Every Tuesday, a group of people gather in the extra bedroom of Michael Toohey’s home in Raleigh to join in a conference call. It’s not a sales meeting or an update from the home office. The walls are a deep yellow, and incense and a candle burn in front of a picture of a mountain in India. Bold paintings of Africans in brightly colored garb and a big mirror cover two walls. On bright green bookcases are pictures of Jesus, Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi (a revered spiritual leader), and a 72-year-old former appliance salesman named Dee W. Trammell.
The room is a meditation center. The man whose teachings they are following isn’t Jesus or Bhagavan–it’s Trammell. And they are about to be led in their twice-weekly meditation by a voice over the telephone from the center of his worldwide ministry deep in the woods of Randolph County.
Trammell is known to his thousands of followers around the United States simply as Ramana. He has created an organization he calls the Association of Happiness for All Mankind, or AHAM. Sometimes they come to study at his retreat of single- and double-wide trailers outside of Asheboro. Sometimes they go with him to his retreat in India.
But mostly, they meet over the telephone.
This Tuesday, longtime AHAM devotee Deborah Parker joins Toohey, 50, a programmer with the N.C. Department of Revenue. For the first 20 minutes, they fill out a detailed questionnaire, with questions like: What specific areas of your life have you worked on this week?; What have you done to clear the blockages?; Has this distracted you from feeling complete or steadily abiding in the Self? Toohey’s small white poodle runs in and out of the room. Parker finishes her survey and sits quietly with her eyes closed.
“This keeps us connected, keeps the fire going,” Toohey says. Thin and gaunt, with graying hair and mustache, Toohey smiles as he relaxes, waiting now to join the others around the country in the phone call, called the “heartline.”
Part of the purpose of the questionnaires is to weed out those who might detract from the mood. Since the sect is based in meditation, it could hurt that tenuous phone connection to have disbelievers and doubters on the line.
At 7:20 p.m., Toohey dials. Ramana’s leading disciple, Elizabeth MacDonald, is the leader on the other end of the line. The call is filled with what MacDonald calls “minds without bodies.” She gets right to the point after a roll call answered by listeners from Florida to California.
“Who’s on the phone?”
“Who’s feeling anxious?”
“Picture now all your anxiety gone. See your problems solved. You have everything you desire. Now who’s happy?”
After a 20-minute guided meditation, Elizabeth asks: “Does feeling good feel good?” A resounding yes is heard from the many sites tuned in.
After the teleconferencing call, there are a few minutes of silence, as Toohey says, “to contemplate the recent heartline phone experience.”
Toohey and Parker then fill out another questionnaire asking about their experience with the recent session. Toohey says that once he got a taste of the good, happy feelings, he wanted more. “It’s like I’m in a movie and I’m writing the happy ending.”
Toohey’s wife, Sandy, says she doesn’t mind the time her husband spends with his AHAM work because he’s a much happier person. “He used to be so incredibly shy,” she says. “He never would have talked to you in the past. He has much better self-esteem.”
AHAM was formed in 1978 after a bookstore revelation on Market Street in Greensboro. Since its inception, its leaders say more than 15,000 people have phoned the compound and received Ramana’s message of enlightenment.
Once introduced to his philosophy of self-inquiry through an initial phone session, AHAMites can take a number of classes, seminars and retreats.
Some move into Ramana’s compound in Asheboro to immerse themselves in what they say is the aura of a man who has found the secret to happiness. It’s often MacDonald, AHAM’s executive director, who leads the phone meetings. “Just find the I AM and nothing else matters,” she tells her listeners. She laughs when she feels good. “People say we’re crazy to be so happy all the time,” she says. “But who cares.” Many voices join her gaiety.
AHAM promises perpetual happiness if you follow its path of self-inquiry. For some it’s the answer to a lifetime of searching, for others it’s a way to manage the stress of a busy lifestyle, and for still others, it’s an addiction they can’t seem to find peace without.
In addition to the pictures, which promote an open mind to the teachings of the guru, AHAMites uses meditation and instruction to find the inner peace they are seeking. Most hear about AHAM through others who pass out small pamphlets with a few probing questions and a promise of peace.
Since 1991, Ramana has occupied 33 acres of woods off N.C. 13 on the northeastern edge of the Uwharrie National Forest. From the calming compound of single and doublewide trailers that house the AHAM headquarters, Ramana produces his books and the members who live at the center take the bulk of inquiries that pour into the place.
Foot-worn paths through the woods lead from one trailer to another, some housing tight office space, others holding sleeping quarters, a kitchen, meeting rooms, a quiet room and a small bookstore. Eight staffers live with Ramana at the wooded compound.
