It's called meditation, but it looks like a scene out of Dante's Inferno.
People writhe on the floor, screaming and crying. Pop songs blare from the speakers-The Black Eyed Peas, Bruce Springsteen, Mike & the Mechanics. A woman speaks soothingly into a microphone, encouraging the people to give their feelings free rein. It's the fourth day of "The Intensive," a six-day Miracle of Love seminar, and everyone is exhausted. They've been deprived of sleep; food has been limited. They've been probed, prodded and berated until they've all dredged up their deepest psychic pain and shared it with the others. Emotions are raw, souls laid bare.
On the fifth day, the mood shifts. Screaming and crying is replaced by dancing and laughter. Seminar participants are hugged, praised, coddled and cradled. Their brains flood with endorphins; they feel purged, released, euphoric. Hearts fill with love for everyone in the room. On the last day, a video is shown of a woman who tells the participants that the joy they are experiencing is God's energy.
That's how it was for Gary, an East Coast cardiologist who flew to California to attend The Intensive on the recommendation of a friend. His practice was thriving, but it was the only part of his life that was going well. "My wife and I were having difficulties with our marriage, and I was adjusting to being a parent. It was kind of a mid-life crisis. I was looking for a serious spiritual practice and I wasn't finding it in Western religion. I was searching for a real relationship with God."
He began attending meditation sessions every chance he got. His social life came to revolve around Miracle of Love and the others who followed its teachings. After awhile, Gary began to believe that the woman in the video really was who she claimed to be: the voice of the latest incarnation of God, Kalindi La Gourasana.
Her parents named her Carol Seidman. Originally from San Diego, she and her husband, David Swanson, set up Miracle of Love headquarters here in the late '80s. Fifty-two years old with long, curly brown hair, Seidman strikes the casual observer as an unlikely prophet. Her self-published book, Ultimate Freedom: Union With God, contains page after page of photographs of her, several in the nude. On the back cover of the coffee-table-sized book, her back to the camera, she grins over her shoulder wearing a black leather studded thong and bra with fishnet stockings. Her followers see such images as proof of her advanced state of enlightenment: "How free she is!" they say. "How unfettered by convention!"
The mythology of Miracle of Love, as put forth in another organization-published book, Breaking the Cycle of Birth & Death, is that David Swanson underwent a transformation in 1987, when an incarnation of God named Lord Gourasana took over his body and began speaking through him. Seidman, taking the name Kalindi, and a friend of theirs named Gayle-now known as "The Lady"-received his teachings and became "spiritual masters." In 1995, the story goes, the energy emanating from Gourasana finally overwhelmed Swanson's body and he died. That's when Gourasana began speaking through Kalindi. The Lady rose to second in command. In the past year, a few more members of the inner circle have been elevated to "spiritual masters."
We don't usually hear about cults until tragedy strikes: the suicides of the Jonestown and Heaven's Gate followers, the murder/suicide last year involving two high-level members of The Family. There was more public concern during the '60s and '70s, when young people were being heavily recruited by groups like Hare Krishna and the Moonies. These days it's no longer impressionable youth who are targeted; it's mid-life-crisis professionals. The sources I interviewed include a doctor, an investor, a corporate executive and a small business owner. The advantage to the group is that these high-functioning adults have plenty of earning power with which to fund the organization.
Miracle of Love is registered as a nonprofit religious group with several arms. One of them, the Miracle of Love Foundation, declares on its 2003 IRS Form 990 assets of $674,520. But one former member of the Miracle of Love funding team, William, says that most of the group's assets are undeclared. "Monies get channeled out of the nonprofit organization and used for other purposes. There are trusts set up for the leaders and there are seven or eight corporations that funds get transferred to. Properties are bought for Kalindi and The Lady."
Though the fund-raising drives are never mandatory, they are constant. "Even though, all along, you're being told it's all up to you, there's this sense that you've got to keep giving, that you can never give enough," says a former member we'll call Frank.
(All the former members quoted in this story asked that their identities be concealed for legal, professional or financial reasons. For current members, talking to the press is strictly forbidden-the one member who did agree to a formal interview backed out after talking with one of the higher-ups.)
"The meditations are all about give, give, give," Frank says. "There are conference calls to get more money. Your spiritual leaders tell you you're self-absorbed, you don't give enough, you don't care. So you keep trying to let go of your own desires, let go of more of your money. Nothing matters but your connection with God."
