Saturday, July 14, 2012

What is Scientology? A Scientologist offers her point of view

Excerpted from the Los Angeles Times, 12 July 2012 

The tabloids tell us that Scientology was at the root of the breakup between Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. If the “sources” fueling the entertainment media’s frenzied coverage of the divorce are correct, Holmes realized Suri was reaching an age where her religious instruction would begin in earnest, and could not bear it. Neither Cruise nor Holmes nor their representatives are confirming any of this.

Regardless, the rumors and related coverage raise the question: What is Scientology?

Critics portray Scientology as a cultish religion brought to the masses via science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, one that allegedly encourages its members to part with the contents of their wallets in order to achieve higher levels of spiritual awareness.

But what about the other side? There are plenty of people who believe Scientology has helped them achieve great personal fulfillment and happiness — and no shortage of celebrities who say Scientology gave them the emotional foundation they needed to withstand the rigors of Hollywood.

We asked Laurie Hamilton, a second-generation Scientologist and ordained Scientology minister who does consulting work, to talk about her experiences with Scientology and to offer readers a primer on it from her point of view. She declined to reveal specifics about where she lives or works for fear that some clients might hold her beliefs against her.

What follows is an edited transcript of an interview conducted via email at Hamilton’s request because she wanted black-and-white clarity to her answers.

What is the reaction within the Scientology community to the Cruise/Holmes breakup?
That’s a little like asking what the reaction is in the Catholic community. Catholics as individuals may have opinions, and may know that Katie is Catholic, but I doubt that as a “community” they have an opinion.  Scientologists are nothing if not individualistic.

My own personal reaction to the break up was threefold. As a fan:  “Bummer — they looked really happy together.” As someone over halfway through the 37th year of my first and only marriage: “Wonder why they couldn’t make it work?” As a Scientologist: “Oh, great. Here comes all the BS, prejudice and ill-informed commentary again.”

Does Scientology consider itself a religion?
Yes. We believe in a god and in a supernatural origin of the cosmos — and that by doing Scientology, we can regain our direct awareness of the ultimate truths of things for ourselves.

What is Scientology? (Admittedly, this is tough to answer in brief. But we’re trying to give readers a primer on its basics.)
Scientology is a religion. It is a philosophy. It is a way of life. It is a hella-big toolbox full of ways to deal with life, success, failure, and life’s vicissitudes. It approaches life and living from the idea that there are root causes and mechanisms for all natural, spiritual and human events, issues and states of affairs. Scientologists as a whole tend to agree that L. Ron Hubbard (whom we refer to almost exclusively simply as “Ron,”) had a unique insight and a particular knack for figuring out these root causes and using them to develop a useful methodology for dealing with life, preparing for the hereafter, and achieving mental and spiritual clarity, strength and equilibrium.

What Scientologists are trying to do by way of their study and use of the subject, and by being counseled according to its methods, is to become more themselves, jettison mental and spiritual junk that they have accumulated over time, and to become happier and more effective in their lives so that they can retain mental and spiritual clarity and grow as individuals — not backslide and fall back into traps and misery that they knew before, and which is all-too-commonly the human lot.

We take the view that we are not bodies or minds, but that we are spiritual beings who have bodies and minds, and that the hierarchy is: Spirit is greater than mind is greater than body. This is a natural outgrowth of the idea that the physical universe is here only because we (spiritual beings in general, including you) are here, rather than the other way around. Theoretically, you and I are the ultimate cause of everything, though we have fooled ourselves over time into believing that we are not, that it is all being done to us, that the universe is the ultimate reality and we are just muddling through.

Can you talk about the role of Hubbard’s teachings to today’s Scientologists?
Part of being a Scientologist is the agreement held in common with other Scientologists that Ron had it right, that as to Scientology we will do it the way he said and not some other way, and that we won’t try to develop or change Scientology to be different or “better,” but we will adhere to Ron’s teachings on the subject.

Scientology is the body of thought as contained in Ron’s dozens of books, hundreds of lectures and tens of thousands of individual bulletins and letters respecting technical theories and procedures and organizational policies. Scientologists are people who take these writings as authoritative, and whose life experience is that they have found a way to a better life through Scientology.

