In fact, it is easy to presuppose and claim that one has immunity against falling for cults, but this commonly held belief is a fallacy; many who would swear to never fall for a cult or who had assumed that they would easily see through one would be the same people who would one day find themselves immersed in a cult or a cult-like entity.
If you consider yourself safe and sound, then just look around: There are cults and cult-like organizations, movements, and religions all over the place and in various communities near you. You may not know and realize it, and it may have never crossed your mind (at least until now), but you may already be swearing allegiance and waving and brandishing a flag and a banner to a cult-like entity as we speak.
To learn more about cults and how they operate and how and why people fall prey to them, one can read books, watch movies and documentaries, and learn about different studies on the topic. There are a series of experiments that have delved into and shed light upon underlying reasons and motives for becoming vulnerable to and being caught and trapped by cults. Some of the most noteworthy experiments in psychology are Asch’s Conformity Studies, Milgram’s Obedience to Authority Experiment as well as Zimbardo’s (now notorious and infamous) Prison Experiment.
To summarize them briefly, Asch wanted to test how we conform to others, and to his surprise, people would either mistrust or doubt their own instincts and senses or they would willingly go with the majority so as not to elicit any attention and/or disapproval from the group. Put differently, imagine that you know the correct answer and that you know that everybody else in your group is wrong, but you still cave in to peer pressure and consciously and willingly provide the false answer, as you do not wish to stand out from the crowd.
In Milgram’s Experiment, ordinary citizens provided what they deemed lethal and fatal electric shocks to another person simply because a perceived person of authority, the experimenter in a white lab coat, told them to do so for the purposes of a study. We could be even driven to kill others when we blindly and solemnly bow and obey to seeming figures of authority. Milgram’s study was shocking (pun intended) as it showed that we cannot simply blame others and make them responsible and accountable for our own dubious and nefarious actions.
Finally, Zimbardo showed us that when you simulate a certain context and situation and when you are not in contact with people outside of this bubble – one of the prerequisites of all cults is to separate and isolate you both physically as well as mentally from people with other kinds of views - you can fall prey to and even embrace and propagate bizarre and outlandish ideas. It happened to Philip Zimbardo himself, an intelligent person with outstanding critical thinking skills, and yet, there were moments where reality blurred even for him; at times, he genuinely believed that he was running an actual prison instead of a psychological experiment of a simulated prison environment.
Fortunately, the study was abandoned early due to the worrisome and growing cruelty and insanity of the subjects involved within that toxic environment. The randomly selected “prison guards” horribly and cruelly abused the “prisoners” and most of the latter accepted that treatment, while everyone seemed to have forgotten that it was merely an experiment. The German film Das Experiment (2001) shows what would have most likely happened if the study had been allowed and permitted to continue its doomed course.
When I watched documentaries on cults, specifically Wild Wild Country as well as Holy Hell, I was shocked but also baffled at how and why all these atrocities could occur. But documentaries can only work as blurry momentary snapshots as they are attempting to paint a picture of events that occurred over many years and under complex circumstances.
Moreover, in the case of Holy Hell (2016), which depicted the cult of the Buddhafield, its director Will Allen had about 45 hours of footage ranging from recent interviews to archival footage, and he condensed it all into a 100-minute film (a kind of challenge I am somewhat personally familiar with after each of my interviews, as I need to resume an abundance of important, relevant, and interesting tidbits of information into a blog post of a reasonable enough length).
Apart from documentaries occasionally misleading people, intentionally or not, the experience we get as a viewer is going to be very limited and scarce, no matter how well made, detailed, and crafted the show may be. It is one thing to have the theoretical knowledge and quite another to experience being part of a cult. Hence, when I had the chance and opportunity to talk to Radhia Gleis, a former member of Buddhafield, who appeared in Holy Hell, I was thrilled to gain an inside perspective into the inner workings of a cult.
