Story at a Glance:
•Spiritual practices are a double edged sword. On one hand one’s faith can be profoundly beneficial to their life, but on the other, there is a longstanding problem of spiritual practitioners becoming permanently damaged from their practices (e.g., psychosis).
•Much of this results from spiritual “teachers” promoting practices which give the participant a spiritual high (and hence makes them a loyal customer) rather than the safe and effective practices which are harder to monetize.
•One of the primary reasons cults form is because individuals (especially those in a vulnerable place) are highly susceptible to spiritual manipulation and rarely recognize when one of the common spiritual scams is pushed upon them.
•This article will discuss how spiritual manipulation contrasts with conventional forms of mind control, critical points to understand when attempting to rescue someone from a cult, ways to recognize dangerous spiritual practices, and the overlap between spiritual psychosis and drug induced (e.g., via psychedelics) psychosis.
One of the largest challenges I face with this newsletter is deciding what I want to write about, as since I have a moderately large following, choosing the “wrong “topic can ripple out into a variety of unintended consequences. Conversely, one of the greatest benefits, I have to being anonymous (while simultaneously being viewed as a credible source) is that gives me the wiggle room to touch up on more controversial topics no one else is talking about.
Despite all this, I have still had numerous topics I’ve wanted to discuss, which I have just not felt comfortable diving into. One is the subject of cults, drugs and harmful spiritual practices since on one hand, within the integrative health field, this issue comes up a lot, but simultaneously, discussing it requires you to broach a variety of topics far outside our accepted cultural discourse (which seriously calls my character into question for a more skeptical audience) and it’s nearly impossible to go into the subject without rubbing people the wrong way (e.g., people’s egos often very invested in what they are doing regardless of how harmful it is to them).
These issues have repeatedly come up in my life and every 1-3 years I end up getting involved in a fairly stressful cult deprogramming situation. Recently, I found out that my nephew whom I had not been keeping tabs on got involved with a religious group that turned out to be dangerous cult and a lot of my time over the last month went into rescuing him from their clutches (which is part of why I have not written as much recently). Reflecting on what happened, I took this as a sign that I needed to begin exploring that topic here. Conversely, however, I would like to request that if this is not your cup of tea you don’t read this article or if you do, that you don’t hold what’s in here against me or view it as the typical content of this publication.
Note: for those of you who are not spiritually inclined, many of the cult dynamics that will be discussed here were also seen with how many individuals were brainwashed into becoming fanatically devoted to the COVID-19 vaccination program. Likewise, many of the approaches we’ve used to rescue people from cults are also often applicable to other interventions (e.g., someone suffering from drug abuse).
In the article where I discussed their common habits and behaviors, I mentioned that for each of them, their faith and it’s practices was a central focus of their lives. This in turn was because:
•Their devotion to their faith made them much more resistant to being swayed by all the different forms of propaganda in our society that try to hijack your minds (best summarized by the classic adage, “if you don’t stand for something, you fall for anything”).
•Their faith made them strongly prioritize behaving in an ethical manner (e.g., going out of their way to advocate for their patients regardless of the pressures they got to not do so).
•Their spiritual practice helped them develop the perceptual capacity to recognize critical but subtle things occurring within their patients (and conversely, their innate perceptual gifts often was what drove them to pursue a spiritual path).
•Since a subset of the issues patients with complex issues face are spiritual in nature, being well-versed in a faith often made them much more able to help those patients.
Conversely, however, while there are many merits to spiritual practices (e.g., I think good meditation is one of the most valuable things one can do in life), bad spiritual practices can cause a lot of problems, and both I and my colleagues have had a lot of patients who had a lot of problems from unsafe spiritual practices.
In essence, a very analogous situation exists between the wild west of “non-mainstream” medicine and “non-mainstream” spirituality. Some of it is remarkably effective, some of it is marginal at best, and some is quite harmful. This becomes a huge problem because:
1. Very few people have the background which is necessary to recognize who is a good healer or spiritual teacher and who is not. In my case, beyond being extremely lucky to have met who I did, I had decades of experience in the alternative medical field. Because of this, the people I ultimately chose to really studying under were either people a lot of competent colleagues had endorsed or a relatively unknown person I happened to spend a brief period with whom I could immediately recognize was remarkably talented. Had I not had this background (and a willingness to accept people I’d previously spent a lot of time studying under actually weren’t that great) it would have been impossible for me to find my mentors. Since my background is quite rare, most of my colleagues never found people of a similar caliber to study under.
2. No objective criteria exists to evaluate the quality of spiritual teachers or alternative healers (or even for that, often, matter conventional doctors). In the past, this problem was solved by having “lineages” that built their credibility over centuries through the accomplishments of their adherents and maintained strict criteria for who would be certified in the lineage, but that method of quality control has largely died off since:
•Modern society places much less value on a longstanding lineage.
•Many of the existing lineages, like the rest of society have been eroded by the corrupting influences of our society.
•Many of those that remain don’t advertise publicly.
3. The people who tend to be really good do not publicly advertise what they do (as more people than they ever will need come to them through word of mouth and they conversely do not wish to get embroiled in all the issues publicly advertising themselves creates). Conversely, the people who aren’t so good aggressively advertise themselves and hence end up being the people who everyone sees. Because of this, I frequently hear people (e.g., patients) state they had to go through a lot of bad people before they found someone worth sticking with and how grateful they were to have found them.
4. While many people in the alternative field are drawn it because of a genuine desire to help people (e.g., I can state with certainty this is the case for many of the prominent COVID dissidents), many are instead drawn to it because they see an opportunity for fame money and power. This in turn leads to the sad situation I frequently observe such as someone speaking the standard lines used to attack conventional medicine (e.g., doctors just profit off treating symptoms because all they care about is money) then do the exact same thing to their patients.
5. Many people who get involved in the alternative field do not fully understand what they are dabbling in and tend to greatly overestimate their knowledge or competence over the subject (which again conventional doctors often do as well). In many cases, this just wastes people’s time (generally speaking I think holistic medicine is much safer than conventional medicine), but in other cases it significantly harms them. This is particularly true with spiritual practices.
