inner battle” with herself, and because she still had desires and ambitions which took her back to worldly life, to career and romance. But because she’s a Dramatique by nature, she can’t accept such mundane reasons for leaving, and has to create a dramatic narrative which vindicates her rather than making her appear weak and foolish, or implying that she betrayed a high and noble goal which she had long cherished as her raison d’être.

Still, in fairness to her and others, I don’t want to minimize the difficulties of the spiritual quest. Some (by no means all) seekers experience ups and downs, highs and lows, struggles with faith and doubt and with the complexities of their own nature. These struggles can be painful.

Sushmitam Rouse is a psychologist by profession, but also a spiritual seeker. According to her, spiritual work is a lot like good therapy. Ms. Rouse writes:

Now for the issue you raise of women who claim to have experienced abuse. I’ve worked as a psychologist and psychotherapist for many years now, so have quite a bit of experience in this area. I agree wholeheartedly with your comment on the innocence and purity of Guru’s consciousness, which I think results in women feeling safe in the centre and with Guru. I know there are some women on the path who have had difficult or traumatic experiences with men when they were living in the world, who have taken refuge in the safety offered by the centre. It would be easy to conclude from this that the centre functions for such women as a way of repressing these experiences rather than working them through. This view of the spiritual life is quite commonly held by secular people, and arises from a fundamental lack of understanding about the inner work and process of transformation involved in leading a spiritual life. Whilst in the short term a person on our path can avoid dealing with difficult personal issues, in the longer term the profoundly transformative experience of meditating with Sri Chinmoy usually means that we cannot stay with our repression for too long.

In my experience, any psychological issues that need to be dealt with rear their heads once we are spiritually strong enough to deal with them. They can then be worked through under Sri Chinmoy’s loving inner guidance. Usually when this happens there is a period of struggle, which manifests outwardly, and we say to each other “Oh she’s just going through Stuff” (do the guys talk like this too?). It is actually quite similar to the process involved in good psychotherapy, but on a vastly different level. Mostly, the person eventually works the issue through and is able to move on to the next challenge. Just like in therapy and in life, some people get stuck on a certain issue for a long time, and others leave the path because it’s just too hard to deal with it, or some part of them actually likes the problem and doesn’t want to resolve it. Guru never forces us to resolve issues, he just provides us with the inner assistance, and the safe and loving environment to enable us to work them through.

By the way, for anyone interested in reading about this process at play in another spiritual path, read the book ‘Unveiled: Nuns Talking’ by Mary Loudon — a superb first person account of the lives of nuns in various Christian orders in the UK.

– Sushmitam Rouse from “Question For The Women” (discussion thread)

Her analysis is fascinating, not least because it comports with some of Bithika O’Dwyer’s own observations. In “Beauty is my Light,” Ms. O’Dwyer writes:

Because my spiritual training was primarily in silence, I was developing very naturally outwardly with every aspect of my developing mind, and meanwhile the love and kindness were seeping into my soul and I was pleasantly marinating in them, eventually to emerge as a completely transformed individual. Sri Chinmoy’s guidance was laid out as a benchmark, but I was given complete free will to discover my own truth. It was always a “given” that the pursuit of the spiritual heart was the key to divine experience — Guru did say this time and again. But his understanding of the unfoldment of a soul, the timing of illuminations and so forth were impeccable — telling us how things were was not his style — but helping us to truly discover for ourselves the truth. I think of him as a true friend — allowing the individual the joys and sorrows of existence and his/her free experience, while always being there to help at any moment. When I think of how many acts of kindness I experienced, inner and outer, tears come. I was not given to obeying my parents or even the best wishes of my Guru at times, and had many adventures while trying to discover who I was. I was always met with a loving and tender kindness. Forgiveness comes to Sri Chinmoy faster than it will ever come to any. And always oneness — a full understanding of where you as an individual are and what your needs are. He was a pure channel of divine light in my vision, but again and again I was struck by his humanity also — such impeccable nobility, endless giving to all around — of his time, money, affection, concern. My own wilfulness was no match for his quiet, silent, sweeter than the sweetest eye. Not for long, at least.

It was these honest reflections on the inner journey (along with her many other good qualities) which made Bithika O’Dwyer well-loved among her friends at Sri Chinmoy Centre.

Following up on the passage from Sushmitam Rouse: Maybe not all spiritual paths and types of therapy are equally compatible; but among those which are, perhaps the shared element is “inner truth.” In spiritual work, as in good therapy, one tries to get at the inner truth and to transform what needs to be transformed. As human beings most of us have broken places inside us which are tender to the touch, and things which seem too painful to deal with. Yet, in both spiritual work and good therapy, we are guided into those broken, painful places so that we might ultimately manage to transform them.

To transform our nature takes tremendous patience and dedication, and at times we may have to tough it out or slog through mud. As the popular children’s song by Michael Rosen goes:

We’re going on a bear hunt.
We’re going to catch a big one.
What a beautiful day!
We’re not scared.

Uh-oh! Mud!
Thick oozy mud.
We can’t go over it.
We can’t go under it.
Oh no!
We’ve got to go through it!

Squelch squelch!
Squelch squelch!
Squelch squelch!

We’ve got to go through it! Otherwise, the only other choice is to run all the way home, lock the door, throw the covers over our heads, and declare: “We’re not going on a bear hunt again!” (That’s how the children’s song ends.)

People sometimes leave a spiritual path for the same reasons they leave therapy: because the next steps involve dealing with those broken places and painful truths. Some therapists will candidly admit that while many come for therapy, this can be just another panic button to press; yet the person pressing the “therapy button” doesn’t always want to change beyond a certain point, and may become extremely hostile when the therapist gets too close to problem areas.

In the case of spiritual work with Sri Chinmoy, he shines a very powerful inner light which the student needs to prepare himself/herself to receive. That light penetrates to the core of one’s weaknesses in order to transform them. This does not happen all at once, but rather over the course of many years and many spiritual experiences. It is a cooperative process. The challenge for the student is to remain open, willing, and receptive to that light. Sometimes the way the light operates is that it is like removing a thorn from our foot: when the light touches the darkness in our nature, we may experience pain and then a feeling of freedom and release.

There needs to be a bond of love and trust between the Guru and disciple, because this relationship in which the Guru intervenes personally to dispel darkness in the disciple’s nature is an intimate relationship, though it is not at all sexual.

Just as we need to trust a surgeon who will be removing a malignant tumor, we also need to trust the Guru to use light to dispel darkness. In some cases, when the inner light enters into the darkness of our nature, we may experience some pain. This pain, if it occurs, is associated with the process of transformation. In the process of surrendering to light, darkness cries out and sheds tears. Then, afterwards, we feel so much lighter! (Here again, parallels with good therapy.) In “My Guru Sri Chinmoy,” Bithika O’Dwyer writes:

All this smiling business coincided with my pockets of depression. It’s one of those things that I understand only in hindsight. Forces from within me were playing out some dark history or drama such that I went through pockets of depression in my spiritual quest – I hear that this is not uncommon as we unravel previous behaviour patterns built up over centuries. When I would see him and he would make these comments I see now that he was applying an equal and opposite force to counteract this on so many levels. Those little acid comments fell into my heart and gradually grew into a few different trees of strength – not first without releasing floods of tears and pain that were deeply rooted in my heart and for which I had no explanation. Every visit to New York would be accompanied by hours of tears – deeply cleansing, cathartic experiences that left me so much lighter at the end.

According to Sri Chinmoy, people may shed tears for various reasons. Sometimes it is an emotional outburst coming from the untransformed vital. At other times, it is the soul’s joy expressing itself through the physical. In her spiritual memoir Auspicious Good Fortune, Sumangali Morhall writes of the first time she met her Guru:

Disciples from Britain, and some from Europe, clustered at the arrival hall in Heathrow’s Terminal Three. Their greetings buzzed around me, brimming with anticipation of the Master’s appearance, but most of them had seen him only weeks before in New York. I had never seen him at all. Aware of this fact, a few kindly made space for me at the front without me asking. I gazed out from the barrier into the strip of empty floor, amidst the canned announcements and artificial light, waiting for my Guru to appear in the world as he had done so many times in my heart.

Somewhere inside the bustle was a bubble of quietude, where for the first time I genuinely sought aloneness. There was the same familiar feeling in the centre of my chest as I had felt before, like the press of many tiny fingers. Inside it that time, I was aware of a flat disc rotating slowly. Tiny parts unfolded from its centre, as if each had always fitted neatly into the other, waiting only for that moment. It was like the intricate workings of some fantastical safe as it unlocked, one layer inside the other inside the other, the colours of each deeper level more vivid than the last. When I was sure the scene in my heart could not be more brilliant or beautiful, the outer doors slid open, and my Guru appeared: neither in the robes of a Thai monk, nor in a satin dhoti, but in a thick down jacket, track pants and running shoes. His head was bare, and a familiar hand peeped out from the end of a padded sleeve. He walked slowly with a full smile, gazing about from one side to another, but seeming to see another realm altogether. Barely six feet away, he looked right into me with eyes made of endless galaxies. Tears swelled in mine, and more tears and more tears again: they would not stop for twelve hours.

Equipped with an unglamorous wad of paper napkins from a restaurant, I took my red velvet seat at the Albert Hall that evening. Had I come for a theatrical performance, I would have been studying a printed programme, or the lighting, or the ornate mouldings. As it was, I had enough to do catching the tears that had been raining steadily all day from just one glimpse of my spiritual Master, and inwardly attempting to prepare myself for several hours in his presence.

