There has been a small resurgence of interest in cults in popular media lately. The Hulu series “the Path” is an addictive story about modern families that live within a fictional religious movement (Meyerism) founded in the 1970s. On Netflix the new documentary series, “Wild Wild Country” covers the real life extraordinary events of the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (later known as Osho) and his followers.
It is easy to see the pitfalls of cults: the dogmatism, the isolation, the co-dependency, the tribalism, the slide into violence or abuse, and so on. But for those of us interested in spirituality, it is also easy to understand some of the lure and appeal.
Many of us who have found mere secularism lacking have felt that calling – the urge to break out of our everyday, mundane existence. Let’s admit: exotic cultural elements and practices we didn’t necessarily grow up in are attractive for those very reasons. The very fact that some traditions have terms that aren’t from our own language can be appealing. Not understanding the words in a mantra, for example, creates the feel of mystery. The obscurity works in a similar fashion to the imagination-stimulating vagueness of poetry. This can serve as a sacred tongue for experiential ritual. It may be, perhaps, why some Catholics prefer Mass in Latin. we are looking for something different – some kind of experience to wake us up. We need the novelty, the adventure, the new.
Sometimes people are drawn even more to a movement because its requirements are strict. Cults, of course, are extreme in this regard and we see similarly extreme levels of dedication. But most people will simply hop from one novelty to another without fully becoming ‘cult members’.
In either case all of this, it is eventually found, is just another example of the hedonic treadmill. Here we have turned spirituality into another novel ‘goodie’ to pursue. And like all pleasures, the novel will eventually become the normal and we will again find ourselves looking for something more. Many people who slide into cults are not unlike addicts whose bodies adapt and they need stronger and stronger drugs to do it for them.
What we need to live flourishing lives is a healthy and sustainable spirituality. We need a spiritual practice that is mindful of these issues and these impulses within ourselves.
There is nothing wrong with enjoying something new, or even getting a kind of experiential benefit to something exotic. This can be a way to discover new wisdom, explore new things about ourselves, and to grow. But ultimately, the way to bring a sense of the sacred into our lives is to learn to see and experience the profound all around us, in our everyday lives.
There is nothing normal or mundane in our life – it is only our unmindfulness and insensitivity to those things which makes it so. Waking up isn’t about moving into a better dream – it is about becoming aware of what we’ve been missing.
Our practices should be those which increase our attention and awareness – which put our lives into wiser perspective. Every day, we come across people in need of a kind word or a helpful favor. Every day, we have the opportunity to make the world better. Every day, we can appreciate something about our loved ones and recognize that our time together is short and finite. The blooming flower you walked by on the way into work is putting on a show for you. The gifts in your life are missing in so many other lives.
It can be beneficial and transformative to take a break, go on a retreat, and have new experiences. These should absolutely be a part of our journey. But the call to go off into the mountains also pulls us away from the world. And, one of our aims is that our inner transformation will lead to a better world. That means we need transforming people right here in the everyday world making a difference. We need people working in offices to be different. We need voters to be different. We need parents to be different. We need that inner transformation to change the culture and the direction of humanity toward a more enlightened path – and that cannot be done if all the practitioners feel they need to sequester themselves in escapism.
In transforming ourselves into mindful, aware, loving, and appreciating beings, we find the novel and the new in our everyday lives. And as we accomplish this through our practice, we are blessed by not having to continually search. We don’t have to worry about the mundane creeping in and the inevitable hunger for the next thing because, for us, the mundane will have become the sacred. This is true freedom.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.