How Not to Join a Cult: (It’s not as easy as it seems)

A still from Will Allen’s 2016 documentary “Holy Hell.”

Many, many moons ago, when I was still living in England, my husband and I thought it would be a wonderful idea to join a local meditation group.

Meditation, after all, is rightly praised for conferring countless benefits for body, mind, and soul. Renown teachers such as Pema Chodron, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Jack Kornfield have popularized the idea of Buddhist-inspired meditation being just what stressed Western people need to live more joyfully and mindfully.  

Alas, Pema Chodron, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Jack Kornfield were all on the other side of the Atlantic. In this pre-Zoom age we had to make do with what was available to us locally. So, we went to a free taster evening led by a Western Buddhist monk who seemed like a kind and well-spoken young man. The venue was pleasant, the participants were friendly and welcoming. The meditation practice itself, a visualization of breathing white light into the heart space and breathing out the gunky stuff, created a heightened mood and expansive state of mind. In this altered state, we listened to the monk speak about Buddhist philosophy. I didn’t agree with everything he said—he was a bit too ascetic and world-denying to my taste. Even so, the meditative experience itself was so enjoyable that we became regulars and befriended the other regulars. Not only did we attend the weekly meditation sessions, but we also joined the group activities, such as fundraising walks and other events.  

Fast forward a few months. Our teacher asked if I would lead a few sessions, as he had teaching commitments elsewhere. At first, I was honored. But then as I understood this was meant to be a regular thing and not the one off, it began to seem very strange. In most traditions, students study meditation for considerably longer than a few months before they are asked to lead classes. I wasn’t even an actual Buddhist and had never taken refuge vows.

Yet not only was I asked to lead the meditation, I was expected to lecture on Buddhist philosophy. I was told to purchase a book by the monk’s spiritual leader, study each chapter, and talk about the message. I learned that in this school of Buddhism, people were only allowed to read books written by their spiritual leader and not by other Buddhists of any other school. Some of the stuff in this book just seemed off. Any act of self-assertiveness or personal agency was denounced as “self-cherishing,” supposedly a dangerous obstacle to enlightenment. However, shame was celebrated as good thing as it helps herd a straying student back to the One True Path. This caused my alarm bells to go off big time.

I also learned that this branch of Buddhism preached a fanatical opposition to the Dalai Lama. They worshipped a protector deity called Dorje Shugden, shunned as a malevolent spirit by other schools of Tibetan Buddhism. My teacher was urging people to picket and protest the Dalai Lama’s upcoming visit to the UK.

My head exploded. To think that my innocent desire to practice meditation in community had landed me in some bizarro spirit-worshipping, Dalai Lama-hating cult!

My online research then revealed that the New Kadampa Tradition, the institution behind the seemingly innocuous meditation class I joined, was, in fact, a Chinese-funded cult with the express agenda to undermine and discredit the Dalai Lama.

The NKT is a new brand of pseudo-Buddhism, made in the United Kingdom. Very keen on fundraising, they have opened numerous meditation centers and residential centers across the UK and across the world. Tibetan Buddhists from actual lineage traditions won’t go near them.

An NKT advertizing flyer. It might look innocent, but . . .

I was lucky. By the time I learned how toxic this group was, my husband and I could get out unscathed. We had invested some time and money, but weren’t deep into the organization. Others weren’t so fortunate. Seduced by the feel-good meditations and the lure of enlightenment, flattered to be asked to teach, other people got roped into opening residential centers, volunteering their time as cooks at the NKT cafes, or even making monastic vows to the organization. The last option is a poverty trap. The monks and nuns subsist on social benefits from the UK state while spending all their time volunteering to teach, fundraise, and run the residential and retreat centers.

Here are some survivor stories:

Is the New Kadampa Tradition a Cult?

Ex-Nun Carol McQuire’s story

If I had it to do over again, I would have done my online research before attending the first class. This is what I now recommend to everyone joining a spiritual group or even a harmless-sounding meditation evening. Google the name of the organization or the leader and then add the words “cult,” “controversy,” or “criticism” in the search box and see what comes up.

