Monday, February 18, 2013

Rentention, not Recruitment

Is Scientology out of the numbers game and now only looking to keep its shrinking donor base on the hook and paying up? This Ad Age article contains an interesting admission by a former high-level member--that has (no pun intended) 'clear' parallels to SYDA:

"Former Scientology church member Jefferson Hawkins, who once ran marketing for the organization and is best known for his 1980s TV ad that featured an exploding volcano, said the church's strategy when it comes to TV advertising is mostly reactive. "Their solution when negative stuff happens is to get high-profile ads out there..."

 Mr. Hawkins, who has been a regular critic of the church since he left in 2005, believes the (recent Super Bowl) ads are vanity TV buys aimed more at retention than recruitment:

'From my experience, they don't have a real interest in getting new members," he said. "It costs money to train new members. There's no immediate profit. They are more interested in keeping current members and encouraging them to donate.'"

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Lucid Memories, Chapter 2, Part 2

That evening during her talk, Gurumayi speaks at length about the importance of what she calls “welcoming others.” She tells us that welcoming others is not only the foundation of Baba’s teachings, but also a powerful tradition and spiritual practice found in all cultures.

She suggests that one of the ways we can welcome others is by “seeing beyond people’s shortcomings.” She urges us to avoid getting “stuck in our judgments.” She encourages us to always strive to see the highest and presume the best in everyone we encounter.

“Treat people,” she says, “as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being.”

How beautifully put. It makes absolute sense.

After her talk and a brief meditation session, the Emcee for this evening’s program, Cosby Show actress Phylicia Rashad, steps up to the mike to make the closing announcements before the aisle monitors dismiss each of our rows for darshan. No fanfare was made earlier about her appearance as tonight’s hostess. None was needed. Everyone knows who she is. She’s just one of several semi-B-list celebrities who dot the crowd throughout Gurumayi’s Oakland visit. One night the former Mod Squad star Peggy Lipton motions me up to Gurmayi’s chair during darshan; I’m too young to remember the show, but Kathleen points her out. She looks thin and pale under the bright stage lights and appears self-conscious about being assigned the very visible role of Darshan Usher. Another night I see actor Gary Busey wandering around the lobby, looking disoriented. When I first notice him I can’t think of his name, but it comes to me later. I wonder if he’s struggling in his career and seeking a new direction. Maybe that’s why he’s here.

Projected across the giant jumbotron screen suspended above the stage, Phylicia Rashad's glossy smile is as big as a Cheshire cat's. Her pupils, black billiard balls, roll back and forth in her dewy eyes as she slowly scans the crowd.

Everyone in the hall sits there staring up at her, as if stoned in a collective post-meditation stupor. Leaning into the mike and tilting her head to the side she says with a wink, “Now that you’ve tasted an exquisite drop of this nectar, don’t you just want to dive in?"

In response to her little flirtation many in the hall laugh, as if in on a joke, and several erupt in applause. But something about her delivery strikes me as over the top.

“Take the intensive,” she continues, pausing with intent. “Take the intensive,” she says again, adding another intentional pause. “Take the intensive.”

I squirm a little inside each time she repeats her pitch, relieved when she stops at three.

The program concludes and the moment our row is dismissed Kathleen perks forward in her chair and grips my hand. “Darshan will be going on for hours – let’s go eat and come back.”

As we exit the theater and cross the street to the Amrit, Kathleen loops her arm though mine. She’s strolling along in a post-program reverie but I’ve still got Phylicia Rashad’s refrain stuck in my head – and my mind is trying to stave of her repeated pitch with a mounting list of questions. Why the hard sell? Was that necessary? What goes on in the Intensive? And why would anyone need, or for that matter be able to withstand, more than what’s offered in these programs?

I don’t want to offend Kathleen; she’s been a devotee for over a decade. But I’d like some answers and I figure she’s as reliable a resource as I’m apt to find.

When I ask her a carefully phrased question about the Intensive and the way it's being promoted at the programs she sighs, “Sometimes the people who would benefit from the Intensive the most also tend to be the people won't attend unless they're specifically told they need to go!"

