WHY I LEFT THE MASTER
Connie Cook Smith
(formerly Constance Robertson)
How I Quit My Whole Way of Life, Without a Sense of Loss
Eckankar: My, How You've Changed...
Time Alone with the Living Eck Master
Once I Had A Master (lyrics to a satirical song)
From 1976-1987, I was a member of Eckankar, a spiritual group which promised self-and-God-realization and emphasized the need for a living leader or master. There is no question I met some wonderful people during that period. There is no question that Eckankar was significantly more benign than most of the groups which traditional religions label as cults.
But as there were major areas in my life which remained solidly and frustratingly blocked, it's clear to me now that being under the influence of a group and a leader were not helpful to me, no matter how well-intentioned or benign.
It was only after I disaffiliated from Eckankar that I began to see how its dominance in my thoughts and in my life served to prohibit the very goals I had signed up to attain. I recall that so many of us "on the path" were experiencing such identical difficulties, that now I cannot help but feel convinced that the spiritual teacher who represents Truth may even unwittingly be the greatest obstacle to it.
Like many spiritual teachers, the Living Eck Master taught absolute individual independence. But how strange that one must go through a master to get it. And how peculiar that the longer and harder I strove for the desired self-and-God-realization, the more fraught with anxiety I became.
In retrospect I can see that I looked increasingly to the spiritual master, as recommended, for guidance out of my frustration. But now I know it's a frustration which ceases to be when there is no master.
Yet "no master" was unthinkable then. Even though my problems had increased in the form of a certain additional pressure in my life, I felt now at least I had help. It just did not occur to me that the help might be the problem.
The ultimate goal of the spiritual seeker usually is one-ness with the Source of Life, and a master promises to teach you how to attain this. But a master with an organization to maintain almost always will continue to teach you how. In my experience, this ever-spiraling continuation becomes a delay in the achievement rather than its accomplishment. I was usually more focused on the process of reaching God than on the simple Being There.
And thereupon the organization itself became an energy loop. To enhance the process of reaching God, I did more and more for the organization. Even though we did not live communally, I felt the organization was giving me everything through its meetings and mailings, and naturally I desired to give much in return.
Without even any persuasion on the part of the master, I found myself spending considerable amounts of time and money, especially in traveling to big seminars where I felt heartened by the thousands of others who were doing the same thing. Yet among members, even these huge, cheerful gatherings are famous for all the personally dramatic negativities that happen - from "everything-going-wrong" occurrences with lost luggage and sudden illness, to actual temptations to commit suicide.
The explanation among ourselves was always that there is such a high energy field around the master that it brings out negative counterpoint experiences, or even "tests." The greater our negative experience, the greater the proof of the master's positive power. Then when things ease up or somehow happily resolve, there is great gratitude to the master for all his help.
Post-seminar-let-down is so common that the master addresses it directly and sends forth his blessings of supportive love. I realized at the end of seminars how much I needed this support, because usually I was traveling a long way home to situations that would be no different when I got back, except for my feeling of having been far away, and special, for awhile.
Then as the post-seminar week wore on and that special feeling wore off, I found I was unhappy as ever and once again turning more and more earnestly to the master for help.
As stated previously, it's an energy loop - and one that did not break open for me until I stopped the syndrome of looking to the master. When I began to allow myself to look to whatever life had to offer in the way of assistance and opportunity and truth, without the prejudice that the master and my path were the best, it was amazing how things changed for the better. Within one year, finances, relationships, and health were better. From that perspective, I could see how I had allowed my master and my path to corner the market on my energies.
I wish I could say I just woke up one day and understood all this and everything was okay. In truth, it was alternately exhilarating and very difficult to let go of the habit of looking to the master. It took some discipline and some creativity to stop using the prescribed words from mysterious languages to call upon God.
I can see now how my ego loved having a special path and special words and levels of initiation going ever higher in number - although word went out that higher initiations would be increasingly hard to come by. Maybe we should try harder, wait longer, stay, obey, and pay forever?
My ego also loved those moments when it all seemed to come together at a seminar after all, and in a piece of exquisite music or in the master's words of exquisite truth, I could say, "This is it. This is the best. And I am part of it!"
