I joined a cult in my 30’s. My reason for joining was to change the way I thought.
Of course, at the time, I didn’t know it was a cult. I was entering a spiritual school. The teacher would show us how to master our limited thinking. My concept of reality was, I knew, limited, but the biggest reason for attending the school was to free myself. I was riddled with fear. I was expecting to learn how to overcome my fears and gain the sense of freedom I yearned for in myself.
The teacher also promised us the ability to read minds, levitate, become invisible, teleport our bodies from one place to another, as well as heal the sick, and yourself. He said that if we mastered our humanness, we’d have the ability to reverse aging, and achieve “eternal youth.” The pinnacle of all our years of training ‒ immortality. We would “conquer death.”
It’s not easy to explain, even to myself, why I lasted sixteen years. They were arduous years, involving long hours of meditation, often outdoors, in wind, rain, heat, and snow. We spent weeks, sometimes a month, in retreats designed to break down our resistance so that our “greater mind” could take over. During sense deprivation, we would lift the frequency of our bodies to a more refined state. In this state we would be able to heal ourselves, heal the sick, walk through walls, and eventually, after more and more mastery of our human limitations, achieve Greatness.
Who would believe such outrageous promises? I and thousands more educated professionals. Why not, when the world was rife with disease and war, with prejudice and oppression, with failed marriages and aging bodies, with poverty and fear?
I attended my first audience with the teacher after a six-year relationship with my boyfriend ended. I had thought it would last forever. Devasted and unable to rise above the crushing reality, I was jolted awake when the teacher said, “Do you think that what is real is only what you can see and touch? You are greater than your bodies.” My body was in pain and torment. I’d been crying for months, not able to get past my desperation of being alone. Here was an answer to my torment. Master my weaknesses and become more than my genetics, and not be dependent on a man. My greatest weakness was fear – fear of being alone, fear of failure, fear of growing old, fear of not being good enough.
For me to be an “Initiate of the Great Work,” I felt it was necessary to sublimate my years as a theatre professional in order to be, as our teacher demanded, “Becoming nothing so you can be all things.” During my years in the teachings, I worked to erase my past, clean the slate, and become great.
This is not a story about the cult. To attempt to tell you what we did in the school would be too complicated, and mostly unbelievable. This is a story of believing something so deeply that I forgot myself.
Even though I followed the teachings daily, without question, I battled with the persistent belief that I lacked what it took to be a master. After 16 long and painful years, I had not been able to heal my decaying teeth, let alone levitate off my mat. In fact, I later realized, I’d actually paid little attention to my own wellbeing. All those years of deep devotion never altered the place in me that felt I wasn’t good enough. I had to work harder, meditate longer, deprive myself more. And more. And more.
One of the directives in the school was to practice the ability to manifest. Because all during those years I lived in poverty, giving everything I earned in order to pay for the continual workshops and retreats, my main focus for manifestation was abundance. To be free of debt. To even be wealthy. I focused on that thought for years. And yet during all those years I lived in a trailer with no running water or electricity, used an outhouse, and basically survived on Top Ramen and canned soup. I didn’t want to look closely at this situation because it all came down to the fact that I was a failure in the great work. I could not conquer my limited belief that I was poor, which I believed was why I was poor. This convoluted thinking kept me in a downward spiral.
How did I become free of these harmful beliefs? How did I deprogram my brain that had been brainwashed? How did I come to the understanding that I’d been in a cult for the last 16 years, even though I’d sincerely and ardently believed I was becoming great?
I fell in love.
Patterns of brain waves continually change. Normally, when awake, we are in a beta pattern which is the fastest of brain waves and a high frequency of 12 Hz to 40 Hz (Hertz being a unit of frequency). In this frequency range, we are solving problems and remembering. If there is too much beta we are stressed. Too little beta we can be depressed. Drink more coffee and you can increase the beta waves. The next frequency band, alpha at 8 Hz to 12 Hz, hovers somewhere between conscious thinking and the subconscious mind. This brain pattern is a feeling of deep relaxation, which alcohol, marijuana, and antidepressants can be used for. But too much alpha state can make it hard to focus and lends itself to daydreaming. Theta brain waves occur in that twilight state between those moments being awake and sleeping, or vice versa; 4 Hz to 8 Hz. This is our creative, intuitive state – almost semi-hypnotic; dreamlike. The slowest brain waves, delta, are found most often in infants and young children. As we age, we produce less delta even during deep sleep. Delta is responsible for our unconscious bodily functions like digestion and regulating heartbeat. At 0Hz to 4Hz, we are in the deepest level of relaxation and restorative healing, but usually not conscious.
During my years in the spiritual school, I now believe my brain was functioning much of the time in Theta – semi-hypnotic. Because we often meditated wearing blindfolds and earplugs, I was hovering in a state of mind where I could be programmed. Coming out of these long meditations was usually when the teacher taught us. Because the teachings reinforced images of becoming a Master and conquering our limitations, my neurological network formed pathways of these beliefs, over and over again. These neuropathways became well-traveled and solidified through the years. And right alongside those pathways, were the other well-traveled and solidified networks that I wasn’t doing enough. I didn’t have what it takes to be one of the “radical few.”