As well as the danger of cults, there is also a very real problem of women and girls being sexually abused in some spiritual communities. We’ve all heard countless stories about high-profile Yoga teachers and gurus being found guilty of sexual misconduct and abuse.

Author, activist, and feminist Yogini, Uma Dinsmore-Tuli has started “Yoni Shakti: The Movement” to protest this abuse. The goal, as stated on the website, is: Eradicate Abuse of Women in Yoga and Reclaim Yoga as a Tool for Healing and Justice. You can join the movement and download the information packet for free.

Uma has created a comprehensive 13-point checklist of warning signs to let you know when you have accidently stumbled into a toxic group. You can access the list below. If I’d had this list way back when I joined that meditation group, I would have been able to extricate myself a lot earlier.

The problem with many gurus and spiritual teachers is that they encourage seekers to look for power and spiritual meaning outside themselves–in the guru or the group. As Yoga Nidra teacher and author, Tracee Stanley explains in a video conversation with Uma Dinsmore-Tuli, a good teacher will point you to the teacher within your own heart and teach you to find Source within your own soul, as women mystics of every faith have done throughout the ages. No ethical spiritual teacher will ask you to “outsource” your power and your center to another person or to a group.

Meditation and Yoga can and should be liberating in every sense of the word. Let’s work together to ensure that the world of Yoga and meditation is a safe refuge for every seeker.

Happy Holidays!

Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write women back into history. Her acclaimed novel Illuminations, drawn from the dramatic life of Hildegard von Bingen, is published by Mariner. Her new novel Revelationsabout the mystical pilgrim Margery Kempe and her friendship with Julian of Norwich, is now available wherever books and ebooks are sold. Visit her website.

Women, like Goddesses, Come in All Colors, Shapes, and Sizes…by Vanessa Soriano

I wish I could have gotten this phrase tattooed on my arm when I started the serpentine journey into womanhood.  Like most of us, growing up, all I ever saw in media were thin female bodies with impossible proportions.  As one article put it:

Although body size and weight perception differ across race and ethnicity, women in western society are subject to images of women as not only thin, but also athletic and toned, with small waists, large buttocks, and large breasts, a body type that is largely unattainable.  Because of this ideal, all girls and women typically have weight concerns that ultimately shape body image, satisfaction, and appreciation. Continue reading “Women, like Goddesses, Come in All Colors, Shapes, and Sizes…by Vanessa Soriano”

Nourishing Your Caring, by Molly Remer

Take time 60107979_2326071390938403_2921363486892097536_o
to nourish
your caring.
It is needed.

Last month it was raining heavily on a Saturday morning and I spent time coloring letters to fairies with my younger children and baking a cake. Before I knew it, the day had slipped away into the rain and I didn’t get to make my daily visit to the woods behind my house as I like to do in the morning. While the things I did instead were fun and loving, I found myself telling my husband, once again, that I am feeling burned out in my life in general and like I’ve lost my caring. I sometimes worry that I don’t care anymore, that I’ve used up my care, my inspiration, my passion, that I’ve fueled magic for others for so long, that my own has evaporated and I’m finished, extinguished. I listed off the things I need to refuel my soul and restore my care so that I can be there for others, for our work. My list was simple and short and my husband pointed out that I get the things on it almost every day:

  1. Go to the woods.
  2. Write and journal.
  3. Walk and discover things.
  4. Create/draw/take pictures.
  5. Read.

I need to nourish my care, I tell him, because I can’t stop caring.

Caring is what holds life together.

What do you need to nourish your caring?

This year, I have found myself struggling with recurrent episodes of feeling like I don’t care. I feel careworn, care-overloaded, care-burned out, care used-up. Sometimes I even feel like I actually can’t care anymore, like all my care is used up, spent, extinguished, exhausted. I have also found myself feeling a little sad and wistful remembering how much I used to care, about everything, but at times I also feel liberated by owning the “don’t care” sensation. Sometimes it sets me free. The world is stained, strained, and brittle from so much lack of care from so many people. We must keep caring, we must care, even when it is a strain. I suppose the secret may be not to care too much about things that don’t require our care, not to overload ourselves with cares that are not our own, or that don’t actually require our attention and are, frankly, quite fine without us and our meddling.

