Of all things in life that humans tackle, my not-so-auspicious employment history made me particularly vulnerable to cult doctrine. I suspect each “student” has some version of this story – some “life” thing that symbolizes failure or at least presents a constant and nagging dissatisfaction.
I had been drifting from job to job, career to career, starting and quitting. I was a “dreamer” – the writer, the artist, the songwriter, etc. I could not give up on those artistic yearnings, despite mounting evidence that I was not going to make a sustainable living through my passions and talents — including being embarrassingly financially dependent on my parents, who coddled me for far too many years. This coddling fed my growing feeling of “not belonging here”, not being able to “figure it out”, and the constant question, “what is wrong with me? Why can’t I just go out there and do what everyone else does?”
Some may call it laziness; perhaps it was. Perhaps, though, it was fear. Perhaps it was my inability to trust and follow up on my inner sense of how to live. This inner sense doesn’t compute the current dominant paradigm in society – the competitive, “someone wins/someone loses” model. This inner sense longs for space, solitude and time to connect to a creative flow and manifest it. This inner sense rejects the widely-held belief that humans need to fill every moment and keep busy! But my inner yearnings were juxtaposed, neutralized and shackled by a sense of failure. An internal struggle roared on between that which I wish for and that which looked possible.
When one follows such a strong inner sense and manifests inner visions, one is truly free. Most people I know seek external guidance. The extent to which one seeks guidance is the extent to which one is vulnerable to cults who are happy to tell you how to live. In my case, the seeking felt endless, so the “finding” felt miraculous.
After completing the free five-week experiment, school informed me of its $350 monthly tuition. Shortly after that, I confessed the sorry state of my financial affairs, and my “aims” became centered on work and money. With my “sustainer” guiding me, I landed an editorial assistant position at a technology media outlet. Two years later, I was fired. Then I found a copy-writing position at a software company. After two years, I was laid off. The fact that both companies got rid of me might have indicated to an awake woman that she was barking up the wrong tree, but I – instead — kept thinking “I’m just not trying hard enough. If I just try a little harder…”
This “Maybe you’re not trying hard enough” mantra is a commonly used form of “help” from teachers. This “school” is full of men and women who can never “try hard enough”. They need to “build will”. They need to have “sufficient valuation”. They need “help”. There is no point at which you can confidently claim or supportively hear, “I did the best I possibly could.”
All that said, back in 2008, when I left the “editorial assistant” position and became the “marketing copywriter”, I increased my yearly salary by $17,000. For the first time in my life, I was earning a grown up salary, if not a lucrative one. I was a “real woman” doing what “real women” do — biting the bullet, joining the “rush hour”, creeping off to my cubicle Monday through Friday with everyone else. I finally became a financially independent woman who – for the first time in her life really – didn’t have to rely on anyone else to help pay her bills AND could afford her school tuition. I was bored and disheartened. My day-to-day activities felt meaninglessness, the cubicle a cage. I despaired at the time wasted in my morning commute in rush hour traffic to the job I hated. I was no closer to following my passion than before I came to “school”. In fact, those dreams seemed farther away and less possible. But my feelings didn’t matter. I was financially solvent, that is what mattered.
When “school” helps one to accomplish such an aim, it sets in motion another common mantra: that your life would not be in such good stead without school. And certainly, thanks to my “sustainer,” I pushed the limits of my comfort zone. A sustainer’s job is to guide his/her sustainee keeping consistent contact through phone calls and meetings in between Tuesday and Thursday. What new students don’t know is that a sustainer is also responsible for retention: keep the student in school no matter what. School tells its younger students that the sustainer/sustainee relationship is confidential, so the student will feel safe to talk about anything. In truth sustainers take notes and report all conversations back to teachers. Teachers then can use that information in class at certain opportune moments.
When it came to my job search, my sustainer adamantly insisted that I “leave no stone unturned.” With dread and resume in hand, I walked into offices on her urging and told strangers I was looking for work. I found myself less afraid of people and interviews. I cranked out resumes and cover letters day after day after day. And the week that the software company hired me, I had received about four other phone calls with offers of second interviews. I experienced a momentum that seemed to magically stem from what school calls “being efforts” – forcing yourself to go against “pictures” of who you believe yourself to be by doing things that you dread. It did change me; it did make me stronger. Thus, how easy it is to believe that without school, you can do nothing that furthers your evolution. Alone – without school, you are doomed.
My life holds a handful of moments that I can point to and say that truly helped me become an adult: those two job searches, losing my grandmother, losing my father, my marriage and leaving school. I did these things during my “school” tenure. But, in all my scrambling to become what “school” calls “a real woman”, to “remember myself”, I began to “forget myself” and become increasingly dependent (i.e. childlike) on school’s guidance — a guidance that would continually point me away from my dreams as those yearnings continued pounding at my chest. I disregarded them. I had no time for that now.
The “Life” I Never Wanted
As my work life grew into the existence I most dreaded (i.e. working in a cubicle, writing press releases about software products that didn’t exist for a non-existent audience) the old emptiness and longing spilled into my life – harkening back to the question I posed to Lisa during “recruitment”, “Is this all there is?” As that question pounded out ever louder, I labeled my desire for meaningful and creative work as “selfish, unrealistic and immature.” I tried to squeeze my passions in between work and school. It wasn’t working. I felt empty and lost; writing had always been my touchstone. I couldn’t write.