The central teaching of Miracle of Love is that followers can "break the cycle of life and death," escape the suffering inherent in life and "come home to God" within this lifetime. They'll achieve this, they're told, through the meditation practice and by "letting go of attachments" to the material world-the world of illusion. The handiest way to let go of their attachments to money is, of course, to donate it to the Miracle of Love mission. "A lot of people there are living paycheck to paycheck," says Frank. "There are doctors and lawyers and CEOs who have no money. Over time, they've given away everything."
Attachments to people will also interfere with spiritual development, followers are led to believe. The more devoted followers live in communal houses, and married couples are usually not assigned to the same one. As one spouse moves up in the spiritual hierarchy of the group, he or she is often sent to another city-or another country.
"It's gotten rare for couples to live together," says Frank. "No one is ever told not to be in a relationship, but there is a dogma that you should not be attached to anybody else because that slows down your movement toward enlightenment." Sex with multiple partners is preferable to marital fidelity, since the only exclusive relationship the devotee should have is with God. Devotees are encouraged to "step over their sexual boundaries" as a way of "breaking free."
The non-attachment teaching also applies to parents and their children-particularly if the children are not living in the Miracle of Love community. "One of the leaders told my wife that she was visiting her family too often and she was picking up bad spiritual habits and it would be better if she didn't see us so much," says the ex-husband of one member. He now has custody of their children. "They tell you that this is the best thing you can do for your family. As you get closer to God, it will help your family. And in order to get closer to God, you need to be here" at the communal house.
Devotees are given new names. They're told when to wake, when to meditate, when to do service work for the mission, how much time to allot for chores, what time to go to bed. Everything is dictated, down to which toilet paper to buy.
"We used to have to write to the leaders every day about what's going on with us, the difficulties we were having, what our meditations were like," says Frank. "Some days we'd read a quote [from Kalindi or another spiritual leader] and then have to write about it. They keep everybody very busy and under a tremendous amount of stress. There's a lot of service work. Everybody has responsibilities to keep the mission going. I was given 20 to 48 hours a week of service-work assignments, on top of my job. You're totally immersed in it. They create jobs just to keep people busy so you don't have time to question anything."
Members who do question the leaders are told they're succumbing to the illusion of the material world and that they're straying from the path to God. "They tell you that if you leave the path, horrible things will happen to you, like you'll get brain cancer," says Sheila, who left the group after three years. "Or you'll suffer forever in infinite lifetimes or something crazy like that."
Still, Sheila was tormented with doubts. "I would have panic attacks and wonder, am I going crazy for thinking this is God? Was I hypnotized? Am I crazy for thinking that maybe I have a special role with God? Is it mass hysteria? Or is it real? Whatever that was that they were channeling, it felt like so much light and so much energy that I thought it was God. I really did. And at the same time, I had a sense that there was something hiding behind all that light and energy that was evil. So I constantly struggled with that."
A year after leaving, Sheila is still trying to sort out what happened to her. "I lived with some incredible people who really meant well," she says. "They really believed it was a pure path to God. They would do absolutely anything for God, and they would do absolutely anything out of love. I don't know that any of them realize that they're hurting people. Everybody seems either deluded or brainwashed."
She does, however, have serious doubts about the intentions of Kalindi and others in the top echelon. "I now think Kalindi is nuts. I don't know to what degree she intends to harm people. I just don't know. As far as I can tell, she really doesn't care about anybody. It's possible that the leaders actually think of it as a scam. Gosh, everybody was giving a lot of money. People passed out their retirement savings to give it to the mission. So I don't know who's lying, who's malicious and who's insane."
When members do manage to extricate themselves from the group, they sometimes suffer from post-traumatic stress. They have nightmares. They're depressed. Their lives are in shambles. Their emotions are in turmoil. They've cut themselves off from all social and family ties and the relationship they thought they had with God suddenly appears to be false. "It's like a Twilight Zone, where everything you thought you knew is suddenly not that way at all," says Frank. "All of a sudden my relationship with God was gone. And that was my life. And I realized that all the things I'd been told weren't true. The rug had been pulled out from under me. It's like being spiritually raped."