Human society has always revolved around trying to get others to support one’s agenda, and as a result, we are constantly bombarded with attempts to influence us.
Some are relatively harmless. For example, one my goals has been to have this publication be read, seriously considered, and supported by a lot of people. So, I’ve:
•Made sure to consistently publish good quality (and relevant) content.
•Made a point to be compassionate and considerate to those I interact with.
•Tried to be as transparent as possible with my thought process.
•Avoided doing anything I thought was potentially unethical.
In turn, my “influencing plan” successfully met my goals.
However, while many wish to influence others, the strategies they often pursue are often much less ethical and, in turn, highly manipulative people have always existed at every level of society.
Classically, if you want to manipulate someone, there are three ways to do it:
•Hypnotically or physiologically
Since the core of human psyche has remained relatively unchanged over the centuries, people inevitably stumble across (or copy) the same methods of manipulation and periodically, someone (e.g., Hitler) comes along who has a great deal of success with them. As marketing is essentially the “science of manipulating people” (to buy your product), in the last century, there has been an incredible degree of systematization and refinement of those existing methods. Worse still, the propaganda industry (termed “public relations“) has adopted these tactics and weaponized against the entire society.
In my eyes, one of the biggest problems with manipulation is how resistant people’s egos are to admitting they got manipulated. For example, as I discussed recently, I am still in awe of how effective public relations (PR) is at manipulating people, best demonstrated by the fact the PR campaign used to sell the COVID-19 vaccines got a lot of people who you have never expected to vaccinate (e.g., people who actively spoke out against the childhood vaccine program or the American propaganda apparatus) to receive the most dubious vaccine in history. Likewise, one of the biggest problems with calculating the extent of the COVID vaccine injuries that have occurred is how many people are still in denial about the vaccine they took (and pushed on others) being dangerous.
The one “bright side” to all of this is that while modern science has been able to systematize psychological and hypnotic manipulation, it has not been able to do the same with spiritual manipulation as this cannot be done by a machine (rather it must be done by a human being) and hence cannot be scaled up for the entire population.
This is a “bright side” because spiritual manipulation is by far the most powerful (and hard to recognize) of the three methods but its use has been restricted to individuals who had an innate talent with it. Since individuals with that talent who have no qualms about using it for their own ends aren’t all that common, we only periodically see them rise to power, and most importantly, Public Relations has not been able to manufacture it at will.
However, they’ve tried and many groups try to scout individuals with the inherent capacity to spiritual manipulate others. For example, in the entertainment industry, they use the term “the ‘it’ factor” (defined in detail here) to describe individuals with an inexplicable charisma that talent scouts seek out to recruit and turn into stars (which has been confirmed to me by people in Hollywood). Likewise, I know of a few cases where a rising politician who had “the ‘it’ factor” began to be groomed by outsiders who entered their personal circle and eventually reached a very prominent role (e.g., the presidency).
One of the major contentions with “the ‘it’ factor” (and hence its name) is exactly where that inexplicable charisma comes from. I adamantly believe it is energetic or spiritual in nature, and there are quite a few public figures (e.g., Michael Jackson or Taylor Swift), for whom many in our circle can describe exactly what those individuals are (consciously or unconsciously) doing to influence their audience.
The major challenge we in turn face is how specific to get with elucidating the mechanisms of spiritual manipulation, as on one hand it’s helpful to everyone to know how it’s done (so they can be resistant to it). At the time however, we don’t actually want to tell anyone how to do it as it’s inevitable unscrupulous individuals will abuse that knowledge and we know of many truly tragic examples of this occurring (including some where their teacher admitted deeply regretting having taught the student who went on to do that).
The importance of being “grounded” (and conversely identifying individuals who are suffering from not being grounded) is widely recognized within the spiritual field. However, while the need to be “grounded” is understood, there is much less clarity on exactly what that means or how to do it (e.g., electrically connecting yourself to the earth to reduce your positive charge will often improve your zeta potential and reduce anxiety is just one type of “grounding”).
Typically, ungrounded individuals are characterized by not being connected or integrated with their bodies (e.g., they are psychologically disassociated, poorly coordinated not in the present, or very much live in their heads). In turn, most reputable faiths recognize the importance of being grounded and emphasizes the importance of being integrated and connected with the physical body (e.g., by making the point always to feel your body).
Unfortunately, while the tendency to disconnect from ourselves has been an issue throughout history, the modern (digital) era has made this problem much worse since more and more of life revolves around rapidly transitioning images, ideas and data rather than being physically connected with reality.
In this article, I want to highlight two of the major issues with becoming ungrounded.
First, a great deal of our basic satisfaction and contentment in life comes from being grounded in our physicality. In turn, once this is lost we become lost souls desperately searching for meaning. Likewise, I and many others believe the two primary causes of anxiety (which is now the most common psychiatric condition as it affects almost half of all Americans) are a loss of physical grounding and the media relentlessly conditioning us to become disconnected from the present (e.g., much of marketing revolves around expectations in the future).
Note: many descriptions of this sense of being lost exist throughout literature. For example, I’ve seen it phrased as: “without compass or direction, anxious for an ideal, but without knowing where to render their adoration.”
Second, physical grounding is one of the primary things that protects each human being from external influences. In turn, as this is lost individuals both become much more susceptible to external influences and much less able to realize what is happening to them. To illustrate:
•One of the things that always made it hard for me to fit in with society was my intrinsic resistance to hypnosis (something which often underlies the cohesion within social groups). This was because anytime I began to be influenced by something, I would immediately notice something in my body was changing (e.g., my heart rate, a muscle tightening up, an inexplicable emotion rising up or the pacing of my thoughts shifting) at which point my first thought would be to try to recognize what was triggering this and then get upset with the trigger for attempting to violate me.