In the main trailer sits a small four-pronged teleconferencing unit that unites the followers every Tuesday and Wednesday. The AHAM staff and Ramana survive on donations and fees earned from their programs. Devotees spend anywhere from a weekend to a year in retreat at the center, as well as travel.
For instance, after a follower has been through the telephone meditative process, the next step is power of awareness training at a three-day weekend retreat at a cost of $375. Followers say you can come to fully understand and experience the five simple truths that have been shared by spiritual masters down through the ages. They are:
“Thoughts are things.”
“What you think about grows.”
“You become what you think about.”
“Your thoughts or assumptions form your world.”
“You can change your world by changing your thoughts or reforming your assumptions.”
Also, “When you’re not able to change the situation, you can change its effect on you. And very often, if you stay with it, you can even change the situation.”
Charlotte Twardokus is an instructor at AHAM and lives next door to the compound with her husband. Other members who are staying for extended lengths of time might stay in her house, too. Twardokus has devoted her life to Ramana and his teachings. As a staff member, she is paid $25 per week for personal expenses like soap and deodorant or an occasional movie in town.
“Our life is very simple,” she says. “Living a simple life just comes naturally around here. It’s not forced at all. When you find you have everything you need and you have no more desires, it’s very easy. Most of the staff has given up everything to be here.” Staff members take one day off a week.
The folks at AHAM call their place a spiritual training center, but they don’t like to call it an ashram, the usual name for a guru’s spiritual retreat, because of the negative concept held by many about the communal living style of an ashram.
“People think it’s about living together in the romantic sense,” says MacDonald. “We live here in the same place because it makes it easier for us to work. Now in India, we can call that an ashram.”
The organization of AHAM is an enigma for which naming fails. It has a board of directors and files taxes under religious nonprofit rules. It has an annual budget of $292,000, about 50 percent of which comes from donations. The rest is collected from fees for various programs and publications. There are no special fundraising activities, though some members see a need for such plans.
The Randolph County Sheriff’s Department has had no problem with the group and, in fact, didn’t even know of its existence when asked. They don’t bother the neighbors and often followers become neighbors buying adjoining property for their own homes.
Ramana’s Bookstore Revelation
Behind it all is Ramana, formerly Dee W. Trammell. He says he knew perfect peace of mind once as a child, and spent the next 50 years trying to rekindle it. From appliance sales to home product network marketing, Trammell traipsed the country from Texas to California to North Carolina in search of meaning.
“My life became a quest to regain the awareness I had as a child,” he says. He tried numerous religions, including a stint at Unity Village in Missouri to become a Unity minister. He tried money, food and sex, but says nothing was ever enough. He worked as director of the Napoleon Hill Academy in Los Angeles. He went into sales and made a good living at a number of lines and products.
But it was a chance encounter in a Houston bookstore with a picture that stared at Trammell from the pages of a book that truly changed his life, he says. “I had a strong impulse to stop in a bookstore I knew, but I didn’t have the time, so I was trying to talk myself out of it. But when I passed the street I turned the car in. I was feeling stupid. I pulled in the parking lot and tried to turn around, but I couldn’t. When I went inside I asked the guy at the counter if anyone was looking for me; he said no. Still, I couldn’t leave. I walked through the store and turned down one aisle and instinctively reached for a book. I opened the book to the face of Bhagavan. Suddenly, I knew that he knew. It was just like it was when I was a child. It was back and I haven’t lost it since.”
Ramana possesses a bright, vibrant aura. He looks like a storybook Santa Claus. His big pot belly hangs over his lap. His white hair is thick while thinning in front and his white beard is trimmed a couple inches below his chin. A stroke in 2000 left his right arm weak; it hangs dully at his side. He wears a hearing device and his memory isn’t what it used to be. Still, in his eyes is an unmistakable twinkle
When asked about his failing body, he says it is wasted intention to try to heal the body. He goes to an acupuncturist in Miami regularly, just as he would take his car to a mechanic, he says.
Ramana seems to be a man at peace with himself. It’s this quality of inner peace that attracts people to him. It’s this same quality that others want for themselves. And for those who can’t attain the peace, they come and they come and try to get it. When they can’t, they leave.
“This is a way to live in the world without being of the world,” preaches Ramana. “Through self-inquiry, you may live in perfect love, joy, freedom, harmony and peace–with all creation, large and small–free from all fear and desire; being ever safe, certain and secure at all times, with all things, in all places, regardless of the circumstances or the nature of events occurring in your life.”
