The Time I Was Recruited into a Cult

My black tux was a rental. Ali borrowed a pale, blue dress that accentuated her angular Scandinavian features and short, dirty blond hair. We never had occasion to get dressed up for anything, and we had never ventured beyond Olive-Garden-grade restaurants. But there we sat, at a large table, surrounded by about three hundred women and men dressed in gowns and tuxes, in a five-star Westchester, New York restaurant. The place was lit by the glow of a million white Christmas lights, strung over the vast dining room’s low, sloped ceiling.

The excitement was palpable and the people were fascinating. Doctors, lawyers, businesspeople—they’d all inexplicably, and somewhat recently, decided to become computer programmers. As a senior in college, finishing off a questionable combined degree in philosophy and music studio recording at a small state college, I found their professional life-choices bold and impressive on a number of levels.

I finished the last sips of what was the best cup of gourmet coffee I ever had when he strode into the room.

Rama was a handsome, white guy, with an aquiline nose, a helmet of blond curly hair (it was the early 90’s), a black leather jacket, and jet-black sunglasses. He stepped onto the small, low stage, sentineled by two large, stunning arrangements of flowers.

At the microphone, Rama looked around with a grand, Tom Cruise smile. He performed a monologue about politics, movies, and meditation which everyone in the room, including myself, found hysterical. From time to time he made little statements that sounded like deep, Zen puzzles, such as, “I like my students not to understand everything. If they understood everything, they would have nothing more to learn… Understand?”

He eventually sat on a stool and told us to meditate on him, with our eyes open, and watch what happened.

I got comfortable in my seat, took a few controlled breaths, and within a minute the entire room glowed as if every inch of the place, and everyone in it, had been inlaid with radiant gold leaf. I was slammed with a wave of pump-my-blood-with-opium-and-purring-kittens euphoria. I internally calculated that, if this is the kind of thing I experienced on my first night with Rama, it’s a no-brainer to follow this guy for the rest of my life. I was twenty-one years old.

Twenty three years later, I can tell you with a certainty that drugs had not been slipped to us and the guy calling himself Rama was not emitting mystical energy. Those in the room, who shared this exact same vision, were what modern psychologists call: shitheads.

No, actually the phenomenon is slightly more complex than that, but only slightly.

Let’s jump back to a month earlier, where we can watch the first stages of Jim getting fucked over.

As a twenty-one year old, my semi-unconscious plan was that Ali and I would get married, have kids early, make life decisions based on financial scarcity, and eventually get divorced. This world-outlook was based on my childhood perceptions of how adults behaved and the inappropriately romanticized cautionary tales from after-school TV specials.

Here’s a vivid memory from immediately before my recruitment: I was manning the ice cream fountain at a customer-free Friendlies restaurant, in the depressed city of Fall River, Massachusetts. A co-worker was heading out on break and asked if there was anything I needed. My deadpan answer: “Spiritual fulfillment.”

Enter the Boston Meditation Society, which posted colorful fliers on every one of UMass Dartmouth’s concrete columns, announcing free meditation classes. I had always wanted to learn meditation, curious to see if it could calm my restless, distractible mind. And nothing sounded better to a college student without a pre-paid meal plan as, “Free.”

That Thursday evening, Ali and I sat in a small classroom with eight other college students. Randy, the meditation teacher, was dressed in a business suit and tie, had kind, smiley eyes, and clearly loved talking about meditation. We finished an exercise where we concentrated on our breath with our eyes closed, and watched our thoughts float by. Then Randy talked about these people who could meditate really well, and how they gave off a kind of golden glow. You can see this glow depicted as halos in paintings of Jesus, Buddha, and saints from around the world. And for those who were spiritually sensitive… well, they got to see the glow.

For everyone keeping score at home, we’ll call this: Red Flag #1.

After going to a few of these mediation seminars, and staying after to talk with Randy about spirituality and hear more stories of historically enlightened people, he invited Ali and me out to dinner at… Olive Garden. While Ali and I gorged on bread sticks, he clued us in that he could tell we were indeed spiritually sensitive people and that he could let us in on a little secret. He was a student of a guy who is one of these enlightened beings.

