Matt Stone and Trey Parker Interview with Charlie Rose Reveals Zen Buddhism at the Heart of South Park

I really enjoyed this interview between Matt Stone and Trey Parker and Charlie Rose.  Not only was it fun and interesting, but Trey Parker said something that vindicates the very title of my book. The Zen of South Park.

He said:

“The people screaming on this side, and the people screaming on that side are the same people.” After watching South Park, “all in all, at the end of the day they’ll be a little more Zen Buddhist.”

Well, if calling my book The Zen of South Park doesn’t make more sense than putting peanut-butter and jelly in the same jar, I don’t know what does.

What did you think of the interview?

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Pic of the Day: Me with Fightclub author, Chuck Palahniuk, During Our Interview

Six years ago I was lucky enough to privately (well, one other person was there) interview acclaimed author Chuck Palahniuk, writer of such books as Fightclub, Choke, Rant and what he was there for at the time, Lullaby. My interview was part of a piece I wrote for the school newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian.

Here is a picture that someone took of Chuck and I in the back room where we conducted our interview:

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Want to read my review of his book, Rant? Click HERE.

Interview with Psychologist and Author, Marlene Winell, about Recovering from Religion

Today we’re going to speak with Marlene Winell, psychologist, author and educator. Marlene has spent her life trying to help people recover from lives that have been torn asunder by religion and religious indoctrination. She has made it her mission to help people feel better about themselves, and their choices and to begin living their lives again.

Marlene runs retreats, one of which is actually happening this weekend. You can read about her and her work on her website by clicking HERE. If you or anyone you know could benefit from speaking with her, please don’t hesitate to contact her. For now, please enjoy this interview with her about her book, work and experiences helping people recover from religion.

What got you interested in the work you do?

I find people fascinating and it is very rewarding to be of help. I come from a missionary background so it is natural to be in a helping profession, but this is very different because I assist people in developing their own resources from within, not an external source.

Please tell me about your book, Leaving the Fold.

My book is Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion. It’s the only self-help book for recovering from harmful, restrictive religion. My own story is one chapter. The first half names and describes the important issues in recovery, along with many examples from my interviewees and clients. The second half is about concrete steps for recovery with exercises to do.

How about a word about your retreats?

“Release and Reclaim” retreats are small group experiences where we spend a weekend together telling our stories, getting support, and doing healing activities together. It’s a powerful experience because you are with real people who understand. Past participants have described it as a big turning point in their recovery.

Who are they designed for?

People who have decided to leave their religion and need some help and support.

How often do you have them?

For the last 3 years, it’s been twice a year, but I’d like to do more, particularly in other areas of the country.   I could use some help organizing them.

What do you hope to accomplish at the retreats?

“Release and Reclaim” refers to letting go of old, toxic beliefs and systems and then reclaiming one’s life and one’s self. The biggest area of healing is overcoming the fear that has been conditioned at a deep level.  People then learn to trust themselves again and reconstruct their lives based on their own inner wisdom instead of external authority.

What kinds of techniques do you use to accomplish these goals?

We use discussion, writing, guided imagery, art, movement, and group exercises such as psychodrama. It’s a combination of both intellectual and emotional methods.

What kinds of religions are people when they come to you?

Mostly Bible-based groups – Christian fundamentalists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Seventh-Day-Adventists. . . but also Eastern religious cults. The key is an authoritarian mindset.

What are their largest issues with their religions?

They have grown to realize that their religion has it wrong – intellectually, emotionally, morally, socially – and that it is possible to give it up and move on, despite the fear. Many have been hurt in some way.

Are they generally still embedded in their religions when they come to you or have they already left their religion and are now lost and in need of guidance?

They have already left but they haven’t worked through all the issues and some are afraid of letting go entirely. The phobia indoctrination is very powerful, which is why the group dynamic is also so helpful. I have a beginning retreat and more advanced retreats. At the first one, people are often pretty terrified; they need to tell their story and get support for their new insights about what was wrong. Later on, the groups are helpful for people reconstructing their lives with confidence and self-love. We also have participants who have been out of their religion for quite a while but have deep-seated “left-overs” they want to address.

What are your personal thoughts about religion?

I think people do need to have a framework of values and beliefs to use in approaching life, but it does not have to be a religion.  An organized religion with rigid dogma is not good because it robs the individual of the responsibility (and the privilege) of critical thinking and forming one’s own conclusions.

Despite the difficulties you see that people experience with religion, do you believe that religion has certain benefits or a certain value? If so, what are those/is that?

A group which provides community and a place for shared values that serve human needs in a tolerant, inclusive manner can be a good thing. Churches that emphasize the more humanitarian teachings of Jesus rather than his death on the cross provide better guidelines for how to actually live. But belonging to any group should always be done responsibly, i.e., never give away your right to think and feel for yourself.

