Out of Life’s Quagmires

Lotus pond

Lotus pond

This 4th-of-July weekend (Independence Day in the US), I managed to combine learning more about the traumatic impact of cults and the (almost) unbearable beauty of lotus flowers.

A perfect lotus flower

A perfect lotus flower

What does one have to do with the other, you might ask.

At a very concrete level, the location of the cultic studies conference and the location of the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens were both in the Washington, DC Metro Area.

Cathy of Nomad, Interrupted posted beautiful pictures of her visit to these Aquatic Gardens which I had last visited about 15 years ago. Thanks for the inspiration, Cathy!

At first, I only thought of the Aquartic Gardens as a photo opportunity but now I realize there was a much deeper connection.

Just as the lotus flower grows out of mucky swamp waters, I needed release from diving deep into the human quagmire of cults, common personality characteristics of their leaders, group dynamics, and the traumas so often experienced by group members.

The annual meeting of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) attracts both mental health professionals and ex-group members or people who have or had loved ones in cults and are still trying to heal from that experience. Interestingly, there is significant overlap between the two groups. Many of the mental health professionals are drawn to this kind of work because they, too, had some kind of negative experience related to a cultic group.

I attended this conference for two reasons – continuing education as a mental health professional but also as a private individual who is trying to decide what to do with a manuscript that happens to be a cult memoir.

Leaf filled with muddy water

Leaf filled with muddy water

Conference session titles ranged from: “Abuse of Human Rights in Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi Training Facilities,” “Government, Thought Reform, and Native History,” to “Human Trafficking as a Commercial Cult Mind-control Phenomenon.”

The range of topics opened my eyes to the massive amounts of cult-like groups, not only in religious and spiritual contexts, but also in political, life-style, educational, and even animal-rights groups. I will sum up my experience at this conference with this:

Mind… blown… open… wide…

dead flower in water

ICSA published a list of criteria that are common to cultish groups. Keep in mind that a group does not need to meet all of these criteria to influence its members in negative and harmful ways:

“The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.

Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).

The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).
The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.

The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).

The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).

The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.
Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.

The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.

The group is preoccupied with making money.

Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.

Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.”
Having done my doctoral dissertation research on the Stockholm Syndrome, I am very familiar with this concept so often used to explain the cognitive, emotional, and identity distortions that occur in people who are in abusive situations where someone has the power of life or death over them.

What I do not (yet) understand is this:

Why are we so willing to put someone else on a pedestal when we believe that this person is more knowledgeable, more experienced, more worthy, or more spiritually evolved than we are?

How do we mentally turn something like this (a flawed individual whom we accept as a leader):

insect-infected seedhead

insect-infected seedhead

into something like this:

psychedelic seedhead

psychedelic seedhead

Why are we so willing to hand over our power to an individual or a group? Is there some kind of “God button” that gets pushed by mistake and in the wrong context, that makes us bow down and shut off our rational judgment? We become the leaves underfoot the perfect and majestic lotus:

tall lotus with red canna leaves

tall lotus with red canna leaves

And we place ourselves in the position of the lowly, humble grass bathing in the light of the great, evolved being we are lucky to serve?

grass and lotus

While there is quite a body of social science research focused on how individuals change what they think they know based on pressure from peers or authority figures, I have not found a satisfactory answer to my question.

Wounded leaf

Wounded leaf

Ironically, many groups start out with a strong leader and only gradually turn into cults when the interactions between group members and group leader facilitate an unquestioning attitude towards the leader and often attribute god-like powers to him (usually, it’s a male). It helps when the leader is also highly narcissistic and has socio-pathic tendencies…. all-too-common ingredients in the cult-creation recipe.

If there is any “beauty” that can result from cult experience and a conference about it, it’s the connections formed with other people who had similar experiences and have similar questions. It’s the experience of talking with others about what is usually “unspeakable.” The word “cult” is highly loaded with emotional content and knee-jerk reactions. People think of Jim Jones who forced hundreds of his Peoples Temple followers to commit suicide by drinking poisoned kool-aid in the jungles of Guyana.
Jonestown, Guyana, was such an extreme example of a cult gone very bad that most people could never imagine themselves joining a cult.

People don’t understand that nobody joins a cult!  People join groups that they think can help them attain a greater purpose in life.  The young jihadist who is joining a group that prepares him to become a suicide bomber would not think of himself as being in a cult. Nor would the men in Idaho, USA, or Stockholm, Sweden, think of the white supremacy group they belong to as a cult.  All they know is that there are like-minded guys who want to reclaim their cultural and racial roots, stockpile weapons, and study Hitler’s writings.