All of the negative beliefs that I had about my life, and myself, were starting to play out and reflect back to me. When I talked to my sustainer about my longing to write prose and song, to paint, to draw, to find another way to make a living – teaching, going back to expressive therapies, finding a writing job in an artistic venue — she would say, “It’s impossible to make a living in the arts. Believe me, I know some brilliant people who have done amazing things and those people can’t make a living in the arts.”
Upon reflection, that is a strange thing to say for a person who is allegedly helping you to realize your potential — the same person who tells you that your possibilities are limitless. But I needed no convincing. It was far easier to let her reflect back my already well-established negative beliefs than question the contradiction. So I pushed aside those dreams. They got louder in stark contrast to the outer “reality”. I started feeling empty, lost, trapped and depressed – certainly not “awake” and “free”.
“Jesus, what happened to me?” I would ask friends. “How did I get so lost?” (maybe you joined a cult!)
In fall, 2008, something else happened. My father’s long-standing illness escalated. I made several trips to Cleveland and in the spring of 2009 stayed for almost a month. He went into hospice and passed away on May 5th. During this heart-breaking time, a teacher named Jeanine, called me several times a day. Her calls came to feel like my lifeline. She would ask me what was going on, listen attentively, comfort me when I was crying, help me sort out how to respond to particular moments of family dysfunction, tell me to stay present, to pray. Her help was a Godsend. If I hadn’t been hooked before, I was then.
I imagine that every student has a similar story of extraordinary and real help given by a teacher, or sustainer, or a moment when “school” has surprised him/her with incredible support during a critical life event. After the kindness showed during my father’s illness and death, Robert planned a surprise champagne toast to mark my impending marriage. We also threw several baby showers for expectant mothers and fathers.
Other help, though, doesn’t feel the same. We stand in class and reveal our innermost wishes, our deepest scars and our most powerful fears. The “help” begins with understanding and validation, but slowly, insidiously becomes humiliating, painful, and confusing. The seeds of doubt about who you think you are begin to take root and grow.
We begin to justify that the teacher must know something we don’t: after all s/he has been doing “the work” longer/is more evolved/is a teacher, etc. I don’t know myself. I am a multiplicity. I don’t know my thoughts, my feelings or my actions. I am a woman who “cannot do”. I need “help” to become the evolved woman I wish to be.
The more faith I lost in myself, the more responsibility and life choices I abdicated to “teachers”, and the worse the “help” became. The longer I was in “school,” the more school dismissed certain opinions I had, or personal experiences I would relay. I saw that pattern play out repeatedly with other students:
“Are you sure that’s how it was,” teachers would ask, rhetorically. “Or could you be misinterpreting that event? Aren’t you being a bit of a princess? Aren’t you being too precious?”
If you know anything about abusive relationships, you recognized the pattern of systematic wearing down in the last few paragraphs. Yes, dear Readers, the process in cults plays out in the exact same manner as it does in a clinically abusive relationship — the only difference is one scenario involves a couple, while the other involves a group.
So, dear reader, my story is only one account, of how, what begins as a five-week experiment turns into a life-long commitment. Yes, you read that correctly, some devote decades, two nights a week, plus whatever additional “third line of work” school requires and at least $350 each month. The longer one is “in”, the more time and energy “school” demands, the more “self“ one loses to the “school” brand of “awakening” to evolve into another cog in the wheel of the machine that keeps Queen Sharon rich, comfortable, fat and suitably medicated.
Shortly after leaving school, my husband and I drove to South Carolina. I should say, he drove — I stared out the window. As film screen dropped down in my minds eye; the typical “class”, coupled with the school policy that its students do not “fraternize” outside of the hallowed halls, played out like a movie. As school encouraged us to “know ourselves” and develop what it called “essence friendships” with our colleagues, it strictly regulated our interactions, even as a school-induced type of intimacy brewed. We felt as though we were fellow soldiers in a spiritual revolution, sharing the common purpose of evolving as men and women and thus bringing beauty and truth to a world full of violence, injustice, fallacy and ugliness; but we were not “allowed” to exchange contact information. We rarely know normal things about each other (last names, type of work, children’s names, spouses name, etc). We only knew each other through the thin veil of school-contrived interactions.
As Chris and I put miles behind us missing pieces started falling into place and the bigger picture began to emerge. After all, if “essence friends” fraternized outside the hallowed halls, we could compare notes and question contradictions. Someone might let slip certain super-secret information to “younger students” who were not suitably prepared (or indoctrinated): the arranged intermarriages and subsequent divorces in the “older class”, the children born to one student and then given to another on orders from the top (i.e. Sharon), that non-fraternization rules are dropped for “older students”, and that Boston is simply a satellite office of the official hub – the Queen Sharon headquarters in New York City.
At that point, I did not know the full extent of “school’s” reach into its students’ personal lives. But the level of “school” control and manipulation (i.e. help) I had allowed in my life became crystal clear.
“Oh my God,” I thought to myself. “What the fuck was I doing?”