Everywhere, people in positions of power are committing exploitation and abuse, while they and the organization, system, or culture, rationalize it, and blame others who express resistance, and do not conform or agree. We have a word for the most extreme versions of these systems of abuse: cult. However, I believe, if anything, using the word cult, externalizes the responsibility for how we co-create dynamics like these everywhere in society, and instead holds a cult leader and a cult organization as the cultural scapegoat. I believe the truth of the matter is a cult is just another, smaller example of what we all co-create as a culture. There is no coincidence that the word cult IS the root word of culture.
I will give an example of what I am trying to point to, about us all co-creating cult dynamics in how we relate to people in positions of power, through what I have observed as a result of the #metoo movement.
I am in awe of the amount of spiritual leaders, politicians, actors, CEOs, and other notable figures, that have been removed from their positions of power and high esteem, in the past couple of years, motivated by the #metoo movement. I am grateful for the cultural shift that has in fact allowed women to finally speak up, join together, and be supported in bringing this abuse to light. But wow, look how much had to occur before we got to this point?!
As a woman, I was aware that sexual harrassment, abuse, and exploitation are common, as this is my daily experience, either witnessing it in my own life, or the life of other women. However, I still find myself surprised by the new spiritual teachers, community leaders and coaches who are revealed almost weekly, as being involved in abuse scandals that were covered up by a group of people, who protected them from ever receiving consequences, and thus ensured multiple women (and children) were harmed.
I was honestly most surprised at the dethroning of several Buddhist lineage holders, as Buddhism in America, is often projected as one of the most non-violent forms of spirituality. Many assumed that these Rinpoches, monks, nuns, teachers, or lineage holders, whose whole practice is about non-violence, facing reality as it is (the whole process of Buddhism and meditation practice is based on this very tenet), and who supposedly follow a strong code of conduct, would be a safe person (and part of an organization) to trust and interact with.
So, what happened here? It is easy to just refer to these Buddhist groups as cults, and call the lineage teacher a cult leader, and call it a day. But really, how did the conditions for this continued and elaborate abuse get created?
We all project onto people in positions of power, a level of mastery and almost ordained leadership or authority, that seems to get us into trouble.We discount our own voice of internal authority, for the sake of attempting to believe perfection and infallibility are possible. We all seek an answer to the unknown- to confusion, through this leader in power, and based on their self-professed authority and (delusional) certainty, assume they have the mastery and wisdom we haven’t yet found. We find relief in our existential anxieties and angst in assuming people in these powerful positions have somehow encountered the secret to bypass the collective anxiety and angst, whether it be through impeccable business acumen, making millions of dollars, presenting a practice or a belief system that has helped them find ultimate peace and success, or finding a way to appear happy and beautiful all the time.
Eventually the power they hold mystifies enough of us, where this very power continues to re-affirm or re-validate their mastery in our own minds, as well as their right to leadership and authority, in a sort of circular logic. So, essentially when one asks, why is this person the leader, it is because they are in power, and when we ask why they have power, it is because they have authority and mastery, and when we ask why or if they have authority and mastery, it is because they have power, and around and around the circle goes. The powerful person does x, y, z, and even though it was harmful, we cannot deal with our cognitive dissonance, and instead grant them the privilege of their power validating and making “logical” their actions, rather than their actions, invalidating their position of leadership, mastery, or authority.
How we are controlled as groups and a larger population, and how certain people end up in positions of power and create extreme damage and trauma, are not new ideas. There are plenty of researchers who spend their lifetime attempting to understand cults, issues of power and dissent in culture, and how certain regimes and dictatorships get established.
However, how many of us, including these researchers, are actually asking ourselves regularly, how we personally project this mastery and authority, and power onto others, in our regular daily life? Are we assuming that the therapists we see have figured out how to have perfect, functional lives, filled with happiness and joy? Are we assuming those popular life coaches have discovered complete mastery of whatever it is they are coaching people for? Are we assuming the doctors and nurses we meet with have complete knowledge of the human body and disease, as well as physical health, and are practicing it perfectly in their lives? Are we assuming that the well-known author, teacher/professor, or person with a doctoral degree, is a complete master of the field they study, with encyclopedic ability, and should be able to recite this knowledge on-call? Are we assuming that the priest, or pope, or monk, or nun, or Rinpoche, or guru, doesn’t struggle with their own addiction, impurity, Narcissism, grief, fear, and pain, as well as the cloudy judgement and delusional thinking that accompanies being an emotional human being? Are we assuming that anyone we give power to, has somehow defeated the tendency to become inflated and self-reflexive, when enough people have given them power, and are validating their “rightness” and validity?
And, I ask you, what if we didn’t need to see these people in power as perfect and somehow separate from the human population? If they joined us in being fully human, while sharing openly about this humanity, would they then have no authority? Would we have a crisis of confidence, and not know how to have hope, or feel as though someone or something could save us from our pain?
And if this crisis of confidence occurred, and we had to face not knowing, feeling so much pain and loss, and perhaps losing hope, what then? Would the abuse and exploitation disappear? Who would a doctor, therapist, coach, teacher, famous actor, politician, and community leader be? Who would we all have permission to become in this case?
I don’t have answers to these questions, but I invite you to at least join me in pondering them.
If you would like to read about my analysis of those who end up in these cult-style leadership positions, and abuse their power, continue to the second part of this article: We All Create Cults: Part 2.