Why Spiritual Communities Turn Into Cults

The purpose of this post is to issue a word of warning. There are comm­unities with the express purpose of bringing people to higher subjective states: spirit­ual communities. I am not primarily thinking of the medieval monastic trad­itions (to which we return in the next book, when we dis­cuss “exist­ential politics”). Monastic life also had many other roles, and such a central place in European society, that it was far from a purely spiritual congregation. The closest thing to truly contemplative comm­unities has historically been the Buddhist monasteries and the Vedic yoga traditions, although these too have had many other societal roles to play.

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘The Listening Society: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book One’. This is the first book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. What you will read below is from the chapter on higher subjective states called “Reaching Higher”; a chapter that discusses the nature of high psychological states of positive emotions.

“A striking pattern in these communities is the prevalence of abuses of power – financial or sexual exploitation, physical and emotional violence, clear uses of brainwashing strategies, con-artist yogi miracle-makers, or at the very least false claims and endless intrigues and lawsuits.”

In its pure form, however, I would claim that spiritual con­gregation is actually a modern phenomenon, showing up in the 19th and 20th cen­tur­ies – where people freely devote themselves to a guru, master or teacher who is believed to be enlightened. You may have come across one or more such spirit­ual commun­ities, often populated by hippies and New Age ideas (or New Thought, or variations of theosophy, or contemporary inter­­­­pretations of East­ern tradi­tions, or mysticism from any religion).

A striking pattern in these communities is the prevalence of abuses of power – financial or sexual exploitation, physical and emotional violence (some­­times even directed outside of the community), clear uses of brain­washing strategies, con-artist yogi miracle-makers, or at the very least false claims and endless intrigues and lawsuits. Looking at teachers like Sri Auro­bindo, Osho, Adi Da (Da Free John), Andrew Cohen, Amma (“the hugging mother”) and Chögyam Trungpa – even Jiddu Krishnamurti, who didn’t even found any organization – their comm­unities have all dev­olved into abusive or at least commercialized and dysfunctional rela­tion­ships. Whereas some of these nasty stories may perhaps be expl­ain­ed by deliberate manipulations on behalf of the teachers, the freq­ue­ncy with which these communities show cult-like and deeply oppress­ive tend­encies must have a more general, socio­logical and structural explanation.

My take on such an explanation is this. Whenever a community is built, there is a hier­archy. Hierarchies of some kind are necessary for peo­ple to successfully cooperate, evaluate the efforts of one another: who puts in the most effort, who is reliable, and so forth. Spiritual commun­ities like these are built primarily around a hierarchy of “subjective state”. The leader is taken to be one of higher subjective state than other mem­bers of the community, which is why people want to follow him or her. To advance within this hierarchy, one should also be able to rest for longer periods in higher subjective states.

”In spiritual communities, social pressure arises to present oneself as being in as high states as possible. So people begin to subtly lie to themselves and to one another about how lightly and profoundly they experience the world at any given moment. ”

The Fallacy of Turning Subjective States into Social Hirarchies

The main problem is that subjective state is not something that can easily be measured, and that it changes from moment to moment. Scien­tific results, athletic achievements, even a dollar bottom line – all these are things that can be intersubjectively confirmed or falsified, which means that you can relatively easily see who is a qualified scientist, athlete or business­woman. The spiritual commun­ities build a social hierarchy upon something that can only be personally experi­enced and imagined. Sure, for a brief mom­ent you can check some­one’s brainwaves with the right equipment, but then again, you never know if someone’s subjective state is quite what they say it is, and you can’t measure it all the time. You try to build an inter­subjective comm­unity upon a subjective thing. It’s a just a no-go. It’s an illogically con­structed social structure, and this poor const­ruction leads to some very bad social con­sequ­en­­ces.

It’s often not even easy to recognize what subjective state we are in our­selves; it often takes great effort just to notice. Ever heard a person shouting about how they’re “not angry”? This is just one example out of many of when we fail to recognize an obvious inner state or emotion within ourselves. If each person can hardly know her own state, how can we be expected to build a reliable community upon not only our own state, but the states of a whole group of people?

In spiritual communities, social pressure arises to present one­self as being in as high states as possible (both by personal prestige and because people want to hear that you are doing well in order to validate the spirit­ual enter­prise as a whole). So people begin to subtly lie to themselves and to one anoth­er about how lightly and profoundly they experience the world at any given moment. Ever noticed that strange hysterical happ­i­ness that sect people display? That’s what I’m talking about: they insist upon displaying behaviors that indicate high inner states; hence that stran­ge stare. This applies not least to the guru: if he or she is in a bad mood, the students will still interpret them as acting from a very high state.

So there is a social-psych­ological “spin” on the whole thing, making peo­­ple pretend to be something they’re not. This becomes a closely guard­ed, dirty secret for almost everyone and people are likely to react quite aggress­ively when­ever it risks surfacing. This is a central reason for why they turn so oppressive and aggressive when the image of harmony is challenged by all the conflicts and issues that necessarily show up in any community.

And all of this is aggravated by the fact that subjective states are deeply personal and emotional phenomena. If a community is built around achiev­ing higher subjective states, it must by necessity involve people sharing a lot of their inner lives. This leaves little or no personal sphere, no hiding away – which means that people get closely tied up to one another in situations that are full of smoke-screens, lies and self-deceit. It couldn’t get much more veno­mous.