As crumbs fell from my mouth, I asked, “Oh, is his name Rama?”

(Wait, what? How did Jim know Rama’s name?)

Let’s jump back to a few years earlier to where we can see how the first seeds of Jim getting fucked over were sewed, ever so carefully.

In high school, I worked at a Bread and Circus health food store, a place which would soon be absorbed into the Whole Foods regime. As a dorky 16 year old, I was interested in the supernatural, like ghosts and ESP, and I would incessantly talk with my coworkers about that kind of stuff, as I cleaned and rinsed lettuce in the produce prep room sink. There was a married couple, who I worked with, who said that it sounded like I should go hear their guru speak, since he knew a lot about the supernatural and was a really cool guy.

They gave me a tape of this Rama person lecturing about meditation and the mystical powers that it can bring. When it came time to take me to the seminar, they were told by someone in their organization, at the last minute, that I couldn’t go since I was under 18.

Back to the Olive Garden where Randy was staring at me with bugged out eyes: I was a cult recruiter’s wet dream.

For those keeping score at home, we’re going to stop counting Red Flags. This entire piece is a list of Red Flags.

So Ali and I got a box set of Rama tapes, on which Rama discussed, in a smooth, cool tone, techniques for “Buddhist” meditation and the mind states to carry when walking around in the world. We listened to these tapes all the time and learned that people vibrated, spiritually, on different frequencies, and that those who vibrated at lower frequencies drained everyone around them. We’ve all been around those people.

And since, according to Randy, Ali and I naturally vibrated at a higher frequency, the key to spiritual growth was to meditate and save your energy from being drained by slower-vibrating people. That way we can grow a savings account of, what is called, Kundalini. This will eventually lead to enlightenment. And by studying with a teacher like Rama, we get an extra boost of Kundalini every time we meditate with him, and instead of having to reincarnate for a thousand lifetimes to gather enough Kundalini, we could attain enlightenment in just one. In the world of Buddhism, this is considered a sweet deal.

We also learned that our minds start out as pure vessels, and when we have a negative thought about anything, especially during meditation, we should give it a little shove aside. We’re just picking up negative psychic junk from the slower-vibrational people for miles around. I had some doubts, but it didn’t sound entirely implausible.

Randy told us that Rama was coming to the east coast to speak at a formal dinner. It cost $300 per person (1992 money) to get into the event, but since Ali and I showed such promise, and Randy was such a successful computer programmer, he was going to pay our way.

That brings us to the tuxes, gowns, delicious food, and Christmas lights.

That night, Ali didn’t see the golden glow during the meditation, but she did feel a surge of good feelings. What she also felt, like all of the people who didn’t see anything that night, was that she was somehow lacking and would have to work harder or somehow be more worthy to see the gold. Since we walked in wanting 1) to be special, and 2) for life to have some magic, they had us, whether we saw the gold or not.

In a short time, after that first of many nights in the presence of Frederick Lenz (aka Rama), I would start organizing every item of clothing by color, keep an OCD-clean apartment, quit college (with 9 credits to go) so I could lie my way into a computer programming career, break up with Ali (relationships drain the spiritual path), and decide to move away from my family (more drains) and never again see anyone I ever knew. I’m leaving out the two dozen other compulsions and anxieties I learned over this course of time.

There are entire books which discuss how all the visual effects and my rapid personality/belief changes were possible, such as Lifton’s, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, and the more recent and more practical book by Steven Hassan, Combating Cult Mind Control.

But the bottom line is this: I was under hypnosis. Just like at a hypnosis show where a person, within a matter of minutes, goes into a trance and then behaves like a chicken or believes they’ve lost their penis. From the very first night of Randy’s lecture, I was being taught the techniques to regularly put myself under hypnosis.

