A "neutral" definition of a cult:
"Any group of persons devoted to a charismatic leader (or leaders) who changes these persons' outlook and behavior by communicating his/her values and views and perhaps a kind of “energy,” spiritual or otherwise."
Neo-Advaita (pseudo non-duality) may not be a full-on cult, but after years of immersion in it, I eventually faced the shock that I had been a part of something I'd be comfortable describing as having cult-like qualities. Timothy Conway, who has written profusely about the dangers within Neo-Advaita, share some of the warning signs of unhealthy "dysfunctional" cults that I failed to see in Neo-Advaita before I was in over my head.
Each of them exist along a spectrum of extremity, and in many cases, these can be subtle rather than overt in Neo-Advaita, but they are significant enough to have damaged both myself and many others.
I share Timothy's hope that "with widespread spiritual education, more people will come to appreciate the qualities of authentic spirituality, and destructive cults will no longer be able to take root and encroach upon and degrade so many lives."
"Seductive recruiting strategies." If the spiritual movement is pure, the movement won’t need to pursue anyone with a hyped sales pitch that exploits people’s desires, fears, or insecurities.
People, including myself at one point, are lured by promises of "insta-enlightenment," THE END OF SUFFERING, a direct path to endless bliss, eternal peace and inoculation from all suffering, a Utopia on earth once you realize the Ultimate Reality according to Neo-Advaita. The claims, when you look back, are not very different from those made by self-help authors promising endless happiness in 5 easy steps, except for the fact that those don't require self-abandonment and symbolic suicide.
"Intimidating indoctrination procedures that psychologically break a person down (suppressing old behaviors, attitudes, and relationships) so that s/he can be rebuilt according to the group’s ideal of a docile, unquestioning, compliant member."
This one gives me the chills, recalling how so many radical non-dualists take pleasure in hacking away at other people's souls, tearing them down.
The intimidation tactics, the claims of having the absolute, unquestionable truth, the reward of being "awakened' for following their guidance, the gaslighting, etc. is all too easy to see now. You are literally taught to strip yourself of all identity and burn it to ash. And intimidated if you think there's anything harmful or unhealthy about this. Many Neo-Advaita teachers bully people into no-self oblivion, degrading and belittling them from a place of narcissistic self-righteousness and giant spiritual egos. Read More ⬇
Expensive entry fees or initiations.
This isn't true of everyone, but it fits within a greater context of "the business of Neo-Advaita" whose "insta-enlightenment" and "direct path" smacks of the "get rich quick" business, based on cutting corners, maximum gain with minimum input, and it's appeal to scores of people who jump to teach these methods to others.
We all know there's money to be made as a Neo-Advaita teacher, preying on the vulnerable with claims of ego death as a panacea for all suffering. If there wasn't money to be made, perhaps more of them would take accountability for their negligence and stop presenting their teachings as a panacea blanket solution that has no harms or risks involved.
A hidden agenda that becomes known to a group member only after s/he is heavily invested in the cult membership.
I would say that in many cases, permanent ego death is an agenda that is hidden on the surface where people are lured in by things like "accepting moment," "quieting the mind," "going beyond the limitations of the ego," "surrender," and "unshakeable peace."
As Andrew Cohen said that most people run "when they realize it is really about the death of the ego and not about self-acceptance."
This is an example of people not reading what's written in fine print, because there is none.
People pay to get into a workshop/class/talk and are told if they're expecting to learn something that will make their life better, they can ask for their money back now, because "you won't be learning how to make your life better, but how to "end your life," how life will be better when you are gone from it.
"Trapping or holding onto members. People should be able to leave the group at any time for any reason without fear of scorn."
This is another example where it's subtle, and certainly not physical. It's on the less extreme end of the spectrum. It's more of psychological manipulation and bullying built into the messaging.
Messages I absorbed were things like, those who try to "go back," those who won't fully "go through" with ego death, who won't ignore the cries of their "kicking and screaming" ego are weak, they aren't brave enough, strong enough, spiritual enough, etc. etc. Only those who are willing to sacrifice themselves, sacrifice everything, commit divine suicide and fall on their own sword will be liberated, will "get it," will be living in Truth, will awaken from the ignorant slumber of the "sleepers." Those who turn away are choosing to go back to living a lie, turning their back on THE TRUTH, are choosing ignorance, etc.
"Chronic group feeling of righteous anger, revenge, turmoil, anxiety, shame, guilt, self-pity, fear, despair, mindless euphoria, ego-excitement, adrenaline rushes, self-inflated fervor or futuristic anticipation."
There is so much ill-will, hate speech towards the ego, towards the "false" self and towards the "egoic," samsaric, delusional sleep-walking masses. And an emphasis on Samadhi, Satori, peak experiences, and sustaining them in perpetuity, as if that is even possible or ideal.
"Flat affect (zombie-like absence of emotions). Excessively automatic, robot-like behavior. Radically de-automatized behavior."
Vacuous, one-note, dry, empty, hollow, shell-like, flimsy, are not just some of the my most glaring realizations of the affect of many Neo-Advaita teachers, but also descriptions of how it eventually made me feel, all of those things and more.
"Crusading agenda to save the world or convert all souls to “the true way.” A healthy spirituality emphasizes becoming individually transformed so that one is better aligned with the God-Self and involved in a simple, non-grandiose form of service to one’s fellow beings. For a healthy spiritual group, service and giving are defined primarily as charitable assistance and generosity toward one’s community, family, friends, and the world at large.
I've come to see Neo-Advaita, in all honesty, as a giant, merciless, crusade against the ego, personhood, identity, and everything else that it sees as false and in the way of the liberation of Absolute Truth. Many Neo-Advaita teachers are propagating the notion of a new world, a utopian heaven on earth once the false self is rooted out, a salvation and redemption waiting for you, in this life, after ego death.
Proud feeling of being the chosen people, of possessing the exclusive truth or means of salvation, or being superior to those outside the group. Heavily polarized “us-them,” adversarial thinking, projection of one’s own shadow qualities onto others, seeing outsiders as homogeneously negative, devoid of positive qualities (“they” are “bad” and “we” are “good”). Rigid boundaries and isolation between insiders and outsiders. Petty criticism, stereotyping or devaluing of outsiders.
Deikman: “Devaluing the outsider is... preliminary to harming others....the attacker devalues the victim prior to the violent act.... The person you devalue becomes easier to kill.” Dysfunctional groups chronically emphasize the differences between group members and outsiders, at the expense of seeing the essential oneness we all share on human and spiritual levels.
Petty criticism, cynicism, mocking of the egoic "sleep-walking" masses who still think they exist, is ubiquitous. And this is what grows the big fat spiritual ego.
They're asleep, we're awake, they're samsaric, egoic - name-calling, belittling, making fun of, laughing at, etc. We know the "open" secret. We are superior self-less super-heroes.
Whether we want to admit it or not, I sure didn't want to, it's happened and is happening, and once you see it, you can't unsee it.
A chronic need to find and persistently maintain enemies inside or outside the group. Targeting or isolating of anyone inside or outside the group as a source of evil or contamination or “bad energy.” Negative thought-forms aimed at others. By contrast, in healthy spirituality, the leader and group promote empathy, compassion, respect, and seeing the Divine in all beings: “Love thy neighbor” and “love thy enemy” (who is therefore no longer “the enemy”).
Again, ill-will and condemnation, mockery of the delusional "sleep walkers."
Ganging up on individual members to criticize or humiliate or coerce them; “working on them” to violate their own sense of conscience or autonomy. Brainwashing or mind-control techniques or high-pressure group dynamics coercing members to conform to a worldview, agenda, or code of conduct. Physical or psychological violence. Giving and withholding of love or praise as a manipulation technique.
"You still believe in your self, of course you're unhappy!" "You're only suffering because you believe in your story." "You" don't matter. "You" are invalid. "You" aren't really there and nobody cares! "Who is this you you keep referring to?" "Don't trust anything your mind tells you!"
Shaming those who are suffering for believing in a fictional self. For being "egoic," self-centered. People who have healthy needs are told they are needy and self-centered. Evidence of healthy ego in people is smeared as egocentricity. Emotional abuse, and relational trauma is perpetuated.
Suppression of dissent, doubt, critical thinking, sincere questions, discussion or independent judgment. Regarding of leader’s or sacred text’s teachings as infallible. Attachment to doctrinal certainty. Members should be free to follow their own informed reason and moral conscience in preference to the directives of the leader, group or text. Yet healthy spirituality also challenges one to develop the conscience to its utmost through ongoing learning and maturation.
The one who questions, disagrees, judges, etc. isn't real. Who's asking? Critical thinking is discouraged as a vestige of the false self. Doing so is seen as evidence of your egoicness and false self still being intact. You're only allowed to question the questioner and doubt the doubter in you.
Among healthy, empowering groups, supra-rational thinking and use of paradox is fine, in accordance with the mature mystical traditions as found within circles of Christianity, Judaism (Hasidism), Islam (Sufism), Vedanta, Buddhism and Taoism. These authentic mystical traditions are based in rationality and proceed from that into the "trans-mental" realm. By contrast, in unhealthy groups, there appears to be very little rationality anywhere in their attitudes and behavior, and the group dynamics are rife with dysfunctional thinking.
Neo Advaita itself announces repeatedly how in order to awaken, you have to un-learn everything you through was true about reality. You have to be willing to suspend and even abandon all logic, intellectual discernment, etc. in order to realize Truth according to Neo-Advaita.
It often teaches something that is more akin to pre-rationality than trans-rationality in which rationality is transcended and included, and you can now also think paradoxically in both/ands. But it isn't ushering in both/and non-binary thinking, it's just replacing the old black and white rationality with a new one, i.e. "Only separateness exists" becomes "Only oneness exists." There are constant claims that it's egoic to see anything as good or bad, right or wrong, and this certainly can lead to a lack of critical discernment related to safety of self and others.
It takes pleasure in clever inversions of irrational claims into Neo-Advaitic approved truth claims. A lot of Neo-Advaita's "rationality" is an inversion of common sense rationality.
You are not a part of the world. You are not in the world. You don't exist on any level. The one who thinks it exists does not exist, period. There is only oneness and therefore you don't exist.
Orwellian double-speak (Deikman: “manipulating language to suggest a meaning and value opposite to the real situation”). Codewords or buzzwords. Excessive use of slogans to bypass critical thinking. Manipulative rhetoric based on cunning or emotionalism. Reinvention of language—e.g., excessive amount of jargon—to widen gulf between insiders and outsiders.
Neo-Advaita is heavily based in linguistic gymnastics, clever plays on words, gaslighting through twists of meaning, divisive labels, labels, and more labels.
Quotation marks around pronouns, capitalizing and de-capitalizing, language that can't be used with outsiders and makes it hard for you to relate to one another. "Absolute" self. "Relative" self. Truth/truth.
Rendering language practically meaningless, unusable because pronouns and possessives stick out as false constructs that should be vestiges of the past.
Terms like killing oneself, self-destruction, self-doubt, absent-mindedness etc. as positive, spiritual things. Terms like self-esteem, self-confidence, self-assuredness, now have negative connotations!
Atrophy, erosion, disintegration, fracture, fragment, etc. all are wielded at the ego and one's sense of self and reality, and therefore a positive thing where in other cases it would be seen as negative/harmful. So then you end up gaslit and gaslighting yourself.
Self-esteem? Bad. Self-doubt? Good.
Anything that could be violent in physicality is ok when wielded metaphorically at the ego, etc.
All things death and dying are meant to be life-affirming of the real you.
"I hope you die!"
"Nothing matters" sounds nihilistic..."No, no, it's not that there isn't anything that matters, it's that all that matters is nothing! See the difference?"
Excessive fascination with altered states of consciousness. For instance, chronically being in a mindless trance state (“navel-gazing”) can preclude deeper levels of spiritual realization as well as community service and enacting justice on behalf of fellow living beings.
Transcendence junkies, satori addicts, awakening experiences misconstrued with being awakened (if such a thing exists), or living an awakened/ing life.
"Anyone can have access to expansive states of consciousness and still be an asshole!"
Call to Action:
"If you (or anyone you know) are presently participating in a group that does not fare well according to these standards, then you might want to get out as soon as possible and look for a healthier, more genuinely supportive, egalitarian and empowering spiritual community. By boycotting unhealthy cults, they will eventually whither and fade away."
Source: Timothy Conway's Article