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Posts Tagged ‘new religious movements’

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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