by Kamalla Rose Kaur
First published in 1994
Magic is like cooking soup. The ingredients of the broth are symbols; images, music, costume, fragrance, scripture, poetry, art and prose. The first step to cooking up a bit of magic is to carefully select, prepare and mix together symbol ingredients and then, step two, cook them over the fire of emotion. Serenity, passion, fear, grief, happiness, anger, solemnity, or combinations thereof, all work well as heat sources, dependent, of course, on the chefs desired outcome. This combining and stewing of symbols with emotion is the culinary art of ritual. Once the soup is prepared, you serve it to the public. This third step is a type of theater or live performance. Magicians (politicians, ad men, rock stars and cult leaders among them) know that life is, indeed, a stage and that there is power in taking on roles and in acting them.
That is what I learned during the 20 years that I lived in a cult [i.e. the "Happy, Holy, Healthy Organization"--3HO].
I also learned that an expert cult leader does not cook his brew with inferior ingredients. Easily, 99% of the symbols that my [former] spiritual teacher pulled from his bag of tricks were time tested, pure and sacred ingredients which really did help his students to experience different states of consciousness, to live more peacefully and gracefully and to heal our wounds. After all it would have been counter to Yogi [Bhajan's] purposes had he scared us off or killed us with our first sip of soup. Rather, the poison was administered very gradually and subtly over the years and it was only at the end that I, among others, developed enough discernment to start noticing and naming specific diseased and spoiled vegetables at the bottom of the bowl.
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I was an eighteen-year-old hippie when I moved into an Ashram. I was the product of a middle class white family with a college professor father and a schoolteacher mother–both well respected in my hometown community. Secretly, however, I had been my father’s mistress for most of my girlhood. I was, therefore, consciously and unconsciously, looking for a magic that would make my life pure and sacred and I was looking for a method with which to heal my damaged spirit. In many ways that is exactly what I found. Unfortunately, of course, much of the magic I discovered was black magic–artfully concocted and dished out by a con man, but it was magic for all of that.
Looking back, I notice that it was a very hopeful, innocent, lovable, sweet and very human aspect of myself that joined a cult. Nowadays we would say that it was my inner child. That child risked much and surrendered much that day that she gave her whole life to living God’s will. In hindsight, I can see that, in my youth and ignorance, I didn’t know much about the workings of the Divine and I was, therefore, easily influenced by the opinions of a man who I felt was an expert in God’s ways.
My trust in Yogi [Bhajan's] expertise was not completely unfounded either. Yogi [Bhajan] did, in fact, have up his sleeve a vast amount of information about eastern philosophy and yogic practices. He was incredibly intelligent, a compelling and exotic speaker, he was never predictable, always thought provoking, and he looked and acted like a king. As with all great magicians and con men, however, the problem was not with what Yogi [Bhajan] was teaching or speaking. Rather the tricks and illusions took place behind those carefully cloaked and veiled areas of possible inquiry that he was NOT talking about. At that time I was far too young and ignorant to notice any slight of hand or go snooping behind any curtains. Frankly, however, I would count myself a wimp and Yogi [Bhajan] would be the winner of the cult game if, ultimately, I had ever allowed his tricks to kill off, maim or further abuse that magical, mystical child self within me. I, therefore, approach the victim/victimizer paradox very carefully.
Almost everyone who emerges from a cult has to face the humiliating possibility that they have completely wasted a portion of their lives (in my case, my whole adult life, to date). Overnight you can go from feeling like God’s special beloved, to feeling like the world’s stupidest dupe. There are many books and professionals who will tell you that what you thought was chanting God’s holy name, was, in fact, a form of brainwashing and that the whole cult structure was designed to keep you passive, quiet and downtrodden.
Painfully, all those things are absolutely true. Yet when I stepped out of my cult and looked around I kept hearing music from the Twilight Zone in my head because I honestly couldn’t see how cult life was any different than regular life in America. Certainly all those brainwashing hours of chanting and meditation hadn’t been a worse way to spend my time than watching TV. And horrifyingly, I saw that the structure of most families, businesses and governments were as committed to keeping their members in their places as my cult ever had been.
This, of course, does not justify the abuses that happened in my spiritual community or make my teacher’s conduct acceptable in any way. Just because cult thinking is common and universal with practically every political, social or commercial leader lying to us all the time, doesn’t make it any less dangerous or easier to deal with. On the contrary, it makes breaking out of a cult much more difficult, for just when you have taken steps to free yourself from one corrupt organization, you turn around and notice all the same games going down in another organization. Therefore, I think that it is very important for us to study cult mentality, name it and fight it wherever we find it. And sadly we find it everywhere.
Here are the three big questions that twenty years of cult living have taught me to ask of the social structures around me.
Are people in positions of authority keeping secrets from those beneath them?
Is there an inner circle or “in crowd” that enjoys special status and perks not available to others?
Are individuals publicly humiliated and shamed to discipline and control them?
Even in the unlikely event that this description doesn’t fit any other organization in our lives, we all went to High School!