To climb out of the spiraling darkness of my belief that I would never reach this exalted state, I became exalted by falling in love. My new love had been in the school even longer than I, for 20 years. He had believed as I did that we were destined for greatness. The difference between T and I, is he didn’t follow the teachings religiously like I did. If we were supposed to stay outside all night in deep focus while it was raining, he stayed in his tent and focused. If we were awakened at 4 am to go sit in the snow, not moving, he’d wander off into the woods, giving his imagination free reign.
When he told me how he’d done these things, following his own guidance, I was flabbergasted. I had followed to the letter everything our teacher told us to do, and T did not. He had remained through it all his own person. Yet, he too deeply believed that there was more to life than making money and being a success in worldly affairs. T wanted galactic travel.
It took us less than three months to walk away from it all. During that time, we mostly stayed in bed making love, and talking. We talked through everything – what we did, how we’d done it, and most of all, why. Our whys were the same. We wanted to be free of prejudice, frailty, and limited thoughts. Think like a genius. We wanted to create a better world. Live free of pain and anxiety. In the end, we realized we’d been programmed. Like habits, the brain had fired a specific way for so long, neurological pathways were set. We’d locked our thinking into believing in the concept that we could have unlimited spiritual power. And I was locked into believing that I wasn’t doing enough to get there.
Being ecstatically in love, cooking delicious meals, reading great books for the first time in years, dancing naked, playing chess by candlelight, and having more and more sex helped to dissolve these frozen networks in my brian. Like the chrysalis in a cocoon, my skinny and diminished caterpillar was dissolving, and I was growing wings.
Instead of practicing to levitate every day, I was flying high, wrapped around my new love’s body, drifting in a world of musk and sweat, immersed in the senses. Instead of sitting cross-legged without moving for hours being the perfect student, I lay in bed taking deep draughts of his neck, feeling his legs, his buttocks, his sex pressed against mine, mapping his body instead of my dream of fabulous wealth and conquering death.
Lying in bed after making love and talking through our years in the school, I could literally feel my brain ungluing. It was a physical sensation. Those frozen highways were unthawing and I would lie stunned, not moving, marveling at the new vistas that opened up before me. I had been brainwashed! Instead of trying to be great, I could be and do anything I wanted. If I wanted to watch American Idol, read novels, even write again, there was only me to refer to. The voice in my head, my teacher’s, was dissolving. There was nothing to become because I was everything – a human being that was sensual and exciting and had a future glistening with whatever I wanted.
Instead of feeling guilty for not spending more hours meditating, I spent hours reading to T in bed. I read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” out loud, using Southern accents. Because I’d trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and sat for hours in a phonetics booth, I was good at accents. We cried when Scout saw through Boo Radley’s eyes. We discussed how it was possible that Scout had become Boo. Did Harper Lee meditate for hours to be able to write this? Did Nabokov meditate for weeks in the snow to write “Ada?” Did Beethoven give up sex for decades? Did Einstein think he was one of the chosen few? Now I was free to ask these questions.
In the school, I never questioned the teacher’s declarations and promises but I constantly questioned myself, tearing myself down because no matter how long I practiced the disciplines, I was never doing enough. Why couldn’t I heal my decaying teeth? Why couldn’t I heal my Mom’s knee so she didn’t have to have a knee replacement? Where was next month’s rent for the delipidated trailer I shivered in? Where was my bathroom with running water? Where were all these things? They were not part of my life because I was always lacking.
When I fell in love and stayed in that ecstatic state for months, I felt as if I was everything. I became everything through love. I was young and beautiful again. I was smart and funny. I was a great cook and an amazing writer. I was flexible and strong and powerful. I was already great. I was happy for the first time in 16 years. And to my surprise and delight, effortless manifesting began to happen.
By surrendering deeply to loving and receiving love, I was able to face my fears. The fear of being abandoned. Of giving away my power to a man. Of growing old. Of dying. Through love, I lived nakedly and fully, without defense, and found that my fears dissolved. He could walk away next week, next month, next year, but I had myself. I always had myself.
I’d given away my power to a belief. Someone else’s belief that had not originated in myself. If I believed something, so completely, that came from a mind that was not mine, I was doomed to failure. Love is not a belief. It is an organic compound that was alchemizing my cells. Through love, I stopped judging every thought I had, seeing if it was lofty enough. I stopped judging my every action to see if it was what a Master would do. I stopped judging others for not doing the important work. I became kind. My teacher’s voice was no longer in my head, telling me what to do, how to do it, and berating me for not doing enough. For berating humanity for being ignorant.
For years after I quit, I would have vivid dreams that I was still in the school. In these dreams, I would be at the school and all would be chaos. I wasn’t able to locate my seat to mediate amidst teeming crowds. I was exhausted and couldn’t find my tent where I slept. The teacher would look at me in the dream and I would confront him, which I never did while attending the school. All those years were so embedded in my brain that even though I no longer believed, I would dream I was there, doing the “Great Work.” In deep confusion. The frozen neurological network in my brain was unraveling. When I woke, I was deeply relieved. I had escaped.
