A Yes! Party
After a long period in the wilderness Osho are once again on the rise. They are attracting new followers to their bases around the world—including Osho Leela, an old Manor House in Dorset in the South of the UK which I visited in late 2005.
Fascist boot-camp, Oregon, USA
Back in 1985, Margaret Hill, a former mayor of Antelope Oregon, had the measure of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. “He is a crook,” she said. There were few people around then who would have disagreed with her.
Mrs Hill was being interviewed by a New York Times reporter who’d gone to investigate the chaos the Indian guru and his followers had wreaked during their four-year tenure just outside her home town.
In brief, the facts were these:
The Indian guru Bhagwan Rajneesh had arrived in America in 1981 (along with twelve tons of luggage) claiming that he needed to enter the country for ‘medical reasons’. He was accompanied by around 7,000 disciples, who settled in a 60,000 acre $6million ranch on semi-desert scrubland just outside of Antelope. Almost immediately, things took a turn for the weird.
To the surprise of everyone around him, Bhagwan stopped talking (or, as he put it, he determined on a course of ‘speaking through silence’). The day-to-day running of the huge community then fell to his follower, Ma Anand Sheela.
Sheela took to wearing robes and calling herself ‘queen’. Fences, complete with guard towers, went up around the compound and disciples armed with Uzis patrolled Bhagwan’s residence.
Many of the commune’s members were forced to do twelve hours work a day for no pay. While they succeeded in clearing and planting 3,000 acres of land, building a 350-million-gallon reservoir, a 10-megawatt power substation and a functioning dairy farm, only Sheela and her coterie seemed to live in any comfort. The others had to endure unbearable hardships.
The most bizarre incidents occurred outside the ranch in the town of Antelope itself. There were so many people living on the ranch that they were able to force the results of the 1984 local elections and take over Antelope’s local council. They decided to rename this hitherto upright Oregon backwater Rajneeshpuram. When attempts were also made to rig local county elections by shipping thousands of homeless people onto the ranch, resistance to the Sannyasins (as Osho’s followers were known)
grew stronger. Sheela responded by having her followers dump salmonella into the salad bars of several local restaurants. Antelope therefore gained the dubious distinction of being the site of the first (and to date, the last) successful bio-terrorism attack in US history.
Eventually, Bhagwan Rajneesh emerged from his silence and attempted to distance himself from his disciples. He said that Sheela had been running the place like a ‘fascist concentration camp’ and went on the talk show Good Morning America to try and suggest that those with him were ‘fellow travellers’ rather than followers. He also called on the FBI to conduct an independent investigation into the ranch. The FBI quickly found an extensive eavesdropping system that was wired throughout the commune residences, public buildings and offices. They also uncovered a secret laboratory where experiments had been run on the manufacture of HIV as well as salmonella. Oddest of all they found that Rajneesh’s bedroom was rigged up so that he could receive Nitrous Oxide – laughing gas – while he lay in bed.
Sheela confessed to having a rather ‘bad habit’ of poisoning people and was sent to jail. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh himself was charged with criminal conspiracy, 34 counts of making false statements to federal officials and two counts of immigration fraud. He paid a $400,000 fine and was given a ten-year sentence – suspended on the understanding that he would leave the United States. When he left he declared that he “hoped never to come back.”
Many of his followers, meanwhile, were simply abandoned on the ranch. Most of these people had given over their life savings. They had been promised that they would be returned when they left or once the ranch had started making money. Of course, they weren’t. Somewhere along the line, however, Bhagwan Rajneesh had managed to amass no fewer than 93 Rolls Royce cars.
“Now he has left two groups of followers in the lurch when the going got tough,'' the plain speaking Margaret Hill told the man from the New York Times (Rajneesh had moved to Oregon primarily to escape a large tax bill he faced at his original commune in India). His cult had been disgraced, discredited and, finally, displaced. It seemed that the end had come. Few organisations would have been able to recover from the kind of scandals they’d been engulfed in, no matter how fanatical their devotees. Few would even have the gall to stick around.
Paradise, Pune, India
All of these antics in Oregon were a far cry from the cult’s humble beginnings just over a decade before in India. In 1971 Mohan Chandra Rajneesh (a former philosophy teacher at the University of Jabalapur, who had quite his job to dedicate himself to his full time calling as a spiritual leader) assumed the modest title of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, meaning ‘The Blessed One Who Has Recognised himself as God’. He had simple commandment: “Enjoy!” Unlike other more ascetic gurus to have emerged from India in the 1960s and 1970s, he demanded little from his followers in the way of renunciation – and lots in the way of carnal pleasure.
