|The following is one segment of an article entitled "Leaving the
Ashram" by Jean Callahan from Common Boundary July/August 1992
issue. Common Boundary received some letters from siddha yoga people and published four of
them. following the segment on "Nancy Baker" is a reply from her to these
"Letters to the Editor" ( from Common Boundary November/December 1992- Letters
to the Editor).
The spiritual by-pass
Many of those who spent their twenties and thirties seeking spiritual wisdom find themselves, in their forties, just as intent on acquiring psychological perspective. Whereas before they may have dismissed childhood traumas and unconscious complexes as belonging to the "lower realms," as "illusions" of the material world, now having been caught by those complexes, they have newfound respect for him.
For 18 years, Nancy Baker was a devoted follower of Baba Muktananda and his successor, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda. After years of esoteric study and devoted service to her gurus in both India and the United States, she became one of a very few women to be ordained as swamis in the Siddha Yoga tradition.
Siddha Yoga doctrine holds that enlightenment comes only through the grace of the guru, and Baker believed that. (Nancy Baker is a pseudonym; fearing reprisal from the group, she asked that her real name not be used.) For a long time, the power of the group meditations, the melancholy beauty of the chanting and the pearls of wisdom the guru shared, were more than enough to sustain her spiritual growth. But after a time, she began to doubt. Few of the people around her seemed to be approaching enlightenment. Many in the guru's inner circle spent most of their time gossiping, backbiting and jockeying for position, Baker says. Many people who'd been in Siddha Yoga for years neither meditated nor maintained other spiritual practices the group promoted. Instead, they offered gifts and otherwise sought to please the guru. "There were lots of people who'd grown up in dysfunctional families, adult children of alcoholics and incest victims. I don't mean to criticize these people," Baker says now, "but some of them were just looking to the guru to reparent them."
Life on the ashram was full of hard work, too. "you go there for spiritual development," she recalls, "and you're drawn off into seva (selfless labor)." Physically run down by 18-hour days of hard physical labor, Baker developed an amoebic infection. The ensuing physical exhaustion mirrored her spiritual malaise. "I loved Gurumayi and I was devoted to her," Baker says, "but I was overworked, sick and not sure whether I had any feelings left." The rapport she had once enjoyed with the guru was slipping away. She felt that other devotees were eavesdropping on her and reporting her expressions of doubt back to the guru.
The Siddha Yoga community is generally respected for the way it knits together psychological and spiritual threads. Among those who attend retreats at the upstate New York ashram are many psychotherapists. But when Baker was in emotional turmoil, wondering whether ashram life continued to be right for her, she says she was discouraged from seeking psychotherapy. "That was my ego talking, they'd tell me. Gurumayi didn't exactly forbid me to do therapy, but she had her ways of letting you know she didn't approve. The spiritual practices were supposed to be all you needed to grow. Anything else was the ego."
When Baker was assigned to tour the country promoting the development of New Siddha centers, her eyes opened wider. "Here were people who were actually integrating yoga into their lives, balancing the spiritual practices with jobs and families. The people I knew on the ashram weren't doing that." The sight activated a deep yearning in Baker that she had formerly repressed-a yearning for a life that was balanced, that was her own to do with what she pleased. Soon thereafter, she left the ashram.
In the transition to life after Gurumayi, Baker's main lifeline has been psychotherapy. In her sessions, she is discovering things about her family of origin that she believes kept her too long at the ashram. The daughter of two working parents who were not just physically but emotionally absent, she says, "I felt closer to the maid than to them." The time at the ashram, she now realizes, was a way of getting some of the familial closeness and parenting she missed. She even felt at home with the "crazy wisdom" techniques her gurus used humiliating or shaming students to break their "egos"- because her father had been verbally abusive.
These realizations have not been comfortable; in the two years since she left the ashram, Baker says she has experienced waves of grief. Although she still believes she was spiritually transformed by Siddha Yoga, some of her bedrock psychological issues had not budged since she joined the ashram nearly two decades ago. "I jumped into the spiritual before resolving 'lower" issues," she says now. "it's as though all this emotional energy had been frozen, keeping patterns in place. But now it's melting."
Having learned for herself how crucial this psychological work can be, Baker is now, at the age of 44, pursuing a graduate degree in psychology at a mid-western university. She intends to become a therapist.
"Nancy Baker" replies:
It is very curious that all the letters Common Boundary received from Siddha Yoga ashram attempted to discredit me personally rather than honestly look at the issues I presented. This type of shaming is a common practice in this group. The longer I stayed in this environment and the closer I came to the "inner circle," the more I saw how subtly repressive it was. If you had feelings of love and devotion and agreed with everything, life was wonderful. If you didn't agree with the way things were handled, you might be told you had no devotion, or favor would be withheld in some other way.
People notice what happens to the person who speaks out. Rather than discuss problems openly, people are thus encouraged to keep them to themselves so that they don't "poison others' sadhana [spiritual discipline]." This attitude denies problems and socially isolates people.
In an open system it is okay to speak directly and even critically about what is happening. Feedback is welcomed. It is safe to say "I don't like this" or "this makes me feel uncomfortable." In this spiritual system those things were not allowed.
Also, keep in mind that there are different rules depending on one's proximity to the spiritual teacher and one's position in the ashram. For example, while many people are referred for therapy by Gurumayi, it is not considered appropriate for others. Most people who come for an evening program, a weekend intensive or even an extended stay do not have an opportunity to see the shadow side of the group. It is well known among the old-timers that there are spies within the group who regularly report back to the guru. After a while you don't know who you can trust, so you don't trust anyone. This is not a sign of health.
It seems that a group with such magnificent teachings would do justice to itself to practice what it preaches.