If you’ve been following my blog, then you know that I have been undergoing a kitchen and bathroom renovation for the past 5 months. I told my husband last week that I had to get away from the noise, dirt, and microwaved meals. A meditation retreat seemed like the perfect escape.
I know I seem like the kind of person that goes to meditation retreats all the time, but I had actually never been to one before. We found a place within driving distance that had a nice website and good reviews on the web. Specifically, their website described their approach to meditation as being scientific and without any of the religious dogma. No red flags so far, but that was about to change.
Before I go any further I should mention that I’ve had run-ins with cults before. Back when I was searching for a Mediumship Development Circle, the first two I tried gave off heavy cult vibes to me. Do I know for a fact that these groups were cults? No, but I wasn’t going to stick around long enough to find out for sure. My life has taught me that if I feel unsafe then I need to get out of there, no apology. Later in this blog post I will give a list of what I consider to be red flags for these types of situations.
I also want to be totally clear that my goal in writing this post is not to pick on these people. For the most part everyone seemed really nice. It’s not for me to say if being part of a cult has had a positive or negative influence on their life. Personally, I consider cults to be really harmful and dangerous, even if technically speaking there’s nothing illegal going on at that particular cult. Obviously other people feel differently.
In the days running up to my scheduled retreat stay I emailed the organizer to ask about my room. The organizer responded by upgrading my room and booking me free spa services.
The immediate reaction is “Wow, that’s really great customer service!”, but there’s also a part of me that felt it was a bit over the top. I’m curious if there are other people that would have felt like this too. Up until recently, I’ve lived in cities my whole life and so I might have had more exposure to scams than say someone that grew up in a nice suburb. For those that don’t know, over-the-top generosity is always a key ingredient in scams. Again, it could just be that this meditation center was simply trying to be nice to a new-comer, but my spidey sense was tingling.
When I arrived, I wasn’t able to find anyone to check me in. Although the grounds were stunning and the facilities were really nice, I once again felt a little off by this. I understand that things happen and no business can give you a perfect experience from start to finish, but one would assume that a retreat center should be well versed in checking people in and out. The fact that they didn’t seem to have a well-worn system in place seemed odd to me. This was red-flag #2.
Eventually someone walked by and asked if I needed any help. I told her I was trying to check-in for the retreat. She seemed to think it was odd that I used the term “check-in”, as if “checking-in” was not something people there do. That turned out to be correct.
The retreat was all-inclusive and included buffet-style vegan meals. Honestly I thought the food was very good. The place itself was beautiful. I thought my room and bathroom were very nice. There were scheduled activities throughout the day that included meditation sessions, yoga, and lectures. This could have been a really great retreat and exactly what I was looking for.
I’m going to go over some of the smaller red flags I experienced and then THE BIG RED FLAG that really cinched it for me in my mind that this was a cult. I’m sharing all of this with you guys in the hopes that it can help you avoid a similar situation.
Basically, something felt “off” about this place from the moment I arrived, despite the fact that it had really nice facilities and was located in a really beautiful location. Here are some of the smaller things I picked up on:
- People seemed highly interested in me and basically wouldn’t leave me alone despite giving off clear signals that I’m an introvert and wasn’t really interested in socializing or making conversation. I’m someone that can pick-up on signals from other people really well and there was just something about these people that made me feel unsafe to open-up and chit-chat. Usually I’m fine making small-talk with people and came there hoping I might meet a new friend or two. But again, the high amount of undue attention on me made me feel extremely uncomfortable. This is known as “love bombing” and is a well-known recruitment tactic for cults.
- The other thing I noticed is that people seemed to have rather poor boundaries. If you’re talking with a stranger, I don’t think you should be asking them a bunch of personal questions or revealing all sorts of personal details about yourself. I understand some people might think this comes across as uptight, but if I’ve just met you, I think we should just be talking about the weather or something. You shouldn’t be asking me the type of questions as if we’re on a first date and you’re sizing me up. I definitely should not be hearing about your history of mental health struggles. I understand that this one on the list might sound benign to a lot of people, but it’s a tactic I’ve seen before, and these days I consider it to be a major warning sign.
