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Experiencing the Numinous as a Cult Survivor

from GoldenMic - Tuesday, September 16, 2003
accessed 4939 times

Experiencing the Numinous as a Cult Survivor

The author, raised in a bible-based cult for 20 years, examines the experience of the "numinosum", the dramatic moment one has when sensing the presence of the divine. This issue is complicated when one has been victimized by a cult experience, and it is examined in the context of the authorís own wounding and in his own ongoing healing, using the perspective of depth psychologist Lionel Corbett.

Experiencing the Numinous as a Cult Survivor

Experiencing the numinous, that "particular affective state" (Corbett, 1996/2001) of being gripped by the divine, is a powerful and dangerous issue for me. As a cult survivor, I have often confused the numinous with the ecstatic, and for many years I believed that being in touch with God was synonymous with having the approval of my cult leader. I also equated the religious experience with the many mind-numbing and thought-stopping techniques my cult used, and I also came to a point where I felt close to God any time that I wasnít actively scared, guilty, or depressed by my cultís ongoing psychological assault on my independence and self-worth. However, as I have slowly recovered from my cult wounds, I have also learned to value moments of spiritual enlightenment, blessed by the experience of the numinous, and I now strive daily to become more intimately aquainted with it.

My Own Experience with the Numinous

My personal experience with the numinosum, as is probably true for each individual, has been profoundly effected by my life experiences, the culture of my youth, and my reactions to the context of my introduction to religion and spirituality. I am a cult survivor, having lived my first 25 years in a quasi-Christian cult, where I experienced repeated physical and mental abuse, emotional emasculation, and where I fully internalized the oppression that went on around me. In this cult, for the 200 to 300 members actually involved at any time, there was an absolute reliance upon the groupís female leader, a self-educated minister rejected by her own peers at the fringes of the fundamentalist Christian movement, a self-proclaimed "prophet" who controlled almost every aspect of the membersí lives.

During my time in the cult, fear and self-denial was the impetus for action, and one would do almost anything to achieve the bliss of inclusion into the smug narcissism of the prophetís self-perpetuating vision of reality. I learned to doubt my own sanity and significance, and I learned to betray, and be betrayed by, every person I loved. I also learned to function in a state of constant tension and guilt-laced fear, desperate to please the prophet and willing to commit almost any act (or omission) that would serve her interests. My sense of the divine was wrapped tightly inside of my understanding of the life and meaning of this prophet, and I strongly equated her approval with the sensation of numinosity.

By the time I left the cult, at age 25, I had seen many kinds of psychological and spiritual oppression. I had watched as spouses and friends were forced to turn on each other and where parents turned on their children, attacking them for attitudes and actions that were deemed unacceptable, and giving their approval only when the "apostate" disregarded their own reality for the prophetís, followed by a feeling of mind-numbed relief and re-connection that seemed, indeed, to be a re-connection with God (Martella, 2002). At every step, it was my endless job, along with hundreds of others, to glorify the prophet as the direct representative of God on earth, and to be willing to make any sacrifice to achieve her agenda. The feeling of relief that resulted from this "return" to the self-assurance and mentally "emptied" state was defined as having "gotten the spirit", a kind of pseudo-numinosity found in the release from feelings of tension, anxiety, and separation.

Given my experiences, it makes sense to me that I was unwilling to trust or believe in the numinous under most circumstances. Having experienced the numinous as a moment of relief and ecstasy that accompanied a temporary feeling of being safe, and having had that feeling repeatedly exploited by my spiritual leader in the furtherance of her own goals, it is now easy for me to understand why I felt unable to trust most of the methods by which people experience the numinous.

Corbett (1996/2000) describes some of the ways that people typically experience the numinous, and he warns that these experiences may often be defined by others as evidence of grandiosity, self-inflation, or even psychosis. He notes, however, that this kind of reaction is likely the result of fear or ignorance, and possibly envy. In his book, The Religious Function of the Psyche , he lists some of the ways that people experience the numinous, including dreams, waking visions, bodily experiences, within relationships, in the wilderness, by aesthetic/creative means, and by synchronicities. However, this list is primarily an exercise in terror for me, reminding me as it does of the many ways I was deceived and beguiled into equivilization of the numinous with mere relief and/or approval from the prophet. I will discuss these methods in order, explaining how and why they did/did not work for me.

Experiencing the Numinous in Dreams.

