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OF COURSE, NOT EVERYONE WOULD AGREE that things are as bad as we have seen with today’s spiritual leaders and communities. Indeed, one does not have to search far at all to find psychological professionals who are more than willing to stand up and defend the highly questionable reported actions of our world’s guru-figures.

In 1987, for example, Dick Anthony and Ken Wilber, teaming with another of their like-minded associates, published Spiritual Choices: The Problem of Recognizing Authentic Paths to Inner Transformation. We will evaluate the worth of that text shortly.

Anthony himself has often served as an expert witness in defense of alternative religious movements accused of “brainwashing” their members, and the like.

[He] listed some of his clients for the record. That list included the “Unification Church [i.e., the Moonies, whose founder ‘was convicted of conspiracy to obstruct justice and conspiracy to file false tax returns and sentenced to a term in federal prison’ (Singer, 2003)], the Hare Krishna movement, The Way International [and] Church of Scientology” (Ross, 2003).

Regarding the Moonies, then:

[In July of 2002] Moon announced himself as “Savior, Messiah and King of Kings of all humanity.” He actually splashed this across newspapers throughout America in full-page ads (Ross, 2002a).

As Moon himself elaborated, in his Unification News (for August 24, 2002):

In early July I spoke in five cities around Korea at rallies held by the Women’s Federation for World Peace. There, I declared that my wife ... and I are the True Parents of all humanity. I declared that we are the Savior, the Lord of the Second Advent, the Messiah.

Enough said—except to add that Moon owns the Washington Times newspaper. (The Moonies also apparently own the University of Bridgeport, Connecticut [Hassan, 2000].) He has also been reported to be a friend of (and up to $10 million donor to) the George Bush family (Kuncl, 2001), and has had close contact with Mormon U.S. politician Orrin Hatch.

Regarding The Way International: Details as to the allegations of sexual misconduct against leaders at TWI exist online at EmpireNet (2003). And for those who wish to leave that nontraditional Bible group, the following allegations have been made:

Sharon Bell says Way members told her “it might be necessary to kill anyone who tried to leave the group.” Timothy Goodwin was told the devil would kill him if he left (Rudin and Rudin, 1980).

Such organizations as these, then, constitute some of Dick Anthony’s reported clients, which he would surely, one assumes, not hesitate to suggest are “not as bad as” the other, genuinely “problematic” groups in the world. Just because they are “nontraditional religions,” after all, is no reason to discriminate against them.

Also reportedly on Anthony’s list of nontraditional religions, however,

are the Branch Davidians [of David Koresh fame] ... and he says, “In the United States, the Catholic Church, well it’s definitely the largest nontraditional religion” (Ross, 2003).

The idea that the Catholic Church is “nontraditional” is puzzling—leaving one wondering, indeed, what religions might ever qualify as “traditional”—but we may let that pass.

Anthony’s religious allegiance belongs to Meher Baba, who in his heyday had “as many as a million devotees ... in India and thousands in the United States” (Manseau and Sharlet, 2004).

When Pete Townshend of the Who embarked on his own spiritual quest in 1968, he too found his guru in the voluntarily mute Meher—the “Baba” in “Baba O’Riley” refers to none other—as did the Small Faces’ Ronnie Lane. (In much earlier, silent film days, Hollywood stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford once gave a reception in Meher’s honor.) Townshend actually ran a “Baba Center” in England for a time. His solo LP, Who Came First, further grew out of a planned tribute to the guru, who himself claimed “to have been taken into the council of the gods and to know the future of all mankind” (Brunton, 1935).

As Baba O’Meher himself put it:

Once I publicly announce myself as a messiah, nothing will be able to withstand my power. I shall openly work miracles in proof of my mission at the same time. Restoring sight to the blind, healing the sick, maimed and crippled, yes, even raising the dead—these things will be child’s play to me! (in Brunton, 1935).

Indeed, Meher “Eyesight to the Blind” Baba claimed to be, not merely an avatar, but the Avatar for this world age, after having been confirmed as such by Upasani Baba. (Interestingly, Adi Da purported a connection to the same Upasani Baba, if not to his twenty-five virgin wives [Bob, 2000].) He further claimed to have previously manifested as Zoroaster, Rama, Krishna, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad.

