Earlier this year, I found myself losing the plot with my mental health in Brisbane, Australia. I ended up getting heavily involved with cocaine, alcohol and a man who got me pregnant.
Catching myself crumbling to pieces after a few months, I said ‘see ya’ to this man and to Brisbane, and went to live at a self-sustainable, community living ashram in the Byron Bay Hinterland that I’d found on Workaway.info.Detoxing from sex, drugs and alcohol; meditating for 12 hours daily; using compost toilets; going vegan; craving chocolate and tuna; and figuring out what to do with this growing thing inside me was pretty hectic, but I was in the right place to find all the answers, right? Not quite.
This wasn’t the spiritual Kumbaya retreat that was discreetly advertised. I found myself living as part of a cult. The leader controlled everyone’s actions, thoughts and emotions. He told us all (individually) that we were impure, that we were self-hating zombies of society and that we had to devote ourselves to the ashram.
One night, he told us we were all brothers and sisters, and the next night, he told us all to make love to each other.
He contradicted himself all the time. For example, one night, he told us we were all brothers and sisters, and the next night, he told us all to make love to each other. We were all covered in self-inflicted scars, all immensely fragile and some of us, myself included, seriously needed to be in a psychiatric ward. We’d come to find peace in nature and meditation, but this was an insanely unhealthy and dangerous place to be, and it was all in the name of Osho, the Indian guru and spiritual teacher.
You don’t know it’s a cult until you escape
Living as part of a cult, you don’t actually know it’s a cult until after you escape. You’re blinded by the brainwashing, the control and the orders. “We are free here,” our leader said, “free from society, and you are all so lucky to be here.”
He was insane, and we weren’t free at all. We weren’t allowed to leave, not even to go to the hospital. Yes, it was me they prevented from going to the hospital with severe gastroenteritis, while I was pregnant!
Unfortunately, there were extremely mentally unwell people there who didn’t escape, people who are still there now. However, I hope to raise awareness about this place, along with other so-called spiritual centres that both mentally stable and unstable people can fall victim to.
My name is Charmaine Selwood and this is my story.
Looking for a place to heal
Earlier this year, I was working as an au pair in Brisbane, Australia. Things were going well until I found myself in a wild relationship filled with drinking, drugs and hotel rooms. We started to argue, and I noticed my mental health deteriorating. I needed to get away, be somewhere pure and come back to myself.
This self-sustainable spiritual community had a tight schedule. We got up at 5.30 a.m., before sunrise, and had a jam-packed day of meditation, Yoga, ‘meditation in action’ (work) and vegan meals. In the evenings, we had Sangha. During Sangha, we danced in the candlelit Bush Sanctuary, and then sat in a circle and meditated. Swami Prem Samaya, the 80-year-old Italian guru and owner of the ashram, would then give a talk. He didn’t hang around much, and that was usually the most anyone saw of him, unless you arranged a time to see him privately. By 7 p.m., the moon-illuminated forest led us to bed.
Samaya was wise, charismatic, intelligent and moved gracefully in the shadows of Sangha. His philosophy blew me away, and through listening to him, I realized how someone could so easily become a slave to society. He made us feel like we’d escaped all that pain and suffering. The ashram would set us free.
Throughout the first few days, the intensity of Osho meditations shocked me. We did Mystic Rose on my second day, which meant talking gibberish for 10 minutes, crying for 10 and then laughing for 10. I couldn’t believe people were actually doing it. How could they flick through such a range of intense emotions?
After a few days, we did Dynamic Meditation. This terrified me even more. After rapidly breathing through your nostrils for quite some time, you’d then express rage, sadness and any other deep, dark emotions you could find, letting them EXPLODE. Some people were screaming “FUCK YOU,” some people were punching pillows, some were rocking on the floor crying and some were letting their bodies have fits of pure rage! Dynamic not only scared me, but after a few attempts, it forced me to visit uncomfortable levels of sadness, terror and anger.
