Cheryl belonged to a community called ‘the Center’; they live together and have a guru. As we finished our work together she invited me to a retreat, a ‘cleanse’ for the soul. She thought it would be really good for me.
I had not done any self-development work for a long time; it would be great to have a week that was focused on me.
I signed up and I was going to go in Spring but it got pushed out to 3 weeks after my wedding to Daniel.
So I went. There was a lot of silence and mediation. Each day there would be focus on a mantra and we were encouraged not to talk to each other except for on-topic stuff.
We were asked questions like ‘how are you dishonest with yourself?’ It was mostly a very internal focus and I really liked it. I saw in retrospect that I really didn’t have any boundaries around my own safety or skepticism; I was just diving head first into this experience.
There were small group sessions where the facilitator would bring up issues that were very charged and emotional; like a sexual assault and drug experiences. They would really break people down, pull them apart, really dig into the topic. I saw through the process that there was usually a kind of release happening.
A part of the experience was verbal and then there was a lot of dance and music. I think we danced 5 or 6 hours. It was intense dancing and screaming, like primal screaming. When I started out, I was really into it and committed. I judged other people who were resisting, had boundaries or didn’t seem to go along with it all.
During the retreat I started eating less and my sleep got really disturbed. We stayed up very late and I was meditating and praying through my sleep. I was in an altered state and I loved it.
I felt like I was gathering insights through the dancing and screaming experiences. One time I found myself on the floor just weeping; crying from the tips of my toes to the top of my head, in this very infant way, just so cellular all over. Then I heard this voice that was my voice from a time before I could speak (as a young child) saying “I don’t belong here, put me back, I do not belong here.” I understood it as the separation from my mother at birth. I was bereaved and freaked out.
They had said that it was non-denominational, that anyone could do this work. It was very important to me because at the time I was a Christian, and what I found was that during these mediations there was a lot of dogma being presented.
One day there was a session about a woman from the group, who was terminally ill. As she was approaching her death and wanting to heal the world and share this work, she felt she was returning to god. They followed this by screening a video of all the horrors of the world; dying children and super intense drama. The message was clear, you can do something about this; you’re here because you have a desire to have an impact on the world. You can do it – through us, through our approach, through our leader.
Then they started playing talks of this guru. At first it was just a few quotes, then tape recordings of her voice, then videos of her telling stories about being a conduit for god. There was this place in me where I took it all straight in. I didn’t resist, I just kept taking everything in as if it was the truth.
From this place of physical and emotional exertion; not sleeping or eating, by the fourth or fifth day I was tripping, seeing visions and hearing voices. I was concerned about how I would take this into the world, how I would interact in this state.
The response was to just keep connecting with Kalindi (the guru), to be open to her guidance and join the after-program support group; it would teach me how to apply all of this learning in my ordinary life.
The support group would make me feel safe, where I could have a covert of people and such intimacy; and there were these beautiful practices, like you had to feed others you weren’t allowed feed yourself.
It all culminated in an intense performance. We were given permission to take a piece of music and write our own words and then get naked. So you would get verbally and physically naked. We were told not to talk about it, no one could understand without the context.
As far as I was concerned, I was super-high; I gained access to a higher connection. A lot of my noise and chatter and fears were out of the way. It felt like a one- ness, a very connected and expansive feeling; it was joyful, I was super happy.
I returned home. Daniel and I started having communication issues. I shared some stuff with him and respected where they said to keep secret. I was focused on maintaining the connection, very self-absorbed and I had a support person from the group to help me with re-entry to the outside world.
I was sent a load of Kalindi’s videos. They said that exclusivity prevents you from getting close to god, it’s a hindrance. I knew that Cheryl was not in a relationship and she had made comments that she had slept with friends in the group when they needed sexual release; like it was a favor they did for each other. They didn’t seem to have exclusive relationships.
I didn’t care about that but my husband and I had chosen an exclusive relationship.
Daniel and I would be talking and I had this mental mechanism that shut him down; you’re an outsider you don’t understand. I’m on a bigger spiritual journey and you’re trying to prevent me from connecting to god.
I signed up for the post seminar group once or twice a week, without consulting or coordinating with him. I was going to the meditations and dance mediations and it was taking up a lot of our time together.
He started coming with me to the group meetings so he could be near me, he was so concerned and wanted to stay connected with me. He’d gone on line and found out more about the group and felt that it was a full blown cult. There were people on line who said they’d lost lots of money and years of their life by being part of the group.
In the seminar they said that some people have a bad reaction so don’t trust what’s on line come to us to talk about it. For a long time I didn’t care what was on line, I said I can handle it, I just want to reach god.
Two months later Daniel told me he was going to see a priest. Father Xavier taught at the church I went to. Daniel came from a Fundamentalist upbringing that was pretty miserable; he doesn’t practice or believe so it really shocked me, it literally stopped me in my tracks.
I said what is going on. He said, I’m so lost, I’m so worried about you and I don’t know who else to talk to. I asked if he wanted me to come with him and he said yes.
Father Xavier was in his late 60s maybe 70, and been in San Francisco for a long time. He’d seen a lot. What was really beautiful was that he asked me to tell my part of the story. I told him about the great things that I had learned and gained from the experience.
Then Daniel told him his concerns.
Father Xavier talked about many of the practices of religious groups that had used all kinds of ways to experience ecstasy. He never made me wrong, but told me I could find that in many ways. One of THE insights of this whole experience was the intensity of my spiritual desire.
He said, you’re saying that it doesn’t matter who Kalindi is, don’t you think you should know more about her.
In that moment I started having a physical and emotional experience, a kind of re-opening, while I was there and over the next few days. As we walked down the street I felt like I walked through a prism, a paradigm shift where something realigned. The possibility opened up in me that this was a cult,that it was not what I thought it was.
I decided to do the research. I found a website that had been put together by former group members. I wrote to them saying that I had gained a lot of value from the experience and made an intense connection with the divine, but there are other parts I’m questioning.
By the time I got a response 3 days later, I had completely changed my position. I was enraged, feeling duped and manipulated. I was intensely angry.
I got a response that said keep all the good stuff but don’t feel you need to tie yourself the group in order to progress with your life. He went on to explain that his connection to the group had destroyed his relationships, his career and he had cost him $200K. He said, I don’t want to see anyone else pay that price.
Daniel had been distraught. We had been together for 2 years. We had just gotten married and had given up on things for me and the marriage and the baby. He had been really suffering. He wasn’t playing his music (he’s a musician) and he couldn’t focus on anything else, he realized how bad this could be.
The next day I said I’m sorry, you’re right, I’m angry. He was blown away.
You know, I’m an intelligent person and I got sucked into it. It’s all the more reason that I have to be upfront and share with people. Being smart isn’t what it’s about.
Later I told my coach about the experience and I asked why I was susceptible to losing myself like this. I was pregnant and I wanted to resolve this before I brought this child into the world. I’d wanted to have that maturity and strength.
We talked about that message I had received; that I don’t belong here. And she said quite simply, but you know that’s not true.
It hit me and my heart broke.
There had been this place that I had been holding on to that said I don’t belong. I realized that this was not a voice of truth, it was an experience. It’s not the story by which I have to live my life.
I also saw that I had been seeking a spiritual connection outside, like someone else has the information or the path or the system. I knew that I needed to look inside. There I can find everything. I can be grounded and joyful, talk to god and connect.
I do belong here; I’ve chosen to be here. The answers are within me. I get to create my story.
– Cara Cordoni can be contacted at Flashlightcoaching.com