In response to questions about his spiritual identity, Baba tap-tapped things [on his letter-board] like “I am God in human form. Of course many people say they are God-incarnate, but they are hypocrites” (Manseau and Sharlet, 2004).

Baba further told an illustrative story of a guru who had ordered one of his disciples to kill the latter’s own child. Having obediently complied and buried it according to instruction, the sage then told the same disciple to go home, where he would find the child alive, as he soon did.

“And they all lived happily ever after.”

Though an extreme example of the methods a Master may use in order to show his disciples the illusory nature of this phenomenal world, it illustrates the unquestioning faith which a disciple should have for his Master, and how utterly detached and obedient he is expected to be (Adriel, 1947).

That, then, is obviously the degree of obedience which Meher expected from his own followers, in order for them to be regarded as being “loyal” to him—as Adriel was, and presumably Anthony himself still is. (Yogananda told a similar “true story” in his Autobiography, regarding a man who threw himself off a Himalayan precipice at Babaji’s command, to show his obedience. When subsequently brought back to life after passing that “test,” he became one of Babaji’s “immortal” band of disciples. As manipulative fairy tales go....) Indeed, the following absurd recommendation from Anthony (et al., 1987; italics added) would seem to support that proposal, regarding loyalty:

The idea of a master having perfect consciousness is uncomfortable and unwelcome—and therefore not taken seriously—because the perfection implies total faith, surrender, and obedience to the master, no matter what one is told to do.

Indeed, as Baba himself (1967) explained:

It is only possible to gain God-realization by the grace of a Perfect Master.

And such grace is gained, of course, only through unconditional obedience. (Note: Anthony [et al., 1987] never actually met Meher in the flesh, and is thus in a uniquely poor position to recommend surrender and total “obedience to the master.” Rather than practicing such in-person subservience, he has simply had a few mystical experiences which he precariously takes to have been initiated by the deceased Baba. In such a situation, it would indeed be easy to have “total faith” that one has found a “Perfect Master.” Indeed, that perspective is fully comparable to Wilber’s safe distance from Da and Cohen, and his equal recommendation that others surrender themselves to an “adventure” which he himself has never had.)

Meher Baba’s teachings also included the instruction, “Don’t worry. Be happy” (C. Welch, 1995). His ideas in general greatly influenced Townshend in writing his classic rock opera, “Tommy,” about a child traumatized into being deaf, dumb and blind, and thereafter receiving his knowledge of the world only through (skin) sensations.

Ironically, Townshend himself went stone deaf within a decade of recording that album, after years of in-concert aural abuse. Along with Baba’s silence, then, between the two of them they covered two-thirds of Tommy’s disabilities.

If I was Roger Daltrey, I’d be having regular eye checkups. For, Baba’s own healing abilities, even while alive, seem to have been markedly less impressive than he and his followers claimed them to be. Indeed, as Paul Brunton (1935) related:

I have taken the trouble to investigate during my travels the few so-called miracles of healing which [Meher Baba] is alleged to have performed. One is a case of appendicitis, and the sufferer’s simple faith in Meher is said to have completely cured him. But strict enquiry shows that the doctor who has attended this man could discover nothing worse than severe indigestion! In another case a nice old gentleman, who has been reported cured overnight of a whole catalog of ailments, seems to have had little more than a swollen ankle!

As further detailed by Brunton, Meher’s numerous prophecies concerning upcoming calamitous events fared no more impressively, consistently failing to materialize on time.

Brunton then came to an understandable conclusion:

Meher Baba, though a good man and one living an ascetic life, is unfortunately suffering from colossal delusions about his own greatness ... a fallible authority, a man subject to constantly changing moods, and an egotist who demands complete enslavement on the part of his brain-stupefied followers.

And what did Meher himself have to say about all of those concerns?

Not much:

Baba, hailed as a Perfect Spiritual Master [of which there are supposedly exactly fifty-six present on Earth at all times, with the highest of them always being a man (Adriel, 1947)], had taken a vow of silence but he was supposed to reveal all and give his followers “the word” before his death. Unfortunately he died in 1969 before he could utter another sentence (C. Welch, 1995).

A mere half century after Brunton’s reasonable conclusions regarding Meher Baba’s veracity, Feuerstein (1992; italics added) opined:

It became evident to many that his announcement [of the anticipated silence-breaking] had been meant symbolically, though some saw it as an indication that he had, after all, been duping everyone.

