My SYDA Story
I first became involved with SY in 1987 after moving in to a devotee’ s apartment in Boston. I had no idea about SY; I really disliked most things Indian. I was working at a local spiritual bookstore, near the Boston Ashram. Many people asked me if I was from the Ashram, but I politely told them I had no idea what they were talking about. I thought it was really strange.
I was a seeker. A life long, intuitive, I had sought to put my talents into some kind of context. My psychic ability scared me. I had been doing a lot of study on my own, but I really wanted a teacher. And, I wanted to feel safe. My personal life was a mess. I wasn’t speaking to my Mother over a family issue involving money that I never thought could be resolved. I was fed up with relationships. Work was not satisfying. In fact, I had gotten fired for not sleeping with my boss, and I felt angry and betrayed. I was in a lot of pain and I basically wanted god to “fix” me. I was looking for a BIG fix.
You might say I was a prime candidate for SY manipulation. I was really naïve, open, and at my wits end. Ready to try anything, including an Indian ashram! My roommate enthusiastically took me to satsang at the Boston Ashram. I was really surprised. I actually liked it. The chanting put me into this bliss-like state. It felt so great. It was incredible. I didn’t understand much of it, but I couldn’t ignore how I felt afterwards.
I pretty much threw myself into the Boston Ashram, continuing to go to satsang, doing seva and learning the SY culture. I really loved it. I felt a part of something. I could even reject my own troubled family further, as I had a new family, a new language, a shared understanding of something deeper. I belonged. I didn’t feel weird speaking of my psychic experiences; I even got to give talks about them.
I sort of became a little SY star. Some swami’s came to an intensive where I gave an experience talk. Later I was told that I had been recommended to live on staff in South Fallsburg. I was so excited. Now I could be with people who really cared about me.
Two months later, in the spring of 1989, I sold everything and moved to Fallsburg. My life had fallen apart anyway. I lost my art studio, my freelance business was a shambles, I couldn’t afford to pay my rent, I was living with my parents, I was temping. And the experiences kept coming. I was ready for a new adventure – even though I thought Fallsburg was a strange place. I couldn’t figure out why everyone chased Gurumayi all around the place.
That first summer was intense. I arrived as the Shakti Mandap was being built. Mud and rain, moving rocks, full days, full exhaustion. Up before dawn to chant everyday. I settled into seva in the Sewing Room easily. I loved it there. It was quiet, far from the hub-bub at Sadhana Katir. I got to do special projects, sew swami clothes, do silk painting, upholster furniture, fix GM’s many chairs – you name it. It was great.
Then it all changed suddenly. A letter I had written to GM about my mom, the money/inheritance, must have come to their attention. Looking back, I think that they thought it was a LOT of money. Cause out of the blue GM told me one night that I needed to be in Arts & Pubs, and right then and there I was whisked into a high level meeting with all the VIP’s and big wigs by Inese Kaufmann. I was in total shock. I had never wanted to do Graphic Design again!! I hated politics. Yet here I was, at Guru’s command, thrust into the limelight. I was incredibly uncomfortable and apprehensive about this.
My Sewing Room seva supervisor and Inese began to haggle with each other and George about where I would end up. The Art and Pub’s Department won. I then found out that I was on tour staff (I didn’t even know this) and that GM was considering who would go with her to India, and who would stay behind and run Darshan Magazine and the rest of the department from Fallsburg. I ended up staying in Fallsburg, put in charge of the Art Department.
So, here I was, being flattered beyond belief, being treated as if I were special, thrust into an intense political, and highly visible position. And I was miserable. My seva supervisor was an entirely intense person who had a lot of power and was mean and controlling, mostly horrible. This was a cutthroat department, doing intense, pressure filled work. And I grew to hate it. It never occurred to me that I could have a say in the matter. That I could say what I was thinking, what I wanted. Guru as Supreme Being was making all the decisions, and I thought that I was supposed to do exactly what she said, or be a bad, unenlightened yogi. I wanted to be the good girl and please the guru. I believed in her, bought the program hook, line and sinker.
I started seeing incongruence from the beginning. I couldn’t miss them being in the position I was in. I worked on Darshan Magazine, had access to all of the archives of SY. We planned how we wanted people to think about SY…the stories, experiences, history, talks, teachings. All of it. And it was my job to put it all together with a brand new contemporary look. Make it connect with a larger base of people. Be more modern. It was exciting, and fun to be involved in creating in this way. I had more freedom than I even had had in other jobs. Yet, the pressure to conform, to be like everybody else, to believe every bit of information really bothered me. I really had a hard time with the need to cut Gurumayi’s brother out of every photo in the photo department. I couldn’t understand why that was so offensive. He is a part of SY’s history, I thought. Kind of paranoid behavior, but what did I know? I tucked these thoughts away. I mean here I was, in the photo department with every picture of GM imaginable. They trusted me.