You take issue with the portrayal of Scientologists as blind followers or believers.
A prime principle in Scientology is Ron’s statement on personal integrity, “What is true for you is what you have observed yourself. And when you lose that, you have lost everything.” — L. Ron Hubbard. That prime principle is one reason why you find Scientologists to be perfectly happy to disagree with each other about nearly anything. It reminds me of the Jewish tradition of healthy debate.

The Church of Scientology is the way we keep everything organized and preserve the fidelity and the practice of Ron’s writings so that we can spread the word, and not fall victim to gradual changes, and therefore losses in effectiveness, in using the techniques he developed.

Can you discuss Scientologists’ opposition to drugs?
Part and parcel of our principles is that psychoactive drugs are bad for you and limit your spiritual growth. Abuse of them can physically damage your nervous and endocrine systems, and this physical damage can make it so that you can’t benefit from our practices anymore. You’re just too damaged for them to work. So we like to speak out against the abuse of both recreational and “medicinal” psychoactive drugs.

Name three of the most basic beliefs in Scientology. What do members have to believe in, in order to be Scientologists?
There is no belief, per se, in Scientology, because folks are asked to come to experience and therefore know things, but not to believe them until they have observed them. However, some basic principles are:

  • You are a spirit (we use the word “thetan” to refer to your spiritual self), who has a mind and a body. 
  • You are eternal. This is not your first corporeal life, and is unlikely to be your last. 
  • You are basically good. When you behave badly, it is due to having the wrong answers about how to solve your problems, and/or because you have strayed from healthy and constructive purposes. Having done bad, one tends to limit and punish oneself in ways that can do lasting damage. Some of Scientology’s techniques are aimed at unraveling self-inflicted damage.

What is ARC?
Understanding can actually be broken down into elements of Affinity (liking or willingness to be near), Reality (sameness, accuracy or agreement with a referent) and Communication (the exchange of unaltered information). The increase of these factors increases understanding, life, “love,” vitality, success, camaraderie, emotional state, etc. The decrease of these factors decreases the foregoing. The decrease of one of these elements with regard to a particular person, activity, thing or subject, will reduce the other two elements. So you hear Scientologists talk about ARC — and when they do so, they are referencing understanding, friendship, cooperativeness, etc. It’s a little like “Shalom” or “Aloha” as a word. It multitasks.

What are three of the most commonly held mistaken beliefs about Scientology?
  1. The belief that Scientology or Scientologists are odd, secretive, “different” in some way, or that their exposure to Scientology causes them to view the world through a filter, etc. We’re regular folks.
  2. That we have something against medicine or doctors. We are some medicine-takin’, doctor-goin’ fools, with respect to anything that might be a physical ailment, and for which there is some known/approved medical treatment/remedy. Yeah, some of us think herbs, vitamins, chiropractors are a good first line of defense, but when a dog rips a hole in my hand, you will find me in the ER getting stitched up, and then at the pharmacy filling my scrip. Further, I may seek an “assist” from a Scientologist friend to help me not be bogged down by trauma or “phantom” pains from the bite. Or, I might just see the doc and get the antibiotics and leave it at that.
  3. I gotta say, I recently read an article which named Tom Cruise as the “No. 2 or 3 ranking” Scientologist. What? He’s not even a Scientology staffer or anything like that. How’s he gonna have a “rank?” He’s a private Scientologist like me — except I’ve BEEN on staff, and he never has, to my knowledge. This is all tied up in this weird idea that Scientology or Scientologists or the Church of Scientology somehow have some say in what high-profile Scientologists do with their lives, how they behave, what kinds of things they say, who they hang out with, what projects they pursue, etc. Hogwash.

Critics of Scientology bring up unusual topics such as thetans and aliens …
You are a thetan. I am a thetan. Think of it as “soul” or “spirit” or “identity.” We have our minds and our bodies, but we are not these things. We don’t have mass or motion or wavelength or a position in time or space. We can perceive, and we can imagine/decide/postulate things. As such, it’s not useful to try to think of the real “you,” in measurable material terms. There is a general view among Scientologists that people’s personal histories predate the very existence of the material universe as such, and that had we not been here already, matter, energy, space and time would not be here. That view naturally subsumes the idea of ancient and future civilizations rising and falling over time, and the potential of intelligent life in more than one place in the universe. We do not otherwise take “aliens,” etc. into account in our daily thinking or Scientology practice. The vast, vast majority of Scientologists have never even heard of such things, except in the context of “how did we arrive at the state of affairs of human society today?”

