Holy Hell: What life in a cult was like

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by Neil Godfrey

What life in a cult was like: “We gave away our critical thinking and moral code and surrendered it to him” — Gary Kramer writes about his interviews with former disciples of Buddhafield, including disciple filmmaker of Holy Hell.

Buddhafield espoused starkly different teachings and practices from the Christian cult I belonged to — and both Buddhafield and Christian cults are very different from Islamist political/terrorist “cults” I have spoken about before. The similarities, however, are also very real. I quote from Kramer’s interview those points that also point to my experience and what I have read in the research about terrorist cells.

What led to involvement? Will Allen (WA):

I was on a quest for happiness. I was pretty burned out from college. I liked the teachings I heard, and the people I met, and that was the beginning of the end. I was young and looking for some kind of secret to life—how to live my life and give it purpose.

Another member (David Christopher – DC) replied:

We were looking for something deeper. Our families are a cult. I have a new definition for cult: a group or organization that inhibits your thinking through guilt, shame, or coercion. That can be your family, it can be your church. . . . Most everyone in our community wanted something more—they saw something under the veil and wanted more than just the superficial, and that’s how they entered into this.

You can’t just join the Buddhafield. It’s hard to get in. It’s selective, and secretive. I realized quickly that there was something going on. I wasn’t invited in. There was a process you needed to go through… Eventually you get invited. . . . It was “this is more your family,” and I felt that way—it was way more intimate than my own family.

Why stay?

It’s like any relationship. You find the good and hold on to that as long as you can and overlook all the negatives. . . . (WA)

The craziness wasn’t really apparent for most of us. I’d like to say 80 percent of it is so fricking amazing that you can live in this state of bliss. And 20 percent was a little weird but you say, “I’m not going to look at that part.” (DC)

Comment on the culture, the rules: 

The rules were interesting because they formed over time. . . . But there was so much deception and secrets and lies, these rules were impossible to maintain. Rules shifted . . . Things became extreme. (DA)

On abuse (in Buddhafield it was sexual abuse; other types of abuse exist in other cults):

We gave away our critical thinking and moral code and surrendered it to him. The abuse was able to last for so long because we were surrounded by each other . . . and those situations were not abusive. . . . Somehow they coexist. . . .  He ignored our personality and egos, and we also ignored and compartmentalized it, as [if] in an abuse relationship. . . .  We rationalized the good; it outweighed the bad. (DA)

How did you exit and re-adapt?

I was so committed I didn’t have the strength to leave until my other brothers and sisters [in the Buddhafield] started to leave. I was there because of them. When everyone said, “Hey, wait a minute…” we did it together. We couldn’t do it alone. We had this groupthink. Reprogramming—it is a tedious job to reintroduce yourself to your desires. I did a lot of writing. It took a long time to feel selfish again and feel self-centered. At 22 I unlearned everything I learned up to that point. When I got out at 44, I had to do it again. (DA)

We got this mass email [discussed in the film] and all of a sudden, I read it and I was like, What the fuck? All of a sudden there was this division. (DC) — (See my earlier post on the importance of exposing the hypocrisy and corruption among the cult leaders, etc.)

What do you miss once you leave?

The film “Room” is a great example. It’s an extreme—you want to go back to the room; it’s what you know… . . .  It’s an addiction—you run away from your feelings. Once the Buddhafield went away, and after we stopped self-medicating with meditation, everything came up and you had to stop running from it and deal with it. If you aren’t feeling your feelings, you aren’t being human. That’s one thing we really missed in the Buddhafield.

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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “Holy Hell: What life in a cult was like”

  1. Was it really about the suppression of your feelings? Which takes place in almost every social setting. Or was it about the suppression of intellectual objections?

    1. Many people have very erroneous ideas about what draws people into cult. Some of these ideas are hangovers from the early Cold War days relating to “brainwashing” — ideas that have long since been tossed out by the professionals. Entering a cult or other type of counter-social radicalized group involves a two-way engagement. People who see the craziness of a cult assume only a blind mentally-shut-down idiot would join, but people who join do not see that craziness you are looking at. They are often quite unaware that their earliest contacts are with an organized group at all.

      Everyone controls or denies their feelings to some extent simply in order to function as a social group. But the cult denial is something quite different. One does not simply control one’s impulses for the occasion; one mentally denies one’s feelings as a way of life, at all times. Self-control in normal situations involves putting feelings and thoughts of frustration to the backs of our mind for the moment. Cult self-denial means attempting to rid oneself totally of such feelings and once suppressed (largely through what amounts to a form of cognitive behavioral therapy techniques involving prayer, scripture repetition and self-discipline) then they are denied to even exist. You can imagine the mental and emotional consequences each time this is found not to be the reality.

      Much has been written by both ex cult members and professionals specialising in this subject about the denial of feelings. With respect to Bible believing cults, they generally take with utmost seriousness the teachings that one has to “mortify” the flesh and pulls of the flesh. Sexual desire, anger, impatience, self-indulgence, — these normal healthy feelings are believed to be Satanic and must be suppressed. One has to “put on a new man” — so one goes about in an up-tight state of artificially generated “joy”, “love”, “peace”, etc. See, for example, one classic, Eric Cohen’s Mind of the Bible Believer.

      Amy Espeseth wrote a novel based on her “cult” experiences (see Christianity’s Impotence) and has a very “true” horrific scene at the end where tormented feelings are so completely suppressed they enable the murder of an infant.

      1. A lot of these ideas, like mortification of the flesh, were advanced by religions, to develop radical followers. Especially a priesthood. A group of likeminded people, who were strongly separated from the rest of the world and its beliefs.

        So sometimes I think of all priesthoods, ministries, church hierarchies, as radical cults in the negative sense.

  2. Hi,

    Can’t recall if I have mentioned this before, but have you read anything by Steven Hassan?
    Steven has written extensively on high-control groups and has worked in many years doing exit counseling and helping people with family in high-control groups; he also discusses the various techniques high-control groups use to control it members. I would recommend “Combating cult mind-control” or “Releasing the bonds” which has shaped my way of thinking about extreme groups of various kinds (religions, political, etc.).

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