Posts Tagged ‘cults’

I became a Buddhist for a reason.  This was after many years of living without faith, without religion.

In my late teens I faced a prolonged period of personal and familial hardship.  My mom had attempted suicide.  My parents were engaged in acrimonious divorce proceedings and  both wanted me to take care of their emotional needs and join their side of the battle.  In a desperate act to preserve my sense of self and not be used up by the manipulation and emotional incest, I cut my parents off.  I was painted as a traitor by my sisters and extended family for this action.  It was a time of intense personal pain and isolation.  Prayer didn’t seem to help and I experienced a loss of faith in God, Gods, or even a benevolent (if unresponsive) Universe.

Several years later I returned to religion consciously and with a purpose.  I knew I didn’t have faith but I was determined to have it again because I had been happier when I believed in something.  I had been a better person too.  And my panic attacks were getting worse.

Since the age of 8 or so I have suffered from anxiety attacks that would come on when I would consider existential questions.  These make up an intense “death anxiety” but is more than just a fear of death, more a fear of ego-obliteration or equally terrifying, a fear of ego-permanence in a meaningless and unsatisfactory Universe.  The attacks would come on mostly at night before falling asleep, but could also be triggered by other circumstances.  Dark movie theaters used to bring it on for me when I was young, looking at the expanse of the starry sky (which was overwhelmingly large and made me feel overwhelmingly small), or classroom lessons on astronomy.  My father was aware of the extent of my anxiety but had nothing more reassuring to suggest than that “no one knows what happens when you die, but that I would feel differently when I was older.”  Psychotherapy or pastoral counseling would have been helpful but this was never suggested and so I endured years of paralyzing anxiety and tearful bedtimes and eventually found ways to cope… mostly distraction.

Throughout the years periods of more intense anxiety (attacks multiple times of day for months on end) would alternate with periods of lesser anxiety (a handful of attacks or less over the course of several months).  Periods of attacks were worst when I had less religion and spirituality in my life.  The idea of faith – of saying that it is okay to not know the answer and to trust in a benevolent and loving Universe that things will work out in a way that I cannot understand as a mere human – helped.  Acceptance was the antidote to anxiety.  I discovered this as a Buddhist.  My anxiety lifted.  Religion was an answer for me.  Faith was an answer.

This is not the answer for everyone.  Irvin Yalom, a famous (Atheist) Existential Psychologist, wrote a book entitled Staring at the Sun, which deals with overcoming fear of death from a non-religious perspective.  His work is noteworthy.  Krishnamurti suggests that mental enslavement comes from running from fears to religious institutions or attitudes that soothe.  I am cognizant of that.  I sometimes wonder if my need for religion implies weakness or a desire for ignorance.

… but I don’t think so.  I don’t think that my need for religion is weakness because I have lived both ways and I know I can live both ways.  I am strong enough to endure my fears.  I have done so for many years.  I don’t think that my need for religion implies a desire for ignorance because I understand that I have a choice and I make my choice mindfully.  I have considered the costs and the benefits.  It is not only my anxiety that leads me to religion.  I consider also the sort of person I am.  When I had God or the spiritual path in my life I was kinder.  I had a sense of purpose and meaning.  I avoided wrong deeds.  I felt connected to nature and to other humans.  I felt joyful and in connection with something greater than myself.  When I did not have God or the spiritual path in my life I felt isolated, closed off, purposeless, and anxious.  I had an easier time rationalizing wrong-doing.  I want to be the better person.  I want to be the person who is loving, kind, forgiving, generous, and lives a life of meaning.

So here I am again.  In the last 6 months I have read so much about cults, destructive religions, and manipulation that my faith is in jeopardy again.  I am disenchanted with Tibetan Buddhism.  I am distrusting my spiritual experiences.  I am back at the crossroads, the dark night of the soul.  And my existential panic attacks have returned.  And I know where this path leads and I do not need to go there again.

I am here at the crossroads and I know now that I am someone who needs religion.  I need faith and spirituality.  And maybe they are all tainted with cult tendencies.  And maybe they are all a little wrong just as they are all a little right.  And I think that maybe it doesn’t matter so much which one I pick, which path I follow next, so long as I have a path to follow.

