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.

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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.

* * *

A Question of Forgiveness

The question of how to deal with unjust attacks is an age-old one. Some people advocate a philosophy of total forgiveness. Others say that forgiveness should be tempered by an understanding of the real world and the nature of the individuals with whom one has to deal.

Some say that forgiveness should come after wrong actions have ended, but not while they are still occurring. A remorseful person should certainly be forgiven, but those who show no remorse and continue to do wrong actions may require justice rather than compassion, for their own progress. (See also “Making Sense of the Spiritual Life.”)

Once upon a time, some spiritual devotees were meditating in a church. Suddenly, they were distracted by the sound of breaking glass. Upon investigation, they found that someone was throwing rocks at the church windows, smashing them to bits. Others were calling for the church to be burned to the ground! The wrongdoers were worldly people whose minds had become agitated, and who had embraced an aggressive, destructive consciousness.

Some of the disciples said: “Let us pray for protection and meditate on compassion.” This was all well and good. But after awhile, either their prayer and meditation was not powerful enough, or else the situation required different handling. As the rocks kept coming and windows continued to be broken, another disciple said: “Let us call the police, since they also represent protection and it is their job to protect us.”

When the police arrived, they arrested one or two rock throwers, and others scattered into the night.

What can we learn from this story? In an imperfect world, there is no perfect solution to problems of harassment. Undoubtedly, compassion is a powerful force; but sometimes justice is required to deal with aggressive, destructive people, or else they may destroy spiritual things which are most precious and cannot easily be replaced.

This does not apply only to physical objects, but to abstract things as well. A person such as a spiritual teacher has only one reputation, which he or she has built up over many decades through innumerable acts of kindness and compassion. If crude people wrongly attack the reputation of a spiritual master and will not stop, the situation may eventually require justice.

The problem is aggravated when those who have become aggressive and destructive feel they can get away with anything precisely because they are attacking gentle spiritual people. While I definitely don’t advocate zapping anyone with a ray gun, this short clip from Doctor Who dramatizes the outcome when a destructive person mistakenly assumes that the only possible response to their destructive behaviour is one of mercy:

English majors please note: River Song’s use of the passive voice (“It died”) is not generally recommended, though used here to good effect. 😉

According to the varying mythologies of many cultures and religions, there are different kinds of beings assigned to perform different celestial duties. Their qualities and appearance are suited to the tasks which they perform, or they may take on a different appearance according to the circumstances.

The compassionate nature of the universe is reflected in that people usually have numerous opportunities to change their ways before they reach a final reckoning with justice. They see the face of compassion many times before they finally see the face of justice. It is up to them to choose how they want to progress. In the case of spiritual people around the world, they often make the same essential prayer to their chosen deity: “Protect us with Thy compassionate face.”

When we think of a snake, often we think of its destructive qualities: it may hiss or bite. Usually the hiss is a warning, and if we ignore the hiss then we get the bite. But what of a snake who has become a vegetarian, recited holy mantras, and adopted principles of ahimsa (non-violence)? If such a creature existed, how would it defend itself from predators? This question is addressed in a parable from the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda tradition:

“How To Deal with the Wicked”
http://ramakrishnaparables.blogspot.com/search/label/How%20to%20deal%20with%20the%20wicked

For those with little patience for spiritual parables, I will give away the punchline: I told you not to bite. I never told you not to hiss!

Some people demonstrate an impulsive nature lacking in wisdom and restraint. Perhaps they once knew wisdom and restraint, but have lost these qualities due to whimsicality, or because they abandoned their spiritual practice. In any event, they now do much harm. When we see the harm that they do, and their utter imperviousness to compassion, it is clear they need to be hissed at.

When compassion fails, some people may need a harsh word or Internet takedown or they will just go on attacking. This restores their sense of balance or understanding of cause and effect. “Oh, if I go on the Internet and attack someone, I too may be attacked.” Duh! Some people do learn from this, and others who have suffered feel vindicated when they see that justice is operating, and people who act cruelly and callously do get their comeuppance.

Worldly people are often obsessed with protecting their reputations, which are allied to their moneymaking activities; yet they think nothing of trying to destroy the reputations of spiritual people through libel. This points to a serious ethical imbalance, which occurs because worldly people (particularly apostates) tend to otherize spiritual people. They imagine that spiritual people do not enjoy the same rights to dignity, privacy, and protection of reputation.

In “Lying Isn’t So Bad If It Makes You Feel Good,” John Leo addresses “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?” But see also: “Tawana Brawley Rape Hoax Leads To Defamation Damage Payout 26 Years Later.” One consequence of false confessions of victimhood is that they may do collateral damage to third parties. Contrary to the social trend, some people do value their privacy and resent being used as mere objects in someone else’s spurious public confession.

In “My Lie: Why I falsely accused my father,” Meredith Maran discusses how a “perfect storm” of influences including recovered memory therapy, feminist political theory, and social pressure caused her to claim that her father molested her. Years later, she realized it wasn’t true, and was surprised at how strong a role external factors like therapy, politics, and social pressure played in making her commit to a story which she knew in retrospect was a lie. Her father suffered greatly because of that lie, whose genesis was bad therapy and social/political faddism. Yet, she herself was not an automaton or passive agent. Looking back, she knew she had done wrong.

Anti-cult operatives take advantage of the current fad by persuading gullible individuals that the need for public-confession-as-therapy and the need to embrace a new identity as a “cult survivor” outweigh any loyalties, privacy concerns, or traditional ethical and legal constraints against libel. So, drunk with the heady draft of fellow “support group” members egging them on, these people proceed to tell the most extravagant lies about their former spiritual teacher or group. The best “whoppers” are then leaked to the press by anti-cult operatives, or posted on a remote website, devoid of any clue about the support group pressures which led to their creation. (See elsewhere my criticism of attorney Joseph C. Kracht for orchestrating or participating in such fraudulent activities, thus giving them his legal seal of approval.)

As I discussed in Part 2, a typical problem with ex-cult support groups is that members otherize spiritual groups whose beliefs and practices they formerly espoused. They experience a pathological loss of empathy for former friends, colleagues and mentors, and a pathological escalation of hostility. They no longer honour the social contract and no longer treat others with basic human decency. This leads them to commit unethical or even illegal acts against their former colleagues.

What we’re really talking about is a socially constructed view of the religious other as archetypal bogeyman. This view inherently implies that the other has no rights, so who could possibly object to false accounts on the grounds of libel, harassment, or false light invasion of privacy? Therapy culture plus Internet culture equals an unlimited opportunity to publicly shame people with whom one has some disagreement. This is the new emotional etiquette championed by some ethically rudderless psychologists and attorneys engaged in anti-cult advocacy.

— The author, from “Therapists, Hubris, and Native Intelligence.”

Boiling things down to a usable form: Don’t blame the fabled snake for hissing when harassed. Just pray it doesn’t remember how to bite! Those seeking mercy should demonstrate genuine remorse. Otherwise they are more likely to receive justice. When it is a question of forgiveness, the answer depends on the sincerity of the individual.

Michael Howard

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

* * *

 

Joe Kracht and Lavanya Muller (parody)


“She entered into doubt-parlor

Only to be tattooed by ignorance-ink.

He learned the jiu-jitsu of betrayal
Studying at university of no ethics.”

For further discussion, see “Paint It Black!”

(If the embedded video doesn’t play, watch on DailyMotion here.)

Explaining The Aphorisms

Sometimes aphorisms are like poetry — to get the full meaning we need to examine the language carefully in all its fine shades.

What does it mean to enter into “doubt-parlor”? Suppose you are a spiritual seeker, a person of faith. You have some friends who used to be spiritual seekers, but now their main focus is on doubt and speaking ill. You feel, “Oh, my faith is secure so of course I can mix freely with them and I will not suffer.” But doubt is like poison in the spiritual life. Just because you know it’s poison doesn’t mean you can drink it and not suffer.

You may also think, “Just because I’m not attacking anyone, therefore they won’t attack me.” But imagine you put your hand inside a snake’s cage. You may do so innocently, harmlessly, but still the nature of this snake is to bite.

In the same way, former spiritual seekers who now specialize in doubt instinctively attack the faith of any person who enters their environs. They feel your faith is an impediment to joining their social clique and want to make you faithless like them. So once you agree to go where they congregate, whether it’s a physical location or a place on the Internet, half the battle is already lost.

This battle may not take place openly, but may be more like a clandestine encounter with a pickpocket. The pickpocket embraces you warmly, but a few hours later you discover he has stolen all your money!

Never think that ignorance is not a strong force. Even one person’s ignorance may overpower your faith. How much more easily you can be overpowered when you are the only person of faith in a place where everyone else has become a black doubter. It is like one person fighting against a whole gang. (This is assuming you even bother to put up a fight. Some people go to a bad place because they secretly want to become bad people.)

So “doubt-parlor” is a place where doubters meet and congregate and advance their clever arguments. (“Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly.”) Now, what is “ignorance-ink”? If you have a cloth that is pure white, then if you get ink on it, it can never be made the same again. Still, there are different types of ink. Sometimes children are given finger paints which are water-soluble and wash off easily.

Ignorance is like ink because it spoils the pure-white tablet of faith so that it is smudged or dirty. Now what does it mean to be tattooed by ignorance-ink? The ink used in tattooing is extremely permanent and is etched into the skin. This comedy skit suggests that people get tattoos when they’re drunk and are then stuck with the results, unless they want to opt for laser surgery:

So to be tattooed by ignorance-ink means that ignorance puts its permanent mark on you and calls you its own, so that you are no longer fit for a spiritual purpose.

To take the meaning of the aphorism as a whole: You are invited to join in the festivities at a place where doubters congregate. You think, “Alright, I will go but I will maintain my faith.” However, once you enter into their parlor, then like others you become drunk with doubt and are tattooed by ignorance so that you cannot get rid of it. The stain is permanent, or you do not possess the means to wash it out. Will a simple spot remover remove a tattoo? No, because the ink is in too deep. That is the favor some so-called friends are doing you.

To come to the second aphorism, what is the connection between “jiu-jitsu” and “betrayal”? Here, jiu-jitsu signifies any type of tricky move or maneuver which must be learned. The heart and soul by their nature want to remain true, but the tricky mind and vital want to find a way to throw off the spiritual commitment and live a life based on ego, desire and ambition.

It is rare for a person of faith who loses their faith to simply admit “I have fallen. I have lost what I had previously attained.” First comes disobedience, then self-justification, then a guilty conscience comes. Finally, in order to escape their own guilty conscience the person will throw all the blame on their former spiritual teacher or path. For some people this develops into a kind of complex, so that even though they left their spiritual teacher 10, 20, even 35 years ago, they are still obsessed with trying to discredit him, in order to assuage their deep-down guilty conscience.

Some people even openly admit to this without truly understanding it. They say, “Oh, I have found a wonderful new way of getting rid of guilt. I joined a support group for former spiritual seekers where we spend most days and nights publicly attacking our old teacher. Hate is a wonderful antidote to guilt.”

The only problem is that this is actually a symptom of the complex. It does not truly get rid of guilt, but only masks it temporarily. Those suffering from this complex tend to need bigger and bigger fixes of hate to mask their guilt, so they end up vilifying their former teacher to a mind-boggling extent, making up the wildest stories in order to keep the hate jag going. There is no true healing in this approach because it’s all based on lies and self-justification, not honest insight.

So “the jiu-jitsu of betrayal” is any tricky method someone learns as a way to throw off their soul’s deep spiritual commitment and betray the teacher who first gave them illumination, out of sheer compassion.

Modern science is ethically neutral. It is often not concerned with net effects on people, but only whether something is do-able. If making a bomb, can they make a bigger bomb? If making a biological weapon, can they produce a more deadly strain? That is how some destructive people think. Doubt is usually “slow poison,” but some people actually become connoisseurs of doubt. They try to refine it and make it more potent, more concentrated. Modern doubters have produced more virulent strains of doubt which are quick-acting.

When people develop an ugly and impure mind or vital, they can conjure up an ugly picture of things — things which are inherently beautiful in themselves. The impure imagination becomes a kind of demonic laboratory from which new, more virulent strains of doubt are culled. One should protect one’s aspiration by not visiting places where such people congregate — whether in real life, or on the Internet.

Some psychologists are dead set against the spiritual life, so they’ve developed powerful techniques or psyops for combating faith — comprehensive, systematized methods of injecting doubt and pressuring seekers to abandon their faith. This is known as deprogramming or exit counseling, but like tattooing or ear-piercing it’s practiced by amateurs as well as professionals. (See “Sock Puppet Theatre – A Tribute to Samuel Bradshaw.”)

Some anti-cult groups morph or change their tactics over time, renaming themselves and eventually coming to use a soft-sell rather than hard-sell approach. See Part 2 and Part 3 of my series on “The ACLU and Religious Freedom,” as well as “Doubt, Faith, and the Ethics of Apostasy.” People don’t know the history of these groups and don’t recognize the techniques being used to rob them of their faith — professional deprogramming techniques like employing apostates to circulate false “testimonials” vilifying the spiritual teacher or path.

If you look carefully, you’ll see that such euphemistically named “support groups” often have hard-core members who’ve undergone formal deprogramming, exit counseling, or anti-cult therapy, e.g. Samuel Bradshaw, Anne Carlton, et al. These people are then encouraged to practice the same techniques on others, sometimes in an informal setting where they conceal or deny their affiliation with anti-cult groups.

How does the soft-sell differ from the hard-sell? The hard-sell is all poison, poison, poison. The soft-sell is: “People are not drinking the poison because it is too bitter. Let us set up a fake spiritual site, something to do with yoga, with spiritual quotes and artwork. Then, once we sucker people in, let us give them just enough poison to kill them. Initially they won’t know that we are all apostates, so they will stupidly drink the poison if we sweeten it a little.”

sri-chinmoy-yoga

Look to the methods, not the labels. Some sites may put up a spiritual veneer, but are actually ex-members groups where the main thrust is to get people to read highly negative material, and respond by abandoning their faith.

Like wife-beaters, some people are deeply troubled in their nature. They may claim they love their former spiritual master, but they torture him regularly. Stop the torture and I will believe that you love him. Otherwise, I will say you are a sick individual.

Each person is different. It may happen that a spiritual master advises a student: “Stay close to the spiritual community. Don’t go for a law degree or it will totally ruin your spiritual life.” The student disobeys, and lo and behold! Now that he’s a lawyer, instead of showing devotion to the spiritual master, he only wants to subject the master (now long-dead) to mock show trials on the Internet! Such displays of vigilantism are worthy of disbarment. Still:

Joe Kracht Lawton Law Firm Parody 1

Joe Kracht Lawton Law Firm Parody 1

Continuing on with my analysis, what is “university of no ethics”? To learn a systematized method of doing something, you go to a school which teaches that very thing. Universities originally emerged from a monastic tradition in which faith and ethics played a most significant role. Gradually over centuries, a “great divorce” occurred between religion, science, and the humanities. Today, it’s possible to receive a university degree without knowing anything about spirituality or ethics. Some former spiritual seekers will even go to the length of getting a degree in psychology which they then use to attack spirituality. (Of course, spirituality and psychology can get along well together. Here I’m only referring to a fringe group of psychologists who actively oppose spiritual practice, just as there’s a fringe group of psychologists who participate in military torture.)

As I discuss in “Paint It Black!” apostates often trash-talk their former friends, colleagues and mentors in a shameful and two-faced manner. They may learn such behavior through participation in institutions which impart secular knowledge divorced from ethics and spirituality. They have been processed by a college or university, or by the military, or by a school which emphasizes physical conditioning and self-defense, but teaches next to nothing about loyalty or ethics. This conspicuous spiritual vacuum makes it easy for people to engage in wanton acts of betrayal. They may be experts in their limited fields, but in the field of life they are nowhere because they’ve sacrificed the core values which imbue life with spiritual meaning. This is what it means to learn “the jiu-jitsu of betrayal/ studying at university of no ethics.”

Such faithless persons of no ethics often end up coaching others in the ways of betrayal, helping them achieve the “full Judas position” — a position of utter treachery. Sadly, such coaches may fail to provide the requisite thirty pieces of silver, or the noose to hang oneself when conscience dawns.

Attorney Joe Kracht drilling a new deprogrammee

Attorney Joe Kracht drilling a new deprogrammee (artist’s conception)

Michael Howard

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

Items which may interest you:

Sarama — The Hound of Intuition
Self-Interest, Self-Giving, Low Ethics, and High Ethics

* * *

Paint It Black!

The Poetry of Sri Chinmoy… and Mick Jagger? Plus other topics.

My Krishna is not black,
He is pure gold.
He Himself is woven
Into the universal Beauty, Light and Splendour.

He looks dark
Because I have spilled the ink
Of my mind on Him.
Otherwise, my Beloved is All-Light.

He created Light and Darkness,
He is within and without the Cosmos Vast.

With this knowledge,
I will have a new acquaintance
With the world at large.

— Sri Chinmoy, from My Flute, Aum Classics, 1998 (1972)

I see a red door and I want it painted black
No colors any more, I want them to turn black
I see the girls walk by, dressed in their summer clothes
I have to turn my head until my darkness goes

I see a line of cars and they’re all painted black
With flowers and my love both never to come back
I see people turn their heads and quickly look away
Like a newborn baby, it just happens every day

I look inside myself and see my heart is black
I see my red door I must have it painted black
Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts
It’s not easy facing up when your whole world is black

No more will my green sea go turn a deeper blue
I could not foresee this thing happening to you
If I look hard enough into the setting sun
My love will laugh with me before the morning comes

I see a red door and I want it painted black
No colors anymore I want them to turn black
I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes
I have to turn my head until my darkness goes

I want to see it painted, painted black
Black as night, black as coal
I want to see the sun blotted out from the sky
I want to see it painted, painted, painted, painted black, yeah

— Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, from Aftermath, Decca Records, 1966

The shared element in these two poems is not seeing things as they are, but according to one’s inner predilection. A thing is bright and golden, but we spill “the ink of our mind” on it, so subjectively it looks all black. Or a thing has bright colours like red and green, but we want to blot out those colours due to our depressed or fallen state.

In the physical universe, some things can be quantified precisely and objectively, but when it is a question of the spiritual meaning of life, this is something we always interpret subjectively. Militant atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are merely reporting on the condition of their own minds. Brilliant thinkers, they nonetheless lack basic spiritual intelligence.

What is spiritual intelligence? This would be the subject for a whole other article. Simply put, spiritual intelligence is intelligence which is aware of the existence of God or of higher spiritual Truth. This higher awareness brings insight and understanding (or gnosis), so that we begin to see the universe as it truly is, not according to our limited mental constructs. Spiritual intelligence is intelligence which has received some illumination from higher light and wisdom, so that it no longer lives alone in a dark room, seeing only its own self-produced shadows. Spiritual intelligence is intelligence from which the “ink of the mind” has been dispelled in whole or in part, so that the universe may be seen in all its true, glowing colours.

There is, of course, the negative approach epitomized in modern times by the song “Nothing,” written by Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs, and perhaps representing the path of the ascetic wanderer who finds meaning by denying everything. But this path is difficult to follow, and there is no guarantee that it leads to enlightenment. Indeed, having denied meaning in anything, the nihilist may simply stew in his own negativity, now desiring to paint everything black to match his own philosophy, his own self-produced experience of nothingness: “Monday, nothing / Tuesday, nothing / Wednesday and Thursday nothing / Friday, for a change / a little more nothing / Saturday once more nothing.” (The Fugs song is actually based on an old Yiddish song about a steady diet of potatoes!)

There is a kind of nihilism which recognizes the relative meaninglessness of the things the world tries to persuade us to take with utter seriousness. But this nihilism is not a complete philosophy or path. In rejecting that which is (relatively speaking) meaningless, we also need to look to that absolute reality which gave birth to our limited world-reality. Here are two poems by Sri Chinmoy which help illustrate how these two concepts fit together:

1.
O bird of my heart,
Fly on, fly on.
Look not behind.
Whatever the world gives
Is meaningless, useless
And utterly false.

2.
O beautiful One, O blissful One,
Do enter into my heart’s cry,
Do enter into my thought-life,
Do enter into my purity-dawn,
Do enter into my sublimity-eve.
With new form’s light,
Do constantly enter into my heart.

