"Every guru I had when I first moved to LA turned out to be a cult leader," my friend said to me over juice and açai bowls.
This might be the most LA moment I've ever had - not because of the cold-pressed juice, but because of the realization that we had both accidentally joined like, eight cults at one point.
The abundance of "spirituality" and "healing" in the world (namely places like: LA, NYC, SF) seems to be a blessing and a curse. I can't speak objectively on this because that would put me in a cult-leader position (more on this soon), but this is my experience with negative spirituality.
When teachings, practices or statements felt out of alignment, I began thinking I was wrong. How could I challenge a guru? I must just need to work/practice/chant/yoga harder. My gurus taught me that there is only one way: the right way. The pressure was immaculate and my dependent mindset was dangerous.
After my trainings, when I really started to consider teaching, I was really scared. I felt like I didn't know how to teach anything objectively. I thought I "wasn't ready" enough (a common diagnosis given by gurus) to teach.
I'm not a die-hard anything. That's probably why I trained in so many different types of modalities: yoga, meditation, reiki and Hawaiian healing. It's also why I bounced from cult to cult looking for variation. And man, I found it.
This lead me to myself. I took what stuck and left the rest behind doors full of women wearing white and strict regimented meditations in the mornings and evenings.
1. First, it feels like a mecca of peace and love, but then it feels like you're being taken over (mentally, spiritually, emotionally or all of the above)
The keywords are "taken over." You can surrender to something bigger and you can have epiphanies, but it shouldn't feel like a takeover - it should be feel like an integration. It's easy to be fooled by a peaceful facade.
2. Your teacher/guru speaks objectively vs. subjectively
Okay, okay - maybe this is hypocritical, but I am about to make an objective statement (the only one): there is no one-size-fits-all. Nearly everything in life is subjective - case by case. If you teacher/guru doesn't acknowledge specific cases and teaches "right and wrong" or "black and white," then you may want to consider how much trust you put into this individual or group.
Important: this is not to say this leader can't have opinions or passions. Should they be speaking about something fairly objective, they can offer a prelude like, "In my personal experience," or "It's my belief..." We all have beliefs, but forcing them down anyone else's throat is worth reconsidering.
3. Your teacher/guru tells you the way
In my belief, leaders are meant to guide you, not tell you. I heard once that the greatest spiritual teachers ask you to ask yourself the questions you want to ask them. They'll direct you to turn inward instead or outward for guidance, while they just offer the tools, the support and a mirror.
4. Your teacher/guru puts up a façade of perfection
Notice if your teacher/guru shares their vulnerable side or only highlights their wins. No one- not even your guru - is perfect. We have all taken L's. It's important that a leader can bring some humility and transparency to the table just as much as they can shine their light. No pedestals up here.
Also beware of an extremely cultivated brand image where the teacher seems to really steer his/her own PR. How manufactured does it all feel? Feel it, notice it, act accordingly.
5. Your teacher calls themself a "Guru"
The word, "guru" is Sanskrit for "teacher," but in Indian customs, it holds more weight than our word, "teacher" in English. Broken down further, in Sanskrit "Gu" means Darkness, "Ru" means one who dispels it. The word, "guru" can be given or self-decided.
This isn't to call anyone who calls themself a "guru" a cult leader, but consider the weight you put on this individual - and the weight they put on themselves.
6. Your teacher/guru doesn't walk their talk
Does your teacher/guru walk their talk? How does your teacher/guru treat others? Is it in alignment with what they preach? I once attended a retreat where the guru had us all wake up at 3:30 am for a sacred meditation on the last day and had a disciple show up instead. That's minor. I've also heard horror stories about spiritual teachers/leaders sexually harassing students or being wellness practitioners who do recreational cocaine. I don't know about you, but all that sounds like a skeptical paradox I don't want to be a part of.
7. You feel like the community has the scripture or teacher's back over yours
Pay attention to patterns of blind faith and shaming. We are humans, for crying out loud. If your friends in this community or group make you feel bad or try to impose the beliefs of this sect upon you, consider that it may be a cult vs. a healthy community. You're allowed to feel like some things don't resonate without being talked down to, attacked or chastened.
8. This place/community/teacher emphasizes a difference between followers and leaders
Of course, someone has to lead, but if there is a clear difference painted between the "followers" and "leaders" of a sect/group/community, the power may be imbalanced. Do you feel empowered to speak up, challenge, share and/or express your truth? Do others? Are you treated like followers instead of your own leaders? In my opinion, the room should feel like kings amongst kings, queens amongst queens and true equality - even if someone is facilitating, entertaining or inspiring.
9. Your teacher is condescending vs. empowering
We've all had a teacher like this and fine, maybe they were a math teacher. We all know right away, this isn't the way to a student's success, but when it becomes most dangerous is in the "spiritual" setting. People come to this space vulnerably, to connect with something bigger and the cult leader-types see this as a perfect opportunity to break you down and mold you into someone that depends on them.
Also beware of teachers being condescending of those who aren't a part of the class, community or collective.
An Important Note:
Let me practice what I preach: don't let this information be objective to you. Just let it be something to consider - a tool. Maybe you've just concluded that you're definitely a cult member. Or maybe you bounce around from cult to cult. Hey, if you love your cult(s) and find that the pros outweigh any cons, keep at it! My only advice is to stay discerning. Use your best judgment, listen to your heart, follow only your intuition and let all the rest be supplemental tools. There's surely something to learn from everything, but only you know what feels right to you.