All things considered, then, good to be one of the “some” rather than the “many.” Although one suspects that, overall, the “many” are probably far less in number than the “some.”

In any case, it must be quite clear by now that if “idiot compassion” exists, in coddling people rather than judiciously telling them the painful truth for their own benefit, then so too does “idiot tolerance.” The latter is indeed exemplified via insufferable apologetics for unrepentant (and not infrequently highly deluded) guru-figures and organizations of which little good can really be said. Further, what meager good can be legitimately claimed about them does not even begin to weigh against the bad. Thus, any “balanced” presentation would still look like an unbalanced one to anyone who had naïvely bought into the scrubbed, public face of the guru-figure or organization.

Those figures and groups invariably have well-oiled PR (or propaganda) departments which have fully succeeded in publicizing the good elements (both real and fabricated) of the spiritual teacher and his/her organization. It is only rarely, however, that the alleged bad aspects of each of those make their way into print, often against reported violent attempts at suppression or retribution.

* * *

Incredibly, most of the “enlightened” individuals and ashrams included herein would have been considered to fall close to the “safest” of the categories in the typologies of Dick Anthony (1987), et al., via the Spiritual Choices book. That is, nearly all of the spiritual teachers we have met thus far (not including the leaders of the Hare Krishnas, Moonies, or Jim Jones) were:

  • Monistic rather than dualistic—i.e., working toward realizing a state of inherent conscious oneness with all things, as opposed to placing God as inexorably separate from creation and approachable only through a unique savior such as Jesus, with the failure to follow the appropriate savior leading to eternal damnation (exceptions: none)

  • Multilevel—i.e., having a “distinct hierarchy of spiritual authority,” in gnosis versus teachings versus interpretations (unilevel exceptions, which “confuse real and pseudo-transcendence of mundane consciousness,” include Findhorn, Scientology, Rajneesh and TM [notwithstanding that the Maharishi’s teachings themselves are rooted in the Vedas]), and

  • Non-charismatic—i.e., emphasizing techniques of spiritual transformation (e.g., meditation), rather than relying on a personal relationship between disciple and teacher as the means of evolution/enlightenment of the former (exceptions: Ramakrishna, Meher Baba, Neem Karoli Baba, Adi Da, Muktananda, Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, Jetsunma, Cohen, and Sai Baba and Chinmoy to lesser degrees)

Trungpa, Satchidananda and Zen Buddhism were all explicitly placed in Anthony’s “safest” category—of “multilevel, technical monism.” In his second-safest grouping (“multilevel, charismatic monism”) we find Meher Baba, Neem Karoli Baba, Muktananda, Chinmoy and Adi Da.

If those are “safe” spiritual leaders and communities, though, one shudders to think what “dangerous” ones might look like. One’s jaw drops further to find that, as late as 2003, Wilber has still been recommending Spiritual Choices to others as a means of distinguishing “safe” groups from potentially “problematic” ones. That such recommendations are coming years after the central thesis (as documented above) of the text has been wholly discredited in practice, is astounding.

Fooled by the arguments of Anthony, et al., I myself had endorsed Spiritual Choices at one point in a previous work. Obviously, however, my opinion of that book and of its authors’ ideas has matured significantly since then. Indeed, by this point I very much regret that previous naïvete on my part, particularly when it is coupled with ideas such as the following, from the same group of “experts”:

[Tom] Robbins and [Dick] Anthony’s own contribution [to In Gods We Trust (1982)] includes a superb introduction—perhaps the best single chapter in the anthology; a complete and devastating critique of the brainwashing model; and an insightful report on the Meher Baba community (Wilber, 1983b).

The relevant meager, twelve-page, utterly simplistic chapter on brainwashing, however, is anything but a “complete” critique, much less a “devastating” one. Whatever one may think of the brainwashing and mind-control debate, how could a five-thousand word treatment of that complex subject possibly be “complete”? Entire books have been written from both sides of the controversy without exhausting it; entire Library of Congress Cataloguing in Publication designations exist for the subject! Even if the short paper in question were the greatest ever written, it could not possibly be “complete”!

