Friday, June 17, 2016

Lavanya - A Guest Post


I WAS NOT AS SPECIAL AS YOU AND I THOUGHT

This is the story of a few pivotal experiences of my 31 years in the Sri Chinmoy Centre. Telling it makes me feel sad, mad, ashamed, and foolish for staying and serving for so many years after I knew things were not as they should be, starting with our divine leader. Still, when I finally left the Centre, I swore to myself that I would never tell what I knew about him, and until recently I thought I never would. But when I left the Centre, I thought I knew what was true about Chinmoy, when actually I knew almost nothing. Now, as the real Chinmoy is gradually being revealed by piecing together all of our experiences with him, it seems I can’t keep my own story tamped down any longer. It needs to be told. 

It’s not a good story, not a happy story, and I am not a heroine – on the contrary. But life is telling me it’s time to speak up. I probably should have spoken long ago. I definitely COULD have spoken about 40 years ago. Maybe I would have spared a lot of people a lot of pain. But probably not. Even now, people don’t listen to what they don’t want to hear, myself included. From what we hear and read, it seems all the gurus are bad gurus, pretty much. You pick one, and you get what you get, because you are who you are. Things have to run their course. The things you need to learn, sometimes you need to learn them the hard way.

They say a liar thinks everyone is lying. Maybe an honest person thinks everyone else is honest. I was honest, and that was how I approached life and the world: I believed other people were pretty much like me, basically honest. But there were other traits that also made me who I was. I was not curious about other people’s lives. I was not nosey. I was not suspicious. I was not a philosopher or a deep thinker by nature. I didn’t get any satisfaction from speculating about things that I didn’t know and couldn’t know. I didn’t question authority. I didn’t think for myself. I didn’t even listen to myself. I was quiet and obedient. I was seen and not heard. I was book smart, but utterly foolish. I took Chinmoy’s word as law, and I literally tried to do exactly what he said we should, and do it cheerfully. I was innocent. 

Worse – I was ignorant. Not consciously deliberately ignorant, but I saw things I wasn’t meant to see, and I somehow let them pass. Such as: Chinmoy embracing “S” on the second floor of his house. I was stunned! Then I was jealous. He used to tell me I was his favorite child, but he didn’t embrace ME!! Did he see my shocked face over her shoulder before I retreated, or was she the one who saw me come up the stairs? I don’t remember for sure, but I think it was him. 

But why did I retreat? Why was I not bold enough to walk right up to them and put them on the spot? I don’t know. I was not a courageous person. I didn’t know how to speak up or speak out. If I had opinions, I didn’t have any confidence in them. I didn’t know how to stand up for myself or for what I thought. I wasn’t sure of myself. Still, why did seeing this not put me on my guard? Maybe I just wanted so much to believe in him. This was my guru, my lord, my God! Surely he could not be doing something wrong?

So I completely bought his explanation for the embrace: he said he was consoling her for problems with her husband. And then, not that much later, when she left the path, apparently in great anger, I didn’t think, I didn’t wonder, I didn’t ask questions. Once again, I accepted his explanation: she was jealous of me and “R.” Perhaps I was subtly flattered, and therefore didn’t consider: “Is it likely that someone would leave their guru because they were jealous of others?” Nobody does that. You stay and fight! You prove that YOU are worthy of his love. 

And after S left, in spite of what I had seen, which he KNEW I had seen, Chinmoy was still able to use her as a weapon against me. I was that weak! I had switched to part-time after my first two years in college, but it wasn’t the kind of school where you could just slide by. So my time was not 100% at the service of the master, and as a result, I was left out of many activities, especially short trips. I was insecure, jealous, depressed, and whenever I admitted having these emotions, or manifested them too overtly, he would scold me and threaten me, saying that the forces that had taken S away were entering into me and would take me, too, if I didn’t conquer them. 

So I tried really hard, and very sincerely, to conquer them. No insecurity, no impurity, no jealousy, no depression, no competition, no attachment, no possessiveness! Just love, devotion, surrender, surrender, surrender, unconditional surrender! How was my surrender? Was it unconditional? Was he my father-god? 

