Original post here.
If I was to ask you, what do you think about cults, what would your response be? Most people immediately think of groups that signified a cultural environment that happened in the 60’s and 70’s, or think it’s a highly unrealistic TV show. Most people have no idea what a cult is, or why they should be concerned. In fact most people just think that cults, like Woodstock and free love, kinda got left in the 70’s/80’s (here is a classic example and for the record, I think this guy is ignorant and it is highly offensive to victims such as myself to have our stories dismissed as media hype). The reality is that cults have evolved, got better at hiding their presence, and better at recruiting.
And yet many people don’t know why they should be concerned. So I want you to imagine this scenario:
Imagine that you are maybe a little unfit and looking for a fun way to tone up. You see a free yoga class at your local community centre. So you decide to go along to try it. The people there are really nice. There is a strong sense of community and everyone is just so nice and welcoming. They listen to you when you tell them about the bad day you had yesterday, and nod sympathetically without looking bored or disinterested. They seem to genuinely care. And the class was so relaxing, you feel great!
So you go back. And again. Until you become a regular fixture, and the people there are always welcoming and friendly and they listen. They are just super nice. So one day, you are chatting to one of the helpers, and they hand you a pamphlet for their local kirtan. “It’s great!” they tell you, “we all take turns playing instruments, and singing mantras to rock tunes! You’ll have so much fun, please come, we’d love to see you there!” You’re not sure what mantras are, and you are a bit hesitant because you’re not sure this is your thing, but the yoga classes are paid for by the city, and the people are so nice, so you think, okay I’ll give it a try.
Later that week you go to this kirtan night. You don’t know what these mantras are, but you recognise the rock songs, and everyone is singing and having fun, and there is such a community atmosphere, so you enjoy yourself. The yoga instructor who invited you comes over and is delighted to see you. You’ve had a really rough week, your boss bawled you out over something that wasn’t even your fault, and one of your friends is giving you the brush off, so it’s so nice to feel valued. She hands you a plate of food, and it’s delicious. On your way out, you notice some pamphlets, with titles such as “Who Am I?” and “Respect for Others Brings Peace and Happiness” and “Discover a Deep Lasting Happiness that Money Can’t Buy”. So you grab some, because we all want to be happy and the titles hit a nerve, a secret yearning inside you. But you read two paragraphs at home, then you put them in a pile of catalogues because you’re tired. Eventually you throw them out.
The next week you get some really rough news, your aunt is sick, and the world just seems unfair. You find yourself yearning for the sense of community you felt at kirtan last week. So you go again, and this time when the yoga teacher greets you, you burst into tears and tell them about your aunt. They pat you on the shoulder, and seem genuinely concerned. They hand you a pamphlet and say that mantra meditation can help deal with the stresses of life. She has been doing it for years, she has a guru who taught her mantra meditation, he comes from an ancient order of guru’s so is very knowledgeable. You have concerns, and the words in the pamphlet seem odd and make you uncomfortable, but she seems so serene and nice that you trust her. She has been there when others haven’t, so you ask her how you can learn more about mantra meditation. The instructor invites you to a small informal gathering at her place next week and says she will show you some mantras there.
The following week, you consider not going. After re-reading the pamphlet, while there are some good points, something feels off. But you remind yourself that the yoga classes were endorsed by the local council, so they wouldn’t endorse anything sinister. And everyone is so nice. So you ignore those concerns, and you decide to go.
You arrive at the yoga instructors house. You’re led to a candle lit room. On one side of the room are some pictures, including the picture of the guru who has been on all of the pamphlets. There are a few other people there, and a couple of kids, and the instructor introduces you to everyone. You’re welcomed warmly, and one of the kids shyly gives you a garland of flowers to wear, which is very sweet. The yoga instructor is busy chatting to people, and you feel awkward, but one of the new people introduces themselves, and you chat for a while. You explain that you wanted to know more about mantra meditation because you’re having a rough time. “Oh, it’s great for helping with stress!” the new person assures you.
