from GoldenMic - Thursday, December 18, 2003
accessed 1462 times
A cult survivor looks at the process of finding post-cult spirtual meaning.
Oppression and the Soul of the World
Oppression has many forms. Oppression occurs when any individual is denied the freedom to be who she is, and when any entity seeks to serve her own needs at the expense of others. Oppression also occurs when one group of people manipulates and exploits another group, depriving others of their rights and dignity. Oppression also exists when the soul is neglected, exploited, or tyrannized by the desires and illusions of materialism and greed.
Oppression hurts. For the victim of oppression, life is a bare landscape of privation and ugliness, robbed of its richness and texture, and consumed by a sense of longing for that which could be, or could have been. There is little hope under the yoke of oppression, only a stunted and distorted grasping for substitutes. The oppressed do not die, usually, but they suffer. Their suffering is often literal, but that is the easiest part. Far worse is their emotional and psychological suffering, and the sickness of their souls in the dumb realization that they will never attain any true freedom.
The suffering of the oppressed occurs on many levels. It often includes a lack of basic human services and essentials; too little food, too little sleep, reduced freedom of movement, few choices or options. It also usually means that the individual is unable to access basic human "rights", such as adequate medical care, housing, education, and the opportunity to express and develop spirituality. In the realm of human individuality and choice, the oppressed have few options except survival, and even that is usually subject to the whim of the oppressor.
The soul, particularly, is assaulted by the oppressor, both the soul of the oppressed individual and the soul of the world. The individual soul is beaten down and fatigued by the pressures of trying to survive without hope for self and loved-one’s, and the world soul despairs at the ways that oppression kills the spirit, kills beauty, and kills the creative potential of life.
My own relationship with oppression is not due to poverty, or race, or by virtue of living in a country where citizens are routinely denied their basic rights and freedoms. My relationship with oppression began with my childhood in a quasi-Christian religious cult, living with daily physical and mental abuse, and it continues to this day, as I discover new ways that my past experiences continue to oppress me, and in how the oppressor that I internalized during my cult experience continues to do its work.
As a child in a cult, I was taught that only my people had the truth, and that all outsiders were evil, materialistic, and hell-bent. I was taught that "submission to my elders" included their having the right to determine my lifestyle, my clothing, my associations, and to control my time. I was raised in an environment where endless work was required of every non-elder, along with many hours of meetings where my loved ones were emotionally castigated for every un-acceptable thought or action. I was raised to lie to all "outsiders" about how loving and "free" we all felt, and to hide every indication of abuse and deprivation from all non-group members, including my own father. I was also raised to sit by while others were abused, and I even became one of the abusers as I grew older, verbally and sometimes physically assaulting any group member who was "out of the spirit", or otherwise not acceptable to the "prophet".
As I grew into a man, the oppression within my cult environment only grew. I was forced to work 16-20 hours a day, never receiving compensation and being told I should be grateful, since "out in the world" there was only despair and soul-lessness. I betrayed my friends at "stripping" sessions, verbal harassment and castigation for any imagined slight against the cult leader or her so-called divine interpretations of how we should live. I was, of course, also betrayed by those friends regularly. I was told who I should marry, and what my children’s names should be, and I was aware that they could be moved away from me at any time, just as I was moved from place to place at the prophet’s whim. I was shamed often, and every minor act of misbehavior was extrapolated into proof of my "evil" nature. I also participated in the shaming of others, allowing them to serve me like slaves, as I served others. When sexual abuse or domestic violence occurred, I understood that I must remain silent, allowing the elders (actually the prophet, using the elders as her accomplices and yes-men) to "seek an answer" while I stood by silently. Abuse of children and the non-elders was common, as was sexual impropriety, and it was never acceptable to tell outsiders about what was happening. However, during the yearly "confession" periods these things were discussed with the top elders and the prophet, exacerbating the confessor’s guilt and making them more dependent than ever upon her for forgiveness and redemption.
By the time I left the cult, at age 25, I had seen every form of oppression imaginable. I had seen children and adults sent to work-camps where they were forced to perform hard labor, be shunned by the group, and undergo repeated shaming sessions. I had seen children taken from their homes and families, sent to live with elders that had the right to assault them or imprison them for any offense. I had seen children and adults "labeled" as having a "demonic spirit", wrapped in sheets and subjected to 30 hours of non-stop prayer and lectures. I had seen medical needs go unmet, once probably resulting in the death of an infant. I had seen repeated scenes of elders assaulting adults and children, and I had watched as spouses were forced to turn on each other and where parents turned on their children, ferociously attacking them for attitudes and actions that were deemed unacceptable. I had watched every child be indoctrinated to believe that their sexuality was evil and disgusting (unlike the Family, I presume), even as older adult elders preyed upon them (very MUCH like the Family, I presume). I had observed all outsiders, including family members not in the group, being told complete falsehoods about the conditions at the cult.
Oppression was almost a friend by the time I left the cult. I recognized it, and the ensuing depression and anxiety seemed comfortable for me. I was suspicious of freedom, and I was frightened by true spontaneity, creativity, or autonomy. I believed it was normal that I spent every moment consumed with guilt for my sins, and in fear for the retribution of God. The judgment of God seemed inevitable, and I was only able to feel relief from my anxiety and fear when the prophet personally reassured me, but her reassurances were always time-limited and conditional upon my submission to God’s (her) will in my life. The "loaded language" I was taught at the cult made it impossible for me to even articulate or formulate the concept of my own soul, and I certainly wasn’t in a position to recognize or honor its undying desire for freedom. Further, I was convinced that my soul was relatively unimportant, a mere appendage to my intellect, and far less important than "getting the spirit", a code for acting and thinking like the prophet wanted. I believed that the prophet could curse me, and that individuality was only the most certain way to receive that curse.