For myself, I have found the chapter in question to be utterly unimpressive. Indeed, it shows near-zero understanding of the psychological factors influencing one’s “voluntary joining,” and later difficulty in leaving, such environments. There is nothing whatsoever “devastating” about the text, whether one agrees or disagrees with Anthony’s overall perspective.

By stark contrast, for a genuinely intelligent and insightful discussion of the brainwashing and mind-control question, consult Chapters 2 and 3 of Michael Langone’s (1995) anthology, Recovery from Cults. Chapter 13 of the same book offers many chilling examples of previously healthy persons suffering mental breakdowns as an alleged result of various, unspecified, large group awareness training sessions. Child abuse in so-called cults is covered disturbingly well in its Chapter 17.

For a revealing example of Anthony’s own dismal attempts at critiquing other scholars’ ideas, see Zablocki (2001).

* * *

Zimbardo, for one, had the common sense and compassion to remove the prisoners who weren’t psychologically able to leave on their own, from his simulated prison. Religious apologists by contrast, in support of their insistence that brainwashing and mind control don’t exist, would more likely simply leave the poor bastards there to suffer. After all, everyone in the ashram/prison entered that totalitarian environment voluntarily, and other people manage to leave on occasion, so what is the problem? Why interfere with that “nontraditional” society, where no one is being physically constrained to stay?

In our view persons have a right to enter totalistic subcultures and have done so voluntarily for centuries (Robbins and Anthony, 1982).

Certainly, we each have the right to enter, and remain in, any subculture in which we wish to participate; that much is blindingly obvious. But it is not difficult to comprehend the dangers inherent in walking naïvely into environments where, if one has bought deeply into the teachings at any point, it is not easy to leave. There is thus at least an obligation to warn others as to what they may be getting themselves into, in voluntarily entering such contexts. To fight for the right to enter and “surrender completely” to one or another “holy fool,” without in any way comprehending the difficulties involved in leaving, is beyond acceptable human ignorance. It is also absolutely guaranteed to create more pain than it could ever alleviate.

Robbins and Anthony (1982) then give their grossly oversimplified perspective on the constraints binding people into closed communities:

The psychological and peer group pressures which are mobilized to inhibit leaving [so-called] cults should probably not be equated with armed guards and fences in their capacity to influence attitudes.

But: Tell that to Zimbardo’s prisoner #819—the “bad” prisoner who refused to leave the study—for whom those pressures were indeed just as constraining, and more psychologically destructive, than any mere “armed guards and fences” could have been. Indeed, whether the constraints take the form of peer pressures, literal fences, or concern about “pursuing furies,” they will all have the same effect. That is, they will all make it extremely difficult for one to leave such environments, even having entered them voluntarily to begin with.

As I later tried to explain to people outside Scientology, I was like a two year old child. I was incapable of leaving home. They owned my soul. The ties binding me to the Org, though invisible, were more powerful than any physical bond could have been. I was in a trap more powerful than any cage with iron bars and a lock. Mentally I belonged to them (Wakefield, 1996; italics added).
[Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard] controlled our thoughts to such an extent that you couldn’t think of leaving without thinking there was something wrong with you (Gerry Armstrong, in [Miller, 1987]).

Without having done in-depth research (particularly in the pre-Internet days), however, such poor souls had no way of knowing what they were getting themselves into. Thus, they suffer endlessly, for no greater sin than having “surrendered completely” to one or another “god” in a voluntarily entered totalitarian environment. Meanwhile, our world’s unduly respected theoreticians congratulate themselves, and each other, on having composed “devastating critiques” which embody little reference indeed to the spectrum of relevant concerns.

One may further argue endlessly about what constitutes coercive “brainwashing” or relatively subtle “mind control,” and whether any given community is guilty of either or both of those. The answer does not really matter here, simply because there are people trapped in every such environment who cannot, psychologically, “just leave,” regardless of any “theories” which may say that they shouldn’t be thus constrained. Zimbardo demonstrated that with a mere dozen previously healthy individuals thirty years ago; as did Wilber himself, inadvertently, at the low, suicidal point of his own second marriage.

One might further be tempted to disparage the intelligence, independence or emotional stability of #819 as a cause for his inability to leave the simulated prison. One would not likely cast the same aspersions on Wilber himself, however, in his “inability to leave” a marriage which he had voluntarily and enthusiastically entered, but which came to (at that low point) cause him nothing but distress.

