The Twelve Steps
Art Therapy and Gestalt
Mind-Body Healing for Post-Cult Blues
About the Author
It is a welcome chore to prepare this book for the new edition. The first publication of Cult Survivors Handbook was in May 2000 at Surrealist.org. Since then, cults have continued to harvest people's fears following Y2K, 9/11, and the 2008 economic collapse. Although scholars don't like the word cult, it is practically the only word everyone recognizes to describe the phenomenon. People under the influence of a cult act like they're hypnotized. It can start within days of getting attached to a charismatic leader or newfound philosophy.
Other words for the phenomenon include new religious movement (NRM), cultic, cult-like, controlling, dangerous, coercive, manipulative, and totalistic. Authoritarian is another way to describe it, and that's the word scholars use for the Nazi regime of the 1940s. The word brainwashing came into use during the Korean War in the 1950s. In the 1960s and 1970s, authoritarian cultish groups swept America, including the Hare Krishnas, the Jesus Freaks, and others.
In this book, I characterize cultic groups as dysfunctional organizations. Dys-function means "bad-function," in other words, a thing has ceased to function right. Think of a functional aquarium. The water is crystal clear and the fish are happy. But consider a dysfunctional tank: the water is cloudy, the filter is clogged, and the fish are floating near the top. It got like that because the leader was doing something wrong. Some tanks like that can go on forever, vacillating between bad and worse. However, when it goes too far, you may have to bury the fish, clean out the tank, and start over.
Cult Survivors Handbook is for people looking for information on how to detoxify after exiting a dysfunctional group. It's a handbook on seven relevant paths:
Family Therapy—systems theory in groups.
The Twelve Steps—recovery from the addictive organization.
Abuse Recovery—learn about abuse and child abuse in cults.
Depth Psychology—Jungian therapy to heal spiritual abuse.
Art Therapy and Gestalt—alternative therapies for cult survivors.
Mind-Body Healing for Post-Cult Blues—overcome depression after the cult.
Post-Cult Spirituality—notes on keeping the good parts of an experience.
Farra Swan, N.D., naturopathic physician in private practice in Tempe, Arizona, and adjunct professor at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine.
Linda B. Spencer, Ph.D., artist, and author of Heal Abuse and Trauma Through Art.
Margo Shapiro, M.F.C.C. counselor in Los Angeles familiar with cult recovery issues.
Steven Hassan M.Ed., LMHC, freedomofmind.com, author of Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves and Combatting Cult Mind Control.
Jane Wingle, LCSW, family therapist and freelance travel writer in Colorado.
Alma Bella Maglaya, a counselor and acupuncturist in Los Angeles familiar with cult recovery issues.
Family counseling started in the middle of the twentieth century, within several distinct schools. The most popular is "systems," or "systemic" therapy, because the counselor identifies the family as a system. Rather than cure all the individuals' psychological problems, system therapy accepts problems as a natural part of life, seeking only to help families meet the challenges they face.
A good family therapist may help the ex-cult member reframe key incidents. Instead of feeling guilty over abuse suffered in the group, the therapist will help the client see how the system worked to perpetrate the abuse.
Often, the scapegoats (people who leave the group in disgrace) are plagued with guilt until they realize they may choose to put away the cult's script and write their own life script. A family therapist will help an ex-cult member discover the role they played for the cult and then break any mind control that remains after exiting.
Bowenian Family Therapy
Dr. Murray Bowen was the father of the school of family therapy that helps people individuate, or become psychologically unstuck from the family of origin. In this process clients learn to maintain their individuality and separate identity, while continuing to interact with family as an adult. Ex-members must individuate from their families of origin, as well as from their cult. Cult experiences can be like a second family, which provides a re-parenting experience for people who didn't get it right the first time.
One of the problems Bowen found in families, which also exists in cults, is triangulation. This is a communication problem where conflicted family members use each other to act out their emotions. They try to win others over to their point of view, in order to feel more powerful. A typical example in a family is when fighting parents try to divide their children's loyalties or use the children as spies or go-betweens in their quarrels. In an organization like the one I belonged to, gurus built up large numbers of followers to gain clout in the organization. Followers then triangulated their communication over what the guru would want the family to do. Thus, gurus often ended up right in the middle of their followers' business.
Family dramas can be all pervading and extremely subtle. However, the patterns are apparent to the trained eye of the therapist. Bowen looked for patterns in family life cycles and family trees, including intergenerational conflict. Our ancestors and relatives might provide interesting mirrors to observe how we change and what makes us the way we are. Everyone has these threads but may be completely unaware until they sit down with a therapist and talk about their family tree. Bowen believed we can only be fully known in relation to our family systems.
Bowenian therapists may start with a genogram, a chart similar to a family tree. The therapist asks the family members to fill in the details for three or more generations. With this information, the therapist helps the family see how family patterns overlap and repeat.
Family therapy teaches how to build healthy personal boundaries. In a healthy family, individuality is encouraged. People in a healthy system are free to be themselves, and to say no to something they don't want to do. They learn to cooperate, to share, and accept each other.
Seeing a therapist will work best for people who have completely left the group behind. However, if loved ones are still involved, it might be wrong to abandon them. Sometimes ex-members may stay around on the fringes just to be around family. Therapists must be patient, realizing people may have trouble completely leaving a dysfunctional group. The same thing goes on when a client remains in an abusive relationship, unable to leave.
The Dysfunctional System
Rather than allowing its members to be individuals, the abusive group creates rigid roles. People then try to fit into the roles to be accepted. Controlling groups like the one I was in expect ordinary members to work hard, keep their heads down, and act like everything is okay. This role might sound familiar to people who grew up in dysfunctional families. The role for people who knew too much about the leadership's secrets was to be quiet about it and don't ask for too many extra favors in exchange for your silence. People who grew up with criminals might recognize the role.
In their book, The Addictive Organization,1 Anne Wilson Schaef and Diane Fassel outline ten dysfunctional processes that enable interpersonal abuse in closed systems. They are: the promise, the con, denial, dishonesty, perfectionism, confused communication processes, crisis, dualism, judgmentalism, and projection.
1. The Promise
To manipulate followers, abusive leaders make lofty promises. The promises keep members focused on their service, and helps them rationalize any doubts they may have. In a corporation, the promise may consist of power, profit, and growth. In cults, the promise is usually spiritual in nature: liberation, heaven on earth, everlasting life with God.
The organization I belonged to told us we would bring about an age of enlightenment, gain political power, establish our group as the one world religion, and ultimately, save the world. They even bought real estate in areas that would be less affected in a minor nuclear war so we could emerge once the radiation cleared.
2. The Con
The abusive organization is rarely able to fulfill its promises because the goals are usually exaggerated to the point of grandiosity. The only advantage of this grandiosity is it provides gross self-importance for the leaders. The grandiosity of the mission is a con that reassures members they are doing important work. No matter how poorly the organization performs, everything will keep going as long as the leaders keep the mission up on the altar and convince followers everything is on track. People are being conned because it is the promise of the mission that is exploited to cover up for shortcomings in the organization.
When there is evidence of the discrepancies between the stated and unstated goals, addicts and codependents enter a state of denial. Denial means they lose touch with their sense of morality and spirituality. In Alcoholics Anonymous they call it moral deterioration. Cults often have individuals or teams of individuals who go around helping other members to rationalize what's really happening.