“But,” I ask, “Isn't what takes place in these programs enough?"

She sighs again. My sense isn’t that she’s tiring of my questions; my sense is she doesn’t think the answers pertain to us.

"Some of these people need to be hit over the head in order to ‘get it,’” she explains. “The Intensive is for them. You’re not like that. I wouldn’t worry about it.”

“Trust me,” she adds, smiling up into my eyes, “You’ve already received shaktipat.”

After dinner, as we make our way back to our seats, we're halted at the top of our aisle by a brusque woman with shoulder pads and a clipboard whose clear mission is to redirect us.

When we explain we’re merely returning to our seats via the exact path by which we left them, her face flattens, as if stunned we’re challenging her. Our aisle is closed, she informs us, and we need to go out and come back in another way. It makes no sense but she’s got a laminated name badge and a clipboard and we don’t. She extends her arm and makes an opened-palmed but firm gesture back in the direction of the lobby doors.

As we turn to head back up the aisle, Kathleen quips under her breath, referring to the main message in that night's talk, “Well, I guess she’s practicing welcoming others.” We share a muffled laugh, exit into the lobby and take the long way back to our seats.

After we sit down I ask Kathleen, “Why did she speak to us like that?” – given where we are and why we are here, the interaction seemed jarring, so out of place.

“Oh,” she says, letting out a deep breath, “Some of these sevites are just so full self-importance.” Sevites, she explains, is the title given to all the devotees I’ve seen doing all the volunteer work over the past few weeks. Seva is the name for the work itself, though it’s not work, she says, it’s service – to the Guru. “You run into them everywhere,” she continues, “In the Amrit, in the Bookstore . . . all you can do is keep your sense of humor. It’s like I always say when I’m signing up for an Intensive: With every registration you get a free lecture!” She giggles at her own joke.

I like the fact that Kathleen has been involved in Siddha Yoga for so long, been so close to Gurumayi, and yet still remains un-phased by all the nonsense. I like that she breaks the rules, at least the ones that don’t seem to matter. Maybe Gurumayi is a bit of a rule-breaker too.

Later that night, up on the stage during Darshan, just as we're bowing down, Gurumayi draws Phylicia Rashad to her side, as if she needs tell her something. As my forehead touches the carpet I hear Gurumayi say in a voice that's low and monotone, “It should have happened at 7 o’clock.” Her statement is firm, and indisputable. Her displeasure is controlled, but it’s there. Some part of the program hadn't gone as planned. Someone was late.

As I back up and away from Gurumayi’s chair, I catch Phylicia’s face looking down in deference. I can tell that although she may not be the person who was late, she's the one Gurumayi's holding responsible.

Kathleen and I return to our seats and watch as the tail end of the darshan line files up. Each night we stay after and sit and wait until darshan ends, with the hope that Gurumayi will stay in the hall a bit longer. Sometimes a French magician named Arsene cames out and performs as if he were Gurumayi’s court jester; sometimes there is light banter back and forth between Gurumayi and the swamis; sometimes a chant.

One of the last women to step forward kneels down and offers Gurumayi a huge bouquet of flowers. Kathleen leans into me, places her hand over her mouth and shares in a whisper, “When I first started coming to Siddha Yoga I always took Gurumayi flowers. But then one day she told me: ‘Don’t bring flowers, bring money – And tell your friends!’“

I laugh along with her at the punch line to her story, though I’m not exactly sure why it’s funny.

During these final moments of each evening I can’t take my eyes off of Gurumayi. She’s been sitting with her legs folded up under her in the same lotus position for nearly five hours but looks just as radiant as she did when she arrived. Maybe more so. I don’t pretend to know who she is, but I do know this: no human I know would ever be capable of such a feat.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Lucid Memories, Chapter Two, Part 1

I first heard Kathleen’s name early in 1992, not long after my mom and John called to say they were finally going to tie the knot. Having made my sister and I suffer through their unnecessary to us ten-year protracted courtship, they called one night and announced with glee that they were putting a date on the calendar and us out of our misery. Over the years, whenever we tried to press them about sealing the deal, my mom would joke, “Once my relationship with John outlasts the length of my two prior marriages, we’ll make it official – and not a moment before!” When they finally hit that target and made good on their promise my sister I were thrilled. We’d never known two people more meant for each other. We were also relieved. Due to our own need for security, we wanted a concrete guarantee they'd stay together. Now we had it.