Ultimately, I have come away from my cult years, a firm believer in magic and deeply grateful to my ex-spiritual teacher for all that he taught me about the manipulation of reality. I no longer think that Yogi [Bhajan] was or is extraordinary, of course. It is not extraordinary to have power and use it to accumulate stuff, get laid and manufacture more power. Con men and women are a dime a dozen and always have been. Yet, as I see it, our best defense against cults and those who create them, is to become as clever at magic as the best con man and then refuse to fall prey to the temptation to misuse that power. This is a rare accomplishment but not, I have faith, an impossible one. It helps to be very clear on what those temptations are and who better to teach us to recognize the traps of evil than the ones who have so elegantly fallen into them?
There are three main tests to a human being’s integrity. Will you sell your soul for stuff? Will you sell your soul for sex or love? Will you sell your soul for power? Like most humans, Yogi [Bhajan] was way deep into all three. Like most cult leaders, however, power was his favorite high. At times he would even give up some money and some glamour so that he could pull off a truly exquisite bid for power.
The stuff and money pitfall is the easiest to investigate and protect against when dealing with businesses, charities or spiritual groups. If your organization doesn’t have full disclosure of income with independent outside auditing, you deserve what you get. In my spiritual organization, it was considered very unspiritual to distrust the spiritual organization. I now know that trust and faith need not be manufactured within me, that trust develops in relationship.
It is easy and natural for me to trust an organization that freely lets me see where the money comes from and where it is going and it is even easier to trust an organization that hands the books over to neutral outside auditing. Since it so very easy to win my trust in regards to the issue of money by allowing me to see the truth of the bottom line, I now naturally tend to distrust any organization that avoids, in any way, providing me with that bottom line.
The temptation of sex and love is a bit harder to discern and a lot harder to monitor. In a very big way whether someone manipulates another into bed or to the altar, is none of my business. If a rock star is making music that pleases me I don’t really care that he may be on a rampant sex-exploitation high. Assuming here that he is not raping his groupies, that they are, in fact, giving themselves freely to be used for his pleasure and self-esteem, that does not necessarily mean that he can’t play rock and roll (on the contrary, some would say).
The most titillating and shocking truths concerning my ex-spiritual teacher can be found by venturing into his harem (a harem that most of his students, of course, didn’t know he was keeping). More shocking to me, however, is how, like puritanical stuffed shirts, we can crow “disgusting, disgraceful, let me see that picture again, oh my, how shameful!” and no one bothers to point out that we are feeding the same sexual mystique that we are supposedly so shocked by.
It is also true that there are men who are true and faithful, ethical and make really good fathers. They manage to choose an honorable path even if the women around them don’t notice their efforts or, worse yet, look down on them for being so boringly unabusive. With sex it takes two to tango. I can’t help wondering how it would have looked if the women Yogi [Bhajan] was nailing would not have sold themselves for spiritual glamour and financial security. I will speak more of this later.
But as I already noted, it was power that really scratched Yogi [Bhajan's'] itch. He got a bigger rush out of getting a poor person to give him their life savings than he did out of getting a wealthy person to give him ten or twenty percent. And somehow, strangely enough, that made [him] seem unattached and righteous to us. Similarly, Yogi [Bhajan] consistently turned away movie stars as students. We thought it was because he was humble but really it was because he never took a student that he didn’t feel he could control. Of course, he miscalculated because many of us would eventually prove uncontrollable but for twenty years he manipulated the symbols and our psyches quite masterfully. In his heyday he was a really awesome con man and magician.
There is no doubt that cult-leaders play on their student’s need to feel special. The irony, of course, is that every human is very special, but sadly, few of us survive childhood feeling that way. In my cult we dressed differently from the culture around us. But we dressed the same as each other. So for twenty years I wandered around as a strange symbol to people out in the world. Some people treated me like a nun, some like an idiot, some treated me like a space-being come down to feed their [idiosyncrasies], some found me to be their friend and vice versa, some people were kind to me and some people were not.
And what was it like inside the cult, within the ashrams? It was like a pressure cooker. Imagine, if you can, keeping communes up and running through the seventies and eighties? Experientially, it was like finding yourself married to 20-40 other people. Scarier yet, those marriages were not love matches but, rather, arranged marriages. Under “normal” circumstances it is unlikely that any of us would have dated much less ever-lived together or taken vows. The thing we did have in common was that most of us emerged from the sixties hippie culture and had the love of the philosophy and mysticism of India running in our veins. We all wanted to learn how to meditate and we wanted to get liberated and we were completely clueless as to how to go about that so we prayed a lot and we relied on Yogi Bhajan to guide us.
At times we got very, very high. We were stoned on yoga, devotion, chanting and vegetarianism. We would sit perfectly and peacefully in white rooms with sheer curtains fluttering over windows that were opened to let in the California sun, breeze and the sound of wind chimes and bird song. We knew how to use incense just right and there were musicians among us who could sing and play as heart-meltingly as angels. In those moments who cared about a messed up leader who was off doing his thing someplace else?
Yet Yogi [Bhajan's] influence was felt by all of us. For instance, there was only one kind of music that was acceptable in my cult. It was spiritual music, no rock and roll, though many of us snuck out and caught our share. Once my teacher even told us that it was bad to chew on ice cubes. That one made me suspicious–because I love to chew on ice cubes. I’m afraid I also like to take long, steaming hot baths. Yogi [Bhajan], mind you, was really into cold water. That was acceptable because cold water is invigorating, especially at 3:30 in the morning, but eventually it began to dawn on me that there are far worse things than hot water.