So these appear to be tears of joy. Sri Chinmoy writes:

The smiles that arise
From tears
Are unimaginably beautiful.

http://www.srichinmoylibrary.com/st-41750

and also:

The beauty of tears
Changes human life sooner than at once.
The duty of smiles
Also changes human life sooner than at once.
The union of tears and smiles
Makes God and man embrace each other,
Fulfil each other
And satisfy each other.

http://www.srichinmoylibrary.com/tp-703

Sri Chinmoy smiling

Elaborating on a topic from Part 1, we can say that the spiritual quest entails an inner struggle between light and darkness. Some people are fortunate to develop simplicity and purity in their nature, and find it easy to remain in the spiritual heart so that the struggle does not seem so intense or extreme, and does not affect their mental balance.

Others may (in spite of their best intentions) have to struggle more with the mind, and therefore experience the spiritual life in a more dramatic and subjective fashion. All that personal drama (which they themselves bring as karmic baggage) can become wearing over time, causing them to lose freshness and enthusiasm.

The spiritual path can be a joy to the heart and a burden to the mind. If one is following Sri Chinmoy’s path of the heart, then the joy and sweetness found in the heart are needed for the journey. Due to their mental approach, some people may reach a point where it stops being fun due to too much self-created drama. For them, the spiritual life becomes something grandiose clutched by the ego, whereas it’s ideally something simple and natural, plain and unpretentious (like doing the laundry, to use a Buddhist simile courtesy Jack Kornfield).

A careful reading of Bithika O’Dwyer’s “My Guru Sri Chinmoy” suggests that she was struggling with such issues, and that she hoped to firmly commit to a heart-centered approach. She wrote:

And so a smile became my emblem for change, for growth. I saw it as my commitment to a higher consciousness – as my self-offering, as a way to express my gratitude for existence on this earth, for that capacity to value Light and hold it at the earth plane. It was unimaginably powerful when this started to finally burn through my life, illumining so many of the dark corners. Added into this was Guru’s ever present quest for his children to bring sweetness into human life – another pride-smasher for an independent feminist who wanted to find her way as a cool and powerful woman, in any way but via the stereotypically sweet, mild and bending traditional female values that I associated with centuries of neglect, abuse and servitude! I am not sure how I swallowed that one, but once the penny had started to drop with the smile issue, I realised this one had to go too. It all fell into place and I gradually learn that we cannot hold onto any preconceived ideas about who we are, or who we should or want to be. The divine Light is not any of it, but a pure electricity that we put the ridiculous shades onto, and can just as easily take them off if we have the courage.

I now see real strength as the simple qualities of the heart – a willingness to smile and offer of oneself, the sweet and childlike approach to life which is ever fresh, pure and innocent – and not as the rigid, brittle morality and integrity which so often fails to fulfil us emotionally and spiritually in the final analysis, and which is the source of so many of the detrimental conditions of this earth. I find Guru’s message one that I can build my entire existence upon: follow your heart, follow your heart, follow your heart … I hope that he can feel my tears of gratitude for the immense power he sent into my heart just by opening this small ridiculous topic.

About three years later she simply “lost it,” which is very sad for her, and also sad for those who loved her as a friend and sister. Unfortunately, her particular way of losing it was to become extremely hostile toward her former friends, teacher, and path. So as I’ve said before, it’s hard to love and forgive someone who’s throwing rocks at church windows — at least while the (metaphorical) glass is still tinkling and people are checking themselves for cuts and bruises.

In Part 1, I mentioned one of the reasons for leaving a spiritual path is that someone encounters a rough patch in their own nature. I did not elaborate, but I think we’re all susceptible to running into something recalcitrant within ourselves such that we feel we can’t go over it, can’t go under it, and can’t go through it either. So (consistent with the quote from Sushmitam Rouse), this is one reason some people leave a spiritual path.

Recognizing this does not trivialize the very real pain some people go through doing spiritual work, and does not trivialize the pain of leaving a spiritual path if one finds one can no longer continue on. But it’s important not to blame such suffering — which is part and parcel of the human condition — on the path and teacher, since they’re not the root causes of such suffering (just as it’s not the therapist’s fault that the client has to confront stubborn problems). Buddhist author Jack Kornfield writes:

For almost everyone who practices, cycles of awakening and openness are followed by periods of fear and contraction. Times of profound peace and newfound love are often overtaken by periods of loss, by closing up, fear, or the discovery of betrayal, only to be followed again by equanimity or joy. In mysterious ways the heart reveals itself to be like a flower that opens and closes. This is our nature.

– Jack Kornfield, from After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path

Whether or not this is true of “almost everyone,” the point is that we need to maintain some constancy in our relationships with others despite these positive and negative cycles. During a negative cycle, we don’t try and burn down the church or temple where we once experienced ecstasy. On days when the sky is filled with clouds, we don’t curse the sun or claim that the sun never existed. Whether we’re feeling cheerful or depressed, we still try to be guided by ethics and common sense, and remain loyal to those who befriended and nurtured us.

As I discuss in “Making Sense of the Spiritual Life,” some people have genuine spiritual needs. If they end their spiritual practice during a negative cycle, they may even become physically ill because they’re no longer meeting those needs — no longer getting the benefits of spiritual practice, which include subtle health benefits not noticed until they are absent.

For reasons spiritual, ethical, and karmic, it is not advisable to adopt a slash-and-burn mentality when leaving a spiritual path. For more on this, see “Doubt, Faith, and the Ethics of Apostasy.”

Bithika O’Dwyer’s own writings bring to light similar reasons. In “My Guru Sri Chinmoy,” she writes:

I had unfortunate friends who were hungry and demanded experience beyond their capacity because they felt it would boost their social position and just out of general ignorance – they couldn’t deal with the result at all and before long they had denounced there ever having been Truth and given up spiritual pursuit on principle. Their hunger was mixed with a personal greed and I watched their journey with pain, as they were close friends, and with a sense that it could so easily be me. The goal is oneness with a vast universal consciousness beyond the personal ego, and on the way their personal greed was blown open and they did not have the strength to overcome it and jump to the wider consciousness. It is a very real danger when the timing of growth is not respected – the cake is pulled out of the oven yet to be fully cooked because of the impatience to eat it, and it flops and gives you a stomach pain. I said goodbye to those friends as their reality shrunk to the painful stump of their personal anger being brandished at the infinite – Guru often got the brunt of their anger, and I understood in one way because his messages for us were often infuriating and painful, but there was a choice and they chose to remain with a smaller part of their being for a while longer. He was not afraid to draw that response either, as growth always came first, and this was a territorial risk he made himself vulnerable to.

Every length of the road has tests that you need to pass in order to have the capacity to take the next curve. You have to respect the order of this or there is danger. The Guru helps you to get the best possible opportunities. He bargains for you and prepares the way for you and tells you of the dangers and helps you through the challenges. But most of all he believes in you and challenges you to grow where others would tell you to stop dreaming. When you are ready, he will not let you shirk the challenge. He has been there. He is master of Time and Space and knows the methods that will work. I saw him caution my friends in so many ways and for so many years before they bit off more than they could chew, but I also saw him finally allow them the choice to make their own destiny. And I know he will be with them through their suffering, be the source of renewed hope at some stage, and in due course lift them back up to continue on with increased wisdom. The road is very long. It began for me before my mind existed to try to make sense of things, and it will continue on long after my mental capacities dissolve away – only my soul will live to tell the tale. And my soul will always be guided by my beloved Guru Sri Chinmoy, for he lit the flames in my heart, has watched over them like a mother for so many years, and is inextricably linked to my existence.

The above passage, written by Ms. O’Dwyer in 2011 (four years after Sri Chinmoy’s passing), contains much wisdom (and also showcases her flair for the dramatic). That she ultimately seemed to make the same mistakes as friends she spoke of is a tragedy. In my view, she then compounded that tragedy by taking a slash-and-burn approach to her departure. This makes it harder to repair the damage, to allow her teacher to “be with her through her suffering, be the source of renewed hope at some stage, and in due course lift her back up to continue on with increased wisdom.”

Suppose you find yourself in a dark room. There is always hope that someone will come with a light and illumine it. But if you also lock the door from the inside and announce your intention to harm anyone who tries to help you, and are arrogantly proud of the darkness you have chosen, then the situation becomes less workable. Sri Chinmoy writes:

Light will illumine all our bad qualities. Our ‘bad qualities’ means our darkness. Darkness can only be conquered by light. A room may be full of darkness for years. Then an electrician comes and in a few minutes he brings light into the room. Similarly, we have to bring light into all our imperfections. When we get illumination, all our insecurity, jealousy, impurity, impatience — everything — will be illumined. Light is the answer. The sooner we bring light into our system from Above or bring light to the fore from within the better for us. Otherwise, at any moment we can make mistakes. Light does not make any mistake. It is because we do not have light in boundless measure that we make mistakes. Each mistake is nothing short of darkness. When darkness expresses itself, it becomes a mistake.

Light is the answer. Why should we compel God to use His iron rod? When He was using His Compassion-Eye, what was wrong with us? Why did we not change our nature? If we love God, then we have to feel that God’s Tears are infinitely more powerful than God’s Smiles. If we are weak, then when God smiles at us, either we feel that we did not make any mistake or that God has forgiven us. This is how we deceive ourselves. But God’s Tears offer us another way. If we see tears flowing in God’s Eyes because of our mistake, how can we bear to see His Heart bleeding? If we see that somebody’s heart is bleeding, will we not give our life to make that person happy? And do we not love God infinitely more than we love any human being? So God’s Tears are infinitely more powerful than God’s Smiles. If we want to transform our nature, God’s Tears will be of real help to us.

True, God’s Smiles encourage us, but at the same time, we may misinterpret God’s Smiles. We may go on and on making the same mistakes and still God may give us a Smile. Inside His Smile, God may be suffering, but we take it as encouragement. In one sense, God also takes it as encouragement because He hopes that if He gives us a broad Smile, we will not make the same mistake again. But unfortunately, it does not work.