After the month’s Pink Tent ritual with my local circle, a friend tells me that she has been 58639012_2319362924942583_1704575264542949376_o(1)going to yoga class and every time she lies on the floor at the end of class, she thinks of me. I consider this a compliment. If I could be known as a lay-down revolutionary, that would please me. At least two years ago, I put on my list of “100 Things to Do this Year,” to lie on the floor for at least three minutes every day. I have kept this up more or less every day since then, even setting my phone timer for three minutes at the end of my personal yoga practice each morning, so I know I’m actually giving this to myself. I wonder what might change for many of us if we allowed ourselves three minutes a day to lie on the floor? Ten minutes? Fifteen minutes? One hour? Another friend tells me she needs a time out to refill herself until she is overflowing, instead of just refilling her cup a tiny bit and then draining it over and over again. I feel this too. I have the sensation that I been coasting on my reserve tank for at least a year and my reserves are now becoming depleted too. It takes more than three minutes to fill the tank, so that it carries sustained and lasting energy to fuel my soul.

In the woods the next day, I sit with my eyes closed in the sunshine, basking in the warmth. I hear the sound of birds from each side of me, ping-ponging off of one another into the sparkling green air. I listen to them until my mind softens and I am no longer tormenting myself with questions of how to be better, be more, fix it all. I am very still on the rock and when I open my eyes, I see a vulture coasting towards me. It swoops very low, skimming the treetops, possibly checking to see if I am actually breathing there on the stone, it circles once, twice, three times, above my head, at each pass coming very low, low enough that I can see its red head turn from side to side, looking at me.

Hey, buddy, I say. Yes, I’m still breathing!

My floor-lying friend has spent the night at my parents lodge and I go to visit her and to paint with my mom, my daughter, and my friend and her family. My head is throbbing with the headache I often get following an intense ritual and I don’t feel very present, but we paint anyway, the colors swirling and mixing and the freeform nature of the pour painting meaning there are no mistakes, only magic. When we finish, I help her load a weaving loom into her car and we speak briefly about group dynamics and ritual etiquette, and priestessing energetics. As we speak, I look up to see nine vultures this time, circling in the wide sky above the large open field surrounding the lodge building. They dance in the air and they whisper, It is okay to let go. It is okay to soar. It is okay to be free. It is okay to clean things out and away. That is how you can keep caring.

Recipe for Rebuilding a Soul:

1 weary heart61445954_2342336385978570_2975037873578835968_o(1)
2 open arms
1 large flat rock
As many tall pine trees
as you can find
1 empty book
Many pens
Lots of water
2 scoops of sunlight
An infinity of starshine.

Mix together patiently and wait in the shadows. Let rise in the sun. Let rise with the moon. Check for delight. If still soggy and deflated, expose on a hillside or soak in the ocean. Sprinkle with laughter.

Submerge beneath a stream of inspiration.
Drizzle with dreams and a generous helping of time.
Steep with incredible slowness.
Dust with flowers and need well.
Let become exquisitely tender and soft.

When fully risen, warmed throughout, and glowing with strength and satisfaction, enjoy with a tall glass of moonlight, a side of magic, and a handful of enchantment.

Create regularly for best results.

Additional audio poem: Careworn Soul

This essay is excerpted from my book in progress, The Magic of Place: Rebuilding the Soul Where and How You Are.

Molly Remer has been gathering the women to circle, sing, celebrate, and 61538890_2344169199128622_8199673458095816704_oshare since 2008. She plans and facilitates women’s circles, seasonal retreats and rituals, mother-daughter circles, family ceremonies, and red tent circles in rural Missouri. She is a priestess who holds MSW, M.Div, and D.Min degrees and wrote her dissertation about contemporary priestessing in the U.S. Molly and her husband Mark co-create Story Goddesses, original goddess sculptures, ceremony kits, mini goddesses, and jewelry at Brigid’s Grove. Molly is the author of WomanrunesEarthprayerShe Lives Her Poems, and The Red Tent Resource Kit and she writes about thealogy, nature, practical priestessing, and the goddess at Patreon and at Brigid’s Grove.

