The definition of a cult
A cult is usually thought of as a group of people that have strange practices or excessive admiration for a particular person.
One expert wrote half-joking that a cult today is like an enthusiastic self-help group that takes over your daily life, or a multi-level marketing company that pushes friends away because of the aggressive sales pitch. (Source)
According to this premise, a yoga class that requires invasive affirmations and multiple classes every week would be cult. And a multilevel marketing business like Amway, that pushes you to sell to all your Facebook friends despite what you know in your gut is right, is a cult.
Maybe you’re thinking, “Big deal. I take yoga classes with someone who likes to pray at the end of it. So what? I like my yoga class. Why is this a bad thing?”
It’s not inherently bad because it adds ascetic practices, but if the group takes you further away from your individual sovereignty without you fully understanding that this is happening; if it pushes you to do things that don’t feel right to you even in a small way, wouldn’t that disempower you?
We see stories in the news about people who freed themselves from cults. I heard them too throughout my life and thought, “That would never happen to me.”
And yet, it did happen to me.
Lonely, but for a tree
I was in my early 30s when I joined a cult.
I had left my home, family, religion and boyfriend in Boston and moved to Seattle. I got a temp job in my new city and a new boyfriend. The temp job turned into a full-time position where I typed letters and answered phones for engineers. The boyfriend dumped me.
I understood the program I had signed up for in this life: get a good job with money, get married in the church with lots of friends and family, and then have a baby. None of that looked doable. The religion I grew up in didn’t suit me and society’s expectations to “settle down, marry and bear children,” didn’t tempt me.
I wanted answers and was busy seeking. I was writing my morning pages from The Artist’s Way, trying out different spiritual paths like Zen, Bahai Faith, and 12-step groups. I got nutrition advice and therapy. Nothing answered my questions or relieved the pain and angst.
One evening after driving over the bridge to my studio apartment from work, I sat out front on my porch with an ache in my chest. Why wasn’t life working out for me? I felt like a refugee in my own country. There wasn’t anyone to call, and my question of “Why am I here?” never got answered. I looked out across the street to an empty lot with trees and asked the universe again, “Why is my life not working?”
Tears fell for minutes until I emptied. And then out of ethers on this quiet dusk evening a voice floated into my consciousness, “You’re going to be alright, Therese.”
The voice did not shock me, strangely. It didn’t come from a person but slipped through. Perhaps there was some opening in my consciousness; maybe I was in an altered state. I had no idea back then, but I did sense at the time, I had to be gentle to keep the conversation going. After asking the voice some questions, I realized that the elm tree across the street was vibrating. And I knew it was the tree speaking to me.
Each night after work for a week, I returned to talk to the tree. I was still lonely for human company but the tree would reassure me that everything was going to work out. It told me I had some special purpose in the world, which calmed my chaotic mind.
After that night, I sat on the steps sending the tree questions telepathically and getting the answers back the same way. I began to have these experiences with trees everywhere I went. All trees. I would be on my bike or driving in my car and trees of all sizes and types would talk to me. Some were grandpas and grandmas, some were teens. I told no one. It was unusual but somehow felt natural. It was my own little world.
But when I would go to the office to work, I was unable to focus on tasks. Something was breaking free in me, but I didn’t know how to assimilate what was going on. I remember one morning being distracted by a fly because it was around me and thinking I made it dive into my coffee. I was afraid of a mental breakdown because I was in two realities: one was the tree talking reality that was comforting but confounding. The other reality was my workday where I had to focus on things like typing, talking and filing.
It created a growing chasm between the two Me’s: The Me that went to work during the day and typed of letters and answered phones could not reconcile with the Me that talked to trees at night.
I had days when I would be walking to a meeting in the office when I suddenly felt like I would split down the middle.
Seeking solace or surrendering sovereignty?
I told a coworker I liked about how I felt like I was splitting in two. He gave me a book and told me about his spiritual group.
At my first visit to the group’s meetings, I found like-minded souls. Spiritual explorers. Many had experiences leaving their religions, and some had out of body experiences; others shared how their dreams had guided their choices in their lives. They didn’t judge me. I didn’t meet anyone who heard trees talking, but they were open about my experiences.
So many questions I had were answered during that first “worship service.” They confirmed what I had sensed all along: we did have past lives that were affecting us today. They told me I was soul having a spiritual experience.