No time for myself
Being in a room with everyone shouting and screaming was terrifying. Everyone cried their souls out, even when we weren’t meditating, and this place provided no real aftercare. After we were forced to dig deep within ourselves during meditation, we had no real way to come safely back out. It’s as if everyone just walked around with fresh, open wounds and had no way to stitch them back up. After a week, I realized I was living with some mentally unwell people, and I was clearly one of them.
After we were forced to dig deep within ourselves during meditation, we had no real way to come safely back out.
Having a mental breakdown here felt like an achievement. Everyone kept telling me that I wasn’t fully letting my guard down, including Samaya. He said, “You have to give yourself fully to me. Let me inside. Love me.”
He made it very clear that he didn’t have time to let his wisdom shower down on me until I’d done so. That night at Sangha, he clearly spoke about people not making an effort with anger. I knew he was talking about me, and with every word he said, I felt it directly enter me. I felt terrible. I felt like the black sheep, the rebel, the outcast with a heavy mask.
“He’s only trying to help me,” I thought, “I need to try harder.”
My mask was soon ripped off when I had my first mental breakdown. Afterward, I was congratulated. My mental breakdown was genuinely congratulated, followed by, “I knew you could do it, Charmaine.” I was feeling suicidal, being mentally poked and prodded, and pushed to my limits, yet I was being congratulated.
No one asked if I was OK. No one asked if anyone was OK. We were all mentally vulnerable, fragile people, and we had to wear our insanity on our sleeves, or we weren’t doing it right. After this mental collapse, I was in Samaya’s good books. I wondered why he had time for my weakness, but not for my strength. I also wondered if he liked us being weak so we’d stay at his side.
We were told to make love to each other
Samaya called us his family and said we were all brothers and sisters. However, I quickly noticed that he was contradictory, and as a person in healing under the guidance of a guru, this constantly threw me off and made me question not only my beliefs, but his too. One night, he invited us to all make love to each other. I was quickly being mesmerized by a man who felt that community living in the forest meant not washing!But, I didn’t want to make love to the people I lived in harmony with, my family. I wasn’t there for lovemaking or for the love of others. I wanted to love myself, alone. I told the young man, my fellow ‘brother’, that I was going to the toilet, but I snuck off. He made love to someone else that night.
After a week of living at the ashram, I realized many people in our small community had flings and relationships with each other—including Samaya himself, with his right-hand woman Mali, who was in her mid-thirties. I found out he’d also asked one of our early-twenties females to be his lover. She politely declined.
Devoted to the ashram
“Yes, you hate yourself, Charmaine. I can tell. You have a lot of work to do here at the ashram. I propose you cancel your plans of going back to India, and stay here and live with us. I don’t see you going back to normal society,” Samaya said to me one day, as I was in tears.
“It must be true, he must be right,” I thought.
How could anyone who’d worked with Osho himself say anything that was untrue? Samaya had deep insight. Samaya told me we had to fully believe in and trust him to get the best experience possible out of living at the ashram. Yet, I found when I started believing in him, I got sicker, as well as more confused and emotional, and only took myself further away from recovery. But I relied on him more. I depended on his words of wisdom and looked to him for approval.
After one week, I decided to devote myself to the ashram and I cancelled my future plans. I cried with joy once I came to this realization—after receiving my first ever tantric massage, which was an experience in itself!With this, I posted my last message on Facebook to all my family members and friends. I stated that I was “going off grid for a while,” and wouldn’t be contactable.
I was spotted with my phone and Mali gave me a telling-off. “We don’t like people using their phones. This is the time to go inwards,” she said.
I knew phones weren’t allowed, but I had a text from my Dad asking me to call him. I instantly thought my alcoholic mother was dead, so I called him. He didn’t understand where I was, and he expressed deep, serious concern for my well-being after reading my ‘final’ message to the world.
“Dad, honestly. Don’t worry. I’m safe. And I’m the happiest I’ve ever been!” I said.
However, my Dad’s instincts were right, as always, and he knew I wasn’t safe.
The money thing
One day, we did a senses walk through the forest. We got to the sense of taste, and we were all invited to taste the Earth. Once we got to the sense of touch, we were down by the creek, and Samaya yelled, “Everyone take off your clothes and jump into the creek. Anyone who doesn’t go in will not be allowed to have dinner!”
