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.
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.
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…
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):
into something like this:
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:
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?
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.
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.
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.