Underneath all this jaded New York cynicism beats the heart of a girl who wants to believe in magic.
I’m an easy target for a “get enlightened quick” fix. The years I lived in New York I was easily swept up into anything I thought would raise my consciousness.
I tried Reiki, yoga, meditation, acupuncture, chakra balancing, craniosacral therapy, kinesiology. I got Rolfed. I tried Neurofeedback and Ayurvedic medicine and grape therapy. I sage-smudged my house and worked with crystals. I got colonics. I joined a Lesbian Wiccan coven.
And I was an active member of a well known cult back in the 90’s. I didn’t KNOW it was a cult. You think it’s this really cool group of super-enlightened beings who are helping you achieve your highest goals. Until you end up brainwashed, broke, and dancing naked in the Poconos with several hundred similarly lost souls.
Yeah, I’ll get to the naked part. Calm your tits.
Not all cults are led by notorious quasi-religious fanatics who order hundreds of followers to commit suicide via cyaninde-lace Koolaid. Some cult leaders are dynamic, charismatic individuals who are brilliant enough to tap into your most profound needs.
An extremely talented actress friend of mine enrolled me in the Course. She was the star of a critically acclaimed Off-Broadway one-woman show, and I yearned for her confidence and success.
These LGAT (Large Group Awareness Training) groups insist that they can’t explain the program; you can only understand it if you come to a group meeting. At the meeting you are hit with intense, unrelenting pressure to enroll. All the participants rave about their breakthroughs and personal transformations.
All for just $500 and a weekend of your life. They didn’t mention stealing your soul.
I signed up.
The Course is designed to deconstruct your personality and rebuild it – based around continued participation in the organization.
You spend the weekend in a giant room, with a hundred other participants, plus staff member and graduates of the course who are assisting. The Leader conducts lectures and group exercises and “breaks.”
The “breaks” are anything but. You mill around and interact with the staff. They challenge your beliefs and force you to examine your childhood and close relationships. They frequently grow confrontational and belittle you. They press you to release pent-up emotions.
And they torment you to agree to enroll in more programs.
The room is locked. Bathroom breaks are sporadic. You are given only one meager meal a day. There are strict rules about talking. There is a LOT of screaming and yelling. The course starts very early, and continues into late at night, for three days.
You are experiencing sleep deprivation, hunger, and fear. It’s a potent mixture that leaves you ripe for brainwashing.
The Leader was a charismatic man who attracted followers for decades. He was a New Age charlatan with a knack for convincing people to spend endless hours volunteering to spread his teachings, getting people to pay to take the ever-mutating courses and services, and persuading countless women who had fallen under his spell to have sex with him.
Ew. No, this I did not do.
People attended the Course in droves. The majority of course participants really experienced the exultation of a strong emotional release, or even had a spiritual/mystical experience. And in a room packed full of people in search of the Promised Land, the energy of hope is contagious.
After I graduated The Course I embraced the organization with the fanaticism of a religious zealot. I enrolled everyone I was close to. I spent most of my free time at the local Center. I spoke in their jargon. At their urging, I minimized contact with people outside the group. I preferred the company of those who believed in the unlimitedness of the human experience.
And I turned a blind eye to the horrors within. The people “on staff” were made to work 70 hours a week with no pay – just room and board. They had to pay slavish detail to the minutiae of the Leader’s demands, including organizing his belongings using a ruler for precision.
They lived with very little food and sleep – so their defenses were always weakened and they were easily manipulated. It was a New Age work camp, with chores and activities to keep them occupied virtually every hour of the day. If anyone wanted to deviate outside the Course, or thought about leaving the program, they were attacked en masse, and bullied until they realized how foolish it was to think they could accomplish anything outside the group.
Over a two-year period, I participated in, and assisted at, many advanced courses and workshops.
Eventually, I did the behemoth of the organization – “The Intensive.”
Several hundred people travel to a deserted sleep away camp in the Poconos for a week of pure torture. It’s Outward Bound, liberally laced with psychological abuse.