The year prior, my mom had struck up a friendship with Kathleen through their local Siddha Yoga Center in Colorado. Although they hadn’t known each other long, the moment my mom announced her engagement Kathleen jumped in to help. Overnight she became both wedding planner and personal assistant, managing every last detail leading up to the big day.

I can’t remember the first time my mom told me about Kathleen, but during our phone conversations in the months prior to the wedding, she mentioned her name too many times to count. Clearly my mom was thrilled to have such a devoted, zealous volunteer at her side. “If I hired someone to do all this,” she gushed one night on the phone, “It would cost me a fortune!”

My mom was one of the most appreciative people I knew, and I understood why she felt so grateful, but to me it sounded like her new best friend was taking over. She began to adopt an almost “Kathleen knows best” attitude. That wasn’t like her. I hadn’t met Kathleen and felt protective. Maybe even a bit suspicious.

Who was this woman?

In October, just before the floor between Jack and I splintered in and collapsed, I flew home to Colorado for the wedding. Upon my arrival I finally met the person I’d been hearing so much about.

Kathleen was petite, attractive, and impeccably groomed. She had small, sparkling brown eyes and a pleasant, diminutive smile. Although Kathleen was a woman in her 40s who was living in the 90s, she still maintained her thick, glossy black hair in an immaculate braid that dangled down below her waist. She had the longest hair I’d ever seen and not a single strand was out of place. I suspected she was known for her hair.

Fall had arrived early in Colorado and Kathleen was ready, dressed on the day we met in an amber-colored cowl-neck sweater, coordinating calf-length skirt and dangly Navajo-style earrings, the kind she might have purchased while lingering at a roadside stand on a trip through in Arizona. She looked like a very put together flower child. Not someone I imagined dancing barefoot in the mud at a Grateful Dead concert, but someone who nonetheless likely wore a strand or two of love beads in her day – the kind she’d strung herself. I could imagine Kathleen bead shopping.

When my mom introduced us, she was chipper and polite, in an official wedding planner sort of way, but it was clear she wasn’t going to let anything, or anyone, divert her focus. Seeing her in action my immediate impression was that Kathleen had a lot of confidence in her work. She struck me as someone who believed she knew exactly what to do, how to do it, and when – the kind of person who, once assigned a specific task, doesn’t require further direction or stop for input. She wasn’t pushy, but she was certain. As the twenty-four hours before the wedding dwindled down, I could see her ticking through her mental list of priorities, checking off each one in her head then moving briskly onto the next.

I tried to dismiss Kathleen’s hyper-professional, somewhat controlling demeanor as expected from a bride’s personal assistant the day before the wedding, but something about her continued to rub me wrong. I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Still, it was obvious she was going way above and beyond – even offering to do my sister’s hair and make-up for the ceremony in addition to my mom’s, on top of having to take care of her own. I had to admit my mom glowed in Kathleen’s attentive care. That’s what’s most important, I thought, that my mom feels taken care of. That’s the only thing that matters.

As the weekend proceeded, I tucked aside my unease about Kathleen and made an effort to warm up to her – after all, her support meant so much to my mom. In the process she opened up and I learned a quite a bit of her story . . .

In the early 1980s, Kathleen lived for a time in Siddha Yoga’s mother ashram, in Ganeshpuri, India. She was there during Baba Mukantanda’s last years as Guru, there when he died, there when Gurumayi was appointed his successor. A talented seamstress, Kathleen was assigned the highly intimate role of making Gurumayi’s clothes. Prior to her sharing the highlights of her early years in Siddha Yoga, it hadn’t occurred to me that a specific person made Gurumayi’s clothes, but it did make sense. I couldn’t imagine Gurumayi wearing something purchased off a rack. Besides, she didn’t have time to go shopping.