One may well then be free to abandon those who cannot leave any environment, if one’s superficial theories say that they should be able to leave, since “others are able to.” One might even apply that callous idea to individuals ranging from trapped disciples to battered wives who entered their marriages “voluntarily.” One is not equally free, however, to lay any claim to bodhisattva-like compassion, while uncaringly turning one’s back on others who clearly cannot, in those circumstances, help themselves. Such a “survival of the fittest/rudest” approach, enforced in these contexts, is in no way worthy of the name “spiritual.”

* * *
[So-called cults] clearly differ from such purely authoritarian groups as the military ... and centuries-old Roman Catholic ... orders. These groups, though rigid and controlling, lack a double agenda and are not manipulative or leader-centered (Singer, 2003).

Regarding the military, though:

[T]he military uses many components of mind control. [S]ome vets have [told me that] their recruiter lied to them [in a “double agenda”] (Hassan, 2000).

Or consider this, from one of Philip Zimbardo’s (2004b) correspondents:

I joined the United States Marine Corps, pursuing a childhood dream. [While there, I was] the victim of repeated illegal physical and mental abuse. An investigation showed I suffered more than forty unprovoked beatings....
The point I am trying to make is that the manner in which your guards carried about their duties and the way that military drill instructors do is unbelievable. I was amazed at all the parallels.
A body of social science evidence shows that when systematically practiced by state-sanctioned police, military or destructive [so-called] cults, mind control can induce false confessions, create converts who willingly torture or kill “invented enemies,” engage indoctrinated members to work tirelessly, give up their money—and even their lives—for “the cause” (Zimbardo, 2002; italics added).

In any case, Zimbardo’s simulated prison environment, too, had no hidden agenda, and was not leader-centered. (It was “manipulative” only to the degree required to enforce the desired level of obedience and respect from its prisoners—or from its “congregation”—each of whom had again voluntarily entered the study, being in no way deceptively recruited.) Yet, “toxic is as toxic does”—that is, the relevant effects on their members are no different, even if one can list a series of differences in the apparent causes.

Of course, even the most reportedly destructive group will have aspects which are not “cult-like”—particularly for members who are only participating “from a distance” on Sabbaths or Sunday mornings, not seven days a week. Those attributes can thus be used to argue/theorize that the groups in question are rather “respectable” and “mainline” ones, which might appear to match any definition for what a “cult” is only via “picking and choosing.” Yet, a few good points will never outweigh multitudinous shortcomings in other regards.

Further, whether any of those communities are leader-centered or not is essentially irrelevant. For, one can be imprisoned by an infallible, unquestionable ideology—ascribed to relevant prophets and archaic “holy scriptures,” which one cannot disobey without suffering severe consequences—just as easily as by an individual charismatic leader.

A prison or a high school or a heartless business corporation or a fundamentalist religious ministry or a frat house during pledging “Hell Week,” or a bad marriage or an abusive family, is assuredly not a destructive, sadistic, brainwashing “cult,” by any definition of the phrase.

But still ... one cannot help but notice that each of those environments can be highly intolerant of even minor disobedience to its authority-figures. Likewise, each may well offer no “exit clause” whereby one can “just leave” without suffering extreme social or financial penalties, should one be mistreated by one’s peers and/or superiors.

I saw that the structure of most families, businesses and governments were as committed to keeping their members in their places as my [so-called] cult [under Yogi Bhajan] ever had been (K. Khalsa, 1994).

Even in a free and democratic country under siege one can see precisely the same psychological dynamics. For, a populace rallying ‘round the flag will treat even the mildest questioning of its leaders’ abilities or motives as being near-treasonous—worthy of imprisonment or deportation, if not of literal excommunication. In doing so, they are behaving exactly like the members of any “cult” would, when confronted with even the most gentle suggestion that their “divine, infallible” leader may not actually be fit to lead, or in having the well-being of their “saved” or “best” group be threatened.