Yogi [Bhajan] also told us that the people who left the cult, those brothers and sisters we had been living with and thought we knew intimately were crazy. They couldn’t keep up under the pressure of the spiritual path so they had freaked out. Shamefully we believed him; at least, at first. Yet the cult seemed to keep losing the people I had tended to like and trust the most. One morning I realized that I respected many of the people who had left the organization more than I trusted the word of my teacher. I stayed around a little while longer to see if I could get any sort of reform movement going. Soon, however, I had to accept that I was rather like an idealistic, Italian Catholic girl attempting to clean up the Mafia from the confines of her pink and white bedroom, located in the west wing of one of the Godfather’s least used mansions.
So I gave up and started a new meditation, the “Why did I join a cult?” meditation. I practiced it with all the discipline that twenty years of rigorous spiritual practice had managed to instill in me. I also went into formal therapy to finally deal with the severe child abuse of my past. In time I concluded that I had joined a cult because it had provided that nice homey and familiar feeling of abuse that is happening secretly behind the cloak of purity. It was inevitable, given my background, that I would be drawn towards abusive men and organizations. What now seems a miracle to me is that I was ever attracted to a good and ethical man like my husband and that I was ever able to develop trust and faith in the Divine. All in all, my Ashram years were tremendously healing.
Now when people ask me what cult living was like, I tell them that it was like therapy. Way too much therapy at times, difficult therapy, not always successful therapy but Ashram living was quite a lot like therapy.
Yogi [Bhajan] used to tell us that we were special. We were people who could commit to and trust in God and we were people who could maintain a strict and difficult spiritual practice. After I left the cult I saw that we had also been special in that we could slavishly commit to and trust in a gigolo charlatan and we could maintain an almost unbelievable, level of denial. Now I think of myself as one of the most extraordinary ordinary people around or, sometimes, one of the most ordinary extraordinary people around. And I am well aware that there is nothing particularly special about that.
In my cult we believed that we must have reverence for the teacher. At the simplest level this meant that it was not proper to argue with Yogi [Bhajan] or even question him too deeply. He, however, was not under the same restraint when dealing with his students and, at times, he could really blow a cork. We didn’t understand, of course, that as we listened to our teacher humiliate one of our brothers or sisters in our presence that he was actually controlling us as well. Naturally, as we watched, all of us were grateful that he was shaming someone else and we worked hard to avoid any behavior that would bring [his] wrath down on our own heads. However, this reverence we were to maintain for our teacher had deeper ramifications than merely keeping us in line. It was the philosophical construct, or magical soup base, under which Yogi [Bhajan] was able to create a very glamorous role for himself within a very glamorous life-theater production.
As we came to understand it, reverence for a spiritual teacher boiled down to three fundamental principles:
We were to protect Yogi [Bhajan]–with our lives if necessary.
We were to provide for him.
We were to love him devotedly.
Looking back it wasn’t so much that we thought that Yogi [Bhajan] was helpless. He was, in fact, a large and powerfully built man. Rather we were led to believe that if some crazy yoga student or mugger attacked him, Yogi [Bhajan] would take no action to defend himself. Therefore, a group of men within our organization began to train themselves as bodyguards to insure that our teacher would come to no physical harm. I seriously doubt that Yogi [Bhajan] was ever in any real danger of attack or assassination. The security force around him served a much more simple purpose–that of show.
To this day, whenever Yogi [Bhajan] goes anywhere, at least three cars are needed (nice cars, very nice cars). The car in the middle is the one that [he] rides in and the ones in front and in back are filled with bodyguards who are armed with walkie-talkies, guns and a great deal of steely-eyed machismo. Anyone seeing Yogi [Bhajan] and his entourage walking through an airport would assume that an extremely rich, famous and powerful political leader from a foreign country was flying in or out. There may not be any magical spell that gives one a stronger image of prestige than the visible aura of a dedicated Secret Service.
As years went by, Yogi [Bhajan] was able to, by manufacturing imaginary potential threats to his person, keep this group of security agents busy doing undercover spying for him. Mostly he spied on [former] students who he felt might blow his scene wide open and he often threatened them as well, or at least inspired his goons to threaten them. The other main group that [he] spied on was his students still within his fold. This type of intelligence gave Yogi [Bhajan] information that, when presented at the right moment, in the right context, supported the illusion that he had amazing psychic abilities. All of his inner circle, not just his bodyguards, provided Yogi [Bhajan] with intimate gossip although [he] always appeared to be disinterested and emotionally neutral towards the constantly boiling conflicts taking place around him. Yogi [Bhajan] may not have been a great spiritual teacher, but there is no doubt that he was a master at acting like a great spiritual teacher.
Along those lines, I am told that one of the best performances that Yogi [Bhajan] ever gave was at a council meeting. Our organization had a mock legislative body, which, at times made the cult appear almost democratic. Of course, the people on this council were appointed by Yogi [Bhajan] rather than elected and the council had absolutely no power whatsoever, but it did, in fact, meet twice a year and it was considered a great honor to be a part of it. No one complained that you had to pay a monetary fee for that honor either! Anyway, every once in a while certain members of this elite body would get uppity and start asking tough questions of Yogi [Bhajan].
