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Thursday, August 6, 2015

How to Detect a Cult

I recently came to the conclusion that a spiritual group with which I had been loosely affiliated for the last six years or so is in fact profoundly unhealthy. I believe it has many of the characteristics of a cult, which led me to write this blog post in the hopes of helping others identify unhealthy spiritual communities. Obviously, there is a large amount of ground between unhealthiness in a community and it becoming a cult. However, I believe it is a trajectory. It is probably true that most people do not set out to form a cult but rather set out to form a spiritual community and over a period of time unhealthy traits in the leader and the membership allow the group to turn into a cult. So fasten your seatbelts, here we go.

1. The healthiness of the teacher. It may seem glaringly obvious, but the teacher should be healthy. Whether or not the teacher is involved in a romantic relationship is irrelevant to the truth that the teacher should have relationships with friends and with peers. A teacher who is withdrawn and isolated or who looks to his students for friendship and emotional support is not healthy and should not be leading a spiritual community. Spiritual and religious students invest quite a bit of authority in their teachers and pastors. When the spiritual leader seeks to have their own emotional needs met by their students, in reality those needs are being met at the expense of the students. It is completely appropriate when considering membership in a spiritual community to ask with whom the teacher is involved in peer relationships, who the teacher's teacher is, and with whom they have an accountability relationship. This becomes especially important when dealing with spiritual communities that are not part of a denomination or network because it can easily be the case that not only is no one watching over the teacher but it can also be true that there is no way to rein the teacher in should he begin to display unhealthy behavior.

There is nothing about leading a spiritual community that is not a part of a larger organization that makes it impossible or even difficult to find a network of peers with whom a teacher can engage in mutually supportive relationships that also provide a means of accountability. It is important, however, to remember that just because a group calls itself an accountability network does not mean it actually functions as one. It is fair enough to ask, if a teacher belongs to such a network, whether that network has an ethics code, and to ask see a copy of that code.

2. The healthiness of the students. While every spiritual organization has a certain number of unhealthy members, it is certainly the case that a healthy spiritual organization will call its members to become more healthy and facilitate that transition in ways that are appropriate to a spiritual community. A spiritual community is not a psychotherapeutic community but a spiritual community can and should model appropriate relationships, foster independence on the part of its members, encourage healthy and independent decision-making among its membership, and encourage members to freely serve on committees which make decisions for the future of the community. A spiritual community that has a single individual overseeing both the spiritual and administrative decisions of the community is begging for trouble. A spiritual community comprised largely of dependent personalities who seek to transfer the responsibility for their spiritual journey onto a teacher is already in trouble. If a member of a spiritual community has a question about something that is happening in the community, including the content of the teachings, but does not ask their questions for fear of angering the teacher, it is a sure sign that the community is already profoundly unhealthy and at least on the cusp of becoming a cult.

3. The spiritual health of the teacher. This may seem glaringly obvious, but a spiritual teacher should be spiritually mature. It should be extremely obvious in the behavior of the teacher that they have done their spiritual work. This can be assessed in a number of ways. While the teacher should engage in appropriate leadership and decision-making practices, the teacher should not be overly concerned with what others think of them. The teacher or leader should not be overly concerned with the numeric growth of the spiritual community but rather should be concerned with the spiritual growth of the individuals already in the community. The spiritual teacher should not have behaviors which appear to be compulsive, nor should they be in active addiction. A spiritual leader who spends most of their free time engaged in one single activity is at the very least not well-rounded. A spiritual teacher with an Internet addiction, or who can't seem to leave the casino, or who can be found at the corner bar every day is probably not engaged in a healthy spiritual practice - and there is no level of spiritual achievement that exempts a spiritual teacher from engaging in spiritual practice. Even the Pope prays and the Dalai Lama meditates. Any spiritual leader that claims they have reached a level of achievement, awareness, or awakening that makes spiritual practice unnecessary is profoundly unhealthy and should be avoided at all costs.

4. The financial transparency of the spiritual community. The financial decisions of a spiritual community should be made by a committee, not by a single individual and most definitely not by the spiritual teacher. The financial records of a spiritual community must be an open book. Members need to recognize that since they would not pay their utility bill unless they received a statement first, so they should not contribute to a spiritual organization that does not provide an accounting of where the money went. As a part of this, spiritual organizations that frequently make special financial appeals due to either unforeseen circumstances or for the purposes of expansion, or (worst of all) both, do not have adequate financial oversight or adequate financial planning. If a number of members of a spiritual community, and by this I mean far less than a majority, have reservations about the financial practices of a community and cannot freely access the financial records of the community it is a very good sign that something is wrong.

5. With the exception of issues of confidentiality, there should be no secrets. Obviously the "seal of the confessional" or the counseling room must never be broken. With this one exception, there must be no secrets. Any time a spiritual leader advises the members of a community, even the lay leadership of the community, to keep something a secret there is serious dysfunction within that community. Often unhealthy leaders will assert that secrets must be kept because the common member of the community either would not be able to handle the revelation of the secret or would not be able to understand it. If we think about what this says we will realize that it asserts that the spiritual health of the students is quite poor. Since most students effectively handle the requirements of daily living including managing a household and maintaining employment, there is no good reason to believe that they are incapable of handling even difficult truths. What secrets really mean is that one or more of our first four unhealthy traits is present in the spiritual community. Transparency is an ethical requirement for a healthy community.

