How I Grew Up Without Scientology

“Do you see the table?”

I nod yes.

“Touch the table.”

And I touch it.

“Do you see the wall?”

I nod yes.

“Touch the wall.”

And I touch it.

I was a mute child at age five. The spell perhaps began to break there in that small auditing room at the Church of Scientology, Santa Barbara, where I performed various processes to restore my speech. She was a gentle auditor whose name I don’t recall, but the mental image picture (MIP) of that fair-skinned, thin, blonde woman running a cycle on me, in that wood-paneled antique building on State Street, converted from a bed & breakfast into a prominent Org, doesn’t easily go away. Something profoundly grounding seemed to happen in that room during those sessions. But that was just the beginning; a whole childhood unraveled in that building.

What I cannot remember to this day is a traumatic experience at age four that left this heavy engram, something that continues to stir my reactive mind to this day. I’ve been told the story many times, of being blamed by my girlfriend’s mother for her baby almost being run over in the street. But all that is my Mother’s here-say, because she wasn’t there, and I really have no MIP of the experience at all. But I lost my little girlfriend forever, whom I remember vividly. Did the woman hit me? Did she merely yell and call me names? I have no idea. In fact, I don’t even recall being mute. I may have thought I was talking all those years. All I know is that I’m still touchy about being blamed for anything at all.

Myself around age five
Myself around age five

As a young boy, my reactive mind was taking control of the body, causing this muteness, disabling my analytic mind. I was a disturbed child with a disembodied thetan. I was controlled by a Suppressive Person (SP). I wasn’t speaking to grown-ups or most children, and this cycle, called a “locational,” allowed me to get back into present time. It is an exercise determined to calm the subject down, perhaps even restore their state of grace in the moment. As a kid, I can tell you that it worked, because if I was crying or upset, my parents would run the locational on me, and I would chill out, end cycle. But it never did restore my speech. Somehow that cycle ended on its own. Anyone that knows me would be amazed, because I can talk my ass off now.

If the above paragraphs sound strange, it should. I am using jargon recollected from a childhood in Scientology. The recent HBO documentary, Going Clear, truly dislodged memories from the tight seal that fifteen years of intentional de-conditioning had produced.

When I started talking again, my folks put me into a communications course and self-analysis tailored for children. I was told that SP’s were everywhere, but I had the capacity to dismiss them.

L. Ron Hubbard with his E-Meter and a Tomato
L. Ron Hubbard with his E-Meter

My parents walked away from the Church long after I had moved away, and not until my sister had begun infiltrating my mother with leaked information found online. This was the early 2000’s. My father held out from listening to the extraordinary information, very loyal and disciplined to Scientology, but it put him at a crossroads, to which he decided to follow his family down a new, undefined path. They had been involved in the church for thirty years. Both of them are Clear and aspired to reach OT (Operating Thetan). This “thetan” is L. Ron Hubbard’s term for a spiritual entity that reincarnates, so to be operating on that level assumes mastery over the now and hereafter. My parents dabbled with other religions but now feel settled as socially liberal Unitarians.

De-conditioning is a serious practice. We encounter this endless stream of conditioning from the media, government, church, intellectuals, artists, economic structures, social movements, technology, advertising, and so on. It preys on our consciousness at every instant, sometimes it is benign or beneficial, but the going trend in post-modern late capitalism is this parasitic need for our attention, so that we can be predictable consumers. De-conditioning is like standing up in a rushing river to momentarily scope out the view, to exercise free will and physical strength before jumping back in the stream.

Scientology conditioned me in some of the positive ways that every church offers: a community, a sense of purpose, discipline, and a spiritual desire. At the bottom line, I was told that my reincarnating individual essence had the capacity to blow through the crap of my past and operate at a higher level, to have the effect of being more causative in daily life. The study habits that were deeply impressed upon me on course at The Org became sharp tools when I eventually made it to college. I became an honor roll student for the first time in my life by employing those habits.

I sort of floated through high school without studying, because of a deep depression related to social problems. There was no established Org where I was living in Tucson, Arizona, so the Church was less important to my life. I was missing the community of it, but we had a study group. A very nice and helpful man in that group, named Brent, was willing to run TR’s (Training Routines) with me, to help confront each day, to handle the bullies by ignoring them, so that I could focus in class. It helped. I recall the improvement setting in.

