Some things have a ‘cult following’, but they are not a cult. But it’s worth understanding the lure of community and solutions, writes Amal Awad.
A couple of years ago, when I was a first aid volunteer, I covered a few days of a major event at a large venue. Big name, thousands of people, and plenty of upselling as people raised their hands to change their lives.
For several reasons, which I will not go into, it was a challenging duty, which led to various strains of it being “a cult’. There was an ‘energy’ in the air. It felt like either you were a believer, or you were not. I was somewhere in between, knowing from experience that this sort of endeavour could deliver results but long-term external change really relies on our internal mechanics.
I chewed over the accusations lobbed at the organisation. Was it really a cult? It certainly had what popular vernacular would define a ‘cult following’. But what seemed to gnaw at people was that sense of unbreakable focus and devotion to the lessons being imparted.
To be fair, it was a lot, but not that different to the same sort of cliquey devotion we witness and experience in our daily lives—from belief systems, diets, hobbies and social media forums that cater to our specific interests. As connected as humans beings are, no matter our similarities, our individual preferences mean we need categories—from podcasts, hashtags, and online forums that feel like home, every day we are showing who we are and what appeals to us by aligning with certain groups and ways of seeing the world.
How much we let this define us equates to your level of suggestibility. And how easily we swerve from one mindset into another may hint at a need for something to hold on to rather than a fervent belief. The religious devotee can become a diehard vegan. The wellbeing aspirant may never feel satisfied, but will always feel like they’re doing something so long as they try every new superfood, or post enough photos on social media to document their lifestyle. Not to dilute the harmful effects of an actual cult on a person’s wellbeing. Most of us are all cultists in some way, but there’s a sliding scale in how much we rely on these preferences.
Among attendees at this event, there may have been a sprinkling of first-timers, people wanting to #livemybestlife, and others perhaps in genuine need of an emotional breakthrough. But many, including people with whom I interacted, swore by the methods, a deep echo of allegiance attached to the people and the ideas. This was not their first multi-day seminar.
The thing is, of course, this sort of thing “works”. Such methods can because they offer a solution to a problem, they ritualise what may seem symbolic, perhaps it disrupts thought patterns by offering a structured, mechanical or spiritual way to approach something that feels blocked. It’s a new, often common-sense perspective you needed someone else to guide you towards—sometimes grounded in psychological approaches to healing.
Humans need help to move through life and self-improvement relies on this when it draws people in; they traffic in pain points and often make plenty of sense. They will usually deliver results, so it’s understandable why people continue to subscribe to particular ideologies or schools of thought. Further to this, humans require connection, and often they find it in groups that appear interested in a person’s individuation.
Don’t underestimate the power of concentrated energy in a heightened environment, as truth bombs hit you with full force. But like anything with a heightened build-up afterwards, you’re left with a deflated sense of ‘What now?’. No matter how much such an event breaks you open, it’s only a beginning, and you will need further guidance as you explore your potential and leave behind whatever has been anchoring you to the past and/or your pain. This post-seminar flatness intentionally leads to more—seminars, courses, retreats, and so on.
The nature of humans is that we not only seek evolution, we require it in order to grow and survive. But if the toolkit you’re building becomes a rigid structure that you cannot exist outside of (e.g. feeling like you can never have a negative thought or that anything that goes wrong is all your fault), then you’re not really adapting and growing, you’re clinging to a lifeline of thought that sustains you until the next helpful idea comes along.
To be clear, I have no beef with self-improvement as a selling point; my concern lies in the nonsensical rather than logical or therapeutic methods and treatments that genuinely offer mechanisms and solutions for people who want to change damaging habits, or deal with their pain, and sometimes even trauma. Do they guide you onto a new, self-sustainable path or do you get locked in?
Some organisations are plainly a cult. History has delivered many of them and there will be, undoubtedly, more to follow as long as vulnerable or emboldened people seek an exclamation mark of a response to a problem. The need and a lack of experience can mean we’re more suggestible, too. If something works at the start, it will propel you into a continued search for truth and success.
Perhaps the trickiest thing in all this is how a cult usually appears innocuous, a timely answer to a question. A solution to your longing for more. A way into peace, or even your pathway to personal and global salvation.
It’s something I have spent a great deal of time ruminating on in recent years as I wrote my new book, In My Past Life I was Cleopatra, in which I explored self-help and so-called New Age rituals, pondering how they have helped me, or where they have done nothing for me at all. More significantly, I explore the why and how more generally—why do we need so many vehicles to reach the same destination? Why do we divest so much personal power at the promise of a solution to a problem we don’t fully understand?
I have never been in a cult, but religion was part of my upbringing, and I recognise allegiance to ideas, beliefs and a way of life. In my research, I considered the lure of ‘miracle’ solutions, but also some more seemingly grounded offerings that draw in an enduring audience. You would be hard-placed to deem most of these a ‘cult’. There is no actual leader, though there is arguably devotion to a set of ideas. But sometimes, the most it takes from you is an abundance of time and mental real estate. It can be costly, yes, but you don’t have to pack up your life and enter a commune in a rural area in some far-flung place.
Cults are a power play, a high-control environment that can endanger people’s lives, or at the very least their wellbeing, and infect the lives of those around the cult member. We cannot understate the significance of how they lure people in. No one joins a cult. They get a taste of something—a longed-for liberation, or a sense of understanding of the self. Unfortunately, those feelings do not last. Instead, they get lost in a never-ending line of ‘solutions’ to ‘problems’ that must be fixed.
Humans, with myriad problems, insecurities, and fears, need anchors, and a sense that they have some control in their lives. Professor of Literature Joseph Campbell, a story expert, spoke of how people being feverishly devoted to a cause and a leader are in search of their next parent. There is something to this: the safety net of a belief system, and someone to kiss the ouch away.
There are elements of this in the New Age and self-help spaces: a sense that because you are ever evolving, there is always something to fix.
It’s unsettling that any group can suggest that they are some protective force field. They may help you to feel safe in a dangerous world, and lead you to think that with them, you can unlock your potential in order to achieve self-determination. They can do that, but eventually you may discover that you struggle to think for yourself. You will discover that they are trying to guide your every thought and move to greater need, and that really, you have no power at all.