As I already mentioned in my post The Murky Waters of Asymmetric Relationships, I was a member of two different cult systems in my early twenties, and then later on ended up working as a psychotherapist, helping many people to liberate themselves from various spiritual cult systems. So, I learned about cult systems both from inside and from the outside, and after decades I still keep being surprised how easily will groups and organisations, even those with the most noble visions, slide into cult-like swamps.
It almost seems that the reasons that brought people together is irrelevant; whether it is politics, spirituality, activism, art…, there will be a tendency for a specific hidden hierarchy and dynamics to sprout, and a culture of believing that “we are special, our path is special and better than any other, our leader is special, we have all the answers to all the questions…”.
And if you are a part of the group, it is sometimes rather hard to notice these tendencies before you get fully cooked, as in the metaphor of a frog being slowly boiled alive (actually not true – a frog is smart enough to jump out once the water becomes too hot). So I wish to describe a few attributes of cult systems that are rather easy to notice; perhaps it will help somebody somewhere.
Idealised image of the leader
There tends to be a suspicious focus on the leader and their idealised image. For example, the leader will be seen as a very, very special person who knows the ultimate truth and everybody can only be grateful for being able to learn from her/him. Such a privilege indeed! Sometimes it all looks like a fan-club: “wow, he is so compassionate, and look at his beautiful blue eyes, and she is so incredibly smart and knowledgeable, wow, the way she responded to that question…”
The leader is seen as having no shadows, no personal issues whatsoever… and if her/his message is not received by the world, if the leader is being rejected and criticised, this only means that the world is not ready yet, people cannot yet handle this depth of truth.
There will be stories about the leader, anecdotes and quotes, repeated again and again. Those, who have more stories and quotes to tell because they are closer to the leader, will be higher in the formal or informal hierarchy of the organisation. Facts about the leader that are not in line with this idealised image, will be kept in secrecy (which then makes abuse so easy…).
Another version of this is seeing the leader as a martyr. She/he is on a mission to save the world and is exhausted and tense and edgy because of that and everybody needs to understand this and care for the leader, tenderly and with loads of patience.
Firstly I want to mention that the tiredness of the leader is their own personal responsibility: if they made different choices in their lives, for example to eat less and healthier, to exercise more, to make sure they get enough rest and needed support, and primarily do work on their own traumas and patterns of behaviour, the result would be different. In any case, the leader is a grown-up and not a toddler that the whole family needs to take care of.
I would also wish to keep asking myself: “What is the reason we are here, in this group? To heal ourselves, to contribute to the world, to carry out projects and create…, or to appreciate the leader and follow her/him? What is this all about; the community or the leader?”
What we talk about and how we do it
In a cult system the agenda is tightly controlled, mostly by the leader, who will this way exercise a strong influence on the group. For example, there will always be time and space for her/his stories, thoughts, comment, interventions, jokes…, and there will never be a time nor space for some challenging issues. In one of the cults I was part of, the leader would erupt on meetings when a challenging topic was brought up, saying that it makes him nervous (he was a meditation teacher!), that he will not be listening to nonsense (he was also a communication teacher, teaching listening with heart…), that he just does not have enough energy for this crap (sure, he ate very unhealthily, did not move much, was overweight…, sure there were energy issues, but whose responsibility was that?) and, of course, the whole community immediately jumped and adjusted, the topic was dropped. Did we ever drop leader’s topic because it was making a member nervous? Of course not…
The main reason for the above is that there is no equality: the leader is more important and the students are less important. This is why the way the leader wants to be treated is very different from the way she/he treats others. This is why leader is never to be challenged, disagreed with, criticised, directly or indirectly. In one of the two cult systems I was part of (both were about spirituality and communication), there was a very clear and explicit guidance written in our core materials, saying that if we were witnessing our leader being criticised, we should immediately walk out of the situation and report the person to the leader. So much about spirituality and communication…
The idea of a humble, servant leader, who would be following the community and leading by example of his own integrity, was not anywhere in our universe. Despite all the lofty words about spirituality.
So, I would want to keep asking the questions: “Can we talk about everything we want to talk about, or are there prohibited, censored topics? Is the leader to be treated in the same way as everybody else, and vice versa? Is the leader living with integrity to the values she/he is preaching and asking of others?”
Inner vs outer universe
Be it a political party, an environmental movement or a spiritual community, the cult elements seem to always show up in drawing a clear line between us and them, creating tension between the two: “We know, and they don’t. We are right, they are wrong. We have so much to teach out there, and there is not much more for us to learn from the outside…”
The need for belonging and togetherness gets further met by the specific vocabulary that often the leader will develop (wow, she/he is so awesome, even inventing a new language!!!) and everybody else will adapt. It becomes almost a secret code; we all use these specific expressions, we all share the same ways of reacting and responding. I remember, decades ago, spending a couple of days around a group that not only spoke their own exclusive mystical language, but I suddenly realised that they looked all the same: very thoughtful, very serious, no joy/smiling/relaxed laughter ever expressed, most of them even had eyeglasses with the same frame – same as the one of their leader, of course. I still vividly remember how surreal it all seemed.
And, of course, there is at least a slight scent of: if you are not with us, you are against us.
Again, I would wish to keep asking myself: “Is there curiosity in our community, to go out and learn from others, or do we just want to teach and change others out there? Is outside world seen as fellow humans that we want to connect with, as we are all pretty much similar, trying to make sense of this journey of life, or are they seen as ignorant or even dangerous?”
The last characteristic I want to mention here, while being aware that this is by no means a comprehensive set of them, is the one of the general atmosphere in the community. While, of course, every group of people, every organisation, every community will inevitably keep going through various waves of group dynamics, in a cult system the atmosphere will tend to get stuck at becoming heavier and heavier.
Even in bright and light moments, there will be this lifelessness and heaviness just under the surface. Namely, constant inner personal conflicts of members between what they are doing on the one side and their own gut feeling and their own integrity on the other, constant tensions between members that never get resolved because of hidden hierarchy, lack of transparency, integrity, safety, empathy… will start taking toll and draining the group energy field.
Again, I would want to keep asking myself some questions: “Is there transparency, honesty, openness present in our community, or are there secrets and unattended elephants in the room? Are we spending most of the time sorting out our inner system and power struggles, or do we actually do the work we came here to do? Is there a sense of a progress, evolution and celebration of this evolution, or does it feel more like a lifeless sinking into the quicksand of hopelessness, burnout, despair…?”
Of course there is, as I was trying capture in my The Lonely Trainer post, there are personal wounds and traumas behind it all, and needs, heart longings…, and it is not my intention here to judge leaders and followers. And I am also aware that it takes two to tango and so just waiting for the wounded leaders to heal and transform might be a very passive approach to it all. However, if we learn to do our part of the dancing, take care of our own healing and learn to notice whether a specific group has a nourishing and joyful effect on us and on the world, and then make grown-up choices when we notice lack of such, then it seems to me there is more chance for transformation to happen.