On this particular day Yogi [Bhajan] was asked point blank why the council was not allowed to see how much money was coming in donations and how it was being dispersed. I am told that Yogi [Bhajan] quite masterfully unwound a story of pathos and pain, moving many in the room to tears, as he explained that the reason he didn’t let the council know the true financial picture of the organization was because the donations were so small and he was ashamed to let anyone see how little the organization survived on. Out of reverence and compassion for their spiritual teacher the council backed off and committed themselves to raising more funds.
Recently Yogi [Bhajan] announced that he is presently worth between 50 and 60 million dollars. Unfortunately, when dealing with magicians, by the time you figure out that slight of hand was at work, you have already been well and truly tricked. All in all Yogi [Bhajan] was a pretty successful con man.
Just like trust, I learned the hard way that reverence need not be manufactured within me. Reverence also happens in relationship and it is a natural and beautiful expression of my sincere respect and love for another. It is a rare emotion to feel towards oneself or towards another human being and, like true love; it is well worth waiting for.
A man can be a good guitar player but he is not a famous rock star until women start falling in love with him. In just the same way, a cult leader like Yogi [Bhajan] cannot pull off his scam unless he captures the devotion and adoration of the women around him. Fundamentally, therefore, all black magicians are also gigolos.
More than any man I had ever, or at that time encountered, Yogi [Bhajan] understood the power of women. He knew and was able to show us–how men ultimately play to a feminine audience. He also clearly saw and he made us see– that men would not traditionally be so desperate to control and suppress women unless men were not afraid of a woman’s innate power over them.
Most cult leaders, senators, hot shot businessmen and rock stars seem content to take advantage of the rather insecure and immature groupies that flutter around any man who can pull off a bit of wealth or power. That, however, was far too tame a game for Yogi [Bhajan]. Because he knew that women were his source of power, his goal was first to awaken women to their power and THEN to see if he could control them. Therefore, do not for one moment imagine that women within my cult were lifeless dominated zombies. On the contrary, over the years most of us developed that aura of confidence that only women who really understand and feel at ease with their power can gain. This power we freely shared with our sisters and out of gratitude and devotion, this power we freely gave back to Yogi [Bhajan]. In many ways he was like the physician in attendance at our birth, yet unfortunately, like many birthing women we tended to give Dr. Yogi [Bhajan] credit for all those successful deliveries–forgetting that we were the one’s doing the real work.
A woman is not truly in her power unless she can look any man in the world in the eye and say–”I don’t need you to love me, I don’t need you to protect me and I don’t need you to provide for me.” Mind you after a women reaches that level of confidence and security within herself, it is perfectly natural for her to turn around and say to the men in her circle and say–”but thank you so much for loving me so well, thank you for being so willing to protect me and thank you for providing me with so much.” But lets face it, few women ever make it to that first step. In fact, most women are desperate to find a man to take care of them and that is how we can be so easily controlled, exploited and conned. There is nothing strange in that, rather again, much stranger to me–is the fact that there are men who don’t take advantage of this weakness in women.
Yogi [Bhajan] provided a structure for the women in my cult to heal this fundamental insecurity within them. For instance, for six weeks every summer women of my cult would leave the kids with our husbands and we would go off to camp. There we had the leisure to explore our potentials, free from the often all-engrossing and exhausting roles of worker, mother and wife. During those six weeks we grew strong and confident within the society of other women and unlike our normal lives, at camp there was only one man to make any demands on us and that, of course, was Yogi [Bhajan].
It was Yogi [Bhajan's] goal to make the women of his cult independent of all men except himself. If forced to choose, therefore, between our husbands and the cult, most of us felt that we were strong enough to choose the cult, which we firmly believed was the righteous choice. Although very few of us were in actuality Yogi [Bhajan's] mistresses, ([he] never screwed married women, not even his own wife) our husbands were always in a subtle or not so subtle competition with Yogi [Bhajan] for our allegiance, support and power. I believe that Yogi [Bhajan's] biggest rush was his ability to woo, without ever touching us, the wives away from the men that were his students. It was his skillful control and empowerment of the women that insured his position as dominant male in the baboon troop that was our cult.
As a woman I must admit that the competition that Yogi [Bhajan] set up among the men in the organization was not, in all cases, a negative thing. Since we believed [him] to be pure and of righteous intent, we women fully expected our husbands to be ethical, unattached, and magnificent beings and many of them turned out to be just that and more. The more being [like] that, unlike Yogi [Bhajan], a few of his male students developed the capacity to love as well. Needless to add, none of these truly superior men have remained Yogi [Bhajan's] students.
Yogi [Bhajan] also ended up training a group of men around him to be con men just like himself. However, a couple of these guys have actually gotten busted for telemarketing scams and for arms and drugs trafficking. And sadly, a great number of men–Yogi [Bhajan] just ran right over and reduced to impotent, brain dead, failures. These men he tends to keep around to fetch him his morning paper and kick when he is bored and frustrated. Now that Yogi [Bhajan's] best and most powerful students have left him, he is often bored and frustrated.