The ashram he established in Pune in West Central India in 1974 quickly became a New Age Mecca.
It attracted thousands of young Western disciples sold on the charismatic teacher’s mercurial wit and unique brand of Eastern mysticism. Marked out by their happy expressions and orange clothes (dyed at the Bhagwan’s instigation, to reflect the colour of the sun) they quickly spread their guru’s teachings and popularised his unique forms of taboo-breaking therapies. In these sessions, known as Dynamic Meditations, pupils were encouraged to destroy their religious and social conditioning to find out who they really were. They wore blindfolds – or nothing at all – and explored their deepest selves by screaming, fighting and, inevitably, they had sex. Broken limbs were common, as were broken relationships. The latter came thanks to the teachers’ propensity to encourage their students to watch their partners having sex with another person – so they could confront the emotions that this betrayal provoked.
In spite of, or maybe even because of, these extreme practices, the ‘Rajneeshees’ continued to expand in number. Soon they spread out across Europe and the USA, often in stately homes like the one they named ‘Medina Rajneesh’ in Suffolk, where 400 of the Bhagwan’s followers established themselves in the early 1980s – seemingly in utopian contentment.
At his peak, Bhagwan Rajneesh laid claim to 250,000 followers. His Orange People were the cults’ cult. They fulfilled every cliché – sex, drugs, tribal music and crazy clothes. Their leader was the very image of the guru, with twinkling eyes, a long flowing beard and a priapic fondness for his flock. And just like most cult leaders, he left behind him a trail of broken families, ruined minds and wrecked lives.
Even before the Antelope episode there had been plenty of signs that all was not well in paradise. One of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s more chilling suggestions was that prominent female followers should become sterilised so that they could better practise his teachings. Ugly rumours of child abuse and the destruction of family life slowly began to surface. The growing anti-cult movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s also warned that the group’s communal living practices and intensive ‘meditations’ were akin to brainwashing.
The disaster in Oregon was just the tipping point. The communes around the world had been gaining momentum for a rapid descent a long time. As soon as Rajneeshpuram in Antelope imploded and Rajneesh fled to India, many more of his communities around the world dissolved. Most of them were embroiled in unique scandals of their own. Bhagwan’s English followers, for instance, had developed a marked fondness for the drug ecstasy, which the Indian guru had recommended as a spiritual elixir. It’s widely believed that they were the first to bring it into the UK and members began producing it on an industrial scale.
Meanwhile, the original commune in India limped on, but Bhagwan Rajneesh was a shadow of his former self. In 1985 he declared that his religion was dead – and that it had, in fact, been invented by his followers. He said he was glad not to have to pretend to be enlightened anymore. Then, in December 1988, he told his followers that his body had become host to none other than Guatama Buddha. However, when the Buddha disapproved of his use of the Jacuzzi, Bhagwan banished him from his body and said that he was now Zorba the Buddha instead. In 1989 he changed his name for the last time to Osho. He died in 1990, bed-ridden and addicted to laughing gas. He left a simple instruction to his disciples for after he passed away: “stick me under the bed and forget about me.”
Osho returns - everywhere
For a long time, it seemed that the man last known as Osho had indeed been forgotten – or was at least regarded as little more than a bad memory. In 2004, for instance, when Tim Guest
published ‘My Life In Orange’, his autobiographical account of his childhood in the UK commune Medina Rajneesh, it read like an obituary for the group. As the blurb on the jacket put it, they represented: “a lost moment of madness in the cultural history of the West.” The press presented them as nothing more threatening than a fascinating museum piece and in nearly all of the coverage this excellent book produced, the cult was written about firmly in the past tense.
Osho was a busted flush. Nothing to worry about anymore.
The trouble is, however, that in direct contradiction of his last known command, Those of Osho’s followers who remained did not forget about him. They just laid low for a few years, licking their wounds, waiting for the fallout from all the scandals to blow over.
These followers – who now call their faith ‘Osho’ as well - only actually forgot about all the bad stuff. Like nearly all durable religions and belief systems, Osho has developed a distant and shaky relationship with history. Those facts that don’t suit their cause seem to have been conveniently forgotten (or at least banished), while a new narrative has taken their place.
Osho we are now told, with the cult’s Christian-like habit of talking about their dead master in the present tense, “is not a guru.” He is just the man who gives people the space to take “responsibility” for their own lives – and thus “find total freedom.”
So that’s clear.
