|Date: November 30, 1998|
Back in 1978 I was a twenty-three-year-old time-served aspirant. I had waited, or wasted, nine months
in readying myself for 'Knowledge' and had been twice rejected for reasons unspecified. Maharaji's
divine 'gift', whilst promising from here to eternity, threatened to elude me forever. I attended satsang
nightly and travelled to retreats, programs and aspirant weekends with live initiators. I traded rejection
stories with fellow-rejects, meeting up to share furtive cigarettes in far-flung community co-ordinators' back
yards ('Anne Johnson doesn't appreciate some people have weak bladders...').
The correct answer and chorus:
All three were true in my case - and in droves: my father had died suddenly a few years earlier. Interestingly,
the same factors are often present as predictors of suicide. The premie anthem 'Arti' told of the Perfect
Master being the 'protector of the weary and the weak'. Well, I don't know about that, but Maharaj Ji will
always find a solid recruitment base among the vulnerable and the desperate.
"Oh my Guru Maharaj Ji, I dedicate myself to You. I am weak and ignorant and am filled with the impurities of this world.
Oh Guru Maharaj Ji, through Knowledge please purify me of the impurities I possess. Reveal to me the Knowledge of all Knowledges. Strengthen me, uplift me and reveal the Truth within inside of me.
Bring me from hate to love, darkness to light, death to immortality.
I will follow Your direction and never reveal this Knowledge to anybody for any reason.
I will keep in contact with You through my devotional love, satsang, meditation and service.
But, I hear you ask: What about the experience of 'receiving Knowledge'? Did the earth move? Answer: No! But after four days in this isolation tank I was certainly relaxed and detached but no more so than from other meditations I had tried. There was no magical moment of crossing from here to somewhere else. But having come this far, I was at least going to 'give Knowlege a fair try' (as is the current directive), and I think it true to say that I gave Knowledge much more than that: it became the focus of my life.
So I was now a premie, and was soon a-doing all those warm-blooded thangs that premies do to each other and
the folk around them. We shared satsang about 'the crazy world' out there. I remember the premie community
being contemptuous of the ordinary, everyday acts of love and kindness that you encounter in the non-premie world
('not the real thing; not that real love; guru maharaj ji's love...'). Again, I cringe at the
memory. A world of short term, poorly-paid jobs you could leave at the drop of a hat when the next
festival came around and your holiday entitlement was spent. Guru Puja so soon after Holi? -
how the effing hell do I explain this to my boss? Simpler all round to ask for my P45. I went to Geneva,
to London, to Malaga where I had darshan, and darshan again in Rome. I brought three or four friends to their
first satsang and watched with probably smug satisfaction as, one by one, they received Knowledge.
I have nothing but the greatest respect for those other first-timers I brought to satsang but who said 'thanks
but no thanks...' At the time, I pitied their bad Karma and limited understanding.
My friend gave me a Knowledge review. And how things had changed: no satsang, no service - just the meditation '...and you can do it as little or as much as you like, when you like' he told me. Just like TM. In a way it was Knowledge as you would have preferred it to be - no heavy agya to 'constantly meditate and remember the Holy Name' - just this 'help yourself' experience, but at the same time, it was more like a clinical technique you might find in a library book. They used to say Knowledge was a three-legged stool: satsang, service and meditation. Take away any one leg, and it will fall over. Now it was officially a one-legged stool, and looking pretty ricketty too.
I remember an interview given by Ian Dury, when Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick went to number one in the British charts. The interviewer asked: 'But aren't the lyrics a little bit rude?'
Dury replied: 'How can the lyrics be a little bit rude? They are either not rude at all, or else they are very rude'.
This was how I felt about Maharaji Ji and Knowledge. Either Maharaj Ji was 'the superior power in person', whose Grace would bring me 'from death to immortality', and therefore worth giving my all to - or he was nothing at all. There are plenty of other meditation teachers out there, each telling the age-old inspirational stories and selling their own brand of introspection. But I wasn't interested in inspiration or relaxation techniques; I could use the library ticket to find me any number of low-grade, feel-good practices.
I was trying to get back into Knowledge because Maharaj Ji was God.
