My School-Free Year

Burning observation notebooks

One year ago this week I made my first independent decision in five  years and left “school”. I would like to mark that anniversary in this post and check in with one my intentions in writing this blog: to sort through and make meaning out of this experience and understand why I chose it and stayed in it for five years. Here are my conclusions:

Why I chose “school”:
As a woman who had been feeling lost since adolescence, I bumbled into adulthood, clinging to artistic dreams, but without the tools or confidence to realize them.  I ached for guidance and sought direction and purpose at every turn, but a longing for something unexplainable (and seemingly unattainable) clamored relentlessly. Ah, but along came “school” – with “aim”, ideas and teachings that touched on everything from the universal, to the personal, to the cosmological, to the historical, to the spiritual and to the psychological. And it came with “help”. “Thank God,” I remember thinking after attending my first classes at the Belmont Lion’s Club. “I have finally found ‘help’.”

“School” may preach that confidence is a fallacy; that it doesn’t exist. I would argue that confidence, or lack thereof, determined my vulnerability to cult marketing; had I the confidence to trust my inner counsel, I may have tried the “five-week experiment”, but I would not have been sucked in for five years.

Why I stayed in “school”:

Observation Notebook Burning

Given that I lacked confidence and sought guidance, I was “school’s” almost perfect target demographic (if I had money, I would have been perfect). Hope fused me to my newly discovered adventure; I longed to believe it was something real. My new “education” addressed body, mind, heart and spirit comprehensively as nothing else had. Over the first two years, I matured in many ways and my life began to reflect that – I went from temp-worker to decently paid copywriter, single to engaged and from seeing myself as intellectually limited to realizing a passion for history, literature and even the previously dreaded sciences. The teaching was helping; the help was working — until it didn’t.

By that time — had I some level of confidence — I would have thought, it is time to move on. Instead, I fell into a common syndrome – the “I’m not trying hard enough” stage show. Many ‘students’ entertain this stage show and the longer one attends “school”, the more “school” exploits the insecurities that orchestrate, cast and choreograph it. “Teachers” reminded us consistently “If you weren’t in school, you wouldn’t have [FILL IN THE BLANK — the marriage, the new job, the lovely home, etc.]”

Fear replaced hope; not trusting my perceptions, I turned to their tutelage, even as my life was deteriorating into the life I never wanted. The more my life deteriorated, the more I questioned my ability to make choices, instead of their guidance – I turned to “teachers” more and more, in fact. I didn’t ask the obvious question: Why am I afraid to say no to instructions given by “teachers” when they feel wrong to me? When I was laid off in 2010, and in a financial quandary, my prevailing thought was,“ Thank God, I have ‘help’!” instead of the more sensible “I can no longer afford to pay the $350 a month ‘tuition’.”

“How did my life get so off track?” I bemoaned myself, “Is my internal compass so out of whack that I can never trust it? Will I have to ask for ‘help’ forever?”

This type of skewed and fearful thinking makes possible the paralyzing dependence fostered by “school”. The leadership reminded us consistently, “Everyone needs help. The student who asks for the most ‘help’ is the student who evolves the fastest.” Thus each day of my tenure, I abdicated more responsibility and inevitably a constant uncertainty replaced my initial optimism. There is no graduation date. Once you’ve entered the den, you begin the march into an unspoken life-long commitment, and “school’s students” “evolve” into indebted bundles of dependent insecurity.

Deriving Meaning – If You Meet The Buddha on the Road, Kill Him:
With one year of “school”-free perspective, I can see that “school” became a mirror reflecting my internal beliefs: I had believed myself incapable, the joy I sought beyond me, my natural strengths and aptitudes for the arts, compassion and empathy unimportant and/or unattainable. “School” was happy to reflect this back adding the unspoken message of you can become a real woman, but only with ‘school’s help’. Otherwise you are doomed to circle the same track of unfulfilled potential until you die.

Thus I turned to false prophets and let them yank me around. The real woman woke up the moment she recognized “school’s help” as a prison with bars constructed from fear and dependence. I became that real woman the moment I said “no” to “school’s” instruction of “Tell your husband to mind his own business.” I finally recognized the blatant disregard for my life, husband and family communicated through this instruction.  The real woman had to embrace the responsibilities and consequences that came along with saying no – this is real freedom, with all of its challenges and rewards.

