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There’s no one way to heal

November 24, 2010

We’ve all come out of groups that told us our leaders’ had the ONE, highest path. THE answer to every single problem we have: how to know God, what to eat, who to have—or not have—sex with, what to take when we’re sick, what to believe in, what to think, to do, to feel.

And it’s THE Right answer for everyone on the planet. They may not know that yet—but eventually they’ll learn the wisdom of my leader’s path. Some day.

Sometimes coming out of a toxic group, some of us may have a similar idea. It’s obvious we need to attack the leader. Or it’s obvious we should just move on. Or it’s obvious we shouldn’t give up our spiritual struggle just because this guy wasn’t the real deal.

And everyone would just be happier if they did it my way. And they’ll discover the truth of that eventually. Some day.

I may be wrong, but I think people are much more complex than that. We were all part of a group. We shared many core values and beliefs. We did many of the same things. And we all hung out together.

But we’re all still different people. And what works for me may—or may not—work for you.

And no matter how loud or impassioned I get, my answer can be right for me, wrong for you.

There. Is. No. One. Way. To Heal.

We can get ideas from others who have been in similar situations. But in the end, we’ve got to find answers that work best for ourselves.

So, yes, attack the leader and the group. So, yes, just move on. So, yes, find a new way to grow spiritually.

Use therapy if it works for you. Use self-help forums and blogs—like this one—to think things out with others. Get energy healing. Become a skeptic. Strengthen your aura.

If it soothes the pain for you, that’s good enough.

Does everyone need therapy, exit counseling, psychic healing…?

Short answer: No.

More nuanced answer: HELL, no.

Every toxic group, abusive church, or cult is different. Every individual is different. Everyone’s life has been different.

The vast majority of former group members of a labeled “cult” never seek professional help.

Easy enough to demonstrate. Some experts label large groups like Scientology, Transcendental Meditation—or even the Catholic Church—as “cults.” But no matter what the label, people leave these groups every day.

Some simply feel it no longer meets their needs. Some continue casual contact because they see some value there. Some hear or see something they can’t accept—perhaps sharing their doubts with people they know. (These people are the most likely to tell you to “just get over it.”)

And many don’t call their group a cult—especially people under 35. “Cult” happened to parents or grandparents—the “hippies.” “Cult” is a rock band name. It just means “fan.” Or it’s a punchline to a lame joke: “Heaven’s Gate was one shoe endorsement the people at Nike never saw coming.” (Anthony Taylor, in an early video clip.) These individuals will likely say, “It wasn’t a cult. It’s just a church. Cults are like Jonestown. I can deal with this.”

AND many current members report their memberships add invaluable things to their life. If someone tells me they’re a happy Transcendental Meditator, for example, I take them at face value. I don’t secretly believe they’ll “come to their senses” some time in the future. If a group meets their needs, it meets their needs.

AND a significant minority of members do report abuse and trauma. Many deal with their challenges through self-help: books, blogs, web sites, forums, listservs, family, or friends.

BUT a percentage do seek help to speed their healing. Whether it’s through exit counseling (psychoeducation), pastoral counseling, spiritual counseling, support groups, alternative health—or credentialed mental health professionals.

Because toxic groups, subgroups, and individuals are all so different that one person may have had only pleasurable experiences in his group. But the guy sitting right beside him may have experienced deep trauma.

It’s human nature to think your experience or attitude is the rational one—and anyone saying something else must be wrong, lying—or crazy.

Individuals deal with their challenges in the way that works for them—and is most comfortable. You can find legitimate healing in any of these ways.

I’m of the opinion that there is no “cult syndrome” that is best treated by a unique method from any tradition. You responded to the overwhelming stress of living through a toxic group—and the turmoil that follows leaving one—in your own way.

And that NO ONE—no cult expert, no mental health professional, no pastor, no family or friend—can tell you if you need therapy or counseling after spiritual or cultic abuse.

Fortunately, there’s someone right at hand who can figure out if you need help to heal.