Samaya yelled, “Everyone take off your clothes and jump into the creek. Anyone who doesn’t go in will not be allowed to have dinner!”
And just like that, everyone threw off their clothes and jumped into the creek. I stood next to the creek while Samaya called me in. I felt incredibly uncomfortable. But again, I felt bad that I wasn’t following orders.
After a week, I realized people were donating various amounts of money to the ashram. Since I found the ashram on Workaway, where you work in exchange for accommodation and food, I had no idea that money was involved. But it sure was! One time, Samaya questioned me: “Do you have enough money for a flight home? How did you get money to come to Australia?”
I told him I didn’t have enough money for a flight home, and that I didn’t know how I would get home one day. We didn’t talk about money again after that. I felt incredibly terrible that some people were donating a lot of money, and I wasn’t paying anything.
One morning, Mali put great emphasis on how much the ashram relies on donations. Therefore, she suggested that everyone dig just a bit deeper. I didn’t understand. Why were they on a work exchange website when they asked for money? I trusted this place, yet I started to feel disappointed.
My soul sister at the ashram was Madita. Her birth name was Kim, but while living there, she received her new Sanskrit name of Madita. We craved a trip to the outside world so we could sit in a cafe, drink coffee, talk and eat chocolate. Nevertheless, leaving the ashram was completely not in the cards. Two women were allowed to leave because they worked and they paid the most in donations, but we weren’t.
With the newfound knowledge that I wasn’t allowed to leave, combined with being convinced to stay for the foreseeable future, I started feeling like I was suffocating.
Samaya was incredible at what were known as ‘cold showers’. One man was planning an escape, since he told us he didn’t like being manipulated, and he was the master of his own mind. That night during Sangha, I witnessed one of Samaya’s cold showers.
“If you have finished your work here so quickly and plan to leave, than you must lead the others! You must have found inner peace!” he announced. Samaya then stood up and invited the other man to take his position at the front, as leader of the ashram.No one looked up, and most people switched off. I spoke to Mali about this, as I was quite upset. “He does this because he loves everyone. He does this to me all the time. But, it’s just made me stronger,” she replied. When I looked into her eyes, though, I saw a lost soul instead of a strong woman. She pitied me because I didn’t understand Samaya. But I pitied her.
Nasty and controlling
I tried to talk to people about how things felt odd there. However, the only person who listened and was receptive was Madita. She agreed that things were getting a bit crazy. She loved the place, possibly more than I did, and I think seeing it for what it really was brought her sadness.
Who wouldn’t want to stay and heal with the best of intentions? But we started asking too many questions. We spoke to everyone else about how things seemed unfair: about the hierarchy, not being allowed to leave and Samaya’s cold, controlling, hate-love towards everyone.
“He has all our best intentions at heart, he loves us all,” they’d say.
I didn’t feel what he did was kind. He was nasty and controlling. He made us open up and reveal our deepest sores, and once he found them, he’d crawl inside and allow them to fester and grow. We were there in the name of Osho, but I often wondered if Osho would’ve liked Samaya being manipulative and brainwashing us!
Forced to stay
We were “free,” he said, but we didn’t feel free at all. We weren’t allowed to leave and we weren’t allowed to be alone. “Alone time is time to thin,” he’d say.
However, it was being around other people constantly that made me feel worse. I wasn’t being allowed to heal in my own way: to listen to the forest, or to listen to my little voice inside. Of course, time alone means time to hear our inner voices, and mine started whispering “get out.” But I was losing touch with that inner voice as my external surroundings became overbearing.
Samaya put me to work one morning, and after three hours, he came back and was angry at my efforts. “You have done nothing! I am 80 years old and I can work faster than you can! Do you feel embarrassed? Do you feel ashamed?” he shouted at me.
“No, I don’t. I have been working. I have been working hard. But I’m feeling very sick,” I replied. He gave me the silent treatment.