Perhaps even more devastating than losing their faith in God is the loss of their faith in themselves. "When it becomes clear what the organization is all about, it's frightening," says Frank. "You can't believe you could ever get suckered in like that. I was astonished and just filled with dread. How could I have gotten into this destructive cult? I was totally manipulated. And these people who you thought would do anything for you, and you would do anything for them, they're almost like strangers. I can't trust anybody. Suddenly I'm seeing my spiritual house leader as an utterly sinister person. Like he's just a snake. The thing is, he was just as duped as I was."
Miracle of Love now has several hundred followers in the United States, Canada and Europe. And it's growing. For the last 13 years, the primary recruitment vehicle has been the six-day Intensives, usually held in churches in Marin County. Now the group hopes to attract more followers by offering one-day workshops at a cost of $50, as opposed to the $1,500 six-day version. When I attended a workshop recently at the San Francisco Hyatt Hotel, staffers spoke excitedly about the new San Francisco Center, a 5,300-square-foot space in the heart of the financial district. Future Intensives, workshops and meditations will be held there, plus a raft of new activities, like dances, open to the public.
New communities-clusters of communal houses, each house with its own "spiritual leader"-are also being established. For the last several months, many of Kalindi's most trusted followers have been moving from the "mother center" in San Diego to a new community of eight houses in Colorado Springs. They've been busily preparing one of the houses for the arrival of Kalindi herself some time this month.
Kalindi's whereabouts are usually kept secret from all but a handful of her closest devotees. She communicates to her team leaders mostly by conference call. In recent years, the entire organization has reflected Kalindi's reclusiveness. Recruitment of new members has been done entirely by word-of-mouth. Even the Miracle of Love website contains no contact information other than an 800-number. The message I left, asking about the next Intensive, went unanswered. When I eventually tracked down the designated spokesperson, Rachael Wilder, I requested an interview. She sent me a book and asked me to submit a list of questions, which I did. Wilder then called me back and said there would be no comment.
If a publicity machine is yet to be constructed, that may soon be changing. Internal memos outline plans for an ambitious recruitment campaign, called "Come to God." It was to be unveiled at the annual retreat, held at the end of March at the La Jolla Marriott Hotel. Over the next few years, if plans are realized, new communities will be established in Seattle and Vancouver and new centers will be built in San Diego, Sacramento and Colorado. Expansion efforts have already begun in Australia and South America. Kalindi hopes to have a team of televangelists preaching over the TV airwaves by 2015.
Meanwhile, just as Miracle of Love is expanding its reach, the ranks of its critics are growing as well. Ex-members swap war stories on online support groups, where they offer each other the family-like feeling they used to get from the organization. These sites are also treasure troves of background material. One such group, on Yahoo, briefly gained access to the computers of Miracle of Love insiders recently. Memos and other directives from the leadership were posted on the site in mid-February, thanks to Michael Greasley from Yorkshire, England. It was in these documents that I found Rachael Wilder's phone number. Some of the memos listed the names of various teams, their duties and their leaders. Other memos had phone lists. Several of the people I met at the one-day workshop were included.
Greasley, who describes himself as a former correspondent for the British Broadcasting Corporation, claims he was downloading and installing file-share software when he came across the Miracle of Love documents. "What I found irreconcilable about these documents," he writes in one Yahoo posting, "was that this group was going to extraordinary lengths to be secretive, deceptive and manipulative." Noting that Miracle of Love has spread to Germany, Holland and Switzerland, he writes, "I know one day this group will darken our doorstep here in the U.K." Greasley says he's sent documents to the BBC and other media in the U.K. He sent the Yahoo site hundreds of files until he finally lost access in early March. Since then, Yahoo, responding to a complaint, removed all of the files Greasley had uploaded.
The documents reveal not only the day-to-day operations of the organization, but also a glimpse into Kalindi's modus operandi. One document is a transcript of an address Kalindi delivered to the group establishing the new Miracle of Love community in Colorado Springs, instructing them to pose as Christians to blend in with the locals: "... and, you know, wear little crosses, or little things, you know, St. Francis. There's no Miracle of Love here in Colorado Springs, and there's no speaking of it.... Okay? And we'll all just become that, and this is how we'll become secure for me because just people will just know us. Don't ever give out your address... and don't bring anyone to your house, don't become really close to anyone. Cause [sic] then they'll find out...."