Yogi [Bhajan] was a master of Tantric Yoga, which is another way to say that he was a master of sex. Within the Tantric tradition of India and Tibet, it is recognized that sexual energy, is in fact, the same substance as spiritual energy. Yogi [Bhajan's] students were encouraged to marry and explore this energy within the boundaries of monogamous relationships. Extra-marital sex and pre-marital sex were taboo within our cult. When affairs did happen among us the whole cult community was deeply shocked and strongly titillated. Had Yogi [Bhajan's] harem ever come fully to light over the years, the cult would have instantly blown up and destroyed itself. Such is the power of sex. No other misconduct that Yogi [Bhajan] pursued was anywhere near as threatening to [his] position and lifestyle as his sexual activities. Yogi [Bhajan's] greatest challenge, therefore, was not only to seduce supposedly spiritually committed women into his bed (not all that difficult perhaps), but to keep them quiet about it for over twenty years. Now that takes some pretty strong magic indeed!
Yogi [Bhajan] kept his affairs secret from the cult-at-large by hiding them right out in the open, under our noses. This was, in fact, how he concealed all his unrighteous activities. He was always telling us that he was a crook and not to be trusted, but in light of all the fantastic yoga sets and mind blowing meditations he was teaching us, we just didn’t believe him. As for sex, it was part of the mythology that swirled around him that Yogi [Bhajan] needed very little sleep. Therefore, somehow, it didn’t seem strange to us that he would lock himself into a bedroom each night with one of his many “secretaries”. After all, who knew when he might need to give a bit of dictation?
Once when Yogi [Bhajan] was visiting one of the ashrams that I lived in, I was up and awake in the middle of the night nursing my newborn baby. Right over my head, in Yogi [Bhajan's] bedroom upstairs, I clearly heard the rather unmistakable sounds of heavy breathing and bed pounding copulation, but I interpreted the sounds to mean that Yogi [Bhajan] was doing a strenuous yoga set. At that time the implications of what I was hearing were just too intense and devastating for me to compute, so my mind simply fogged over.
The ways in which Yogi [Bhajan] controlled his mistresses were the same time-honored ways that men have been attempting to control women throughout history. As long as they played their roles devotedly, Yogi [Bhajan's] women were given a great deal of status, political power within the organization, financial security and lots of cool jewelry. If they stepped out of line, however, they were shamed and their life support systems were threatened. At the most mundane level, Yogi [Bhajan's] secretaries all signed secrecy contracts before they took their jobs and if they left the cult they knew that they were in potential danger from [his] goons–were they to spill the beans. In truth most of Yogi [Bhajan's] women loved being part of the elite few, the inner circle, who knew all the powerful secrets that they believed we average, more stupid students would not have understood or have been capable of handling.
As well as all these normal methods of coercion, Yogi [Bhajan] was a master at keeping those around him completely stressed out and busy running around dealing with one manufactured crisis after another. Yogi [Bhajan's] women, as well as the men in the inner circle, never knew when [his] wrath might fall about their heads for no reason at all. The fact that the content of Yogi [Bhajan's] public humiliation sessions usually focused on the deep seated, real or fabricated, psychological problems of his victims, made [his] inner circle a rather desperate bunch of Yogi pleasers. Needless to add, [his] secretaries were also extremely competitive towards each other and unlike the women in the rest of the cult they did not bond well with others of their sex.
It is highly doubtful that Yogi [Bhajan] had any sexual super powers, but he did know how to cook up a magical love potion or two. Most of the women around him actually believed that screwing with the great Tantric Yogi was an opportunity for spiritual advancement as well as an opportunity to get down and dirty. Making a good guess from the close study of [his] teachings on sex, I think that, in most cases, [he] was having sex with any given secretary about once a month. The women around him were encouraged to approach this mating in a highly ritualized fashion, carefully preparing themselves physically and spiritually for the great event. This type of sexual anticipation combined with a belief in their teacher’s cosmic phallus almost automatically insured that Yogi [Bhajan] maintained his image as a sexual magician, no matter how selfish, in truth, his lovemaking actually was. Even, of course, if his women were not quaking with orgasms, it is very likely that Yogi [Bhajan] would have considered that to be the women’s fault. Clearly they hadn’t meditated well enough before entering his bed!
Over the years a few of Yogi [Bhajan's] women did kiss and tell. Two of [his former] secretaries actually slapped him with a sexual misconduct suit after leaving the cult. The case was settled out of court and the women walked away a bit richer. We students, still in the cult, were told that these women were psychotic and that the case had been thrown out of court by the judge because it was completely ludicrous. Needless to add we believed that. I am not altogether sorry to report that I seriously suspect that there are one or two of Yogi [Bhajan's former] lovers who are blackmailing him. Such is the power of sex.
Given the choice of dying a meaningful death or living a meaningless life, human beings will choose the meaningful death almost every time. Thankfully the members of my cult were never asked by Yogi [Bhajan] or pressured by outside adversaries, to give up our lives for our beliefs, but had we been asked many of us would have died quite heroically. People on the outside would have been shocked and horrified by this, of course. I was equally horrified as a teenager that young men could die in Vietnam defending our nation when the U.S. was not even under attack and we, the people, were so clearly being lied to by our government. It is one of the most wonderful and magical attributes of the human spirit that we can create philosophical universes of meaning and that we can willingly die to defend them. It is also one of the most horrifying aspects of human nature.
