The term “cult” has been applied throughout history to groups that pose a threat to the existing establishment because they encourage independent thought and action, or a loyalty or commitment to someone or something other than the accepted authority. The word is utilized with precision by that same accepted authority and its supporters to stigmatize such groups, or by those who consider joining a cult as a pursuit to which only the gullible and weak-willed need apply. The lucky recipient of the term is almost exclusively a group or organization that promotes personal or spiritual growth.
Over the last 30 years I’ve been involved with no less than five groups or organizations that American culture would likely classify as cults, and I have not regretted my participation in any of them. My time in some was brief, while others lasted years, but all of it was valuable. So, in this post I’ll be using the word “cult” with great affection. I’ll also be using the abbreviation GMT (guru, master, teacher) to cover most of the bases in describing the person who calls the shots in a cult.
It is not my intention to trivialize the trauma that can result from unquestioned allegiance to a charismatic authority figure, but that could easily describe a considerable range of cultural icons and their relationship to their entourages, fans, students, and hangers-on: athletic coach, politician, CEO, rock star, motivational speaker, government bureau, Hollywood celebrity, talk show host.
My purpose, with hindsight, is to provide a few hard-won guidelines for evaluating one’s participation in a cult that I wish someone had given me a few decades ago. A lot of it will sound like common sense, but common sense can often go out the window when you have found your ideal cult.
With the psychological and emotional weight of apocalyptic scenarios that are presented to us daily—destruction of the environment, climate change, water and food shortages, global economic collapse, J-Lo’s wardrobe malfunctions, or an imminent World War III—we may see a surge in the popularity of cults. As we increasingly witness the corruption of previously trusted institutions and systems, people will naturally seek the perspective of a non-mainstream source to make sense of a frighteningly chaotic world.
Is it risky to join a cult? Of course! It’s also risky to get married, have a child, submit to a “routine” surgery, take out a loan, have unprotected sex, drive a car, quit your job, move to a new city, or simply haul your sorry ass out of bed in the morning. The common thread here is that we trust that the results will be worth the risk, and without risk we never learn anything new about ourselves or about life.
A logical starting place is the question: Why do you find yourself considering joining a cult at this time in your life? Your motivations will consist of a mixture of conscious and unconscious drives, and these will shift and change over time. In fact, uncovering your true motivations for joining a cult should be a cornerstone in the foundation of the journey itself.
It is reasonable to assume that you are attracted to a cult in the first place because you feel your life is lacking something. However, the mind can spin a sense of lack in a thousand different ways. A good rule of thumb may be: If you are not there to experience something different about your life, then you are there to ensure that your life stays the same.
The personal/spiritual growth industry is one of the biggest perpetrators of lip service around, because the majority of us are not sincerely interested in infusing our lives with any tangible change. Rather, we want our lives to stay the same in a different sort of way. I do not feel this is a cynical observation, just a realistic one, and it can be corroborated by observing our own behavior, the behavior of others, and the general history of humanity.
The crux is we aren’t willing to pay the price required to willingly allow the unknown to enter our lives. That price may be letting go of a relationship, friends, a career, financial security, reputation, or all of these. The most difficult sacrifices, however, are the beliefs and identities that comprise the image we have of ourselves.
We are conditioned to cling to routine and habit as sources of comfort, stability, and sanity, even as we loathe the predominance of those same elements in our lives. Consequently, a significant percentage of the other cult members are there for reasons other than growing, maturing, or transforming and are pursuing an alternative agenda unbeknownst to themselves, and one of those people may be you.
My own initial motives involved a curiosity about the limits of human consciousness, a craving for mental and physical self-discipline, and a desire for practical tools that would serve those aspirations. I was in search of peak experiences and believed that an accumulation of them would culminate in some sort of consistent wakened state. Essentially, I wanted to make my life one long drug trip without having to rely on drugs.
