So I’ve been getting these little notes lately, about a spiritual teacher who is accused of creating a cult-like environment for their students. People send me links to articles about this and want to know what I think…
And the first thing I notice is that in every industry the world over—whether it be political activism, engineering, high-tech business, self-help gurus, or spiritual leaders—there will be extremism, and there will be cult-like behavior. And I will define “cult” as authoritarian leadership with a subservient community that is non-consensual and forced to remain in community. Bad business the world over—not unique, not original.
And in exposing the truth, invariability we run into witch-hunting territory. Because, as often as there is extremism in communities, there will always be as many people “crying wolf,” as the saying goes. Like most of you, I am pretty weary of witch hunting. Sadly, humans always do it; we love to project injustice from our personal fear. A personal painbody feels injustice, and that painbody starts publicly calling out. But how do we discern if there has been real injustice from the accused?
One of the problems in cult-like organizations is that it is often the community and not the leader that has created the cult. Members of the community who have internal fear of being authentic—who, for instance, fear saying No—may have had a childhood where they were punished or abandoned if they got angry or spoke up. Therefore, they are too pressurized by their own painbody and fear to speak up and ask for what they really want. Or, they can’t find a way to ask, in a clear diplomatic way, to be heard—and therefore they are in collusion to let themselves be led in an authoritarian style, instead of consensus. This community momentum begins to create non-consensual agreements.
I don’t mean to make light of really dangerous leaders, but often the leader is visible and it’s more obvious to see their painbodies. It’s the non-transparent agendas of the community members that remain blinding and influential. We see this in political activism all the time: we can see the political leader, but what we can’t see are all the strings being pulled and agendas being acted out behind all those closed doors.
The second thing I notice is more important, and it is this: If you want to bypass real awareness and bypass really facing and healing your own painbodies, you are going to find a leader or community who offers that bypass.
There are many, many organizations around the world who offer a bypass. Some of them are communities with millions of members. They offer you a Super Special Identity—maybe through religion, or politics, or financial power—instead of you having to face yourself and do the deeper work. And so long as people want a bypass, they will find people offering it. And those leaders will have less than skillful means of running the show, because they have bypassed their own personal work and are blind to their own painbodies.
Sadly, it’s more popular with people to become “Super Special” than to do the work. More people are drawn to a Special Identity than a real devotion to actually healing the dysfunction and bullshit in their lives.
So, it comes down to this: what do you want? If you truly want to face yourself and heal, these charismatic leaders offering bypass will be uninspiring and feel kind of off-message to you. Instead, you will be drawn to teachers and leaders who direct you back to yourself, who ask for your truth; they ask you to define your experience and ask you to be unwaveringly honest with yourself, and you will see that same honesty and directness in them.
But if you are out to become someone special, you will be drawn to leaders who are SUPER SPECIAL. You will find them to be entirely captivating and you will walk barefoot on fire, take LSD at Burning Man, and drink the Kool-Aid trying to get there!