Then the room goes quiet, and the instructor plays a tape, and explains the first mantra. You practice the words “Mo-Dah-Nah, Mo-Hah-Nah, Moo-Rah-ree”, they aren’t so hard. So you sit there, eyes closed singing along to the soothing music. At first you feel awkward, but after a while it works. You forget for a while about your aunts illness, and you feel calm. You feel a sense of peace, and you start to relax. After a while, the instructor puts a plate of food in front of the pictures and everyone starts singing some prayers you have never heard. Someone explains that they always offer food to God and guru before eating, kind of like saying grace. You nod. It makes sense. Soon a large plate of food is brought out, and you eat, and chat, and everyone is smiling and laughing. Pretty soon you are full and genuinely smiling for the first time in a week. The instructor then grabs a piano, and everyone starts singing again. You don’t know the words, so you just try to make the sounds. Eventually they do the mantra you are familiar with, so you join in, swaying, warm, full, happy. At the end, the instructor puts on a tape of her guru, and you listen, half awake, only taking some of it in. Some of it is confusing, but some things make sense, and everyone is nodding along, so you go with it…
At this point I have to congratulate you, because without realising it, you’ve taken the first steps towards being drawn into a cult. Most people don’t realise how easy and benign the process is. But this is exactly how the cult I grew up in recruits. They have multiple yoga centres across Australia, New Zealand, Phillipines, Ireland, UK and the USA, just to name a few areas. They have a PBS show in the US with a multimillion dollar yoga franchise, many parts of it directed towards children. They also have a congresswoman ensuring that their interests are protected…
I know at this point, you’re thinking “So what, it sounds harmless to me”. I therefore want to go back and tell another side of the story. That of the yoga instructor.
The yoga instructors parents joined the cult before she was born. She was born into it. From a young age, she was isolated from any interaction with anyone other than other children from the cult. As a 3 year old, not understanding that she was supposed to bow to the floor every time The Guru’s photo was unveiled, her head was shoved to the ground and she was repremanded for showing disrespect. At 6, she was no longer allowed to play with her male friends, and had to learn to cover her body, because (as she was told) it belonged to God, and as she is female, and therefore a lesser being, she had to do what the men in her life tell her to, especially The Guru. It was her only path to spiritual enlightenment.
Growing up, she was never told by her parents that they loved her, this is because one of the major teachings of The Guru is that all material attachment needs to be avoided, and relationships — all relationships — are forms of material attachment. So her parents never told her they loved her because it would mean that that love would prevent them from returning to Heaven. The only love she would ever need would be God’s, and she is God’s servant, so must do everything God’s representative, The Guru, tells her to, so that she can go to Heaven and be loved.
She isn’t sent to school, but her parents submit a plan to the education system on how she will be home schooled. None of this is followed through with though, the plan is just a way to keep the government from looking in too closely on her, Although she is taught basic math and english, and workbooks are filled in just in case there is ever a surprise inspection. But the majority of her actual schooling is listening to daily lectures by The Guru. Unlike the lecture the new recruit heard, which would have been vetted and sanitised to paint the best possible picture, these lectures are the real deal. How kissing another human being is like kissing a bag full of pus, shit and urine. How gays are the worst sinners. How meat eaters are the most hateful evil beings. How everything she thinks is fundamentally wrong, and that the only opinion she can ever trust is that of The Guru. How only The Guru knows the truth and she knows nothing. This happens daily, perhaps even twice daily.
At 12 she is sent to a school in the Philippines. She will spend her first week in a cold room away from everyone else, sleeping on a sleeping bag on the cold concrete floor, until the school wardens are sure she isn’t carrying any illnesses. It is then she is allowed to join the rest of the children her age. She will see her family for a couple of weeks a year for the next 6 years. Her days at the school will be spent waking early in the morning offering prayers, doing chores, learning the hygiene levels required by The Guru in order to spend time in his service, and being taught The Guru’s philosophy in detail. Once she had doubts, but the thought of trying to find her way home from a foreign country with no money, to a family that wouldn’t want her anyway, was enough to make her shove them deep down and throw herself into service.
Along the way she was taught that deception was necessary in order to spread the message of The Guru and God. Outsiders won’t understand, so you have to ease them into it. Give them information slowly. Keep the Guru secret until you are sure they can be trusted with the information. Not everyone understands. The outsiders can’t know about The Guru, they would want to hurt him. That’s why her friend got repremanded for bowing to The Guru in public. It’s okay to just nod so you don’t give offence, but outsiders must not see. So deception is necessary. Be nice, be kind, you want to help these people find God again. It’s your service. It’s God’s will.