- The group is lead by a Spiritual “Master”. This was yet another thing that was not on the website. Are there cultural traditions where having a “Spiritual Master” is part of their culture and is appropriate? Of course. However, if you’re marketing a program as being “Western” and “Modern”, personally I don’t think it’s appropriate to be using the term “Master” to describe anyone in that program. I’m fine with using a spiritual mentor, guide, light worker, way-shower, etc. But once we start using terms like Leader and Master, I consider that to be troubling.
- My room was housed in a building that was a 5-10 minute walk from the main buildings where the dining hall and lectures were located. I was totally fine with this. However I was repeatedly offered rides back and forth to my room. At one point they got very insistent about driving me back and forth, despite me repeatedly saying I enjoy walking. They even went so far as to say it wasn’t safe for me to walk by myself. Call me crazy, but if you offer someone something and they say “No”, that should be the end of the discussion. I can certainly understand checking back in once or twice just to make sure and to be polite, but this was excessive. It really felt like they were trying to restrict my movements or keep an eye on me. In-between sessions I would have liked to have explored some of the walking trails on the property, perhaps found a spot to stop and read, but instead they were insisting on driving me back to my room and then picking me back up again when it was time for a lecture. Based on life experiences I’ve had, I’m simply not comfortable being trapped in a car with a stranger.
- So you may have noticed that there are no pictures of the place in this blog post, that is because taking pictures is not allowed. They also had wifi and cell-signal jamming devices in the building. They explained that this is because some people believe that wifi and cellular signals are damaging to health. When I finally called my husband to come get me because I felt unsafe, I had to walk down a street in the dark in order to make the phone call.
Okay, so let’s talk about the BIG RED FLAG where I really felt that this place was a cult:
It’s the first day of the retreat and after lunch the schedule indicated that there was an orientation meeting. I went to this thinking that it was going to be an actual orientation, but quickly realized it was something else. It ended up being a 3.5 hour long cult recruitment session.
During this orientation session I learned that 100% of the other people there either lived permanently on the compound or owned property just outside of it. Yes, I was the only person there who was there thinking that I was attending a meditation retreat of some kind. In hind sight, I am amazed that I was the only actual guest. Like I said, it was a beautiful facility with a nice website and good reviews all over the web. You would have thought that there would have been at least one other person duped into attending this thing.
The leader gave a long spiel about their overall belief system which boils down to that there is no such thing as trauma. Everything that happens to you is appropriate. There is no such thing as “negative”. If you feel bad about things that have happened to you, it’s because you are choosing to feel bad about them, because after all there is no such thing as negative or inappropriate. This is not a unique belief system. If you’ve been around spirituality, you’ve undoubtedly heard something similar before. It is known as Spiritual Bypassing.
If you’ve read my blog, you know that I have problems with this type of doctrine. Now, it is true that as I’ve healed I’ve been able to look back on most of my past traumas and feel like they were important lessons and I don’t feel as bad about them anymore. HOWEVER, coming to this conclusion is not the catalyst for healing, it is the side effect of it. This type of doctrine is know as “spiritual bypassing” because it attempts to skip the individual ahead to the finish line, rather than having them do the necessary work that would naturally bring them there. Without doing the actual work, you’re not really healed, you’re just telling yourself you are. You can stay content in that repressed state for some time, but eventually those feelings will rise up with a vengeance.
Emotions are not bad. They are necessary biological mechanisms that send us important information regarding the environment we’re in. So-called “negative emotions” tell us that something’s not right and that we need to take some kind of action. Anger is an emotion that often tells us that an injustice is happening. Are there individuals that have issues with having “too much” of these feelings? Sure, but let’s leave that to a mental health professional. In general, I have problems with teachings that say that emotions should be dismissed or suppressed and that that is the key to happiness or enlightenment.