What do you do for people after the weekend retreat is over to help them maintain what they’ve learned?

We have a confidential online support group with monthly conference calls. People also make friends at the retreats and stay in touch on their own.

Do people ever lapse back into old religious patterns or is this generally a turning point in their lives?

We have never had anyone return to their same religion. Some have retained a personal spirituality or belief in God but on their own terms, which I encourage. I have an article about this.

The retreat is most definitely a turning point for many people. I have followed up with past participants, many of whom have told me this. One man who traveled here from New York had been isolating himself in his apartment, overwhelmed with guilt and fear, never venturing out except to go to work. He was terrified when he arrived at the retreat and very quiet at first, afraid to tell his story. Then with the warmth and acceptance of the group, he shared and participated. On the last day, he gave everybody big hugs, and left smiling. About two months later, I spoke with him and he said the burden of his abusive religious past had lifted thanks to the retreat. He had new friends, was going out, and was also back into playing music he loved. Returning to his religion was simply not an option and he felt free for the first time.

A woman who came to the retreat was leading an outwardly successful life with career and family but had secret fears about the “Rapture” that would shake her up despite being irrational. The retreat helped her let go and even laugh about the idea for the first time. Two years later, we talked and she said the retreat was a turning point for her – she had had no more anxiety attacks.

What do you think is most important about the work you do?

I provide a safe, therapeutic place where it is okay to question religion first of all. In terms of healing and growth, my approach is to empower people, and I think I have found good ways of doing that!

What advice would you give to people who are struggling with their religions but who are unable to attend your retreats or work with you?

Don’t be afraid. Read everything you can. Trust yourself for a change and don’t believe the self-serving lines you have heard from your religious group about how sinful and dangerous it is to question. Get support of some kind. On-line forums can be good – stay away from the ones where religious people try to shame you. Take baby steps into the larger world and find out what’s going on and how other people are approaching life. Try new things in small ways and learn to enjoy life here and now. Congratulate yourself often for your courage.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Working with me may not be as hard as it seems. I talk with people on the phone a lot, and it works well.  We can make the cost affordable. The retreats also have affordable options, so don’t rule it out. The investment is worth it considering the time, effort, and money it can take to get therapy, or the loss of living fully if you don’t get better. I’m open to traveling if someone wants to organize a retreat in their area too.

That was wonderful, Marlene! Thank you.

If you’d like to read past interviews with ex-cult members, please click HERE and HERE. If you have any questions for Marlene, please feel free to ask them in the comments or contact her directly with more personal matters.

Author and Computer Scientist, Hank Simon, Talks about Publishing and Writing

Hank Simon has been a wonderful asset to me as I began the writing, querying, proposal and publishing processes with The Zen of South Park. I wanted to bring him on as a guest blogger this Monday so that you could get to know him a little better and reap the benefits of some of his advice just as I have. Please don’t hesitate to leave questions and comments at the end of the post and he will return to answer them accordingly.

What do you do for a living?

I’m currently a computer scientist/engineer at a major corporation. I’m responsible for the long-term, strategic design of how information flows across the enterprise using Service Oriented Architecture approaches.

What book(s) have you written? What are they about? How do they relate to your day job, if at all?

I’ve written and contributed to 7 non-fiction books about technology. They relate to highly technical topics, such as XML, wireless, expert systems, and spectroscopy. I wrote them because, as a thought leader in advanced technology and R&D, I found a gap in information about these topics. So, as I gathered this information for a forward looking applications, it was natural to organize my findings as chapters in my books.

When were they published and with whom?

McGraw-Hill was my most successful publication in 2001, as well as a few smaller companies, ranging from 1999 – 2005.

Did you have an agent when you were trying to get them published or did you go straight to publishers?

I was very lucky in this aspect, because I was publishing many articles – more than 100 – in various trade journals, as well as making presentations at international conferences. This experience gave me lots of exposure to editors in various publishing houses, and they approached me with ideas for the books.

When you wrote query letters and proposals, what was the most difficult part?

The proposal is the most difficult part, because I had to get a feeling for the marketplace and clearly define my audience. I also had to defend my book idea compared to existing books already published. This was both a blessing and a curse. I found that the easiest way to slip into the market was to discover a gap or niche that I could fill. That niche is unique in all cases, and sometimes it is not a niche that I could fill. It was difficult to admit that.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors trying to get published?

Read a lot by authors that you like and topics that interest you. But if you don’t like authors, don’t choke on them. For example, I read voraciously, but I don’t like many authors who write more than 600 pages. That means I have never waded through War and Peace. In contrast, I do like some of the older authors, Thurber, Benchley, Twain, Shalom Aleichem, Hemmingway, Herriot, Asimov. And I also like Grogan, and Rowland for their straightforward style. When I write, I try to blend aspects of these authors in order to improve my own style. And, I try to write at least 1 hour everyday, saving the edit process until I have a completed piece.