In the group I was in, they called these people preachers. Preaching to someone usually meant quelling their doubts about the organization. If a particularly bad article came out in the news, the leaders would call everyone together and lay down the denials and rationalizations. Usually they said the reporters were snakes who wanted to defeat our expression of god.
Getting others to believe a denial ridden assessment is an example of dishonesty. Denial and dishonesty are central to the way controlling groups function. Once these traits are accepted as normal, the leaders draw members further and further into their lies.
My guru taught us to lie (other than at the airport) when we panhandled for the group. If someone asked us if we were Hare Krishnas, we were supposed to say, "No. No way!" If someone's willing to lie about that, what else will they lie about? In the 1970s-1980s, my ex-group was rife with drug smuggling operations manned with devotee labor. Low-level smugglers rationalized it saying it was temporary, and they would use the money for god to support a chosen project within the organization. Not all dysfunctional groups are that bad, but chaotic systems attract criminal elements.
Dishonesty is the result of perfectionism. The illusion that everything is perfect can only be maintained if conflicting information is suppressed. Cult leaders lie and get angry, even in inconsequential matters, since they want everything to appear perfect.
Members of perfectionist organizations understandably experience anxiety and pressure. However, they easily lose touch with what they feel because there is no place for expressing feelings. My guru acted controlling, but he must have felt completely out of control. His management style was to yell. He would fly into a rage at the slightest flaw or delay. You could hear him all the way down the block.
6. Confused Communication
One of the main features of dysfunctional families and groups is their faulty communication processes. Instead of direct and honest communication, information travels in the form of gossip and secrets. Our public relations office was the nexus of information for the worldwide organization, but my boss forbid me from talking about anything with anyone outside our department. Thus, I was forced to lead a double life.
Crisis is another characteristic of an authoritarian environment. When the system is confused, deceptive, and unable to deal with situations in a effective manner, the leaders allow every problem to continue to the point of crisis. Allowing a criminal culture to take root in a religious community may not seem like a crisis to short sighted leaders, but it will evolve into a crisis.
Codependent followers cover up for the failings of the leaders. Covering up makes things worse because people in a system like this operate under the illusion they can control the leaders. Cult leaders are by definition out of control, so a system like this usually ends in an impressive disaster.
Dualism, another aspect of cultish systems, causes members to think in terms of "us and them." This makes people more devoted to the group, and wary of outsiders. It serves the purpose of the cult leaders, because it simplifies all decisions. Doing what is right for the group is all members need to know.
Along with dualism comes judgmentalism, the air of moral superiority. People outside the group are not just different, they are judged bad and inferior. In my group, morning and evening classes in the temple were the main forum for spreading mistrust of the outside world. But it wasn't limited to inside the temple room. I recall times when one of the managers would stand around in front of the temple telling racist and misogynist jokes to groups of men.
Judgmentalism also goes on within the group, because cliques of members build walls between themselves and other factions of the same group. In our group, people from some centers shunned people from other centers, usually based on territorial wars. Once, when a rash of outright crime took place, the main part of the organization excommunicated a guru, his disciples, and his whole branch of the organization.
And finally, projection, denying something in yourself and seeing it outside instead. Cults typically accuse the rest of the world of being dishonest. It's usually the people in the cults who are dishonest, but they refuse to look at themselves.
At the outset of brief counseling, the therapist identifies the dysfunction and helps the person or people state their problems and a vision of how they would function if the problems were resolved. The therapist is like a mechanic who looks under the hood of a car to identify what is malfunctioning and fix it.
Brief therapy addresses the predictable problems in each stage of life. Most often, brief therapy is used for families raising children. A good example of brief therapy is the TV show, Super Nanny, with Jo Frost. She answers the call to a family in crisis, analyzes what's not working, then trains the parents to do things differently.
A brief therapist does the same thing: observes the family, then meets with key family members for a report. If the family members agree, then the therapist establishes a new schedule of activities with children and household rules. Once this is accomplished, therapy ends. It's called brief therapy because goals may be reached within a matter of only a few sessions. If new problems arise later, the family may choose to come back for another series of sessions.
Brief therapists are trained to identify the needs of various forms of families, such as single-parent families, blended families, and extended families. Modern family therapy is also effective in helping families deal with special issues, such as juvenile delinquency, abuse, alcoholism, and psychological disorders.
I also believe brief therapy could help people leaving cults. It would be especially helpful to a non-cult family who is taking in a young person who left a cult. Sometimes children are born into cults, or join very young. When they leave, it is often someone in the extended family who helps them get their lives back together.
If a non-cult family suddenly finds itself with a relative who has just severed ties with a cult, it would be wise to have an appointment with a counselor. The counselor would not try to analyze what made the person join the cult, or what exactly the family may have done to make the child join. Rather, the therapist would help establish boundaries and rules for living together. Ex-cult members often leave with eccentric dietary habits, or they may continue to practice the group's rituals. The counselor can help the family navigate these issues with open communication.
Life's Joy: Family and Friends
Some people who joined groups burned all bridges with their kin, only to find out too late they loved and needed those people. Rebuilding bridges can work if you put in the effort.
The family of origin connection might be a painful one if there was incest or child abuse. If that's the case, the family therapist will guide you to grow healthy new roots. Families of one's own choosing can be even more nurturing than families by birth. It takes time, but there's a potential to learn how to live well.
If reacquainting yourself with your family of origin feels positive, then exploring your genealogy might be an enriching experience. Remember not to judge your history, or feel offended or attached to it. Just learn from it.
People who join cults learn a whole new set of traditions. In the group I belonged to, they celebrated the gurus' birthdays, but not children's birthdays. Instead of Christmas, they had fundraising marathons at the airport and other venues. We had a whole calendar of Hindu holidays and each one came with its own traditions.
You can choose to leave your ex-group's traditions behind just as thoroughly as the group convinced you to leave your own family of origin traditions behind. Or, if you're not as bitter as all that, keep parts of the group's traditions you want to keep.
Suggestions to enrich your life: consciously gather traditions you find fulfilling. Let go of any traditions, memories, or objects that bring back distasteful emotions. Research your genealogy, or another subject that moves you, do creative work, get involved in a project to make a difference in an area you care about, change a bad habit, make an improvement in your lifestyle.
If you want to work out your own family or cult family issues, look for a counselor who practices family counseling. All clinical counselors have a chance to learn family counseling in school, and many use it in their practice.
If you want to find a systemic / brief family therapist, contact the Mental Research Institute (mri.org). A good series of workbooks for all stages of life are Systematic Training for Effective Parenting books, by Dinkmeyer and McKay. These days the bookstores are full of good family counseling and parenting books. You can usually find a book relevant to your needs, so go in and browse around.
The Twelve Steps
Controlling groups attract addictive and codependent members who share the traits of workaholics. Members work to blot out their feelings, they are perfectionists who push themselves too much, expect too much of themselves and others, and fall into patterns of self-denial for a cause. Often, group members carry unresolved emotions from childhood and shadow material for their families. They are often the mystical children who feel like they are from another world and easily become estranged. They may feel like the black sheep of the family. Unfortunately, due to lack of self-esteem, these special people are vulnerable to addictive behaviors, like joining cults.
