It was this time a year ago that my whole reality began unraveling. There is not a single component of my life that hasn’t changed dramatically in that time, with some of them being completely turned on their head. It’s hard to not be preoccupied with all of this as I go about my day-to-day right now. It was in November last year that I truly began to realize that something in my life was not adding up. I had moved to a new town, had my own business, was renting my own place for the first time, and was intent on settling down and rooting into my life after years on the move. But it just wasn’t working.
It began with shame, and confusion, and isolation. I was having to reassess and try to understand parts of life that I had previously boxed in with simplistic, but deeply held, dogma. I was regularly smoking pot, and having adhered to an ideology that rejected all such things, this was difficult for me to place. I had no interest in being secretive, but also no interest in divulging this to my then religious community. So I began keeping to myself more. I also found myself having to face and process sexuality, a core part of the human experience, in light of years of also rejecting that drive. In trying to make friends and date, I began to see a fundamental blockade: I didn’t truly value people who were not in my group. I could appreciate parts of them and enjoy aspects of their company, but something was fundamentally broken. This is a prime characteristic of cultic groups; all that us/them thinking. And this was even coming from a seemingly liberal, open-minded sect of which I had been part.
Slowly everything started breaking down. I found myself burnt out and less and less able to work. I couldn’t find motivation to cook, or clean, or socialize, and so on. Then I began to cry. A lot. I had barely cried for over a decade at this point. Even before I became a monk, life had dealt me a large dose of stoicism. The combination of various forms of instability that were part of my childhood and teenage years had taught me how to turn inward. I learned pessimism and how to detach and thereby suffer less. It’s scary just how much that behavior characterizes so many spiritual teachings, making my segue into such a group natural and nearly seamless. I now see such teachings as espousing a kind of practiced sociopathy, wherein success comes to mean the overcoming of suffering by way of not truly caring.
So I cried, and felt utter confusion as to where the tears were coming from. I would stay up all night listening to a song called Winter Takes All on repeat, grasping for some clarity in the resonance I felt with the lyrics.
This ain’t no place for a man of faith
I gamble it all away, tumble into Fall abased and ablaze…
Unable to prevail unassisted
Will the tempest hail another victim in cyclical rhythm?
(Please break it)
Cause honestly the lie ‘I try tirelessly’ is cowardice
Powerless am I to fight this avarice…
Looking back, I see the threads of self-shame and blame running through those words, and at the time I felt those things strongly.
By January of this year, I realized I needed to figure stuff out. I also realized that my struggles in living a fulfilling life stemmed in large part from the ideology and experiences of my monastic years, an ideology I still clung to at the time. I began seeing a therapist. I also began realizing my former guru/leader had, intentionally or not, done a real number on my mind. He had not shown me the unconditional love that was supposed to be the hallmark of his role as guide. He hadn’t even showed me conditional love so much as conditional abuse. But I still loved him, and I still saw my life’s mission as serving him and his goals and I was still endeavoring to do so.
One thing led to another, to another, and in early April I found myself in the darkest place I’d ever been. I realized I needed more help, because I realized I had been born into and dedicated my entire being to an inherently abusive social, spiritual, and ideological structure. And I realized I was done. I had seen through it, and I had no clue what was next or how to digest my perspective. Luckily I was able to find some support, and at least I could realize I was not alone in this experience.
Since the night I realized that my entire past was over for me, forever, I have gone up and down and up and down. At times I’ve been able to ride the highs of newfound freedom and enjoy myself, plunge myself into new experiences and friends, and so on. At other times I’ve been crippled, incapable of feeling aspirations, of pursuing my future, and of wanting human connection. I fear the coming Winter may be one of those times, so I’m trying to brace myself, whatever the fuck that actually means.
Trauma follows you. Cult trauma follows you. When you are a devout believer, the ideology isn’t just something you hold cleanly in a part of your mind and then toss out when you decide it was rubbish. It’s already seeped its way in to every corner and crevice and synapse. It colors your perception of experiences, other people, and yourself in ways so subtle you can’t even pin them down, what to speak of capture and discard them.
I spent my formative years believing that all the world had to offer was suffering. That enjoying life, caring about it, advancing one’s own place in it, only meant a greater degree of suffering than embracing suffering outright and consciously living for it. So I lived to suffer for a man from New Jersey, in this life and countless lives after it. My life derived meaning and worth from the supposed eventual spiritual payoff of learning to love to suffer for him.
So what now? This ideology and the people who fed it to me successfully broke me. They successfully broke my worldly aspirations and interests. They broke my attachments. Or I did. Or we did it together; a merry band of practicing sociopaths. But seeing through it all, I’ve also broken my attachment and faith in that spiritual payoff. I reject that, and am quite content to do so. But now as I try to root my reality and happiness in what is real and tangible, I still find myself often incapable. I still worship suffering. I still view human relationships with a cynic’s eye. I still try to make all my decisions through a process of reasoning about how they will serve some lofty and unattainable idea of self-development.
Often times I feel left only with a kind of fundamental apathy, having only fleeting drive in this life, and none in the hereafter. I suppose this is what believers want to hear: that not believing in some shape of transcendence makes life desolate and robs us of meaning. But I know that isn’t true. They made it desolate. They robbed it of meaning. And here I am trying to pick up the pieces for myself.
As I write this, my grandfather has just been re-hospitalized and in three weeks it will be 4 years since my mother died. Thankfully I’ve regained some capacity to feel and these things do weigh on me. But I fear it might be a long Winter.