Not only was Radhia part of that cult for twenty-five years, but she also wrote a book about her experiences and insights of how and why people fall for cults and what one can do about it: The Followers: Holy Hell and the Disciples of Narcissistic Leaders: How my Years in a Notorious Cult Parallel Today’s Cultural Mania. Moreover, she sees links and connections between cults and the current political climate in the United States as well as political and social movements across the globe. Her insights are astounding, thoughtful, and most practical, and they can help us navigate through these uncertain and volatile times.
First off, we need to be aware that most, if not all, cult leaders are narcissistic in nature. In fact, narcissistic personalities are not limited to cults as various politicians and presidents of different countries as well as bosses, managers, CEOs of various companies and organizations also tend to be narcissists. In fact, as Radhia says, 1 in 5 people tend to be sociopaths, and they tend to be predominantly male (though there are many equivalent female examples as well) and chances are that you will have either a family member, a boss, or a neighbor that is a narcissist, or worse, a narcissistic sociopath.
I have previously written on how to spot a narcissist, and, as a rule, they tend to lack the following three characteristics: They lack imagination, empathy, and a sense of humor. Radhia confirmed this with me. This was her experience with Jaime, the leader of Buddhafield, and she added that narcissists do not have their own personality, but they tend to steal, copy and imitate the work, ideas, and personalities of others. In fact, Jaime not only donned different names and personalities, but he also stole the meditation techniques from others, and especially at the beginning, he was particularly attuned to give his followers what they wanted and what they needed from him.
One thing that makes narcissists get away with so much is that they have the gift of the gab and are clever talkers. Narcissists can spin everything and shake and rattle you and even gaslight you by making you doubt your firmest convictions as they skillfully play and manipulate you and others along the way. They are quite perceptive and can figure you out and pay heed and close attention to your flaws and weaknesses; once they find out what you want to hear, they will become what you want them to become so that you will give them what they want from you.
They are also notorious and pathological liars and will unscrupulously feed you with lies that serve their own utterly selfish goals and ambitions. Their instant ability to change and switch their persona like a chameleon is helped by the sheer fact that they have neither feelings nor a personality to speak of. They live, exist, and feed on the attention and admiration they receive, this the nectar of their life, their narcissistic supply and they love to be front and center on a stage or a platform, be it in show business, politics (which is currently practically indistinguishable from the former), major business organizations as well as cults, which is in essence a hybrid combination of all the previously mentioned.
Nonetheless, the situation is not clear-cut when we look at the members and followers of cults. Joining a cult is not a conscious decision; it is much more complex than that. As Radhia told me, nobody wakes up one day and says I will join a club today. In fact, cults were a commonplace phenomenon in the 60s and the 70s, and you could find one at and around every corner.
In Los Angeles, there was a cult around every block, be it Scientology or Hare Krishnas, and this reflected the major cultural movements that were happening at the time. Yet at the same time, there was also a lot of disappointment, anger, and grievance with one’s surroundings, sentiments that have been revived in different forms and formats in today’s political and social climate as well.
For instance, hippies started to turn into yuppies and created a schism in society. There were those who began to mistrust government and embraced ideologies tinged with feelings of anti-establishment. All this helped the Buddhafield cult to become attractive, to draw crowds, and to grow, which is how and why a young, well-educated, and affluent individual like Radhia saw it as a way out of her despair with and from the world she knew. All she and her fellow cult members wanted at the time was to live a spiritual life, and Jaime’s cult provided that, at last in its initial stages.
In fact, Buddhafield started off not as a cult but as a community of people who shared their desire for happiness, spirituality and meaningful lives and activities. They were all, in one way or another, dissatisfied with their own cultures and lifestyles, and they were all looking and on the lookout for more meaning and purpose in their personal lives. There was a void that they had in common as well as a shared joy in the experience of finding like-minded individuals, and the cult leader took advantage of all those desires.
The void was a lack of secure attachment, joy, and spirituality. Organized religion felt bland and paled in comparison to the richness and color that these vibrant communities gave and provided to them. It filled a void, a void that was not only because of society but because many of these individuals did not feel an emotional connection with their own family; as a result, fellow cult members became their substitute family. Although Jaime remained in the background initially, he would consider himself a “midwife” to spiritual knowledge and God (an idea directly plagiarized from the unwritten pages of Socrates), but, in fact, what he wanted to become was their spiritual father figure whom they ought to worship and to whom they would obey in body and soul.