”Uncritical praise of people in high subjective states is a recipe for being ruled and fooled, for being abused and for very sudden and disappointing dissolutions of formerly very tightly knit communities. ”

High Spiritual States Doesn’t Necessarily Make You Smart

But the troubles don’t stop there. Traditional monasteries of earlier centur­ies were not purely spiritual communities; they were also, perhaps primarily, built around work, theo­logy, philosophy and so on. Thus hier­archies could be constructed around things that people could relate to and evaluate inter­subject­ively. Modern spiritual communes are different. If you build a comm­un­­ity around the idea that “this guy”, let’s say the US guru Adi Da, is “enligh­tened”, not only can you never get any proof of it, but you overlook all of the other devel­opmental dimensions.

In other words, even if your guru really does frequent high subjective states; he or she can still be low MHC stage (for an introduction to Hirarchical Complexity, read this post), work from defunct cultural codes, and have all manner of psychological issues and problems.

Just listen to a person like Eckhart Tolle, the author of the book The Power of Now, who has been featured on Oprah Winfrey and gained great traction. He obviously has high states. But his answers on any social or societal issues, and the theories propounded in his books, are of average complexity (MHC stage 11 Formal, more precisely). He just doesn’t have the answers. Which is okay. The only problem is that he makes all sorts of analyses of society, from politics to mental health to gender and sexual­ity – and many people listen. It should be made perfectly clear that this man, while being both kind and wise, is poorly educated and, truth be told, not very clever. Nothing wrong with it, but it should be recognized.

The same goes for pretty much all the gurus. They have high state perspec­tives – the ones that are authentic gurus, that is – but they mistake these exist­en­tial perspectives for authority on all sorts of other issues. As do their foll­ow­ers.

An issue that we haven’t really ventured to discuss here, but that should also briefly be mentioned, is high state pathologies. Low state path­ologies are pretty obvious – you feel like utter crap and this can make you dysfunct­ional, make you have destructive behaviors and want to lash out against the world. But higher states can also bring all sorts of complic­ations. If you, for instance, suddenly feel extremely enlarged and filled with cosmic love, this can easily translate to grandiose ideas about your­self and your place in the world. To megalomania and unsustainable opti­m­­ism. And in moments where you feel that everything is intimately inter­connect­ed and that all things are one, you are also likely to draw rather quest­ionable conclusions about how things are causally inter­related. It has even been shown that people who have just done mind­fulness are more like­ly to have imagined and false memories and that they are somewhat more gull­ible. For all the good things I have to say about high states, I can hardly overemphasize just how seductive and danger­ous they are. In my book The Listening Society I discuss the dang­ers of magic beliefs – as these show up in a lot of high state people.

Uncritical praise of people in high subjective states is a recipe for being ruled and fooled, for being abused and for very sudden and disappointing dis­sol­utions of form­erly very tightly knit communities. This is true even if some of the gurus turn out to be nice (which seems to be the case with only a min­or­ity of them, e.g. Eckhart Tolle, Rupert Spira, and perhaps the Jamaican guru Mooji) – indeed, even if they turn out to be intelligent as well (like Shinzen Young). But nice and intelligent teachers don’t make the struct­ur­al issues I brought up go away: you simply can’t build a good community with hierar­chies derived from subjective states. It doesn’t make sense. Bec­au­se, mon ami, commun­ities and their hierarchies are inter­subjective and relat­ive­ly dur­able structures; inner states are sub­jective and very transient.

”A possible antidote to this social-psychological malady might be to democratize spirituality; to make it more participatory, transparent and based on measurable results.”

Spirituality. Yes. But Let’s Make it More Well-informed and Democratic

This is not to say that all spiritual communities are a bad thing. Indeed, the places in which people make a common, concentrated and guided effort to develop higher states often have positive effects on people’s lives – and that may positively affect other aspects of society. It’s just that the endeavor comes with certain risks that have to do with the social-psychological territory; and these risks are pretty big, like all communities which elicit very deep commitment and fervor.

A possible antidote to this social-psychological malady might be to demo­cratize spirituality; to make it more participatory, transparent and based on measurable results. Such attempts are being made in and around the Burning Man festival culture, and notably in the Syntheist (“religious atheist”) move­ment which recently emerged in Stockholm – and some interesting pro­spects along these lines have been brought up by public intellectuals like Sam Harris (in his 2014 book Waking Up, Harris, a renowned critic of all things religious, makes his case for a scientifically supported exploration of spirit­uality). However, these are difficult matt­ers; thus far, almost all spiritual com­m­­unities have taken a long walk down Cult Avenue, so it is quite pro­bable that these movements will do likewise. We’ll see.

To conclude: Yes, the subjective state of organisms is the most impor­tant thing in the world, and yes, it should therefore be made a central goal of society. And yes, it has great significance for the overall development of people and societies. But no, having higher state does not give you all the answers. And no, we should not build a society that creates hierarchies based upon vague and unverifiable phenomena such as subjective state. And YES, more research is needed.

But we must try to optimize subjective states, as a society as well as single organisms. We are all always-already in some kind of subjective state. It is an inescapable, merciless fact that the universe has us eternally by the balls.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.