Let’s talk about the C-word. C-U-L-T.
Having been born into a spiritual community, I’ve always been very sensitive about the C-word. In my case one parent’s cult is another parent’s religion, and I have a hard time getting enough distance from both of them to have my own opinion. Thankfully, this blog isn’t really about that. But after many years of avoiding the C-word, I think it’s time to reclaim it and define it for myself.
When I first joined Art of Living, I felt very strongly that the western world had become ridiculously cult-phobic, paranoid about brainwashing and mind control and all those ridiculous things. Abuses and out-there drug-induced craziness in backwoods communes, Nikes and kool-aid and SWAT teams descending on WACO, and everyday pedophilia scandals in the Catholic church– these are my impressions just off the top of my head of why people have a very hard time trusting “gurus” of all shapes, sizes, colors and costumes. Now we have “personal development” psychotherapy groups like Landmark/EST, Lifespring, Scientology/Dianetics; Multilevel Marketing schemes like Amway, Herbalife and others, Bible-based groups like the Twelve Tribes, Mormons, The Family, and Jehova’s Witnesses; all of these joining the likes of Siddha Yoga, Osho, TM and Art of Living in modern academia under the rubric of “cults”.
Are these all cults???
Last week when I finally admitted to myself that I was Leaving Art of Living, I was completely overwhelmed. I still am, but those first few days were very confusing and psychologically all over the map! Here’s a snippet from a journal entry from Leaving Day 2, written over about 20 minutes:
Dear Guruji: I am sorry, but you’re Not Jesus.
I have the right to disagree with things you say. I have the right to see the logical inconsistencies in Art of Living’s platforms. When so many people I have loved, gurus and men and even politicians, have taken advantage and “practiced on my credulous simplicity”, I have the right to become guarded and maybe even cynical for a while. I have the right to use my intellect to protect my innocence and my love for life. I have the right to choose whom I love based not only on their charming qualities, but also on how they treat me and whether or not they have actively earned my trust.
I have these rights, and though my mental muscles have mildly atrophied under your loving guidance, these right cannot vanish no matter how often they are waived. And so I say, You’re Not God Any More Than I Am.
Now, that’s a lot, because you are entirely and utterly hewn from raw god just like I am. But you got greedy, My Dear! You decided to claim Extra Godness, and you became a Golden Calf!
I feel betrayed, like I went home with Ghandi and woke up next to Chairman Mao.
I feel to blame, because obviously something in me wanted Chairman Mao, or else I would have seen through his Ghandi disguise.
I feel more ready to blame myself than to blame you. I feel ready to jump to your defense, infantilize you or pathologize you and certainly feel sorry for you, because surely no normal human being could pretend to care for so many people without any ability to sincerely connect with them.
I feel afraid for how much I am like you, for how much I hunger for attention and unconditional love, and how I could easily go into the guru business and believe my own hype for a while. I feel nauseated when I realize that as Your student/teacher, the responsibility for my student’s would fall on you, but all of their active love and devotion would be showered on me as your representative–and how attractive that was to me. (Like in the Milgram electric shock experiment…)
I feel elated. I feel “Excited AND scared!”. I feel furious and sad; I alternate between a an incensed and righteous rage and a deflated, self-doubting defeatism. My own psyche is so wound up in knots and so unmoored that when I defend you I attack myself, when I defend me I attack you, and all this does is weaken my ability to discern. I feel like it must have been my fault, and I feel like blaming you completely because you’ll never come to justice and so at least I’ll have the satisfaction of demonizing you in my heart.
I have become a fundamentalist divided against myself! There are no shades of gray, only repeated infinite tessellations of black and white. While I was meditating, you brought M.C Escher in to redecorate my psyche! Sneaky Guru!
I read that this kind of confusion is normal in the beginning. I am horrified to notice that my short term memory and ability to spell have deteriorated to a shameful degree. Sometimes attempts to use my intellect or follow an argument feel like trying to build a house out of cold porridge.
I was a little out of my depth, and pretty alone with all those feelings roaring and pouring and rushing and gushing and dripping and draining and reeling and keeling and banging and clanging and, well. i’m sure you know what i mean.
I emailed Janja Lalich, whose book had helped me not go completely crazy for those first few days. I needed someone to talk to, so I asked her if she knew anyone near me she could recommend. She sent me into the fabulous mind and company of Alex Stein, another author, sociologist and Ex cult member who graciously agreed to meet for tea and a chat.
We talked for two and a half hours, and I’m sure more of the revelations that came out of that conversation will be coming up again. But one thing really stuck with me: when I rather weakly and desperately asked, “but how do you know the difference? How can you tell?” Between a genuine movement and a cult, she gave me a fabulous answer. Here is her basic 5 checklist as I remember it– without these things it isn’t really a cult:
1) charismatic leader who is the ULTIMATE authority in the group.
2) strict hierarchy based on the LEADER’s decision who goes up and who goes down. Everything decided by the leader, acted out by a close inner circle
3) thought reform programs which can include long meditation, chanting and singing, mantra or interrupted thought meditations, day-long lectures in controlled environments
4) isolation. this can include geographic isolation but also thought/verbal isolation, IE jargon that only the ‘initiated’ understand
5) absolutist/totalist teachings. WE provide THE answer. (religious, economic, political, personal.)
I found this list so helpful and empowering! I had been on the lookout for more outlandish stereotypical excesses-of-the-seventies Red Flags: incomprehensible pseudo-spiritual jargon (AoL barely requires fluent english!), forced or public sex or multiple wives or guru-dictated marriages etc, blatant declaration of the guru’s superiority of enlightenment, etc etc– I was looking for the things you only see once you’re on the inside, once your loyalty’s been tested, once your devotion has totally rooted itself in your psyche. I didn’t realize how sneaky the organizations had gotten. Thinking back on my recruitment, I realize that other warning signs were there but they were very very well disguised; by the time I started seeing red flags in earnest–well, by that time I was so in love I didn’t care. Not until I had to consider recruiting children four and a half years later.
This list is more comprehensive and also very helpful, but I love the brevity and simplicity of a checklist you can count off on one hand!
Stay tuned for What a CU*T Part II, where I –maybe– look at why art of living fits all these requirements for cult status, and how they hide it during the first phases of recruitment.