Eventually Kathleen met her husband in Ganeshpuri and Gurumayi married them. In a giant gold-framed photo from their wedding I saw hanging in their house, Kathleen and her husband Alan appeared draped in thick garlands of marigolds, their foreheads glistening in the Indian heat as they lean in near Gurumayi who sits beside them beaming. I somewhat marveled at the photo when I saw it. I hadn’t known that Gurumayi married people. That was also the first time I saw a picture of Gurumayi taken with someone I actually knew. It hadn’t occurred to me that some people had their pictures taken with the Guru, owned copies of those pictures, and hung them in their homes.

I stared at that photo. To be married by the Guru must be the ultimate way to sanctify your relationship, I thought. But Kathleen didn’t mention her husband that weekend and I didn’t meet him – he was away on business.

Kathleen was so involved in the wedding it struck me as odd that her husband couldn’t arrange to be there. Later, when I asked my mom about him, she gave me her classic “Don’t ask” look. The list of people she disliked was short, but that look told me in an instant Alan was on it. While my sister and I were growing up my mom enforced and adhered to a strict “If you can’t say something nice” policy. I’d learned long ago that when she gave me that look we weren’t going to have a conversation. “I tell you about Alan another time,” she said. She didn’t mention him again; neither did I.

The moment for ceremony arrived and my mom floated through her wedding. I had to hand it to Kathleen who herself seemed to thrive in the midst of those final break-neck hours. She and I didn’t stay in touch after my mom’s wedding; there wasn’t any reason to. After I returned to San Francisco I sent her a card, thanking her for the support she gave my mom because it was the polite thing to do. But that was it.

Six months later in April, during the second week of Gurumayi’s programs, Kathleen called me out of the blue and left a message. I was startled to hear her voice on my answering machine but figured she must have contacted my mom and asked for my number. “I’m coming to Oakland Wednesday!” she exclaimed, near-breathless. “Let’s meet at The Paramount!”

Two days later as I stand waiting for her inside the lobby, I feel bit awkward. Kathleen is my mom’s age and the wrong gender, but for some reason I feel like I’m moments away from a first date – except instead of dinner and a movie we’re meeting for a chant and darshan. I agreed to meet her but now that I’m here it suddenly strikes me as an odd setting in which to spend the evening with someone I hardly know. Up until tonight I’ve been coming alone.

Suddenly I feel my focus yanked from behind. I turn around and see Kathleen, rushing toward me across the lobby. “How are you?!” she bursts, crushing me in a hug, like we’re old friends who’ve been apart too long. I jump inside, startled aback by her over-gregarious greeting.

“Isn’t this theater gorgeous?” she beams, looking up at me like a teenage girl out for her first night on the town. “Come on – I saved us some great seats!”

Inside, as we settle into our chairs, I watch from the corner of my eye as Kathleen employs a bit of artful choreography with her pashmina shawl, draping it over both shoulders, just so, to inconspicuously conceal the small spiral-bound notepad and pen she produces from her purse. As if she’s made this same move a hundred times before, she slips both items underneath her shawl and into her lap while looking around nonchalantly to see if any of the aisle monitors have spotted her.

As I observe her do this, my eyebrows raise a little. At the intro to every program the Emcees are explicit: “No note-taking aloud.” At first the rule strikes me as counterintuitive. Wouldn’t notes give people something concrete to refer to and focus on later when they meditated at home? But then I second-guess myself and try to imagine the potential rationales. Maybe if you’re too focused on writing things down you loose the true essence of what’s being offered. Maybe the process of absorbing the Guru’s teachings is too subtle and too profound to be reduced to a lecturer-audience format. Maybe it’s disrespectful to scribble the guru’s wisdom down into a series of illegible notes.

Ok, I get it.

Still, there is one curious phenomenon at these programs that does make the no note-taking rule continue to stick out as odd: despite how captivated everyone seems during Gurumayi’s talks, a common joke afterward is that many people can’t remember a thing she said. Often I see small groups in Amrit giggling over their collective inability to recall any specific part of what she’s said; the overall gist is there but none of the key details. It’s as if once she’s spoken them, Gurumayi’s words become slippery fish.
“What was that hilarious Nasrudin story she told – something about losing a key . . .?”

