Lessons of a Post-Hare Krishna Life
Leaving ISKCON can bring great relief, even a newfound sense of freedom, but it can also present some challenges. The following suggestions are meant to help you along the way.
Lesson #1: Honor the noble quest that set us off on the spiritual path to begin with. Give credit to the seeker’s state of mind, which is both gift and curse. Sometimes it can be tempting to denigrate ourselves for having made the choices that led to our involvement with ISKCON. It’s important to recognize that we’d hoped to find more meaning in life. It’s also important to recognize that our earnest hope was exploited.
Lesson #2: Spirituality can survive without ISKCON. When leaving ISKCON, or Krishna consciousness altogether, people often fear that they will be completely cast away from God or that the pursuit of spirituality itself will not be possible outside of the system on which they’ve become so dependent. It’s important to allow ourselves the time and the freedom to explore our own subjective (and truly personal) spiritual convictions. At times there may be a strong, even overwhelming urge to return to the familiarity of the greater ISKCON ecosystem or to retreat to the apparent safety of another religious group. That urge may even be reinforced by feelings of loneliness or by an awkward unfamiliarity with our own unique spiritual drives. Have patience. Take the time to get to know yourself again, without judgment, and without having someone else’s worldview imposed upon you.
Lesson #3: Transcendence is ours to explore. The stress of life and the frantic noise of the mind, with its incessant barrage of thoughts, can seem confusing, depressing, or alienating. Especially after leaving an environment that placed such heavy demands on us. Learning to find our own unique ways of transcending all of that — and not by just running away from the world or separating ourselves from our humanity — can drive us to more honestly explore our inner selves. Instead of constantly reaching and grasping for some sense of sanctity outside ourselves, we can instead go within, to get to know ourselves, and to do so with kindness and real depth. This sort of self-awareness can help in dealing with a hectic world. It can even give more meaning to our lives.
Lesson #4: Learn to live in the present moment. As members of ISKCON we lived with disdain for the present life. We were taught to think that “real life” would happen in the future, after we’d reached “perfection,” which we were told is both extremely rare and absolutely imperative to constantly strive toward (though somehow forever beyond our grasp). The best antidote to the anxiety that comes from living in constant fear of death, or in fear of what might happen to us in some imagined future, is to learn to experience our own lives now, moment by precious moment. This takes time, patience, and courage, as well as the willingness to explore (and to accept) ourselves, as we are now.
Lesson #5: Form a new relationship with uncertainty. The need to have an answer to every question is a compulsion that can be seen as a kind of pathetic, even desperate attempt to shield ourselves from things that are truly incomprehensible. The desire to have, on demand, full knowledge of all of life’s mysteries often leads us to accept ideas as true without fully investigating them — and without acknowledging our doubts — in a healthy, objective way. This may lead to a sense of being more secure, but it’s a false sense of security. The claims that others make about the unknowable, however authoritative those claims may seem, are still claims that we can never verify. In actuality, our experiences of the world (spiritual or otherwise) are completely subjective and unique to each of us, as they should be. Don’t allow anyone else to dictate what your experience should look like or how your experience should feel. Mystery and uncertainty are inextricable threads in the fabric of human existence. They don’t need to be conquered or mastered, but they can be explored.
Lesson #6: Know your triggers. There may be certain ideas, images, and experiences that will trigger responses in you like anxiety, depression, confusion, loneliness, isolation, sadness, anger, or other intense emotions. Sometimes the fear, guilt, and shame, as well as the other ingrained superstitions or magical thinking we acquired while in ISKCON can still have an influence on our behavior after having left. Just that fact alone can be disturbing or uncomfortable. Coming to identify what your triggers are and learning how to manage your responses to them is extremely helpful. And allowing ourselves to feel and to express uncomfortable (even frightening) emotions is completely natural, healthy, and useful. Even anger is sometimes helpful and is not, as we were taught, a “path to hell.” Expressing the full spectrum of emotions through writing, talking, art, music, dance, and other creative or constructive outlets is also an excellent way to heal.
Lesson #7: Learn how to relax. Relaxation was something we didn’t do a whole lot of as devotees. Doing something without a goal in mind, just for the pleasure (yes, pleasure!) of it can be very healing. Having fun is important for the well-being of the whole self. We were indoctrinated to condemn and to carefully avoid anything that might bring us personal pleasure (which we dismissed as “sense gratification”). For many of us that resulted in constant and habitual self-surveillance and self-criticism, but now we no longer need to distrust or condemn our own thoughts and feelings.
Lesson #8: Learn how to trust again, especially ourselves. It’s important to regularly check in with ourselves, to investigate what we really think and how we really feel about the things life presents us with. In ISKCON we were taught to distrust our thoughts and feelings, a practice which leads to self-alienation and encourages a slavish need for external validation, usually in the form of approval from people we admire or in other ways see as superior to ourselves. We have likely internalized this authoritarian ideology and formed a habit of dissociating from ourselves. It takes time to recuperate from this.
Lesson #9: Learn how to explore and to practice self-love. Love is not just for others or for something divine (and distant and abstract). Love begins with caring for ourselves, which includes making sure that we give kindness, compassion, and patience to ourselves, especially in our recovery from the cult experience. Empowering ourselves – in particular, by discovering our likes, dislikes, opinions, and preferences – is an important part of rebuilding our sense of self.
Lesson #10: We’re all in this together. The “us vs. them” mentality (typical of the cult environment) thrives on the idea that “only we know the truth.” This kind of foolish arrogance stems from sectarian pride and produces a divisive sense of spiritual one-upmanship. Learning to truly see all beings as qualitatively equal and worthy of compassion, not as inferior but rather as fellows in the mysterious, often challenging world we all share goes a long way toward breaking the mood of condescension that we may have adopted as devotees.
Lesson #11: Find support. There are a growing number of online resources for people leaving ISKCON and other high demand groups. Therapy is often helpful, and so are friendships with others who have been through the recovery process. Some ex-members find it helpful to explore the actual history of the tradition to which ISKCON says it belongs; others find it more helpful to move away from that tradition altogether. Learning to listen to our own hearts and minds and to freely choose what to do may seem foreign to us at first, but it will open up what more than likely had become a very narrow view of the world (and of ourselves). It can lead us to a deeper, more loving, and more compassionate experience of our own lives, and of each other.
Lesson #12: There’s no rush. Taking time to recover from our experiences is important. As we go through our recovery, it’s a good idea to avoid giving ourselves difficult assignments, setting unrealistic goals, or allowing the healing process itself to become a compulsion or an obsession. Now that we’ve left ISKCON we can stop worrying about the state of our consciousness and measuring ourselves according to someone else’s system. Now we can open ourselves up to our own inner wisdom, letting go of the ideological chatter and the mantra-counting that may have given us a superficial sense of security but at the same time alienated us from our own selves. And it’s perfectly fine and normal to make “mistakes” along the way.