The Addictive Organization, by Schaef and Fassel, explains that people who have addictive personalities may join undesirable organizations because they feel at home. They may enjoy taking part in the group's drama because it feels so familiar. Thus, the organization becomes the addictive substance.
Schaef and Fassel say the organization takes on a life of its own, exhibiting the characteristics of an addict: it acts dishonestly, operating solely out of self-interest, and treats people unfairly. Once the negative behaviors are institutionalized, they dictate the organization's behavior, even if there is a complete turnover of individuals. Thus, the organization itself is an addict.
People who want to break the cycle of addiction and codependence in their own lives may find help in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The first step is the most important:
1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Cult leaders easily dupe followers. Usually, their crimes revolve around emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, but they also commit financial and ethical abuses, and outright crime. A corrupt cult leader may start his own organization, or he may grab power after the death of a charismatic leader. In that case, the effects may be similar to office politics when abusive people are put in place after a hostile takeover. Or, the abuse can be due to complete incompetence. Usually, management-level personnel in cults have no education in business, and no experience handling power.
Dangerous cultic groups abuse members emotionally, physically, and spiritually. A 2015 documentary, Going Clear, by filmmaker Alex Gibney, exposes the physical and emotional abuse the Church of Scientology perpetrates on its members. Most of the violence goes on inside the inner circle, where they use corporal punishments and confinement to discipline adult members. Scientology's celebrities are exempt from violence, or having to live in the group's properties. Cultic groups give celebrities special treatment, since having endorsements from celebrities makes it easy to recruit new members.
Victims of abuse may punish themselves, and feel estranged from the rest of society. They may think everyone else is happy but them. They may become obsessive-compulsive, trying to do everything perfectly to atone to the world. Since they have trouble forming trusting relationships, they may go through life alone. Often, victims discover drugs and develop addictions to self-medicate their emotional pain.
Drug addiction is a curable medical and psychological problem. This book describes some of the best ways to treat an addiction. Locking someone in jail for addiction just adds to the addict's pain. The person may lose their job, friends, home, and other securities in life, making it even more difficult to get back on their feet. This is worst case scenario for the young adults who were raised in abusive groups.
The best possible attitude under abusive circumstances is to stridently believe the abuse is wrong. It's a realistic view that helps the victim recover after the abuse ends. Abuse is unethical. In many cases, it is also illegal.
Not all spanking is considered abuse, but in authoritarian systems it has the potential for abuse. Jan S. Hunt, M.Sc., founder of The Natural Child Project (naturalchild.org), lists ten good reasons not to hit children. She says hitting teaches children to solve their problems through violence. Children's misbehavior may be a result of having their basic needs neglected. Violence interrupts the child's ability to bond with the parents, and it creates angry teenagers. Murray Straus, a researcher in the field of child abuse, said ordinary spanking can and should be eliminated to produce healthier children.
Unfortunately, cultic groups have their own ideas about parenting, and much of it is dangerously backward. One Bible-based group I studied taught members to hit their infants when they tried to lift their heads up in the crib. The leaders believed children needed to be controlled like this from birth or they would grow up defiant. For newborn babies, they recommended a paper towel core; for older babies they recommended hitting with a wooden spoon hard enough to leave a mark. Along with sadistic punishments, some cults rape members' children. It is one of the most unfortunate things that can happen to a child.
One of the most extreme child abuse groups was the Children of God, which preached incest, adult sex with children. The group I was in abused children physically, sexually, and emotionally in the 1970s and 1980s at their boarding schools in America and India. There are other notorious gurus and groups that abused members and their children.
In healthy families, people cuddle their kids, put them up on their laps or shoulders, walk hand-in-hand with them, and hug them. In incestuous groups, everyone worries that touching children might lead to molesting them, and that all touching, even a casual slap on the back between same-aged friends, carries forbidden sexual innuendo. Over-paranoia about touching is a sure sign child abuse, or some sort of abuse, is taking place behind the scenes.
The most devastating effect of child sexual abuse is to force children to deal with unfair, complex emotional issues. Abused children may develop overwhelming emotional problems, including feelings of guilt, self-hatred, and broken trust. Abuse may lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Multiple Personality Disorder, now called Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).
Sooner or later, victims find out they were robbed of their childhood innocence, and it may never be returned. They feel grief and may feel like freaks. Susan Forward and Craig Buck, authors of Betrayal of Innocence, call this state of mind the "Three D's": Dirty, Damaged and Different.2
It is harder to recover from abuse if the it happened repeatedly, if the victim was trapped in the situation, if the perpetrator terrorized the victim, if others ignored or deny the victim's cries for help, and if the victim blamed him or herself for the abuse. Victims often hate the perpetrators and have fantasies of killing them. Counseling a victim into premature forgiveness excuses the perpetrator's behavior and minimizes what happened. There may come a time for forgiveness, but it certainly must be after the abuse has stopped, and preferably after the perpetrator has received consequences for his behavior.
Those who can afford therapy will benefit but the process takes years. The goal is to come to peace and rational acceptance of what happened, and let the emotional pain go. The first step toward healing is when the victim can tell their story. This requires a compassionate listener to hear the story. The listener just has to listen, feel empathy, and not judge or offer advice. In telling the story, the victim learns to forgive him or herself.
Profile of the Conspirators
The only way child abuse can continue is if it is cloaked in secrecy. To maintain secrets, the setting must be filled with conspirators. Conspirators may also be called codependent. They take on the perpetrator's problems as their own. Most often in an incestuous family, the mother consciously or unconsciously is in collusion with the perpetrator. She acts as a silent partner to the abuse, saying nothing.
In the case of an organization, the conspiracy is shared among a group of people, often the close circle around an abusive leader. The people who know what is going on hide it, to make the leader look like a respected man who would never do anything like that.
If abuse is revealed, witnesses may go into denial. They may forgive the perpetrator, the institution, and themselves quite easily, believing forgiveness will heal everything. Instead of healing, these people leave the door open for more abuse. It takes courage to confront abuse. It is easier to deny or minimize what happened.
The silent partner, such as the wife of a pedophile, is often passive, dependent, and infantile in relation to authority figures. She may mean well, but feels overwhelmed with her own conflicts and problems. Losing the marriage (or group) my seem worse than tolerating abuse. She may have knowledge the perpetrator was abused in childhood and not want to hurt him further. Or she may have been an abuse victim herself. Or the abuser might also abuse her. Tolerating the abuse may be a continuation of her own childhood. Conspirators are emotionally unavailable to help the people under their care. A mother or guardian may subtly communicate that she is helpless, so instead of expecting help, the children try to protect her.
The real work of the codependents involves withholding information that would upset the family or organization. They might think their silence is the best way to preserve the peace. Instead of standing up for children, they stay out of it because they are addicted to pleasing authority figures. The worst thing about codependency is it allows psychopaths to rise to the top of a system. When dishonest men can get other people to act nice and help them save face, they take it as a green light to get away with abuse. Ironically, it's just what cult leaders want, too. Thus, innocent people who try to keep things quiet act in harmony with cult leaders and other dishonest people to perpetuate abuse.
Profile of Child Abusers
Child abusers strive to enter the institutional hierarchy, because they can hide their crimes more easily if people see them as leaders. Once in power, they elevate men like themselves into positions of authority. There are two main categories of pedophiles. The worst are the fixated pedophiles. This means they became stuck at a certain level of development, usually due to being molested. They grow older in years but remain emotional children who relate to children of their emotional age for sex, and must use deceptive means to get it.