Attention and admiration as well as unwavering control and loyalty is what every narcissistic sociopath craves and dreams of, and slowly, the creepy, disturbed, and disturbing personality of his began breaking through. What the narcissist wants most is narcissistic supply, love, and admiration of others and what he abhors the most is any type of criticism, no matter how fruitful, beneficial, and productive it may be and whatever its intention or motivation.
Narcissists crave undulated and unwavering love and commitment, and this gives them space and room to do and be exactly as they wish. In the case of the Buddhafield, Jaime sexually abused various male members of the cult. Throughout, there is no remorse, conscience nor feeling as he has neither nor any of them. Narcissists will never thank nor appreciate what you give them nor what you do for them; they will only ask for more and will ridicule you or put you down when you do not live up to their unreasonable and impossible standards and expectations. And yet, many follow them willingly and accept the abuse they receive.
At the same time, a cult cannot exist without its members, the same way a leader, whether political, religious or otherwise, cannot exist without his or her followers. According to Radhia, and she outlines this in her book in much more detail, cults are usually made up of three different types of followers: the hummingbirds, the soldiers on a mission, and the kamikaze.
The hummingbirds are those who do not exactly know what they want in life, nor are they clear about what they expect from a cult, an organization, or a political party. They often flitter about, hang out here and there but are often confused and unsatisfied. They generally cannot find anything that pleases them because they have little idea of what it is they are actually looking for.
On the other side of the spectrum, we find soldiers on a mission. They have a clear focus and a specified mission. Their mission might be enlightenment and the quest for divine union. They are much more committed and disciplined than the hummingbirds and are hence willing to make certain sacrifices for what they see and conceive of as their higher purpose or their calling in life.
The last and most radical and most dangerous group consists of the kamikaze. While the soldiers may have scruples here and there, and they certainly have, know, and recognize certain limits, the kamikaze, as their name implies, are on a suicide mission. They have no line in the sand and will even kill and commit suicide. They are the dedicated and devoted right-hand people who would do absolutely anything to gain favor and approval from their leader and their cause.
They are, of course, very dangerous people, and they do all the dirty work for their perceived leader. They would ostracize, banish, and even execute any persons, including fellow cult members that are deemed and branded unworthy of and by their leader. In Milgram’s experiment, most subjects continued giving (what they perceived as dangerous) “electroshocks”, but they did so under severe distress and duress; the kamikaze does it most willingly; in fact, it is a source and banner of pride and pleasure to them.
As Radhia pointed out, it is important to note that we are not talking about brainwashing here. No one was forced to join the cult in the first place. None of the members were tortured to be and remain there. Just like Milgram’s subjects, they were free to leave, and they were aware and conscious of their actions and the potential consequences. As to the belief system and ideology of the cult, all its members already fully embraced them. They were not sequestered and kidnapped, nor was there a radical change and shift in their thinking. People who follow, be it a cult or a political leader, are not victims.
Not only do fanatic followers willingly and wholeheartedly give their chosen leaders unconditional and blind support and encouragement, but they are indeed their enablers. As mentioned earlier, these narcissistic (mis)leaders are given a voice, platform, and reason to exist by these same enablers, their many, often deluded but also actively deluding, followers who prefer groupthink over common sense and who choose to forgo cognitive dissonance alongside reason, doubts, knowledge, and even science to put their respective sociopath on an undeserved pedestal.
There is more to cults, and there are more cults than meet the eye, but in their midst, you would often find a heartless, manipulating, and conniving narcissistic sociopath who does not care nor give a damn about anything - but themselves.
There is so much more ground as well as thoughts and insights that you could check out for yourself in this magnificent and mind-blowing interview with the pleasant, witty, and astute Radhia Gleis! You can access the full-length interview either on YouTube or on my podcast.