I have come to believe that every person has an internal compass and it cannot be dictated externally. Once upon a time, mine led me into a false “school” and then – with real help from my husband – it led me out of this “school”.  It may have been a mistake, but do we not learn the most from our mistakes? The moment I said, “No” changed and defined me anew. Today, when I fall into old habits of doubting myself, I can look back at life while in “school” and see the fearful woman who dreaded the sunrise and compare it with life now that every cell in me welcomes each new day. Through my “school” experience, I released myself from the lifelong and constant search for mentoring and meaning; the very mechanisms that led me into “school” fell away the moment I said “no” to it.

Now each new day presents a chance to practice honoring and following my internal compass, for better or for worse. And as I bumble along, sometimes flying, sometimes crashing, I accept my “school” days as the necessary foray that pushed me into a corner that offered two choices – to follow the route whose road signs are constructed and orchestrated by “school”, or to follow this internal compass.   As I choose the latter, I see that life is a perfectly imperfect and lovely journey and its meaning comes from within.

10 thoughts on “My School-Free Year

  1. Cara says:

    Bravo Gentle Soul!!!
    Congratulations on your one year out anniversary. May you continue to grow and blossom and flourish through many more anniversaries!

    This blog is wonderful and I am so happy and grateful that you are continuing to do this.

    I LOVE the photographs!!! They remind me of a bonfire that I had myself in NY. A very dear friend in school passed away from cancer. She had made numerous aims to leave all her affairs in order for her family when she died. She picked out a cemetery plot, wrote a will, etc. but she had forgotten (?) to remove all of her “school” books and notebooks. Her husband found them. He had had questions about what was going on before she died (all these people visiting her, making her food, taking care of her, secret meetings, etc.) but when he found her notebooks and a list of CR phone numbers, he went ballistic! He started calling all the people on the list and asking what was going on. This was a man who had just lost his wife and they had a young child. I do not blame him at all for being crazed with grief. He said that he had a friend that was an ex- NYC cop and he was going to find out what was going on.

    Sharon and Robert were freaked out. Freaked out to the point that everyone who had had anything to do with caring for this woman in the last months of her life, were put into a separate class and met elsewhere for several months just in case we were being followed by the police. Freaked out to the point where Robert arranged for devices to be put on all of our telephones so that we would be alerted if our phones were being tapped. Freaked out to the point where they asked everyone in school to destroy all of their old self observation notebooks, papers, etc. – anything on paper that could link people to each other and to Sharon. I had a fire in my barbeque grill in my back yard and burned everything I had that related to school. I kept that device on my phone until I moved and then I just threw it out.

    Paranoia and fear are very easy to catch – like a bad cold. Sharon and Robert prey on that. They count on it for their control over people. Mass hysteria is a real thing and it can be engineered. We were kept in separate “cells” in school. We were afraid to speak the truth to any of our friends lest they should turn us in to the authorities. Constant vigilance and fear.

    Remind you of a dictatorship or a fascist totalitarian regime???

    • Odysseus says:

      Congratulations on one year of “school”-freedom! I am coming up on 5 years myself!

      I remember the frequent refrain from people in “school” about being “happy, joyous and free”. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I have been happier, more joyous and freer since leaving the cult than I ever was while inside. It reminds me of the joke Robert liked to tell about the peasant and the houseful of animals. It takes becoming “school”-free to realize how wonderful life its own self is!

      “The real woman woke up the moment she recognized “school’s help” as a prison with bars constructed from fear and dependence. I became that real woman the moment I said “no” to “school’s” instruction of “Tell your husband to mind his own business.” I finally recognized the blatant disregard for my life, husband and family communicated through this instruction. The real woman had to embrace the responsibilities and consequences that came along with saying no – this is real freedom, with all of its challenges and rewards.”

      I’ve mentioned this before, but one of the things that was sometimes said is that ”a conscious man is someone who sees what needs to be done and does it.” That’s what this sounds like to me. Despite the brainwashing of “school”, you woke up and became conscious of the real nature of the trap. I think that those of us who have left are in so many ways more conscious than those who remain in.

      “…every person has an internal compass…”

      I think that is absolutely true. For me it is a big part of the meaning of the story of Odysseus. He also had numerous sidetracks before finally returning home. I’ve been working on a song, although I haven’t finished it yet. But part of it goes:

      Like Odysseus of old, I know I must return.
      So I’ll set my sights for home, while Troy is left to burn.
      And if by chance I find myself on some wild, uncharted shore,
      I’ll check the stars and set my course once more.

      Again, my heartiest congratulations on regaining your own life.

      • Hi Odysseus,

        Thanks for the congrats and back at you!

        “I can’t speak for anyone else, but I have been happier, more joyous and freer since leaving the cult than I ever was while inside. It reminds me of the joke Robert liked to tell about the peasant and the houseful of animals. It takes becoming “school”-free to realize how wonderful life its own self is!”