The other type of pedophile is the situational pedophile, which means they abuse during periods of mental illness, alcohol abuse, or extreme stress. Situational abusers may only abuse one time, then wake up to how destructive it was, and cease that behavior. Fixated pedophiles are impossible to cure once they pass the age of eighteen. My master's thesis is on whether to use creative art therapy with juvenile sex offenders. The statistics I gathered show counselors from a psychology background would use art therapy, like the four phase treatment program outlined in my thesis. The counselors from a social work background preferred harsher methods for juveniles. This is not true of all social workers, but it showed in the sample I interviewed.
How Child Abuse (Finally) Came Out in the Open
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Austrian doctor Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) invented psychoanalysis. He studied hypnotism, a common method to treat hysterical patients at the time. He began to notice how patients improved simply from talking about their problems. From this discovery, he formulated his practice of free association, in which the patient reclines on a couch and attempts to recall significant episodes from childhood, thus recognizing and releasing trapped emotions.
Freud's patients described episodes of childhood incest while under hypnosis, but Freud could not accept it. He lived in an era dominated by the Fourth Commandment ("Honor thy mother and father"), so he could not accuse parents of raping their children. In her book, Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society's Betrayal of the Child, Swiss psychologist Alice Miller explains:
Most of these refined people were firmly convinced from an early age that only fine, noble, valiant, and edifying deeds (subjects) ought to be talked about publicly and what they as adults did behind closed doors in their elegant bedrooms definitely had no place in print. Satisfying sexual desires with children was nothing bad in their eyes as long as silence was preserved, for they were convinced no harm would be done to the children unless the matter was discussed with them. The acts they performed were shrouded in silence, as if children were dolls, for they firmly believed a doll would never know or tell what had been done to it.3
The indignation would not have been directed against this form of child abuse per se, but against the man who dared to speak about it. . . . Since that kind of freedom was totally impossible at the time, perhaps Freud had no choice but to interpret what his patients told him as fantasies and to construct a theory that could spare adults from reproach and would allow him to trace his patients' symptoms back to the repression of their own infantile sexual wishes.4
There are countless other ways children can be mistreated and at the same time deprived of their voice and awareness. But sexual abuse, with its role in the formation of psychic disturbances, needs our special attention because it has been silenced, ignored, or denied for so long.5
Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), a Swiss analytical psychologist, was an influential teacher in the twentieth century. He focused on story and personal symbols as powerful healing tools. He said symbols connected people with their inner self, because symbols speak for the higher transpersonal Self (he spelled with a capital S). He said all our answers lie in the depths of our own soul, and getting in touch with that gives life meaning. He called this Depth Psychology.
Some people regard Jung as a prophet and his Depth Psychology as a new religious experience. A teacher and colleague of mine, Radmila Moacanin, wrote a book comparing Jungian psychology to Tibetan Buddhism.6 After it came out in 1986, the Dalai Lama called on Dr. Moacanin to come and speak with him and teach him Jungian psychology. There are even some who called Jung a cult leader, or worse. But many of his theories, including the idea of Depth Psychology, actually came from predecessors like Sigmund Freud.
Jung was a generation younger than Freud, and became his student in 1909. The two were on good terms until Jung published his Psychology of the Unconscious in 1912, revealing the areas where he disagreed with Freud. Jung said there was more to the unconscious than sexual guilt. Modern Freudians (neo-Freudians) now side with Jung on this point.
Jung expanded Freud's notion of the unconscious to include what he called the collective unconscious, made up of universal elements of human experience. According to Jung, humankind shares a common and inborn unconscious life. He believed we connect with the collective unconscious through dreams, fantasies, cultural stories, and myth. He believed stories hold the keys to our own complexes and usher us into the future.
The break with Freud led to a long period of soul-searching, which Jung described in his book, Memories, Dreams and Reflections (1963). During this time, Jung developed the basic platform of what we consider modern psychology: people have inner archetypes in their personalities that include the shadow, the anima and animus (inner female and male), and people project their inner conflicts on to the world. While Freud said patients had to go through years of analysis reviewing their memories, Jung focused on creating inner unity through integrating the dark and the light.
Stories Clarify Psychological States
Freud tried to compartmentalize all human psychology into the Oedipus story and a few other Greek myths. Jung opened himself up to the unfolding new age to explore all myths, all traditions, and all kinds of symbols. Jung believed the language of symbols is universal. Symbols transmit images from the subconscious, or the collective unconscious. They may originate in the Egyptian, Greek, Hindu, Buddhist, Judeo-Christian, indigenous, pagan, any tradition, any country, any era of history, or from contemporary culture. In the same way, story transcends cultural boundaries. Mythic-level stories speak in symbols, much like dreams. Symbols call forth images from our souls, our connection to the collective unconscious. Symbols are the secret language of the subconscious mind.
Jung brought symbols to our attention in his mid-century book, Man and His Symbols (1964). Through the alchemy of love and self-understanding we may embody elements of the unconscious and become whole. Jung said healing personal and social fragmentation is essential for humankind to achieve a better degree of civilization. Self-control is a rare and remarkable virtue, according to Jung, which comes from befriending ourselves.
Our own dreams are a type of story that mean something to us. However, it is difficult to understand the symbolic language or even to remember the symbols when we awaken. Like dreams, stories have a message for us. But most people think dreams are nonsense and ignore them. Many people think the same way about stories. Stories are all around us, but we are not trained to find how they can heal us.
It is said there are only seven basic stories of humankind, just told in new ways. They are: overcoming a monster or adversary; disadvantaged to successful; the hero's quest; an individual's or family's saga; comedy; tragedy; and rebirth. Some scholars say our plots have died. After all, movies these days often seem just a series of explosions, chase scenes, gratuitous sex and violence, with little or no plot. Should we grieve for the culture because it has lost its connection to story?
Without a fulfilling narrative to comfort us, we may feel doomed to live in a world that operates against us and beyond our comprehension. The Old Testament Book of Job addresses this dilemma. The Lord permits Satan to test Job's will. Satan wants to find out if Job will repudiate God, so he takes away Job's wealth, then his children, and finally Job is afflicted with boils. His wife advises him to "curse God and die" (Job 2:9) but Job abides and his faith is his reward.
Jungian Definition of "Myth"
When Jung used the word myth, he was referring to archetypal patterns manifest in stories. However, myth acquired a negative connotation in the third century A.D. when church fathers tried to stamp out common people's faith in Greek and pagan gods. In the twentieth century however, Carl Jung revived the word and attempted to restore its original meaning. Following in Jung's footsteps, writer Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) has probably done more than anyone to elevate the place of myth in modern society.
Myths are eternal truths put into stories. Rollo May, one of the founders of humanism and author of The Cry for Myth, said, "There can be no stronger proof of the impoverishment of our contemporary culture than the popular—though profoundly mistaken—definition of myth as falsehood." He explained myths are "like the beams in a house: not exposed to outside view, they are the structure which holds the house together so people can live in it."7
The stories we hear and choose to repeat are key to what is taking place in our collective psyche. A fictional story can be true, because its truth is expressed through symbols. On the other hand, true stories sometimes speak more profoundly through forms that resemble fiction. This is the case of most scriptures, which people may interpret literally or metaphorically. Scriptural truths transcend fiction or non-fiction categories.
