Doors of Love Close

How a group changes into a cult

When a new group starts out, the rules support spiritual practice and prayer, worship of the Divine, self-discipline and following ethical guidelines.

If the group is successful in attracting new followers into the fold, new rules arise to keep the crowds under control and ensure the safety of the spiritual teacher. The teacher, once a highly accessible person, becomes impersonal and aloof. The teacher begins to appear somehow larger than life, distorted by developing group legend into a superhuman, possessed of godlike ability and qualities.

When a group grows very large, it must make organizational changes. Typically, it will rearrange itself as a non-profit corporation with different departments, each managed by a hand picked individual chosen by the leader.

At this point the group undergoes an internal division, and there arises a core group of special followers or advanced initiates who are allowed access to the teacher, while the rest of the group is maintained at an impersonal distance. This core group is privy to the secrets, the internal policies and decisions of the group leader. Members of this core group come to take on an aura of importance, and may be given certain distinct honors or privileges denied to the group at large.

As a consequence of expansion, a group can also undergo an division into two different groups. When doctrinal conflicts and struggles for political power within the organization reach a crescendo, one of the core group members may create a schism, by starting a new group, and assembling some of group members around him or her self.

When schism occurs, members of the newly formed group may be barred from attending meetings, or may be publicly chastised for being deluded, disloyal, or traitorous. Such disloyal behavior may be held up as being an example of a grievous downfall, and group members increasingly are called into account for their errors in conduct, sometimes by public confessions before the whole group.

Closely following schism in a group, rules and expectations for followers aim to create exclusive devotion to the leader, and to avoid polluting "pure doctrine" by exposure to the "heresies" of the newly formed group. This protection of devotion and doctrine may further be extended to bring the teacher's ire and group ostracism against any investigation of alternate beliefs or practice in any other groups. During this phase other teachings or teachers may be ridiculed and criticized, and members warned that terrible consequences may occur to them if they leave the fold.

In turn, this new xenophobic attitude may be supported by doctrinal shifts that establish the exclusivity, uniqueness, or "only way" status of the group and its leader to salvation or spiritual realization. This marks a crucial turning point in the history of a group.

As the group closes the doors of love and acceptance by claims to exclusivity, it begins to shut itself off from any new input of information from the outside, and the leader becomes the primary interpreter of meaning for the members of the group.

Since the group eschews dialogue or communication with other groups that would tend to promote reflection upon new ideas, there is no moderating influence to avoid distortion or overvaluing of the opinions of the leader. To close off external information and feedback through these means is a rapid conduit to cultism and fanaticism.

In the pressure cooker of closed minds, ideas are quickly distorted, and emotions heated to the explosion point. During this highly volatile phase in the group's history, attempts to proselytize new members may take on a desperate, impassioned quality.

Potential converts may be subjected to prolonged indoctrination sessions where their beliefs are attacked, their self-esteem splintered, and heavy pressure is placed upon them to undergo initiation rites and adopt the new beliefs and practices. There is a kind of messianic fervor that appears during this phase, and very unrealistic expectations arise about the future begin to arise.

Several things can occur at this stage in the history of the group that can shift this idealistic fervor into a full-blown paranoia:

  1. The leader can become increasingly irrational or psychotic
  2. Disgruntled or disappointed members in key positions can leave, while the group is led to believe they have been deceived by supernatural evil
  3. Deprogrammers can seize members and force them to recant their beliefs
  4. Irregularities in the group's beliefs and practices can bring negative media coverage and widespread external criticism. The appearance of one or more of these factors may fully precipitate a group perception that they are being persecuted or are under attack by hostile forces, both supernatural and societal.

Close on the heels of paranoia runs desperate men and desperate measures. For example:

  • The group may begin to arm its members, and measures may be taken to protect secrets from the police, FBI or CIA.
  • The group may begin to check its phones for wiretap.
  • The leader may install elaborate surveillance devices to monitor the members of the group.

  • Members' personal mail may be opened and read.
  • The group may change the names of its organizations or change the names of its offices to cloak from the public that it is the same group.

The group senses betrayal, and no one is above suspicion.

If the group survives this very dangerous period, it may protect itself by "retreating to the wilderness". The group may begin to move its centers away from the cities in order to escape the storms of criticism from without and the turmoil within. Moving out of the limelight of the media allows the group to find a safe den and to heal its wounds.

After this period of dormancy and disappearance from public view, we may see the group resurface, having undergone a metamorphosis. The group will have changed its presentation and packaging and the leader will be carefully groomed to de-emphasize the blunders and embarrassment of the past.

Like a hungry beast emerging from hibernation, the group has a hunger to expand itself, gathering new members and new wealth into the organization by active proselytization. What is commonly seen at this stage is a callous disregard for truthfulness: there is a marked difference between what is presented to the public and what actually takes place in the group.

This dual representation of reality evidences a growing felt sense by members of the group that they are misunderstood. They feel outsiders cannot appreciate their reality or experience.