        Yes, that has been my experience as well. Since leaving school, I have moments of child-like wonder about everyday things — for example, that I can get up early sit on my back porch and watch the hummingbirds hover and dart around the feeder in my backyard. Or I can be awake to the way Morning Glories open up with the sun and fold up at dusk. And I don’t even have to rush off to a recruitment meeting at 7 a.m. that I’m supposed to lie about to my husband.

        While in school, I was too riddled with self-doubt and worry about my school tasks (recruiting, the latest assignment, making aims, on and on and on and on) to drink in these moments and isn’t that what being awake means?

        ” I think that those of us who have left are in so many ways more conscious than those who remain in.”

        One in a billion ironies – my experience was that school badgered me into an uncomfortable, yet very familiar hypnosis — I was steeped in the belief that “school” had all answers and I was an empty bumbling shell without any notion of who I was (am) or how to live. I am fortunate that something in me never bought it — the rebels always fought that notion, albeit internally, but enough so that they finally got the floor when I was pushed against the wall.

        “Like Odysseus of old, I know I must return.
        So I’ll set my sights for home, while Troy is left to burn.
        And if by chance I find myself on some wild, uncharted shore,
        I’ll check the stars and set my course once more.”

        Beautiful! I look forward to hearing the completed song someday. 🙂

        Let’s raise a glass or two to your freedom and mine!

    • Hi Cara –

      First of all, thank you for the kudos on the blog! 😉

      Secondly, I’m sorry to hear about the lose of your friend.

      Thirdly, that’s a pretty crazy story; as each day passes, I realize that paranoia and “school” are bedfellows. But devices that check for phone taps — wow. That is some paranoia …

    • Cara,

      I forgot to include in my comment last night —

      “Mass hysteria is a real thing and it can be engineered. We were kept in separate “cells” in school. We were afraid to speak the truth to any of our friends lest they should turn us in to the authorities. Constant vigilance and fear.

      Remind you of a dictatorship or a fascist totalitarian regime???”

      I think one of the first things to strike me after I’d left “school” was how it kept its students isolated from each other. Stepping back, I was astounded at the level of control I allowed this thing to have of my life. My normal interactions were often controlled by “school rules” because my life was becoming more and more consumed its super-secret, holy activities.

      I remember this scene playing out when I was trying to get my friend (007) out: It was after the Christmas party last year because (shockingly enough) he had been too busy for a real conversation up until that point. We were sitting in a coffee shop in Somerville and he was clearly anxious that he might be seen sitting with the infidel and kept looking out the window. I pointed out that we’d been friends for year and here he was afraid to sit in a public place and have a coffee with me. I could see that light bulb turn on as he recognized how fucked up that was – we got so used to “school’s” social dictatorship. We accepted it’s “rules” so readily.

      It does shed some light on how fascist regimes can control entire populations.

  2. Cher_Tea says:

    Great post! Thank you! I guess I take longer to heal, to realize the truth of things, to get the Kool-ade out of my system. Even after leaving my group (the one in Beverly) it took years of struggle to finally come to peace with the truth of it all.

    The deceptions were so clever, so intricate. so deep. Looking back, there was always an element of fear associated with so many of the activities.

    Once again your writing elicited many memories. The memory of finally realizing that I needed to get out. The memory of realizing that I was in fact in a dangerous place and needed to escape.

    I have been free for well over twenty years now and I still find myself occasionally staring out at the forest that is my back yard and thinking how wonderful it is to be free from that group!

    I relate with your “feeling lost since adolescence”, the “artistic dreams” the aching “for guidance and … direction and purpose”. “… longing for something unexplainable” Yes, the Miraculous! I had found what I was searching for! The Work! I was so happy that I had found a REAL school with REAL people and most important, a REAL Teacher! Yes!

    “…ideas and teachings that touched on everything from the universal, to the personal, to the cosmological, to the historical, to the spiritual and to the psychological. And it came with “help”. “Thank God,” I remember thinking after attending my first classes at the Belmont Lion’s Club. “I have finally found ‘help’.”

    And then being preyed upon sexually by our leader!?! Experiencing the shunning; the violent eruptions of anger. This was awful! But by then, it was too late. The Work Ideas had already been dangled before my face. Rejecting our leader, or leaving the group meant the equivalent of burning in Hell. In fact some members of our group were actually told that they would burn in Hell if they left. Some were told that they would never achieve Higher Levels of Consciousness” if they left. The IV drip of Kool-ade was in too deep.

