Finding and Losing My Religion
International Journal of Cultic Studies, Volume 5, 2014, 52-56.
Finding and Losing My Religion
Psychoanalyst, Private Practice
New York City and Nyack, NY;
Faculty and Clinical Supervisor
The National Institute for the Psychotherapies (NIP)
The author provides a personal account of his own experience in a group he came to view as cultic. In addition to identifying the abusive characteristics of the group’s leader, the author explores, in retrospect, the ways in which his participation hinged on his ability to dissociate his awareness of a long list of abuses he not only witnessed, but also experienced firsthand.
When I began graduate school in social work in September of 1994, it had been just 2 years since I moved out of the ashram, the spiritual community in which I had lived and worked for more than ten years, up until my 40th birthday. In the Hindu tradition, an ashram is a retreat compound that is the communal home of a guru, a teacher who is worshipped as a living saint, where followers come to pray, meditate, chant, and work together. My ex-guru, known formally as Swami Chidvilasananda, but most often called Gurumayi, maintained ashrams in India and in upstate New York, as well as in other locations in the United States, and she also toured extensively throughout the world. Gurumayi’s ashram in India is the one Elizabeth Gilbert wrote of in her bestseller, Eat, Pray, Love (Gilbert, 2006).
Gurumayi, meaning Mother Teacher, reflects the devotional aspect (in Sanskrit, bhakti) of this guru’s community. Her organization is known as Siddha Yoga, with Siddha referring to a perfected, fully enlightened spiritual master. So the yoga, or spiritual journey, one embarks on under the tutelage of this guru is advertised as the journey that leads from perfect unfailing devotion to the guru, to perfect spiritual enlightenment. Because siddha is not a proprietary term of this particular community, I will refer to it by the acronym for the foundation that forms the group’s legal structure, which is SYDA, standing for Siddha Yoga Dham (or home) of America.
At the height of Gurumayi’s popularity in the mid-’80s, thousands of visitors, swept up in the excitement of the growing New Age movement, flocked to weekend retreats at her ashrams to receive spiritual awakening. I was introduced to SYDA by friends, and my initial experiences were of powerfully deep meditation states and extraordinary feelings of ecstatic connectedness. At a crossroads in my life and uncertain of how to shape my own future, I soon asked to become a full-time worker for SYDA and was accepted. This meant I was given room and board in SYDA facilities and a small monthly stipend, and that I abandoned my prior activities and relationships, living and working as an ashramite 24/7. I worked this way over a period of more than ten years as a spokesperson, community manager, meditation teacher, public-relations director, and director of educational programs in the US ashrams and in extensive travels to the group’s many international centers all around the globe. I had been successful in strengthening and expanding the devotee communities I was sent to visit—organizational work for which I was praised by Gurumayi. As a result, I was given more and more managerial responsibility in the last few years of my time in the ashram, and I became one of the relatively small group of followers who were granted extensive direct contact with the guru.
One day, some small thing I casually said while speaking with Gurumayi and some other staff members—I said a few words in defense of someone whom Gurumayi was berating—suddenly changed everything. From then on, Gurumayi began speaking to me with searing contempt and derision. After 6 months of being exposed to her relentless, caustic denigration—face to face, in written notes, and on the phone—and after almost daily episodes of public excoriation and humiliation, which included Gurumayi enlisting others to join her in the attacks against me, she instructed me to leave the ashram and return to live and work in New York City. In accordance with the mercurial way that Gurumayi typically behaved, I was still asked to do a good deal of work for the ashram after my expulsion. For 2 more years, I remained in good favor with the guru and was even given a cherished, front-row seat at public satsangs, programs in which Gurumayi spoke to large audiences and accepted offerings.
In the next 2 years after I had moved out of the ashram, was scrambling to make a living, and was still thinking of myself as a follower of Gurumayi, I did a good deal of soul searching, much of it through the process of psychotherapy. One use I made of psychotherapy was to explore my career options. My work in the ashram had been at my own expense until my funds ran out, after which I lived on a very small stipend. My parents had passed away, there was no family money, and I was earning a living doing word processing as a temp at law firms. Inspired by the work I was doing in therapy, I eventually chose to seek the necessary education and training to become a psychotherapist myself.
