Editor’s Note: Rational Doubt is grateful to have another Clergy Project member interview done by Scott Jacobsen of Conatus News. This one is a little different in that the member being interviewed is not what you immediately think of when the word “clergy person” comes to mind. Read on.
Scott Jacobsen: You published the story of your personal transition from being part of a monastic order called the Self-Realization Fellowship Monastic Order to not being a part of it. The story is on The Clergy Project website, dated May 27, 2015. You were known as Brahmachari Scott. Now, you’re just Scott (me, too). For those leaving monastic orders, what are important things to keep in mind?
“Scott”: It was a big deal to leave the Self-Realization Monastic Order (the Order or SRF) after 14 years. It was a pivotal decision in life. I joined the Order when I was 24, expecting to be a monk for the rest of my life. I took vows of loyalty, obedience and chastity. All, purportedly, for finding God and self-realization. My justification for being a monk was that purpose. But it was complex.
For reasons as complicated as life can become, I felt out of place. I realized the monastery was not for me. This wasn’t the end, though. In the most important ways, my journey unfolded when I chose to come back to the world.
Before leaving the Order, I spent months acclimating myself to the outside world. It was like dipping toes into cold water before the plunge.
Instead of attending the regularly scheduled monastic classes, I joined a local Toastmasters club. I practiced public speaking. Rather than turn my doubts and fears inward—as I did for decades, I visited an outside psychotherapist, and confided my hopes and fears to her. Before seeing that psychotherapist, I spent years weighing the pros and cons of staying in or leaving the Order. I built an underground support community of trusted current and former monastics, church members and biological family.
At the time, I had a motto:
“I’m not moving away from anything. I’m moving towards something.”
Something great, I hoped. I did not know, but I felt I was moving towards something great based on a vision. I was developing a plan for a new life. That energized me. The pain of feeling “stuck” was greater than my fear of leaving the Order. I was one of the lucky few. I escaped. When I say “escaped,” I mean physically and psychologically.
Many monks from the Order I lived with still live in the monastery. Many others left. However, some of those who left still psychologically stuck within the Order. The monastery is still with them. It is more important where one resides psychologically rather than physically, in my opinion, speaking now from over a decade of experience. Some people have the privilege to move. Several monks stayed in the Order who were instrumental in helping me become who I am today. For me, leaving the Order was about moving towards, rather than away, from something.
What are some expected difficulties—personal, familial, and professional—in transitioning out of a monastic order?
The difficulties included learning how to reintegrate into society. We had extremely limited access to the outside world. The monks were allowed to watch one movie a month, and even that was censored. The Monks’ Library contained only censored materials: books of saints and yogis, the LA Times newspaper and magazines like National Geographic and Sports Illustrated. Access to the internet, during my tenure, was blocked or filtered and our phone calls were monitored for ‘billing’ purposes. We were charged for long-distance calls, which discouraged outside contact. Censoring of our exposure to the world, we were told, was for our own spiritual development.
Life inside was like a cult.
Upon re-entry into the world, I felt woefully inadequate in practical matters of daily life.
To transition, I learned how to be an adult, and to be assertive, to negotiate and pay my bills. I had to reintegrate into society, rebuild my life, relationships, and start a career. When I left, I had no job, no home and no family to live with. I had to prove to myself that I could make my way in the world. Within two years of leaving, I enrolled in university and graduated with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree while working for a corporation.Have there been substantial changes in the last 1-2 years?
Yes, after nearly 10 years at the corporate job, my department was eliminated. Since then, I started a successful business consulting practice. Also, I’m teaching at a local college, while looking for my next corporate job.
I was intrigued by your description of monastic life on the Clergy Project Website:
…monks didn’t just sit all-day chanting, praying, and navel-gazing.
Monastery routine consisted of meditation, classes, recreation, 9-to-5 jobs: ministering to a worldwide religious congregation at the Self-Realization Fellowship churches, temples, meditation centers and groups, and spiritual retreats. Each monk received $40 per month cash allowance, room and board, paid medical care, and all-you-could-eat lacto-ovo-vegetarian buffet.
You were working in rather extreme conditions. What was running through your mind? What is the insight gained since you left about monastic life, e.g. working conditions?
I was convinced by church doctrine and the spiritual mythologies. They stated that renunciation and self-sacrifice was an exalted path to God, self-realization and spiritual freedom. However, a few years after leaving, I was able to step back and take a stern look at the conditions of the Order.
In the monastery, I lived inside a closed, cult-like system. SRF is a Hindu-inspired meditation group.
The followers—consciously or unconsciously—buy into false premises taught by the church. Once one believes the false premises, it becomes easy to surrender to the work and spiritual routine for hours, days, weeks, months and years. You hand over control to teacher, guru, church or religion.
SRF puts a premium on meditation techniques as the highest way to spiritual development or self-realization. Examples of some of the premises we believed:
“You are unaware. Meditation is the way to unbroken awareness. If you are not fully aware, keep meditating. Or, you are a god, but don’t know it. Meditation is the path to know you are a god. If you don’t know you are a god, keep meditating. Or, you are asleep (ignorant of your delusion) and don’t know it. Meditation is the way to wake up from delusion. If you are in delusion, keep meditating.”
Now, I look back and regret having spent precious years in the pursuit of the Order’s false premises. But, better late than never, I outgrew them.
The Scientific American article was the linchpin to becoming an atheist within your social circle, friends and family. What seems to be the main reason for transitioning out of monastic life?
There’s so many reasons why I left.
Mostly, I needed to change and grow. The Order wasn’t about change or growth. Lord knows, I tried. Ultimately, the church and its leader were about perpetuating the revealed teachings of the teachers. I was lucky; I saw through the false premises of the church. I never regretted leaving it.
There are local agnostic, atheist, humanist, and freethinker organizations to provide support for people. How can friends and family give support?
Family and friends play a vital role in supporting people like me who leave extreme religions or cult-like groups. My family accepted me. I can not think of anything special that family and friends can do that is different that what true friends and family do: laugh, care, and do things together. Naturally, different friends and family serve different needs for us. It was most helpful for me to connect with a variety of people from different cultures or worldviews. Having a good therapist helped, I did not become a burden for friends and loved ones with my issues.
You created Skeptic Meditations as well. It is a general resource on skepticism with a blog. How can people become involved with Skeptic Meditations?
I created Skeptic Meditations to critically examine the supernatural claims of yogis, mystics, and meditators, and to muse and critique my experiences inside the SRF/the Order.
Christians have many resources to question and doubt, if they choose. After coming out of the Order, which is a Hindu-inspired meditation group, I found precious few resources for people like me who had left Christianity and questioned Eastern religion, especially yoga meditation. Skeptic Meditations explores the hidden, sometimes darker, side of yoga, mindfulness, and meditation.
Thank you for your time, Scott.
I’ve enjoyed your questions and chatting with you. Thank you.
>>>>Photo credits: http://www.conatusnews.com/scott-jacobsen.html