TR’s are mostly a simple concentration exercise. Sitting in a chair across from the coach, the first phase, TR-0 Operating Thetan is silence, eyes closed. You pass if you don’t flinch after some time. TR-0 Confront is silence, eyes open, staring right across into the coach’s eyes. You pass if you don’t flinch after some time. TR-0 Bullbait involves a variety of interactions from playful goofiness to personal button-pushing. I understand that advanced adult TR’s involve very nasty, personal bull-baiting, and in high school, my coach called me all the names I hate being called. But I never encountered anything terrible. In my early Communications Course, I learned TR’s 1-4, where you are trained on some principles of communication. There is no doubt that the exercise can build concentration and tolerance, and if conditioned from a young age, you have those tools for the rest of your life, even if you never practice TR’s again.

Troublesome stigma however continues to resurface from time to time. Mostly, it is the communication training. I think I’ve had a completely different concept of how people talk. Most of that training in the church only works in relationship with others from the church. There is also built-in shame of being a Scientologist. I was instructed not to tell people, because the average person carries “misunderstoods” about the church. I think the official position is that members should stand tall, acting as ambassadors for this intergalactic naval fleet, but never to disclose information about the processes, or the practices, but to encourage the curious to try it for their self.

1969 Rendering of the Bridge to Total Freedom
1969 Rendering of the Bridge to Total Freedom

Throughout my twenties, if someone asked what religion I was raised in, I would always sigh a deep breath and drop the bomb. Then they’d return fire with all the questions that I don’t have answers to, involving all these levels of knowledge that are not accessible to all members, let alone children. I had only seen a glimpse of it from the posters in the church halls and auditing rooms, depicting this bridge to total freedom. The internet leaked all these rumors into the masses and I wasn’t hip to it. I generally stayed clear of anything related to Scientology, good or bad. So then of course the person would always trail off in their own repetition and interpretation of the rumors (their conditioning) and forget to learn anything practical about what I did as a kid. They could have asked about the E-Meter (the Hubbard Electrometer used for auditing) and what it was like holding the cans. They could have asked about the tone scale, something that I kept on my bedroom wall like it was just another poster. It’s funny, even the outsiders want that OT data, that esoteric stuff. Conditioning all the same; the scandal is what they want.

Tone_ScaleIn recent years, I started to say, “watch The Master, but just scale down the intense stuff into gentler G-rated material, and you can imagine my life.” Even better at this point, when folks ask me about volcanoes and Xenu, I can just say, “Yeah, I learned about that from Going Clear, you should read or watch that.” So the cat is out of the bag. The information hasn’t leaked, it has busted the dam completely and the floods are restoring the natural psychic landscape to its ancient history. To say that it doesn’t make me happy would be to ignore my instincts.

I had formally walked away from Scientology by age eighteen, when I was living in Santa Barbara again. I volunteered for a beach clean-up that the church had organized. Little did I know, that they would be peddling books to unknowing beach-lovers while I sorted out glass from aluminum. Innocence shattered, I had never realized this was going on with all those beach clean-ups as a kid.

It is an important detail in a legal sense that I never willed myself into the church. I was a kid. By age seventeen, I was reading The Way to Freedom by Dalai Lama (eerily close to L. Ron’s The Road to Freedom) and posing as a Buddhist. Like a “recovering Catholic” it was something I just had to do. Never as an adult, did I set foot into an auditing room, and certainly I never signed one contract. So I am no defector of the church, because I never belonged to it. In that way, the break was a clean one.

A New Condition With Krishnamurti

Little did I know that 33 miles away, Jiddu Krishnamurti spent the final years of his life and the first years of mine on a ranch in Ojai, Ca. Recently, I also got the back story on my favorite philosopher, by reading, “A Star in the East”, by Roland Vernon. The author takes Krishna’s mysterious past and tells a vivid tale of his life, raised by Charles Leadbetter and Annie Besant, the principle force behind Theosophy. For adherents to Krishna, whose public image was divorced from that bizarre past and protected throughout his life, the biography was almost as scandalous, because it depicts the man, not the myth, and all his flaws.

