Abandoning Family for a Guru

Abandoning Family for a Guru February 6, 2020

Editor’s Note:  This blog  – and the US –  can seem so Christianity-focused, that sometimes it’s easy to forget that other spiritual practices can have also have negative effects on their practitioners.  In this post, Clergy Project member, “Scott,” a former monk in the Self-Realization Fellowship, reveals the limited relationship he had with his family during his time at the ashram.  At first, he reveled in this independence, but that soon changed. /Linda LaScola, Editor


By “Scott”

When I discovered meditation at the age of nineteen, I was overjoyed, and felt that my life’s purpose had been found.

Thus began my renunciation of family, career, and education in an idealized quest for truth and self-realization in a Hindu-inspired meditation group, Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF).

Ten years before, Dad had had lifesaving brain surgery. His psychological and emotional health gradually deteriorated. [I wrote briefly about this in the first paragraph of my post Think & Grow Rich Gurus]. Life at home with family was tense, dysfunctional. I sought refuge in meditation.

When I wasn’t at the SRF Temple to meditate or listen to sermons, at home I’d lock my bedroom door for hours to meditate and read books by Paramahansa Yogananda, the guru-master of SRF.

One day. Dad banged on my locked door and yelled,

“What the hell are you doing in there? When you are in my house, my rules. It’s my way or the highway!”

At that moment I knew I had to get out and I hatched a plan to leave home.

I called the SRF Hidden Valley Ashram and made reservations to stay there for an extended retreat.

The SRF Hidden Valley Ashram, a meditation retreat center and 40acre farm, was located 40 miles northeast of San Diego.

My retreat reservations were easy. I was to live in the SRF Hidden Valley Ashram for weeks, months, even years. In exchange for room, board, and spiritual instruction I was to pick farm produce in the ashram and was to make a suggested cash donation.

I was eager to leave my problems behind, at home, and to start an ideal “spiritual” life on a retreat.

I packed a toothbrush, clothes and some books by Paramahansa Yogananda in a cardboard box and a duffle bag. Before I drove away in my pickup truck to stay at Hidden Valley Ashram I scratched a handwritten note to family (my only communication that I was leaving home):

“Going away for awhile to live with friends in San Diego Area. Will call you in a few days. Love, Scott”.

That was the last time I was home with family. It wasn’t until a decade and a half later, when I left the Order, that I realized how important blood family is.

Regrets I have about abandoning family for a guru, included:

  • Missed my sister’s wedding. (The monastic rules and counselors forbade monks from attending weddings).
  • Missed my dad’s second wedding. (Dad remarried ten years after I left home).
  • Neglected my blood family relations and instead spent the majority of my time within SRF.

Actions taken with family while I was in the ashram, included:

  • Called my parents every month by phone, mailed birthday and post cards.
  • Visited my parents at their home for one to two days, two or three times a year after I had been in the Order for several years.
  • Visited by my parents at the SRF Ashram once a year or two.

If I knew what awaited me in the ashram I would have never abandoned family the way I did.

Many members of SRF shunned me after I left the “fellowship”. Apparently, the unconditional love of a guru and “divine fellowship” is conditioned upon surrender to the rules of the community.

When I left the ashram in midlife, I was overjoyed, and was welcomed back into my blood family as if I had never gone.

**Editor’s Question ** How have interactions with your family changed, because of changes in your religious views?


Bio: “Scott” was a monk at the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) ashram for 14 years before leaving to complete his education and enter the business world.  Raised Roman Catholic, he got into eastern religious practices and was influenced in his 20’s by reading The Autobiography of a Yogi by SRF founder Paramahansa Yogananda. He is now a member of The Clergy Project and a successful business consultant.  He discusses the hidden, and sometimes dangerous side of meditation practices, systems and groups at SkepticMeditations.com, where this essay has been reposted with permission.

>>>>Photo credits:  By Jaina Publications – Jaina.org – [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11243335


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  • Jim Jones

    It seems a shame we can’t teach these lessons to people before they find out the hard way.

  • mason

    Like most of life, everyone learns by experiences.

  • mason

    Glad you were able to snap out of one of the many forms of religious nonsense. So many never do. You were able to cut your loses short and regain a full life with out the crippling chains of irrational religion.

  • ctcss

    Religion comes in many flavors and approaches. Since everyone (at least as an adult) is free to choose their own pathway, it pays to give careful consideration to the approach espoused by any religion before joining up with it. If a religion is all about strong control exercised by a human leader, the likelihood is that one will find themselves shackled to something with clay feet, which is likely to end badly. (My brother got shanghaied by a group like that. Luckily he got out again.) But if a religion allows the seeker to give thoughtful consideration to the pathway being presented, and allows them to join or not, without any pressure or threats, and continues to encourage them to make up their own mind each step of the way, the likelihood is that they may find themselves at peace with the pathway being offered, even if they ultimately decide to follow something else.

    I’ve noticed that most of the complaints voiced here about religion are regarding approaches that are harsher and more controlling in tone and effect.

    So perhaps a little more reflection is called for before making a large scale decision about one’s life.

    My 2 cents.

  • Thanks for sharing your experience. It must have felt great to be reunited with your family.

