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.


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10 thoughts on “Why Spiritual Communities Turn Into Cults

  1. My 17-year-old daughter has been brainwashed by Mooji. Before listening to him (hours a day), she was a brilliant, conscious child. Now she is suicidal, doesn’t eat, sleep, take care of her body, only wants to listen to this so-called ‘guru’ all the time! I have read other parents concerns experiencing the same thing with their children. I am warning EVERYONE out there, to beware of Mooji. If my daughter dies, her blood is on his hands! I am so disgusted with him! Everyone BEWARE of the wolf in sheeps clothing. If anyone has any suggestions for me to get her out of this hypnotic state/ trance she is in, I am open to it. If anyone has experienced any other experiences similar to this after listening to him, I would love to hear. Thank you!

    1. To: Concerned parent — she sounds exactly like me when I was 17. I ended up spending 13 years living at the ashram of one of the so-called gurus mentioned in Hanzi Freinacht’s superb article here (he and Mooji had the same teacher, HWL Poonja), and half a decade later I’m still recovering from PTSD. One thing I wish my parents had done when I was 17–rather than their panicked hand-wringing and frustrated yelling at me to snap out of it, do my homework, and get my act together–was to actively listen and really try to understand what I found interesting about these spiritual teachings. To engage your daughter in constructive dialogue about your concerns about the potential limitations of Mooji-ism, you have to try to understand the appeal, or at least attempt to elicit from her what she finds so compelling about it.

      The main problem with Mooji’s view, of course, is exactly what Freinacht spells out above: high subjective states and insights (such as nondual realization) may have little to no impact on any other area of one’s objective life, relationships, finances, health, morality, etc.–not without much concerted effort to bring all aspects of life into a wholesome, integral alignment. (As Ken Wilber writes about at length in his books.) Unfortunately, Mooji teaches Neo-Advaita, which is a half-baked interpretation of nonduality that essentially devalues worldly life in gross and subtle ways. This position leads naturally to a common psychological pathology known as “spiritual bypassing,” wherein one employs the promised serenity of spiritual teachings like a drug to avoid and ignore the natural complexities of ordinary living, such as one’s emotional confusion (pain), relationships, and responsibilities. (In a proper nonduality, all aspects of life would be made more vibrantly “enlightened”–full of vitality, exuding joy and health–not ignored, bypassed, or allowed to fall into states of inertial disrepair.)

      The deeper issue here, though, is simply your daughter’s depression, of which the spiritual bypassing and Mooji obsession is likely just a symptom. (When people are happy and fulfilled, they don’t go seeking for enlightenment.) And for that, without knowing the details or being at all qualified to offer a professional diagnosis, a random internet stranger can only recommend the usual: psychotherapeutic care, lots of sunshine, vitamin-D supplements, enough sleep, plenty of water, good food, good friends, and great conversation–starting, perhaps, with parents asking, in all loving sincerity, just what’s so compelling about this Jamaican Advaita Zen master?

      1. The Concerned Parent replied:

        “Thank you for responding and showing me a deeper insight. You are very good with words/explanation. I really do appreciate it! I will utilize your advice and speak with her on this. She is in a mental hospital right now because she attempted suicide so some things she’s unable to do right now like sunshine. I agree with what you said on people who are happy do t seek enlightenment. That’s exactly what happened. She said she was seeking guidance but her father and I didn’t/dont know how to give her that guidance she needs because she’s always been very deep and I guess you can say we are more shallow. But your advice is helpful. I will start with that. Right now, she is not eating much food in the hospital. We r just trying to get her to eat food to want to live. You are an amazing spiritual being and I really do appreciate you. Please contact me anytime you want to share more.”

      2. I had the worst expirience with mooji he brainwashed my partner, as a result he left me, even though I was sick, without work, without money. We had a good relationship for 4 years , but my partner went to a 5 days silence retreat and never come back. The worst part is that mooji and his people keep saying to him that I was selfish, that I should be happy that he was there, despite the fact I was left totally alone, very sick, in total despair and for one month I begged him to come back. I wonder where is the compassion of this guru, where is the unconditional love. My ex partner keep responding to me that all is an illusion, that we don’t exist, therefore there is not committment o responsability with nothing. For me this guru just have a very profitable business, and is full of s…. All what he does is reapiting the same story, the same jokes, the same words over and over and charged lot of money for that. I followed him for a year and got a big depression and anxiety because even though I tried to follow his main point that we are no the person I could not deny myself or life because is here it’s real even though it will end some day.

    2. Hi concerned parent. I hope you and your daugther have received good help since you wrote here last year . I went to Mooji in 2015 when I was only 21 years old and went through a crisis when I came home again. I want to share what helped for me. First of all it took several month for me to recognize and admit that I even had a problem even though it was obvious to my family. I was lucky that my parents are both psychotherapists and knew a “somatic experience” therapist I could talk with each week. In somatic experience you don’t just talk but there is also a lot focus on the body which is very helpful since Moojis teachings don’t have focus on thw body. I started doing yoga and yoga felt like a space where I could little by little begin to let a little bit go of all my preoccupation in thoughts and get back into my body. If she starts doing yoga I would recommend slow movements like yin yoga to relax the nervous system. Ashtanga yoga might be to active even though I actually benefited from ashtanga yoga. Also feeling the sensation of breathing and body scans have been an enourmous help. Hope my advice is helpful. Also og you or your daughter is interested to talk with someone who has gone through a crisis because of Mooji, then I would also be interested in talking with you and her and sharing our experiences. You can contact me here or on simonbeermann@hotmail.com. If you want we could talk on skype. Greetings Simon from Denmark

  2. All I can suggest you is to teach her how to question what she learns. There is a method from kognitive behavioral therapy, The socratic method. Socrates thought that to trully advance in life, one must question ones own thoughts. You do that by asking yourself ‘is this really true’, ‘which proof do I have that this is true’.
    Through this approach you’re not teaching her what to do but rather use her jerning for enlightment in a constructive way.
    I hope it helps!