This in turn is why I’ve always had such a strong interest in propaganda; I would constantly notice subliminal ways the media (e.g., music, the news, the internet, written pieces) were doing this, and as time went on I started noticing how systematically and repetitively it was done (especially by Big Tech).
Note: it’s impossible to avoid influencing someone within human communication. For example, my goal here is to empower people with what I believe to be true and to move readers into a positive emotional state where they are not paralyzed by fear, but while that is arguably “good” to do, it still is me forcing my agenda upon you, which is part of why I try so hard to (concisely) be transparent about exactly what I am doing.
At any given time, a constellation of factors determine how susceptible one is to being influenced. Some (e.g., how innately grounded one is) remain relatively static, others gradually change (e.g., how stressful one’s life is or how desperate one is for a life purpose to attach themselves to) and some can change quite quickly (e.g, the current “health” of the individual or how strong of an external influence they are exposed to).
I believe one problem in medicine helps to illustrate much of this.
The medical profession believes a doctor (and healthcare workers) should not under any circumstances engage in sexual relations with a patient. In turn, the penalties for doing so are quite strict (e.g., a consensual relationship is often automatic grounds for the revocation of a license while some states go even further and make the activity a felony) and when the occasional sexual predator who has victimized numerous patients is identified (which seems to happen every few years) the justice system makes it very clear to the public the individual will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
As a result, almost all doctors in practice believe they would not under any circumstances become sexually involved with a patient. Nonetheless, it still happens (I even know of a few cases where former patients who married their physicians).
In all the cases I’ve looked, I noticed two factors were commonly at play:
•First, the doctor (or other healthcare worker) was in a particularly vulnerable place of their life (e.g., a bankruptcy, a traumatic divorce, a new workload which was too stressful for them to handle, a recent death of someone very close to them or another catastrophic loss).
•Second, the individual they became involved with had an energetic presence the doctor had never encountered before which was overpowering and caused them to experience a lot of intense or tumultuous things (e.g., emotions) the doctor had never experienced before which was eventually rationalized as a need to be with the patient.
In turn, when both the first and second were at play and the patient was attracted to the doctor, the doctor often ended up engaging in a relationship they previously believed they would never get themselves into.
While the above example seems a bit extreme and not applicable (as most of you aren’t doctors), the reality is very similar things happen all the time. For example, I’ve lost count of how many people have lamented the relationship they are stuck in, and then noted that one or both of the above factors was what drew them into it.
In turn, I would argue there are two critical points to take from this:
The first is that individuals with “the ‘it’ factor” often have that energetic presence and hence cause many people to be drawn to them even though those drawn can’t put into words why they are.
Note: many other individuals can have weaker versions of “the ‘it’ factor” that only specific people are inexplicably drawn to (e.g., sometimes this is labeled as being convinced the individual is their “twin flame”), while even weaker forms of it are often just referred to as having “chemistry.” This “draw” in turn is often what sparks sexual relationships, and my present perspective is that while compatibility is critical in dating, the stronger this pull is, the less likely the relationship is to be healthy and sustainable (e.g., I’ve watched numerous “twin flames” rapidly transition from being madly in love with each other to permanently despising each other, sometimes in fairly dramatic ways).
The second is that a variety of ways exist to protect yourself from this (e.g., becoming more grounded). I believe one of the most important strategies is simply becoming aware that energetic influences exist so they no longer become this overpowering experience that draws them in. For example:
•One of my close friends crossed paths with a notorious public figure who was notorious for using his “it” factor to both seduce women and gain political power. When he did that to her, she first felt an overpowering draw to him and began to fall into his sway, then took a step back as she had the thought “oh this must be one of the [redacted] techniques my guru told me about,” at which point she completely lost her attraction to him (which left him quite confused for a long time as almost no one else had rebuffed his advances). After that she began to look for it, and realized he just did the same thing again and again on the young women he met.
Note: if you know who I am referring to, please do not mention his name in the comments; that stipulation was what I agreed to with her in return for sharing this here.
•When I was younger I became involved with people I just felt I had to be connected to (e.g., they had an intoxicating presence). This puzzled me as I often did not at all approve of their character, and over time, I realized that the overwhelming experience I had around them was simply a product of how a specific energetic quality they had interacted with me, at which point, like my friend, I became immune to it.
Note: It’s important to recognize this principle does not just hold true for romantic interactions—it can also hold true for platonic ones (e.g., I had friends of the same gender I felt an overwhelming pull towards, became very attached to and ultimately was involved with for years despite it not being at all healthy for me to do so).
Two years ago, Robert Malone introduced Matthias Desmet’s mass formation hypothesis to this movement. It was controversial since its suggestion that much of the evil we’d seen over the last few years was something which could emerge spontaneously in the correct conditions (as this implied the psychopaths who engineered this were not the ones at fault) but simultaneously embraced by many because they felt it at last put words into what they had been observing.
This hypothesis essentially argues that:
•Crowds can take on a life of their own and before long pull their participants into an altered state of mind where many begin to do unspeakable actions no one imagined could ever be possible.
•The perpetuity of a mass formation is largely based upon whether or not a vocal minority of the population is willing to take on the personal risk required to speak out against it (which is why it’s so important for those who can to speak out against them).
•Certain conditions such as being disconnected from everything or a severe source of anxiety gripping the society make individuals much more susceptible to falling into a mass formation.
Note: these were the exact same conditions that existed during the COVID lockdowns.
•The most successful tyrants in history (e.g., Hitler, Stalin, Mao) controlled a society which was in the grip of a mass formation and enacted a variety of policies and propaganda presentations which further reinforced the mass formation.
Note: while it did not happen to those three, Desmet cited many other cases where the mass formation became a self-perpetuating entity which devoured the society (including those who had initially championed it).
I immediately supported Desmet’s position because it both encapsulated much of what I’d seen throughout my lifetime and also because he provided an unusual degree of accuracy over what had transpired in those totalitarian states I almost never see provided within the literature.