So, under the circumstances, it is probably miraculous that I came away from my cult experience with any spirituality at all. Many of my friends who have also left the cult remain staunchly agnostic and hostile to any form of spirituality. They fear or hate their own depths, sources of their entrapment at the cult. Because it is not true that cult members are weak, or stupid, or easily manipulated. In fact, my own experience and growing research indicates that cult members are those who have the sensitivity to realize that the modern world is generally awash in materialism and self-service, and it is these people who are engaged in the search for greater meaning and depth in their lives. Searching for depth, searching for spirituality in their lives, they are more vulnerable and susceptible to the claims of mad or despotic cult leaders.
For me, the road to re-claiming my soul began with a time of waiting and listening, reflecting upon my cult experiences and seeking to understand their meaning for me and for the world. I have not yet understood that meaning, but the journey has put me on the path, and it has helped me regain my own awareness of my soul. At first, it was only my pain that could speak to me, my past oppression and the oppression that continued to reside within me. Over time, with meditation and prayer, and by finding joy in the eyes of my children, I have begun to understand that the soul is not just a place a pain, but also a place of love and life.
As I have begun to access my own deeper self, have also begun to be aware of a greater soul-ness, analogous to what I originally called "God" Despite the ways that name had been perverted and twisted by past experiences, I found a hidden place within me that still yearned for the divine, for the presence of God in my life and my world. The term "soul of the world" has been helpful for me in this regard, allowing me to make reference to a divine purposefulness in the world that is not pre-loaded with all the distortions and negativity of my cult life. While I am now increasingly comfortable with the concept of "God" as He exists in my heart, I still draw strength from the more-inclusive and less history-laden concept of a world soul.
So, what does the Soul of the World say to me about the oppression of cults? First, it says to me that the oppression I have experienced puts me in touch with a long historical tradition that includes many cultures and people over time. Here on this website, I find solace among fellow ex-cultites of the Family, borne from the same soup of disillusion and chaos of Southern California during the 60’s and 70’s, and with a simialr history. My oppression is also mirrored by the experiences and words of modern-day peasants in South America, the "citizens" of communist China and other totalitarian regimes, and with the story of colonized peoples throughout the world and over time. So what I have learned is that oppression is humanity’s burden, and that my struggle with oppression makes me a part of the greater human race.
The Soul of the World also gives me a vision of the planet as a living entity. This planet has long been sliced and torn by humans seeking a modern life of comfort, with all too little thought for the pain and suffering it has borne as it has poured forth its bounty. I now see "ecological" thinking and "living in harmony with the environment" as acts of worship, a withdrawal from oppression of the earth itself, and an attempt to find balance and mutuality with life itself.
Finally, I am trying to hear what the Soul of the World is saying to me... about myself, and about itself. For me, I believe I am finding some piece of my own calling in my work. For the last 15 years I have been the clinical director of my own counseling agency, focussing on work with domestic violence perpetrators and victims. Also, my current doctoral studies, a return to academia after 15 years as a state-licensed counselor, has allowed me to focus on identifying the cult phenomenon as an issue of oppression and liberation, and I have also begun to work with fellow cult survivors in a series of workshops, using the principles of liberation psychology in a series of exercises that appear to be truly helping and liberating others.
As for the World Soul’s attempt to speak to me of its own purposes, I feel I have only begun. I believe that my growing sensitivity to oppression is tied into this process, but I do not know where it is going. With meditation, I begin to develop a sense of the Soul of the World as it has experienced oppression, exploited by a long history of religious and political movements to gain and hold power, and to benefit the leaders of these movements in terms of wealth, knowledge, and giving them the authority to control the minds and lives of others. Possibly more significant is the oppression of inattention, where an entity is nullified and invalidated by being trivialized and scoffed at. The World Soul has certainly been trivialized in modern times, ignored as mystical nonsense, forgotten by indigenous peoples who have had their histories re-written by Western colonization, and invalidated by the modern-day reliance upon scientific, cause-and-effect truth to explain and validate reality. This means that the Soul of the World has become a peripheral reality, and that it is oppressed by its role as a parlor-room trick and a perverse tool of the religiously exploitive.
The Soul of the World, then, is calling for those who would listen to its oppression, and seek its liberation. This seeking begins with recognition, and includes reverence and witness. It also includes the provision of a space for its expression, and a willingness to become part of its voice and expression through our own attendance upon the workings of the soul in our lives. This seems to me to be the task of our times.
It is strange to me that I seem to have come full circle. That is, I began by describing the cult process as an oppressive manipulation of humanity’s attempt to find depth, meaning, and expression in life, and I end by claiming that the Soul of the World seeks a more legitimate and non-manipulative expression of the same thing. This is not so odd, in retrospect. The difference is to be found in the motives and the methods. Where Guru’s seek only to manipulate others for their own benefit, no matter the cost on the disciples, the World’s Soul seeks expression in the lives and mutually-respecting expression of all things.
The Soul of the World, which I choose to think of as a truer spiritual expression of meaning in the universe, so unlike the God of religions or cults, has a purpose. The purpose is probably un-knowable, at least to me. But at this time, I believe it does desire to find expression and form in my attendance upon it. It then speaks to me of its oppression in the language of my own life, and in lives I can empathetically recognize as similar to my own. It speaks to me of its oppression so that I might seek its liberation; in my own life, and in the world.