If you really love God and if you see that He is shedding bitter tears, He is lamenting, He is suffering, then you will immediately transform your life.

If you are good people, then when you do something wrong, you will not hide from God. You will come and stand before Him and say, “I have done something wrong. Now please forgive me. Please illumine me.”

– Sri Chinmoy, from Sri Chinmoy Answers, Part 27, Agni Press, 2000

Conclusions

Reality has a certain fabric to it. It is woven together in one particular way and not some other way. (Cats don’t play the tuba, and flowers grow up not down.) The authors quoted here present a consistent picture of reality. If someone wants to create their own reality, this self-created reality will not be consistent with reality proper, so why should we accept it? The problem with apostate testimonials is that they often fail to jibe with the fabric of reality.

These are my opinions on matters of public concern which I did not raise, but rather were raised by Bithika O’Dwyer in the course of her activities opposing her former faith group. I genuinely wish her every happiness. Where I’ve weighed in on personal issues, this has been done as a defensive measure or bulwark against hate. Once someone brings their case before the public, they are then at the mercy of the public. This is something lawyers like Joe Kracht don’t always adequately explain to clients or protégés before taking them public.

The issues raised are nevertheless not unique to Ms. O’Dwyer, but apply broadly to the apostate phenomenon. The word “phenomenon” is helpful here, because one definition of a phenomenon is something which you can’t necessarily explain, but which you simply learn to live with or work around.

For some wholly mysterious reason, your installation of Microsoft Windows always crashes on rainy Thursdays. You try and troubleshoot the problem, but can make no ultimate sense of it. So either you don’t turn on your computer on rainy Thursdays, or maybe you switch to Mac or Linux.

A famous entry in the collection of haiku error messages goes:

yesterday it worked
today it is not working
Windows is like that

We cannot know all the inner or outer reasons why someone who was yesterday a devoted seeker is today throwing rocks at church windows, nor do we have time to study the problem endlessly. Since our own spiritual quest is of paramount importance, we simply learn to work around the problems created by others, helping where we can, but accepting that some phenomena are beyond our ken. And hey, people are like that.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization. See my About page for further disclaimers.


Book Cover Project

Here are the book covers for this post, mostly courtesy Sri Chinmoy Libary:

Of Further Interest

Doubt, Faith, and the Ethics of Apostasy
Making Sense of the Spiritual Life
A Question of Forgiveness

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On Apostate Accounts or Testimonials, Part 2

How accurate are the stories told by ex-members about spiritual groups? Having discussed general concepts in Part 1, let us now turn to the case of Bithika O’Dwyer.

In wading into the thickets of the sordid Bithika O’Dwyer controversy, I thought it important to deal first with general concepts concerning apostasy, so-called ex-cult support groups, atrocity stories, and the like. (See Part 1.) This is consistent with the approach taken in understanding any complex phenomenon: First understand the nature of the thing, then see how general principles apply to specific cases.

In Part 1, we spent a long time going over the reasons why someone who leaves a well-organized spiritual path with no history of abuse may nevertheless begin telling over-the-top atrocity stories upon leaving. That is the crux of the confusion faced by many people trying to make sense of the phenomenon, and I daresay we made progress in understanding it, both intellectually and emotionally. Buried within Part 1 is this gem of wisdom from psychologist Sushmitam Rouse which I would like to repeat at the outset of Part 2:

I remember an experience I had when I was quite new on the path — a year or two perhaps. I was overwhelmed by the love, the peace and the experiences of God that I had gained on the path, but at the same time was struggling with some of the lifestyle aspects of the path. I realised at this time that my positive experiences far outweighed my struggles and that I definitely did not want to leave the path. However in dealing with this struggle, I came to the realisation that if anything ever pulled me away from the path, the only way I would be able to bear to leave, would be to destroy in my mind all the positive experiences I had gained — otherwise the grief of leaving would be completely overwhelming. Everything good would have to be made bad, everything pure made impure, in order to justify to myself such an action.

I have seen a number of people leave the centre over the years, and in my experience, it is those, like myself who have had tremendously positive experiences in their spiritual life, who resort to this destructive measure — and often they publicise their opinions, as if to further convince themselves they have left something ‘bad’ not good. On the other hand, people who never got much out of the path in the first place, just tend to drift away.

Lastly, I would like to say a word about the place of therapy in all this! The issue of abuse and therapy is such a complex and controversial one. It is well known in the psychological community that some therapists encourage patients to ‘dig’ for abuse that was never there, and that some patients completely unconsciously project their own impulses and traumas onto others who they then believe ‘abused’ them.

– Sushmitam Rouse from “Question For The Women” (discussion thread) 

I also want to repost this passage which I find helpful in navigating the spiritual, psychological, and ethical issues:

When someone studies with a spiritual teacher, the teacher becomes an important part of her life. Even if she ends her studies, her former teacher will usually be someone with whom she needs to live on comfortable terms. A healthy narrative truth emerging in therapy is one which doesn’t attempt to demonize the former teacher or alienate the former student. When therapists violate these principles, this may be seen as abusive, just as inducing Parental Alienation Syndrome is considered a form of parental abuse.

One of the universally recognized symptoms of PAS is lack of ambivalence. Quite simply, the parent from whom the child has been alienated is seen as completely bad and evil. Lack of ambivalence is unnatural behaviour in human beings. Rarely can someone of basic intelligence, maturity and emotional stability support the notion that one person is completely bad.

Yet, when people receive anti-cult counselling or participate in ex-cult support groups, they tend to undergo a pathological inversion of views. They are systematically alienated from their former spiritual teacher, to the point where they depict him/her as thoroughly bad and inhumanly evil. This may be described as Guru Alienation Syndrome, or GAS.

The reason such systematic alienation should be considered a form of abuse is that it effectively robs the former student of all the benefits of having a spiritual teacher, including the ability to interact positively with that teacher, and to enjoy loving memories of that teacher. Unambivalent hatred of the spiritual teacher doesn’t just harm the hated teacher, but also the former student.

While not everyone seeks out a spiritual teacher, for those who do — and who have studied for 5, 10 or 20 years with that teacher — there is an existing relationship which typically has many positive aspects and serves an important purpose in the student’s life. The loss of that relationship is a grievous loss. A wise and compassionate therapist, counsellor, or friend will therefore not attempt to destroy that relationship by circulating hate material vilifying the teacher.

However, just as divorcing parents sometimes play tug-of-war with the child, in anti-cult circles one often encounters manipulative people who want to play tug-of-war with the former spiritual student. They feel the only way for such students to prove their newfound loyalty to mainstream secular values is to loudly proclaim their hatred for the spiritual teacher. Circulating vilification material is one of the tactics used to fan such hatred; and willingness to publicly voice such hatred becomes a kind of loyalty test or perverse indicator of “cult recovery.”

These quotes help set the stage for Part 2.

Part 2: Bithika O’Dwyer

I would like to say at the outset that I wish Ms. O’Dwyer every happiness. That doesn’t prevent me from taking pains to correct the public record where she has acted purposefully to sully or confuse it by posting false and lurid depictions on the Internet.

Please recall from Part 1 that apostasy is not a private, personal decision. The apostate makes a great public show of her newfound rejection of faith, and actively seeks to persuade or influence others to join her in rejecting faith. The apostate “atrocity story” is a public relations tool used by anti-cult groups to vilify minority spiritual groups, leading to harassment or diminution of rights for such groups.

In the case of Bithika O’Dwyer, we have someone who followed a spiritual path for 35 years, wrote many detailed articles about her positive experiences, and was videoed and photographed participating in activities like singing, sports, fun excursions, etc. She’s an intelligent person and gifted writer who wrote clearly and unmistakably about the benefits of the spiritual life, its many challenges, and how she faced them with the help of her teacher, of whom she spoke glowingly. Her positive accounts during that 35-year period were viewed by her friends along the path as being accurate and commendable. Those positive accounts were written both before and after Sri Chinmoy’s death in 2007.

Yet, upon leaving Sri Chinmoy Centre in 2014, she gravitated towards an Internet based ex-cult support group started by attorney Joseph C. Kracht of the Lawton law firm of San Diego. I have been critical of Mr. Kracht for conducting Internet show trials of deceased spiritual figures where he is both judge and jury, exculpatory evidence is suppressed or ignored, and no genuine defence is permitted.

When Bithika O’Dwyer became associated with Joe Kracht’s ex-cult support group, she soon began churning out boilerplate anti-cult material which can only be described charitably as absolute bollocks. It simply doesn’t jibe with her own extensive prior accounts, with the accounts of close friends who knew her over a period of decades, with the available evidence, and with scholarly research on the spiritual movement in question. This raises a number of factual, ethical and legal issues which I may deal with elsewhere; but see (for example) this post discussing the problem of false accusations of a teacher in relation to the film Term of Trial.

One of the troubling features of the pop psychology movements of the 1990s (some of which survive today) is the belief that objective truth no longer matters. A person can create a new identity as a victim or survivor, and provided this is done in the context of counselling or a support group, the question of truthfulness is thought by some to be irrelevant. The ultimate indulgence of the Gen X’er is to claim: Whatever I feel emotionally is true. Don’t slow me down with the facts.

In the real world, however, to enjoy the luxury of painting oneself as a victim also requires that one fashion an abuser. The “memory wars” of the 1990s were fought over whether claims of abuse which seemed strange, farfetched, and at odds with reality should nonetheless be taken seriously enough to convict someone in a court of law, or in the court of public opinion.