In my first social-work field placement, many of the clients I was assigned described terrible histories of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse in childhood; in some cases, they were involved in ongoing abuse, either as perpetrators or victims. Many of these clients were struggling to recover from devastating addictions. Although my own life had been something of a bed of roses in comparison with the suffering these people had known—my life was not without trauma, but it certainly had not had the poverty and violence my social-work clients reported—I soon discovered I had a deeper connection to their experiences of trauma and abuse than I at first realized.
I had always portrayed my participation in SYDA Yoga, both to myself and to others, as an idealistic commitment to a noble spiritual path, a dedication to spiritual awakening and uplift in the world. Just after graduate school began, I learned of an incident concerning a friend of mine, a young woman just turned 21, who was sexually harassed in the ashram by one of its most powerful male leaders—a man in his late forties who was notoriously seductive, and who years ago had pled no contest to statutory rape in the one instance when the parents of a teenage girl he had seduced took action against him. When the young woman friend of mine sought help from Gurumayi regarding what had happened between her and the male leader, Gurumayi, through her secretary, told my friend that she had brought the harassment upon herself. Gurumayi warned the young woman,
“Don’t ever tell anyone about this, especially not your mother.” The young woman’s mother, an influential leader of the Siddha Yoga community in a large US city, was a long-time devotee of Gurumayi’s.
After 2 years of intense inner conflict, the young woman finally did tell her story. As a result, many others began to speak out, eventually contributing to an extensive exposé of SYDA Yoga by Lis Harris in The New Yorker (Harris, 1994). The article revealed a Pandora’s box of well-documented abuses by the leaders of the group, abuses that had been going on for more than twenty years. I learned later that Gurumayi had chosen SYDA Yoga followers to become Reiki practitioners specifically for the purpose of doing long-distance Reiki on Lis Harris and The New Yorker, in hopes of stopping the publication of the article. When that effort proved ineffective, followers around the world made a point of finding the magazine in libraries and tearing the article out.
In the 2 years prior to the publication of the article that I had spent living and working back in New York City, I had slowly and painfully begun to acknowledge to myself, my therapist, and my wife, herself a member of the group at that time (but no longer), that there were aspects of SYDA Yoga and its leaders that I found unethical and disturbing. In particular, I had personally experienced and also frequently witnessed Gurumayi verbally and emotionally abusing her followers—publicly shaming in cruel and humiliating ways those with whom she was displeased. I had heard her tell blatant lies and had witnessed her deliberately, maliciously deceiving others she wished to embarrass or harass while she expressed pleasure in doing so. I witnessed her condoning and encouraging illegal and unethical business and labor practices, such as smuggling gold and US dollars in and out of India, and exploiting workers without providing adequate housing, food, health care, or social security. I was aware that, for many years, Gurumayi and her predecessor, Swami Muktananda, had been using spies, hidden cameras, and microphones to gather information about followers in the ashram, which they then used to embarrass them, often publicly. All of these behaviors were well known to those of us on the staff of the organization, but they were much less familiar to the thousands of followers who did not live and work there in direct contact with Gurumayi. The Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert was one of those people who did not, during her ashram visit, become aware of the sordid history of sexual abuse in SYDA Yoga, or the emotional battering and financial exploitation suffered by those who worked more closely with Gurumayi. Staff members such as myself considered ourselves privileged to be exposed to the more private persona of Gurumayi, whose typical cruelty to her followers, and whose expectation that no amount of money was too much to be spent on her, was always understood as crazy wisdom, a term that refers to and celebrates the eccentric, mind-blowing and paradoxical behaviors of spiritual leaders in various Eastern traditions. Aggression, greed, sexual predation, and other forms of cruelty are often among these behaviors in the stories of such leaders, who are understood to be, contrary to appearances, benignly breaking down the boundaries and defenses of followers, “liberating” them from their small, petty, unenlightened egos. It was only later, after I had left SYDA Yoga, was reflecting on my own experience, and was learning a great deal about the experiences of others in cultic groups that I developed the concept of “the relational system of the traumatizing narcissist” (as outlined in this monograph). No longer under the mesmerizing spell of the guru, I was able to recognize her behavior for what it was—the cruelty and selfishness that is characteristic of a particular sort of narcissist—one who traumatizes others by persuading them that they are hopelessly inferior, and that redemption is only possible through submission to the narcissist.