But it seemed God had abdicated...
During the preparation conference for his becoming an instructor, my friend told me Maharaj ji had said: 'I'm exactly the same as you are'. At another point - to blow their concepts? - he smoked a cigarette. Street-cred, perhaps, but I remembered the torment I had endured trying to quit the fucking weed. Apparently, at the training meet, quite a few initiators (who I know in their time had turned down aspirants for smoking) had also enjoyed a sly drag between training sessions. Like Master, like servant, it would seem...
Around the same time I went to see Maharaj ji in Birmingham - and the transformation was a shock. I had last seen him in Rome in 1980, playing Krishna to the hilt. (The Pope was displeased and wanted DLM events banned in Italy. I mean, how many of God's only representatives on earth can one city take?) He had worn his Krishna crown and danced in blue and white silk, garlanded with flowers and waving a flute which, disappointingly, he never played. But the premies adored Prem's camping it up and would go apeshit. You would think this grand climax in which the Master merely waved his arms about in slow motion was life's ultimate experience. When the Lord of the Universe is dancing just for you it would be churlish to comment upon his appalling sense of rhythm...
The Birmingham event (1986) was more like a business convention. No 'bhole shri's', no music, no pranaming, no talk of love, devotion or surrender. Not much of anything, and still overpriced. Maharaj ji, smart-suited in a simple chair gave a couple of addresses which, to my ears, were full of vacuous rubbish. I remember a LONG story he told about a Robinson-Crusoe type castaway who found a mirror washed-up, but didn't know what it was. He thought it was a photo of his father and spent years worshipping it. Moral: that thing you love is actually you.
I wondered for how long I might have interpreted M's new-age banalities as 'profound'; adding depth where none existed - as happened to Chancey Gardiner in the film Being There...
Maharaj ji barely mentioned Knowledge or the role of the guru. There were a couple of brand new introductory videos, packaged in a soft-soap, born-again Christian style with happy faces, trees and pretty meadows. Certainly no hard data on who Maharaji was claiming to be these days or what was his message. No wonder the eighties were a wastleland...
It seemed Prem was cutting his losses to salvage something from the ruins of DLM. Something low-key and respectable. He no longer referred to himself in the third person with the usual superlatives ('by that most amazing grace of Guru Maharaj ji' etc.). He was definitely playing himself down - pretending the earlier existence never happened. There was a question-and-answer session in which old premies asked things like: 'Why can't we share satsang anymore?' I don't remember many of the answers, but the experience was underwhelming, and many premies in the hall seemed dazed and confused. Maharaji was impatient with questioners. He didn't listen, but used the (pre-selected?) questions from the floor as cues to say what he had been meaning to say all along. Known to politicians and cricketers as 'gentle lobs'
But two questions and their responses stick in the mind. Both were from 'older generation' premies - possibly parents whose children had brought them to Maharaji back in the seventies. Both, I thought, received pretty off-hand treatment. One told Maharaji that he found the ageing process 'concentrated the mind' somewhat and wondered whether Maharaji had any advice on confronting one's own mortality. The other questioner's son had just died and was hoping to derive comfort from Maharaji's (presumably) special insight. In both cases, Maharaji seemed stumped for an answer. To the guy who was concerned about dying, M made some comment about the older ones among us being the trailblazers on the path ahead 'for all of us' - implying that he too didn't have a clue as to what death might bring for people with Knowledge. To the bereaved father he quoted some cliched saying about time being 'too long for those who wait', 'too short for those who..'(?? - can't remember), and 'for those who grieve, time is an eternity' blah, blah...
There was no intimation of Maharaji having a privileged perspective on the machinations of the cosmic clockwork or of a premie's ultimate destiny. Nor did he seem to empathise with the questioner on a personal level. But I assumed that Maharaji was giving each premie the answer they needed to hear, albeit in a personalised code which only the questioner would understand. I remember that failure to comprehend Maharaji was always attributed to the premie's inferior understanding rather than to Maharaji's pronouncements lacking content or clarity.
I went home and never returned (there was nothing to return to, for one thing). But a residual hope and belief remained with me for a while. The last time I gave satsang to a friend was 1987 - the year I later read Richard Dawkins and took on board the full implications of Darwinian theory.
