The Hartford Meditation Society held meditation workshops in Russell Public Library in Middletown and in the campus center last March, April and May.
This semester, the Hartford Meditation Society has run weekly meditation and yoga workshops in university space for the Wesleyan Self-Discovery Club, a student group that grew out of last spring's workshops.
The turnout at the workshops has ranged from 10 to 50 students. The nationwide cult, led by a guru who calls himself "Zen Master Rama," recruits people through free workshops on topics such as meditation, yoga, psychic development and enlightenment.
Eventually some people are brought to monthly meetings in Purchase, N.Y., to listen to and meditate with Rama, who preaches Eastern religious philosophy. Before long, former followers say, devotees become dangerously captivated by Rama and he begins to control every aspect of their lives, from what one eats to what one dreams.
Former followers have accused Rama, who claims supernatural power and makes threats of spiritual damnation, of exploiting people sexually, emotionally and financially. At least five Wesleyan students have gone to Purchase to meditate with Rama.
"I go and I listen to Rama and I laugh a lot and I have a lot of fun and I come back home and go back to my life," one of the students said.
For this article, The Argus interviewed Wesleyan students, former Rama disciples and others associated with the group; attended one of the group's workshops; and reviewed public relations material, information supplied by sources and news reports, including articles published in the Hartford Courant.
Nationally Known Rama, whose real name is Fredrick P. Lenz III, was a nationally known New Age figure in the 1980s with thousands of followers. He advertised his meditation seminars in publications such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Vanity Fair, and meditated with hundreds of people in places such as the Los Angeles Convention Center and Lincoln Center in New York.
"Over the years he's worked with tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people through public lectures," said Alan Goldstein, a Rama disciple who has run the meditation workshops at Wesleyan.
But in 1987, accusations that Lenz exploited people began to surface, and since then he has kept a low profile, ceasing open recruitment and keeping only his most devoted disciples.
As a result, his following shrunk to several hundred. Now, former followers say, the 42-year-old Lenz is trying to rebuild.
His new recruiting methods are more clandestine. Since the beginning of the year, at least a dozen meditation groups have appeared on both the East and West Coasts. These include the Northern Virginia Meditation Society, the Pacific Meditation Society, the Manhattan Meditation Forum and the Philadelphia Society for the Meditative Arts.
No Visible Connection
These front groups reveal no connection to Lenz, Rama or his business. They rent rooms in churches, universities and public libraries for the workshops. The Hartford Meditation Society, which consists of eight teachers, has taught between 2,500 and 3,500 people in the past year, Goldstein said.
Promising students at the Hartford Meditation Society's workshops are invited to parties at a leased half-million dollar home at 15 Northridge Drive in West Hartford, according to the Courant.
Certain students are then invited to the monthly meetings with Lenz at the State University of New York at Purchase. At these meetings, Lenz speaks under the protection of a private security force and all who enter are required to sign a legal release promising not to sue and to keep everything about Rama and the group confidential, according to the Courant.
One people become devoted, former followers say, they are encouraged to learn computer programming and take courses with Lenz's companies, Advance Systems, Inc. and Infinity Plus, Inc. Then they are helped to find jobs as consultants so they can pay for the monthly meetings.
The longer one is in the group and the more money one makes, the more one has to pay, ex-followers say.
Lenz told Newsday in 1991 that each of his 200 disciples paid him $2,500 a month, which translates to an annual income of $5 million. Wes Walker, a Santa Monica, Calif., resident who left the group in 1990 after six years, said he was paying $5,000 a month by the time he quit.
The group denies all accusations made against it and Lenz, and blames them on the smear tactics of a national "Lenz Watch Hate Group" of former followers and disgruntled parents. This hate group, Goldstein said, makes money by deprogramming followers.
"These people have either been deprogrammed or they just have an ax to grind," Goldstein told The Argus in an interview. "Their main business is hate. They are the KKK of the religious world."
Goldstein insisted that all charges are unfounded. "Of the maybe 200 people at Wesleyan that have come through my classes, there' s not a single person you'd find that ever had a bad experience."
Goldstein said he has taken five Wesleyan students, two who graduated in the spring and three who are still enrolled, to see Rama at Purchase.