The Oregon days, meanwhile, when they are mentioned, are explained rather differently to the way, newspapers, witnesses, local people in Oregon, the FBI and even Osho himself saw things. The article most frequently cited on ‘Osho’ websites (‘The Story of Osho – Master, Mystic, Madman by Amit Jayaram) describes how the guru and his sannyasins ”transformed the face of a timeless desert” into a green and beautiful land. Then they came under attack from “a bigoted government” which used every “foul means” at its disposal to destroy the nice old guru and his cult. Meanwhile, the residents of the nearby “ghost town” of Antelope joined in with this conspiracy and harassed the innocent sannyasins.
So that’s why the ranch collapsed and they all had to leave. The US “government”, it’s claimed, even tried to poison Osho with the drug thalium. (Osho himself came up with this theory and he was convinced of it right up until his dying day, even though he exhibited none of the usual symptoms of thalium poisoning. For instance, he still managed to hang on to his hair and lustrous grey beard, even though thalium induces rapid and catastrophic hair loss.)
What’s more Osho’s followers have been busy at more than rewriting history. They have also been steadily regrouping over the last decade, attracting new members and spreading out again all over the world. Without anyone really noticing, they’ve once again grown into a huge multinational organisation.
In short, Osho is back.
Alongside the huge centre in Pune (which never closed down, even in the cult’s darkest days) there are now known Osho-based communities in Iran, Thailand, Holland, Italy, Argentina, Taiwan, Patagonia, Germany, Brazil, South Africa, Denmark, France, Mexico, Canada, all over the UK and the US (where there are large retreats in Colorado, New York and, naturally, California).
If you were to read the websites that promote these communes without knowing anything about the group’s past, you could easily mistake them for perfectly legitimate New Age therapy centres. Of course, it’s understandable that they don’t market themselves as a crazy cult with a terrorist history, but that doesn’t mean such comprehensive – and fundamentally deceptive – re-branding isn’t troubling.
The Pune commune in India, for instance, looks on its website like little more than a resort - and they encourage visits from anyone and everyone:
“This lush contemporary 40-acre campus is a tropical oasis where nature and the 21st Century blend seamlessly, both within and without,” the website gushes. “With its white marble pathways, elegant black buildings, abundant foliage and Olympic-sized swimming pool, it is the perfect setting to take time out for yourself.”
Sounds lovely. And if that doesn’t convince you, they even provide a plug from Elle magazine:
"Every year thousands of people visit this luxurious resort… A very comfortable paradise where you can stay a long time, with low-budget hotels nearby and very good food in the commune, with meditations free. The atmosphere is really like a fairy tale. A paradise where all your emotional, bodily and spiritual needs are met. I can advise everybody to visit for a few days and walk around that beautiful garden where everybody is friendly."
It’s only when you delve deeper into the site that you find the odd stuff about the need to wear red robes during the day – because the colour maroon, when worn by many people meditating together “adds to the collective mental energy” and because loose robes are comfortable in the tropical climate. Oh – and you have to take an AIDS test before you can enter the campus. That’s right, an AIDS test.
Even with these strange restrictions and the bizarre nature of the meditations that “guests” are invited to partake in, many people who visit the “resort” have no idea what they’re getting into. I recently horrified a personal acquaintance who had visited the centre in all innocence on a trip around India by telling her about the history of the friendly looking old man whose picture hung on every wall. Up until that point she’d still been convinced that Osho Pune was nothing more than an eccentric resort -even if the AIDS test had made her feel awkward and she had found it strange how many of the people there had changed their names.
It’s not just spiritually inclined tourists who have been taken in. In Holland one of Osho’s most prominent followers, a man who calls himself Veeresh runs something called a ‘Humaniveristy’, which terms itself “an international centre for therapy, training and personal growth.” Here they run a series of courses designed to help create “people people”, easily able to work with others and who will the literature says, “develop and refine many positive and beautiful qualities to become heartful, dynamic, resourceful, juicy, creative and humorous.”
As well as fostering these useful, if eccentrically labelled skills, the Humaniversity runs a large addiction centre. All very commendable – although it may set alarm bells ringing among those who know about other cults’ involvement with drugs and the way they recruit from the ranks of the homeless and hopeless.
This addiction treatment has also gained Veeresh a degree of legitimacy that other Osho followers have so far failed to attain. In May 2006, for instance, Veeresh was visited by John E. Sheehan, Vice President of Phoenix House Programs, one of the biggest and most respected drug and alcohol relief organizations in the world.
An even bigger coup came when Veeresh appeared on BBC radio in March 2006.
Presented as a "spiritual therapist", Veeresh described the Osho 'Humaniversity' he leads as a training, meditation and therapy centre and claimed not to follow a religion.
