Wednesday, February 08, 2012
Hitchhiking to Heaven
I was involved with a cult for longer than I care to admit. What can I say in a small space like this? Treat it lightly as tragicomedy? That would be poor entertainment and hardly edifying, just masochistic self-mockery, wailing and gnashing of teeth to no useful purpose. Yet there is still something I can say.
I got this from Natalie Goldberg, who writes about writing, via Rebb’s blog (thanks to both!): ‘The deepest secret in the heart of hearts is that we are writing because we love the world.’
I concur. Hate does not make for literature. When I am not ‘loving the world’, I cannot write—not anything worthwhile. First love, then words, then conscious thought (where necessary) to shape the words into clarity. To love the world I must love my own self; for I find myself an inseparable part of the world, positioned at its exact centre. So it is rather important that I don’t see myself as a damned fool, for then everything is spoiled. That’s why I don’t want to give you details of my sojourn in cultishness. And yet there are insights to share: ones which came to me after I escaped and reclaimed my own self.
Cults exist behind a membrane that isolates their devotees from the world’s wholeness. At a certain ranch in Waco, Texas, the membrane was physical, with the inmates on one side and armed government agents circling them for 50 days of a siege. My cult wasn’t wacko like Waco. Any sense of cohesion and community got washed out over the years, till there were only threads of gossamer. These were still strong enough to stop you getting in till you accepted its terms and became an initiate. After that, they were still sticky enough to keep you in, the bonds invisible, couched in subtly-coded rhetoric. (Correction: most did leave. They jumped ship while the shore was still in sight, a short swim away. Fools like me stayed for the long haul.)
Inside the membrane, you find yourself blessed above the ordinary. But if ever you leave—the idea nags in the back of your mind—you’re certain you’ll be damned, in some hell the merely ignorant could never know. The subtly-coded rhetoric tells you how to think, but remains publicly deniable. It’s not ‘they’ who tell you what to think. You are co-creator of the myth; and yet you are in constant risk of heresy. You cannot see that you are in a cult. The cults are all out there! In here, you feel lucky not to have fallen for their snares. You are in the small band of those who follow the True Way.
To be on the true way is wonderful but burdensome. Conscience nags you to spread the good news, especially to those you care about most. When you go beyond acquaintance and make a new friend—at work say—the sense of duty wells up, you’ll look for an opportunity to share. You may discover that your new friend backs off as if from a scorpion—and then that’s the end of that. A good true friend will behave differently, pretending not to have heard what you said; will quickly change the subject, if ever you mention it again. To be shunned is small stuff, compared with the martyrdom you’d readily endure for the sake of your true way.
What drove you to punish yourself in this manner? It was the promise of a free ride. You were trudging along the road in all weathers, not knowing clearly where it would lead, weakened by fatigue and hunger. Unconsciously you had sent out a prayer. Hitchhiking never occurred to you, till the seeming kindness of a stranger touched a spot in you. ‘Shall I accept this ride?’ You have to answer yes or no. Well, kindness is a powerful drug to the needy heart.
I speak metaphorically about the road and the hitchhiking; yet for me the reality played out in a mirror-image. 40 years ago, in 1972, I was living a hippy lifestyle, and one day was driving my battered van (bought from a gypsy) back home to a commune in Norfolk. Somewhere near Cambridge, I stopped at a traffic light. The sliding door was secured open on the passenger side. A young man invited himself on board, immediately launching into his tale of a wonderful guru. Aspects of his discourse were clearly wild talk. I wasn’t convinced, in fact I thought him a little cracked, a trifle wacko. But then, he was 17, and perhaps his fasting, together with drug flashbacks, had made him light-headed. Weeks and years later, I saw him as the messenger sent in answer to my prayer. Well, I still do believe in messenger angels, kind of. And I can’t guarantee that I know better today. Perhaps I’m just luckier, and no longer needy.
If a cult may be compared to an infection, attacking a weakened organism with low immunity, that hitchhiker was the carrier who first infected me. I’m grateful to Gentleeye who (in a comment on my last) gave a link to ideas on ‘the bacterium of faith’. In an essay, Daniel Dennett says that the membrane (referred to above) exists to control information flow between the in-group and the out-group. So it creates a bubble of shared belief which resists the freer flow of ideas outside, which could undermine a cult’s continuing existence. He compares such groups to bacteria. It’s an immense help to our understanding, if we can see phenomena not in terms of good and evil, flaws in creation; but evolutionary advantage. And then we see that nature is not all competition, but mutual support too.
Bacteria can be pathogenic or useful, like gut flora. Says Wikipedia ‘Research suggests that the relationship between gut flora and humans is not merely commensal (a non-harmful coexistence), but symbiotic (living with one another in mutual support).’ (I've edited the quote slightly.) The nice bacteria help, the pathogenic ones can kill. Taking a wider view of Nature, it’s a damned good thing that something kills us. Just imagine how crowded the planet would be with decrepit worn-out humans, if not for killer bugs. (As one entering old age, I claim the right to say this!)
It’s clear that bubbles of shared belief, sequestered from the world’s pressure and flow, have an important role in the service of wider society. This is how warriors are trained. Boarding schools, the seminary, martial arts, military training: they have their own ethos and belief systems. In India, a guru would instruct his disciples in some yoga or art (playing the sitar, for example). They would repay him with service, not money. In every case the system survives through being useful to all parties, like symbiosis in biology. But just as biological organisms get sick and malfunction, so these bubbles of belief can harbour terrible abuses.
I have no way of knowing whether my years in a cult did me good or harm. You have one life. How could you know if a different path would have been better than the one you took? How do you judge ‘better’? I can only count the regrets; and the satisfactions, if any.
I hate the way I felt superior to those who did not know the true way. Yet when I consider all that I sacrificed, I merely shrug. I hate the ugliness I felt obliged to embrace, out of solidarity with the movement as a whole: having to justify the unjustifiable. I hated the way it made me forsake my own true self, the strong sure voice of my own soul. In short, I don’t mind the losses—in war and natural disaster, you can lose everything. We are a breed lithe enough to survive mere loss. What I most regret is betrayal, wherein truth was twisted into lie.
‘What you are looking for is already within you.’ That was the basic premiss. Sure it was true, if what is already within you happens to be what you are looking for. But when the teacher says, ‘Come with me, I can show you’—that’s when it begins to stink. He puts an idea in your head: you can hitchhike to Heaven! People similar to you believe it. People you judge to be better than you believe it. So you carry on. It takes a while to realize you’re not on a quick hitchhike from A to B, but a life-long bus-journey, at the driver’s tender mercy. He’s so kind, apparently, that he doesn’t want you to get off, ever. What’s the destination? Oh, the journey is the destination! ‘THEN LET ME OFF!’ Ah, but the world is a terrible place, says everyone on the bus. You wouldn't want to get lost there. And there’s a special curse on free-loaders. You’ve taken so much, given so little back.
It came full circle in the end. Just as my ‘messenger’, my own hitchhiker, had once stepped on, without a by-your-leave, I simply stepped off. What I was looking for is already in me. So what had I been doing? I conclude I was a fool, but the judgement is meaningless. All nature is constructed from trial and error. Surviving mistakes makes us stronger.
If you ask me, hitchhiking’s not worth it, when you can walk at your own pace, free under the sky.
Posted by Vincent at 12:51 pm