A measure of anger came later, as, over the years, I became far happier without Knowledge than I had been whilst practising. Soon I was an out-and-out sceptic about all so-called spiritual paths, and I recognised the wasted years for what they were.
My conviction grew that the whole thing was a sham - a confidence-trick without a con-man - the 'boy-god' being as much a victim as he is propagator of the whole grand delusion. If he has been surrounded since childhood by people who regard him as lord, then what can you expect? But I wish he would understand the degree of (worldly) power and influence he has held over people's lives, which seems to have been very destructive in some cases.
I went to university and got a degree in psychology at the age of forty. This was an experience of self-worth and wellbeing unrivalled by any I had previously known, greater than that ultimate satisfaction you are supposed to experience from Knowledge. My final-year dissertation was about people's susceptibility to paranormal / superstitious beliefs and how you can prove experimentally how gullible most people can be in given situations. I seemed to have a natural feel for the subject...
Until recently I worked full-time in a drug rehab and saw close up the kind of mess that people get into through heroin use. But I think it is no exaggeration to say I would prefer my own kids to grow up to become junkies than join a cult. You can do a full detox in nine days. It took over nine years to get the poison out of my system.
It is two years since I discovered the ex-premie website. And while it has been over ten since I ditched the guru, I still had unanswered questions. I realised how badly I had missed out on the chance to talk to ex-premies at the time I jumped ship. And ex-premie.org has certainly helped me reframe and understand what it was I had become involved with all those years before, and the psychological needs that attract people to movements like Maharaji's. After all, I had to ditch the bloody Almighty and the whole of the paranormal before the penny finally dropped that Maharaji, too, was a fraud. (By the way: you can believe in God and psychic phenomena, too, if you really want to, and still know that Maharaji is a fake...)
I have since gone back into education to teach whilst studying for a doctorate.
And from the kind of research I have been involved in (hypnotic phenomena) and past studies of paranormal belief, I have noticed many striking parallels with my own past premie experiences. These further confirm for me that no matter how otherwordly an experience may seem (to a premie or non-premie), there is really nothing out of the ordinary going on. Merely that 'ordinary' seems sometimes more extraordinary than we expect. Everything depends upon the way we conceptualise and interpret those experiences.
But finding ex-premie.org has also helped me to reassess the damage. You can stop practising Knowledge overnight, but it can take years to unpick the yarn when a guru has stitched you up.
(Some of what follows has appeared in posts to the ex-premie forum. Apologies if you have read any of this before.)
I have been thinking about the different kinds of harm that arise from the premie experience, and think it boils down to three distinct categories. Maybe others would come up with more than three. But, for me, the exercise is interesting in that the harm arising from my third category, 'motivational damage', has been the hardest to shake off.
Each form of damage also carries a perceived benefit or 'blessing' for practising premies that allows the damage
to occur in the first place.
Many ex's (and premies) posting to the forum have shown (and continue to show) clear evidence of this having happened. It comes from the belief that Maharaji knows, loves and cares for each of us, and our main duty in life is to love and devote ourselves to him over and above all other people in your life. The harm arising from trying to live like this doesn't really need explaining. I think everyone has been affected to some extent - even those ex-premies like me whose less gushing style of satsang-sharing never spoke of loving Maharaji but tended to focus on Knowledge being a great experience.
The perceived benefit for the practising premie is a sense of emotional security, and of being looked after.
Marianne (who posts on the forum) called DLM 'a bhakti [devotional] cult with meditation thrown in as a hook'. And she is right: Maharaji made no secret of the importance of devotion in the early days. With Elan Vital, the devotion is still there but is no longer referred to explicitly. If premies lose that devotion they also lose any reason to stick around.
'Classical conditioning' explains quite well the process of becoming a devotee. The premie learns through constant reinforcement to associate those moments of love and inner wellbeing with Maharaji and learns also that inner conflict and turmoil are products of their own mind. Confusion arises because people can, and do experience 'love' whilst meditating, just as they can experience inner conflict and turmoil whilst meditating. As premies we take the love experience as simple proof that 'Knowledge really works' and the mental struggle as evidence that we still have a way to go; that we still need Maharaji's help and protection. The net effect is to devalue natural experiences of love for people and things around you and channel such devotion as you can muster back in Maharaji's direction. And that devotional bond blinds us to the truth that the love experiences were available before receiving Knowledge and are available to the same extent (or otherwise) irrespective of Maharaji's plushly-cushioned presence on this planet.
