Pain and Joy of Going Home

Pain and Joy of Going Home February 10, 2020

Editor’s Note:  What a delight it is when people tell you how they have benefited by something you’ve written!  I know the feeling well after hearing from so many current and former clergy after the research with non-believing clergy that my colleague, Daniel Dennett and I conducted.  And The Clergy Project! How wonderful that these good people now have a venue to talk openly with each other about their shift from faith to reason. Happily, “Scott” who wrote the most recent blog post published here, had the same experience, which is recounted below.  /Linda LaScola, Editor

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By “Scott”

A young monk, who ignored the scare tactics used to keep him inside an ashram, describes the pain and joy of going back home.

 [Below is a message received from a former Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) monk.  He asked to remain anonymous for personal reasons.  I have obtained his permission to use his story in this post.  While this former monk and I did not know each other inside the SRF ashram – he left a decade or more before my entry into the ashram – we recently had a pleasant in-person meeting sometime after he first contacted me through this SkepticMeditations website.]

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Your recent post, Abandoning Family for a Guru, resonated deeply with me.

When I entered the SRF Encinitas Ashram, I did not tell my parents until after I was already inside. I’m sure not telling my parents before entering the ashram hurt them.

My dad recently sent me a large folder of letters I had mailed to him around the time I entered the ashram. I should go through those letters and try to find the letter where I informed my parents I had joined a Hindu-inspired monastic order in Encinitas. (My parents raised me in a mainstream Christian church).

Eventually my parents came to visit me at the ashram. Our meeting was a bit heart wrenching. The feelings could probably not be duplicated unless we were visiting family in prison.

I was also allowed, was given permission by the monastic superiors, to occasionally visit my parents at home. At the end of those visits, a part of me never wanted to return to the ashram.

A number of years ago, one of my sisters took all my dad’s slide collection–decades of family photos–and had them converted into CD’s. When I reviewed the family photos, I was shocked by my absence from them. It wasn’t just during the years when I was in the ashram. Prior to that, when I was age seventeen, I moved to London and soon after moved to Hawaii. But all those holiday celebrations when the family gathered, so often I was not present. Missing.

Today, both my parents are 92 years of age. We have a close relationship. I just finished drafting a Wikipedia page about my dad, an early pioneer of computers. My three younger sisters and I somehow all survived to be over age 60. Today, I cherish them all, and we talk frequently on Skype.

The monastic bonds of love were not as strong. In the ashram there was talk of divine “fellowship”. Indeed I felt a kind of brotherhood with my fellow monks while fighting spiritual battles together in the trenches. The brotherly love, though, was often laced with fear.

The SRF monastic community often used scare tactics to get monks to stay inside the ashram. We were indoctrinated that life outside the ashram, out in the world, was terrible, and that when you leave

“You grab the tail of the cat, you get the whole cat.”

Meaning that if you choose to leave the ashram, you get caught in the claws of a supposedly evil and dangerous world outside the cloister.

I love cats, and so ultimately the scare tactics didn’t work. I eventually left the SRF Monastic Order and found that life outside was wonderful and fulfilling.

Life after leaving the ashram was not always easy for me. I confess I had to do some hard work on myself to get to where I am today. (But I won’t discuss those details now, as it’s a bit too personal).

Several years after leaving the ashram, I met the woman of my dreams. We recently celebrated our 30-year wedding anniversary. We have love everyday in our home.

We have a wonderful daughter who often visits us. She brings joy with her and is the love of our lives. In six months she finishes a Ph.D. program, with a doctorate in statistical genetics. I’m one proud dad.

Last night, my wife and I attended a holiday party and everyone talked of family. I left the party feeling joy. (I don’t drink, so that wasn’t the reason). Today we shared our fairly lame party pictures on Facebook; we tagged each other, and enjoyed our shared memories.

I can’t remember ever feeling that good during my ashram days during or after gatherings in the monastic community. The monks would meet and then just go back to their solitary rooms and meditate.

Every morning I walk for an hour as the sun comes up and I am filled with gratitude. I love living in the moment, the life I’ve chosen, and have been given.

My wish is that monks who live inside an ashram, who wonder what it’s like on the outside after leaving, that they could know the love and joy that is possible in this world.

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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 Von.grzanka – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9437797

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  • You wrote: “My wish is that monks who live inside an ashram, who wonder what it’s like on the outside after leaving, that they could know the love and joy that is possible in this world.” Your wish is shared by many who now dedicate their lives to helping others escape their own abusive religions or philosophies.

    I’ve started meditation about 8 years ago after I’d read Sam Harris’ book Waking Up. It’s been one of the best things I’ve done for myself. But I learned about meditation long after escaping religion, and I was introduced to it by a notable skeptic. You obviously know the downsides of meditation, but I was wondering if you had a few thoughts to share about the benefits of meditation?

  • See Noevo

    I think atheists tend to be cat people, and Christians tend to be dog people.

    Just a hypothesis.

  • <a href=”#”>@scottrstahlecker:disqus : Thanks for reading my reposted article and your comments. Firstly, the post above is actually not my personal story but the story from another monk whom I know personally who wrote this story for me to post anonymously on my website, Skeptic Mediations.

    I’m happy for you if you find meditation practice helpful. There’s many, many teachers, publications, and websites touting the benefits of meditation. I don’t deny meditation may have many benefits. Benefits a plenty are also available through exercise, sleep, sex, reading, music, hiking, bird watching and virtually a million practices or disciplines that a person may find relaxing, restful, or totally engrossing.

    The focus in my articles has been on the downsides meditation practices or the psychologically-manipulative tactics embedded in the worldviews/teachings of meditation peddlers.

    I’ve read Waking Up and am familiar with Harris’s claims. And feel some alignment with Harris’s project in Waking Up.

    However, I’d hardly refer to Harris as a “skeptic” of meditation or psychedelics. Rather Harris is an “authoritative” peddler of meditation who also stands to gain from the financial benefits from book sales and software/application subscriptions touting the benefits of meditation, which again I don’t deny meditation has benefits, but so does tennis, chess, or basketweaving. Harris is cashing in by the popularization of meditation.

    A cogent critique of Harris’s Waking Up project and the moral failings of his meditation teachers can be found via the link below: Stripping the Gurus: Sam Harris and Spirituality without Religion by Geoffrey Falk. http://www.strippingthegurus.com/ebook/books/Geoffrey%20D.%20Falk%20-%20Sam%20Harris%20and%20Spirituality%20Without%20Religion.pdf

    Hope that helps. Best.

  • Thanks for the reply. After reading Harris’ book I went through a dozen more by other authoritarians and other less influential. For those of us who escape from religion or other philosophies I think we tend to have a good BS detector. It was helpful in separating the good from the bad with meditation and all its various forms of thought. I somewhat disagree with you though in that I’ve tried basketweaving and meditation is far more beneficial. 🙂