Secrecy, Embarassment, and the Cult Experience

There is an air of secrecy surrounding Fourth Way groups, and at first it tends to reinforce the new studentís idea that he has been initiated into an esoteric tradition, hidden from the sleeping masses. We were told that, in the past, the kind of knowledge possessed by this school could not be transmitted publicly, for fear of persecution. While this may have been true during the Inquisition, and maybe even during Ouspenskyís Russia in the 1920ís and 1930ís, at this moment in time there is clearly no need for such secrecy in the West. Eastern religions and New Age beliefs have been popular here for decades, and the ideas alone do not require any special protection.

And yet the school continued the tradition of silence. But why? It may be difficult to understand aspects of the cult experience because there are so many overlapping factors involved. The issue of secrecy is interesting because it so effectively illustrates the complexity of the problem.

One of the first rules we were told as new students was to not talk to outsiders about the group. The rationale was that, until we learned more about "The System" and about ourselves, we could not correctly convey the information without distortions due to our incomplete understanding. It seemed logical enough. And in the beginning, this rule was innocuous because we had not yet been exposed to anything that others would find interesting anyway. So I accepted the rule and moved on.

With each day, I became more attached to the group and its members, and I also continued to learn new things. My personal investment was becoming larger, the group was valuable to me, and it didnít make sense to do anything to jeopardize it. Breaking a rule would risk discovery by the others, and excommunication. Again I continued to follow the rule and moved on.

As time progressed, and I was exposed to more of the inner life of the organization, the secrecy slowly developed into a subtle paranoia. The more time I spent with the teachers and older students, the more I began to assimilate their perspective on life. I gradually began to believe that the teachers were higher enlightened masters with a very important mission on this planet. Even Nature was seen as an enemy -- the group believed that Nature didnít want people to become conscious, because then they could "escape" the cycle of life and death. This is bad for Nature because Manís body was seen as "food for the Earth," and the average undeveloped soul was considered "food for the Moon". This was an enormous mechanism designed to keep everything exactly as it is. Overall, this mechanized conception of the universe appealed to common sense and, except for the part about the soul flying to the moon at death, the paradigm was compatible with 20th century scientific common knowledge. Without any firsthand experience of the great forces doing battle to prevent an individual from attaining enlightenment, I put my trust in the teachers -- after all, they had access to higher states of consciousness in which this kind of knowledge was probably available. So I followed the rule and moved on.

After a year or so, I began to take part in things which I knew were simply too bizarre to be understood by outsiders. Secrecy was no longer an external rule imposed by other people, it was something that seemed perfectly appropriate even in my own judgment. I knew that the schoolís methods were extreme and that the we looked like a cult, but I thought that it would only appear that way to outsiders who couldnít appreciate the full context in which these things took place. I would tell myself, "we arenít really a cult; after all there are no ritual sacrifices, orgies, or Satan worship!" In addition, ordinary people -- "life machines" as they were called -- were now seen as obstacles to my progress. Friends and family generally did not appreciate the trend of my increasing involvement, of course, and that fueled my indignation and outrage at this horrible prison planet. Surely this is hell if even my closest relationships are opposed to my evolution -- why would they want to prevent me from attaining something so positive? And at this point, I had completely internalized the rule, and lived it as though it was my own.

This is why I cannot simply say, "we were given instructions not to talk to outsiders". The process of indoctrination is slow and subtle. Behavior which appears one way to a new initiate might have a very different meaning to an older student, and yet another meaning when examined from the guruís point of view. All these motivations operated and interacted simultaneously, as though we were each actors sharing a single stage but acting out very different scripts.

Fortunately, I was not yet entirely paranoid, and eventually saw that the school was in no real danger of being destroyed by outside forces. When others would hint at this, privately to myself I knew it wasnít true. But still my secrecy continued to strengthen until I finally left the group much later. What, then, was its real source?

In my case, I believe the strongest motivator was simple embarrassment.

If the group was as positive and healthy as it claimed to be, there would be nothing to hide. My secrecy originated with a severe embarrassment.

If we are afraid to be seen by the outside, sometimes I believe it is caused by an internal feeling of disharmony -- conscience projected outward in the form of suspicion and fear of discovery.

There are many spiritual groups which have extensive public access, because, at their root, they have little to hide. If I am embarrassed about my involvement with the group, it is not only because such activity is slightly unusual, but rather it is more an indication that some part of me knows something is not quite right. Clearly this is so, because deviation from societyís norms is not by itself enough to generate this degree of secrecy and paranoia.

For example, among users of illegal drugs, I would theorize that the degree to which one will try to prevent public discovery is probably proportional to the degree to which the drug use is self-harming. Users of marijuana (a relatively benign drug), while still cautious for legal reasons, do not generally feel shame about their use when they are in a safe environment free from prosecution. On the other hand, one might expect heroin users to go to much greater lengths to conceal their habit from others, and also to feel a greater degree of embarrassment if caught. The difference in outward secrecy is not so much a reflection of the difference in legal punishment, but instead corresponds to the degree to which they are hiding from their own conscience. Applied to a cult member, one can better understand why they tended to avoid disclosure of information.

In the New American Wing, we were told that some of our information was esoteric knowledge that had been kept secret throughout time. For example, each card in the ordinary deck of playing cards was used to categorize a particular flavor of attention. They told us that "long ago, people were persecuted for this knowledge, and so it was hidden in the playing cards that survive even to this day."

One cannot liken the America of today to the ruthless intolerance of the dark ages when non-Christian forms of spirituality may have had to be "hidden" in order to survive the Inquisition. America in the 1990ís is not so intolerant of spiritual groups, as was perhaps Ouspenskyís Russia in the early part of this century. Nowadays, this secrecy originates from within, not from outside. It is the voice of conscience, telling one that something is not right, and to the degree that one is afraid to admit this to oneself inwardly, one will try equally hard to prevent external discovery.

Truly, "others just donít understand", but it is not a lack of intelligence, knowledge, or being ; rather it is because they can clearly see the insanity of the situation. In my own experience, having hid the facts for years, I can honestly say that I never felt that the school was in danger Ė- the secrecy was always a manifestation of my own embarrassment regarding my own extensive involvement with the cult.

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