After several years of involvement, though, I realized I was using the language of spirituality to delude myself into thinking I was growing or waking up, and that having a well-defined spiritual path was a way for me to feel superior to others. I believed that because I could drive a shit-load of energy up my spine, assume various hatha yoga poses, and talk the esoteric talk that I had become someone other than the self-absorbed prick I’d always been. At that point I had to decide whether to continue with the sham, give up entirely, or begin deconstructing myself for real.
Certainly, you want to find an environment and a GMT that make you feel welcome. However, if you’re there for no other reason than it makes you feel good, then you’re already on thin ice and better off at home on the couch with a pint of Haagen-Daz. At best you’ll be quickly disillusioned and leave, and at worst you’ll be road-kill somewhere down the line, because we all know that feeling good is an ephemeral state and not a reliable long-term indicator of a situation’s integrity.
My first suggestion, then, is to have a motivation other than—or in addition to—the sensation of being high on life that accompanies being in the GMT’s presence or hanging with the other cult members. Even if your initial reason turns out to have been a total delusion, at least you judged your experience against something concrete. You can also take solace in knowing that you exposed your own delusion, which is significant in itself and may compel you to periodically rediscover the purpose of your involvement. This keeps the experience fresh and interesting.
A common misconception about cults and GMT’s is that they operate in a rarefied realm where our family dynamics and past traumas will not pollute the atmosphere. If you don’t come down to earth from that fantasy on your own, someone else will be happy to assist you in that free-fall, solicited or not.
To that end, it is a good idea to have a friend or two among the members who have been around the block and have moved beyond the initial honeymoon, star-struck phase of involvement. They may provide you with a sober point of view on what is actually happening around you and be honest enough to inform you when your focus is misguided.
A familiar motivation is to find community or the family you never had. If pursued too blindly and persistently, this agenda will likely get you into a lot of trouble from projecting your desire for siblings or parental figures onto the other cult members and the GMT. Without exception, we all do this in any group setting. The extent to which we recognize that we’re doing it, however, will dictate how creatively we can use our time in a cult.
If you’re using the GMT to gain the approval you never received from your parents, it is likely to be expressed through the persona of the good student, which serves as a replacement for the good son or good daughter identities we are so fond of repeating on unsuspecting victims throughout our lives. Striving to be the good student was my way of sustaining my self-image as someone who didn’t make waves, avoided confrontation, and preferred to think the best of people and myself because that just makes the world a hell of a lot simpler.
This is not to say that a cult cannot be a valuable source of supportive relationships implicit in family and community, and foster a sense of belonging and being appreciated simply for who you are. That source of emotional and psychological stability should, however, also contribute to the development of an independent spirit and not just blind loyalty to the pack.
The GMT is there to challenge your illusions about everything, and your willingness to accept that challenge will give you an idea of the basis for your involvement. If you’re there primarily for community and stability you may hold all the more strongly to those illusions and find yourself judging the GMT as a disruptive influence to your connection to the other members.
Ideally, a cult is somewhere you can feel safe, but cannot hide, either. It should be place where you can make yourself vulnerable without fear of humiliation or reprimand. At the same time, it is an environment that may cause you to realize that any situation is only as safe as you know your own mind.
If you do not learn some extremely unflattering truths about yourself through your participation, then you are not paying attention. Over time, I got a good look at some of my less admirable qualities: cowardly, passive-aggressive, elitist, emotionally abusive, willing to look the other way regarding questionable behavior as long as my needs are met, just to name a few.
Looking back, you will inevitably be embarrassed by some of your behavior and naiveté, but that can form the basis for a newfound humility and empathy. The challenge is to face these perceived failings without falling into chronic self-loathing, which is just another mental strategy to avoid emotional maturity. Learning to accept yourself as you are involves embracing a lot of orphaned attributes that you kicked to the curb early in life in order to fit in and feel accepted.
Danger, Will Robinson!
The following are some cautions and pitfalls when considering a cult that can spare you a lot of grief if you recognize them in time. Some will be obvious upon your initial exposure, and others only become evident after some degree of involvement.
If you are required to refrain from certain activities and habits in order to become a member, this should give you pause. While you may not care, for instance, if you have to give up red meat or alcohol in order to join, you may still consider whether there is a worthwhile reason for the restrictions, and not just to make you a powerless child who cannot make her own lifestyle choices.