The answer, in brief, is no, not without objective evidence. After a great many people were wrongfully accused (and eventually cleared), there emerged a recognition that people claiming to be victims — particularly in a polarized social, political, or legal context — often turn out to be victimizers. This includes former spiritual seekers who tell so-called “apostate atrocity stories” as part of their newfound anti-cult advocacy or return to secular society.

Not everyone who tells a false tale of abuse is an outright liar. The point about abuse-themed books, support groups, and counselling sessions is that they tend to wreak havoc with a person’s sense of identity. People begin to experience life so subjectively that what they feel emotionally becomes what they claim factually. In other words, they confabulate; and within the support group they’re emotionally rewarded for confabulating, because their claims ratify the underlying social and political beliefs being espoused, e.g. that all fathers are abusers, or all purported “cult leaders” are abusers, or all kindergarten teachers are secret Satanists.

In a Salon article and interview, Meredith Maran begins to get at the flavour of this gradual subjectivizing of experience until it becomes false:

“The lie that tore my family apart”
“Interview with Meredith Maran”

What she’s saying is that social cliques and feel-good psychological theories can make liars of us, especially if telling the truth that we were not abused would cause us to lose friends or loved ones who inhabit an abuse-centered universe.

A problem with reliance on emotional reality to the detriment of factual reality is that emotional reality can be extremely unreliable, especially when people are going through a whirlwind of changes in their lives. The causes of their unhappiness are complex, and may include having made poor choices reflecting ethical lapses — yet there can be a controlling figure (such as a counsellor with his or her own agenda) urging them to assign blame for their unhappiness to some external factor or person. This can lead to such stereotyped claims as: I joined a cult and me fanny fell off. Like me on Facebook!

It’s sad to see Ms. O’Dwyer join the ranks of such comic strip characters. Her motives are familiar to me in that I’ve often encountered apostates who feel a strong need for self-justification, and who hope to expunge any guilt associated with having left a respected spiritual movement by trying to make that movement appear outlandish and odious. Of course, many people leave spiritual movements, but most move on without the need to attach excessive blame, which can easily develop into a psychological complex.

My impression is that Joseph Kracht, on whose blog Bithika O’Dwyer’s bizarre “testimonial” appears, acts as a kind of Svengali figure for people (particularly women) with emotional problems who’ve somehow been persuaded that venting on the Internet is a valid form of therapy. It is not.

Most former members of spiritual groups quietly take their leave without much fanfare. A few may have unresolved conflicts about their participation, and may try out different retrospective narratives in order to arrive at a personal interpretation which satisfies them. This type of thing is sometimes done in therapy or a support group; and the reasons most therapists and support groups conduct their activities in true (offline) privacy are manifold: The material which comes up in therapy/support is often highly charged, and is not meant for public consumption. Privacy allows people to experiment with different narratives, including some which may place excessive blame on friends, family, colleagues, or mentors.

In a private therapeutic setting, the situation is manageable, and does not pose legal problems such as libel. But in a public setting, or any setting where anti-cult operatives are trolling for “atrocity stories,” the narratives constructed may undergo radical distortion due to social influence, and may bring participants into conflict with the law.

I doubt Mr. Kracht apprised Ms. O’Dwyer of the full ramifications of joining the “cult wars” — or what little remains of them in a world which is naturally evolving toward pluralism and religious tolerance. Acting wilfully to earn a reputation as someone who betrays former friends and colleagues and posts hate material on the Internet is really not so helpful to one’s C.V. Spiritual people are not the only ones who value loyalty. Secular people and business people also look for consistency and loyalty when considering whether to hire, befriend, or form a lasting relationship with someone who’s recently put themselves “on the market.” How one has treated one’s former friends and colleagues is likely to be an important consideration, and such consideration is reasonable.

By (possibly) following Mr. Kracht’s questionable counsel (whether personal or professional), Ms. O’Dwyer has burned her bridges not only behind her, but also in front of her, limiting rather than expanding her future options. Surely mature people preserve their options.

This is important, so forgive me if I should repeat it: As we move through life, if we are mature and ethical we act loyally toward those we have befriended and who befriended us. Our beliefs may change, but loyalty remains a constant. This is so because our beliefs — and the social groups to which we belong — may often change in the course of a lifetime. In maturity, we recognize that there exist a diversity of beliefs (especially in a spiritual context) about what is right and true, and what practices are beneficial. We move gracefully from social group to social group, from belief to belief, always trying to learn what we can and become better people. Others are doing the same, so there is no reason to demonize them for imagined wrongs.

Likewise, over a lifetime our goals may change. We can move from Goal A to Goal B without having to demolish or annihilate Goal A (and everyone associated with Goal A). To move between goals in a non-destructive manner is the mature, ethical, and psychologically healthy way to do so.

This approach also offers hope that we might one day integrate our spiritual experiences into our daily lives, even if we’re now living closer to the secular world. The anti-cult POV, which typically involves discrediting past spiritual experiences (and the teacher who engendered them), is not psychologically healthy, and doesn’t lead to a well-integrated personality.

When people join anti-cult groups (including Internet based ones like Joe Kracht’s deceptively-named “Abode of Yoga”), they’re inclined to forget these simple truths under the heady influence of social pressure. This includes pressure to unquestioningly accept and act on stereotypes which dehumanize minority faith groups, thus invalidating the ethical obligations that one would normally feel toward one’s fellow human beings.

Indeed, in hate groups a pathological lack of empathy develops towards the targets of the hatred, such that Joe Kracht claims his former church “might as well be burned to the ground.” However, to outside observers (such as potential employers) who have not steeped themselves in anti-cult ideology, the meanness and spitefulness of posting hate material on the Internet is thoroughly apparent — all the more so if the targets of the hatred have a reputation for volunteerism, healthy living, and doing good.

These questions concerning loyalty and ethics tend to be paramount in the minds of people making personnel decisions, because such people are keenly aware that most human relationships (including employment relationships) have a beginning, middle, and end. Trashing one’s former friends and colleagues on the Internet thus suggests a person who is immature and is unable to conclude a relationship in a civilized and responsible manner, without acting vindictively or destructively, and without intentionally causing embarrassment or harm. That’s certainly the impression one gets from Bithika O’Dwyer’s guest column on Joe Kracht’s blog (and the iterations appearing on other venues).

Now, why are anti-cult counsellors typically so obsessed with pushing people over the edge, getting them to publicly recant their faith in a dramatic and finalized manner that would tend to reflect poorly on their good judgement, and to limit their future options? Are such counsellors really acting in the best interests of their clients or protégés? These are questions I hope to tackle in future postings.

In the meantime, let us return to the theme of marriage and divorce introduced at the outset of Part 1. Why would one ex demonize the other? Sometimes to assuage strong guilt feelings, or to relocate blame for the failed relationship. Dr. Lonnie Kliever writes:

[T]here are some voluntary apostates from new religious movements who leave deeply embittered and harshly critical of their former religious associations and activities. Their dynamics of separation from a once-loved religious group is analogous to an embittered marital separation and divorce. Both marriage and religion require a significant degree of commitment. The greater the involvement, the more traumatic the break-up. The longer the commitment, the more urgent the need to blame the other for the failed relationship. Long-term and heavily involved members of new religious movements who over time become disenchanted with their religion often throw all of the blame on their former religious associations and activities. They magnify small flaws into huge evils. They turn personal disappointments into malicious betrayals. They even will tell incredible falsehoods to harm their former religion.

– Dr. Lonnie Kliever, “The Reliability of Apostate Testimony About New Religious Movements”

When one spends years following a spiritual path, it becomes like family. Then, if one chooses to leave or is asked to leave, it may feel like a ripping away. I am perhaps 1% spiritual, but one thing I know about seekers is that they are still human beings, with an emotional self and feelings that run deep. Our emotional selves also have defence mechanisms which kick in when the pain becomes too great. At the most hellish moment of a marital breakup, one partner says to the other: “You don’t love me. You never loved me. And I never loved you. I’ve hated every moment I ever spent with you. I hate you, and all your family and friends. What’s more, you abused our children.” Next comes the ritual burning of photographs, the running of the car off a cliff, and a neatly typed note to the spouse’s employer suggesting termination…

We are all too human, tragically human. And so when we leave a spiritual path, sometimes this slash-and-burn mentality kicks in as a defence. Then too, the world wants us to pay a tithe to be accepted back: “Many members of our church or temple were lured away by this Indian rogue. We all know that meditation is bad for you. We’ll accept you back if you just say you were abused or brainwashed. Then you can get on with the things that really matter, like career and dating…”

Someone who’s sincerely followed a spiritual path for a few years will often have sublime experiences locked in the depths of their heart — experiences they told themselves they would never forget as long as they lived. Then, when the same person leaves that path, you see them try to perform a radical guru-ectomy on themselves. The light they saw, the joy they felt, these things never happened. It’s a defence mechanism, like amnesia. However, amnesia is a purely involuntary ailment. It takes some conscious will to go on the Internet and malign someone.

Conclusions

These are some of the issues surrounding apostates and their accounts. These issues in turn point to functional problems concerning descriptions of spiritual groups which appear in the popular press, and which tend to be disproportionately shaped by apostate accounts. (See also James A. Beckford, “The Mass Media and New Religious Movements.”)

When I say “functional problems,” I mean something different than a simple question of “whom do you believe.” Apostates act in certain fairly predictable ways; the mass media also act in fairly predictable ways. The end result can be a skewing of data leading to false depictions. (For one example, see “Can Salon Learn From Rolling Stone’s Mistakes? Part 1.”)

In most Western nations, there is a secular sphere and a religious sphere. These two spheres ideally work in harmony, but in our present period there is often war between them. Apostates are typically people who’ve crossed over from the religious sphere to the secular sphere, and now seek to mobilize the secular sphere against the religious sphere. There’s a broad sense in which their reports constitute reports about the enemy during wartime, or characterizations by the secular sphere about what goes on in the religious sphere. Such reports are inherently prone to inaccuracy and bias.