To my knowledge, there is only one philosophical tradition in the world that really embraces fearlessly the possibility that life is random and meaningless. That is the Zen Buddhist tradition. The Existentialists quite courageously give meaningless a trybut often fail–because although they see life as random and meaningless, they seem to get depressed about that. They seem to think that it is meaningful that life is random and meaningless.
For the rest of us, we consciously and unconsciously wander around creating meaning all the time. Spots on our dishes means we need to use Cascade and when Uranus is conjunctive with Neptune it means that the New Age is at hand. Scientists develop experiments and create measurable, repeatable and provable meanings. A good review at work may mean that you are a good worker and a good person or perhaps it means that you are a brown-nosing phony. Going bald, getting fat or developing wrinkles means that you are no longer sexy and the fact that you live in a country where everyone can afford to buy a TV means that you live in the best and most powerful country in the world.
Symbols stuffed with meaning swirl around us all the time and most people never question how those symbols are being cooked up and why. We just drink that soup down.
People who join spiritual cults are usually trying to reject the symbol cooking of the established political, entertainment and commercial magicians and attempting to create meaning and values for themselves through religious systems and faith in God. This is, by definition, a virtuous goal, yet there may not be anything more poisoned and deadly than cooking the symbol of God into our magical soups. There is a yogic saying–that “the best and the worst things are always done in God’s name”. Yogi [Bhajan] taught me that saying.
When we surrender our lives to God’s will (or our “True Selves”) we are opening up to the possibility that there is a higher or deeper meaning to our lives than the various ego-trappings that we have placed on ourselves and projected onto everything around us. In virtually all the different religious, philosophical and mythological systems, this surrender is seen as a death and rebirth experience and it is seemingly, a universal touchstone for humans down through the ages.
Therefore there is perhaps no greater betrayal possible that to surrender your life to God and have God plant a con man in your path. The obvious conclusion is that there is no God out there or if there is one–He is a nasty, nasty boy who gets His kicks out of squashing bugs.
But if you can picture God as that child, then you can also picture God as that boy’s loving mother–who gently teaches that child how to love and respect all life or as that child’s father who guides him, plays with him, sets boundaries for him and never shames him. Which is to say, of course, that God is much more than our various pictures and symbols of Him or Her–be they negative or positive. And, seemingly, it is primary to God’s will that we face and triumph over all our various fears, even our fear of God and our equal and opposite fear that there isn’t any God.
When you look, of course, you find God everywhere. How many victims find God in the face of their torturers and how many torturers see God in the face of their victims? Look long enough into that pain and you may just find the courage and grace to change. If I had to define God, which is impossible of course, I would say that God is that courage and grace. This ability to face all our fears, our fear of death, our fear of pain, our fear of insanity, our fear of shunning and loneliness and even our fear that God may be just another abusive male (or female) and life may, in fact, be a sick and meaningless joke. At present, most of these fears are still too painful and frightening for most of us to honestly consider. So we retreat into the fog of denial before we get to the good part.
It reminds me of how so many women go through hours of labor, drug free, and just when the pain gets too hard for them to handle they accept the shot. Yet, had they just stayed conscious an instant longer everything would have transformed because they were, in fact, in transition and right behind the cruelest pain is full dilation. There is real bliss in full openness. Then, of course, if you are awake, not numbed and drugged, you can push really well and finally look into the original face of God, all new and old as you birth Him or Her into your arms. That is the moment you fall in love.
Eventually all those years of meditating and putting my faith in Yogi [Bhajan] taught me that God, at least, isn’t merely a symbol. Rather, God is the meaning and meaninglessness behind all symbols. I now know that God is within all my feelings, pain and joy alike, and that God flows through my thoughts in the form of infinite paradoxes that tantalize, mystify and amaze me. One such paradox is the awareness that although Yogi [Bhajan] was the worst spiritual teacher imaginable, he was the best one for me. After all, it was in the process of grappling with him that I finally learned to look inwards and access my own symbol systems and guidance. And it was in the face of his corruption that I found the courage to trust in my instincts and name a rat when I see one, but in a friendly sort of way. Because, lets be honest here and admit that we all go around and around and have all fallen prey to temptations many times and of course, we will probably mess up a time or two yet before we are through. Life is for learning as well as for enjoying after all.
Right now, twenty years of cult living doesn’t seem like such a long time in which to discover the value of questioning, exploring and self-expression. Mind you, to anyone else who can more easily learn how to look within, and feel again, faster than I have. More power and blessings to you–I rejoice in your courage and in your capacity to love.
Losing the Magic
It turns out that an unusually large number of women in my cult were victims of sexual abuse as children. This quite intimately explains why it was so very difficult and psychologically devastating for many of us to admit to ourselves that our teacher was an out and out con man. Certainly for me, the paradox of men who love me while they abuse me was a fundamental secret and a stumbling block and terror of my psyche that had to be eventually remembered and confronted head-on. Had I, as a child, ever announced to the world that my kind and wise, well-respected college professor father was coercing me into having sex with him, I would not have been believed. Even to this day I am not believed by many members of my family or by anyone within my, now deceased, father’s former circle. More crazy yet is the fact that I would not have ever wanted to bust my father, for I loved him with the innocent passion of a small child. He was my lifeline and the very heart of my soul.
