Saturday, January 30, 2010


I'm still having cult dreams. After twenty-five years, you'd think they would have stopped. But now that I'm exploring my spirituality in earnest - i.e. Christian spirituality, I'm getting shaky. Last night, I was back in a big Way meeting, leading it. I woke with a start - thoughts racing, heart pounding, short of breath.

I have to go in very small steps. Baby steps. There's so much I don't understand and so much I want to (I want, I want, I want….) Who is God? What is the nature of God? Why is there evil and suffering? Who was Jesus? I am a perennial doubter. Even if God came down and told me the answers to my face, I'm sure I'd still doubt. So, I'm having to trust my heart. And that's hard for one who always sought "answers " outside herself.

Yesterday, before the circuits in my brain overheated from all these theological questions, I wrote about taking responsibility for my actions in the cult. That seems to be the first step in recovery from just about anything. Look at AA's 1st step -" Admitted that we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable." You have to accept that you have a problem before you can tackle it. In this case, my anxiety is off-the-charts when it comes to Christianity because I'm so afraid I'll "lose my way" again. Naming the source of the anxiety helps. So does writing about it. So here's yesterday's post:

I was speaking with a friend the other day about centering prayer and she told me of a terrifying experience she had had many years ago when she was seeking to deepen her spirituality. She was reading many books on spirituality, under the supervision of a confessor and a spiritual director. But she started straying into the turbulent waters of the spirit - where good and evil clashed. She could barely articulate what had happened to her except to say that it took over her life and nearly destroyed her marriage. No one, she said, could relate to what she was going through, not even her counselors. She felt "over her head" in God and couldn't get her footing. Finally, she extricated herself from it - stopped praying, stopped opening herself to these spiritual forces, stopped going to church. She just quit and it took her over forty years to regain her footing.

"Not unlike your experience in the Way, when you thought you're doing God's will and you were led astray," she said.

"Was there ever a time when you felt it was wrong?" I asked.

"Oh yes," she said. "But I was under the direction of some very spiritual people and they encouraged me to continue."

So, there it was. Under the guidance of ignorant guides. Not evil, not like a cult leader, but misguiding, all the same. She gave up her free will to listen to them. Instead of listening to herself and her better judgment. That's the problem with religion. Often we think someone else knows better than we do and we give up our good sense.

Listening to her, it was easy for me to see my own folly in The Way. Sure, I knew what I was doing was wrong. I knew it was wrong to have sex with a married man. I knew it was wrong to allow myself to be used and beaten and abused. I knew it was wrong to deceive other people in the name of God. All in the name of God. And yet, I continued, RATIONALIZING that it was okay just because I was told it was. Brainwashing? Perhaps. That's like the joke - how many cult leaders does it take to change a light bulb?
Answer - only one - but the light bulb has to want to change.

I gave up my free will. I gave it up - no one took it from me. It’s much harder to understand a child who was born into a cult - how do they find their way when their free will IS taken over by a controlling adult system? And yet people DO find their way back to their center. How? BY LISTENING to the still, small voice inside. Cults do everything to make it impossible to listen - by controlling all your free time and never giving you time to think. Our busy culture can do the same. That is why "down time" in which you are with yourself, alone, is SO important. It gives you a chance to listen to yourself - listen to what you're telling yourself. Then perhaps we can hear what our personal God is telling us.

Friday, January 22, 2010

What's Next?

Okay, so there's a way to manage anxiety and stress through mindfulness meditation and centering prayer. But what about God? Where does love fit in, one reader asked. (BTW, thank you, dear reader, this is just what I've been asking, too.)

I'm not sure I have the answer but I'll relate an experience I had recently. I had been praying faithfully every morning, centering on my "sacred word" and following my breath. My new twofold path.

Then, one morning, I felt like I was coming close to the fire. You know, like Moses coming upon the burning bush. The fire turned into light, the light turned into love and love turned into…..fear. I went to work and anxiety hit HARD. Anxiety soon gave way to depression and I was a wreck for the rest of the week. I stopped praying and hit the refrigerator, consuming as much comfort food as I could (my dysfunctional way of coping.) I was utterly baffled. What happened?

