Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Tall Tales and Tell Alls

I've been reading a lot lately from people who woke up to the falsity of their spiritual path after a lifetime of unquestioning belief. It started when I began looking more deeply into Mormonism in order to better understand America's presumptive Republican nominee. After trying to read the Book of Mormon and quickly realizing that the title was misspelled (one too many m's) I opted for the straight dope offered at There, I found post after post after post written by Mormons who stumbled onto internet accounts detailing secrets that their church leaders had zealously withheld. Secrets which, once revealed, cratered and then crumbled their faith. Tellingly, the arc of their stories dovetailed nearly exactly with my own, and with many of those shared here at RoD—the initial fear of betraying deeply held spiritual convictions, followed by discovery of the truth and searing self-examination, inevitably leading to the courage to leave falsehood behind, no matter the personal or psychic cost.

A similar mass apostasy is befalling Scientology, the leaders of which have found their house of cards listing perilously in the winds of the world wide web. It seems both Xenu and Joseph Smith's harem of thirty-four wives are just a Google search away from disenchanting the most devoted of disciples.

The last example came this past weekend on a visit to my sister, when she passed along a book that friends in her reading circle recommended, "An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service and an Authentic Life," by Mary Johnson. Before committing to its 500+ pages I skipped to the epilogue, where I found what I suspected; the book's purplish title belied its contents—a bare-knuckled account of twenty fraughtful years spent with a 'living saint', written by an ex-nun who had seen it all and survived to tell the tale. I considered borrowing the book for the train ride home, but then remembered I had something better on my Kindle: Marta Szabo's excellent account of her years with our own Nearly Departed One.

Many here will remember that Marta's book, "The Guru Looked Good," began as a series of posts on her blog of the same name. Back then, I eagerly read each new chapter as soon as it was posted online. I had known Marta from the Manhattan ashram and later, South Fallsburg; we were friendly if not exactly friends in that ashram way, and I felt I could vouch for both her good heart and scrupulous integrity. But even if I hadn't known her personally, I knew that this simple, unadorned account of her years devoted to Gurumayi would have struck a deep chord in me. Her tale was our tale.

It was the ashram-instigated smear campaign against her that, more than anything, shocked me into the crisis of faith that precipitated my starting Rituals of Disenchantment.

When her book came out I bought copies, distributed some to friends, and dipped in to reread some of the chapters I had loved online. But for some reason I never read it again all the way through. Now I wanted to, and once I started I found I couldn't put it down. I anxiously turned the pages whenever Madri (Marta) was given an impossible seva to accomplish, and squirmed through ordeals when she was called before Gurumayi to face the music for some ridiculous infraction of the rules or imagined mistake in protocol. But there are achingly beautiful accounts here, too, that capture the fatal allure that held us all captive for so long. The small chapter on her seva spent devoutly washing and dressing the murti of Bade Baba, moving as silently as a shadow among the muted blue lights of his numinous nighttime shrine, is a miracle of evocation.

There is much here, too, that I don't remember reading online; juicy tidbits of hidden ashram life as well as wonderfully moving anecdotes that parallel tracked her rise in the ranks of Gurumayi's inner circles, and the growth in self-esteem that eventually led her to leave it all behind.

But it's the quality of Marta's writing that captivated me most. Her prose is limpid, spare and illuminating. Reading it I thought—maybe when we die our life doesn't flash before us, maybe instead we'll be called upon to tell our story ourselves, once for all time. If so, this is the voice I would hope to speak in; clear-eyed, unstinting, invoking neither self-justification nor blame.

I still don't feel I'm doing "The Guru Looked Good" justice; if you haven't read it I hope you will.

Some of you have begun posting your own stories in the comments section. I've found them all equally moving. I hope anyone who wants to share their stories will use this forum to do so. Just tell it like it was, and is, for you. All are welcome.


Marta Szabo said...

Wow. Thank you, dear SeekHer, for these generous good words. And thank you for continuing to host this fine forum where so many find a home. And I hope that, by now, we can call ourselves real friends.

SeekHer said...

That happened long ago my dear!

Anonymous said...

Dear SeekHer and friends,

What a nice surprise to check back in today and discover these recent posts, especially this one from you, SeekHer.

How wonderful and apropos to bring the conversation full circle, so to speak, back to what by now feels in many ways to me like our shared SY experience – and post this thoughtful reminder that so much what each of us went through, saw and felt was finally captured and affirmed in something real and concrete, something we could hold in our hands, Marta's raw, resonant writing.

And of course as you know, I would have never have found her book had I not first found your blog. We all have much to thank each of you for.

A few years ago, on the heels of the Salon article, I shared here how reading Marta's book inspired me to begin writing about my own SY experience. As I read The Guru Looked Good, I was repeatedly astonished by how vividly Marta recalled her experiences in such present detail that she took me with her, right inside them. I could feel the plush carpet in the Babe Baba Temple beneath my bare feet; I could smell the Champa in the air of the Mandap; I could hear Gurumayi’s voice as she spoke.

It was thrilling to read that kind of writing and it inspired me to give myself a similar challenge. Could I recall moments from my own SY experience in such lucid detail? Could I set hindsight aside, go back and be present in those experiences again, then write about them from the perspective I had then? It was worth a try.

When I started, following what I gleaned was an approach similar to Marta's, I told myself, “Just write.” And with that basic starting point, just as Marta promised and almost without effort, I slipped right back in and wrote my way through.