I do not combine these two poems haphazardly. They are songs composed by Sri Chinmoy, often sung by him or performed on the flute, esraj and other instruments. He often performed these two songs together as a medley, or in the form 1-2-1, as if to underscore their connectedness:

Taken together, they point to a complete philosophy in which the meaninglessness of the world is balanced by a burgeoning awareness of the “blissful One” who exists beyond our limited world-reality, yet also within in it (though unseen).

In another poem, Sri Chinmoy contrasts “a dry, sterile, intellectual breeze” with “the weaving visions of the emerald Beyond.” Here’s the poem (which also spawned a Mahavishnu Orchestra album title), plus explication by Dr. Vidagdha Meredith Bennett:

Visions of the Emerald Beyond

No more am I the foolish customer
Of a dry, sterile, intellectual breeze.
I shall buy only
The weaving visions of the emerald Beyond.
My heart-tapestry
Shall capture the Himalayan Smiles
Of my Pilot Supreme.
In the burial of my sunken mind
Is the revival of my climbing heart.
In the burial of my deceased mind
Is the festival of my all-embracing life.

— Sri Chinmoy, from The Dance Of Life, Part 1, Agni Press, 1973

Dr. Bennett writes:

This poem mirrors the more traditional experience-into-cognition arrangement in which a fictive, personal situation is transformed into a general concept and we come to see it as an instance of a universal truth. In “Visions of the Emerald Beyond,” the poet begins in a confessional mode. He portrays his dissatisfaction with the life of the mind and asserts his unwillingness to remain any longer a “customer” of its barren harvest. We seem to savour something of T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” in the dryness and flatness of this picture, the “sterile, intellectual breeze” corresponding to their ineffectual voices:

“We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass…”

We recognise the same pervading numbness at the core of a purely mental existence. It is an option the poet no longer chooses:

“I shall buy only
The weaving visions of the emerald Beyond.”

This line explodes with colour, life, movement and depth — all that is in direct opposition to the preceding portrait. In contrast to the shifting and colourless “intellectual breeze,” Sri Chinmoy presents the rich enamelled colour of vision. Emerald. The incandescent green of creation itself, woven into wholeness by the heart, Sri Chinmoy’s preferred nexus of action. And in that fulness of heart, he hopes to win God’s “Smile” of satisfaction.

From this new recourse of action, the poet condenses a set of principles that are appended to the poem in the manner of a coda. In them he sets down the conditions upon which his new life of the heart shall be founded. They revolve around the “burial” of his mind which, he intimates, is already long since lifeless. From this burial shall rise the dancing, abundant life of the heart.

— Vidagdha Meredith Bennett, from Simplicity and Power: The Poetry of Sri Chinmoy 1971-1981 (Doctoral Thesis, University of Melbourne, 1981. Published by Aum Publications, New York, 1991.)

I plan to use this discussion of subjective perceptions of reality as a building block toward understanding other phenomena, such as apostasy. To preview the argument: The apostate can no longer see the spiritual reality, and therefore publicly professes that his/her past spiritual experiences were all false, or that he/she was “fooled” into believing in a spiritual reality which he/she now thoroughly rejects. This rejection of the spiritual may be accompanied by a foolish preoccupation with things extolled in pop culture, like romance and dating, tattoos, and ballroom dancing. 😉

dating-tattoos-ballroom-dancingThe struggle between faith and doubt, between spirituality and secular materialism, is one of the enduring struggles of the last two centuries. People stumping for secular materialism often collate the so-called “testimonials” of apostates as if these prove that there is no God, and that spiritual claims are pure bunkum. Yet, such testimonials merely reflect the unillumined or benighted state of those writing them, those who have spilled “the ink of the mind” on what remains a vivid and true spiritual reality. Like Eliot’s hollow men, in the cosmic scheme of things such testimonial writers are thoroughly stuffed.

Nandita Pollisar on the ink of the mind

Just as there exist apostate testimonials attempting to undermine virtually every faith (even faith in the Flying Spaghetti Monster or “FSM”), some people also write testimonials reaffirming their faith. Nandita Polissar writes:

Safe – free from harm, injury or risk. “Safe” comes from the Latin word “salvus” meaning whole or healthy.

Sri Chinmoy’s path encompasses all of these meanings for women or men. It is an environment free of harm, harassment or risk. It is a whole and healthy environment.

I became a student of Sri Chinmoy over 30 years ago. Having had positive experiences with other spiritual paths (Catholicism, Judaism, Transcendental Meditation and Theravada Buddhism), my first reaction was that Sri Chinmoy did not “need” anything from me. He did not need me to add to his numbers of followers. He did not need my admiration or my flattery. He did not need my money. This impression has remained and has been reinforced in a million ways. Here was not an ego that required feeding in any way. I felt trust and faith — and to add the word used in your query: “safe.” I have never seen that trust, faith and safety compromised in any way by this pure, innocent and loving consciousness that I gratefully call my spiritual teacher. Nor have I ever seen it broken with others. The Sri Chinmoy Centre has been a uniquely safe place for me as a woman, for my husband and for my children.

I have seen others break faith with their own spirituality. I have seen others veer in other directions. I have seen others drift away. I have seen others “take a break” for a while and return. I have seen others find something that worked better for them. But, I have never seen Sri Chinmoy break trust with anyone whether they were his student or not. There is real spirituality in this world, and Sri Chinmoy is one of its representatives. Yes, people throw the “ink of their mind” on it, but that does not diminish it in any way.

As for the many ways that Sri Chinmoy has encouraged and “empowered” women, my sisters have replied much more eloquently. I am grateful for your query.

— Nandita Polissar from “Question For The Women” (discussion thread)

Hateful stereotypes of Indian gurus

When Swami Vivekananda first graced America’s shores in 1893, attending the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, he received a warm welcome and was heralded in the press as a great orator and a genuine representative of a noble tradition. Yet, with the establishment of Vedanta societies in America and an increase in Indian immigration, there was soon a nativist backlash. In 1911, the Boston Herald published a particularly blistering attack on Indian yoga as something heathen, superstitious, and profane.

Over a hundred years later, as more and more Americans practice one form of yoga or another, the level of invective has died down. Yet, hateful stereotypes which originated at the turn of the twentieth century may still be recycled in the twenty-first. There are tabloid media which pander to ignorant views of Indian gurus in order to attract a low information audience, drawing them like flies to a road apple. (See this article discussing PIX11 News.)

Apostates are often a fertile source for such ignorant views, since they tend to turn every circle counter-clockwise in an effort to establish that they’re no longer minority religionists, but rather average citizens who now share the same prejudices as the worst of their fellows. By portraying their former faith group hatefully, apostates hope to prove their newfound loyalty to mainstream secular values and thus avoid being targeted themselves — something like victims of bullying who join with the bullies as a craven coping strategy, or in order to become popular.

Since the world has little sympathy for failed spiritual seekers, such folk often pretend to be victims who wandered into the wrong conference room by accident. Suddenly a big brainwashing machine came down on their heads, and they spent the next 20 years praying and meditating. It was all a big misunderstanding! 😉

Due to extreme secularization in Western society, spiritual seekers are often said to have acquired a “spoiled identity.” Because they’re doing something different from the mainstream (perhaps less materialistic), they may be subject to shaming and harassment. In order to compensate, the apostate ratifies his/her affiliation with a new secular 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.

Among formally or informally constituted anti-cult groups, the approved method for performing a radical guru-ectomy is to go on the Internet and post a “testimonial” recanting one’s faith in the most dramatic of terms. But only a handful of (very foolish) former spiritual seekers engage in such cheap theatrics, which tend to be detrimental to one’s mental balance and personal integrity. As I discuss in “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 counseling 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, counselor, or friend will therefore not attempt to destroy that relationship by circulating hate material vilifying the teacher.

In simple spiritual terms, if the human in you comes to hate that which your soul loves, then naturally you will feel at war with yourself and everything will seem to go wrong. Deep down you may feel guilty, but in order to mask that guilt you may demonize the person towards whom you feel guilty, leading to a kind of complex. This is the apostate version of “paint it black.”

An unexpected drawback for those who fall into the Judas trap is this: The world may claim that it will love you if only you will recant your faith. But actually, the people most worth knowing (and the people who might want to hire you or enter into a relationship with you) tend to value loyalty, constancy, and consistency. So going on the Internet and trash-talking your former friends and colleagues actually results in your identity being twice spoiled: You were once disliked because you were a spiritual seeker. You are now disliked because you’re a two-faced sh-t. Better to be disliked for a noble reason than a shameful one.

Joe Kracht, the Lawton law firm's "Burning Man"

Attorney Joe Kracht burning his spiritual name to try and prove how “normal” he’s become. Paradoxically, it proves just the opposite. Normal people don’t go on the Internet and burn spiritual icons. Something troubling is happening here…

To summarize: In an acquisitive society obsessed with production, consumption and procreation, spiritual intelligence is not valued, and indeed may be ridiculed or disdained. But spiritual intelligence will sustain us in this life, the next life, and future lives. Spiritual intelligence tells us that to be true is more important than to be popular, and that for a person of refined sensibilities, what is normal is to lead a spiritual life filled with meaning, not a statistically average life followed by a statistically average death.

Spiritual intelligence tells us that life does not end with our earthly sojourn. In the same family, it may happen that the mother is very spiritual but the daughter is less so. As long as the mother stays on earth, the daughter feels that there are some things she simply will not do because it would hurt and disgrace her mother deeply. But once her mother dies, then the daughter feels, “Out of sight, out of mind. Now I can act in any way I want!” But spiritual intelligence tells us that the mother is still looking down from Heaven, trying to inspire and guide her daughter. If the daughter acts badly, the mother will suffer.

Sri Chinmoy’s education

One apostate has erroneously referred to Sri Chinmoy as a “self-educated man from a third-world country.” In truth, Sri Chinmoy was educated at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram School in Pondicherry, where he studied Bengali literature, English literature, philosophy, and was also a champion sprinter. Pondicherry is a cosmopolitan city which was still a French colony for the first eleven years that Sri Chinmoy resided there and retains its international flavour to this day.

Sri Chinmoy was extremely fluent in English, having read, written, spoken, and studied that language since his ashram days (1943-1964). In his mid-twenties, he became secretary to noted savant Nolini Kanta Gupta, and translated many of the latter’s articles from Bengali to English, as well as publishing articles of his own. Sri Chinmoy’s longest play, The Descent of the Blue, recounts important incidents in the life of Sri Aurobindo, and was first published serially in Mother India: A Monthly Review of Culture between 1958 and 1962. According to Anurag Banerjee of the Overman Foundation, “The editor, K.D. Sethna, wrote in a review: ‘Chinmoy succeeds time and again in transmuting his facts into revealing truths with the help of an alert imagination.'”

After coming to America in 1964, Sri Chinmoy soon embarked upon a vigorous schedule of writing, teaching, and lecturing. His 1969 Harvard lecture on “The Vedanta Philosophy” was later published by the Philosophical Society of England in its journal, The Philosopher, Vol. 21.

His poems won awards in American literary journals, and in 1995 he received the University of Washington’s World Peace Literature Award. In 2001 he was invited to participate in “Dialogue Through Poetry,” a consortium of poets, writers, organizers, and UN officials committed to building a culture of peace through poetry, culminating in a reading at UN headquarters which also featured Joyce Carol Oates and James Ragan. The libraries of Harvard Divinity School and Brown University house collections of Sri Chinmoy’s early writings, as does the Graduate Theological Union Library/Media Center of the Pacific School of Religion.

Consistent with the concept of spiritual intelligence, Sri Chinmoy’s works embody not just knowledge, but insight. See, for example, this talk on “Appreciation of Emily Dickinson” which he gave at the United Nations in December 1975, marking the 145th anniversary of Miss Dickinson’s birth.

So where we see a bored, neurotic housewife (flanked by male sycophants) go on the Internet and claim that Sri Chinmoy was a “self-educated man from a third-world country,” we need to both recognize the dog whistle (which appeals to shopworn stereotypes), and realize that the speaker is talking out her backside.

Lavanya Muller, whose present-day ignorance is dwarfed only by that of Joe Kracht

An amusing incident from the 1970s relays the depth of Sri Chinmoy’s knowledge and wit, and the surprise shown by some American disciples at his studied familiarity with Western literature. After reading the following story by Sri Chinmoy published in 1974, one Western disciple remarked: “How does Guru know about Shylock and Portia?”

The telephone blesses the Master

There was once a very great spiritual Master who had many disciples of all ages. Unfortunately, all of the disciples had problems, and the Master used to spend a lot of time talking on the telephone. This Master did not sleep very much. In the small hours of the morning, when his disciples were all home in bed, he used to meditate on them and on the Earth consciousness.

At midnight one night, the Master’s telephone rang. He picked up the phone and heard an elderly lady saying, “Mary, Mary, how many times did I tell you not to marry that guy?” Then she hung up.

The Master knew it was a wrong number, but he felt sorry that this woman’s daughter had made a bad marriage. So the spiritual Master prayed, “O Mother of the Saviour, do take care of Your namesake and protect Your sacred name.”

At three o’clock that morning the Master’s telephone rang again. This time the caller was a middle-aged man. “Why don’t you die at this very moment so that I can have my children back?” he shouted at the Master. “Why don’t you have children of your own and play with them? Why do you have to play with my children?” Then he hung up.

The Master used his occult power to find out who the man was, and the next day he told the man’s children to go back to their father.

The children said to the Master, “Master, we shall go back to our parents, although we have done nothing wrong to you. It is our parents who have insulted you. But since you have asked us to go back to them, we shall go. And we shall forgive your injustice. But we shall not forget the love and compassion which you have shown us on so many occasions.”

That night, the Master got a phone call at four o’clock. A young girl said to him, “Did God tell you that you have realised Him, or is it your own imagination that says so?”

The Master said to the girl, “God didn’t tell me of His own accord, but I forced Him to say that I have realised Him and that it is not my imagination. It is my declaration through God’s lips that I have realised God.”

At five o’clock in the morning the telephone rang again. A young man’s voice said, “Why do you think of yourself as God? What is wrong with you?”

The Master used his occult power and saw that the youth was a hippie and a drug addict. Then he answered, “Nothing is wrong with me. I don’t consider myself God; I consider myself God’s lion and God’s dog. When I stand before a person like you, I feel that I am God’s roaring lion. When I stand in front of my devoted disciples, I feel that I am God’s faithful dog.”

At six o’clock the Master got another call. This time it was from a young, arrogant disciple of his, who said to the Master, “What right have you to talk about marriage? My wife and I got married long before we came to your path. You have no right to break up a happy marriage.”

The Master replied, “True, I have no right to break up a happy marriage, but I have every right to break up your loveless, heartless, baleful and baneful marriage. For that is what your souls want, and that is what God wants.” Then he hung up on the disciple.

The telephone disturbed him again at seven o’clock. A young girl disciple said to him, “Master, please do me a favour. I really want to marry Roger. I desperately need him. Please tell him to marry me.”

The Master said, “Have you asked Roger whether he needs you desperately, as well?”

“I asked him,” the young girl replied, “but he said that the one he needs desperately is you, and not me. What am I going to do?”

“My child, please be just,” the Master said. “Since he needs me desperately, and I also need him, please allow me to have him. Since we want each other, we deserve to get each other. And if you want to please him, then try to please me. For that will please him most.”

At eight o’clock the telephone rang again. An elderly lady said to the Master, “How dare you ask my daughter to marry a Jew! We are all staunch Catholics. You are simply throwing my daughter to the dogs! It is like asking me to give a pound of flesh right from my chest! You are the Shylock of the twentieth century!”

The Master replied, “True, I am the Shylock of the twentieth century, but where is the Portia of the twentieth century to save you?”

At nine o’clock the Master got another call. An elderly man said, “You unthinkable, incredible impostor! How dare you ask my son to marry a Christian girl? I tell you, even your Jesus Christ would not approve of this match. For my sake, for Christ’s sake, stop this marriage! If you don’t, you will definitely go to hell!”

The Master said, “I am so happy to hear that you are ready to send me to hell. I wish to go there immediately, for the place I am living in now is infinitely worse than hell!”

At ten o’clock the telephone rang again. This time the Master did not answer it. When it stopped ringing, he immediately called the telephone company and asked them to remove the telephone from his house.

— Sri Chinmoy, from The Ascent and the Descent of the Disciples, Agni Press, 1974

Like the characters in Sri Chinmoy’s story, people who post apostate testimonials on the Internet may strike us as ignorant, petty, and self-obsessed — unable to see beyond their own narrow interests. Those who abandoned their spiritual practice 15 or 20 years ago can easily descend into a condition of knownothingness, while those like the scholars quoted here, who devote their lives to spiritual study, continue to cultivate spiritual intelligence and are able to explicate spiritual texts.

As I discuss in “Doubt, Faith, and the Ethics of Apostasy,” it’s important to ride the ups and downs of life and not allow your nature to turn hostile toward the spiritual teacher and spiritual path. Otherwise, you can quickly lose or negate all the good karma you had built up through spiritual effort. Your life can easily degenerate into something mean and small.

In your fallen state, you may want to see everything painted “black as night, black as coal,” and “want to see the sun blotted out from the sky.” But these things will never happen. Only, like the blind man you will not be able to enjoy the light and colours which are all around you, which others are enjoying due to their soulful acceptance of the spiritual reality.

sri-chinmoy-world-harmony-6In the inevitable movement of society toward higher consciousness, apostate testimonials which deny the spiritual reality are like mere footnotes to God’s voluminous autobiography, which He writes on the tablet of human history. See also You by Sri Chinmoy, a series of guided meditations which uncover the hidden relationship between the individual soul and the Universal Soul.

The truth of life is not black, but golden. With this knowledge, we can have a new acquaintance with the world at large. By appreciating the spiritual reality, we join in the festival of an all-embracing life. We enjoy the rich enamelled colour of vision, the dancing abundant life of the heart.

sri-chinmoy-yogaMichael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization. Texts/media are quoted for purposes of education and criticism in keeping with principles of fair use in creating a transformative work.

As always, quoted material does not imply agreement by the quoted sources with this article or with anything else found on my blog.

This post is a work of independent research by the author, reflecting the author’s personal beliefs and opinions. No third party sources were personally consulted prior to publication. For further information, see “Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Scholarly Research in Communication.”


Book Cover Project

Here are the book covers for this post, mostly from SriChinmoyLibrary.com:

sri-chinmoy-my-flute-1

sri-chinmoy-supreme-teach-me-how-to-cry

sri-chinmoy-supreme-teach-me-how-to-surrender

sri-chinmoy-the-dance-of-life-1

visions-of-the-emerald-beyond-4bsri-chinmoy-poetry-vidagdha-meredith-bennett

sri-chinmoy-the-descent-of-the-blue-2

sri-chinmoy-eastern-heart-western-mind-2

sri-chinmoy-the-ascent-and-descent-of-the-disciples

sri-chinmoy-you

* * *

LENIE and PENIE Awards for 2015

Brother and sister clinch coveted LENIE and PENIE awards!

Each year at this time,* the Ethics & Spirituality Blog presents one award for Legal Ethics Not In Evidence (the “LENIE“), and a second award for Publishing Ethics Not In Evidence (the “PENIE“) to two qualified candidates.

Candidates must demonstrate exceptional ability in at least one of the following areas: social climbing, backstabbing, insensitivity, demagoguery, hypocrisy, abuse of power, or avarice.

In a rare occurrence, this year a brother and sister have scampered away with both awards!

For exploits recounted in “The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 3,” Joe Kracht — sometimes known as the Lawton law firm’s “Burning Man” — wins this year’s LENIE. Joe will receive an autographed picture of Roy Cohn and a one-way ticket to Palookaville.

For exploits likewise recounted in “How far would you go to get a book deal?” Elizabeth Kracht — sometimes known as Kimberley Cameron & Associates’ “Godmother of Corruption” — wins this year’s PENIE. Liz will receive an all-expense-paid cruise to Yorkeys Knob with Rupert Murdoch, and a year’s supply of kitty-litter. As an additional bonus, her red hair helmet will be steam-cleaned and revivified.

