Last week, I talked about my first experience with Authentic Movement at an herbal conference that I attended recently. Today, I want to follow up with a discussion of safe space and spirituality.
As a cult survivor, I am naturally skittish around spiritual gatherings. As I said last week, my motto tends to be, “Never let anyone get you into a state of anything less than guarded.”
As a psychology graduate and someone who has dedicated my life to researching and understanding cult trauma, I can give you an academic breakdown of the methods cults use to tear a person’s identity down. I have written about my insider’s experience with recruitment here before too.
I know that cult experiences, though often appearing similar, are not the same as spiritual experiences. I can feel the difference between a positive spiritual exchange and an invasive, creepy ambush. But I’m always hung up on the visual similarities.
Some cult psychologists have chosen to take the easy way out. Since cults use trances, meditation, singing, drumming, dancing, and a myriad of other “spiritual” practices to manipulate people, some just view those methods as always dangerous. It makes sense. Why take the chance?
Others, like Margaret Thaler Singer, tentatively leave room for such spiritual practices to be used constructively by non-cult groups as long as participants give informed consent. In her book Cults in our Midst, it is very clearly it’s the lack of full disclosure that marks a cult in her mind.
I think informed consent is so important that it could almost become the sole criteria for differentiating cultic groups from safe groups . . . almost.
It still doesn’t explain how meditation in one space can be perfectly safe but in another space can potentially destroy one’s life. It doesn’t explain how two religious ceremonies can contain similar elements but one is destructive and abusive at its core while another is empowering and positive.
I didn’t go to the Authentic Movement class to learn about the difference between cults and safe groups, but I did stay for that. I was intrigued when the teacher said, “I’m not here tell you what to do. I’m not here to judge, interpret, or project any thoughts onto your movements. I’m only here to hold safe space for you.”
I wanted to find out what that meant. I think part of me might have even stayed because I wanted to see if she could even follow through on that promise.
True to her word, the teacher never said anything, either during or after, about anyone’s movements. The interpretation of what came up was entirely left up to the individual.
In fact, the entire weekend was like that, not just her class.
There were services that were very reminiscent of church from my childhood where we sang “hymns,” had a short meet and greet, were led in prayer, and listened to a speaker. However, unlike in my childhood, I never felt violated, manipulated, or threatened in any way at the herbal conference ceremonies. I was never pressured to make a confession or dedicate my life to a god, goddess, or cause. I wasn’t even expected to attend or participate.
It was so different from my previous experiences of camp at The Wilds that I spent the first day somewhat reeling from the unneeded defensiveness–something akin to the psychological version of when you think you’re picking up something heavy, but it’s actually so light that your arm flies over your head from the unnecessary force applied.
The herbal conference also had rhythmic drums, chants, meditation, yoga, and dancing around bonfires—all things that I know cults can and do use to numb the critical thinking of members, yet the atmosphere was one of openness and freedom. I did not lose myself in the those moments, but I know that I could have and that I would have been honored in my vulnerability, not preyed upon.
What made the difference?
It’s not just the lack of informed consent that makes cults dangerous. It’s the lack of respect for autonomy.
It’s not the tools (meditation, singing, preaching, prayer, etc.) that are the problem; it’s the environment.
Cults don’t care about creating safe space. They create experiences by manipulating your feelings and your perceptions, then they tell you how to interpret those experiences based on their projections of who you are and their judgment of your non-conformity.
But healthy spiritual groups don’t do that. They merely offer a place in which you can have your own experiences and interpret them for yourself. The spiritual leader’s job, whether it be a pastor, priestess, or guru, isn’t to guide you to where they are. It’s to hold you without judgment, interpretation, or projection as you guide yourself.