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How to Spot a Sketchy Spiritual Guru
A practical guide based on the history of cults gone wrong
When followers of the innovative guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh discovered that guns, poisoning, and intimidation were used in their teacher’s name, as depicted in the captivating Netflix docuseries Wild Wild Country, many felt bewildered and lost. Few experiences are more jarring than betrayal by a spiritual guru or his designees—figures you trust with your inner development and whose own inner growth you take for granted.
I have never suffered betrayal by a spiritual teacher — but I have come close. Years ago, I was involved with a deeply esoteric and intellectually rigorous group dedicated to the search for meaning. My teacher was a powerful, charismatic man with a tremendous mind and heart — and a temper to match. He had suffered catastrophes in life, none of his own making, and, at times, I wondered if his judgment had begun to slip as a result. This was no small matter in a group whose internal culture was not infrequently confrontative and demanding; students were occasionally asked to take physical risks.
One night in a group meeting, he jokingly (and foolishly) interrupted me while I was making a point. I was speaking about something personally significant, and I refused to finish speaking after his interruption. He insisted I go on. Again I refused. He pressed me. I glanced at the door, then back at him, realizing then that I could just get up and leave. I chose instead to avert a dramatic scene, and I obeyed him — I spoke. But I vowed it would be for the last time. Later that week, I cut our ties. I was not being abused or pushed around, but I would not allow the prospect to come any closer.
My teacher and I remained in touch. He paid me what I considered the ultimate tribute in trust by asking me, as someone who had left in disgruntlement, to speak one-on-one with potential new participants. Whether he was also attempting to flatter me made no difference. It was an act of vulnerability that made him a great teacher at his finest moments, and there were many. He died about five months later. We never fully reconciled, but at the same time I had never fully left him. It was simply a matter of separating when I saw the swelling up of an aggressive and confrontational style of which I disapproved.
That raises my larger point: When you are walking the spiritual path, in a world of sometime advantage-takers, occasional frauds, and not infrequently unprepared students who call themselves teachers, you must arm yourself with one vital question: Does this person deserve my trust? Your spiritual search must be exquisitely consensual and voluntary — or it is nothing at all. You must never relinquish, as I was unwilling to do in my group meeting, your innate sense of right and wrong or cede your judgment to another.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
A brilliant martial artist and friend told me that he once witnessed his teacher break another student’s arm in anger. My friend made the decision to remain with his sensei, a venerated master. Personally, I would have left. But everyone must make this decision on his own terms — above all, however, never tell yourself there is no decision to make, or that your teacher can make it for you. At such a point, you have released the reins of maturity and self-agency, and you increase the possibility of abuse.
Perhaps the worst modern case of spiritually based abuse reaches its 40th anniversary this year: the November 1978 mass suicide-homicide of more than 900 men, women, and children at the jungle compound of the Reverend Jim Jones in Guyana.
The Jonestown massacre is the most horrific episode of religious manipulation in recent memory — yet, for all its proximity, the tragedy itself is rarely understood. Despite the vulgar expression “drink the Kool-Aid” to describe followers who are so blindly devoted that they’ll imbibe cyanide-laced fruit drink (it wasn’t Kool-Aid, in fact, but Grape Flavor Aid), most of Jonestown’s residents — more than 300 of whom were children — were victims of mass homicide, not group suicide.
In addition to the hundreds of children, many of Jones’ victims were either elderly or parents who had nothing left after the minister cruelly decreed, backed by machine-gun-toting security thugs, that kids must drink first. Other victims were shot trying to flee. Only a handful went to their deaths willingly. Nearly all had experienced a horrendous betrayal of trust and perverted ideals from their Disciples of Christ minister turned cult leader. Properly understood, Jonestown holds special warnings for all seekers:
Beware of inconsistency, segmented messages, and caprice in a leader.
Jones presented himself variously as atheist, evangelist, and socialist. Like Donald Trump — alternately populist and plutocrat, saber rattler and peacemaker, pragmatic bargainer and wall builder — the minister catered his message to whoever was listening and left every follower with the misimpression that he had their backs.
Real leaders have little to hide and rarely spend inordinate amounts of time and resources countering media adversity.
Jones made a steady practice of demeaning and harassing reporters — using his followers to threaten journalists, gather dossiers on perceived foes, and reward friendly reporters with insider contacts and information.