And, just as with “brainwashed cult members,” such a populace, too, willingly surrenders its hard-won freedoms to even the most bumbling and dishonest authorities, in order to once again feel safe and saved from other “evil, persecuting” outsiders. And, just as a guru-figure and his followers may truly believe that the only reason they are being picked on is because their superior integrity, etc., makes others feel uncomfortable, presidents and entire countries will advance and believe the same foolish arguments. And, the quickest way for both spiritual and political leaders to detract from their own scandalous behaviors and associated attempts at controlling their followers’ thoughts is to focus on the “war against Evil,” which exists in full force only outside the borders of the community, and cannot be allowed inside ... or, if already inside, must be exterminated (e.g., via witch hunts or genocide).

The complication, of course, arises when the enemy is real, has indeed infiltrated the borders of the community, and is intent on destroying your freedoms and way of life. Such situations rarely arise in the spiritual world, where “Satan” is just a chimera; the political world, unfortunately, is not so simple and harmless.

* * *

The tortures which frat house pledges in particular will voluntarily undergo are further worth giving additional consideration to. For there, prospective house members have been known to willingly endure beatings, drink their own urine, and literally choke to death in attempting to swallow slabs of raw liver (Cialdini, 2001). All of that behavior, of course, is the product of absolutely no “mind control,” deceptive recruiting, sleep deprivation or hypnotic chanting, etc. Rather, it is willingly embraced simply in order that one may become a member of an “in” group—“saved” from the “damnation” of being a social outcaste.

The corresponding social dynamic in the world of both nontraditional and traditional religion, with its associated unsaved “spiritual outcastes” is, in my opinion, grossly underrated.

Also, consider Solomon Asch’s conformity experiments, again showing that, when faced with the choice between being liked versus being right or telling the truth, we frequently choose the former—i.e., on the average, around one-third of the time. That is, we will lie to others, and to ourselves, in order to fit in, to not look foolish, to avoid criticism, and/or for assuming that the group knows better than we do.

Now, simply couple that fact with the idea that if we tell ourselves a lie often enough, we will eventually believe it. (Even in Asch’s study, there were subjects who genuinely believed that the obviously wrong, peer-pressured answers they had given in the group, were actually correct [M. Underwood, 2005].)

The question now, though, is not which of several lines is the same length as another. Rather, it is whether Guru X is the most enlightened being around. And the “confederates” vouching for that guru as being the “right answer” have been there longer than you have, and are thus more spiritually advanced than you are—only “ego” would question that, after all. Thus, they know better than you do.

So, in that environment, simply via the pressures of conformity, without any necessary techniques of “mind control” being applied: Who do you think Da Greatest Living Realizer is?

Controlled studies have further shown that the greater the amount of trouble or pain we have to go through in order to get something, the more we will value it later:

Aronson and Mills [demonstrated] that the severity of an initiation ceremony significantly heightens the newcomer’s commitment to the group (Cialdini, 2001; italics added).

And, of course, the more committed one is, the more difficult it will be to leave.

The experiences of Zen meditators sitting zazen in the lotus posture for hours on end, their knees burning and bodies aching—being hit with “the stick” should they even shift their positions—will unavoidably fall under the sway of exactly the same principle. For, those sitters are effectively “pledging” to be accepted as members of a fraternity of more enlightened, respected and admired individuals than themselves.

Whether there is, or has ever been, any calculation or malice on the part of the spiritual leaders in all that, is irrelevant here. For, the psychological effect is just as certain. That is, when one has gone through extreme pain and humiliation in order to get closer to enlightenment and be “one of the boys,” one will thereafter encounter great psychological difficulty in leaving the community, or even in questioning whether “enlightenment” is anything of value.

Any effects of explicit “mind control” (in sleep deprivation, love-bombing, hypnotic induction, etc.) would only be on top of the “baseline” of conformity, and of the commitment (and ensuing difficulty in leaving) involved in “pledging enlightenment.” And those baselines, arising from simple and unavoidable human psychology, are already enough to create environments which, were only a little theology to be thrown into the mix, one could hardly avoid calling religious “cults.”

“Cult members,” at least prior to joining their respective organizations, do not differ significantly in terms of their psychologies and associated mental stability as compared to their counterparts on the “outside,” any more than Zimbardo’s “Nazi” guards and docile prisoners differed prior to their incarceration. (Again, explicit and recognized psychological tests given prior to that imprisonment documented exactly that homogeneity.) Even more unsettling, however, the closed societies which are composed of those same members differ from our “safe, daily life” only in degree, not in kind.