The relational psychoanalyst Emanuel Ghent (1990) made an astute distinction between surrender and submission. He conceptualized surrender as a letting go of defenses, and an opening to the possibility of the sublime, both as internal state and as interpersonal experience; whereas he understood submission as the dehumanizing, sadomasochistic perversion of surrender. Although I was not aware of Ghent’s work until some time after I had left SYDA Yoga, I was beginning to formulate similar ideas. I began to become aware that I had been deceived—and that I had deceived myself—in a classic bait-and-switch operation, the bait being surrender, the switch being masochistic submission to a cruel and controlling, yet idealized leader.
Most shamefully of all the dissociating I had been doing was that, in order to continue to convince myself that I was making the best possible choices by devoting myself to SYDA Yoga, I had suppressed my awareness of stories of sexual abuse in the ashram, stories it would be absolutely heretical to even mention to another follower. I had heard rumors that, contrary to his claims of celibacy and renunciation, the predecessor guru, Swami Muktananda, called Baba by his followers, had, up until his death in his seventies, been relentless in sexually preying upon female followers, many of them girls who were not of legal age. When some followers exposed him publicly, he lied and attempted to cover up the scandal with threats of violence to the whistleblowers, threats made both by Muktananda himself and by deputies he appointed and dispatched—one a former professional football player; the other, a former Vietnam combat veteran.
I had deliberately chosen to disbelieve and deny this information, although a deeply buried part of me had kept mental notes on many whispers and hints. Later, after I had severed all ties with SYDA Yoga in 1994, I came to learn of far more extensive sexual abuse of both young girls and adult women, several of whom I met and spoke with. Without knowing each other, the women reported exactly similar details: a secret room with a specially built table, which allowed Muktananda, then in his seventies, to stand while he raped them. I will spare the reader further, more specific details that all of these women who spoke out, again without access to each others’ accounts, described. Gurumayi has continued to deny and cover up this aspect of her predecessor’s behavior to this day. I also learned that many of the parents of the young girls whom Muktananda had molested had been proud that their daughters were “chosen,” as though for a special, divine ritual. I knew some of these people well: Before coming to live full-time in the ashram, one of the parents had been an Ivy League professor, another a once-prominent Jungian analyst. After Muktananda’s death, Gurumayi continued to defend the male leader who had abused the woman I knew and who was also abusing dozens of other young women, many of them minors.
All my dissociated knowledge suddenly and dramatically broke fully into consciousness when I heard the story of the young woman I knew; I literally felt my body become enlivened, and I could physically feel my mind—brain?—expanding, opening. In the phrase “Don’t ever tell anyone about this, especially not your mother,” I heard a chilling echo of the voice of the incestuous father, the battering husband, the sexual harasser, the rapist. As Judith Herman says in her seminal work Trauma and Recovery (1992), “Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator’s first line of defense” (p. 8). It was hearing these words, “Don’t ever tell,” that broke for me what Ernst Becker (1973) has called “the spell cast by persons—the nexus of unfreedom” (p. 141). I recognized in Gurumayi’s behavior toward her followers the hallmarks of abuse: the use of power to intimidate, seduce, coerce, belittle, and humiliate others—not to strengthen, uplift, and enlighten, as advertised, but for the more base purposes of psychological enslavement and parasitic exploitation.
I should note that while SYDA Yoga resembles in many ways a mainstream Hindu religion—there are many distinct sects and lineages of Siddha Yoga practice outside of SYDA Yoga, many of which may not be cultic. And of course, my characterization of SYDA Yoga as cultic would be hotly contested by its many remaining loyal followers. What I have expressed here is based on my experience and represents my personal understanding.