Note: much of what happened in those states is nearly impossible to put into words, and I only know of because I am close to perceptive individuals who grew up within them. The fear many of us have is that we are extremely vulnerable to repeating those mistakes of the past because there are now so few people who are still alive who directly experienced what happened in these nightmares is a large part of what motivates to write here.
Furthermore, I believe there are three important but rarely recognized aspects of this phenomena.
First, much of what Desmet described (e.g., the inexplicable sway people are pulled under, the hypnotic current that forms between them, and the rapid transmission of states of consciousness between the participants) is energetically mediated. This for example is why individuals with “the ‘it’ factor” often initiate the creation of mass formations and why (in the wrong settings such as a war zone) you can watch a malevolent emotion rapidly spread through a crowd, which is following by something inconceivable like a terrifying madness gripping the crowd or them transforming into monsters in the blink of an eye.
Note: it’s very difficult to appreciate what I am describing (or even believe it’s possible) unless you’ve seen it firsthand.
Second, less intense mass formations exist around us all the time. For example, any social group or identity will often develop a shared emotional resonance and linguistic style members of the group will adopt to fulfill their subconscious desire to belong to the collective. This for instance is why many nonsensical ideologies can perpetuate as while their specific words are relatively meaningless, they all reinforce the underlying resonance of the group. To illustrate, a recent article, “The Deadly Rise of Scientism” discussed how randomly generated text (i.e. nonsense) that mimics the cadence of post-modernist or new age writings often can pass for being authentic to members of those groups.
Note: while I strongly believe patients should be informed and have access to support groups, I now often recommend my patients leave them as I find many who participate in these groups latch onto unhealthy beliefs being continually reinforced within the collectives of those groups (e.g., “we are all so damaged” “there is no hope” etc).
Finally, whenever you start to look into cults, you will typically find some type of mass formation is at work. I share this because in a cult deprogramming I was involved in a year ago, I realized what the person was describing perfectly matched what Desmet had shared with Tucker Carlson about mass formations, and in turn, once the individual was at the place they were willing to listen, sharing that excellent interview played a pivotal role in breaking them out of the cult.
Note: one of the major social challenges I faced throughout life was how much internal resistance I’ve had to surrendering myself into the mass formation of a group—something which makes it very hard to fit in.
Anytime groups of people gather together for a shared ideology, they will develop varying degrees of cult like behavior. Exactly where you draw the line on what degree of that constitutes a cult is hard to say—everyone agrees Jim Jones (who inspired the phrase ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’) was one of the most infamous cult leaders in history, but very different perspectives exist on how to describe the zealots trapped within the COVID-19 mass formation (e.g., many still think they were completely sane, while others ofter refer to them as the “Branch Covidians”).
Note: many of my colleagues refer to modern medicine as a cult because of how deeply held many of its toxic beliefs are and because of how quickly collective psychoses can spread through the medical field (e.g., what we saw throughout COVID-19).
In turn, cults are an enduring issue with almost every faith. For example, by the criteria that exists in almost every one of them, Jesus Christ was a genuine spiritual being and a teacher of great integrity. Yet, since Jesus’s time, countless false prophets claiming to act in his name have done unspeakable acts (e.g., Jim Jones did this) that go against every single teaching of Christ, and sadly I can name individuals who have done the same for almost every other major religion (e.g., I’ve come across a few cults run by a psychopath who has convinced everyone he held the true teachings of the Buddha—and sometimes even genuinely believe he was Buddha’s reincarnation).
Typically cults form in one of three ways:
•A Cult Leader Creates It
•A Mass Formation Emerges On It’s Own
•Both happen concurrently.
Note: mass formations being linked to cults explain why these organizations (unlike other predatory businesses) often become focused on more than than just making money and why they often become so hard for their leaders to control.
Cult leaders in turn tend to come from two sources:
1. Individuals with “the ‘it’ factor” who then use their charisma to attract a following.
2. Individuals who have uncovered something inspiring, get in over their heads while promoting it, get placed into a leadership position, and then rapidly become transformed by their position (which they were not prepared to handle).
In turn, there are a few key points to take from this.
First, the degree of charisma a cult leader has varies greatly. Typically, the more innate charisma they have (due to their energetic makeup), the less they look for outside help. Conversely, as the leader has less charisma, they will resort to some combination of:
•Asking outside forces to provide that charisma (e.g., this is a common reason why people engage in channeling).
•Psychologically manipulating their group (e.g., by coming up with an endless list of reasons why people must devote themselves to the cult, doing lots of things to “unground” them such as subjecting them to sleep deprivation in order to make them easier to manipulate, or isolating them from anyone outside the group so no one can break the leader’s spell).
Note: a good case can also be made that all of the above occurs in many other areas like the training one goes through to become a doctor.
Secondly, since cults (and the energetic manipulation that maintains them) have had much more time to develop in Asia than they have in the Western World, the “marketplace” for cults tends to be more competitive and selects for people who are very good at spiritually manipulating their groups. Conversely, while individuals like that are rare to find in the Western World, modern technology (like NLP) has bridged that gap here.
For example, a common marketing technique is to combine an (often repetitive) activity that invests you in the product with something that triggers a dopamine spike, as doing these in concert with each other creates an addiction to the product.
In turn, many examples exist showing how big tech has done this to increase business (e.g., with blue light from screens creates addictive serotonin releases, I’ve observed certain music playing programs will sometimes slightly speed up your favorite songs which in parallel speeds up your nervous system not unlike a stimulant, and it is now widely acknowledged that social media is structured to create addictive dopamine spikes in the users).
Cults often use similar approaches, especially those that are focused on selling their doctrine to as many people as possible. For example, in a manner somewhat analogous to how Big Tech addicts you to their products, I’ve come across quite a few groups which covertly (or overtly) drugged their recipients with illicit drugs that caused them to have euphoric experiences cult members were trained to associate with the cult’s messages. Likewise these groups often use some type of easy method to create a spiritual high and then convince each follower that high validates the importance of the cult’s doctrines.