Note: The phrase “all-expense-paid cruise” should not be inappropriately applied to Ms. Kracht’s teenage years.

Remember, there are 365 days in a year. If you act badly enough on any one of them (particularly on the Internet), you just might snag yourself a LENIE or PENIE.

DISCLAIMER: Taxes and gratuities not included. Not available in Nebraska, Idaho, or Yucatan. Some parts may be made of oleomargarine. Valid ID must be presented at time of award. Candidates may be required to sing the Tippy Tippy Tiptoe song while balancing on one leg and gargling Drano. Some ingredients may cause drowsiness or increased risk of moist armpits. Do not use if you are pregnant, thinking of becoming pregnant, or have ever used the word “pregnant” in a sentence, even humorously. Less than 2% of candidates saw little green men. Do not speak to these men or give them matches. If you see something, say something.

*Of course, there’s no tradition like a new tradition. 😉

Therapists, Hubris, and Native Intelligence

How the TV show Northern Exposure can teach us why some therapists aren’t good sources of spiritual wisdom.

This is a follow-up to “The ACLU and Religious Freedom Part 2,” where I began discussing the problems which ensue when spiritual seekers are exposed to bad therapy. Such problems include Guru Alienation Syndrome — a condition similar to Parental Alienation Syndrome, but often caused by a therapist or ex-cult support group.

I grew up watching movies like Ordinary People, and thinking of therapists as being like the Judd Hirsch character: sympathetic, caring, always reaching out a helping hand to people in crisis, and never doing any harm. I still want to believe that’s true of many or even most therapists. It came as a shock to me to learn that some therapists are motivated by politics, ideology, and an inflated sense of their own infallibility. They claim to be experts in things they’ve never actually studied, and practice fringe therapies which may actually harm their clients. What I’m saying might be described as a “contrarian narrative;” but to recognize some truth in it is to gain insight into many phenomena which undergird our modern world and modern conflicts.

Tana Dineen is a psychologist herself, but one who is critical of what she calls the “Psychology Industry.” Her presentation “Are We Manufacturing Victims?” is helpful in understanding psychology from a contrarian point of view. Taking in her broad analysis, it becomes easier to process the information I’ve shared concerning anti-cult therapists who condition their clients to view themselves as “cult victims.” Dineen writes:

As a society, we have become accustomed to seeking psychological explanations for every part of life and to relying on experts or specialists to give guidance, direction or approval. Who questions the notion that psychologists can see inside people’s heads and hearts, know their thoughts, intentions, motives? Who questions what the experts have to say about our lives from birth to death? Who questions that psychologists know best how to parent, make marriages work, combat violence, resolve conflicts, and grieve? [or interpret spiritual experiences?]

Dineen includes this snappy quote from Noam Chomsky: “One waits in vain for psychologists to state the limits of their knowledge.” When psychologists overstep their bounds and begin dictating what spiritual seekers are allowed to believe and practice, they’re usurping the role of spiritual teachers and replacing spiritual beliefs with secular rationalist ones. This raises problems of set theory and argumentum ad verecundiam.

Psychologists are not typically experts in religion, nor does the set of things known by psychologists encompass the set of things known by priests, nuns, ministers, rabbis, imams, yogis, lamas, mystics, gurus, or shamans, whose training is quite different. It would seem to be an example of extreme hubris (or perhaps charlatanism is a better word) when psychologists claim to be able to tell spiritual seekers what groups they should or should not join. Such advice is usually conformist in nature, and tends to steer the would-be seeker toward making fairly mainstream secular choices (or “spirituality lite”). Yet, psychologists do not have a lock on human wisdom, and people who are suffering have a right to decide what modalities they find helpful in dealing with accumulated pain.

On the one hand, many psychologists are compassionate healers; on the other hand, their training inclines them to be secular rationalists. This sets up a potential dissonance between the needs of a client who by nature is religious or spiritual, and a therapist who by training is not. The spiritual seeker may adopt a humble stance of “not-knowing,” while the therapist may evince a certitude in Dawkinslike assumptions about the “God delusion.” What could possibly go wrong?

Since therapy includes a large component of mentoring, the danger for the spiritual seeker who becomes involved in therapy — especially anti-cult therapy — is that the influence of the therapist-as-mentor will be to quash any nascent feelings of spirituality in the client, and substitute a secular rationalist model of the universe based on critical thinking and (paradoxically) conformism.

In short, the client may walk in a spiritual seeker, and walk out a “cult victim” owing to techniques and methods I’ve described elsewhere. This also applies to ex-cult support groups themed on abuse, and based on the same underlying premise that the former spiritual seeker is really a “cult victim.”

How do psychologists manage to so massively influence the way that people come to interpret (or reinterpret) past experiences? According to Tana Dineen, “The illusion of power is maintained through the mystique of science and the symbols of professionalism.” In a significant (if turgid) passage, Ole Jacob Madsen (also a psychologist) writes:

Unfortunately, the ability to set boundaries is wanting [in psychologists] and the result becomes instead a boundless expansion of a therapeutic logic because the professional ethos entails a lack of understanding for other values, systems of meaning and principles besides the purely therapeutic, attributable to the belief that one serves only the cause of the good, in that everything is actually psychology.

— Ole Jacob Madsen, The Therapeutic Turn: How Psychology Altered Western Culture

What’s striking here is that Madsen says psychologists (who often complain that certain spiritual beliefs and practices are “totalistic”) actually pursue psychology in a totalistic manner. They’re seemingly incapable of recognizing that spiritual beliefs and principles might be a different system of meaning which lies outside their purview (unless they themselves choose to undergo spiritual training). It’s that same problem of hubris and set theory again: We’re psychologists, therefore we know everything because we analyze it using psychology. No! You only know psychology; you don’t know the set of things which are not knowable through psychology. Why do you pretend otherwise?

The difficulty which scientific rationalists have in perceiving (and making sense of) spiritual phenomena is dramatized in an episode of the 90s TV series Northern Exposure (Season 2, Episode 2). Joel Fleischman is a doctor from New York who, in order to pay off the loans for his medical education, has to serve as town physician in the mythical locale of Cicely, Alaska. Ed Chigliak is a half-Native Alaskan who was abandoned at birth, and as a young man is preoccupied with finding his parents. One night, Ed is visited by a spirit called “One-Who-Waits” who offers to help Ed in his search:

The reaction of Dr. Fleischman to being unable to see a spirit guide which Native people (including his own secretary, Marilyn Whirlwind) can see is to express concern about Ed’s mental health, mixed with a social control message: “I’m worried about you Ed, I really am. You’re not acting in a psychologically healthy way. … People who see things that don’t exist usually end up in Bellevue — it’s a special hospital for people with severe mental illness.” This is the familiar mixed message which many spiritual adherents report receiving when they’re targeted for some form of Strategic Intervention Therapy (or SIT) by exit counselors. Such adherents sometimes reply that they have their own therapy, which is Stay Home In Temple. (You can work out the acronym for yourself.) 😉

Therapists often lack “native intelligence,” are jealous of spiritual teachers (whom they view as competitors), and are dismissive of spiritual experiences, which they redefine negatively as “dissociative states” or similar jargon. I’ve seen many examples of spiritual seekers who were turned into third-rate conformists by bad therapy, and were consciously turned against their former spiritual teacher by a therapist who resented the teacher’s influence. As I discuss in “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 counseling 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.

Some psychologists can’t tell the difference between a voluntary spiritual community such as an ashram or sangha where people go to pray, meditate, read, and reflect, and a POW camp where people are held prisoner and subjected to physical brutality. These particular psychologists aren’t just hostile to spirituality in a general way, but indulge in specific pseudoscientific theories which foolishly treat spiritual seekers as if they were prisoners of war. This major category error then leads to civil rights abuses.

If you’ve had spiritual experiences, believe in them. Don’t let psychologists explain them away with jargonistic mumbo-jumbo. If you have faith in a spiritual teacher, treat that relationship with the sacredness it deserves. Don’t let anyone alienate you as part of some fad to embrace a new identity. Continue reading

Can Salon Learn From Rolling Stone’s Mistakes? Part 1

The Rolling Stone/UVA debacle was preventable but not unique. Salon had a similar breakdown in early 2014, likewise due to somnolent editors and fabulist sources, plus a hidden element of corruption.

The essence of Columbia Journalism Review’s critique of the Rolling Stone campus rape piece boiled down to these three things:

1. Relying on a single source, and failing to interview subjects who might reveal a different perspective or show the original source to be inaccurate.

2. Failing to provide people accused by the reporter of committing crimes with detailed information about the allegations and an opportunity to respond.

3. Failing to locate a person who was deeply implicated in the story, and whose existence, non-existence, or strong denial would cast the story in a different light or even argue for its non-publication.

Another issue was “confirmation bias,” or the tendency to fall hook, line and sinker for a single source’s uncorroborated story if it corresponds to a “prevalent narrative” or one’s own cherished beliefs. A false story is embraced because it strikes a political or emotional chord, or fulfills a need to believe certain things about groups in conflict. (Of course, a false story may also be embraced as a means of boosting circulation.)

In the case of the Rolling Stone article, the underlying conflict was between feminists concerned about campus rape, and the Southern old boy network — thought to be represented by UVA’s “elite” Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. The reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, sought out a story that would fit a pre-existing narrative, would be emblematic, and would advance views shared by her editors (and which I also share): that sexual abuse of women and girls is a serious worldwide problem (including on college campuses).

The story, “A Rape on Campus,” focused on the pseudonymous “Jackie,” who claimed to have been brutally gang-raped at Phi Kappa Psi; and on the likewise pseudonymous “Drew,” who was portrayed as the ringleader, but was never contacted by Erdely.

As events unfolded, it became clear that Jackie was a troubled fabulist, and that Phi Kappa Psi didn’t conform to Erdely’s stereotypes. In the current universe of UVA fraternities, they seem to be known as nice guys. They hadn’t even held a party on the night Jackie claimed to have been gang-raped. A months-long police investigation (in which Jackie declined to cooperate) turned up no evidence of wrongdoing. The plain facts contradicted Jackie’s story, and Rolling Stone issued a retraction.

The CJR report didn’t blame Jackie, reasoning that had Rolling Stone reporters, editors and fact-checkers followed Journalism 101 procedures, the story would never have seen the light of day. (It’s the publisher, not the source, who’s responsible for what gets printed.) Still, Jackie’s inaccurate claims are at the heart of the harm done to innocents. Her motives remain unclear.

There are whole segments of the media (both left and right) obsessed with “advocacy journalism,” where the purpose is to float allegations for political ends, with little concern for truth or accuracy. Such journalism tends to reflect what people want to believe rather than reality, as with stories in WorldNetDaily that President Obama is both gay and Muslim. It’s easy to play “spot the deficiency” in such stories, where a tainted source or crucial questions never asked by the reporter lead to implausible results.

In “A Rape on Campus,” there were questions Sabrina Erdely never asked, perhaps on principle. Could Jackie have some motive for confabulating? The politically correct answer is that no woman ever has a reason to lie about sexual abuse; yet this does happen. The statistics are so bogged down in politics that no one’s sure how often. In “Are We Manufacturing Victims?” psychologist Tana Dineen points to the prevalence of “advocacy data: numbers created to make a point or support an argument.” She urges careful investigation of each claim, rather than over-reliance on statistics. Cathy Young’s analysis in “Crying Rape” is particularly clear-headed and balanced. Leaving aside the details and quoting her broad conclusions:

Rape is a repugnant crime — and one for which the evidence often relies on one person’s word against another’s. Moreover, in the not-so-distant past, the belief that women routinely make up rape charges often led to appalling treatment of victims. However, in challenging what author and law professor Susan Estrich has called “the myth of the lying woman,” feminists have been creating their own counter-myth: that of the woman who never lies.

A de facto presumption of guilt in alleged sexual offenses is as dangerous as a presumption of guilt in any crime, and for the same reasons: It upends the foundations on which our system of justice rests and creates a risk of ruining innocent lives.

Our focus on getting justice for women who are sexually assaulted is necessary and right. We are still far from the day when every woman who makes a rape accusation gets a proper police investigation and a fair hearing. But seeking justice for female victims should make us more sensitive, not less, to justice for unfairly accused men. In practical terms, that means finding ways to show support for victims of sexual violence without equating accusation and guilt, and recognizing that the wrongly accused are real victims too.

— Cathy Young, from “Crying Rape”

90s Conflicts Revisited

Though the press is treating the Rolling Stone controversy de novo, many of the underlying issues hearken back to the repressed memory cases of the 1990s. At odds are some truths difficult to reconcile in practice:

1. Women in crisis need unquestioning support, and a therapeutic community where they can talk about their experiences with others who may have had similar experiences.

2. “It is inappropriate to be unconcerned with the truth of a client’s experience during psychotherapy. In the case of a person with no memory of sexual abuse, it is also inappropriate to engage in group counseling with other victims of sexual assault because of the danger that another patient’s problem or experience will be inappropriately suggestive to the client.” — Judge William J. Groff

3. Survivor groups are not politically or factually neutral. While at their best they can be a source of much-needed comfort to a genuine victim, at their worst they can encourage a non-victim to create a new social identity based on victimhood, in order to reap the emotional rewards of attention and sympathy, and to advance a political agenda.

4. It is necessary to distinguish between real victims and faux victims, since victimhood is sometimes used as a rhetorical platform from which to launch attacks which may be motivated by politics, personal grievance, or personal gain.

There would seem to be inherent conflicts between the therapeutic process, the legal process, the political process, and the journalistic process of gathering facts. In the instant matter, Sabrina Erdely may have acted too much like an advocate and not enough like a journalist. Had she been willing to ask more questions and interview more people, she would have discovered that Jackie was “catfishing” her friend Ryan, and had apparently made up a non-existent person, Haven Monahan, as part of her machinations. This would have been a red flag.

MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow recently interviewed Liz Seccuro, a genuine survivor of a UVA campus rape 30 years ago, and the author of Crash Into Me. Seccuro was mentioned in the Rolling Stone piece as if to bolster Jackie’s account, and Farrow questions whether Jackie might have co-opted Seccuro’s story:

Liz Seccuro: Anonymous people, blog commenters, my friends, and my family all called me, or commented, or wrote to me and said, “This is your story.” I can’t comprehend how someone would co-opt someone else’s pain and story for this.

Ronan Farrow: Do you think there’s a chance that that’s what happened, that Jackie co-opted your story?

Liz Seccuro: I think, as I said it’s been suggested to me so many times that I have to allow it to be a possibility.

Ronan Farrow: I understand the crisis management center [at UVA] gave out your book to survivors.

Liz Seccuro: Yes.

Ronan Farrow: Do you think that Jackie perhaps believed that your story was hers?

Liz Seccuro: I think that somebody who has now told this story so many times, and stuck by her story even after being discredited, I believe that that person would have some mental issues, and would believe that.

Ronan Farrow: If this is true, if by some happenstance Jackie co-opted your story (to use your words), what’s your message to her?

Liz Seccuro: Well I think right now, my message to her is to get some help and to understand — and I’m not ruling out that nothing happened to her. I think something traumatic has happened to her in her life, and I think she needs to get some help to address that. It’s very easy to become enamoured with the survivor community and dive into that. But unless you’re willing to talk to the police and to file a complaint, you can’t level these sort of allegations. It was hard for me, and we had evidence. You can’t make these sort of allegations that live on forever, because look at the mess we’re in now.

MSNBC interview with Liz Seccuro

Seccuro’s comments underscore points 2-4 above, since the implication is that Jackie may have gravitated toward a survivor group and adopted someone else’s prefab narrative in order to qualify for the emotional support, friendship, and camaraderie which the group provided. She may also have wanted her friend Ryan to develop a protective attitude toward her as the basis for forming a romantic relationship. This doesn’t necessarily mean she was “lying.” She may be emotionally troubled and trying to cope as best she can, perhaps by confabulating.

Confabulating is different than wilfully lying, though there may be a continuum between the two. The subject is controversial because we live in a period when we’re still negotiating the boundaries between behaviour which is pathological and in need of treatment, versus behaviour which is unethical and deserving of blame. I feel some sympathy for Jackie, because you don’t hang out with a survivor’s group unless you feel like a survivor. But of course, the true victims are those who were wrongfully accused.

Sometimes when people feel emotional pain, they want to externalize it, force it into a victim/abuser paradigm which is pre-scripted, ready-made, and supported by an interest group. But not everything fits into that paradigm. Sometimes the pain is real and is the result of emotional conflict, but there is no abuser.

This again hearkens back to the repressed memory cases of the 1990s. In response to false claims of abuse proliferating at that time, the British Psychological Society issued May 2000 guidelines stating:

Psychologists must be alert to the dangers of suggestion. Potential sources of suggestion include subtle cues about the psychologist’s attitudes and beliefs that may be inferred from the therapeutic context (e.g. particular books on the shelf) or client contact with “survivor literature” and subcultures of abuse. Psychologists must be aware that there may be situations in which clients are motivated to recall memories of abuse for a variety of ends.

The subtext here is the possibility of coaching, but none of this is an argument that sexual abuse (and even gang rape) doesn’t occur; we know it does. It is an argument that journalists have to be extremely careful when dealing with people who’ve immersed themselves in “survivor literature” and subcultures of abuse. And just as psychologist attitudes can influence what a client will recall, so can sessions with a journalist determined to impose a pre-existing narrative. If “A Rape on Campus” turns out to be a borrowed scenario from Liz Seccuro’s book, then who borrowed it: Jackie, Sabrina Erdely, or some combination of the two?

If there was collusion, then what type of collusion? I seriously doubt the two women engaged in a deliberate conspiracy to lie. Far more likely is the type of psychological collusion in which people and groups gradually take on each others beliefs and attitudes, leading to a socially constructed reality which is at odds with factual reality. This problem knows no gender or politics. It could just as easily affect “your crazy uncle who watches FOX news all day” (a figure popularized by Rachel Maddow).

Implications and Cautionary Notes

Events in the real world often have political ramifications, but journalists, media critics, and the general public should beware of the tail wagging the dog. When a too-perfect story pandering to populist stereotypes emerges in tandem with political ax-grinding and journalistic grandstanding, this should raise concerns about truthfulness. See, for example, Paul Krugman on Obamacare horror stories as a means of attacking the ACA.

The need for truth is not liberal or conservative, female or male, religious or secular, but something universal. We all need truth. Truth matters.

Another cautionary note is that while our justice system is imperfect, it has a more rigorous set of checks and balances in place than either trial by tabloid or trial by Internet (both of which can easily descend into vigilantism). When a person appears in the tabloids or on the Internet claiming to have been abused some years previously, but has never (and will not now) file a police report, there’s reason to be skeptical — especially if their claim surfaces in connection with a social control agenda (e.g. closing down fraternities, or discrediting spiritual groups). I believe there’s a higher incidence of false claims when the claim is not freestanding but is allied to a movement ideology, or is meant to be the smoking gun that “proves” one side right on a hotly contested social issue. (Remember the Tawana Brawley rape hoax.)

The implication, then, is that statistics concerning false claims of sexual abuse are not flat across the board, but vary according to the scenario. A person who promptly goes to the police station to file a rape complaint and doesn’t show an inordinate interest in publicity or politics is more likely to be telling the truth. A person who pointedly avoids filing a police complaint, but who seeks attention and publicity — and whose claims leverage a social or political cause — is less likely to be telling the truth. If there’s a span of years between the disputed events and the first report of them, this should also raise concerns; likewise if the person being accused is long dead and can’t possibly defend themselves. (Some people look for an unfair fight.)

Filing false police reports is a crime according to both federal and state laws. But nursing false claims of abuse in the tabloids or on the Internet may carry a civil penalty at most, and would require that the injured party file a lawsuit, which is often expensive, inconvenient, and subject to the Streisand effect  (as well as other legal loopholes). Thus, haunting the tabloids and Internet has become an easy way for opportunists to score political brownie points or wreak personal vengeance at minimal risk to themselves, particularly if they’re judgement proof.

To be fair, there are genuine victims of abuse who may find it difficult to engage with the justice system (which is not always friendly). It’s possible that a person could be raped, feel embarrassed and ashamed, never go to police, but become persuaded years later that “something must be done.” If there’s no evidence, they could conceivably decide that attention and publicity make a good substitute for legal justice. But do they? We should be extremely wary of trial by tabloid or Internet. There’s just too great a risk of destroying innocent people’s lives.