Where the Dance Is . . . On Cultivating a Daily Practice by Joyce Zonana

Although Goddess traditions invite us to embrace a world of immanence and change, rather than to seek to escape into transcendence—which some yoga teachings seem to point toward—I have come to believe that the “still point,” is, as Eliot writes, where “the dance is.” In other words, daily practice might grant us the capacity to always move through the world with grace and joy. The mind will be steady as it encounters and embraces the turning world. We will be whole.

jz-headshotWhen I was growing up, I was fascinated to see my father each day recite the morning blessings mandated for Jewish men. While the rest of the household bustled sleepily—my mother in the kitchen, my brother and I taking turns in the bathroom, my grandmother slowly getting dressed—my father, still in his pajamas, would stand in the center of our small living room, yarmulke on his head, tefillin wrapped around his arm and forehead, tallit draped over his shoulders. Using a tattered old siddur he had brought with him from Cairo, he would face the east and begin the ancient Hebrew prayers: “Blessed art thou, Lord our God, King of the Universe . . .”

I never knew then the content of what my father intoned, but I knew how committed he was to his practice: he prayed every morning without fail, from the day of his bar mitvah at the age of eleven (the rabbi in Cairo had decided to initiate him early because he had lost his father as a young child) until he a few years before his death at 84, when he became debilitated by Parkinson’s Disease. Ours was not a traditionally Orthodox Jewish family—we did not observe the Sabbath or keep kosher—but my father’s faithful performance grounded him and all the rest of us, bringing us us to what T.S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world.”

Continue reading “Where the Dance Is . . . On Cultivating a Daily Practice by Joyce Zonana”

Yoga, Resilience and Learning Self-Care by Marie Cartier

All Photos by Kimberly Esslinger

It is spring and it is warm in California. I haven’t been exercising over the winter because it has been extremely cold for California. I had the bug everyone else had. But, now I am back, and we have just experienced Spring Equinox on March 21st, 2019.

And I am headed back to yoga classes.

Why did I start doing yoga? It’s a good question, since I started as a senior in high school, which would have been 1973. I was a lower middle class kid who had very few resources. I was also from an abusive family, where I was responsible for taking care of my younger five brothers and sisters. This meant I almost always had to come home from school and start peeling potatoes, getting dinner ready for when my father would walk through the door—and hopefully be in a good mood.

I learned to not be around when he walked in that door, because he would take out his anger on whoever was first in his path. I remember thinking this was very smart on my part, and also feeling guilty that I hadn’t imparted this to the other kids. Someone had to be in his path when he got home, and I didn’t want it to be me. I still feel guilty about that—even though as the oldest I was punished physically by him more than the others.

Continue reading “Yoga, Resilience and Learning Self-Care by Marie Cartier”

The Mud and the Lotus: What India Is Teaching Me by Vanessa Soriano

About 5 years ago, I began a consistent yoga practice.  Right around the same time, I started a PhD program in Women’s Spirituality at the California Institute of Integral Studies where I eventually wrote my dissertation on Women’s Spiritual Leadership.  Throughout my studies, I realized that the path of the Divine Feminine is an intricate journey that accentuates the mind, body, soul connection.  The yogic path does the same.  In late 2018, I enrolled in an intensive 5-week 300-hour yoga teacher training in India where I continued my spiritual explorations.  Hindu culture reveres the Divine Feminine and Divine Masculine and yoga is viewed as a pathway into God/dess through the body.  Here’s the first part of the story…

I’m in India and it’s 5:30 a.m. and an hour of pranayama awaits me.  The yogis define prana as the life force that animates the entire body and yama relates to discipline.  The practice of pranayama consists of breathing techniques that aim to control the breath in order to connect to the life force that resides within.  Accessing this life force can invoke feelings of bliss and a connection to the Divine.

