Saturday, 23 June 2012

Mindfulness: a non-cult

When I started banging on about mindfulness meditation on this mighty blog I was at pains (I hope) to emphasise the fact that it’s not a cult or a sect. It is something of a movement, but only in the way that a valuable aid to healthy and productive living can become a movement.

In its frequently-encountered Western form (as opposed to its Buddhist roots) it has something of a founding father, Jon Kabat-Zinn; he doesn’t set himself up as a cult or sect leader. He simply goes about his work, travels from his Massachusetts base to visit other centres, writes and teaches. He hasn’t, as far as I’m aware, ever asked a wealthy group of young pop musicians for a month of their salaries….

But the practice of mindfulness is spreading far and wide, and is nowadays increasingly “mainstream” as opposed to “alternative.” (Useless terms, I know.) Perhaps there are dodgy offers around from people who haven’t been properly trained. I could put a brass plate up on the gate here at Mundi Mansions offering classes or individual sessions, set up a centre, turn the thing into a cult. (Can’t be arsed, actually, apart from other more honourable considerations!)

So how do we distinguish between a movement and a cult? This thought came to my mind recently when I read of what sounds to me like a truly horrible cult, based not too far from here, which has ravaged the lives of a few people I know and like very much. Perhaps some people get a lot out of it. It sounds poisonous to me. The film poster above may be mildly amusing - the reality can be very bad indeed.

Of course, Christianity was once a secret cult; it was certainly a sect that grew out of Judaism. Buddhism could perhaps be described in its early days as a sect of Hinduism. No one accredited Jesus or Gautama, they put up their brass plate, as it were, and off they went.

What’s the difference between JC and the Buddha, and – let’s call it for now Lust for Life?  (They are wealthy and quick to use lawyers.)

As it used to say on The Wire – follow the money. Modern cults often thrive by acquiring donations from people who are won over by their core belief systems, beliefs that in themselves may be innocuous or helpful. Moral pressure is exerted to get more and more money and property from believers.

Inside the cult, people often work extremely hard for the common good, which if you follow the patterns, means the good of the commercial enterprise being run by The Guru. Typically, The Guru and his inner circle will gain a lot more from this work and those donations than the rank and file. What sort of work? Mundane stuff maintaining or extending the Centre/s, brain work in writing materials, music, making videos etc, which are then sold for the benefit of the Centre. (see above.)

So it’s not the beliefs themselves that need scrutiny, it’s the social and commercial structures – difficult to see from outside, of course.

Jesus and Buddha? Didn’t make or keep a cent. Buddha had been a prince; he became a wandering ascetic looking for enlightenment. Jesus told people to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, not render unto him; he threw the money-changers out of the Temple and told his disciples to give up all they had and follow him. He also had this thing about rich people and heaven’s gate.

Then there’s good old sex. At Lust for Life, married or partnered joiners are advised to be celibate most of the time, in pursuit of enlightenment. It has been alleged (! More than once…) that The Guru used his hold over people to bring nighttime comforts to the women living this celibate life. How kind of him. It is also alleged that he wasn’t always too particular about the ages of the females involved. Lust for Life is not the only cult that has been sexually divisive, and has given a Guru access to many sexual partners.

The psychological mechanisms of cults are complex and have been researched and written about. They seem to attract two sorts of people: spiritual searchers who are open-minded but possibly naïve about the context of their searching, and vulnerable, depressive, lonely people who desperately need a home. God help them. The cult won’t.

The cult defence mechanism is simple but effective: those who leave and denounce are paranoid liars who couldn’t get what they wanted, it’s all fine here, just ask these good people… That’s why, although the police have more than once been to investigate complaints about Lust for Life, they haven’t been able to generate evidence. Intimidating and humiliating potential witnesses is not unique to mobland.

It’s so obvious, isn’t it? If a cult is secretive and exclusive to an extreme degree about how it works (not about its beliefs), it needs a good draft of fresh air through it – of disagreement, discussion, comparative judgements.

Some mindfulness courses are residential. They are not cults, it isn’t a sect. The balance it can help you achieve should actually help you veer away from cults like the toxic growths they are. You should be able to smell the stink of corruption from afar: no fresh air.

Follow the money and check the married quarters.


  1. There's an awful lot of consensus around the notion that personkind has never been more individualistic, yet all around us is evidence of ways in which people seek to be subsumed and then wear badges proclaiming I'm one of them. I'm thinking football, religion, class, money, counterculture, all of which have thought/dress/behaviour codes - identifiers. I see cults as extreme means of being subsumed.

    I feel pity for the victims, especially when they realise that's what they are. I feel especially sorry for their families. But to wake up and realise you've been labouring in vain for a guru is akin to waking up one morning wondering why on earth you've given all those years to Nestlé.

    However, cults promote slavery of a particularly nasty and insidious kind. I've never thought of the 'follow the money' perspective before. It is a very useful definer.

    Thank you, GM, you have got the old bean revving here. As for mindfulness, it's too gentle and interactive to qualify for cultworthiness, perhaps?

  2. Yes Charles, I also feel sorry for the victims - at best, they probably feel they've been rather gullible, and at worst their families are torn apart and they lose a lot of money.

    But in the case of mindfulness, there's nothing really to join. I suppose one could subsume oneself to the idea of "one perfect answer to everything" - which it never sets out to be, so that'd be one's own silly fault!
    But I do like the neat way you broaden the issues to think about our wider cultural tendencies towards being subsumed, our passion for submission.
    As for Nestlé, I take it you refer to working for a global business, rather than scoffing its products for years and finding you weight in at 22 stone....