These factors underscore the late Dr. Bryan Wilson’s imperative that “The first duty of those who wish to present a fair picture of a religious fellowship is to seek the views of those who are faithfully committed to it and to undertake a first-hand study of their lifestyle.” However, the mass media usually don’t have the time, interest, or resources to conduct such a study, and often can’t even be bothered checking with bonafide religious scholars. Therefore, the view of minority spiritual groups we get from the mass media is often little more than a crude stereotype. This in turn creates problems in society, such as harassment of spiritual groups, or the inability of people with genuine spiritual needs to connect with a group which could benefit them.

When individual apostates publicly hurl false allegations, this is similar to people throwing rocks at church windows. One might like or even love someone who does grievous harm, but it’s difficult to forgive them while the glass is still tinkling and people are checking themselves for cuts and bruises. As I discuss in “A Question of Forgiveness,” it’s easier to forgive people when their wrong actions have ceased and they show some signs of remorse. Hate the sin, not the sinner is good advice; but when compassion fails, justice-light is sometimes needed to solve a problem which endangers others.

Bhakti yoga is a very emotional path, and some people can easily be storm-tossed by their emotions of the moment — whether love or hate. Some problems may benefit from more steady reflection leading to insight, rather than simply choosing sides based on friendship or which in-group one hopes to join.

Within ex-cult support groups, codependent relationships may develop, with the women becoming faux victims, and the men becoming their “valiant” protectors. These assumed roles reflect a need to create an artificial world in which the apostate is viewed as an heroic crusader rather than a (possibly failed) spiritual seeker. If the person’s own conscience is telling them they could have acted better, could have been truer, donning the garb of victim or protector may be a salve for the conscience.

Unfortunately, this leads to a state of affairs in which some men will go to the wall defending a story which is absolute bollocks, and which contradicts their own knowledge and experience acquired over many years. Whether in a courtroom trial, or even the type of sleazy Internet show trials conducted by Joe Kracht, truth shouldn’t depend on who’s sleeping with whom.

People who are misled by false accounts often want to be misled for the same reasons that these accounts were formulated in the first place: because some people wrongly feel that they can only build up their own ego by tearing down their former spiritual path.

Those who have returned to worldly life may need a certain type of ego build-up, but this is achieved by doing good things, not by becoming obsessed with “proving” that one’s former path or teacher were “bad.” One doesn’t have to look far to see people who left a spiritual path over 35 years ago, but are still trying to discredit their former teacher in order to feel good about themselves. This type of false ego build-up has turned them into extremely troubled and unhappy individuals. Someone like Bithika O’Dwyer who’s only been at it for 2-3 years might learn from such old profligates that this is not the right way to proceed, and does not lead to either worldly happiness or spiritual happiness. Better to adopt a live-and-let-live attitude, and get on with one’s life! Better also to leave all one’s bridges unburned and passable, so that one might freely choose any option in the future.

In the final analysis, to become embroiled in the controversies fomented by apostates is a losing proposition for sincere spiritual seekers. It is like quicksand which constantly draws people in until they’re in over their heads and cannot escape from all the concentrated negativity that apostates generate.

If you’re following the path of love and devotion, then it is your devotion, not somebody else’s devotion (or lack thereof) that will sustain you. You will gain strength by looking to those who are more devoted than you, not less so.

Suppose you have gone to a shop for many years. The shopkeeper has always been nice to you and has given you the things you need. He is very kind, though he does have a few rules about what goes on in his shop. Then you meet someone who tells you the shopkeeper is the very worst! He cheated them, he treated them unkindly, he is simply unbearable. Well, you do not know what transpired between the shopkeeper and that person. But he has always treated you fairly. So there is some sense in remaining loyal to that shopkeeper, based on your own experience.

No spiritual teacher, no matter how good and great, is immune to the proverbial “barking of the dogs” of which Swami Vivekananda spoke. Sri Chinmoy has said:

A real genius is not bound by any convention. A genius is a genius. He has to go forward like an elephant, without paying attention to the barking of the dogs. Swami Vivekananda used to say that when an elephant is on the way to the market to eat bananas, the dogs bark and bark. But the elephant does not pay any attention. He goes to the market and eats the bananas and then he comes back home. The dogs are unable to enjoy the bananas.

– Sri Chinmoy, from A Mystic Journey in the Weightlifting World, Part 1, Agni Press, 2000

Combating false views prevalent in society is like trying to straighten “a dog’s curly tail” (Vivekananda) — it just curls up again. There will always be people spreading hate material. Sometimes they’re good at demagoguing an issue, and may have more funding and resources than spiritual groups, so their message is easier to hear. They can temporarily drown out the true message offered by sincere spiritual teachers.

Yet, spiritual genius that he was, Sri Chinmoy continued to move forward confidently, offering his precious Darshan to those seekers who approached him with an aspiring consciousness. What is said by critics is largely, ahem… irrelephant.

By studying the writings of apostates or disgruntled former members, we don’t get any enlightenment. For that we need spiritual practice, such as prayer, meditation and service.

The more we study doubt, the more we will experience confusion-mind. Doubt does not have the power to dispel itself. Only faith has the power to dispel doubt, just as Light dispels darkness.

There are many tracts criticizing people who study under the guidance of a spiritual master and join in the life of a spiritual community. The authors usually advocate secularism, individualism, rationalism, and a pragmatic view of life. To them God is just a mental hallucination, or a remote deity who deserves no more than Temple on Friday or Church on Sunday.

Yet, when one sincerely meditates with a teacher of Sri Chinmoy’s calibre, one has deep inner experiences which prove their own reality in the fertile field of the aspiring heart. One discovers a living God ever present in the temple of one’s heart, a God who is one’s own highest Self, and therefore one’s constant companion.

This is a discovery rooted in faith, not doubt. And so there comes a time when one closes one’s ears to doubt and criticism, and tries to proceed only through faith, finding this to be a higher teaching. (Perhaps doubt is the kindergarten of the spiritual life, and faith the advanced doctoral work?)

As spiritual seekers, we can learn to value Light more. When we become lovers of Light, this will lead to right views, and such views will eventually transform society, lessening the hatred and intolerance which arise from a wrong understanding.

Those who take the negative approach don’t travel far, and ultimately bring suffering on themselves, if not the entire world. Just look at Judas!

Bithika O’Dwyer (bottom row, left) with friends from the Cambridge Sri Chinmoy Centre on a fun excursion to Thetford Forest, 2009

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization. See my About page for further disclaimers.

* * *

On Apostate Accounts or Testimonials, Part 1

How accurate are the stories told by ex-members about spiritual groups? What are some factors which can lead to inaccurate accounts, and what effect does this have on society? Wading into the thickets of the Bithika O’Dwyer controversy…

I do want to discuss Bithika O’Dwyer, but it’s neither reasonable nor necessary to reinvent the wheel every time a particular individual goes off the rails. Some people have already discussed the core issues at length here. There’s also a collection of essays and anecdotes called “Dealing With Negativity” which offers further insights.

I want to spend some time going over general concepts before turning to the individual case of Bithika O’Dwyer in Part 2.

Part 1: General Concepts

In a free and open society filled with people who possess inquisitive minds, and hearts seeking after truth, it’s fairly commonplace for people to join and leave spiritual groups. In fact, it happens every day, not unlike marriage and divorce. As in cases of divorce, the breakup can be amicable, respectful, and mature; or it can be acrimonious, spiteful, and marked by childish behaviour. We’ve all probably known a divorced couple each of whom is a decent enough person in themselves, but one of whom makes their former partner out to be the devil incarnate. Yet we know from personal experience (knowing the individuals) that it simply isn’t true.

Scholars of religion have studied this broad phenomenon as it applies to leave-takers from spiritual groups. The stories told by ex-members in this context are sometimes referred to as apostate accounts, atrocity stories, deconversion narratives, or testimonials.

The term “apostate” is likely to come up repeatedly in any discussion of religious movements and their detractors. The term has a generally accepted meaning among religious scholars. That meaning is not, in itself, derogatory. An apostate is someone who, after leaving a religious or spiritual group, actively opposes that group, often by speaking publicly against it. Thus, an apostate differs from an ordinary “leave-taker.” There are thousands of religious or spiritual groups, and people come and go from them every day (usually in non-dramatic fashion). Most leave-takers either quietly rejoin the secular majority, or perhaps join a different spiritual group. Most don’t publicly apostatize.

However, media stories defining how the general public views religious movements are often disproportionately shaped by apostate accounts, which can be inaccurate and may reflect certain motives or biases which have become familiar to scholars of religion. Anti-cult material describing religious movements tends to be constructed almost exclusively from apostate accounts, pointedly omitting accounts by the current faithful describing their own beliefs, practices, and lifestyle. For these reasons, apostate accounts (and questions about their accuracy) have become a major focus in the study of religious movements, even though apostates make up a relatively small percentage of ex-members.

As noted above, the term “apostate” is not by definition derogatory. For example, if we were to define the group Al-Qaeda as a “religious cult” (rather than a paramilitary organization which uses Islam as an excuse to commit terrorist acts), then an apostate from Al-Qaeda who speaks publicly and accurately about Al-Qaeda’s known terrorist activities would presumably be doing something positive and beneficial, warning the public about a genuine danger. But if an ex-Jehovah’s Witness or ex-Hare Krishna devotee claimed those groups are terrorists, we should call that foolish alarmism.

