Renee Linnell is not the kind of person you’d imagine would end up in a cult. She grew up on a boat in the Bahamas with her parents and twin brother. They ended up landside, settling in Florida.
Renee had a difficult time coming of age as her father died when she was 15, leaving her mother battling depression and addiction. Renee rallied and graduated high school. She went to college, where she graduated magna cum laude with degrees in psychology and dance.
Renee’s adulthood was filled with wanderlust. She traveled, often alone. She visited nearly 50 countries by the age of 35. Sometimes she was a surfer, sometimes a tango dancer. She was always lively and friendly, taking life head-on. Her bubbly personality masked her inner struggle to belong.
Renee was brought back down from the clouds when she got a call that her mother had drowned in a hotel bathroom after going missing for several days. A few years later, she lost her godmother and, with that, all her familial ties but her twin.
All of this left Renee feeling lost. After committing to and abandoning a few different plans for her life, she searched for a feeling of belonging and purpose. In 2006, at a friend’s suggestion, Renee attended a Buddhist meditation group. She left feeling the tranquility she so craved.
Renee found herself captivated by the teacher, Lakshmi. She preached an interesting combination of personal success, spiritual power, and minimalism. It drew Renee right into Lakshmi’s “burn zone,” the first few rows of her seminars. Lakshmi warned that the strength of her spiritual energy could intoxicate and fatigue those sitting there. The idea fueled the title for Renee’s memoir.
Renee began volunteering at the University of Mysticism events she attended. She got to know Lakshmi’s assistant, Vishnu.
She went on trips to different parts of the world with the group. Being a member was as much a financial commitment as a mental and spiritual one. These trips cost thousands of dollars on top of her tuition for her regular meditation seminars. The feeling of getting closer to enlightenment by spending time with “enlightened beings” drowned out the doubts in Renee’s head.
As Renee’s involvement progressed, she was singled out as someone special. She began to interact with Vishnu and Lakshmi more. Vishnu even made it clear to Renee that he was attracted to her, which confused her because she thought he was involved with Lakshmi on more than a professional level.
Things became confusing when Vishnu started to pursue a romantic and sexual relationship with Renee. Although she didn’t particularly find herself attracted to him or interested in him in that capacity, she also could feel herself falling for him on their spiritual journey together. As the world outside of the University of Mysticism continued to get smaller, they started a relationship.
All the while, Renee was spending less time with others in her life. She was encouraged to get rid of everything from her past, as it was bogging down her energy. Her instructors didn’t allow her to donate the things, instead directing her to destroy it all so that her spiritual energy wouldn’t get entangled with the next owner’s.
At the height of the group’s influence over her, Renee got rid of thousands of dollars worth of material items and priceless family heirlooms that were all she had left of her deceased parents.
Renee’s relationship with Vishnu was the beginning of some real trouble. It eventually came to the attention of Lakshmi, who had not known about it. Renee was shocked, thinking Lakshmi had known all along.
Lakshmi was indeed involved with Vishnu, leaving her offended and infuriated. She regularly berated Renee in front of other students, trying to humiliate her. Vishnu also began to reveal himself as a completely different person who was extremely manipulative. Looking back, Renee feels like it was all rooted in narcissism.
“I think Lakshmi was a narcissist and I think narcissists cannot handle when they are not the center of attention or when they are perceived as not-perfect,” Renee explained in an interview with LittleThings. “Usually, when their delusions/facades are threatened they lash out at whomever threatened them. I have read they also build people up to then ostracize them. So, I think Lakshmi had all that anger and negativity inside her already; and I definitely think the Vishnu-me-Lakshmi situation enflamed her anger.”
Renee kept justifying her decision to keep to herself in spite of the alarms going off within her. A friend left the group and tried to convince Renee that they had been sucked into a cult and needed to get out.
At the same time, all the drama between Renee, Lakshmi, and Vishnu came to a head. Lakshmi threw Renee into personal projects, pushing her to go to school for computer programming and business. She pushed her to open a business, freeing her from University of Mysticism business to pursue these things for her own empowerment.
The University of Mysticism was crumbling, as more students couldn’t justify the outrageous things they were asked to do and the money they were asked to invest. They all but pushed Renee out, leaving her on her own.
During her early days away from the University of Mysticism, Renee still felt connected. Even as she pursued her education and a new relationship, she continued to try to be the enlightened Buddhist monk she was ordained as by Lakshmi. Her new relationship proved to be toxic as well. Her boyfriend-turned-business partner cheated her out of $300,000. When it seemed like things couldn’t get worse, Lakshmi and Vishnu reached out to sever ties with her once and for all.
Renee was now alone, back at square one. It had been seven years. She’d given all her time, energy, and money and been left with nothing. She was angry with everyone who had wronged her. She even had thoughts of suicide.
It took recovery and time for Renee to be able to pen her story. She worked with She Writes Press to get her story out in her own words, on her own terms.
Renee worked on rebuilding her relationships with those she had shut out during her time in the cult. Her true friends were all happy to have her back. Others who survived the cult have read her story, and although it’s brought pain, it has also brought healing.
Believe it or not, she doesn’t find the whole experience a complete waste. She still carries some of what she learned during her time there.
“Much of it has been helpful,” she explained to LittleThings, “keeping a very organized home/desk/car, meditating, bringing the best of myself to each thing I do, dressing well, simplifying my life so my to-do list isn’t crazy long and I am more present and calmer during my day, simplifying my possessions, being mindful (not complaining or gossiping and catching myself as soon as negative thoughts start to take over) are some that come to mind.”
When asked what she might say if she saw Lakshmi or Vishnu again, Renee was able to speak from a place of forgiveness: “I would say, ‘I forgive you’ and bow my head slightly over hands pressed together in Namaste, and then I’d walk away. I would not want to waste any more energy than that. The bow would be in recognition of the major lessons I learned from my time with them, the wounds they inflicted; and the acknowledgment that their time in my life was a part of the Divine Plan.”