  • mason

    “But if a religion allows the seeker to give thoughtful consideration to the pathway being presented, and allows them to join or not, without any pressure or threats, and continues to encourage them to make up their own mind each step of the way,…” And possibly this is what happens on some other planet, but that would be a rarity on planet Earth.

    Almost all humans who are indoctrinated by a religion, has it happen when they are hapless, credulous children whose brains are not even developed in ways of judgement and impulse to begin to deal with the propaganda and cultural-family pressure . Most end up brainwashed and bullied into the religion and unbeknownst to them are suffering from the the Stockholm Syndrome.

    “So perhaps a little more reflection is called for before making a large scale decision about one’s life.” A wonderful idea! https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/e49688ae065659531c1fede74434ea53750f118ee6337c37ee4e7c243f325fe9.jpg Any ideas how the major religions can be made to stop their current brainwashing of children?

  • Linda LaScola

    I was “brainwashed” in Sunday school as much any other Catholic kid, but it wasn’t reinforced much at home – though belief was encouraged in a casual sort of way.

    Obviously individual personality, life events, the particular brand of religion one is brainwashed in and parental involvement all are factors in how religion plays out in a person’s life.

  • Linda LaScola

    In Scott’s case, he willingly went to the ashram as an adult. Then left years later. It doesn’t sound as if there was any coercion to stay.

  • ctcss

    Linda, I realize that on these boards, saying “brainwashed” in connection with religious instruction is simply par for the course. But, quite frankly, it strikes me as bit of a cheap shot. For one thing, it doesn’t always apply. (It certainly didn’t happen in my church.) And it seems to be based on the notion that instruction in religion has a malicious intent towards people, especially towards children.

    Look, the understanding of any new and unfamiliar subject is going to require instruction. Religious knowledge, like most knowledge, is not innate in people. Teaching of it is therefore going to be required. And unless one assumes that parents are the default enemies of their offspring, the likelihood is that the parents consider religious instruction to be a helpful thing, not a maliciously intended thing. So desiring that their children have exposure to it is not intended to torment or torture them.Rather,I would imagine that they would consider it to be a blessing, not a curse.

    That said, It is quite obvious that some approaches to religion (i.e. hell, eternal torture, etc.) can be rather unhelpful. This goes for the basic theological concepts being taught, as well as the manner of instruction of those concepts. Which gets back to the role of the parents. If they haven’t carefully thought through their religious concepts and have come to understand them in a helpful way, then it’s probably not a good idea to involve their children in such instruction until they do. Parents have often moved to different school districts in order to offer their children better school instruction. Religion, being that it is often considered to be rather important in life, should be given the same kind of vetting. Something important to one’s life should never be an afterthought. And if it is not important at all, why bother with it?

    And in regard to teaching (not brainwashing), leading by example is just as important as actual instruction. Children can tell when their parents and other adults are acting hypocritically. And as far as actual instruction goes, those teaching really need to understand their subject so that they can help their students wrestle with difficult questions that are likely to come up. Teaching their students to understand should be the goal, not memorization. They should be helping to shed light on the subject, not just teaching by rote. And questions should always be encouraged, not dismissed.

    The point being, religious instruction, if done thoughtfully and lovingly, does not involve brainwashing. Doing do would be rather counter productive since exploring a religious pathway requires rather deep thought, not zombie-like motivation. And if brainwashing is all that a particular religion offers, it doesn’t really sound like something worth engaging in.

    Teaching and learning and working to understand a subject doesn’t involve brainwashing.

    My 2 cents.

  • Jim Jones

    Yes. But I’m now believing that wishful thinking is a hell of a drug.

  • @scottrstahlecker:disqus Thanks. After leaving the religious commune it took me a few years to actually reintegrate and appreciate my family.

  • @disqus_WpvwLDhiSh:disqus : I took my commitment deadly* serious– that is I trusted that if I gave all to my “god”, spiritual path, or spiritual discipline that it would be right if not in this life than in the next.

    *deadly serious– as if my life, soul, existence depended on my practices and adherences to the teachings and relationships espoused in the scriptures, traditions, and techniques of the religions. If you take them serious and at their “face” value then you can really test them. Otherwise, they are watered down, cherry-picked, and diluted go to church on sunday type of life and sin the rest of the week kind of hypocrisy.

    I was brought up Christian/Catholic. The Bible, New Testament, Jesus (the “guru/savior” of the Christian ideology) explicitly says:

    Go sell all that thou hast and follow me.

    Those who love father, mother, or friends more than me is not worthy of me. (paraphrase)

    “except you be as a little child (without thinking/reasoning about what your Father/Mother/Savior God supposedly says) you shall not enter the kingdom of God”.

    My experiences may sound extreme but that’s because I assumed the Bible, the God, and the Truth behind them were something I could prove to myself was real, would come true for me. For myself, I proved them to be false and luckily had the ability to leave the religious commune and my family accepted me back.

  • Linda LaScola

    I’m sure my parents didn’t mean to brainwash me — just to continue the family tradition. But the Church brainwashed every child whose parents brought them to it. Your idea of the way things should be is nice and may apply to some denominations, but not all, and certainly not Catholicism.