And I now have my own non-conditioned ideas as to why focusing on the breath feels nice in the first place. If the technique did not have that potential, centering on the breath would not feature in so many meditation-based disciplines and Maharaji would not have his hook.
(Please bear with me while I summarise!)
Even more than food or physical comfort, a newborn infant needs to keep breathing. Fine, they can usually manage to do so unaided. But it would make evolutionary sense for very young babies to apply whatever rudimentary free-will they may possess to monitor their own breathing (when they are not otherwise busy puking and bawling, of course!) and take whatever limited steps they can to prevent their airways becoming blocked. Since there is no way they can rationally understand the importance of doing this, evolution provides them with a pleasurable sensation from simply allowing their attention to focus on their breath and a desire to remain with the sensation. For adults to rediscover that simple pleasure in later years might be less of a case of spiritual progress than one of arrested development...
Similarly, our ability to forge a strong connection to an exterior security figure or provider and to associate our inner wellbeing with the presence of that external figure is demonstrated both in infancy and in the cult.
Infantile crib-state = mother's love = happiness and security
These ideas may not be original. They may even be utter nonsense (wouldn't be the first time!) But I am convinced that Knowledge experiences are by-products of our evolution, generated within the perceptual and emotional subcomponents of our central nervous system.
Emotional damage results primarily from the devotee rediscovering this internal experience / external provider dependency state and thereby forming a love for the Master that is dangerously non-reciprocal. Love for the Master is expressed in the amount of time a premie spends attending events or under the blanket. Also in financial contributions and 'service' rendered. In each case, more deserving objects of our love, whether friends, family or children are neglected.
'TD' in her excellent 'journeys' entry makes an accurate observation which will ring a bell with many ex-premies: and that is the way the practice of Knowledge can undermine your ability to cope with the outside world. Difficult situations you would once have dealt with easily have a disproportionate impact. You expect to become more emotionally secure the more you practice but instead your equilibrium is shaken by the smallest upset.
It is significant that TD was a nineties, 'Knowledge-lite' era premie which suggests that beneath the surface,
not a lot has changed within the cult.
We learned to believe that existence was for a purpose, that purpose being to realise Knowledge. It was what we were born for, the Meaning of Life, no less. No evidence was ever offered for this explanation and we were discouraged from looking for any beyond going 'within inside' and discovering for ourselves.
Many blessings here:
No need to look any further; here is the answer. Everything that has happened in your life so far was surely meant to happen since it led you to finding the true path. No need to concern yourself with finding real solutions to real problems, your own or those of the world, for there is but one solution. And, lucky old you, you have that solution, as well as the joy and fulfilment that comes from being able to share it with others.
Marriage breaking up? - Look to Maharaji, for there lies the one true, unbreakable relationship.
Fallen out with a friend? - Don't bother trying to patch things up; just go sit quietly in the satsang room and gaze at Maharaj Ji's picture.
War and conflict all over the planet? - No problem. Everyone gets Knowledge, lays down their weapons and bounces up and down in communal bliss.
Famine, earthquake and tidal-wave? - Er, not quite so sure about these, but nothing happens in this world
without the Lord's consent, and He has a plan which we cannot see but take his word for it, he's 'going to make
the Ramayana look like Noddy'. Magic and miracles are real. Everything is His lila, so all you need
do is trust and M will sort everything out.
Remember 'introductory satsang'? It used to strike me at such events that if it weren't for the blissful smile of the premie giving the address, you might interpret the words being spoken as those of somebody suffering from a mood disorder.
Remember how everything you do in this life is ultimately pointless (without K); how the things you own cannot bring you happiness (without K); how friends and lovers will let you down (but not K); how we are all searching for a deeper satisfaction that the world cannot provide (blah blah...)?
