One hallmark of cults is the tendency to nurture paranoid thinking. It begins with the idea that there are forces “out there” that can attack members and make them lose their spirituality. In some groups, believers think the bad forces are occult beings. They make invisible attacks that destroy health and spirit. In other groups, it’s nonbelievers. Unfortunately, in many groups, the dangerous beings are “normal” people — people who have ordinary values that may present temptation or bring the high consciousness of the believer into the gutter. In other words, family members, friends, and colleagues all become dangerous.
To stay safe, cult members start to isolate themselves. They fear being around ordinary people at work, at school, in the community. It’s far safer to mix only with people inside of the group–people who share the same commitments and values. So instead of being out in the world making a contribution or learning and growing, the cult member stays inside the cult, all the while becoming increasingly more afraid of outsiders.
The irony is that the cult member has no clue he or she has gone paranoid. He tells himself that he is super compassionate to those poor people out there who are subject to the forces of the world, who have no values or divinity to guide them. He wants nothing to do with them, but doesn’t see how frightened he has become. If those people come into his orbit, he does whatever he can to protect himself — keeping up a barrier. And in the end, the paranoia feeds on itself, growing and growing the longer the isolation continues, the more that other members of the group reinforce the belief that one must stay inside the cocoon.
Read the Leave the Cult Handbook for more on this.
One of the distinct markers of many cults is the fact that members use a language all their own. The leader may use certain words that are not in the common vernacular, and the members adopt those words so that somebody coming from the outside can’t instantly join the conversation. For instance, in the group I belonged to, my teacher used the word “vital” instead of “sex.” To have “vital thoughts” meant you were having “sexual thoughts,” a big taboo. There were “hostile forces” floating about in the cosmos–meaning invisible beings that caused mischief of all sorts–including vital thoughts. And then there was “the Supreme”–meaning God, who had established the taboo about vital thoughts. Also, we used many Indian words that aren’t part of the common parlance.
Of course, simply having a unique language doesn’t necessarily mark a group as a destructive cult. Most organizations do develop a language of their own. In the corporate world, for instance, some companies refer to their workers as “resources,” and when they have too many “resources,” they initiate “change management” instead of simply declaring that they’re laying people off. (Some might argue that corporate culture indeed is a cult–but that’s a subject for a subsequent blog.) Even within families there’s often some sort of tribal language that neighbors won’t immediately get.
The point is, though, that special language excludes people who don’t belong to the club. It separates members from nonmembers. There often is some feeling that those who know the language have special status and have a leg up on the non-speakers. When that special language exists in combination with other markers, it might well indicate that the group has cult-like characteristics. Language can be used as a way to obscure the truth–again, “change management” instead of “firing workers;” “seva” instead of work without pay; “hostile forces” instead of bad choices or bad luck. Sometimes there’s no good English equivalent that captures the subtle meaning and so the special language may be needed. For instance, some would say “seva” also indicates working from the heart with focused devotion–so you need to use your discrimination and instead of automatically using the language of your group–start paying attention to how it makes you feel.
What special words does your group use? How do you feel when you use that language? When you hear it? Do you think it marks your group as a cult?
When you first leave a cult, it’s normal to imagine that you’re the only person in your circle who has been in such a group–not counting the few people you know who left your group. Over time, though, if you find the courage to tell your story, you’ll probably discover that at least a few other people among your acquaintances also spent time in a cult-like group. The truth is that hundreds of thousands of people join and leave cults or repressive groups every single year. Most of them go on to have perfectly normal lives and you’d never know they spent time in a cult–unless you open the door by talking about your own experience.
It’s unfortunate that many people still attach a modicum of shame to the idea of having been a cult member. People talk about getting divorced without embarrassment, as a matter of course. But those who were in cults rarely broach the subject, preferring to bury the whole affair. In fact, it is true that some people do have judgmental attitudes, and if they find out you were in a cult they say things like “I would NEVER end up in a cult,” or “You seem like such an intelligent person. It surprises me that you would have gotten involved…”
You can either keep your mouth shut to avoid such reproaches, or you can educate people and let them know just how easy it is to get snagged into a cult, and also, if it applies in your case, that the experience isn’t necessarily all negative. Remember, if you come clean and talk about what happened to you, you might well discover others who had similar experiences and in so doing, free them to talk about what happened.
Two days ago, my beloved standard poodle, Ariel, passed away. She had been with us for 15 1/2 years. Ariel was a being filled with grace, majesty, and transcendent sweetness. She was suffering and we had to put her down, but the vet couldn’t come right away. The last hour before his arrival was unbearable. I didn’t know how my body or soul could stand the pain of the impending loss. When I noticed my tai chi sword sitting on the table in the next room, I knew I had to work with it.
Most people think of tai chi as being a peaceful, passive, dance-like art. The tai chi sword form, though, is different. While it requires a peaceful mind, a balanced stance, and concentration on the breath as do other forms of tai chi, it also requires the spirit of the warrior to come forward within you. You need to be one-pointed, to thrust the sword with intent, to embody the spirit of one who knows no defeat and who can flow with whatever comes.
I’m really just a beginner in learning the sword form and I don’t think I understood it until the moment I picked it up while Ariel lay dying. Then, my body took over and taught me what the warrior’s stance really means. There is something about having to maintain balance, about having to keep breathing rhythmically, about doing these things while moving with a sword that goes far deeper than the obvious. For me at that moment, thrusting the sword was about cutting through my own fear, pain, and resistance to the inevitable. It was about being a warrior in mind, body, and spirit–about the inhalation and exhalation of life, about moving with balance when it seems impossible to move at all. After I finished working with the sword, I knew I could face what was coming.
For those of you suffering from the pain of loss that comes when leaving a spiritual group or cult of any sort, I pass along what I learned from this experience. It really helps to do whatever you can that brings forward the warrior inside of yourself. If you feel too devastated to even think about being a warrior right now, just put the idea on the shelf for later. You don’t have to know tai chi sword…but I do think doing something physical works best, whether you run, work out, or do another sport. I hope this helps.
One of the most common questions people have when they first leave a spiritual organization, church, or other group is whether it might have been a cult. Very few groups admit to being cults. When you first joined your group, you probably didn’t think it was a cult. In fact, you might have felt like the luckiest person on earth to have found your way to such an inspired organization.
But then, something likely went wrong. Maybe you noticed some discrepancy between the official platform and the actual practices inside the group. Maybe you discovered something unethical, or you realized that the beliefs embraced by the group were a huge stretch. Or, maybe the group leader, who you once admired or even revered, did something intolerable.
Once members of a group become disillusioned, it’s typical for the “cult question” to arise. Since there was so much denial inside the group, it’s likely you haven’t a clue what a cult would look like–other than the exaggerated portraits of truly destructive cults that you see in the media. But not all cults are so blatant. Cult mind control can be subtle.
There are certain markers for cults, and not every cult has every one of the typical characteristics. If you want to know if your group was a cult, take some time to read up on cults. Try doing the self-reflection suggested in the Leave the Cult Workbook. For now, here’s one characteristic of cults for you to consider:
Most cults put an emphasis on recruiting new members. Once you’re inside the group, you’re expected to help make it grow, and you might find yourself devoting inordinate amounts of time to that end. Did that happen in your group? Do you think your group was a cult? Share your reactions!