  3. I just wanted to share my story about my involvement with Mooji. It all started 3 weeks ago- I am overseas and I don’t speak the local language, so hence I am a bit lonely. My husband is very busy with work here, while for me it is more or less a holiday.

    I also lost my Dad due to cancer about 5 months ago, so I am questioning a lot of things right now. I have always had an interest in spiritual ideas and have read many books about spirituality. I would call myself an intelligent person, by the way… I am actually studying for my Ph.D. at the moment.

    One of my friends back home is into Mooji and hence I was aware of him in a off-hand way. I started watching his videos online, just out of interest. They are very amusing and seductive…. he has a soft voice with a lilting Jamaican accent which I find appealing. He also has a bit of a “Bob Marley” vibe about him… and I love Bob Marley’s music! (By the way, I don’t smoke drugs… so don’t worry!)

    Mooji preaches a kind of spirituality that is very, very appealing…. because you don’t have to do anything; you just have to “be aware” and retreat into your own heart. In some ways it feels like a very pleasant “escape” from the real world of emotions, relationships, work, etc. But it is not a total escape, because Mooji still encourages you to “enjoy the world” and everything in it. What’s not to like, eh? You can enjoy the world, have relationships, eat pizza and go dancing, only…. and this is the catch: it isn’t exactly ‘important’ what you do, because your own Divine inner reality is what is really important.

    Do you find this just a little confusing? I do!

    But because I am in a vulnerable position… I felt myself starting to fall for this stuff.

    Mooji makes use of a lot of different spiritual ideas- especially those related to Buddhism, esoteric Hindu practices and even Christianity. He himself was raised as a Christian. Because I had read a lot of spiritual texts, his Buddhist ideas resonated with me, especially. A lot of what Mooji teaches closely resembles Zen teachings… which in themselves can be confusing and very “mystical”….

    When I was an undergrad student, my philosophy professor actually told me to “beware of mysticism”, I remember his words specifically. It is very hard to critique mystical teachings because they are beyond words and rely of experiential understandings… Hence, I guess a lot of cult leaders would value mysticism highly, because you can’t intellectualize it. Therefore, it could potentially be easily used to manipulate and confuse people. I have the feeling that Mooji is working in this way…. he may in fact be ‘genuine’ and believe his own weird stuff… I don’t know.

    I haven’t read a lot of criticism of Mooji out there on the internet, just one or two isolated cases.

    One thing I will say, is there does seem to be something very hypnotic and addictive about his videos… and they are free to watch online.

    Back to my story…. last week, I even considered giving up my Ph.D studies and travelling to Mooji’s ashram to learn more! Wow! This week, I have come to my senses. I have a Ph.D to complete and I have a loving husband by my side. I don’t really need a whole lot of new-age spiritual hokus-pokus to interrupt what is essentially a very good, productive life.

    I have noticed that a lot of Mooji’s followers in his online videos are people who are unhappy and/or mentally ill. There was one woman in particular that seemed irrational and manic and I thought she desperately needed a psychiatrist…. not a Mystic. I hope she managed to get help. Seeing the video footage of her… I actually wondered why it wasn’t edited out of Mooji’s official video? Because seeing it really did paint a very sad picture of the whole ashram set-up. In fact, this footage helped to bring me to my senses.

    I am now actively questioning Mooji’s teachings on his facebook page and I am sure it will not be long before my posts start to get deleted!!

    I welcome any comments or feedback. Thank you.

  4. For me is important to investigate and prove here and at another Mooji discussion forum, that Mooji got spiritually corrupt and has failed in the three typical fields: sex, money and power, where the human ego gets expressed very significantly and it’s very difficult to control it: Mooji has had very promiscoues sex life, begins to make a lot of money in this 2018 year, and has built up the cult like a tool of the power and famous. I think it’s important to show that Mooji is not an enlightened being but a normal regular person. And people inside of Monte Sahaja cult and outside his followers and sanghas can relax and see that Mooji presents only a recreation spirituality, entertainment satsangs, and some kind of therapeutic group gatherings, and see that Mooji is only a teacher, who does not follow his own spiritual pointing out. I am not against to enjoy the life in an ashram or to be the member of a sangha outside, but it must be said that Mooji is not serious about what he talks, he does not practice it, his cult must be taken down a little bit in Monte Sahaja and online.
    Reddit Metoo&movement Mooji

  5. There is a question whether spiritual practice can be “democratized.” A seeker who is not yet a finder does not know where s/he is going and does not know how to assess the results of his/her practice — AND what the ego does is always to recruit teachings and the fruits of practice into itself… until we awaken from the trance of the ego, *really surrender to the path*, and get out of the egoic squirrel-cage in which we are otherwise trapped.

    Having been to Burning Man, I can’t say that it’s a high spirituality… my experience in the Temple was sublime, to be sure, but I don’t see that BM overall is productive of serious spiritual advancement or that much about Burning Man can be generalized to an authentic — meaning truly transformative — spiritual teaching context.

    I believe that the democratization is going to come through teachers coming down off the mountaintop and engaging and being upfront with their human struggles.