    I stayed too long. And it took over a year to break away. Once I left, it took a lot of research, a great deal of patience and many compassionate conversations with genuine friends to make sense of the non-sense.

    Anyway, keep strong and keep writing this blog. It is has a noble and worthy purpose! Thank you! Breathe in that freedom! Again and again!

    • Hi Cher-Tea –

      Thanks for including your thoughts here. I couldn’t help but feeling an ache for you as I read your comments:

      “I guess I take longer to heal, to realize the truth of things, to get the Kool-ade out of my system. Even after leaving my group (the one in Beverly) it took years of struggle to finally come to peace with the truth of it all.”

      I am lucky to have left “school” relatively unscathed. My marriage still intact, my finances teetering but not irreparable, my psyche a bit wounded but not damaged beyond repair … if that makes sense. I have a feeling if I’d stayed longer it wouldn’t have been long until one or all of these aspects of my life would have crumbled. “Teachers” were just starting to dole out what I call “the treatment” — in which I suddenly become a target for a barrage of criticism (i.e. “help”). I’d seen this before with previous students and I’d seen them crumble psychologically under the spotlight of humiliation. My husband and I have often discussed how the timing of his confrontation was so oddly perfect. He tells me he doesn’t know why he suddenly decided to get online and do some searching … it was as if some external force whispered in his ear “now”. I was and am lucky that he pushed it.

      “The deceptions were so clever, so intricate. so deep. Looking back, there was always an element of fear associated with so many of the activities …

      I have been free for well over twenty years now and I still find myself occasionally staring out at the forest that is my back yard and thinking how wonderful it is to be free from that group!”

      Maybe those of us who’ve experienced cults – i.e. psychological prisons — will always feel that wonder. You now understand the true meaning of freedom — you can now own your life.

      “… then being preyed upon sexually by our leader!?! Experiencing the shunning; the violent eruptions of anger. This was awful! But by then, it was too late. The Work Ideas had already been dangled before my face. Rejecting our leader, or leaving the group meant the equivalent of burning in Hell. In fact some members of our group were actually told that they would burn in Hell if they left. Some were told that they would never achieve Higher Levels of Consciousness” if they left. The IV drip of Kool-ade was in too deep.”

      This is all awful and my experience was either not as extreme, or simply more subtle. Maybe if I’d stayed longer, I would have brushed up with such blatantly odious aspects of cult-life. Up until the point that I left, the messages were more insidious. The wearing down was slower and more subtle.
      “I stayed too long. And it took over a year to break away. Once I left, it took a lot of research, a great deal of patience and many compassionate conversations with genuine friends to make sense of the non-sense.”

      It seems the longer you stay, the harder it is to leave. Give yourself credit for leaving and all the time you need and whatever you need to comprehend that experience.

      Inhale, exhale.

  3. Not says:

    Congratulations on your one-year anniversary and the work you’ve done healing. And thank you for sharing your healing work here. Fabulous photos! Big hug to you.

    The self-observation, done as instructed, never helped me much–mostly they showed me that I felt awful, which just reinforced feeling awful! Which felt……………………………………..AWFUL!

    Coincidentally, I just watched this on the news: http://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/video/mysterious-yoga-retreat-death-ariz-16531113

    Talk about CR…

  4. Hi Not 😉
    Thanks for the congrats and also back at you! Thanks, too, for the kudos.

    “The self-observation, done as instructed, never helped me much–mostly they showed me that I felt awful, which just reinforced feeling awful! Which felt……………………………………..AWFUL!”

    Self-observations initially felt freeing to me and that turned at a certain point into just another prison. I grew to hate them. I felt that they were only exasperating and feeding my already consuming neurosis. I felt yanked around by the practice of stopping everything to write down observations in the prescribed way.

    BTW, I just watched the video … wow … creepy. This cult seems to have filmed everything, which is weird. School is more clever than that …

  5. I Will Thrive says:

    It’s a small world. Michael Roach, the leader of this cult, knows and has worked with John Stilwell – brother of Joe Stilwell. Stilwell teaches at the Asian Classics Institute — founded by Roach. In fact, Stilwell posted a “rebuttal” to an article critical of Roach for his behavior as a Buddhist teacher and his handling of the situation that ultimately led to the man’s death in Arizona. The Stilwells seem to have a soft spot for enlightenment, eh? What paths have they followed?

    http://books.google.com/books/about/Poetry.html?id=fixPAAAACAAJ

    I’m no longer able to link to the rebuttal (now that I’ve read one article, I have to sign up for monthly membership to go back on and read more), but you may find it on the site: elephantjournal.com. Search “rebuttal John Stilwell.”

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