Finding new members that have not been swayed by negative media becomes urgent. The members of the group believe that they must break down the defenses of the potential convert. They believe they must coerce him, convert him by whatever means, convince him to undergo initiation. Only then can he be led to understand the mysteries of the faith, and thereby see the error of his ways and the truth of the group's point of view.

What differentiates this stage of proselytization from its earlier forms is its blatant attempts to deceive. This period is marked by a toleration of a growing hypocrisy and compromised moral standards, and former restrictions upon behavior may be lifted. It is as if members feel that anything goes if only those "outside" can be led to see the light, and the aims of the group can be advanced.

What we clearly see at this stage is that this group that started so innocently with altruistic ideals has become diseased. And it spreads its illness by contagion, destroying people's lives, their families, and all of their former hopes and dreams, catching them up in a nightmare that will not go away.

Why does this happen?

Have you ever noticed that when a spiritual group begins to struggle to survive, its initial values, its idealism, enthusiasm, and goodwill begin to evaporate?

Why does this change occur?

And how is it that we see this same scenario again and again, of groups dividing, becoming full of fear and hatred, and then transmogrifying into venomous little cults—losing the ideals, the values, the love that were their true strength?

We can in part explain it by the changes that occur in the individual members themselves.

When individuals come to rely on the strength, inspiration and vision of a single charismatic leader for life direction and guidance, they become subject to the control of the leader.

Although truly altruistic leaders do not misuse the privileges of the power they have been granted, some preceptors do succumb to the many temptations of their position of authority. They may lead their devoted and willing flock astray into the never-never land of their delusional thinking, or use them to live out their fantasies of wealth, power and passion.

Because the leader's ideas and suggestions are seen by members as supernaturally inspired or even as Divine commandments, members become cemented to the leader by the bonds of fear, guilt, awe, and a growing dependency. And as members become increasingly dependent on the leader to provide direction, their own ability to make independent decisions, to discriminate reality for themselves, and to test the truth of the leader's ideas and values withers.

Also, by too readily providing answers and direction for people's lives, together with providing new identity and felt sense of belonging, these groups extend the parent-child relationship far into adulthood, and may impede the maturation of its members.

When external sources of information and feedback are shut down, coupled with a growing dependency on a charismatic leader, and you have conditions suitable for the formation of a cult. When people give away their power, and cease to inquire and investigate truth for themselves, they become ensnared by their own fear, guilt, and dependency, and are ripe for victimization by a cult.

Without perspective, these groups become obsessive, monoideatic, fixed on a group of basic assumptions about the universe and man through which all experience is filtered. Further, members of these groups feel it is their duty or mission to impose these beliefs and practices on others, as these doctrines and rituals have come to represent to them, the only and final truth.

As it occurs in these groups that beliefs replace observation, doctrine replaces sober reflection, obedience replaces self-direction, fear, guilt and self-loathing replace natural bonds of connectedness and healthy self-love, it is not unusual for cognitive and emotional distortions to be created in the members of these groups...

When such distortion exists in leader and group member alike, it should not be surprising that we see personality changes in individual members of these groups that are not for the best. These personality changes may cause long-lasting problems in adjustment that persist long after group membership is ended.

When membership in these groups is used to fulfill individual needs for love and belongingness, and to provide security against the uncertainties of Fate, the terror of leaving the group far outweighs the discomfort and sacrifices required remaining as a member of it.

It is a trap formed of the member's own fear. They fear of losing friends and loved ones, of losing the respect and affirmation of those one has come to trust, fear of having to rely on one's own limited and often untested resources to stand alone and make the choices from which authentic living springs.

The uncertainties arising in the transition between adulthood and adolescence, the quest for identity and higher values, the burden of a life troubled by unresolved emotional issues each are avenues through which people are led to join these groups.

It may be also that certain types of personalities who have been unable to meet their needs through more conventional channels are drawn to lead these groups, and live out their megalomanic fantasies of omnipotence.

It is when these two kinds of individuals meet, teacher and disciple, leader and follower, guru and chela, that a relationship of trust and faith is established that becomes prioritized above every other relationship. When this faith and trust is manipulated and abused, playing on the gullibility and naivete of its victims, we have dynamics that produce the cult personality.

When we look at the betrayal of their trust and faith these members have undergone, it is not difficult to understand the rage these people have upon emerging from these groups. We can empathize with the difficulty they experience trying to put their shattered lives back together, or the confusion they feel about what to believe and what is the best way to live.

One of the challenges for ex-members who have been involved in these groups is to discover their own authentic values and identity. They need to:

  1. Re-discover their individuality
  2. Uncover their congruent and authentic emotionality
  3. Embrace a set of standards and principles on which to base their lives
  4. Chart a course for their life by establishing meaningful goals for the future.

They need to begin the process of approaching life anew—not through the filters of cult doctrine—but to observe it, feel it, experience their life as it is. This takes courage and honesty, a willingness to let emotional healing take place, and the choice to reopen the doors of love.

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