In an effort to stay inside and stay warm this past weekend, I found myself watching the Heaven's Gate cult documentary- Heaven's Gate: the Cult of Cults- on HBO. A line that instantly jumped out at me? "No one has all the answers about life and death. If someone tells you they have all the answers, they're lying."
This is one of the truest things I've ever heard, and it instantly reminded me of another amazing excerpt, this one from the movie the Big Short, in which Dr. Michael Burray (an actual investor who discovered the housing crisis before it happened) states: "People want an authority to tell them how to value things, but they choose this authority not based on facts or results, but because it seems authoritative and familiar."
This is the very essence of a cult. Contrary to popular sentiment, cults do not only attract and retain broken, stupid, or otherwise gullible people. To the contrary, cults- whether they are online ala Qanon or in-person ala NXIVM- seek out highly intelligent, curious individuals that are seeking self-improvement, enlightenment, and noble purpose in an increasingly chaotic world.
As emphatically shouted by cult survivor Marc Vicente in HBO's documentary The Vow: "We didn't join a cult! Nobody joins a cult! We joined a movement to do good!" The cult he belonged to, NXIVM, had many layers, the first several of which were, by all accounts, highly effective self-help and executive coaching programs. These outer layer NXIVM programs leveraged Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) and hypnosis, along with transcendental meditation and other, similar techniques that are all, when implemented ethically and by certified practitioners, very effective at shifting neural pathways, helping individuals make large changes and release blocks or fears that have otherwise plagued them.
What became apparent in NXIVM, however, is that these tools were not being used for good and they were not being implemented by appropriate, ethical, certified practitioners. While effective "on paper", they were being wielded by Spiritual Narcissists, individuals that, for all the appearance of transcendence and enlightenment, were in actuality very deeply flawed, narcissistic human beings with a truckload of pronounced psychosexual and financial problems. And the cult members presented the solution to these problems in a dynamic of usery and degradation.
When considering the "cult of personality" core for many of these organizations, it can be easy to dismiss the sway basic group conformity held over the cult members. We tend to blame the figurehead- the Keith Raniere or Jim Jones- but make no mistake about it: our brains are wired to comply with the views of those around us, as is demonstrated by the Asch Conformity experiments.
We all like to think we would be the one to see and stand by the truth. To assert the unpopular, dissenting opinion in an echo chamber of conformity and agreement. But as the Asch Conformity and similar experiments demonstrate over and over again, we tend to question our own observations and judgements when they are contradictory to those of the masses. In other words, if we disagree, we first assume we might be wrong.
In a cult, the "masses" are your fellow members- your friends, family members, spouses, valued teachers and, in the case of NXIVM, your life coaches, therapists and spiritual advisers. No one likes conflict with people we value, especially when those individuals appear to have given us so much- insights, progress, and life purpose.
Rolling Stone summarized it perfectly with their headline: "How NXIVM Was the Ultimate Wellness Scam". And while public awareness around formal cults is increasing since the events at the capital on January 6th, I fear that people are not recognizing the broader archetype of the Spiritual Narcissist or our own individual propensity to comply with these people: energy workers, healers, life coaches, and wellness "experts".
Yep- you read that right. My industry is full of flawed human beings who, for all intents and purposes, may have started out their practice with only the best of intentions...but maybe did not stick to that original purpose when things got tough. Life happens, and not everyone is cut out to have ethical discipline during times of scarcity or fear. Hell, some people may not even realize or be able to admit to themselves the motives behind what they're doing, "enlightened" or not.
For the last several months, I have noticed a massive increase in spiritual bullshit. It particularly permeates social media (I'm looking at you, Instagram), presenting one reality while delivering another. How do I know there is a dissonance between what is advertised and what is delivered? Because you lovely people share your stories and experiences with me in real-time, and many of these specifically align with my own experiences. Like you, I am also a student of spirit. I sign up for classes and workshops and am generally always engaged in some form of continued education.
What I have directly experienced and heard from my clients in the last year reveals an upsetting trend: practitioners are selling services they are not equipped to ethically deliver, and they are doing so to make as much money as they possibly can. They are making promises like "Reiki can cure Covid" or "My workshop series will give you financial abundance." Don't. Buy. The. Hype. This is hope-ium, and it's not an accident it's being shilled during a time of unprecedented uncertainty, anxiety, financial strain or just plain old depression. It's a drug. It's addictive. And it will not deliver what you were told.
I encourage all of you to do your research. For instance, many practitioners are now offering hypnosis workshops and training seminars, designed to equip you with the ability to hypnotize yourself or others. And while there may be non-medical grade certifications technically available in this space, it doesn't mean it's ethical or sound. It's also quite possibly not safe, considering that you're giving someone access to your mind in a highly impressionable state (theta wave state) and that you will literally not remember what was said or done or suggested when you re-enter conscious thought. This is a crazy tempting amount of power to give someone that does not have a medical license and is not subject to any ethics committees, professional boards, or other consumer protection agencies. Sometimes, the structure is there for a reason.
Now, I'm not suggesting you embrace paranoia or stop your spiritual search. But I am encouraging you to, in the spirit of shamanism, develop your own connection to spirit and seek out tools, services and practitioners that resist the urge to tell you how to think, instead empowering you to figure things out on your own. If you get a gut feeling that something is strange or off, walk away. Ask for a refund. Tell them what you think directly. It can be hard to do- ala the Asch Experiment- but our intuition is a great, accurate gift. I have always regretted the occasions in which I ignored my gut.
And this is why I'm so committed to democratizing spirituality at TOTEM. By that, I mean that our services, workshops and practice are all set up to get you connecting to spirit directly, without the ongoing need for a "middleman" or "broker" to intercede on your behalf. Our upcoming online Spirit Guides Workshop Series and in-person Channelling Workshop are entirely designed to put you directly in touch with the Spirit Guides of your choosing, learning how to tune into these energies and hear their messages on your own. Hell, at our recent Divination Workshop, I showed the attendees how to read their own tarot cards- effectively putting myself out of a job;) Only a scarcity mindset would hoard such information to keep others in some kind of dependent bondage: financial, spiritual or otherwise.
I know the approach we take at TOTEM is sometimes frustrating, and that sometimes we all just want someone to give us the god damned answers. But that's the lazy way out of this spiritual scavenger hunt, and the journey really is just as important as the destination.
The best teachers are not the ones who provide you all the answers. They're the ones who get deeply excited by the questions they cannot answer, the ones who teach how to question and doubt the things you learn.
Have questions? Want to learn more about how we do things at TOTEM? Learn about our certifications or designations? Email me anytime: email@example.com
Take care, stay empowered and take control of your spiritual development. Remember: practitioners are just people, too. You have just as much ability to improve your life as they do.