Only you can know if you’d like help dealing with the pain or challenges you face. EVERYBODY else, even an “expert,” is just guessing—or applying gussied-up stereotypes.

There is no cookie-cutter counseling, treatment, or book that works for everybody. So, create your own therapy! You can experiment and find understandings, techniques, supportive contacts that work best for you. Even if you do so in collaboration with your chosen healer.

Maybe especially when you work with a professional. Don’t know about you, but I don’t want to ever again adopt someone else’s model without closely examining it—and making it my own.

You’re more likely, in my opinion, to experience healing if you understand how you respond uniquely, rather than shoehorning yourself into someone else’s model—or comparing yourself to someone else in recovery.

The very thoughts, “I should be further along by now—Susy is!” or “I must follow the expert’s rules, he knows better than me,” can become serious blocks to healing. Especially if a professional suggests them.

Some of our confusion may come from mistaking the concept “cult” for an actual, real thing (reification): This group is a Cult, that one isn’t.

“Cult” is at best a useful metaphor. I’m not aware of an operational definition for “cult” that gives a bright white-line separating cultic groups from non-cultic groups—or could form the basis of a hypothesis that could be researched. You can have a cultic relationship with or experience spiritual abuse in any group. Or with any family or individual.

So, how do I define a “cult”? To be honest, as a psychotherapist, I don’t concern myself overly much analyzing which groups are cultic—and which are not. I focus on “cultic relationships.” A relationship with any group becomes cultic when you experience high-intensity demands on time and resources that one or more core life areas stop working for you: relationships, career, finances, community, physical or emotional well-being, spirituality….

Using this view, a “cult” might be any organization that knowingly encourages destructive cultic relationships with its members to achieve its own goals for power, money, adulation, or personal gratification.

I focus on the cultic relationship because, in psychotherapy, personal responsibility is more powerful than blame.

Blame is about the past: Who did what to whom, when, and how many times. It’s clear the blame for cultic abuse lies with toxic-group leadership. They stand ready to exploit the vulnerabilities of their members — the loneliness, depression, idealism, gullibility, fear, and ambition all humans feel at one time or another.

Responsibility is about the future: Who will take the steps necessary to change in a positive direction. In psychotherapy, responsibility always lies with the client. Only the client can choose to improve his or her life.

This is true in treating healing from spiritual or cultic abuse as well. The leadership encouraged dysfunctional behavior. But your leader isn’t going to change — or make your life better. Only you can change harmful patterns and move on. My work as a therapist is to facilitate a client discovering for him- or herself how to root out the destructive aftereffects of a cultic relationship.

Change is possible at any moment. Your past does not predict your future.


P.S. Just an afterthought: Some people may very well have learned techniques or beliefs in their group that really work for them—and decide not to cutoff contact with them.

Something to think about: Even if you personally were not harmed, do you really want to support an abusive or negligent organization? Financially? Emotionally? By volunteering? With unqualified positive comments?

  1. Manju permalink
    November 25, 2010 5:14 am

    Absolutely fine, thought-provoking, non-judgemental, pragmatic and objective post. Appreciate it.

  2. Thanks for saving me permalink
    November 25, 2010 7:18 am

    Really a very good post. I have not read saner post than this one. I really wonder how a person of such a clear thinking can ever become part of any cultic relationship. Anyway, your statement about Blame and Responsibility will help others also who are sufferring from addictions and other abuses apart from cultic abuse.

    Just before becoming deeply involved in AOL activities (two months back), I came across this blog so in a way was saved from entering into a cultic relationship. However, I have a dilemma, there were many things that I learnt in AOL seems to have some beneficial effect on me such as Kriya. I have not been doing any AOL sadhana for last two months, as I think long-term effects may not be beneficial and also because I do not want to support an organisation, which does not treat its members espcially full-time teachers well and is basically dishonest. I don’t know what to do with that. So I have decided I will restart doing Yoga and meditation but won’t do Kriya or AOL specific sadhana. I hope this will be a solution for my dilemma.