How wonderful after Eckankar, when I was able to experience the exquisiteness of other musicians and various teachers and realize fully: "This is it. This is God's love and intelligence, and it is EVERYWHERE." No more mental machinations about how to inform an artist I liked about Eckankar so that he or she might be "more complete!" No more filtering out the profundity of other teachers simply because they are not the master. No more starvation diet of spiritual crumbs doled out slowly, when the Whole Universe of God's Love is presenting a constant feast!
HOW I QUIT MY WHOLE WAY OF LIFE, WITHOUT A SENSE OF LOSS
This brings me to how I finally did stop monopolizing my energies and looping around and around the same problems for years. I came to admit three things.
One, that truth IS everywhere available, especially in this New Age of flourishing spiritual information, and there is no "best brand" of truth. Breakthroughs in physics are indicating the eternal nature of consciousness, the illusory nature of time, and the third-dimensional reality of "what you put out is what you get back" (karma). It doesn't require any particular spiritual path, nor a membership fee, to learn what you need to know about your highest nature and deepest reality. Every adequate library has this information for free.
Two, I finally admitted how TIRED I was of the intense ups and downs of success and lack of success on the path of Eck. Life has enough challenges without adding to it the achievements or lack of them in the organization. Even though we were all quite spiritual, there were subtle and not-so-subtle awarenesses of who had achieved what level of initiation, and who had what experiences with the master.
In a way, I was a raving success in Eckankar. I was chosen to speak at major seminars, I received a few personal letters from two of the Living Eck Masters. And I did spend some private time with the current one, Sri Harold Klemp. Considering there may be a million members, these events were honors indeed. But I finally had to admit that not even the highest experience Eckankar might offer made any difference in my daily life!
My talents were always my talents, my insecurities were always my insecurities, and with or without "my spiritual path," I succeeded, failed, and created my way out of failures at about the same rate I always had done. In short, I bungled along like most people. But on the path of Eck, everything was intensified as to significance, because I had that Spiritual Identity to promote or defend.
The sad thing about that identity - and to me, this is the only truly harmful thing about Eckankar - is that my special identity as a member of that organization was an everpresent barrier between me and all non-Eckist human beings. People were wary of me as a member of a really different religion. And I was always pondering either how to inform them about "what they were missing," or I was regarding them perhaps as slightly inferior, because they hadn't made my same commitment to the highest knowledge.
In short, I experienced life as either a spiritual snob, or as an unwittingly deprived person - suffering a limitation on healthy human interaction and opportunities - because I had placed myself in a spiritual ghetto.
I know that members of Eckankar are not the only religious membership prone to such behavior. But on this path, these thoughts and attitudes seemed to dominate rather intensely, and here was the rationale: Because we are really different, we are really special!
Our special difference was our perpetual glory and our constant curse. Especially when we were congregated together at massive seminars, there was usually an atmosphere of hyper-humor. At the time I was so deeply invested in Eckankar, it was easy to interpret this behavior as just characteristic of the most fun and special bunch of people in the whole world. But in retrospect, I feel that many of us were just really nervous.
We had spent a chunk of change to get there, for one thing. And instead of a relaxing weekend away, it was a whirlwind of scheduled activities and long, long lines. The activities were all optional, but you did want to get what you'd paid for. You were always hoping you'd run into the master somewhere in the hotel, you tried to connect with people you'd maybe not seen in years, you'd get very little sleep, you would probably spend more in the bookstore than you could afford. I don't think I'm the only one who experienced all this with a little more anxiety than spiritual bliss.
I'll particularly never forget a principal speaker and how his direct comment on one aspect of all this caused the most explosive laughter I ever heard at a seminar. He said onstage, with a combination of both pride and bewilderment, "You know, these are the only conventions I know of where you pay all your travel, lodging, food, and expenses so that you can be a key speaker for the occasion."
Everybody nearly collapsed with hilarity. I remember my own grin as being excessively self-conscious, because that's exactly what I had done. As for others, they too had paid and planned and traveled and struggled through all sorts of obstacles that seem to flare up right before or during these events, and all for the privilege of being there.
I think now that speaker's blunt statement of fact served as relief-button from all the STRESS of a seminar. And that would explain why the laughter was nearly hysterical. In retrospect, of course, I don't find it funny at all.