Stories that makes sense of our situation become like folders to safely store our doubts and fears. The lessons hidden in the story are like candles, shining light in the dark. Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, stories say a thousand things in a few simple paragraphs. We all know the myth of Sisyphus, who is cursed by Zeus to eternally push a rock up a hill, only to have it roll down again. The myth is still potent because we all have days or time frames like Sisyphus. If an old story ceases to have meaning, it will fade into oblivion.
Our most well-known religious figures, Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, and Mohammed, are true in an archeological, historical sense. However, they are even more true in the realm of myth, because people over several millennia have found truth in the stories. If we are followers of the Christian faith, we may turn to Jesus, or the story of Jesus, for comfort. He was martyred, so we have his story to think of to help us through times when we feel persecuted or lost.
The Greek and Hindu myths tell stories of gods who become arrogant and commit crimes like murder, rape, and theft. Yet they are respected gods who live on a higher level and with more dignity than us. They take their punishments, and their stories provide lessons for humankind. Myth introduces us to the gods to elevate our consciousness. Whether we were made in the gods' images, or the other way around, there is much to learn from their stories.
Our relationship to the gods reflects our relationship to leaders of our society. Is it merely coincidence our earthly gods (politicians, celebrities, aristocrats) become arrogant and do cruel things? Even with all their shortcomings, we often naively support them. The pattern of submission to authority is repeated in religion, government, business, and families.
The Post-Modern Hero
Perhaps modern movies have a significant central plot. The plot mirrors something in us, because just look at the large audiences. I believe these movies address the archetypal theme of the hero. Instead of fighting dragons or riding his horse across the Western terrain, the modern hero fights his way through futuristic urban jungles. He struggles bravely, just as all heroes do, but his obstacles are alienation, pollution, political tyranny, moral corruption, over industrialization, and global culture war. His mission is often to hunt down the source of the hypocrisy.
They say all science fiction is about the author's contemporary culture. Science fiction authors disguise their stories as futuristic, which helps readers get over disbelief and accept the scenario. The book 1984 was George Orwell's comment on the Big Brother of 1949, when he published it. The movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Stanley Kubrick (and Arthur C. Clarke), was about emerging computer technology in 1968.
In the movie Bladerunner, Harrison Ford was a cop searching for androids in a dark and depressing futuristic Los Angeles. When it came out in 1982, everyone agreed it was a comment on current day Los Angeles. Same for Escape from New York (1997). The Matrix is another post-apocalyptic series with lots of gunfire and chase scenes.
Often when it seems like there is no plot to a movie, that just indicates how close to home the plot is for us. We are Job. We are Sisyphus. We are post-apocalyptic cowboys. The new hero films often have daring heroines who participate in the action, mirroring modern attitudes of women's place in society.
Looking for a story to express our deep feelings is a way to find wholeness and identity. Usually we are attracted to stories that reflect our own story or touch us in some way. Why did so many teenage girls love the 1997 movie Titanic? Partly because it spoke of the different stages of being a woman. We first meet the heroine Rose DeWitt Bukater when she is one hundred years old (played by Gloria Stuart), then we learn the tragic love story of her early life (played by Kate Winslet).
Treasure hunter Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) wants the valuable blue diamond that may still be lost in the wreck of the Titanic, but at the end of the movie, we discover Rose has had it all along. She drops it into the ocean, an act reeking of symbolism—a clear illustration of the sacredness of her love. These archetypal elements were expertly woven into the special effects. Symbols are powerful, which explains why watching a movie may make you feel better.
Myths are all around us, but if we ignore them and never learn to connect, it is our own loss. The goal of Depth Psychology is to turn the past into a sacred treasure. Learning to love stories and know our own story is a big step in the path of transformation from fragmentation to wholeness. Loving, accepting, and reclaiming our whole self, including our past, is a theme in most genuine forms of therapy and religion.
Throughout history, religious organizations have told people how to believe, but Carl Jung, through his own soul-searching, concluded the divine manifests to each individual in a different way. In his clinical practice, he helped his patients recognize the personal symbols in their dreams, synchronicities, and other sources, to help them connect with the divine in a meaningful, personal way
Jung used the word "numinous" to describe the experience. Originally coined by Rudolf Otto, a writer who had a great influence on Jung, the word comes from the Latin root numen, meaning god, and verb nuere, literally to nod or beckon. The word describes an experience in which God himself reaches out to acknowledge us and tell us of His presence. According to Jung (and Otto), this religious experience is the essence of holiness, which is felt as inexpressible, irreducible, and undeniable. The numinosum, the subject of the experience, feels like it comes from outside the self, an experience of the divine Other.
In his book, Religious Function of the Psyche, Lionel Corbett said the numinosum may appear radiant, pure, and glorious, or it may appear with grisly, overpowering, profane horror. Corbett explains,
According to Otto, another element of this experience is its quality of "absolute overpoweringness" so the creature in relation to it feels extremely small, or experiences religious humility.8
Hence, numinous experiences may generate fear, which in the presence of a fragile self can be massive enough to require defensive maneuvers or precipitate psychosis. This is so because numinous experience is precisely relevant to our pathology, our self-object [developmental] needs and our areas of woundedness. These are just the places the numinosum tries to enter the personality for the purposes of restructuring and healing.9
Art Therapy and Gestalt
Creative art therapy has its roots in the psychoanalytic teachings of Sigmund Freud, discussed earlier. Freud was the first Western doctor to attribute psychological significance to the content of dreams, fantasies, and other creative expressions. Freud paved the way for modern psychology to interpret symbols, but he was stuck in a narrow interpretation that all symbols point to sexual guilt. Thankfully, Carl Jung and other modern psychologists moved our understanding of symbols forward.
As my teacher Janie Rhyne (1913-1995), author of The Gestalt Art Experience, explained: "I am not intimidated by sexual problems in the art forms; I just find it a bit absurd to go snooping around for covert sexual symbols when overt ones are so fully displayed."10
Thanks to the groundwork Freud laid, therapists in the early decades of the twentieth century accepted art symbols to be revealing of emotion. Then in the 1940s, art therapy emerged as a therapeutic modality. One of the first practitioners, Margaret Naumburg, relied heavily on psychoanalytic theory and practice. She would ask clients to draw spontaneously and then interpret their pictures through free association. Since that time, practically every branch of psychology has found applications for artwork in therapy.
Art therapy gives the client a holistic medium of communication. Instead of struggling to put feelings into a linear format of one word after another, clients can spill out all their feelings simultaneously without worrying about grammar, syntax, or logic. Art is spatial; there is no time element, much closer to the way the mind works.
Another advantage of art therapy is it leaves the client with a tangible product. The art piece becomes a visible record of the therapy. An art object may also create a bridge for a resistant client to contact his or her inner self. This process is called objectification because the client's feelings are externalized in a drawing, collage, or object. Expressing the feelings in this way, the client can recognize and integrate the feelings more easily.
Having an art object that embodies the emotions adds another dimension to therapy. Besides the relationship between two people (or between people in a group), there is the relationship to the art product. Further, since the art product is an expression of the client's self, the therapist's respect for the object will move the client to deeper self-acceptance.