Is it tithing or highway robbery? If you are asked to surrender your life savings as a demonstration of your commitment to a non-material focus, it will likely pad your cult’s wallet instead.
If you are required to cut off communication with your family and friends, or if there is any indication that you cannot leave whenever you want, that should send you running for the exit.
If you’re required to perform any type of demeaning ritual acts that will prove you’re worthy of membership, then you are better off pledging a college fraternity because at least free beer may be forthcoming.
If the cult does not provide a means for moving beyond the cult and the GMT in the form of tools for self-growth, that is a red flag in my book. I’m referring to techniques for increasing awareness of energy flow, releasing repressed emotions, improving mental focus, developing intuition, getting and staying grounded, and fostering a connection between mind and body. Without such tools, to flog a well-worn cliché, how will the student ever become the teacher? If the lack of these aids doesn’t seem to faze you, then you may be on the path of the “eternal seeker,” which is analogous to someone who collects advanced degrees and never pursues their practical application.
However, those same tools for self-growth can be used to reinforce your current situation rather than to find a way out of it. For example, meditation can easily serve to suppress feelings and emotions. So, the way you use the tools is as important as their availability.
If you do not have the self-discipline to eventually use the tools in a moment-to-moment context to have an embodied experience of the principles underlying them, then your mind will only associate spiritual or personal growth with the setting of retreats, workshops, or classes.
You can attend workshops and classes till the day you die, all the while convincing yourself that each one is moving you further along a track of progress, and it is really just the mind whispering the lie that waking up is about acquiring more knowledge. The mind will make a habit out of anything in order to preserve its primacy and avert its un-doing, and your precious spiritual path is what’s for dinner. It, too, can easily become just another rote exercise consisting of an obsessive focus on regular attendance at workshops and classes.
If the GMT espouses only love and light and characterizes certain emotions and feelings as bad and others as good, this indicates a lack of wholeness and maturity. Unfortunately, the New Age movement has been riddled for decades with so-called teachers who peddle a Pollyanna, rose-colored version of the human condition. In reality, the splendor of humanity is more than matched by the horror of humanity and a GMT worth his or her salt will encourage you to find both equally within yourself.
If you are honestly looking for a visceral experience of the truism, “the entire universe resides within you,” you do not get to cherry-pick which universal aspects to embrace based on your preferences.
Beware of the cult that tries to sell you “enlightenment”—a word whose regular abuse has consigned it to a status of utter irrelevance. The notion of enlightenment now occupies the same level of credibility as the 72 virgins promised to suicide bombers after their glorious demise, or the hackneyed version of heaven with harp-toting angels. It is yet another Eastern concept of substance—similar to hatha yoga—that has been watered down during its transoceanic voyage to the West.
The Western portrayal of enlightenment resembles yet another pain-free state of reward for being good and virtuous, and a refuge from the baser aspects of being human. Our humanity is presented as something to transcend rather than fully experience, when we’re not remotely aware in the first place how it feels to be fully human. How can you transcend what you haven’t experienced yet?
If you are like me, you will repeatedly run into the assumption that a reward awaits you contingent on “right” behavior and thinking. It’s one example of how our enormous sense of entitlement as Americans insinuates itself into a context ostensibly concerned with selflessness. If the only reward turns out to be that you feel more alive than you ever have, would that be enough?
My last GMT asked, “Do you want to have a life before you die?” and that was good enough for me to hop on board for seven thrilling years.
Why are we conditioned to be so disconnected from ourselves that we need permission from another to simply be who we were born to be? Instead of pondering this unanswerable question, it’s more fruitful to consider the purpose GMTs serve: We view them as someone who has found the thing in his/her life that is missing in ours. They provide us with a model for a life based on something other than fear, and encountering that impels us to look inward for that same experience. Bearing in mind this function of a GMT as a force that catalyzes self-examination is very important, because our unfortunate inclination is to use them as an object of worship to corroborate our feelings of inadequacy.