6. Control freaks and micromanagers have no place in the leadership of a spiritual community. In fact, a healthy spiritual teacher will encourage the independent functioning of the members of the spiritual community no matter how important the teacher claims an event or a practice might be. The rank and file members of a spiritual community should always be encouraged to assume leadership positions and other positions of responsibility. When they assume those positions they must be allowed the freedom to make whatever choices the community sees fit with the exception of choices which would be physically dangerous or emotionally abusive. Obviously, if the leadership of the community is planning an orgy for Saturday night as a fund raiser somebody must step in. Short of that, however, the truth is that human beings learn by making mistakes. Leadership of a community must be allowed to make mistakes as long as those mistakes will not do serious harm to an innocent person. If a leader insists that things always be done the way that they would do them it is a sure and certain sign that the leader is unhealthy. It is also certain that such an unhealthy leader will cause the members of the spiritual community to suffer from diminished capacity in their functioning within the community rather than grow - and a healthy spiritual community always leads its membership to a place of growth.

7. Emotional manipulation is never appropriate. It really doesn't matter who within a spiritual community engages in emotional manipulation, people are always harmed by it. Statements that begin with phrases like, "if you really cared about this community," or, "if you really cared about the spiritual teacher or pastor," are always manipulative and a sign of a less than healthy spiritual community. The job of members of a community is to ask the questions that are on their minds and in their hearts, not to assuage the feelings of the leader or membership. Healthy adults, including spiritual teachers, will have what ever reaction to circumstances within the community that they choose to have and such reactions are theirs alone to deal with. In fact, it is the job of every healthy person to deal with their own feelings, thoughts, and behavior and when people attempt to place responsibility for those three things in their lives on to others it is always unhealthy. Manipulation is essentially an attempt to make someone else responsible for my feelings, thoughts, and behavior and so is never appropriate.

8. A teacher who insists on oaths of loyalty or overly deferential treatment from the membership of his or her community always has an ego problem. Since one of the principal tasks of the spiritual life is the dismantling of the ego, such behaviors are evidence of the spiritual immaturity of the leader and must be confronted. This is one of the great dangers of some Eastern cultural practices when they are transferred to the West. Most Westerners do not have a sufficient grounding in Eastern spiritual practice or a sufficient understanding of working with a guru to engage in practices such as guru devotion. Guru devotion encourages adherents of a tradition to picture the guru is the founder of the tradition. It is roughly equivalent to the Christian notion that the priest stands "in persona Christi," meaning that the priest appearing in front of you is acting as Jesus and as God. For many people with dependency characteristics, such a dogma is a too tempting invitation to abandon our personal responsibility and attempt to lay it at the feet of the spiritual leader. This is never healthy. What's more, most Westerners rush into relationships with their guru, ignoring the advice of people from cultures where working with a guru is the norm to delay selecting a teacher for as long as possible - at least several years after beginning study with them. It is not surprising, then, that all sorts of unhealthy behavior is evident in these relationships. No qualified, competent, ethical spiritual teacher of any tradition will ever rush you into a teaching relationship with them.

9. Becoming an ordained teacher, monastic, or member of the clergy should be a process which is uniform and which involves a great deal of discernment. The policies and practices surrounding these ordinations should be written and available to all members to examine. Nobody should be rushed into a decision as significant as seeking ordination or entrance into religious life. People who make such a choice after their substantial period of discernment should be able to explain to anyone who asks what their decision means in a way that the average person can readily understand. Ordination or entrance into religious life must always involve the full and informed consent of those who choose to engage in it. There should be a period of waiting even after a person elects more formal involvement within the tradition. During that waiting, the person must have the complete freedom to elect not to continue should their discernment lead them to recognize that is the best decision for them as an individual. There should never be coercion in any aspect of religious or spiritual life.

10. People should be able to freely leave the community without sacrificing the friendships made in the community and members of a community should always have friendships with people outside the community. One of the surest hallmarks of a cult is the isolation of members from relationships with friends and family who are not members of the cult. Practices such as shunning, which is the refusal to associate with people who have left the community, are always indications of a cult. Any spiritual leader who advises discontinuing relationships with people who have left the community is leading a cult. People must always be able to freely choose to remain in the community or to leave it without any attempt at coercion or isolation.

There are of course many more characteristics of cults than those I have listed above, but these are the easiest to identify and among the most common. The said truth is that whatever spiritual progress might be gained in an unhealthy spiritual community it is more than offset the damage done within that same community. There is nothing about being isolated from friends and family that encourages or fosters growth. There is nothing about being encouraged to be less than a fully functioning, competent adult that is good for us. And there is nothing about being financially manipulated that is healthy. Sadly, most of us can probably think of an organization that has many of the above listed characteristics and many of us will have been part of one. My point in discussing this is not to disparage the people who either are or have been in such communities. I don't believe anybody woke up this morning and said, "I think I would like to find a cults to join today." If we have found ourselves in an unhealthy situation we should avoid the tendency to beat ourselves up because of it and instead direct our energy towards healing and wholeness. As we move toward healing and wholeness we may find meaning in reaching out to help those who are also leaving cults, either the one we were a part of or a different one, but the most important thing is making sure that we do not harm ourselves by moving into that healing relationship too soon. If any of you would like to contact me regarding your situation, please feel free.