He said none of the Wesleyan students had seen Rama more than once. But one of the student organizers of the Wesleyan Self-Discovery Club said Goldstein had taken him to see Rama three times. There are about 400 people at the meetings, said the student, a junior who requested anonymity because of "legal dangers." At the meetings, the audience listens to Rama speak and meditates with him.
Rama, the student said, is "very funny, very smart, very endearing."
"He strikes me as a very shrewd, street-smart kind of person, who does what he does no matter what people think."
The junior said he goes because he is interested in meditation. "I leave refreshed, in a very clear state of mind, a very focused state of mind," he said. "I think he's a rare being. I do respect him."
Goldstein insisted the free workshops are not related to Rama. "In my talks, I'm not representing him," Goldstein said. "I'm not recruiting for anybody. I'm teaching meditation, just for kicks."
But if people are interested in meeting Rama, he told the Courant, he takes them to the monthly meeting, which he goes to regularly.
Goldstein said he often travels with Lenz, and that Rama has helped him with "personal development" and with his career as a computer consultant.
Earlier this month, Goldstein took three or four Wesleyan students to a party in West Hartford with about 40 people from meditation workshops around the state.
In addition to Wesleyan, the Hartford Meditation Society has been recruiting at places such as Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Yale University in New Haven, Greater Hartford Community College and various churches and public libraries.
At the party, Goldstein said, the people talked, ate and meditated. "Nothing bad happened," he said. "People just had a great time. It was just a party."
The Wesleyan Self-Discovery Club was formed by two students who had been interested in meditation before the Hartford Meditation Society came to campus. After having attended and enjoyed Goldstein's workshops last spring, the two students decided to form a student meditation group. The second student, a senior, also requested anonymity.
The senior registered the Wesleyan Self-Discovery Club with the WSA at the beginning of September. The club has photocopying privileges, but does not receive any student funds. In addition, the group uses university space for meetings at no cost.
In addition to the meditation workshops offered every Tuesday in Fisk Hall, the group has held yoga classes six or seven times at the Freeman Athletic Center. Usually, about 10 or 15 students attend the workshops and between 30 and 50 go to the yoga classes.
The students also go on hikes about every two weeks. Five or ten students go on the hikes, which lead to a nearby cliff that overlooks a pond. The senior said the students meditate on the hikes. Goldstein went with them on one trip.
"Not many people are into meditation, so it's nice to meet others who are interested in it," the senior said. "By practicing the techniques, it made my meditation clearer, better, more fun," the junior said. "This is a network, an exchange, where I get to see different angles."
Goldstein teaches the workshops and gives out meditation tapes and books for free. He bought five advertisements in The Argus last semester, and has bought two this semester for the Wesleyan Self-Discovery Club. He teaches two or three nights a week around Connecticut. He called the Hartford Meditation Society "a loose group of people who share a common interest in meditation."
"I pay for the ads in The Argus because I feel like this stuff is really cool and people should have the opportunity to be exposed to it," Goldstein said. "I get a tremendous kick out of it. "
Twelve students showed up for last Tuesday' s meditation workshop, about half of whom had never been to one before.
The seminar lasted two hours, with Goldstein speaking most of the time about what meditation is and how to do it properly. Goldstein spoke in a smooth, calming voice while carefully moving his hands and body in complementary patterns.
Goldstein told the students that to meditate is to stop all thought. Among other things, he mentioned computers. He told of Rama, his teacher. He explained that when you first meditate, you can do it on your own, but once you reach a certain level, you need to meditate with a more experienced meditator. Only by doing so, he said, can you meditate better. That is why he meditates with Rama, Goldstein said. Never had he meditated so well as when with Rama.
Students meditated three times during the seminar, for about 15 minutes each time. Goldstein played soothing synthesized music on a compact disc player he had brought with him, and told students to focus their thoughts on one of the body's three power centers. One student said she experienced brightness, another a downward thrust, as though he were a tree and his roots were growing down and taking him with them. All the students appeared to have enjoyed themselves.
Music By Rama
The music was created by Rama, Goldstein told the students, in order to facilitate meditation. Goldstein said that while he has meditated best with Rama, he cannot always meditate with him. Meditating with Rama's music, Goldstein said, is the next best thing.
Goldstein offered to give tapes of the music to anyone who wanted to continue meditating. Several students took tapes with them. Goldstein also gave a book on meditation to a student who had previously requested it.