The immediacy of Marta’s writing provided the inspiration; the structure of The Guru Looked Good provided the template, if you will. Without knowing it, Marta had provided me a sturdy framework within which to write my own story.

Marta's book hurled me into the uncharted water of recalling and then writing about my own SY experience, and Marta's book was also the map I gripped along the way. Thank you, Ms. Szabo for (unknowingly) provoking the adventure!

In the end I only wrote one chapter. Just covered my gradual intro into SY, first introduction to Gurumayi, and the confluence of events in my life during that time that lured me down the rabbit hole. In my head I had titles and outlines for chapters two and three, but as time passed I decided that first chapter did the trick; that was the one I needed to write.

SeekHer, when you and I first formally introduced ourselves to each other on this blog you extended an invitation for me to share that chapter with you. In ways I’m sure you can appreciate, I was moved and validated by your generous offer but the timing wasn’t right. I was still feeling too close in time to what I’d written. I wasn't ready to put it out there. This morning as I read the closing of this most recent post from you, I recalled your invitation, as what you’ve written here made me feel as if that door might still be open. If so, please let me know, as the timing now feels right. I’m ready if you are. And if not, of course there is no obligation.

Either way, thank you to you and all. Glad I to continue have the chance to be a “pixilated” part of this “feisty bunch of misfits.”


Anonymous said...

To Lucid:

As a regular reader of this blog, I'd love to read your story.

To SeekHer:

Its your gig of course, no disrespect intended at all, please don't misunderstand. It's just that for me every story is like a stepping stone on the path to self-strength and letting go.

Thanks for contributing to the journey.

Anonymous said...

I was involved for eight years with an asana shala of sorts run by a Siddha devotee. I took yoga teacher training, and just barely dodged the bullet of taking shaktipat myself. There was a lot of SY flavoring added to classes there, gigantic photos of Muk and GM in the practice room and I attended programs at a local SY center for a while. I had dreams about GM that were nightmares. The shaktipat initiation program I was supposed to attend got cancelled. About a year later, I walked away from teaching and the yoga shala.I have found myself drawn to spiritual memoirs of those who did the time and later walked away. I have learned so much more from these brave stories than I did in any asana class or meditation retreat. I am grateful that when I researched SY before taking the plunge that there was information available from former devotees that enabled me to make an informed decision, trust my gut and step away from the Kool-Aid. I'm grateful for your stories that have given me the freedom to think critically about gurus and other whacked out spiritual group dynamics. Thank you for continuing to share your processes.


SeekHer said...

Lucid --of course the offer still stands! I would be happy to post your chapter. Please send it through in comments and I will immediately post it to the blog under your signature.

Everyone's story is welcome. We just might reinvent the experience share (sorry, couldn't resist!)

SeekHer said...

LUCID-- please disregard previous email instructions on how to post your chapter. I've created an email address that you can send it to:

and I'll post from there--no need to cut an paste into comments. Can't wait to read it!

Anonymous said...

Woo-hoo! Going to send you an email from a "blog entries" yahoo account I created. Look forward to connecting and getting the ball rolling!


Anonymous said...

I second the other posts, asking Lucid to let us hear that story. Haha, that is funny to think of it as a reinvention of the famous "experience shares"!

It feels heart-warming to have Marta & Dan Shaw drop in here. I am personally just celebrating & contemplating my one year anniversary of departing from SY, which was four days ago. Thinking about how much has changed for me in that year is kind of breathtaking. I am certainly still in the phase of trying to make sense of it all, the impact of that transition seems to come in waves.

Since for so long I considered myself such a student of GM's words, quite often a phrase or two from her talks will pop up in my mind, giving me the opportunity to examine it from a fresh perspective. Some things I feel still works to some extent, others I feel I can debunk now. It has been a year of questioning everything, and I have a feeling that will continue for a while.

I have been thinking of Lucid's expression in a recent post: "the phantom limb of loss and grief that lingers post-amputation, post de-installation of SY." Very fitting, I can relate.

It takes time to really make sense of it all, and I am obviously still in the process of it, and need to give myself lots of slack for processing time. As much as there is to celebrate in becoming free, there is also the loss of innocence that comes with finding out that it wasn't all light & pure, and after having been so devoted to it.

Lucid wrote: "I realize there is an element to all this that presses against a spot that's apparently still a little sore -- that spot that eventually closed over and healed, that now phantom limb of loss and grief that lingers post-amputation, post de-installation of SY.

There is a deeply sad element all this AS "news" dusts up that I guess I can only describe as my disappointment in our human fallibility, and my wish for us all to do better. This latest "spiritual community" scandal thrusts into the headlines once more very real aspects of the full spectrum of human behavior that are still, for me, a bit of a tough sell. There is still part of me that would prefer to wave a magic wand and make it go away. If I had my druthers I'd rather not have to acknowledge that this is part of the truth of who we are and what we do as humans."
I have that same (apparently often unrealistic) longing for integrity, "the wish for us all to do better".

Free At Last (or FAL, even though I still enjoy spelling it out)

Anonymous said...

Hey Free At Last,

Sometimes it's enough just to know that you've been heard. So, for what it's worth, I just wanted to let you know that I read this, and I hear you.


Anonymous said...

I'm a regular reader of this blog, and I thank you, Seekher, and all the many folks who comment. I'm not a writer but you inspire me, as Marta has said, to just write. This blog has been an important place for me as I unravel my devotion to Gurumayi. I'm grateful, and humbled, for all the wisdom and openness to share disappointments.

Thank you,