Twelve minutes into Hanna Rosin’s interview with Sabrina Erdely, Erdely claims that Jackie was too traumatized to go to police, but not too traumatized to have her story published in Rolling Stone. This logic troubles me. Richard Bradley, who is often a heartless critic of both Erdely and Jackie, writes:

All of Jackie’s dissembling — her failure to return phone calls, her evasiveness, her refusal to name names, her threat to pull out of the story — were behaviors that should have set off alarms in any good reporter. Not Erdely. To her, Jackie’s “behavior seemed very consistent with a victim of trauma.” In other words: Every single thing that Jackie did that would, to most reporters, suggest she was an unreliable source, actually confirmed to Erdely that Jackie was a reliable source. In that scenario, there is literally nothing that Jackie could do that would not then be evidence of her credibility. If she swore on a Bible that she was lying, it would only prove how “traumatized” she was.

Richard Bradley

While Bradley tends to poke the protagonists with a sharp stick, he makes a valid point about the catch-22 frequently encountered when trying to evaluate the accuracy of accounts by people who claim to be victims of some traumatic event: the less reliable they are, the more credible they’re claimed to be. Like too much ketchup on bad food, trauma apparently hides all defects. This makes the accuracy of their accounts into a non-falsifiable proposition. (See Virgina Hughes, “And the Memory Wars Wage On,” for discussion of how this conundrum dates back to the 1990s.)

My point is not that trauma doesn’t exist, but that it shouldn’t become a blanket excuse for ignoring sound principles of journalism or jurisprudence. In every facet of human experience, we’re always dealing with truth and falsehood. Just as there are genuine victims of trauma, there are also people who go into “victim mode” to launch attacks on a person or organization, or to provide the ammo for such attacks. That’s why we must always follow a fair process based on evidence — one which holds a steady course in spite of the emotional and political elements which may be introduced.

The very real problem of sexual abuse has this attendant problem of false claims, which we also need to acknowledge. The flame wars between feminists and anti-feminists make it hard to hold both truths in our minds simultaneously. We live in an era of extreme polarization where any sensible middle position gets obliterated or shouted down. Cathy Young’s view in “Crying Rape” that we must continue to seek justice for female victims, while also recognizing that wrongly accused men are real victims too, represents the ideal balance.

Just as combating the problem of sexual abuse means understanding how abuse happens in the workplace or on campus, combating the problem of false accusations also requires insight and analysis. In one problem scenario, a person who is judgement proof (because they have minimal assets or are living overseas or are insane) is persuaded to front for an interest group which then mounts an Internet-based publicity campaign. An outlandish story is trumpeted all over the Net by well-heeled professionals who hide behind the original, judgement proof, fabulist source.

There are lawyers who will tell you they don’t believe anything they read on the Internet, because they know from experience that the Internet is still the Wild West, and libel laws are (for all intent and purposes) nonexistent. This is something to ponder when judging the credibility of material appearing on blogs or Internet-only publications like Salon or WorldNetDaily, or when dodgy Internet material makes the jump to print media due to somnolent editors or low ethics at a tabloid.

We should also be wary of claims of abuse which are a work product of therapy, but which are then removed from the original therapeutic context and unleashed on the public or the legal system. This was a huge problem in the 90s, but has not entirely gone away. (See this 2014 article in Pacific Standard.) Without digressing too far, I would say that real therapy is conducted in private, and no one is minuting every word for uploading to the Net.

Real therapy is about an honest search for personal truth, not an attempt to manipulate public opinion. However, just as we have seen a rise in “advocacy journalism,” there has also been a rise in “advocacy therapy.” In therapy driven by a social or political agenda, there is often an attempt to create a new narrative for past events, and that new narrative may not be truthful. Likewise, we should consider any therapy highly suspect if its “cure” for newly uncovered traumas involves phoning up the newspapers or bloviating on the Internet. These are quack remedies often embraced by synthetic victims. Psychologist Tana Dineen writes:

Synthetic victims are the people who become persuaded that they have been sexually harassed and often they appear to be truly suffering the psychological consequences. … [They include] the person who describes a scene to a co-worker, a spouse or maybe to a psychologist or even a lawyer and is provided with encouragement to think about it differently, perhaps as an incident of harassment or assault.

Memories change; reactions change; feelings change AND stories change. Relatively trivial events can become dramatic; they can be moulded, edited and modified to fit the sexual harassment script which people can easily find in pop psychology books, women’s magazines and on talk shows and now even on the Internet. As Mordecai Richler puts it in his most recent book Barney’s Version, these are people who “are tinkering with memory, fine-tuning reality.”

Scrupulously investigate any sexual harassment report that lands on your desk, looking not only for corroborating evidence, but, also, for possible contamination by the Psychology Industry. This contamination can take place, not only directly in psychotherapy but indirectly through pop psychology books, self-help manuals, media reports, support groups, comments made by family or co-workers, and even information posted on the Internet.

— Tana Dineen, “Are We Manufacturing Victims?”

I want to stress that just because there are synthetic victims doesn’t mean we should become insensitive to the worldwide problem of sexual abuse of women and girls. It does underscore the need to distinguish between real victims and faux victims, and to recognize particular scenarios where the incidence of false claims is higher. This might include divorce and child custody battles, employee wage disputes, and activist campaigns (whether left or right) to publicly discredit a person or organization. The latter includes anti-cult campaigns which attempt to falsely demonize minority faiths or get them to conform to pre-existing stereotypes. Again, if someone is portrayed on the Internet as committing crimes left and right, but in the real world there’s not a single police complaint, this suggests “the fix is in.”

A problem with survivor groups of various stripes is that in their zeal to produce social change, they may urge members to “come forward” with stories of abuse “to support the other women” and “to help society” (by opposing a targeted organization). Where the stories of abuse are only arrived at gradually over time (with pressure, coaching, and editorial assistance), it’s unclear whether they represent newly uncovered truths or painstakingly constructed falsehoods. Even the justice system may fail to make a clear determination, but at least it tries to eliminate hearsay, prevent collusion of witnesses, provide penalties for perjury, and ensure that accusers may be confronted and cross-examined. The same cannot be said of trial by tabloid or trial by Internet. This is why I remain critical of attorney Joseph C. Kracht for conducting Internet show trials which are mere vigilante exercises, with collusion between witnesses the order of the day.

Returning to the specifics of “A Rape on Campus”: While the Columbia report is very process-oriented and never mentions ethics, critics claim that Rolling Stone had an ethical obligation to question and corroborate before trumpeting such toxic accusations. Blaming the process lets individuals off the hook — individuals whose job it was to ensure that the process worked. See Slate.com, “‘Journalistic Failure’ Won’t Get You Fired From Rolling Stone.”

RS made so many mistakes, it’s a veritable fielder’s choice as to which ones to highlight. Scholar Clay Shirky tweeted that “Erdely got rolled by a source. Rolling Stone got rolled by Erdely.” (Or was it groupthink?) Allison Benedikt and Hanna Rosin note that it’s a cardinal journalistic sin to publish damning accusations of criminal wrongdoing without contacting the accused for comment. (See “The Missing Men” on Slate.com.)

What does all this have to do with Salon? Perhaps a teachable moment…

The Salon Article

In May 2014, Salon.com ran a false story claiming that Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007) — the genial Indian-American meditation teacher and humanitarian who had often received favorable coverage in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other papers — was really a “sex criminal.” The newspaper of record (which had covered Sri Chinmoy since 1971) had it wrong, and only one lone blogger at Salon knew the real skinny. Salon’s headline was: “The media’s love affair with accused sex criminal Sri Chinmoy.”

Simon and Schuster author Sri Chinmoy

Simon & Schuster author Sri Chinmoy

In the real world, Sri Chinmoy was an exemplary citizen who had received numerous awards and commendations for his spiritual, humanitarian, artistic, and athletic activities, including letters of appreciation from the mayors of New York City and San Francisco, remarks praising him in the Congressional Record, and nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize. Needless to say, he was never under investigation for any kind of crime. He sometimes got decent press coverage because in the real world he did demonstrable, verifiable good and no harm.

He was much beloved by his followers and by countless people who got to know him while working with him on projects for world betterment; but there are also people obsessed with trying to discredit him. As a result, he’s an Obama-like figure who has a small segment of the media running occasional hatchet pieces which emanate directly from cloud cuckoo land and have no connection to the real world. Such pieces are typically based on fabulist sources who live on the Internet or are associated with anti-cult groups.

One reason such hatchet pieces didn’t end with his death in 2007 is that he’s survived by the nonprofit spiritual organization he founded, Sri Chinmoy Centre, and by various artistic, athletic and humanitarian concerns. His followers continue to hold events based on his legacy and teachings.

Sri Chinmoy Centre - sample poster

Sri Chinmoy Centre – sample poster

One such event was the 2008 “Paintings for World Harmony” exhibit at the United Nations. It would be well to view the video in order to take in the real world flavour and get some grounding before diving headlong into the Salon piece:

A problem with the Salon piece is that it tries to paint a hateful picture in words which simply doesn’t match the visual or the data. It’s unclear whether the “sex criminal” headline was the same headline Nevada-based blogger Edwin Lyngar submitted to Salon editors. As Dustin Rowles recounts in “How Salon.com Rewrote My Headline and Turned Me Into an Internet Troll,” Salon reheadlines pieces to drum up page views.

From the get-go, the Salon piece had that clickbait stench about it — the redolence of what Chez Pazienza at The Daily Banter calls “outrage porn.” Pazienza writes: “The editors of Salon are trolling you, all of us, and they’re doing it hard, because trolling drives traffic.” Ryan Holiday observes: “It used be that sites like Salon.com had the moral high ground compared to right-wing pundits and demagogues like Rush Limbaugh… now they traffic in the same garbage.”

Journalist inflation played a key role: The cherry-picked source, Celia Corona-Doran, falsely claimed that back in 2006 when she was 38, Sri Chinmoy once asked her to consent to one-on-one sex with another woman. She did not identify the other woman, and Sri Chinmoy passed away in 2007.

The unconfirmed incident was inflated to a “sex crime” in Salon, and the surviving organization which Sri Chinmoy founded, Sri Chinmoy Centre, was described as a criminal organization, notwithstanding its good reputation, pacific outlook, and total lack of any criminal complaints in its 45-year history.

The Salon story was shockingly wrong, and as in the Rolling Stone piece, the core allegation came from a single, uncorroborated source who was regarded with mindless credulity. The whole matter amounted to a “she said, he’s dead” (long dead), since there was never any complaint, evidence, or witness. (The alleged “other woman” cannot be produced.)

The false claim has since been posted on a number of anti-cult sites and trumpeted to mainstream media figures, always in connection with attempts to discredit Sri Chinmoy Centre or persuade followers to recant their faith.

The source, Celia Corona-Doran, was known in Sri Chinmoy Centre by the name “Suchatula.” She never reported the alleged incident and remained with Sri Chinmoy Centre until 2009. She spoke well of Sri Chinmoy both before and after his death in 2007. In 2008, she wrote about him with particular enthusiasm, describing her own positive experiences in detail, accompanied by photos where she appeared happy and smiling with friends. See these 3 screenshots from 2008 issues of the magazine Inspiration-Sun, published by an Austrian follower of Sri Chinmoy, or view the source documents here and here.

Celia Corona-Doran a.k.a. Suchatala - Screenshot 1

Celia Corona-Doran a.k.a. Suchatula – Screenshot 1

Celia Corona-Doran a.k.a. Suchatala - Screenshot 2

Celia Corona-Doran a.k.a. Suchatula – Screenshot 2

Celia Corona-Doran a.k.a. Suchatala - Screenshot 3

Celia Corona-Doran a.k.a. Suchatula – Screenshot 3

Her cheerful demeanour, glowing descriptions of “Guru,” and detailed accounts of fun activities certainly raise grave doubts about anti-cult material which later appeared under her name in connection with an Internet-based ex-cult support group. Since she seemed so happy in 2008, the obvious question is: what changed in 2009?

In 2009, she got into a labor dispute and some credit card debt. She eventually declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy and sued her former employer, who was a follower of Sri Chinmoy, for back wages. She also fell in with old friends who had left Sri Chinmoy Centre some years previously and who took a hard apostate stance. Their modus operandi involved posting uncorroborated “testimonials” of abuse on the Internet in order to “rescue” purported “cult victims” who (apparently) could not be relied upon to make their own decisions in spiritual matters. In this context, claims of abuse take on a rather utilitarian purpose, as a means to an end.

Enter James Doran, Elizabeth Kracht, and Joe Kracht

There were other factors which led to Celia Corona’s radical volte-face. While still with Sri Chinmoy Centre, she became involved with a male follower, James Doran (a.k.a. “James D”), partly via the Internet. Mr. Doran’s peculiar way of wooing her was to familiarize her with extreme hate material circulated on anti-cult sites which portrayed Sri Chinmoy as a fiend in human form (which is certainly counterfactual).

Sri Chinmoy holding the World Harmony Run torch

Sri Chinmoy holding the World Harmony Run torch

According to Ms. Corona’s later report, James Doran was in contact with a number of women in the San Francisco Sri Chinmoy Centre, whom he emailed regularly.

Like Jackie (from the Rolling Stone article), when Celia Corona began portraying herself as a victim, she may have been “catfishing” James Doran, telling him the kind of story which seemed to interest him and would make her appear special. The two of them began Skyping almost daily, and gradually colluded in constructing a new version of reality which conveniently justified their eventual marriage. Ms. Corona writes: “He [James] said he was going to leave the Centre and that I had to leave too.”

Neither Ms. Corona nor Mr. Doran wanted to appear unspiritual to their friends, or to admit that they had simply succumbed to romantic temptation. So their cover story was that they had found out the guru was a fraud, and that was why they had left. Yet, numerous figures in the interfaith community, themselves possessing impeccable credentials, have attested to Sri Chinmoy’s genuineness (see below).

It must be noted that like Jackie, Celia Corona was initially extremely reluctant to have her (false) story publicized. When that story first appeared on an anti-cult message board in 2009, it was not posted by her, did not use her name, and did not even mention Sri Chinmoy. However, over time Celia Corona was resocialized to view herself as a cult victim, and persuaded to incorporate the false narrative she now relates into her personal biography. This change occurred in the environs of an Internet-based ex-cult support group, and those doing the persuading included her old friends Elizabeth Kracht and Joe Kracht — disaffected former Chinmoy followers once known as “Nirbachita” and “Yogaloy” respectively. (They are sister and brother.)

Elizabeth Kracht and Celia Corona had become fast friends in the mid-1980s, when they attended Los Gatos High School and often partied together. Their exploits “hitting some of SF’s elite clubs” (using fake IDs) are chronicled on Elizabeth Kracht’s blog “Chosen Instrument Child” (or see excerpts here). Describing those nights of frenetic partying, Ms. Kracht writes: “In retrospect, we’re both amazed we survived.” Celia had once dated Elizabeth’s other brother, Andy Kracht (a.k.a. Jeevan). When the two women later joined Sri Chinmoy Centre, this represented a gradual shift from a party lifestyle to a modest lifestyle based on meditation. Elizabeth Kracht writes:

The summer of my graduation I was a thorn in the side of my stepmom and dad. I slept until 2 p.m. in the afternoon, lazed about in the sun on the back deck of our house in Morgan Hill and only motivated myself to meet friends in Los Gatos and do more of the same: party.

My brother Andy was on a different trajectory. He’d finally surrendered to his fate and joined the Sri Chinmoy Centre, joining my older brother Joe, who’d done the same years earlier. By this time Joe was living in New York, close to the master, and Andy joined the Cupertino meditation center and was working at a cafe affiliated with the group. I would make my way over the cafe from time to time to see Andy, and he was hard at work winning me over to the side of a simpler, happier life through meditation by making the most amazing avocado sandwiches, and stuffing me with black bottom cupcakes. Both food for the soul. And the couple people I met that were part of the cafe and disciples of Sri Chinmoy I liked too: Pujari and Giribar.

— Elizabeth Kracht, “Chosen Instrument Child”

But by 2009, Elizabeth Kracht had been away from the Centre for 8 years, having left with a male follower named Pinak, and that relationship having recently gone sour, leaving her bitter. It was a rocky period in her life when she was making a mental list of grievances and looking for someone to blame. She moved in with her brother Joe, who had started a blog critical of Sri Chinmoy Centre where he recycled negative material found on message boards, or dished dirt on former colleagues. The blog became a magnet for anyone who had left the Centre in disfavor. Elizabeth Kracht joined with those writing “testimonials,” which were retrospective accounts by apostates supplying new anti-cult narratives for past events.

When Celia Corona left the Centre in early 2009, she was identified as someone who might be willing to supply such a testimonial for public use. It took weeks of phone calls for Elizabeth Kracht to drag a wacky story involving some sort of lesbian misadventure out of her old friend, and even then Ms. Corona flatly refused to publicize it herself or even have her name associated with it. Nevertheless, the story was posted on an anti-cult message board in May 2009 by Elizabeth Kracht, who seemed highly motivated despite her friend’s reluctance. In its original form, the story was a model of discursiveness involving dreams in which an unnamed person might have been depressed because an unnamed guru might have done something wrong — interspersed with Ms. Kracht’s own complaints that a café she had opened in Forest Hills, New York circa 2001 didn’t get as much support as she had hoped for, and eventually folded. Her narrative was difficult to follow because it contained about three levels of hearsay, and was rife with Ms. Kracht’s own resentments about being a self-described “black sheep.”

A few months later, attorney Joe Kracht announced on his blog that Ms. Corona had finally given consent for her name to be connected with the anonymous story which his sister had previously posted on a message board. This announcement did not come from Ms. Corona, who remained silent.

To connect the story to Ms. Corona at that point in time (August 26, 2009), one would have to read the anonymous story posted by Elizabeth Kracht, and put that together with Joe Kracht’s announcement (on a different website) that the story actually pertained to Ms. Corona. Whether or not this constituted “outing,” the appearance is that over time, Ms. Corona was groomed by the Krachts to become one of the cherished “testimonial writers” whose accounts were used to try and discredit Sri Chinmoy Centre. Ms. Corona was in dire financial straits at the time, while her friends Lizzie and Joe had become successful white-collar professionals.

Ms. Corona was eventually persuaded to play a public role which she did not originally contemplate, and to take ownership of a story which (like Jackie’s) was never meant for public consumption. It appears to have been meant for James Doran, but was later used by Ms. Corona to apply pressure to her former employer — a follower of Sri Chinmoy whom she decided to sue for back wages. Of Elizabeth Kracht and Joe Kracht, Ms. Corona writes: “Without them I am not sure if my story would have been told.” This is one of her few accurate statements.

How did a story of such dubious provenance come to be published in Salon five years later? Through corruption and nepotism. Elizabeth Kracht subsequently became a literary agent with Kimberley Cameron & Associates. She describes Edwin Lyngar (author of the Salon piece) as “her” author. Elsewhere, Mr. Lyngar confirms that Ms. Kracht is his literary agent and that she’s tasked with finding a publisher for his memoir Guy Parts. According to her LinkedIn profile, Ms. Kracht is also experienced in fiction writing & editing, storytelling, ghostwriting, content development, and public relations. Over a period of years, she collaborated with her friend Celia (who works at a Trader Joe’s) to turn the fabricated ramblings concerning anonymous actors which were posted on a message board in 2009 into the story libeling real persons which Edwin Lyngar planted in Salon.

James Doran, previously from New Zealand, but now working in the San Francisco Bay area as a web designer with Jade Orchard, has undergone a bizarre inversion of views similar to his wife Celia’s. Like Celia Corona, in 2008 James Doran seemed to have no problems with the late Sri Chinmoy or with Sri Chinmoy Centre. Like Ms. Corona, he participated in the 2008 World Harmony Run, and wrote detailed articles for Inspiration-Sun such as this one about a “California Joy Weekend.” There he describes a pleasant dinner at Jyoti-Bihanga restaurant in San Diego, a jovial mood, an early start the next morning to put on a popular swim & run event, a picnic lunch, games, hanging out enjoying sun and water, and “many happy faces.”

