A few days ago, I posted an article about recently published research in the American Journal of Hypertension that demonstrated meditation as a useful tool in lowering blood pressure. Frankly, I’m surprised there is still any question on the subject. To a meditator, this is like asking if food will help you feel full. This was established 30 years ago but doesn’t fit the model nor comfort zone of what the medical establishment knows how to work with. But I digress. The article mentions transcendental meditation as the technique studied. TM is quite commonly studied as its practitioners are widely available, they practice a consistently taught technique, and its study was encouraged by its organization. In other words, its particular form makes it conducive to study.
However, the mention of TM in the article got the cult police on the case. Their feedback illustrated an interesting point I thought was worth exploring – the difference between the practice and the organization that teaches it.
No practice is ever a cult. It is a practice that may be followed as a result of belief, but the belief is a separate thing. Some techniques may offer more value than others but there are no hard and fast rules as individual requirements vary. Adyashanti jokes about not recommending Zen for many but that it suited his very active life and mind well. There are a few techniques that are not desirable – not because of the group but because of the nature of the technique itself. I remember when I first learned to meditate, there was a couple of practices considered incompatible. One was a technique that involved inviting other spirits to take us over. Not a great idea. Spiritual progress is a process of refinement and integration. Takeovers entail disintegration, but again I digress.
In the case of TM, the vast majority learn the practice and go off and live their lives with a new tool for the expansion of consciousness. No cult there. One may point to the mantras of the practice and say they are the names of gods. But in India, everything is associated with a god. The practice itself uses the manta as a meaningless sound, so any meaning is contrary to the practice. Other arguments all fall the same way.
What then is a cult? A cult requires a group of people that are willing to follow some sort of belief system in an absolutist way. Our truth and no other. Blind faith. Note that its focused on a belief system, not necessarily a person. A person may be the originator or even the flag bearer of the system, but they may be purely symbolic, even long deceased. Perhaps rolling in their grave at how ego has taken fullness and put it into a trap. The cult takes on a life of its own, sometimes independent of the leader. I can think of several examples. I can also think of examples where the leader ‘does wrong’ and falls from the grace of followers to great drama. Or the leader tries to change the direction of the group and fails. Its the nature of groups.
Many religions are founded on a simple set of beliefs and practices yet evolve into a cult-like apparition in various sects, vying to convince you of their higher “truth”. The real flag here is inclusiveness. Anything truly spiritual or Godlike is inclusive, not exclusive. Exclusive is the domain of the ego, or as some like to say, Satan. Funny how often Satan shows up in the “faithful”. Satan declaring Satan. Classic ego.
There is that aspect of what one might call ‘sheep’ in people, especially people new to a new worldview. Newbies are far more inclined to want to join a new ‘tribe’. We’ve all met the keeners. And been there. This is normal behaviour and not an issue if we recognize the process in ourselves. This is the tribal perspective and a new ego story. Even though the story may be better, it is still a story and one that must eventually be seen through and outgrown. One must individually integrate the new understanding and find what is true for them, stepping past simple belief. They may stay a devoted follower but from a place of understanding rather than simple belief.
I’ve seen a little of that cult-like behaviour within the TM organization. Not driven by Maharishi but simply illusion. I’ve seen it in pretty much any organization that has a philosophical or belief system behind it. Even science can be seen as a cult if the brush is broadly applied. Science is full of accepted beliefs that are considered science, yet they periodically fall to new discoveries. The issue here is not the framework used to explore science, the issue is not recognizing there is a belief system at play. For example, science does not typically recognize the role of the observer in an experiment. Without taking the observer into account, there cannot be objectivity.
There are a number of guru busting (and bashing) sites + the inevitable anti-cult lists. The problem with so many of these is an underlying agenda. Not to help but to judge wrong. Debunkers are often anti-spiritual, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Even within the community, there are strong biases against whatever, pointing to exclusivity. If we look at the “spiritual” landscape, we find groups positioning themselves in camps rather than being the hubs they really are.
Care should be taken with any list of cults as much of that is simply a value judgment of a group with different beliefs. The judgment in some ways speaks to the critic as simply a member of an opposing cult. I can think of a number of examples of people who had a falling out with their original belief group and then simply took the opposite stance, as anti-group. Like someone who never seems to get over a divorce. Sadly some, like the commenter mentioned, think they are being helpful but are instead simply playing out their ego story about how they have been wronged, as has everyone else involved. Classic pain body.
Its also sad to see people confuse the practice with the group and reject both. Its not at all uncommon to meet people who had a bad experience with some group or teaching and now treat ‘spirit’ as a bad smell. They have not seen the difference.
This is not to say there are no true cults. People’s lives can be seriously derailed by a group-think that takes them outside of sense. But those cases are pretty rare. Some of the more vocal critics overshadow the real issues with their own dramas. Like any relationship gone bad, some want to vent about their dashed dreams. I’ve run into several web sites like that, awash with anger and opinion but little of real value. But then, the apparent anonymity of the Internet sometime brings out the worst in people.
I’ve looked at several sites that have sensible lists of the signs of cults. Authoritarianism, no tolerance, hidden finances, fear, abuse, and so forth. But such sites seem to also be a venting ground for the angry. You may find Lifton’s thought reform model a better tool for understanding. It illustrates both the process of indoctrination and the signs of it. Essentially a more dramatic way of seeing the ego’s process for structuring a personality.
Like all things in life, at some point we outgrow just about everything. Our parents (as parents), our teachers, our roles, even our sense of identity. If we understand these normal stages of growth, we will resist the process less. We will have our natural period of grief and loss but it will be a process of clearing rather than a stepping stone to anger and fear. This reminds me of a book by Nancy Cooke De Herrera, Beyond Gurus (1992). She was a Hollywood mover (like reading Shirley Maclean) and heavily involved in the early days of the TM organization but as the organization grew, she found herself shut out. The experience helped her recognize her own growth and move beyond the need for a guru. And that is the completion of the process from newbie, to convert, to clarity, to transcendence. A reflection of the process of growth and the evolution of perspective as we climb the ladder of awareness.
Just remember that drama is the pain body and exclusivity is the ego. Take what you can from whatever life brings you and leave what no longer serves. Find gratitude with what is and soon there will be joy alone.