Art therapy is fundamentally a process of adding meaning to one's life. All artists experience a type of spontaneous therapy when they create. Artists' creations are personal, but profoundly touching to many people besides the artist. The creative process taps layers of the collective unconscious.
In Gestalt art therapy, which is what I learned, the client is ultimately responsible for interpreting his or her own artwork. The therapist does not impose a meaning on the client's piece, but rather listens to what the client says about it, then reflects this back to the client. Symbols are a language, but not a ready made language. Rather, symbols lead us into a process of understanding.
My teacher, Dr. Rhyne brought art therapy into Gestalt. To Dr. Rhyne, the art piece does not represent something in the person, it represents the whole person. In her workshops, Dr. Rhyne does not lecture. She opens the class with directions for the art exercise and then facilitates the sharing of the resulting artwork.
Dr. Frederick S. Perls is the father of contemporary Gestalt therapy, which he developed in the mid-twentieth century. Perls followed Jung in his belief that all parts of the dream represent the dreamer. Instead of rejecting frightening dream images, Perls (like Jung) believed all the parts need to be integrated.
Perls directed hundreds of training sessions in which individuals took what he dubbed the hot seat to explore their dreams. Perls said to become a unified person, we need to put the different fragments of the dream together. We have to re-own these projected, fragmented parts of our personality, and re-own the hidden potential that appears in the dream.
Actually, though, Gestalt was not a new thing. The ideas were already circulating in Germany before Perls came on the scene. Further, both Perls and Jung freely borrowed from the Buddhist tradition. Here Perls explains:
We can reassimilate, we can take back our projections, by projecting ourselves completely into the other thing or person. What is pathological is always the part-projection. Total projection is called artistic experience, and this total projection is an identification with the thing in question. I give you one idea, for instance. In Zen, you are not allowed to paint a single branch until you have become the branch.11
Sometimes I prefer Zen even if it does take twenty years. I'm not sure that Gestalt doesn't take twenty years to reach the same place.12
When I am at my best, there is no therapist. I don't know anything and don't know what I'm doing. At such times, I am "amazing" to others, "have my own style" and I am delighted with what happens.13
What I learned this morning from the group is so much that I would have to be nuts to try to write it. I wouldn't have time for anything else.14
What is Gestalt? When I didn't know, I couldn't tell you, and now that I know, I can't tell you.15
I know that the state I am enjoying now (not high, not low) may not last. It may "go away" any moment—or tomorrow. But now, I have just finished "doing" the dishes. I didn't do them. They did themselves with me and I enjoyed the water, the suds, the plates, and pots, and washing the beet spots off the stove was like a miracle: they're there—they're not. Movement of body. All senses sensing.16
These attitudes are based upon a philosophy of human relationships which stresses the importance of the individual as a capable, dependable human being who can be entrusted with the responsibility for himself.17
1. The therapist must develop a warm, friendly relationship with the child, in which good rapport is established as soon as possible.
2. The therapist accepts the child exactly as he is.
3. The therapist establishes a feeling of permissiveness in the relationship so that the child feels free to express his feelings completely.
4. The therapist is alert to recognize the feelings the child is expressing and reflects those feelings back to him in such a manner that he gains insight into his behavior.
5. The therapist maintains a deep respect for the child's ability to solve his own problems if given an opportunity to do so. The responsibility to make choices and to institute change is the child's.
6. The therapist does not attempt to direct the child's actions or conversation in any manner. The child leads the way; the therapist follows.
7. The therapist does not attempt to hurry the therapy along. It is a gradual process and is recognized as such by the therapist.
8. The therapist establishes only those limitations that are necessary to anchor the therapy to the world of reality and to make the child aware of his responsibility in the relationship.
Make a life map. Using pencils, pens, pastels, or paint, draw a timeline and mark the major events and turning points in your life leading up to where you are now. You may make it look like a road, a clock, or just a straight line. Another way to do it is with collage. Cut out pictures that symbolize the important events and add them to the timeline. Another variation with collage is to make a map of your life that also uses headlines and words.
Make another timeline, limited to one aspect of your life, such as your history with your family, with sex, with religion, or another major issue. Do another life map, but instead of a line, make it a house, a landscape, or abstract design. Do another life map, but only of what your future will be like. Do a life map that freezes one moment in time. Draw a cartoon to represent your life and draw bubbles to write in what the characters in the drawing might say.
More visual art projects: draw a picture to show your good side and shadow side, or your past, present, and future. Make a pamphlet about yourself, including all the details you want other people to know about you. Make a mask to show your inner self, or some aspect of yourself that you want to integrate. Put it on and let it talk. Draw a picture to represent a problem you are working on. Draw a picture to reflect your present mood. Date it and start a journal of "present mood" drawings.
Telling stories: Choose several cards from a deck of tarot cards and weave them into a story. You may make up a story, trusting it will mirror something deep inside. Also, you may use the cards to illustrate a story you have wanted to tell. Or, if you have a story in your mind (without using the cards), just write it down.
Mind-Body Healing for Post-Cult Blues
Moods of depression might feel like they're in the mind, but they're often rooted in the body. You have to admit, sitting around in a stuffy room all day might make you feel depressed. If you drink some fresh spring water, go out for a brisk walk, then eat a nourishing meal, the depression will fade. This happens because sitting still too long slows down your metabolism. Combine a sedentary lifestyle with poor nutrition, and you could even get clinical depression.
In our quick-fix, fast-paced society, doctors have gone overboard prescribing mood pills. The pills may relieve symptoms, and in some cases a pill may be the best solution. However, for most people, depression is a warning sign to tell us something is out of balance. It could be a negative attitude, or the consequence of procrastinating a challenging situation.
When we finally stand up to the attitude and change it, or stand up to the situation and go through it, depression falls away. It is nature's way we must first feel the depression to motivate us to make necessary changes. Another possible cause of depression is the need to grieve a loss. In this case, depression is natural and will go away on its own. Leaving a cult causes much grief, so if you feel depressed, recognize what you've lost and take steps to consciously let go.
The field of cognitive psychology started in the mid-twentieth century to help people improve their lives by improving their inner landscape. Most of us simply accept our inner state, for it is all we know. But if life seems depressing, realigning cognitive habits is a good place to start. It is true, the negative thoughts we allow to set in may actually harm us. Common sense tells us what we hold in our head will show in our eyes, on our face, in our posture, and eventually in our words and actions.
Once you learn about it, it's easy to fix negative thought processes. The first method is common sense. Watch the mind as it goes through its daily thoughts. Consider keeping a journal for a few days to chronicle the journeys your mind takes. It will be easier for people who have learned to meditate. This is the whole idea behind meditation. The goal is to make friends with your mind and get it to work according to your desires.
Dr. Arnold Mindell is a psychotherapist, analyst and teacher at the Jungian Institute in Zurich, Switzerland. He studies the phenomenon of communicating unconscious material through bodily gestures and symptoms. In his clinical practice, he leads his patients to amplify the symbols and act them out. He calls the body a "dream trying to happen," or "dreambody." He believes disease symptoms speak in the same language as dreams and myth. Mindell's books are a good resource if you have chronic pain or other health concerns, or if you suspect your body is trying to tell you something. To look up dreambody symbols, start with Heal Your Body, by Louise Hay.