However, in May 2014 James Doran turned up on the Internet spouting rhetoric accusing Dr. Kusumita Pedersen — a respected scholar and professor of religion who knew Sri Chinmoy for 36 years — of being “in a cult.” He seemed to be trying to “deprogram” her over the Internet — perhaps another case of Guru Alienation Syndrome (or GAS), a condition I’ve described elsewhere.

An objective reading of the available evidence is that neither Celia Corona nor James Doran encountered any type of abuse during their years with Sri Chinmoy Centre. Their only real complaint was that — as Elizabeth Kracht puts it on her blog — “the Centre was a celibate path and women were to look upon the disciple men as brothers only.” Celia Corona and James Doran wanted to be together sexually, so they circulated all this argy-bargy about Sri Chinmoy as a diversion, in order not to look like romantic idiots themselves.

This is not to discount the possibility that sometime after leaving Sri Chinmoy Centre, Ms. Corona may have begun to experience grief and depression. As I noted in my original comments in May 2014: “Some people feel a genuine spiritual need which is satisfied by joining a community where people pray, meditate, sing, laugh, run, read, study, work, and reflect. If people leave such a community after 20 years, they may become unhappy. But this unhappiness is not caused by the spiritual community.”

I have often encountered people who were happy when they participated in the life of a spiritual community, but became unhappy after leaving it. Such people may misattribute the cause of their unhappiness to the thing they left behind. There’s an obvious fallacy here: Suppose you’re taking a certain course of medicine which seems to be improving your condition. Then, you stop taking the medicine and your condition worsens. How can you blame the medicine, given that it was helping you?

When the Salon article appeared, and knowledgeable people began decrying its falsity, Elizabeth Kracht’s response was to claim that Celia Corona-Doran was “traumatized,” and that those doubting her story were “retraumatizing” her — as if the trauma theory (also invoked by Sabrina Erdely) would somehow patch the huge holes in Corona-Doran’s story (which constituted a complete about-face from her prior statements). Ms. Kracht also went out of her way to bait and insult Prof. Kusumita Pedersen in a highly personal and offensive manner (as if James Doran’s rude comments weren’t enough!).

Literary Reality vs. Factual Reality

So, we have an unconfirmed story about a deceased peace advocate, with no complaint and no witnesses. The story first appears on a message board under Elizabeth Kracht’s alias (Nirbachita), then later “her” author Edwin Lyngar is attributing it to Celia Corona-Doran, who is judgement proof, having declared bankruptcy to avoid credit card debt. If this story were a horse, I’d shoot it to put it out of its misery!

In the real world, if you’re harassed you complain about it. But in the socially constructed reality where Celia Corona-Doran and Elizabeth Kracht hang out, you spend a few years massaging the fictional manuscript, trying to make the story appear credible, then use your influence to get it published in Salon, perhaps as a prelude to wangling a book deal. In how many ways can you say publishing industry corruption? This story is as false as the day is long, and there’s not one shred of evidence in the real world to back it up — only collusion or confabulation (to use two of the kinder available terms).

Why is it a problem when material accusing a person/organization of committing crimes or improprieties turns out to have been massaged by a literary editor for five years, then planted in the press through nepotism? Because it confuses literary reality with factual reality:

Over the past year, I’ve learned from my brilliant editor, Elizabeth K. Kracht at Kimberley Cameron and Associates Literary Agency, that there are segments in every manuscript that need to be refined, segments that need to be amplified, and segments, no matter how wonderful, that need to be ditched.

Barbara Donsky

Unfortunately, the parts Kracht ditched from Corona-Doran’s story are the parts dealing with factual reality, which I’m adding back through careful sleuthing. (All documents available on request.)

Ironically, in a Salon piece called “When narratives are so compelling that we don’t notice unbalanced reporting,” Erin Keane highlights this very problem: the blurring of lines between memoir and journalism. We expect memoirs to be biased, one-sided, fanciful, and delivered in the style of what-I-feel-is-the-only-reality. But journalists are supposed to care about balance and objective facts. A New York Times piece highlights the problem of nonfiction which turns out to be fiction:

In an extraordinary reversal of her defense of the author whose memoir she catapulted to the top of the best-seller lists, Oprah Winfrey rebuked James Frey, the author of “A Million Little Pieces,” on her television show yesterday for lying about his past and portraying the book as a truthful account of his life.

“I feel duped,” Ms. Winfrey told Mr. Frey. “But more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers.”

While the Random House legal department checks nonfiction books to make sure that no [living person] is defamed or libeled, it does not check the truth of the assertions made in a book.

Agents, publishers and authors are all going to have to be much more cautious in the way they approach the nonfiction market… Traditionally, publishers have not done fact-checking and vetting. But I think you are going to see memoirs read not only from a libel point of view but for factual accuracy. And where there are questions of possible exaggeration or distortion, the author is going to need to produce documentation.

— “Author Is Kicked Out of Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club,” The New York Times

To pose the problem of literary reality vs. factual reality in dramatic terms, suppose someone walks into a police station and says: “Here’s something I’ve been working on. It’s version 2.03a of my story of how I once belonged to an abusive cult. I’d like to thank my support group and my editor for all the help they gave me in moulding and shaping this story so that it makes good reading, packs an emotional wallop, and will help discredit the group I belonged to for 22 years. I’m sure you’ll want to investigate one particular incident as a crime, since it happened 8 years ago, doesn’t actually involve crime, and the person I accuse has been dead for 7 years.”

Now, the officer on duty probably doesn’t say, “Just one moment, I’ll escort you to the room where we take statements concerning Literary Blockbusters.” He probably says something more along the lines of “What the hell?” The gentle reader should do likewise.

The Salon Formula

Here, I’m not going through the Salon story line by line, but if you’re a journalist, editor, or scholar of religion I invite you to do so. It’s strung together with rumour, innuendo, and boilerplate anti-cult material. (Eastern guru? Why yes, we have a stereotype that fits your needs…) The binding agent is hate, and stories fueled by hate often turn out to be bad journalism. This one’s no exception. It’s a cesspool of open libel. The author claims that “Even if one decides not to accept the sex allegations at face value, the Sri Chinmoy cult has many crimes to pick from.” Not one crime is specified.

As discussed below in greater detail, Sri Chinmoy Centre simply has no history of any criminal activity. Quite the opposite. Members of Community Board 8 in Queens, New York (where the group is headquartered) credit them with cleaning up the Glenn Avenue area in Jamaica Hill and keeping it safe for over 30 years. The Board voted unanimously in 2010 to approve the sale of city-owned land to Sri Chinmoy Centre based on the Centre’s demonstrated good stewardship.

To understand the mindset behind the Salon hatchet job, it helps to know where Edwin Lyngar’s coming from. He has virtually no experience in investigative journalism. 99% of his published work consists of personal confessions or opinions on news events. He describes himself as an “aggressive atheist” who is “hostile to religion,” and who writes “often self-indigent [sic] shit.” In a January 2015 Salon piece, Lyngar berates the left for not fighting dirty. He encourages “rhetorical bomb throwing” and putting out “really crazy stuff … even if you only half believe it. … See if it flies. If it doesn’t, screw it — just fix it up next time.” Is this what journalism has become?

Edwin Lyngar, famous for throwing out really crazy stuff he only half believes. But does he ever really fix it?

Edwin Lyngar, famous for throwing out really crazy stuff he only half believes. But does he ever really fix it?

Lyngar was used as an attack dog by Elizabeth Kracht. As his literary agent, she knew his pet peeves and obsessions, knew how to handfeed him false depictions which would push his moral outrage button and set him barking. There was no craft here, just Lyngar acting as a stenographer for a fabulist source, then adding his own pheromones to the mix.

The resulting libel would be of harm to any innocent person, but that harm is multiplied in the case of Sri Chinmoy, who had earned a good reputation in over forty years of service, and who moved and inspired thousands of people with his kindness and his love. Sri Chinmoy Centre likewise enjoys a good reputation in the community.

This was not investigative journalism or serious media criticism. The story was planted in Salon by Edwin Lyngar as a favor to his literary agent so she would find a publisher for his manuscript Guy Parts. It was a shameless quid pro quo that resulted in libel per se. Elizabeth Kracht had twisted personal motives for wanting to do a hatchet job on the kindly Sri Chinmoy, who was once her teacher and who always acted with integrity. She admits that in her sixteen years with Sri Chinmoy Centre, she never observed (or even heard of) any sexual abuse — unless it was her own “hot pursuit” of male followers, which she recounts with gusto on her blog. According to Ms. Kracht, that pursuit continued until the boys’ mother told her “in no uncertain terms” to “stay the hell away from her sons.”

elizabeth-kracht-kimberley-cameron-and-associates

Elizabeth Kracht of Kimberley Cameron & Associates

Salon never tried to contact Sri Chinmoy Centre prior to publication. But when Dr. Kusumita Pedersen — a Professor of Philosophy and Religion at St. Francis College, and co-chair of the Interfaith Center of New York — strongly objected to the published story’s falsity, Salon then updated the story to include an edited version of her comments. Salon also changed the title from “accused sex criminal” to “alleged sex criminal” (which is still both incorrect and libelous). Salon didn’t change the URL, which still reads “accused_sex_criminal.”

As Dr. Pedersen clearly indicated at the time, the Salon piece was not just an exaggeration, but a complete inversion of the narrative which defines Sri Chinmoy and Sri Chinmoy Centre. (See sidebar on inverted narratives.) Hundreds of women and men who studied with Sri Chinmoy say that he helped them turn their lives around, by shining a spotlight on the good and noble part inside themselves. The outpouring of love at the time of his death in October 2007 was huge, and a memorial service held at the United Nations was attended by numerous ambassadors, dignitaries, and interfaith leaders.

Interfaith leaders gather at the U.N. to remember Sri Chinmoy

Interfaith leaders gather at the U.N. to celebrate the life of Sri Chinmoy

Who Was Sri Chinmoy?

This question goes to the heart of the Salon libel, which was meant to paper over the real Sri Chinmoy with a version more palatable to special interests. In truth, Sri Chinmoy was an agent for positive change — someone who stood for spiritual freedom and had a unique ability to create the sacred space around him, so that people who met him often experienced spiritual joy firsthand.

The Salon piece was not only factually wrong, it was also based on a false premise: that Sri Chinmoy had somehow gotten a free pass from “the media” and had never been subjected to critical examination. A broad survey shows that Sri Chinmoy received mixed press coverage, some of it tough — certainly nothing resembling a “love affair.” He was, after all, a counterculture figure — an Indian guru who came to America in 1964, who taught meditation and devotional yoga, and was a poet, artist, musician, and peace advocate. There are articles treating him with the ridicule and scorn often heaped on Eastern gurus, particularly in Murdochian tabloids.

Sri Chinmoy painting

Sri Chinmoy painting

Yet, by and large, Sri Chinmoy developed a reputation as one of the good ones. If meditation has become a household word — a recognized method for dealing with modern ills like stress, angst, materialism and meaninglessness — then Sri Chinmoy is one of those we have to thank. A 1976 piece in People Magazine noted that even among folk who weren’t inclined to accept an Indian guru, Sri Chinmoy stood out as being genuine.

He was a consistent, reassuring presence in the interfaith community for nigh on forty years, always active, always teaching, always setting a good example through his own high standard of conduct and comportment. He was beloved not because he was untested, but because he passed the test for authenticity with flying colors. His 1993 appearance opening the Parliament of the World’s Religions is particularly well-remembered. He did not speak, but only offered a meditation in silence.

Sri Chinmoy at the Parliament of the World's Religions, 1993

Sri Chinmoy at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, 1993

Sri Chinmoy found many allies in the interfaith community. Monsignor Thomas J. Hartman, in his introduction to The Wisdom of Sri Chinmoy (first published in 2000 by Blue Dove Press), writes:

Sri Chinmoy’s deep love for God is known worldwide. Long revered as a spiritual force for peace at the United Nations, this humble God-directed author asks people of this planet to look within, to rediscover the essential truths of spirituality that have so blessed his extraordinary life…

He is a champion of peace, attracting believers from all religions to see the oneness of the world. He suggests that true religions are recognized by forgiveness, tolerance, compassion, oneness and brotherhood. His work lends itself to a wide audience. Christians, Jews, Muslims and other believers will find many passages in his works of deep insight and helpful suggestion…

I find his works to be personally helpful. In an age when stress is real and it is hard to find the proper amount of time to pray, Sri Chinmoy reminded me that placing God at the center of my life, my work and my prayers will help me to make this a better, more peaceful world and to become the person of faith and love that I am called to be.

Monsignor Thomas J. Hartman

In a Newsweek article, Rabbi Marc Gellman similarly writes:

There are days when my hope wanes and when doubts corrode my faith. On those days I say that faith without reason is blind. But there are other days when I see miraculous things, and on those days I believe that faith without miracles is empty. When I awaken I am never certain what kind of day it will be. However, today I am standing behind Sri Chinmoy. On this day I remember the miraculous day of May 23, 2001, when Sri Chinmoy lifted me, my pal Father Tom Hartman, and a platform up into the air. Together — with the platform — we weighed more than 500 pounds (I had a very heavy cell phone in my pocket!). Sri Chinmoy took a seat underneath us and pushed up. With his two 70-year-old arms, he lifted us up into the air. … I am sad to see him go, but I know his journey continues and his strength endures in all those he lifted up into the air — either because he was really strong or because he knew the miraculous source of all true strength.

— Rabbi Marc Gellman, Newsweek

While press coverage of Sri Chinmoy was mixed, it does reveal a striking pattern: The most positive coverage was typically from news organizations who (unlike Salon) actually did the legwork: They sent reporters to cover a Sri Chinmoy related event, such as a meditation, concert, art exhibit, foot race, or charity drive. They scoped out the action and interviewed the people, finding out what they believed, what they practiced, and whether it all passed the smell test. They found the people to be sincere and the activities reflective of a genuine concern for the human condition. See this Newsday article about kids making dolls for children orphaned by AIDS. See also The New York Times, “Their Leader Gone, Devotees Gather at Spiritual Home” and NY Daily News, “Sri Chinmoy, spiritual leader, dies in Queens.” Also the Chicago Tribune, “Guru inspired harmony, French toast” (updated link to follow).

However, such stories based on sound journalistic technique found themselves in tension with a pre-existing narrative. This was a narrative crafted in the 1970s which portrayed all Eastern gurus as charlatans and abusers, a bad influence on our youth and a menace to society. This nativist stereotype became so prevalent that it was even satirized: “Santa Claus: A Dangerous Cult Leader!” (he abuses the elves).

As the once accommodating youth culture of the sixties split into political and spiritual factions which didn’t see eye to eye, left-wing media became all too eager to buy into the stereotype. If sixties youth considered it part of their mission to become both politically and spiritually aware, later generations tended to accept materialism as their default view, and to see politics through a materialist lens. This led to the view that all human problems could be solved through social activism alone, with no need for spiritual enlightenment. Partly due to its tussles with some right-wing Christians, the left began to associate all spiritual groups with constraints on freedom.

A Voice for Freedom

A paradox here is that Sri Chinmoy stood for freedom — not just spiritual freedom found through meditation, but also political freedom: freedom for East Timor. In nominating him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, Prof. Utsahi St-Amand of the University of Ottawa cited this as one of his outstanding achievements. Now known as Timor-Leste, the new nation recently unveiled a statue of Sri Chinmoy at its National Parliament in honour of his contributions to their journey to independence. They had previously awarded him the Medal of Freedom in 2004.

For those familiar with that nation’s history and struggles, the moment when leaders who had fought each other so bitterly joined hands around the peace torch was truly a miracle of peace.

Sri Chinmoy also championed freedom in art. He drew innumerable “soul-birds” symbolizing the freedom of the soul, a theme he also explored in lyric poetry, song, and thunderous keyboard improvisations. One of the sayings by his friend Nelson Mandela which Sri Chinmoy set to music was: “I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom.” In a letter marking the August 2008 (posthumous) exhibit of Sri Chinmoy’s paintings in the lobby of the U.N. Secretariat Building, President Mandela wrote:

We are a single humanity. We must work together, united as one, to build a world of justice and harmony for all. Within each of us lies the power to build a world where we respect each other’s beliefs, understand each other’s culture, and support each other’s values — a world where hatred, pain and suffering have no place. This is the great cause of world peace to which my dear friend Sri Chinmoy devoted his life, and to which his Paintings for World Harmony at the United Nations are dedicated.

— President Nelson Mandela

Sri Chinmoy with Winnie and Nelson Mandela

Sri Chinmoy with Winnie and Nelson Mandela

Writing for Newsweek about the same exhibit, Katie Baker said:

With military scuffles breaking out from the Caucuses to the Philippines, it’s hard not to be cynical when the U.N. hosts an exhibit entitled “Paintings for World Harmony.” But in this case, the artist warrants a suspension of disbelief: the acrylics are by Sri Chinmoy, the recently deceased humanitarian who campaigned tirelessly for tolerance and peace. In the course of his travels, Chinmoy also found time to complete thousands of paintings — mostly airy and free-spirited bird prints — which have found permanent homes in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in St. Petersburg. The current show, which will go on a world tour after its stint in New York, displays 25 miniatures by Chinmoy on the theme of getting along globally.

— Katie Baker, Newsweek

Sri Chinmoy also championed women’s freedom and helped women to excel in new areas, such as breaking down barriers in women’s sports. Female members of the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team have chalked up numerous English Channel swims, including this July 2011 one by Abhejali Bernardová.

They’ve also garnered renown in ultra distance running, with Suprabha Beckjord challenging distances few men would dare attempt. In 2009, indie filmmaker Jessie Beers-Altman made a film called The Spirit of a Runner about Beckjord’s participation in the Everest of distance racing: the annual Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race. In August 2014, Sarah Barnett became the first Australian woman to complete this race.

Runners in the Self-Transcendence 3,100 Mile Race

Runners in the Self-Transcendence 3,100 Mile Race

At the opening ceremony of the 2008 World Harmony Run — an international relay run for peace founded by Sri Chinmoy — tennis legend Billie Jean King received the Torch-Bearer Award and held aloft the torch for peace.

 Bille Jean King holds the peace torch at the opening ceremony for the 2008 World Harmony Run

Bille Jean King holds the peace torch at the opening ceremony for the 2008 World Harmony Run

Women’s progress takes many forms, and can’t be limited to only the secular. Writing on Feministing, Kimberly George observes that “When we assume women of faith are ‘irrational,’ we elide their agency, and worse yet, we tend to marginalize important players in women’s history — because the truth is, women’s history is infused with super smart religious women who are writers, peace-keepers, reformers, and political agents.”

Students of Sri Chinmoy perform devotional songs at a church in Zermatt, nestled at the foot of the Swiss Alps.

To understand a thing we need to look at the thing itself and see it for what it is, freeing ourselves from prejudice. These women are not the enemy — unless, of course, you’re trying to form a circular firing squad. Liberal freedoms include the freedom to devote one’s life to peace and beauty. Anti-cult material which attempts to criminalize minority choices or falsely portray such choices as abusive is inconsistent with freedom and egalitarianism.

To understand a spiritual group requires basic human empathy. If we begin by “otherizing” spiritual groups or are obsessed with discrediting them, this will act as a heavy-handed filter of information and an impediment to understanding (and thus to journalistic accuracy). A helpful way to respond to unfamiliar faith groups is through tolerance and by learning firsthand what they believe and practice.

Sri Chinmoy helped people around the world set up spiritual communities where they can devote themselves to the things they love and which matter to them most. Many of these communities were founded by women and have women in strong leadership roles. These women have come to exemplify a new type of feminism. They are strong in mind, strong in heart, strong in limb, and would not put up with abuse from anyone.

British devotees of Sri Chinmoy

British devotees of Sri Chinmoy

Sri Chinmoy’s teachings are an open book thanks to his huge literary output, the many talks and interviews he gave, the thousands of questions that he answered, and the visual record of his activities and the activities of his followers. There are also numerous articles in bona fide encyclopedias of religion verifying that what he taught was consistent with yoga philosophy and practice. One would labour in vain to find any trace of hatred or sectarianism in his teachings. Throughout his life, he stated and restated the principle that:

Spirituality is not merely tolerance. It is not even acceptance. It is the feeling of universal oneness. In our spiritual life, we look upon the Divine, not only in terms of our own God, but in terms of everybody else’s God. Our spiritual life firmly and securely establishes the basis of unity in diversity. Spirituality is not mere hospitality to others’ faith in God. It is the absolute recognition and acceptance of their faith in God as one’s own.