Jiddu Krishnamurti speaking in India, late in his career
Jiddu Krishnamurti speaking in India, late in his career

I was instantly enthralled by Krishnamurti’s message at age twenty, when this lovely indie kid and neighbor in Los Angeles — a songwriter and philosophy student named Craig Peters now living in Seattle — introduced me to the book, “Think on These Things”. The ideas blew me away. I remember hiking through El Caballero Canyon and sitting with that book, reading about “creative discontent” and feeling totally thrilled with the notions that he laid down, about not squelching our inner fire but letting it blaze with the fuel of discontent, applied to creativity. That in essence, creativity is a response to discontent, so never be afraid of what displeases you.

The core message from Krishnamurti is that so long as you are chained to your religious beliefs, you cannot climb the highest peak. Stuck in a matrix of thought inherited from generations of conditioning, you can “decorate the walls of your prison” by further expounding upon those beliefs, but you will always be a prisoner. Or you can reject the established order by trying to replace it with something different. But that just perpetuates conditioning in a different way, and you are decorating your prison all the same. He witnessed fascism, communism, socialism, capitalism, and all the ism’s of the modern age, but they did nothing to resolve man’s insecurity, his insatiable need to control, predict, and determine himself.

I had the existential preponderance of someone raised in an environment where the inner-workings of the mind were experimented with, and mine was definitely manipulated, from as far back as I can remember, but not entirely by Scientology, of course. Krishnamurti provided a clear out for me, a world-view that rejected all dogma, all forms of religion, and encouraged me, on my own, to learn about the mind, to inquire within myself completely, no matter how haphazard it might look without the guiding principles of religion. Pretty soon, I would move to Portland, seeking a new life, a new identity, and a clear consciousness.

The symbolic gesture only got me so far. I became an intoxicated intellectual, smoking pot, cigarettes, drinking, eating mushrooms and more, with profound excitement, however going against the grain of Krishna, who would most likely encourage some critical reading, some experimentation, but would always appeal to my authentic desire to realize the truth, to be liberated from the conditioned mind. Hovering up books and psychedelics for later recall is not the pathless land of truth, it simply is what it is, an act that gives you temporary knowledge, excitement, or a kind of boost, but not a lasting one. And now, some of those things are habits that require careful maintenance.

Krishna’s philosophy also appealed to my childhood desire to be liberated from “the reactive mind,” the core principle of L. Ron’s philosophy. Because the conditioned mind is indeed a reactionary one, I felt as if Krishna had a more efficient teaching to attain the same results. You see it every day in politics, at work, in traffic, this knee jerk reaction to basic biases that are carried with us, be it racial, religious, aesthetic, political or whatever, and basically, this is how wars are started. Peace on Earth can manifest with the total liberation of conditioning. Transformation of the reactive mind is the goal. Culture would erode to some extent, but not the creative stuff, only the trivialities of society would completely erode, and we would confront the real problems of humanity.

Now, just because the end game might be touted as the same between the two, Krishnamurti wins again here with the reminder that “the description is not the described.” If you realize in every fiber of your being that there is no bridge to total freedom, then the truth and its well-spring of true joy is something absolutely in you already, accessible because you discovered it for yourself. This is more aligned to Buddha Nature, the principle that within all sentient beings there is a Buddha. Yet, these comparisons paralyze you from actual knowing. Krishna does not want you to think it is so easy, merely adopting a belief, merely developing an intellectual concept. Truth is not a place, it is not a state, it is not describable, and you return always to Earth, in your suffering body, for the rest of your life.

But if you observe the unraveling of his own life and mind toward the end, you see that he fell victim to his own conditioning. Everybody is prisoner to it.

The end game on the surface of every religion is the same: world peace, enlightenment, and a wonderful life after death to the pious. There is no coincidence that their symbols tend to point to the same themes. L. Ron Hubbard’s foundational philosophy is a frankenstein of world religions and belief structures. He studied in a manner similar to the anthropologist and he participated in esoteric rituals. He developed a religion with full knowledge of its capacity to condition his followers. He was a master of this conditioning, because he lifted many principles from many religions, from Platonism to Satanism. Like a professional thief, he knew that it only takes one unlocked window to get into the whole house. Once he had the subject’s mind, he could keep it. But if you observe the unraveling of his own life and mind toward the end, you see that he fell victim to his own conditioning. Everybody is prisoner to it.