At 18 she returned home, eager after growing up in such a confined and structured environment, to establish her independence, and serve God and The Guru. So she gets leave to learn to be a yoga instructor. She is given the okay from The Guru, because The Guru’s wife is a yoga instructor, and he can see the opportunity to expand his wife’s empire (currently worth $10 million a year, non-profit). Also it is a good opportunity to find new people to “encourage on the path of God”. So working with her parents and friends, she establishes a yoga practice, and gets the support of the local council to run free classes, to help the community. She only makes a small amount of money, the rest is subsidised by the government, but she happily donates 25% of her meagre income (including government payments) to The Guru to support his cause. And because she is doing work endorsed by The Guru, she smiles and is kind, even on her worst days, because to not be would be a disservice to God, the ultimate offence, and spiritual suicide. Even the day after she lost her baby, that she and her husband had been trying for, for months, she still smiled for her class so they wouldn’t sense something was wrong, and she wouldn’t have offended God. But she spent weeks awake at night trying to work out what offence she had made in order to have her baby taken away from her.
Some times service was hard. Like the time she found a nice young man she wanted to marry. They had smiled and spoken a few times. eventually they had chaperoned visits to get to know each other better. After about 4, they decided to get married, so she worked up the courage to write The Guru a letter to ask his permission. She got it 2 weeks later via written communication. It was part of a larger letter, but in there was a paragraph where The Guru’s secretary mentioned the letter, and he responded “what, is she some kind of rutting dog in heat? What is it with kids these days, they all want to rut like dogs in the street. Is that what she wants? To rut in the street? Tell her to get married, maybe her husband will keep her under control and stop her rutting in the street.” She was deeply hurt, but he was right. The Guru was always right and must never be questioned. So she felt ashamed on her wedding day, never forgetting the rutting dog comment, hoping that no-one looked at her that way.
But her service to God and The Guru was her yoga classes, and encouraging people to kirtan and to learn about mantra meditation and The Guru. She knew how to ease people into the information, as that got the best result, and the more people she could save, the happier God would be with her and then she could go home, to Heaven, where she would be loved unconditionally and away from this cycle of pain and punishment…
A lot of people feel confused about the classification of cults, as the word cult is very loaded, but that there are groups out there that are manipulative, abusive and exploitative isn’t under question. I know this for a fact because I grew up in one, and there are many groups dedicated to educating and supporting people who have been hurt by them.
So why should you be concerned?
Because the only way cults can continue to survive is to find new members, and who do you think those members are? This isn’t just the fodder of a popular TV show, there are very real groups out there, actively recruiting. Those of us who grew up in these groups were taught from a young age how to approach outsiders in order to get them interested without scaring them off. How to ease them into the group. And it’s not that we did so to be manipulative and evil, we did it because we truly believed in the cause and that we would be helping you. That’s why it’s so hard to spot it straight away.
While it might seem like this is a rare example, there are conservative estimates of around 3000 groups in Australia and 5000+ in the US.
Finally the stories above aren’t fictional, rather they are a melding of stories I experienced and those of my friends. Gold Coast Council in Australia currently offers free yoga classes, all classes are run by members from my group, who also offer kirtan, and I know from experience both are used to recruit new members. Classes similar to these are offered all over Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, UK, USA and the Philippines.
There is a school in Baguio where all the children from 12 onwards are sent to for “schooling”. None of us are formally educated. My parents lied to the school board about us returning to New Zealand so that they could remove us from the school system. This was back in the 80’s so it was easier to do then, and I was the last generation allowed to attend school, albeit briefly (from age 8–11), and after The Guru demanded we all be removed from the “materialistic” schooling system, no child after that received a formal education, unless it somehow benefitted the Guru’s cause. I know for a fact that still none of the children in that group are being educated.
The core teachings I spoke about in the yoga teachers story, are the teachings I was brought up with. It’s a very damaging and abusive environment for a child to grow up in. I’ve only really shown a glimpse of what life was like growing up in that group. But I wanted to show you how easy it is to get pulled into a cult, and also what the reality is for those of us who grow up in it. Hopefully I’ve shown you enough, so that the next time you have doubts about something, you listen to them and do some research first. It doesn’t hurt to research and if what you see makes you feel uncomfortable, then don’t go back.
Hopefully I can save one person from joining the group I left. Hopefully I can save another child from growing up the way that I did.