I couldn’t do the loads of work I needed to do listening to chants. They made me sleepy and stupid. My office became rock heaven. Bruce Springsteen and the Dire Straits kept me going, with an occasional more soothing folk tune by Shawn Colvin thrown in. This pissed off my seva supervisor, and a few others too. I ignored them, cause I just wanted to get the work done. My “attitude” made my seva supervisor want to control me more, but some how I was under the protection of George Afif, my uber-boss, who loved all my ideas. What I think was really going on is that he loved the way I pissed my seva supervisor off, she was a trustee and no one else stood up to her. Also, at that point I was actually doing the practices and meditating and was tuned in to the energy. I had a sort bond with both GM and George cause I understood what they wanted. But what I couldn’t understand was what the hell a person like my seva super was doing there, and why GM let her make my life so hard. I started to write to GM about the unnecessary battles that kept brewing.
Then one day my seva supervisor took me into her office and had me read a story from a GM compilation about Kabir. It was about his devotees and obedience. She told me that I needed to obey her completely, that I needed to treat her as if she were GM. That was the last straw for me. I asked GM to transfer me to another department. George happened to intercept that letter. He settled it by reaming my seva supervisor about it in a trustees meeting, which was being held in the cafeteria, which I happened to be in at the time. My life became a living hell after that.
I got “lent” to the music department for the summer. It was the summer GM stayed away in India, 1991. What a relief! The brief respite gave me a chance to relax and get back to why I was there to begin with. I had an awesome time. I began to love my SY life again.
Unfortunately, the political intrigue continued. I was asked many times to do things that totally went against my principles…yet I was being so manipulated and was still so new to the culture that I had a hard time unraveling that piece. When you are having amazing experiences, visions, heart openings, it’s hard to question anything. You just want to roll with the bliss. You do not see the shadow at all.
One afternoon I was invited to take part in a special mission. I wasn’t told anything more, just to meet at a specific time and place. It turned out that we were going to protest an intensive that GM’s brother, Nityananda, was giving near Ellenville, NY. I had no idea what I was in for. I did not know the complete history about Nit, just that he wasn’t a guru anymore. We stood outside the house, harassing everyone who came in by holding signs, shouting at them, and when Nit showed up…throwing rocks at him. It was really crazy. I was torn. Part of me was appalled at what I had gotten myself into… what the hell was I doing there? The other part of me felt flattered at being in the inner circle. I was really disconnected.
I was asked several times to spy on devotees, just not outright. It sort of went over my head. GM asked me to do something that would go against the grain of most of the members of the crew, who were hard at work on a LOT of major renovation. I was to report back to her about how people reacted to what she asked me to do. I was to go to every construction site and give her detailed descriptions of what people did and said. This went on for a couple of days…until she saw that I was not on board with being an informant. She sent the head of Personnel to “help” me. Had a few private darshans with me. Grooming me to do her dirty work. But once she saw that I didn’t take to this naturally and wasn’t picking up on the clues, I was dropped like a hot potato.
As I am a natural leader and was really good at running the music department, I somehow acquired stature and power in the Ashram. Because I was co-head of the department, I had a say in deciding who the lead chanters and musicians were, and sat them in the front row. This mattered little during the time that GM was gone, even though celebrities and VIPs visited and wanted to sit in the front, it really wasn’t a bit deal. This all changed when GM returned to Fallsburg. I don’t think GM liked the fact that my co-head and I had acquired the respect and cooperation of so many people while she was gone (It takes up to 80 musicians + to run all the music programs in the summer). Things ran too smoothly, people were too happy. Although the musicians created beautiful, harmonious music, full of love and soul, they were not the young pretty things GM wanted in the front. Nor were they rich or famous.
Another seva supervisor got brought in, and I got relegated to the fringes of the department. This was good in some ways, but personally devastating to be demoted. I began to see how unhappy I was there. I had many friends, I loved the life, but it was a zoo in the summer and really unbearable. I took to just getting through the summer and getting back to meditating and the practices. I stopped trying to be perfect and started to take care of myself.
Than came the Seva Course. The 4 Night Seva Course. I was ordered to attend. I was going to sign up anyway, so being ordered meant I didn’t have to spend my small allowance on a course. But being ordered sounded ominous. I had no idea!!
The first night I was asked to stand and then the grilling began. It was my A & P supervisor’s time for payback!!! It was ridiculous, because by that time, everyone knew what a fake she was. I was asked about my “attitude.” At first I was confused, I worked my butt off for the place, and probably was a bit depressed, but I always had a good attitude!! That is not what they were talking about though. When I didn’t “fess up” immediately, the grilling began. First with that seva supervisor. She went on and on about how I didn’t obey her, about how bad I was. Pretty humiliating. Like a trial... almost. Then back to me, did I have a bad attitude? I was mortified and paralyzed. I didn’t know what to say. Than another seva supervisor was called who defended me. They got rid of her quick!! Then they called on the ashram manager, who I knew had a good opinion of me, cause I had saved his butt on several occasions. He couldn’t figure out what they were going on about and started to give a description of all the good things I had done, and how responsible I was. They made him sit down.