— Sri Chinmoy, Yoga and the Spiritual Life, Agni Press, 1971

To society, Sri Chinmoy was a gentle voice of inspiration. To those who applied to study with him and were accepted, he was a spiritual guide. This is an important distinction, because Sri Chinmoy never tried to impose his views on society or tell worldly people how they should think or act. His counsel was reserved for those who eagerly sought it out, and who identified themselves as spiritual seekers. He was the leader of a voluntary spiritual community, and that community was never large because — as Philip Goldberg implies in American Veda — relatively few people were prepared to lead the modest, chaste lifestyle known traditionally as brahmacharya.

Many of his faithful students who remained with him and did not abandon their studies have written books or articles about their lifetime of experiences with Sri Chinmoy. These are not always as easy to locate as populist accounts written by apostates, but are far more accurate, and more consistent with scholarly material and with the visual record. To interview only those few former students now associated with anti-cult groups is a type of media bias.

The Salon piece reads like a compendium of bad stereotypes and mischaracterizations strung together by hate. It’s impossible to refute everything in just one article, because Salon appeals to a bumper sticker mentality, while the truth is subtle and complex.

I would note that Sri Chinmoy encouraged parents to be extremely loving, caring and responsible toward their children. His book A Child’s Heart and a Child’s Dreams is filled with love and concern for children and good advice for parents.

The notion that followers of Sri Chinmoy shun medical treatment is absurd. Some of them are medical doctors themselves, and in addition to their regular practice, they often help out their fellows with medical advice and treatment.

A Criminal Organization?

Who is actually harmed by the Salon libel? Not Sri Chinmoy the person, who died in 2007, though certainly his legacy is harmed. In the strict legal sense, it is Sri Chinmoy Centre which is harmed.

Female followers of Sri Chinmoy mourn his death in October 2007. New York Times photo.

Followers of Sri Chinmoy mourn his death in October 2007. (New York Times)

Who are the people of Sri Chinmoy Centre? To answer this question, we need to understand how the spiritual landscape has changed since the 1960s. When Sri Chinmoy first began teaching, a roughly equal number of men and women were drawn to his “path of the heart.” Men felt empowered to seek spiritual knowledge, to go on a vision quest. Even the word “devotion” could take on a masculine quality.

Sri Chinmoy with two of his early followers at the time, Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and Devadip Carlos Santana. November 1975 photo from a free concert held at the Central Park Bandshell.

Sri Chinmoy with two of his early followers at the time, Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and Devadip Carlos Santana. March 1975, Central Park Bandshell.

But in recent decades, while women’s interest in meditation and devotional yoga has continued or even increased, men’s interest seems to have waned. In some male circles, Vedanta philosophy has been replaced by Viagra philosophy. Power tools and ultimate fighting have regained their lustre as masculine image-enhancers. Courses in meditation are often attended by more women than men.

This phenomenon is also reflected at Sri Chinmoy Centre, where women have come to outnumber men and to assume strong leadership positions. Hate material vilifying Sri Chinmoy Centre also targets this demographic, by falsely claiming that women who follow Sri Chinmoy’s teachings are forced to become concubines or lesbians. The people most harmed by this libel are women — women who have the courage to make minority spiritual choices, and to stick by them even when harassed.

The Sri Chinmoy disciple experience: blissing out on a Christmas trip to a far-off land

The Sri Chinmoy disciple experience: blissing out on a Christmas trip to a far-off land

We should not be misled by the fact that anti-cult groups frequently use third party technique to try and discredit bona fide spiritual groups. Just as some anti-feminists flaunted by the right are women, some apostates flaunted (or made mascots) by anti-cult groups are also women. This doesn’t make the libel published by Salon any less false or any less destructive.

As for the idea that Sri Chinmoy Centre is a criminal organization, this is completely ridiculous, and (again) is an inversion of the narrative which accurately defines them. Sri Chinmoy Centre is headquartered in Jamaica, Queens in the middle of New York City. Writing about the sub-neighborhood of Jamaica Hills, Diana Shaman noted in The New York Times that it’s a “tranquil haven for many ethnic groups”:

Local houses of worship often had an influence on who settled in the area. Jewish families arrived in the 1930’s with the construction of nearby synagogues. A large influx of Greek families came in the 1960’s because of the St. Demetrious Greek Orthodox Church on 152nd Street just west of Parsons Boulevard, which opened in 1963.

In the last decade, followers of Sri Chinmoy, an Indian spiritual leader who lives in neighboring Briarwood, have moved in. Residents say sect members are good neighbors because they are quiet and law-abiding. In general, residents say, crime is not a concern here though some homeowners say that students attending Jamaica High School and the Thomas A. Edison school litter and create noise.

— Diana Shaman, The New York Times

In July 2011, The Wall Street Journal did a video piece about the 3100-mile race being held by the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team. It included an interview with a neighborhood resident who talked about how safe she felt with the Sri Chinmoy people being out from 6 AM to midnight for the race. The report also suggested a good working relationship with the Police and Parks Departments. (See also “Ultra Marathon is a Winner for the Neighborhood” in the Queens Free Press.)

But the capper is this 2010 article in the TimesLedger:

CB 8 takes step to allow Sri Chinmoy land buy

Community Board 8 passed a resolution last week that brings the Sri Chinmoy Centre Church’s plan to purchase city land considered sacred by members one step closer to reality.

Board members unanimously passed the proposal to de-map Glenn Avenue in Jamaica Hill, which must happen before the city can sell the land to the Jamaica Hill church. Church members have maintained the Glenn Avenue area for the past 30 years, when the place had originally fallen into disrepair.

“It was a terrible eyesore, and Sri Chinmoy adopted it and became a very good steward of it,” said Steve Konigsberg, chairman of the CB 8 Zoning Committee. “They sort of turned it into a utopia.”

Glenn Avenue is located next to land the group already owns on which there is a tennis court and a meditation garden.

“It’s sacred area for us because our teacher used it,” said Ashrita Furman, the Sri Chinmoy Centre Church’s treasurer. “Because years ago we cleaned it up, it’s now a nice, open green space and we want to keep it that way.”

Sri Chinmoy was a spiritual teacher from India who died in 2007.

Church members have wanted to own the area, located around the intersection of 85th Avenue and 164th Street in Jamaica Hill, for decades, but Furman said they have been caught up in bureaucracy and have been unable to purchase it. The area was once riddled with problems, when it was a gathering spot for drug addicts, but 30 years ago church members cleaned it up despite the fact the city would not sell it to them.

“Once the city stopped using it 75 years ago, when it was used for a trolley track, it fell into disrepair and people would go there and engage in illegal dumping and drug activity,” City Councilman Jim Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows) said. “People would use it as a lover’s lane. There would be mattresses back there. It was a blight, but then Sri Chinmoy cleaned it up at their own expense. They have protected the area from these tawdry people.”

— Anna Gustafson, TimesLedger

This area is mostly residential homes, and these board members know their neighborhood! They would not vote unanimously to sell land to Sri Chinmoy Centre if they didn’t know from decades of personal experience that these are good, law-abiding citizens who open up small businesses like vegetarian restaurants and flower shops which brighten the area and lessen crime. One such is Annam Brahma restaurant, a neighborhood pillar for over 40 years, owned and operated by two sisters: Nishtha and Pranika Baum.

Annam Brahma vegetarian restaurant

Annam Brahma vegetarian restaurant

Sri Chinmoy was a noble soul whose contributions to the world culture of peace, the upliftment of women, and his own Queens neighborhood were well-documented. For Salon to portray him as a criminal in order to generate clicks is offensive to those who knew Sri Chinmoy and know the integrity of the organization he founded. It’s also offensive to anyone who cares about journalistic integrity and preserving the public trust. Truth matters.

Salon and Corruption

While Salon criticizes The New York Times for remaining committed to fact-based journalism, with the Sri Chinmoy story Salon has sunk to new lows in what Paul Krugman calls “post-truth politics … in which no argument is ever dropped, no matter how overwhelming the evidence that it’s wrong.” Given that the Salon piece was so massively wrong, how did it even see the light of day? To borrow a meme from MST3K, “They just didn’t care.” But publishing industry corruption also played a role.

In Part 2 of this series, we’ll take a closer look at the corruption factor, and the obsessions of a woman scorned (Elizabeth Kracht). Plus a stopover at bankruptcy court with Celia Corona-Doran! (Start hiding your assets now.)

For me personally, the only way to write about this debacle is to inject a little humour, as an antidote to the very real pain experienced by the Sri Chinmoy community (for which I do not speak) in response to Salon’s unfair cyber attack. This is different than when Salon ran a false story claiming that comedian Steve Martin sent a racist tweet. Steve Martin is not in a helping profession, and does not rely on a pristine reputation or a relationship of trust with the public in order to carry out his day-to-day activities. Sri Chinmoy Centre does.

Elsewhere, I’ve written extensively about the problem of harassment of minority spiritual groups, including the circulation of vilification material as a de facto means of curtailing their civil rights. I’ve often quoted cyber civil rights advocate Danielle Keats Citron, and do so once again:

Cyber attacks marginalize individuals belonging to traditionally subordinated groups, causing them deep psychological harm. Victims feel helpless to avoid future attacks because they are unable to change the characteristic that made them victims. They experience feelings of inferiority, shame, and a profound sense of isolation. … Such attacks also harm the community that shares the victim’s race, gender, religion, or ethnicity — community members experience attacks as if the attacks happened to them. Moreover, society suffers when victims and community members isolate themselves to avoid future attacks and when cyber mobs violate our shared values of equality and pluralism.

— Danielle Keats Citron, from “Cyber Civil Rights”

Here in Part 1, I’ve tried to lay the groundwork for discussing issues which can be complex and subtle. On the one hand, media entertain and inform us, and some of the information they provide is genuinely useful. On the other hand, media can be manipulated and may be unreliable on certain issues due to excessive populism, or a tendency to filter information through a pre-existing commercial, political, or materialist mindset. Extremely biased reporting can reach the level of a cyber attack.

In Part 2, we’ll get into more specifics about how the Salon story went wrong. We’ll examine other material written by Celia Corona-Doran which contradicts her statements in Salon. We’ll consider the history, motivations and biases of the protagonists, with an eye to understanding the mechanics of the fraud. And since the Salon piece seeks to demonize the “religious other,” we’ll explore the question: How do I otherize thee? Let me count the ways… (Be sure and read the sidebar (below) on “inverted narratives.”)

If time permits, we’ll also tackle the often baffling phenomenon of apostasy. For a preview of that discussion, see “Self-Interest, Self-Giving, Low Ethics, and High Ethics.” See also:

False Salon Story: What was said at the time
How far would you go to get a book deal?
Understanding Media: The Smear Campaign
Ketan Tamm Memorial

If you can help with this story, please do. Help is desperately needed, and the Rolling Stone debacle provides a teachable moment for debunking another story gone horribly wrong, one which vilifies innocents.

Michael Howard

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


Sidebar: Inverted Narratives

In her “Hate On The Net,” sociologist Evelyn Kallen points out that hate propaganda frequently employs “invalidation myths” meant to “dehumanize” the targets “and thus to legitimize violation of their human rights.” Such myths may present a contrarian, inversionist, or caricaturized view of the targets in order to achieve the objective of vilifying them. This is true whether the target is an individual or group; or the shamed individual may then be used as a stand-in or “avatar” for the group itself (e.g. the pseudonymous “Ryan” used as a stand-in for the whole Phi Kappa Psi fraternity).

Mary Anne Franks, an important writer on cyberspace freedom, discusses how people often turn to the Internet in hope of discovering “a utopian realm of the mind where all can participate equally, free from social, historical, and physical restraints.” Yet, cyberspace reality has its dark side, often unacknowledged. She writes:

Cyberspace idealism drastically downplays the Internet’s power to activate discriminatory stereotypes and social scripts. This Article focuses on the particular discriminatory phenomenon of the unwilling avatar. In stark contrast to the way users exert control over their online identities, the creation of unwilling avatars involves invoking individuals’ real bodies for the purposes of threatening, defaming, or sexualizing them without consent. Sometimes the creation of unwilling avatars takes a very literal form: for example, hacking into the account of a gamer and using her avatar as though it were your own, or creating a false profile of a real person on a social networking site. Other examples of unwilling avatars are more figurative. For example, women have been targeted for ‘revenge porn,’ a practice where ex-boyfriends and husbands post to the web sexually explicit photographs and videos of them without their consent. … Female law school students also become unwilling avatars when they are targeted by graphic and violent sexual threads at message boards such as AutoAdmit.com. In most cases of cyberspace harassment, the perpetrators use pseudonyms while identifying their targets not only by name but often also with private information such as home addresses and social security numbers. This informational asymmetry further aggravates the inequality resulting from cyberspace harassment.

— Mary Anne Franks, “Unwilling Avatars: Idealism And Discrimination In Cyberspace” 

I would hasten to add that men are also targeted, though not with the same frequency as women. And not all revenge porn is photographic or videographic. A sub-genre is the use of fictional narratives, storytelling, or negative “testimonials” by hate groups to portray real persons as committing sexual acts which they have never committed in real life. This is a way of “sexualizing them without consent” — fake revenge porn using words instead of pictures.

This points to parallels between the Rolling Stone and Salon stories: The detailed, graphic, but fictional portrayal of Phi Kappa Psi members engaging in sexual violence was a type of generic revenge porn, punishing innocent young men for the crimes presumed by the author to have been committed by some fraternities somewhere. That story invoked fraternity members’ real bodies for the purpose of sexualizing them without consent. Likewise, Salon’s false portrayal of Sri Chinmoy as a “sex criminal” was a type of revenge porn which sought to punish him for the crimes committed by a generic stereotype ingrained in popular culture: the abusive guru who is a charlatan and a scoundrel. A false image of the real Sri Chinmoy was invoked in order to sexualize him without consent.

In both stories, problems ensue when the targeted individuals or groups turn out not to resemble the stereotypes and not to have engaged in wrongdoing. Their wrongdoing only exists in the tabloids or on the Internet, but not in the real world. In other words, they’re only guilty of wrongdoing in someone else’s socially constructed reality, not the fact-based reality journalists are supposed to live in and be concerned with.

When Edwin Lyngar berates The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal for not publishing hate material about Sri Chinmoy, he’s only displaying his own ignorance of the journalistic process, including the need to question and corroborate stories considered “too good to be true” (such as those pandering to his anti-religious bias). The Internet is particularly prone to false stories which are socially constructed and are meant to serve as “invalidation myths” a la Kallen. People may become emotionally invested in such stories, but that doesn’t make them any truer. (See this post for more on the use of fictional narratives by hate groups.)

One of the ways that people are harassed on the Internet is by locating the narrative which would normally define them and inverting it in cruel and offensive ways. So, in the case of young women attending Yale Law School, we would normally think of them as bright and capable. But in the AutoAdmit scandal (see this Washington Post article for starters), they were misportrayed as brainless, sexually promiscuous, and only getting into Yale by performing sexual favours for female admissions officers.

Pick a minority and there are ready-made inversions available. In the case of minority spiritual groups, if they lead a pure lifestyle and are devoted to some saintly figure, they may be misportrayed as leading a depraved, immodest lifestyle, and as enslaved to a dangerous “cult leader” who is caricaturized as both a fiend and a charlatan.

There’s a connection between the AutoAdmit.com scandal and the Salon.com scandal. Forgive me if I wax Rachel Maddowish to explain it: You know those young female lawyers who got into Yale? You know it’s just because they’re lesbians, right? No straight woman wants to be a lawyer. And you know those women who pray and meditate and sing spiritual songs? You know they’re lesbians too, right? They don’t wanna be, but the cult leader forces ’em. They’re brainwashed to become lesbians and open up vegetarian restaurants. It’s partly the lack of beef that does it…

The serious point to be made is that this type of anti-cult material harasses women, and does so by trying to attach negative stereotypes associated with one minority group (lesbians) to a different minority group (Eastern spiritual seekers). The harassers don’t even have the decency to add the standard Seinfeld disclaimer (“Not that there’s anything wrong with that…”).

The difficulty of escaping such inversions and caricatures for minority spiritual groups is that there’s typically no one in society looking out for their interests. College-educated segments of the population who’ve been exposed to a broad range of views may easily recognize and reject sexist or racist depictions, but may never have had a course in comparative religion, and may tacitly accept hateful stereotypes of religious minorities when fed them, not having learned to do otherwise. That’s why it’s important to teach tolerance as a universal principle, rather than working from a short list of approved minorities. (See Andrew Kutt, Living In Harmony.)

Salon’s attempt to use Sri Chinmoy Centre for clickbait and make them the Liberal Outrage of the Week is idiotic considering that when women make minority spiritual choices, they’re exercising hard-won liberal freedoms — the freedom to be different, and to engage in community-building on their terms, not somebody else’s.

Temple-Song-Hearts, a women’s music group started by followers of Sri Chinmoy, now in its 26th year.

As the Supreme Court has said, freedom of mind encompasses the “freedom to be intellectually and spiritually diverse,” and the “right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.” Those who have truly understood Jeffersonian freedom of mind will therefore celebrate spiritual diversity and not attempt to suppress minority faiths by foul means.

The liberal left (to which I happen to belong) includes many Catholics, Jews, and other spiritual minorities who believe in working toward a more tolerant and compassionate society, and who believe that government can help. Liberal values are not about destroying faith, but about balancing faith with freedom and tolerance so that each person can find the space they need to survive, thrive, and choose what’s right for them. For some people that might mean making mainstream secular choices, while for others it might mean choosing spiritual alternatives.

Hate propaganda falsely portraying spiritual alternatives as abusive is meant to rob people of their free choice by artificially closing off spiritual pathways. Yet, reality is a rich enough phenomenon to accommodate both secular and sacred lifestyles. Those who work toward peace and freedom through primarily spiritual rather than political means are also making a meaningful contribution. There’s no reason to vilify or harass them.

Both the Rolling Stone and Salon stories were highly propagandistic. In both cases, the technique used by the writer was to try and reduce real people to cultural stereotypes. In Erdely’s case, this entailed fudging the data to make Phi Kappa Psi out to be a group of brutal gang-rapers. In Lyngar’s case, it entailed fudging the data to make Sri Chinmoy out to be an abusive guru straight from central casting, and the peace organization he founded to be a criminal enterprise.

One important difference is that in the Rolling Stone debacle, the groups in conflict were somewhat evenly matched — the power differential between them was not huge. So when Erdely engaged in over-the-top stereotyping of a Southern fraternity and falsely accused them of being sex criminals, there were people who noticed the misrepresentations and cared enough to debunk the story.

Sadly, in the year since Salon published its false story about Sri Chinmoy, either no one noticed or no one cared. That is very hard, and does point to a power differential. I’m making a personal plea to mainstream media, media watchers, and influential bloggers to please investigate this matter and help right the wrong. I can’t do it alone.

Michael Howard

Doubt, Faith, and the Ethics of Apostasy

Exploring the spiritual web of trust and remaining true to ethics, right speech, and right action. Avoiding spiritual fakery.

I recently completed a five-part series on “The ACLU and Religious Freedom” which actually covered many topics related to faith and reason, apostasy, anti-cult groups, faux therapy, and the victim mentality. That series was largely analytical, but I wanted to follow up with some comments which are more personal and philosophical, plus some good old-fashioned ranting. 😉

The type of faux therapy discussed in Part 2 — whether practised formally or by a loose-knit group on the Internet — robs former spiritual seekers of something precious: of a valuable relationship (with the spiritual teacher), and of what they had previously achieved in the spiritual life.

To borrow a quote from Doctor Who: “Every life is a pile of good things and bad things.”

When people pray, meditate, and engage in selfless work, they add to their pile of good things. But when people become doubting and hostile, and consciously try to take away the faith of others, this negates the good things and adds to their pile of bad things, their negative karma.