Would Krishnamurti be disappointed?  Maybe.  And maybe that doesn’t matter.  He’s just another guy after all.


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Corboy on the RickRoss forum quotes Daniel Shaw, LCSW on how cults exploit universal human dependency needs:  http://forum.rickross.com/read.php?7,50813

“The lengthy period of dependency in human development, the power that parents have, as God-like figures, to literally give life and sustain the lives of their children, leaves each human being with the memory, however distant or unconscious, of total dependency.

Cult leaders tap into and re-activate this piece of the human psyche. Followers are encouraged to become regressed and infantilized, to believe that their life depends on pleasing the cult leader. Cult leaders depend on their ability to attract people, often at critically vulnerable points in their lives, who are confused, hungry, dissatisfied, searching. With such people, cult leaders typically find numerous ways to undermine their followers’ independence and their capacity to think critically.”


This role of the human memory of dependency in susceptibility to cults and controlling relationships is interesting to me.  This suggests that our memories of dependency, although not conscious, are extremely powerful.  It also suggests that people who are stuck on earlier developmental milestones (as according to developmental psychological theories such as Erickson’s), are particularly vulnerable.  If people have trauma or psychological conflicts around issues of love, safety, and dependency from early childhood, they are particularly vulnerable to groups which foster dependency and regression.  This is because there is a psychological urge to replay the dynamics and seek a resolution. The human psyche tends to stay stuck at a developmental level until the primary issue of that level is resolved.  This is one explanation for why people who were abused as children tend to become involved with abusers later in life and is subtly different from the “you are formatted for abuse” explanation.  It suggests that there is an innate drive within all people for healing.  We recreate our early experiences not to retraumatize ourselves (although this can happen too) but to resolve the trauma differently — to try create a different outcome and to meet our needs.

So perhaps people who get involved with cults are trying to heal something, to meet an early dependency need that was neglected.  In the final analysis, getting involved with a cult makes it worse, but the drive that leads people into cults is not bad in an of itself, it is the human urge to heal.

Once upon a time (in my late teens and early twenties), before my involvement with a couple of questionable groups, I had a number of controlling relationships.  They were consentual and thus not exactly abusive, but my involvement with them was questionable.  What was I doing?  Trying to resolve some early issues with dependency.  What I found was that the more I grew up, slowly over time, and embraced my role as an adult, the less interested I became in dependency and the more I sought out partnerships in which I was empowered.

Shaw says that our fundamental human conditioning makes us vulnerable to control — this is universal because we have all been formatted with a memory of total dependency.  For this reason, the type of psychology that a religious group (as well as a relationship) fosters must be considered when evaluating the danger of involvement.  Does the group/relationship cultivate aspects of maturity such as free-thinking, independence, personal responsibility, and self-actualization or does the group/relationship foster psychological regression toward dependency, concrete or black-and-white thinking, and an immature moral perspective (e.g. do good so you won’t be punished).  Is the group psychological regressive or progressive.

I understand the argument that dependence/independence is culturally-entrenched.  Some cultures encourage dependency or interdependency.  I get that.  However, I believe that developmental psychology presents some universal truths about the human condition.  All babies start out completely dependent upon their caregivers for survival.  As children grow, they become more and more able to make independent choices and to meet their needs independently.  A culture and individuals can encourage or discourage this, but regardless, the potential for self-care and self-actualization are there.  In an abstract sense we may still be completely dependent on God, the Earth, and one-another for meeting our needs, however, a sense of self-agency must be balanced with the recognition of our vulnerability.  I am vulnerable yet I can ask things of God, my family, my neighbors, and my environment.  I can create tools, I can work, I can help others, and make choices that increase my odds of finding happiness.  Growing up is a wonderful thing.

So, knowing we have the memory of total dependency and are capable of both growth and regression, we should ask ourselves whether our spiritual path and our relationships are helping us grow or keeping us stuck.   Is this a mature spirituality?