My dreams gradually changed over the years. I dreamt of braiding a turquoise silk parachute with gold thread. After the braiding was complete, I ran down a sweeping green hill until the parachute billowed out behind me, lifting me into the sky. I glided effortlessly. When I woke, T was gliding his foot along my calf. I didn’t remember the dream until later that day when I was braiding my hair. These dreams showed me that even deep in my subconscious mind I was now free.
Now, instead of reseeding the rainforest in my mind for months on end, I climb on the roof to clean our solar panels. Instead of wearing a black cape, blindfolds, and earplugs to block out light and noise, I listen to Tori Amos and Led Zeppelin, full volume, dancing around the house in my underwear.
Years after quitting, I continue to wake up excited for the day. Instead of dreading the long hours of disciplines, I wake up to kiss his swollen lids, make hot coffee, wash the dishes with running water, play on the floor with the cat, work on the craft of writing, read Madame Bovary. This can be what life is about. If it’s not to conquer death, then I’ll try living for love.
Being in love is teaching me far more than the Royal Academy and the cult combined. I am a young ingenue in his arms even though I’m past menopause now. I can travel to the top of K2 through photographs, or wander through the desert in Paul Bowles’ stories. I can lie on my back and drink the stars. Travel to the Andromeda Galaxy with my mind. I don’t need to physically do it. My imagination is unlocked. I follow my own desires.
These days are real. Days of touching what is in front of me. Smelling the salt air, hearing the wind in the beech trees. Walking in the sand barefoot. Kissing his lips. All the kisses and whispers and glissades down my body, how could I not be happy? Our love makes other people happy too, like the angry man in the supermarket that grew a smile on his face because he saw us kissing in the produce aisle. I may not be able to solve all his problems but I can help him to smile. Walking through the forest, I breathe in the sweet smell of pine and I swell with gratitude that I woke up.
I take nothing for granted because I had given up everything and now I have it all. I have myself. I also have my past back that I had so arduously tried to get rid of. I have a rich background of travel and theatre and cities and awards, being the dancer my mother always dreamed of being, and all my bitter failures and joyful success. I have a family that I gave up for 16 years. I have friends that never deserted me even though I deserted them. These dear people were there waiting until I finally woke up.
How could I have been bamboozled for so long and then love comes along and awakens me? This is the great mystery of life, not denial and promises and rigid belief systems. Love is a great teacher. And gratitude. For every breath and spore and snowflake. For wind and rain and searing sun. Instead of dreading the weather because I have to sit still in it for days on end, I invite its embrace, loafing and laughing and delighting.
I give thanks for everything. For all the kisses. Food. Storms. Blankets. Stretching. Lounging. Reading. Playing. I thank him for combing my hair after I take a shower. Thank the trees for their shade. For the clean water I drink. I give thanks to love for getting me out in time, before I was too worn down to care.
I am grateful for my 16 years in a cult because it showed me firsthand how a particular belief system can alter one’s mind. Watching the storming of the Capitol in D.C. last month, I understood why the people were so destructive. Why Q exists. How religions can produce rigid thinking. Why there is such extreme duality in politics. Why there is racial hatred. Why the United States is so divided. We lose our moral fiber when an idea, a formula, a belief system that did not originate in ourselves becomes the way. The Right Way. The Only Way.
No child is born with prejudice. Racial hatred is taught, just as religion is taught, or Q is studied. No child is born a Democrat or born believing that some people are ignorant and others are superior. These beliefs are taught. I was taught to believe that I could be different from the rest of humanity because I was doing the great work. That I knew the “secret teachings” that would enable me to defy death. I had been brainwashed into a new program. In the same way others are altered by any belief system that believes it is right and the other side is wrong.
Love tackled my delusion and sent it flying. So many years of trying to master my limited thinking has taught me how limiting a belief system can be. To enjoy the things of the world, to truly and deeply love life, is not deluded.
Believing in a particular way of being is over for me now. What’s left, is this morning when T and I were kissing. I happened to look over my shoulder and out the window was a lean coyote watching us. I nudged T and he saw the coyote too. We all three were still, pretending we didn’t exist. We stared for so long, for a moment I experienced the coyote’s view of me through the glass.
Our love continues to grow, like the big maples around our house ‒ tall and protective, a safe haven in a risky world. But this kind of risk is nothing compared to the risk I took while denying and demeaning myself for 16 long years. Now I am flooded with deep appreciation for the goodness that I am. For the wonder I have for life. For my ability to feel deeply. To care deeply. To be grateful.
I’d forgotten that being human can be immensely gratifying. Why did I think I had to give it all up? Give up walks down a country road during the full moon. Snowshoeing across a frozen lake. Going to museums and marveling at the beauty a human being can create. A garden of fragrant peonies. Another morning of tenderness.
Believing exclusively. Believing you are right and another is wrong. Believing in someone else’s dictates can so easily become a cult. And dangerous. It makes us forget we are just like everyone else on the planet.
Dian Parker’s essays and short stories have been published in The Rupture, Critical Read, Art New England, Event, Anomaly, Upstreet, Channel, Deep Wild, Cold Lake Anthology, among others, and nominated for several Pushcart Prizes.