Since determining what constitutes a “cult” can be quite subjective, another way to evaluate the merits of one is to see if it offers the positive things known to go hand in hand with a religion or spiritual tradition.
Most longstanding spiritual traditions have served as a powerful repository of societal and cultural wisdom, and our highest ideals (e.g., the Judeo-Christian and Buddhist narratives about compassion, kindness, freedom and liberation or the Pagan and Indigenous traditions reverence of the natural world, embrace of positive feminine ideals, and the reality of the interconnectedness of all things). Cults, especially as their mass formation grows, rarely offer the same (e.g., Jim Jones initially promoted egalitarian ideals but then pivoted far away from them).
Similarly, one of the primary reasons people embrace their faith and is because it has serves as a cornerstone for their productive and worthwhile life. So, healthy spiritual practices should be expected to produce outcomes such as:
•Improved physical health and longevity.
•Improved mental health (e.g., increased happiness and satisfaction).
•Improved social health (e.g., intact families, lower divorce rates, increased kindness and greater community engagement).
•Improved spiritual health (e.g., being more grounded).
Note: research such as this large survey by Pew Research has demonstrated many of those benefits are seen from actively participating in a religious group.
In turn, I would argue that when you are engaged in a genuine spiritual tradition, you should:
1. Feel you directly experienced positive change in yourself.
2. Other people inside your community recognize and acknowledge these positive qualities emerging in you.
3. People outside of your community (e.g., those not practicing your faith and those sharing some other affiliation with you) should acknowledge these positive qualities in you.
As you might guess, it is very rare to see these benefits from being in a cult. So if you aren’t experiencing them, you may want to reconsider the merits of what you are doing.
Since cult like behaviors exist everywhere, it’s inevitable they will end up in spiritual groups. In turn, like many other facets of our society, each faith operates somewhere on the spectrum between integrity and manipulation, but fortunately most of the traditions which have stood the test of time, while not perfect tend to err towards integrity.
Conversely, the newer groups are typically much more prone to becoming cults. This is usually because one or more of the following happened:
•A charlatan founded it to advance their own selfish agenda.
•Organizational structures were not in place to prevent bad apples in managerial positions from hijacking the organization for their own agenda.
•The leader was not prepared for the role (as they had not yet done the decades of hard work necessary to cultivate genuine inner humility and spiritual maturity).
Throughout my life, I’ve seen numerous cases of well-intentioned individuals that got thrust into the role of a cult leader role and due to their lack of spiritual maturity were unable to handle that role and got really messed up by it. Likewise, I’ve seen unscrupulous individuals attain that role and become much more twisted once they were within it.
Presently, I believe there are a few key reasons to explain why cults are so damaging to their leaders:
•First, history has consistently shown that having the absolute power to do whatever you want is extremely corrosive to the soul as it causes you to stop considering how others feel or the consequences of your actions (e.g., this was a well-known problem with the Roman emperors) and frequently, I observe that when people attain the ability to manipulate others with ease this occurs. For example, if you consider the politician mentioned above, he became so used to being able to use his “it” factor to seduce woman, they in many ways became objects to him and as best as I can tell (as I never knew him personally) his sex addiction consumed him.
•Secondly, anytime one taps into a core need people have (e.g., their purpose in life) they will reciprocally project all their needs onto that person (e.g., to be saved or to be manipulated by someone they “trust”). This is why the most advanced spiritual teachers tend to rebuff or dodge the praise they receive from their students whereas the other teachers often take that validation to heart, gradually becoming addicted to it and distorted by it, and in many cases, eventually succumbing to the desire within every human being to be a god. This amongst other things is why MD’s are sometimes mockingly referred to as “minor deities,” and why many celebrities “live for the applause” (Lady Gaga even made a song about it).
Note: one of the primary reasons I am anonymous on here is because I do not want to have a cult of personality form around me. Had I not had that anonymity buffer, I probably would have never touched upon many of the core issues that lie deep within many of us.
•Third, once leaders become (consciously or unconsciously) addicted to the role of the leader who receives the adulation of their flock, they naturally want to maintain it. This for instance makes them much more prone to temptation (e.g., to accept the “help” of an outside force that will help them control their flock). Likewise, teachers (especially those who are not that advanced) will inevitably run out of material to teach their students, and at this junction, those who have become addicted to maintaining their position will switch from providing their students with value to manipulating their students to stay with them.
Note: this is why similar lines are seen again and again when more conscious students begin to recognize their teacher has nothing to offer them and begin to drift away to new teachers (e.g., “unless you follow me you will go to hell,” “without my practices you will never purify your karma,” “our church is the only way you can repent for your sins,” “my teachings are the one true way to obtain enlightenment; anything else is a fraud,” “I am offering you a direct connection to god and the infinite,” “fate has brought you here; if you squander this opportunity, it will be thousands of lifetimes before you get another chance to wake up” etc).
•Fourth, interactions (particularly energetic and spiritual ones) are always a two-way street, and as one influences someone else, they inevitably are influenced as well. In many cases, what cult leaders take on from their flock is much more than what they can handle and in far too many cases, completely destabilizes the innermost core of their being. Of the four points, I believe this final one is the most important.
•The psychoses I’ve seen from harmful spiritual practices often resemble specific types of drug psychoses (and respond to similar interventions).
•With a significant number of psychiatric patients I’ve worked with, I noticed I they had some type of Chinese medicine diagnostic pattern which would cause the exact symptomology they were experiencing. Without exception, this was never recognized by their psychiatrists.
Note: I and numerous colleagues believe short circuits in the energy channels of the body is a common cause of mental illness.
•A significant portion of people who go into the spiritual field do so because they unresolved mental illness, and seek spirituality out in the hope it will help them. Sadly, while they tend to be much more sensitive to spiritual experiences, this almost never works out well for them and I know far more people who got worse than those who get better by using mediation to fix their minds (including quite a few who had psychotic breaks in the middle of a retreat).
•I’ve met many patients who turned psychotic after doing what is classically considered to be a dangerous spiritual practice.
