Lived Through This

How I Reclaimed My Life after 10 Years in a Cult

The road back to my Self was paved with sex, love, guns, and motorcycles

Photo: Free To Use Sounds/Unsplash

I never intended to join a cult when I was younger. But I did. Getting in that deep wasn’t my original intent — I simply wanted to understand more about a 16-year-old Indian boy I’d learned of. He was known at the time as “Guru Maharaji,” but now he’s known as Prem Rawat.

Young Rawat spoke of creating world peace one person at a time. He was charming and attracted thousands of young people drawn to him and the experience he described, so I learned how to practice his meditation.

He is the youngest son of a guru from Northern India, having a vision when his father died to take their teachings to the world. A persuasive speaker at eight years old, he began addressing crowds of hundreds of thousands in India with a core message that has remained remarkably the same over the past 50 years: “There is peace within, and I can help you experience it.”

My initial experience of meditation was beautiful — full of peace, fulfillment, and happiness — exactly as advertised. I had found a community of young, hip, like-minded people to join on a world peace mission. What’s not to like?

There was no sex, no drinking, no drugs, no visiting family, no movies, no TV, no bars, no restaurants.

So, after graduating from college, I got involved in the organization that supported Rawat’s activities in the United States. At the time, it was called Divine Light Mission, a religious nonprofit. There were, and still are, about 50,000 followers globally and millions more in India. Of all those, only a few hundred were direct employees who lived communally in ashrams (meaning “shelter” in Hindi) and took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. I took those vows because I wanted to understand everything I could about the experience of meditation and this intriguing boy guru.

Life in the ashram

My life in the ashram began as a community leader, soon I became a meditation instructor, and eventually, the president of the organization, renamed Elan Vital. My time with the organization started in Boston in 1973 and ended in Miami in 1984. In between, I traveled throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, Africa, and Australia.

I lived in various ashrams, all large rented homes, with 10–12 other men and women, known to each other as brothers and sisters. We ate vegetarian food, sang devotional songs each morning, and meditated together. Some went off to regular jobs, while some of us stayed behind in the ashram doing various organizational tasks.

We ate dinner in silence, attended two-hour nightly meetings of music and inspirational talks, then did more meditation before sleeping on foam mattresses in shared rooms with two or three other roommates. It was frugal living, but we were happy—full of joy, love, and laughter. It was like living with a whole bunch of cool people taking a mild dose of MDMA every day, except they were sober.

There was no sex, no drinking, no drugs, no visiting family, no movies, no TV, no bars, no restaurants. We received a minimal allowance each week, but there was no salary. I lived like this for 10 years, and believed I was following someone who could bring peace to the world. I was full of hope, happiness, and excitement. I was blissed out, utterly consumed with what I was doing.

My experience was reinforced by living and working with people who all shared similar beliefs: Rawat was the living “Perfect Master;” he could reveal perfection within. Many people referred to him as the “Lord of the Universe” or the Satguru (the “true teacher” in Hindi). If anyone voiced doubts, those doubts were addressed — usually until the person came back around to the group’s way of thinking

Of course, during those years, I didn’t think I was in a cult. We worshipped Rawat and treated him like a holy man and celebrity. We gave him the best money could buy. He lived on a multiacre estate in Malibu, with other homes in Miami and London. Expensive cars, private aircraft, and helicopters were provided to him by his followers. Although there was never a fee to learn how to meditate, many people freely gave whatever they could.

It is not uncommon in India to worship gurus as deities. Nor is it unusual for their followers to lavish them with gifts. In Western society, it’s quite different. We expect our holy men or women to be chaste, to be modest and unassuming. Rawat broke those stereotypes when he left India at the age of 13 and married an American woman four years later.

He toured the world regularly, speaking at theaters, convention centers, and retreats. Occasionally he would have a reception line, and it was not unusual for people to faint or have some sort of transcendental experience passing by him. I’ve been an attendant on those lines for hours, and I never fainted, but I can tell you the energy was potent.

Moving into the inner circle

After I became a meditation instructor with Rawat’s organization, I began traveling the world, teaching meditation and speaking at community gatherings. As a guest of honor, I was treated with a great deal of reverence: private rooms, personal drivers, meals cooked, clothes washed and ironed. People attended to the every need of the meditation instructors; they hung on our every word.

The pressure to be a constant source of inspiration was enormous, particularly after months of traveling and continuous speaking. It was often a lonely life too. I spent many days alone, reading, running, and listening to recordings of Rawat speaking.

For years my sexual repression manifested in erotic dreams. I would wake up and feel guilty. Nobody ever spoke about sex, so I had no idea what others were experiencing. Eventually, I passed a message to Rawat, and he said not to worry, it was natural. That helped relieve some of the guilt, but it certainly didn’t take care of my raging hormones.

I always had a pleasant and loving, if sometimes confusing, relationship with Rawat. He filled a void in my life as a surrogate father figure, and I was grateful for what he taught me and the inspiration he provided. However, as I learned more about his opulent lifestyle, I struggled to reconcile that with his public persona as an enlightened spiritual teacher. I attempted discussing it with him, but left the conversation less than satisfied.