Ramana bases his philosophy on the teachings of Bhagavan, an early 20th-century Indian mystic. “From a practical sense, we use this to achieve whatever we want to achieve,” Ramana says. And he wants nothing more in life. It’s desires that confuse the mind, anyway. When you can let go of all desires, that is when real peace can be achieved, he says.
Elizabeth MacDonald does most of the training these days. She’s not romantically involved with Ramana, no one is, though she’s been with him now for 22 years. She was his first follower in Greensboro. She probably will take Ramana’s place when he’s gone, Ramana says, though he hasn’t proclaimed her enlightened just yet. She travels a lot these days; she recently did the first three-day AHAM seminar in Miami. She is now training other people to go out as well.
At 54, McDonald says she’s feeling the aches and pains of age and she feels sadness at times. “I’m able, though, to be in a place where I’m here and the sadness is over there and I’m watching it.”
She says AHAM is purposely secular. “It is very spiritual, but we don’t use the word god because it confuses people,” she says. “And we have people from all faiths and cultures. We accept all religions.”
Not a Cult
Ramana is not the first to be influenced by Bhagavan. “He is considered to be one of the phenomenal people of the 20th century,” says Neusom Holmes, minister at Unity Church of the Triangle. “He would just look at people and they would have a profound experience. He’s quite revered by a lot of people who are well-grounded.” Holmes explains the Eastern philosophy of self-realization as realizing yourself as God. “That phrasing of God as self is Hindu in origin,” he says.
Since George Harrison met his Maharishi in the early 1960s, Eastern meditative religions have attracted thousands of followers in the United States. Hundreds of groups from strict Hinduism to spin-offs like AHAM abound in the country now. And most rely on a guru.
“Eastern traditions place great emphasis on the guru-disciple relationship, often making it the center of spiritual life,” writes Victor Mansfield, physics professor at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y.
AHAM followers, whether at the retreat center in Asheboro or in their homes on the phone, use pictures of Bhagavan, as well as those of Ramana, MacDonald, Jesus and others who they believe influence their spirituality. That’s common in Eastern religions. In The Guru-Disciple Relationship: Making Connections and Withdrawing Projections, Victor Mansfield writes that often the psychological phenomenon of “transference” occurs when a student studies through a guru. The student cannot perform without the guidance, in some form, of the self-proclaimed guru. This can be healthy or lead to problems, he says.
“Despite the avid interest in gurus in the last quarter century, the guru-disciple tradition has not easily transplanted to the West,” Mansfield writes. “Both our psyches and the conditions under which we play out the relationship are very different from those in traditional India.”
The follower’s problems and sense of identity are transferred to this guru, which relieves the person from solving his or her own life dilemmas. The transference can lead to a dependency that is hard to break. In the United States, this goes against American tenets of individuality, unlike in India, where conformity is the rule. As a result many of the new sects that stem from Eastern religions develop into a hybrid of character and content.
AHAM does not fit the definition of a cult; it doesn’t require loyalty, nor ask for exorbitant fees. It’s not extremist. Their leader, while considered a guru, is not an authoritarian charismatic. Instead, Ramana wears a quietly knowing look and a “take it or leave it” attitude towards his teachings. “If you want what I have, do what I do,” is the philosophy upon which he built AHAM. Still, his devotees say they can find solace simply by being in his presence.
Joseph Szimhart writes in Cult Observer that new religions and new versions of old religions often have trouble gaining acceptance in the United States as they’ve grown in the 20th century. And bad publicity over other gurus who did lead dangerous cults, such as the mass suicide of Heaven’s Gate followers, tend to drive unorthodox practitioners underground.
“Eastern groups tend to revolve around the mystical revelations or enlightened status of the founder or leaders. More often than not, alleged magical and miraculous powers enhance the status of the guru,” writes Szimhart. “It is not uncommon for devotees of such gurus to submit to them as they would submit to God,” he writes. “Unscrupulous leadership styles, aggressive recruiting and fundraising tactics, abuse of members, and an elitism that devalues or condemns outsiders are traits that have earned a cult label for many of these new Eastern movement. In other cases strange rites, costumes, and language confuse outsiders who might suspect deception or elitism when there is neither.”
A Force for Peaceand Fear
Those who remain and those who left all relate an experience of peace after spending time with Ramana and his team of teachers. Much is demanded of the AHAM devotee in terms of honest self-evaluation. In addition to the weekly phone calls, members in good standing are expected to keep long daily journals, spend time each day in mediation and visit the center frequently, taking longer and longer seminars.