    • OASCS permalink
      November 25, 2010 7:53 am

      Hi . .. Have been doing AoL Sadhana for about 9 years now…

      If you are doing Kriya and the breathing exercises .. be sure to drink a lot of water.. as they may cause dryness in the body and can increase the heat in the system…

      Otherwise the techniques .. Padma Sadhana, Sudarshan Kriya and the pranayaams have been effective and beneficial overall…

      There is nothing like Hatha Yoga .. do surya namaskaars and other hatha yoga techniques .. if practicing advanced hatha yoga techniques such as Headstands etc .. then its good to do it under the guidance of a yoga teacher…

      Don’t feel guilty in doing these practices as you have paid cash to learn them and these techniques now belong to you .. also many of the techniques are not unique to AoL.. Sahaj is basically TM, Padmasadhana has been derived from hatha yoga.. The Ujjai pranayaams have always been a basic yoga technique…. I have heard( am not sure) that J Krishnamoorthi had a technique in which a tape was played (exactly the same as Sudarshan Kriya) .. Am not sure whether this is true or not.. as i have heard this from someone.. not directly experienced it…

      But anyway as long if you keep drinking water in larger amounts than you do usually there is nothing to worry about the practices.. (5 to 6 Litres or more a day approx)

      • Peter (aka drpetersutphen) permalink
        November 26, 2010 3:22 pm

        Actually Sahja is not TM. It is superficially similar, but the “relationship” to the mantra is different.

      • OASCS permalink
        November 27, 2010 5:41 am

        @Peter .. probably u r rite… I haven’t experienced TM …. but I did hear from some senior teachers only that both revolve around the concept of a beej mantra which is kept secret…

        In Sahaj the Mantra is used to break a chain of thoughts linked to each other

        Also Its is used once as a thought, once from the heart region and once as if welcoming a great friend of yours…

        I think the above 2 sentences best sum up Sahaj….

    • Peter Sutphen (aka drpetersutphen) permalink
      November 26, 2010 3:20 pm

      Yes, you have to take the good and leave the bad. Too often people go to extremes of indiscriminately loving or hating their spiritual group. For many people there are many positive aspects of the AOL. No spiritual group has to necessarily be a cult.

  3. Abhilash Shastry permalink
    November 25, 2010 1:37 pm


    Thanks for this wonderful post. This brought clarity to many issues. Your suggestion that instead of focusing on ‘cult ‘ , one should focus on ‘cultic relationship’ is very valuable. I think it explains different experiences of people with the same organization.

    @Thanks for saving me:

    ###So I have decided I will restart doing Yoga and meditation but won’t do Kriya or AOL specific sadhana. I hope this will be a solution for my dilemma.###

    That’s really a good strategy. Yoga and meditation both are time tested techniques. AOL Kriya is a recent invention and its long term effects are not known.

  4. Peaceful Warrior permalink
    November 25, 2010 2:31 pm


  5. belle permalink
    November 26, 2010 5:06 pm

    @ john

    very good article thanks.

    “Something to think about: Even if you personally were not harmed, do you really want to support an abusive or negligent organization? Financially? Emotionally? By volunteering? With unqualified positive comments?”

    and this is my dilemma. do i want to associate myself with such a organisation just because i might be getting something out of it?

    • Observer permalink
      November 27, 2010 9:43 am

      Whatever is in the past, leave it. Stop associating and contributing to aol from now on. And by the way, you have every right to continue to practise any techniques which are beneficial to you, even if u leave aol. You have paid good money for it

    • November 28, 2010 5:33 pm


      I think Observer offered excellent advice.


  6. anonymous permalink
    November 26, 2010 5:57 pm


    This is a wonderful post. I completely agree. I left TM without scars, without much caring. AOL was traumatic and terrible — the staying and the leaving — one of the most stress inducing places/groups of people I’ve ever encountered on earth. Recently, I corresponded with someone who had left AOL, and who kept pushing me to see a counsellor (even though I’ve been out of AOL for many years), because they happened to do so. I never had an ‘exit counsellor’ from AOL, although several of my friends who left around the time I did, went through a formal “deprogramming” and benefitted from it. So I know there is no one way. You are so correct. When I first saw KLIM’s blog, it stirred up old memories and I was troubled for some weeks. Then, perspective returned, and I was okay.