After meditating or prayer, you go into an otherwise healthy trance state, but also become open to suggestion. So, Randy’s stories about seeing halos, which were told to us right after meditation, went into a personal database of possible experiences I would have with someone I believed to be enlightened. “Rama” was an expert in talking in the same way a hypnotist would, but his trance-inducing speech was camouflaged as stories and jokes. He didn’t have to say what to see, since my brain had Randy’s stories stored away, so I experienced a kind of waking dream.

When I meditated using “Rama’s” techniques by pushing away negative thoughts, I was training my subconscious to quickly and efficiently avoid critical thought. Good luck convincing someone in a cult that they are in a cult. They will just hear static.

As you read this and think your brain is too strong to be hypnotized, congratulations. That is precisely the mind state someone needs to be hypnotized. Your guard is down, dude.

In fact, if you went away for a three-day or week long “retreat” with some of these cults, it doesn’t even matter if your guard is up; they’re experts in breaking you down. The recruiters are doing it out of good, since they believe they are saving your soul or the world.

If you have ever read a book or watched TV and didn’t hear someone trying to talk with you, you have experienced a trance state. When you watch TV or a movie, you suspend judgement about reality and get absorbed into the story. Your reality becomes the shows reality, for a time. And like in prayer and meditation, when you go into this altered state, you are open to suggestion for a while afterwards. This is why there are commercials.

Some of us are more susceptible to a given cult based on where we are in our lives, especially if we have moved, have lost a loved one, or feel unsure about our future. There is a cult to fulfill any hole we might have in our life, and cults try to recruit smart people, since smart people do better work. The more brains you have, the more brains they have to grab onto.

You think you’re smart, so if you’re convinced of something, you must be right. You’re smart.

Not only are there spiritual and religious cults, but there are business, political, and psychology/relationship cults. They all operate the same way using the same mind control techniques; they just use different terms and attract people with specific needs.

My cult didn’t have a compound and we didn’t dress different or eat different food. We meditated in private and worked hard to get computer programming jobs. Unless I was trying to recruit you, you’d never know I was in a cult. Even then, you probably didn’t know I was in a cult, since I was just trying to get you to a meditation class. I’ve even heard of cults recruiting through soccer clubs and knitting circles.

What could I have done different? There was no internet in the early 90’s on which to look stuff up. I would have had to search though old articles on Microfiche, which was always hit or miss at best. Now, I would just look up the organization online and add the word “cult” or “abuse” to the search terms. You’ll quickly see if the group you are researching is an alias for a larger organization and/or if they have a history of manipulation, lying, and abuse. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

And above all, I would not walk into a meeting/retreat of a controversial organization, by myself, with the attitude of, “Eh, I’ll just check them out. If they’re fake, I’ll be able to tell and I’ll just walk away.”

Yeah, don’t do that.

If someone gets hypnotized in less than two minutes at a hypnosis show, what could happen when you listen to a cult recruiter or leader speak for hours or days?

Everyone who gets trapped in a destructive cult had moments of doubt in the beginning. The nail in the coffin is when they gave the cult some more time to prove itself.

I ultimately got out with help when my concerned high school friends and family joined forces, did the research on how to communicate with a cult member who cannot think critically, and engaged me in a peaceful intervention.

But all that’s for another post. It was dramatic, to say the least.

They even got Ali out.


If you enjoyed this, please Like and/or Share! - Jim

6 thoughts on “The Time I Was Recruited into a Cult

  1. Great article it’s I knew you went through this… fascinating to read. It would be a good article for college kids to read.

  2. I have read other accounts about this Rama/Lenz person (who actually committed suicide in the 90’s), and have concluded it was all hypnotism. Such things as Lenz described do occur, but he was plainly working off of gullibility (everyone can be a billionaire/enlightened/perfectly healthy, without effort, overnight), and suggestion. A true con artist. Beyond the initial fleecing and manipulation he practiced, there is recent research indicating long term damage done to the mental processing of those subjected to long-term hypnosis (read: his students). A truly awful person he was.