The biblical story of Jesus and Judas Iscariot presents an (obvious) example of apostasy viewed negatively. Jesus was a man of peace who tried to usher in a new era in which ideals of compassion might triumph over greed. When Judas lost faith in Jesus and his teachings, he did not quietly fade away, but targeted Jesus for persecution, taking thirty pieces of silver to identify him to the chief priests, leading ultimately to Jesus’s crucifixion by the Romans.

Thus, while the term “apostate” is not necessarily negative, the Judas archetype in Western culture signifies one who betrays a benevolent teacher or teaching due to some self-serving motive. How one views any particular apostate depends on how one views the spiritual teacher or group from which the apostate is a defector, and what precise form his/her apostasy takes. If apostates are sometimes viewed negatively, it may be due to instances in which they’ve cast false slurs on teachers or movements which are essentially benign.

These are not binary concepts. A religious movement may be open to legitimate criticism on some grounds, but apostates may engage in extreme tactics similar to yellow journalism. In a familiar pattern, the site jehovahswitnessblog.com turns out to be an anti Jehovah’s Witness site, and asks such illuminating questions as “Would it be fair to compare Jehovah’s Witnesses to Terrorist Organisations?” (This is accompanied by a graphic of a bearded, turbaned Middle Eastern man holding a bomb with a lit fuse.) “Many say that the Jehovah’s Witness religion is a cult. Do you think it’s a cult? In this section, we’ve housed all the blog posts that show you if it is a cult or not. You might be shocked at what you find.” (Not really.)

Scholars of religion tend to visit a huge number of sites, and the above is more or less the boilerplate approach found on many anti-cult sites started by apostates from a wide variety of faiths. It’s this type of crude demagoguery which can lead to the view that apostates are something less than accurate, unbiased sources of information.

The scientific study of religion is (at least in theory) ethically neutral; but much public discussion about spiritual groups is not scholarly at all (in fact it’s quite emotional!). It often entails making subjective value judgements about particular teachers and faiths, and about those who actively apostatize against them.

The problem of making such judgements fair is in turn complicated by the problem of locating accurate resources, the problem of media bias, the problem of moral relativism, the problem of majority versus minority beliefs and values, and the postmodern problem of settling on objective truth even when accurate resources are available. John Leo, who is often a stickler for facts over emotions, points to

… the postmodern notion that there is no literal truth, only voices and narratives. If so, who can object if you make up a narrative that expresses the truth you feel?

— John Leo, “Lying Isn’t So Bad If It Makes You Feel Good”

Among those scholars who approach religious movements with an attitude of tolerance, there’s an awareness that apostates sometimes circulate narratives or “testimonials” which are designed to communicate an “emotional” truth (how they feel about past involvement in a religious movement), rather than a “factual” truth. Where so-called “atrocity stories” told by apostates turn out not to be factual, this contributes greatly to the credibility problem with apostates as a class.

Notwithstanding the high degree of freedom and mobility shown by the populations of most Western nations to try out different spiritual groups (joining and leaving more or less at will), the accounts circulated by apostates often take the form of “captivity narratives.” Such narratives stress the powerlessness of the individual in both matters of joining and leaving a spiritual group. They joined because they were “brainwashed,” stayed because they were “brainwashed,” and only left when someone such as a therapist, anti-cult activist or new romantic interest rode in on a white horse and forcibly “rescued” them from their imprisoned and debilitated state. Scholars of religion tend to question such accounts, and have largely dismissed the brainwashing thesis as a serious explanation.

In Western nations, it’s extremely rare that a spiritual group would hold anyone captive. When interviewed, most spiritual adherents can give a reasonable accounting of why they joined a spiritual group, what they hope to achieve, and what they perceive to be the benefits. One can disagree with particular choices that they make, yet recognize that these are choices.

Many spiritual groups have a probationary period where new members can get their feet wet, learn more about the group, and decide if it suits them before making a stronger commitment. Few spiritual groups want members who join on a whim today, and leave on a whim tomorrow. This phenomenon was satirized on the TV sitcom Seinfeld. In an episode titled “The Conversion,” George Costanza wants to become Latvian Orthodox merely to pursue a romantic interest. But before he’s accepted as a convert, he has to demonstrate his sincerity, study a thick stack of religious texts, and pass a conversion test (which he cheats on by writing the answers on his hand). He quickly loses interest when he learns that his paramour is leaving New York to live in Latvia for a year.

In many cases, people write extremely detailed accounts of their lives while with a spiritual group, and these accounts reflect a thinking, feeling individual who is living out their spiritual choices, consciously reaffirming those choices day after day, year after year. But later, after exiting the spiritual group, the same individual may supply a “captivity narrative” in connection with participation in an ex-cult support group. The captivity narrative often seems contrived, formulaic, and scripted in comparison to the same person’s prior narrative describing spiritual experiences with uniqueness, and in detail.

Captivity narratives are retrospective accounts delivered to a new audience which has radically different expectations than the old one. When speaking to a new secular peer group, the apostate may ratify his/her affiliation with that peer group through exaggerated criticism of the spiritual group left behind. This may take the form of a “confession” to friends, family, or an Internet audience that the speaker was once a “cult victim” who experienced horrible abuses, but has now seen the light of critical thinking, and become a true believer in baseball, apple pie, and motherhood. This then symbolically purges the former “cult” member’s reputation in the secular world. Such public purgative activities involving confessions or anti-cult testimonials are known collectively to scholars as rituals of denunciation. The accounts produced are not viewed as highly credible owing to the underlying pressures. Quoting from The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion:

Conversion and disengagement both represent significant shifts in personal identity and situated meanings. As such, biographies are defined and redefined in light of ongoing experience and narrative in an effort to make sense of past decisions and provide legitimacy for current ones. Retrospective accounts must be understood in this context and interpreted accordingly. For example, ex-members may need to justify their departures by finding fault with, or attributing blame to, their former groups. Presentation of the emergent self after NRM disengagement often requires a defense against a “spoiled identity” in the face of stigmatizing efforts by significant others. To save face, the ex-member is compelled to negotiate a new identity (apostate, whistle-blower, penitent ex-member) that plays to a new audience and is calculated to defend the self. The new associates in an external or oppositional group may be slow to fully accept the defector until he/she participates in appropriate rituals of denunciation (testimonials, confessions). After all, the newly exited person has a lot to live down from his or her “unsavory” past involvements.

The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion [footnotes omitted]

The scholarly language might throw some readers. What does it mean that “biographies are defined and redefined in light of ongoing experience and narrative in an effort to make sense of past decisions and provide legitimacy for current ones”? It means that a person changes their story to correspond to their new world view, new secular peer group, and newfound interest in (for example) a secular business career.

What do we make of the phrase “stigmatizing efforts by significant others”? After leaving a spiritual group, the leave-taker may be subjected to pressure from friends, relatives, or a romantic partner to “denounced the cult” in order to be accepted back into worldly life. The leave-taker may leave with good memories of the spiritual group left behind, but subsequently feels pressured to adopt a new identity as an “apostate, whistle-blower, [or] penitent ex-member.” (“Oh, I’m so sorry Mummy and Daddy that I stayed with that awful cult! Won’t you please put me back in your will now?”)

The leave-taker may fall in with other ex-members who have been strongly influenced by anti-cult ideology which portrays spiritual groups as abusive rather than beneficial. Some such ex-members may have received formal deprogramming or exit counselling. They then introduce this ultra-critical-cum-activist view into the ex-cult support group, where it becomes the dominant view reinforced through readings from a closed universe of anti-cult authors who see involvement in a spiritual community solely through the lens of trauma and abuse. This ignores thousands of years of history in which people have explored living in spiritual communities as a joyful way to grow, evolve, and put their cherished beliefs into practice in concert with others.

So, what does it mean that “The new associates in an external or oppositional group may be slow to fully accept the defector until he/she participates in appropriate rituals of denunciation (testimonials, confessions)”? It means that a typical initiation ritual for someone who joins an ex-cult support group is that they’ll be asked to read highly negative “testimonials” portraying the spiritual group as abusive, and to voice their agreement or even write their own testimonials based on existing models. For the lonely ex-member seeking “support,” this is the price of admission to a new social clique. The testimonial of abuse is a fashion accoutrement donned when visiting an ex-cult support group, and eventually becomes part of the apostate’s permanent wardrobe.

The apostate is eager (perhaps even desperate) to “prove” that she’s no longer a member of a stigmatized group (i.e. no longer a “cult” member), and therefore may act much like a cooperating witness in a government trial, ready to accuse former friends and colleagues in order to escape conviction herself.

The secular majority is not always kindly disposed toward minority adherents, even those now trying to rejoin the secular majority. Hence the need to rehabilitate one’s reputation by talking trash about a group one had previously extolled. This may be done in preparation for marriage or a secular career, or simply to enhance one’s social standing.

In this way, pretending to be a “cult victim” becomes a social lubricant or business lie told without regard for ethics or consequences. In many cases people begin by deceiving themselves, then come to deceive others. Their desperation to rejoin the secular world and gain worldly advantage leads them to project a stereotyped view of themselves which they feel will help them fit in and not be blamed for their spiritual past. Former seekers are often counselled to follow this approach. Pretending to be a cult victim becomes their cover story for returning to the world.

However, Occam’s razor slices thin here. When someone leaves a well-organized spiritual path with no history of abuse, it’s usually for very conventional (even prosaic) reasons. Spiritual work is challenging but rewarding. There is always a pull to revert to the mean and to lead a life which is most ordinary, requiring relatively little effort, able to be coped with on brain base.

Someone leaves because they lost their spiritual aspiration, interest, or intensity, the figure who originally inspired them is no longer there in the physical to lift them up, they have grown tired, have run into a rough patch in their own nature, or they still have unfulfilled desires and ambitions which take them back to worldly life. (Or a combination of all these factors.)