These fellow seekers and their explanations felt like balm for my wounded world. They said that we could learn from our dreams. They told me there were different planes of existence and that we had different bodies on different planes. I signed up right away to be a member. It sounded like the adventure I was looking for.
How cult involvement can fragment your true self
And then I took a wrong turn with the group.
I didn’t see it at the time. I only see it now looking back. But this wrong turn would lead me down a dead end and close the doors to spiritual discovery.
Though many of their teachings gave me comfort, there were other assumptions that they marketed as “truths” that didn’t resonate with me. At the time, I was so desperate to avoid a breakdown and meet others and feel special, that I didn’t question or listen to my gut. For example, they told me the head of their organization was an adept and that he had a spiritual body you could see when you closed your eyes.
But I didn’t see him when I closed my eyes. I did feel the presence of other spiritual beings who seemed to be spiritual guides. But the spirit guides that I sensed in my presence looked and spoke nothing like their guy. I didn’t see their guy. But how could I be right and all of them be wrong? I must be seeing the wrong guy, I told myself. The unworthiness that had been ingrained in me from a young age played a role in me giving up my sovereignty to the group.
There were other lies. They told me that this leader could take on my karma and release it. They told me that I shouldn’t try to help others because it was their own karma. (I guess they figured everyone would have their karma released if they joined their group.) They told me a woman couldn’t be the head of the group because of her chemical makeup.
Worst of all, but something I didn’t even consider back then: It wasn’t long after I joined the group that the trees stopped talking to me, or I stopped listening. I can’t remember which. I did stop feeling like I would have a mental breakdown, though other ailments did not subside.
Now, I realize the price I paid by joining this group. By swallowing the lies that came with some truths, by trusting what they told me instead of what was in my own heart, it cost me my creativity, confidence in my intuition and listening to trees.
I had become a follower instead of the spiritual adventurer. I started looking to leaders in the group and their books for truth. And the door to trees slammed shut. But if you had tried to tell me that I was in a cult, I would not have believed you.
How cults are like ponzi schemes
My friend and energetic healer, Jen Ward, refers to groups as “Energetic Ponzi schemes.” She pointed out to me that the group always needs new members in order to supply energy to the people at the top. This idea translates easily to the business Ponzi scheme.
A business Ponzi scheme is when the initial investors receive money that comes from new investors. The group at the top thrives as long as new members come in. In energetic terms, the heads of the group or the initial investors make the energy off of those coming into the group.
The most famous modern Ponzi scheme was from Bernie Madoff who became successful by conning people to give him their money. He was so successful in part because he made the group sound like an exclusive club. (This is another clue that the group is a cult. They often refer to the group as elite, the members as special or better than others.)
Madoff convinced investors they were in an inner circle of money-makers. He promised that his clients would make 10 percent no matter if the markets went up or down. If people asked for their money back, he would pay them with the new investors’ money. The new investors were essentially paying the old investors. He used their need to feel special as well as their need to make money to draw them in, when in reality, he was doing zero to help them make money. In fact, he lost billions of dollars of investors’ money.
The cult that I joined used my need to belong, get answers, make friends, and feel special to sign me up. My energy went to supply others in the group.
Handing over empowerment to groups
We come into this world, maybe not as a clean slate, but certainly full of potentials. As we gradually give up the direct access to source by way of interferences of all sorts, the light of our own creativity can dim.
I handed over my empowerment to a spiritual group right when I was on the verge of awakening to the wisdom of the trees and my own inner light.
It was many years before the cult wore out its welcome. I had to hit bottom in relationships and my purpose to climb out of the enmeshment of lies and loyalties to a group that did nothing for me but hold me back.
My life has included a series of leaving the control of groups to reconnect to my empowerment: First the rigidity of a close-knit family, a childhood religion, society’s cultural expectations and then the spiritual group. It’s been a process of stripping away layers of ego, whatever blocks us from the light of our own truth and ultimately our purpose.
In a promising turn of events, I’ve come full circle. I spend my free time in nature, communing with the trees and as many animals as I can. Each day brings new challenges, and new opportunities to let go of an old belief, feeling, limitation. Empowerment is both peeling off the layers of an onion and standing in the wisdom of the moment. Just when I think I know something, another humbling moment reminds me that the sweet, vulnerable voice within must be won over and over again. The wisdom of the trees reminds me how to reconnect.