The recent deaths at a pricey "spiritual resort" in Arizona have had me thinking about how to help more people find their guides and teachers in a safe and sane way. There are many, many abuses which can and do happen in a spiritual context, from sexual and emotional abuse to outright physical danger such as what happened in Sedona. It makes me wonder why people are so willing to place their well-being in the hands of those they barely know in the name of spiritual growth and enlightenment, but it is also a question which has few satisfactory answers.
With October's "Witchy Madness" here, many people will see new articles and interviews about witches and pagans and druids, oh my! Because of this media exposure, every year there is a fresh influx of people who are seeking information about these new spiritual paths. It is my hope that some of them will find this guide and gain more information about some of the things that they may come across in their search for the perfect teacher/priestess/coven etcetera.
One of the final things which I lecture on in my "Paganism & Wicca 101" classes is this very topic. It is so hard to find a safe and supportive environment in which to grow spiritually, primarily because so many people are willing to give up their critical thinking skills as soon as they find someone that they consider to be a high priest/priestess, teacher or guru. The priestess, guru, guide or teacher immediately becomes an all-knowing authority who is rarely questioned and often explicitly obeyed. Indeed, many teachers rely on the unthinking obedience of their students in order to exploit them for money, sex, power, social prestige and other things.
It is a problem which encompasses social groups large and small, and from true cult behavior to the well known "mob mentality", it has roots in some very simple psychological tricks and means of manipulation. Bullying behavior, both online and off, also has roots in these same manipulations of the mind and psyche. The problem lies in the matter of degree. Some groups may have only a few of these tricks employed, and others may have all or most of them in play at any given moment. It can be difficult to tell a more simple social "clique" from a more dangerous environment, for many of the psychological manipulations can be employed very subtly and the emotional and mental effects can be built up over time.
Recognizing these techniques and manipulations can be difficult at best, but it can sometimes mean the difference between life and death. As an outsider to the events in Sedona, I can only speculate why someone in that large group did not question the wisdom of shoving so many people into such a small, confined and ultimately lethal environment. I only wish that at least one person had.
Here are some links that I have found to be very good resources for helping to evaluate groups and teachers for negative behaviors and cult-like tendencies. Many of these are resources that I use every time I teach a class, but the ultimate wisdom that I have to offer anyone is this:
Just because someone has been lauded as a spiritual leader, or is in a position of authority, does not mean that they are always making correct decisions or are right in what they do. Never assume that just because someone is a pagan/wiccan/new age/buddhist/etc. that they have your best interests at heart. If you cannot question them in their decisions or if you feel unsafe doing what they tell you to do, use your heart and gut as a guide. If your gut says get the hell out, you should do it. If you feel uneasy, unsettled, or frightened, heed your best instincts and don't try to talk yourself out of removing yourself from a place where you do not feel safe at all times. The Buddha himself said (I'm paraphrasing) "Don't trust what I tell you. Check it out for yourself, and if it works for you, then great!" And finally and most importantly for those exploring explicitly Wiccan paths, the ideal of "In perfect love and perfect trust" should not be expected from the "get go" at any group, and anyone who says otherwise should probably be evaluated with some of these tools.
The Advanced Bonewits' Cult Danger Evaluation Frame - This is the classic evaluation tool for use with any group and should be kept at hand whenever you are searching for a new group or teacher.
Teachers, Good and Bad (Part 1) - Wren Walker from the Witches' Voice nails some of the commonsense things to watch for when you are approaching a new teacher for the first time.
Recognizing Propaganda - A quick run-down of the many techniques used to manipulate people and the way that they think and feel. Also check out the same site's info on Evaluating Information and other great articles.
Herd Mentality, Herd Behavior - Good resource on "mob mentality" behavior.
Cyberbullying - Not just for kids.
"Thus the wise man residing in the Tao
sets an example for all beings.
Because he does not display himself,
people can see his light.
Because he has nothing to prove,
people can trust his words.
Because he doesn't know who he is,*
people recognize themselves in him.
Because he has no goal (secret personal agenda) in mind,
everything he does succeeds."
*(meaning he does not set him/herself above anyone.)
-Tao te Ching