  3. I met Fred back in 1969. He was always carrying around a big camera so instead of Fred Lenz we called him “Fred the Lens.” Long, long before he started his cult he was clearly a sociopathic BS artist and I really could not get past his smarmy exterior to get to know him. I don’t know if he studied it or it came naturally, but he suddenly was billing himself as a fortune teller. Of course fortune tellers make their living reading “tells” or little subconscious clues that reveal what their “mark” is feeling. They cleverly tell people things that are true of most human beings (a blind read) and so of course they are probably correct and the person reacts with credulity. Then they get hit up for money to learn more. Fred could convince most anyone of anything and he started out by using his skills to get women into the sack with him and then quickly dump them because they were now somehow defective or inadequate and of course they would believe that to be so. He started his cult in San Diego and was running it more like a harem. He managed to catch the wave of office computerization that occurred during the late 1980’s and 1990’s and had his followers pretend to be computer experts and provide references from other “experts” who of course were shills in the same group. They would charge huge fees and produce nothing but optimistic “progress reports” and then take the money and disappear leaving the targeted company with nothing to show for its investment. Pre Google and Social Media it was too difficult to check people out so they ran this scam for years and years. It is not clear that he committed suicide. He fell off his private dock at his Long Island NY mansion and promptly drowned. He had high levels of alcohol, heroin and other drugs in his blood. Did he jump, slip and fall? Or was he pushed? Maybe by one of his jilted girlfriends or someone he took for a lot of money. Nobody knows.

  4. I was a member of this group for awhile–in fact I may have corresponded with Jim Picariello for awhile back in the 90’s although it has been a long time so I’m not sure. I was in and out of the Lenz group during the last years of his life but in the years since his death I’ve become less and less enamored of his “teachings”. He DID know how to teach people to meditate, and many applied his teachings with some success to their careers.

    But the cost to “study” with Lenz was very high in comparison with the sometimes real, but often meager, benefits. I’m not just talking about about dollar costs but let’s start with that: members often paid thousands of dollars a month in “tuition” in return for often only a single lecture lasting a few hours. It was also very damaging to people’s relationships with their families–and Lenz tended to discourage his students from having romantic relationships except, of course, when he himself decided he wanted to go to bed with a particular female student. People became isolated from normal life experiences; everything was about making enough money to pay “tuition”. People would be making good money but giving so much of it to Lenz that they were broke, deeply in debt to the IRS and credit cards, and sleeping on the floor in a sparsely furnished apartment.

    I had mixed feelings about Lenz while he was alive, recognizing both his strengths and his weaknesses, and never fully making up my mind. Now that it has been 17 years since his death, and looking at the long term legacy of his influence on his members’ lives, I see a lot of former members whose lives were significantly damaged by their time with Lenz and who have taken a long time to heal.

    @Chirantan

    I’m always interested in the perspective of those who knew Lenz in his early years before his teachings took the form they did in his peak years.

    Part of his scam during the peak computer consulting years was to appeal to people’s sense of greed. If someone’s income rose from, say, $10/hr to $50-$100/hr, Lenz would take all the credit (and most of the money) with the promise that if they would only stick with it for a few more years, he’d make them multimillionaires. In a few cases Lenz may have actually come through on such promises but mostly people ended up broke with a lot of debt–and ill equipped to weather the hi tech recession that began a couple of years after his death.

    And it also seems like many new cult leaders came out of the woodwork after Lenz died ready to take on his students and, of course, their money.

    Yes I’ve heard a couple of times that it might not have been suicide. I really have no idea, but I’m not aware of any evidence to support the story that some former members put forward: that he committed suicide due to a terminal illness which therefore justified his suicide from a Buddhist perspective. I’ve talked to people who were close to him and–while they claim it was a terminal illness–they are at a loss to explain what that illness was and why it is so difficult to pin down what the alleged illness was. Plus the concept of a terminal illness doesn’t explain or excuse why he involved a female member in his suicide plans. So, yes, I’m willing to believe he might have been murdered but there is no real evidence for that either–other than the broken railing suggestive of some kind of a struggle.

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