Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Inside a Cult

Filmmaker Will Allen recently released a documentary entitled Holy Hell about his experiences inside a cult. A lot of the time, the word "cult" gets thrown around in such a way that it could refer to any new religious movement, but as Allen tells it, in this case the moniker fits. Allen was a member of a group called Buddhafield (which, as far as I can tell, did not in fact practice Buddhism) for more than twenty years. In the documentary he alleges that the group's leader, a man named Michel Rostand, was a classic manipulative cult leader who abused his followers.

His insider document of two decades of life inside the cult, entitled Holy Hell, combines home movies and official footage from these years alongside new interviews with former members detailing the sadistic, predatory nature that lay behind their leader's ostensibly gentle, omnipotent fa├žade. Buddhafield's service-oriented, off-the-grid approach to attaining peace and harmony — "It was our little utopia in the middle of this big giant city," says one former member in the film — disguised its leader's iniquities, ranging from total mind control and forced abortions to alleged widespread sexual abuse and rape. The carrot dangled to all adherents was "The Knowing," a ritual in which Rostand would "transfer his energy" to the participant so they would truly know God.

I should probably point out here that nobody can do spiritual practice for you. Priests can't do it, gurus can't do it, even Jesus can't do it. It is useful to find a teacher who can show you how to practice, but after that you're on your own. The ironic thing here is that if some of these students expended the time and effort that they spent fitting into the group on their own personal practice, they probably would be a lot further along the spiritual path at this point.

Incidentally, that's why my Enochian books are written the way that they are. Instead of filling them with a bunch of personal "received material" or deep symbolic analysis, what they teach you is precisely how to get in touch with the Enochian entities and work with them. I don't necessarily know what you'll get when you do the work, but realizations stemming from your own work will always be more significant for your spiritual development than the realizations of others.


It's easy to see how Buddhafield members got initially sucked in by Rostand's charisma; even the ones who now hate him describe him at first glance as "ethereal," "magical," "otherworldly" and "beautiful." "I was floating walking home," admits Vera Chieffo, who left the cult in 2009 after 27 years. "But he was also friggin' weird." The man known mainly as "The Teacher" would parade around the compound in speedos and Ray-Bans, demanding his disciples to be in peak physical and mental health through rigorous exercise, meditation and abstinence from sex, alcohol, drugs, caffeine and red meat.

But while he was outwardly preaching asceticism, Rostand would prey on young men like Allen, "promoting" the filmmaker to be his personal driver and masseuse before allegedly sexually abusing him and other members on multiple occasions. "Some of them are still figuring it out that it was rape because it didn't seem like that," Phillipe Coquet, who spent 24 years with Buddhafield, says. (Rostand has not been charged or arrested in connection with the abuses.) Members would often receive mixed messages, with their leader often noting, for example, the joys of sex before immediately rebuking it as "simple" and unhealthy. "He used to slap my face in front of other people just to fuck with me and use me as an example of somebody who's really devoted," Coquet says. "And the next day he would compare me to a saint."

Generally speaking, it's a pretty good bet that the more restrictive rules a group has, the more likely it is to be a "cult" in the conventional sense. It's an even better bet when the leader doesn't have to follow those rules for some reason that is never articulated. Harsh asceticism is rarely effective for producing enlightened awareness, and most longtime meditators eventually figure that out. On the other hand, if what you really want is a bunch of anxious followers, it works pretty well.

This is not to imply that discipline has no role in spiritual development. It is extremely useful to develop the ability to avoid anything in your life that causes you problems, and abstaining from various things over time can help you develop it. However, there is no hard split between matter and spirit, and as a result denying the physical body in favor of spirituality is just as problematic for enlightenment as soulless materialism. It's all about balance.

No destructive cult leader will ever tell you that. They don't want balanced, enlightened peers. They want followers who they can manipulate. And you know what? Enlightened people are a lot harder to mess with and way too much trouble. So by proposing a bunch of extreme rules that nobody can live up to not only keeps those followers down, it means that the leader can always find an excuse to chastise anybody who, say, asks awkward questions about his or her "wisdom."

A good spiritual teacher should stick to one basic message - do the work. Magick, mysticism, and meditation are of no value if they aren't actually practiced. Study helps you work out how to practice, but it is no substitute for action. Likewise, you should never allow your spiritual progress to become dependent on another person, no matter how enlightened you think they are. Get instruction, but make sure you do the work yourself. That's the only way you will benefit from it.

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