Red flags in spiritual communities
In the second episode of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s 2019 podcast series, “Escaping NXIVM,” they describe a situation where a group of women were asked to sear a symbol onto their upper hips as initiation to a secret women’s-only group. One of the women who participated told the CBC that they were asked to repeatedly say, “Master, please brand me, it would be an honor,” while a NXIVM-affiliated physician performed the pain-inducing act. The woman had doubts. She wanted to scream and run away, but she did not. She chose to do something to her body which was against her values and common sense. She bought in to the story that the initiation was an act of loyalty and a sign of her commitment to personal growth.
You might ask, how could a successful, intelligent, educated woman allow herself to participate in such a painful and humiliating ritual? Why are people willing to hurt themselves, hurt others, or even die for their group—be it a cult, religious organization, or government?
From Enlightenment to murder?
The brilliant Netflix documentary series “Wild, Wild, Country,” about Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (Osho), his assistant Ma Anand Sheela, and their followers, presents another example of what can go wrong with even the best of intentions. Rajneesh, a controversial teacher and “God-man,” was teaching a radical form of meditation and philosophy in an effort to bridge Eastern and Western philosophy. In the second chapter, we see Sheela speaking about the community they formed as a kind of “heaven on earth,” while residents of the nearest town perceive the community as invaders.
By episode three, Sheela and other leaders, who are supposed to be following Rajneesh’s teaching of mindfulness, love, creativity, and humor, are teaching community members to use semi-automatic rifles. In episode four, we see the community in full confrontation with the local town and county for what can only be described as a hostile takeover of one culture by another. By episode five, Sheela and other members are actively plotting to assassinate a local official and the personal doctor of Rajneesh. The community eventually is closed after Rajneesh escapes and is later captured by immigration officers, and Sheela serves time for her crimes.
How is it possible that a guru who teaches love and mindfulness would allow his community to deteriorate into using controlling, greedy, and terrorizing tactics to gain power? A cynic might say this is the nature of human beings. A more conservative person might take what happened as an example of moral deterioration. What happened could also be understood as the outcome of indoctrination. But how would that be possible if the purpose of Rajneesh’s teachings was to celebrate individuation and to free people from the bonds of their cultures of origin? Did the members of the community not see the paradox? Was Rajneesh not aware of what Sheela and his closest students were doing? Is this the fate of any group seeking to live an alternative life separated from mainstream culture?
Rajneesh’s social experiment was not the first or the last to show great promise at the outset, only to end painfully (traumatically, even) for its members. The list is long and ranges from extreme and tragic endings (e.g., Heaven’s Gate, the Branch Davidians, and The People’s Temple, to name a few), to more mild endings (e.g., Buddhafield, the Children of God, and The Source Family). What has gone wrong and why does this keep happening to so many intentional communities seeking to advance culture? And why has this been occurring throughout history, even in all major religions?
The CODE: Preventing the dangers of spiritual work
There are many reasons why these communities eventually dissolved. However, for the purposes of this book, I would like to highlight stories that offer lessons to those who wish to build a community with religious or spiritual intentions. To do so, I will use one of the five principles of the CODE as my guide.
Each of the communities I mentioned lacked humanity and did not pay attention to the developmental tasks of their members. To some extent, this is an unfair criticism because it is the very nature of an operating system not to see its own limitations until it is time to adapt due to changing circumstances. In the case of Rajneesh’s community (and I am only speaking about the Rajneeshpuram experiment in this context), Sheela and the inner circle embodied an egocentric and power-driven stage of development when the county started to push back against their vision.
From that moment forward, the community’s advanced values were dominated by a baser defensive impulse. This was demonstrated by weaponizing the city, by the assassination attempts, by secretly recording other members, by power moves against members of the community and the neighboring town, and by disregard for people who did not share the same value systems.
If you watched the documentary series, you might remember how slowly but surely some leading members of the community enforced their resolve with little or no resistance. The community they invaded had a level of maturation that their supposedly more advanced, progressive group did not possess.
The depth of disrespect and contempt harbored by the community members is evident from the documentary. Scant care was expressed for what was happening to anybody who lived in the town. This suggests that the process of individuation was not mature in the community. If it had been, people would have been allowed to explore and voice their concerns, challenge the teacher and the leadership team, and maintain clear boundaries.
True, there was a lot of freedom to explore spirituality and sexuality. The members experimented and challenged the dominant cultural norms of their time, but their motivations seemed to come from egocentrism. There was a strong emphasis on radical liberation, where everything was allowed. Very little consideration was expressed for anything or anybody outside of or at the fringe of the group.
I would like you to notice what happens when this kind of worldview is not integrated with other, as important, personal needs and collective outlooks. A more developed version of that community would have considered the perspectives and concerns of the people who lived in the neighboring town. They would have respectfully engaged in dialogue, and members would have comfortably critiqued the behavior of their leaders. What we can learn from this case is that communities and groups are always at risk of devolving to this level of behavior when threatened or when there is not enough understanding of how to integrate their egocentric (and group-centric) needs with those of a larger context.
From the best selling book on Amazon "Spiritual Misfits: Collaboration and Belonging in a divisive world"