They tell you it might be the most grueling experience you may ever endure. They claim it’s so they can prepare you for all life’s horrific events.
We had to wake up at 5 am. We were forced to take ice cold showers – and there were shower monitors standing just outside each shower stall making sure you were fully under that glacial spray.
We had to do cardiovascular exercise for one hour each day. We were served very healthy, but tiny portions, of almost exclusively raw foods. We had to complete workshops and group exercises and physical challenges. We were broken into groups and encouraged to challenge one another on our weaknesses and obstacles and negative thinking.
Along with the lectures and confrontations and lots of screaming were mandatory death-defying outdoor stunts. We had to climb treacherous mountains. Rappel down steep hills.
My personal nightmare was completing the Tyrolean Traverse across a rocky ravine. We were harnessed to a rope that was fastened between two mountainsides, and with our bodies horizontal, had to pull ourselves from one side to the other, hand over hand, over that yawning abyss.
I am afraid of heights. I won’t even go on a Ferris wheel.
Despite the complex system of knots and pulleys that (supposedly) kept you from plunging to your death, I was convinced I would die. I froze right in the middle, and I as dangled in the air and listened to the roaring water below, I screamed,
“HOLY FUCKING SHIT MOTHERFUCKERS I HATE YOU
YOUR MOTHER SUCKS COCKS IN HELL
MOTHERFUCKERS GET ME THE FUCK DOWN FROM HEREEEEEE
I can still hear my profanities echoing through the mountains.
One night, while we were in our groups doing some bizarre personal transformation exercise, I noticed several assistants building fires in all the indoor fire pits. As the room gradually heated up, I thought to myself, “They’re gonna make us get naked.”
We all had to take off our clothes, and one a time, stand in front of our group. If there was a point to this exercise, it escapes me.
At this point, several people left. I remember one woman was doing the Intensive with her son, and she adamantly refused to stand naked in front of him.
Each night of the Intensive ended with a dance party. On that night, people began taking off their clothes. We had all seen each other naked, so it just…happened. Hundreds of people, dancing naked, whooping like wild Indians.
It was liberating yet scary, empowering yet vulnerable and totally, totally joyous.
One afternoon, back at the center, I saw something that disturbed me greatly.
I was working in the kitchen. The staff forgot I was there. In a room behind the kitchen, the Leader was furious at his staff and screaming at them.
And then he began to hit them. They were in a row in front of him, and you could see that they had been trained to take his blows without fighting back. He hit them savagely, punching them in the face and stomach. Men and women alike.
I fled from there. I was confused and sickened. I discussed it with my boyfriend. All the other doubts that I had pushed away, surfaced. It was time for me to leave.
They did not let me go without a fight. They called me over and over, for weeks. They wrote letters. They came to my apartment.
I contacted other people who had left the organization, and they confirmed all my worst suspicions. The leader was just another charismatic, greedy New Age imposter. Although he had facilitated many breakthroughs, he had done so accidentally while seeking his main objective – Power and Money.
I did not return to my prior life easily. I was constantly agitated, sad and disoriented. The world around me looked strange, almost as if I was on LSD.
I had to get deprogrammed.
That’s what it takes to reverse the brainwashing of a cult. I had to go to exit counseling – counseling with a therapist who specializes in helping to loosen the bonds of cult.
I saw my deprogrammer for about 2 months. About a month in, the hallucinatory after-effect of sleep deprivation, social fear, and reinforcement from all the groupthink wore off and I felt like “me” again.
I don’t announce to people, “Hi! I’m Samara and I was in a cult!” Because I didn’t recognize it as an established cult, like the Hare Krishnas, and ask, “Can I please join you and dance around airports?”
I was in pursuit of something higher, and I got lost along the way.
I’m still a little lost. I’m still finding my way.
But never again will I surrender all my power to a group, to find it.
Have you, or someone close to you, ever belonged to a cult?
What other crazy things have you done in the name of enlightenment?
Talk to me. I’m listening.