Class starts, I’m officially starving, and I haven’t had enough coffee. Continue reading “The Mud and the Lotus: What India Is Teaching Me by Vanessa Soriano”

The Practices of Forgiveness and Yoga by Vanessa Soriano

Forgiveness and yoga require consistent practice.  As we engage in each, healing unfolds in the body, mind, and soul.  Forgiveness and yoga exist in a symbiotic relationship: forgiveness allows us to release emotional blockages that affect the body/mind, and yoga delivers us to more empowered and peaceful states within the body/mind that encourage the release.  Yoga and forgiveness illuminate the body-mind connection.

All world religions and spiritual traditions emphasize the practice of forgiveness.  Sages, prophets, rishis, shamans, medicine women—figures who have helped shape religion and spirituality—understood that resentment and anger depress the body and mind, which hinders our connection to the soul and Divine.

Being angry diminishes the quality of life and can incite violence against our self and others.  Forgiveness helps us function at fuller capacity from a healthy internal state.

Just as forgiveness promotes healing in the body/mind, yoga accomplishes the same effect.  Scientific studies from Harvard show that yoga increases body awareness, relieves stress, improves mood and behavior, and calms and centers the nervous system.  Since yoga decreases the stress response in the body, it creates space in the psyche to journey into the practice of forgiveness.

Continue reading “The Practices of Forgiveness and Yoga by Vanessa Soriano”

The Upanishads and Work-Life Balance by Elisabeth Schilling

IMG_0617My idleness has been cured as I take a new job teaching college English to high school students at a charter school for eight hours a day. At exactly my 80th and last job application since January 2017, I received the offer just a few hours after my interview and had just a few days to pack up my life and leave. Traveling through desolate flatlands, relieved tornado season was quelled at late summer, I would finally embark on a full-time job, my last one having been almost a decade ago.

The Yoga Sutras taught me that if I pursued something with a sustained effort, for a long time, with enthusiasm, results would occur. They did. While before, teaching one online course and waking at 10 a.m. to log on to academic job websites to see what new positions might have appeared, now sleep seems like an elusive dream, but my emotional landscape has transformed from languid storm to something with cheer. Continue reading “The Upanishads and Work-Life Balance by Elisabeth Schilling”

The Trees and We Breathe Bombs Long Gone by Elisabeth Schilling

bikini atoll bombI wish that in our pursuit of finding cures for illnesses we would do more as a collective species to prevent the causes, sometimes environmental ones. Why do we vote for people to make decisions that represent us but that we would never in a million years agree to? Bombs and the consequences of them raise questions of health and power. In the Yoga Sutras, 2.30, we read that “Yama consists of non-violence, non-lying, non-stealing, appropriate use of vital energy, and non-possessiveness.” The yamas are our social restraints. They are a negation of behaviors we might usually partake in.

Ahimsā, or non-violence, is listed first. It is the first element of the first limb of yoga; it is the basis for every other ethical aspect of our lives. Bombs are an example of a common and frequent behavior of violence that make the land, water, and sky increasingly uninhabitable. According to Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations, in 2016 alone, the U.S. is estimated to have dropped 26,172 bombs. Zenko says that this estimate is “undoubtedly low.” (1) This is one year and the bombs from one nation. (2) What is the environmental impact of all of the bombs dropped from every nation since the beginning of bombing history?

When a bomb is detonated, there is not only harm to the immediate life in that vicinity but life in the future and far away. According to the International Campaign to Abolish Weapons (ICAN) website, “the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War has estimated that roughly 2.4 million people will eventually die as a result of the atmospheric nuclear tests conducted between 1945 and 1980, which were equal in force to 29,000 Hiroshima bombs.” (5)

According to a statistic updated March 2016 on the Ploughshares Fund website, nine countries in the world have a total of 14,900 nuclear weapons, the U.S. and Russia holding 93% of them. (3) They have been used twice, both times by the United States, in war, but additionally they have been used in tests over 2,000 times in more than 60 locations over the globe, according to ICAN. (4) There are already unavoidable consequences to the earth and humans because of this irresponsible behavior that is ongoing.  These tests occur in the atmosphere, under the earth, and under water. (6) Continue reading “The Trees and We Breathe Bombs Long Gone by Elisabeth Schilling”

The Universe Is on Your Side by Elisabeth Schilling

IMG_0617While I am sure this articulation is on an “inspirational” meme somewhere, my thoughts coalesced to form it while I was looking at the mid-afternoon blue sky in a moment of rare optimism. Too often can I become confused and despondent about the situation of our earth and humanity, myself. “We want healing too,” it whispered. If we are for the sustainable restoration and support of our earth, then we have a whole universe on our side that moves toward this direction as well. Our bodies, one with the universe, join in this want of healing.