People in attendance were then instructed to go around the room and introduce themselves. Rather than just have it be a brief introduction, people shared their entire life’s story and then gave a long testimonial for the cult and how much it has changed their life. People shared stories of having been suicidal, of how they came here to attend a retreat on a whim and then “never left”, becoming part of the compound and deciding to dedicate their lives to “the mission”. People quit their jobs, sold their homes, and left everything behind because they felt a “strong urge” guiding them to be here.
People discussed the psychedelic-like experiences of being in the Master’s presence. Apparently there have also been divine revelations. I’m not sure if I was meant to hear that part just yet, but someone let it slip out. I heard the term “pleasurable” used to describe the program so many times that I felt creeped out.
Since I was the only one there that was actually on a retreat, this whole 3.5 hour long group “orientation” was done just for me. Surely after living together for years and years, they already know each other’s stories? Sitting there for hours, I felt my Crohn’s disease flare up and had to leave to use the bathroom several times. My Crohn’s has been well-controlled the past couple of years and I truly think that it was due to the stress of the situation that I was experiencing symptoms again. I also felt nauseous throughout the orientation session, although that has nothing to do with Crohn’s disease, more just a general feeling of dis-ease regarding what I was experiencing.
When I got up to the use the bathroom the first time, I noticed that some time after I had sat down they had set up a very professional-looking camera in the back of the room and were recording everything. I was so glad that when it was my turn to introduce myself that all I had shared was my name and not much more. What they were planning on using that footage for, I cannot say.
They definitely could have kept going for another hour or two, but one of the facilitators announced that it was dinner time and that we would have to continue it some other time. I quickly grabbed some food at the dinning hall and sat at an empty table. The Master’s young and beautiful girlfriend invited me to sit with her, but I insisted on sitting alone. Honestly, my head was spinning and I needed that alone time to try to process what had just happened. I quickly ate dinner and then walked out the door before anyone could say anything to me.
Walking back to my room, I was feeling genuinely afraid of the situation I had found myself in. Once I got back, I noticed that my room only had a keyed lock and not a privacy bolt like most hotel rooms do. Although the door was locked, I knew they could get into my room with a key if they wanted to. I called my husband and told him I didn’t feel safe and he needed to come get me. It was only after we were safely on the road that I emailed the coordinator to let her know that I had left and would not be coming back. I think it’s very telling that they never responded to that email.
So, I didn’t even make it one night. I was so desperate for a vacation and spent money on something I didn’t get to receive. I’m pretty upset about it because it could have been a good retreat and exactly what I needed if it hadn’t have been a cult.
In hindsight it’s kind of interesting to think about. They could have easily flown under the radar if they hadn’t been so ridiculous. Who knows, maybe I would have had a good time and said “Hey you guys are great! I’m going to come back again some time!” What I’ve read is that being ridiculous is part of the strategy. If I had sat through that 3.5 hour “orientation session” and stayed the week anyways, that would have signaled to them that I lacked discernment and would make a perfect cult member. We can imagine that things may have gotten even more extreme as the week went on.
Okay, let’s talk about some warning signs:
- First of all, listen to your feelings. Even though everyone was so “friendly” and “welcoming”, I’ve never felt more uncomfortable.
- The group has a leader or master. When using a spiritual teacher or mentor, the idea is that at some point you will develop your own “inner teacher” and then graduate and leave. But when there is a master or leader, there is no opportunity to ever graduate and move on. The idea is that you will follow or devote yourself to that leader for life.
- There is a lengthy information-session where people give life-changing testimonials and a special path to enlightenment is promised.
- Group members confide things to you that are quite frankly bizarre. Again, if you stay after hearing bizarre things, then you’ve “passed the test” and get moved to the next stage of recruitment.
- The Master claims to be God or to channel the word of God.
- Any type of doomsday prediction is a huge red flag.