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On some level I feel responsible for dragging my spouse into my various religious excursions.  Sure, he has free will and I never forced him to attend Dharma classes, retreats, or church services, but I encouraged him.  I also brought home the teachings.  I shared what I was learning and debated and discussed with him until he grasped the new perspective.  Dharma helped me in my life and he became a Buddhist because he saw the beneficial effect the teachings were having on me.

When I left our Buddhist group due to the excessive demands for my time, energy, and money and associated guilt tripping, I took a hard line with my husband.  He was invested in the group.  He was more invested than I was at that point (interesting that it used to be the other way and I was the one encouraging deeper commitment).  My husband is an incredibly open-minded, loyal, and giving person.  He is not good at saying no.  Not to me and not to groups with cult-like tendencies.  I know his loyalty to me trumps just about anything else (interesting how free will plays out in the long term committed relationship) and I used this to draw a line in the sand about leaving the Buddhist group and not going back.

Was I right to do this?  On the one hand I probably saved him from his himself here – from his giving and self-denying nature which he knows is often unhealthy.  I acted to protect him.  On the other hand, I acted out of fear of losing him and to protect my interests and the interests of our relationship.  It was controlling.  I didn’t say, “honey, I love you and respect your judgment, please make whatever choice you think is best.”  I said, “this is what I can live with.  This is what I cannot live with.”  At least I was honest about it.

My husband isn’t convinced that the group we were involved with was a cult.  I get that.  I’m not 100% convinced either.  But I am 100% convinced that the pathless land is a better course for us as individuals and as a couple than sticking it out with a dysfunctional group.  He still misses the feeling of belonging to the group.  He misses the feelings of being part of a special elite group and the sense of purpose.  I miss those things too sometimes.  Sometimes he wants to go back, but he won’t.  For my sake.  Because he doesn’t want me to worry.  That’s selfless.  God, I love my husband.

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I have had a minor preoccupation with cults and cult awareness since March when I realized that two groups I had been involved with have cult-like tendencies — by which I mean they involve a significant degree of manipulation, deceit, and/or financial misconduct.  Both were guru-focused spiritual groups.

I realized this by accident during a class I took on comparative religion.  In our textbook on the chapter on Buddhism there was a couple of sentences of caution about “crazy wisdom” gurus and destructive guru-disciple relationships.  No real context was provided along with the statement so I hopped online and found the online book Stripping the Gurus which has a chapter on Chogyam Trungpa, the founder of Shambhala Buddhism, and the destructive “crazy wisdom” shenanigans he was involved with back in the 70s.  This started me reading about other gurus as well. Stripping the Gurus includes a chapter on Paramhansa Yogananda, whose books I enjoy reading.  It was a rude awakening to me that people and groups whose message seems so beneficial can have a dark and seedy underbelly.  I thought I was too smart to be deceived.

I should start by saying that I do not think Shambhala is a cult.  I have had only passing encounters with Shambhala and they have been mixed.  I love reading Pema Chodron’s books and know a number of people who have had wonderful experiences with Shambhala Buddhism and Shambhala Training.  I will say that most Tibetan Buddhist traditions have the potential for problematic Guru-disciple dynamics, and this is widely known to have occurred in Shambhala’s past.  My own experience was quite minor.  I attended one day of a two day Shambhala Training class and had a bad experience with it.  There was a lack of guidance/instruction which was coupled with physical distress from long periods of sitting.  We were instructed to ignore the physical distress.  Later we were encouraged to feel proud of ourselves for making it through the extreme physical pain.  It felt a lot like hazing and manipulation to me.  I didn’t go back for the second day.  I have no idea whether or not my experience was typical.

Other groups I’ve been more deeply involved with.

My reading got me doing internet searches with the words “[religious/spiritual group I’ve been involved with] and cult” just to see what people were writing on the internet.  I came across this site: Problems with Oneness Movement and was shocked and dismayed because I had been taken in by this one.  This is a movement that many people in Unity are familiar with.  Two years ago I read one of the movement’s books and was inspired to take a weekend “Oneness Experience” workshop.  I found the teachings mostly very helpful – they are largely appropriated from Hindu philosophy.  Some of it was a bit weird (like “processes” in which we were guided to confront intense feelings about our parents/children/loved ones and chanting/breathing/meditation exercises) but I accepted it all because the “teachings” were making sense and seemed helpful and practical.  Sometimes groups use the good stuff to lure people in.  You can’t judge a group based on those early beneficial encounters.