Note: there is now some recognition of this issue. For example, in China, psychosis triggered by a bad Qigong practice is referred to as Zouhuorumo or “Qigong deviation,” while the equivalent in is Yoga termed the Kundalini Syndrome, both of which are analogous to the “Cultural Concepts of Distress” which were recently introduced to psychiatry.
•I’ve met many extremely sensitive patients who I felt were erroneously deemed to be partially psychotic because they were simply perceiving things in the environment others were not (and in many cases also not able to functionally process everything they were taking in). At same time however, I’ve also met many sensitive people who were absolutely certain they were perceiving things I assessed (and in some cases concretely verified) to be hallucinations—which speaks to how incredibly tricky this issue is for even an extremely open minded psychiatrist to handle appropriately.
•Segments of the shaman community believe that many severe mental illness are the result someone becoming awakened to the spirit realm but not being able to have a functional integration with that process. The most well-known article on this subject detailed the experiences of an African Shaman who observed this issue throughout an American psychiatric hospital he visited. That shaman spoke throughout the USA, and remarkably, the Washington Post published an article that somewhat corroborated his claims.
Note: both I and colleagues have observed cases of psychoses (e.g., with schizophrenics) which fall into that shamanistic model, but do not believe it is appropriate to apply it to all of them.
•There was a very controversial article published by the Washington Post 8 years ago (e.g., see this rebuttal) where an academic psychiatrist from New York discussed his experiences working with exorcists throughout the United States who consulted him on their cases. The psychiatrist shared that while the majority of cases were classical mental illnesses, a subset existed which he could not explain as anything besides demonic possession, and recounted a variety of compelling stories (and four years later wrote a book synopsizing his 25 years of work in this field which is summarized in this interview).
•I had quite a few spiritually inclined friends from medical school who went into psychiatry specifically because (like me) they recognized that many psychiatric patients were sensitive individuals with issues outside the medical model and it thus offered them a way to productively engage with this realm.
Note: as you might have guessed, some of them contribute to this publication.
Years ago, I read a book which argued that to be successful, any party (e.g., an institution) wishing to market itself must use “universal persuasions” as these hold the highest chance of capturing people (e.g., customers) who will support it. For example, I would argue the reason why the mainstream religions have stood the test of time, whereas the cults I described which appropriated their teachings rapidly faded into memory was because their message had much a much narrower appeal (and hence only was embraced by those already trapped within the mass formation of the cult).
That book argued there were two universal persuasions:
•You are special.
•Everything that is wrong in your life is not your fault.
In turn, if you think about it, so many ideas which have gone viral throughout history used both of these. For example, consider how much the modern left utilizes both of these to recruit its zealous adherents (e.g., by pushing DEI on the world you are saving it and everything that’s wrong in your life is the result of structural oppression).
Having thought this over, I believe there are three other universal persuasions:
•If you want something of value (e.g., something which will cultivate your self-esteem) if you do what we tell you to do, you can get that with minimal work on your part. For example, in the previous article about scientism, I argued that much of its “hook” has been to tell everyday members of society if they mindlessly repeat whatever the scientific authorities say, they are “smart” too.
Note: one could argue this universal persuasion is a correlate of the first two.
•Utilize someone with “the ‘it’ factor,” which while highly effective, as discussed above isn’t scalable and in many cases (unless the individual is exceptionally charismatic) only appeals to those who have an energetic resonance with the individual. As a result, this ends up being used on a case by case basis rather than being the default.
•Provide people with something that feels profound and true, as it’s what people are always searching for but can never quite attain (which for example is part of why “the ‘it’ factor” is so appealing to people as it gives them a taste of what they’ve always been searching for).
On this Substack, I have repeatedly complained about how the practice of mainstream medicine is often shaped by business interests rather than what is best for the patient. Regrettably, this also often holds true for many other fields including holistic healing and spirituality, and I hence repeatedly see them adopt business approaches which cater to the universal persuasions rather than helping their customers.
Within spirituality and meditation, much of this comes from the fact it is relatively easy to give people a strong spiritual experience but much harder to teach them a practice which can productively cultivate their spiritual growth. So as you might expect, many chose to have a way to create that experience and then package it with an (often ego inflating) story which means you must devote yourself to the teacher providing it. Furthermore, since the people who tend to seek out spirituality often do so because they are ungrounded and searching for a meaning, they are much less able to protect themselves from predatory sales tactics or recognize what is being done to them (whereas grounded individuals immediately have their critical thinking kick in).
Note: typically groups which focus on superficial appearances (e.g., having a spiritual teacher dress in an extravagant manner and encouraging each member of the group to copy the teacher’s dress and demeanor) do so because the teacher lacks the ability to offer anything of genuine spiritual value to their students. Likewise, cult leaders who wish to control a group typically do so through manipulating the external images each member of the group follows as it is much rarer to find cult leaders who have enough spiritual knowledge to manipulate the spiritual core of their followers (rather people who can actually do this typically only want to help their students).
My primary objection to pursuing “experience based” spirituality is that it can often be quite dangerous (e.g., I’ve know a few people who developed major issues after an intense Kundalini yoga retreat taught by unqualified teacher).
In turn, over the generations, each spiritual tradition has identified specific mind-body practices that are not good to do, but inevitably get reused up again and again because they offer the experience (and hence promise) of enlightenment in return for very little work. Some of the most common examples I (and many others) have come across in clinical practice are:
•Aggressively forcing physical structures and energy channels in the body to open (especially within the brain).
•Channelling spirits or guides.
•Pulling energy from deep within the earth up through the body.
•Using powerful drugs in conjunction with a spiritual practice to increase the experience of a practice.
Note: I’ve also run into many people who had issues with inappropriate “spiritual” sexual practices, including people who belonged to somewhat infamous western sex cults. However, these rarely turn people psychotic like the previously listed items. For those more interested in this NSFW subject, recent exposés on OneTaste (e.g., this one and this one) are both accurate (as they match what people who belonged to the group shared with me) and synopsize many of the common “business” tactics cults use. Additionally, they highlight a common marketing tactic cults use—having attractive individuals who are fully committed to a cult use their sexuality to entice members of the public into the cult (especially if that member has “the ‘it’ factor”).