Students were visibly pleased with the seminar, smiling and laughing on their way out.
"The stated title of that class was 'Career Success,'" Goldstein said, "but there were people there who were not that familiar with meditation, so I just shifted the topic a little bit." In fact, the advertised title was "Meditation and the Planes of Light." Next Tuesday's seminar is entitled "Meditation and Career Success."
Students were uncomfortable talking about the group and their meditation.
"The reason I'm a little touchy is because meditation is a very personal thing," said the organizer who is a senior. "I feel funny about having talked about it. I've always thought of it as a private thing."
Although neither student has read the articles about the group, both said they had heard that "bad" things have been written about the Hartford Meditation Society and Rama.
"Most people don't really care about meditation, and there are going to be people who are against you for it," the junior said. "So he's very real in the sense that there are people out there who are out to nab you."
Neither student is concerned that the allegations may be true.
"I'm not particularly worried," the junior said. "There's nothing that I've been presented with to be afraid of.
"I haven't been bossed into, pushed into, coerced into doing anything I didn't want to. I have nothing but benefited from it."
"The national picture is quite cloudy and complex," the senior said. "Our connection with the Hartford Meditation Society and with Alan has been clean and not really that deep:"
During its investigation in September, the Courant called Coordinator of Events Diane Brennan and asked whether there were any meditation groups on campus. She said she was unaware of any.
Soon after, the senior asked Brennan for space for the club to meet. Brennan called WSA Coordinator Cari Macdermott to confirm that the Wesleyan Self-Discovery Club is a WSA group. Macdermott said Brennan sounded very concerned.
"A connection was made only because of the coincidence of the call from the Courant a few weeks earlier," Brennan said. "But that's all. We just noticed it was coincidental. "
President Chace and Dean of the College Janina Montero said they had heard of neither the Wesleyan Self-Discovery Club nor of Rama's group. They both declined to say whether the university would or could take any actions to prevent the group from recruiting on campus.
A former Wesleyan student who graduated in 1991 became involved with the group last spring and got "fairly far down into the recruiting process," according to Walter Jacobs, 53, a resident of Pennsylvania whose daughter has been a Rama follower for eight years. Material given to the press accuses Jacobs of being one of the "Lenz Watch Hate Group" leaders.
Jacobs told The Argus that the student's parents became concerned about their son's involvement and contacted Jacobs, who is a well-known opponent of the group. "I was able to get some information to him so that he could make an informed judgment of what was going on, and he dropped out," Jacobs said.
According to Jacobs, the alumnus knew several Wesleyan students who were also deeply involved and intended to give them information about the group.
Former followers accuse the group of being deceptive, and say that people who go to the workshops do not realize what they are getting involved in. They say Lenz targets people from 18- to 30-years old because their youth makes them easier to recruit.
"I was very vulnerable and open and just real naive," said Barbara Sherman, 26, who left the group in 1990 after five years and now lives in the New York metropolitan area. "I didn't see what was happening." "Everything he was talking about at first seemed really benign," Walker said. "It wasn't too exciting one way or the other. But it was semi-interesting and I hadn't heard a lot of it."
Before he knew it, Walker told The Argus, he was deep into the group. He dropped out of college to join computer school. A media kit distributed by the Hartford Meditation Society lists Walker and Sherman as members of the Lenz Watch Hate Group.
" At the first meeting, I was captivated by him," Sherman said in an interview. "I had these really weird spiritual experiences. I felt like I was floating. He knows how to use mass hypnosis and hypnotize people.
"The meditations and trances we were going into were quite intense," Walker said. "We would see light coming out of his hands. It was quite thrilling and dramatic and hallucinatory. And it was quite a bit more dramatic than what we saw the rest of the world doing."
"He claims to be fully enlightened," Sherman said. "He claims to be a divine incarnation of God, and fully equivalent to Jesus Christ and the Buddha. All of a sudden you become convinced that he is what he claims to be, and that's where the danger starts. Once you are convinced that he is enlightened, you are under his power."
"He remodels your whole personality, and makes you paranoid," said Wes's sister, Trina Walker, who joined in 1985 when she was 19 and stayed with the group until 1990. "He messes with your self-image, and you're left off balance."