At Sangha, he spoke about laziness in the community. I knew, again, that his speech was directly aimed at me. I felt awful. I thought a place like this would’ve been full of love, support and strength. I was losing all of that. I felt like a dying rose.
Sick and pregnant
I became incredibly sick and had a raging fever. I asked if I could be taken to hospital, and Mali told me to stay in bed. After a few days, I told she and Samaya again that I desperately needed to go to the hospital, so they agreed to have someone drive me.
Once I got to the hospital, outside the ashram and back in the real world, I saw the TV. The news was full of war, bombs, violence, crime and terror. It was terrifying, and I felt grateful to be in a place of peace.
I saw the doctor, who raised his eyebrows when I told him where I was living and what I was doing. He expressed deep concern for my mental and physical well-being. After all, it was only three months prior to arriving at the ashram that I was diagnosed with clinical depression and Borderline Personality Disorder. I had gastroenteritis after two weeks of poor sanitation and uncooked food, all while being pregnant.I went back to the ashram in tears. Mali smiled and held me. “Congratulations!” she said.
Samaya then requested to see me. He discussed me falling sick, made me agree that it wasn’t from being at the ashram and told me that I was sick before I arrived.
“OK. You will stay here at the ashram. Mali and I will take care of you and the baby,” he said.
“I don’t know. I don’t know if I can go through with this,” I cried.
“OK, you will have the baby and give it to me,” he replied.
I asked Mali and Samaya if Madita could come with me to the hospital the next day for scans. They both said no, that Madita had work to do there, that we were all on our own paths, and that I had to do this alone.
“What? Why? This is messed up!”
“Some things just can’t be explained,” Mali said.
We slept on it, and in the morning, Madita told Mali she was coming. Mali said no again. But Madita said with more force, while gripping my hand, “No, I’m going. And you can drive us to the hospital, or we’ll walk there together.”
“Oh. So I guess you don’t want to be at the ashram anymore, then,” Mali replied in a vicious tone.
Like that, we were ejected from the ashram. We’d gone against their demands, and had fought back against the manipulation and brainwashing.
We were denied a ride to the hospital, so Madita and I started our five-hour walk, hoping we could hitch a ride. While we were walking away, we heard Mali shouting after us, “When you come back, you can pack your bags and you can leave.”
We were absolutely mind-blown. Samaya came running after Mali. Not looking at us, he spoke directly to Mali.
“Samaya would like you to pack your bags and to leave now, and as a courtesy, I’ll drive you to the hospital,” Mali said.
Like that, we were ejected from the ashram. We’d gone against their demands, and had fought back against the manipulation and brainwashing. We’d shown them that we could stand on our own two feet. We’d come to some heavy realizations, and in retaliation, they kicked us out in a time of need.
In the car, Madita and I held hands while Mali insulted us nonstop. We knew we’d dodged a bullet. Even though we had no money and nowhere to go, we knew we were much safer out in the world, and we had each other. I was pregnant, as well as being physically and mentally unwell, and Madita was providing me with love and support.In hindsight, we were truly lucky. We were lucky things didn’t get worse, and we were lucky because we got out. After speaking to the local council to complain, they told us they had no record of people living at an ashram down in the forest. It suddenly clicked that the website showed pictures of something else entirely, and nothing showed the ashram’s existence—not the ashram that we lived at, anyway. It was well and truly off-grid.
Our story has been told in order to raise awareness of Samaya Ashram and other spiritual places that can fall under the category of a cult. These places can be immensely dangerous, and even the most strong-minded person can be sucked into a place of control and manipulation, never to emerge again.
There are still people at Samaya Ashram now, people Madita and I really care about. If we can stop people from going there, and expose this place to backpackers on their journeys through the East Coast of Australia, then our experiences were well worth it.
Spiritual places aren’t meant to expose or highlight your weaknesses; make you uncomfortable; make you sick; or control, bully or manipulate you. If you start to question a particular place, listen to those inner questions and ask yourself why.
Have confidence in the way your body communicates with you. Places like this should make you feel as free as a bird, growing each day with strength, beauty, love and radiance. You should feel happy, independent, inspired and most of all, encouraged.