Recently two of my students shared stories of having escaped active cults. One took place in Canada, which was facilitated by a recognized Native woman; the other was within a popular Christian campus church. Many ex-participants identify the groups as cults.
One thing cult groups often have in common is that they warn their congregations: “What goes on here, stays here.” You are not to go to outsiders with any concerns, or share personal rituals and practices. You are to rely on the leader and not trust your own doubts when they arise. In this case, doubts are seen as part of “your problem” and seen as the reason you are there seeking help.
I am not going to tell those particular stories, because those who experienced them for themselves are writing them. Writing their stories is another way they not only free themselves from the past trauma, but become beacons for others. This article is on the value of listening to our doubts, and how to identify a cult. False gurus, psychological scams, narcissistic spiritual teachers and self-proclaimed psychics depend on our not trusting ourselves and giving over ourselves (and our money) over to them.
When Doubt Is the Path
Our doubts can be productive or can be a hindrance to our living meaningfully. When doubt is productive it challenges us to consider the situation or environment we are getting ourselves into (or have found ourselves in). Doubt used wisely helps you to investigate further and discover for yourself the root of any concern. On the other hand, doubt that hinders is like a drop of ink in water, making the water undrinkable. This doubt is self-doubt and permeates everything. Life itself becomes undrinkable for those who chronically doubt themselves.
A healthy dose of (productive) doubt can be an enriching and favorable state of mind. The uncertainty that you feel when this doubt arises can lead you to consult your own inner wisdom and question events around you. The old myth around doubt and curiosity—that curiosity killed the cat and will get you in a heap of trouble—is not only outdated, it is a myth intended to control the congregation and keep naughty kids in line. Its purpose is to make you uncomfortable and unwilling to challenge what you are told.
In his seventh-century commentary on Aryadeva’s Four Hundred [Verses] on the Yogic Deeds of Bodhisattvas, Chandrakirti tells the story of a ship’s captain captured by an ogress.
The Ship’s Captain and the Ogress
The ogress warns the captain never even to look, let alone venture, to the south of her island. This admonition arouses his doubt and uncertainty about what he is being told. He becomes curious, so, one day he evades her watchful eyes and steals away to explore. There in the south, he finds the king of horses, Balahaka, who will carry you away across the ocean to safety on the other shore if you hold on to even one hair of his mane. And so the captain escaped from the island on which he had been held prisoner.
Such affirmative doubt gets us to question, study, and investigate what we are told. We also question the appearance of phenomena and are not as easily fooled. When we listen to our doubts in this way we won’t be so easily controlled or imprisoned by others’ views. We will discover truth for ourselves and adventure out beyond the comfort zone of dogma put out by others.
Besides, one person’s religious experience or antidote could be another’s imprisonment or poison.
“I have taught the way without making any distinction between inner and outer teaching. For in respect of the truth there must be no such thing as the ‘closed fist’ of the teacher, who hides some essential knowledge from the pupil. Secrecy is the mark of false doctrine.” – The Digha-nikãya, from the Sutta Pitaka Discourses
Making Our Own Way
This topic of cults and false teachers is dear to my heart and I have been researching and writing about it for decades. I have had my own encounter with charismatic and false teachers, as well as those with integrity, stories I share in my books. I have been condemned to hell by a Southern Baptist minister (I was 16 years old), caught up for awhile in the cult aspects of TM, and once told by another spiritual teacher that I was “special” (and he would be the one to help guide me). My personal pursuit of truth began at the age of eight and led me to be baptized by a Lutheran minister at the age of 13. He was a great man and teacher who ended up leaving the ministry to pursue other dreams.
One thread that weaved throughout my life and my work with others is the value of us finding our own path of meaning.
In 1995 I offered my first “Initiation Course,” a template for people to pursue their own chosen spiritual path free of dogma. I wrote Wheel of Initiation: Practices for Releasing Your Inner Light to offer readers and seekers a personal, non-dogmatic template to discover a spiritual path for themselves.
In the appendix of the book I give a list of what to look out for in a teacher or group and how to exit a cult. Spiritual seduction is a powerful means of control and one to be aware of when seeking a meaningful spiritual path. I have personal experience here too; I was spiritually seduced by an “ex” Buddhist monk in my early thirties. Sometimes we have to go into the darkness of experience to harvest the truth for ourselves. From this, I gained more awareness to what hooks us and how to get unhooked from a charismatic but controlling leader.
If you believe you have been seduced by a teacher or group, let them think what they want to while you put your energy into getting away from them. Be like the lizard that drops its tail and then leaves it behind in order to get away from a predator. They may think they “got you” as they chew on your tail, but you have escaped to freedom. Sacrifice what you don’t need—approval, praise from the teacher, or recognition (the tail)—and leave. The lizard’s tail grows back, as will your sense of self. (I had come to believe, albeit briefly, that this ex-monk and I were karmically connected and “should” be together. I let him chew on that while I made my escape).
Because our need for outside validation is so strong, spiritual predators are ever-present. (Both the predator and the victim are dependent on outside validation.) Interestingly, the same dynamics and steps to freedom found in spiritual seduction are also found when someone is in the grips of any kind of controlling relationship. Since you cannot influence or change the mind of the other, focus your attention on getting out of the relationship. Don’t let anyone hold you captive. Only be part of a group that has an open door, and that encourages you to be part of other groups and teachings.
When attending a group or receiving teachings from someone, pay attention to your dreams. Dreams can warn you if you are in danger; they can point out discrepancies. Our dreams are not concerned about the teacher’s feelings but are wholly invested in our integrity and well-being. If you are in a problematic relationship or group, dreams are likely to point this out to you. If you need help in interpreting them, get a skillful dream partner or coach. If a teacher or group is in question, seek outside help.
Ultimately we honor the outer teacher by not following them; instead we honor the teacher through our ethical and spiritual practices. In an appropriate spiritual student-teacher relationship (when done ethically), we respect the teacher by nourishing ourselves spiritually.