Lenz makes devotees paranoid by warning them that there are demonic entities out to get them, ex-followers say. He also tells them he has the power to create and destroy the universe, to give and cure cancer, to control not only your life, but your afterlife.
" After you are convinced who he is, believe me, you are going to do everything the man says," Sherman said. "He tells you where to live, how to dress, what programs to watch on TV, what videos to rent, what newspapers to read, how to talk to people."
Dreaming of Rama
Former followers said they meditated an hour in the morning and an hour at night, and had to do a certain amount of martial arts and physical exercise each week. The Courant reported that disciples are required to file detailed monthly reports that catalogue everything from their jobs to what kind of clothes they wear.
For one six-month period, followers were required to keep a dream journal. Every night before going to bed, devotees had to write that they would dream of meeting Rama in the desert. They had to concentrate on doing this, and set their alarms for every two hours to check their dreams.
"If he had said jump, I would have said how high," Sherman said. "If he had said drink this Kool Aid, we are all going to kill ourselves, I would have done it."
The group is divided into levels, ex-followers say, and the goal is to get to the next level. At each level, followers pay more money.
Lenz teaches his followers that the way to progress spiritually is to keep going to the seminars. Former followers say they would do anything to get enough money to see Rama.
"I was going quite hungry, eating boiled potatoes every night," Mr. Walker said. "I barely scrapped by."
"Every penny I had I gave to him," Sherman said.
Rama is the name for an incarnation of Vishnu, a Hindu deity. Lenz has developed the beliefs he teaches by blending ideas from Buddhism, Hinduism, Native American shamanism and the occult, according to the Courant.
"One thing that separates it from a religion is that Rama controls the information that gets through to the group," Mr. Walker said. "We're instructed not to pay attention to the news or the world, only to pay attention to what he says."
"When you're not with him," Sherman said, "you're living and breathing every moment for him."
In 1987 accusations that Lenz sexually exploited his followers first surfaced. A follower named Annie Eastwood said Lenz invited her to his Malibu home for "private meditation" and forced her to have sex with him after waving a gun. Another follower, Mercedes Hughes, said Lenz seduced her, forced her to become his mistress and take LSD.
The national media carried these stories. Lenz admitted to having sex with these women, but argued it was voluntary. No charges were filed.
After following Lenz for five years, Sherman said, in 1989 Lenz called her one night and asked her to come to his Long Island home. After Sherman arrived, she said, Lenz locked the gate surrounding the estate, locked the front door, brought her to his bedroom and locked that door, warning her not to open it because it would set off the alarm. He gave her capsules to take that he said were Benadryl, she said. They turned out to be hallucinatory.
"He had his way with me " Sherman said. "He did weird sexual things, and I couldn't respond. I was paralyzed, in some weird, funky state. I had no control."
He repeated this the next night. Afterward, he yelled at her for crying in front of the "enlightened one," she said. "Then he shooed me away like he had a gnat in his face."
It took Sherman nine more months before she found the courage to quit in 1990.
According to the Courant, a package that Lenz's public relations aide gives to the press contains a statement from a former roommate that says Sherman's feelings toward Lenz "changed to almost unbearable jealousy" when she learned other women had similar experiences with him.
Other former followers said that Lenz had sex with more than half the female devotees.
"A recurring charge against Dr. Lenz became that he forced sex upon women," reads another statement that his public relations aide gives to the press, according to the Courant. "In fact, Dr. Lenz's teachings offer a singularly powerful program of self-discovery for women."
"The stuff those gals talk about tends to get a little exaggerated as time goes on," Goldstein said. "Rama's a single guy, he doesn't tell people not to have sex. He has sex like a normal guy."
Afraid to Leave
Former followers said they were terrified of leaving the group. Lenz warned his followers that he would give them cancer and destroy their afterlives if they deserted him. Former followers said recovering once they left the group was painful but rewarding .
"You have to work at it and think about it a lot," Mr. Walker said. "My life is better than it has ever been. But it's scarring."
"It's very difficult to recover because your mind has been so conditioned," Sherman said. "He puts you in a trance, and all your critical thinking facilities shut down."
"It's difficult to remember who you are," Ms. Walker said. "I feel like I wasted five years of my life," Sherman said. "I woke up and I'm 24 and I'm all messed up. I really should be 18 again."