The Power of Words
Talking or writing about your feelings is another way to heal. Regular talk therapy helps, and signing up for a creative writing class, or journaling on your own can also help. When you journal, you can dump out whatever is in your mind to create space in there for something new. Talking to a therapist works on a similar principle, but you have the advantage of the therapist's input. A good counselor will point out flaws in your logic, and teach you more productive ways to process information. Creative writing teaches you how to turn your bad experiences into something valuable.
Affirmations, phrases that invoke positive energy, are another way to use words to heal depression. They give us a new way to see our problems. Instead of feeling helpless, an affirmation declares how you want a situation to be. Like a computer, the mind will try to manifest whatever information you feed it. If the mind is saying no to your healing, simply thank it for its concerns and continue to feed it yes. One positive thought cancels a hundred negative thoughts.
The words you use in an affirmation are extremely important. Always use positive words. Never say not in an affirmation. If you are frightened of something and affirm "I am not frightened," your mind may only hear the word frightened, and you will remain stuck. But if you say, "I am brave, I have courage, I am strong," your mind will register the new positive words.
A less effective affirmation for ex-members would be, "I renounce my ex-group and would never go back." All your mind might hear is "go back." A more effective affirmation would be: "I love my freedom. I'm the leader of my own life. I love my life."
You can write your own affirmations or get a book of affirmations. Florence Scovell Shinn and Louise Hay are my favorites, but there are hundreds of good books on affirmations. My teacher was Jeannie Marshall, author of Affirmations: A Pathway to Transformation (1996). If you find an affirmation you like, write it down and post it somewhere you will see it. File affirmations into your things to do pile, use them as bookmarks, and keep them around.
Listening to positive thinking CDs is accelerated learning that can reprogram your subconscious mind. When I was getting ready to leave the temple in 1988, I visited the local independent bookstore, the Bodhi Tree. That was when I first found the tapes of Dick Sutphen. I knew I would be sad to lose all my friends and routines, so I brought home Sutphen tapes with titles like, "Feel Secure Now," and "Happiness and Satisfaction." Not only did I not miss the temple, I believe my years of listening to Sutphen tapes and a few other favorites account for my underlying positive attitude.
Another option is to seek a hypnotherapist who will make a custom hypnosis tape and work with you to absorb the positive programming. Hypnotherapy is effective for overcoming bad habits and insecurity.
Another helpful tool for addressing depression is biofeedback. A professional biofeedback therapist hooks patients up to a computer that registers brain waves. The therapist trains patients to recognize when they are in the midst of the troubling thought processes. In the course of treatment the patient learns to completely change cognitive habits for the better. This is most commonly used as an alternative to medication for hyperactive children.
Rational Emotive Therapy
One author who presents the ultimate method to conquer the mind is Albert Ellis, Ph.D., who taught us to recognize and reject irrational beliefs. His solution is to train the mind to dispute irrational thoughts and disarm them. In his book, How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything—Yes Anything!, he said:
If you are anxious, ashamed, depressed, or enraged about your practical problems or if you are phobic, indecisive, or compulsive about making decisions, look for your dogmatic demands—for your shoulds, oughts, and musts and for your awfulizing, self-downing, and I-can't-stand-it-itis that accompany them.19
Too bad! I certainly behaved poorly this time. But it hardly makes me a stupid or incompetent person. Just someone who needlessly did myself in. Now . . . I am determined to do the best I can, and to be as effective and as happy as I can be.20
HONEYSUCKLE is for people who live in the past. They are nostalgic and often home sick. They lack the ability to change the present because they are constantly looking at the past, usually out of a sense of fear.
MUSTARD is the remedy for dark mental clouds that descend and make one sad, seemingly for no reason.
We cannot know for sure what is waiting for us on the other side in dreams or death, or even know for sure if there is another side. The feeling I get is if there is, it is much like what we have here, but better. Maybe it is ideal, as the Classical Greek philosopher Plato said. Platonic realism states that we all know what the world would be like if it was perfect, so therefore a perfect world exists on some level. Or, maybe the soul ends with death and that's all. But none of us can say for sure; the other side and death will always remain a riddle to those who are living.
These questions of being have bothered me all my life, and many of us who ended up in cults got there because we were looking for answers to questions on the meaning of life. We may have thought we found answers inside a group, but leaving the group, we have serious decisions to make. Do we throw away everything we learned and start over? Or do we keep parts of what we found?
This all depends on what the group offered and whether we were abused. Maybe we were on the right general track when we joined our groups and our heart calls out to explore that religion or philosophical thread in a safer context. It is possible we learned at least some valuable teachings to cope with life. If parts of the teachings help us, then it may be a mistake to discard everything too hastily.
If your group twisted the philosophy, you can always untwist it. It is like repairing a totaled car. If you like it, you can fix it up and keep it. However, due to levels of abuse in cults, ex-members may leave with a bitter taste. If the car is totaled, you may just want to junk it. I have spoken to people who were abused in guru groups, who want nothing to do with anything from any Eastern traditions.
If you do not want anymore of what the group taught, do not force your-self. Once you are out, you are free of the group's rules. Now you can listen to your own feelings, since you yourself will be your most reliable guide. Nobody else can tell you what religious beliefs to hold, nor can anybody set up a timetable to tell you when you should be healed, or when you should be ready for more god.
Know Your Limits
For some ex-members, going near the group, seeing the group's symbols, or running into current members may be triggers. A trigger is something that keys an individual back into the negative experience. A trigger may cause painful flashbacks or panic attacks. A symbol that looks beautiful to one person could be terrifying and repulsive to someone else. Burning incense or removing shoes to go indoors could be disturbing if they made a big deal about it in the group.
Triggers can also be words. Cults have their own vocabularies, so any cult-speak might bring back unpleasant memories. The worst thing for me was to hear cult lingo coming from my own mouth once again, under the influence of being around current members of my ex-group.
Most ex-cult members simply avoid triggers, because it takes years of therapy to process them so they are no longer annoying and scary. One way to get over a trigger is to desensitize yourself to it. An ancient Zen koan by Linji said, "If you meet the Buddha, kill him." After leaving our groups, we may have to metaphorically kill the Buddha a couple of times, or hundreds of times, depending on how bad it was.
When I first got out, I purposely wore my shoes in the house and slept in until noon. In the group, I was up at 4 a.m. every morning for ten years. They had a 4:30 a.m. service in the temple, which I attended every morning when I was a member. After making up for my sleep deficit for about fifteen years, I started to wake up automatically at six or seven a.m. feeling happy, and not resentful.
We may have had to fight many ghosts of the group since leaving. It is perfectly understandable. If our spiritual connection is like a little boat on the rough ocean of life, we may have to paddle backwards for a long time until we find our way back to a healthy spiritual course.
Religion must be heartfelt, or we will just get hurt again. After going through one group experience and being disappointed, our need for spiritual progress may still be so strong we fall into another situation with false gurus. That is one reason why ex-members may benefit from a moratorium, or complete suspension on joining any groups. Once escaping the psychological bonds of the first bad group, an ex-member may decide once and for all to be the captain of his or her own ship.
Perhaps the best path is to glean what we like from a variety of teachings. In the organization I was in, preachers warned us against treating religion like we were in a cafeteria. They said we could not pick and choose what we wanted, but why not? Obviously, they wanted us to dedicate ourselves fundamentally to the group and not stray away. Totalistic groups need captive members, but now that we are out, we are free to choose our beliefs from the great cafeteria of life. There is a lot of knowledge out there, so now that we are on our own, why shut ourselves off from anything that is freely available?