Matthew Sanford is a yoga instructor whom I heard speak during an NPR interview. He explained how any reference to “our bodies failing us” does not feel true to him. He explained: Continue reading “The Universe Is on Your Side by Elisabeth Schilling”

Confessions of the Yoga Sutras: Guidelines for Life by Elisabeth Schilling

green pathBack in August when I was applying for yoga certification, I discovered, in my search for our textbooks, the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali, 196 aphorisms. I had no idea what a gem of wisdom they would be, especially the first two pada (sections). No doubt, my reception of them is made possible by the mindful commentary of Reverend Jaganath Carrera, but I have found them to be much needed guidance, lessons that were never articulated to me in quite this way. I’d like to share with you some of the sutras that have most helped me begin moving again.

1.30. Disease, dullness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, sensuality, false perception, failure to reach firm ground, and slipping from the ground gained—these distractions of the mind-stuff are the obstacles.

Yes! Yes! Yes! Unabashedly, this describes a thick slice of my self-narrative. Carrera comments that the obstacles are in order, as if steps to a downfall. I had been wondering before encountering these scriptures where I had gone off-course. I had found myself feeling depressed, anxious, and desperate without a job and a means for independence at 35. I had a Ph.D., but that did not seem to matter in the way I thought it would. I can very much say that after graduating and having been an adjunct for 10 years already, I was feeling dis-ease. I fell into dullness, only applying haphazardly to full-time jobs and then into doubt when nothing positive came back. Once you lose your faith, I’m not sure much can happen. So I began to get careless, forgetting what it was to be a scholar. I felt the job search for the academy was too difficult and became lazy, beginning to look for something easier. This is when I decided to shelve everything and travel around Spain, Germany, and Ireland for as long as I could. It was sensually indulgent for sure. I cannot say I did not have a magical and liberating time. I absolutely did. But I returned after four months only to sink to that place I mentioned in the beginning – the depression and panic. My false perception was what I discussed in my post about “Hard Work without Getting Anywhere” – I realized that I had been so despondent because I had felt I was entitled. Entitled to an easy path to job security and the comfortable life I envisioned. But I hadn’t reached any firm ground. And although I had built up a decade of teaching experience and completed my dissertation, I was quickly slipping from any ground gained. All in all, I had created a world of distractions for myself that didn’t need to be. Patanjali and Carrera: you really get me.

Of course, what would this spiritual guide be if it couldn’t tell me what and how to rise up out of the mire and head somewhere? (Actually it would still be really enlightening.) This leads me to the second sutra I find so helpful: Continue reading “Confessions of the Yoga Sutras: Guidelines for Life by Elisabeth Schilling”

Lotus in the Mud: A Metaphor for Humanity on our Darkest Days by Elisabeth Schilling

BeachThere are days I find myself so overwhelmed with sadness concerning the state of our world that I break down crying. Last week, I saw an episode of Mars, a scripted documentary shown on the National Geographic channel about human colonization of the red planet in 2033. One of the astronauts “interviewed” prior to leaving was asked why she was taking such a risk to inhabit Mars. She said something like, “We will give everything for this.” Why not give everything for Earth?

If we would give everything for the planet we evolved on, then we might immediately transition to a life where we would be self-sustainable, build greenhouses in our backyards, give up our carbon-emission- producing cars, and abandon all the unnecessary businesses that are only there to fill our loneliness and boredom. The idea on the psuedo-documentary was that humans are putting this planet in danger, so it might be smart to have a backup. Isn’t that insanity’s way: trash one place and then find another place to live? The insurmountable amount of money we spend on space expeditions could be spent healing our own world. This is not the time for luxuries. Continue reading “Lotus in the Mud: A Metaphor for Humanity on our Darkest Days by Elisabeth Schilling”

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