Given the four-hour combo of chanting, lecture, meditation and darshan, maybe some people are simply too blissed out to repeat anything back in a complete sentence. Like driving under the influence then getting pulled over and asked to repeat “toy boat” ten times, maybe the more you try to wrap your mind around the Guru’s exact phrasing, the harder it becomes.

Regardless, the consensus seems to be that just listening to the Guru is, in and of itself, enough. Her words go in, whether they’re remembered or not. The point is to be with Gurumayi, to be in her presence. That’s the real teaching.

Ironically, for whatever the reason, the effect her talks have on my retention is just the opposite. When she speaks I’m hyper-alert. As she sweeps through each passage all the cells in my body attach to her words like a trillion pins gathered up by a magnet. During the first week of programs I raced home with her words and the sound of her voice alive inside me. Her words fueled me past midnight as I typed them down as fast as I could, fearing they’d evaporate. I didn’t want to lose a single one.

When Kathleen notices I’m observing her notepad and pen sleight of hand she looks up at me with a mischievous glint in her eye. As if to alleviate any concern I might have that she’ll get busted for her bit of rule-breaking she leans in and whispers: “The year they instated the ‘no note-taking policy’ was the year I started wearing shawls to the programs!”

As the lights dim several volunteers pad up and down the aisles, scanning the crowd with strained faces, looking for people like Kathleen. They don’t notice her and apparently she couldn't care less about them.

Knowing Kathleen once worked so closely with Gurumayi, and knowing, as she shared earlier, that she writes to Gurumayi often, I figure it’s safe for me to take my cues from her. I make a mental note to bring my own notepad and pen the next evening.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Lucid Memories, Chapter One, End.

Two days later I return to The Paramount for the Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evening programs. During the chanting and meditation sessions that occur over the course of those consecutive nights, the mesmeric imagery unfolding in front of me is as real as anything I’ve seen in my most vivid dreams:

I’m sitting alone inside a large, old, dilapidated wooden boat, floating in the middle of a desolate, near-motionless ocean. The horizon is dark and flat. There’s no land in sight. The massive grey ocean expands out around me in all directions, as far as I can see, to furthest edges of the earth. My boat floats anchored in the middle of this vast expanse, creaking in spots as it rocks gently back and forth, in synch with the vibrations emanating from the tamboura. The sky above and water below are equally heavy, impenetrable. I’m on the other side of the world, far from anywhere I know. I’m nowhere.

The only thing keeping this bleak setting from becoming one of irreparable despair is the steady repetition of the mantra, and the resilient, sustaining sound of Gurumayi’s deep, honeyed voice. Each time she calls out and each time I call back the vibrations of her voice fold over into mine, like one caressing wave folding into another, and together our voices merge with the voices of everyone else in the hall.

I've been chanting the mantra on my own for years but tonight, here in this distilled moment with the guru, a window opens and suddenly I understand its true meaning: The mantra is a call, a call to return home. Not home as in a specific place, but home as an internal state. Home as a feeling of deep peace not dependent on anyone or anything. Tonight, in this moment with Gurumayi, the mantra is calling me to repair that severed cord, to reconnect to that protecting source, to return to who I am.

By the third night of programs spent rocking back and forth under that abandoned sky, something inside me releases and my boat begins to glide forward. In time, little by little, several of the others gathered in the hall begin to join me inside the boat and we sit side-by-side, chanting and rowing forward in effortless unison. We’re all heading toward the same destination; we are all going home. As our momentum builds, our voices fuse and thicken into one unified vibration that cocoons the entire hall inside the sound of the mantra.

When I glance up again into the foreboding sky the night suddenly comes alive as if someone’s flipped a switch inside a planetarium and revealed a giant web of sparkling constellations. The stars flicker then dim as a prehistoric sun burns a hole in the horizon, then rises up and glazes the sky a brilliant orange. Looking down over the water, I watch as sunbeams dance out across the once ominous ocean, transforming its murky surface into ripples of royal blue.

Everything inside me lifts and lightens; every cell in my body hums. It’s a new day.