Then I saw Sandy, my spiritual director. I shudder to say that because, as a former cult member, anything that smacks of spiritual guidance is a great threat. But I had met her at a low-key retreat last September in which we played with clay and found our center. I have been poking at the edges of my spiritual quest for years, unable to commit to anything but hungering all the same. Sandy, a Methodist minister, saw that and we connected. I've been seeing her once a month ever since.

I told Sandy I had become fearful during my prayer. Not just fearful. Terrified. The closer I got to God, the more panicked I became. I was sure She was going to betray me (I use masculine and feminine pronouns interchangeably as I do not believe God has a gender.) My whole being felt unsafe, threatened with annihilation. What was it?

The more Sandy and I talked, the more it dawned on me that these were the same feelings I had as a trauma survivor. And my trauma had been in the cult. The Doctor, who had dubbed himself "The Man of God," had used me in the name of God. I equated him with God. That's the most devastating damage of cults. They ravage one spiritually, usurping the Mystery and turning a man into an idol. Now, here I was, back on my spiritual quest and the buried memories of the trauma were resurfacing - not the trauma of sexual and physical abuse but of the spiritual abuse. I was sure that God was going to betray as he had before - only that "god" was a man, Victor Paul Wierwille.

Once that became clear to me, that I was mixing up my gods, my anxiety vanished and I was back on track. I'm reminded of Paul Tillich's words at the end of his book "The Courage to Be:" "The courage to be is rooted in the god who appears when God disappears in the anxiety of doubt." On this new spiritual journey, which has only taken me twenty-five years to get to, I am embracing a new God - one of love and goodness and light A God who does not betray or abandon. God the ocean. Kris the pebble. I haven’t gotten to the father/child part yet. That's more trauma to work through. But the goal is there and so is Love. I'm trusting I'll be led into it the way a flower unfolds in the sun. Not something I can rush or push. Just another part of the journey.

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Meditation on Meditation

My old friend Karen, from my college days, is here visiting. She just came from a 9-day workshop on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in Massachusetts. She learned techniques of meditation and relaxation and is now ready to teach other to help manage their stress.

Karen and I met at a Vipassna meditation retreat two years after I left The Way. I had just started divinity school and was exploring other religious traditions. I figured Christianity hadn't worked out so well so I'd give Buddhism a shot. The retreat was held at a beach house and was led by Susan, a petite Jewish woman with wild brown hair and a thick Brooklyn accent. It being a silent retreat, we were instructed to not speak for the whole weekend.

One afternoon, I was walking along the beach, throwing stones and shells back into the ocean. I was yelling at God. Why had He let betrayed me and caused me to suffer at the hands of The Way? Why had He let everything fall apart? Why? Why? Why? It was unfair.

Susan came walking up behind me. I turned and ran towards her.

"I know we're not supposed to be talking, Susan, but I can’t hold it in any longer," I cried.

"What's up?" she said matter-of-factly.

"It's God. If God exists, how could He let all this bad stuff happen to me? Why did He betray me?"

Susan picked up a small stone from the sand and held it out in the palm of her hand.

"God didn't let this happen to you. God is being. God is everywhere. Maybe you the pebble on the beach felt betrayed but not you the part of the ocean. You are one with being. You can't be betrayed."

Then she handed me the stone and continued up the beach. I stood there dumbfounded.

That moment changed my life because it took me from being the center of my world to being part of God's. God is Mystery and I can't begin to know the reasons for everything but I know and believe that I am part of a greater whole and I am not at the center of it. It was and is a great relief.

I still meditate and find God in me each morning in the rhythm of my breath. I wrote a poem the other day about what it's like for me - this meditation. Here it is:

First, I strap myself in to the leather seat of my
invisible space craft. Then I launch into the deep,
ascend or descend, whatever you call it-
Until I find the orbit of my breath,
the magnetic field that holds me to this life.
Rocks and celestial debris assail my ship
in the form of thoughts and feelings but
I persist until I reach the still point
that pulls me out and pulls me in,
floating in the center of my inner space.

