Definition of a Cult
Originally, the word “cult” suggested worship and was not pejorative. In modern usage the word took on negative connotations. The critical meaning of cult is, I believe, in part the result of the mental development of humanity, where the mind begins to see devotion in its glamorous or illusory expression. Humanity turns toward the external, complicating the problem. We humans, in this devotional cycle, become hero worshipers and sadly, often in the sense of idol worship.
The pure devotion of the soul descends into the personality, becoming superficially ritualistic, superstitious, exaggerated, and exclusive–in other words, we become false and cultish. Even the word “cult” itself is used in a cultish way, e.g. a cult is what we call the religious brainwashing down the street from where we receive our own religious brainwashing. “Wash” is the apt term, because water is the symbol of emotionalism.
Group-think is strong. Reflecting on the list of attributes of cults, one might ask, “Are not most religions and new age movements cults?” Have we not all struggled through life under the binding spell of one cult or another?” We can look at this question in the light of useful concept: degrees. Applying it, we see there are not two categories: “cult” and “not a cult.” Rather we find that a great deal of human activity, particularly in the religious, metaphysical, and political fields, is cultish to some degree. And the presence, to some degree, of one or a few cult-like attributes–and especially the less crucial ones–would not be justification for the strong label of “cult.” As an exercise in critical thought, we could rate a given movement, assessing the prominence of each cultish tendency, on a ten-point scale.
The Size and Age of Cults
Some definitions of “cult” relate the word to small groups, but it is not the smallness of the group that is determinative, but smallness of mind. There is tendency to think of cults as relatively small groups or minor swirls of activity within human society but sometimes small groups can be closer to the truth than large ones. So size is not always relevant to cult status–there are large and small cults, and very new and very ancient ones. Society may perceive a cult as something always outside normal or established human society, but large and long established cults also exist as an accepted part of society, even while not recognized as such by most people. Actually, numerous large cults are imbedded in the fabric of accepted society. Some of these have benevolent and attractive aspects, but careful thought shows how the dark threads of cult consciousness are woven in with the brighter threads of high ideals and humanitarian endeavor.
Assessing Gold and Fool’s Gold
There are individuals beyond us in the scale of development and insight. There are always those to whom we can look for inspiration and those to whom we can offer our help, however large or small that gift may be. But we should not try to shift responsibility for the course of our lives to a group or a leader. We should not—to put it in psychological terms–expect a leader or group to take the place of the ideal parent or family that we never knew, while we assume the role of a dependent child. There is nothing inherently wrong with the fact that we are at a relatively undeveloped state compared to some ahead of us on the path of life. The problem arises when psychological immaturity, left over from an unfortunate early life, leads us to surrender ourselves to an individual or group, instead of using relationships as the catalysis for the evolution of thought, love, and divinity within us.
A pseudo-teacher engages in a conscious or unconscious game of power, and is dependent on the weakness and worshipful attitude of followers. That which is often most attractive to members of a group, a charismatic leader, tends often to encourage unhealthy dependency and hero-worship. The development differential between a teacher and ourselves is an opportunity for an apprentice/master relation, and not an occasion for uncritical submission to authority. Moreover, the Teacher and the Teaching are always as much within as outside us. And it follows that without the inner teaching, the external is rendered a meaningless illusion. It follows also that a good teacher is one who encourages competence and independence in us, so reducing the distance between pupil and teacher. Such a relationship is the antithesis of cultism.
You’ve probably not met The Active Enzyme Lemon-Freshened Junior High School Witch. Maybe she’s alive and well on a planet a constellation near Andromeda; we don’t know for sure and humility prompts us to realize that there are a few corners of the universe we’ve not yet visited. But she has such a charming name that, in a serendipitous mood, we might be half-convinced that she is quite real. In any case, a book for children was written about her, but unlike many related texts it does not purport to be anything other than fiction. Fiction often overlaps with fanciful abstractions and the real and unreal are intricately interwoven. We also know that many abstract words are only “shadows hiding a vacuum.” And what we know about the “The Active Enzyme Lemon-Freshened Junior High School Witch,” is that she is a high-flying abstraction pieced together from things that we do have knowledge of.
The thing about the witchery of high-flying language is its emotional appeal. It is glamorous, and at the same time often touches on matters of real importance: God, love, death, humanity, finding the right path, our place in cosmos, our true nature… These are so important, so luminous in the depth of consciousness that we may find them compelling even when badly expressed and mixed with all manner of invented balderdash. So when we encounter a truth that is distorted, watered-down, and morphed with extraneous material of all sorts–even then–we may find this pseudo-truth attractive and absorbing. The words we hear and the associations they evoke work magic so that anything with some real truth in becomes a challenge. And like the Active Enzyme Lemon-Freshened Junior High School Witch, the name can be so charming that we may be half-convinced by the name alone. This particular witch is an abstraction, selected and composed from a wide array of things.