They warned us after the first day that we might have a physical reaction on the second day and that we might not want to come back but that we should ignore that feeling and push through it.  This happened to me.  I went home and felt EXHAUSTED.  Just emotionally broken open and exposed.  I canceled my evening plans and took care of myself.  The next day I felt extremely anxious.  I didn’t want to go back.  But I had been warned about this so felt like I had to push through it and show up again just to show that I wasn’t a quitter.  I wanted the blessing.  Now it seems really stupid.  I can see that I felt anxious because I had been pushed to a level of psychological vulnerability beyond what I was comfortable with.  The anxiety was a warning sign, not a sign of dysfunction to be ignored or pushed through.  I learned something from that too.  If a group tells you to ignore your instincts, they are probably not a good group.

The weekend finished without incident and the anxiety passed.  I got something out of the teachings and felt good about my experience, but in hindsight I think this one was a near miss.  Until I read the internet site about the problems with the Oneness Movement I had bought most of it hook, line, and sinker.  I did not see through it.  I wasn’t about to spend $6,000 on “Blessing Giver” credentials, but I had considered it.  I learned that I am susceptible to false promises of Spiritual Wisdom and realization. Any time you want something badly, you are vulnerable.  I learned that I can be naive and easily fooled by exoticism.

Also at this weekend workshop I met a woman who was involved in a “Gifting Circle” Women’s Empowerment Group.  She tried to recruit me.  It turned out to be a Pyramid Scheme.  Thank God, my father taught me about pyramid schemes when I was a kid and I saw through it immediately.  When I tried to alert the recruiter that it was a Pyramid Scheme and hence illegal, she accused me of being a “negative thinker” and told me that my attitude was limiting my life and that I must watch out for what I was attracting to myself.  I knew she was trying to manipulate me and was furious, but it still hurt my feelings.

This woman is the main reason I didn’t get more involved with Oneness (I knew she’d be there) and that was probably a good thing.  I’m sure most of the people in the group have excellent intentions (most of the people I met there were lovely, caring people), but I no longer think the group is legitimate, and now I know that I can be conned.

I’ve already rambled on much too long and still haven’t gotten to what I meant to post about.  Discussion of the group I was more deeply involved with will have to wait.

Reading about the dark side of these groups on the Rick Ross forum and other sites helped me to see more clearly how I had been taken in and how I am still vulnerable to “spiritual teachers”.  I wanted something badly; I am a spiritual seeker after all.  Seekers are vulnerable.  Someone offered attractive solutions.  The path was easy: just do these things.  At first very little was asked of me.  Then more and more in terms of time, money, and faith.  At the beginning you are allowed to question, but then questioning becomes less and less acceptable — it is redefined as a sign of your worldliness, lack of faith, or negative karma.  By then you have already invested a lot of your identity in the Spiritual Path or Movement.  The peer pressure, wanting to be part of something, wanting the spiritual fruit, and guilt or fear tactics are all powerful.  I left because I know the taste of guilt manipulation from dealing with my family of origin and knew that that had no place in a genuine spiritual path.  But I still felt guilty about leaving and concerned about the “karmic effects” for a long time… until I started learning about cults.  Now I know better.

Here’s what I actually intended to write about this evening:

So now I sometimes read the Rick Ross forum for fun.  (forum.rickross.com)  This evening while reading I came across this: The Zen TV Experiment.  This seems timely and very relevant to me because lately I have been considering two things 1) how to better replenish my mental, emotional, and physical energy including by cutting back on TV and 2) if or how I can still be a Buddhist, given my disillusionment with Tibetan Buddhism and the Vajrayana (Tantric) Path… which has had people suggesting Zen and mindfulness practices to me.  So, I think I am going to try the Zen TV Experiment for myself and see what I learn.  And I may even get around to reading those Thich Nhat Hanh books I took out of the library.

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