Are you working on any projects right now? Can you tell me about it (the writing process/publishing process/etc.).

I’m working on a Dog book that uses my dog as the central character, to highlight his personality and intelligence, to show interactions with other dogs, and to use this as a canvas to paint the relationships of people and the dogs that they meet along the way.

What advice do you have when it comes to writing?

Write everyday in a style that you like to read. Don’t try to win the Noble Prize.
Write and create first, edit later. It is tremendously easier to create and then edit.
And it is more productive to write a complete work and then edit. If you keep editing, you will stop creating and will get discouraged.
Plan to take 2x or 3x as much time to cut & edit, as you do creating.
Plan for your first book to take about a year from start to publication.

Who is your favorite author? What’s your favorite book?

I like the Harry Potter books.

If you could write one kind of book that you haven’t yet written what would it be?

I’d like to write a book on “Managing Ignorance” to complement Peter Drucker’s classic on Managing Knowledge. I could see many Dilbert opportunities.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Writing is very hard and time consuming. And, it is a job that requires discipline to remain in isolation while you create. Non-writers don’t appreciate the long hours, and the hard work needed to turn a phrase and to chip away everything until only the finely crafted piece remains.

Interview with Ex-cult Member, Tifany

I’d like to introduce everyone to Tifany Lee. Tifany is currently a musician preparing to record her third album. You can check out the first two at her MySpace page or her website tifanylee.com and look forward to the third. She is also the editor of Heroine Magazine, an excellent publication that she is bringing in part to her new blog at tifanylee.wordpress.com. Tifany’s fascinating experiences in a cult make her this week’s guest blogger. I hope that you enjoy what she has to share with us and take the opportunity to ask her questions about whatever you’d like. Without further ado…

What’s the name of the cult you joined?
Trob (The Realization of Being)

How old were you when you joined?
19

Why did you join?
I was a freshman in college at University of Washington freaking out about what I was going to do with my life. I had made some questionable decisions and my romances had failed miserably. My sister was having issues of her own – my mother had taken her to a medical doctor and a shrink to no avail. I told her about the mother of my best friend who I had known since middle school and a strange school that she ran. I suggested she try that as a last resort. When I came home for the summer a month later, my sister was transformed. She was completely over the crisis, but more than that, she was happy. And she had never been happy her whole life. She was always kind of mopey. But now she was confident and friendly and I was sold immediately. I started the work and became a more focused student than my sister ever was; she would touch in from time to time after that.

What did the cult offer you that your life wasn’t giving you?
Meaning, purpose.

Did the cult fulfill its promises?
Yes, for a while.

How long were you in the cult and why did you leave?
I was there for 11 years, till I was 31. Then, the founder had a stroke and her right-hand woman – the president of the school – began to make accusations about the founder. There was a fight for power and it left me sick to my stomach. It was a positive thinking cult with a dash of scare-you-with-the-devil kind of stuff and she started to accuse the founder of being manipulative. Actually, evil. She told us that we had been a cult all along. This infuriated me. I had defended the school to everyone in my life for not being a cult. It took me a month to sneak out because I had so many responsibilities at the school, but when I finally did, a mass exodus occurred. I had been kind of the star of the school. I was going to make the school famous when I became famous – that’s what they told me and believed. I read cult recovery books that say that members rarely get out. People escape if one of three things happen: an authority figure dies or gets sick, there is a power struggle, and something else that I forgot because it didn’t pertain to me. I recognized the cult tactics on every page: public humiliation to break you, build you back up with their ideals. It’s kind of like building a robot. I think our cult was a mild version – we weren’t physically sequestered from society we were only encouraged to have relationships that didn’t interfere with the school. It was all hidden behind a veil of love and support. That’s how it was all done – with love.

Do you still feel that certain things are missing in your life that the cult claimed it would have given you?
It was a miserable failure. I have spent the last years repairing the rift with my family who, though they never threw me out of the family or anything like that, thought I would never leave the cult – ever. But I did find my music there. I’m not sure if I would’ve ever written a song if I wasn’t in the mindset of being free to live any dream I wanted. And the president worked tirelessly to make me a better performer and made me take risks that, while they were for the good of the cult only, I marvel at now. I wrote, produced and starred in the biggest fundraisers for the school – these improv musicals that we ran at 7 Stages, 14th street playhouse, the woodruff arts center. we would rent them out and run ads on the radio and in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution and pack the house. So, I have a strange gratitude. My struggle with my work now is that everything I did back then was steeped in the teachings and now I struggle with what I believe in.

