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The Human Potential Movement Gone Awry

Outside the limits of the human imagination.

Eddie Adams/Associated Press

“It’s an amazing phenomenon,” says Sarah T. (a pseudonym), a former disciple of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. She is referring to the movement she left a few years ago when she became exhausted and ill from overwork. “And I think people still don’t get that what’s happening up there [at Rajneeshpuram] is very, very powerful—more so than they’re giving it credit for being, even at this point. Because every person who’s a sannyasin, every person who’s up there in Oregon—particularly now—is a very different kind of human being than you meet out here [in the secular world].

“They have extraordinary gifts as people. They have extraordinary personal power. They have extraordinary capabilities and abilities, because they’ve learned to go beyond all limits.”

Sarah, a therapist whose professional discipline falls generally under the rubrics of the closely connected humanistic psychology and human potential movements, first became interested in Rajneesh when she read a book of his collected discourses called The Book of Secrets. In those discourses, originally delivered in Bombay in the early seventies, before the establishment of the ashram in Pune (Poona), India, Rajneesh drew parallels between the theories of the humanistic psychology and human potential movements and his interpretation of the Eastern sexual philosophy and practice of Tantra, which all share the theme of liberation from the emotional and sexual repressiveness of society. Sarah says that after reading the book she was “gone—right away I started having mystical experiences.”

“I had the feeling,” she remembers, “that this is what I had been looking for my whole life. And that I had come to the end of my journey. That this was it. Reading the book was like having somebody express my innermost feelings.”

The academic humanistic psychology movement, launched in 1961 by, among others, psychologist Abraham Maslow, sought to forge an alternative to the two dominant trends in contemporary psychology: Freudian psychoanalysis and behaviorism. Maslow believed that too much attention had been devoted in traditional psychology to pathological behavior, and not enough to healthy individuals who were able to “actualize themselves” and to attain and live from what he called “peak experiences.” In 1962, the Esalen Institute was established in Big Sur, California, to offer experiential workshops designed to help people realize their “human potential” (the phrase comes originally from Aldous Huxley, an early ally and inspirer of Esalen). Human potential theorists, seeking ways to counteract what they saw as people’s harsh psychological and social conditioning, found parallels among the emotional opening up process of Western cathartic psychotherapies, the peak experiences described and advocated by Maslow, and the altered states of consciousness produced by Eastern methods of meditation (and also by psychedelic drugs). The union of Western psychology and Eastern religion became one of the human potential movement’s goals.

Rajneesh, in the words of one observer—social worker and cult expert Hilly Zeitlin—“picked up all the pieces of the human potential movement.” Rajneesh’s juxtaposition of avant-garde Western therapies, such as primal, gestalt, and encounter, with such classic Eastern meditations as kundalini yoga and zazen lured hundreds of thousands of Western disciples to his ashram in Pune in the 1970s. After reading The Book of Secrets, Sarah’s next step was to attend a “Let-Go” weekend at a local Rajneesh center. The workshop involved participation in massages, therapy games, encounter groups, and meditations from 5:00 am until midnight. The effect of the Let-Go weekend on Sarah was even more profound than her reaction to Rajneesh’s written words had been.

“I stopped thinking,” she says. “I was driving back home and there were all these twinkly little white lights on the windshield. I was seeing things. I don’t know even now what was going on.” Not long afterward, Sarah was on a plane to Pune.

Rajneesh and his group leaders in Pune took the various cathartic therapy and meditation techniques associated with the human potential movement far beyond their usual limits of duration and intensity. Groups in which participants did deep, strenuous, yoga-style breathing exercises—exercises that can overoxygenate the brain and cause dizziness and nausea—would last for hours a day over several days. The ashram’s therapy groups became notorious for episodes of emotional, physical, and sexual violence. Sarah reports that she suffered physical injuries, including two cracked ribs and a concussion, in an encounter-type group in Pune.

“You see,” reflects Sarah in retrospect, “some people like to be on the edge. It’s much more exciting than the monotony of everyday life. It’s like a drug. It’s a high. And you think that you’re moving forward. These people really believe that this is Jesus Christ up there, OK? That is the beginning. And he’s providing them with experiences, with situations that are taking them past anything they’ve experienced in their lives previously. There’s a rush to that, that I’ve never found anything to equal. It’s like playing a game of death—your death.”

One of the criticisms of the human potential movement has been about its tendency to overemphasize the human potential for good and to underplay the evil, or dark side, of human nature. The word evil has also been used by observers to express their feelings about the motivations of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.

In her 1983 book, Miles from Nowhere, A Round-the-World Bicycle Adventure, writer Barbara Savage describes her experience of visiting Rajneesh’s ashram in Pune and hearing him denounce Mother Theresa, who had just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her charitable ministrations to the poor of Calcutta. Rajneesh called her a “ sexual pervert who gets her sexual satisfaction from touching lepers.” Savage says that she stood up in the audience to protest Rajneesh’s tirade against Mother Theresa, but that “ one of Neesh’s strongmen grabbed me and literally threw me back down on the floor. After that,” she writes, “I was too frightened to move.

“I sat there and watched and listened to the man rave on,” Savage continues, “and I was suddenly overwhelmed by a great sense of evil. I mean that. I truly felt as if I was surrounded by this massive evil force. I tell you, Rajneesh was emanating evil. I was terrified beyond words. When the meeting was over, I fled.”

Nathaniel Branden, a well-known humanistic psychologist in Los Angeles, had a similar reaction to some of Rajneesh’s published discourses, particularly certain passages in The Mustard Seed, In an October 2, 1978, letter to a friend at Rajneesh’s ashram, Branden wrote that Rajneesh “explains and justifies the slaughter of millions of Jews throughout history on the grounds that the Jews killed Jesus.” “Since I first began listening to Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s cassette tapes, and reading his books,” Branden told his sannyasin friend, “I have been fascinated. Among all the Indian thinkers I have read, he strikes me as clearly the most brilliant. At the same time, almost from the beginning, I have had the growing feeling that this is a man who is deeply, deeply, deeply evil—evil on a scale that is almost outside the limits of the human imagination. “The greater a man’s brilliance, the greater number of truths he has insight to,” Branden concluded, “the more dangerously destructive that man has the power to be—if his core is evil.”

—Oregon Magazine, August 1985

This article was adapted from The Rajneesh Chronicles, published by Tin House Books.