    I’m not certain if all people posting about Ravi Shankar, and who did what to whom, on these blogs are just rehashing, and blaming. I do think it’s good to put these things on the table for the sake of others who might get fooled by AOL and RS and then let the make up their own minds about whether or not to be involved in such a group. Also, I believe I was silent for far too long because it was convenient for me. The risk of exposure (fear of Ravi Shankar and his very real attacks on people) kept me from speaking up. So an anonymous forum like this is a great place. I don’t know about the TM movement, but the damage done by AOL and Ravi Shankar to people who leave can be overwhelming, especially at first. It’s not only talk. It’s direct threats sometimes, delivered to your own door, from “Guruji”, warning you, with implications of violence if you are ‘not careful what you speak about’, etc. In my case, money was even offered. So the fear is not imagined, or only psychological. AOL is a politically well-connected, powerful group of people, including paid off members of the police in some jurisdictions. If you are Western, this may seem hard to imagine. So if some of what you read sounds like blame, it may be the only way people can ever speak about their experiences without actual fear of reprisals.

    You sound like a very nice person, with very good intentions to help people who have been hurt by AOL. Thank you for that.

    • November 28, 2010 5:48 pm


      Thanks for your kind words.

      I, personally, don’t see blame and rehashing in the posts here. (I haven’t read deeply in the comments yet, but am trying to work through them, most recent first.)

      There are many things needed by people recovering and the world at large.

      Certainly exposure of harmful practices and policies is important to inform people thinking of being involved with AoL—and some members already questioning their involvement.

      Community is also a high benefit. Most of our groups did everything imaginable to separate us from the work—and each other. To find a community where one may openly discuss questions and experiences can be a tremendous relief for some. You’re not crazy. This really did happen.

      Socializing shouldn’t be overlooked. I don’t know about you, but when I first left, my biggest nightmare was loneliness. I left friends, lovers, career, meaning, and purpose behind the day I walked out the door. And outsiders looked at me as if I were crazy when I tried to tell them about it. The feeling, “no one understands, no one CAN understand,” was a constant companion.

      Self-help ranks right up there, too. Sharing what worked in our recoveries with each other can be all the help one needs to get on about one’s life.

      There is a concept known as “borrowing ego strength.” When we are so low we have no energy to move, much less recover, sometimes just having someone there for us—especially someone who understands—can give us the resources to make changes. It’s not talked about much, but I think this is especially important for someone who doubts their reality—as so many do after leaving a toxic group.


  7. belle permalink
    November 27, 2010 2:25 pm

    @ anonymous

    “I’m not certain if all people posting about Ravi Shankar, and who did what to whom, on these blogs are just rehashing, and blaming.”

    if something happened, it should be freely discussed, and if it is, it is not “rehashing and blaming”. though i agree with the rest of your post.

    though sometimes the stories are maybe rehashed, i say so what?
    i say speak about it, then shout it out and then shout it out even louder. abuse should never be given a place to hide or be allowed to be kept a secret, get it out in the open for all to see.

    • November 28, 2010 5:51 pm

      May I risk a shoutout?

      Amen, Sister! Tell it!

      (Not Christian, but a “spiritual agnostic” most comfortable with the Buddhist and Hindu traditions.)


  8. belle permalink
    November 27, 2010 2:33 pm

    @ observer
    “Stop associating and contributing to aol from now on. And by the way, you have every right to continue to practise any techniques which are beneficial to you, even if u leave aol. You have paid good money for it”

    sorry i just read your post and thanks for your advice.
    but i’m not actually from aol, i was in another cult.
    i cant benefit from any technique, meditation that is derived from dishonest organisation/means.

  9. belle permalink
    November 29, 2010 2:04 pm

    @ john

    “May I risk a shoutout?”

    lol! ofcourse, go for broke!

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