Ah, “Freedom”! “School” Style …

Every April, during my “school” tenure, Robert waxed philosophical about Passover and Easter — the exodus from Egypt, the resurrection of Jesus and freedom! “This time of year,” he told his flock  “… is the most sacred”. We listened reverently. Then the holidays would end and we returned to business as usual:

1) Paying “tuition”, $350/month (at least)  —  checks written to O.S.G. until “school” required cash payments only.

2) Practicing the “non-expression of negative emotions” (Have question? Having doubts? Something’s not right? Keep it to yourself.)

3) Obeying the No Unnecessary Talking before “class” rulewe sat in meditative silence, or read sanctioned material: The Bible,  Emerson, Plato, Socrates, etc. Once I broke the rule in a brief, pre-class, whispered conversation. A panicked “teacher” bustled over to hush us. Idol chat about “only life things” like friends, family, work, movies, politics, etc. all “unnecessary”  — “GOSSIP” that dilutes superior and sacred “essence friendships“.

4) Following “in-Class” protocol — when we had questions, or comments, we stood and waited for a teacher to call on us, granting permission to speak — exactly like grade school.

5) Observing an “hour of silence” after “class”I often violated this rule at the McDonald’s drive through. I would order a cheeseburger and then feel guilty for “leaking!”. Then I would drive around until the hour ticked by. If I went home and explained this “hour of silence” thing to my husband, I would have been “leaking” again. If I’d obeyed the mandated silence at home he may have wondered whether I was following dictates from a cult. Either way, I risked exposing “the invisible world”!

6) Obeying the NON-FRATERNIZATION between “classes” rule — beyond the “school yard”, we were to float past fellow “essence friends” without acknowledgment. Interacting in any way when outside of “school’s” purview was forbidden. Unsupervised engagement could endanger our evolution.

6) Obeying the “No Internet research” rule!!!
“Disgruntled ex-students” who criticize the institution online will “poison your experience!” In general, “school” shunned the internet. Robert told us to get off of Facebook. Somehow, I doubt that anyone rushed home to comply, certainly I didn’t. But I still felt guilty for my sinful and illicit Facebook engagement.

7) On a related note, we were to shun apostates who dared to depart the ranks (horrors!) Once you are “schooled” your lifelong commitment is sealed. Those who leave are all labelled “bitter & disgruntled ex-students”. They all failed! There is no acceptable way to leave “school”.

My recruiter, Lisa, neglected to mention the lifelong tenure requirement when grooming me. Scientology’s “billion-year contract” sets the bar for the Hotel California, you-can-check-out-any-time-you want, but-you-can-never-leave variety of cult membership. But, unlike “school”, Scientology waves its cult flag proudly. “School’s” til-death-do-you-part tenure requirement needs to be subtle — paper trails are not advisable when “protecting” the “invisible world”. Had Lisa told me about the eternal enrollment, I probably would have declined the invitation.

The things that “school” recruiters won’t tell their “new friends” is another story for another day. Suffice it to say that “protecting the invisible world” requires keeping secrets. “School” spins this secrecy as “privacy” (“it’s private, only for you”) and calls lies, “clever insincerity”.

You may have also noticed that six out of seven “school” edicts impose silence on the rank and file, dictating acceptable interactions, orchestrating relationships as much as possible. Given the chance to converse freely, “school”mates might share questions, doubts, concerns! “Essence friends” might note contradictions and double standards! What if one of us revealed “special knowledge” that the other wasn’t “ready to hear”  … for example …

*… the longer you are in “school”, the more it dismisses your “only life things” and devours time outside the Tuesday/Thursday classes.
* … “school” eventually requires all “students” to recruit newbies.
* … like The Moonies, many “older students” are married to each other. So much for “non-fraternization.”
* … “school” used to call itself the “Odyssey Study Group” …  why would “school” change its name?
*  …  these ideas that “school” claims exclusive are the widely available and easily found published teachings and philosophy of G. I. Gurdjieff.
* … the mysterious Black Book is a xeroxed, bound and redacted copy of a book called In Search of the Miraculous–available for $2.99 via kindle (copyright infringement, anyone?) At this point, The Black Book may have disappeared. I do have my copy, if you’d like to see it.
* … the Boston “school” is only the subordinate satellite branch —  corporate headquarters is in NYC. etc.

“School” spins this social engineering as “protection” for sacred ideas, and our “essence friendships” — tools for “refining” our superior relationships and repartee. In reality, “school” rules protect an unstated hierarchy, various silo-ed “classrooms” and other seedy secrets, that if known, would send sane people scrambling away as quickly as possible (see list above).

After I left, I was amazed to look back and see how I had come to accept this highly-controlled social order as normal over time. Robert J Lifton, the go-to guru for those who study cults, calls this phenomenon milieu control: ” …  the control of an environment by controlling the information and activities within the environment.”

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that “school’s” exclusive esoteric “principles” and practices were common enough to rate another not-so-flattering label, established in Lifton’s book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China, copyright, 1961.