Nor would I myself have thought it possible that the nature skills group I once joined would turn my life upside down, as, over a period of years, this group evolved into a spiritual cult. And which parent is ever prepared to lose a child to a group, see gradual changes turn into total alienation and loss of contact?

And, yet, whatever life brings to us, we must carefully look at it:


No matter, how scattered we have become, or how muddy the soil, the spirit holds the potential to rise above it, and bloom again.

A new beginning

A new beginning

After all, the lotus IS the symbol of purity and divine beauty!  The lotus is the flower that grows through the mucky, swampy waters of life and unfolds its pristine petals offering its joyful beauty to the world.

May we all find ways to transform our personal quagmires into a flowering garden.


About Beauty Along the Road

A blog about discovering beauty in all its ordinary and extraordinary manifestations.
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42 Responses to Out of Life’s Quagmires

  1. lollastewart says:

    Your photos made me gasp with joy, Annette. thank you so much for this blog.


    • Lolla – thank you. those lotus flowers will do that to you 🙂 I spent 2 1/2 hours wandering around, photographing and almost forgetting to breathe. When my fingers were starting to cramp and sweat was running down my torso, I had to stop…but only reluctantly.


    • Aggie says:

      I can’t say it any better than lollastewart, but I had the word “stunned” in mind. Annette, your photography amazes me… The content, also, was captivating, and brings me to think about my life… Is the photographer in the photo you?


  2. glendanp says:

    Amazing! These photos touch me on a deep and elemental level and the metaphor for a life well lived and getting through the cult nightmares. . . . just really, really, really wonderful.


    • Thank you, Glenda…I was deeply touched by the stories I heard last weekend and the lotus ponds were the crowning finish to it all. The flowers in their various stages of development and decay somehow tell the whole story…


  3. Jill's Scene says:

    Hi Annette, A thought provoking post. I once had a conversation with someone who belongs to a sect. I asked about why people stayed and was told they stayed for security and certainty. But I was also told later that those who chose to leave, left only with the clothes on their back. A fact which, I think, tells a different story.


    • People stay for similar reasons as a battered woman stays in an abusive relationship (that’s where the Stockholm Syndrome comes into play)…different groups employ various levels of mind control and coercion but almost always group members are told that leaving the group would result in something very negative (losing the Kingdom of Heaven, their only chance at enlightenment in this lifetime, the outside world will harm them in some way, etc.). Sometimes, people have burnt bridges with their family and friends and feel they would be judged and shamed: or, they have done things for the group that they are not proud of…. so many different reasons. I spoke to a man who joined an esoteric cult because his new wife gave him the ultimatum: join or I’ll leave you. The cult eventually engaged in terrorist actions killing dozens of people and the leaders got sent to jail. However, the wife chose to stay with the remaining group while he finally left and divorced her. She believed that the leader was so “spiritually advanced” that his lowly followers could not possibly understand his homicidal actions and no judgment should be passed. Talk about confused minds!


      • Jill's Scene says:

        It is so difficult to understand from the outside. I think we’re very social creatures and at the end of the day more easily influenced than we might realise until exposed to something like this. I’m familiar with Stockholm Syndrome and it certainly is a good way of explaining what happens to self- determination when someone is caught in a cult.


  4. A really interesting post, Annette. I love the way you’ve woven your amazing photos into your story.


  5. What a thoughtful and interesting post, Annette, and your photos are wonderful. Using the lotus flowers to illustrate the nature of cults makes the connection palpable. Think of how many cults have formed as a result of like-minded people “getting together,” and then losing their ability to question and to see the truth. That kind of worship to a higher authority: Hitler and the Nazi mentality are only one example. We can see this phenomenon throughout history, from the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia to the Cultural Revolution in China to the jihadists in Islamic countries to even the Christian Crusaders and the right-wing Christians of today.

    I really hope you will do something with your manuscript, Annette. People need to understand firsthand the insidious nature of the cult mentality that probably occurs more often than we’d like to admit.


    • Thank you for your thoughtful input, Cathy. Submitting to a leader/teacher/guru and group pressure is such an insidious issue and happens on all levels of society….it’s not just “out there” affecting other people in exotic locales. I think all of us need to examine our relationship with the groups we are part of and the people we admire and ask ourselves: Where am I giving my power over to someone else? And why?


      • I agree, Annette. It makes me wonder a little about my son’s involvement with the permaculture movement. I’ll be on the lookout for this kind of surrender to these self-proclaimed authorities.


  6. Aggie says:

    Ah, I misunderstood your comment to say that you hadn’t taken the photos. Words… Such beauty. Thanks for sharing them with all of us.