Make sure deeds and ideals match.
Jones attracted a sizable African-American following by expressing zeal for racial justice. But his inner circle was always white, and most of his campaigns for justice amounted to little more than gaming local governments for patronage and payola.
Unscrupulous leaders often play the “enemy card” to manipulate followers.
Jones chronically pitted his followers against mainstream institutions, decrying secret government plots, illegal wiretapping, and untoward surveillance. Civil liberties are always a legitimate concern, but Jones’ circle hardly appeared on the FBI’s radar, much less suffered from persecution.
Sexual encounters with spiritual teachers almost always spell personal hurt, if not abuse, and end in group disaster.
Jones sought to reveal or invent sexually embarrassing or intimate details about opponents and followers. He lured both male and female followers into sexual liaisons, which heightened his control, abused followers’ trust, and pitted acolytes against one another. Hundreds of modern ashrams and New Age centers have been marred or destroyed by sexual scandals.
Real teachers don’t inflate themselves with false stats, crowd size, or staged miracles.
Jones falsified or exaggerated his organizational successes: staging faith healings, lying about economic and membership growth, and falsifying crop output and progress at Jonestown. In turn, all failures were either denied or blamed on outsiders.
Be on early alert for demonization of outside authority.
Jones suggested respect for local authorities and cultivated a goody-goody reputation with law enforcement, but he rejected all appropriate oversight: Visitors to Jonestown on the tragic day of the mass suicide/homicide thought they would be protected by the congressional authority of the visiting Rep. Leo Ryan; instead, Jones had him killed by gunmen.
Group isolation is often a recipe for catastrophe.
The ultimate danger of spiritual leaders like Jones is that they promote fear-based, extremist views of reality and elevate their leadership as the ultimate protection: It’s either me or chaos, devotees are told. Followers are persuaded that mainstream institutions — political, religious, news media, whistleblowers, law enforcement — are bent on their destruction, leaving the faithful nowhere else to turn.
If any of these traits happen to remind you of a certain White House occupant, you’re not imagining things.
Self-Help and Self-Danger
There are certainly milder episodes of spiritual abuse than Jim Jones. In other cases, the numbers are less horrific, but the dangers are equally real. Indeed, guru abuse sometimes lurks within the (mostly) benign field of self-help and needs watching out for.
The success of the 2006 book and movie The Secret increased demand for motivational seminars and brought new stars to the field. A few life coaches, eager to copycat Tony Robbins and build empires of their own, devised incredibly busy appearance schedules and developed their own brand of over-the-top methods to deliver “breakthroughs” to workshop attendees. In one recent and horrendous case, a motivational superstar showed little judgment in how far he was willing to push trusting participants.
James Ray, a bestselling author and former telemarketer and internal trainer with AT&T, conducted a brutal Arizona sweat lodge in fall 2009 that led to multiple injuries and the deaths of three participants: two from heat stroke and one from heat-related organ failure. Now free, Ray was convicted of three counts of negligent homicide in November 2011 and sentenced to two years in prison.
Known for a frenetic events schedule and a hard-driving presentation style, the former marketer crossed the nation delivering talks, seminars, and weekend and weeklong empowerment programs. In October 2009, 56 participants joined him at a lodge in the Sedona desert for a weeklong “Spiritual Warrior” retreat. Ray’s program for self-development was extreme: Even before the evening sweat-lodge ceremony — a sauna-like ritual adapted from Native American rites — most of his attendees had endured a night outside in the desert, without food or water, for 36 hours.
As I write in my book One Simple Idea, the two-hour sweat lodge devolved into a nightmarish ordeal, as many participants in the darkened, broiling structure vomited, passed out, or struggled to assist others while Ray admonished them to stick it out for the sake of personal growth. Two people died at the scene, and another later passed away at the hospital.
One of the most revealing aspects of the Ray episode was the apparent lack of acknowledgment with which he and his organization initially responded to the deaths. Ray left Arizona the morning after the deaths without speaking to the survivors or visiting those hospitalized. He did not reach out to victims’ families until days later, after hosting another positive-thinking motivational seminar over the weekend.