Dreams were not available to me for many years. First, because I did not dream much while at the cult, probably some form of denial and avoidance of a reality that was simply too psychologically deadly for me to face. Second, the prophet of my cult received most of her important revelations via dreams, and my cohorts and I were conditioned to see our own dreams as presumptuous and disloyal, a kind of competition against the prophetís exclusive use of this Imaginal force. I am glad to say that, in my 20 years of healing, I have begun to dream with increasing regularity, and only a few months ago I had a dream that synchronistically addressed an important topic that was discussed the next day, a real break-through for me.

Experiencing the Numinous in Waking Visions.

I have never been able to have any real waking-visions, and I remain mystified by the as-yet unleashed power that active imagination could have in my life. It seems likely to me that my fear of spiritually, the product of long-term spiritual abuse, makes this a hurdle I can only hope to overcome. Also, the cult taught that "imagination" was fantasy, and that it led to "sinful" self-aggrandizement and wishful thinking, both being counter-productive to the cultís desire to co-opt my every moment, thought, and feeling. Further, since the cultís doctrine was fortified by an arcane series of alliterations and formulas, non-standard and imaginative thinking would likely have led to creative re-interpretations and ideas, competing with the prophetís role as the source of all divine inspiration and clearly anathema in an environment designed to stifle self-generated, and thereby self-serving, thought.

Experiencing the Numinous in Bodily Experiences.

Bodily experiences of the numinous (or at least the pseudo-numinous) were, in fact, somewhat acceptable in the cult. These sensations were encouraged as evidence of "feeling the spirit of God" so long as they matched and approved of cult doctrines and policies. However, there was a paradox built-in to the experience since it was also understood by the cult members that such bodily manifestations were evidence of a rather superficial and immature relationship with God, and that the most spiritual beings (like the prophet) did not need to be reassured by such physical evidence of Godís approval. Also, all focus upon bodily sensation was ultimately defined by the prophet as some form of sexuality, and her hatred and disdain for sexuality and sensuality (despite constant affairs and inappropriate contact with children by her and her "elders") was a constant focus in the many hours of meetings and services, so one could not readily afford to give too much attention to oneís body. Finally, since the fear and anxiety created by the cult environment was a nearly constant reality, bodily experiences were actually based on the feeling of released tension, and I could never fully trust such an experience.

Experiencing the Numinous Within Relationships.

Relational numinosity is an area where I have been the most severely abused, and the most blessed. In my relationship with the prophet, I felt a strong sense of bliss whenever she approved of my thinking or actions, and she was the arbiter for all of us in deciding if we had, in fact, experienced the presence of God. Therefore, I have become highly distrustful of any relationship where I feel powerful affect or psychological intensity. At the same time, it was in relationship to my children that I first gained freedom from my cult wounding, and where I first experienced the numinous. When I felt the unadulterated joy of fatherhood, and experienced the pride and happiness of seeing life and joy in my childrenís eyes, I found a kind of sensation and being in relationship that was holy and filled with love, and that simply could not be overwhelmed by my cult past. I also realized, from my love for my children and my commitment to their happiness and well-being, that the prophetís relationship with me was not what I had imagined. When I began to compare the god that she offered, with all its judgment and second-guessing, to my own role in the lives of my children, I began to see that the god she worshipped was not a god that I could respect or admire, and her hold on me diminished more every day. Further, as I grow every year in my relationship with my wife, also a victim of that cult, and as our love has blossomed into a true respecting and valuing of each other, I find a kind of daily experiencing of the numinous in the evolving wonder and mutual appreciation we share for each otherís life, needs, and experiences.

Experiencing the Numinous in the Wilderness.

In the cult, we were taught that the "natural world" was "Satanís domain", and a dangerous source of ungodly passions. An appreciation of nature would certainly have been regarded as "pagan" in much the same way that organized Christianity viewed nature throughout history, an abrogation of the responsibility to "tame the earth" and to submit it into Godís "order". In that sense, we were taught that nature must be conquered and colonized. Much of that is changing for me now, and I find it very illuminating that I recently returned to the land where I was raised, the volcanic steppes of far northeastern California, and found for the first time that I could appreciate and commune with the land that I had previously ignored. Finally, I "heard" the spirit of the craggy mountain formations, the miles of tumbleweed spread over the plains, and the huge salt flats and lakes as evidence of Godís presence on the earth... the land spoke to me for the first time in my life. As I "listened" to the dry winds and swirling dust, I felt the numinous flood me with understanding and joy. It was frightening and eerie, but exhilarating, to "know" the voice of the land, and I imagined it telling me that it was there all along, right beside me, as I lived through those years of oppression and guilt and fear, but that it had never failed me and never left me. It was a time of holy communion, of shared memories, and of the majesty and eternal nature of a land that forgave me my previous ignorance... welcoming me back into my home. Now, THAT was an experience of the numinous!

