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17/10/2018 09:26 BST | Updated 17/10/2018 10:49 BST

My Experience Living In A Cult For 20 Years - Here's How I Broke Free

As the cult took hold, 1,000 of us moved across the world - squandering our fortunes - to meditate in a bid to prevent certain global annihilation

The Independent
HuffPost UK

For over two decades, I lived in the ashrams of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of Transcendental Meditation (TM) and guru of the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Deepak Chopra, and hundreds of other celebrities. I served on Maharishi’s personal staff for six of those years.

Generally, people didn’t think of TM as a cult. For those who learned TM and practiced it twice daily at home, it was not a cult. When Maharishi first brought meditation to the West in 1959, he represented TM as a simple, effortless, mechanical technique that anyone could do. We weren’t required to change our lifestyle, habits, or beliefs. By simply meditating twice a day, our lives would naturally improve. And they did improve, dramatically—at least for me. 

I loved TM. I experienced something previously unfamiliar and unknown: the true felicity of inner peace. The entire 22 years that I practiced TM, my meditation experiences were nothing but uplifting and blissful. I also loved Maharishi. I became entranced by his highly charismatic aura and hypnotic personality. So for six years I ended up on his personal staff in Europe as a rare insider—part of his inner circle. 

While on staff, I endured an incredibly intense emotional roller coaster ranging from heaven to hell. Administering a kind of “open-ego surgery,” Maharishi would alternately make me feel like the most important person in the universe, saving the planet, or the most despicable, useless, worthless worm. Just as a military drill instructor uses tough love to train his recruits, so Maharishi dispensed severe treatment to his closest disciples. In the worst instance, he chastised me harshly before 400 of the TM organization’s leaders. 

The first seeds of TM’s cult-like characteristics emerged in August 1979 in Amherst Massachusetts, where Maharishi gathered 2,600 meditators for a World Peace Assembly. There he made the fantastic claim that the Goddess “Mother Divine” had told him that crime, war, and environmental toxins had polluted the earth. Maharishi’s “World Plan” to create global peace wasn’t working fast enough, and therefore the Goddess was threatening to annihilate the entire earth’s population. After Maharishi pleaded with her, she purportedly agreed to give him one last chance.

Maharishi then declared that time had run out and there was a world emergency. All of us must pack our bags, relocate our families to Iowa within one week, and meditate together in order to prevent certain global annihilation. So about 1,000 of us moved to Maharishi International University (MIU) in Fairfield, Iowa, where the cult gradually took over our lives, as we squandered our fortunes on various increasingly expensive TM courses and products.

Two gigantic geodesic domes slathered in gold paint were built on the MIU campus—one for men and another for women, where we practiced group meditation twice daily. Every telephone-broadcast from Maharishi terrorized us into believing that if we didn’t adhere to this program, we would be responsible for nuclear holocaust or the end of the world. His manipulative fear-and-intimidation tactics proved extremely effective motivators.

Maharishi used highly successful bait—flattery. He convinced us of our vast superiority over the Great Unwashed as he bestowed on us outlandish titles such as “Executive Governors” in his self-proclaimed artificially devised hierarchy. 

We blindly adhered to Maharishi’s ironclad belief structure and rigid routine. His stifling rules determined what to eat, what to wear, where to live, what to believe, what to say, what to read and not read, what activities were acceptable, even our house’s architecture. As the personality cult expanded, so did the followers’ cliquish, elitist attitude. If we towed the line, we were “on the program.” If we wavered, we were “off the program” and branded as outcasts, shunned from the community. We could no longer enter the golden domes or take future TM courses. 

We lived in Fear-Filled, not Fairfield—under extreme fear of the leaders policing the organisation. Since we believed TM was the only path to enlightenment and Maharishi was the only true spiritual master, we lived in terror of banishment from TM’s presumptive heavenly paradise. Our only chance for spiritual enlightenment would vanish, and we would be lost, unless we jumped through various hoops to prove our worthiness.

As the ungodly repression became increasingly overbearing, the MIU library purged all “negative” books and non-TM self-help books, including books on yoga, meditation, New Age teachings, and those authored by Indian gurus. We were forbidden to visit any spiritual masters, to take classes on any subject not officially sanctioned by the TM organization, or to even to take a vacation to India.

At MIU and MSAE (Maharishi School for the Age of Enlightenment), teachers reprimanded students for expressing original opinions. Kids who drew “negative” images, (such as monsters) or wrote “negative” stories were taken to task. “Entertaining negativity” was “off the program.” Students with drug, alcohol, or other addiction problems were not given counselling or advised to attend AA meetings. Instead, they were blamed for not meditating improperly.

I began to realise I’d spent over two decades in a dictatorial, repressive organisation, largely motivated by fear. In 1986 I took my first baby steps towards freedom when I started a prayer circle at my house.

After the TM spies made a list of license plates of cars parked nearby, they stripped the golden dome badges from my prayer circle attendees and blacklisted them. After that, nearly everyone in Fairfield avoided eye contact with me. Branded persona non grata, I came to realise I would have to sell my house and leave Fairfield. 

Though it was painful to cut the cords with Maharishi and all my friends, leaving Fairfield in 1989 was the best decision I ever made. I found my way to greater awareness and self-sufficiency, and I never looked back. 

Maharishi & Me: Seeking Enlightenment with The Beatles’ Guru by Susan Shumsky is out now

Life Less Ordinary is a weekly blog series from HuffPost UK that showcases weird, wonderful and transformational life experiences. If you’ve got a story to share, email ukblogteam@huffpost.com with LLO in the subject line. To read more from the series, visit our dedicated page