Eventually they are asked to join Ramana in India at the AHAM ashram built in 2001 in Tiruvannamalai, South India at the foot of the holy hill, Sri Arunachala.
Ramana, while a force for peace for many, also has been known to be a force of fear. He is in charge and lets people know it. People who question the master are often ridiculed and pressured to look within to find the real problems with their disloyalty. “I love them, but I can’t trust them,” is sometimes heard in whispers among those who left AHAM. “They think we have spun off into our own egos.”
One former member who didn’t want to be named said no one stopped him from leaving the group. But with what he called the elitism and hypocrisy of its leaders, he had a difficult time sustaining his “bliss.”
“The emphasis is that it’s within you,” he says. “When there, I went into a place so deep, I was so free. I had reservations, yet I craved that feeling when I wasn’t there. I couldn’t seem to get it if I wasn’t there.”
Those who stay freely talk of their transformation, their happiness and their loyalty to Ramana. Many give up their lives and all their possessions to live in Asheboro at the headquarters and pay for the opportunity to work and become a teacher for the group.
Vivian Zelig, a married, 52-year-old social worker with three grown children, moved to Asheboro from Virginia Beach nearly a year ago for the one-year internship required to become a staff member of the center. Like most of the staff members, Zelig is not a youngster but glows with the kind of inner peace that can come across as trancelike or childlike–depending on the light.
“I was raised Jewish in New York,” she says, her arms wrapped around her raised knees, much like a young girl telling of her first date, her long black curly hair hanging over her shoulders. “I came from a Holocaust family with a survival religion. I was looking for a purpose in life.”
Zelig, like Ramana and others at AHAM, saw a picture of their ultimate guru, Bhagavan, and immediately felt a gamut of emotions stir within her. “I began reading books about his teachings,” she says. “I had a vision I would go to a meditation center.” She found a small ad in March 1994 for AHAM and told her husband she had to go. “I could feel the peace even before I got on the property,” she says of her first visit. “Then I knew I was in the right place when I passed Ramana in one of the buildings. It feels so good to be in his presence. I knew this was where I wanted to be. I didn’t want to leave.”
After her first visit, she went home and told her husband that she wanted to live at AHAM. “I wanted to be with Ramana instead of my marriage.” No one at home understood her passion. It wasn’t for a “man” but for what he gave her–“I realized I don’t need anything. My future is my present.”
In order to be accepted for the one-year program in Asheboro, Zelig went through the many programs offered by the center and finally had to make a commitment that if she came, she would only leave if her physical body died. She couldn’t attend any family events for one year, no matter what. While some believe that’s too much to ask, Zelig says she understood the requirement. “It had to be more important than anything,” she says, her eyes crinkling with delight. “I’ve missed a lot of stuff with my family–weddings, funerals–and they were really angry with me. But they also forgave me, which showed them that when you do what’s right for you, versus obligations, everything works out.”
She’s been to India three times. And she says that when Ramana is in India himself, she still feels his presence in Asheboro.
Ed Segerson says he cannot put into words the feelings he got when he joined Ramana and the hundreds of other holy seekers as they took the pradakshina, or eight-an-a-half mile walk around the holy mountain in India. “The energy there is really intense,” Segerson says.
Segerson has been an AHAM follower for two years now. After more than 12 years in a 12-step recovery program, he says the spiritual path he learned in recovery brought him to AHAM. He describes it as “having an awareness of the self that precedes the body and mind.” He especially appreciates the “completion process” he’s learned at AHAM. “Each day I think about what I have to do tomorrow and then I meditate on it that it’s already done. Then when the day comes I have no fear or anxiety because it’s already completed.” That way, AHAM teaches, it really doesn’t matter if you get anything done or not, or get the things you desired or not, because in your mind it’s already done. In other words, if the desire is gone, it can come or not. Either way, you are left in peace–no obsession or worry. You can just sit back and watch the day play out.
Segerson has joined three other AHAM members to form a prison ministry committee. The group donates Ramana books and the bi-monthly AHAM newsletter to more than half the prisons in North Carolina. Segerson says the program could teach inmates how it would feel to be free of all anger, guilt, blame and shame. They could learn to visualize themselves making parole and working. The AHAM volunteers say they’ve already visualized the completion of bringing their power of awareness class into every prison in the state, the country and eventually the world
Jim Dillinger, a photographer from Norfolk, Va., says he was meditating and following a spiritual path for a long time before he found AHAM. “What I had to get over was the intellectual understanding of the truth to get to the experience,” he says. “Now I don’t just understand, I know.”