As I sway back and forth, the images of the ocean fade and I begin to feel my entire body filling with sand. Our collective call and response slowly subsides until only the lone tamboura plays. I sit immobilized and watch several members of my family – none of whom have, or likely will ever bow down to a guru – appear in my mind, step up onto the stage and approach Gurumayi’s chair for darshan.

My grandfather, my mom’s dad, who is fighting his descent into Alzheimer’s, steps forward first. He approaches Gurumayi in his characteristic dignified manner, dapper as always in his customary suit, silk necktie and crisply-pressed pocket square. He extends both his hands and Gurumayi leans in to cups his with hers. He looks like a Head of State meeting the Queen of England. Watching their exchange I smile so broadly I can feel my cheeks pushing up underneath my eyes.

My biological father steps up next. Four years ago, just after I moved to San Francisco, he called out of the blue. First time in a decade. “Michael?” he asked, “Do you know who this is?” I knew. Ten years, but I’d know his voice anywhere. I didn’t say anything and hung up the phone. He didn’t call back. Now, as he approaches Gurumayi’s chair, he appears so small on that stage; tentative, ashamed. He looks around lost, unsure of what to do. Gurumayi sits waiting, motionless as a mountain. After another moment’s hesitation he cautiously steps forward, as if he has no other choice, and bows down.

One by one, each member of my family whose impact on my life has been significant comes before Gurumayi and one by one she welcomes and blesses each of them – just as I have watched her welcome and bless hundreds and thousands of others, night after night after night. Gurumayi expresses in these exchanges a respect, dignity, and unconditional acceptance I’ve never seen anywhere else, from anyone else. It’s as if in her eyes everyone is worthy of the highest honor, everyone is royalty.

As the images from my family processional fade and the hall plunges into silence, Jack emerges from beneath a shadow and steps into the center of my mind. He's alone; both the stage and the hall are now empty and dark. It’s just him and me. He turns toward me and presents himself, defenseless. His eyes say he's ready; prepared to hear and to take whatever I have to say.

Jack is the last person I expected to see here, in this setting, at this moment, but I can tell I’m being given an opportunity – a chance to feel differently about him and what happened between us.

A voice inside me asks, “What do you want to do about Jack?”

And, without even the effort of a breath the clear answer comes and simply slips out, as clear and without effort as a drop of water slipping off the edge of a leaf. “I just want to love him,” I say inside.

The moment I hear myself say those words, “I just want to love him,” the spell is broken – Jack’s image dissolves and is washed away, like sand washed out to sea by a retreating tide.

Seeing Jack for who he is – vulnerable, flawed, human – and realizing what I wanted most from our relationship was something I could never have, unties the not. It’s that simple. He’s gone, and that infected wound deep inside me I couldn’t reach to mend feels washed clean. A tiny bell rings, the meditation session ends and I sit mesmerized watching two 100-foot columns of white light shoot out from the centers of my upturned palms. I look up, rotate my wrists from side to side, and trace playful figure eight searchlight patterns across the Paramount’s ceiling. I know I'm the only one who can see this happening, but it doesn't matter. It's incredible.

After the program, I step out into the lobby to search for a pay phone where I can call my mom. Looking up I notice that the elegant gold Art Deco letters across the inner lobby marquee have been arranged to spell out Siddha Yoga's central teaching: “See God in Each Other.” It’s very Ancient-India-meets-Radio-City-Music-Hall. I’m giddy.

I ascend one of the lobby's winding carpeted staircases to the second floor, spy an ornate gilded phone booth, call my Mom and gush – about Gurumayi’s talks and funny stories, my mind-blowing meditations, all of it.

“But,” I add, “Amazing as all of this is, I don’t have any desire to take an Intensive. If an Intensive is more powerful than these programs, I’m not going anywhere near it!"

We both laugh.

"And," I continue, "I have no desire to go run off and live in the ashram.” 

I mean it. The experience I’m having right now is more than enough.

“Wow,” she says – explaining how so many people have such a longing for the Guru, such a longing to be close to Gurumayi, such a longing for more – “You don’t know how lucky you are.”

End of Chapter One: Lucky