In a very similar fashion Yogi [Bhajan] fulfilled a role for me and others–that of a transcendent Father. He gave us a taste of God in the form of various spiritual peak experiences and made us feel safe, loved and secure. Within the context of the cult any attempt to point out that the emperor was, in fact, doing a nude floor show behind our backs, simply would not have been and was not believed. To risk even considering such a possibility was to invite shame and cynicism to come crashing into our lives negating all the magic and hope that we had actually managed to access through the power of our personal spiritual practice.
As for the men–they joined the cult because they too had abusive backgrounds, or because they followed the women in or because they believed and hoped that they could avoid or transcend the stuff, sex and power rackets that awaited them out there in the real world. For most of the men it was a bit of all three. For a few of them, however, they joined the cult because Yogi [Bhajan] immediately made them big men in his little pond. Many of these guys left the cult in the early years when they got tired of being less than the Alpha male in the cult troop. Though unfortunately, a few of these assholes have stuck it out to this day.
In the end there were three things that gave me the needed support and power to get out of that cult. The first was the experiential confidence I had developed in my own capacity to heal. Through all those hours of introversion, broken by the raging interpersonal conflicts inherent within group living, I slowly developed an understanding of myself, others and some self-esteem. The second was the ironic and bittersweet awareness that although Yogi [Bhajan] had not been able to withstand the temptations of attachment to stuff, sex and power, many of his foolish and duped students actually had succeeded in developing tested and true integrity, not to mention courage. That proved to be quite inspiring to me–really very inspiring. And finally, sometime during those twenty years of meditating my brains out I actually came to trust in The Divine. This was no longer a silly desperate faith that believed that if somehow I did all the right things God would make my life easy and safe. Rather it was a faith that had discovered that although life is the most challenging and painful experience imaginable, it is within the human capacity, within my own capacity, to walk through life’s fire with an open, brave and vulnerable heart and a compassionate and joyful spirit.
Through the eyes of that faith I awakened to the fact that there was magic all around me at work within millions of humble and hardworking people who daily devote themselves to creating loving families and doing honest, high quality work. Many of these great souls are sufficiently fearless that, if necessary, they would easily and gracefully put themselves in danger, or even die, to protect others from harm. In light of this kind of magic it is hard for me to do much more than raise a skeptical eyebrow and snort in the face of the various power hungry, greedy and insecure cult leaders and con men who keep boring us with the same old scams year in and year out, century after bloody century.
Yogi [Bhajan] is old now and all his best students are long gone. Due to the medication that he is forced to take for his heart condition he is no longer able to wield his magic sword and is surrounded by bickering and demanding women and passive yes men. In short he is left with a pile of money, chronic boredom, extreme loneliness and memories of grander days. I feel sorry for him, which of course from his perspective is the worst insult I could ever give him. Yet, that is exactly how I feel. I pity and love him from the bottom of my heart.
One of the strange but fascinating psychological shifts that living in an ashram had on me and on many others is that we came to value our inner worlds as much as, or at times, more than the outer world. This process actually began for me years before I joined a cult. The very first time as a young teenage hippie I took LSD was the day I learned that there are many, many different states of consciousness and I committed myself to exploring my own mysterious inner capabilities as a human being. Soon after that, I began writing down and studying my dreams, meditating, and I began searching for a teacher.
I was attracted to Eastern Mysticism and Yoga because it provided a blueprint for what I was already involved in and it gave me a methodology for inner exploration that was not dependent on drugs. Within both the Eastern and Western traditions, the role of the spiritual teacher (guru, saint, sage, shaman or priest) is key to the process of self- discovery, enlightenment and salvation. It is of course, perfectly natural to turn to people who are more experienced than we are and apprentice ourselves as their students. This is true whether our goal is to learn art, mathematics, stone tool making, table manners or magic. Without parenting, mentoring and guidance, humans don’t learn much of anything.
In the Eastern traditions and certainly within Yogi [Bhajan's] dogma, it is believed that it is impossible to achieve liberation without the help of a spiritual teacher. This may, in fact, can be true, but clearly this philosophical concept also sets up a theatrical stage just ripe for the potential abuse of students by their teachers. How then can we evaluate spiritual teachers?
If I were to judge Yogi [Bhajan] the way I judge a math professor, I would have to say that he was a wonderful teacher. He inspired in me and in my brothers and sisters, a great amount of self-discipline and he taught us hundreds of very useful meditations and really wonderful yoga sets. These practices were potent enough to make drug use seem primitive and unnecessary, and they made us less dependent on therapists, doctors and other magicians like him. He also taught his students the mythological magic of Indian Tantric belief, which I personally love–particularly because I am a woman and models for female spirituality are scarce in our world. It certainly could be argued that Yogi [Bhajan], unlike many less sophisticated cult leaders, was a bit of an artist and should be judged like one. No one ever claimed that Miles Davis or Pablo Picasso were saints who lived balanced, ethical and exemplary lives, rather they were fantastic channels of creativity and vision who gave us much more than we can ever repay.
The catch here, of course, is that spiritual teachers, at least, are supposed to live balanced and ethical lives. That is the whole point. When we compare Yogi [Bhajan] with the classical great religious leaders, the difference between [him] and the Buddha or Christ is very fundamental and apparent. Great saints, sages, and masters practice what they preach and thereby prove to us that love, honor, courage, and grace are rare but possible attainments for us all.