The talk was most notable for Veeresh’s unintentional hilarity. When asked about hugging he replied: "Yeah, yes, that’s what we teach. We're a hugging school. I love hugging. When I met you I thought that you looked like this image of the Johnny Walker bottle, whisky bottle. Yeah, yeah, you're a warm guy, I like you man. I like your voice; I heard it for the first time yesterday."
He then went on to suggest all members of the UN should hug before and after meetings ("that would be so beautiful man, wow!") and explained at length how he once threatened to break his sons legs.
Odd as Veeresh may have appeared to Johnnie Walker’s traditionally rather staid audience, the fact remains that it’s a show listened to by millions in the UK. It marks a new high in the UK for Osho’s disciples’ continuing quest to present themselves as modern dynamic therapists rather than an old-fashioned cult.
A juicy weekend, Dorset, UK
The continuing success of Osho’s rehabilitation can be measured by the fact that on the very day I’m writing this (6 May, 2006), there’s a recommendation to visit the Osho Leela commune in the glossy magazine section of The Guardian, one of Britain’s bestselling quality broadsheets. It’s the third recommendation in as many years from the paper, and just one of the many that get printed around the world every year by journalists who know little about the group’s true nature. “Consider getting your festival fix at the Great British Yoga Festival in Dorset,” counsels the writer, next to a photo of the Osho Leela building. Judging by the article, it all sounds like good healthy fun with talks, workshops, “nice cups of herbal tea” and lights out by 9:30pm. The worst thing that’s likely to happen to you is that your hair might end up being braided. Anyone clicking on the yoga festival website, meanwhile, will learn that Osho, rather than being a crook, is a “great mystic and teacher.”
Of course, as Margaret Hill from Antelope could tell you, the reality about Osho is very different. And, from my own personal experience, I know that there’s a bit more to worry about at their communes than hair braiding.
I spent a weekend at Osho Leela in the autumn of 2005. I was there specifically because I’d developed an interest in the group while writing a book about cults, cranks and religious eccentrics, The Joy Of Sects
, but I signed up in the guise of a normal punter. I wanted to keep my identity as a journalist with an interest in cults quiet: both so that they would allow me to visit in the first place and because of a vague sense of paranoia about my own safety.
Using the group’s website, I put my (false) name down for a “A Yes! Party” [sic], just like anyone else can. Described as “mini-festivals’ the ‘Yes!’ weekends offer meditations, workshops, and, according to the promotional literature, “much laughter, play and dancing – not forgetting the great food and cuddles.” They are regular events open to the general public and which strangers to the group are actively encouraged to attend. This last element was good news for me as it meant I could get an inside glimpse into life in Osho Leela without having to declare my interest. More to the point, since so many of the participants were going to be “first timers” it provided a great opportunity to witness first hand the process by which a normal person could become involved with Osho.
I also hoped to be able to find out why anyone would want to have anything to do with Osho when so much about it and its history seemed downright crazy to me. The answer to this question turned out to be simple. The majority of 50 or so people who had gone along to the party didn’t think the Osho group was odd at all - for the very good reason that they didn’t know anything about its true nature.
There were several categories of attendee. First there were the actual members of the household who were generally in charge of things. Working closely with them, but performing more menial tasks in the kitchens, gardens and around the house were the ‘volunteers’.
Then there were the regular visitors who had taken on sannyasin names and paid large amounts of money to keep coming back to various events. There were also a few people who had been on two or three visits to Osho Leela and finally there was a large contingent of first timers like me.
Even the regular sannyasins seemed to know little about the organisation that they were devoting their lives to. There was a limit to how far I could press them about the unmentionable episodes in Antelope, since I was keen not to let on that I was a journalist, but the overwhelming impression I took was that they regarded Osho Leela simply as a place for therapy where they could make friends and kick start a new life (they often seemed to have ended up in Osho’s embrace after personal tragedies: nervous breakdowns, divorces, bankruptcies). Many (particularly a few goaty 50-something male divorcees) also seemed to regard it as something of an advanced singles’ club, frequently dropping lascivious hints throughout the weekend and as I was eventually to discover, engaging in some decidedly ‘blue’ practices.
Out of the less regular attendees, a few had been attracted out of an interest in Osho the guru and a few more were regulars on the UK spiritual circuit and seemed to have a vague idea what Osho was about. Most, however, had not even heard of Osho the person; let alone what he had done. Indeed, videos were shown throughout the weekend with the specific purpose of introducing newbies to the old guru. (Curiously, the one I watched made no mention of guns, nitrous oxide or Rolls Royces).