After departing, I laughed with a fellow disgruntled about a rule breaking incident (horrors) at The Harvard Bookstore. She — a  “younger student” at the time — said hello and started a friendly conversation. I must have looked nervous, because she asked, ” Are we not supposed to be talking?” and I briefly explained “non fraternization”. She apologized. I said, “It’s o.k.” We halted our unmonitored social engagement and returned to floating ever-so-slightly above the fray of “only life things”  — two essence friends, from the invisible world, silently doing THE WORK of awakening among “sleepwalking humanity”, in the world, but not of the world. Blah, blah, blah.

As we reminisced, I asked her, “Can you believe that seemed normal to us?” We laughed. It is absurdly funny, while not funny. “Non-fraternization” made sense to us in the context of our “secret esoteric school”. We were protecting our refined and superior relationship from “coarse” daily “only life” interactions. As essence friends, our conversation should float above the “gossip” that “imprisoned” most “sleepwalking” humans.  Thank God for highly evolved “teachers” — people who have been “doing the work longer” — those who could supervise and micromanage our interactions and orchestrate and direct our relationships, “refine our vibrations” and — most importantly — “protect the ideas”.  Eventually, “the ideas” (cough) superseded our “only life things”.

Lifton calls this phenomenon Doctrine over Person: member’s personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group. 

Indeed, I eventually felt my life slipping away – a slow death by one thousand cuts. “Freedom” “school”-style required that I battle against dangerous entitled and selfish, perceptions, thoughts, emotions and needs! As my tenure dragged on, the more I applied “school principles” to “only life things”, the more I “failed”. The more I “failed”, the more I concluded, “I must not be trying hard enough!” I tried to “try harder” and “failed more” – a perfect, circular, psychological prison. If I had a nickel for every “ex-student” who has confessed this exact thought process to me, I could probably recover at least the $20,000, I spent on this con job.

This psychological vicious circle was accompanied by a constant cognitive dissonance: my mind was constantly at battle with itself – my internal rebels railed out against the “school” dictates, while my starry-eyed believers defended the group’s practices. Cults are full of members who constantly wrestle with cognitive dissonance – it’s a common red flag. It’s also exhausting.

As you can imagine, things weren’t going so well for me and I was asking for “help” right and left. Eventually, a “teacher” announced that I was “a bit of a princess” (read, Jewish American) — flattening my identity into my worst fears and most embarrassing weaknesses. Oh, the heartwarming “help”! Ah, “freedom”, “school” style!

Cults commonly squash down individual members into one-dimensional caricatures of themselves. I call this practice Cultic Identity Theft and it is psychological violence — predatory and parasitic groups like “school” feeding off of the energy and efforts of individual members. High-demand groups have to wear members down in order to fashion them into compliant cogs that will keep the wheels of income generation rolling, primarily through recruitment. This “teacher” did me a favor, because the crippling depression imprisoning my mind transformed into an appropriate rage. With real help from my husband, the rebels overtook the starry-eyed believers — her pronouncement catalyzed my departure in 2011.

Recently, this “JAP” attended a Passover Seder hosted by fellow “disgruntleds” — former “students” whom I met after my sinful desertion. We toasted our exodus and subsequent “school”- less existences, celebrating the freedom we have to muddle through this life without “help”.

Once out, I learned about “school’s” illustrious history — how sociopathic Alex Horn started the group as The Theater of all Possibilities in the 70s. How the “theater” was investigated and kicked out of San Fransisco after the Jonestown tragedy. I read excerpts from a memoir by Thomas Farbor, called Tales for the Son of My Unborn Child,  in which he recounts his brush with Alex’s “theater” and his decision to leave, saying …

“… in the period of transition, I heard Alex’s voice over and over again: ‘You will wish you had never heard of this Work.’ And then I passed out of his reach, I rejoined the rhythms and melodies of the larger flow, and hurried to have my share of the vanities, foibles, whims, conceits, caprices, hopes, dreams, illusions and insistent morality of those who could live no other way.”

” … I would stay with the groundlings, spared perhaps, perhaps not, from that overriding ambition which made such redoubtable prisoners of those who tried the Work. With a confidence born of ignorance I chose to make my own way. And for many reasons, some very good and some quite bad, I faced the old religious question and decided that we all, willy-nilly, have a soul, no matter what we try to do to it, and that there are many paths to the spirit immanent in us. I had begun to feel that it was the process of living that alone redeemed us.

My “school” days and departure brought me to the same conclusion: we all have souls and don’t need to manufacture them via “school” instruction, as the group insinuates. The cult’s “soul-building” machinery merely constructs an esoteric prison-of-mind that leaves its “tuition-paying” student, dependent, insecure, lonely and broke. Every destructive cult claims a version of the “only real” “soul-building” practice — every one of them lays claim to exclusive wisdom.

The good news is that the truth does indeed set you free. When you realize that the process of living alone redeems us, you see that you don’t need a random external source, dictating your evolution. You don’t need the Wizard of Oz, to give you what you already have. When you trust and follow your internal compass to your true north, not allowing other “sources” with other agendas, to derail you, you are free. Because, to quote Bob Marley’s Redemption Song, “No one but ourselves can free our minds.”

As we pass finally pass out of this long winter, through April, into May, I congratulate you for breaking the “No Internet Research” rule and, implore you to reclaim your life, and toast your freedom!