Why I joined a new religious movement (1981-1984)

A search for authenticity

The search for a new religious movement was more about searching for an authentic experience. A means of revitalisation the spirit. I had deferred my diploma in horticulture for participating in the production of organic produce in 1983. There was a growing unease within a small cohort of students that farming practices needed a radical over-haul. That entailed reduction in the means of production through pesticides and fertilisers as well as machines. I found activism interesting as a mode of individualism in a libertarian arts sense, and so I signed up the Australian WOOFER association and hit the open road.

Social saturation encounters

Having left Far North Queensland for a life around Brisbane I was immediately immersed in the plethora of sub-cultures on offer, from Punks to hippy and subdued Goth, to name but a few. This no doubt had a dizzying impact. So for a moment, I no longer had a firm sense of being a small town rural country ethnic identity with a name Italo, but floated free for a time, in the rapidly transforming society of Brisbane. The city was afresh with libertarian ideals from the sleepy decades of the Joe BJELKE-PETERSEN era. So I too updated my name as a sign of the times. No longer ‘Italo’ (why ) but took a slight poetic licence to my middle name of Nicola. This conversion happened after I formally stopped playing ruby at the age of 19, sparked by a football incident, where I was placed in a neck brace due to receiving a fracture on my upper spinal, neck region.

An introduction to meditation.

I had acquired from another student books on the numinous and esoteric. These were eagerly devoured in a dormitory room with neck brace and tea. It so happened I noticed an oriental student in the opposite dormitory pacing from one corner to the other. Eventually, I drew the courage to have a chat, I knocked on his door. Graciously I was given an introduction to Buddhism of the Theravada tradition along with a slim book (A taste of freedom) and a meditation practice. I found the theory of examination- given my being in a neck brace for month on end- of impermanence fascinating and for years followed this guide as a way to refocus my mind. Also the readings and encounters gave me a sense of what was to be associations with new religious movements.

Rapid social change and the new age.

The rapid social change encountered was correlated to leaving the wet tropics of Australia. This was initially in the dry tropics of Australia, though we moved to the tropical northern rain forest near a the small township was like a tropical fruit Arcadia (wiki) for me. The orchard planted by father (Orchardist), and mother who taught at Tully primary school (1970- 2010). Suddenly this uncomplicated country identity, advocating tropical fruit trees, had to engage with sub cultures, formal lectures, philosophy, Eastern meditation techniques, injury trauma, alienation to rugby, average grades, lack of connection with academic mentors. It was whilst in the Gold Coast after dropping out of college and cycling south that I noticed a sign along the highway at Broad beach.

A course in Raja Yoga

I entered the centre and immediately felt it had a special sense of an authentic experience of simplicity harking back to my lost Arcadia. It might have been the whole white scene and a friendly face around my age of 20. Possibly the coarse too, that was enunciated in clarity and with lots of laughter. I took to the theory as if it were some profound revelation to rock the world. By the time we came to the section of the cosmic cycle I was riveted at the possibility of a golden age. My meditation had a vision of such a place and it convinced me of its plausibility. It was distinct from my Buddhist phase as it involved a group. The cosmology involved elements I found appealing to my imagination. The garden of fruit, eternal youth, happiness, but most of all, the complete unified sense of personal identity through time of at least two ages. Eventually I became a participant member of the Brahma Kumaris, (wiki) a believer akin to the typical new religious movement aspirant and started my career as life of a raja yogi

Whose a seeker?

A spiritual seeker profile.

Extract from the NEW AGE MOVEMENT by P Heelas.

Historical notes on Western seeker profiles. A social theory

The spiritual seeker profile within sub-cultures beautifully portrayed by Huysamans ‘in against nature’ (original 1884) and even more graphically in La-Bas (1891) seems to have primarily belonged to the cities. Bohemian, dandies, anarchists (such as Felix Feneon, with his belief in the essential goodness of human nature) and the alienated upper class who seek alternatives turning to esoteric or occultists.

Intellectual: spiritual seeker profile

Viennese intellectuals discussed by Jacques La Rider (1993) developed more theologically or philosophically informed versions of what Rider calls the contemporary rebirth of mysticism or ‘union of the self with God’ (p52)

Spiritual seeker biographical accounts

Two people both women and both of whom left the cities to go East, serve to illustrate the more series aspect of Finde-siecle sprituality. Alexandra David-Neel (1868-1969) became an anarchist at the age of nineteen. A freethinker and militant feminist, she went to London in 1888 where she became involved with Madam Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society (Blavatky herself was teaching in London), whilst back in Paris, she studied with Indologist Sylvain Liev; Edward Foucaux introduced her to the Tibetan Buddhist text and in the words of Stevphen Batchelor (1994) for spiritual inspiration she visited the Musee Guinet when images housed in its vault exerted for her a ‘vibration that neither Theosophists nor academics could provide’. (p309).

Spiritual seeker visits India establishes Auroville.

