Double-Edged Sword – Part 3
Art of Living as a Group
One of the most amazing things about Art of Living is that it attracts so many sincere, genuine seekers who make AoL the beautiful group that it appears to be, at least on the surface. I met so many wonderful individuals during my time there, people with whom I had so many things in common, and who were on the same spiritual path as I was.
I found it so comforting that I could travel to many places around the world and find an Art of Living presence there, to have a group of people who were already part of my family and whom I could befriend so easily, and in reality this did actually happen very often.
Of all the things in Art of Living that I have left behind me, this is one of the biggest losses I have experienced and is the one thing I tried desperately hard to salvage. But anyone who is my situation knows that this is impossible. Whatever we shared at the time, I have to be in the same place as I was back then in order to experience it, and being where I am now, it will never be possible to go back to that place again, sadly.
You see, looking back at this with an objective eye, I realize now that this same group energy which draws people into Art of Living also ends up making people more attached to Art of Living, more feverish and more dependent on it. This was certainly starting to happen to me, and had already happened to a great many people I know. And at even deeper levels of involvement, this feverishness extends to senior teachers and of course to Sri Sri himself.
Anyone who has spent any amount of time with Art of Living will realize that this feverishness goes completely against one of the key things which Art of Living preaches, dispassion (see the talk on Vairagya during the Advanced Course, or the section on the Four Pillars of Wisdom in Wisdom for the New Millenium for further details on this). It is surprising, then, that Art of Living not only does nothing to discourage any of this feverishness which arises in its followers as a result of this group energy, but in actual fact goes out of its way to encourage it at every opportunity. Just look at the insanity which ensues whenever Rishisji or one of the various Swamis visits a local AoL chapter if you want to see the evidence for this. And as for any event where Sri Sri himself is present, just watch as people are glued to him like bees to honey. It’s a fairly disturbing sight to say the least.
A further corollary of this group energy is that the members of the group will inevitably begin to self-identify with the group, or more specifically with the group ego. This is actually just as surprising as the feverishness which arises in them, given that one of the biggest things that AoL expounds is that they will help seekers to transcend their egos. But instead of transcending their egos, the more time followers spend with AoL, the more they end up associating with a much larger ego, this group-ego of the Art of Living organization itself. Art of Living, then, truly seems to favour and even encourage the doctrine of collectivism over individualism, whatever it claims to the contrary.
One only needs to read the various comments posted by pro-AoLers on both this and other critical websites in order to see how they take a lot of criticisms levied against AoL personally, how they become so defensive, as if they themselves are the direct subjects of the criticisms. This in fact is exactly how many religions work, by encouraging their followers to self-identify with the religion (“I am a Christian …”, “I am a Muslim …” etc.), thus actually creating a division in the world, those who are members of the organization (the in-group) and those who are not (the out-group).
In Art of Living, this in-group versus out-group dynamic is used in exactly the same way as in many of these religions, to try and pull those who are in the out-group into the in-group. Because of the feverishness that many followers already have, it becomes so easy to convince them that the world will become a much better place if everyone becomes part of the Art of Living family. All suggestions to “spread this sacred knowledge” which are made at the end of advanced courses are actually hints to bring people to the knowledge (read, enrol them in the courses) rather than to go out and actually deliver any of this knowledge to those who might need it.
And the methods which followers are encouraged to employ in order to recruit people into Art of Living are questionable and highly unethical to say the least. For instance, Sri Sri himself asks course participants during a video segment shown in the Advanced Course to “use any tricks you might know to bring people to the courses”, justifying it by saying “it’s ok do so because this is something which is good for them.” Also please read the post 9 Steps to Organise a Part I Course, which was taken from an email circulated by one of the most senior AoL teachers, Kurshed Batliwala (Bawa). Finally, if you’re feeling lonely and want to have someone call you up regularly on your cell phone, you might want to give out your phone number to your local AoL chapter and see how many times they call you when there is a mega Advanced Course taking place near you taught by a Rishi or a Swami, and decide for yourself whether it constitutes harassment or not.
Superiority Complex and Its Consequences
But yet another disturbing by-product of this in-group versus out-group dynamic which is particularly rampant within Art of Living is that many if not most followers strongly believe that they are on the highest path of all, and that as a result of being on this path they are in fact more spiritually evolved than those who are not. In my own case I was actually told this almost verbatim by Rishi Nitya Pragya, however the feeling of superiority was already there from early on.
I knew quite a few people who were on other, non-AoL, spiritual paths, and instead of treating them as equals, I can honestly say that I looked down at them because they weren’t following AoL, and that whatever paths they were on couldn’t offer anywhere near what AoL could offer them.
Ultimately, one of the most worrying things that happened to me was that I had started to spend much more time with my Art of Living family, whom I considered to be more “superior” in general, and far less time with family and friends, whom I considered to be “inferior”, simply because they weren’t on this amazing path. There came a point whereby I believed that if my friends weren’t ready to come into Art of Living, then I wasn’t going to waste my time with them but instead better spend my time finding (recruiting) people who were ready to join Art of Living.
Thankfully, now that I’m out of AoL I have rekindled these friendships I previously had and am close to my family again.