A skilled GMT can demonstrate the power of surrender, vulnerability, and witnessing one’s mind, elements for living a fulfilling life that are extremely rare in any mainstream context. By making yourself vulnerable to a GMT you open the door to glimpsing the forces that truly determine your life’s expression, as opposed to the delusions of control and free will under which we hazily operate. If you cannot make yourself vulnerable to the GMT, ask yourself whether that is because you don’t trust him or her, or because that’s where you draw the line as far as wanting to know yourself.
GMT’s are often intimidating presences, but are as deserving of your compassion as they are of your respect, because they willingly set themselves up to be targets of criticism, blame, comparison, and suspicion and that is not an easy mantle to assume.
The roles of a GMT are varied and complex: parent, psychotherapist, authority figure, friend, confidant. Being a GMT requires the self-discipline and awareness to be non-reactive, ruthless, neutral, detached, humble, vulnerable, and have the discernment to sense when each quality is needed. You will probably find your GMT everything from confounding to adorable in the span of a couple of minutes, because they act as a model for the paradoxical in human nature. It is no wonder that so many of them go off the rails.
If you’re on your fourth GMT in two years because the previous three did not pass muster, you’re probably looking for someone who does not exist and even if they did would teach you nothing. What are they going to do if you find them, show you how to be a perfect human being, which is the antithesis of a whole human being? Checklists are useful when shopping for a used car, but not a GMT.
A GMT is, above all, a human being with all the accompanying faults and desires. If she/he claims to be anything other than a human being—e.g. a saint, the reincarnation of a past teacher, an ascended master—I recommend politely excusing yourself. If too much energy is wrapped up in celebrating how awesome the GMT is, then you are involved in a personality cult. A GMT can only do so much to deflect such unwanted adoration, so it’s up to you to determine if he or she appears to bask in and encourage such behavior.
If you are exclusively attracted to GMT’s who are no longer alive, but have a large following, you may be avoiding the confrontation with a live GMT that could shake you to your core and initiate the unraveling of your life. It practically ensures a difficult route to finding the teacher inside you because you can never measure up to a beloved GMT whose memory is preserved, protected, and exaggerated by a legion of devotees. It can be a convenient device to stay small and convince yourself that you’re growing at the same time.
There is no one GMT who will be all that you need, nor will he try to fill every void in your life. And that’s a blessing, because if she did it would make it that much easier to fall asleep in a dependent relationship.
If you find yourself wanting to be your GMT’s buddy, it may be an indication that you are a bit power-hungry yourself and believe that close proximity to the big cheese may rub off on you. This makes it harder on the GMT because they have to deal with that projection as well as others you may have. It is their job to destroy your illusions about yourself and we usually don’t acquire friends based on their willingness to call us on our shit.
This is further complicated if you enter into a sexual relationship with the GMT. If the cult practices the conscious cultivation and channeling of sexual energy, it may ensure a mutually agreed-upon, grounded focus for the experience. In that case, a sexual relationship with a GMT is not inconceivable.
Otherwise, pursuing an emotional and sexual relationship with a GMT is likely a big, fat neon sign that your cult involvement is motivated by something other than a desire to grow up. We Americans are generally not capable of staying emotionally detached in a sexual relationship (I know I’m not), and emotional detachment is likely what the GMT will bring to it. If you bring attachment rather than detachment to such a coupling, there is likely to be pain, misunderstanding, and feelings of betrayal. Indeed, this has precipitated the downfall of many a GMT, and caused disillusionment for countless cult members.
If you feel you have been betrayed by the GMT, you have to ask yourself whether they acted the way they always have, but that this time you took it personally, or whether they truly behaved like an insensitive asshole. It is critical to recognize your own contribution, because no one is innocent in such a scenario. After all, you chose to make yourself vulnerable to an individual you believed could help you discover who you really are, when in fact that information can be known by you alone.
When an event is perceived as a betrayal, it is usually an indication that it was not a good fit in the first place or that one or both parties stayed too long in a situation that was clearly over, but neither had the courage to end it.