You can see where this is going… And yes, that’s where it went. I was initiated with the most special blessing of having sexual contact with the perfected being who I believed would take my soul to the Highest Absolute Supreme. All those who have wondered how I managed to avoid being abused, here is your answer: I didn’t manage to avoid it. I didn’t try to avoid it. I accepted it in the same way that I accepted everything he offered: as the truth, as a blessing, a lesson, an opportunity to make the fastest progress. In this case, a unique privilege, because I was so special; I was the only one, and I must never tell anyone else. Oh yes! This self-educated man from a third-world country was clever enough to know how to use both my strengths and my weaknesses to control me completely.

And somehow, somehow, I convinced myself for a few years that this was indeed a great and rare spiritual blessing. I know that most of the guys, especially, are completely misunderstanding this, so please put your imaginations on hold, and let me try to explain why so many smart women believed that sex with the master was not sex; it was a purification ritual, an opportunity to make spiritual progress, a way to overcome our resistance, a way to practice and prove our surrender to our master. Wasn’t it our goal to have no will but his will? To lose our sense of self, and be nothing other than his divine instruments?

Chinmoy didn’t behave like a “normal” male when he was with me. He didn’t show any kind of eagerness, and he didn’t appear to be aroused by me. Maybe he was just not that into me, but I also didn’t get a sexual vibe from him. Short-shorts and sleeveless undershirts notwithstanding, he always seemed quite unconscious of how his body might be perceived by women (even later, when he started weightlifting and showing it off deliberately). He struck me as basically asexual. His behavior when he was with me was kind of clinical and detached, like he was observing an experiment, not like he was personally participating in an intimate or pleasurable act. 

Maybe that’s what it was at the beginning -- like the divine marriages -- an experiment of some kind. Or maybe that was just the way his particular sexuality manifested itself. There was never what I would call affection, appreciation, or satisfaction expressed. “All right, good girl, you can go,” or words to that effect signaled the end of each encounter once he stopped bothering to meditate with me afterwards. Chinmoy was affectionate in other (fatherly or avuncular) ways, but at other times. 

When it came to these “special blessing” encounters, he was all business, and quite detached – often with eyes almost closed, like he was meditating. I’m not saying he WAS meditating, but he looked like he was, and that’s all that mattered at the time. There were no caresses, no kisses, no foreplay; it was just business. “Make me strong,” he would say at the beginning of our encounters, and that wasn’t easy; it was yet another chore, like vacuuming the carpet or doing the laundry. So try to stop imagining something fun, please. It was not fun in any way. It was just another obligation on the list, and not a pleasant one. If he had appeared to be enjoying the process, I might have been suspicious. 

But one fine afternoon, I went upstairs to perform one of my daily household chores – making up the master’s bed – only to find him in it with another. Both of them were sound asleep, along with all his countless inner beings, who for the second time had sadly failed to warn him of my imminent arrival. What they had been doing before sleep overtook them was obvious even to me. So I was NOT the only one, as he had repeatedly told me. That was a shocker; much worse than the embrace I had witnessed a few years earlier. 

So what did I do? We all have our weaknesses. Cowardice is one of mine. I should have, but I COULD NOT, wake them up and make a huge scene. In my early 20s, I didn’t have the kind of self-confidence that would allow me to confront my guru and a prominent sister disciple. Not both of them together, and probably not separately either. I was too polite, too respectful, too afraid. It was simply impossible for me to ever deliberately put someone else in such an embarrassing position, even if they deserved it. I retreated back down the stairs and left the house quietly. 

And I never told him, or her, or anyone else, what I had seen. It was burned into my memory, but somehow I never really made that memory part of my own story. I knew from that moment that my guru was a liar, and that his inner beings did not always protect him, as he often claimed they did. I never used what I saw against him. I never thought the obvious thought: “If he’s doing this with her and with me, isn’t it likely there are others?” I didn’t think worse of her or of him (except for the liar part). I barely ever thought of it at all, not even as the logical explanation when she began to dominate him (and me, of course). What level of cognitive dissonance was required in order for me to carry on as normal after seeing this?

We’ve been talking on FB about the phenomenon of not wanting to know the truth, and of knowing but not adjusting your life to reflect that knowledge. Call me the poster child for that strange psychology. Seeing his deception with my own eyes, experiencing his lack of omniscience in my own life, didn’t lead me to any logical next step, not even to wondering what else he might be lying about or getting up to. Was that because my sense of who I was depended so much on believing in who he was? 