Another document, a transcribed conference call between Kalindi and a group of followers in San Diego, includes this exchange:
Kalindi: Cole, you're not going back to Germany. You have your stuff brought over here with other people.
Kalindi: And you got married in America?
Kalindi: Okay. So when Sara comes you and her [sic] go down and file for divorce.
Kalindi: Okay. There is something way bigger that is waiting for you. And you will love her and you will have incredible friendship with her, but you are going to move on into a much bigger plan.
Cole: Okay, Kalindi.
The indoctrination techniques used in Miracle of Love are similar to those of other cults and "large group awareness trainings" (LGATs) like Lifespring and est (renamed The Forum). The formula is to first break down the individual ego through physical exhaustion, emotional self-revelation and sometimes verbal abuse. The nine-page application form for The Intensive asks newcomers to detail past traumas, childhood fears and unresolved psychological issues. That information is studied by the staffers (called "horseshoe leaders " for the shape of the seating arrangements) and used to guide participants to emotional breakdown. The next step is to build them back up with an outpouring of praise and affection-"love bombing."
While LGATs promise participants wealth and happiness, religious cults offer spiritual enlightenment. LGATs usually use recruits only as an unpaid sales force to sell more people on the training. Religious cults demand nothing less than total devotion.
"Some leaders abuse sexual power; other leaders might exploit their followers financially," says cult expert Dr. Janja Lalich, a Chico State University sociology professor and co-author of Captive Hearts, Captive Minds. "There's usually some degree of financial exploitation because cult leaders tend not to hold jobs, so they need a system that's going to support them. And sometimes there's fraud and illegal activities."
Horseshoe leaders are trained to watch out for cues about participants' financial circumstances. "There's a whole list of indicators they listen for," says William, the former member of the funding team. "Is he wealthy? What are his emotional issues? Does he feel he's unworthy of the money he has? The horseshoe leaders' notes are sent to the funding department afterward and people get singled out. Those people get targeted for donations and to bring them closer into the cult."
Roy Chernus, executive director of Legal Aid of Marin, became suspicious of Miracle of Love when an elderly member of the group came to him for help. She'd lost her life savings-$260,000-on bad investments. "She told us that the person who had hooked her up with these investments was another member of her group," says Chernus. "In fact, he had helped her sell an annuity, which was giving her regular income in order to purchase these. We later found out that he had gotten a commission from that."
Chernus learned that this man also defrauded three other Miracle of Love members in San Diego. All together, the four victims lost more than half a million dollars.
"It's not necessarily the organization that's perpetuating the fraud," says Chernus. "I just remain very suspicious that some of the money may have found its way back to the leaders of this group. I've been unable to prove that, however."
The elderly woman's sons were grateful that Legal Aid was able to recover some $30,000 for her, but they're reluctant to pressure her to leave the group. "They more or less shrugged their shoulders and said this was her life, that she was happy being a member," says Chernus.
"It takes years, or even a lifetime to heal from a cult experience," says Colleen Russell, a licensed marriage-and-family therapist who specializes in cult recovery. Russell herself was a member of a religious cult for eight years. She walked away from it 28 years ago, she says, "but it took me seven years to stop paying the membership because in the back of my mind, there was still the fear that I would get ill, that I would lose all the spiritual gains I had made, that I would have financial woes and ruin and even death if I left this group. I didn't trust myself. I had to learn how to trust my own instincts and to make my own decisions. And I had to learn what real intimacy was about."
Sometimes family members or spouses hire a professional "exit counselor" to de-program the cult member. These days, the kidnappings and abusive techniques that were used by de-programmers in the '60s and '70s have been abandoned in favor of a more gentle approach of education and logic. Even so, families usually choose not to interfere. If the cult member seems content, perhaps it's no one else's business what that individual does with his or her money.
The real dilemma is for those cult members who begin to realize they've been deluded. Living under the tyranny of the cult may become intolerable, but leaving is also wrenching. They need to decide if they're willing and able to re-construct their lives in the outside world.
The best thing that concerned family members can do, says Dr. Lalich, is to keep the lines of communication open. "Don't be hostile. Don't be confrontational. Just be an open door for the person so that if they do want to leave, they have a safe haven to go to. "