Scott is the Founder of Skeptic Meditations. He speaks from experience in entering and leaving Self-Realization Monastic Order, a hindu-inspired ashram headquartered in Los Angeles and founded by famous Yogi Paramahansa Yogananda. Here we talk about meditation beliefs, and Westerners who are Post-Christian and consider themselves atheist or spiritual but not religious.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You were part of a community with many cult-like aspects devoted to meditative techniques and a monk lifestyle. What was it? How did you become wrapped up in it?
Scott from SkepticMeditations.com: I was an ordained monk for 14 years in Self-Realization Fellowship Order, founded in 1920 by famous Yogi Paramahansa Yogananda. It is essentially a Hindu-inspired religion with heavy blend of Christianity.
I got involved while in college I considered myself a mystical musician. Basically, I saw myself as a creative-music type, played guitar, sang, wrote music, and played in punk rock bands, sang in Choirs.
I was looking for ways to be more creative, more intuitive. To tap into the hidden, unknown creative powers within myself. At a party, when the band took a break I spoke to my buddies Uncle who was a Yoga Meditator. He recommended I read Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda.
Long story short: I read the Autobiography and had a “come to Yogananda” experience. At the time I felt that everything I wanted–mystical union with my soul, God, and Creative Cosmic Om–was to be found in following Yogananda’s teachings, which were articulated by his organization Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF).
Within 12 to 18 months I gave up everything–college, business/job, friends, family–not involved with the SRF and ran away from home to live at SRF Hidden Valley Ashram. My aim was to see if I could dedicate my life as an SRF monk. I intended to be a monk for the rest of my life.
I worked my way up the spiritual-monastic food chain of SRF Order. For 18 months, I was a postulant (bootcamp for new monks) at Encinitas Ashram north of San Diego, California. Then I transferred to the SRF Mother Center, the International Headquarters, on top of Mt. Washington, in Northeast Los Angeles between Glendale and Pasadena, California.
At the SRF Mother Center ashram within two years I took Novitiate vows and three years later took Brahmachari vows. Each vow tier was meant to dedicate the monk’s life more fully to loyalty, obedience, celibacy, and simplicity to God, guru, and the SRF. Looking back it all seems like a bad dream. It turned out after several years it was a nightmare to be a monk.
Jacobsen: How did you get out of it, following from the previous question?
Scott: As life gets, it was complicated. After a decade and a half of struggling to make the monk life work I realized the monastery wasn’t the right place for me. What I needed was to grow, try new things.
In secret I would “sneak” out of the ashram under some pretense to buy and read books on escaping religious cults, to visit a life coach and talk over my challenges with a certified psychologist.
Over a period of 1-2 years I gradually got up the courage to leave the Order, the ashram. But how? I needed money, a place to stay, car, job, virtually everything. I renounced everything to be a monk and now I had to find a way to survive in the world outside.
(Incidentally, fear of making it out in the world is extreme in the SRF Order as it is in all high-control groups. The longer members stay the harder it is to leave on practical grounds. Where will you go? What kind of work can you get? How will people see you since you’ve lived under a rock, in a closed Hindu-meditation cult. These and more wild thoughts raced through the heads of monks who entertained escaping the clutches of the ashram Order.)
Fortunately for me, I cobbled together enough cash to buy myself a car, to rent an apartment in nearby Glendale, and to cover my basic living expenses for several months so I could get a toehold out in the world on my own.
Also, I had moral and psychological support from my family and key friends. (SRF treated former monastics as pariahs, as traitors, or so couldn’t rely on SRF…]
Jacobsen: Now, with this foundation, the “I have been there” framework for this series. I want to delve into a variety of topics. For a first one, which was your idea in correspondence, the idea of post-Christian spirituality. What is it? Why is it a relevant, timely, and intriguing topic to you?
Scott: What I mean my post-Christian spirituality I’m referring to the underlying puritan ideals of the West: purity of mind and heart which turns to stilling thought, emptying mind, or no thought as somehow special or sacred.
In the process of secularization, prayer, contemplation, or meditation turns from religious to mind cure. Meditation is somehow secular form of magical “healing”. Meditation is supposed to be beneficial to everyone, to be enlightening, to free practitioners from suffering.
Thinking God’s thoughts becomes thinking “right” thoughts, enlightened thoughts, or no thoughts. That is stilling the mind. Mastering thought. Meditation is actually a subtle version of religion, with a system of enlightenment and an elite with authority.
The system of enlightenment is based on a subtle form of religious thinking. This is why I called it post-Christian or Western secular spirituality.
Good question. Post-Western Christianity is probably not the best way to say what I meant. I’m talking about Westerner’s interest in Eastern spirituality and meditation. Those who are in PEW surveys when people are asked their religion they call themselves “Nones” or spiritual but not religious.
The spiritual but not religious and even many people who identify as atheists who cringe at the term “spiritual” sometimes harbor magical beliefs in things like meditation practices. So this magical thinking about meditation practices, like Buddhist-inspired mindfulness, creeps in.
It goes like this: There’s something deep, magical, and mystical behind the darkness of closed eyes. The Yogis and Eastern Enlightened Masters were onto something. “Science” is proving that meditation cures depression which is not actually the case when we carefully examine the studies of meditation we find that at best meditation practice has a moderate benefit if any compared to other methods of relaxation, exercise, or drugs.
My blog, skepticmeditations, rants about what I call these hidden sides of meditation, regardless whether we call meditation practice secular or not.
Jacobsen: These explorations post-Western Christianity can lead to many areas including meditation, yoga, Buddhism/Hinduism, the New Age philosophy, and Eastern cosmology. What are some cognitive-behavioural traps from the post-Western Christianity explorer’s side?
Scott: Haha. Lots of booby traps. We will never escape them all. But we can gradually, hopefully avoid falling into them endlessly. Each person has to untangle the cognitive traps themselves. It’s a lifelong process of discovery and exploration.
Some may overcome of the obvious traps of Christianity, the Catholic or Protestant doctrines and rituals. Realize that the communion wafer is not the body of Christ but is a cracker and so on.
That probably there is no God, at least not the kind of Divine Intelligence that culturally we are led to believe. But underlying our cultural indoctrination is a system, a framework for Protestant puritan ideals or enlightened masters or authorities and so on. We are products of the culture of the West.
Calling ourselves atheist or secular means we might be post-Christian but still have much of the subtle Christian-Western puritan worldviews. Even simple notions like “Work hard and you will succeed”. “Control your thoughts and control your destiny”, and so on. These are sublter versions of God beliefs or based in religious worldviews.
Jacobsen: What are some of the traps from those who wish to bring those post-Western Christianity explorers into their particular fold?
Scott:The scientific research into the benefits of meditation are inconclusive. We don’t yet have enough good data. Yet, many people scan and read only the headline that says meditation is beneficial for everybody.
So this kind of surface exploration of claims, like we’ve seen now with so-called fake news, should cause us to pause. It takes time and effort to dive deep into a topic like religion, meditation, or atheism.
Whatever, these are just labels. I think we should not take headlines and labels too seriously without first doing our homework and diving deep into the underlying premises and assumptions.
Jacobsen: Any final thoughts or feelings in conclusion?
Scott: Well, I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you today. I enjoyed your questions and grappling with how to respond. I really like your conversational and interview style. I think back and forth dialogue is one of the best ways to try to understand ourselves and others. Thanks.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Scott.
Image Credit: Skeptic Meditations.