Today I responded to a person from India who had some questions about my experience with Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB), the spiritual guru-based group I belonged to for about 35 years. Here's what I said:
_____, sorry for the delay in replying. I’m not qualified to “guide you through it all,” but I can offer some thoughts in response to the questions you posed.
The way I see it, one reason people don’t see through religions is because they strongly want to believe in a happy fantasy. That was one reason why I stayed with RSSB so long. I really liked the promise that the guru would reveal to me the deepest secrets of the universe, and that we’d journey together through higher supernatural regions of reality to Sach Khand, where I’d enjoy eternal bliss in my soul-drop form.
I also liked the supposedly scientific nature of RSSB and Sant Mat meditation. Disciples are told not to take anything on faith, except, perhaps, enough faith to follow the instructions of the guru. I did that. I meditated every day for 35 years, much of that time for 2 or 2 1/2 hours, but almost always for at least an hour.
I was a strict vegetarian. I didn’t drink alcohol or use drugs.
Because RSSB doesn’t promise quick results, the path back to God supposedly taking up to four lifetimes, I felt like I should give the meditation practice many years to bear fruit. But after three decades or so, I began to question whether The Path was a genuine one.
Part of my skepticism came from seeing how high-level sevadars [volunteers] in the RSSB organization acted. I knew that I wasn’t close to being perfect, but I’d thought that RSSB representatives and people at the Dera [RSSB headquarters in India] who were very close to the guru must have developed into advanced spiritual beings.
Well, my experience was that they were as flawed and self-centered as I was. Maybe more so. So that added to my disillusionment with RSSB and the guru. If he wasn’t transforming the disciples closest to him, what were the chances of me being transformed or enlightened? Plus, the more I learned about Gurinder Singh, the guru, the more I came to see him as just another imperfect human being, not “God in human form.”
I also believe that social pressures affect religiously-minded people. I got to know a lot of people during my 35 years in the RSSB organization. I enjoyed those friendships, and the good feelings at RSSB meetings. At first it was hard for me to break off from all that. But then I realized that if someone wasn’t going to be my friend any more just because I no longer believed in RSSB, they weren’t much of a friend to begin with.
Probably Indians are even more affected by social pressures, since many initiates are part of a family where many (or most) people also are part of RSSB. Given the close-knit nature of Indian families, this must make it even tougher to break away from a tradition that is shared by family members and is so important to them. Us Americans are quite independent, so going against a family tradition usually isn’t a big deal for us.
(It is, though for people in some religions, such as Mormonism. I’ve heard that it can be very difficult for a Mormon to disavow their religious faith, as other Mormons tend to shame them or have nothing to do with them.)
I don’t know if what I’ve said here will be of much help to you. In the end, each of us has to decide what to believe in and base our life around. Interestingly, I don’t really feel like I’ve changed my life goals. I’m still committed to learning as much as possible about the mysterious universe we’re a part of, and I’m still a big lover of science and the scientific method.
But in science, you go where the evidence leads. You change your mind when a hypothesis doesn’t appear to be true. I did the experiment of Sant Mat/RSSB meditation for 35 years. I didn’t get the hypothesized results. And in all that time, I never came across anybody who convincingly had achieved those results either. So I feel completely justified in going in a different direction.
I still meditate every day. I’m still a vegetarian. I’ve been practicing Tai Chi for twelve years and enjoy Taoist philosophy. So I’m still a seeker of truth. I’m just seeing it in a different way than I did before.
Recently I put up a video of my 2-minute “deconversion” talk at the Portland Atheist Festival. It echoes some of the things I’ve said in this message. See: