Recently I’ve felt drawn to watching documentaries about cults and other high-control groups. For example The Vow which tells a fascinating story about NXIVM, an organization selling personal development courses that attracted thousands of people with a leader who was viewed by many as an enlightened human being. This person however turned out to be a narcissistic psychopath who skillfully managed to brainwash many people and cause incredible physical and emotional harm. He is currently serving a 120 year sentence in an US prison. (a lot can be said about the American justice system but in this case I feel they got it right)
Orgasm.inc features a woman who offered workshops and trainings centered around living your best life and being truly ‘free’ through experiencing orgasm. Just as the NXIVM-leader, she positioned herself as a spiritual teacher and her organization (as well as personal wealth) grew exponentially over a few years. Interviews with former members of OneTaste however show the abuse that went on and how it affected them deeply. A FBI investigation is currently being conducted into this woman’s (former) company and practices.
I’ve also been fascinated by documentaries featuring Mormon fundamentalism such as Keep Sweet and Under the Banner of Heaven. It’s mind-boggling to me how anyone – especially women – would choose this lifestyle and be happy with it (but I understand a lot has to do with people having been raised in that environment). However, looking at NXIVM and OneTaste it’s a lot less confusing to me to understand why someone would be attracted to these types of personal development workshops and trainings. Why? Because I’ve been attracted to them myself.
On this blog I describe myself as a seeker. I’m endlessly fascinated by the mystery of living life. I love diving deep inside myself and discovering what’s going on there. I want to live life to the fullest and experience it completely for the duration of my lifetime. I don’t want to shy away from anything, however difficult, challenging or traumatic it might be. There’s so much to learn from living life in awareness! This path I’m walking in my life will never cease to interest me and as you’ve probably noticed, I love writing about it too.
As part of my seeker journey I’ve chosen to participate in many different personal development trainings and workshops (not NXIVM or OneTaste though, in case you were wondering). In these settings I’ve met people from all over the world and together we’ve been on some pretty crazy rides. One major insight I got from all the hours, days, weeks and months I’ve spent on these trainings over the past nine years is the fact that we’re incredibly similar as human beings. On the outside we might look completely different but inside we all seem to long for the same things: to be seen, to be loved, to be accepted for who we truly are, to belong, to feel safe.
From own experience I can write that feeling these feelings truly and deeply can be highly addictive. When a teacher skillfully helps you peel off some layers of your ego-structure (which is not the most pleasant of experiences) and you finally touch something inside yourself and in your body beyond that – it feels like touching life itself. There is incredible energy here. I’ve never taken drugs but this must be a better high than cocaine. You can go from feeling completely exhausted to jumping and dancing around in a matter of seconds. It can feel so intoxicating, finally feeling like yourself: your True Self. Liberated from a lot of crap. Light as a feather. It’s what you see in documentaries when you see rooms full of people dancing around ‘like no one’s watching’. It’s fantastic. It’s liberating.
And then you go home.
After The Ecstasy, The Laundry is an interesting book by Jack Kornfield and it has such an accurate title. Because away from the intense and intoxicating environment of a workshop or retreat, you will inevitably find yourself back into ‘The World’ and that can feel like the worst hangover ever. So I understand why people choose to return to certain spiritual settings over and over again, regardless of costs both financially and relationship-wise. For some people it becomes a lifestyle, and a highly addictive one. They become workshop leaders or assistants themselves. Some leave their home, relationships and jobs, move into spiritual communities. Some people seem to get so convinced of a certain way of living; it feels so right to them that they lose track of the fact that there might be other perspectives worth considering too. Like for example that it’s draining their financial economy or alienating them from their families and friends.
Retreat centers are businesses and I’ve seen examples of people working for spiritual communities without any financial compensation whatsoever (sometimes they even have to pay for it). In return, they get to ‘be in the field’. And of course that’s everyone’s prerogative. I just have a fundamental problem with cleaning sweat off group room floors or peeling 10kg of carrots being labeled as karma work (I must admit I’ve done both of these things, while also having paid hefty prices for workshops, food, travel and accommodation).
I’ve been around spiritual teachers who were acting completely irrationally and out of their ego personality. I’ve seen people act out their superiority over other people just because they were higher up in the hierarchical structure of a retreat center. People leading meditations and five minutes later being verbally abusive to others. Of course we’re all human beings and very few people on this earth are truly enlightened, I believe, but teaching these things ought to mean that you’re not acting like a complete *** the minute you’ve stepped out of the room. Or am I judging too harshly now? I just notice I have quite some cropped up frustration inside me about the things I’ve experienced in ‘spiritual settings’ over the years.
Today I am very careful with which group setting I choose to involve myself in. There’s so much ego and spiritual bypassing present at so many places. Some places I never want to set foot in again, just because of the people running them – it feels fake to me.
Still I yearn for connection with people on a deeper level. I want authenticity in my life, be around people who dare to be themselves in a world that seems to get more complicated each year (or is that just age and have people always felt like this throughout their lifetimes?). I struggle today with finding such connections – however I am grateful for the few I do have in my life.
I feel for the thousands of people living with the traumatic effects of their former connection to NXIVM, OneTaste, other cults or high-control groups. I also feel for everyone who has seen their relationship destroyed because their loved one has chosen a cult or guru as their primary focal point in life. But in the end, of course, everyone is free to live their lives according to what feels true for them…
If you are curious about NXIVM, check out The Vow on HBO
You can watch Keep Sweet and orgasm.inc on Netflix and Under the Banner of Heaven on Disney+
I’ll end with a quote I recently read in Mark Nepo’s The Book of Soul:
For all the places we can travel
and all the ways we can study,
there’s no greater teacher than when we dare to share the truths of our lives.
When facing what’s ours to face,
we’re surprised to learn,
time and again,
that under what seems unbearable is the rest of life waiting to be lived.
Thank you for reading! ♥
Photo: Stefan – unsplash.com