How many people were in the cult? Was it local, national?
It was based in Atlanta with international students – my sister is in Brazil until she quit several years before I did, there were a few Hong Kong students, French, people scattered across the States, but for the most part it was Atlanta. There were about 500 peripheral students, and 40 hardcore, of which I was one. It was a fast growing organization several years before I arrived – they were renting out the civic center for events with messages of positive thinking and had about 2000 students. Until the president/my best friend’s mom became a leader and introduced reasons why people were not getting what they want. The founder said “you are a precious adorable angel” and deserve to have whatever you want. The President introduced psychology with the Devil as to why people didn’t materialize things.

Did the cult had a particular leader? Was this person particularly charismatic?
They were the sweetest people I had ever met.

Did the cult have weird doctrines and teachings?
Pretty standard stuff for a cult – we approve if you follow us and you are evil if you disagree. The bulk of the work was all the positive thinking stuff that Oprah is covering lately. I guess you could call it the re-packaged brand of bullshit that all religion has been peddling since the beginning of time.

Were there any doctrines about end-times?
My best friend (who was also the resident reincarnation of Satan because she always spoke her mind) took the revelations class where they studied revelations in the new testament but she didn’t understand much and it caused her anxiety about dying.

Do you think that the people who began the cult did so out of conviction or to manipulate others?
Absolutely not. And I still feel that the founder is sweet and true. I think that either the president got drunk on her power over other people’s lives or she went crazy. or maybe she was crazy. She believes everything to this day and touts herself as a life coach on the internet, riding on other people’s success. One of her students – the Hong Kong one – made millions of dollars over the years so the president gets the credit.

Did you have to pay to be in the cult or give up anything like contact with friends and family?

You had to pay for privates (one on one sessions – the most coveted and expensive way to learn), the group classes. There was the 7 emotional attachments that you had to let go to be free and then you could move on to the advance classes when J or L got the word from God. We all could talk to God but we all trusted J and L more when they listened. And you were expected to tithe, of course. I bartered most of the time I was there – I helped out in the office. My duties as teacher (I taught the children and teen classes) and producer were volunteer.

Are you a religious person? How so?
I have never been a religious person. I was baptized Presbyterian because my Ma liked the idea of predestination. But my parents aren’t religious either (though my Ma is falling into a primitive Baptist cult now).

Do you believe in God?
I did while I was in the cult, very much so. Before and after that, not so much. It was comforting when I believed that he was there. But my belief evaporated. It materialized and evaporated almost on its own.

Are you a spiritual person? How so?
I have been searching since adolescence. I explored my Cherokee background and learned about the Native American way of life – my 2nd cousin is a medicine woman and named me. I got into new age stuff after that – crystals, tarot, drugs have been a spiritual journey for me.

What else can you share with us about the experience of being a cult?
When I got out of the cult I saw how much everything is a cult. Everything we choose to identify with shapes our thinking. This war seems absurd to me because it is just cults fighting cults. But I do know the power of faith and what lengths a person can be manipulated to – there is no limit. The most hope I see in the present is that the person who wrote the manifesto for Al Qaeda has renounced his belief that violence is the answer – literally the guy who wrote the book. I forget his name damnit. When I read that I knew that Al Qaeda’s time is limited. It will be destroyed from within; maybe that’s the only way.

What advice would you offer others about being in a cult?
Think for yourself.

What did you think about South Park‘s Super Best Friends episode?

The Super Best Friends episode was obviously a take on Scientology and the weird alien where everybody killed themselves. But, surprisingly close in the premise at the beginning – tell people they’re unhappy (not really hard to convince them in the first place) and then don’t let them leave without talking for it so long
that they get tired of arguing and decide to stay.
Of the super best friends – the mormon dude? Really? He’s a cult leader, or at least I always thought so. In that case, David Blaine will soon join the superprophets. The joke they made about Buddha not believing in
evil – funny, and true. I most identify with Buddhism after leaving the cult because they don’t really believe in God either. It’s kind of like 6 of this, half dozen of the other – so ambiguous that it can never be wrong.

Parker and Stone Discuss South Park on Nightline

This video, with Trey Parker and Matt Stone on Nightline, is one of my favorites. This is actually the second part of the video (both parts can be found by clicking here) and though the first part is interesting it is only this one that discusses religion.

In short, what I enjoy are their Buddhist sentiments and the ability to question absolutely everything that they’re told must be the answer. Indeed, there’s no acceptance of the notion that “just because” is an answer to anything significant or important either.

The Zen of South Park, I think, very much captures the essence of Trey and Matt’s thoughts in this interview, and though I started writing the book before I saw the clip, it certainly reassured me that I was interpreting their show the right way. I hope you enjoy the video. If you know of other clips like this please send them to me. What did you think of the clip? Anything you objected to that they said? Anything you really liked?

South Park tonight, though it has almost nothing to do with religion, is absolutely hilarious. It’s the one that begins with Randy Marsh on The Wheel of Fortune trying to figure out what N_GGERS is. The clue is, People Who Annoy Me.

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