Cult Spotting 101: Spying Unhealthy Spiritual Teachings

I came across this article the other day in my Facebook newsfeed and wanted to scream with rage when I read it. I honestly don’t know if the article is being true to the actual philosophy of Karma or if it’s just a botched up amateur version of a complex idea, but the amount of bullshit is astounding.

Once the rage settled a little, I realized it’s also a really good example of cultic thinking. I want to use it as a teaching tool–kind of like those practice sheets you get in English class that ask you to go through and circle grammatical mistakes. If you like how this works, let me know. I’m considering making it a series and would be happy to comb through more articles and videos to give you all some practice.

To test your cult radar, first read the linked article and see if you can pick out the cultic teachings, then come back here and compare your answers.

The laws given in the article sound sweet on the surface. They seem to promise people control of their lives, the ability to gain everything they want, and perfect peace and happiness.

It sounds almost like magic!

 Whatever we put out in the Universe is what comes back to us.

Except that underneath all that surgery positive speech are three warning flags for a cult: thought control, emotional control, and victim-blaming.

Thought Control:

If what we see is an enemy, or someone with a character trait that we find to be negative, then we ourselves are not focused on a higher level of existence. -Law of Humility

Sounds like a nice little admonition not to judge, right? Except that instead of just encouraging tolerance of differences, this law dictates outright suspending judgment in order to be “spiritual.” Critical thinking becomes a karmic sin.

If that still doesn’t sound bad to you, think about all of the times that you use your judgment to determine when someone is trustworthy or when someone is dangerous. There’s more involved here than merely letting other people live their lives. It doesn’t leave any room for using judgment to protect ourselves from the malevolence or destructive behavior of others.

But that’s not the whole of this law. What you can’t think about, you can’t speak about, so in addition to censoring thoughts, this law also acts to silence victims.

Looking backward to examine what was, prevents us from being totally in the HERE AND NOW. -Law of the Here and Now

Oh such a positive message about not getting stuck in the past! /sarcasm

I’ve seen this one floating around a little bit, and it never quite makes sense to me. It’s not only dangerous, it’s downright dumb. Our past is what got us to our present. It has lessons to teach us for the future. You might as well cut off your head because it doesn’t walk the road for you!

Looking back is healthy. It gives you a chance to assess your life, the good and the bad. It’s necessary for a healthy life. As with most cultic teachings, you can see a grain of truth in the statement. You do want to live in the present, but living in the present doesn’t require you to cut off your past.

Emotional Control:

If what we want is Happiness, Peace, Love, Friendship… Then we should BE Happy, Peaceful, Loving and a True Friend. -The Great Law

Initially, this one sounds pretty good. It doesn’t say anything outright about suppressing emotions. However, the implication is that these emotions (peace, love, happiness) are the only ones acceptable and that they have to be deliberately pursued. A limited range of emotions becomes the goal.

Why is that bad? Let’s take a look at the next quote.

When our focus is on Spiritual Values, it is impossible for us to have lower thoughts such as greed or anger. -Law of Focus

This one is more obvious about the emotional censoring. I could focus on the irritating way that they fuse a motivation (greed) with an emotion (anger), but I think it’s far more important to talk about “negative emotions.”

Grief, anger, fear, worry—they’re not fun, but they are essential to a healthy soul. Emotions are the psyche’s way of alerting us to what is happening. They are neither thoughts nor goals. They are merely signals.

Suppressing an emotion is like disabling the check engine light in a car because you want the car to be “healthy.” Just because the light doesn’t bother you after you disable it doesn’t mean that the problems aren’t there. If you disable the signal, you miss the chance to address the cause of the signal.

Can you see how this could be a means of censoring thoughts too?

Cutting you off from emotions cuts you off from your full human experience. Cults can’t keep and control members who are whole. They have to pare people down to the thoughts, emotions, and desires that keep them malleable, which means that fear and guilt are exploited (if you commit this karmic sin, you’ll have bad things happen to you) while anger and doubt are demonized. Whenever you see a “spiritual” message that says anything about cutting out an emotion or thought in order to be more spiritual, sirens should go off in your head immediately.

Victim-blaming:

Would you believe that it’s not just for sexism? 😉

Victim-blaming isn’t unique to cults, but it is their favorite tool. To make people want to change in such a destructive way, you have to first convince them that they are bad.

 Whatever we put out in the Universe is what comes back to us. -The Great Law

Remember this one from the beginning? Did you catch the victim-blaming?

This phrase could actually fit into the thought control category too because it requires some serious suspension of logic to believe that in a world of billions of people who all have free will, only your actions have an effect on you. However, I place it here because the more sinister message is that you cause your own circumstances.