Mindfulness -Based Stress Reduction introduces a form of breathing meditation in which one follows one's breath to the center of one's being. For me, a combination of mindfulness and centering prayer has helped me connect with God and the Source. It has restored my faith and gives me a greater purpose beyond my own limited view.

If you're interested in learning more about mindfulness meditation and/or centering prayer, I recommend Jon Kabat-Zinn's Full Catastrophe Living or Thich Nhat Hnah's Miracle of Mindfulness or Open Mind, Open Heart by Father John Keating.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Happy Birthday to Us

Twenty-five years ago today I was a patient on the psychiatric unit of a hospital in Portland, Oregon. I was also nine months pregnant. Two nurses, dressed in pastel-colored lab coats, walked into my room.

"Are you ready?" one said. Her lab coat had balloons and happy faces on it.

"Today's the big day," said the other, a hefty blonde with a warm smile.

I rose from an armchair in the corner of the room and heaved myself onto the gurney. They were taking me upstairs to deliver my baby.

"The doctor will start a drip and they'll induce labor." The nurses wheeled the bed towards the elevator and continued their instructions "We'll take you up to the seventh floor and when it's all over, we'll bring you back down here. All you have to do is relax."

I placed my hands on my bulging belly. The baby kicked. "Is Alec going to be there?"

"Yes, he's already up there, waiting for you."

My whole body tensed. I'd been preparing for this moment for weeks in therapy. "Just expect him to be an asshole," my therapist had told me. She knew about my husband's violent temper. I had already decided not to go back to him. I just needed to get through this day. It never occurred to me to ban Alec from the delivery room. I was still under the spell of The Way, a fundamentalist cult I belonged to. Alec was a "man of God" and it was his right as the father to be there. I didn't consider my rights.

We arrived at the Obstetrics department and Alec was there to greet me. He was calm and smiling, joking with the nurses and encouraging me. "Don't worry, Kris," he said. "Everything 's going to be alright." The good Alec.

Soon I was in labor and Alec was holding my hand. "Breathe," he said. "Breathe." I have no memory of the delivery but it went quickly. Before I knew it, a nurse was handing me a beautiful baby girl. Alec cried. I cried. "We did it," he said.

Today is my daughter's twenty-fifth birthday. She is a strong, lovely young woman. It's a long way from her inauspicious beginnings. But how many people can say that they spent their first few weeks on a psych ward with their mother?

This day marks an important day for both of us. My daughter's birth signaled a birth in me, as well. She gave me the strength to walk away from an abusive marriage and The Way. After I left the hospital, I never went back. Today is a day of deep gratitude for the people we have become.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Butterfly Speaks

So it's been almost a year since I last posted, since I entered the MFA in Professional Writing at Western Connecticut State University and decided to improve my writing skills. Well, I haven't exactly graduated (I actually dropped out), but I got what I was after. The keys to successful writing.

I had very gifted teachers who taught me the "secrets." My husband is an art instructor who teaches the "secrets of the Old Masters." I didn't know how envious I was of his students, until I got a taste of instruction myself. I became an MFA groupie and learned what makes writing "work."

Far be it from me to reveal these deep mysteries (hint - scenes, scenes, scenes.) Now that I have emerged, a butterfly from a chrysalis, I have a new manuscript in hand - another memoir, the sequel to Losing the Way - and am ready to present it to the world. I have decided to pick up the mantle of writer and explore different subjects beyond my limited life. Memoir has run its course.

A lot can happen in a year. One can fall in love or be diagnosed with a fatal disease. Nothing so dramatic happened to me, unless, finding one's "bliss" counts for that. I've learned that as much as I love being a prison social worker, there's something I love even more and that's writing. That's why I wake up at four in the morning and labor away on this laptop.

So how about you? So how has your year been? Have you found your bliss? Where is it taking you? I'd love to hear.