Then Namdev Hayes, who was the interrogator, set out to prove how bad I was. He wore a headset that was fed from the booth in back, which I heard later that George was in. He proceeded to tell everyone there about the problems with my family, about all kinds of private things that were in my letters to GM. He talked about my skin condition, a kind of acne like skin allergy that I had struggled with for many years and was very painful for me to deal with. When he did this Lulu (the singer) nearly passed out in from of me!! Everyone around me was shocked and mortified. Then I was let go. They continued on for the next two nights, and then finally kicked me out of the course on the 4th night. I was in such shock. Mostly about how others reacted to this. People either deified me, or completely shunned me. Old times treated me like a celebrity. It was completely surreal. I remember one celebrity wanting to drive me around in her car. I became pretty famous that night!! How strange. I liked the attention, but I was in complete denial and stuffed all my feelings about what had happened. Just to save face. Or maybe to just cope. Another way to disconnect.
After that my life there unraveled. After 2 weeks I was asked to leave South Fallsburg, to go out and work. Whatever the hell that meant. I had no money, no job, and no place to stay. This is how they treated people who they worked to death?? In retrospect, it was the best thing that happened to me. Absolutely. It rocked me out of my denial about what SY was all about. I moved to NY, rented a devotee’s apartment, and tried to put the pieces back together. It was rough, but I had help from some great people. I started to regain my sanity. I got myself into therapy with an x-SY devotee, cause I knew he would understand what I was going through. But I was still attending the NY ashram, doing the Guru Gita with the Soho center and doing seva. I thought this living in NY was a temporary thing; I’d be back at the ashram in no time.
Therapy started to clear the cobwebs from my eyes. The contradictions I was grappling with between these great experiences, and a guru that was full of nasty energy began to crystallize beyond my “it must be my karma” and “mysterious ways of the guru” defenses. I saw the problems with SY. I began to question everything about SY. As it turned out, a bunch of my friends had been sent out or had left voluntarily as well, people with high level sevas and access to lots of “hush-hush” info. We began to talk to each other. My therapist and I decided to start a support group where we all began to tell our stories to each other. This was something that went against SY code, where everything was secret. As we pieced together the info, we began to see a story of incredible deceit, manipulation and greed that was the under pinning of SY. The “incredible” experiences and blissed out states were a distraction from seeing what was really going on up there.
I remember how I felt when first I started telling people that I was leaving SY. It was the same day the New Yorker Article came out. That same night I received a phone call from a big wig in South Fallsburg, who was working with the swami’s. He began to instruct me about what to do about this New Yorker article. I told him that I didn’t give a hoot, as I was not going to perpetuate any more lies about SYDA any more. He started threatening me about talking and I hung up. It was very unsettling. I changed my phone number and unlisted it. I heard from my brother who had moved to CT, that he had received strange phone calls from the Ashram looking for me. He didn’t give out my number. That affected me in a big way. I was very careful what I said back then.
Today I liken what happened there to the idea of mass hypnosis. My western ignorance of Eastern religion, and my eagerness to find a cure for my problems, caused me to accept things I never would have from any other source. The “proof” was supposed to be the experiences, the bliss. That was supposed to convince me that it was all right. Because I am not a complete addict by nature, the effects of this wore off pretty easily with time. As I came to see from studying other paths, especially Vedanta Buddhism, the bells and whistles are just that. Noise. Real sadhana is just showing up in my life and trying to remain present. I do not have to retreat from life to find God, to find myself. Although I love the idea of a yearly retreat, and have done that for the past 2 years, a one-day workshop works fine too! 10 years after leaving SY, I finally regained my meditation practice. I have railed at God/spirit/nature and grieved and mourned the loss of what I thought I had in SY. I now see that the biggest thing I had was a misconception. What I thought SY was, and what it actually is are divergently different. My goodness could not stand next to the immense denied shadow world that SY generated. And I have had to go really deep inside and grasp my own shadow, learn about it and bring it into my life as a full partner with the good. And keep stumbling ahead with the delightful detours and brief nastiness that walking in the world brings me.
I am deeply grateful to Gurumayi and SY for giving me this experience. I think I truly learned more by leaving SY then I even would have had I stayed. I would have never learned so much about my self, would not have questioned the world in the way I have, nor would I have had to look at the shadow with so much scrutiny. I have learned about things I never dreamed I would encounter. And I am now self protective and have boundaries that are healthy and natural, both inner and outer. I became an interfaith minister, where I feel I learned to heal and regain my connection to god and my spiritual purpose. And I am enjoying the journey. I have married, have 2 great children and have healed much of my relationship to my family of origin. Although, that is a lifelong, and ongoing process. I am also immensely grateful to all the people who left SY when I did and continue to leave, who share their stories on LSY and who started the list serve. I applaud their great courage and their resilience and determination to heal. Thanks you all, for you inspire me and inform me and keep me sane.
Cathy Cahill Towle