Summary and Conclusions
It would seem that during my time with Art of Living, I learnt a lot of good and a lot of bad things, and that in fact it wasn’t possible, at least at the time, to disentangle the two from each other and take only the good. Part of the reason, I realize now, is that all these bad things were very cleverly disguised as good things, or at least that’s how they seemed when I was still in AoL.
Now that I am free to look at these things more critically, it has become so obvious that these things were clever manipulations designed with the sole intention of delivering the various results I have outlined above. Yes, I did learn a lot of wisdom which seemed to be based on Hinduism, but ultimately most of what I learnt was twisted in some way or other to forward Art of Living’s own agenda.
I learnt much valuable knowledge, however some of this knowledge was used as a weapon against me, to suppress my critical thinking, discourage me from questioning things, suppress many doubts I had about the organization, and to accept various situations which I found disagreeable, ultimately leaving me wide open to abuse.
I learnt to accept the idea of the Divine, but then was led to believe that the ultimate Divine being on this planet was Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. I learnt about seva, but then was led to believe that the ultimate seva one could perform was to become an Art of Living teacher, and to surrender to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, and that this would result in my bad karma being reduced.
I learnt about belongingness and about “One World, One Family”, only to realize that the way in which Art of Living implements these ideas is to promote a deep sense of belongingness only between its own members, and to create the “One World, One Family” by pulling everyone in the world into the Art of Living family itself.
I became part of a beautiful group of people whom I loved being around, except I was starting to get feverish about this same group, and as a result of this feverishness I was trying to pull more people into the group and any cost, even using unethical methods to achieve this end. And my own identity was slowly dissolving away, as the more time I spent with Art of Living, the deeper my involvement with the organization became, the more I was self-identifying with the group as a whole. Instead of transcending my ego, which was what I was repeatedly told this was all about.
And I had developed a superiority complex because of AoL, believing that it was the highest spiritual path, and that those who weren’t willing to come into AoL weren’t worth knowing.
I can honestly say I am in a much better place now than I ever was when I was with Art of Living. It has taken me this long to get here, and although I am still not completely free, I have definitely come a long way from where I was when I was trapped in Art of Living. And yes, I was very much trapped, in what I will term a “prison without walls”, something which I could only see clearly once I left.
All the good things I learnt, I am taking with me. I will share these with the world as I see fit, if the need should ever arise. Some knowledge is certainly useful, the rest is questionable at best. And one of the ways in which I have improved is that I have started to question things again in general, no longer blindly accepting things as I did when I was in Art of Living. This is in fact what I did before I became involved with the organization, so AoL took this faculty of critical thinking away from me.
As far as seva is concerned, there are so many other ways to serve the world, so many people I can help, without having to teach them the Basic Course or Kriya.
I still believe in the idea of belongingness and still maintain the vision of “One World, One Family”, except in my vision I don’t feel the need to pull others into my world. Rather, I encourage mutual respect of views amongst each other people, teaching people to see others’ perspectives, and ultimately promoting harmonious living wherever I go by being calm and centered in my self.
I certainly no longer believe that AoL is the ultimate path. In fact, if someone tells you that their path is the highest path, they are almost definitely trying to sell you something, and you should be immediately wary of them. The truth is, there is no ultimate path. Each person needs to find their own path, taking the things that work for them, discarding everything else that doesn’t. If someone is trying to make you follow their path and you are finding yourself making a lot of compromises to do so, it most likely isn’t for you.
Above all the greatest thing I have gained from my experience is actually something which I didn’t learn during my time with Art of Living. Rather, it is a realization I had more recently, and that is simply that whatever I have found in my life which really works for me, it doesn’t mean that this same thing will necessarily work for anyone else. So I no longer have the strong desire to force my beliefs on everyone else I know. This in part comes from what I said above, that there is no single path which is right for everyone, no panacea that will cure all of the world’s problems, and anyone who promises to be able to deliver either of these things is almost definitely lying.
So now, whenever someone tells me of a personal issue they are having, I actually listen to their problem intently and then offer the best advice I can give them. And let me assure you that at no point do I even hint that they should do an Art of Living Basic Course or a Yes!+ course, as I used to, trying to convince them that it will magically solve all their problems. It is so liberating to be able to look at people as people again and not as prospective recruits for Art of Living. It certainly has taken a huge weight off my shoulder, and it has also brought me so much closer than I ever was to so many people because they realize I am actually a human being who can empathize with the things they are going through, instead of someone who believes that just by learning a breathing technique all their suffering would cease.
No matter how hard I wanted to believe that Art of Living would help them, the chances are that it would actually add more problems to their lives than they already had. As I realize now it had done with me. No matter how much it helped me, all the things I have described above actually turned me into a slave to the organization, a robot who was only interested in recruiting more slaves, and in fact it had stunted my spiritual growth while I was under the influence of AoL. Yes there was some spirituality going on in the background, but I have become far more spiritual after breaking my ties with AoL, and continue to grow and flourish more than ever before.
I am grateful for having had the opportunity to indulge in this experience, as it came to me at a time in my life when I needed it the most. But I am even more grateful that these blogs came along at just the right time and opened my eyes, before I became too heavily involved and potentially wasted several years of my life away.