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There’s a Jewish prayer that observant men are to say daily, expressing gratitude for their station in life: “Thank G-d that I am not a gentile, a woman, or a slave.” When I think about the tremendous impact of this prayer, my mind goes in a million directions, but I’m going to narrow it down to one. As a woman, how could I honor a religion that looks down on me?

 I rejected religion, but still had a yearning for a spiritual path so when the Beatles introduced Buddhism, eastern philosophy, and gurus to the western world, I, along with many other hippies, became interested because the general philosophy is that once we reach enlightenment, we help others in their path. That resonated with me, so I read books, went to lectures and workshops trying to find my way. In the mid-1980’s I went to an ashram in the Berkshires. It was an enlightening experience, just not the one I was looking for.

There were hundreds of photos of the head guru meditating, smiling, and looking serious. They covered every wall in the building with candles or lights next to it which made me think he was dead. Much to my surprise, however, I saw a huge black limousine pull up at which point bunches of his followers ran out to the car, surrounding it and the guru. As he slowly got out of the car, he gazed back at his followers, loving all the attention as he held out his arms in a Christ-like gesture. The wind blew his long black hair away from his face, his smile directed toward those lucky enough to get close to him and his followers swooned like fans at a Beatles concert. As he walked away from the car, his devotees literally followed him down the path, satisfied as long as they could see him as he walked. It was like the Pied Piper come to life or a line of devoted ants who follow in an orderly manner. I remembered that as a child, Jehovah Witnesses would ring our bell and offer us booklets which made my parents a little crazed. Seeing this, I knew that this too was not a good thing and I started to feel uncomfortable. It was like his followers were hypnotized and I wondered what they were thinking, WERE they thinking? Is finding inner peace as simple as just being in close proximity to this person? And why wasn’t I “bowled over” like they were?

 

 It got worse when I realized that only macro-biotic food was served. It looked like fertilizer with bland colored beans, unidentifiable grains and seaweed immersed in some odd colored liquid. What are we supposed to do with seaweed anyway? Something called miso soup was served which smelled like dirt. There was a sign on the glass covering listing compatible combinations to reduce stomach discomfort which didn’t work because everyone I passed was passing gas. With agony, I realized there was not an ounce of caffeine anywhere for too many miles. The guru told his followers that chewing food 25 times before swallowing was healthy so I couldn’t help but notice that the dining room was filled with people who had glazed over looks on their faces as their jaws moved up and down like horses eating hay.

The clincher was the after dinner musical event where everyone danced around a table with candles and a photo of the guru. They were bowing to a photo. I don’t even know what he taught that could produce such a mindless group of devotees. It was like the 1950’s Dracula movies where his subjects were hypnotized and would follow Dracula’s orders without question. This was not the way to Nirvana, I thought, but I also felt uncomfortable in my skepticism. I spent a lifetime wanting to fit in somewhere but even being on caffeine withdrawal I was positive that this wasn’t it. Their blind faith made me uncomfortable, following without knowledge or a heartfelt connection to a higher power. It was the same reason being Jewish was not a good fit for me either.

Some years later I received a letter saying that the guru was removed from his “throne” because he was having affairs with several of his followers. They were apologetic and changed their mission to include many different paths to enlightened states of being. The “ashram” became a yoga retreat, and every photo was removed and replaced by several different, famous, inspiring people. Not one book, tape or CD of this guru was ever to be found again.

This weekend, with weird food and no coffee, helped me become clearer in my spiritual quest. I have always wanted something empowering, something that touches my heart. I am not a follower and that in itself is empowering.