So, if you happen to get laid off or get cancer, it must be because you are reaping your karmic payback. Or if you are raped, beaten, molested, kidnapped, caught in a tornado, or electrocuted by lightning, it must be because of something you did to attract that.

Whenever there is something wrong in my life, there is something wrong in me. -Law of Responsibility

Just in case the previous law wasn’t clear enough, they’ll throw this one in too. So again, if you get laid off or get cancer, it’s because you’re bad. If you are raped, beaten, molested, kidnapped, caught in a tornado, or electrocuted by lightning, it must be because there’s something wrong with you.

Not with your abuser. Or the economy. Or nature.

Just you.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of the problematic teachings in the article, so feel free to comment with another if you feel like that kid in class who is jumping out of his/her seat with a raised hand.

If you picked up on these without my help, good job! Make use of that perception. It will protect you from manipulative people.

If you were surprised to see that there could be any negative interpretation of these karmic laws, you might want to educate yourself a bit more on cultic or manipulative tactics.

As a disclaimer, I’d like to say that just because I used this as an example of cultic thinking doesn’t mean I think that the author or the site is necessarily part of a cult. The laws could just be ill-thought, overly simplistic, or badly written . . . or they could be a warning of something deeper. That’s why I’m giving you practice with spotting red flags, wherever you may find them. They are a symptom that should alert you to be careful and use your critical thinking (you know, the thing that was condemned in the Law of Humility).

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11 thoughts on “Cult Spotting 101: Spying Unhealthy Spiritual Teachings

  1. Nancy says:

    awesome! I think you should have a superhero name of some kind: GRRRL Wonder, The Cult-Buster! You could have a cape, and a kick-ass insignia, like big gold letters on the front of your outfit that read BS!! (for your BS detector that can leap tall houses of “worship” in a single bound!) 🙂
    Seriously though, this is GREAT! I have had more than my share of “arguments” with some new-agey acquaintances about the Law of Attraction (and “the secret”) — oy.

  2. […] assessing yourself and your circumstances. Remember that pesky check-engine light we talked about last time? Well, the problems don’t go away just because you disable […]

  3. Cynthia says:

    My sister has formed a sort of mini-cult within her family. All of the red flags are there. She says my opinions and concerns are “emotionally rooted”. Oops…there I go again. It is ever so refreshing to read your blog. You go girl.

  4. Excellent! Love this. I’m a professor who has been teaching an evolving series of continuing ed courses on reasoned skepticism at a local college for the past few years. What really gets me is that a lot of the personal growth techniques that come out of even the cultiest of organizations could be useful if it weren’t for all the silly beliefs dumped on top of teachings that are supported elsewhere by solid social science research. I mean, I’d really like to see Hay House without all the angels and fairies. Give me a break, Louise Hay!

    • yes, the reason that many of cultic groups appeal to people so much is that they have just enough truth to resonate as being potentially valid. But the superficial promises are laced with a deeply toxic control and abuse. Reasoned skepticism is one of the best safeguards against it. Unfortunately, alot of people get the idea that cults are all religious…that there aren’t psychology cults or atheism cults or political cults. But the reality is that while the surface teachings may change, the control and abuse can be present in any group. Margaret Thaler Singer, one of the premier researchers on cults, documents how even something like therapy or social activism has been used as a recruitment front for destructive groups. Part of the point of this series is to highlight what the teachings look like, as opposed to pointing out specific groups and saying, “this is a bad one.” If you can recognize the teachings, in whatever disguise they come, you can protect yourself better.

  5. Siddhartha says:

    Wow, you totally missed the point of each law of karma you mentioned. A cult is created by its followers – i.e.: if one seeks a cult, he/she can make a cult out of anything/anyone. Cult is a behavior, not a written word taken out of context and void of common sense.

    • It seems unfortunate that you get so upset and defensive about karma when I expressly admitted that the presentation could be the problem. I wasn’t taking anything out of context; I was referencing a specific article. If that article took it out of context, all the more reason to be concerned.

      Cults are indeed created by followers…as are religions. And they do make cults out of anything. However, people don’t normally go seeking cults. They get sucked in because of things like this, where it sounds okay on the surface but can be twisted for abusive purposes. While a philosophy or belief system may not be problematic in the right context, if it is twisted or misused, it can become problematic.

      My goal is to help people learn how to spot red flags and abusive teachings, even when they masquerade as something healthy and good. I covered specific red flags, but if you were able to spot the red flag of it being out of context, then that’s a great skill to have. I just wish you would direct your anger towards the people who created the article rather than towards the person pointing out that the article had issues. 🙂

  6. MaryJo Hutchinson says:

    Thank you for speaking up about this. After nearly a life time of repressing so called “negative” emotions because of falling for the cult-like positive thinking movement, I have finally broken free and found wholeness in experiencing/accepting/owning ALL of my thoughts and feelings.

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