This is where you are on a knife’s edge in a cult: It is no easy task to balance surrender, vulnerability, critical thinking, and monitoring your feelings, but it is possible. Staying receptive to a variety of different sources of information will give you a fighting chance to maintain a grounded perspective.
When your GMT honestly tells you or demonstrates who they are, you need to pay attention! If they behave in ways you find difficult to accept, you may only hear and see what reinforces your idealized image of him/her. You are there to find the GMT within yourself and not to clean up the one in front of you. If you find yourself wishing the GMT would change or grow in certain respects, then it may be time for you to leave the cult.
Any GMT will tell you that your path is ultimately a solitary one and only you can navigate its crooked turns and cul de sacs. This may sound mercenary, but you are using the GMT to get to yourself and at the point you trust yourself as much as you trust him or her, then it is time to leave. This does not preclude feeling immense gratitude for whatever valuable experiences you have had there.
It is important to frequently reflect on why you are participating and how you have benefited thus far. It requires a balance of critical thinking and honest evaluation of your inner state. Simply put: “Am I happy here? Do I feel fulfilled here? Is there something I’m not getting from the GMT that is important to me?”
The external expression of your life will also tell the tale: Have you still not found the courage to leave a loveless marriage, reconnect with your estranged family, refrain from self-destructive behaviors, find a career that is worthy of you? A consistent sense of numbing familiarity is a sign that either you are not using the cult to honestly examine how you’ve created your life, or that this particular cult is not for you. This is not an easy separation, but the longer you stay for the wrong reasons the harder it is to leave.
You will need to trust your own answers to these questions, because ultimately you have to rely on how you feel to guide you and not what the community or GMT may tell you, because it is naive to assume that they always have your best interests in mind. Every last one of us is functioning with a stunningly incomplete knowledge of who and what we really are, so it is easy to allow others to make such decisions for us.
It goes without saying that a cult is one hell of a place to observe the power of collective agreements and beliefs, and you will witness your own tendency to either take them on or challenge them. At times, the group-think will make it difficult for you to form your own impression of what is right and meaningful. And, if you’re lucky, you’ll experience the uncomfortable recognition of our mental default mechanisms that have ultimately led us to the brink of our own extinction.
One of the most useful pieces of wisdom ever given to me by a GMT was, “the purpose of a spiritual path is to exhaust the student,” but I never fully got it until I reached that exhaustion. At that point, the notion of spirituality collapsed and blended with every other category of human experience intended to make one person feel more special than another. It was actually a source of enormous relief and gratitude.
I realized what I had invested so much time and energy in was the slim opportunity to find a departure point, and not a security blanket of spirituality in which to wrap myself. And, if you do experience the dissolution of your spiritual path, it means that you’re free to create instead of seek.
Abandoning the search for meaning can release a tremendous amount of bound-up energy and invigorate your life in unexpected ways. It can result in some deep despair as well, of course, but if your practice has not prepared you for this, then it was never really intended to put you in touch with the full range of your humanity.
Although we tend to idealize the search for meaning as a noble pursuit, actually pursuing it can expose it as a major cause of human suffering. It’s not meaning itself that is the problem, it’s what we do with meaning once we’ve found it. We can’t be content with it on our own; we need a consensus to agree that this one is better than any other meanings. It becomes another source of separation instead of unity, another identity to protect, and a basis on which to dismiss others in comparison.
Because of our vastly overblown opinion of the human species, it cannot be enough that we exist simply to fully express who we were meant to be as individuals. No, good heavens, there must be some overarching meaning to all this that reflects our inherent majesty.
After your cult experience, if you trust your own definitions of “spiritual” or “sacred,” and know that it’s okay if those definitions are continuously evolving and self-contradictory, then you have a way of being that is rooted in feeling and personal experience instead of dogma, ideology, or a tired narrative that was recorded millennia ago.
Joining a cult can be an attempt to drop out of mainstream society, but what you learn is that you can never escape your own mind, and that it is a reflection of the collective mind in all its messy glory. You can, however, become intimately familiar with the workings of your mind, and therein lies your chance to rediscover what a cult and GMT can only point you toward.