Hijacking consciousness is the real end game of religion. There was a time that religion was the social order, transparently. It is that way now in Israel and Iran. Krishnamurti will point out that Christ and Buddha came to destroy religion, not start one. They destroyed the established order within themselves and professed something quite different than what the religions would make of it. This argument became the defining moment of Krishnamurti’s career when, in 1929, he dissolved the sponsoring organization that he benefited from. It was developed by the Theosophical Society, specifically to prepare him to become the vehicle of The Lord Maitreya, whose essence would enter the body and make him the messiah for the Millennial era. By rejecting the claim and dissolving his relationship to Theosophy, he pronounced the message loud and clear, even if it would ruffle the feathers of his sponsors. The way he got out too was sincere, peaceful, and ultimately continued to honor his benefactors.

My personal opinion is that Krishna indeed carries the message that could eliminate religious wars in the Middle East and Africa, the political message that would end the conflicts in Ukraine and South America, and the social message that would eliminate economic disparity in The West. But when you take somebody’s faith in capitalism, socialism, Islam, democracy, communism, and flush it down the toilet, then they are left in the cold, uncomfortable prison of their mind. A Wall Street man has utter faith in the market, he justifies taking from the poor through a belief structure. World leaders and their military launching wars, same deal. It exposes the root of all disorder, insecurity, and the mind clings to anything it can identify with, to resolve the insecurity. It joins the Ku Klux Klan, it repeats whatever Rachel Maddow says on TV. The West builds bigger and bigger bombs and surveillance systems, their enemies build bigger weapons and spying tools in response, there is an arms race, and the world becomes even more insecure, more volatile and dangerous.

Perhaps one of the most important principles I learned from Krishna was to listen to a speaker, a teacher, from the bias that they are speaking from while listening to my own own bias, my reaction to them, without taking any position, purely listening. This way, nobody is hijacking my consciousness and I am not hijacking theirs. This is a way of critical thinking that mustn’t be discussed in High School, or it would disrupt the social order. This long-haul approach does not revolutionize the mind at once, but it slowly erodes at the lies we hang on to. It becomes a discipline and the intellect becomes sharper. It also means that you have to allow yourself to change your mind. In that way, I would rather have a President who flip flops on policy, so long as he can admit to his error. But no President is supposed to “show weakness” and no matter how dumb their policy is, they must push it through and win.

Krishnamurti also draws down the value on analytic thought. He stresses that it can be a source of psychic fragmentation, another source of social disorder. L. Ron stresses that the analytic mind works efficiently while the reactive one is dangerous. Krishna might say that the reactive is your path to self-knowledge and your analytic is merely a cover, a practical way of dealing with day-to-day life. Neither are evil if you develop the capacity to observe. In fact, you are the observed. Observe the content of your mind and you are observing yourself. The observer is not separate; it is one with the thoughts, the reactive and analytic mind together.

Meditation is The Bridge

Eight years of reading numerous books from Krishnamurti, cover to cover, studying religion and philosophy from every sector, including psychology, I really rubbed out a great deal of my childhood thought processes from Scientology. I felt that I had truly begun to replace reflexive thought and that a real connection to the source of intelligence had been made. I could see the other shoreline now, but I lacked a bridge. I needed a practice. Instinctively, I hungered for meditation. I had dabbled, but nothing had taken root. Krishna discusses meditation, not as a style of sitting, not as a visualization strategy, prayer, or recitation of mantra. He discusses it as a constant act of intelligence. But he also points out that sitting very still is necessary to observe the mind deeply.

I was about twenty-five when I started to hear about a place up north, in Onalaska, Washington, where a rigorous meditation course was offered in a beautiful setting, on a donation basis. This would turn out to be Dhamma Kunja, one among an international network of Vipassana meditation centers, and the place where I would develop my practice.