The question of why –and how - people with absolutely no knowledge of Osho could end up there is harder to answer. Some seemed to have turned up pretty much on a whim. One girl I spoke to, Jo, said that she had signed up for the party after a brief internet search. She’d been looking for a therapy weekend having been treated to one in a hotel once before, where she’d been pampered, massaged and spent most of her time in the steam room. She’d enjoyed this experience so much, she said, she wanted something similar again and since Osho Leela had seemed to be the cheapest “therapy centre” with easy rail access in the South of England, she’d decided to give it a try.
Naïve as Jo appeared, she did at least have a more savvy friend at home. “He’s dead worried about me,” she said. “He told me, if it’s a cult or anything, you leave girl.”
In spite of this advice, Jo was staying. Osho Leela wasn’t quite what she’d been expecting, but she was having a very “interesting” time and wasn’t planning on leaving until the weekend was finished.
But if Osho Leela isn’t a cult, I don’t know what is.
The most stereo-typically “cultish” of the weekend’s activities were the trademark Osho meditations. Sometimes they were reminiscent of the kind of reality TV exercises employed to humiliate the contestants, at other times they were pretty worrying.
For instance, on my first morning in Osho Leela (after a sleepless night spent in a dorm above a room where loud techno music was playing until 4.30am), I got up early (7am) to take part in the infamous Dynamic meditation, a practice carried through from the good old / bad old days of Osho.
This meditation was split into fifteen-minute stages.
The first was called "chaotic breathing". As intense a-rhythmic drumming sounds boomed out of the stereo (accompanied by other indefinable sounds in the high-registers) we were told to breath in and out, hard and fast and in no regular pattern. Several of the participants quickly became wet with sweat, while snot and mucus dripped down their fronts.
The disorientating music and hyperventilating induced a panicky, intense atmosphere in the room; one that was only heightened when the second stage was introduced by a loud crash on the stereo and the room erupted around me.
When this next stage had been explained for the benefit of the newcomers, we’d been told that the idea was to expunge all bad thoughts and negative energies from the brain. To do this mind-cleansing we were expected to shout, scream and swear at the top of our voices and use our bodies to ‘let out’ our anger. So it was that the people around me began beating cushions (left in the room specifically for the purpose) against the floor, or they used them as protection as they pounded their fists against the walls. A couple of sannyasins stripped down to their shorts, writhing and stomping, the polished wooden floor around them becoming ever slicker with sweat. One man started spinning round and round on a cushion. A woman lay on her back, her legs furiously pedalling at the air. The noise and pressure were immense. A few first-timers were looking as self-conscious and uncomfortable as I felt myself, but most were throwing themselves into it, the hysteria in the room pushing everyone to respond with ever-greater energy.
After all that stress it came as something of a relief that the next stage was just plain old-fashioned daft - if a little tiring. To the accompaniment of pulsating music, we had to bounce up and down on our heels for another 15 minutes, our hands in the air, going "Oooh!-Oooh!-Oooh!-Oooh!" until a voice (Osho himself, recorded before his death) shouted "Stop."
Next there was 15 minutes of complete silence. The calm was broken only by the laboured breathing of participants recovering from their exertions - and one particularly percussive fart around the 10-minute stage. I didn't laugh. The atmosphere forbad it. I noticed when we entered the final stage - 15 minutes of dancing to fast, soaring Indian music - that several people had tears running down their cheeks.
Afterwards, I was exhausted – and the people around me, who had been participating in all earnest rather than with journalistic scepticism, looked drained. I was surprised how full-on the experience had been, especially since I thought that the sannyasins must have softened things up considerably for the benefit of the inexperienced attendees at the Yes! Party. The stories of broken limbs and group sex from the 1970s and 1980s were beginning to seem far less outlandish…
Alongside the meditations, there were several other characteristics of the weekend likely to effect participants’ minds and emotions. One of the first things we were told upon arrival is that English people never hug properly. A proper Osho hug, we were informed was far better. The correct procedure was to make "a foot sandwich" so that your legs are inter-spliced with your partner and then twist so that your chest is pressed up against theirs and hold still. During this time, the experienced sannyasins would let out deep sighs and porn star style “ahhh” noises. After a good 30 seconds of squeezing, the embrace was released so that you could move on to the next person. The whole thing generally went on for about quarter of an hour – long enough to ensure that you hugged every person in the room at least once.