In the United States and other major world capitals, SYDA Yoga was successfully marketed to a population of highly educated, affluent professionals, and they included quite a few internationally known celebrities in business, the arts, and journalism. Once I had spoken out publicly about SYDA Yoga, in the early days of the Internet, I was instantly, literally within hours, persona non grata in the community, so that the dozens of people I thought of as friends, and the hundreds of others from all over the world who had been friendly acquaintances, immediately cut me off completely. Fortunately, there were enough members who left the community when I did for us to form a support group using the Internet just as it was becoming popularized. I also began to attend conferences organized by what is now The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), where I have met hundreds of people over the years who identify either as having been in an abusive, authoritarian group or as being concerned for loved ones in such groups.
Since I became licensed as a clinical social worker in 1996, I have worked with dozens of cult-involved people, both in pro bono situations and in my private psychotherapy practice. Much of my interest in and development of ideas about the relational system of the traumatizing narcissist stems from my interest in making sense of what for me, and for thousands of others who have experienced abuse in cults, was an enormously painful, life-altering experience that began in an ecstasy of hope and possibility, and which ultimately became an abyss of cumulative relational trauma.
My cousin’s wife is a psychiatrist, and when I told her, a few years after I left SYDA Yoga, that I was going into psychoanalytic training, she said, “Great! You left one cult, and now you’re joining another!” This is not an uncommon observation. But my own analytic experience up to that point was quite the opposite of my cult experience. Living a life focused on idolization, as I had done for so many years as a guru worshipper, I had forgotten what it was like to experience myself as being worthy of kindness, encouragement, and empathy. Gurumayi’s modus operandi had been to follow up any expression of praise or approval with brutally intense disparagement and rejection; so those of us who dealt directly with her came to anticipate that the more kindness she offered, the more brutal it would be when the other shoe dropped. In therapy, having my analyst be consistently empathetic with me and not suddenly switch to hostile attacks, and having my point of view and my subjectivity be respected and affirmed were experiences I had almost forgotten were possible. It was also a great relief to experience that disruptions could be repaired, not through one of us submitting completely to the other, but through negotiation and mutual accountability. These experiences, plus my reading of psychoanalytic literature on my own all through social-work school, convinced me that there was potential in psychoanalytic work for deep understanding, healing, and growth. These were the same goals that I, and so many others like me, thought would arise out of my dedication to SYDA Yoga and its leader. When it became clear that no such thing was possible there—and that idolization and self-negation, not self-realization, were the only real possibilities in that relationship—I was ready to start over.
Better late than never.
Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York, NY: The Free Press.
Ghent, E. (1990). Masochism, submission, surrender—Masochism as a perversion of surrender. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 26, 108–136.
Gilbert, E. (2006). Eat, pray, love. New York, NY: Viking.
Harris, L. (1994, Nov. 14). O guru guru guru. The New Yorker, (7)37, p. 92.
Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and recovery. New York, NY: Basic Books.
About the Author
Daniel Shaw, LCSW, is a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City and Nyack, New York; Faculty and Clinical Supervisor, The National Institute for the Psychotherapies (NIP), New York, New York; and former cochair, Continuing Education Committee, The International Association for Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. Shaw spent 13 years as a staff member in Siddha Yoga (SYDA Foundation). There he wore many hats, including manager of the residential Manhattan facility, educator, spokesperson, public-relations coordinator, community organizer, and writer/director of public programs. Shaw exited Siddha Yoga in 1994, published an Open Letter about Siddha Yoga on the Internet in 1995, and helped create the Leaving Siddha Yoga website, one of the first Internet websites for former cult members. Shaw is the author of “Traumatic Abuse in Cults: A Psychoanalytic Perspective,” published in the Cultic Studies Journal, and of numerous psychoanalytic papers. Mr. Shaw leads the monthly New York-area ICSA group with Chris Carlson. This group offers support, education, and interaction for all those who have been harmed by, or want to learn about high-demand