Then too, a person may have started a spiritual business, but finds it quite challenging to keep it afloat. People can love each other dearly, but working together on a daily basis may bring out personality conflicts; and rather than resolve these conflicts, some people prefer to move on. (See Sri Chinmoy’s story “Why the Disciples Don’t Come” about those who leave due to personality conflicts.)

In one sense it’s reasonable to want to relax after working hard for a number of years. But in the spiritual life, when people relax, their own worst nature may ambush them, so that they lose all the progress they have made, and may for a time become unfit to lead the spiritual life. This is sometimes called a “hostile attack.” Sri Chinmoy writes:

It is not the spiritual life that increases your undivine qualities. On the contrary, the spiritual life wants you to conquer all the undivine forces once and for all so that they cannot come and disturb you. Otherwise, two or three undivine forces you will conquer today because of your intense spiritual aspiration; and then, after a few months, there will be again an attack by some other forces. So, if you know that all the forces are going to attack you either today or tomorrow, then you will be fully prepared. You thought that you had only one enemy. How is it that you now have ten enemies? But this should not make you discouraged. On the contrary, you should be happy that all your enemies, all your weaknesses, are coming forward. Only if they come forward can you conquer them.

How will you do it? It is through your constant inner cry. Do not be disturbed, do not be agitated, do not be depressed, do not surrender to these attacks. You simply should be happy that all your weaknesses are coming to the fore. Otherwise, each one will take its own time and bite you and pinch you. Then you will suffer like anything. So let them all attack you. Your faith in the Supreme — who is my Guru, your Guru, everybody’s Guru — has infinite power to conquer these undivine forces.

You want to go one step ahead and become totally divine. But the moment you enter the spiritual path, all the undivine, hostile forces attack you. Before, you never had doubt, you never had fear, you never thought that anything named jealousy existed on earth. But where did they come from? They did not come from above. No, they were all dormant inside you. The tiger within you had all these undivine qualities. But the tiger did not use all its power. It had only to use a little power, just a small quantity of its power, in order to frighten you. But now that the tiger knows that you are trying to leave its den, the tiger is ready to show you all its capacity. It will muster all its strength. But at that time, you have to be very devoted to your spiritual life, to the divine life within you, and say, “This is a great opportunity to conquer all my enemies all at once.” So you should be courageous and, at the same time, totally surrendered to the Will of the Supreme.

– Sri Chinmoy, from Illumination-World, Agni Press, 1977 [emphasis added]

To stay afloat in the spiritual life, one has to do battle with ignorance. If one becomes lax, then all the old problems may resurface, or even new problems may come. So some people leave because they no longer wish to do battle with their own nature, or for many other conventional, unremarkable reasons.

Now, why do some people disguise these very conventional reasons for leaving by telling an outlandish story of abuse, a so-called “atrocity story”? We’ve already discussed this, but here’s another powerful reason given by psychologist Sushmitam Rouse:

I remember an experience I had when I was quite new on the path — a year or two perhaps. I was overwhelmed by the love, the peace and the experiences of God that I had gained on the path, but at the same time was struggling with some of the lifestyle aspects of the path. I realised at this time that my positive experiences far outweighed my struggles and that I definitely did not want to leave the path. However in dealing with this struggle, I came to the realisation that if anything ever pulled me away from the path, the only way I would be able to bear to leave, would be to destroy in my mind all the positive experiences I had gained — otherwise the grief of leaving would be completely overwhelming. Everything good would have to be made bad, everything pure made impure, in order to justify to myself such an action.

I have seen a number of people leave the centre over the years, and in my experience, it is those, like myself who have had tremendously positive experiences in their spiritual life, who resort to this destructive measure — and often they publicise their opinions, as if to further convince themselves they have left something ‘bad’ not good. On the other hand, people who never got much out of the path in the first place, just tend to drift away.

Lastly, I would like to say a word about the place of therapy in all this! The issue of abuse and therapy is such a complex and controversial one. It is well known in the psychological community that some therapists encourage patients to ‘dig’ for abuse that was never there, and that some patients completely unconsciously project their own impulses and traumas onto others who they then believe ‘abused’ them.

– Sushmitam Rouse from “Question For The Women” (discussion thread) 

It could also be said that the lies some people tell about their former spiritual path are like a bandage which they apply to the wound of leaving — leaving something which they actually love, or which their soul loves.

Leaving a spiritual path can be painful, just as divorce can be painful. This leads to a temptation (or even unconscious reaction) to simply throw all the blame on the other person (in the case of divorce) or on the teacher or path (in the case of leaving a spiritual group). But there is great potential for misattribution of cause and effect here. People may become unhappy after leaving a spiritual path which they followed sincerely for decades of their lives. But this doesn’t mean the spiritual path is the cause of their unhappiness. As I write in “Making Sense of the Spiritual Life”:

When people suffer a hostile attack, they end their spiritual practice, and then blame the spiritual life for all the problems which ensue. This is clearly a misattribution of cause and effect.

I have personally seen people become unhappy after making a sudden, abrupt change in their lives — a change where they cut themselves off from people and activities which had once sustained them emotionally and spiritually. Then, in their unhappiness, they misattribute the cause, blaming the people and activities from which they cut themselves off.

I’ve also had occasion to quote from this TIME magazine article:

By all accounts, the descent into delusion is gradual. Everyone has experienced slights, insults or failures at one time or another, and most people find some way to cope. Or, if they don’t, a trusted friend or family member may persuade them to forget the past and get on with their lives. But if they cannot shake off the sense of humiliation, they may instead nourish their grudges and start a mental list of all the injustices in their lives. Rather than take a critical look at themselves, they blame their troubles on “the company,” for example, or “the government” or “the system.” Often these aggrieved people fall in with others sharing the same point of view. The group helps them to rehearse their grievances, ensuring that the wounds remain open, and exposes them to similar complaints. As a result, paranoia blossoms and spreads.

— Christine Gorman, “Calling All Paranoids,” TIME magazine

This applies in spades to so-called ex-cult support groups, and I hope regular readers of my blog will forgive me if I once again quote this passage from “The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 2”:

When someone studies with a spiritual teacher, the teacher becomes an important part of her life. Even if she ends her studies, her former teacher will usually be someone with whom she needs to live on comfortable terms. A healthy narrative truth emerging in therapy is one which doesn’t attempt to demonize the former teacher or alienate the former student. When therapists violate these principles, this may be seen as abusive, just as inducing Parental Alienation Syndrome is considered a form of parental abuse.

One of the universally recognized symptoms of PAS is lack of ambivalence. Quite simply, the parent from whom the child has been alienated is seen as completely bad and evil. Lack of ambivalence is unnatural behaviour in human beings. Rarely can someone of basic intelligence, maturity and emotional stability support the notion that one person is completely bad.

Yet, when people receive anti-cult counselling or participate in ex-cult support groups, they tend to undergo a pathological inversion of views. They are systematically alienated from their former spiritual teacher, to the point where they depict him/her as thoroughly bad and inhumanly evil. This may be described as Guru Alienation Syndrome, or GAS.

The reason such systematic alienation should be considered a form of abuse is that it effectively robs the former student of all the benefits of having a spiritual teacher, including the ability to interact positively with that teacher, and to enjoy loving memories of that teacher. Unambivalent hatred of the spiritual teacher doesn’t just harm the hated teacher, but also the former student.

While not everyone seeks out a spiritual teacher, for those who do — and who have studied for 5, 10 or 20 years with that teacher — there is an existing relationship which typically has many positive aspects and serves an important purpose in the student’s life. The loss of that relationship is a grievous loss. A wise and compassionate therapist, counsellor, or friend will therefore not attempt to destroy that relationship by circulating hate material vilifying the teacher.

However, just as divorcing parents sometimes play tug-of-war with the child, in anti-cult circles one often encounters manipulative people who want to play tug-of-war with the former spiritual student. They feel the only way for such students to prove their newfound loyalty to mainstream secular values is to loudly proclaim their hatred for the spiritual teacher. Circulating vilification material is one of the tactics used to fan such hatred; and willingness to publicly voice such hatred becomes a kind of loyalty test or perverse indicator of “cult recovery.”

Owing to wretched excess in the anti-cult movement, it’s nearly impossible to be too over-the-top in one’s denunciation of a purported “cult leader.” The situation is analogous to that described by singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie in his 1967 signature piece “Alice’s Restaurant.” At one point in the monologue, Guthrie is trying to avoid being drafted and sent to Vietnam. His strategy is to appear so gung-ho that he would be viewed as undesirable:

I went up there, I said, “Shrink, I want to kill. I want to kill! I want to see blood and gore and guts and veins in my teeth! Eat dead, burnt bodies! I mean: Kill. Kill!”

And I started jumpin’ up and down, yellin’ “KILL! KILL!” and he started jumpin’ up and down with me, and we was both jumpin’ up and down, yellin’, “KILL! KILL! KILL! KILL!” and the sergeant came over, pinned a medal on me, sent me down the hall, said “You’re our boy.” Didn’t feel too good about it.

— Arlo Guthrie, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacre”

Those members of anti-cult groups willing to tell over-the-top atrocity stories may receive status elevation within the group (similar to having medals pinned on them). If they can supply bodice-ripping drug store fare, this has the potential to be used in anti-cult publicity campaigns, and may even find its way into a courtroom. The writers know this, and so tend to compete in a “race to the bottom.” It’s therefore difficult to escape the conclusion that these stories are being told for self-serving motives, especially where they diverge significantly from the known facts about a spiritual teacher or group, and are not supported by objective evidence.