There was a hugging session in the evening when we arrived, another directly after the Dynamic meditation another after lunch… I tried to avoid them as much as possible, but still ended up taking part in five. I learnt the aroma of more complete strangers’ armpits in one weekend than I had in the whole of the rest of my life. And if this enforced intimacy, felt like an assault on my boundaries, that was exactly what was intended. One of the first things that Dhyano, the founder of the commune and leader of that weekend’s activities, explained was that to refuse a hug was to “come on all English": with all that cold reserve and all those dreadful hang-ups about personal space. It was thinking with the head instead of the heart. Keeping a safe distance was weak. "None of us die safe at Osho," he declared proudly.
Most anti-cult activists say that the breaking down of boundaries and intense physical and emotional bonding exercises - like the Osho hugging - are a common characteristic of most dangerous cults. It’s one of the primary ways they create a tie to the group – a tie of guilt and fear (as much as affection) for anyone that might be thinking of leaving.
"Babies die without love," Dhyano told us. “In orphanages children can't survive.” No evidence was provided to support these bizarre claims, nor his most alarming pronouncement: "If you're alone, you will wither and die."
The corollary to this intense bonding within most cults is the creation of an extreme “us” and “them” mentality between the group and the outside world. The frequent references made over the course of the weekend to the deficiency of English nature and the superiority of the sannyasin way was indicative that such conditioning was on the agenda at Osho Leela. Even more emphatic was the workshop I attended following on from the Dynamic Meditation. The subject was “non-violent communication”.
Non-violent communication, we were told, was “a way to learn how to listen empathically and communicate our authentic feelings and needs”. In reality, it was a method that stigmatized everyday language – and, therefore, everyone that speaks it (i.e., everyone that hadn’t taken the course – i.e., almost everyone outside Osho).
The workshop teacher, a man called Michael, arranged a series of cards on the floor with words printed on them like "Demand", "Threat", "You are," "I am", "Punish", "Sorry". These words we were told were examples of 'jackal' language. Words that bad people use. Attaching two puppets to his hands – one of a giraffe and one of a “naughty jackal” - to help make his points, Michael explained that he wanted us to talk with our hearts rather than our heads (the need not to think being another theme that was cropping up again and again over the weekend). He warned us to be 'self-full' rather than 'selfless' or 'selfish' and to beware of the kind of language – heavy in demands and hard logic – that 'jackals' would use to trick us. We weren't supposed to say "sorry" because that is "a demand for absolution." We weren't supposed to use the verb "to be" too often as that "labelled" people.
These language strictures resulted in some strange combinations. For instance, Michael suggested that instead of saying "that was a good dinner" (“a meaningless and labelling construction”) we should say to the cook: "I was really touched by the way you brought me that dinner. It satisfied my inner need for beauty."
Of course, it was ridiculous and laughable. But no one else was smiling. By the end of the workshop Michael had even managed to reduce one girl to floods of tears as she was made to relive an argument she had recently had with a friend and asked to try to think of the ‘non-violent’ way of resolving it. There was no doubting that she was taking all this very seriously even though Michael had made her wear a pair of giraffe ears and talk what was, essentially, nonsense.
Brainwashing is a controversial subject. Ever since American GIs captured during the Korean War started coming back talking about how great they thought communism was, there's been hot debate about what constitutes brainwashing - and whether indeed it actually works. Anti-cult groups are convinced that some sinister organisations have been using mind control techniques for years, but medical opinion is divided. The term is too emotive - with its redolence of cold war propaganda and paranoia - and it's too hard to test 'brainwashing' situations in a controlled way for any theories to be completely scientific. There's also the problem that some people seem far more open to mind control than others, leading many people who've researched purported brainwashing cults to conclude that people have to want to be indoctrinated, or at least open to suggestion, before mental coercion can occur… in which case it's not really coercion at all.
However, while the jury is still out on brainwashing, as any good-cop/bad-cop torture team can tell you, there are definitely a few things you can do to alter people's mental state and to make them more open to suggestion and manipulation. Deprive them of sleep. Exhaust them mentally and physically. Subject them to extremes of pains and pleasure. Be nice to them and then scream at them like a maniac…
The attendants at the Yes! Party all encountered varying degrees of this treatment. The meditations were all physically tiring as well as mentally exhausting, the highs and lows of the screaming sessions followed by intense group hugging must have played fury with participants’ dopamine levels. The jumping, dancing and cushion pummelling ensured most participants were reduced to sweating, quivering messes.