Life is cyclic; people sometimes go through phases which are more spiritual or less so. A wise person gradually adds to their pile of goods things, and even during a less spiritual phase they don’t subtract from it by committing acts which are spiritually destructive. In this way, they make gradual progress.

Even a squirrel has this much wisdom: that it gathers nuts for as long as it can, and when deep winter has set in and it can no longer gather, it enjoys the benefit of its good labours. But some spiritual seekers foolishly throw away all the good they have worked hard to accrue, casting it to the four winds so that it is scattered and wasted.

(Of course, with a wry smile I can say that attorney Joe Kracht is good at “gathering nuts” and turning them into witnesses for mock show trials, where he is both judge and jury and no defense is permitted.)

When a dog does not wish to enjoy food, the dog will sometimes urinate on it so that no one else can enjoy its good taste. Like this, some former seekers are carried away by their impetuous nature or by bad counsel. They try to destroy what they had built in concert with others, or they try and make the spiritual life unpleasant or unpalatable for others. They foolishly imagine that because they once helped to build something, that means they also have the right to break it. But building and breaking are not ethically equivalent.

You may earn high praise for helping to build something, but if you try and break that very thing, you may be sent to jail or suffer other consequences. Therefore, if you cannot do good, at least make a firm resolve to do no harm. This strategy will help you survive a spiritually low period, secure in the knowledge that such a period does not last forever.

A wise seeker recognizes that he is an eternal traveler. As a human being, his nature is mixed. He may still be troubled by desire and ambition, he may still have some destructive tendencies, but still he is trying to move toward the light. Even if his nature rebels against the difficulty of the spiritual quest, still he tries to gradually tame his nature and to refrain from becoming an outwardly destructive person. He knows that what he destroys today he will only have to rebuild tomorrow; he knows that if he causes other seekers to fall by injecting his doubts into them, then he will become karmically responsible for their suffering — suffering they would not have had to endure were it not for his wrong actions.

Building is synonymous with self-giving, and self-giving is a universal constant recognized as a virtue in both spiritual and humanistic philosophies. Often we see that the pinnacle of self-giving is reached by those who have purified their hearts through spiritual practice. (More here.) How does a great ultra runner like Sarah Barnett manage to complete 3100 miles? It is through heart-power, through dedication and selflessness. For 50 days she dedicates herself one-pointedly to the task of running, and afterward she basks in the joy of knowing that she has given her all. It is not just a physical, but a spiritual achievement, and at the core of it lies self-giving.

To become more self-giving is a great adventure, and is something people do as a means of self-improvement, to perfect their own nature. If they practice at it, then slowly and steadily they may improve. But occasionally one encounters people whose nature is brittle. Something in them snaps. They completely reject the years they spent in spiritual practice, and become more selfish than they ever were before. They become obsessed with discrediting the spiritual ideals and movements they formerly embraced. This type of negative ego reaction is something one has to guard against. One simple suggestion I would offer which applies equally to people of all faiths is to always try and be a good-hearted person, not mean-spirited or vindictive. If you have given, do not regret giving.

You have to be honest about why you chose to lead a self-giving life. It’s because you saw the wisdom in it, and because for many years it gave you joy. If you’re not honest with yourself, then you have no hope of regaining what you lost.

Just because someone has experienced a rebellion in their nature doesn’t mean their spiritual progress has to end. Some people have these extremes within them, so they progress by lurching from side to side. It is not ideal, but it is workable. After a period in which you have become doubting, selfish, and hostile, you can gradually bring yourself back to the starting point and once again begin to practice self-giving, which includes both inner charity and outer charity.

The outer charity we know: to give money or volunteer one’s time. But what is the inner charity? To think good thoughts, to feel kindness, sympathy, and love towards others, to feel gratitude to God.

Bad counsel may come in the form of apostates who urge people to burn their spiritual bridges behind them, to loudly and public denounce their faith. This is sheer stupidity when we understand that we are eternal travelers, that life is cyclic, and that we need to accomplish as much as we can in a spiritual phase, then hold onto it — do nothing to destroy it.

Just as worldly people have their pride, there is also Divine Pride — the pride which will have nothing to do with a person who has become false or treacherous, or who consciously and deliberately tries to sabotage others’ spiritual efforts. If you take bad counsel and burn all your spiritual bridges behind you, if you become a “spiritual saboteur,” then how will you cycle back to a spiritual phase of life? The spiritual world will disown you, and spiritual people will want nothing to do with you.

In Part 3 I talked about anti-cult groups which put on spiritual trappings or a spiritual veneer in order to fool people. These groups are populated by apostates and are primarily concerned with opposing or undermining bona fide faith groups, but they try and generate interest by disguising or mislabeling their activities. I talked in particular about “Abode of Yoga,” an anti-cult web site (Blogspot blog plus Facebook group) started by attorney Joseph C. Kracht of the Lawton law firm of San Diego. Though much of “Abode of Yoga” consists of apostate testimonials of the why-I-left-the-cult variety (and some fake revenge porn), the site’s name, artwork, and header quote are all designed to imply that one is visiting a spiritual site rather than an anti-cult site — to pull in people with positive spiritual interest who would not knowingly visit an anti-cult site.

Spiritual seekers tend to seek out spiritually supportive venues, and spiritual experiences tend to occur in a spiritual set and setting where there is support for them — a sacred space. When people leave the sacred space and immerse themselves in an environment which is doubting or hostile, they may find it difficult to retain their spiritual experiences or to have faith in their reality. They cannot make sense of these experiences apart from the sacred space, so back in the secular world they tend to passively accept the explanation that they must have been “brainwashed.” This can easily lead to an alienation syndrome in which they blame a spiritual teacher who only tried to help them, and whose counsel they actively sought at the time.

Truth must be lived. There’s a sense in which one can only understand spirituality by practising it; one can only understand devotion by feeling it; and one can only understand the essence of a mango by tasting it. This view is not totally illogical. After all, one can only understand differential calculus by studying it. Idle opinions from those who never cracked the book or who long ago abandoned their studies count for little.

As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, one way media bias operates is by choosing to interview a failed student rather than a successful one. If someone (by their own admission) lost spiritual interest as soon as they discovered dating, how much can they possibly tell us about spirituality? We may like Gidget, but can we really trust her advice on deep metaphysical matters?

Gidget — a nice girl to date (if you’re 16), but maybe not a profound source of spiritual wisdom.

Gidget — a nice girl to date (if you’re 16), but maybe not a profound source of spiritual wisdom.

Because the secular world has developed a supercilious attitude toward spiritual groups, populist media tend to pay more attention to palpably foolish sources. They interview Gidget and overlook Radha — overlook knowledgeable adherents who never broke with their faith and continued on with their studies. Such adherents tend to have a more mature understanding of what it means to lead a spiritual life. They are able to explain the teachings of a spiritual master.

Those with an immature or even hostile attitude are often turned into media darlings or mascots by the anti-cult movement, despite lacking spiritual insight. Anyone bagging groceries at a Trader Joe’s can become a “cult expert” on the Internet.

An apostate account saying “I used to be self-giving but that was all rubbish — now I’m materialistic” will be hoisted to the skies, billboarded, and given maximum bandwidth on the information superhighway. Such a view panders to what many materialistic people want to believe: that spirituality is all pie in the sky. One can even make money hawking this view, but just because it’s marketable doesn’t make it true.

There is a confluence of interests who want to persuade us that the purpose of life is production, consumption, and procreation. Spiritual teachers who say that the purpose of life is self-knowledge and self-giving are going against the grain. No matter how kindly and politely they try to deliver the message of renunciation, they are apt to be hated for it — even by those who asked to receive their teachings.

Likewise, there is a confluence of interests who want to persuade us that every human problem can be solved solely through politics and social programs. At times, these interests also form a powerful bloc which stands against those who rightly claim that human beings are not merely political, social, or material creatures.

As I discussed in Part 5, human beings also have genuine spiritual needs. For human progress to be meaningful it must balance material progress with spiritual progress. This balance has gotten out of whack, which is the root cause of many people’s unhappiness. The latest upgrade to “Materialism 2.0″ won’t solve this core problem. I strongly favour universal health care and similar programs, but we also need to honestly acknowledge our spiritual needs, and to create a culture which is broadly supportive of spiritual practice, rather than tending to be hostile to it. In short, we need more religious freedom.

In practical terms, this means respecting the integrity of sacred spaces, not trying to destroy them literally or figuratively — neither burning them down, nor circulating hate propaganda (in the form of misinformation) intended to discredit them, thus severely limiting their influence and ability to function. (See Part 4).

One way of undermining sacred spaces is by substituting insipid imitations: fake spiritual groups for real ones, even fake spiritual functionaries. China has taken the latter ploy to embarrassing extremes. See the NPR news story “Tibetans Reject China’s Panchen Lama,” which states:

In 1995, the Chinese [government] rejected the Panchen Lama chosen by the exiled Dalai Lama and had him taken away, along with his family. He has not been seen since. On April 13 [2011], the Chinese-chosen Panchen Lama made his first international appearance, advocating for national unity [as opposed to Tibetan independence]. Tibetan Buddhists, however, reject the Panchen.”

There’s a Chinese saying: “Hanging out a sheep’s head to sell dog meat.” This is exactly what the Chinese government is doing with their fake Panchen Lama. This tactic is also employed by U.S. anti-cultists, e.g., parading around a fake “Chosen One” who disavows spiritual teachings and stumps for materialism. It’s also the tactic used by attorney Joe Kracht in creating a fake spiritual site in order to circulate anti-cult material of a salacious nature. This is seen as unethical by people who value truth in labeling, integrity of purpose, and respect for sacred spaces.

Again, when we pray, meditate, and do selfless service we add to our pile of good things. But when we engage in low gossip on Facebook, we don’t accrue any spiritual merit from that. Quite the opposite! If with a posion tongue we attack those who are good and do good — if we desecrate the memory of a realized spiritual teacher — we are only adding to our pile of bad things.

A respected spiritual group like Sri Chinmoy Centre is respected precisely because for over forty years it has been a reliable source of quality information about meditation, yoga, and the spiritual life. That source was Sri Chinmoy himself, who developed a sterling reputation in the interfaith community, and was known to be an authentic teacher of bhakti yoga who never wavered in his commitment to spiritual truth and the highest ethical standards. He was a deeply good and spiritual person.

It’s no wonder that groups and individuals peddling something foul would try to piggy-back on his sterling reputation; but genuine truth-seekers should accept no substitutes. Perhaps a better label for the anti-cult activities of Joe Kracht, Gary Falk and Anne Carlton would be “Fugazi Disciple Experience.” They are spiritual fakes, and I would not trouble them if their fakery remained their own private misfortune. But they try to mislead genuine truth-seekers, and therefore pose some danger to the general public. That’s why I feel the need to speak honestly about their public activities. I mean no personal offense.

The problem may be understood in terms of a “web of trust.” On the Internet and in cryptography, this term is used to describe people or entities that are known to be trustworthy. They have been found trustworthy by a community, or they have presented proper credentials.

Despite the tremendous diversity found in the interfaith community, many spiritual leaders have been active for decades in meeting with others at the Parliament of the World’s Religions and similar venues. These leaders have become known quantities in the broader spiritual community, and have been found to be trustworthy through extensive personal dealings. It’s extremely difficult to impeach their reputation or portray them as monsters because everyone knows them and knows their inherent goodness. A person of no reputation who tries to attack a person who has built up a good reputation through innumerable acts of kindness and benevolence will find it quite difficult.

Therefore, the tactic of some anti-cult groups is to infiltrate the web of trust. They know they lack a reputation of their own, so they piggy-back their activities on the good reputation of the organizations they oppose, through mislabeling and impersonation. Apostates who have lost or squandered all their faith, all their devoted qualities, and who left a spiritual group 10, 20 or even 35 years ago, nonetheless try to gain publicity by misappropriating the name, symbols, and icons of the group they oppose, thus infiltrating the web of trust.

YogaloyThe deception does not always end at the front door, with mislabeling. It may run deeper, as in the case of people who have returned to worldly life, but who want to be known by the spiritual name they used 20 years ago — pulled out of mothballs, as it were. By this means they hope to gain credibility with the current faithful, and to likewise persuade them to abandon their faith. Their approach, in practical terms, is something like this: “Oh, you know me. This guru said I was an angel! Therefore, if I tell you now is the time to start doubting and suspecting, you have to believe me.”

Yes, that guru once said you were an angel, at a time when you were acting most angelically; but since then you have discovered doubt and treachery. You have completely disavowed your former spiritual life. You are acting like an ingrate, not an angel. I don’t need your doubt! Your spiritual practice of 20 years ago doesn’t entitle you to harass or impersonate the teacher who once gave you shelter, helped you when you needed help, and taught you the abc’s of spirituality.

In this way, when people make a very definite decision to abandon their spiritual practice and to snatch away the faith of others, we may need to revoke their credentials so that they’re no longer part of our web of trust. Otherwise, they can drag us through all kinds of suffering. They may come to us in the guise of friendship, but in many devious ways they will try to influence us negatively. Of course, I’m not saying we should hate anyone or treat them unkindly. But in important spiritual matters, our web of trust should consist of those we know to be spiritually trustworthy today, not those who use yesterday’s faded credentials to gain entrée and wreak havoc.

The Internet presents unique challenges. It differs markedly from the real world. In the real world, Park Avenue is not next to the Bowery. To go from Park Avenue to the Bowery, you will have to pass through stages, going from neighborhood to neighborhood. There is some physical distance, and you will notice the scenery changing. When you reach the Bowery, no one can put up a sign that says “Park Avenue” and fool you, because the surroundings are totally different. The Bowery itself has a different look and smell.

But on the web, everything is one click away, and it’s so easy to put up fake scenery! Just as there are “phishing” sites which are made to look like Yahoo or Citibank (but aren’t), there are sites which put up a fake spiritual veneer, but actually specialize in doubt. The way these sites are designed, they implicitly say: “Trust me, I’m a spiritual person and a friend.” But when you trust them, you suffer. You find that you are put in direct contact with the worst kind of doubt, which destroys all of your inner purity sooner than at once. (Call it “spiritual malware” if you like.)

These things might not be of concern to the average person, but they are definitely of concern to spiritual seekers who have worked hard to build something in their lives which they value, but which may still be fragile, easily destroyed. For most people, faith is like that; it can be so easily destroyed if we don’t take proper care of it! Such care includes spiritual self-protection, which at its simplest means knowing who is a true friend who will help you in your spiritual quest, and who may come to you in the guise of friendship but will try to sabotage your spiritual efforts.

This is not a Manichean world view which sees everything in terms of absolute good and absolute evil. Human nature is mixed and often changes over time. We sometimes need to track the changes and respond accordingly. A student may have great spiritual potential, but then he takes a fall and becomes an unreliable source of spiritual wisdom, and an unreliable friend.

An ordinary person may have the potential to lead either a spiritual life or a worldly life. If she chooses a spiritual environment, the virtuous circle of influences will work its magic and she will act in a spiritual manner and have spiritual experiences — especially if she is under the guidance of an advanced spiritual teacher.

But over time, she may fail to renew her spiritual aspiration, and allow worldly desires to enter in. Then, if the spiritual teacher dies, she loses interest and gets married or goes into politics or business or bagging groceries. The same person may totally forget her spiritual experiences back in a worldly setting where there is no support for them. In some cases, it is not insincerity but more like amnesia.

One person, two completely different phases of life. Away from the spiritual teacher, spiritual teachings, and spiritual community, she cannot make sense of things, so she just makes up some crazy story.

Back in the secular world, former seekers want to enjoy desire-life; but worldly people too have their pride, their sense of boundaries, their rules for re-entry. Worldly people are often suspicious of former seekers. They say: “How is it that you now want to party with us? We thought you wanted nothing to do with desire-life. We thought you were a spiritual goody-goody.”

Spiritual people know firsthand what it feels like be cold-shouldered by worldly people. So they say: “Oh, it was all a mistake. I wandered into the wrong auditorium by accident. Then a big brainwashing machine came down on my head. That’s why for 20 years I prayed and meditated and did selfless service. I’m just a poor cult victim. Won’t you let me party with you? PLEASE LET ME PARTY WITH YOU!”

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 counseled to follow this approach. Pretending to be a cult victim becomes their cover story for returning to the world.

Needless to say, they are not being honest with themselves, nor with others. This “innocent cover story” leads to a host of problems down the road. Simply labeling oneself a cult victim may not cut the mustard. People want to know: “Well, how were you victimized?” So there emerges a need for legends of abuse which will entertain and satisfy a worldly audience — an audience awash in hackneyed stereotypes about spiritual groups.

As many feminists would point out, in worldly life women have to compete to show that they’re sexually desirable and sexually experienced in order to attract a partner. In worldly life, celibacy has become the ultimate dirty word. Spiritual people are often “accused” of being celibate. Anecdotally, I remember that on the TV show Boston Public the ultimate put-down of one schoolteacher who wore longish skirts was that she “dressed like a nun.” Also anecdotally, YouTube’s community guidelines take pains to point out that: “We’re not asking for the kind of respect reserved for nuns, the elderly and brain surgeons.” The implication is that YouTube is for coarse, young, not-too-clever people. This is often borne out in the comments section. 😉

So, in creating a legend or cover story for returning to the world, former spiritual adherents tend to be wary of how they handle the issue of celibacy. If the truth is that a spiritual group encouraged (and lived) a modest, chaste lifestyle, that truth makes the former member look plain and boring, not glamorous and desirable.

What a worldly audience wants to hear is that spiritual people are all hypocrites and sex fiends, so among the more fantasy-prone and less conscience-driven ex-members, making up stories which pander to that view — and which also make the storyteller out to be sexually experienced and desirable — has become a form of self-indulgence. It’s often carried out in public, with no sense of shame and no empathy for those who suffer as a result of the made-up stories.

For people who still need to work out their desires in the world, there is such a thing as reasonable desire, ethical desire. This means working out one’s desires in an ethical manner. You have desires, but you don’t tell hateful lies; you have desires, but you don’t rob or kill. For those not quite ready for the spiritual life, to pursue their desires in an ethical manner can be a gradual preparation for the spiritual life.

However, apostates often find themselves ethically challenged. Much of their ethical sense is connected to their faith, so when their faith goes, their ethical sense also goes. Otherwise, they would not be able to tell lies with such impunity; they would not be able to harass those who were their former friends, colleagues, and spiritual mentors or treat them with such cruelty.

Ethics helps us understand what is valuable in life, and ethics also tells us not to destroy what others value. After a political revolution, there will usually be some people at the head of the crowd who are rowdy and eager to destroy something. They may break into a museum and start destroying works of art, because they feel that these works only have meaning for their enemies and not for them. They don’t realize that God often speaks through artists, and that beautiful art works are a universal treasure. They don’t understand why the world considers them vandals and criminals. They imagine that because they cannot see the beauty in something, therefore no one else can see it either.

People come and go from the spiritual life. Most come and go in joy. Even if they return to worldly life, they try to remember and cherish their spiritual experiences and all that the spiritual life once meant to them. These are the good and wise souls who remain rooted in ethics, and who continue to add to their pile of good things.

Those who act like vandals, who try to destroy the beauty of the Three Jewels — the spiritual teacher, the spiritual precepts, and the spiritual community — are only adding to their pile of bad things, their negative karma. Naturally, they will take hundreds and hundreds of years to realize the truth.

Often, the same people who are doing wrong things day in and day out are also searching frantically for some new enlightenment method that will magically transform them. Without knowing it, they are re-enacting the myth of Sisyphus. They do a few minutes of meditation. Fine. Then they go on the Internet and harass someone. Very bad!

For such people to make progress, they should remove the obstacles created by their own habitual bad actions. Learn right speech, right action. Practice basic ethics. Become a deeply good person, and you won’t have to chase after enlightenment — it will chase after you! Remember this helpful quote from Taoist Hua-Ching Ni:

Before one is able to receive spiritual enlightenment, one must be absolutely virtuous, practice the principle of appropriateness, and display one’s innate moral qualities of selflessness and responsibleness. If one does not have the foundation of true and pure ethics, any spiritual teaching will be without influence on the reality of one’s life. Spiritual knowledge and techniques alone may create mental stimulation, but are merely another form of LSD or mental opiate, and have nothing to do with the truth of spirit and the reality of life.