  7. Barneysday says:

    Absolutely stunning photos along with an interesting, disturbing post. A great deal of what you describe sounds remarkably similar to today’s “christians” as defined by many of our political leaders and TV evangelists, and they would wish us ruled with the iron fisted techniques you describe, given half a chance.

    Thanks for sharing your very provocative post.


    • Barney – yes, the religious groups are always at the top of the list of groups potentially at risk for developing cult-like characteristics. Sadly, spiritual and religous groups are not the only category that attracts narcissistic and sociopathic leaders that place high demands on their followers. But you point out a mixture that is particularly potent and potentially abusive: politics AND religion. Thanks for reading and commenting.


  8. Absolutely fabulous post. The content stands on its own as a well-written essay on the subject of cults and, speaking as a photographer who has been to Kenilworth a number of times, your superb images could also stand alone as a purely photographic post. But the combination of the two make for a really compelling essay. Excellent, excellent work.


  9. indacampo says:

    Beautiful pictures Annette and the juxtaposition with the text and the garden is very powerful and thought provoking. Thank you for sharing your experience with us. As I was reading I was thinking of several organizations that have been in the news or are part of the news that would qualify as being “cultish”.


  10. It’s a beautiful metaphor…fantastic article!


  11. Cee Neuner says:

    stunning photographs.


  12. Now, Annette, your post is mind blowing!!!


  13. That list reads like the Scientology welcome brochure. (shudder) I’ve been studying Narcissistic Personality Disorder for a time and the anatomy of cults was one of the tangents I explored to flesh out my understanding. Again, (shudder). Every once in a while, I’ll review a documentary on You Tube or something to remind myself how much I escaped by being stubborn, incorrigible, and disappointing in my family’s eyes. And a big, heartfelt “Bite me!” to all my relatives.

    I have a love-hate relationship with water lilies. I love everything about how they look from a distance but one summer I slid into a large, stinky koi pond to help a client dig up and separate his lily tubers. Like trying to grab mucus-covered golf balls in a port-a-potty reservoir. Never again.


    • Actually, Scientology was widely discussed at the Conference. Glad your incorrigibility and stubbornness kept you from whatever your family was into.
      So sorry you have such smelly, slimy memories associated with water lilies. I can well imagine what is was like due to your vivid description…


      • My family was into itself: NPD. Being several people’s narcissistic supply simultaneously did a real number on my health and happiness but I’ve recently learned to exercise my middle finger on a more regular basis.

        Still. NPD has cultishnesses, so it was worth educating myself about all the neuropsychological techniques used to sway thought and belief. Scientology is peanuts compared to good, old American consumer marketing. Zoinks, Scooby!


  14. It is interesting how people will give up their power to others. A milder but disturbing example were the year’s in my town where I watched people blindly following a wealthy business man’s opinions in town politics with the mindset of – well if he can make that much money he must be so much smarter than me and know what to do. They followed so blindly not doing their own thinking that they didn’t notice this man was largely more interested in his own business interests and tax bill than in the well-being of the community. It certainly wasn’t any sort of cult but to be “in his crowd” it was expected to do publicly stand for what he said and vote in a certain way. As you can see – you got me thinking! Loved your lotus flower photos, by the way. 🙂


  15. Annette, Thank you for a deeply thoughtful post. I have given a good deal of consideration over the years to the problem of cults. I also had experiences in which I was given way too much power by groups – experiences which I found profoundly disturbing and frightening. I also do not really understand how cults form or work; I do know they are dangerous and dehumanizing.


    • Hi Michael – it is easy to slip into that role as a group leader, especially when doing the kind of work you are into. People project crazy stuff onto you…it is always important to be mindful of that and remind others that they are self-responsible and need to their own judgment. When we place a halo on someone else’s head, we all too often diminish ourselves – as a leader you are in a position to recognize it and point it out to others who look up to you.


  16. Annette, a thought-provoking post. Loved how you interwove theory with different personalities in the garden. 🙂


  17. Reblogged this on Rewired and Retired in Nicaragua and commented:
    My blogging friend wrote a piece about cults that I think is important to know. She commented on “My Obituary for Pierre Maltais”, “It is so easy to slip into a cult-like group (now, they are called “high-demand groups”), with the right leader characteristics (usually sociopathic) and people’s needs for belonging and acceptance, it’s a perfect recipe for disaster. Having been part of a Virginia group like this for a number of years (until I got kicked out for challenging the leader), I wrote a manuscript about what happens in a cultish group and how the followers elevate the leader over time into a god-like position.

    Liked by 1 person

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