Meanwhile, even by Saturday afternoon, with a full (largely sleepless) 24 hrs still to go, the wakefulness enforced by the all night music and dancing was already taking its toll on the bleary eyed, puffy skinned people who wondered zombie-like around the compound. The strange atmosphere of the weekend was only increased by the sight of men and women passing out in their chairs, dozing off while eating their dinner and, in the case of the ‘art class’ I took part in after the non-violent communication workshop, lying flat on their backs and snoring while other people scribbled away on the floor around them.
In Osho’s defence, I should note that this constant loud music and impossibility of getting a good night’s sleep was the only unavoidable facet of the weekend. Nobody had to take part in any of the other activities and they were free to leave at anytime. Indeed, I sneaked away to visit a local pub on Saturday afternoon instead of taking part in a group “Love meditation”. (A high point in my weekend.)
All the same, even if there were no rules about attendance and there was certainly no physical coercion, there was a lot of peer pressure to take part in everything, ensuring that Osho ticked yet another box on most cult-watchers check lists.
I noticed several people around my dorm being questioned intensely throughout the weekend. They all were forced into making excuses about why they hadn’t been to various meditations and left looking embarrassed and even ashamed. I had personally been cornered several times by the end of the second day and told that I to participate more and try harder.
“The more you put in, the more you get out” one man I’d never met before yelled at me, naked and dripping with sweat in the communal dorm, angry that I’d missed the afternoon’s activities when I’d slipped out to the pub.
“You’ve just got to do it… No point in half measures. Come on!” someone else urged me less than five minutes later. And so it went on.
Meanwhile, although some people who had come back from the ‘Love Meditation’ that I’d skipped looked like all their Christmases had just come at once, others looked ashen faced and sullen, especially those who were visiting Osho Leela for the first time. “It was a bit much," said a man called John (who only the night before had been bright eyed and telling me how much he’d been looking forward to having a new experience that weekend). He didn't think he was going to come to Leela again. He wasn't even going to try the main event of the weekend - the following morning's Aum meditation.
The Aum meditation took place on Sunday morning. I already had a reasonable idea of what to expect thanks to a session the night before where Amira, one of the full time residents, explained the meaning and techniques behind the various unusual rites we were expected to perform. All the same, nothing could have completely prepared me for the real thing.
As performed at the Yes! Party, the Aum was two and a half hours long, split into 12 stages of 15 minutes.
The first stage was called the ‘Return To Hell’. We’d been told in the pep talk that as in the shouting stage of the Dynamic, the aim of the exercise was to get rid of all our ‘negative emotions’ by “continuously exhausting” ourselves. The difference was that this time we had to go round the room, encountering as many different people as possible and shouting and screaming that we hated them - alongside any other obscenities that sprang to mind.
The reason for all this, we were told, was that “cancer arises from unexpressed anger” and so we needed to get rid of it. The frenzied shouting, combined with another weird soundtrack on the stereo, created one of the most unhinged scenes I have witnessed in my career.
And that was just the beginning. The second stage was far quieter, but more unsettling in its way. It was called ‘heaven’. Now we were expected to go around the room telling each person individually that we loved them, with just as much passion as we had been screaming at them before. “I love you,” I had to say to complete strangers, looking them straight in the eye. It felt like a betrayal of all the people outside Osho that I really did love.
The third stage, ‘second wind’ involved fifteen minutes of running on the spot, arms in the air. It was physically tiring, but a relief after all that forced intense interaction and emotional display. The same went for the fourth stage, ‘kundalini rising’: fifteen minutes of continual shaking of the entire body that certainly looked (and felt) strange, but was relatively innocuous compared to what followed. Labelled ‘the cuckoos nest’, this was the strangest of all the sections of the meditation. It involved 15 minutes of acting “as mad as you can be”. We were told to scream, shout, cry, jump, have tantrums, act like a mental patient if we could…
The reason for this?
“You’ll never go mad if you freak out.”
The practice was just as dubious as the science. Most people in the room were whipped into a state of extreme hysteria. Some even started going into spasms. One man fell at my feet having a convulsive fit. He was foaming at the mouth, so the sannyasins in black t-shirts (who were there to ensure nothing went wrong during the Aum) took him to one side of the room and propped him up on cushions… And when he came round and they sent him right out again into the maelstrom.
We descended from that sharp emotional peak with 15 minutes of dancing, then 15 minutes of crying (which we’d been told the night before “helps the brain chemistry turn from depression to feeling good”) and then 15 minutes of laughing. The laughing stage was creepy. It felt like being in a room with 50 people doing impressions of the Joker from Batman. Or 45, I should say, because a handful of people had been unable to stop the uncontrollable weeping they’d entered during the crying stage.
