Cults are inherently a very scary prospect for many of us. Popular Netflix shows like Wild Wild Country and classic movies like The Wicker Man (1973) have created an aura of fear and mystery around any that do continue to thrive, with survivors telling tales of bizarre sex rituals and outlandish initiation ceremonies.
Susan Shumsky followed the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of the Transcendental Meditation movement and spiritual guide to The Beatles, and spent 20 years under his spell. Now she speaks exclusively to VT as she launches her new book, and reveals what it was really like to be in thrall of a man who told his disciples they would be responsible for a nuclear holocaust if they did not adhere to his strict rules.
Was there an initiation at all, and if so, what was it?
"I had to bring sweet fruit, flowers, and a new white handkerchief. My TM Teacher used those items in the ceremony when he performed pooja, which is a traditional ceremony in India where offerings are made to Hindu deities.
"In the ceremony that was done when I learned TM, the offerings were made to Maharishi's guru, whose name was Swami Brahmananda Saraswati. My TM Teacher chanted the pooja ceremony, which included some Sanskrit words quoted by George Harrison's in his song "My Sweet Lord.""At what point did you realise that you were in danger?
"I was never in physical danger. I was brainwashed and then got un-brainwashed.
"When Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of TM, first brought meditation to the West in 1959, he represented TM as a simple, effortless, mechanical technique that anyone could do. By simply meditating twice a day, our lives would naturally improve (which did happen, at least for me).
"The first seeds of TM's cult-like characteristics emerged in August 1979 in Amherst Massachusetts, where Maharishi gathered 2600 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 1000 of us meditators moved to Maharishi International University (MIU) in Fairfield, Iowa, where the cult gradually took over our lives.
"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. 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.
"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. 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.
"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.
"I began to realize I'd spent over two decades in a repressive organization, largely motivated by fear. By that time, I was already engaged in spiritual practices that were "off the program" and leading a weekly prayer circle.
"As a result of my "off the program" activities, I became a blacklisted outcast, along with my students. Because I was branded persona non grata, nearly everyone in Fairfield avoided me. They were afraid to talk to me or be associated with me, for fear they would be blacklisted also. Once I became the wicked witch of Fairfield, I realized that I would have to sell my house and leave. It was over for me."
Why did you not leave sooner?
"I did not leave sooner, because I was very devoted to Maharishi and I loved the experiences of TM itself. He was right. I was too dependent on him. One day in 1973, as I was waiting amongst the devotees who were standing in line to greet him, he walked up to me, handed me a rose, and said, with gravity, "Don't look to anyone. When you don't look to anyone, then everyone will look to you." Later I came to realize he was referring to my over-dependency on him.
"One more thought: When considering joining a spiritual organization or movement, it's important to ask yourself whether it's a "cult," or whether it's a way to "cult"-ivate self-improvement. In my case, I gained so much from being in the cult, I would say that if I had to do it over, the only thing I would change would be this: I would stand up to Maharishi and communicate with him more as an equal, rather than being so intimidated and painfully shy."What was your worst experience during your time in the cult?
"Probably the most devastating experience was when Maharishi sent me back to the USA in 1976 after I served on his International Staff in Europe for six years. His expressed reason: "You are too dependent on me as a person. I won't always be here." When I asked him about a precious book I'd been writing for years, he told me to give my only copy (this was before computers existed) to the one person on staff that was my nemesis, whom I was intensely jealous of.
"It felt like a cannonball hit my stomach, but I did pass on the book to the person Maharishi asked me to give it to, even though it crushed me.
"To make matters worse, when I asked the finance guy (who was also Maharishi's nephew) for a plane ticket back to the States, I was told in the most hostile, arrogant tone, that there would be no plane ticket for me. So I had to borrow money just to leave. I was flat broke after subsisting on a stipend of $25 per month for the six years I was on staff (ironically working in the Finance Office a lot of that time).
"I didn't think it could possibly go downhill from there. But it did. After packing my bags, when I buzzed Maharishi's private secretary on the intercom to tell him I was leaving in the morning and wanted to see Maharishi, the secretary said it was too late, Maharishi had already gone to bed, and I should come at 9:00 AM. But I had to leave at 7:00 AM to catch my plane. I was devastated. No one on staff ever left without saying goodbye to Maharishi.
"But the last straw was the following morning, as Maharishi's driver and I were packing the Mercedes that would take me to the airport in Zurich. In the car trunk, I saw paper that looked like trash scattered about randomly. But when I looked closer, I realized they were pages from the precious book I'd been working on. Nothing could have been more shattering than seeing that book discarded with such callous disrespect.
"Returning to the USA, I was thrust into a threatening world in bliss-withdrawal trauma, alone and penniless. Expelled from heady heights of Maharishi's paradise, nothing seemed real. I had no context for a new life. Fractured and dispossessed, devoid of social or survival skills, I was incapable of relating to anyone. In culture shock, I was a displaced refugee from a remote planet, speaking an alien language: Maharishi-speak.
"An entire decade of culture was absent. I pondered how to open a soda can and asked for a can opener from a puzzled cashier. To define me, "introverted" was an understatement. "Paralyzed" was more accurate. An appalling sense of helplessness overtook me.
"Nothing could stop the excruciating pain—no cure for the grief and rejection. My connection with Maharishi felt broken and my only chance for spiritual enlightenment seemed in ruins. With nothing but regrets for friends, life seemed meaningless. And I felt it was my own fault."
Do you miss any aspects of the cult now you're free from it?
"I miss Maharishi. I loved him. He was the most extraordinary and happiest person I'd ever met—always cracking jokes. His laughter was contagious. He was charismatic to the point of hypnotic and projected a vastly irresistible, unparalleled love vibration along with waves of bliss."
How can we make sure other impressionable young people don't fall victim to cults like the Transcendental Meditation Movement?
"Education is key for youngsters. It helps them develop discernment. I would caution anyone who is considering joining an alluring organization that makes ultimate promises. Ask yourself whether it can deliver the goods or whether a carrot is being dangled just beyond reach. Investigate thoroughly first. Don't be so open-minded that your brains fall out! Keep your brain intact and make informed choices."Maharishi & Me: Seeking Enlightenment with The Beatles’ Guru by Susan Shumsky is out now, priced at £19.99 and is available on Amazon.co.uk.