Mirra Alfassa (1878-1973) later became known simply ‘The Mother’ travelled from Paris in 1905 to work with the occultist Max Theon in Tlemoen, Algeria, ( Theon had been Grand master of the Hermetic brotherhood of Luxor or Light based in Egypt for the period 1873-1877 and had also found the Cosmic Movement) As Mirra reports ‘my return to the Divine came through Theon when I was told “the divine is within there… then at once I felt “yes this is it” ( cited by Sujatanahar 1989, p15) In 1920 The Mother settled permanently in India, joining forces with Sri Aurobindo to develop an Ashram in Pondiuchery, and more recently initiated Auroville, today one of the best known New Age Centres.

Ashram typologies

A spiritual pod

Relation between spiritual (subjective) experience and the social (pod) experience.

The meditative states ( subjective experience) are contingent on the social setting (pod) but the social setting requires participants to be rule oriented and positive about their subjective experiences. There are three core features: yoga practices as interpersonal activity; spiritual pod as social structure; meditative states as inner subjective experiences.

Metaphor of the spiritual pod

The metaphor of a pod is one of being enclosed within a safe space that has become known as a new religious movement. However this analysis is psychological rather than purely social. Three category pertaining to the spiritual pod divides yoga groups into enclaves of ideas. These ideas are as follows:

  • Millinarianism in pursuit of the new age
  • Transcendentalism in pursuit of a form of being
  • yoga tantra in pursuit of a form of love

Spiritual Pod for Transcendentalists.

There are two styles of spiritual pods for transcendentalists. The first style is free flowing sense of place ashram. This type gives one or two programs per day. The anarchic outside area gives the ashram its pod like resonance. This encourages interest to spend time within the inner sanctum, getting away from the chaos outside, and sit in silence.

Ramana ashram
Circumscribing the Ramana shrine.

The second style is the pedagogical ashram. It is based on a typical school structure where there is a curriculum of activities (info blog). It was in 1996 that I spent 7 days out of a 14 day program at a Shivananda (Divine light society) ashram in Kerala. Once inside the confines if a participant leaves the enclosure they are deemed to have broken the retreat rules and must leave the program. However there were many rules which were purported to give a regime so to condition the subtle layer of the gross (conditional mind discussed in meditative states) to emerge.

Millinarianism in pursuit of the new age

This style of pod is world affirming in nature and tends to structure activities around preparation of its members to build up resilience to the outside world of modern life and competition. The Osho international ashram is a prime example of this kind of pod where the active stance is taken towards the world. There is an emphasis on being clever by token of having a keen sense of how the world at large impacts on the inner subjective experience. The pod social life therefor centres around the words of a master as foundational to success in life.

The yoga tantra spiritual pod.

This style of pod is in line with the new age movement category of accommodating the world. The binary notion of introversion verses extroversion is useful. The pod acts as a source of extroversion so as to project the persons sense of political agency whilst keeping the persons inner life insulated from the pressures of modern society competitive structures. So in a way the pod does up resilience but not through priming the members as in the affirmative group but by tuning the person to adapt through gradually accommodating sources of stress. The pod acts as a scaffold to build up personal identity so the meditative state can endure throughout life.

Meditation states

Rarefied meditation states

Rarefied conscious states are distant from ordinary conscious states. This distinction is by token of mind control (body control) through one or another prescriptive process. When doing research into various yoga schools it became clear there were differences. The rarefied meditation states had properties based on three broad social categorical factors that linked to a yogic enclave. (blog under construction)

Transcendental rarefied states

Westerners who go to the Sri Ramana ashram tend towards a version of transcendentalism. Transcendentalists seek not truth conditionals ( such as if it is raining then there is water) but truth existential experiences. The methodology in essence is to move the mind away from the plethora of truth conditionals that fill ordinary walking conscious states. The behavioural correlates seem to vary based on the sort of practice. However a general observation is its less about doing things and more about reflective observation of non conditional states of consciousness, and therefore cultivating those rarefied states. So its quite distinct from the visionaries and occultists. The conscious intentional state is non-complex but interdependent peaceful interaction with the environment.

Visionary rarefied states.

This state of rarefied awareness is based on being within a New Religious Movement to create the conditions for a vision. My experience is based on four years of meditation with the BKs (biography page) from 1984 to 1989. The visionary aspect has multiple variations of possible truth conditionals based on the vision of paradise on earth or a other world. The variation that I am familiar with is that of the BK stages process. So an initial rarefied level is soul consciousness. Its a detached sense from social stratification into a highly sense based world being in the spiritual pod. then god consciousness which might give visions of paradise. The state is complex interdependent in formulation. It is based on multi levels of conceptual knowledge, along with a coherent internal ethical code, and a strict system of meditation practice.

Tantra rarefied states.

The focus on love as a practice within the followers indicates a form of tantra as with Mata Amritanandamayi. It was in 1996 that my research led me to the ashram near the sea in South India. What became evident was the extreme extent of devotion to the Devi as if it were a spiritual pod. The followers I met had an extraordinary physical sense of presence with Umma and waited to hug her in long lines for many hours. It was a very motherly experience which made it earthy and like being a child but also had elements of transcendence and vision.