Experiencing the Numinous by Aesthetic/Creative Means.

Attaining the numinous through aesthetic or creative means refers to forms and rituals of purification and or deprivation (aesthetic) to achieve what Eastern mystics would call enlightenment, or the use of the senses, through artistic and expressive (creative) means such as music, writing, or drama to reach an exalted place of self-understanding or a sense of unity with the creative forces of life and being. The prophet of our cult repeatedly spoke about her own heroic journey into the underworld, her denial of self through fasting, ignoring her own needs for comfort and sacrificing her life for the people, and she made everyone feel guilty for allowing her to pay such a high price in obtaining wisdom and guidance. She also used many creative methodologies to exercise her own ego and Imaginal life, including singing, writing, drawing, journeling, preaching, and periodic bursts of creative organizing. Meanwhile, in a cult dedicated to furthering her interests and world view, cult members were only allowed to engage in those sacrifices and/or creative ventures that directly served her interests. Any aesthetic activity that she had not sanctioned was seen as preening and posturing, and thereby invalidated and/or castigated. Also, any creativity that was not directly related to achieving her ends was seen as a lack of submission to God, and probably influenced by a satanic desire for personal prestige at the groupís expense. In my own life after the cult, I spent nearly ten years in a fugue of depression and listlessness, but this was not based on any aesthetic plan for purification. It is only in the last ten years that I have begun to find ways of denying immediate gratification in order to achieve higher states of being, and during this same period I have begun to become more creative and artistic in my search for meaning and self, but I still find these areas of my being rather stunted and fearful.

Experiencing the Numinous Through Synchronicity.

Synchronicity was a major element of cult life, and was thereby long unavailable to me as a path towards the numinous. Within the cult, as in almost all other destructive cults, there is a strong tendency towards "magical thinking" (Lifton, 1969/1989) which tends to tie all events together as miracles that proved the wisdom and divinity of the prophetís teachings and foretelling. Inconvenient facts that did not fit were ignored or minimized, and every auspicious or related idea and event was used to bolster the prophetís image of herself as god-like, with access to hidden mysteries and divine "vision". In our cult, dire predictions of race wars and catastrophes were predicted to occur on specific dates, and they didnít. Even memberís illnesses and/or health were considered tidings related to their spiritual progress, and every event was a blessing or a curse based on how it did or didnít support the prophetís message and ideology. In my own life, even long after I left the cult, I treated every negative occurrence as evidence of Godís displeasure for my leaving the cult, and I ignored all the ways that my life was blessed. Now, I am trying to construct an acceptance of synchronicity as evidence of the connectedness of life, without allowing myself to become reliant upon synchronicity for proof or direction. For me, it is becoming a matter of generalized faith in the cosmos and a sense that there is a meaningfulness and a purposefulness to events and existence, without the need to understand or use that awareness.


In conclusion, I have experienced the numinous in some ways, and I grow increasingly able to expand that part of my being as I come to terms with my cult wounding and past. There are now moments when I experience myself as knowing some essential truth about myself or about human nature where that knowing feels like information from, and connection with, the divine essence.

I still like to think of myself as a Christian, and I personally often choose to label moments of numinosity as the experience of activating a personal connection with God, though I am far less willing to accept another personís limits or description of what is meant by "God". At the same time, my own dogmatic and cult-based history makes me endlessly suspicious of labels, and of any other person attempting to define the presence of God for me. When my rector speaks (I often attend a local Episcopalian church) I am willing to believe he has his own connection with the divine, but I only continue to attend so long as he does not try to label or otherwise interpret my experience of God. I also continue to listen for the presence of God in the lives of my loved oneís, and increasingly in the natural world. This brings me comfort, and some sense that I am more meaningfully integrated into the spirit of life.

For me, the numinous remains a place of potential danger, since it will probably never be fully and totally free from the fears and rebellion associated with my break from the cult, and I will always be highly cognizant of that sensationís potential manipulation if I let otherís define it for me, but I continue to seek that state where I am able. I am not currently willing to surrender to that sensation, nor am I convinced that such surrender is even the right path for me, but I do recognize that the experience of the numinosum gives me a kind of energy and commitment to life that is essential for me, and I treasure those situations and people where I see the numinous being experienced without any attempt to possess or manipulate it.


Corbett, L. (1996/2001) The religious function of the psyche. Philadelphia: Brunner-Routledge.

Lifton, R. J. (1969/1989). Thought reform and the psychology of totalism. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Martella, M. (2002). Oppression and the soul of the world. (Term paper, Post-Jungian Psychology, Pacifica Graduate Institute, 2002).

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