Take a Principled Stand
More than ever, cynics declare it is god and religion that have wrecked the world. They blame war on god, since people become divided over god, and soldiers are supposed to think god is on their side and against their enemies. It's really just the fundamentalists of each religion who do the most damage. Moderates consider religion a part of their lives, not the sole focus.
Instead of fighting over whose god is better, we could all just relax and accept each other as we are. It's not the lack of religion, but the lack of sleep that may be at the root of today's ills. Lack of sleep can make us anxious, making us react to crises that do not exist. Dream reality theory states that life is a dream. If so, and we sleep well, we feel better. If life is more concrete than just a dream, sleeping will still make us feel better. There's no need to fight over what other people believe.
Everyone is different, and we ought to learn to respect other people's decisions and pay more attention to how we make our own decisions. If people could be just ten percent more tolerant, then there is a chance everyone would feel nurtured and supported in their search for truth. If society changed to be more accepting, then nobody would have to drop out and join a cult just to find their own spirituality.
Cult Proof Your Kids
I encourage parents to have heart to heart talks with their children on the subject of religion. This is especially true if the parents are non-religious. If it turns out the children have no specific needs in the area, at least it will show them you are open to a dialogue.
Some children have spiritual needs not met in their childhood. Parents of intuitive, sensitive, empathic children might introduce their kids to a variety of religions and talk to them about their experiences.
I warn heavily religious families to beware of overburdening their children with indoctrination. When they get older, they could feel resentful and turn away from the family religion. In their retreat from the family religion, children could end up in dangerous organizations. Openness on the subject will help inoculate your child and pass along your values.
If we are in spiritual turmoil over what to believe, we could just let it go for a time and trust the answers will come to us eventually. I imagine life's secrets lie in forgiveness and kindness, but everyone sees a different aspect of the whole. We each must come to our own understanding of life and our own system of reckoning with the situations life presents. Some of us are learning about forgiveness, while others are learning how to protect themselves; some are learning about giving, while others are learning how to receive.
The meaning of life may become completely clear in times of grief. There's an old song by Joni Mitchell that says we don't know what we've got till it's gone. Something meaningful might be right in front of us, but we don't see till it's gone. Usually, our real spiritual beliefs tend to crystalize later in life, if we are fortunate enough to live a long life. After leaving a group, take some time to unravel the mysteries and let the world reveal itself to you gradually. Live your life in the moment, whether alone or with friends, wherever you are, and whatever you're going through.
We may never know the answers to all of life's mysteries, but talking about it with family and with close friends will make us realize we are not alone. Many people struggle with these questions at some time in life. We can listen to other people's ideas and make up our own minds. You don't have to think the same way as others. Our inner doubts are nothing to be ashamed of, and change over time. Airing our thoughts with a philosophical friend once in a while is good fun.
Maybe life is like one of those mirrored dressing rooms, where you see thousands of figures, all reflections of yourself. If all of what we see is in some way a reflection of our own self, then we need to find in ourselves what the truth is. While we are on this side of the mirror we act in the fog of the moment. We do stupid things we would do over if we could. If all of humankind is included in this reflection, then we are all in this life together. All we have to do is treat others the way we would like to be treated and learn to make the best of it.
1. The Addictive Organization: Why We Overwork, Cover Up, Pick Up the Pieces, Please the Boss and Perpetuate Sick Organizations, by Anne Wilson Schaef and Diane Fassel (1990). See also: The International Society for Krishna Consciousness as an Addictive Organization, by Nori J. Muster, 1990.
2. Betrayal of Innocence: Incest and Its Devastation, by Susan Forward and Craig Buck (1988), p. 23.
3. Thou Shalt Not Be Aware Society's Betrayal of the Child, by Alice Miller (1990), p. 117.
4. Ibid, p. 117, p. 113.
5. Breaking Down the Wall of Silence: The Liberating Experiencing of Facing Painful Truth, by Alice Miller, p. 115.
6. Jung's Psychology and Tibetan Buddhism, by Radmila Moacanin.
7. The Cry for Myth, by Rollo May (1991), p. 23.
8. The Religious Function of the Psyche, by Lionel Corbett (1996), p. 12.
9. Ibid., p. 30.
10. The Gestalt Art Experience: Creative Process & Expressive Therapy, by Janie Rhyne (1984), p. 82.
11. Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, by Frederick S. Perls (1969), p. 67.
12. Don't Push the River (it flows by itself), by Barry Stevens (1970), p. 9
13. Ibid., p. 35
14. Ibid., p. 113
15. Ibid., p. 127.
16. Ibid., p. 143
17. Play Therapy, by Virginia M. Axline (1947), p. 62.
18. Ibid., pp. 73-74.
19. How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything—Yes Anything!, by Albert Ellis (1990), p. 172.
20. Ibid., p. 168.
Axline, Virginia M. Play Therapy, 1947.
Corbett, Lionel. The Religious Function of the Psyche, 1996.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, Ph.D. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, 1990.
Dinkmeyer, Don & McKay, Gary D. Systematic Training for Effective Parenting series includes The Parents' Handbook, Parenting Teenagers, Parenting Young children, and other editions.
Ellis, Albert & Grad Powers, Marcia. The Secret of Overcoming Verbal Abuse: Getting Off the Emotional Roller Coaster and Regaining Control of Your Life, 2000.
Ellis, Albert. How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything—Yes Anything!, 1990.
Forward, Susan & Buck, Craig. Betrayal of Innocence: Incest and Its Devastation, 1988.
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Miller, Alice. Breaking Down the Wall of Silence: The Liberating Experiencing of Facing Painful Truth, 1997.
Miller, Alice. Thou Shalt Not Be Aware Society's Betrayal of the Child, 1990.
Moacanin, Radmila, Ph.D. Jung's Psychology and Tibetan Buddhism: Western and Eastern Paths to the Heart, 1986.
Muster, Nori J. Betrayal of the Spirit: My Life behind the Headlines of the Hare Krishna Movement, 1997.
Muster, Nori J. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness as an Addictive Organization, 1990; updated and published at surrealist.org/betrayalofthespirit/addict.html
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About the Author
Nori Muster has been writing for publication since 1980 and holds a master's degree from Western Oregon University. Her first book became the story of a generation. Steve Bohlert, author of Universalist Radha-Krishnaism, said:
Betrayal of the Spirit was accepted among many ex Hare Krishna devotees worldwide as a mind-opening narrative and has helped thousands of individuals regain their individuality, sobriety, and strength.
Betrayal of the Spirit: My Life behind the Headlines of the Hare Krishna Movement - Nori's memoir and biography of the Hare Krishna organization.
Child of the Cult - the stories of children who grew up in five fundamentalist new age religious groups, collected and interpreted by Nori.
Dreaming Peace: The History of Positive Thinking and How to Use it in the 21st Century - a case for positive thinking and why we still need it in a post-9/11 world.
Positive Quotations: Wisdom from the Master Mind - quotations on autosuggestion, positive mental attitude, health, love, goals, honesty, work, and the future.
Learning to Flow with the Dao: The 64 Hexagrams of the I Ching - learn to cope with change and develop a better attitude using this ancient Daoist text.