S.N. Goenka in his sitting position
S.N. Goenka in his sitting position

Founded by a Hindu business man from Burma, S.N. Goenka developed a world-wide network of meditation centers based upon the work of Saya Gyi U Ba Kin, who was both a teacher of Vipassana and government official honored for rooting out corruption. In private life, Goenka took to Buddhism, although the meditation campus does not include a single piece of Buddhist iconography. There is no religious sect born from the Vipassana movement. If there is a leash to this practice, it is always removable, because there is no authority. It is your own free will keeping you in the practice, during and after the end of the course. You can return, you can elect for longer courses, become an instructor, and become very involved in the Vipassana movement. Or not. No pressure whatsoever, yet the organization continues to grow.

It was refreshing to me that the price tag of pay-what-you-will could actually support it. Scientology is a massive pile of complicated coursework that ultimately costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to accomplish. It is so tied to money that the culture is entirely focused on financial success and social influence. A good Scientologist is wealthy, because they have to be. The morality there is that you are operating at the highest level, manifesting all kind of rewards from the rigorous training that has improved your life. Your “having-ness is up,” meaning that your ethic has earned you the reward. If you aren’t getting ahead in this manner, then you are still full of engrams.

L. Ron believed that if the subject didn’t invest money into the technology, the teaching, then they would not take it seriously. But with Goenka’s structure, there is no religion, no requirement to pay a dime into it. The subject cannot complain or demand any results, and perhaps their desire is even more pure. If you complete the 10-day meditation course, then you may donate as you see fit. If you do not finish, your donation will not be accepted. I follow Buddha’s teaching that giving of yourself is better than giving of your wallet, so I simply volunteered at the center at a later time. I never donated a dime, but I helped cook and clean for two hundred meditators. It is an honor.

A typical Vipassana center meditation hall

I entered the 10-day meditation course at Dhamma Kunja in the winter of 2010. It is identical to every course taught all over the world, and it is rigorous. The schedule turns out to be ten full days with ten hours of meditation structured into it, plus an evening before and a morning after. You are separated from the opposite sex and you are not to look into anyone’s eyes but the instructor or manager. You are not to speak, exercise, write, read, or anything other than meditate, walk, and eat. It is even more rigorous than the monk’s life. What is instructed in essence is this: observe your breath and physical sensations; watch the rise and fall of your mind, the wandering of your consciousness, and do this without any new pollution.

There are videos of Goenka providing lecture at the end of each day, but these are unobtrusive, non-preaching, humorous discourses on the common struggles that all of us are going through in the context of the course. I did not feel conditioned or controlled. Employing Krishnamurti’s guidance, I observed Goenka’s bias as well as my own. At the end of every day, I felt disciplined and totally myself with every breath.

On the tenth day when silence was broken, I found myself balling. I watched people run for their cell phones to call loved ones and brag about their accomplishment. I appreciated their excitement, it felt good, but I sensed it was just a game for them. That made me sad. I cried as if a dam had collapsed within me. In part it was the end of a very challenging period, but mostly the tears released all the knowledge of what I had just tapped into. Tears of liberation, the joy of it, and tears of all the sorrow that I had inflicted in the world, that I had taken into my heart, the hate that I had for myself and others, the certainty that all of that crap would resurface when I left this remarkable meditation center, and the tremendous gratitude for having been provided this gift, the Vipassana practice, to keep in my heart forever, to erode all that crap. This was a revolution taking place within, and like all revolutions, it would be characterized by a period of reconstruction.

Vipassana really could not have taken root so deeply had I not encountered Krishnamurti seven years prior. There were people who still believed they could not feel their breath, and that their biggest demon was drowsiness. Even worse, some people had panic attacks, simply from sitting. These people’s walls were built so high and dense that even this remarkably simple act of sitting and breathing did not penetrate anything within them; it only taught them about sitting and breathing. I am careful not to judge them, they are not to blame, they are good folks, and they perhaps were not given the circumstances that I had been given.

Scientology trained me to sit and breath almost as far back as I can remember. TR exercises are basically that. They have some other stranger components, but it is basically a discipline of the mind not to be thrown off course with every distraction. But Krishnamurti gave me a sterilization process. If you believe that everything about yourself is observable and can be discarded, then sitting and breathing becomes immensely powerful. Nothing is dirty within.