In light of all this, one of the most befuddling paradoxes may be that, if we truly wish to be fully enlightened humans, we will need the help of spiritual teachers (dead and alive) to facilitate our growth and to assist us while we learn discernment. Ironically, however, it is unlikely that we will be able to perceive whether our teachers have good hearts and pure intentions, until we have healed and grown sufficiently to develop that needed level of discernment. This is clearly one of those numerous cosmic “Catch 22s” that make life so perplexing and fascinating.
The main lesson that years of meditating and studying my dreams has taught me in this regard–is that the key to this and other paradoxes lies within me not out in the world. Eventually, of course, a further paradox develops where the distinction between our inner realities and our outer realities also comes into question. In the meantime, however, when it comes to accessing spiritual guidance and spiritual teachers, it seems smart first and foremost to put our trust in the wisdom figures that live within us.
Anyone who has taken the opportunity to look within soon encounters many saints, sages and gurus within his or her own psyche. Clearly, blind and desperate devotion to these voices can be just as dangerous as blind and desperate devotion to people outside of ourselves. However, developing intimate relationships with the many different aspects of ourselves is always a good beginning. For most people the first step takes the form of asking to be led and protected through our various adventures and fears by God, or, for the non-religiously inclined, by our highest destiny, dreams or potentialities.
After that it is a merely necessary to keep up, keep questioning, keep exploring and keep awake as much as possible. It is also helpful to get used to the idea that you will make many mistakes and fail often. Deep meditation on the scientific method can be a surprisingly religious experience in that we are all just experimenting our way through life. Sometimes our experiments turn out as we expect or desire them, but often they don’t. This, of course, forces us to explore in different directions and that is how we may be led, by God or by Nature, to eventually discover something new and wonderful.
Unfortunately all this exploration takes real energy and work. It is easier, much easier, to just believe what the television, newspapers, cult leaders, scientists and even scriptures tell us. We are all prone to looking for the easy way through life, yet ironically humans are never really happy taking that easy path. Life is not, in fact, easy. Interesting, creative, painful, fulfilling, fun, strange, blissful, tragic and wonderful, but not easy.
The best spiritual teachers remain humble and a bit traceless. They are not interested in their own glory and they serve selflessly. They usually pop up in my dreams and in my outer life, in rather ordinary and unspectacular circumstances. They lovingly point me back into my own process and encourage me to question them the world and myself. They do not deal in secrets. They are easily accessible and are not surrounded by social climbers. They don’t shame and manipulate people. In other words, they are just plain folk with eyes that look deep and that sparkle a bit more than the average.
A Magical World
I am quite often asked, since I have left the cult, if I think it is possible that we can wrestle our social and political structures out of the hands of cult leaders and con men, and transform and heal the world. Frankly I am very, very skeptical (though still not cynical) about ever seeing this happen in a society and world as corrupt as this world happens to be. I do fantasize a bit, however, about women yawning in the face of ego-centered megalomaniacs while we politely inform them–that we can’t go out with them tonight because we really do need to scrub that mildew out of the shower-tile grout. Were transformation possible, I firmly believe that it would be birthed right out of the power of women’s womb space.
It is much more likely, however, those things will just continue on at this petty pace. With luck we will manage to avoid completely destroying our planet and ourselves and in that case, we will live to see some things get better and many things get worse. However, in the meantime I can think of no more interesting and enjoyable game than to fight cult thinking wherever we find it and to cook up a little positive magic of our own. After all, even if the majority of people manacle themselves to fear weighted iron balls, becoming slaves to stuff, sex and power, that doesn’t mean we need to jump into that poisoned soup with them. On the contrary we can make our own magical brews, potions, tinctures and broth, and take some pride in cooking with healthy and pure ingredients. We can also freely share our best recipes with anyone interested. Eventually maybe all that good cooking really will nourish and satisfy the cravings for sacred magic in some future generation.
Each of us can ask to be shown our highest dream and when we catch sight of that vision, or any part of it, we can mix the symbols of that dream carefully and lovingly in the caldrons that hang over our heart hearths and then when the soup is cooked just right–we can drink deeply of our own magic.
Women have always known that eating good soup of our own making will help each of us and others to grow up healthy and strong and give us that nice warm cozy feeling of true love that radiates from the heart. And even though our individual efforts as cooks may not yet be strong enough magic to save the whole world, we each really do, women and men alike, have the capacity to whip up a batch of positive power, delicious and satisfying enough to heal and transform our own psyches, relationships, work and intimate communities. That is immense power indeed. Beyond that we need only to relax, kick back and watch in awe and compassion how the human drama unfolds around us.
For myself and for all my friends, who like me, have recently hatched out into the world after two decades of life in a cult, we keep rather foolishly, I suppose, exposing our hippie backgrounds by catching each other’s eyes and saying–”whoa, what a long strange trip its been!” I suspect that the next couple of decades will continue to be just as “trippy” for all of us. Happy trails.
Postscript from the author, May 25, 2014:
I wrote “In the Magical Soup” in 1994. I didn’t read the Premka/Kate case until 2001. I was WAY too harsh on Yogi Bhajan’s harem members in 1994.
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