Cults Come in All Kinds: The Head Is Not a Great Neighborhood to Live In

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Not unlike people, all cults may be created equal, but some are more equal -- or should I say, dangerous? -- than others. This is a simple fact agreed upon by social scientists and historians who rigorously study this subject. I'm not foolish enough to say, either explicitly or implicitly, that mine is better than yours. I'm talking about fanaticism and criminality, not beliefs and opinions -- which are harder to judge and impossible to legislate. In fact, the whole notion of us and them, good and bad, in the most simplistic black and white sense, is part of the problem we face today in our anxious and violent over-information era.

For better or for worse -- like their cousins science, magic and religion -- one man's cult is another man's religion. The Moonies, the KKK and Nazi Party-- not to say that they are all co-equal -- are free to march and express their views as long as they do not break the law.

Twenty years ago, when there was quite a bit of troubling public news concerning dangerous cults among spiritual groups in America, I co-authored a white paper with my Boston neighbor, cult deprogramming expert Steve Hassan, called "Spiritual Responsibility." Hassan writes, "Destructive mind control can be understood in terms of four basic components, which form the acronym BITE: I. Behavior Control; II. Information Control; III. Thought Control; IV. Emotional Control."

Although not every item on the list needs to be present, destructive mind control can be determined when the overall effect of these four components promotes dependency and blind obedience to some leader or cause. Mind-controlled cult members can live on their own, manage daily jobs, be married with children, and still be unable to think for themselves and act independently. If you are naïve enough to think it's far away from you, co-religionists -- like people thought about gays until recent decades -- think again. Look around a little more carefully, deeply. Read opposing views as well, discuss with other interested parties, and reach your own conclusions. Arm yourself with knowledge and strive for understanding. As a basis for relating to others with world views and beliefs very different than yours, try not to be shut down and out of relationship or dialogue.

Religio means to unite, bring together -- not to divide. Unfortunately today extreme religious views seem to be separating, rather than bringing us together. -- Lama Surya Das

Religion today is suffering at the hands of extremists and extreme views. Religio means to unite, bring together -- not to divide. Unfortunately today extreme religious views seem to be separating, rather than bringing us together. Buddhist mind-training cum spiritual refinement (lojong in Tibetan) offers effective tools to teach us how release attachments to things as well as ideas, fixed opinions, dogmatism, and even subtle and reifying notions such as selfishness, self & others, etc. This goes a long way to building bridges and opening the self-cocoons, eroding the chasm between us and them and allowing ourselves to be less guarded and more porous, as we make our way through this multifarious world.

The mind is like a wonderful computer, but memory is a very malleable thing. Ask any elder. Today, the new neuroDharma -- the interface of neuroscience with the meditative arts & contemplative practices -- with its newly developed fMRI and the like -- offer significant data-based confirmation of the sort that post-modern people respect and need in order to find their comfortable place within the timeless practicing traditions, including meditation and yoga. The recent emergence of neuroplasticity and mind-training cum attitude transformation (lojong) offer great promise in terms of what actually effects change and meaningful positive transformation, and even spiritual enlightenment.

Yet the malleability of the computer-like evolutionary organ called the mind and its consciousness allows for the possibility that one can be taught and influenced to believe and do almost anything to please and honor higher powers and authorities -- just as Diane Benscoter discusses in her TEDTalk. Part of growing up spiritually is learning to develop a discriminating inner ethical and emotional gyroscope and BS detector, along with an intuitive conscience. Doubt and questioning are not qualities oft-encouraged in autocratic institutions, not to mention totalitarian ones, where the individual's welfare generally comes after that of the group's. One can easily be taken in by false gurus, charismatic leaders and other unhealthy factions and programs. The arduous path of discipleship requires acute awareness and vigilance.

As denizens of this post-postmodern secular and scientistic age, let's not get stuck in the Cult of the Brain, nor any other sidetrack. The head is not the greatest neighborhood to live in, though it does have its assets and intellect is an excellent servant but a poor master. If we are genuinely seeking conscious evolution and enlightenment, we have to make the journey from the head to the heart, excluding nothing, including body and soul, energy, psyche and all the rest. Everything is so subjective, which becomes obvious after a while. There is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so, as Buddha said. No, that was William Shakespeare. Oh well.

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