After touring the world for three years, Rawat asked me to become the president of Elan Vital. I moved into a large house in an exclusive part of Miami Beach with 10 others; we all worked in Rawat’s legal and financial office. I had a private bedroom with a real bed, a car, a generous expense account, a secretary, and more access to Rawat.

Dinner was no longer in silence. I caught up on movies I hadn’t seen. I exercised more, drank nonalcoholic beer, wore expensive Italian suits and shoes (because Rawat did), and had a window into his private life. I was now in the inner circle — and that circle was full of politics, drama, and privilege. I thought this would last forever, but it didn’t.

A few years later, I began dating my secretary and our relationship became physical. I spoke with Rawat about it, and he said I could continue as president but should refrain from teaching meditation. He believed it best that his meditation instructors be celibate.

I continued in that role until Rawat downsized Elan Vital, laying off 100 people and closing all the ashrams around the world. He also began the process of redefining his public image from Indian guru to a global peace ambassador.

Whoever I had been 12 months earlier didn’t exist anymore.

For those of us who have been following him for most of our adult lives, the transition was somewhat amusing. It was impossible to erase memories of him in full Indian ceremonial garb, with a gold jeweled crown on his head, dancing on a massive stage in front of 10,000 devotees. But I was glad he was letting go of the past and making himself and his message more accessible.

My secretary, whom I would eventually marry, and I were the last of the full-time staff to leave. I lined up a job selling business telephone systems. One day I was the president of Elan Vital, and the next, I was a salesperson knocking on doors in South Miami.

Life on the outside

I came out dead broke — no money, no savings, not even a bank account. I borrowed $2,500 from a friend and began to build a new life with my wife, buying a car, furniture, and renting a one-bedroom condo. I was adjusting reasonably well to life on the outside, except I couldn’t sleep through the night for six months. The stress of having sales targets to meet each week was ravaging me. I was a mental and emotional wreck and was also suffering from a massive identity crisis.

A year later, Rawat was speaking at an event in Miami. I found myself standing in line for tickets and then sitting in the back of the venue. No one noticed or cared. Whoever I had been 12 months earlier didn’t exist anymore. I had given my life to this movement for 10 years only to then find myself just another follower, a stark reminder that had always been the case.

I wanted to do anything that I couldn’t do while I was in the ashram.

In the years that followed, I struggled to find my foothold. My wife and I became parents, I stumbled through low-paid retail positions, and found my way to other philosophies and ways of thinking. I found a path to heal many of the pains of my childhood and was able to reconnect with my estranged father.

I started playing guitar again and began writing and recording songs. I got my ear pierced, bought a Harley and a black leather jacket. I took long rides in the country and rode with the Vietnam vets down the freeway in Philadelphia. I bought a Smith & Wesson Detective .38 special handgun — for no particular reason other than that I could. I wanted to do anything that I couldn’t do while I was in the ashram.

In those years, I learned so much about myself and what I was capable of. But I also learned of my flaws and limitations.

My career had become very successful, and together with my wife and children, we gave the impression of the perfect American family. But inside, I was struggling and it manifested in self-destructive ways, including a short-lived affair and prescription drug dependency. Eventually, our marriage came apart, and even though my wife and I amicably divorced and remained good friends, the guilt about breaking up the family would haunt me for years until I was able to establish a new peaceful life of self-acceptance.

For years I thought about stopping my meditation practice and renouncing Rawat as my teacher. I knew I had to decide to continue or to walk away. Quitting felt like an acknowledgment that the last 30 years of my life had been a total waste.

I wanted to integrate those aspects of myself I had kept hidden for so many years, my insecurities, my self-doubt, and my risk-taking behavior. I realized that acceptance of them did not diminish my strengths and gifts, but made me a more complete human being. As I did this, I became more forgiving of myself and others.

I thought about Rawat. While he has incredible gifts and talents, he has imperfections just like the rest of us, and, if so, can’t I accept him the way he is? With this understanding, I recommitted to practicing meditation for the rest of my life — on my terms.

Through the eyes of resolution

In my time with Divine Light Mission and Elan Vital, I saw some beautiful parts of our planet. In my twenties, I worked with people from different cultures and countries and experienced firsthand that human beings everywhere want inner peace, whether they live in a small village in Africa or central Vienna. I developed the confidence and ability to speak in public, a skill that has served me well. I learned about service, humility, and kindness, and made many lifelong friends.

I witnessed the great things people can accomplish when they come together in a shared purpose and mission. I learned about simplicity — that I don’t need much at all to live and be happy.

Of course, there was a price to pay for immersing myself as I did. I had a late start in psychological maturity. I didn’t understand how to be in intimate relationships. I repressed my sexuality, which then played out in various unhealthy manifestations. I developed a spiritual ego and viewed spirituality through the narrow lens of life as a monastic, which has taken years to dismantle.

I have no regrets. While I don’t agree with everything Rawat has done, he has a special place in my heart. The inner experience I had — and still have — is incredible. My life during those 10 years made me what I am today — flaws and all — and I wouldn’t change it.

10 years as a monk, 49 years meditating, 30 years in the shark-infested waters of corporate America | Connect with me on Linked In-

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