— Hua-Ching Ni, Entering The Tao

Each life is a pile of good things and bad things. Both good and bad persist long after the initial actions which created them. The wise seeker tries to accrue good actions while avoiding destructive actions which harm others. He or she learns right speech and is not misled by those of bad character to engage in false or hateful speech.

The law of karma does not apply only to spiritual people. It governs the entire world, but worldly people are unfortunately unaware of it, so they commit Himalayan blunders.

Spiritual people who return to the world because they still have some unfulfilled desires need to be careful of losing their ethical sense, their understanding of cause and effect. Otherwise, they can very quickly undo all the good they have done.

Worldly pleasures are like an invitation to enjoy unconsciousness. In unconsciousness, a person can easily do many things wrong. It is like driving: You can be a safe, careful driver for many years, but then if you fall asleep at the wheel, in only a few moments you can cause an unimaginable catastrophe.

Just because we don’t see the law of karma in our immediate vision doesn’t mean it’s not operating. There are two kinds of karma: near karma and distant karma. Near karma is: you stick your hand in the fire and immediately you are burned. Distant karma is more subtle: In this life, you tell millions of lies that hurt people; in the next life, you may be born mute because you abused the power of the tongue. Or, in this life you used your intellect not to illumine people, but only to cleverly plot how to harass spiritual people or bleed them for money; in the next life, you may be born a simpleton because you abused the power of the intellect. This is distant karma.

Sometimes a characterless fellow will try and incite people to take wrong actions. Even in this life he has suffered because of his wrong actions, but he doesn’t tell you that. Yet, if you investigate you can learn the truth: For harassing people, he was fired from his job, underwent a painful divorce, had problems with substance abuse, went through a twelve-step program, ended up living with his 100-year old mother until she finally died, and also had to undergo treatment for prostate cancer. Yet, the same individual will insist there are no consequences for wrong actions. Is this wisdom?

We cannot avoid some suffering in life, but through insight and ethics we can minimize our suffering and also learn from it, allowing it to ennoble us. By engaging in right speech and right action, we don’t harm others, and also we bring less suffering upon ourselves. This is wisdom.

Michael Howard

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

Of Further Interest

Making Sense of the Spiritual Life
A Question of Forgiveness
Bithika O’Dwyer: A Tale of Two Psyches

Can You Remember The Words To “My Favorite Things”?

Test your R&H knowledge, watch a clip from The Vicar of Dibley, and have a giggle at these song parodies. Yes, the hills of WordPress are alive with the sound of music…

It’s the first day of spring, and though the view from my window is snowy, the sun’s coming out and the snow’s melting — as if it all were being choreographed. (Now pivot to Julie Andrews.) Since I recently posted  about “My Favorite Things,” I feel it’s my civic duty to come to the aid of readers who became obsessed with trying to remember all the words and had to be sat on or sedated. (Not that I’m actually going to tell you all the words, but at least you’ll know you’re not alone in mangling them.) Continue reading

The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 3

People should be able to choose a minority faith without expecting the Spanish Inquisition.

RECAP: In Part 1 we talked about the deprogramming era and how the ACLU helped to end it. In Part 2 we explored the transition from deprogramming to exit counseling, from physical coercion to psychological coercion. Our persistent theme is that the ACLU should still be concerned about the plight of minority adherents, since the manner in which the latter continue to be harassed by anti-cultists remains violative of their religious freedom and core civil rights.

Part 2 ended with a discussion of techniques and jargon associated with exit counseling and “cult recovery” groups. We talked about the way that former spiritual seekers are resocialized to view themselves as “cult victims,” and encouraged to generate atrocity stories in order to justify and reinforce this new identity based on victimhood.

It’s helpful to be able to decode anti-cult jargon, since it contains a plethora of stereotypes and bigoted assumptions built right into the language itself. A person who has a spiritual experience has fallen victim to a “dissociative disorder,” while a person who comes to feel closer to God through prayer, meditation, and reflection suffers from “delusions of grandeur” brought on by “cult mind control.” Devotion to a spiritual figure is “an unnatural fixation caused by lack of a strong father figure during adolescence,” while self-giving is “an ego disorder,” and community involvement constitutes “a life wasted in the cult.”

What’s obscured by such anti-cult jargon is the ineffable quality of joy often experienced by minority adherents, and the meaningfulness of their lives.

To pick up where we left off: Not all anti-cult groups are formally organized or accurately labeled by their creators. The brute force technique of old-style deprogrammers has given way to a recognition that most people want to see themselves as spiritual, or at least maintain some remnant of spirituality even as they’re persuaded to abandon the essence of their faith. Some anti-cult groups maintain spiritual trappings or a spiritual veneer, despite being populated by apostates and being primarily concerned with discrediting or undermining bona fide faith groups.

Such is the case with “Abode of Yoga,” an anti-cult web site (Blogspot blog plus Facebook group) started by attorney Joseph C. Kracht of the Lawton law firm of San Diego. Though the “Abode of Yoga” blog features apostate testimonials of the why-I-left-the-cult variety (and some fake revenge porn), the blog’s name, artwork, and header quote are all designed to imply that one is visiting a spiritual site rather than an anti-cult site — in essence, to “pull in” the casual visitor who may have some spiritual interest, but would not knowingly visit an anti-cult site.

The Chinese have a saying: “Hanging out a sheep’s head to sell dog meat.” With anti-cult sites masquerading as spiritual sites or using confusingly similar names, it’s not always easy at first glance to figure out what’s going on. But as we explore the topics of “cloaked hate” and use of fictional narratives by hate groups, it will all make sense.

Joe Kracht is typical of many so-called “career apostates” who now rail against “magical thinking” (the perpetual bugaboo of anti-cultists since Margaret T. Singer), but who nevertheless try to retail themselves as having some sort of spiritual credentials in order to gain sway with their target audience of potential deprogrammees and/or legal clients. Kracht is also typical inasmuch as many apostates seemingly unavoidable for comment on the Internet actually left the faith group they oppose 10, 20, or even 35 years ago, but are still trying to exact vengeance for some imagined wrong. Obsession hardly seems too strong a word to describe this mindset.

Joe Kracht once followed a spiritual path which entailed love, devotion, and selfless service. He was then known by the spiritual name “Yogaloy,” but having renounced the love, devotion, and selfless service — and indeed now publicly opposing his former faith group — he continues to use the name Yogaloy as a calling card, pulled out of mothballs as it were. In one bizarre incident, Kracht uploaded a video in which he burns his former spiritual name — a tactic used in old-style deprogramming. Continue reading

The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 2

A tolerant society gives people the space to freely choose their faith or non-faith without fear of reprisals. It doesn’t punish minority choices.

There’s a sense in which I hate writing about the struggle to vouchsafe spiritual freedom. I would much rather write about art, music, or the joys to be discovered by exploring spiritual pathways. But there are people intent on closing off those pathways, so discussions of religious freedom (and how the ACLU has helped safeguard it) are sometimes needed.

In Part 1, much of our focus was on John E. LeMoult’s seminal study “Deprogramming Members of Religious Sects,” and on the ACLU’s parallel study of deprogramming which likewise led them to condemn the practice. We examined the case of Donna Seidenberg Bavis, a Hare Krishna devotee who was abducted by deprogrammers, but was later helped by the ACLU in getting compensation, with the ACLU acting to curb civil rights abuses by rogue attorneys. BRAVO ACLU!

Currently in the U.S., anti-cult tactics favour psychological coercion over physical coercion, but the principle is the same: If you can make it sufficiently painful for someone to remain involved with a minority faith group, they may recant simply to avoid further pain. If you can make them feel like a “member of a hated class,” they may recant in order to avoid being hated and discriminated against. This is the context in which we should understand the contemporary use of hate material vilifying religious minorities and their spiritual leaders.

John LeMoult noted that the cost of a deprogramming (in 1978) could run as high as $25,000, and that deprogrammers often have no special training other than an ability to bully. In subsequent decades, there’s been an effort on the part of anti-cult groups like the American Family Foundation (a.k.a. International Cultic Studies Association) to turn deprogramming into a mental health “service” — to make paid faith-breaking the province of those psychologists and psychiatrists not barred by personal ethics from engaging in it. For more on this phenomenon, see “Deprogramming Seeks a New Identity,” by Anson Shupe and Susan E. Darnell.

That new identity is “exit counseling,” which unlike deprogramming, does not typically entail abduction. In the U.S., physical coercion has been largely replaced by psychological coercion. This often takes the form of gaslighting, i.e. falsely equating the choice of a minority faith with mental illness.

The whole “recovery” apparatus is brought to bear — as if being spiritual were something one has to recover from! A person who makes a minority spiritual choice is treated as a “cult-affected family member.”

In exit counseling, intense psychological pressures (both negative and positive) are brought to bear upon the minority adherent, and such pressures are portrayed as a type of treatment, with the psychologist or psychiatrist cast in the role of compassionate caregiver. The subtext is: We’re not religious bigots or control freaks, we’re folks on a rescue mission to save purported “cult victims.”

The power dynamics tell a different story. Notwithstanding the fig leaf of “cult education” or “rehabilitation,” aggressive majoritarians are using psychological techniques to bully or entice minority adherents into conforming to mainstream secular values. As I discuss in “Hate Propaganda and Anti-Cult Ideology — What’s Wrong Here?”, such euphemistically described treatment is based on pseudoscience. Faith is not a form of mental illness, and when faith-based phenomena are misclassified and jargonized as psychological maladies requiring “intervention,” this constitutes a major category error leading to civil rights abuses.

It’s one thing to disagree with someone’s spiritual choice; it’s quite another to use harsh social control measures and/or hate propaganda to penalize that choice. No doubt, some of those employing harsh measures believe they’re doing good — that no one could possibly be happy making minority choices, and that such choices must be punished or outlawed in order to force people to be happy the way that society thinks they should be happy, based on a largely egoistic and materialistic world view. But when social control measures are used to force people to conform to a lifestyle they did not choose and do not want, we call that repression.

The situation is not unlike the repression of dissidents in Eastern Europe by confining them to mental institutions, simply because they disagree with the dominant political ethic. The shared belief on the part of the repressors is that non-conformism is dangerous, and people would have to be crazy to disagree with those who comprise the ruling elite — society’s rule-makers.

If some political elites want to forcibly dominate the political landscape, the anti-cult elite wants to dominate the spiritual landscape by enforcing its particular view of reality on society at large. To anti-cultists, reality is primarily a secular phenomenon, with perhaps some room for milquetoast religions in a minor role, but no room for spiritual movements which entail a depthful commitment that’s integral to daily life.

Yet, for those who share the vision of a society built on tolerance, reality is a rich enough phenomenon to accommodate both secular and sacred lifestyles. There’s no reason to force rigid secularism down people’s throats, or to close off spiritual pathways through fear-mongering and repressive measures. A tolerant society is one which has room for everyone, providing the space for each person to freely choose their faith or non-faith without fear of reprisals. This is what Evelyn Kallen means when she opines that freedom from vilification is a human right.

It’s been jokingly suggested that anti-cultists have no objection to religion as long as no one takes it seriously (shades of repressive tolerance). Yet, in Part 1 we explored the phenomenon of religious conversion via William James, Carl Jung, et al. When an individual has a genuine conversion experience which turns her spiritual interest from “cold” to “hot,” that’s precisely when she runs afoul of anti-cultists, who want to redefine her strong spiritual interest as mental illness.

Anti-cultists may subject the minority adherent to a “cult intervention” which is alleged to be a non-coercive mental health intervention. Yet, questions remain unanswered, such as why a person who adopts a minority faith should be singled out for a mental health intervention when the prevailing scientific view is that he/she suffers from no mental illness. Falsely attaching the stigma of mental illness to the choice of a minority faith would, on its face, seem to be coercive, since no one wants to be labeled mentally ill. The implicit threat is: If you continue to believe and practice as you do, we will judge you insane. How is that not coercive?

While there have been changes in terminology and methods, the end goal of exit counseling has remained largely the same as that of deprogramming: to get the minority adherent to recant. The notion that parents troubled by an offspring’s participation in a minority faith group might solve the problem through acceptance and tolerance is never on the table. Continue reading

The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 1

The ACLU has often fought for the rights of minority adherents, including Eastern spiritual seekers. BRAVO ACLU!

I might not be able to avoid criticising some attorneys for harassing minority faith groups. But my purpose here today is to praise the American Civil Liberties Union for often coming to the rescue of minority adherents.

aclu_logoThe backdrop for understanding these issues is this: America was built on noble ideals of religious freedom which are part of its very soul. Yet, religious freedom is not a given; it must often be won and re-won by successive generations of immigrant groups or new faith groups which spring up indigenously. Counterbalancing the ideals of religious freedom, we sometimes find that conformism, populism, and authoritarianism lead America in a quite different, less flattering direction.

In the mid-nineteenth century, conformism meant that Catholics were harassed for worshipping differently than Protestants. Populism meant that the public’s imagination was inflamed by hate material vilifying Catholics, such as The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk. This genre has sometimes been called Protestant pornography, since under the guise of reading about the allegedly depraved life led by Catholic nuns, a good deal of material appealing to prurient interest might be shoehorned in. (See The Oxford Companion To United States History, which states that the wave of Catholic immigration after 1820 “provided a large, visible enemy and intensified fears for American institutions and values. These anxieties inspired vicious anti-Catholic propaganda with pornographic overtones[.]”)

The same technique is used today by anti-cultists. The press isn’t usually too interested in the ideological quibbles anti-cultists have with minority faith groups; but if anti-cultists can manage to work in a sex angle, they may get the press to bite. This technique has been used by cynical opportunists like Elizabeth Kracht, who got “her” author Edwin Lyngar to plant a fake story with a sex angle in Salon. (Do journalists, literary agents, and editors know no shame? Apparently not. Kimberley Cameron & Associates, your conscience is calling!)

While conformism and populism deal to some extent with attitudes, authoritarianism typically includes a strong element of social control, here meaning some sort of heavy-handed attack on spiritual minorities which physically prevents them from practising their faith — church-burning being a prime example. Although we like to think of church-burning as belonging to the bad old days, at least one modern day attorney — Joe Kracht of the Lawton law firm of San Diego — has suggested that his former church “might as well be burned to the ground.”

Interestingly, he’s the brother of Elizabeth Kracht, leading me to wonder if there’s a dominant gene for intolerance, demagoguery, and hooliganism. 😉 It’s certainly odd that the Krachts (whose early upbringing was Catholic) resort to the same techniques used to harass Catholics in the nineteenth century. But from my general purpose I digress…

In the 1970s, as many people began exploring new religious movements (some of which were actually very old religious movements rooted in Hinduism or Buddhism), the familiar pattern from America’s darker side once again emerged: There was a strong nativist reaction to the new freedom in religious choice being expressed especially by young people. As John E. LeMoult recounts in his seminal “Deprogramming Members of Religious Sects,” published in the Fordham Law Review in 1978:

Pot-smoking, motorcycle-riding kids become serene quoters of Scripture or oriental tracts. Young people doff sweaters, sneakers, and blue jeans for ties, jackets, long skirts, or flowing saffron robes. Parents assume their once normal offspring have lost their minds, been “brainwashed.” But what has clearly happened is that the young people have undergone a thing called conversion.

To most Christian groups, conversion is a sudden infusion of grace into the soul, a new birth, accepting Jesus as one’s personal Savior. To eastern religions, it is a slower opening to the awareness of God within oneself, or the universal Self or Soul or Consciousness underlying all Being. It is achieved through chanting, yoga, or some form of meditation, and through the abandonment of the lower self (the ego with its base desires). By means of detachment, one attains a higher state of enlightenment and oneness with the essence of the world around him.

The conversion experience has been well described by [psychologist] William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience. He considers it a crystallizing of unconscious aims and wishes, previously “incubated” in “cold” centers of the mind, and suddenly becoming “hot” — brought to the surface by some crisis or experience and occupying the center of one’s thoughts and activities. James says this happens particularly to people in their teens, and that certain psychological and emotional changes are characteristic of all conversions. The fact that a dramatic change takes place in a converted youth is neither new nor sinister. It may simply be a case of arriving at a new identity, perhaps a “negative identity” with respect to the role offered as proper and desirable in one’s family.

One possible explanation for parents’ opposition to new religious sects may be the rejection of materialistic values by some of these sects. In this success and status oriented society, the true religion is often the acquisition of money, material goods, and power. Religions that eschew such goals attack the most dearly held values of the depression era generation and hit a raw nerve of hostility.

No one has proved that any religious sect which has been the target of deprogramming engages in physical restraint, abduction, or any other such practice. What is probably true of most such groups is that they offer warmth, friendship, authority, and a prescribed course of conduct laced with plenty of dogma. No doubt there are serious efforts to influence the thinking of the new adherent, but these are clearly not “brainwashing,” since the adherent is free to depart if he chooses.

The new, and I believe dangerous, element in this conflict between parents and children is “deprogramming.” Deprogrammers are people who, at the request of a parent or other close relative, will have a member of a religious sect seized, then hold him against his will and subject him to mental, emotional, and even physical pressures until he renounces his religious beliefs. Deprogrammers usually work for a fee, which may easily run as high as $25,000.

The deprogramming process begins with abduction. Often strong men muscle the subject into a car and take him to a place where he is cut off from everyone but his captors. He may be held against his will for upwards of three weeks. Frequently, however, the initial deprogramming only lasts a few days. The subject’s sleep is limited, and he is told that he will not be released until his beliefs meet his captors’ approval. Members of the deprogramming group, as well as members of the family, come into the room where the victim is being held and barrage him with questions and denunciations until he has recanted his newly found religious beliefs.

One would ask where deprogrammers get the authority to make these cosmic judgments about religious sects. What qualifications do they have to adjudge persons “brainwashed” or to apply dangerous methods of enforced behavior modification? Is this a group of psychiatrists, theologians, and social scientists? No. [Deprogrammer] Ted Patrick, for example, says he is a high school dropout. His only training appears to be a working knowledge of the Christian Bible. There is no evidence that he knows anything about eastern religions. Nor are there indications that other deprogrammers are qualified to make judgements about the mind, the soul, God, or the Unborn, Unoriginated, Unformed One.

Parents’ real concern is not with any allegedly illegal action on the part of various sects, but with the process by which new members are proselytized and then confirmed in their beliefs by leaders of the groups. That process is speech. Preaching, praying, chanting, teaching, and meditating all constitute practices heavily protected by the Constitution.

— John E. LeMoult, from “Deprogramming Members of Religious Sects” [footnotes omitted]

An article in The Guardian on religious conversion takes the help of both William James and Carl Jung:

[People who experience conversion] can show a sense of regeneration, or a reception of grace, or a gift of assurance. What distinguishes religious conversion from more humdrum experiences of change is depth. Human beings quite normally undergo alterations of character: we are one person at home, another at work, another again when we awake at four in the morning. But religious conversion, be it sudden or slow, results in a transformation that is stable and that causes a revolution in those other parts of our personality.

Jung thought that the unconscious could play a redemptive role in life. Hence, conversion can be thought of as a precipitation from the unconscious and is, generally, for the good. It reorientates the individual around a new centre of previously submerged energy.

Conversion matters to James for reasons other than that it is a common religious experience. He recognises that the strongest evidence for the existence of God is found in such personal, inner experience.

James examines what he takes to be the most valuable material: the best articulated and most profound records of conversion. For him, to do otherwise would be like declaring you were going to study music by excluding the work of Bach in favour of nursery rhymes, on the grounds that more people sing Three blind mice than the St Matthew Passion.

— Mark Vernon, “William James, part 4: The psychology of conversion”

The latter jibes with a cardinal point made by the late sociologist of religion Dr. Bryan R. Wilson:

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.

— Dr. Bryan R. Wilson, from this published letter

The common thread here is the admonition to go to the source, to consult people who actually practice and live a particular faith, rather than basing one’s conclusions on secondary sources which may be compromised by various forms of self-interest, including the apostate’s need for self-justification, or the deprogrammer’s need to ply his or her trade. (See this earlier post on finding reliable spiritual sources.)

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