In my eyes, one of the biggest problems with all of this is that not just the students but often the teachers as well lack the experience to understand the dangers of the specific practices being done. This is then compounded by four critical problems:
•People tend to develop big egos about what they are doing and hence become extremely resistant to considering the possibility what they are doing is not wise or that they wasted their time pursuing it. This is some analogous to how countless brutal conflicts have happened throughout history because people on both sides could not accept the notion their god was second best and there was a valid reason to worship something else.
•Since unsafe spiritual practices mentally destabilize people, both students and their teachers gradually lose the ability to recognize the practice is harming them.
•These practices are combined with other practices which often further unground the individual. For example, the fruitarian diet continually goes in an out of fashion, since it “cleanses” the body and gives people a high on life, but over time makes them become ungrounded and often somewhat mentally ill (e.g., I know a few groups within the raw vegan community have experienced significant difficulties from confrontations initiated by militant fruitarians).
•As mentioned above, many of those who are seek out these practices are ungrounded to begin with. The additional correlate to this is that frequently those individuals will bounce from one questionable teacher to another who offers them the promise of salvation but instead provides damaging spiritual practices which further un-ground them.
In short, I believe that if you want to do an intense spiritual practice, you need to have a clear understanding of exactly what you are trying to do, what can go wrong and how to fix things if they do go awry. Sadly, like many things, this issue is not at all unique to spirituality. For example, in a recent series, I discussed the many issues with SSRI antidepressants. One point I emphasized was the horrifying experience many patients have when they discover that the doctors they trusted (and who put them on these powerful drugs) actually understand very little about the SSRIs and that the safety net they assumed would exist to fix an SSRI injury simply doesn’t exist—an experience almost identical to what many have had with the COVID vaccines.
Note: our culture also has a longstanding issue forceful physical practices (e.g., gymnastics) coming into vogue and then being abandoned once too many people get injured by it. This for example is what’s recently happened with CrossFit, and what has somewhat happened with Yoga (as many people who teach it have limited familiarity with the traditional practice and are instead doing aggressive routines they came up with that they “think” are a good idea).
Finally, to further illustrate how challenging all of this is, we’ve had quite a few cases where I introduced someone to what we considered to be a moderately safe spiritual practice. That individual (due to their ego or them being fairly ungrounded) did something different from what they were told to do, ran into issues, did not listen to when I told them to stop, then ran into more issues and it ultimately took an immense amount of work to bring them back to a functional state.
Note: One of the major challenges in medicine is that there just aren’t enough healthcare workers available to sufficiently look after every patient, and likewise, in most spiritual groups, unless the leader is quite talented, it’s simply not feasible for them to keep an eye on every student and continually intervene as needed. This in turn is why now I almost never introduce students or colleagues to the majority of spiritual practices—it’s simply not possibly for me to be involved enough with them to provide the supervision necessary to prevent things from going awry.
Within our culture, the concept of using psychedelics has become intertwined with spirituality, and in turn, many of the same issues I’ve described above can be see within the psychedelic field. At this point, I believe psychedelics have a lot of promise when used in moderation within an appropriate setting (e.g., I have psychiatrist colleagues who are getting remarkable results from combining them with psychotherapy) but unfortunately, it is rare that setting is available.
Ever since the psychedelic scene started in the 1960s, many in my circle have observed the same general pattern:
•People will have strong experiences on psychedelics which are spiritual in nature and often makes them more open to consider a broader spiritual perspective in life.
•People often develop immense egos about the experience they had.
•Most of the benefits seen from the psychedelics are quite fleeting and rarely cultivate the same type of growth seen with a sustained spiritual practice.
•A significant number of people develop varying degrees of mental (or neurologic) illness from these drugs, especially when they use them for a prolonged period (which often happens once they believe the drug is their path to spirituality).
The most recent psychedelic which has become extremely popular is ayahuasca, a traditional psychoactive brew made from the leaves of a plant containing DMT and the stems of a vine which inhibits the breakdown of DMT (as typically DMT produces very brief highs due to how rapidly the brain metabolizes it).
A lot of people I know have used it, and the pattern matches there much of what we’ve observed with the other psychedelics. For example, many have had very interesting experiences on the drug and quite a few developed a massive ego about it, but to at this point in time, I only know of one person who I believe developed a clear and sustained psychological benefit from it.
Conversely, since ayahuasca forcefully opens people up (which is essentially why they perceive so many unusual things around them) you often run into many of the same issues seen with unsafe spiritual practices. For example:
•I know a few people who became extremely ungrounded after their ayahuasca experience, lost the ability to perform a job they’d effectively done for decades and were simply unable to receive any guidance from their co-workers who genuinely wanted to help them (e.g., this happened to a nurse I know who had worked in a very holistic medical practice).
•I know of many instances where people on ayahuasca (due to their open state) picked up an outside influence which caused a lot of issues for them until it was removed.
•I know of a few cases where part of their nervous system effectively “short circuited” and the individual lost the ability to do specific tasks they had previously been able to perform.
Note: LSD is notorious for doing this, and I have occasionally seen psilocybin do it as well.
If you study the history of ayahuasca, it’s clear that it’s really benefitted the indigenous communities which used it. However, I believe much of the harm we are seeing now is a result of it having been commercialized (which in turn is resulting in a lot of tourists flocking to South America to receive it alongside ayahuasca “churches” opening in the USA) and because of that money, many people are entering the business who are not qualified to administer it.
Some of the common issues we observe are:
•Some of the shamans in the ayahuasca scene travel through dark places in their shamanic work and they take that darkness with them when they leave (in many cases without the shaman even realizing it), which then transfer to individuals working with the shaman (e.g, in their ayahuasca ceremonies).