The ninth stage was called the ‘Dance Of The Lovers’ and rather alarmingly entailed dancing in a “sensual and sexual way” with other people around the room. We’d been asked to “allow” ourselves “to take a risk.” I had no desire to do anything of the sort, but it turned out, I didn’t have much choice.
Already shattered from all that had gone before, I moved to the side of the room, intending to keep out of things. Most other participants joined in near-orgies, dry rutting as a deep Barry White voice boomed over the sound system about how "nice and sexy" everyone was feeling and how much we all loved Osho to the accompaniment of moaning sounds and crazy trance music. Several girls were crying. They didn’t seem to like it either. My attention was diverted from their plight, however, when two (much older) female sannyasins came towards me. I told them I wanted to be left alone, and according to the explanation we’d been given the night before, that should have been that. Instead, they grabbed me, sandwiched me and started frotting me.
I’m aware that this “Sam-sandwich” sounds pretty funny. And I’m sure that the look on my face was absolutely priceless while it was all going on. But as the old cliché goes, I can laugh about it now, but at the time it was terrible. Then it seemed less like a good dinner party anecdote and more like molestation.
The only way out seemed to be to overpower the two over-enthusiastic ladies, a prospect I was I was beginning to seriously contemplate when I was rescued by the sudden malfunction of the stereo system. As the CD began to skip, I was able to push myself clear without using too much force, spending the rest of that particular stage by the water cooler, feeling very odd indeed.
The three remaining stages were all extreme and unpleasant in their way too, but by then my attempt at objective observation had collapsed, my one aim being to keep my mind clear and just endure the meditation until I was free to leave. I went though it all on autopilot: 15 minutes of chanting the word Ohm in a circle, 15 minutes of complete silence and then that Osho favourite, 15 minutes of intense hugging.
It was two and a half hours I never want to repeat. Judging by the faces of others around the room it had had a similarly intense effect on them. But our experience palls in comparison with what the full time sannyasins put themselves through and what it really means to be a full time follower of Osho today.
Amira had hinted darkly during his pep talk the night before the Aum, ‘The Dance Of The Lovers’ could get much more serious. Even more unsettling was his proud declaration that the Aum should really go on for days. He himself had been on a five day Aum marathon. For three of those days he’d gone without sleep (“a big thing for heightening emotions” he explained). He’d only finally stopped when, he said, “one guy became completely catatonic”.
By the end of the Aum, I was eager to leave, already convinced that despite their efforts to forget the past, the Osho group was already repeating it (to paraphrase George Santayana). I also felt that I’d been made to throw off quite enough of my “typically English” reserve.
The excitement wasn’t quite over, however. During Amira’s evening talk about the Aum, I’d taken the opportunity to take a few photos of sannyasins who were helping him to demonstrate the weird rites. That had turned out to be a mistake. Soon afterwards I’d been approached twice in quick succession – first by Amira himself and then by Dhyano the commune founder. They’d both demanded to know (in as aggressive a way possible for people who insisted on communicating 'non-violently’) why I was taking pictures and what I intended to do with them. Now again on the following morning, as I sat panting in the main hall with all the other people who’d taken part in the Aum, Dhyano made me raise my hand, informing everyone that a “snapper” was present and making sure they all got a good look at me.
It was time to leave.
I made my exit soon after the meeting was over and my already tired and paranoid brain had decided that sticking around was going to, at the very least, cost me my camera and what little dignity I had left.
My last contact with an Osho follower came as I packed my back and hurried out of the dormitory.
“You better not publish those photos man,” he said. “There are governments that want to shut us down. They don’t like people supporting themselves or being happy.”
I should have asked in return what possible harm would come through publication of the photos if Osho had nothing to hide. It might have been pertinent too, to inquire why, if Osho Leela was were a mainstream therapy centre as it purported to be, they’d object to someone explaining what went on there. I could also have pointed out that no one had seemed at all “happy” to me and that the only people supporting themselves were the group leaders while most other people appeared to be parting with an awful lot of money to keep them afloat.
Of course, by the time I’d thought of all that, it was too late. I was already in my car, eager to put a good few hundred miles between Osho Leela and myself. When the heat was on I’d simply made a weak joke about how my photos probably wouldn’t be good enough to print anyway (true enough as it turned out) and wished him luck for the future (he was another man drawn in by Osho following a recent bankruptcy). My feeling of culpability and personal dishonesty added to the already uneasy mix of fatigue, paranoia and disorientation the weekend had instilled. My conscience was clear on one point, however; the story of Osho Leela was one that should be told. I’m convinced it’s still a cult, and potentially dangerous for anyone that goes there.