ECKANKAR, MY, HOW YOU'VE CHANGED!
These seminars are still going on, and so much money is flowing in - from the seminars, memberships, books, tapes, pictures of the master, other items - that the organization had to build a temple near headquarters in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and now conducts worship services.
I say, had to, because I believe the temple is a means for legitimate usage of overflow funds. I can't help but speculate this, because the organization, with its little store-front Eck Centers, used to pride itself on being so different from all other religions. The idea of a temple or church and worship services would be a real shock to Paul Twitchell, who started Eckankar back in 1965 - although he himself was known to be very "creative," that is, to do whatever it takes to get things rolling. But I sadly conclude that the temple is not only a financial move, but also a political move - that is, a means to attract an even greater membership.
As seekers look for more than traditional religion offers, it's less scary to make the transition if you can still be part of a congregation, attend services, and sing hymns. I realize that the organization lost some members at the time of this temple-building. I heard they flatly said that Eckankar "had sold out." But in the long-run, certainly this new format will attract more members, as they are able to make an easier transition from traditional to non-traditional spirituality. And thus I see this change, again, more as a financial and political move than as a spiritual evolution.
With that off my chest, I now can conclude with my third point about why and how I stopped involvement with this organization, which occurred just prior to the temple-building. I need to address how I happily stopped the whole thing's occupation of both my head and my heart. It has to do with the concept of a master, the idea of a need for a master or a living spiritual leader.
TIME ALONE WITH THE LIVING ECK MASTER
I did spend some time alone with Sri Harold Klemp, the Living Eck Master. On one occasion especially, I was paged during a major seminar, an appointment for later in the day was set up, and at the appointed time I was ushered into his presence for 20 minutes. He apparently wanted to know more about me, since I had written some lovely pieces about Eck.
I had always thought of Harold as, at very least, a genuinely intelligent, sincere, and humble person. And this impression of him as a human being was more than verified as we chatted in his private hotel suite in Washington D.C. He seemed more eager to learn from me than to instruct me in the ways of the path, and this was indeed a wonderful experience - especially from my in-those-days "inferior female" perspective, in the presence of man with great authority.
But could it have been this very Peak Experience which began to teach me that such experience is utterly unnecessary? This did not cross my mind at the time, though, because oh-the-glory of private time with the master!
Although I was careful not to get my ego involved, careful in short, not to brag - nevertheless, everyone from my area knew I had been paged from the central stage. And one thing led to another until I had even higher-initiates crowding around as a wide-eyed audience, glomming on to whatever I felt was appropriate to share about my experience with the master.
There is something really unnatural about this, and I felt it even then.
I wish now I had said, "Hey, guess what. He's really a very ordinary human being like you and me. Go on home, folks. You're just as good as he is, in some ways maybe even better. He's human, he's vulnerable, he's good, he's kind - and so are you. He shows up in your dreams and in your meditations because your attention is on him. But hell, I've had people at workshops and lectures say they've seen ME in their dreams!"
I wish I'd said, "Don't you see that we're all teachers and we're all students, and as such, WE HUMAN BEINGS ARE ALL EQUAL. I can do some things you can't do. You can do some things I can't do. Can you see that our strengths and our weaknesses make us alike? And that whatever we are or whatever we aren't, we are essential parts of the Whole? And because we are each essential, we are all absolutely equal? That nobody is better than anyone else? That no one is less than anyone else?"
But I didn't say these things. It was too wonderful a moment for my ego to be in that space where I could legitimately (as legitimized by Eckankar) be looked up to by others, because I had been with Him whom we ALL looked up to.
How interesting that this highest point of my life left me feeling actually degraded when I shared it with others - because by feeding people's appetite for how special Harold is, I was actively perpetuating the myth that any human being, any creation of God, is essentially greater than any other - which further implies that some people are somehow less than another.
To me, now, this is the OPPOSITE of spirituality. This is the same old power-and-authority idea that is the grief of this planet and the misguidance of every organized spiritual teaching.