Ron put forth some early theories as to how intelligent life might have happened to arise on this particular planet, and these theories [take] into account the possibility that you and I existed for a very long time before Earth was habitable and that the presence of water, carbon compounds, and the resulting evolution of life here provided an opportunity for you and I to be alive here rather than somewhere else.

The idea of the existence of timeless, deathless spiritual beings necessarily assumes that we exist independent of the state of affairs on this speck of rock at the edge of the Milky Way. It also implies that  it would be rather conceited of man to think himself the only intelligent life in the universe. We think of ourselves (many Scientologists do — if they have experience, recollection or perception they see as supporting the view) as spiritual beings who preexisted this planet, and we may not be alone in the universe. Scary, no?

Do you think Scientology is secretive?
No. The Masons are secretive. The CIA is secretive. Anonymous is secretive.  We’re a bunch of folks studying stuff you can access on the shelves of any library in Los Angeles.

Critics say the highest levels of Scientology are only available to those who pay large sums of money to access it. Is that true?
It is true that the very top levels are reserved for people who are ready for them. Access to very advanced principles can be either useless or upsetting to people who can’t digest them. As a person who has done most of them, I can tell you they are as controversial (from the point of view I had going in) as recipes in a cookbook. They are ways to look at, and to do things which leave one with a forever-improved outlook on life and existence in general.

Some people pay handsomely once they are at that level. I didn’t. I exchanged my labors and some little (not a lot of) money as well. Were I not giving something for what I got, there would have been no building to do it in, and nobody to do it. So I’m cool with that. I and my family are persons of very modest means. So were most of the people who were on the upper levels at the same time I was. And yet, there we were. I met John Travolta one day while I was there. Another time, I bumped into Kirstie Alley in an elevator. Sure there were well-off people there, and I suspect they were donating a good deal more than I was — because it was easy for them to do so, and they didn’t mind. I pinched my pennies and did the same stuff they were doing right alongside them. Anyone who really wants to do it can do it.

What do you say to ex-members who refer to Scientology as a cult?
I say “Good job of self-justification, jerk.” Apostates have to denigrate that which they formerly held dear. It’s a human psychological necessity.

Critics say some people join Scientology and become completely absorbed in it.
Adherents to a cohesive “theory of life” that helps them to define not only who they are, but who their friends and not-friends are, and how life works, and the reasons for everything, may get eyeball-deep in it because it is working for them. They may join the most hard-core adherents in a total dedication to the cause.

Some religions have monks and such who dedicate themselves to all-religion-all-the-time. Scientology has a small order of deeply dedicated staffers, adults only, which does not admit all comers. It’s called the “Sea Org,” (short for sea organization) because it began at sea as Ron’s crew on a boat manned by his closest supporters. The vast majority of Scientologists are grocers, mechanics, secretaries, baristas, cabbies and the like.

What are two or three things you would like people to know about Scientology?
  1. Scientology is not “weird.” It is logically and internally consistent, and answers a lot of questions and solves a lot of problems. It’s not a plot, conspiracy or cabal, we don’t want any members who don’t want to be members, we don’t want to brainwash you or your kids, and we are not trying to take over the world. We would like less war, less insanity, less criminality; people who are free, kind to their fellow man, and not suffering from the psychic wounds that make some seem evil or without hope. We want people to be able to rise through their own accomplishments, and without harming others along the way.
  2. Scientologists are not “weird.” We’re ordinary folks who do ordinary things — with a little more insight, success, and a little less upset than before we had Scientology, we like to think.
  3. It’s not about power, and it’s not about money. No one in Scientology profits from it. We do insist that if anyone wants our help, that they earn it with work, or with some material contribution that we can use to keep the lights on, pay the rent, keep a roof over the staff’s heads, pay our “supervisors” (think teachers), counselors, clergy, etc., maintain our cars and vans, mow the lawns, provide private spaces for counseling and quiet, orderly rooms and texts, etc. for training, chapels for services and ceremonies, get the word out, etc. We don’t pass a contribution plate at services. We only ask those who are actually getting something to give anything. Everyone else is allowed to hang around to their heart’s content for no exchange at all.

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