•When the group settings are used, it’s much harder for the shaman to supervise and protect each participant and likewise much more likely pathologies will be transferred from the unhealthy members of the group to everyone else. Because of this, the most experienced and reputable people we know in the field typically will only administer it to a few people at a time and completely avoid those group settings.
•Many people who claim to be qualified to supervise these events have very little knowledge of what’s actually going on or what needs to be done to prevent things from going awry.
In short, this is not that different from the pattern that is seen in many other spiritual groups, and I know from mutual friends that many the top people within those indigenous communities feel awful about what has happened to their sacred medicine.
Note: Individuals who aren’t grounded tend to be much more likely to end up in groups which offer a way to provide that meaning they have lost or “heal” them, which is unfortunate since these individuals also tend to be the most susceptible to being manipulated or destabilized (e.g., this is a huge problem in the ayahuasca because this characterizes many of the people who journey to South America for it). Similarly, I feel this very much holds true for the modern left, as it offers the tantalizing promise of providing that meaning by “saving the world” but since those who get tricked into it lack the grounding which begets basic critical thinking and skepticism, they often get pulled into fanatically supporting ideas which are completely at odds with reality and common sense.
When working with someone you believe is trapped in a cult, I believe the most important thing to remember is that most attempts to break someone out of a cult fail, so you need to immediately question if what you want to do is actually going to help.
Note: the challenges of rescuing people from cults led to the creation of a cult deprogramming industry which (with tacit support from law enforcement) would violently abduct people and forcefully try to break their attachment to the cult . Despite a lot of money being spent on this (essentially illegal and frequently harmful) approach, decades of research showed it didn’t really work and it gradually went out of vogue.
Much of this I believe comes from how people react to emotional confrontation (e.g., consider how defensive people often get when they are overtly challenged). More specifically (as I tried to describe in detail within this article), whenever we (consciously or unconsciously) dislike something, something inside our body mind or spirit will tighten up and close down. In turn, I would argue the the most common issues which arises within interpersonal communication is that this tightening occurs within the communicator and then triggers a tightening within the listener.
Note: cult leaders also often pre-empt this approach by giving their prey a story which causes them to become even more defensive over criticisms of the cult (e.g., they see it as a sign the world is against the cult’s “one truth”).
Many different methods have been developed throughout history to solve this enduring challenge of human communication, and many of them essentially encourage the speaker to completely lose their attachment to the situation. This is because it is only when one is at peace with whatever happens that they can engage stressful situations without having their insides tighten up in response to whatever happens.
To illustrate—I had a few times where someone very close to me got involved in a cult which had an extremely strong grip on them and based on my relationship to them, their being involved with the cult would have essentially been catastrophic for my life. In these situations, the very first thing I did was completely make peace with that happening (which was not easy to do) and did not engage with them until I had. This ultimately worked, and they told me had I done anything else, they would have stayed with the cult.
Note: I have heard almost identical stories of how critical a non-judgmental attitude is with drug or alcohol interventions being done by family members of someone whose life is being destroyed by addiction.
So, rather than attack the cult directly, an indirect approach has to be used. Some of the things I’ve found were the most helpful were:
1. Say something along the lines of “I really don’t think this is a good idea, but if this is what you truly want, I will support you in doing it.”
2. Do something completely outside their expectations (e.g., if you’ve had a lifelong habit or addiction they disapproved of but you would never quit, at some point nonchalantly inform them you aren’t doing it anymore). This is important because by the time someone has committed to joining a cult, they will have a fairly detailed story in their mind about why that is the correct decision and often have planned out how they will refute each argument from those close to them about why they shouldn’t join the cult. If you break a few foundational mental conceptions they had of you (e.g., that you’d fight with them over the cult), that will begin to create doubt that can ripple into their mental conception of the cult and begin to give you a weak point the ideology can be attacked at.
3. Try to figure out what weaknesses made them vulnerable to getting pulled into the cult. For instance, if you see someone describing their group in a very culty (i.e. disconcerting) way, this is often linked to them being heavily disconnected from their body. This in turn suggests the issue was them having a weakened connection to their and them needing to do some type of practice which physically integrates them. I first realized this after someone I knew who was trapped in a cult spoke to me and I realized what they were telling me (that they wanted to devote themselves to the cult) was in complete conflict with what their body was communicating.
4. Similarly, individuals often join cults because they are looking for a community or a connection, so as it is feasible, having a support group of people who can (non-judgmentally) give them a sense of connection and community can help counteract that weakness the cult preys upon.
Note: Cults are well known for coming up with and endless number of reasons to isolate its members from anyone outside of the cult (e.g., consider how much fear the vaccinated and masked were conditioned to have of the unvaccinated or unmasked) as they both alleviate the isolation the cult thrives upon and provide a contrary message which breaks the mass formation of the group. Sometimes this results in truly remarkable things happening (e.g., I’ve forgotten how a longstanding family business I worked in during college imploded because the aging patriarch began to develop cognitive impairment and was then preyed upon by a cult leader who unbelievably convinced him to cut everyone off and then torch the whole company).
5. Once it seems that they are at least a bit open to questioning the cult (e.g., because you’ve made them stronger and sown a little bit of doubt which has made the cult’s story which crystalized in their mind become more malleable), expose them to people who publicly point out common cult issues that match what victim went through. This for example is why Desmet’s previous interview was so incredibly helpful; it came from someone with no connection to the situation and simultaneously sounded quite objective and insightful about the specific situation they were trapped in. Likewise, the primary reason why I wrote this article was so you could show it to people trapped in similar situations to the ones described throughout this article.
6. At this point, precisely targeting the cult’s anchors (in a confrontational way) tends to be the most helpful.
Note: In the final part of this article I will discuss the most controversial aspects of this article (e.g., specific dangerous spiritual practices and some of our perspectives on exactly what some encounter within the spiritual realm) as I feel they are necessary to tie the previous points together. If the darkness around us is not your cup of tea, please do not read further and if it you do, please do not view what follows as the typical content of this publication