Me, an almost cult member?

Milo Breaking the Law photo by Dennis Riley

Milo Breaking the Law photo by Dennis Riley

I believe in God, but I have a hard time with religion. I know it might be controversial to speak so frankly about this in a public forum like a blog, but after last week I feel like I must. I don’t think I’ve ever not believed in God or a higher power even though there’s been many times I’ve been angry as hell with him, her, it. I believe there’s a God because my life makes no sense at all on paper and yet it is. The fact that I’m able to make a living dogwalking, that there is music and poetry, that I’m in a beautiful relationship, that I survived my insane adolescence and have been able to help others with all of my experiences. My prayers and resulting coincidences-there just can’t be that many. In an intellectual place like New York City it seems almost taboo to believe in God or talk about it, like it somehow makes me inferior but I find that if my spirituality is in check and I seek that first everything falls into place. When I seek the things of this world first- power, money, fame, success-I’m miserable.

So in my spiritual quest I’ve gone to different churches, temples, and meditation centers. Until last week, I’d been going to one in particular for about six months. I’m not here to slander anyone so I’ll exclude the name, I’ll just say they practice christian mysticism. There were things in the practice that were hard for me to be open-minded about from the beginning but I always try to put my cynicism on the shelf as Herbert Spencer said “There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance – that principle is contempt prior to investigation.”

So in this christian mysticism center they’re big into one taking a formal teacher. The first step to this is a life retrospection, in which you meditate each day on a year or two of your life and write down anything with an emotional charge. You write more about the feelings than a play-by-play of what happened and you share this with the priests at the center. This retrospection is followed by baptism. Once you go through these steps and wait a few months you can apply to be a student. I did all of this then they gave me the student guidelines. The guidelines were attending two  6:30 am morning meditations, two 2 hour classes a week and Sunday service, and tithing 10% of your income. Essentially, attending 5 times a week, which is a lot. Anything one wants to get better at they have to give time to so I figured I’d try this for a few weeks and see if I could do it. Those two weeks were really hard on me, I was working a ton and totally stressed out and this just added to it. Towards the end I had a meltdown and decided I just can’t do all of that in addition to my already full life running my own business, having a relationship, writing etc. I believe God is supposed to add to your life not take from it and that’s what I felt like was happening. I had a horrible nightmare that night that I was dog sitting for someone for several weeks and I kept finding things in the house that were broken, but the dog and I were not breaking them. Frames that had fallen off the walls smashed  on the floor etc. I called the owner and told her about the broken stuff and she said, “That’s probably my Grandmother who has Dementia. She lives there, haven’t you seen her?” I said no and went to look for her. I found a terrifying old woman in a closet. I woke up screaming covered in sweat and goosebumps. The next morning I sent an email to the priests telling them I couldn’t be a student. One wrote back to me saying that I would never get out of “the mess” I’m in without their help and that I should stop “running away like I’d habitually done.” Whoa, first of all what mess? My life is pretty great and I’m generally pretty happy. Secondly, anyone who knows me, knows I don’t run from anything. I face my problems and I tend to stay in situations probably longer than I should. The only things I’ve ever run from have been things that weren’t healthy for me. Example: When my band Terset broke up on tour and left me in North Carolina did I go home? NO! I rented a car and went and played shows by myself, talk about hanging in there! The only reason these people probably think I run was because they were always trying to get me to stay longer and I had stuff to do! After two hours at church I’ve gotta get going, a girls gotta make a living etc!

Obviously, this was a huge red flag to me. It seemed like they were trying to manipulate me with the personal information they’d gotten from me in the retrospection. I began to do research on this spiritual center online. They have locations all over the U.S. It turns out there have been a few news articles contemplating whether this place is a cult. There’s also a website by a former priest in the order that has corresponded with people who’ve left the order themselves and family members who’ve been abandoned someone who’s joined the order. I was shocked, I think of myself as a pretty intelligent person who wouldn’t get sucked into a cult but it seems that may have been what was happening. It did feel like they were trying to suck me in and now I felt like leaving was choosing my life over God. Obviously, I needed a bit of deprogramming. It turns out none of these “priests” went to a formal seminary. They have their own training program in the order and wear priest collars. As one of the family letters said “Wearing priest’s clothes and calling yourself a priest does not make you a priest. Using the Catholic Church’s garments is akin to someone dressing up as a policeman. When someone meets them, they are perceived differently because of what they are wearing. It is a psychological trick.”

I personally don’t believe God wants people to abandon their family to “follow” him. I always had a problem with Buddha for this reason. I just don’t think being a renunciate helps anyone. Maintaining your spiritually in the world- now that’s a challenge! Frankly, I learn more from people who have many life experiences and get through them instead of cutting themselves off from normal life.

Needless, to say I’m interpreting my nightmare as a sign that there was something not right all along and this isn’t the path for me. I’m grateful to have realized this before they got their hooks to far into me. I’ll continue to pursue the spiritual path but I think this experience along with others I’ve had definitely makes me weary of formal religion. What’s the old saying? Religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell, Spirituality is for people who have already been there. People are fallible and shouldn’t dictate others moral code. Spirituality is a highly personal thing that must be decided by the individual not the group. All I know is I feel God when I hang with the dogs, when poems come through me, when I witness the love between my friends, family, and I, and when I stop and marvel at the trees or the city. That’s all I need to know.


Filed under God, Spirituality

2 responses to “Me, an almost cult member?

