New Age Gurus, Cults and Fundamentalism
Recently I was pondering the various new age and metaphysical groups, practices, and in particular the various leaders and the styles of leadership they provide. While there are many fine teachers and healers in this broad category we call new age, there are some I’ve seen or been around that trigger an uneasy feeling in my gut.
Instinct and observation tells me to be wary of these particular people. Not only do I question their tactics, but also the blind allegiance that some of their followers seem to exhibit. Okay, it’s true that everyone is human, even the most notable of these teachers and healers. It’s more a matter as to what extent a teacher/healer accepts their humanness or disavows certain aspects of it. There’s a certain amount of power that followers will imbue with a spiritual teacher, so it is up to those of us who take on that role to do so responsibly and in some way acknowledge that we’re simply human beings.
There’s a story that I’m reminded of. The guru was being tempted by the ‘dark forces’. They offered him riches. He turned it down. They offered him fame. Again, he turned it down and maintained his integrity. They offered him all the sex he could want. Yet again, they were unable to persuade him.
Then they got him. They offered him devotees.
I can speak from experience as one who years ago came close to joining a group that had a very strong, charismatic leader and a relatively small group of devotees. No mistake, I gained a lot from my involvement, yet it turned out to have most of the characteristics of a cult. Once I stepped away from it, I could clearly see those features common to all cults, some of which are:
- Zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader, alive or dead.
- Treating his/her belief system, ideology, and practices as the absolute Truth and law.
- Questioning, doubt, and dissent are not tolerated.
- The leadership prescribes, often in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel.
- The group takes on an “us vs. them” mentality, where you’re “either with us or against us.”
- The group claims an exalted, special status for itself and its leader and may believe that they’re on a special mission to save humanity.
Of course, these characteristics also fit the fundamentalism found in any of the major religions, including what has been called the new age movement. Someone once commented that the only difference between a cult and a religion is numbers. That’s a rather harsh assessment, as I’ve met quite a few folks who subscribe to a particular religion or to new age spiritual practices that aren’t all that dogmatic about it, yet there’s also a great deal of truth in that statement.
For spiritual teachers and healers, it’ an ongoing job to keep a check on the ego mind and, as the story above illustrates, when you get a lot of people paying attention to what you have to say, it can be very seductive. It’s also tempting to try to be a perfect spiritual role model, or at least maintain the image of perfection. People look to you for guidance, answers, and healing, so it can be very tempting for teachers to idealize themselves and deny their human side.
No matter how far along a teacher is on the path or how evolved they are, it’s extremely important they stay in touch with their humanness. The word “human” has the same root (hum) as humility, which implies being grounded, being aware of those aspects in oneself that are common to all humanity. Harry Stack Sullivan, a famously innovative psychiatrist, once said, “All of us are much more human than otherwise.” It’s this awareness of their humanity that discourages spiritual teachers from taking themselves too seriously.
This quality of humility, of being aware of their humanity while at the same time listening to and heeding the voice of Spirit, that separates leaders inclined to be ego driven vs. those that are spirit driven. As a spiritual seeker sampling the many teachers available to you, there’s a simple guideline offered by a dear friend and mentor, Joan Oliver.
Over the years she and I spent many an hour together, where through our conversations and her well-honed psychic and shamanic gifts, I discovered a lot about myself and my path. On one occasion she talked about her experiences being in service to a particular guru for a few years, a man from India whose name you would immediately recognize, but for our purpose here shall remain nameless. She remembered him as the real deal, and told me, “If you come across a guru who really thinks they are a guru, walk away. If you come across a guru who knows they’re simply doing guru, stick around and hear what they have to say.”
So a guru/spiritual leader/teacher to whom you’re drawn and does a good job of “doing: guru is definitely someone to pay attention to and learn from. However, with one who is ego driven and/or unaware or in denial of those less than positive aspects of humanness, best to take whatever teachings you glean from them and move on. And the best way to discern these qualities is to trust your gut sense, those sensations that are a direct line to your instinctual knowing.
So here are some questions to ponder: Consider those spiritual teachers you’ve been drawn to on your journey. Which ones carried that quality of genuine humility? Which ones did you find yourself distrusting and what was it about them that sparked that distrust? Have you met any that you know were “doing” spiritual teacher? How about any that really thought they actually were new age gurus? How did you tell the difference?
Above all, trust your inner guidance, that which echoes the voice of spirit, trusting that your discernment will continue to evolve and refine. And just as importantly, accept that you’re a less than perfect human being striving to be a better human being.