It may be wise, when we wish to master a discipline, to seek out one who has mastered it, and for a time, to defer to their knowledge. But because spiritually, in our deepest essence, we are all equal, I'm convinced now that another person whom we look up to as spiritual authority can only serve as an obstacle to our direct experience with God.
About a year after meeting with Harold, one night I put down a book I'd been reading - it was The Starseed Transmissions, by Ken Carey -- such luminous writing! Such joyous beauty, such tangible energy, so reminiscent of That Presence I knew as a child! Then I picked up my Eck discourse to study - and I began to feel terrible. By contrast, the Eck discourse seemed so un-alive, so un-illuminated, so ...well...so dead. This was the mid-'80's, and I had to admit I'd been feeling for awhile that Eck literature compared poorly to a lot of other stuff out there - although when I first looked at Eck books in the mid-70's, they were comparatively revolutionary and inspiring.
But now, compared to Starseed, the Eckankar discourse just had no light at all. The experience was like going to an Eck Center, expecting it to be warm and lively and inviting, and instead finding it dark, empty, closed down, gone. It dawned on me, as I looked up and away from the discourse, "It's just not there anymore..."
Soon, my sadness turned to anger that, darn it, how can they say this is the highest when there's so much stuff that's so much better! The explosion of New Age authors were providing equal or better insights, and for only the price of a book -- or as I've said, free at the library.
Then I realized I was just mad at myself for dutifully reporting to my spiritual ghetto everyday, when the whole wide world is there for me. I felt mildly stupid, as if I'd been insisting on going to one, limited-menu restaurant everyday, while all around - especially now -- were countless establishments serving up a good variety of nourishment. Dammit, I said, I'm a free human being, and I don't have to put up with this anymore!
I'll never forget those delicious days right after I decided to not renew my membership, to lose all my initiations, to hang out with folks who had no awareness of what had been my whole way of life, to not inwardly chant something all the time, to just listen to life with love and trust in my heart.
FREEDOM! And it feels every bit as delicious today as I spiral upward into ever-greater understanding and ever-greater love.
In a positive sense, it has crossed my mind that Eckankar exists benevolently as sort of a holding-pen for good people who have escaped the clutches or orthodox authority, yet who don't trust their spiritual natures enough yet to go directly to God.
But when I remember how busy one can be on that path, with all the virtuous activities, and when I remember there are constant fees for what I've learned is free, it's tempting to regard Eckankar as just another trap - as just another delay in experiencing the truth of the beloved and powerful beings we all truly are.
I feel nothing but good will towards all these friends of the past. But the level of happiness, accomplishment - and yes, direct awareness of God that I experience now - make me exceedingly grateful that I got out.
# # # # #
What follows is a song I wrote after a friend begged me to hear her master speak at a gathering in Chicago. Since I had other business there, I went to the event. I don't remember the esoteric name of that group, but the master was from India and wore a turban. He was an okay speaker, but when I left after the talk, I was so thoroughly aggravated at his devotees' slavishness that this song, about my time in Eckankar, started composing itself in my head. I will record it when I have the time and money.
ONCE I HAD A MASTER
© 1991 Connie Cook Smith
Once I had a Master
I loved him through and through
And because I had a Master
I thought you should have one, too
I was told I'd get there faster
to Heaven and to God
But it seems I spent of lot of time
explaining: "We're not odd."
With the Master
You'll get there faster
It's clear, we've got the highest way
He's the Only True Broadcaster
So hang in there, and pay, and obey
Now I never liked religions
that tell you what to do
But when the Master said a thing
it seemed to be brand new
We said that we were choosing
not following along
But every single seminar
is a co-dependent throng!
I received initiation
It's something for the few
a rare and sacred privilege
Hey, what number now are you?
We certainly were different
from all those other groups
For Total Spiritual Freedom
you must join the Master's troops
Now - I don't need a Master
like I don't need a drink
When deeply under the influence
it's impossible to think
Instead of self-realization
self-consciousness reigned supreme
Instead of experience with God
"meet the Master in a dream"
But at last the spell is broken
the anxiety is gone
No need to please a Master
When with God, you're one-on-one
With the Master, could be disaster
It's clear we give our lives away
But "he's the Only True Broadcaster"
So they say, so they say, so they say...
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© 1999 Connie Cook Smith
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