These are all symptomatic of what is known in psychiatry as 'automatic negative thinking'. Your cup is half empty rather than half-full. What goes up must come down, so why bother going up? Because the world's joys and pleasures are delimited by time and will surely end, they cannot be worth pursuing in the first place. In short, nothing is worthwhile.
(Maharaji used to give that example of how giving a dollar to a beggar today won't make him happy, since when you fail to show up tomorrow with another dollar, he will be upset. Yuk!!!)
The benefit for the premie lay in being able to avoid plans, challenges and new responsibilities, and in being able to neglect those reponsibilities you already had. Just relax and watch the crazy world go by. Many premies became serious under-achievers through ceasing to plan for the future or look after their own interests properly. In time you stop trusting your own judgement as to what might and might not bring happiness. If it ain't Knowledge, it's the road to nowhere.
Leading an unmotivated life tends to lead you into doubting your own self-worth. It was years before I even believed I was capable of going on to higher education. Having got a good degree (twenty years late), I still can't quite shake off the idea that maybe I was just lucky and my assignment markers made a big mistake.
But it is more than a question of self-confidence. Going for an interview not so long ago, one that promised long-term career prospects, I found myself feeling less worried about not getting the job than about getting it. It was an irrational worry that however well I might do the job, I would somehow find it more trouble than it was really worth. By doing well I would achieve nothing more than discover the rewards for success were not worth having.
Experience, has in fact taught me that personal effort is well rewarded in many spheres of activity (by the way, I love the job), but the momentary feelings of pointlessness I have had at such times I can still trace back to the negative messages of satsang.
Since finding the ex-premie forum my deepest sympathies have been for people who spent a whole decade in the ashram. I have admired their battle-scars and war-wounds. But I am not sure this the true measure of Guru Maharaj Ji's damage. There are also 'fringe' practicing premies of 25 years standing who post to the forum who appear only marginally damaged (and to themselves, not at all).
The measure of mindwarp inflicted probably has more to do with how totally you committed yourself - however briefly - and the circumstances in which that commitment was made. My initial involvement centred around my brother's long illness and inevitable death. My recovery from that wretched episode I used to attribute wholly to my having received Knowledge. As if non-premies never get over things!
My complete recovery from Knowledge I attribute primarily to one thing: education!!! (Get one while you can.)
The other day someone on the radio asked the opera singer Willard White whether he had any regrets about his life. He replied 'a life lived has no need for regrets'. I did not gain anything from Maharaji I could not have found elsewhere and at less personal cost. To that extent I do regret becoming involved. I also feel that Maharaji who, I suspect, knows he was never anybody special is guilty of sustaining an illusion of personal divinity for private gain - and to hell with the consequences for those who sacrificed so much to serve him.
But I also feel I learned a great deal - albeit nothing from Maharaji's 'teachings'. For one thing, I learned the truth that 'there's nowt as queer as folks', as they say in Yorkshire. At least I am able to say that for over ten years now I have enjoyed 'a life lived' and would not wish for any other.
Anyway, I think I have gone on long enough. Thanks for reading this right through. Although the word 'closure' is not one I would normally use, it feels appropriate for describing how it feels to finally get all this down on paper. My desire to join in forum discussions has been much reduced of late and I really don't know how much longer I will stick around. In many ways I feel like I have explored just about every aspect of cult life and my past cult involvement and posting has started to feel like I am just repeating myself ad infinitum. (Besides, there are so many intelligent, articulate exes out there it won't make a ha'p'orth of difference whether or not I stick around). Having said that, I have found some really good friends among the ex-premies and I doubt I will ever completely quit the place while they are still posting.
I would like to thank everybody, past and present, who have helped to keep this website afloat. It has done me a whole lot of good to be here.
Love to all,
(Here follows an addendum, written March 17/03/05)
Part of me if still raging within about the sheer, low-key horror of my past cult involvement; how the whole thing damaged my early adult life at a very bad time, and presumably still does for many other young impressionable adults. I am also quite pleased, having re-read this journey five years since I last edited it, to say I agree with every bloody word, and only regret I didn't come out with both barrels blazing re. Maharaji himself. Maybe later...
(Please note new email address)