We should keep in mind that apostasy is not a private, personal decision. The apostate makes a great public show of her newfound rejection of faith, and actively seeks to persuade or influence others to join her in rejecting faith. The apostate “atrocity story” is a public relations tool used by anti-cult groups to vilify minority spiritual groups, leading to harassment or diminution of rights for such groups (or in extreme cases, crucifixion).

As I discuss in Part 2, when apostates hurl false accusations, this is similar to people throwing rocks at church windows. One might like or even love someone who does grievous harm, but it’s difficult to forgive them while the glass is still tinkling and people are checking themselves for cuts and bruises. If the hurlers will not stop, then it may be necessary to invoke lawful due process. See also this post discussing the problem of false accusations of a teacher in relation to the film Term of Trial. The links at the end concern UK libel law as it applies to Facebook, Blogspot, and other social media sites.

This concludes Part 1 covering general concepts. In Part 2 I’ll discuss the particular case of Bithika O’Dwyer.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

* * *

Temple-Song-Hearts 1991 Concert

Celebrating International Women’s Day with Music

The contributions made to daily life by women around the world can never be quantified. Some women contribute to their local communities, while others go a step further by spreading their peace and joy to other nations through music.

Such is the case with Temple-Song-Hearts, a women’s music group which first formed in 1987 in the United Kingdom, and has since developed an increasingly international flavour.

As noted in People Are Good Everywhere, governments and political leaders may often fight, yet there is a countervailing force of good within each human heart. Some nations may be historical rivals, yet their people can still share good wishes and be moved by the same art and music, as these are universal constants.

In 1991, Temple-Song-Hearts toured the Soviet Union, which at that time was just dissolving into Russia. The Russian people, often starved for spirituality during the Soviet era, welcomed Temple-Song-Hearts in a spirit of oneness, and delighted in their soulful singing and performances on all-acoustic instruments. This video is part concert footage, part travelogue, with music always the uniting factor:

Temple-Song-Hearts is a group which combines the eternal with the ever-new. Their music radiates a deep sense of truth, while their arrangements are fresh and reflect our contemporary world.

Temple-Song-Hearts exclusively performs the music of Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007), who wrote thousands of spiritual songs which are prayers to God for peace, harmony, progress, the liberation of the individual soul from suffering, and the liberation of the entire world from the tyranny of ignorance. What more fitting source material for a group which has performed concerts throughout Eastern and Western Europe, as well as the U.S.A.?

The meeting of hearts and minds commingled with love of God often occurs far from politics or the glare of the mass media. It occurs in small halls where people who share a common longing for truth sit quietly for an hour, and take in sounds which are gentle, yet carry a powerful message of world-transformation. Many things flow from this experience: the recognition that deep within we are one, and a time will come when our diversity is not a cause for warfare (hot or cold), but when we will recognize oneness in diversity as the principle which informs us as human beings and divine beings. To quote Sri Chinmoy:

Being a spiritual man, I must say that there is only one religion. You call it Christianity, I call it Hinduism, somebody calls it Judaism and somebody else calls it Islam. But there is only one religion. So when there is one religion, there cannot be nearness or distance. There are many branches of the religion-tree, but there is only one religion, and that religion is God-realisation. The ultimate Goal of all religion is God-realisation.

Religions may fight on the way to the goal, but at the end of the journey they become most intimate friends, and then they feel that they were all the time together on the same journey, only following different paths. True, sincere followers of any religion, either Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism or Judaism, will never find fault in the truths of other religions. They know that the ultimate Truth exists in each religion. But in the field of practice or manifestation, human thoughts, human ideas, human vibrations can alter the truth. This is at the root of conflict between religions. The moment we go deep within, however, we see that there is no religion, only Truth. India’s greatest political leader, Mahatma Gandhi, said, “Where is religion? To me religion is just Truth.” The word “religion” can cause conflict and fighting. But when we use the word “Truth,” the conflicting parties remain silent.

– Sri Chinmoy, The Spiritual Journey: Oneness in Diversity, Agni Press, 1977

Writing about a Temple-Song-Hearts tour of the South of France in 2005, longtime member Shankara Smith says:

It’s been a fair few years since our group last performed for the public, and I had forgotten what a rewarding experience it is. Since the group gained a new pianist — the excellent Eshana from Serbia — plus a number of other musicians headed up by the multi-talented Utsava of Germany, we have been concentrating on improving the sound of the group.

Montpellier proved to be the ideal place to get together. It is a beautiful and mostly traffic-free old city. We had great fun checking out the local shops, particularly an exquisite chocolate shop (not great for the voice, but wonderful for the spirits!). But most of our time was dutifully spent practising.

On the second evening we performed in a lovely little theatre, to a full house of friends, meditation seekers and the general public. The concert went almost without a hitch, and I felt the spirit of Temple-Song-Hearts was well and truly back with us. I find there is nothing more satisfying than singing your heart out performing Sri Chinmoy’s music; the feeling of joy that comes from these pure, beautiful and prayerful songs. It was a joy we were able to share with our audience, who all seemed to enjoy the concert.

The following day we were off to Marseille. This time we were in a beautiful hall without the bright theatre lights, and it was nice being able to see our audience. The concert went very well, and afterwards some people stayed behind to chat. When a man approached me and said he was a professional pianist, part of me went “Oh no, he will have noticed all our little errors.” But instead of criticism, we received generous praise and I was very touched when he said how moved he had been by the music. This was followed up by a lovely lady saying that the concert had brought tears to her eyes and that “Today God has come as a woman.” I knew that once again Sri Chinmoy’s music had got right to the hearts of its listeners.

Read Shankara’s full report here, or view a gallery of photos from the French tour.

More About Sri Chinmoy’s Music

Sri Chinmoy was born in Bengal, India (now Bangladesh) in 1931, and moved to New York City in 1964, where he lived the better part of his life. Most songs performed by Temple-Song-Hearts are sung in Sri Chinmoy’s native language of Bengali (though it was also his custom to honour each country he visited with a song in that nation’s own language). His songs often include lines of different lengths, as in “Nil Akasher Alor Tari” from the 1991 video:

This can lead to arrangements which are very fresh and dynamic. Here are the lyrics in Bengali and English, courtesy SriChinmoyLibrary.com:

Nil Akasher Alor Tari

Nil akasher alor tari hridaye mor bhase
Kusum kalir mauna bhasha byatha amar nashe
Amai jara dake mago ami tader daki
Moder majhe tomai jena nitya mago rakhi

Translation:

O boat of light in the blue sky,
I see you floating in my heart-river.
I see the flowers that you are carrying.
The fragrance of these flowers
Has destroyed all my sufferings.
Like you, I call those who call me,
I see in you the bond of all-loving,
All-illumining and all-fulfilling unity.

No mortal words can add to this call to the infinite, this call to all-fulfilling unity. Needless to say, this unity of peoples, unity of spirits, can never be achieved by force. It dawns gradually as each person gains insight, develops spiritual vision, and longs in their heart to join in the festival of light which is carried on ceaselessly in the inner world.

Sri Chinmoy playing the Indian esraj, a bowed string instrument with a sound similar to the better-known sarangi. Photo by Abakash.

Personnel on the 1991 Tour

– Santoshi Hodgson
– Abi Timberlake
– Kate Hirons
– Dipika Smith
– Sudhira Hay
– Sangvad Keaney
– Udasina Hansford
– Shankara Smith
– Bithika O’Dwyer
– Rachel Merry
– Sahana Gero

Bithika O’Dwyer from the 1991 video

Bithika O’Dwyer with the World Harmony Run, 2009

Bithika O’Dwyer with friends from the Cambridge Sri Chinmoy Centre, 2009 (bottom row, left)

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Of Further Interest

Temple-Song-Hearts Tour Europe
Temple-Song-Hearts web site (by the most excellent Sumangali Morhall)
Temple-Song-Hearts on CD Baby

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Recent Updates and Coming Attractions: December 2015

Updates

Thanks to those who continue to express interest in my blog. While new posts are arriving at a slow rate, I’ve actually posted a few thousand words of new material in the form of updates to existing posts. The posts which have received major updates are these:

The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 1
The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 2
The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 3
Can Salon Learn From Rolling Stone’s Mistakes? Part 1
Understanding Media: The Smear Campaign
Jayanti Tamm Rebuttal, Part 2
About page

You can read the Guide To The Posts to find out if these are posts which might interest you. Some people prefer short, cheerful posts on positive topics, but I feel the need to write about more challenging subjects as well. Please don’t read anything that you feel would lower your consciousness.

Also fixed: A few older posts didn’t display embedded DailyMotion videos due to an obscure WordPress bug. I’ve gone through the archives month by month, and updated the few problem posts. I’m happy to report that all videos are now playing properly. (Note: If you have trouble playing embedded videos, try updating your browser, or click on the DailyMotion logo to play a video on the DailyMotion site. Ditto for Vimeo and YouTube. See also Help With Videos.)

Coming Attractions

Here are some of the new posts I’m working on. No promises, but at least some of them should see the light of day, since I already have notes for them:

Sumangali Morhall: Auspicious Good Fortune (audiobook)
False Salon Story: What was said at the time
Untangling the Hierarchies of the Postmodern Era
More Sheep’s Head/Dog Meat Problems for Attorney Joe Kracht
Tawana Brawley and the High Cost of False Allegations
Bithika O’Dwyer: A Tale of Two Psyches

In the meantime, if you’d like to hear a short medley of (mostly classical) Christmas music you won’t hear in elevators, please visit:

Christmas Music: The Rare and the Beautiful

H A P P Y    H O L I D A Y S !

alice-in-wonderland-sculpture-snow-mh

Michael

P.S. Thanks to those who’ve made this brief update a top post (because they liked the pic). I hope to post more photographs and digital images when I have time. For now, you can see two small samples of my work recoloring images in Photoshop on my About page.