The root meaning of the word “abstract” is to “draw away,” in essence to draw away from the things physical, concrete, and specific. If one were aspiring to things spiritual, this would seem, at first thought, to be a good idea. But some mentally unhealthy conditions are also characterized by withdrawal. So what are the differences between the benign metaphysician and the neurotic?
One difference, semantically defined, is what we might call word/reality split. It is the disunion between the words and the things or realities that they stand for. Often, we listen to someone using high-level abstract words, and we don’t know what they’re talking about. In such cases, there are at least two possibilities: either our experience is too limited or uneducated for comprehension, or they actually don’t know what they’re talking about. In this latter case the person who has “lost touch” doesn’t know it and are quite sure that they know what they’re talking about. They may be proud of their language and love the associated emotions.
We live in a “New Age” of information and misinformation overload, and this poses special challenges for us. In the metaphysical and philosophical world, there are thousands of competing verbalizations with contradictory pronouncements. If we gulp down lots of metaphysics, unless we’re an exceptionally well-rounded and clever, we’re apt to wind up with fine case of muddle-de-physics.
Naturally, many of us think—prematurely–that we’re exceptionally well rounded and clever, and so are quick to get into trouble. Which brings up the next notable difference between a metaphysician and neurotic: ego. Knowledge of a special language makes us feel special. Familiarity with lofty terms seems to elevate us, and set us apart from the crowd. We may become part of a world saving in-group. We are trying to be less lonely and be recognized for our knowledge and high status. Salvation of the world is, of course, an essential and admirable pursuit. And it would benefit all of us if more of those enthusiastically engaged in this activity did know what they were talking about, and if they actually could fly as high as the witchery their words suggests.
“It is inherent in our intellectual activity that we seek to imprison reality in our description of it. Soon, long before we realize it, it is we who become prisoners of the description.” —Aneurin Bevan
“Great God, what a universe! And we discuss it over our teacups as though it were a thing we carried in our waistcoat pockets.” –L. P. Jacks
“Men suppose their reason has command over their words; still it happens that words in return exercise authority on reason.” –Bacon
“The world is satisfied with words. Few appreciate the things beneath.”—Pascal
Some measure of evil, or not Life, is born with incarnation, with the taking of form, with leaving the “father’s home,” with separation from divinity. Illusion, the virtual synonym, comes into being with this separation. And so it is said that everything external is maya, being other than the pure light of source. This formulation has a certain value, but by it alone we cannot find our place between the candle and the star because all manifestations are relative.
A flower is not as remote from divinity as the cruelty of fanatics. Yet both are manifestations other than or apart from absolute Life or divinity. We may say the flower and the cruel man are illusions, and so they are, but they are not equal. So we find that the most abstract concept of good and evil, yielding as it does a simple binary, corresponds poorly to daily life and required decisions. We must, standing somewhere between the candle and the star, bring righteous to decisions.
In love and wisdom there is movement toward life and light. This orientation is the antithesis of evil and the basis of right choice.
Teachings are not the truth, but a catalyst to aid in approach to the truth. There are limitations to be found in every verbal formulation and in those who give them. Good teachings have merit as general guidelines and as stimulus to thinking and reflection. Also, even in a great teaching, the specifics and their application to any time and space involve much ambiguity and vagueness. So, in this sense, we are always on our own, in other words a good teaching or teacher stimulates independent thought.
In the atmosphere there are fire flowers of luminous things. Billions of these flowers hover in the to-be-done regions, waiting for a body. The trick is taking on the ones that truly belong to us, and refraining from appropriating those that do not. There are many wonderful things hovering in the air that are not our work and for which we may not be suited. Many of these are of stunning beauty and have a Siren quality, hence the excitement and the danger, for contact with them tends to inspire action. We must find each days work within a universe of infinite possibilities.
Semantics is the study of meaning in language, thought, and communication. Our thoughts are embodied in language and images. We give our thoughts bodies; we create these bodies in the act of forming words and pictures. We incarnate in our thoughts and words and become identified with them. This identification is apt to create an illusion in that we feel we have hold of reality whereas in fact, we often only have hold of the words, some mental pictures and associated intellectual constructions.
The soul of words is the meaning, the experience that our words point to, or should point to. It is this living experience, the consciousness behind the forms that ensouls words. By this understanding of the nature of our verbal and conceptual incarnations we arrive at the possibility of Transpersonal Semantics. The word “transpersonal” points to that which is beyond the personal. “Semantics” refers to the meaning of words.
Let us define Transpersonal Semantics as spiritual-perspective-semantics. It is a way of thinking about body and soul with special reference to the way we humans use language in thinking and communication. So, a certain approach to semantics becomes an art of spiritual interpretation–a way of thinking and talking about spiritual and material problems and their solutions. In this sense, a key to better thinking is found by constant awareness of the difference between form and essence, between word and reality, between thought and the silent reality behind thought.