My new friend at the office quickly discovered my interest in the occult and things spiritual. She was assigned to my orientation as a secretary in the tax department of Arthur Andersen’s in London, which was thriving in the nineteen-seventies but neither occult nor spiritual. We both worked for senior partners. Newly arrived in, or more accurately returned to, London after living in Australia for sixteen years, I was happy to get such a good job.
Leila and her family came from South Africa and had lived in London for ten years. I was also happy to find a friend with similar interests. What I noticed first about Leila was her big smile and her air of serenity laced with joy which bubbled up constantly and issued from her generous mouth in deep, throaty laughter. She always wore the color orange, and around her neck hung a wooden bead necklace with a pendant holding the picture of a man with penetrating, dark eyes.
This man was Baghwan Shree Rajneesh, founder of the Rajneesh Movement, who in the mid-seventies still lived in Poona, India, from where his influence spread out all over the world. The London Rajneesh Movement was headquartered in Camden Town, but there were groups who met all over the city and suburbs. Leila took me to Camden Town to meet some of the people and to see a pair of sandals left there by Rajneesh, which had been made into a sort of shrine, surrounded by incense, and candles. Many of the Sanyasin, or disciples, had made pilgrimages to India to visit Rajneesh in person. I was impressed by these quietly joyful people, who were serious in their quest for spiritual knowledge and personal enlightenment. Nobody appeared to be under the influence of drugs, nor did they zealously press their religious beliefs on a newcomer. When Leila offered to loan me some of her books written by or about Rajneesh, I accepted and began to read his theology. Basically Zen Buddhism, it was a very open, gentle philosophy, advocating giving up the ego to become one with the whole of creation. There were no shocks or surprises there, as I had read a lot about the ‘eastern religions.’
The Rajneesh Movement was not hidden away like a secret society and its members were welcoming and happy to answer questions, but when the meetings began they were members only. When I asked Leila what happened in those meetings, she handed me a pamphlet and said, “We meditate. Here, this tells you exactly what the meditations mean. Then we usually watch a film of Rajneesh speaking or have a guest speaker. Then we share a meal and listen to music.” That sounded like any other church service or social club get together.
When I returned to London I was actually escaping from an abusive husband in Australia, and taking my daughter with me. My sister offered me sanctuary in her home, where we began to feel safe. But the trauma and stress of the past years had caught up with me and left me feeling lost and adrift, like a rudderless boat in the swiftly flowing stream that was life. I clutched at the straw that was held out to me by the Rajneesh Movement and decided to become a Sanyasin. This involved writing a short letter to Rajneesh giving my reasons for wanting to become a disciple, asking to be accepted as a seeker, to be given a new name by Baghwan, which means “master” and is how the Sanyasin referred to Rajneesh.
“I’ve sent off my letter,” I happily told Leila.
“Good. Now we’ve got to find you some orange clothes to wear.Or if you’ve got anything white, we can dye it orange.”
Leila gave me a brown skirt and an orange sweater to start my Sanyasin’s wardrobe, and I found some orange, ochre, tan, and brown items in one of the big second hand shops in London.
“A lot of Sanyasins only wear orange when they go to meditate, or for parties or meetings. You don’t have to wear it all the time and you can still wear your beloved green skirt!” Leila knew my favorite color was green. I said nothing, but noticed that she wore nothing but the orange tones. She was serious about her chosen philosophy.
In a few weeks a letter came to me from Poona in India containing a sheet of letterhead with instructions, a mandala of beads with Rajneesh’s picture which I was to wear during all my waking hours, and the new name Baghwan gave me – Booma, which means “empty.” I was to empty myself of my old life and begin anew. Fine with me. I had no idea how to do that, however.
The next day I wore my mandala at work and when Leila caught sight of it she beamed from ear to ear. Then at lunch she said “Percy and I are going to the Rajneesh Centre on Tottenham Court Road on Saturday, would you like to come with us? We want to celebrate your becoming a Sanyasin.”
“Yes, I’d love to. And now I can join all of you inside for the meditation?”
“Of course, and you’ll be a great addition to our group. Wear something loose and comfortable.”
Saturday came and I dressed in my flowing orange robe. My daughter was spending the day with her new best friend at a family picnic, so I knew she’d be safe, and her friend’s parents would bring her home afterwards. I arrived at the Centre before Leila and Percy, paid for my meal and added a small donation towards rent for the building. There were no fees, dues, or pledges to be paid, but each Sanyasin was asked to donate as much as he or she could towards renting the buildings where meetings were held – rents in London were extremely high. Each Centre also had a shop which sold books, clothing, musical instruments, incense, candles, and trinkets. Leila told me the Movement had many very wealthy Sanyasins who donated generously, which made it possible for anyone to be a member.
Leila and Percy arrived and I was introduced to Jeff, who seemed to be in charge, and Katrina, William, and Charlie their friends. Charlie had a smile as big as Leila’s and he and I hit it off right away. Bells and gongs were sounding and the big doors to the meditation room opened. About a hundred people piled in and arranged themselves a few feet apart in front of a giant picture of Rajneesh on a screen. Then the music began with a lot of drumming, rhythmic percussion, Indian sitar, and rock ‘n roll. This was the Catharsis meditation, where we loosened up our bodies with any movements we cared to use, taking in deep breaths through the nose and exhaling through the mouth with the word “who…who…who” repeated and repeated. The idea was to lose ourselves in the music and movement and cleanse our body, mind, and spirit by asking who we were. If you let yourself go even just a little it was very cathartic. Then the music stopped. We all collected a cushion from around the room and relaxed on the floor to watch a wonderful talk by Rajneesh. We all trooped out of the room after that for a simple but delicious buffet lunch of homemade breads, salads, fruits, cheeses, and cakes. Back to the meditation room again where we listened to some of the members playing guitars, singing, or playing drums or other instruments. There were plenty of drums lying about so anyone could take a turn playing. Percy thrilled us with his drumming. All too soon our time was up and we had to leave.
That was my first meeting of the Rajneesh Movement, and while it may not sound special or exciting to you, well, you had to have been there. I have attended a few meetings of other secret societies since then, but that was the best, and the most unusual meeting I have ever enjoyed.