From the start, Ray was a coarser breed of motivator. Self-help pioneers such as Napoleon Hill and Norman Vincent Peale attracted millions of people with promises of self-development. But their methods were private, contemplative, and oriented toward personal illumination. Intense and public displays were never part of their program. Yet a handful of early 21st-century motivational teachers employ psychologically or physically grueling activities, often without the full foreknowledge of participants.
The Problem of Peer Pressure
In one of the most troubling aspects of intense motivational seminars or spiritual retreats, participants may experience a strong but subtle pull to “go along” with questionable exercises, especially under the urging of workshop leaders, who typically label refusal to join as the kind of inner resistance that you came to break down. The high fees that sometimes accompany such programs — Ray charged up to $10,000 per person — also discourage participants from pulling out.
I experienced this kind of pressure once at a yoga retreat in western Massachusetts. The weeklong workshop was advertised (and confirmed over the phone) as a physical, hatha-based program of yogic practice. The first evening, however, I was surprised to be randomly assigned to a four-person group and told this was my “family group,” with whom I was expected to share psychological and emotional intimacies. “Yoga is not just about having a flexible body,” one instructor announced, “but about having a flexible mind.”
The week was divided between practicing asanas, or yoga poses, and a wide range of jarring, often unwelcome encounter-style sessions requiring individual exposure and confession. I was too young and too isolated (I had taken a Greyhound to what seemed like the middle of nowhere) to muster the courage to leave. I had also paid prettily for room and board for the week. And finally, there was subtle but keen peer pressure not to blow off my “family group” or to put up psychological barriers. Hence, I remained for an intrusive and distinctly unrelaxing week. No lasting harm was done (to my knowledge), but I could see how collusive factors of relative isolation, financial commitment, teacher deference, and peer pressure could lead any seeker to misplace his trust.
A Call for Plain Dealing
As a historian and seeker within the culture of alternative spirituality, the aforementioned incidents (and many others) convince me of the need for a careful set of ethics when advertising, organizing, or attending motivational, healing, or spiritual activities. These are my suggestions:
Look for transparency in advertising and communication.
First off, prospective participants should know exactly what is on the program, including late-night sessions, campouts, or increasingly popular fire walks (even if they are optional). If psychological exercises, either individual or group-based, are planned, attendees are likewise entitled to know. And if caffeine or other typical mealtime or wakeup accouterments will not be available or are prohibited — not uncommon at spiritual centers — that, too, should be made clear. If an ad or catalog doesn’t spell out such things, then ask.
Avoid all forms of pressure.
Of all forms of coercion that leaders may visit on group members, the most typical (and subtle) are peer pressure and time pressure. Dominating someone’s time can be an invisible form of manipulation. When you enter any kind of group — whether church, political, or alternative spiritual — keep an eye out for group members or leaders continually ratcheting up attendance requirements. If you are endlessly asked to attend long meetings, group sessions, social outings, repair projects, newsletter production, workshops, getaways, and to continually accept new duties, take a hard look at things. I am not suggesting that time commitments are a red flag. I have greatly valued such investments and often given my own time freely. But if a group or leader consumes all your time, it can lead to withering social and family connections, constant tiredness, and, ultimately, isolation and dependency.
Never assume a teacher knows better than you.
I mentioned earlier that my mentor asked me to meet with potential new participants. I learned from this experience how easily seekers could come to view me as “the man with the plan” — someone who held entry keys to a valued belief system or a set of answers. But this was not the case. I was just as searching and uncertain as they were. When seeking truth, we often, and unknowingly, collude in a kind of theater: A therapist, minister, guru, or guide appears as a figure of natural authority to whom we play neophyte. Indeed, many ministers and therapists, often unaware, set up and revel in that paradigm. Do not buy into it. Your guide is often just as uncertain as you are.
Finally, trust yourself.
The one key to not getting burned on the spiritual path is using aggressive commonsense. Always be prepared to speak up for yourself and to say no if you feel an activity or commitment crosses a line. A philosopher I know once put it this way: “A real esoteric group is very difficult to find and very easy to fall out off. A fake group is just the opposite.” Make that your yardstick. If anyone starts applying undue pressure or attempts to isolate you, or if a leader asks that you suspend your discretion in favor of his, take a step back. There is no better guarantee of personal safety than using your own applied judgment. When you discover and wield that judgment, you may also find a large part of what you came looking for in the first place.