Indeed, the fact that “problematic” groups partake of exactly the same psychological dynamics and social structures as does our “normal” world, just at a higher level of intensity, is precisely why previously healthy groups of people can degenerate into sadistic “cults” in less than a long weekend, even without a guru to push that devolution along.

So, as far as “spiritual choices” go, the safest thing, really, is to “Just say, ‘No.’” Or, failing that, to ignore, as much as you possibly can, the advice of “experts” who search too ardently for reasons to “not worry” and “be happy” about our world’s spiritual organizations.

For example:

When questioned in 1988 [i.e., a full ten years after the Jonestown mass suicides] about the Jim Jones group, [J. Gordon] Melton said, “This wasn’t a cult. This was a respectable, mainline Christian group” (Hassan, 2000).

When you are dealing with people—however warm-hearted, kind and considerate they may be in their private lives—with such professional views of reality as to insist that even Jonestown was not a “cult” ... oy vey.

Nor is there, unfortunately, any comfort to be taken in the relative absence of geographic isolation in North America or the like, as compared to Jones’ Guyana. That is so, in spite of the claims of long-time “cult” observers such as the late Louis Jolyon West. For, in the immediate aftermath of the Jonestown suicides, Dr. West opined:

This wouldn’t have happened in California. But they lived in total alienation from the rest of the world in a jungle situation in a hostile country (in Cialdini, 2001).

In the years since Jonestown, however, the tragedies involving both David Koresh (in Waco, Texas) and the Heaven’s Gate cult (San Diego) have occurred. Indeed, the latter 1997 suicides were enacted even more willingly than those of Jim Jones’ followers had been. For, no gun-barrel threats of force at all were required on the part of the leaders of that UFO-related cult. Rather, the suicides were simply part of their members’ sincere efforts to get to the “Next Level” of conscious evolution, in actions which fully “made sense” within the believed theology of that organization. That is, the Heaven’s Gate followers simply did what they took to be necessary to ensure their own salvation—albeit after many years of waiting.

So, how badly do you want the form of salvation called “enlightenment”? Are you willing to do whatever it takes—to “face the heat” of Truth, regardless of how bad it may get? To have the crap beaten out of you? To have your ass roasted? To eat barbiturates in applesauce?

[T]he line that separates religious enthusiasm from [so-called] cult zombiehood is narrower than we commonly pretend ... our own beliefs (or the beliefs of our friends) in angels, UFOs, ESP, Kennedy assassination conspiracies, you name it, differ from the elaborate sci-fi ideologies of groups like Heaven’s Gate in degree, not in kind (Futrelle, 1997).

So, assuredly, it could “happen in California.” It already has.

The heavily armed Rajneeshpuram could easily have violently and apocalyptically “happened” too—even without mass suicides—had it not been for its fortunate collapse following the guru’s “brave retreat” out of the country. Plus, much of Charles Manson’s mind-control programming of his own followers, in the late ’60s, was effected at the machine-gun fortified Spahn Ranch, outside of Los Angeles (Krassner, 1993).

And all of that is sadly not surprising. For, the issue in all of these cases is the degree of isolation from outside ideas and perspectives, specifically from being able to see how others “like you” are behaving in the real world, to use that as a guide for your own thoughts and actions. And one can be thus isolated and obsessed by apocalyptic fears in the middle of a major city, or in a simulated basement prison at the center of a bustling university campus, just as surely as one can be so in the darkest jungle.

Note: Dick Anthony himself was present at an alternative spirituality-based seminar in the mid-’80s with both Zimbardo and Wilber, along with numerous other highly placed transpersonal psychologists. The footnoted indication of Zimbardo’s attendance at that meeting, however—plus two inconsequential questions asked by him of an interviewee (Werner Erhard)—is the only mention of him in Anthony, Ecker and Wilber’s (1987) Spiritual Choices. That is, not a word is spoken of Zimbardo’s (or Milgram’s) groundbreaking professional work, while the other contributors to that misled volume occupy themselves with the valiant struggle of determining how to distinguish “safe” guru-figures and organizations (such as Trungpa’s and Muktananda’s) from reportedly “problematic” ones. Nor, amazingly, have Zimbardo’s classic observations even quietly made their way into the confident arguments given there, by people whose lives have been devoted to understanding those issues.

Sad. Very sad.

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