Getting On With Being Myself

Los Angeles Headquarters

My parents met in Los Angeles, in the auditing rooms, in Scientology’s most important headquarters. My essence was conceived from the moment they met, in the church. Can I really separate myself from that? Of course not. It is part of who I am. Krishnamurti was deeply conditioned by Theosophy, even though he dissolved his ties throughout the course of his destiny. He went about his life with a back turned to it, and his many followers didn’t think to ask how he got to be who he is. I have been living my life more like that, out of some fear that exposing my roots would have terrible consequences. Krishna, I would suggest, was not bound by fear, rather, he didn’t want to distract his audience with needless inquiries about Theosophy. I feel more like that today. Scientology cannot claim any of my present beliefs or practices, so there is basically no reason to discuss it. Yet, because I am more clear about who I am, there is nothing to hide, and sometimes it is a relevant detail, so I mustn’t run from it anymore.

If you watch Going Clear, it very well exposes the nastiest of tactics used by the church to deal with members who speak out (and I really hope they don’t confuse this article for speaking out) against them. But I know they keep their tabs on me. They had tracked down my address in Oregon back in 2008 and started sending literature. When the landlord asked them to stop sending the junk mail, they told him that they would if he got me on the phone with them. I never called them. He stopped getting mail.

In 2013, I released a podcast where I first publicly exposed this detail of my life. Months later, I received a call on my mobile phone from Scientology. I couldn’t believe it. This guy on the phone was asking me to discuss my philosophies with him, so I responded angrily, “Why would I ever discuss that with you? You have no business calling me and I do not want to hear from you ever again!” He tried to dig in, they have very clever techniques to get you talking, but I said, “I have nothing to say to you. May you be liberated from the prison of your beliefs.” I hung up. I knew better than to carry on because when I looked outside, there was a black SUV with deep tinted windows, its backside facing my bedroom window. I had never seen that vehicle before or after that occasion.

The truth shall set you free, but that truth has kept me afraid to just tell my truly benign story. As much as I was conditioned by the core philosophy and practice of the church, I find myself without any of the classified information that would be a threat to the church, much to the disappointment of people who learn of my childhood.

My life was like all others, in essence. My father played on the softball team. My parents sang Doo-Wap songs at the annual Christmas party, when all the kids would rascal around the basement of the facility, playing normal kid games. Half of my friends were from the church and half not. My lasting friendships of course were never associated with the church, or they basically got out early on. My adolescence was full of normal angst, unrelated to religion, and we didn’t have an Org in Tucson anyway, so it was fading away. My adult life is now the process of spiritual growth without the confines of religion, yet with many religious principles. Occasionally I attend Unitarian services, because it’s a very liberal church, but mostly because that’s who my parents are now and I still want to honor them.

I look around, I see so much attachment, so many walls, convenient beliefs, so much suffering at the hands of our conditioning. So many of us struggle to see beyond the narrow position that an economic structure carves out for us, the biased views that the media feeds us, the distracting rhetoric of our political officials, the unwieldy authority of law enforcement, the dogmatic superstitions of our religions, the social confinement of our workplace, and how we pass on this suffering to every generation, and how the young manipulate their condition so that the confines of their prison can be just a little bit more tolerable, aided by new technology. These things give me an endless source of discontent, and therefore endless creativity.

I can admit that L. Ron Hubbard gave certain beneficial tools to my spiritual growth, but it doesn’t mean I need to hang on to him. Krishnamurti and S.N. Goenka offer something of extraordinary value that truly could make waves of peace and social transformation, if followed. Goenka’s meditation centers continue to proliferate, giving valuable tools to a whole generation of secular spiritualists. Krishnamurti’s following has released every last word of his into the public and the message spreads. These cannot actually produce enlightenment or save the world, they can only transform one person at a time, so there is no reason to produce a dogma or religion from their work. I just move along, expand my territory, and return to my breath.

Published by Sean Ongley

Co-Founder of THRU Media. A background in non-profit, music, and radio preceded my ambitions here. Now, I aspire to produce new media and publish independent journalism at this site and beyond.

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  1. A lot to take in Sean……I see why your parents are so proud of you.