At one point many years later, I heard from Chinmoy himself that Sevika was “making allegations” against him, which he swore were not true. How could I have believed him? But I did, sort of. I was alerted about them by Chirantan, too, and by another friend, but I assured them both that these claims weren’t likely to be true. I guess I couldn’t admit that they probably WERE true, because I wasn’t ready to change my life. I wasn’t brave enough to face the truth. (“You can’t handle the truth!” That was me.)

All the same, my dissatisfaction with the path and its leader was already strong at that time, and growing stronger. For many years I could see that he was not perfect, that he was not all-seeing and all-knowing, and without a doubt he was not as divine as he claimed to be. Again and again I was disappointed, angered, and embarrassed by his general behavior and by his treatment of me and others. But still I remained a hard-working contributor to his mission, and possibly an unwitting enabler of his worst activities. 

The last few years of my disciple life, when he pushed me away more and more, when I could see no future role for myself within the SCC, when he appeared to give in to all of R’s demands, I thought she must be blackmailing him in some way; there seemed to be no other logical explanation. I thought it, but despite all, not really. Who could dare to blackmail the guru and live to tell the tale? I never even imagined the seriousness of the threat she probably held over him. Why not? All I can say by way of explanation is: see paragraph 3.

So after all, I was just another one of the guru’s girls. Not the first fool; nothing special, just one of the crowd. Occasionally I wonder how I would have responded if I had known that there were many other women involved, or if he had tried to engage me in any of the group activities that came later. I’ll never know; I can only hope that my response would have been more appropriate. What I do know is that he had ways of beating down my resistance. How does a good disciple say no to the guru, to the god-man whose songs you sing, whose writings you read, whose poems you memorize, whose voice sounds like music, whose photo you meditate on, whose face looks at you from every wall and surface in your house? 

It took until somewhere in my late 30s for my fury and frustration to give me the courage to say, “I won’t; don’t ever ask me again!” to my Lord and Master. Although he shunned me brutally for weeks, and later tried several times to lure me back into his bedroom, somehow I held my ground. I was still responsible for cleaning the room, making the bed, picking his clothes up off the floor, and putting them away after they were washed and folded, but I would not pass the doorway if he was in the room. It’s little enough to be grateful for. And yet I stayed for another 10 to 15 frustrating, unhappy years, serving him in many other ways, out of habit, fear, love, hope, fear, friendship, sense of responsibility, fear, poverty, lack of confidence, and did I mention fear? Fear on so many levels – so subtle, so pervasive, so paralyzing, the fear of making a terrible spiritual mistake.

I couldn’t extricate myself from the life I had built around him and immersed myself in since I turned 18. I was bored, frustrated, overworked, unsatisfied, and depressed by my daily routines. And I was furious at Chinmoy for giving precedence to R when I was the one who actually worked hard for him, or so it seemed to me. I kept casting around for things that would give me some joy, and at the same time annoy the master. I cut my hair short. I wore earrings, nail polish, a black coat. I got a perm. He told me I should swim the Channel, so I jumped at the opportunity to join a gym with a pool “so I could practice.” I got in the pool exactly once; instead, I started weight-training, took aerobics and step classes, and discovered the pleasure of exercise-induced endorphins, which I never experienced from running. He didn’t like any of it, but he managed to tolerate it all. 

And every time I thought things couldn’t get any worse with Chinmoy, they did get worse. So I got worse too. When my women-only gym closed for renovations, I started working out and taking classes at Gold’s. I got a personal trainer (a guy!), and loved being pushed hard and seeing muscles in my arms. I leased a commercial embroidery machine and went for a week-long course in how to use it. I went to a 3-day convention for aerobics teachers in Nashville (with Nidrahara). On one Christmas trip I got a tattoo. I was doing my best to get myself invited to leave, but my instinct for self-preservation was strong. I didn’t actually want to destroy myself; I just wanted out.

Finally, I signed up for ballroom dance lessons. Oh my god, they were SO much fun, and of course Chinmoy HATED them, which was my goal, after all. But even this he tolerated for a couple of years, as long as I was discreet. Eventually one girl saw me on TV, sitting in the audience at the Ohio Star Ball. (Why was she watching a ballroom dance competition on TV, bad girl?) But I developed a pinched nerve in one foot, and I went to Nishtha & Pranika’s podiatrist to get orthotics for my dance shoes, naively trusting in the theory of doctor-patient confidentiality. Next time Nishtha went to him herself, I was busted, and this time I had pushed the master to his limit. (No doubt, Nishtha led a blameless life.) Chinmoy told me to give up the dance lessons or leave his path. I had to think about it; can you believe that? He offered me the thing I most desired and I actually did a Pros and Cons list! Fortunately, the dancing won. Or probably I should say that the path lost, because there was not much on the Pro side of that list; it was mostly Cons. 