  1. I was just tag surfing and stumbled across you and thought I might reply; a brief history, not over a year ago (and for the better part of my early adult life before that), I was sort of in your shoes – I acknowledged God, but I was angry with Him and didn’t want to have a thing to do with “churches”. Since then, I’ve just had to surrender to Him. I know it sounds cliche, but eventually I was just beat down and didn’t have anything more to give. I was happy with life, in a superfical fashion, but I wasn’t fulfilled. It changed! Now, I’m a student to all this and I’m seeking all the newbie answers, but I thought I’d share a bit:

    The Church is a refuge for education and encouragment, but being a part of one doesn’t bring you closer to Him. It’s a resource. The relationship is of You and Him. The place you most recently visited, well, yeah, it sounds like a cult. Controlling. And for the mysticism? Now, granted there’s a bit of mysticism to our faith (Old Testament sacrifice and hello, Joshua having to dance around a city to bring it down? Yeah, mysticism), but it’s nothing you can do by way of acts that will bring you closer to Him, or bring you any more fulfillment.

    Also you mentioned “I personally don’t believe God wants people to abandon their family to “follow” him;” now I see Buddhism put you off for this very reason, but Jesus mentions it a time or two to put him before ALL else. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.” [Luke 14: 26] And Jesus mentions it one other time when he’s sitting around with some believers and someone comes up to him saying his mother is looking for him, but Jesus says something to the effect of “What mother? I am here with my brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles” (I couldn’t find the verse offhand – remember, still new to all this!). Now that said, I don’t think he means to neglect all others solely for him, Jesus did preach a message of love and how can you love someone and not acknowledge them?, but while its hard sometime sacrifices have to be made and ties cut, when in the end they DETRACT from the ultimate realization and relationship with Him.

    In any case, I hope you the best! There are plenty of “christians” outside of church that just want to get closer to him. My church originally met in a movie theater; there are people that meet in homes, bars, in the park. “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” [Matthew 18:20]; and in the early christian days, the Church was considered the “Body of Christ”. In both these instances it says nothing about the Church being a building, but rather people. The Church is people. Seek out genuine people, and not gimmicky folks that want your money, time, attendance; there serving their own goals, even if at one time they were genuinely doing good works.

    Hope some of this made sense and helps!


  2. jennifer thornton

    Close call! Sounds a lot like Scientology! I’m an extremely spiritual person, was raised Christian but had a lot of bad experiences with the church and the members. I believe there are bits and pieces of every religion that are plausible (just not any that require animal sacrifice!!). I don’t like using the word “sin” as a “sin” is basically just a mistake, but if there ever was a “sin” it’s people like the “God Squad” that used to hang out at Einstein’s and tell all of us kids we were damned and going to hell. Anyone who feels the need to tell you your beliefs are “wrong” ARE wrong. Since my religion has always been a hodge podge of so many things I’ve learned studying theology and having my own encounters with “God” I’ve never really found an orginazation that incorporates all of my ideals but I always kinda leaned more towards Buddhism. I found a group called Soka Gokkai International (SGI-apparently they have centers all over NYC) which is a sect of Buddhism, but they do not believe in worshipping Buddha or statues. The whole focus of the religion is on world peace. We chant “Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo” for an hour every Sunday, and when you join you recieve a “Gohonzon” which is basically something you set on an alter to focus on while you chant. It is a very good way to center yourself and block out all of the negative things that go on in the world and your life-and as a side note babies and animals LOVE listening to people chanting. Another MAJOR plus is you don’t HAVE to go to meetings. It’s totally encouraged to do it when you have time..a few minutes a day, a week, whenever you can or feel like you need to. In a nutshell, what we chant is acknowledging the “mystic law” or “coincidences” that happen and give credit to the fact that they don’t happen all willy nilly. You can focus on a problem and in no time a resolution-and maybe not the perfect one you envisioned, but some kind of closure to the problem will occur. It’s very strange in the best sense of the world. Until I had my kids I was fine with my personal relationship with God, but I wanted to find something religious we could do as a family and a place to channel my love for God and encourage them to form their own opinions about religion so I went “church shopping”. We went to several Christian churches and nothing clicked. Then I remembered this super awesome lady I met working at Sakura (a sushi restaurant in San Jose) who had given me this beautiful card with a lotus flower on it so I found the center where they met and went by myself. (You sound like you’ve done your homework on religion, but in case you didn’t know, the lotus flower is the only flower that can only grow, and grows healthier the dirtier the pond it is growing in is-a beautiful metaphor for life, I think) Anyway, the first meeting just clicked with me. The next week my husband, who wasn’t my husband at the time, went (and he’s always been anti-religion) and the next week we took the girls and joined. A month later we spontaneously got married (I had been trying to decide if we should get married for over 5 years at that point) The people at SGI let us use their building, paid for the things we couldn’t and we’ve been together ever since (over 10 years). The most awesome thing that you had written reminded me of this..when you’re chanting your mind naturally wonders and I try to think of people who are sick and need help or problems I’m having that I’d like to change, etc. I don’t focus on winning the lottery or materialistic things. The first Sunday of each month is World Peace Day where they accept donations just to help with the light bills and rent (there is no tithing!!) and one day we were SO broke but I managed to scrounge up $3.67 and gave it to them and they were so thankful, even though I was really embarrased and the next day my husband got a call about he job he had applied for 6 months earlier (he had been unemployed for over a year) and started the job the next week!!! I’m not trying to pitch an infomercial to you or anything!!! I read your FB posts often and come on here when I can and read about you and your pups, but for some reason when I read this I felt the need to share. Maybe something awesome will come of it for you-not saying you’re not already awesome!! I’m still stuck in Jax so I’m so happy you made it to New York, are able to work with animals AND do your writing. I’m not a jealous person, but that would be at the top of my list of ways I’d like my life to go if I hadn’t had 2 super awesome kids and a kick ass family who are still in Jax with me. Much love to you and sorry to hear about your pup you lost last week. Take care and feel free to write to me if you want…my email (in case it doesn’t show at the top) is Love, Jen

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