Ironically, I had to give up the dance lessons right away anyhow, because of course I couldn’t afford them, once I was no longer being handed wads of cash. (Cash that I was very much aware had been earned and lovingly offered – not to me – by my hardworking, and often impoverished, sisters and brothers.) But I didn’t mind. I was free. Every evening after work, my time was my own. Every weekend, I could do whatever I wanted. I never had to sit through another esraj concert or Peace Concert. I never had to learn another song. I never had to wait patiently for the divine Miss R to appear. I never had to stay awake beyond human endurance for no good reason. I never had to listen to another endless scolding, or be snubbed and ignored for unknown reasons, or told what to do or wear or think, who to talk to, where to go and what to do or not do. 

I was free, more or less. Except for those pesky residual habits: dressing like a nun on holiday, being afraid of bad karma and hostile forces, feeling guilty about this and that. I was free, sort of, but I was also completely alone. All my friends and my customary support systems vanished at the moment of my departure. It was January 2000, and when my plumbing froze, I couldn’t call Achyuta to fix it. When my car broke down, I couldn’t call Vinaya. When I lost a filling, I had to find a dentist and pay him myself. I had no health insurance, no work history, no job, and no income. 

Fortunately, I had a brother who was not a fan of Chinmoy, and he offered me a loan to get me through the first few months. My friend “P” got me a short-term job editing a book for the United Nations (the first book ever to have my name in the credits!), and then Gayatri and Gangadhar got permission from Chinmoy to hire me to work at their divine enterprise. It took me about a year to get on my feet and figure out how to live within my suddenly modest means, and I was grateful for the help I got from anyone who offered it.

Gayatri once told me that some of the boys in the Centre were convinced that Chinmoy still spoke to me every day, even after I left. Not so. The last words he ever spoke to me were the ultimatum about giving up the dance lessons. He sent me a drawing of a lot of birds on my 50th birthday, along with a kind message and 50 roses, but I was most definitely not invited to return, or even to attend any events. In fact, the one time I finally worked up the nerve to invite myself to the tennis court on August 27, I was hurriedly intercepted by Ashrita, who insisted that I wait outside until he could ask whether I might have permission to enter. “Otherwise,” said he, “it could cause problems.” 

Several years after leaving the Centre, when I finally manned up enough to read Sevika’s testimony, I knew immediately that it was true, because I had experienced it myself, exactly as she described it. Did I feel like a fool? Of course, but not much more than I already did when I thought it was just me (and the other woman I had seen in his bed) who had been deceived by a guru who was much less divine than he claimed to be. But I felt angry and disgusted with him, and horribly responsible for bringing Sevika into his orbit. 

And despite all that, despite the fact that I dedicated so many years and gave up so many opportunities to spend my youth serving him, I’m still somehow grateful for what I received during those years – if not actually from him, at least through his auspices. I somehow can’t forget the image I had of him as divine and perfect, when he was young and still sweet-natured, beautiful, and inspiring. Even though it was just my illusion, carefully encouraged and nurtured by him, it was so convincing that it still lives on somewhere deep inside me.

Now, when I’m not feeling outraged at his hypocrisy and disgusted by his unspeakable treatment of so many women and young girls, I’m just deeply, deeply disappointed. We were trying our hardest to live up to his impossible demands, and he wasn’t even trying to be a decent human being. I still can’t wrap my mind around how he could behave so badly while at the same time continually berating us for falling short of his expectations. At least WE were trying!! I guess that’s how it is when you are dealing with a sociopath. Anyone on the “normal” spectrum can’t quite comprehend it.

Today it’s almost 17 years later. It sounds like a long time, but it feels like a moment. I am so grateful to be out of the Centre and mostly free of him, and to have gained some wisdom and perspective. A lot of that came from my sister and brothers at arms: you have been so loving and generous in sharing your time, your experiences, your pain, your resilience, your humor, your wit, and your own wisdom and perspective. Thank you all from the depth of my heart.